The Insidious Power of Propaganda, by Karel Van Wolferen

To study the effects of political propaganda in what used to be called the ‘free world’ there could hardly be a better time than now. We are living through an instance of insidious propaganda that has clean contours. It fills a common need. In a period of large-scale slaughter and other man-made disaster the morally conscious person can do with some clear categories of good and bad, desirable and despicable. Political certainty, in other words. You can even sell wars using ‘moral clarity’ as a sales pitch, as happened with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Good-evil classification is easy enough when we have imprisoned journalists decapitated by jihadis. Those who “will do something about that” are automatically placed in the ‘good guys’ category. But there is a problem of murkiness in this sample. Syria’s Assad has been listed for years at the top of the bad guy list, and yet he appears to be changing into something of an ally of those who are intent now on setting things straight. On top of which, the fact that the radical islamists out of which ISIS emerged were funded and encouraged by the United States and its Arab allies is not a deep secret, and the fact that none of this mayhem would now exist were it not for the sorcerer’s apprentice effect of the decapitation of the Iraqi state in 2003 has been pretty much agreed on.

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The Ukraine sample is more clear-cut. Here we have fighters for democracy and other Western values in Kiev vs a character who is throwing a spanner in the works, who does not respect the sovereignty of neighbours, and whose intransigence does not lessen, no matter what sanctions you throw at him.

The story of the downed plane with 298 dead people is no longer news, and the investigation as to who shot it down? Don’t hold your breath. Last week Dutch viewers of a TV news program were informed about something that had been doing the rounds on internet samizdat: the countries participating in the MH17 investigation have signed a nondisclosure agreement. Any of the participants (which include Kiev) has the right to veto publication of the results without explanation. The truth about the cause of the horrifying fate of the 298 appears to have been already settled by propaganda. That means that although there has been no shred of evidence that the official story of the ‘rebels’ shooting down the plane with Russian involvement, it remains a justification for sanctions against Russia.

After the crisis slogged along for weeks with further bloodshed and bombing devastation, and anxious NATO grumbling about whether Putin’s white trucks with humanitarian relief supplies could possibly amount to a fifth column, interest in the Ukraine crisis has reached another peak in the mainstream media with an alleged Russian invasion to aid the ‘rebels’. On September 1st the NY-Times carried an oped article announcing that “Russia and Ukraine are now at war”. Another propaganda product? It certainly looks like it. Foreign volunteers, even French ones, appear to have joined the ‘rebels’ and most of them are likely to be Russian – don’t forget that the fighters of Donetsk and Lugansk have neighbors and relations just across the border. But as the new Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Donetsk National Republic Alexander Zakharchenko answered a foreign reporter at his press conference: if there were Russian military units fighting beside his forces they could already have moved on Kiev. From sparse information one gets the impression that his forces are doing rather well on their own without the Russians. They are also helped along by deserting Kiev troops who lack enthusiasm for killing their Eastern brethren.

Dispassionate editors have hardly any direct means to find out what may be happening on the ground in Donetsk and Lugansk, because they cannot send experienced reporters to where the fighting takes place. The astronomical insurance costs involved cannot be met by their budgets. So we have little more to go on than what we can glean from some internet sites with good track records.

The propaganda line from the State Department and the White House on the MH17 disaster became less emphatic after US intelligence analysts – leaking opinion to reporters – refused to play ball, but it is back in force on the Russian invasion theme, while the good-evil scheme is still maintained and nurtured by sundry American publications. These include some that have a reputation to uphold, like Foreign Policy, or that once were considered relatively liberal-minded beacons, like The New Republic, whose demise as a relatively reliable source of political knowledge we ought to mourn.

It has only been in the last few days that an exceptional article in Foreign Affairs, by the exceptional scholar of geopolitics, John Mersheimer, is beginning to register. Mersheimer lays most of the responsibility for the Ukraine crisis where it belongs: Washington and its European allies. “U.S. and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy.” It will take time before this analysis reaches and convinces some serious European editors. Another sane voice is Stephen Cohen’s, who ought to be the first author anyone hoping to understand Putin’s Russia should read. But ‘patriotic heretics’, as he calls himself, are now very badly treated in print, with he himself being raked over the coals by the New Republic.

The mark of successful propaganda is the manner in which it creeps up on the unsuspecting reader or TV audience. It does that by means of throwaway remarks, expressing relatively fleeting between-the-lines thinking in reviews of books or films, or articles on practically anything. It is all around us, but take one example from the Harvard Business Review, in which its executive editor, Justin Fox, asks: “Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin push his country into a standoff with the West that is almost certain to hurt its economy?” My question to this author – one with sometimes quite apt economic analysis to his name – “how do you know that Putin is doing the pushing?” Fox quotes Daniel Drezner, and says it may be true that Putin “doesn’t care about the same things the West cares about” and is “perfectly happy to sacrifice economic growth for reputation and nationalist glory.” This kind of drivel is everywhere; it says that when dealing with Putin we are dealing with revanchism, with ambition to re-create the Soviet Union without communism, with macho fantasies, and a politician waylaid by totalitarian ambitions.

