Number 442 November 9, 2009

This Week: Israel's Nuclear Weapons

"Quote" of the Week
From Extreme to Mainstream Via the Media: "Sometimes It Works"
This is What Empire Sounds Like


I said last week that I would begin to take a look at the nature of the U.S. Empire and what to do about it. This week is just the beginning of a short series on the subject. For many of us living in the United States, it seems to be difficult to see ourselves as living in an Empire. I don't think it's all that difficult, but I had a conversation with a new acquaintance the other day in which I mentioned the U.S. Empire, and it started a bit of an argument. I guess he thought that I was talking about the U.S. in the Bush era when I used the word. I was actually talking about the colonial project in North America that was initiated 500+ years ago to benefit Europeans and people of European descent, and which eventually manifested in the entity that we now know as the United States of America. Since I had so much trouble expressing myself with this new friend, I thought it might be worth thinking about some more. The result will be the short series on the U.S. Empire that begins in this week's edition of the Notes.

One piece this week is about how some extreme ideas get "mainstreamed," so that other ideas come to seem less-than-extreme to the average person. The other piece is a rather anguished cry about how what I call the "Imperial Mindset" has embedded itself in the culture. In a sense, the second piece is a sequel to the first. The first is about how extreme ideas come to seem reasonable, while the second is about how ideas that I think should be in the mainstream come to be excluded from mainstream discussions. We're always hearing serious discussions of things like "death panels" and "fascist economics," while some really extreme ideas—like the idea of one country occupying two other countries, using the world's largest military machine—are so well-accepted that they don't even have to be discussed. What we see is that the Empire—for that's what it is—can only be discussed indirectly, as in this week's example of talking about a more "hands-on" approach to an occupied country.

The Empire Series will go on for a couple of weeks beyond this week, or as long as it takes for me to figure out what I'm talking about. I hope you'll be able to figure it out along with me. Here we go.

Your Anti-Imperialist writer,



"Quote" of the Week:

One of the things that I would have expected might result from the dual meltdowns of the financial system and the health care "system" is that people might want to hear a little bit about alternative systems. Socialism, for example. However, propagandists are hard at work (they're always hard at work) assessing the Deep Propaganda that they can use to support whatever the Overt Propaganda of the day may be. They've been so successful in the current debate about health care that the concept of "socialism" remains an abstract symbol, used to instill fear and forestall thinking.

This week's "Quote" is from journalist, author, and documentarian T. R. Reid, who said the following in his book "The Healing of America":

"The leaders of the health care industry and the medical profession, not to mention the political establishment, have a single, all-purpose response they fall back on whenever somebody suggests that the United States might usefully study foreign health care systems: ‘But it's socialized medicine!' ... This is supposed to end the argument.

"‘Socialized medicine' may be a scary term, but in practice, Americans rather like government-run medicine. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the world's purest models of socialized medicine at work. In the Medicare system, covering about 44 million elderly or disabled Americans, the federal government makes the rules and pays the bills. And yet both of these ‘socialized' health care systems are enormously popular with the people who use them and consistently rate high in surveys of patient satisfaction."

Here's a Bonus "Quote" of the Week, from the September 20th LA Times:

"The Obama administration is under pressure to show progress in Afghanistan, calculating that it has only until next summer before public support for the war effort collapses."

The best "progress" I could imagine would be to see the U.S. Congress pass H.R. 3699, introduced on October 1st by CA Rep. Barbara Lee "To prohibit any increase in the number of members of the United States Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan." That is, to cut off funding for the occupation.

There has been almost no coverage of this bill, so you wouldn't know that the bill has 23 co-sponsors. Is your Representative a co-sponsor? Check it out at the Thomas website at Search by bill number for "HR 3699"


From Extreme to Mainstream Via the Media: "Sometimes It Works"

This essay will take a look at how extreme ideas are "mainstreamed" in the media. We'll start by citing Sarah Palin, former vice-presidential candidate and representative of the Reagan/Bush wing of the Republican Party.

