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May 23, 2009

That's How It Goes, Everybody Knows

By: Bernard Chazelle

Everybody knows. By now everybody knows we're slaughtering women and children in Afghanistan. We even worry about it. No, not worry in the sense, "OMG we're slaughtering women and children! How evil can we be?" Worry in the sense "How can we win that thing if we piss off the natives?" The Times explains

the trade-off between the short-term gain of eliminating enemy fighters and the larger danger of alienating the general population.

That's Jack the Ripper wondering if bumping off all those prostitutes might not end up hurting his popularity in London. Note how the Times's quote strips our "knowledge" of the slaughter of all morality. It's a chess game, really, with its "gains" and "dangers." In a poignant op-ed today, the Irish writer John Banville wonders what it means "to know."

If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours. We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today.

The rationalization is the same. The shame is not. In fact a whole academic field was created for the specific purpose of "deshaming" our imperial conquests. It's called "International Relations." Read Banville's piece. (For the writing alone, and for the rest, it's worth it.)

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at May 23, 2009 11:02 AM

As always, Bernard, an exemplum of choleric concision.


and for the exceptional are a recovering catholic, too, nest paw??

Posted by: Woody at May 23, 2009 12:33 PM

“I assure the people of Afghanistan that the United States will work tirelessly with your government, army and police to find ways to reduce the price paid by civilians, and avoid tragedies like what occurred in Bala Baluk”

What did the ambassador mean by "reduce the price paid by civilians"? Did he think twice before making that statement which meant we could sacrifice some of you but not too many of you that would make headlines the next day? Wonder, if he ever asked the victims, what they would consider an "acceptable" level of price to be paid by them ( and for whose benefit)!

And concerning We knew, and did not know, does "did not know" help to hide the shame and learning "International Relations" help to appease the "conscience" or put in cold storage??

Thank you Prof chazelle, for the post and the link to Mr Banville's article.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 23, 2009 01:40 PM

General Eikenberry said he questioned the wisdom of dropping 2,000-pound bombs on houses when it is unknown who might be inside...

Yes, clearly we should only drop 500 pound bombs on houses when we don't know who's inside.

That's 1500 pounds of change you can believe in!

Posted by: SteveB at May 23, 2009 01:53 PM

Banfield's piece certainly is beautifully written, and very well thought out too. It makes me want to read his novel.

Your observation, Professor Chazelle, that we only seem to worry about how murdering women and children will affect the battle for hearts and minds is right on the money. In other contexts, even Time would ordinarily ask more immediate questions about murder.

But for most of the public I don't see a parallel to what Banville is writing about. For some well-informed people, sure, but not for the public at large. The public at large doesn't have the same way of knowing what goes on in asia as the irish had of knowing what went on in their reform schools. Not even close.

Long ago the US public was told and too easily accepted, much too patriotically, that murdering innocent people is a necessary part of war. And in the media it is absolutely mandatory to presume that our military is always trying to murder the bare minimum of civilians. In public discussion it is on top of that mandatory to presume that when killing civilians can't be avoided, it is entirely the fault of the enemy terrorists who made it necessary. So in the media there is really almost nothing to report and almost nothing is reported, just like in the Time article you quote. Why bother reporting facts that can only mean one thing--it will just lead to trouble.

By the way, those mandatory presumptions about our military's pervasive good intentions need to be destroyed. Until they are, this problem will be intractable.

As a result of this media blackout on anything that might reflect poorly on the military, i think most people in fact do not know or believe that we are doing anything fundamentally immoral in our Asian wars. I mean, why would they think that? They haven't been to Asia and don't know anything about it, and they are UNIFORMLY told that everything our military does is necessary and kills no more innocent people than necessary. The prosecutions of the occasional sadist gone crazy in the military, like the guy who just escaped the death penalty and got life without parole, only reenforce this perception that our military is subject to the rule of law and that excesses are punished. And the public is also commonly told that those who think our military is too murderous are on the side of the enemy and are basically traitors. (See Cheney, Dick). Why would people believe what they are often told only a traitor would say, when they never get any evidence supporting that treasonous viewpoint from the media?

Sure it's all crap, but that is what people get pounded into their heads over and over and over again. So why wouldn't the public at large believe it? Please remember that a full 50% of the population is of average or below average intelligence. (Funny how that sounds insulting, isn't it?) I don't think many people know much about iraq or afghanistan, partly because they just don't and partly because that's not encouraged by the media either.

In light of all that, i don't really think it's right, as to the general public, to say that they know and they don't know that what we're doing in afghanistan is wrong. Putting the blame everywhere and evenly can become pretty close to putting it nowhere. I just don't think the problem is the same as Banville described so well about the abuses perpetrated and concealed by the Catholic Church in Ireland.

And i definitely think it's overly generous to the media village and the specialists in 'international relations' you mention to say that they "know and don't know." They damn well know, or if they don't they should. It's their responsibility to know, after all, and their not knowing or pretending that they don't know is absolutely their shame today. Their hands are quite literally covered with the blood of children, and those among them with the capacity for reflection AND conscience will end up with night terrors. They deserve them, too.

As for the Generals and the civilian warmongers, evem talking about shame and well-deserved nightmares is woefully insufficient. Generals like McChrystal, well i think somebody should send them back in time to an irish reform school.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 23, 2009 01:58 PM

U get what U PAY 4.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 23, 2009 04:30 PM

No, THEY get what U pay 4.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 23, 2009 05:19 PM

I'm not sure we should generalize about "the American people", though you can probably find me generalizing about that bunch in various contradictory ways in the past (and probably in the future).

Some favor killing people overseas and don't care about the morality. Some favor killing people overseas, but care enough about the morality to lie to themselves about it. Some are ignorant, but in a culpable way--they don't want to know. Some are ignorant in an innocent ways--in a Rumsfeldian sense, they don't know what they don't know. And then some know and protest or write letters to politicians or newspapers, but not enough. And some really do their moral duty on this subject.

