1. “Quote” of the Week: “We live in a propaganda society.”
2. Health Care and Public Relations
3. Strategy, War, and Health Care
“Quote” of the Week: “We live in a propaganda society.”
Chip Berlet, an investigative journalist and scholar of right-wing movements, was interviewed by David Barsamian in 2010 on the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the role of ideas in building a movement. He said:
“We live in a propaganda society. It’s not possible to have a reasoned debate on immigration with someone who believes that Obama is a native of Kenya or is part of some secret cabal led by the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Rockefeller family, or whomever. The Tea Partiers honestly believe they are not merely arguing with fellow citizens but defending America from alien people and ideas.
“The situation is getting worse as journalism loses the money or the incentive to fact-check and send reporters out into the field to gather information. Investigative journalism has been eroded by a focus on the bottom line. After the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s there was a burst of funding for investigative reporting, but at the same time the print-media industry was collapsing — and the pace of its collapse has only quickened. It’s now easy to build a viable movement on false information, propaganda, and malicious demagoguery, which is how you create totalitarianism. This is what George Orwell wrote about in his novel 1984. Any totalitarian movement, on the Left or Right, must create a controlled, biased information system that convinces people to act in certain ways, either because they perceive it to be in their best interest or because they believe they will be punished if they do otherwise.”
Health Care and Public Relations
Few can remain unaware of the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of (most of) the Affordable Care Act of 2010. (Most people probably know it as “ObamaCare,” which I’ll discuss in a moment.) The Supreme Court issued its ruling in the last week of June, and the media reported on it with great excitement. I think it’s a fascinating and important story, but not for the reasons most people seem to be talking about. For me, it is an excellent case study in how certain powerful sectors masterfully utilize the principles of Public Relations in their ongoing Propaganda effort aimed at shaping the public consciousness. Just as Chip Berlet says in the “Quote” of the Week above.
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Let’s begin with a point I made in these pages back in 2005. I said then that Modern Propaganda is based on the Three Key Concepts of Emotions, Symbols, and Association. The essence of the process is to create a Symbol (or manipulate an existing one) for the purpose of provoking or intensifying certain Emotions which then become more-or-less permanently Associated with the symbol. It’s a circular process and the propagandist will typically attempt to affirm and reinforce the cycle until the underlying ideas upon which the cycle depends become widely-enough accepted as to become “common sense” in the culture at large.
To understand how the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, is being used in service to such a Propaganda process I must once again quote the Father of Public Relations, Edward L. Bernays. (Long-time readers know that I frequently cite this evil genius.) In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays explained the importance of priming the minds of the public before attempting to sell an idea to them. He was talking about a major issue of the day (the day was 1928), which was tariffs on imported goods. At the time, the national mass media was radio, and Bernays was talking about what a political leader would be doing if he were also a propagandist. Here’s what he said (the emphasis is my own):
“In whatever ways he dramatized the issue, the attention of the public would be attracted to the question before he addressed them personally. Then, when he spoke to his millions of listeners on the radio, he would not be seeking to force an argument down the throats of a public thinking of other things and annoyed by another demand on its attention; on the contrary, he would be answering the spontaneous questions and expressing the emotional demands of a public already keyed to a certain pitch of interest in the subject.”
This is what the reactionary strategy in regard to the Affordable Care Act is all about: “Keying the emotional demands of the public to a pitch of interest in the subject.” The superficial subject is the ACA, but the reason that the public is “keyed to a certain pitch of interest” in it is because it represents something deeper that people have come to fear.
Complex Realities and Simple Symbols
The spectacle of the battle over the ACA, inside and outside of the Supreme Court, brought some crucially-important symbols into clear view, at the same time obscuring some of the complex realities that the symbols are intended to replace. Three Reality/Symbol processes in particular stand out:
1. Years and years have been spent transforming the Reality of democratic decision-making (that is, actual people coming together to make decisions in an open environment instead of actual dollars making decisions in a market environment) into a Symbol that is called “Government.” This transformation drags all kinds of other things with it. For example, if left to their own devices many people might interpret “public”—as in the “public option” that could have been a part of the ACA—as meaning “free from corporate control.” The Propagandists having done their work, however, conventional wisdom now tells people that “public” means “belonging to the government,” and thus “stolen” from you and me and placed in the hands of “bureaucrats.” This is an example of a symbol being manipulated.