Writing about health care "reform" in the September 8th Wall Street Journal, Palin asked, "is it any wonder that many of the sick and elderly are concerned that the Democrats' proposals will ultimately lead to rationing of their health care by—dare I say it—death panels? Establishment voices dismissed that phrase, but it rang true for many Americans."

That's an interesting point she makes, and one that may seem extreme to some: That is, she's saying that an idea shouldn't be dismissed simply because it's not true, as long as "many Americans" believe it's true. But that idea is straight out of classic Public Relations (PR) theory, and is actually debated quite openly by modern propagandists and echoed in the media, as we'll see in a moment. But first, a little reminder about Public Relations theory:

Back in Nygaard Notes #315 in December of 2005 I published a piece called "How Propaganda Works: Three Key Concepts." The three concepts are EMOTIONS, SYMBOLS, and ASSOCIATIONS. The point of Propaganda—and, more broadly, of public relations—is to get people to Associate certain Emotions with selected, or created, Symbols.

As I said at the time, Propaganda has a ‘positive' and a ‘negative' form. The positive form is to get people to associate symbols of the propagandist (or their cause, or their product, or whatever) with positive emotions. The negative form involves getting people to associate symbols of the enemy (or the competitor, or other products, or whatever) with negative emotions. It's sort of the Good Guys vs Bad Guys in the Marketplace of Ideas.

The Function of Extreme Statements

Democrats and other liberals love to ridicule Sarah Palin. They seem to think that people like Palin—or Michele Bachmann here in Minnesota, or Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh, or whomever—must be really stupid to be constantly making statements that are so extreme they are easy to refute, easy to ridicule. But the job of Sarah Palin and other right-wing spokespeople, in the media and in politics, is not to logically argue a point. It is to broaden the spectrum of "respectable" discussion in the U.S. Or, more accurately, to move the boundaries that define respectability to the right. One way to do this is to have prominent personalities go beyond the currently respectable realm and talk about things that are considered "extreme." Since the media has been trained to bestow respectability based on celebrity as much as, if not more than, accuracy or the lessons of history, the presence of these extreme ideas in the media tends to make ideas that were formerly seen as extreme seem more "respectable" by comparison.

A look at a recent article in that bastion of respectability, the New York Times, will illustrate how "extreme" ideas push their way into the mainstream.

Back in April the New York Times ran an article about Republican PR strategy at the beginning of the Obama era. Among the people quoted in the article was one Saul Anuzis, a Michigan Republican who, earlier this year, was a finalist for the position of national Republican Party chairman. Anuzis was quoted as saying that "Rhetorically, Republicans are having a very hard time finding something that raises the consciousness of the average voter." He worries that referring to the new President's policies as "socialism" doesn't sufficiently raise the consciousness of voters.

In place of the insufficiently-educational "socialism," Anuzis is lobbying for the word "fascism." Says Mr. Anuzis, "We've so overused the word ‘socialism' that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Fascism—everybody still thinks that's a bad thing."

Note his dual goals of "raising consciousness" and evoking a "negative connotation." The raising of consciousness is a thinking function, while invoking a connotation is straight-up Public Relations. It's a bad idea to confuse the two, yet this Republican leader uses them interchangeably.

I agree with his comment that most people still think that Fascism is a bad thing, although virtually no one knows what the word actually means. I agree with George Orwell, who made some comments about Fascism in 1944. He said that, while we may know what the word Fascism means when we are referring to Germany or Japan or Mussolini's Italy, "It is in internal politics that this word has lost the last vestige of meaning."

And here is where it is helpful to remember the Three Key Concepts of Propaganda. In the PR world, words—or any other symbols—are useful not for their "meaning." Public relations is not about "meaning." It's about emotion, and how to get people to associate the proper emotion with the proper symbol. Connotations, you see. Sarah Palin understands this point very well.

The Times reported that "the minority party [they are referring to the Republican Party] faces an internal debate over striking the right tone." And here is where we get to see how PR theory meets practice.

