Number 172 September 20, 2002

This Week:

Quote of the Week
Ridiculous Political Limericks
Propaganda, Level I: Overt Propaganda
Propaganda, Level II: Deep Propaganda
Anti-Propaganda Resources


It's always easier to defend oneself against things one can see than against things one cannot see. That's certainly true with propaganda, as I attempt to show this week. There are many, many reasons to work on the crazy (evil?) attitudes that we absorb from this culture, like the racist ones, the sexist ones, or any of the other attitudes that place certain people above others. One of the reasons is that such deep-seated prejudices are the building blocks that form the foundation for propaganda.

I hope to send a "Stroll Through the News" your way next week. I know I have promised to do this more often, but I see it's been three months already since the last one. So, hopefully next week.

Thanks, once again, to those who wrote to me this week. I appreciate the feedback, and I appreciate the challenge of answering your questions. Keep those letters coming!



"Quote" of the Week:

"You want to create a slogan that nobody's going to be against, and everybody's going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn't mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something. Like, ‘Do you support our policy?' That's the one you're not allowed to talk about. So you have people arguing about support for the troops? ‘Of course I don't not support them.' Then you've won. That's like Americanism and harmony. We're all together, empty slogans, let's join in, let's make sure we don't have these bad people around to disrupt our harmony with their talk about class struggle, rights, and that sort of business."

-- from the soon-to-be-released book, "Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda," by Noam Chomsky

Ridiculous Political Limericks

At the recently-concluded Minnesota State Fair there was a limerick contest, in which my friend Stuart won 2nd prize. I toyed with the idea of having a Nygaard Notes limerick contest, but wasn't sure if my staff could handle the expected onslaught of entries. Plus, I can't afford any prizes. However, I couldn't get the concept out of my head. In lieu of a contest, then, here are a couple of token limericks in honor of the War Against Terrorism (the WAT?!):

There once was a leader called Rumsfeld
And, once he got power, his head swelled
When told about "laws"
He replied with guffaws
(So) the Constitution was not upheld

There once was a war against terror
Carried on, for the most part, in error
The activist's day
Is spent thinking of ways
To come up with a system that's fairer


Propaganda, Level I: Overt Propaganda

Last week I told three stories that were intended to illustrate how a certain broad interpretation of the day's events is prepared and—although never talked about in these words—presented to the U.S. public as the "official" interpretation of those events. The stories, you recall, were:

  • the Ad Council's "Campaign for Freedom;"
  • the importance of constructing an "us" and a "them" when manufacturing a "national consensus;" and;
  • the process by which the massive economic rot that's been in the news lately is being swept under the political rug.

What is the news-watcher to make of these things?

All of these stories illustrate, in different ways, how propaganda is delivered through the mass media in this country. But, first, I should say a word about the word itself.

What is Propaganda?

The dictionary definition for "propaganda" is "any systematic, widespread, deliberate indoctrination, or plan for such indoctrination." Or, "any organization or movement working for the propagation of particular ideas, doctrines, practices, etc." To "propagate" is to "spread (ideas, customs, etc) from person to person or from generation to generation."

While the word "propaganda," as my Webster's Unabridged Dictionary puts it, is "now often used in a derogatory sense," it wasn't always so. Many people believed, and still believe, that U.S. and British propaganda was one of the tools that helped to defeat the Germans in World War I (when Wilson set up a propaganda organ called the "Committee on Public Information," chaired by George Creel) and the Axis powers in World War II (when Roosevelt created the "Office of War Information.")

On February 19th, the New York Times ("All the News That's Fit to Print") reported that "The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries." They were talking about something called the "Office of Strategic Influence," (OSI) and that bit about "false news items" caused quite an uproar. George W. was moved to state that he had instructed Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that "we'll tell the American people the truth." He went on to say that "[Secretary Rumsfeld] was just as amazed as I was about reading, you know, some allegation that somehow our government would never tell the American people the truth." (A typical Bush sentence, but I think you know what he meant.)

The uproar subsided when the OSI was shut down on February 26th.

Anybody who cares is well aware of the long history of official propaganda by the United States, a history that has often included false "news items" intended to sway public opinion. One that leaps to mind is the widely-known "news item," reported during the build-up to the 1991 attack on Iraq, in which a young Kuwaiti woman tearfully testified that she had seen Iraqi soldiers killing babies in Kuwait City by switching off hospital incubators. The reports of this testimony had a huge impact in the U.S., fueling the public hysteria needed to manufacture a consensus around the upcoming war. The testimony, however, was false and, in case anyone thinks that was an accident or a function of a poor memory, subsequent reports point out that the infamous Hill and Knowlton Public Relations firm had rehearsed with the young woman how to give apparently false testimony effectively.

Out with the old, in with the new. After the demise of the OSI, the Bush Administration created something called the "Office of Global Communications," which is supposed to "supervise America's image abroad." That's according to "senior officials" quoted in the Washington Post. The London Guardian had a slightly different take, reporting that the job of the new office was to "try to salvage America's plummeting image abroad" by "selling ‘Brand America'." Whatever. The point is that the government is involved, and always has been, in attempting to "manage" the perceptions of citizens, both its own and around the world.

The beauty of such overt propaganda is that it can (occasionally) be seen for what it is and, thus, countered by organized media and information activists. I am happy to say that, even as I type these words, there are a number of watchdog groups doing just this sort of work. You can learn a lot by checking out their work and, of course, they are deserving of your support. I give a list of some of those groups at the end of this issue of Nygaard Notes.


