Interview, continued from page 23 have done that 10 years ago and look how many of them did it. We’re being trumped by all these people in these different movements:’ It is really striking that there were mass demonstrations in the United States and throughout the world before the war even started. That doesn’t mean they were able to stop the war from happening, but it does mean that the public is capable of self-organizing outside the realm of places where you can control them just by getting your message on the nightly newswhich the government can still do very effectively. The reason they’ve been as successful as they have at getting support for the war in Iraq has less to do with the power of the propaganda itself than it does with the terrible feelings that people have had following September 11the sense of crisis and fear and desire to put an end to those fears by putting faith in their leaders. You can imagine a nightmare world in which our leaders constantly use fear to control us, but I don’t think that’s sustainable over the long term. TO: I wanted to talk a little bit about the concept of propaganda by omission. In the book, you deal with that concept in the context of Saudi Arabia. SR: You can usually find that propaganda consists of two parts. One part is on the public stage that everyone’s supposed to see. The other is the part that you’re not supposed to see, like who’s funding them. It’s almost like a magician’s trick; they’re using sleight of hand to keep you from seeing. A lot of the propaganda around the war in Iraq has been specifically aimed at keeping people from talking about Saudi Arabia. A lot of the propaganda around the issue of Saddam Hussein’s human rights violations, like the atrocities against the Kurds, has focused on very selectively presenting the part about Saddam Hussein having committed these atrocities while making sure to avoid the part about how the United States was supporting Saddam Hussein at the time he committed them. You had Colin Powell in Halabja, where Iraq gassed and killed by general estimates about 5,000 people. Colin Powell said, “This atrocity alone is so bad that it constitutes a justification for the war?’ This is the same Colin Powell who in 1988, the year that the atrocity occurred, was National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan and persuaded the U.S. Congress not to pass the Prevention of Genocide Act in 1988 for that very same act. Yet here he is 15 years later saying [Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds] justifies overthrowing the government. Foreign policy is the part of government policy that most people have the least to do with. If it’s some other aspectlike welfare policy or environmental policy or something that affects the economypeople see how that affects them personally. But if it’s something happening in Iraq people just don’t pay attention. It’s easier to manipulate them because they don’t pay as much attention to things outside this country. There’s a lot of different reasons for the historical amnesia. One is the shallowness of TV culture. There’s also a longstanding historical attitude about isolationism on the part of the American people, which is part of the reason that it was that difficult to get the U.S. public in line to support the first World War. But that isolationist tradition still persists in a lot of ways. We have this strange paradox in that we are intervening in all these other countries around the world at the same time that our population is less interested in events happening outside our borders. Right now we have soldiers engaged in trying to run cities in Iraq who can’t even read street signs. Very few people had any interest in studying the languages or culture or anything about the Middle East before we sent these troops in there. Now we’re trying to run the place. You can call it historical amnesia, but I think there’s something even worse about it. There’s a real cognitive gap between what we’re trying to do and our degree of being interested ineven understandingwhat we’re trying to do. I don’t think any other nation in history has ever been this way. Look at the British Empire for example. They were trying to run countries like India, but they actually had a lot of interest in India. You can find it in their culture. They were really engaging in some way, trying to understand the cultures where they were intervening and trying to operate an empire. We’re in denial. We’re intervening in all these places while trying to imagine that we’re not. TO: What are you working on now? SR: Our working title is Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America into a One-Party State. We’re going to look at the way this propaganda approach to communication has influenced democratic decisions, including elections, but also other institutions and democracies such as, for example activism itself, which is one of the pillars of democracy though you don’t see it in the Constitution. The idea that you should have an active and engaged population in which everyone is participating in public policy is a very important part of democracy and [managing activism] is a big part of what the public relations industry does. They’ve written whole books in which they express a great deal of alarm about the threat of activism. They’re not just concerned about leftist activists, they’re concerned about activists of any kind. Right-wing activists bother them almost as much sometimes. The idea that activism is a bad thing or a disruptive thing to societyand that you should have a special class of PR people who are managing activismis itself a threat to democracy. I’m concerned by the way that the Republican Party has become a single party dominating a lot of the institutions of power in the society. They control all three branches of the federal government. Contrary to popular belief, they control large swatches of the mass media. They’re moving aggressively to increase control over state governments as welldefinitely in Texas and California. Jessica Chapman is a graduate student in journalism at UT-Austin. 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 2/13/04
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