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In the world of Nygaard Notes, the word Propaganda has a special meaning. As I see it, Propaganda operates on two levels, which I call Overt Propaganda and Deep Propaganda. What I call Overt Propaganda tends to be specific and conscious. Propaganda that, on the other hand, is general and unconscious I call Deep Propaganda. In other words, Overt Propaganda is the thing we are supposed to believe. Deep Propaganda is what makes it believable.
On August 28th the New York Times offered up a nearly textbook-perfect example of the two levels of propaganda and how they work together. I want to share it with you now.
Not only the New York Times, but many media outlets on that day in August ran stories on the thinking of the nation’s top-ranking military officer in relation to the way we’re doing our propaganda in the so-called Global War on Terror. He thinks we’re doing it all wrong. He didn’t use the word “propaganda,” of course, and the media also declined to use such language, preferring to refer to his comments as a “critique” of our “strategic communications.” And a “searing” critique, at that!
For those of you who don’t have your decoder rings handy, “strategic communications” is the approved jargon used in reference to public relations operations when they are conducted by the U.S. government. I prefer the term Propaganda, and we’ll see why in a moment.
The comments that drew the media’s attention in August were made by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top-ranking officer of the most powerful military on earth. He was writing in the latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal. His basic point was summed up by the New York Times as follows:
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has written a searing critique of government efforts at ‘strategic communication’ with the Muslim world, saying that no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting.”
While his article may be fairly termed a “searing critique,” what the media failed to report—and most likely failed to notice—is that the Admiral’s article was itself a piece of public relations. A classic one, at that! And, judging by the way it was reported, I suspect that the purveyor would conclude that this bit of PR work was quite successful.
Here are a few samples of what the Admiral wrote in his critique:
1. “[O]our biggest problem... is credibility. Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.”
2. “[The United States] could learn a lot by looking to our own past. No other people on Earth have proven more capable at establishing trust and credibility in more places than we have. And we’ve done it primarily through the power of our example.”
3. “Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”
4. “[T]he essence of good communication [is] having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.”
5. “We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit.”
Decoding The Five Points
1. Let’s begin by looking at that bit about “building trust and relationships.” The fact is, the United States HAS a relationship with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. And that relationship is one of military occupier and occupied people.
How about the part about “delivering on promises”? Of what “promises” does the Admiral speak? Did we not go into both Iraq and Afghanistan to further the goals of U.S. policy, specifically to “protect” the United States? It seems to me that the only “promise” made to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. is the promise to use their countries as staging areas for the projection of U.S. (and NATO) power. And “our messages lack credibility” to the extent that they attempt to paint the U.S. effort as being concerned with the welfare of the Iraqi and Afghan people. There is no such concern, the world knows it, and the attempt to put a happy face on a brutal military occupation is the source of the “credibility problem.” Mullen’s statement that “our biggest problem” is “credibility” only makes sense from an imperial point of view. From a moral perspective, the biggest problem is the fact of the occupation itself.
2. The Admiral states that the “trust and credibility” of the United States has been established by “the power of our example.” There are dozens of “examples” of U.S. anti-democratic intervention around the world since World War II, with Iraq and Afghanistan being only the most recent and well-known. People educated outside of the United States tend to be far more aware of this history than those of us who were raised in the imperial center. For those of us in the heart of the beast, I recommend the work of William Blum, specifically “Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II.” All of Blum’s work is great, but Killing Hope is a good, and unique, overview of U.S. actions over the decades. It’s filled with “examples” that have a power not mentioned by the Admiral.
3. “Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.” It’s not a matter of arrogance, really. It’s a matter of making no promise other than the promise to ignore the needs of the Afghan people and attend to the needs of the U.S. leadership. Here’s President Obama this past Friday, September 25th: “[M]y overriding goal [in Afghanistan] is to dismantle the al Qaeda network.” A recent poll of the Afghan people, in contrast, asked “Which do you think poses the biggest danger in our country: drug traffickers, local commanders, the United States, the Taliban, the current Afghan Government or something else?” Exactly zero percent said al Qaeda. I’ve looked at a number of other surveys of people in Afghanistan, and more often than not al Qaeda is not even mentioned.
4. “[T]he essence of good communication [is] having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.” One of the examples of “having the right intent” offered by the Admiral is the sailing of the “Great White Fleet,” as it was called. This was a 1907 project of President Theodore Roosevelt to send “state-of-the art, highly-armored, white-painted American naval vessels” on a round-the-world voyage intended, according to Life magazine, “to impress the world with U.S. naval power.” In other words, the Great White Fleet was a projection of U.S. imperial power in the period now known as the Age of Imperialism, during which the U.S. was going about such business as “acquiring as possessions the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, then Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.” In the Admiral’s world, such actions “speak for themselves” as evidence of “the right intent.”