So that's six categories (though maybe two and three are basically the same, so make it five) and I bet there's a significant fraction of Americans in each of them. Well, maybe not that many in the last group. (I'm not in it.)

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 23, 2009 05:34 PM

NE: You lost me 3 times. First my point about IR, oddly misinterpreted. Second, you say the Catholic Church concealed the truth yet the Irish knew. But even FoxNews reports the atrocities, and yet the Americans "don't know." How does that work? Third, you say

Please remember that a full 50% of the population is of average or below average intelligence.

No, not IQ again... but since you insist, sorry to nitpick, but you mean to say median, not average (it's possible for an entire population (minus 1 person) to be above average intelligence), but never mind. That point applies to the Irish, too. So how does that help? OK, I knew where you're going, but remember Banville's point: kids did not talk! The Church did not talk. But even US generals talk about 2000-pound bombs falling on people's heads. "If only Americans knew" rings hollow to me. They know but they don't know.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 23, 2009 05:41 PM

DJ: I agree. What I really liked about Banville's oped was the complexity he allowed into the sentence "we know but we don't know." There are millions of shades.

I have no doubt that if next to his examples of genocides he had mentioned Vietnam or Iraq, his oped would have been nixed.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 23, 2009 05:46 PM


Fair enough, generalizing is bad. But I don't think too many people in any of your groups actually want to kill as many afghanis or iraqis as possible just because they hate them. They're just constantly told it's necessary, and people don't second guess the government or military or media. I don't think most of them are deliberately overlooking info either. They really have to hunt to find it, unless they have the smarts to learn how to read between the lines and know enough to be mistrustful of what they're told.

Professor: First of all, i didn't mean to nitpick--your post was excellent and the general point well taken. Plus, i wouldn't have read Banville's fine article without it. So thanks!

That being said, I know my means medians and a la modes, thank you very much. I took Banville to be talking about terrible abuses that everyone in Ireland knew were happening and knew were immoral but chose not to know more about (in much the same way that knowledge of the holocaust was widespread in Germany as it happened but not looked into). Nobody thought it was necessary to rape boys in Irish reform schools, as far as I know. Maybe somebody thought it was necessary not to challenge the Church, or necessary to overlook the crimes as part of sustaining the social order, whatever. But i doubt even that. I think it was just not looked into because that would have been very uncomfortable, in precisely the same way that people in Germany in 1942 didn't want to look into the "deportations" of Jews.

I don't think many people in Ireland thought horrific abuse of delinquents was justified by necessity in the same way that Americans sadly think bombing civilians is justified by necessity. I think that's a big difference.

I believe many ordinary Americans regrettably truly believe it's necessary to kill women and children in afghanistan, that the military tries really hard to avoid it, and that our evil enemies make it almost impossible to avoid. For the most part, I don't think most Americans believe it's unecessary, and many of them might even try to find out for themselves if they knew how to do that. (Mostly, of course, they just accurately think that individually they're powerless to affect that anyway.)

Because of my view about that, I think if you want to get ordinary Americans to object to what the government/military does, you need to increase the information the public gets and undermine the presumption that the military and the government tell the truth. People already know killing is wrong unless it's necessary. Geting them to stop believing the government and military when they say it is necessary is what has to be done. That's my view, and I have this sneaking hunch that i may have picked up that one from Chomsky.

But I agree with you about the international relations experts and then some. I think they absolutely know the true morality of what's going on, and they need to be held to a higher moral standard. i didn't even mean to suggest that i disagree with your view that "international relations" was created to "deshame" our imperial conquests. That sounds right to me. We have generated huge deception industries. But they don't deceive the powerful. Per Gar Alperovitz, I think, I remember that Henry Stinson wrote a letter to a friend in the late 40s conceding that the Truman/Byrnes crew should have known better than to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obviously Stimson knew better (which is not what he wrote publicly) and he thought they should have too (even if he wouldn't second-guess them and basically gave them moral cover publicly). The elites have the real information and ability to know what's necessary and what isn't, but they hide it (especially the liberals of the Arthur Schlessinger type) because they're chicken.

So sure everyone knows we drop 2,000 pound bombs on women and children. The U.S public knew we nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They knew we firebombed Tokyo. Etc. etc. etc. But the public was and is told those terrible murderous acts were necessary, and they don't get good enough information to make them disbelieve it.
I took you to be suggesting, analogously to what Banville suggested, that the US public "knows" we're doing terrible things and is choosing not to know any more about it. I disagree with that. I think it's actively concealed from them, often with great effort. There are more than 1,000 public relations personnel at Fort Bragg devoting all their time to just that. The average American needs to be very motivated and already suspicious to uncover some of the real facts.

If we change that, maybe the American public will surprise you with what they're willing to know. There have been extended periods of time when they've known things they don't know now. But not just because somebody told them killing civilians is wrong. They already know that now, and they always have known it. To pick up on DJ's paraphrasing of that vicious little bastard Rummy (as Nixon so fondly referred to him): "They just don't know what else they don't know."

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 23, 2009 09:02 PM

NE: "Please remember that a full 50% of the population is of average or below average intelligence."

And 75%-80% of the American population believe themselves to be above average; I bet you're one of those. Back in World War I, IQ testing showed that the vast majority of military recruits were morons; we now take this as evidence of the worthlessness of IQ testing.

There's nothing "insulting" about saying that 50% of the population is average or below -- it's simply true by definition, and so meaningless. The questions are, what is the average? and how intelligent do you have to be to know that the government is lying to you? If you have to be a genius to know that, then we're doomed. Yet as far as I can tell, the educated classes are just as credulous, if not more so, when the government speaks. Higher education is largely a matter of indoctrination and preparing its subjects to fit in with the rulers, so that's hardly surprising.

