Number 389 October 19, 2007

This Week: Syria, Iran, and Praise for The Notes

"Quote" of the Week
A Word About How Nygaard Notes Works
Praise for the Notes and Incentive to Pledge (I Hope)
Iran and the Threat of Self Defense
Who Needs Evidence? It's the Axis of Evil!


This Pledge Drive started out slowly, but it has picked up in the past week. If enough of you send in your pledge while I'm gone over the next week (I'll be speaking about media and activism to peace workers in Vermont) I will be able to call this Pledge Drive a success. Even if it's only a small number of you who send in your pledges, this issue will mark the last week of the October 2007 Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive. I mean, how much Pledge Drive can we take? I can't take any more, I'll tell you that! So, do what you can, all ye who support the Notes, and I'll be back on October 29th to see how it went.

This week, in addition to the final installments of the self-reflective—and informative!— pieces that usually fill up the Pledge Drive issues, I talk a little bit about how the media treats two "Axis of Evil" countries: Iran and Syria. Omigosh.

See you in a couple of weeks,



"Quote" of the Week:

My local newspaper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, conducted another of its "Minnesota Polls" a couple of weeks ago. This one asked Minnesotans about Iraq. Here is the lead paragraph of the October 8th story about the recent poll:

"Even as the Bush administration heralds signs of progress in Iraq, Minnesotans by almost a 2-to-1 margin say things are not going well for the U.S. effort to bring stability to the war-torn nation, a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows."

And here is the actual wording of the survey question:

"How well would you say things are going for the United States in its efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq?"

Let me point out two major problems with this particular question. First of all, it assumes that "bringing stability and order to Iraq" is, in fact, what our government is trying to do. Secondly, it assumes that the "efforts" are legitimate in the first place. After all, in what sense could an illegitimate effort be understood to be "going well"?



A Word About How Nygaard Notes Works

Here, in this final week of the October 2007 Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive, I want to take a moment to briefly explain how Nygaard Notes works, especially in relation to the asking of questions that I have been going on and on about for the past couple of weeks.

Nygaard Notes has a mission statement that says, in part:

"Nygaard Notes is concerned with a broad range of issues and ideas, using humor and plain language to reach out to anyone who believes in the values of solidarity, justice, compassion, and democracy. Nygaard Notes is intended to educate, inform, and entertain readers. Nygaard Notes is also intended to challenge its readers, inspiring them to move away from passive ways of thinking and toward more active, creative ways of thinking that lead to positive action."

Readers are well aware, I hope, that Nygaard Notes does not, and will not, accept advertising. This basic decision frees me to formulate the questions I ask based on something other than "Will this draw in the types of readers that I can sell to advertisers?" Instead, my years of activism in the community have led me to base my questions on the four values listed in my mission statement.

So, when I decide to explore the issue of, for example, Social Security reform, my first question is "How will this affect our capacity for Solidarity?"

In looking at health care issues I want to ask, "Does the policy or institution under consideration make it easier, or more difficult, for people to act on the Compassion that we all have?"

The key question to ask about any economic proposal is "Does this make the ‘game' more fair and just, or less so?"

I say that Nygaard Notes is "intended to challenge its readers." One of the ways I do this is that I don't place a high emphasis on finding the "truth" or telling readers what is "real." What I do, as long-time readers know, is to identify some issues that are most relevant to my values and then allow readers to observe as I embark on a journey of discovery aimed at better understanding how these issues are playing out in our modern world. I often do find some "answers"—and I share them when I do—but far more important to me is that I make it as clear as possible that my readers understand not only the questions I am asking, but also the assumptions and premises that give rise to them. I try to never come up with questions like the one in this week's "Quote" of the Week, for instance.

The challenge I offer to readers is to become more conscious of what I call the Propaganda ABC's (see Nygaard Notes #199 "Know Your Propaganda ABC's"). Those are the Attitudes, Beliefs, and Conceptions about the world that reflect our values. I use MY values to shape the questions I ask, and I try to write in such a way that you are encouraged to use YOUR values to shape YOUR questions about how the world works.

I think that Nygaard Notes is successful if readers are inspired to come up with your own questions, and if you come to believe that you are capable of embarking on the voyages of discovery that those questions promise. I think that the Notes IS successful in these ways—at least sometimes—and all of you who send in your support have my unqualified thanks for making it all possible.


Praise for the Notes and Incentive to Pledge (I Hope)

Just in case you think that you are alone in your appreciation of this modest newsletter, here are a few of the comments I have received from Nygaard Notes readers over the past few months. I share them in hopes that it will remind you that you are not alone in your support, and also in the hope that these words may inspire you to move from just thinking about making a Pledge – to actually DOING it!

The most amusing and succinct comment in recent months came from reader A.O. On May 14th, who said:

"You have the best chips and dip. I'm so glad to be at your party! Keep up the always fascinating, always thought-provoking work."

Then, on July 8, reader M.R. said:

"Nygaard Notes is head & shoulders above most of what passes for news in these latter days."

Later in July, a note arrived from reader J.S., saying:

"Clear thinking and open heartedness are your hallmarks. So refreshing."

Reader M.C. chipped in on September 20 with these words:

"Much of what you write, Jeff, I quote to family and friends. Thanks much."

Finally, on September 27, reader J.K. commented:

"I so enjoy your writings. A voice of reason in the vast wilderness."

So, all you supporters and appreciators of Nygaard Notes, YOU'RE NOT ALONE! Now all you have to do is add to your appreciation some concrete, financial support. Then we'll have the whole package!

Mail your check (payable to "Nygaard Notes") to:
Nygaard Notes
P.O. Box 14354
Minneapolis, MN 55414

OR pledge online at Click on "Donate to Nygaard Notes"

Thanks to everyone for your help making this FINAL WEEK of the Fall 2007 Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive a success. I'll do my best to be worthy of your support.