5. “We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit.” This is the most revealing statement of all. There are two main implications here. It is clear, if you read the article in Joint Force Quarterly, that Mr. Mullen is speaking largely about Afghanistan. The Admiral implies that those doing the occupying consider it credit-worthy. That’s no surprise. But he implies that it is his belief that there are some intended recipients of “the message we try to send” who also consider this occupation worthy of praise. It appears, from the international polls and news reports that I have seen, that most of the world does not agree with the occupation.
Here’s the Main Point
This is where we see how Propaganda works simultaneously on two levels, and how the media consciously or unconsciously feeds the process:
In order to believe that the U.S. is not occupying Afghanistan “merely” for the credit, one would have to believe that a military occupation of a small, weak country by a military superpower is worthy of credit in the first place. If it is not, then the idea of doing it “merely for the credit” becomes nonsensical. And this is exactly how Deep Propaganda is reinforced: The propagandist makes a statement that is nonsensical UNLESS his premise is accepted. In order for the recipient of such a statement to resolve the dissonance that comes with receiving such a crazy idea, one must do one of two things: Either reject the idea, or accept the premise.
When the statement is made by an authoritative figure and reported in a respectable newspaper with no indication of any dissonance in the reporter’s mind, the average reader becomes far more likely to accept the premise. And this, in turn, makes the next bit of propaganda more easy to accept. So the Overt Propaganda in this case is duly reported by the media (We’re not communicating our Goodness as best we can.) and such reporting serves to reinforces the Deep Propaganda (The U.S. is always and everywhere a force for good in the world.) upon which the propagandist relies.
By reporting the comments of the nation’s highest-ranking military officer uncritically, the media makes it infinitely more difficult for readers to imagine an alternative picture of reality.
What if the problem with “American behavior overseas” is not that it is “arrogant, uncaring or insulting,” but rather that it is simply immoral and wrong? What if the real attempt at establishing “credibility” is pure propaganda? What if the “strategic communications” that are so problematic in the Admiral’s eyes are actually aimed at the U.S. voting public, specifically for the purpose of getting us to believe that the violence needed to maintain an Empire is necessary and right, and that we need to keep electing people who will maintain that Empire, no matter the cost in wealth and human life? That’s a picture of reality that the Empire’s “strategic communications” are designed to obscure. It’s our job to spot it, expose it, and work to change it.
Japan and the U.S. Empire
“How can we put an end to unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, that are void of morals or moderation, in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens? That is the issue we are now facing.”
Those words might have been spoken by any of a number of protesters, dissidents, anti-capitalist organizers, or even yours truly. What makes this quotation remarkable is that the words were written by the man who is now the Prime Minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, writing in the New York Times on August 26th, just before his party swept into power in that East Asian powerhouse. It’s worth a brief look at the recent election in Japan and the conditions that would lead a global leader to tell the world that the dominant economic model is “void of morals.”
In the last issue of the Notes I acknowledged that we can expect a lot of pain, a lot of violence, and a lot of tumult as the U.S. Empire continues its decline. Nonetheless, a look at media coverage of the August 30th national elections in Japan give a hint of yet another encouraging phenomenon: A peaceful and democratic decision to begin to break out of the Empire by yet another previously-subservient state.
The headline on the front page of the New York Times of August 31st read: “With Bold Stand, Japan Opposition Wins a Landslide.” The Times reported that “Political analysts expect Japan to remain a close American ally, but one that is more assertive and less willing to follow Washington's lead automatically.” The Times then quoted Daniel C. Sneider, a researcher on East Asia at Stanford University, who tells us that “This is what happens when you have a government in Japan that must be responsive to public opinion. It will end the habits from decades of a relationship in which Japan didn't challenge the United States.”
To translate: Some leadership has come of age in Japan that appears to desire a Japanese state that is more democratic and less subservient to U.S. wishes. It remains to be seen how much of the opposition party’s “responsiveness to public opinion” will be put into action and how much is just campaign rhetoric, but the rhetorical signs are hopeful in the two realms where the U.S. Empire has been most firmly in charge. Those realms are the economic and the military.
Opting Out of the Economic Empire
In the realm of economics, the Times tells us that the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) “has pledged to change the postwar paradigm here, promising to ease growing social inequality by handing more money and social benefits directly to residents rather than to industry or other interest groups.” (Interesting phrasing, that.) In addition, adds the Times, the party ran their campaign by “pledging to increase social welfare, better protect workers and do away with American-style, pro-market reforms to lead the country out of its long slump.”