I don't think that either a high IQ or a degree from Yale is necessary to have a proper skepticism about the powerful. Still, proper skepticism takes work, and most people don't seem to want to make that much effort.

Posted by: Duncan at May 23, 2009 09:28 PM

NE: Abu Ghraib, My Lai, the guys tortured to death in Bagram... All of that necessary for our survival, too? Also, the Germans didn't choose not to know more. They thought killing the Jews was necessary to preserve the German "race." That was part and parcel of Nazi propaganda. Remember that Hitler fought in self-defense. People really believed that. So by your "honest delusion" theory, they get a pass?

I think Banville highlight this universal aspect of power which is to make people (1) deluded (2) cowardly (3) submissive (4) rationalizing (5) bound to a code of silence, etc. To somehow pretend that American imperialism operates along a completely different mechanism is just another instance of American exceptionalism.

Duncan: Can you pick on another school? (like Dartmouth?) Or you're going to make Jon very mad.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 23, 2009 10:24 PM


I am not only above average intelligence, i am a real smarty pants, so much of a smart pants that I actually was aware that it's true by definition that 50% of any population--every population--is below average intelligence, more or less, depending on whether we're talking mean or median or mode or chi square distribution or a flux in the warp core, captain. And i neither insulted nor intended to insult anyone. But i commend you for your valiant defense of egalitarianism anyway, because i appprove wholeheartedly of that, even if i am too flip for my own good.

But all that being the case, i don't know that that makes my observation meaningless, in the context i was talking about. I was trying to inartfully suggest that you can't expect the general public to disbelieve the government when the government piles mounds upon mound of lies on them about whether killing civilians on the other side of the world is necessary or avoidable. My point was that many people really are less equipped to see through so many lies, by reason of intelligence and training. And i'm not backing down from that. It can be easier to deceive people who don't have information and education and aren't sophisticated, at least that's what courts have long said, though they say that less and less as they become more reactionary, which is the trend i've seen.

I agree with you that there are other reasons to be trusting than less education and lower intelligence (and i even agree that talking about differences in intelligence isn't really socially healthy, so i probably shouln't have made the point, even if it was flip). I especially agree that the upper classes and especially the educated are the most propogandized of us all. I agree education can indeed make people stupid. And i especially approve of your cheap shot at Yale. I couldn't applaud that more.

But on balance i disagree with you that it's just a question of most people not being willing to do taht much work. Most people who might be inclined to agree with you might just might not be willing to do the work. But plenty of people simply trust the government and even more the military and so don't share your views, even though the government and military have an agenda that they wouldn't entirely approve of if it wasn't cloaked and even though they would very much disapprove of things like bombing civilians if they were given all the information and it were up to them.

I won't accept that people would be more skeptical if they weren't lazy. They're taught not to be skeptical, and they're deceived. Back during world war I, when the government said they were all morons per your comment, people were more skeptical (maybe that's why the government tried to package them all as morons?). And I think people were less deceived too. So i don't think it's just unwillingness to do critical thinking.

All those folks at fort bragg and in media relations and advertising employed by corporations work hard at what they do, and they're good at it.

As for whether we're doomed, beats me. But let's pretend we're not.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 23, 2009 10:28 PM

One last thought... So people believe their government when they're told we must slaughter the innocents for our survival. True.

Question: Is that just because they are deluded? Or is it easier to believe something when you want to believe it? And if so, why exactly would you want to believe it?

It's very important for many to believe that Hiroshima was necessary. So important that smart people have spent a lot of time collecting evidence to reach precisely that conclusion that is so so desired. And of course that research could be conducted only because the US won the war. If the US had lost, then moral conditions would have been wholly unsuitable for conducting such perfectly objective, near scientific inquiry.

Funny how the arc of power bends.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 23, 2009 10:34 PM

I take it back about applauding cheap shots at Yale! I meant Yule, which is a small but prestigious school in North Dakota.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 23, 2009 10:35 PM

Professor: Not everything is American exceptionalism. Banville's piece is tremendous, worthy of an artist. And i'm sure some of what he describes goes on with the American public's support of the military and government in connection with foreign wars, but i don't think that's the predominant problem we face.

As for Abu Ghraib, My Lai, Bagram or a thousand other examples, it may be hard to believe, but many people do think whatever the military does must be necessary. People commonly accept Tecumseh Sherman's old maxim that war is hell and believe you shouldn't second guess soldiers once you send them to war. So i think more is necessary than shccking the public with details of horrific violence, though i do believe that is very important.

As to what the Germans chose not to know, I defer to Walter Lacquer's The Jewish Enemy, in which Lacquer describes the Nazi threats of mass murder of the European jews as "hiding in plain sight." That book will make abundantly clear that all those who claimed to have no idea that the European jews were being killed were not being truthful, either with themselves or others or both. I certainly don't give the German public, or even those in occupied countries, "a pass" with regard to the holocaust. Far from it, my point was that the German people knew enough to know the holocaust was taking place, certainly knew that it was wrong (notwithstanding the propaganda about the Jews having started the world war), and didn't want to know any more than that because the knowledge essentially made them morally complicit. Better not to know such things, and i think that same phenomenon applies to a lesser extent to Americans who know something about our asian wars. But i disagree that the general public believes the conduct of our prsent wars to be morally wrong. They're not choosing not to know any more than they do because that would make them morally complicit--they really don't believe that the wars are morally wrong because they don't know enough and trust the government and military.

You're right that the Germans were heavily propogandized, and with some success, but not with so much success that many people genuinely beileved it was necessary or appropriate to kill all the jews in europe. Unfortunately, it isn't necessary to make everyone hateful and crazy for hate and craziness to thrive. But you know, i'm no Raul Hilberg or Christopher Browning or Saul Friedlander or Arno Mayer. There's a vast literature i haven't read. But I did read Lacquer's book above and found it really illuminating, and Sebastian Haffner's books on Hitler and the Nazis are fabulous, and i've read parts of Arno Mayer's Why Did the Heavens Not Darken, the Final Solution in HIstory. And I guess i've read a bunch of other stuff and jabbed needles into my eyes knowing things people should avoid knowing, and none of that has led me to think that many of the German people were terribly convinced that they were fighting against the Jews in self defense.

