The Propaganda Race

Every week or so, the New York Times carries an item on how the US has bombed a military installation in Iraq. This is strange on the face of it. When you bomb someone’s country, doesn’t that imply that the war has already begun? Not according to the US. The US government says that it is merely “patrolling” the no-fly zone and retaliating for Iraqi fire.

I mentioned the US bombs to someone the other day, who didn’t quite believe it. If the US were currently using weapons of mass destruction against Iraq, wouldn’t we know more about it? And truly, it is hardly ever talked about. (Neither, for that matter, are the decade old trade sanctions, which are also warlike.)

True to form, Donald Rumsfeld decided to take preemptive action against misperceptions concerning US bombing. Standing in front of a color graphic labeled: “No-Fly Zones: Iraqi Violations” he detailed with scientific precision all the times that that Iraq has fired on US and British planes.

And don’t you dare point out that, after all, this all takes place inside Iraq. Imagine if Iraq declared, say, Michigan to be a no-fly zone, insisted on the right of patrolling it, and dropping bombs if the US fired on the foreign planes. Imagine if Iraq did this while calling for a regime change in the US. The US could easily mistake such actions for acts of war.

Given that he would probably rather keep quiet about US activities, the very fact of the Rumsfeld press conference is revealing. It seems that the Bush administration’s timing is off. It’s been using the last several months dispensing war propaganda in order to rally the public for an attack.

But opponents of war have also been organizing and there is a rising sense that the public is just not as supportive of the idea at it might be. World opinion is solidly against a US attack on Iraq, while American opinion is softly pro-war at best, and generally less enthusiastic than Bush might have hoped.

What does it mean? Having just read David Welch’s The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda ( New York: Routledge, 1993, 2002), one can speculate that it means the following: the opinions of the intellectuals are making advances over the opinions of the masses, the intended target of the war propaganda.

Now, before you send me a hysterical email, know that I am not saying that Bush is like Hitler. Neither, for that matter, did Germany’s justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, who caused fits of frenzy in the US by observing that distracting people with foreign menaces in the face of domestic trouble is a common tactic of statecraft. “Even Hitler did that,” she observed.

Just so. Indeed, we find in the experience of the Third Reich a model of war propaganda that is easy to recognize in any state that seeks war — and to that extent, the Bush administration’s method can be seen to have something in common with that of the National Socialists in the 1930s.

Hitler came to understand the importance of propaganda as a result of watching the workings of the Allied Powers in World War I. He came to believe that their main victory was not military but in the conquest of public opinion. It was the anti-German feeling that made possible the imposition of a war treaty that was brutal as regards German territories. It was this model of propaganda that he sought to replicate once in power.

According to the Hitlerian model, good political/war propaganda:

  • Must forget about appealing to the intellectuals and go directly to the masses, not with careful argument but with dire assertions and clear agendas.
  • Must not have a long litany of points or a case that requires careful thought but rather one must have one, two, or three points that sum up the case so that it can be immediately grasped by the man on the street.
  • Must not be radically implausible but must tap into and reinforce a preexisting socio-cultural sensibility and stretched to accord with one’s political ambition.

As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf,

  • “To whom should propaganda be addressed? To the scientifically trained intelligentsia or to the less educated masses? It must be addressed always and exclusively to the masses.”
  • “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequences, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
  • “the art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence to the heart of the broad masses.”

In the Third Reich, the plausible assertion involved pointing to the unjustness of the Versailles Treaty, together with playing up an existing socio-political bias by affixing blame for Germany’s current plight to the Jews, and calling for justice based on reclaiming lost territory and purging Germany of “alien” political and cultural forces that would stand in the way — all to be done through the strength and leadership of one man.

And so the masses were hammered again and again with slogans: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer. Neither did the propaganda have to make much sense. One common poster read: “Marxism is the Guardian Angel of Capitalism. Vote National Socialist.” If you were inclined to point out that Marxism and capitalism are opposite systems and that socialism and Marxism are indistinguishable in practice — as brave men like Wilhelm Roepke and Ludwig von Mises did — well, you must be an dissident intellectual and therefore you should probably be silenced.

The means for accomplishing the goals of political/war propaganda were different in those days. There were newspapers and radio and mass political rallies, and the National Socialists were very good at using all the newest technology.

The same means cannot be employed today, at least not directly. The regime must use existing channels of communication, which means it must depend on middle men: reporters and editors and talk show hosts.

Fortunately for the current regime, these are all very stupid people, stupid and gullible. They know they are hacks and worry, above all else, that this will be discovered. They specialize in seeming to know what they do not know, which means that they have a tendency to defer to anyone with more specialized knowledge, particularly knowledge that seems to come from an inside source.

In our time, the message must be relayed calmly, almost coolly, so that it comes across well on television. There must be supporting documentation (it doesn’t need to be true) so that reporters can fill up their column inches. And it must depend on argument from authority because everyone knows that reporters, editors, and producers defer to authority for favors and access.

The message we hear today abides by all the usual rules concerning political propaganda. It taps into a certain truth (“Terrorists want to harm us”), draws on already established biases (“Saddam is a very bad man”), and has in mind a certain political solution (“regime change”). The only difference is that it is packaged in a way to make it compelling to those with access to the public mind so they can be persuaded to pass on the information without critical commentary.

Of course the intellectuals don’t buy it, but then they do not have to. During September 11 anniversary events at our local university, hardly any faculty displayed interest in the flags, the pomp, the songs, the whipping up of war fever. Regardless of their politics otherwise, probably 95 percent of the faculty looked down their noses at the display of bellicosity and chauvinism. This is very striking, and for all the problems in academia today, it should be congratulated for this at least.

Of course, the regime has its kept intellectuals, those who will echo the line of the moment. They write for National Review and the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal and they are very valuable to the regime for putting an intelligent spin on propaganda that is otherwise pathetically low brow. But they are in the minority now. For the most part, the intellectual classes are not buying into the war line.

Regardless of the handful of intellectuals willing to do the state’s bidding in this case, the success of war propaganda depends on convincing the masses in such a way that public opinion swamps the opinions of the intellectuals — making the intelligentsia feel outnumbered, isolated, and passive. A few months back, this is certainly how matters stood. Most intellectuals were only willing to grouse about public opinion in private moments. Some of those who raised their voices were drummed out of a job.

But that does seem to be changing now, for three reasons: the Bush administration has been ineffective in rallying the masses, possibly because its case is just not that compelling; second, because Americans don’t like to think of themselves as starting wars; and third, intellectuals are beginning to speak out in classrooms, in opeds, in articles, on the web, and on television.

Too many questions are being raised, and the masses are starting to hear another side. The people are not being converted, at least not yet. It is also possible — we can’t rule this out — that the masses are not as stupid as the opinion-molding middle men the current regime has so thoroughly cowed.

This could stop the war. The failure of propaganda is the failure of the state.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is vice president of the Mises Institute.

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