The international community of left intellectuals and educators faces several urgent challenges in its struggle against the depredations of empire. As educators, our first task is to find the critical tools to understand the relationship between propaganda and empire. John MacKenzie’s marvellous study Propaganda and Empire: the Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (1984) reveals how the rulers of the British Empire used every representational medium at their disposal (postcards, theatre, dance halls, music, posters, children’s literature and penny journalism, films, scholarly treatises and school textbooks) to legitimize their nefarious actions in the world. Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa (1999) chillingly tells the story of how the colonial horrors in the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were intentionally hidden from the public. Public opinion was consciously manipulated and intense pressure placed upon those early voices of human rights, like E.D. Morel, who dared to speak out. Even today, Hochschild observes, Belgium museums provide no trace of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Congolese who were forced into the service of King Leopold’s lust for wealth and personal aggrandizement.
In Covering Islam (1981), Edward Said demonstrated convincingly that many educative forms (schools, cartoons, books, comic strips and films) constructed a uniform iconography of Islam and the Arab. This unquestionably derogatory iconography provides the perceptual frame that profoundly inhibits an open, learning relationship to the other. Perhaps it is this orientalist frame that makes it easy for the North American masses to be deceived into thinking that Arabs and Muslims don’t count for much in the global “clash of civilizations.” To bomb an enemy one must first dehumanize the “hated other” (Said) by incessantly repeating simple phrases, images and concepts. An abstract category must replace real, living breathing men and women who get up in the morning to give their kids breakfast, scold them to hurry up and get off to school. They have to dress, bid their partners a good day as they go about the day’s business. Propaganda creates abstractions that prevent us from seeing the other as fully human.
Like those empires of old, contemporary empires educate their peoples through using propaganda (particularly television, films, print media and photography) and brutal political manoeuvering. Critical intellectuals (and an alert citizenry) have the task of cutting through the lies and deceptions to tell the truth, wherever we are situated, talking, teaching, arguing. Edward Said reminds us that one of our specific jobs is to “break down stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.” But to accomplish this, we need to be aware of how utterly resistant the propaganda machine of empire is to enlightened criticism. The coverage of the crisis in the Ukraine well illustrates how reality is inverted and the Orwellian universe closes out any form of dissent. The cry of Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, “The earth is squeezing us. I wish we were wheat so we/could die and live again,” expresses our terror that we are intellectually suffocating and won’t rise again.
Those of us who work within the Academy still have some respect (I hope!) for facts, evidence and rational argument (Habermas’s “best argument” that validates truth claims). That is, we believe that, while external and internal states of affairs are mediated through language, nonetheless a world external to the senses of the individual (or propagandist hack) exists. The sun does not rise and fall, medieval theologians. The earth is not flat, ancient geographers. Or Russia is not the aggressor in the Ukraine, think-tank scribblers. Ideally, enlightened intellectuals and educators provide counter-evidence that requires a particular interpretation that rules out other less convincing ones. Yet “facts” do not seem to matter very much to the US (or British or Belgian) propagandists of empire. Those of us who still cling, however desperately, to the vestiges of the enlightenment belief that truth and falsity exist, are aghast at the extent and depth of the US government and media’s willingness to lie, deceive, distort, falsify and exaggerate evidence to serve their geo-political goal of ruling the world. This is also true of Canada’s right-wing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who rules in the fog.
Media watchdogs like CounterPunch, RT or Russia Insider have scrutinized the framing and presentation of “news” pumped out by the Big Media. But why weren’t the likes of George Bush and Colin Powell not totally discredited, laughed out of office, or put in stocks in the public square? They are shameless and irresponsible. So are the hollowed out ones trundling out clichés about how bad Vlad is. Here we might recall Bush’s speech—“Preparing the nation for war”—delivered on 17 March 2003—it is packed full of lies. One example: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Many thought this to be outrageous twelve years ago; it still is. Didn’t we all run to dust off our tattered copies of Orwell’s 1984? Hold them dear, they’re still needed.
