Friday, August 03, 2012

The Power of Propaganda

I was recently visiting with a friend who is smart, wise, successful, and much older than me. We were just starting our day together and as a topic of discussion I shared my class lineup at the University of Denver this fall (I’m an MA candidate at the Josef Korbel School). One of the classes I am taking there this fall is called modern Islamic political thought.

Thinking my friend was about to further the discussion of Islamic political thought I listened intently to the words that came out of my friend’s mouth. “Egypt’s looking for a new Islamic leader. I say let’s give him ours.”

I might have looked like a deer caught in the headlights for a second while I took these words in, realizing my friend truly wasn’t joking. And then I held a private funeral in my head for the intelligent conversation that was clearly not going to happen.

I played dumb. “I don’t get it,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, that’s a political thought,” my friend said.

I was thinking that to call it a political thought is to give it more merit than it’s due. “What’s a political thought?” I asked.

“That we should give Egypt our Muslim leader,” my friend responded.

“Obama is not a Muslim.” I tried to say this as calmly as possible.

“Oh, he’s not?” My friend responded.

“No, he’s not. And for you to call that idea a political thought isn’t right. It’s absolutely garbage.”

My friend looked taken aback. My stare was intense and I could feel my pulse rise as I waited for a response, but there was none. That was the end of our political discussion for the day. But for the rest of the afternoon I thought about our conversation and I was embarrassed over and over again for my friend. That my friend could believe such a lie, such propaganda, was sickening.

It was my first personal experience with someone who has truly been fed a political lie enough times that in their head the lie has found a permanent home as a supposed truth. This particular lie is often presented as a legitimate concern by right-wing media outlets. On Fox News someone might joke about it, but no one is reprimanded for it, no one speaks up and says, “We are better than that.”

Yesterday’s conversation exhibited the power of this propaganda machine. The lie starts with one person and is then adopted by a cabal, whose only interest is their own, whether it be the political downfall of a certain politician or a desire to stay rich, powerful, and barely taxed, or a combination of these. These people are powerful enough to own TV stations, radio networks, whole news organizations, and they use these assets as hugely powerful tools to present myths and rumors as fact while simultaneously hiding the truth from our eyes. (See Roger Ailes and Donald Trump.) Gradually, the lie spreads across the audience, who might have even dismissed it as ridiculous the first time they heard it or read it (I hope my friend did at least that). But the saturation and the never-ceasing tide of money coming from the wealthiest Americans has proved itself strong enough to hold hostage the intellectual and independent-thinking abilities of many Americans. (See the continuing belief by some that Obama isn’t American or that Obama is a Muslim.)

One of the more popular lies among the Right (although, to clarify, it’s not a lie for them) is to compare the Obama administration to that of the Third Reich. Yes, the same propaganda machine that convinced my friend that Obama is a Muslim, would also have you believe Obama harbors a secret agenda of spreading national socialism across America.

Nothing about Obama’s policies has ever evoked, for me, a whisper of Nazi Germany. In fact, it was the conversation with my friend that had me contemplating many a table conversation in 1930s Germany, when it might have been shared by a friend or family member that they had joined the Nazi party to the absolute dismay of anyone at the table who had a brain. I am not calling anyone a Nazi here. If you want to see that, watch a week of Fox News and you’ll see someone hint, at least once, that an Obama policy is strikingly familiar to one of Hitler’s policies. No, I am referencing the power of propaganda. The Nazis certainly mastered it and both the Right and the Left have adopted some of their strategies. But now, at this point in America’s history, I think it’s clear that the Right’s propaganda machine is churning out a lot of lies and doing whatever it takes to shift the mantle of power back to their side by spreading fear and angst that we have a president who is not American, but also a president who is a secretive Muslim who is colluding with Islamic nations across the world in order to favor that religion’s interests.

I am in awe of the propaganda machine and its ability to convince smart people that they most adopt such vacuous ideas. Next time, don’t consume the lies. Instead, try to do the thinking yourself. 

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