Monday, June 12, 2006

Propaganda

Propaganda n. The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated thus; the vehicle of such propagation.

The worst kind of propaganda is the kind that happens to be true.

Reading last week's issue of the New Yorker over the weekend, I came across a story that contains extracts from letters, journal entries, etc. of US servicemen in Iraq. (The story itself is not available online, but there's an audio-visual presentation containing extracts from it here).

Some of the stories were simply outrageous. Like the letter by Donna Kohout where she talks about how excited she is to be seeing the places she first learned about in Bible school (next time, try taking a packaged tour instead of invading someone else's country) or Parker Gyokeres piece about the terrible living conditions and the lack of cooperation from the local people, who only listen to him when he threatens them with his gun (imagine that - you invade a country and its people refuse to wait meekly and politely in line for you to inflict your entirely illegitimate authority on them!). But the bulk of the pieces do actually invite and deserve sympathy: they are sensitive, thoughtful pieces about the very real, very human costs of war (my favourites are the ones by the medical staff - Commander E.W. Jewell's journal from on board the U.S.N.S. Comfort and Captain L.R. Blackman's e-mails home about the psychological scars that combat leaves).

And that, I think, is the problem. There's a very thin line between feeling sympathy for an individual and feeling sympathy for his or her cause. And it's very hard to maintain the clarity and insistence of abstract ethical perspectives in the face of real human suffering. How do you tell the families of those killed in the war that their sons and daughters had no business being there? That they were accessories to an unjust invasion and that sad as their deaths are, they died for a bad cause, or no cause at all, rather than for a good one?

Not that the stories are necessarily arguing causes. Jewell's piece is explicitly critical of the leaders of the Iraq Invasion, and a number of the other pieces simply describe the horrors without passing judgement on them. Consider, for example, this bit in Ed Hrivnak's account:

"One trooper confides in me that he witnessed some Iraqi children get run over by a convoy. He was in the convoy and they had strict orders not to stop. If a vehicle stops, it is isolated and an inviting target for a rocket-propelled grenade. He tells me that some women and children have been forced out onto the road to break up the convoys so that the Iraqi irregulars can get a clear shot. But the convoys do not stop."


That's horrifying. Any discussion of who's to 'blame' here - the US convoys for not stopping, the Iraqi irregulars for using women and children this way, the US convoys for being there in the first place, etc. - is irrelevant. That kind of horror is a feature of war, not of the brutality of one side.

No, these stories do not try to argue for any particular point of view. They are not propaganda because they are untrue or because they are written with the intention to mislead. On the contrary, I have no doubt that they reflect nothing but absolute honesty on the part of their authors.

They are propaganda because they reflect only one side of the story. Neither heroism nor suffering, neither cruelty nor compassion is the exclusive preserve of any one side in any war. I'm willing to bet that if you repeated the exercise with accounts from members of Al-Qaeda, you'd get a similar set of moving stories, stories that would make you forget that the people writing them were terrorists. These stories are propaganda because being published in the New Yorker is a privilege available only to the US armed forces - the people of Haditha can't and won't get the same access, the same voice.

Last week's issue also featured stories by Vassily Grossman and Italo Calvino - stories set during the Second World War. Reading them, and reading the pieces by the US servicemen, I couldn't help conducting the following thought experiment: If a leading German magazine in 1940 had published accounts from the letters / journals of ordinary soldiers in the armies of the Third Reich, would they have sounded very different from the stories of those fighting in Iraq? I sincerely doubt it. Whether that makes you more apt to be sympathetic towards the average German infantryman in World War II, or more hard-hearted towards US soldiers in Iraq is a personal choice. But it's important, I think, that we keep in mind that we can't do one without the other. Otherwise we truly are giving into the propaganda.

P.S. Some of you are almost certainly feeling the temptation, at this point, to deliver some platitudes about how History is written by the Winner. Even assuming that's true (though I would question how true it is of, say, Vietnam - History is written by those who control the media afterwards), it doesn't mean we have to like it, do we?


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11 comments:

MockTurtle said...

I think that the emergence of large media corporations has brought in an era in which stories are caliberated to the target audience and not with a particular government's interests in mind, or because the media company itself is biased on the issue.
Abu Ghraib and Haditha made it to the covers of every major US magazine because people in the US were interested in the stories. I doubt if the Tiananmen massacre made it to the covers of Chinese magazines, because of the lack of free-enterprise media in that country. That seems to point to a lack of propaganda here in the States.
Propaganda, in my mind, refers to an intentional misrepresentation of the facts, to influence public sentiment on an issue. I don't know if I see that happening so much in the mainstream US media, as opposed to simply reporting the facts of every story of interest to the media's audience and in a manner that appeals to them.
If you live in the US and read a US newspaper or magazine, it is unavoidable that you will see an American perspective on the story. This is more local relevance than propaganda.

Sony Pony said...

While Mockturtle's comment here is bizzare, I do think it's curious that you thought the NY article was propaganda. I don't really see the one-sidedness in the story. As you assert, there were diversity within the kinds of letters received as well. Sure your point about Al Qaeda and Hitler's Germany is well taken. But I'm confused, do you think such a piece would showcase a jihadist pondering the riches of all those virgins? And if so, do you suppose the readers of this hypothetical project be skeptical about the letter writer's intentions? I think no, for both the questions posed, and I think that's an important difference.

