Words

Weapons of Mass Deception

Global Warming is good for you, and other cherished myths
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Invisible wires control the public mind, journalist and activist John Stauber tells us. And while the propaganda-for-hire industry is nominally interested in public policy issues, its primary function is to enforce the status quo of power and wealth.

Founder of the Center for Media Democracy, Stauber has co-authored six books including the best-sellers,  Toxic Sludge Is Good for You in 1995,  Trust Us We’re Experts in 2001, and a New York Times best-seller Weapons of Mass Deception in 2003. He has worked with or founded many nonprofit research, advocacy and community-based organizations.

“Propaganda,” Stauber says, “works in a democracy to manage public opinion, public behavior, and ultimately public policy on behalf of the most powerfully vested interests, usually to maintain the status quo and protect those interests from the possibility of change.

“People tend to live in echo chambers more than ever. They get their information from sources that tell them what they want to hear or what they’re used to hearing. They’re quite comfortable with that. As somebody who studies propaganda, it’s interested me how over the past decade especially the very wealthy Democrats who fund major environmental and social foundations, and who give money directly and indirectly to candidates, have succeeded in duplicating on the left the type of think tanks and propaganda echo chambers that has existed on the right since they days of Reagan. We live in a very partisan, divided country. In a political environment like we have here in the United States, that division can be very debilitative to what we’ve traditonally understood to be progressive politics.”

Cascadia Weekly: Circling back to basics, what do you mean by “propaganda” and what distinguishes it from other public communication like advertising and journalism?

John Stauber: Propaganda is a fascinating subject, in part because—as someone once quipped—possibly the most successful propaganda campaign in the United States was convincing people we don’t have propaganda.

Propaganda is a concept where people with money and resources get together and decide they are going to attempt to invisibly, without being noticed, manipulate the opinions, perceptions, behavior of a target audience in a way that benefits the initiators of the propaganda. One big difference between propaganda and advertising, which has a similar definition, is that advertising is usually really in your face. You are aware, hopefully aware, that some commercial or political interest is spending money to get out a message. Maybe a little critical thinking kicks in and you decide perhaps you should look deeper before you buy. But the whole idea of propaganda is invisibility, avoiding that critical thinking. In fact, if it is not invisible, it is not propaganda.

Americans think propaganda is something that existed in Stalin’s Russia, or Hitler’s Germany, or Saddam’s Iraq. But those totalitarian systems don’t really need sophisticated propaganda because those systems work pretty well to control public opinion. It’s really in the United States and other Western democracies that propaganda exists as a necessary tool for control. Although propaganda is a very old idea, modern propaganda began out of the Woodrow Wilson campaign that sold World War I to a very anti-war, isolationist American public. The modern public relations campaign then went to work for petroleum industries, the tobacco industry and others.

Journalists are amazingly ignorant of all this. In part, it’s a cognitive dissonance borne of the fact that journalism and public relations are taught together in college. But journalists prefer not to be consciously aware of how manipulated they are by the business of propaganda, unwilling to admit what a poor job they do of exposing public relations campaigns to the public. Meanwhile, good public relations campaigns typically target journalists and other trusted third-party sources of information to deliver their message. And, of course, good public relations firms can make life either very sweet or very miserable for journalists.

CW: You’ve come under fire recently for criticism of the organized progressive movements of the left, where you’ve compared them as equivalent to the status quo instruments of the right.

JS: The trend I’m observing is rich, elite donors behind major foundations and activist organizations like the Democracy Alliance very consciously launched what we have to say now is a very successful effort to create a Progressive Movement with tens of millions of dollars, which would ape and rival what was created on the right, all designed to get Democrats elected by focusing attention on how bad the Republicans and the right are.

One of the problems with these sorts of campaigns—I call them front group campaigns or astroturf campaigns—is they claim to be pursuing one thing—progressive issues like peace, health care, the environment—when what they’re really doing is pushing Democratic Party candidates and Democratic President’s stand on those issues.

If we’re going to have a mechanism for fundamental change in this country—and God knows, we need it more than ever—it is not going to come from either political party. This new Progressive Movement came out of rich, liberal Democrats. And while we may know them and love them, the number one item on their agenda is getting Democrats elected. But if Republicans are elected, and the stock market roars and Wall Street has a bullish time, these millionaires and billionaires do pretty well there, too.

There are thousands of people in this country who represent the real progressive change movement, and almost all of them are not being paid to do anything, but lasting social change has to come out of the grassroots, it has to be accountable and transparent to the grassroots. This astroturf is top-down, funded by dark money.

CW: The conventional view of political parties is they are advocates of particular public policy initiatives. You’re saying they’re ineffective, or worse.

JS: The way I look at the two political parties is as a shared business monopoly. They get their funding from the same class of people, and the same corporate interests.

It’s as if we had only two companies in the United States that sold soft drinks. Nothing exists as a soft drink except either a Coke or a Pepsi. It’s illegal to start a new soft drink company; people could try, but it would never happen. So you have the Pepsi people saying, “Drink us, we’re sweeter, we’re hipper, we’re more fun.” And you have the Coke people saying, “No, no, no. Drink us. We’re sexier, we’ve been around longer, we’ve got a curvaceous bottle.” It’s almost that vacuous.

The partisan divide is two sides of one monopoly held by the corporate elite over our democracy.

CW: And on the nonprofit or NGO side, you perceive lobbying for the sake of lobbyists.

JS: We can look back and see how incredibly little of real significance has been accomplished by, say, the environmental lobby over the past 40 years, even though they’ve raised and spent billions of dollars. At the grassroots, where people are fighting hard on issues of environmental protection and sustainability—stopping disastrous waste incinerators and “clean coal” power schemes—those fights are inevitably run by committed people not paid or salaried, with no budgets. That’s the real environmental movement. This Big Green Environmental Movement is mostly a public relations campaign, with hired lobbyists and marketing campaigns designed to elect certain people to office.

CW: What would a genuine progressive movement look like in the United States? How might it be organized?

JS: There are numerous movements in America’s past that have been incredibly successful, many of which took decades to organize and bring about, such as the civil rights movement, the end of Jim Crow laws, suffrage and women’s right to vote, the end of slavery, all of which have lessons for us. One of the first lessons would be, the movements weren’t started by rich people trying to elect like-minded politicians.

CW: Global warming, in particular, seems a difficult issue to develop traction around. First because its effects are slow-building. And, second, because a clock is ticking on this issue in a more precise way than, say, poverty and social equality.

JS: Yes; it is a clear global crisis. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the corporations and politicians are doing almost nothing about it, because the economic status quo defined by giant corporations that are massive engines for gobbling up natural resources and converting that into products that create wealth that is more and more concentrated in the hands of the lucky few—something global capitalism does very well—is not going to be able to reform itself.

The global climate crisis is going to require an end of corporate capitalism as it is currently organized.

Anyone who expects Wall Street or politicians to act against what we might call the ”Suicide Economy” is not realizing the degree to which the climate crisis is a merely a byproduct of an out-of-control capitalist system that has no brake.

This is tremendously good news, ultimately, because global corporate capitalism is corrosive at making a shrinking few richer and richer, and a growing majority worse and worse off economically. You can’t address the climate crisis without recognizing that an economic system based on mindless consumption and debt has got to be radically and fundamentally transformed.

How do we do that? We do it democratically, through cooperative public involvement.

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