What is Propaganda? (part 1)

by Mr.Ellipses

As someone who lives in America but is of Salvadorian dissent, I have noticed something. That most American Citizens are astonishingly uninformed about American Foreign Policies. Importantly, they are amazingly ignorant about their own  History of Militarism and Terrorism in regions like Latin America. If I talk to an American about what America has done and is still actively doing all over Latin America… most either won’t know, won’t care, or even worse still believe america is like Mother Teresa to all Latin America, and that Latin Americans are “too stupid” to understand just how “helpful” America is being. The third response is by far the most common response I have ever had, and this response is telling – it highlights a particular mentality Americans mostly share.. that they can not comprehend why the rest of the world “hates us” when we “do so much good.”

These people do not know about things like:  How the US attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government in Venezuela in 2002 (and continues to try and foster another coup de’tate in 2014); How in 2004 it kidnapped and forced out another democratically elected president in Haiti; How in 2000 a US backed coup d’etat overthrew another democratically elected government in Ecuador; They do not know that the US invaded Panama in 1989 and replaced their government; They are surprised by the fact that the US owes 12 billion dollars to Nicaragua because it was proved, in an international court, that the US has continuously tried to overthrow their democratically elected government (The US still refuses the pay); How throughout the 1980’s the US backed Salvadorian Junta terrorized my country, and how amazingly the US continues to use it’s presence to keep the very same government officials, who took part in killing it’s own people, in power (Think about that… The very same leaders who everyone knows killed thousands of Salvadorians are still in power in my country because the US wants them in power); or how about we look at 1973 where the US aided another coup de’tat in Chile or in 1954 in Guatemala?

I mean.. I could go on and on about how the US has a very strong history of attempting to overthrow or successfully overthrowing democratically elected governments, not just in Latin America but also in the Middle East.. but what is the point? These things are already firmly established in fact, and the history of US illegal military aggression is relatively easy to find… yet no one in America knows about it, and no one talks about it, worse yet, the ones who do know about it… refuse to acknowledge that these are important points to have on hand when talking about any US foreign policy in present day.

So before I get to my point, I want to look at one more example.. to hammer this point in even before I even begin… (a point taken from Media Control – Noam Chomsky)

The University of Massachusetts did a study during the Gulf Crisis about the attitudes Americans have. One of the questions asked was how many civilian casualties did the US cause during it’s war in Vietnam? The average answer Americans gave was about 100,000 casualties. The Official US government number is about 2 million and independent international estimates register it to about three to four million.

Now.. What is the point in such a question? Why does it matter? Most Americans when given this point.. will not care, and most will fail to connect the dots to why this is a very important thing to take note of. You see the importance of such a point can not even be imagined, it can not even register in their minds, because certain point of views just… fail to exist. Yet, let us put it in another way. a way in which the point will hit home without a second thought.

Lets look twist this question in a different way. Let us say that the same type of question was asked, but this time not to Americans but to Germans. If you asked the average German today to estimate how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust… and the mean answer you got was 300,000… what would that answer say about the current German political culture? (Current estimates are about 5 to 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.) Now, In that same respect what does the original question/answer say about our own?

That, that right there is the picture perfect example of Propaganda. See it is not just shameful that the average American has no idea how many civilians America has killed in Vietnam (South Vietnamese civilians – the ones we “helped”); it is not just the fact that they vastly under estimate it; and it is not just the fact that this would be as shameful as hypothetically the German people not knowing how many Jews were killed in WW2; it is the fact that even when presented with the point above, the importance of the point can not even register in the American brain unless we pretend the shame is not american’s but another countries shame. That is the effect Propaganda. It is not just that we are kept in the dark about many American Crimes, it is that even when presented with the fact that America has committed crimes… the American people fail to see anything wrong with it anyway.

If you do not believe me that this is the case, let us do another example to show that sadly, this is inescapably the case for most Americans. Let us ask the question of.. was the bombing of Afghanistan, after 9/11, justified? (Edit: I forgot to add This argument was made by Chomsky in Hegemony or Survival, I initially thought it was made by him in Media Control like the last one was.)

Well we had Intel that Al-Qaeda terrorists, the ones responsible for 9/11, were in Afghanistan. We also know that the Afgan government refused to hand them over to us, even after we asked. Was it then justified to bomb those locations in Afghanistan to get those terrorists?