Having said all this, I havent' read the article or seen it, so all my points are psuedo-moot. :)

Dipanjan said...

I think what Falstaff is getting into here is a very precise definition of the word propaganda, not restricting it into its narrower and more common usage in the context of distortion and suppression of facts in overt or subtle ways. It is a question of an equal access to the process of propagation of information and ideas.

It is a small logical leap from admiring an American soldier's courage and empathising with their suffering to supporting the cause they are fighting for. The next logical leap is to support other causes of the paymasters and the cheerleaders of those soldiers. In the absence of a media which relentlessly scrutinizes those logical leaps by presenting the suffering of the other side and the ulterior motives in the war game, those leaps will be easily made by most Americans. Selective truth can be very effective propaganda.

Falstaff said...

MT: Fair enough. I certainly wasn't suggesting that this was a phenomenon specific to the US or that the US government was in any way involved. My whole point is that the line between local relevance and propaganda is a thin one at best. A US magazine carrying a US view on something may be 'unavoidable' (though I'm not entirely sure why) but that's no reason to like it. If anything (and this is my point) it's all the more reason to keep reminding ourselves that there is an alternate and opposite point of view, albeit one that's less lucrative for the news media to print - and that we mustn't let ourselves be blinded to the existence of that point of view just because mainstream media won't give us access to it.

sony pony: Here's what I think a series of accounts from Al-Qaeda fighters would tell us. I think you'd get a lot of stories about bravery against impossible odds, about courage and brotherhood under fire, about the tough choices the fighters were forced to make faced with US aggression, about the suffering of the wounded and the desperate efforts of others to save them, about heartache and loss and shattered families. Basically the same things you're getting in the New Yorker piece. Sure you'd get the occassional religion freak talking about virgins (just as you get Kohout talking about God's miracles in keeping her safe from missiles) but mostly it would just be stories of people trapped in a terrible conflict.

The point is - because the New Yorker story features accounts from only one side, we get a sensitive portrayal of US soldiers as real people, vs. a bunch of nameless Al Qaeda militants. I'm not saying that the New Yorker should have actually tried to print both sides. I understand why they didn't (which is all that MT is really saying) and why even if they had tried it may not have worked, because finding genuine accounts from the other side would have been hard. I'm only saying that as we think about those stories it's important to see them as the stories of soldiers trapped in war in general, not necessarily of US soldiers.

Supremus said...

The whole war was a propoganda - infact US media is all propoganda :). On a different tangent, if I remember the way media handled natalie holloway case, and labeling the teenagar as murderer, rapist and everything else u can think of, I think its nothing but false propoganda.

The point is US media is interested in projecting themselves as "humane" and "kind" ppl - whilst everyone around them seems to run for their throat - of course if thats the approach they take, its evident that anything that they report is just propaganda.

S

MockTurtle said...

Falstaff, I agree. By your definition of the term, it is easy for mainstream media to slip into the zone of propaganda when trying to create content that will appeal to its audience. All the more reason to stick to the BBC and The Economist for all news.

That said, forgive me for some mild spamming on your blog, but...
Sony Pony - "But I'm confused, do you think such a piece would showcase a jihadist pondering the riches of all those virgins?"
That is more than a little naive. I doubt if all the Iraqis fighting in the resistance are doing so in the hope of virgins in the afterlife. The fact that you think so probably means that you've been watching the propaganda on Fox "News" for a little too long.

Anonymous said...

MT: I'm with Sony Pony, you do seem completely naive. EVERYBODY knows about the state-corporate-media nexus in the U.S. (I suggest you read Chomsky for starters). Yes you are right, one problem with the mainstream media is that it is getting increasingly corporatised and profit (not social responsiblity oriented). But to deny the state-media alliance! In a capsule, (to encourage you to more detailed FACT-BASED analysis avaliable APLENTY online)how is the media cowed by the govt?
# the U.S govt. gives media conglomerates FREE monopoly rights to airwaves and frequencies-the value of which runs to billions of dollars. (the propaganda denies this kind of corporate welfare and claims it is sold. )But hey no, did you really think free?
# the govt holds regulatory power over all media (print, broadcast)
# the govt itself is full of corporate biggies who sometimes own these media houses.
# reporters don't want to get too critical and alienate the few access and leaks in the state apparatus they depend on for their stories.
"it is easy for mainstream media to slip into the zone of propaganda when trying to create content that will appeal to its audience."
My! Are you just plain obtuse or are you an undercover Whitehouse spokesperson or something? SLIP into propaganda innocently?! for shame..Don Camillo and Peppone too are turning in their graves..(You know them!!)

Falstaff: Didn't read those stories, but from what comments you describe, seems pretty non-partisan to me. I mean they seem to portray both sides of the story (to which you seem to disagree).

And a critical reader in a country which encourages that criticality through altervative media, would be able to identify and classify a piece of news as propaganda if it is. I mean it is either propaganda or an independent news item. You can and should classify.(which you seem to think impossible given the local relevance argument)

MockTurtle said...

Anon: Yeah, right! Now, why don't you and that senile buffoon Chomsky run along and play with your conspiracy theories outside. The grown-ups are talking here.

mk said...

MT: You sure sound like one, whine-toy.. :)
MK (of the anon comment)

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