An essential aspect of any modern democratic society is a communications system that enables rather than disables public debate. Yet the mass media in the advanced capitalist societies are highly concentrated, controlled by a few owners (on the extent of this control in the United States and its implications see Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media [Monthly Review Press, 2004]). Further, the United States has witnessed the emergence of what is undoubtedly the most sophisticated propaganda system ever developed, making it possible for control of the media to translate into the power to sway large parts of the society. An understanding of this problem is crucial if one is to grasp the changes occurring in U.S. society today: from war to privatization to the suppression of human rights.
Following the First World War some of the leading figures in the development of modern communications research in the United States, such as Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell, pioneered the exploration of propaganda techniques, arguing that manipulation of populations was necessary for managing formally democratic societies. At the end of a chapter on “Leaders and the Rank and File” in his Public Opinion (1922) Lippmann wrote of the importance of “the manufacture of consent” by the elites in a democracy and said that “the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political persuasion.” Lasswell was even more explicit in his numerous studies of propaganda beginning with his Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927), often providing a positive, “how to do it” approach to propaganda. In terms of war propaganda Lasswell argued that the primary goals in manipulating the minds of one’s own population were to establish: (1) the “war guilt” of the enemy, (2) the enemy’s “satanic” nature, and (3) “the illusion of victory.” “All the specific means of conquering the Evil One are, and should be, glorified” by the propagandist.
More generally propaganda, as Lasswell explained in “Propaganda and Mass Insecurity” (Psychiatry, August 1950), was to be understood as “the making of deliberately one-sided statements to a mass audience.” Propaganda, in this sense, was necessary in democracies in order to steer opinion in directions favorable to those in power in a context that included widespread access to information. In contrast “totalitarian” states relied less on propaganda, in this sophisticated sense, turning instead to command, ceremony, and catharsis.
In the work of Lasswell and others, then, propaganda became a sophisticated tool geared to mass audiences, subject to the mass media, and controlled by those with economic and political power. These and related ideas on the organization of communications for the benefit of elites became enormously influential in the training of professional journalists, who, though schooled to professional standards of objectivity with respect to disputes between the leading factions of the ruling class, nevertheless had to learn to follow the overall establishment bias, internalizing the ruling values, if they were to hope to rise within the institutional order of the media.
All of this helps one to understand the almost seamless way in which the modern media move between news and propaganda. News reports on the current Iraq War are presented as if they are simple, straightforward, objective news accounts, rather than stories so laced with war propaganda that the information and analysis contained in them are compromised in every line. A case in point is the way in which the “enemy” is referred to—variously described as “insurgents,” “militants,” “terrorists,” “guerrillas,” “rebels,” and “Islamic extremists.” Almost never do such news reports refer to the “Iraqi resistance” or to the “mujahedeen” (holy warriors)—names those resisting the invasion and occupation of Iraq employ to refer to themselves.
The fact that there is a conscious propaganda aspect to this was revealed by the response of Los Angeles Times editors in November 2003 to the use of “resistance fighters” to describe Iraqis opposing U.S. forces in reports issuing from the Times’s own Baghdad bureau. After a meeting of the top editors it was decided to ban any use of “resistance fighters” or “resistance” to describe Iraqi guerrillas. In an internal memo circulated by Assistant Managing Editor Melissa McCoy (later leaked to the website LA Observed), McCoy (as recounted by Reuter’s, November 7, 2003) said that “she considered ‘resistance fighters’ an accurate description of Iraqis battling American troops,” but that this evoked a sense of heroism because of “how most Americans have come to view the words,” calling to mind the European resistance to the Nazi invaders in the Second World War. Consequently, LA Times reporters were ordered to substitute “insurgents” or “guerrillas.” The rest of the mainstream press has followed suit, with “insurgents” by far the preferred way of designating those that the United States is fighting in Iraq.
The term “insurgent” is what Lasswell called a “negative symbol.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines an “insurgent” as “a person who, for political purposes, engages in armed hostility against an established government.” This usage thus confers legitimacy on the existing state apparatus (in line with the famous definition of the state provided by Max Weber, in which it is that entity with “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force”), while at the same time denying any legitimacy to the “insurgent.” It is the reality that there is no “established government” in Iraq—other than what the United States has imposed and maintained by force—that is being suppressed in this very deliberate choice of words.
We would like to indicate our support and admiration for former Monthly Review Press editor Beth (Irene Elizabeth) Stroud in her courageous struggle within the United Methodist Church, where she has just been found guilty by an ecclesiastical court for breaking the laws of the church for being “a self-avowed homosexual minister” (Reuters/AP, December 2, 2004). Beth worked as an assistant editor at Monthly Review Press in 1993–1994. At the same time she helped to found the weekly gay paper LGNY, now Gay City News. When she left New York it was with the object of becoming a Methodist minister, a goal that she achieved. Rev. Fred Day, senior pastor at the church in Germantown, Philadelphia declared her to be an outstanding pastor and an individual with “great spiritual integrity” who deeply moves her congregation. Nevertheless, a jury of 13 clergy of the United Methodist Church voted 12–1 after a two-day public trial that Rev. Stroud had violated the church’s Book of Discipline, which claims that homosexuality is incompatible with being a minister. The ecclesiastical court then voted 7–6 to defrock her, the minimum necessary in the penalty phase of the trial. Her supportive Philadelphia congregation has said she can continue to carry out most of her previous duties. After the trial Beth declared that “I did not go into this expecting to win. I went into it knowing that it would be a painful moment in the life of the United Methodist Church.” It shows, she said, “how divided we are.” Coming at a time when the right wing in this country is organizing against the right to same-sex marriage, the willingness of Beth and others like her to take a stand for human equality takes on even greater importance. We hope that more will follow in her footsteps.
MR stalwarts Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are among the recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, joining another MR friend, Pete Seeger, honored in 1994, as lifetime achievement laureates in the performing arts. Beginning in 1946, their stage and screen work has entertained millions and also delivered a hammer blow against the ugly stain of Jim Crow and racism. Two among their many transformative contributions to American film and theatre roles were Ossie’s writing and starring in Purlie Victorious (1951), a sharp satire of segregation, and Ruby’s 1965 appearance as the first African American woman to play lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. Commenting on their careers recently, Ossie said, “We always knew that struggle and the arts came as a package. What we did had an effect on breaking down stereotypes; it had a cultural sweep. The arts always had a political contribution for our people, and we knew that America was watching.” That contribution included fierce opposition to McCarthyism, serving as joint masters of ceremonies at the historic 1963 March on Washington, working with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights era, campaigning for black voting rights, and most recently protesting the unprovoked police killing in the Bronx of Amadou Diallo, for which they were arrested. Congratulations Ossie and Ruby! Keep on keeping on!
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