2. The Reality of government—a complex entity that sometimes responds to human needs and aspirations and often responds to corporate imperatives—is reduced to a simple Symbol: “Tyranny.” “Government” now conjures images of The Throne, perhaps The Mad King George of 1776. “No Taxation Without Representation,” and so forth. The Tea Party obviously relies on this association. This is an example of manipulation of an existing symbol.
3. The Reality of the ACA—a complex law, corporate-friendly, stripped of any “public option,” yet still offering some real benefits to real people—becomes the Symbol we know as “ObamaCare.” This is an example of a symbol being created brand new. “ObamaCare” is seen as a manifestation of yet another symbol known as “The Obama Agenda,” which is meant to represent some sort of collectivist totalitarianism.
When journalist and scholar Chip Berlet said in a 2010 interview, “it’s going to take us quite a while to convince average Americans of the difference between Stalin and single-payer healthcare,” he was acknowledging the power of the Propaganda of the Libertarian right on the issue.
Shame and Guilt
Back around the turn of the century (December 22, 2000) in this very newsletter I used the Shame and Guilt dynamic to explain how one’s underlying beliefs can—and do—shape our interpretation of the things we experience. Imagine that a person says something that causes pain to someone they care about. If their underlying belief is that they are a bad person—the Shame Dynamic—then this event confirms that idea. It’s seen not only as a part of a pattern, but also as a confirmatory part of that pattern, as the transgression sets off the following internal message, “See? Here is more evidence to show what a bad person I am.” On the other hand, when a person with healthy self esteem does the same thing, it’s the opposite: Instead of being a confirmatory part of a pattern, the interpretation is that it’s a surprising aberration. The internal message is: “What a mistake! A person like me (i.e. a “good” person) doesn’t do that sort of thing.” Guilt is what a person with high self-esteem experiences when they violate their values, which is totally different than shame.
Now we have three symbols: ObamaCare, Government, and Tyranny. But what’s needed to make them politically useful is a particular way of thinking that I call Dualism. This way of thinking, which is dominant in the United States, holds that there are—at any given point—no more than two options; it’s an Either/Or, Good/Bad, With Us/Against Us world. In the emotional realm, individuals often fall victim to Dualistic thinking, as we are taught to conceive of ourselves as being either a “Good” person or a “Bad” person. And Dualism has had a heavy impact on the public discussion of the ACA, as well. We see it in two major ways.
Understanding the first way helps to explain the vehemence of the opposition to the ACA. In a Dualistic world we will have either Freedom or Tyranny. Not only that, but Freedom is fragile and requires constant vigilance. So we must not only defeat the legislation through court rulings or legislative repeal, but we must completely discredit the idea of any democratic (i.e. “public”, i.e. “government,” i.e. Stalinist) solution to our health care crisis, as any remaining vestige of a democratic response could “infect” and ultimately corrupt our market-based system. And we know what that would mean: Tyranny! It’s all or nothing in this world.
(I’m not about to deny the problems with our current so-called democratic processes in the U.S. My point here is that it isn’t simply a Dualistic choice between our current public processes and corporate control; another option would be to refine and improve our democratic processes. That is, we could choose a Third Way, one of building democracy, rather than privatizing everything.)
The second way that Dualistic thinking plays out in the ACA story involves a reliance on the Two-Party system. If the ACA Propaganda process has been successful in getting people to make the correct associations—that is, Obama = ObamaCare = Government = Tyranny, then the “answer” is to go to the voting booth on November 6th to cast one’s vote against Tyranny. A no-brainer if there ever was one! Tea Party signs say things like: “Obama = Hitler” and “Stand idly by while some Kenyan tries to destroy America? I don’t think so!!!” and “Obama: Socialist Pig.” (These are actual signs seen at Tea Party rallies.) So, it’s either THAT or it’s the only “other” choice: Republicans. Thank heavens we have a Two-Party System. And thank heavens the Supreme Court has removed any restrictions on corporations spending however much money may be necessary to help educate those opposed to Tyranny on the correct and proper ways to vote.
In a nutshell, what we are witnessing is a consolidation of a long-term strategy on the part of the reactionary right to associate any public initiative with collectivist tyranny, and to associate their opponent with that tyranny. In a two-party system, their “opponent” is the Democratic Party, absurdly cast as a “socialist” threat to the Homeland. As Berlet says, it’s a matter of “defending America from alien people and ideas.”