But i'm not approaching this from the perspective of passing judgment on Americans now or Germans then or the Irish Banville wrote so well about. I'm looking at this from the angle of how, if possible, to move American public opinion in connection with war. And i don't think showing them horrific violence is enough.

On your last point, it's definitely the case that people are easier to convince of something they want to believe. That's why patriotism gets used so effectively by scoundrels, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson. The American people definitely didn't want to believe that Hiroshima was morally wrong, a view that the military wasn't sure in advance they would hold. General George Marshall definitely didn't want the mililtary to decide the question before the bombs were dropped, precisely i think because he wasn't sure what the public reaction would be. Later, after the public accepted the abomination, he was all too glad to agree with that. But i don't think the research showing that Hiroshima was necessary is remotely true, and i wouldn't describe the researchers who reached that conclusion as all that smart. I think they wanted to reach that conclusion, in some cases were assigned to reach that conclusion, and from the outset were dishonest about what actually led to the decision. (On that last point i think there is no question.)

You're right to be cynical about power, absolutely right. That psycho racist Curtis LeMay, whom JFK years later said he never wanted to see again after one especially sickening dose of insane recommendations, accurately said that the US military leadership would have been tried for war crimes had the US lost WWII. And, of course, in light of the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombing of hiroshima and nagasaki, the saturation bombing of german cities described so poignantly by Sebald in his books, who could doubt that observatio. Nor were we so concerned about Jewish refugees or so dedicated to humanitarianism. You're right about the arc of power.

But I think getting the US public to quit supporting our empire and the militarism that is sustaining it is going to involve more than showing the public the horrors of war.

thanks for the discussion; i think this is really clarifying my muddled thinking.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 23, 2009 11:49 PM

NE: I am not exactly "egalitarian" -- I know who my inferiors are. But I think you misunderstand what "egalitarianism" means in political terms. I don't believe it means believing that everyone is alike/the same; it means believing that everyone should have the same rights, regardless of IQ, years of schooling, race, sex, or religion. (Well, maybe religion should be taken into account -- just kidding! So many atheists are so damn dumb.)

The funny thing is, you basically concede my point while trying to make fun of it: IQ or years of schooling have not, as far as I know, been shown to correlate with either skepticism about government propaganda or willingness to endorse official crimes. Indeed, the people who commit those crimes and generate that propaganda are both intelligent and well-schooled. That in itself should indicate that there's something wrong with your argument. I think it's up to you to show that people who are "average" or "below" are not capable of doubting their government, or less capable than your high-IQ self.

So, you don't agree that the problem lies in people's not being willing to do the homework. But you haven't given any reason I can see for disagreeing. Have you got any evidence that less-schooled or lower-IQ people are more likely to be credulous? Noam Chomsky likes to refer to polls that showed that people with less schooling and lower incomes are more likely to regard the US invasion of Vietnam as a crime, not just a tragic well-meaning blunder as well-educated liberal consensus has it. I'm skeptical about what those polls show, because I'd have to know what the respondents consider criminal about it. From what I know of my fellow Americans, I suspect that many of them believe it was a crime to start a war we didn't intend to win (e.g., by not nuking Vietnam and paving it over), by tying our troops' hands so that they couldn't win, etc. But I don't know for sure. And those polls are evidence, however uncertain, against your thesis.

I don't think that many people of ANY IQ or level of training/indoctrination are ready to believe bad things about their country/government/whatever. The amount of vitriol hurled at critics of Bush II's invasion of Iraq, and the lousy excuses the apologists are now offering now, all came from the critics' peers. Again, I'd like to know why you think that IQ or years of schooling are a factor at all.

Nope, the labelling of most military recruits as morons was purely scientific, by the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop of America's finest brains. You need to study your history a bit more.

Posted by: Duncan at May 24, 2009 02:13 AM

Ya go to work all day
To get that hard earned pay
And give 42% to Sam
So's he can invade some foreign land
And the oil he's got coming in
Keep yer job and the money flowin'

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 24, 2009 05:13 AM

The goal of modern propaganda is no longer to transform opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.
--Jacques Ellul

Per Duncan's remarks, Ellul in his book 'Propaganda' argues that it is not the proletariat, but rather the elites, the most intelligent, who most need propaganda. The average truck driver, the "below average" fellow, is skeptical as hell about his "leaders." He knows they're full of shit. But the "intellectual," although he postures as a skeptic, is deeply dependent on propaganda. Who drinks the kool-aid the NYT offers, the truck driver or the prof at the liberal arts school?

Bereft of any belief system by which to counter the propaganda of the State and technological society, it is the "intellectuals" who find themselves thirsting for the emanations of the the propaganda apparatus. Ellul again: "The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment." In other words, we swim in a sea of lies, of false "memes." It is the very water we swim in, and we find ourselves at every turn confronted by "voices of authority" who promulgate these artificial myths of American exceptionalism. (For the non-thinkers, NASCAR and sports and tits and beauty pageants, all appealing to a more primitive limbic structure of myth, of competition and defeat, also useful to the demands of the technological society and our Empire.) But for the intellkshual, who is "beyond football," there is the Bright, Shining Lie, incessantly polished and placed into their brains by the calm authoritative voices of NPR or David Broder or George Will or David Brooks, you're allowed to choose, because it's a free country, right?