The Times tells us that Anuzis has had some luck in "spreading the word" on Facebook and Twitter, and that the F-word has cropped up in various places in the neoconservative press. Still, says the Times, "other conservatives ... question its accuracy and political wisdom." The "question" facing Republicans, says the Times, is whether it's "factually appropriate or strategically wise" to use the F-word—that is, Fascism—promoted by Anuzis and others. True or not, the Times tells us, "sometimes it works."

Although they would likely be loath to admit it, the editors of the Times here reveal that they understand and accept what Ms. Palin understands and accepts—that the "truth" of what one says is unimportant as long as "it works."

When the Times speaks of how the use of a meaningless epithet "works" or how it shows some "political wisdom," they are fully endorsing the "extreme" view as expressed by Palin, albeit a bit more subtly. Saying that these terms "work" is to reference a particular type of success. "Success" in this context ("It works!") is understood to refer to conquest or victory in a competitive arena, in this case victory in the electoral arena.

The Times gives Mr. Anuzis the final word, allowing him to remind readers that "You've got to be careful using the term ‘economic fascism' in the right way, so it doesn't come off as extreme."

Ah, but whether Mr. Anuzis, Sarah Palin, and the rest are aware of it or not, what makes their statements useful is precisely that they do come off as extreme, so that other, almost-as-extreme, thinking begins to seem mainstream. It's pure Public Relations, and sometimes it works.


This is What Empire Sounds Like

A great example of the Imperial Mindset that afflicts so many of us who live and breathe inside the USA was offered by the New York Times of October 23rd. The revealing passages appeared in the Times' lead editorial, which was about Iraq and which bore the mysterious headline "Counting Backward." I don't know what the "backward" part is all about, but maybe it's about the thinking expressed in the editorial... I hope you'll see what I mean when you read the first two paragraphs:

"America's top diplomat in Iraq, Christopher Hill, and America's top commander there, Gen. Ray Odierno, have been wrangling for months over how much United States officials should get involved in Iraqi politics.

"Mr. Hill, it is said, wants to give the Iraqis more of a chance to find their own way. General Odierno—with his eye on the troop drawdown clock—has been arguing for a more hands-on approach. The stalemate over Iraq's election law should settle that debate once and for all."

Here are two top officials of a country that is militarily occupying another country—one of the officials is the top commander of the occupation forces!—and they are debating about how much to "get involved in Iraqi politics." About whether to have "a more hands-on approach." More hands-on. Think about it: The leader of an occupying army is arguing for an "approach" that is more "hands-on" than a military occupation.

How bizarre. What must this sound like to those who live—and think—outside of the Empire? (If you live outside of the U.S., or have access to some who do, please pass on to me what you, or they, think of this.)

The concluding paragraph of this remarkable editorial—the official position of the most influential newspaper in the most powerful country on Earth—reads as follows:

"When he outlined his Iraq strategy in February, Mr. Obama promised that even as America prepared to leave, it would be an ‘honest broker in pursuit of fair and durable agreements on issues that have divided Iraq's leaders.' Iraq is at a critical moment. It clearly needs an honest broker—and a good deal more."

The definition of "honest broker" is "a neutral mediator." And, yes, Mr. Obama really did say that. And yes, the New York Times really thinks that a country that is occupying another country can be neutral as it considers how "hands-on" its domination of that country should be.

I feel very sad as I write this piece, because I don't want to be living in a country whose leaders think like this, and who have the power to act on such thoughts. And I feel sad about my suspicion that many good people who read these words might not see what they mean. How many people have been conditioned to consider such naked abuse of massive power as "normal"? Or even commendable? Too many, I'm afraid.

So I wrote this little piece in order to call attention to these words by some very influential people in the most powerful newspaper in the land. What I'm trying to do is to point out that this is what an Empire sounds like. And I'm trying to encourage people to try to recognize Empire-Speak when we hear it. Once we recognize it, then we can begin to think about what it means to live in the center of an Empire, one whose leaders can "wrangle" over how to go about dominating a much-weaker people.