Knowing that Dualism is a basic characteristic of U.S. ideology, a strategy of tarnishing by association the “other” party can be expected to lead voters to peel off from the Dem’s and go to the “only” other choice, which is Republicans. And, judging by the 2010 elections, the strategy seems to be effective. We’ll soon see if it’s still working.
Meanwhile, the media went crazy over the Supreme Court ruling on the ACA, but to right-wing strategists it really didn’t matter much, for two reasons:
If the Supreme Court were to rule against the ACA, that would be a victory because then even minor reform would be labeled “Unconstitutional,” and future challenges to corporate health care would become all the more difficult.
If the Supreme Court were to affirm the law, it would also be a victory, since there are enough real reforms to mollify potential health care reformers and keep them on the sidelines, at least for a while. This is what happened, and the dynamic was concisely summarized by William Blum in the July 3rd edition of The Anti-Empire Report. Blum said: “The Affordable Care Act will undoubtedly serve as a disincentive to the movement for single-payer national health insurance, setting the movement back for years. The Affordable Care Act was undoubtedly designed for that purpose.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the daily drama about the Supreme Court and the clash of ideologies and the “victory” for Obama and all of that. Isn’t it? It’s so easy, in fact, that the next essay goes to some length to show how dangerous it is to fall into the Propaganda trap that it all represents.
Strategy, War, and Health Care
I said in the last essay that the reason that the public is “keyed to a certain pitch of interest” in the Affordable Care Act is because it represents something deeper that people have come to fear. Although few would admit it, I think that fearful something is . . . Democracy. Well, that requires some explaining! So let’s begin by talking about Iraq and Vietnam.
Back in Nygaard Notes #461 I spoke about the seemingly-odd phenomenon of growing public disapproval of the occupation of Iraq while the institution that executed it—the U.S. military—continues to be held in very high regard. I noted that this dynamic was quite different than what we saw in regard to the Vietnam war. Back then, here’s what we saw:
In February 1966, 62 percent expressed a great deal of confidence in “people running the military” but by March 1973 “that number had fallen to 32 percent,” with “very favorable” attitudes toward the military “ranging in the neighborhood of 20 percent in the late 1980s, jumping briefly to 60 percent in the aftermath of the short and successful [sic] Persian Gulf War, and then retreating into the 20 percent-30 percent range until the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers in September 2001.”
That’s not quite right, as the military’s comeback in the public mind got going in the late 1990s. As the Gallup Poll reported in July 2010, “The military continues its long-standing run as the highest-rated U.S. institution,” having been “No. 1 in Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions list continuously since 1998. . .” That’s still true in the 2012 Gallup Poll that just came out last month. (In fact, the only three institutions in which more than 50 percent of US Americans have “confidence” are the military, “small business,” and “the police.” Congress is in last place.)
Now recall the “Shame Dynamic” that I discussed in the previous essay: If one thinks of oneself as basically a bad person, then bad behavior is seen as confirming that. If one sees oneself as basically a good person, then bad behavior is seen as a mistake, nothing more. And this is where Public Relations comes in.
Consider this comment in my local newspaper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, on June 26th. In the commentary, headlined “Disrespect for Vietnam Vets Is Fact, Not Fiction,” Vietnam Vet Bob Feist told readers, “We need to remember that it was the South Vietnamese government that lost their war, not the much-maligned American soldier. American service members did not suffer defeat, even though most of us felt defeated. Policy and politics out of Washington had failed, not the military.”
What Feist is saying is that the U.S. (that is, soldiers like him) is Good. But there is something “out of Washington” that is Bad. The only way that a “Good” country can fail is due to mistakes. So the loss in Vietnam must have been due to mistakes. To accept a counter-narrative—one that says that a U.S. “victory” in Vietnam was impossible by definition since the project itself was immoral and illegitimate—would be shameful.
I think the disrespect shown to U.S. soldiers is shameful (most of them are, after all, good people, even if placed in impossible situations), but it is important to separate that basic goodness from the imperial function of the institution of which the individual soldiers are a part. The disrespect shown to Vietnam (and Korean) vets was the result of a tragic, but perhaps understandable, difficulty in separating the condemnable policy from the soldiers who were doing what they saw as their duty.
