The West--reluctant self-propagandists
Belmont Club's Richard Fernandez has written this thought-provoking post on the enlistment of Batman--yes, you heard me right, Batman--in the fight against Al Qaeda.
Batman, of course, is not real--I assume that at least we can all agree on that. But he is nevertheless entering the arena of public opinion--otherwise known as propaganda--in this war.
The author of a planned book featuring the Batman character fighting modern-day terrorists is far from apologetic about this development:
Miller doesn't hold back on the true purpose of the book, calling it "a piece of propoganda," where 'Batman kicks al Qaeda's ass."
The reason for this work, Miller said, was "an explosion from my gut reaction of what's happening now." He can't stand entertainers who lack the moxie of their '40s counterparts who stood up to Hitler. Holy Terror is "a reminder to people who seem to have forgotten who we're up against."
It's been a long time since heroes were used in comics as pure propaganda. As Miller reminded, "Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That's one of the things they're there for."
"These are our folk heroes," Miller said. "It just seems silly to chase around the Riddler when you've got Al Qaeda out there."
Belmont Club writes:
Like politics, to which it is related as much as to war, terrorism is a vehicle for the propagation of ideas...Foad Ajami, writing in the Toronto Star understands that al-Qaeda has nothing whatsoever in common with the classical Islam of his memory. It's a made for television psychodrama, a comic-book scam...And what we need, apart from robotic fighting platforms, laser gunships and networked battlefields is something that can reach into the realm of ideas and engage Osama Bin Laden -- and Khomeini too for that matter -- on their own level of reality. It sounds like a job for Batman.
Or, I might say, for Ymarsakar, frequent commenter here on the subject of propaganda.
As usual, the Belmont Club post raises an important and complex subject: the use of propaganda by the terrorists and their supporters, vs. the use (or lack of use) of propaganda on the other side.
It was famously said by Robert Frost, of all people, that "a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." These days, however, we can see by the evidence on the liberal side of the blogosphere that this problem has been remedied, and perhaps even overcorrected--today's liberals certainly don't seem to be shy about sticking up for their point of view in an argument.
But in the larger sense, as a liberal (read: pro-Enlightenment) society, we have indeed somewhat lost the ability to take our own side in the rather intense argument with extreme and violent Islamicists. They, in the meantime, have become master propagandists who are not the least bit hesitant to enlist every tool of the trade to further their cause, including lies.
This reluctance on our part was certainly was not present during WWII against the Nazis, even though we were fighting foes who had a master propagandist in Goebbels. And Radio Free Europe, in my youth, had a similar effect--on Europe, that is. In those days, domestic propaganda was taken care of, at least partly, by what has now become known as the MSM.
I've taken a lot of time to write about how and why this changed during the Vietnam/Watergate era. Some of the impetus behind the change was good, I am certain: the idea that blind and simplistic rah-rah support of country can lead to wretched excesses and wrongdoing. But, like most corrections, this one was an overcorrection. The pendulum has swung so far the other way that our press sometimes appears to effectively function as propaganda for the other side, although I don't believe this is intentional.
Am I guilty of hyperbole here? I don't think so. But, as I said, it's a complex dilemma. We are all behind the idea of a free press, and a free press will always speak some unpleasant truths that go against our own interests. But it's a question of balance, and I think the balance at the moment is skewed in such a way as to be counterproductive to our own ability to defend ourselves in the marketplace of ideas.
This is another post that could turn into a book if I tried to trace just why and how this has happened, and I don't intend to do that here. But I think one of the reasons I've labored so long and hard (and in such picayune detail) on criticizing media such as the NY Times is to make it clear that, not only are such sources no longer acting as supporters for our side, they are doing so with slipshod methods and with a decided lack of devotion to the truth. In fact, they have often become de facto propagandists--if not exactly for the other side, then certainly against ours.
There is some history of this in the Times going back even before Vietnam. One famous example that comes to mind is that of Walter Duranty, Stalin apologist who wrote for the paper back in the Thirties. He was a particularly egregious but fairly unique case at the time.