The party that lost to the DPJ is the Liberal Democratic Party, which had been in power more or less constantly since 1955. This is a big change.
The Times doesn’t bother to conceal its hostility to the new government’s plans. The Times reporter immediately points out that “many economists here say Japan may need more American-style deregulation and market-led growth, not less, to invigorate its stagnant economy.”
(A brief digression for those who care about journalism: There are two red flags in the previous sentence. First of all, the phrase “many economists.” There are “many economists” on any issue that think one thing, and “many economists” on the same issue that think the opposite. And, actually, there are many economists who think still other things. The second red flag: “Japan may need...” Of course, Japan MAY need something. And it may not. To say that “many” people say that something “may” be needed is bad journalism.)
Following up that sentence, the Times bothers to quote only one economist. That one economist may, I suppose, represent “many” who are “here” in Tokyo, although the one economist they cite is British. A sample of one fails, again, to meet the standards of good journalism.
Later in the article we find this statement: “Economists say excessive government assistance to small and medium-size companies works to dampen competitive pressure.” Now it’s not just “many economists.” It’s simply “economists.”
Such assistance is a key part of the platform of the DPJ. Presumably, since such promises led the DPJ to a “landslide” victory, there may be one or two economists who actually support the victorious party’s economic plans, or at least think they make some economic sense. The Times couldn’t find any, however.
Opting Out of Imperial Warmaking
It may surprise some to learn that the Japanese constitution was not written by Japanese people. In fact it was written by the staff of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, just after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Despite the fact that the U.S. wrote the supreme law of the land for the Japanese people—which seems like a pretty good example of imperial behavior—U.S. leaders have not always been happy with what their predecessors wrote. Particularly troublesome has been Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution, which makes up the entirety of that constitution’s Chapter II, entitled “RENUNCIATION OF WAR.” Here is Article Nine, verbatim:
“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
It should be obvious why the U.S. might have wanted such a prohibition on violence written into the constitution of a nation they had just defeated in a war. But in recent years, as the diplomatic and economic power of the U.S. has declined, the U.S. has increasingly called upon its allies to help police the unruly corners of the Empire by sharing in the military chores. So the pressure has been on Japan to change that pesky Article Nine so the Japanese military can be free to help the U.S. to police the world.
The conservative government that was just kicked out of office had, according to a July 2009 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, “interpreted this clause [Article Nine] to mean that [Japan] can maintain a military for self-defense purposes and, since 1991, has allowed the [Japanese military] to participate in non-combat roles overseas in a number of U.N. peacekeeping missions and in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.”
Still, this wasn’t enough for the U.S. in the post-9/11 world. The same Congressional Research Service report pointed out that “In 2004, then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the press that he supported Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, but added that ‘if Japan is going to become a full active member of the Security Council and have the kind of obligations that it would pick up as a member, then Article 9 would have to be examined in that light.’” (Hint. Hint.)
A January article in the East Asia Forum stated that “The U.S.-Japan security relationship became the number one goal in Asia” under the Bush administration. In the ideal world (from the point of view of U.S. planners), “Japan would dismantle longstanding constraints on its security policy—starting with the revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution—and dispatch its self-defense forces abroad in support of U.S. and international missions.” In other words, the U.S. Empire says that “Japanese self defense” = “supporting U.S. missions.” Got it?
Now, here’s why I’m encouraged by the recent elections. The “conservative” U.S. group the Heritage Foundation spelled it out last month, saying that “it is clear that the DPJ will be less willing to fulfill existing bilateral U.S. force realignment agreements and more resistant to Washington's requests for Japan to expand its overseas security role. A poll of DPJ candidates taken on the eve of the election revealed that only a minority support U.S. security objectives such as dispatching Japanese forces to Afghanistan, continuing refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, and altering Japan's collective self-defense guidelines to allow for a more robust overseas defense role. More DPJ candidates favored shifting Japan's emphasis to Asia over placing a greater focus on the U.S.-Japanese alliance.”
The platform of the victorious party is more succinct and to-the-point. It simply says that “The DPJ believes that Article 9 of the Constitution does not allow Japan's participation in multinational forces where this entails the exercise of armed force.”
Time will tell whether the points of view apparently held by a majority of DPJ office-holders—and, judging by the election results, by a majority of the Japanese public—will result in a Japanese state that is more of a sovereign state and less of a client of the U.S. Empire. But the recent election provides hope that the people of yet another country may be choosing the more peaceful option instead of “following Washington's lead automatically.”
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