Feist is here, however unconsciously, carrying on the Public Relations task required in the wake of the crime against humanity that we have come to call the Vietnam War. U.S. leaders, seeing the mass disillusionment with Imperial institutions (including the military) in the wake of Vietnam, have been determined to repair and maintain the reputation of the institutions so as to maintain the capacity to employ those institutions in service to future sure-to-be-unpopular wars. Since the maintenance of a grossly unequal world system will always require coercion, force, and threats of force, the “political capital” of the U.S. military must at all costs be maintained so that the U.S. capacity for war and global policing will be readily available in the future. This is what we have been seeing in regard to the 21st-Century aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his book “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars,” author John Tirman makes the point well:
“The promiscuous making of heroes—namely, any American remotely associated with resisting threats from Muslims—is a post-9/11 phenomenon, and in Iraq it became a diversion from the failures of the war soon after the invasion in 2003. So the indifference to, or even blaming of, the veterans in Korea and Vietnam was transformed into exalting every soldier as a hero and broadly adopted in political and popular culture, just as Iraqis who resisted were transformed into terrorists. On the one side are heroes, and on the other are terrorists.”
And heroes, by implication, are serving a heroic cause, despite being ever-plagued by “tragic mistakes,” “the fog of war,” “strategic blunders,” and all of the other errors that good people—and good countries—are bound to make in their aggressive pursuit of their noble goals.
So, again, there’s the American Dualism at work: In the Dualistic world of American Ideology, there are “heroes” and “terrorists,” there is “Us” and there is “Them,” there are “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” And just as Good Soldiers can only be expected to fight Good Wars, Good political parties can only be expected to promote good policies. Bad political parties the opposite. And it goes the other way, as well: a party that supports bad policies must be a Bad Party.
Health and PR
And here we circle back to the Affordable Care Act. Back in 2010, when I was discussing the apparent contradiction of the falling support for the activities of the military and the sky-high support for the military itself, I said that it was an issue of Public Relations:
“That is, while one particular ‘product’—the occupation of Iraq—may be increasingly difficult to market, Public Relations has maintained the good standing of the seller (the military-industrial complex) at a high enough level that the next ‘new product’ the seller comes up with can be expected to sell regardless. One new product—Afghanistan—is already being sold, with more products potentially on the way: Iran, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea.”
Back then I was talking about war, but the same dynamic applies to health care. That’s because the battle over the ACA is not about, and has never been about, “health care,” per se, but about the role of “government.” And the Public Relations that has been employed for decades has been aimed at reinforcing a basic Propaganda Point, which is another Dualism: Government is Bad. Markets are Good.
So, while the specific “product”—the ACA—has been and will be fought tooth and nail, the strategists of the opposition see it as only one battle in a larger PR struggle. Recall the Three Key Concepts of Propaganda: Symbols, Emotions, and Association. The corporate thinkers who are supporting and encouraging their Libertarian/Tea Party troops to rally in opposition are following the recipe to a Tea (ha ha):
1. The ACA becomes the SYMBOL known as Obamacare, which. . .
2. Provokes the EMOTION of fear because. . .
3. It is ASSOCIATED with “Socialism,” which. . .
4. Is itself a SYMBOL that has nothing to do with real-world Socialism, but rather represents the “alien people and ideas” against which Patriotic Americans must mobilize.
And on it goes. The cycle can start anywhere, as long as the correct Emotions end up being Associated with the correct Symbols.
By reporting the fight over the ACA as a fight about “policy” rather than as but one front in this larger battle for the hearts and minds of the U.S. public, the media obscures the real issue. And many who follow the media as they report on the “issue”—and it’s hard not to, for all but the most-highly motivated—end up fighting the wrong battle. Not really the “wrong” battle, but a lesser battle, one in which the reactionary right will be happy with either outcome. And, more importantly, when one side focuses their energy on defending a policy, and the other side focuses their energy on changing the way that power is distributed within the entire culture, then the power equation of the future tilts in favor of the people who are focused on the big picture. This is how we can “win” a battle, but lose our power, making future battles all the harder to win.
All of this is why I said what I said at the beginning of the previous essay. If you recall, I said that the media coverage of the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act is a fascinating and important story because it is an excellent case study in how certain powerful sectors masterfully utilize the principles of Public Relations in their ongoing Propaganda effort aimed at shaping the public consciousness.
We’re living another chapter in the “Public Relations-ization of U.S. Culture,” and it affects all of us, perhaps most of all those of us who are paying attention and who think we are “informed.” We’re the ones at which the Propaganda is directed. It’s insidious, and we’d all better understand how it works, since it’s changing hearts and minds right and left. And I do mean “right” and “left.”
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