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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The truth is out there?

“Brace yourself,” I wrote in this space (how time flies) six weeks ago. “Because I am going to tell you something extremely disturbing about that politician you admire, that magazine you subscribe to or that blog that you read.” I continued, “I regret to inform you that the people behind all of your favorite sources of information and insight are engaged in… propaganda!

After that tease, I proceeded to muse about everything from the meaning of the word “docudrama” to the Cork Film Festival to the lives and careers of Sven Nykvist and Jane Wyatt and a few other distractions as well. At this point, nobody even remembers that I broached the subject of propaganda or, more to the point, even cares whether I ever get around to it or not. So I should just leave that germ of an idea for a discussion on the rhetorical equivalent of the cutting room floor and move on with my life, right?

Oh, what the heck. Let’s go for it. If the days leading up to a national U.S. election aren’t good timing for a discussion of propaganda, then there never will be. Here’s what was going through my mind after enjoying all the fuss over the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11.

But first, what is propaganda anyway? We all know the common working definition of the word, which is: “things said by someone else that I do not agree with.” But what does the word really mean? Here is what my Merriam-Webster’s says. It comes from the Latin word for propagate and its etymology dates from 1718 and refers to the 1623 organization created by Pope Gregory XV, Congregatio de propaganda fide, or Congregation for Propagating the Faith. The dictionary defines it as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” Even though most people seem to use the word as a negative thing, there is actually nothing inherently negative in most of its definition. The spreading of ideas and information is generally a good thing. The inclusion of rumor-spreading in the definition, though, does introduce the notion that some of that information may be false, which is negative. And the implication that propaganda amounts to providing only partial information, i.e. only one side of an argument, that makes it contrary to what is considered good journalistic practice, at least in America.

In other words, propaganda is basically just the good old art of debate. In a debate, each side highlights information that supports its side and downplays, ignores or attempts to discredit information that hurts the other side. In a debating class or club, participants often are assigned a side to take. And debaters may find themselves alternately taking one side and then the opposing side, for the sake of the sport. The same thing occasionally happens in real-world politics. During the Clinton administration, Dick Morris was a propagandist of sorts for the Clintons. Now he makes his living propagandizing against them for news organs owned by Rupert Murdoch. Sometimes such a switch is the result of a heartfelt change in beliefs. Sometimes it is merely an example of the versatility of a professional pol. But there isn’t any opinion-molder who couldn’t, at will, switch sides and argue just as effectively for the other side. Indeed, aides for politicians often do this in order to prep their boss for a debate or interview.

Now, this leads to an observation that I made when discussing the TV miniseries The Path to 9/11. It has become increasingly clear to me (and maybe it always was, to everyone else) that there have been, for quite some time, at least two parallel and competing versions of American history and, as far as that goes, world history. And, as demonstrated very clearly by the brouhaha raised over that TV miniseries, America’s political parties know full well that it matters which version of history gets established in most people’s minds.

Sometimes these different versions of history overlap, since some events are so well-established that no one can dispute them. For example, everyone accepts as a historical fact that planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. Okay, not everyone. There are fringe elements out there who have a different version of even that event. Indeed, there may be no historical event that is not contested by someone.

Political movements are constantly writing and updating their version of history because we draw lessons from history and we proceed as a country (and, not incidentally, elect politicians) based on the lessons that we have learned from history. So political movements must necessarily get out the version of history that offers the lessons that match what they have to offer the electorate. This is what I referred to, six weeks ago, as a political camp’s canon.

In one political history, Bill Clinton presided over the greatest economy ever as well as an era of peace and good relations with the rest of the world. In this version, President Bush squandered all that and exploited the tragedy of 9/11 to set off on ill-advised military adventures and line the pockets of his rich friends. The opposing version of the same history, obviously, is somewhat different. In that version, Clinton dithered and fooled around and left the country vulnerable to a growing terrorist threat, while presiding over an economic bubble that was bound to burst. In this version, President Bush turned the economy around into the right direction and restored America’s proper role in the world, vigorously defending the country’s interests in the world and finally dealing with the terrorist threat.

How can two sets of people live through the same era and come away with such differing impressions of what was what? The simple answer is that human beings, by their nature, tend to form events into narratives, which conform to either what they want to believe or to what they need (and need for others) to believe. Politically engaged people tend to have a personal prism that refracts events so that they fit in best with their own pre-existing world view. Sometimes an event can be so jarring that it shifts that prism for some people, like the way 9/11 caused some liberals to turn more conservative.

What is amazing to me is how politically engaged people can stick faithfully to their side’s version of events with little wavering or questioning—even though, no matter what your world view is, there are always facts out there that are going to contradict it sometime. Reasonable, intelligent people can sometimes sincerely believe things that are demonstrably not true because those things fit so perfectly into their pre-existing belief system. When this happens to journalists and they wind up printing bad information, the phenomenon is known as the story that was “too good to check.” When politicians do it, it is usually lumped in with other media relations activity and called “spin.”

It only takes a modest amount of time spent cruising the news channels on TV, the radio waves, the newspapers and the internet to realize that most politicians and their handlers, as well as bloggers and more than a couple columnists willfully choose to say and write things that support one specific version of history, while ignoring or downplaying facts that complicate that version of history. They stick to the facts that support their own world view. This is what we expect in a debate. And this is, at the end of the day, propaganda. And we, the consumers of information, don’t seem to think that this is particularly strange. Either we become attuned to biases among our information sources and filter out the ones that don’t jibe with our own biases. Or we actively seek out information sources that are in line with our own thinking.

