Like every other important social phenomenon, propaganda regimes have historical genealogies. For example, a very strong case could be made that the ongoing, and sad to admit, largely successful Covid propaganda onslaught under which we now live can trace its roots back to the two so-called demonstration wars (the Panama Invasion and the First Gulf Conflict) waged by George Bush Sr.
The American elites were badly stung by the country’s defeat in Vietnam. In it, they rightly saw a considerable curtailment of what they had come to see as their divine right since the end of WWII: the ability to intervene as they so fit in any country not explicitly covered by the Soviet nuclear umbrella.
And in their analysis of that failure, they correctly alighted to the role that the media—by simply bringing the tawdry and ignoble reality of the war into our living rooms—had played in undermining citizen willingness to engage in such fruitless, costly and savage adventures in the future.
With his massive military build-up and heavy support of proxies in Latin America in the eighties, Ronald Reagan took the first steps toward recovering this lost elite prerogative.
But it was not until the administration of George Bush Sr. and the two conflicts mentioned above that, as he himself exultantly put it in the wake of his pitiless slaughter of some 100,000 poorly equipped Iraqis, “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
Bush knew what he was talking about, and it wasn’t necessarily, or even primarily, military force or prowess.
What had largely limited Reagan to proxy wars during eight years in office were two things. The first was a citizenry that still had fresh memories of the debacle in Southeast Asia. The second, and arguably more important one was a press corps with on-the-ground familiarity with the reality of these conflicts that continued to challenge him on both their morality and strategic efficacy.
Bush and his team, which as you’ll remember included one Richard Cheney at Defense, made remedying this “problem” of war-hesitancy one of the central aims of his presidency. As Barbara Trent suggests in her remarkable The Panama Deception, experimenting with new media management techniques was not a strategic sideshow of the conflict, but rather its prime goal.
The Panama invasion was followed in quick succession by the Gulf War, where press coverage put heavy emphasis on the opinions of US military figures and their explanations of the technical genius of American-made military technology. In this way, the war was presented to Americans as a sort of exciting video game characterized by flashes of light in the night and precision attacks devoid of any bloodshed and death.
This process of desensitizing of the media, and from there, the American people to the horrendous human effects of war-making culminated in the revolting spectacle, on January 30th, 1991 of reporters chuckling along with General Norman Schwartzkopf as he joked while showing them videos of supposed “smart bombs” killing people like ants from the safety of 30,000 feet.
Having received no coordinated pushback from anyone with power about this degrading treatment of human life and the American people, they tripled down and went full Manichaean after September 11th.
With Reagan’s repeal of the fairness Doctrine in 1987 and Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 never had the media been a) concentrated in so few hands b) so beholden to the government regulation for the continuance of the super-profitability generated through this consolidation c) debilitated by the internet-induced collapse of the newspaper business model and thus d) less obligated to the reflect take into account the concerns and interests of a broad spectrum of the American people.
It was now truly, as George Bush Jr said, a matter of “You’re either with us or against us,” us of course being the war-making government (including the Deep State) along with its slavishly loyal media mouthpieces. If like Susan Sontag—who whether you like her or not, was a very bright and highly accomplished thinker—you believed the maniacal presumptions of the US response to September 11th were flawed, and said so, you could in this new environment, expect to be the object of well-coordinated attacks on your character.
Never once did the administration call for restraint in such attacks, nor did any administration figures remind people of the importance of the supposedly American value of everyone’s right to be respectfully heard.
Seeing the exhaustion of the Bush brand after the Iraq debacle, the Deep State switched party allegiances in the run-up to the 2008 election. And it has stayed firmly on the side of the so-called “left” ever since, encouraging the use of Bush-Cheney-style government-media mobbing against those who might dare to question the motives of the sainted warmonger Obama, or, say, the “logic” of trying to reduce the problems of racism by promoting it through identity politics.
The efficiency of such mob-style takedown tactics was greatly enhanced by the dramatic expansion of social media platforms in the Obama and Trump years.
It is no exaggeration to say that a person born in 1990 or later has little if any understanding of what it means to disagree in detail and in good faith with someone whose political and/or social ideals are different than their own. Nor what it means to feel obligated to respond to the claims of others with careful factual refutations.
What they do know, because it’s mostly all that they have seen from their “betters,” is that to argue is to seek the destruction of one’s interlocutor, and failing that, to make sure his or her arguments are impeded from circulating freely in our shared civic spaces. The ever-increasing dialectical poverty of those who have been socialized and educated in this environment is evident to anyone who has served as a classroom instructor during the last quarter century.
A sanctuary for the weary
While most people seemed to want to pretend that nothing new was happening, that the collaboration between media and government had always been this extreme, many of us did not. We had memories. And we knew the “field of thinkable thought” was dramatically smaller in 2005 than in 1978. And we knew it had become much, much smaller in 2018 than it was in 2005. In our search for answers we turned to media critics and scholars of media history. We also turned to the writings of journalist-activists with both interest and insight into these matters.
When it came to this last group, I found myself drawn principally to what might be termed leftist anti-imperialists. Reading them, I widened my understanding of how elites and their chosen “experts” manage information flows, and constantly seek to shrink the parameters of acceptable opinion on foreign policy issues.
Two years ago last March, however, my sense of intellectual kinship with this subset of thinkers suddenly became very strained. We were facing what I immediately recognized as the largest and most aggressive “perception management” campaign in recent times, and perhaps in the history of the world. One, moreover, that was utilizing all the techniques employed during the previous two to three decades to insure citizen allegiance to US war-making.
And yet in the face of it, almost all my go-to people on propaganda analysis had little or nothing to say. And when I sent contributions outlining my doubts about the congruity of the emergent Covid discourse to places that had generally welcomed my analyses of pro-war propaganda, suddenly there was hesitation on the other end.