The myth of American goodness is deeply ingrained, part of our cognitive DNA, and becomes quite literally the anodyne for the massive cognitive dissonance that bubbles just below the surface of any truthful discussion of foreign policy. We killed x number of children in the Vietnam War, in Iraq, now in Afghanistan? Children, you say? Massive layers of neural encoding leap into action to prevent what would be plain anguish in any moral, thinking creature. The Voices of Authority are there to guide us through that minefield, help us to close our eyes to the reality of what bombs do to children, present, as Prof. Chazelle noted in his post, dispassionate rationales to buttress the myth that somehow, we are not murderers.

If the individual succeeds in rejecting the encoding process, by whatever means (experience, reading, rational examination of "the desert of the real"), we open ourselves to anguish, which can lead to despair, itself problematic (see Arthur Silber for a perfect example). Trying to keep a sense of humor about things helps, but leads to cynicism, also not ideal.

The state propagandists, whether they be PR flacks employed at Ft. Bragg, or media shills, know that it isn't always necessary to counter painful truths with lies: myth creation is often the more powerful tool. The intellkshual wants his/her anodyne, they go back again and again to the crack pipe of propaganda. It has become a necessary component of survival for modern man.

We all know the general outlines of the American myth, which gets crystallized in Jack Bauerism: evil done by good folk ain't so bad after all. Show the beautiful woman with the toothpaste, don't talk about the merits of the dentifrice. As Chomsky noted, "I think there is a good reason why the propaganda system works that way. It recognizes that the public will not support the actual policies. Therefore it is important to prevent any knowledge or understanding of them.”

Knowledge must be replaced by faith: faith in leaders, in "rightness," in the American Way. And so we get images of waving flags, and a rugged cowboy preznit, or a suave guy with a mile-wide smile, and constant repetition of code words that will trigger the neural program: freedom, liberty, hope, values, whatever. But it all boils down to myth-manufacture.

Posted by: Oarwell at May 24, 2009 08:40 AM

And 75%-80% of the American population believe themselves to be above average; I bet you're one of those. Back in World War I, IQ testing showed that the vast majority of military recruits were morons; we now take this as evidence of the worthlessness of IQ testing.

There's nothing "insulting" about saying that 50% of the population is average or below -- it's simply true by definition, and so meaningless. The questions are, what is the average? and how intelligent do you have to be to know that the government is lying to you? If you have to be a genius to know that, then we're doomed. Yet as far as I can tell, the educated classes are just as credulous, if not more so, when the government speaks. Higher education is largely a matter of indoctrination and preparing its subjects to fit in with the rulers, so that's hardly surprising.

I don't think that either a high IQ or a degree from Yale is necessary to have a proper skepticism about the powerful. Still, proper skepticism takes work, and most people don't seem to want to make that much effort.

I try to avoid debates regarding IQ but the above by Duncan is correct in my view.....ones IQ level has nothing to do with the ability of one to learn how the world works. In fact, the reverse is usually the norm...the more educated you are the more likely you are to agree and internalize the views of the dominate political/economic power system works to undermine its own power and authority..that's just how things for example, I have said that both political parties stand well to the left of the population on issue after issue...Is that a reflection of the education level and indoctrination of party members and higher ups, I think so...the masses, or rabble, to use the terms of elitists throughout history, often have a much better understanding of history and political reality than more educated political elites simply because they are not as "well educated" and have not gone through the same indoctrination as more educated people have....hence the need and use of propaganda-ie public relations, USA creation-in order to control what people think in what is on paper a democratic state....This is a huge topic...How democratic societies look to control what people think...See Alex Carey's excellent "Taking the Risk out of Democracy..."

So to close i see no relationship between ones IQ level- whatever that means, frankly-and ones ability to perceive the world correctly...the opposite is often the case.-Tony

Posted by: tony at May 24, 2009 09:20 AM

Thanks for bringing Banville's op ed to our attention, Bernard.

What it made me think about is U.S. prisons, rather than our splashier atrocities abroad.

Posted by: Nell at May 24, 2009 09:50 AM

Duncan: "I need to study my history a bit more!!!!!" Now, i think that was a low blow, and i think you definitely knew it. At a minimum, you knew and did not know it! by the way, i didn't mean to make fun of your argument i was just departing from earnestness for a little change of pace.

If i conceded your point, i really suck. i thought i explained myself, but i'm a pith-hating, wordy bastard, so i'll try again.

Here goes: All i meant is that a lot of people just aren't going to be able to figure out how they are being lied to, because they aren't quite smart enough IN THAT WAY and don't have the skills. I add the "in that way" clarification because in this incredibly low-level discussion of intelligence, which would make any neurologist cringe, we haven't even noted that intelligence isn't just one thing, and people who are "stupid" in some ways can be brilliant in others. maybe even often are--there are certainly more than a few ways in which i'm a numbskull. i very well might be related to more people who can't think with must sophistication about politics than you are--beats me. but, geez, i know what political egalitarianism means, and i didn't presume you don't. what i meant by saying i'm egalitarian is that i don't like to talk disdainfully about the dirty unwashed masses. i don't have aristocratic tendencies.

my position is just that ordinary people aren't well equipped to figure out the complex questions of what the military is doing abroad. i definitely know very well and have common genes with many people who have no ability to figure out what's really going on in the Swat valley, the dynamics of the relationships among the american military and the pakistani military and the isi and the indians, the pipeline politics involved among the americans and western europeans, on the one hand, and the shanghai cooperation agreement member countries on the other, how the pakistanis really feel about the taliban, how the american military really feels about the pakistanis, what the various nations and interest groups within nations are really up to, etc. And they certainly can't pierece through all the lies involved in the "war on terror." The very existence of that charade almost proves my point. Even i find that a pretty stiff challenge, and the information available quite insufficient to know much of anything with any certainty. And if i have skills, they are well suited to that challenge. But the information about casualties, drone attacks, etc. is sketchy because the military doesn't want it known.