Propaganda, Level II: Deep Propaganda

I point out above that Overt Propaganda is the stuff that people are conscious of (or can become conscious of) and can talk and argue about openly. Nobody likes to be lied to, and when we discover someone lying to us, we tend to take some action. Perhaps we simply stop believing them. Or perhaps we force the government to shut down the Office of Strategic Influence. The point is, we do something.

Deep Propaganda, on the other hand, is far more dangerous because it is something that people are not conscious of. They don't notice it, so it never occurs to them to do something about it. ("Do something about...what?")

While Overt Propaganda tends to be specific and conscious, Deep Propaganda is usually general and unconscious. Overt Propaganda is the thing you are supposed to believe. Deep Propaganda is what makes it believable. Deep Propaganda (DP) is found in the assumptions, premises, and unwritten foundations upon which a story or a news report rests. Because it is unwritten and "taken for granted," DP is rarely discussed. In fact, it is rarely noticed, by either the purveyor or the consumer of the news. It's just "the way the world is."

As an example, take the 1990 news reports of the Iraqi troops killing incubator babies (which I mentioned earlier). That was Overt Propaganda, consciously put out to feed the war fever of the time. But why was it believable? Because of the Deep Propaganda that tells United Statesians that Arabs—specifically, Iraqis—value life less than "we" do. In other words, anti-Arab racism.

Social Security gives another example. The Overt Propaganda is that the system is going "broke," and needs "saving." (Neither of which are true; see Nygaard Notes #15 and #s 120-123.) The DP is the idea that everyone would be better off fending for themselves ("controlling their own money"), rather than relying on a universal system of social insurance that is based on the value of solidarity. A second DP point is that "big government" can't do anything right; this makes it easy to believe that they would screw up Social Security.

The function—intended or not, it doesn't matter—of Deep Propaganda is to make sure that the choices and attitudes of the mass of the population will remain more or less in line with those at the top. What this requires, in a democracy where Freedom of Speech is guaranteed, is that the imagination of the public be limited. When asked to vote for (or purchase) either Choice A, Choice B, or Choice C, it must never occur to the voters/shoppers to reject them all and propose, instead, Choice K, or Choice Q, or Choice Z. In a properly propagandized population, such a rejection will rarely occur. Such a limiting of the imagination is the most important and profound effect of Deep Propaganda.

How to Spot Deep Propaganda

DP can often be recognized, ironically, by the fact that it is not explicitly mentioned. For example, you will never hear a leader argue that "Democracy and Free Markets go together." They are simply—and, in the public discourse, nearly universally—assumed to go together. No need to argue the point. No need, usually, to even state the point. "Everybody knows that!"

Fortunately, it's not hard to spot DP in the media, once you know what you're looking for. It will be the unstated idea that, once called into question, changes the whole story. If DP is shown to be false, the entire story usually becomes implausible, if not ridiculous. Let's take a couple of current examples from the newspapers and see if we can find the Overt and the Deep Propaganda (OP and DP.) Remember that any given story may provide more than one example.

Last week I talked about an advertising blitz called the "Campaign for Freedom," which leads off with the words, "READ THIS AD. Or, Don't. An exercise in freedom." As I pointed out, if you consider that the "freedom" to choose not to look at something is universal, and not particularly American, then the idea of a "campaign" to protect it ceases to make sense. That's Deep Propaganda at work. DP in this case has two additional parts: 1. Commercial "freedom" is the same as human "freedom," and 2. "We" are all united in the desire to protect them both. I doubt that even the creators of this ad would be fully conscious of these messages (!), but without it this "campaign" is nonsensical.

One of the good things about the War Against Terrorism (the WAT?!), is that it is perceived as such an extreme situation in this country that more people than usual are able to think about the Deep Propaganda that usually goes unnoticed. For example, the idea that the U.S. is "good" and anyone who disagrees with us or our policies is "evil" has actually been debated a little bit here and there. And it is occasionally possible to hear people these days questioning the idea that U.S. foreign policy has always exemplified the highest moral standards. And, when the Bush administration implies that any critic of its policies is not a Loyal American, many people (I hope) start wondering about the meaning of "us" and "them." All of these things—concepts of good and evil, the morality of U.S. policies, and "us and them" assumptions—are Deep Propaganda points upon which many, many Overt Propaganda pronouncements depend.

In summary, then: Overt Propaganda is specific and conscious; Deep Propaganda is general and unconscious. In order to counter Overt Propaganda, one need only do a little research. Making ourselves less susceptible to Deep Propaganda is more difficult: We need to be clear on our own value systems, and we need to work hard to liberate ourselves from the dominant ideologies and prejudices that define modern life, here in the United States and elsewhere.


Anti-Propaganda Resources

The best defense against propaganda is to get active in organizing and/or supporting alternative sources of information, and training yourself to rely on them for your ideas about the world. In that spirit, here are a few organizations that work on media and propaganda issues. I'm sure there are more; if you know of any good ones, pass them along and I'll pass them along in turn.

  • The Center for Media and Democracy, at "Dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry." Puts out the quarterly, "PR Watch."
  • Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, at Exposes propaganda with a radio show ("Counterspin," heard locally on KFAI Radio) and a bi-monthly magazine ("Extra!")
  • ADBUSTERS at Creative, profound, satirical, activist.
  • Commercial Alert at Aims "to prevent the commercial culture from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy."

Here are just a few books that may help to give an understanding of what we are up against.

  • "Inside the Company: A CIA Diary," by Philip Agee gives a fascinating inside look at the CIA's role in propagating disinformation.
  • "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," (1985) by Neil Postman, analyzes the transition from a word-centered culture to an image-centered one.
  • "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," (1988) by Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman explains their "propaganda model" for understanding media.