Now, however, it appears to be a relatively common point of pride for journalists to refuse to jump on the bandwagon of our present war, and to emphasize instead the errors we have committed. Again, this is all well and good, up to a point--we very much need what Socrates called "gadflies" to point out errors, and this should be one of the functions of a press. But it is not the only one, and if the gadflies predominate (and especially if they play fast and loose with the truth), we become weakened in our ability to prosecute this war effectively. Propaganda is part of the prosecution of this or any other war, and we ignore that fact at our peril.
Thanks to Goebbels and others, the word "propaganda" has become synonymous in many people's minds with "lies in the service of a political cause." But propaganda need not be lies. It is simply information spread to influence a populace towards a certain opinion (see definitions here; most of the definitions make no mention whatsoever of deception).
Propaganda, by its very nature, is of course not a reasoned and leisurely debate in which both sides are given equal time and equal measure. Neither is it an academic exercise in politically correct fairness, nor a well-intentioned effort in being kind to the other side. It is most-decidedly one-sided. But the best propaganda is truthful, especially in this day of internet fact-checking. The best propaganda understands the arguments of the other side and counters them effectively. But all propaganda does have one thing in common: a conviction that it is acceptable to use it.
I believe the West, to some degree, has lost that conviction--or, at least, its press has. I'm not totally sure of the reasons behind this, although I've explored the historical details in my Vietnam "change" posts. Some of it is mere habit, no doubt. Some comes from an entrenched belief that the press should function more in opposition to the government than in lockstep with it. Some of it, I'm afraid, stems from the fact that it's a Republican administration that so far has been in charge of this particular war, and most journalists are Democrats. Some of it is a real denial of the seriousness of the foe we face. Some of it is a repugnance towards war itself. Some is a lack of understanding of the military, stemming partly from the fact that a smaller percentage of journalists have served there as compared with earlier conflicts.
But this doesn't account for the government's lack of ability to get into the propaganda business, as opposed to the press. There have been a few recent efforts at the foreign market, but domestic propaganda is not very effective at present (although some would say that bloggers and Fox News are taking up the slack).
One problem is Bush himself as orator. But in fact, oration has become a dying art in the last few decades. One way that domestic propaganda has always been delivered is through Presidential (or Prime Ministrial) speeches: think, if you will, of Roosevelt's fireside chats and Churchill's stirring and somber words. They both were masters of domestic propaganda at a time when the Western world had not yet turned its back on it, and both realized its great importance in the fight against Nazism.
Let me repeat: propaganda should not consist of lies. This is true both for ethical reasons (although some would say--especially today, on Valentine's Day--that all's fair in love and war) and for practical ones. I believe that truth is a far more effective weapon than lies, because it is much harder to discredit, and far less likely to backfire, especially in our modern world of sophisticated communications.
Somehow many of us have become convinced of the idea that patriotism is identical with chauvinism, and that both are identical with bigotry; also, that propaganda is equal to lies. None of this is the case. And, in fact, we need to reclaim both patriotism and propaganda, or we may find ourselves in a struggle similar to the one described by that master of propaganda, Winston Churchill (which I hereby offer without a hint of apology):
Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, and still yet if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you, and only a precarious chance for survival. - There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.
And here is another example. It is how Churchill appealed to his fellow-citizens in the first speech he made as their new Prime Minister, during the dark days of 1940:
You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
A different situation, of course. Certainly a different man, and a different time.
But one thing is quite the same, and that is his thought: without victory, there is no survival. I believe that we are actually fighting for the survival of the Western world of the Enlightenment, of the protection of human rights, and of respect for all of humankind. If those ideals are sometimes violated by the West--and there is no doubt whatsoever that they are--these are nothing as to what would occur if jihadist Islamicists were to be triumphant instead.
And to that end--the survival of the Western world of the Enlightment--and towards that victory, I'm willing to enlist Batman, as well as other propagandists such as Churchill--Winston, that is, not Ward.