Iran and the Threat of Self Defense

One of the questions that anyone should ask themselves when reading a news report is, "Why am I seeing this at THIS particular time?" A great example came up on September 20th, when I saw the following headline in my local paper: "Iran Is Prepared to Fight If Attacked, Iranian General Says; Plans to Strike Israel if the Jewish State Should Attack Are ‘No Hollow Threat,' a Deputy Air Force Commander Warned."

The White House press secretary immediately commented that the Iranian General's claim to self-defense was "unhelpful" and "almost seems provocative."

So, it's "provocative" when a military leader in a country says that the country would respond militarily to a military attack? I can't imagine a country whose leaders would not say such a thing. Which is not to say I am happy about it, but I wouldn't consider it newsworthy when it happens.

I thought maybe my local paper was unusual in considering this newsworthy, but I was wrong. The headlines around the country on this, while not on many front pages, were everywhere. Most mentioned the self-defense aspect, but some were more alarming. The Associated Press cried, "Iran Draws Up Plans to Bomb Israel," not mentioning until the body of the article that this was only "if the Jewish state should attack it." The French news agency Agence France Presse said, "Iran Warns It Could Strike Israel as Nuclear Tensions Mount," again leaving the crucial context out of the headline. The daily paper in Albany, NY, said "Iran Official Confirms Strategy to Fight Israel." In the body of this last article is the key fact that "Israeli and U.S. officials have threatened the possibility of pre-emptive attacks on Iran..."

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying Iran is a peace-loving nation. But I have to agree with Jimmy Carter, who said that "I think it would be almost inconceivable that Iran would commit suicide by launching one or two missiles of any kind against the nation of Israel."

Back to the question of why we are hearing this "news" right now. At this particular moment in history we are in the midst of a gigantic propaganda effort aimed at making it difficult for U.S. voters to believe that Iran's leaders are rational people who think strategically. Because, if they are those kind of people, then we might want to engage with them. On the other hand, if they are no more than hateful fanatics who are essentially unreasonable and maniacal at their cores, then I guess we will have to go to war with them. As I explained in Nygaard Notes #184, Rule #1 of wartime propaganda is "To mobilize hatred of the enemy."

Meanwhile, on the very same day that the reports of the Iranian threat appeared everywhere, the Daily News of New York was virtually alone in reporting that "Israeli officials vowed to wipe Syria off the map if Israel is attacked with chemical weapons" by that country. A member of the Israeli parliament told the Daily News that, if the Syrians "ever use these [chemical] weapons against Israel, then we must be clear—it will be the end of this evil and brutal dictatorship."

And, just this week, George W. Bush threatened "World War III" if Iran simply "had the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."




Who Needs Evidence? It's the Axis of Evil!

Sometimes propaganda is hard to spot, because it is well put-together and rather subtle. On the other hand, we have an article like the one about Syria and nuclear weapons that appeared on September 15th in the New York Times.

Let's start with the headline: "U.S. Official Says Syria May Have Nuclear Ties." Two points here: Point 1: No headline that contains the word "may" is worthy of appearing in the "news" pages. I've written before about the word "may" in the news pages (see NN #335, June 30, 2006, "This ‘May' Be Propaganda"). The only time it might be acceptable to use a "may" in a headline would be if it were a story about officials spreading propaganda by speculating about what "may" be going on but for which there is no actual evidence. That is not what we see here.

Point 2: U.S. officials say a million things every day. It is the job of the media to listen, make some decisions about what is important, and report accurately the information that pertains to what is important. This is a different process than showing up at press conferences and serving as a conduit for propaganda, as in this case with the words of the "U.S. Official."

OK, on to the body of the article, with selected quotations and a note or two:

The Lead Paragraph: "A senior U.S. nuclear official said Friday that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with ‘secret suppliers' to obtain nuclear equipment." There's the word "may" again. And just think about that first statement: "North Koreans are in Syria." Later on in the same article the Times tells us that "North Korea has long supplied Syria with missile technology." So, OF COURSE there are North Koreans in Syria; they work there.

From The Second Paragraph: The same "official"—Andrew Semmel from the U.S. State Department—"said that Syria may have a number of ‘secret suppliers' for a covert nuclear program." True. And they "may" have proof that Elvis Presley is alive. But it is not news unless the proof is actually produced, or the reporter at least has seen some evidence that such proof exists.

From The Fifth and Sixth Paragraphs: "Some weapons experts said they were skeptical that Syria was in league with North Korea to build a secret program. Damascus is not thought to have made serious efforts in the past to develop nuclear weapons, and those experts said it was unlikely that the Syrians could afford such a program or had the technical expertise to sustain it."

This is apparently an attempt at "balance" on the part of the Times but, really. One official with a name says "this" and some unnamed "experts" say "that." Do we know any more than we did before we read this? No. Again, where is the evidence?

Here is Paragraph Ten: "A Bush administration official said earlier this week that over the past several weeks, Israel had conducted several aerial surveillance flights over Syria to take pictures of what Israeli officials were said to believe could be possible nuclear development installations."

Allow me to translate that last sentence: Some unknown person "said" that some anonymous officials "believe" that something they may or may not have actually seen "could be" something we don't like. "Possibly."

The charge is a serious one: That Syria is developing nuclear weapons, aided by North Korea. Nations go to war over things like this. But not only is there no evidence presented that Syria is doing anything of the sort, the Times itself reported on September 22nd that "North Korea has never been known to export nuclear technology or material."

If you know anything at all about journalism, you know that this is not it. This is propaganda, parroted by the nation's most influential newspaper.