Sidebar to "Polite totalitarianism," Part three

Polite propaganda: doing your part



If you look around for ubiquitously plastered, oversized mug shots of a dictator in military uniform accompanied by an unending cascade of pronouncements pouring out of loudspeakers, you will not find them in America. If you turn on the radio to hear the endless droning of some nasal newsreader assuring you that we are winning the war in the Disputed Territories or that our glorious forces have outmaneuvered the enemy in a brilliant flanking action on the Malabar Front — the kind of broadcast that characterizes media captured by the state — you will not hear it in America.

That we are free from the traditional features of a totalitarian state's propaganda machine does not mean, however, that we are free from the state's propaganda — any more than being free from priests makes men free from priestcraft. "Dog bites man," says the old saw, is not news. "Man bites dog" is news; one prints it to inform. But the only reason to reiterate the former is to prevent an audience from thinking of alternatives to it. I submit that any careful look at a daily paper will be sufficient to show that what we get in our papers is seldom news, but is often a reiteration of thoughts that can only serve the function of government propagandizing.

A case in point: in June the Washington Post printed a lead headline reading, "Clinton Honors D-Day Sacrifice," and the Washington Times ran a headline reading "Clinton hails GIs' sacrifices at Normandy." It is worth emphasizing that the two papers are supposed to be rivals. Indeed, the Times is pretty much the only thing that passes for a daily opposition paper in Washington.

The first thing to notice about the two stories is that neither headline was news — setting aside any sniggering remarks one might want to make concerning Bill Clinton's own military record. "Clinton Deplores Invasion of Europe" — now that would have been news. But no president of the United States will ever criticize U.S. participation in the war against the Third Reich and its allies, and Clinton's praising that participation is just not news. So what is it?

I am not criticizing that participation just now — there will be time enough for that in other issues. What I want understood is that the unanimity of opinion on the question — as illustrated by the coverage lavished upon the 50th anniversary of the largest invasion the world had ever seen — and the use to which that unanimity of opinion was put were not the result of widespread and thoughtful consideration of the case for U.S. participation in the war. The state's functionaries and civilian collaborators did not propagandize on this topic so that we might learn anything about Normandy or gain any understanding of the history of the war — when did TV programs or newspapers or political speeches ever deliver that on any historical subject? For that matter, the reporting on the invasion did not even serve to identify any of those unspoken bonds that make a people a community; neither did it articulate the common premises a people might hold, such as the goodness of taking care of the childless elderly rather than making them forage for food on their own so that winter rids us of them.

No, the purpose the reports served was to make us all understand that at some distant time there was a mighty army of good and that it was in some sense "ours." And that it attacked and ultimately defeated another army — not quite so mighty, but said to be more ruthless and fearsome — that was in some sense a threat to all civilization. And it is important that we remember and treasure that great fact.

Remembering and treasuring it has several consequences:

• Because the mighty army that threatened all civilization was commanded by men who were racists, racial opinions of every sort — even those that have nothing else in common with those of the evil commanders — must be attacked and rejected, and that attack and rejection justifies any number of postwar domestic policies.

• Because the evil army constituted a threat to all civilization, and because it was defeated only by a larger and better-equipped army, its defeat serves as an object lesson on the wisdom of keeping large and mighty armies on hand most of the time.

• Because the good and mighty army was successful, the president who was its commander-in-chief was a wise and farsighted man, whose policies in other areas of life enjoy a certain invulnerability to criticism: one doesn't undo the work of Solon. Though mere continuations and elaborations of policies that had been knocking around for decades, the Roosevelt policies of the 1930s and 1940s must remain in force. Even more: they have determined the parameters of public discussion ever since.

• The war against the Third Reich won for the United States a status its functionaries are pleased to call "superpower." Because that status is the consequence of the "sacrifices" referred to in the headlines I mentioned, to lose that status is somehow to render those "sacrifices" vain — which must never, ever happen, but which would somehow be the consequence of widespread disagreement with the established view.

• Though unsophisticated Americans might think the glorious victory was the United States', the savants who rule us know that it was the victory of nations united, and it is that kind of concerted warmaking that has since become the standard. Note that the only war the United States has lost was the one that it fought virtually alone and against the sentiments of those united nations, which — for all we may ever know — may have been an intended, perhaps subliminal, object lesson of the entire imbroglio.

The most important lesson, however, is: the war of 1941-1945 was good. Therefore to criticize war as such is to utter nonsense. Therefore no war can be criticized except on prudential or policy-wonk grounds — which most Americans are thought to be incapable of grasping.

Unlike the propaganda of the loudspeaker and the poster dictator, this propaganda is of a somewhat quiet nature. Its purpose is to stir in us a quiet pride in the war "we" waged, not to rouse us to excesses of rampaging emotion. That quiet pride is a more precious asset, for it is harder to dislodge. Our passions exhibit themselves in extravagant declarations and deeds. Later, we may outgrow them or reject them and wonder how we ever could have been so silly. Our quiet loves are of sturdier stuff, exhibiting themselves in greeting cards or phone calls on Mother's Day or dinner on a wedding anniversary or a visit to a grave — or a lump in the throat on seeing the flag in a ceremony.

It is the genius of modern American totalitarianism that it prefers to rule us with the lumps in our throat rather than with uniformed terrorists waving a red book or with hobnailed thugs wearing sinister arm bands.

I do not say that we should not love our country. But any intelligent person should recognize that to love something is to give his enemies an advantage. If only they can persuade him that the thing he loves is in danger, they can count on his cooperation and bring him to believe that they have had only the interests of his love at heart. And our foe the Permanent Regime has spent billions of dollars all our lives preparing us to believe them when they tell us that that which we love is in danger — hence their love of the word "crisis."

To read history is a free man's joy. To feed free men their history by the ringing of changes of limited variation is the role of the propagandist. The success of propaganda does not require a minister of truth with assistants in every city and on every publication's staff. It requires only that there be people who are willing to repeat it.

Be alert for it. It is not embedded just in what you may oppose. It is as easily embedded in what you may espouse. What is important to the success of propaganda is not your belief, but that you see what you are intended to see. What is important to you and to your liberty is that you see what you were never intended to see.

Posted December 19, 2007

Published in 1994, 2007 by WTM Enterprises.
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