Powell, Bush and Obama are not laughed out of office because of their prevarications and deceptions. Ironically, they can get away with their insidious fabrications because American culture (education, churches and media) and the propaganda machine (they seem to fuse into one) permits them to do so. Most Americans live in the myth of America’s inherent righteousness. They are members of the virtuous empire. This religio-mythic sensibility is anti-enlightenment: revealed truths and prophetic insight trump the facts on the ground every time. Thus, Americans are not really interested in empirical history. God is mysteriously working through America to usher in his final kingdom. It does not matter, then, if a critic brings up unpleasant facts such as the US support of Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. Or, raises questions about the US actions in the Middle East, Cuba or Venezuela. Didn’t you have that leader assassinated? Didn’t you mine the Nicaraguan harbour? Arm Israel with tanks that are killing civilians? Didn’t you engineer the Ukrainian coup? Didn’t you see fascist militia in the Ukraine shooting people? Because America is good by definition, always acting self-defensively, always innocent of dirty deeds, these factual questions are out of bounds.
Ironically, the current dominant intellectual trend in the American academy—post-modern scepticism—plays into the hands of prevaricators like Colin Powell and endless others. The prevaricators do not believe that language has any stable referents. Language is used only in the transitory moment for instrumental purposes that cannot be questioned. Powell is a right-wing post-modernist who detaches signs from historical signifiers. Many intellectuals dislike Powell and the other hawks but they cannot provide a powerful critique of their distortion of language. In a world where everything is “socially constructed” and where language dissolves material reality, Powell’s fleeting view is just one more view of the opaque world.
Critical intellectuals have to understand the mythic framing of America’s wars in the Middle East: how myth resists evidence. We also have to understand that distorted language is parasitical on non-distorted language. Simply, we can continue to argue that our language must account accurately and truthfully for actually existing states of affairs in the world. False views must be judged accordingly, and their proponents made to account for their lies. We must continue to assert the power of communicative ethics. However, we must, I think, also turn the searchlight on institutions of formal education for the continuing degradation of public language. And from there, the light must be beamed on the role that religion plays in creating pliant and docile defenders of American murderous rampaging throughout the world.
But the present moment in global history has intensified the concern that “communicative power” (critique, argument, persuasion, warnings)—so valued by deliberative democrats—is far removed from the centres of decision-making powers. In our unipolar world, proponents of dialogue face an empire that “feels it owns the world and has the right to tell it what to do.” The empire negates opposition, shunts “intellect” and “culture” to the sidelines. The Empire is a monologic space (S. Shaarawi, “What kind of dialogue?” Al-Ahram Online Weekly, 5-11 December, 2002). Bernhard Peters, a notable German political theorist, thinks that the ideal of radical, or deliberative, democracy is mainly a myth, seldom (if ever) realized in practice. I would not go that far: but it certainly does seem that the “enemies of deliberation” (complexity, fundamentalist mid-sets, a war ethos with its incessant propaganda, the dumbing-down effect of the media and formal education and so on) abound in our day.
A few men and women are taking up the role of “active citizen”; by so doing, they grind against the grain of societies organized intentionally to prevent the citizenry participating in the decision-making processes. Thus, critical intellectuals committed to the norm of the “active citizen,” “communicative power” and a “mobilized civil society” confront a world that has moved, and continues to move, far away from these ideals. I am not certain how to proceed, but one theoretical issue to think about might be whether new institutional forms and pedagogical procedures could be designed—from local to supra-national realms—to ensure that communicative power draws many more into its circle, and that our deliberations both reach the doors of decision-makers and influence those deciding the fate of the earth.
Left progressive intellectuals and activists know that the US has turned away from acting justly in the world and that a “revolutionary cabal” of extremists is taking the world into a new stage of barbarism. Now might be the time for us—at least for a little while—to reflect deeply on how it has come to be that the ruling elites can take the world in a direction that is so obviously detrimental to most of us who live in it. We need to ponder the mounting evidence, despite our best intentions, that our attempts in the Academy and in public spaces to foster a culture of critical discourse have not penetrated very deeply. How could it have—if our world leaders can so easily drape a blanket of untruth over their statements and get away with it?
Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.