Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Art of Propaganda and Democracy

American president Abraham Lincoln’s famous over simplification of democracy as a form of government of the people, by the people, for the people very much impressed his limited audience at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Then it was the media, the State propaganda machinery that articulated and quoted the one-liner again and again until the people of America were convinced of the ‘beauty’ of democracy. To the common people, Lincoln’s one-line definition of democracy was more touching and understandable than the lengthy discourses and voluminous books on democracy produced by academicians and democrats across the globe.
But it was not long before a section of American people questioned and challenged the ‘beauty’ of democracy. By 1930’s the challenges to American democracy or for that matter all across Europe became more vocal and threatening. By the time of the infamous Great Depression, labour organisations had already became a reality in America, much to the discomfort of the Government of the United States of America. It was at this juncture, the State propaganda machinery was pressed into a massive and hectic campaign to quieten the social unrest and straighten the political ‘disorientation’.
We are focusing on the United States for it was this country who pioneered the public relations industry and perfected the propaganda machinery. The first modern Government propaganda operation began during the time of president Woodrow Wilson, right in the height of the World War I. Though Woodrow Wilson was elected president on the platform ‘peace without victory’, his administration was committed to join the war then raging in Europe. But as Naom Chomsky said the American population was extremely pacifistic at that time and they saw no reason to become involved in the European War. The Wilson administration was well aware of the people’s feeling. Knowing well the disastrous repercussions that would result at home from going to the war on its own, the US Government set up a propaganda commission under the name, Creel Commission. Within six months, the Commission succeeded in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German. Actually, much of the strategy and methods adopted by the Creel Commission was invented by the British propaganda Ministry whose own commitment at that time was to ‘direct the thought of most of the world’. The effect of the propaganda campaign was so decisive that Hitler and many others emulated similar campaigns later, extending up to this day. This was a particular case of a propaganda campaign undertaken by a State during war-time. But the fact is State propaganda machinery is kept milling all the time for democracy survives on propaganda.
Propaganda : The saviour of democracy
To cover up the myriad failures of a State and ward off a rebellion or an uprising and calm down a protest movement, a continuous propaganda is necessary. To divert public attention from a genuine issue, and to manufacture public consent, propaganda is indispensable. Viewed from this perspective, the saying ‘media is the fourth estate of democracy’ is exactly true. But Yenning is not certain enough about its veracity in other areas of public administration. Though it is understood that media is a tool of forming public opinion, the State often uses it as an instrument of shaping public opinion and misinformation.
In a totalitarian State or a military State, threats and brute force are used to ‘discipline’ the public mind and keep them in line with the State policies. In more liberal and democratic society, the brute force is replaced by well articulated and sustained propaganda campaign to instill in public mind that the State policies are most suited to public interests and that any one challenging or questioning them are anti-social. The sweeping power of propaganda campaign was reflected well in overcoming the Vietnam Syndrome. Intellectuals sponsored by the United States Government defined Vietnam Syndrome as ‘the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force’. There were these sickly inhibitions on the part of a larger section of American public. They just did not understand why they should go on torturing and killing people around the world and carpet-bombing foreign lands. However, the US Government justified its actions saying that these were noble and necessary deeds. They said they were bombing South Vietnam to defend the helpless people of South Vietnam ! When the American people were caught in a similar ‘sickly inhibitions’ during the Gulf War hysteria, the Washington Post put it rather proudly the need to instill in people respect for ‘martial value’.
With billions of dollar pumped into its public relations or rather propaganda department every year, the United States was fairly successful in justifying its military (mis)adventures in foreign lands. The United States was able to drag scores of countries to fight its own wars in the name of world democracy. This was glaringly visible in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan etc, in the aftermath of Al Qaeda’s daring attack on the mighty USA on September 11, 2001. The American propaganda machinery is so powerful and influential that it could justify killing millions of Vietnamese and thousands of Iraqis in the name of saving democracy whereas it could easily dub anything targeting American interest as ‘terrorism’.
It’s not only the United States, though theirs is the most powerful. Almost all the countries around the world have their propaganda machinery constantly milling edifice after edifice of lies upon lies misinforming their own people and others.
India is no exception. While conveniently covering up all its failures, the Government of India is projecting itself as working for the poor by constantly highlighting in media its programmes and ‘achievements’. Here, we can look at the cases of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, farmers’ debt waiver schemes etc. The Indian information and public relations (or propaganda) machinery is quite effective in deceiving its own people. The poor rural masses are singing praises of the Indian State for introducing NREGS while nobody questions why the poor mass should be given only Rs 85 or so for a day’s work. Nobody questions if any family can survive on a meagre wage of Rs 85 per day, guaranteed for only 100 days in a year. Nobody questions its irony particularly when the salaries of the employees of the Government of India have been fattened considerably and the cost of living heightened to the zenith.
Everyone patted the Government for the farmers debt waiving scheme but nobody asked why farmers committed suicide and why such a scheme became a necessity at the first place. It all sounds like strangling the poor mass, intermittently releasing the grip to allow them breathe so as not to cause death but keep them in permanent submission. The State propaganda machinery is actively engaged in misinforming the public and is quite effective in befooling the general public to believe that the State is there for their welfare and it is not responsible for the cycle of misery wrapping larger section of the people.
The State propaganda machinery is performing additional but crucial tasks in areas like Manipur where there are armed conflicts. The local media are often fed wrong or misleading information. The local media carried this as ‘official version’. The interesting part is that such official versions are often incompatible or contradictory to the local versions as reported in the same media. The tragedy is that the official versions often turned out untrue. This was testified undeniably by the July 23 Khwairamband killings. The official version ran like this ‘Sanjit killed Rabina while fleeing away from police and he was killed by police commandos in encounter minutes later’. And now every one knows how untrue it was. Thanks to Tehelka and the unknown photographer.
This was one single incident of a failed propaganda. But hundreds and hundreds of misleading propagandas would have passed off as ‘gospel truth’. Yenning said ‘gospel truth’ for nobody dared to question its veracity though many might be suspecting them. It is anybody’s guess how many cold-blooded killings have been presented as real encounters, all by the false propaganda.
Despite the vastly influential and coercive power of the State propaganda, dissidence or resistance against unpopular policies is slowly gaining ground. This was reflected well in popular movements against environmentally disastrous projects. The anti-Tipaimukh dam movement is one such case in point.The fact is that the incessant propaganda of the State to project Tipaimukh Dam as the future fountain-head of progress and development has failed to win people’s consent. The State going ahead with its plan forcibly without public consent is another matter. Nevertheless, the State propaganda machinery is effective enough to keep at bay a massive protest movement powerful enough to upset the State plan. This implies that the State propaganda machinery has succeeded in winning some sections of the people with its promises of a better future via the Tipaimukh Project though it is grappling to conceal the devastating demerits of the project.Beware, the propaganda machinery is always at work.
Posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, September 13, 2009

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