And the passage of time cured nothing. Indeed, the only things these people said down the road; that is, if they addressed Covid at all, was to underscore the unprecedented severity of the situation (a very questionable assertion) and harp on Trump’s supposedly disastrous handling of it.
There was virtually no daylight between the opinions of these people and the feckless liberals they, as true-blue leftists, always claimed to disdain. And on it went, for the entire two years of the Covid panic.
A week or so ago, John Pilger, arguably one of the brightest and more persistent leftist analysts of establishment propaganda, published “Silencing the lambs: How propaganda works” on his website and then a number of progressive news outlets.
In it, he repeats all sorts of well-known ideas and concepts. There’s a reference to Leni Riefenstahl and how she believed the bourgeoisie are those most amenable to influence campaigns, a reminder of Julian Assange’s horrendous and undeserved fate, much deserved praise for Harold Pinter’s absolutely extraordinary if largely ignored Nobel acceptance speech, an intelligent discussion about how our media studiously refuses to tell us about anything that went on between Russia and the West, and Russia and Ukraine between 1990 and February of this year.
The underlying thesis of the piece is that while emitting and constantly pushing elite-approved messages are key elements of propaganda, so too is the strategic disappearance of essential historical realities and truths.
All good stuff. Indeed, all themes that I have written about with frequency and conviction over the years.
Toward the end piece Pilger asks the following rhetorical question:
When will real journalists stand up?
And a few lines later, after providing us with a list of where to find the few outlets and journalists that do know what they are doing when it comes to the elite’s informational misdirection plays, he adds:
And when will writers stand up, as they did against the rise of fascism in the 1930s? When will film-makers stand up, as they did against the Cold War in the 1940s? When will satirists stand up, as they did a generation ago?
Having soaked for 82 years in a deep bath of righteousness that is the official version of the last world war, isn’t it time those who are meant to keep the record straight declared their independence and decoded the propaganda? The urgency is greater than ever.
Reading this final flourish while remembering the lamb-like silence of John Pilger in the face of the sustained Covidian onslaught of institutionalized lies and Soviet-grade censorship, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
And when considering that virtually all those he endorses as exemplars of propaganda-savvy journalism—people such as Chris Hedges, Patrick Lawrence, Jonathan Cook, Diana Johnstone, Caitlin Johnstone all of whose work I have frequently and enthusiastically championed over the years—took the same cud-chewing path, the sense of farce only grows.
The same can be said of most all of the outlets (Grayzone, Mint Press News, Media Lens, Declassified UK, Alborada, Electronic Intifada, WSWS, ZNet, ICH, CounterPunch, Independent Australia, Globetrotter) who portray themselves as being wise to the wiles of elite-sponsored influence operations.
Who, the question thus occurs to me, is actually living in a “a deep bath of righteousness” that impedes the ability to access the truths that lie beyond the “official version” of our past and present?
Who is failing to respond to the presence of fascistic tendencies in our midst?
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was John and his merry band of crack propaganda dissectors.
Is it that hard for them to see the shadow of fascism in the now heavily documented collaboration between the US government and Big Tech in censoring opinions that go counter to the government’s and Big Pharma’s desired discourse on Covid?
Is it really difficult for them to see the presence of the same dark forces in the US government’s insouciant abrogation of the Nuremberg principle relating to informed consent and medical experimentation?
Are they not troubled by the fact that the experimental vaccines that were sold to the population on the basis of their ability to stop infection do not do that? Or that this was known to anyone who read the FDA briefing papers published when these injections were unleashed on the public?
Does this count as a major “propaganda problem” worth looking into?
Do they care about the millions of people who lost their jobs over these lies, and of course the government’s abject disdain for the longstanding statutory right to object to medical treatment on religious grounds?
As long-time mavens of foreign policy, have they looked into the mafia-like nature of the vaccine contracts forced upon sovereign countries around the world?
Being the great sleuths of information-hiding that they are, did it raise any suspicions in them when Pfizer sought to keep all clinical information relating to the vaccines under wraps for 75 years?
And being the good progressives they are, did the enormous upward transfer of wealth that took place during the years of the Covid state of exception trouble them?
Did it light any suspicions that all this hullabaloo might not just be about health?
Have they organized support groups and action plans for the billions of children around the world whose lives were thrown into chaos by the useless quarantine and masking that was foisted upon them, and who, in all likelihood will never recover the years of developmental progress lost to this program of senseless cruelty?
I could go on.
As far as I can tell, the answer to all these questions is a resounding “NO!”
I am truly grateful for all that John Pilger and his companions in the leftist propaganda dissection cadres have taught me over the years. But as Ortega y Gasset said, a public intellectual is only as good as his ability to remain at the “height of his times.”
Sadly, this group of otherwise talented individuals has failed this test, badly, over the last two-plus years. As much as it may pain them to hear this, they have shown themselves to be much more like the “clerics” that Julien Benda rightly castigated in 1927 after they lost their moral bearings and their critical acuity before the massive propaganda onslaught used to promote the senseless slaughters of World War I.
Why these professional uncoverers of camouflaged realities of our times suddenly decided to unsee what was happening before their eyes is a job for future historians.
But if I had to hazard a guess today, I’d say that it had a lot to do with all the usual human things like fear of losing friends and prestige or being seen by ideological enforcers on their side as going over to the enemy. All of which is fine and understandable.
But if that is the case, isn’t it too much to publicly admit now that you missed the boat on this important story?
And if you can’t manage that, could you at least have the sense to stop issuing sermons on topics like “how propaganda works” for a good long while?