Now, maybe my fascination with all this seems naive to you. Maybe it’s all too obvious even to mention or discuss at length. But here’s the thing that really intrigues me. The willingness of individuals to accept the canon of whatever larger group they identify with works simultaneously on various levels. We might feel loyalty (and therefore buy into the history of) at the same time to our family, a club, a sports team, a company, a geographical region, a political party or movement, a nation, a religion or some other value system. (New York Times columnist John Tierney described perfectly last week how clannish loyalties are making it difficult, if not impossible, to establish an effective democratic government in Iraq.) Where we place our highest loyalties determines how we are going to filter information that we receive and disseminate. I am frequently struck by the fact that, in countries where I have lived, when it comes to conflict with other countries, there is an unquestioning loyalty to their own country and their fellow citizens, no matter what the facts of the situation actually are. On an individual level, people might detest certain people or groups within their own country, but such differences matter little when conflict with an outside agent is the question. There is one country that I know well, which is an exception to this and it is, of course, the United States. Some people do, of course, exhibit unquestioning loyalty to the idea of America, but large swaths (and importantly, the American media) do not automatically assume that Americans or America itself is right in conflicts with foreign entities. Some of you are laughing at that last sentence. You may be thinking, yeah, the American press was nothing but a cheerleader for the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But there are others of you, who lived through the same history, who feel that the media were carping and nitpicking about the Iraq incursion from the very beginning. There are, of course, powerful pressures on the media when it comes to time of war, but no one can seriously call the press that has thoroughly and relentlessly covered events like the atrocities at Abu Ghraib a lapdog.

In what other countries do you see voices pointing out so methodically the failures of their own governments, especially in war time? This is largely a phenomenon of what we call The West. You do not see vocal and visible dissent like this within the various nations or factions of, say, the Middle East, with the notable exception of Israel. Tribal loyalty seems to trump principle. (Suppression of dissent by authoritarian governments and by armed factions is not an insignificant factor.) In the West, we operate on the principle that the free flow of information in a war will serve us better than blind loyalty. If we become discouraged by events in Iraq, argue journalists, then it is the events themselves that are discouraging and not the mere reporting of them. And we are better off having the truth, even if it is unpleasant, than basing national policy on a lack of information or on bad information. But where this becomes tricky is in the fact that morale is a factor in any conflict. We wind up with a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Is the discouraging information we are receiving, by demoralizing the electorate and therefore encouraging insurgents, begetting yet more discouraging information? When Hezbollah declares victory in southern Lebanon, and no Lebanese (apparently because of loyalty) contradicts them, even though by any objective military standard, their forces achieved nothing but bringing major Israeli retaliation on civilian areas, is that not as powerful a victory in their struggle as an honest-to-gosh military win? And, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently suggested (to surprise agreement from the president), if the Tet offensive in Vietnam was a military rout by any standard for the North Vietnamese but was as good as a military victory because it collapsed political support in America for the war, does that not raise hard questions about whether the propaganda front is not as or more important than the military front in a war?

I have been struck by an interesting parallel in the attitudes of the Bush administration and the American press. Bush has suggested that instituting liberal democracy in other countries is a goal so worthy that doing so can only make the world better and safer. But in Iraq, elections have led to widespread sectarian strife and, in Palestine, they led to a terrorist group becoming the official government while, in Lebanon, they led to another terrorist group having representation in the government. Similarly, the press argues that reporting the unvarnished truth in wartime will ultimately benefit America in its foreign entanglements, even if that truth casts America in a bad light. Yet the publicizing of Abu Ghraib and other sporadic atrocities have been propaganda windfalls for forces working against American interests and which hide or spin their own atrocities without the bother of internal dissent.

What you think about all this pretty much comes down to where your loyalties lie. If you subscribe to the philosophy, popularized by a bumper sticker in the 1960s, of “my country right or wrong,” then your sense of patriotism may take priority over the abstract value of a free press. If you subscribe to a set of certain altruistic principles (derived religiously or philosophically), then you may feel that certain notions of world justice are more important than blind loyalty to your country’s government of the day. The risk is that unquestioning patriotism may risk the very values that make America what it is and, on the other hand, dogmatic loyalty to higher principles of justice may wind up helping forces who will gladly take your moral support but then crush those very principles of justice at the first opportunity.

And, depending on where your highest loyalties do lie, you will undoubtedly be working from a set of “facts” that are different from the “facts” being used by people on the other side of the political divide. Because, like Pope Gregory, each side has its own Congregation for Propagating the Faith to give you its version of history and of current reality. I heard Illinois Senator Barack Obama on Meet the Press the Sunday before last, offering up a great quote from the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Someone with whom Moynihan was arguing tried to conclude the debate by saying that they would have to agree to disagree. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” countered Moynihan, “but not his own facts.” The more blogs, magazines and newspapers I read, the more that it seems as though Moynihan may have actually been wrong. The trick for the individual is to avoid the extremes of becoming too certain and comfortable in his or her own set of facts but, at the same time, not paralyzed by constant doubt and self-questioning.

At the end of the day, gather up whatever set of facts you think you can trust and go out and vote on Tuesday. Because, as complicated as the world sometimes seems, I do believe that, for all its drawbacks, democracy (as well as a free press) is a good thing—and not just for people in The West.

-S.L., 2 November 2006

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