At a recent anti-war demonstration, I’m standing on a street corner and holding a sign proclaiming, “IRAQ HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH 9/11.” A woman in a car stopped in traffic rolls down her window and says, “That’s not true, sir.” (The “sir” is undoubtedly not deference to my opinion but to my advanced age.)
“But it is, ma’am,” I say. (Two can play this age game.) “Even the administration doesn’t claim that.”
“Do you want them to set off a nuclear bomb in Chicago?” she asks.
“But they don’t have any! Even the administration –.”
“Colin Powell proved they do, at the UN!” she says smugly, rolling up the window as the light changes — and my own Terror Alert goes to red: this woman’s pro-war view is compounded of fear and misinformation — the dose that the world’s greatest propaganda system, the US media, has successfully administered to Americans.
But not that successfully. It’s true that as the US attack began, more than 80% of the American populace believed that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” — a surprisingly elastic concept, but for many Americans it translated immediately to terrorist bombs in US cities. A similarly large number believed that Iraq was connected to al-Qaeda, which the administration claimed but couldn’t prove. And a remarkable number of Americans apparently believed that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were the same person…
So it’s quite amazing that, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll taken as the assault on Baghdad was under way, a majority of Americans oppose the Bush administration’s policy of pre-emptive attack — “51 percent said the United States should not invade another nation unless it was attacked first.”
Of course one has to read deep into the press accounts of the polls to find this result reported. The articles trumpet instead the president’s “approval rating,” a remarkably ephemeral number. Reagan, Bush-I, and even Clinton had high approval ratings while the same polls showed the public rejecting their policies. It takes an outsider, the British historian Perry Anderson, to explain this peculiar American phenomenon: it’s based on a “powerful bedrock of sentiment — attachment to the quasi-monarchical status of the Presidential office itself, as embodiment of national identity in the world at large, a late-twentieth-century fixation foreign to the Founders.” (Anderson was writing specifically on why the impeached Clinton escaped conviction, in spite of being clearly guilty as charged.)
At the end of the Second World War, George Orwell wrote an essay offering a psychological distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Patriotism was “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” But nationalism “is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” We have watched in recent days as the for-profit media have struggled to turn patriotism into nationalism — successfully, I’m afraid, with people like the woman in the car.
We should not of course be too quick to blame the victims of this manufacture of consent, in Noam Chomsky’s phrase. I’m reminded of a remark of his:
“People who work hard to keep food on the table and are deluged with propaganda from infancy — trying to get them to max out half a dozen credit cards to satisfy ‘wants’ that are largely constructed by huge industries devoted to that purpose — cannot be expected to carry out individual research projects on every topic, or any topic. If people don’t know the facts, that’s our fault: we’ve failed as organizers and activists. So let’s do more about it, instead of blaming people for what they do not do on their own — which would not be easy, by any means.”
Chomsky has famously asserted that propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state, but there is this difference: one knows when the bludgeon is being used. Subjects of a dictatorship know their press is controlled and learn to read between the lines. But Americans, who think that they enjoy a free press, are often oblivious to the fact that one-sixth of GDP is spent each year to convince them to be docile consumers. As an American conservative recently said, “If Germans [for example] could watch an hour of a typical American news channel, they would never again be able to keep a straight face when they hear Americans boasting of their free press.”
CARL ESTABROOK is a Visiting Scholar University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org