Friday, September 17, 2004

Accurate Information vs. "Truth": Politics in the 21st Century

Oct/Nov 04 Grassroots column:

Liberals tend to have an easygoing attitude about letting people "make up their own minds," while conservatives have taken the more realistic perspective that most people, most of the time, have to be told what to think. Relatively few people have the ability to sort through vast quantities of conflicting information and figure out what’s really going on.

For this reason, Republicans have created a remarkably effective propaganda machine (nicknamed "the Mighty Wurlitzer" or simply, "the slime machine") to get their message out to the American people. The Democrats have nothing comparable, which gives the Republicans a significant propaganda advantage.

Here’s one way a theme can make it from the Republican National Committee to the mainstream -- a process that typically takes from a day to a week: First, the RNC decides what needs to be programmed into the mass American psyche. Then they prepare a list of "talking points" and fax them out. These talking points are immediately picked up by Limbaugh et. al., conservative websites, and rightwing media pundits. The themes are discussed endlessly on radio and TV talk shows, culminating with the all-important Sunday morning TV shows such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Since the themes have been talked about so much, they are now "news," and the mainstream corporate media starts reporting them as objective "facts." As we all know, whatever the media says is true. Voila, the process is complete: no matter how harebrained the talking point, it is now taken seriously within what now passes for mainstream discourse.

The RNC strategy can be called "poisoning the well." Information need not be accurate -- the goal is simply to sow doubt and confusion. Sling enough mud, and some of it is bound to stick. Thus: Kerry is a war hero? Then let’s sow doubt about his war record. Bush deserted from the National Guard? Then let’s sow doubt about the key documents. The Arctic is melting? Then let’s sow doubt about global warming. Poisoning the well is easy and effective, but unfortunately bad information drives out the good, and Americans are reduced to a Soviet-style helpless cynicism. There is no longer any standard of truth, since even the most accurate information can and will be countered by lies -- and all but the most intelligent Americans end up hopelessly confused. "I don’t know what to think," says Joe Voter, which is exactly what the Republicans want, because now they can tell Joe exactly what to believe.

It sure pays to have a propaganda machine. For example, it is now part of the folk wisdom that Kerry is a flip-flopper. (Learning from experience means you’re weak and vacillating, but steadfast stupidity means you’re tough and strong.) A couple of months ago ran a brilliant list of Bush’s flip-flops, but this never made it into the mainstream, because the Democrats lack an effective propaganda machine.

This little matter of "truth" is a fascinating subject. As a onetime scientist, I will always believe that at some level, in many situations, there is indeed an objective "truth" -- not in a metaphysical sense, but in terms of the most accurate information we have available to us at the time. Of course, we will always get better information as time goes on, and we are always free to modify our conclusions as we learn more about any situation.

Contrast this with the faith-based belief that there already exists a metaphysical or ideological "Truth." Mere facts that conflict with the "Truth" are either distorted or ignored. And so we end up with needless wars abroad, fascism at home, and a devastated planet. The accurate information is: Bush allowed 9/11 to happen and lied to get us into a war that makes the world radically more dangerous -- but the "Truth" is, we are safer with him as president than Kerry that French flip-flopper. The possibilities are endless, if you have a propaganda machine that allows you to define whatever you want the "Truth" to be. Orwell would be impressed.

Speaking of "Truth," turning the fundamentalist Christians into a disciplined political force was a stunning coup. Fundamentalists, with their unshakable faith in God and their President, are not swayed by mere facts. You can confront them with all the facts you want (WMD lies, Al Ghraib, the whole endless list) and it makes no difference whatsoever. Talk about a rock-solid base.
Further, fundamentalist Christians believe that the apocalypse is coming soon. This creates a perverse feedback loop -- the worse things get (war, famine, torture, terrorism, global warming, and so forth) the more their apocalyptic beliefs are confirmed. "Disasters? Bring them on! The rapture is almost upon us!"

Not surprisingly, this year’s political campaign is a tragic farce, as most of us expected all along. With the well so thoroughly poisoned, the important issues cannot possibly be discussed in any meaningful way. The Republicans sow division, confusion, and fear -- while Kerry desperately tries not to offend the three remaining swing voters. Presumably Kerry has hired the best consultants that money can buy, and can figure out how to overcome the Republican propaganda advantage with a message that works. (As I write this on Sept. 15 the race is close, and things can go either way.)

Lefty intellectuals will never be satisfied with such a campaign, because everything has to be sugar-coated and dumbed down for mass consumption. But that’s the hand we’ve allowed ourselves to be dealt, and we bear ultimate responsibility for not creating an effective way of broadcasting our message about 1980 or so. It’s fabulous that we now have the Air America liberal radio network -- better late than never and all that -- but I wish it had been broadcasting since 1984, not 2004.

So welcome to 21st Century politics. Perception is everything. For example: as we all know, Bush isn’t really a war president -- he just plays one on TV. But thanks to the Mighty Wurlitzer, half the American people consider him a strong leader who will keep us safe and secure -- and that, like it or not, is the "Truth." To paraphrase a Christian bumper sticker: "Bush says it, I believe it, and that settles it." You can’t argue with this kind of thinking. It’s a fight to the finish, and civilization hangs in the balance: they have "Truth," we have accurate information. Whether or not we can use this to our advantage remains to be seen. We will find out soon enough.