INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Zembla SUMMER 2004 - by Brian Eno
WAR OF WORDS
With reference to Weapons Of Mass Deception by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
When I first visited Russia - in 1986 - I made friends with a musician called Sasha. One day we were talking about life during 'the period of stagnation' - the Breshnev era. I said "It must have been strange being so completely immersed in propaganda..." Sasha said "Ah - but there is the difference! We knew it was propaganda."
That is the difference. Russian propaganda was so obvious that most Russians were able to ignore it. They took it for granted that the government operated in its own interests and any message coming from it was probably slanted - and they discounted it accordingly.
In the western world the manipulation of public opinion to serve political and ideological interests is much more covert and therefore much more effective. Its greatest triumph is that we generally don't notice it. We watch the democratic process taking place: heated debates in which we feel we could have a voice. And we think that because we have 'free' media, it would be hard for the government to get away with anything very devious without someone calling them on it.
It takes something as dramatic as the invasion of Iraq to make us look a bit more closely and ask 'How did we get here?' How exactly did it come about that, in a world of AIDS, global warming, 30-plus active wars, several famines, genetic engineering, and two billion people in poverty, practically the only thing we all talked about for a year was Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Was it really that big a problem? Or were we somehow manipulated into believing that the Iraq issue was really important and had to be fixed RIGHT NOW - even though a few months before nobody had mentioned it, and nothing had changed in the interim.
In Weapons Of Mass Deception Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber explore how in America this perceived state of emergency was engineered to justify the invasion of Iraq. Their book is concise, well-researched and annotated, and probably the best book of its kind I've read. It can be read as the story of a successful conspiracy; how a coalition of the willing - the far-right officials, the neo-con think-tanks, the insanely pugilistic media commentators and, of course, the well paid PR companies - worked together to pull off a sensational piece of intellectual dishonesty. It can also be seen as a piece of literary criticism - the tale of how a story was fabricated and made to seem real. It is a study of modern propaganda.
"The propaganda model differs in many important respects from the assumptions about communication that we expect in a democracy... an audience that thinks critically and is prepared to challenge your message becomes a problem that must be overcome. Whereas democracy is built upon the assumption that 'the people' are capable of rational self-governance, propagandists regard rationality as an obstacle to efficient indoctrination."
What occurs to me is that the contemporary approach to social control is so much more sophisticated and pervasive that it deserves a new name. It isn't just propaganda anymore, it's propaganda. It's not so much the control of what we think, but the control of what we think about. When our governments want to sell us a course of action, they do it by making sure it's the only thing on the agenda, the only thing everyone's talking about. And they pre-load the ensuing discussion with highly selected images, devious and prejudicial language, dubious linkages, weak or false 'intelligence' and selected 'leaks'. With the ground thus prepared, they're happy if you then 'use the democratic process' to agree or disagree - for, after all, their intention is to mobilize enough headlines and conversation to make the whole thing seem real and urgent. The more emotional the debate, the better. Emotion creates reality, and reality demands action.
As one of many examples of this process the authors detail the incident that, more than any other, consolidated public and congressional approval for the first Gulf war. We recall the horrifying stories, incessantly repeated, of babies in Kuwaiti hospitals ripped out of their incubators and left to die while the Iraqis shipped the incubators back to Baghdad - three-hundred-and-twelve babies, we were told. The story was brought to public attention by Nayirah, a fifteen-year-old 'nurse' who, it turned out later, was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. Nayirah had been tutored and rehearsed by the Hill & Knowlton PR agency (they in turn received fourteen-million dollars from the American government for their work in promoting the war). Her story was entirely discredited within weeks but by then its purpose had been served: it had created an outraged and emotional mindset within America which overwhelmed rational discussion.
As we are seeing now, the second Gulf war entailed many similar deceits - false linkages made between Saddam, Al Qaeda and 9-11, stories of ready-to-launch weapons that didn't actually exist, of nuclear programs that were never embarked upon. The authors carefully detail these allegations and show how many of them were entirely discredited as they were being made, but nevertheless retold repeatedly.
Throughout all this the hired-gun PR companies were busily at work, pre-conditioning the emotional landscape. Their marketing talents were particularly useful in the large-scale manipulation of language that the campaign entailed. The Bushites realised, as all ideologues do, that words create realities, and that the right words can overwhelm any chance of balanced discussion. Guided by the overtly imperial vision of the Project for a New American Century (whose members now form the core of the American administration), the PR companies helped finesse the language to create an atmosphere of simmering panic where American imperialism would come to seem not only acceptable but right, obvious, inevitable and even somehow kind - great news for everyone.
Aside from the incessant 'weapons of mass destruction', there were 'regime change' (military invasion), 'pre-emptive defence' (attacking a country that is not attacking you), 'critical regions' (countries we want to control), 'the axis of evil' (countries we want to attack), 'shock and awe' (massive obliteration) and 'the war on terror' (a hold-all excuse for projecting American military force anywhere). Meanwhile federal employees and military personnel were told to refer to the invasion as 'a war of liberation' and to the Iraqi paramilitaries as 'death squads', whilst the reliably sycophantic TV networks spoke of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' - just as the Pentagon asked them to, consolidating the supposition that Iraqi freedom was the point of the war. Anybody questioning the invasion was 'soft on terror' (liberal), or, in the case of the UN, 'in danger of losing its relevance'.
When I was young, an eccentric uncle decided to teach me how to lie. Not, he explained, because he wanted me to lie, but because he thought I should know how it's done so I would recognise when I was being lied to. I hope this book may have the same effect and help to emasculate the culture of spin and dissembling that is overtaking our political establishments.