maybe to get where i come from on this, it would help to know that my relatives and some of my oldest friends are "heartland" people and they aren't educated and they couldn't second-guess what they're told about what's going on in teh Swat Valley if they tried, not in a million years, no matter how great an effort they made. They don't have that kind of intelligence, though many of them have plenty of other kinds of intelligence, and they certainly don't have the skills needed for that job, though they can certainly do a lot of other things better than i can. I actually never said a word about I.Q. tests, which i don't trust. I just quipped that the Professor should remember that half the population is of below average intelligence, which was basically a joke intended to make the point that ordinary people shouldn't really be held to the same level of moral blame about what goes on in the Swat Valley on the other side of the world as the folks in the military who are doing it and the folks in teh State Department who have made careers pulling the wool over people's eyes, and who do it with such dedication that they probably actually themselves believe it's a public service.

so i hope that clarifies my brief remark, which has now given birth to a billion words. (this is part of why i would suck at politics)

thanks for referring to me as being a "higher-IQ self." I have no idea if that's true and don't care, and as i said don't think it means anything anyway, but i guess it beats being called a lower-IQ self.

i agree with chomsky's smart use of poll data showing that ordinary people don't get fooled about things like wars as easily as educated people. i interpret that poll data as more generally showing that people without power and money aren't as confused about what's going on around them as people who have it. maybe that's related to the point of the chinese guy who ripped off jonathan by saying that power makes people stupid. maybe it shows that the folks who benefit most materially from the empire like it more than people who don't get much out of it but higher taxes and casualties. but chomsky uses the data well.

As for my supposedly not knowing my history, to paraphrase lincoln, it's only history if it actually happened, so that's what i try to learn. What we read from the court historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin or Arthur Schlessinger definitely is a different creature. That's why those close to power at different times, such as General Meade of Lincoln's time, could write: "I don't believe the truth will ever be known, and I have a great contempt for History." (quoted in Otto Eisenschiml, Why was Lincoln Murdered?, 1936, at 438).

If you quit believing the court historians and start looking independently, as none of my relatives could in a million years but as i can thanks to the wonders of computers and the internet, a lot of experience at research, and some well-developed skepticism, it's possible to understand just how and why we got into our first empire-building war in Havanna Harbor (see Dorwarts, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and in particular what Wainright was doing for Teddy Roosevelt, then Asst. Secretary of the Navy, before being assigned to the Maine). A person can even dig through Henry Cabot Lodge's correspondence and find his letter to a friend about the explosion to occur in Havana Harbor--an explosion that didnt happen until a month after the letter was written!

In every single decade both before and after that momentous empire-starting decade, anyone with the right skills can find more of the same, if they look. Power leaves tracks, even if Dick Cheney does delete all his emails. Those tracks are our history, the real one, the one that actually happened. That's the history I study. I'm not so interested in knowing the other history, the one that suggests Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton really admired each other, the one that concludes the explosion of the Maine was a remarkable coincidence, the one that ignores the vast files that military intelligence kept on trouble-making americans even after Woodrow Wilson ordered them destroyed during WWI. I'm not interested in the history for which General Meade had such contempt but that will get an author a book deal with Random House.

So in addition to being a wordy bastard, i'm obviously never going to get a house in the Hamptons!

P.S. your points are smart and i'm not making fun.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 24, 2009 10:00 AM

Oarwell said it all. And brilliantly.

Posted by: Rosemary Molloy at May 24, 2009 10:07 AM


i certainly agree that elites have to deceive the public. and the farther away an event is, and the more it involves war, the easier it is.

I think Nell's observation about the prisons is really well taken. And the same could be said about many other things. Americans definitely avert their eyes in all kinds of ways--about the numbef of kids living in poverty, about how limited equality of opportunity really is, about what life is like for the working poor, about the unfairness of the criminal law and penal system, about racism, about what immigrants do for the country and how they're treated. it goes on and on. there's plenty of "knowing and not knowing"

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 24, 2009 10:30 AM

Here's a chris hedges article on our war economy and war-based political system if anyone wants to read it.

I think he's obviously right that the Dems have become "weaker than the corporate forces that profit from permanent war," but in light of that i don't really understand what he expects them to do. Pretend they're not weaker?

Maybe that's right. I suppose they might surprise themselves. At least it would be a try.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 24, 2009 11:13 AM

But it all boils down to myth-manufacture.
Posted by Oarwell at May 24, 2009 08:40 AM

Ellul (yea! i thought i was the only person who'd read Propagandas)!!! Nobody quotes Ellul (or Veblen, or Mills, or Dos Passos) any more. Ellul proclaimed the middle class as the most easily propagandized because they have the most at stake in maintaining the myths which the State concocts.

You probably know it was Edouard Bernays, Freud's confidante and amenuensis, as well as his favorite nephew (and the "father of Public Relations," once described as the "art of the felicitous falsehood") who coined the phrase "the manufacture of consent" which later Chomsky/Hermann attached to their important and very good book...

Posted by: Woody at May 24, 2009 12:49 PM

US prisons? Yes the torture and atrocities that take place there, and are mostly tolerated by society. But people usually have different theories about punishment of the culpable and injustice committed toward the innocent.

The first and foremost goal of propaganda is to break down the very basic, simple, intuitive Kantian notion that any moral law has to apply equally to everyone. Once this is shattered, it's just a matter of divide-and-conquer.

But there's still this larger moral question: why should victims of propaganda get a pass? Aren't people moral agents?

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 24, 2009 01:50 PM

yeah, all that old writing is too good to be forgotten. Actually, I thought Walter Lippman coined the term "manufacture of consent," and as something he approved of, but maybe he ripped the term off from Bernays (or this site?).

Veblen is one of my personal favorites. (By the way, he saw through the economics of the treaty of versailles in a deeper way that keynes didn't. He actually knew some economics!)