What makes propaganda effective is the manner in which, through its between-the- lines existence, it inserts itself into the brain as tacit knowledge. Our tacit understanding of things is by definition not focused, it helps us understand other things. The assumptions it entails are settled, no longer subject to discussion. Tacit knowledge is out of reach for new evidence or improved logical analysis. Bringing its assumptions back into focused consciousness is a tiresome process generally avoided with a sigh of “let’s move on”. Tacit knowledge is highly personal knowledge. It is obviously shared, since it has been derived from what is out there in the way of certainties adopted by society, but it has been turned into our very own knowledge, and therefore into something we are inclined to defend, if necessary with tooth and nail. Less curious minds feel they have a ‘right’ to its truth.

The propaganda that originates in Washington, and continues to be faithfully followed by institutions like the BBC and the vast majority of the European mainstream media, has made no room for the question whether the inhabitants of Donetsk and Lugansk have perhaps a perfectly good reason to be fighting a Russophobe regime with an anti-Russian language strategy that replaced the one they had voted for, a good enough reason to risk the bombings of their public buildings, hospitals and dwellings.

The propaganda line is one of simple Russian aggression. Putin has been fomenting the unrest in the Russian-speaking part of the Ukraine. Nowhere in the mainstream media have I seen reporting and images of the devastation wrought by Kiev troops, which eyewitnesses have compared to what the world was shown of Gaza. The implied opinions of CNN or BBC are taken at face value, the ‘social media’ quoted by a spokesperson for the State Department are taken at face value. All information that does not accord with this successful propaganda must be neutralized which can be done, for example, by labelling Russia Today as Moscow’s propaganda organ.

This dominant propaganda thrives because of Atlanticism, a European faith that holds that the world will not run properly if the United States is not accepted as its primary political conductor, and Europe should not get in America’s way. There is unsophisticated Atlanticism noticeable in the Netherlands, with voices on the radio expressing anguish about the Russian enemy at the gates, and there is sophisticated Atlanticism among defenders of NATO who can come up with a multitude of historical reasons for why it should continue to exist. The first is too silly for words, and the second can easily be rebutted. But one does not deal that easily with the intellectually most seductive kind of Atlanticism that comes with an appeal to reasonableness.

When an earlier wave of propaganda hit Europe 11 years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, sober scholars and commentators, appealing to reasonableness appeared from behind their desks in an effort to repair what was at that time a European crisis of confidence in the political wisdom of an American government. It was then that theprinciple of “without America it will not work” became enshrined. This Atlanticist tenet is quite understandable among a political elite that after more than half a century of relative safe comfort inside an alliance suddenly must begin contemplating the earlier taken-for-granted security of their own countries. But there was more to it than that. The invocation of a higher understanding of the Atlantic Alliance and the plea for renewed understandings to reinvigorate it, amounted to a poignant cry of decent friends who could not face the reality of their loss.

The hurt required ointment, and that was delivered in large dollops. Venerable European public intellectuals and highly placed officials sent joint open letters to George W. Bush, with urgent pleas to repair relations and formulas of how this might be achieved. On lower levels, editorial writers entered the action as proponents of reasonableness. Amid expressions of disgust with America’s new foreign policy, many wrote and spoke about the need to heal rifts, build bridges, renew mutual understanding, and so on. In the summer of 2003, the unambiguous opponents of a hasty invasion of Iraq appeared to be softening the sharp edges of their earlier positions. My favourite example, the Oxford historian and prolific commentator Timothy Garten Ash, widely viewed as the voice of reason, churned out articles and books overflowing with transatlantic balm. New possibilities were discovered, new leafs and pages were turned. It had “to come from both sides”, so ran the general tenor of these pleas and instructive editorials. Europe had to change as well! But how, in this context, remained unclear. There is no doubt that Europe should have changed. But in the context of American militarism that discussion ought to have revolved around the function of NATO, and its becoming a European liability, not around meeting the United States half-way. That did not happen and, as has been shown this past month, energies for European opposition to the propaganda in 2003 appear now to have dissipated almost completely.

Garten Ash is back at it again, writing in the Guardian of 1 August 2014, with the contention that “most western Europeans slept through Putin’s anschluss of Crimea”. ‘Anschluss’? Are we sinking to Hitler metaphors? He does not have to try very hard this time, not rising above the cliches of a newspaper editorial espousing the necessity of sanctions; importantly, he does not apologize this time for any possible American role in the crisis. The propaganda of this year is given a free reign, through an Atlanticist faith that was restored to greater strength by the fount of illusions that is the Obama presidency. It is tacit knowledge, requiring no special defense because it is what all reasonable people know to be reasonable.

