The Forkball Isn't Moving

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"See,
in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over
and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the
propaganda." Thus spoke the leader of the free world in 2005.
Like so many of Dubya's utterances, this one invites study. What,
if anything, do the words mean? Do they mean that government involves
a constant repetition of fact in order to stay a jump ahead of (i.e.,
to leapfrog) propaganda? Maybe, but the President said "catapult,"
not "leapfrog." To leapfrog a thing is to hop over it.
To catapult a thing is to send it flying. The likeliest paraphrase
of the Presidential phrase seems to be: To make a point in politics,
you've got to lay it on thick. "It" would refer to truth
and propaganda as one and the same thing — an impossible semantic
merger, if a familiar political one.

It has indeed
been a challenge to distinguish truth from propaganda this already
old-feeling young century — the Bush team has had a busy five years
at the siege engines. As the President keeps reminding us (over
and over and over): "It's hard work." So much truth/propaganda
to lob, so little time. The 2000 election, Enron, Halliburton, the
Carlyle Group, September 11, weapons of mass destruction, war, Mission
Accomplished, more war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Falluja, Katrina,
wire-taps, corruption – to date the public has enjoyed a virtual
blizzard of truth on such developments, and can expect three more
years of snow.

The suggestion
that truth and propaganda are the same thing, at least in the President's
line of work, is an interesting one. People in other lines of work,
the pitiable suckers living out there in reality land, or reality
TV land, or wherever it is that "the people" hang out,
tend to be stuck with less interesting, more conventional language
boundaries. Truth, says the dictionary, refers to things that are
true (not a difficult notion to grasp in most lines of work). Propaganda,
in contrast, refers to "ideas or statements that may be false
or exaggerated and that are used in order to gain support for a
political leader, party, etc." If the President had heeded
a dictionary, his sentence could not have stood. It would have been
obliged to read either u2018For the truth to sink in you gotta catapult
the truth'; or u2018For the propaganda to sink in you gotta catapult
the propaganda.'

Let's allow
that politics necessitates some degree of coupling between truth
and propaganda, and that a forked tongue is standard equipment among
catapult operators. That granted, if you were responsible for pitching
truth/propaganda to (at) the public and beyond, how would you go
about it? Colin Powell, concerned about America's image in the Middle
East, suggested that what we really need is a good "re-branding,"
and Madison Avenue types were enlisted to tackle it. The Pentagon
opted for people like Christian Bailey, a young Briton offering
"tailored intelligence services" for "government
clients faced with intelligence challenges." Characteristically
faced with one, the Pentagon paid Bailey a million dollars to plant
rosy stretchers in the freshly liberated Iraqi press. Bailey was
ultimately exposed. There was a tendency among readers to smell
rat instead of rose.

Those in charge
of forking out truth/propaganda seem surprised to discover that
the audience (the forked-over) can generally round up enough collective
brain cells to differentiate between the two. On the heels of September
11, the government decided to publish "Hi" Magazine. "Hi"
was intended to win youthful Middle Eastern hearts and minds with
pages devoted to the glossier joys of American democracy. Alas,
nobody read "Hi," which has just been dumped. It cost
roughly 15 million dollars to get "Hi" off the ground
and nosedive it back again. Who could have known it wouldn't fly?
Just about anybody, really. Truth/propaganda of whatever flavor
still trips little flashing LIAR lights in the minds of most people,
who tend to dislike being treated like chumps. Governments might
consider throwing an occasional information straightball (not to
mention refraining from striking wildly at information supplied
by goofballs like "Curveball"); the standard forkballs
are no longer finding the plate.

Noam Chomsky
recently noted that if the U.S. government is truly interested in
reducing the threat of terror, there is a straightforward and obvious
step to be taken: to "stop acting in ways that — predictably
— enhance the threat." In other words, to stop acting in ways
that leave so many people stumped as to who the bad guys are. A
few weeks ago at least 18 Pakistani civilians were collaterally
damaged by a CIA drone in an attempt to remove a terrorist who wasn't
there. Put another way, 18 human beings minding their own business
were murdered in a terror strike devised and delivered by a group
claiming to be passionately opposed to terror. What can be said
to the families, friends, and neighbors of the dead? Sorry? It was
a mistake? Here's a check worth 18 souls? But the Bush league doesn't
do sorrow, and has yet to acknowledge a mistake — perhaps this compassionately
conservative administration will yet find it in itself to send the
Pakistanis some back issues of "Hi."

The United
States government doesn't need a facelift, re-branding, or cosmetic
makeover to solve its image problem. It needs to start acting like
it really believes in the freedom and democracy it can't stop talking
about. It could stop talking, meanwhile, about the hearts and minds
out there to be won as if they were scalps or votes, and start behaving
responsibly and intelligently enough to suggest that it has a functioning
heart and mind of its own. Instead, it "kind of catapults the
propaganda" in ongoing devotion to what it considers its own
interests, and takes the liberty of calling ours.

February
3, 2006

John
Liechty [send him mail]
currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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