When Tony pointed me in a separate thread to an author named Bookchin who in 1993, as an old man, wrote about feeling nostalgia for the politics of revolution leading to the spanish civil war in the early 20th century, a time when political choices were clearer, I thought he was very wise. Back when Veblen and dos passos and ellul and bernays wrote, things also seem to me to have been clearer. But i wasn't around, and of course the past that you didn't live through may have seemed completely different from how it seems to others much later, who aren't living it. So i was glad to hear that history wasn't fooling me on that.

today, those folks that ellul and bernays wrote about have become so sophisticated. my god, they even study neurology to learn how political decisions are made! Seriously, scientists see what part of the brain lights up--reasoning centers or emotive centers--in response to political questions. Recommended books on that: What Orwell Didn't Know, Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (especially George Lakoff's article) and The New Brain, How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind, by a neurologist, Dr. Richard Restak. Or, if you think the internet has only democratic potential, Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff, someone who originally saw great democratic potential in the internet and then noticed that the people who were coming to his lectures were ALL advertising and public relations experts not exactly looking to democratize anything.

It seems to me like we're in a brave new world every other year these days.

People have to contend with some really sophisticated efforts to manipulate them, way behond anything ellul wrote about, in addition to good old-fashioned lying, coverups, corruption, and as a last resort violence. So i cut people some slack. it just doesn't seem quite right to me to blame ordinary people for being manipulated in ways that their brain is wired to make them vulnerable to manipulation. on top of all that other crap they have to penetrate to get at the truth

as for the folks who do the manipulating, i think they should go to hell

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 24, 2009 02:22 PM


I am definitely going to lose any discussion about Kant, and probably about whether people are moral agents. I once had lunch with someone who had just returned from a German university, where he said he had spent an entire semester studying one paragraph written by Kant. i don't know whether it dealt with moral agency, but that sort of thing might be why people make fun of Kant, not that the categorical imperative wasn't a great concept.

as for why to give people a pass, i'm really more focused on how people can be persuaded to quit approving of predator drone attacks, but if the question is how blameworthy people are, back in dickens day it was considered acceptable to punish people for things that really weren't their fault. in fact, it was considered acceptable to punish everyone who wasn't rich regardless of what was their fault.

but the Enlightenment, and especially the democratic theory brewed in your ancestral home, did gradually bring us all some progress. i give people a bit of a pass when something is not their fault. Are people moral agents? Well, my sainted grandmother, bless her heart, would clearly understand that rounding up all the people of any particular ethnicity and deporting or killing them is wrong. She's enough of a moral agent to get that, and nobody with a uniform could ever persuade her otherwise. But if General Petraeus or some other officer covered in medals tells her that missile attacks in the Swat valley in Pakistan are necessary to save many american lives and the missiles will only be targeted at terrorists and if any civilians are killed the military will be very sorry, well, she's not enough of a moral agent to figure out what's right and wrong about all that, about which she has no information and no intuition beyond trusting men who she considers to be protecting her and the country.

Moving eloquence about atrocities will unfortunately only go so far in changing that trust. i think it goes part way but not all the way. The public's approval of the current rules of war to permit attacks on civilians EVEN if those attacks are necessary to save the lives of our soldiers has to change. Partly, maybe even mostly, that will come from great posts like yours making people feel morally responsible for the deaths of dead civilians overseas. But partly i think a change in approval of our foreign wars is going to have to come from the public becoming informed and cynical about the real agenda of the military and government, their willingness to use deception to advance their own agenda, and the fact that the agenda isn't really so good for the people of the united states. I think people need a lot of educating on that, not just reminders that war is hell. And i think treating people like they are just refusing to face up to a moral truth that they already know will be ineffective, whether they are moral agents or not.

but i don't want to beat this horse to death AGAIN--i admire your disgust with the killing, and your post was GREAT!

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 24, 2009 03:09 PM

Rosemary: Thank you but I give credit to Ellul. With Woody, I'm a great admirer of his writing, not only 'Propaganda' (which is a far more comprehensive treatment than Bernays' book of the same title, although it does have that amazing first sentence), but also 'The Subversion of Christianity.' I could spend the rest of my days trying to comprehend all the incredible points Ellul makes--how can anyone be so profound?

Nell, as you know, American incarceration rates exceed those of any other country, a disgrace, but probably an inevitable offshoot of imperial dehumanization. If the untermenschen are not willing to be obedient helots, then we enslave them in cages.

NE--Chris Hedges is great. Did he get fired from the NYT because he started telling too much truth in his war-reporting? BTW, I got the Douglass book: powerful introduction, with Merton's quote about the world being a "nest" for the Unspeakable. Have you read any of Douglass's other books? Provocative titles.

Bernard, no one gets a pass, and no one gets out of here alive. We're all moral agents, but propaganda is so effective because so few are aware of it. We've eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but now the great mass of Americans are content in thinking that the tree never grew anything but cheetohs.

It is a great triumph of evil to convince men that wickedness is only visited upon them, and never takes up residence.

Posted by: Oarwell at May 24, 2009 03:37 PM

* Veblen? You mean Veblen the lesser. Veblen the Great is Oswald, the first great American mathematician in history. (Relatives I believe)

* Bernays stole the line "Manufacture of Consent" from me. I was the first one to write it. Right here at ATR on 5/24/09 at 3:49pm. Any attempt to show that Bernays said it before me is standard rationalization of evil.

* Listening to Adorno, Angela Davis said the same thing about spending a semester trying to figure out what the hell the guy was saying. She also realized that not speaking German was a handicap.

* Oarwell/Nell: I should have qualified my comment. While I think people hold different theories of injustice and punishment in their heads, I believe there's a socio-economic link between prisons and the empire. For one thing, both require the same set of skills.

Nice line about evil taking residence.

NE: Not fair to bring up your sainted grandmother. You know me. I'd never said anything even remotely critical of anything within a 100-mile radius of a sainted grandmother. So you win the argument.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 24, 2009 04:02 PM


I don't know why Chris Hedges left the times, though to write about the Permanent War Economy he'd have to do it somewhere else.