Let us forget that our Intel can be shaky at times. Let us forget the fact that the tribal leaders in Afghanistan were willing to hand over the terrorists if the U S had produced evidence that these men are the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Let us forget that the US refused to cooperate and hand over evidence, purposefully avoiding a peaceful resolution. Let us forget all those inconvenient facts. Instead, let us just pretend that we did everything right, we exhausted all diplomatic options in Afghanistan to try and get those terrorists, and let us pretend that the Afghanistan government knew that these guys blew up the world trade center yet refused to hand them over to the US when asked…

If we pretend all that is true, this is the strongest possible case one can have for justifying a bombing of Afghanistan to kill the terrorists. At this point, only the most hardened anti-war left, a very small segment of the american population, would be against the bombing of Afghanistan. So we ask ourselves, is the targeted bombing of these terrorists justified given all these assumptions? Well, during that time, most Americans agreed it was, and most still, in fact, feel it is. They see absolutely nothing wrong with taking that action – given the assumptions above.

Now similarly, let us twist this question a bit, so that, just like before with the Vietnam question, we can shed some light on a different point of view that… simply fails to exist in American Culture.

Let us pretend that the roles are reversed. Let us pretend that a terrorist committed a crime to another country and is now a wanted man. This terrorist now resides in the US.  That country is on a man hunt and has found out that such a terrorist is in fact living in Washington D.C. They immediately demand that we hand him over, and produce documents connecting this man to terrorism. The leaders in Washington refuse to hand him over. So now we ask the question.. is this country justified in bombing Washington D.C.?

Are they justified in dismissing the point that they could have civilian casualties while bombing such a populated city? If they in fact decided to bomb a US city, killing regular residents of D.C. and political leaders as well as the terrorist… how do you think Americans would react? If that happened wouldn’t we expect that US government to declare war? Wouldn’t we treat that entire country as war criminals? This imaginary event would go down in history as one of the most tragic and evil acts to go down in American history. We would, quite reasonably, expect all of this to happen if another country bombed a US city.

So why, why if it is not justified above, do we justify it when we are doing it to another country?

Well, now some of you, the war hawks, may say, this will never happen, but if it did, then the US would deserve such retaliation in this imaginary scenario. Yet what if I told you that this in fact has already happened?

Well, as it turns out around the same time Afghanistan was reluctant to comply with American demands, Haiti was demanding that the US extradite Emmanuel Constant – a man responsible for the US backed death squads in Haiti in the 1990’s – who happened to be living in the US. The American government denied this request, even when Haiti had evidence of his terrorism. It is widely believed that the US did not extradite him because, if he was forced to testify in a trial, he would leave ties to politicians in Washington complicit in the Haitian cuop de’tat. So in an effort to hide their own crimes, Washington refused to extradite him to stand trial in Haiti. Is Haiti now justified to do massive bombing raids on American cities where Emmanuel is believed to reside (New York at the time)? I doubt even the most hawkish supporters of war would think Haiti now has a right to bomb NYC. Yet, amazingly, Americans widely believed the bombing of Afghanistan was justified.

See now that is the effect of efficient propaganda.. not only are Americans completely ignorant of all these facts, this type of hypothetical scenario is incapable of even being presented when mulling over military actions. Think about that, all we did in the example is make an analogy on the most basic moral principals – where we just put the shoe on the other foot and test for moral hypocrisy (do unto others… and such).  Now where every american is capable of such moral thoughts in their everyday lives, such moral quandaries do not even enter the arena when it comes to US foreign policy. To make a huge segment of the population unable to even conceive of certain basic ethical formulations when the US goes into another country, is due to the startling success of Propaganda. It is, in essence quite amazing, and at the same time very frightening.

So if someone was to ask me what Propaganda was… I would tell them all this and tell them, that… that is Propaganda. That is the only way to wake them up. See you can not talk about Propaganda, the definition of it, nor how it is done, if you first can not convince the person you are talking to that yes.. it exists and yes, it works on you and me alike. It is only when someone accepts the effects of Propaganda that one can even begin to shows it’s mechanisms.

[Update/Correction: I just got an email saying my numbers, for Vietnamese deaths are wrong. I looked it up and sure enough, I blundered with this one. The US claims it killed 1 million civilians. The Vietnamese government claims the US killed as many as 3 million and I saw one independent estimate say it was 2 million civilians. Turns out trying to find out is pretty hard! What I did find out though is that total Vietnamese casualties, the latest estimate is 3.8 million – but casualties in this sense means anyone killed by any war act on either side. I think this includes soldier too. So if anything, the total deaths caused by the war can be as high as about 4 million, and the total civilian deaths, claims range from, 1 all the way to 3 million. So noted, and thanks for the correction!]