Atlanticism is an affliction that blinds Europe. It does this so effectively that in every salon where the hot topics of today are discussed the ever present elephant is consistently left out of consideration. What I read in mainstream news and commentary about Ukraine is about Kiev and the ‘separatists’ and especially about Putin’s motives. The reason for this half-picture is clear, I think: Atlanticism demands the overlooking of the American factor in world events, except if that factor can be construed as positive. If that is not possible you avoid it. Another reason is simple ignorance. Not enough concerned and educated Dutch people appear to have traced the rise and influence of America’s neocons, or have an inkling that Samantha Power believes that Putin must be eliminated. They have no idea how the various institutions of American government relate to each other, and how much they lead lives of their own, without effective supervision of any central entity that is capable of developing a feasible foreign policy that makes sense for the United States itself.

Propaganda reduces everything to comic book simplicity. This has no room for subtleties, such as what will await the people under the government in Kiev as demands of the IMF are followed up. Think of Greece. It has no room for even the not-so-subtle frequently expressed desire by Putin that there ought to be diplomacy with an eye to achieving a kind of federal arrangement whereby East and West Ukraine remain within the same country, but have a significant amount of self government (something that may no longer be acceptable to the Easterners as Kiev goes on bombing them). Comic book imagery does not allow for the bad guys having good and reasonable ideas. And so the primary wish of Putin, the fundamental reason for his involvement in this crisis at all, that the Ukraine will not become part of NATO, cannot be part of the pictures. The rather obvious and only acceptable condition, and one predictably insisted on by any Russian president who wants to stay in power, is a nonaligned neutral Ukraine.

The instigators of the Ukraine crisis work from desks in Washington. They have designed a shift in American attitudes toward Russia with a decision to turn it into (their language) “a pariah state”. Leading up to the February coup they helped anti-Russian, and rightwing forces hijack a protest movement demanding more democracy. The notion that the Kiev controlled population have been given more democracy is of course ludicrous.

There are serious writers on Russia who have become morally indignant and angry with developments in Russian life in recent years under Putin. This is a different subject from the Ukraine crisis, but their influence helps inform lots of propaganda. Ben Judah, who wrote the abovementioned NY Times oped is a good example. I think I understand their indignation, and I sympathize with them to some extent. I’m familiar with this phenomenon as I’ve seen it often enough among journalists writing about China or even Japan. In the case of China and Russia their indignation is prompted by an accumulation of things that in their eyes have gone entirely wrong because of measures by the authorities that appear to be regressive and diverging from what they were supposed to be doing in consonance with liberal ideas. This indignation can overwhelm everything else. It becomes a mist through which these authors cannot discern how power holders try to cope with dire situations. In the case of Russia there appears to have been little attention recently to the fact that when Putin inherited a Russia to rule, he inherited a state that was no longer functioning as one, and that demanded first of all a reconcentration of power at the center. Russia was economically ruined under Yeltsin, helped by numerous Western predatory interests and misguided market fundamentalists from Harvard. After abolishing communism, they were seduced to try an instantaneous switch to American style capitalism, while there were no institutions whatsoever to underpin such a thing. They privatized the huge state-owned industries without having a private sector; something you cannot quickly create out of nothing, as is vividly shown by Japanese history. So what they got was kleptocratic capitalism, with stolen state assets, which gave birth to the notorious oligarchs. It as good as destroyed the relatively stable Russian middle class, and made Russian life expectancy plummet.

Of course Putin wants to curtail foreign NGOs. They can do lots of damage by destabilizing his government. Foreign-funded think tanks do not exist for thinking, but for peddling policies in line with the beliefs of the funders that they, not wanting to learn from recent experience, dogmatically assume are good for anyone at any time. It is a subject that at best very tangentially belongs to the current Ukraine story, but it has prepared the intellectual soil for the prevailing propaganda.

Does what I have said make me a Putin fan? I do not know him, and know not enough about him. When I try to remedy this with recent literature, I cannot avoid the impression that I have to wade through a great deal of vilification, and in the mainstream media I see no serious attempt to figure out what Putin may be trying to achieve, except for the nonsense about re-establishing a Russian empire. There has been no evidence at all of imperialist ambitions or the fact that he had his sights set on the Crimea before the coup, and before the NATO ambitions of the Russophobes who came out on top, endangered the Russian naval base there.

Does what I have said make me anti-American? Being accorded that label is almost inevitable, I suppose. I think that the United States is living through a seemingly endless tragedy. And I am deeply sympathetic to those concerned Americans, among them many of my friends, who must wrestle with this.

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