The other books Douglas already has published appear to religious, and i'm not, so i haven't read them. I did once read an excellent 50 page article that Douglas wrote called "The Murder and Martyrdom of Malcolm X," published in 2002 in Probe Magazine and then republished in 2003 in a great book of articles about the assassinations in the 60s called, fittingly, The Assassinations. I notice that book is praised on the cover by Jessie Ventura, who said: "If you can handle the truth, read this book." And that's now two reasons i like Jessie Ventura after watching him kick sean hannity's ass last week. (Is there anybody harder to figure out than Jessie Ventura?)

The most interesting thing about the Probe articles that were compiled into The Assassinations is that they fairly extensively address the ways that the intel agencies, especially Langley, have responded to the increasing obviousness of the JFK assassination over time. Some of the articles really are illuminating on that subject. Jim DiEugenio's essay "The Poshumous Assaassination of John F. Kennedy" in particular is a real eye opener in laying out the smear campaign against jfk since the early 80s. I noticed this week that Random House is again about to publish, undoubtedly for a hefty advance, another unsubstantiated "tell all" about an affair not corroborated by any evidence and first brought to light more than 40 years after the assassination, this time involving a girl then 18 and now in her 60s. Her memory has apparently improved with age. I swear that I could get a book published by Random House saying John Kennedy had sex with me when I was a toddler. Give it time--he'll end up a gay pedophile yet. Not that JFK was as prudish and faithful as Bobby was; i wouldn't say that.

The Douglas book you have is supposedly the first of a trilogy, the others to address the assassinations of MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X. I will most certainly read them if they are published because of the high quality and tremendous eloquence of the JFK book, even though not as much is known about the other assassinations, though i certainly think enough is. I think even Chomsky admits the government was probably behind MLK's death, which would certainly be consistent with the documented reaction of the whole Atlanta FBI office to the news, as they all burst into applause when they heard that MLK was dead. Of course, you won't see that in movies like Mississippi Burning, in which the FBI works hard against the Klan, with great dedication, like real civil libertarians one and all. And I guess movies are the real history that matters now, along with TV specials.
That's part of our moral agency, I guess.

Enjoy the book! I'm betting you will.

Posted by: Not Exactly at May 24, 2009 04:24 PM

Dear Not Exactly,

FWIW, I understood exactly what you meant from your first comment and share your views. I've also made notes on some reading I need to do, thanks to all of you in this comment thread. ;)

Posted by: Gwen at May 24, 2009 05:22 PM

I miss pith.

Posted by: sluggo at May 24, 2009 05:48 PM
I miss pith.

Blame it on HDTV. Nobody wants to sit through needless pontification when there's 500 channels of HD explosions and porn.

Posted by: angryman@24:10 at May 24, 2009 10:47 PM

NE, maybe telling you that you need to study your history was a "low blow," but you still do need to study your history. I doubt you'll learn about the categorization of World War I recruits as low-grade morons from the "court historians," who would prefer to dis-remember that little episode. Why do you think I got the information from them? Ah, the Internet.

Again, you have not offered one bit of evidence for your views, and you beg the question most grievously. Yes, it's true that 50% of the population are of average or below-average intelligence, but you have not shown that people of average or below-average intelligence are incapable of doubting government propaganda. Repeating yourself is not argument. To put it nicely: You don't know what you're talking about. Stop while you're behind.

So you don't take IQ tests seriously? Good for you; neither do I. But unless you have some measure, all we have here is your impressionistic evaluations of other people's mental power compared to your own, which is not encouraging. It is not even clear that intelligence (whatever it may be) can properly be ranked in such a way that it can be averaged, below-averaged, and the like. (It might, just for example, be comparable to speaking of "average or below-average color.")

Personal anecdote: some years ago an acquaintance of mine, a grad student in Philosophy, told me shyly, "I don't say this to many people, Duncan, but I consider you my intellectual equal." I thanked him, embarrassed, because I hadn't thought about it until then, but I didn't consider him my intellectual equal.

"Professor" Chazelle (and I wonder, should I be as wary of a blogger known as "Professor" as I would be of playing cards with a man called "Doc"?): "But there's still this larger moral question: why should victims of propaganda get a pass? Aren't people moral agents?" Yes, they are, but "victims" of anything are given a moral pass just because they're victims. "Victims of propaganda", though, implies that people exposed to propaganda are not agents but simply its passive targets. Why, then, do some people manage not to believe propaganda? If Not Exactly is correct, it's because they're "smarter" in some ill-defined way; those who believe it are "ordinary people" of "average or below-average intelligence," and so not responsible for their credulity. By the way, did you know, they're spelling "gullible" with an "R" now?

Posted by: Duncan at May 25, 2009 06:47 AM

Duncan: Ok, everybody needs to study their history, me too! I never really thought that you get your information from court historians. I probably just wanted to riff on that. Since i can't play music, that's all the riffing i can do. I know, that sucks for everyone!

I think i explained what i meant by my brief quip about intelligence as well as i can. the pith-lovers will really hate me if i try again. i never really even quite said what your asking me to defend again! So i'll stop while i'm behind! So there, but it was my idea, not yours! :)

Sounds like you agree with me about intelligence. Good for you--that's very intelligent of you. I definitely consider you my intellectual equal! (uh oh, i can feel the come-back to that one) :)

i'm sure there are all kinds of reasons some people get conned and others don't. 'gullible' has so many entries in the thesoaurus that it takes up 50 pages all by itself. look it up!

i'm not even sure i disagree with you about anything, duncan, intellectually equally or otherwise, and i will definitely keep my eyes peeled for a history of the IQ tests. sounds interesting.



Posted by: Not Exactly at May 25, 2009 10:28 AM