September 13, 2015
It’s an old story, of course -- the way propaganda always seeks to replace history -- but it’s one that has been brought freshly to my attention over the past couple months. It pushes itself back into my attention whenever I have conversations with friends and acquaintances and am forced to see how much of what they think about the past is made up of stories devised by people whose goal was manipulation.
The hold which truth has on the sentiments of humans is dismally weak.
There’s a recurring incident in football games, in which a portion of an action is taken as the whole, that symbolizes a key tactic of propaganda. One player will do something really nasty to another, like grabbing his face mask and twisting it after a play is over. The second player, in frustration and anger, will lash back at the twister and shove him vigorously. A referee will see only the shove and not the twist, and penalize the player who was actually the first assaulted. The referee is -- innocently, I suppose -- erroneously defining when the action started and basing his moral decision on the error.
In football, that’s a minor injustice and doesn’t amount to much. But in history such a sequence can have disastrous consequences, particularly when the referee is replaced by a propagandist who purposefully chooses the point when the action started and even more purposefully works to ignore and cover up everything that happened earlier.
I’ve been thinking of the analogy recently as I’ve listened to the great argument about the agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons. It has become an established factoid in the United States that Iran is an immoral nation with vicious motives and practices. In one sense that’s a truism, because all nations have at times harbored vicious motives and carried out vicious acts. But clearly what’s being said about Iran in the United States is not simply that it’s like all other nations. Rather the charge is that Iran is especially vicious and near the bottom of the list of nations with respect to morality.
The Western propagandists’ choice for the beginning of everything in Iran is 1979, when the Shah lost control and fled the country. A new government was established, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had headed the resistance in exile. Later that same year, a mob attacked the U.S. Embassy, and took more than sixty people hostage. Undoubtedly, it was a shocking act, one that deserved condemnation. But it was not inexplicable, as it tended to be treated in the U.S. media. It did not rise out of the nature of evil (that phony concept) but out of the nature of anger -- anger at what the United States had done to the people of Iran over the past quarter century. The United States had been instrumental in installing the Shah in power, and therefore had responsibility for all the people who had died in the Shah’s torture chambers. Scarcely anyone in the United States either knew or cared much about that. But millions in Iran did. Yet you have to remember that was before the beginning of everything and, consequently, not to be thought about. It’s the curse of a propagandist’s life that some people insist on holding in their minds things they’re not supposed to think about.
Another small thing we’re supposed to wipe out of our minds is an eight-year-long war conducted by our then ally Saddam Hussein against the Iranians, with massive U.S. military support. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers were killed, along with an equal number of Iranian civilians. Chemical weapons, which we proclaim to be morally horrified by, were fine with us then. Iraq used them; Iran did not. History tallies stuff like that; propagandists get out the eraser.
If anyone were trying honestly to calculate the ratio of harm done by us to Iranians since the middle of the twentieth century to the harm done by Iran to us, it would be, at least, a thousand to one. Yet, you see, that’s really not pertinent, our propagandists tell us. And why not? Because we’re good and they’re bad. So if Iranians are trying to get atomic weapons -- which there’s little evidence they are -- that’s because they intend to use them aggressively and not at all because they’re interested in self-defense. Why would they need to be interested in self-defense?
I am not a champion of the Iranian state as it now exists. It’s, at best, a mixed bag. I don’t like theocracies, because they are structured to delude themselves that they can do no wrong. After all, they are acting as the hand of God. I wish all theocracies would vanish from the earth. But I’m not so naïve as to think that only nations denounced by U.S. propaganda are theocratic. There are strong whiffs of theocracy in the concept of American exceptionalism.
History fosters humility. It reminds us that human affairs are very complex, and that all groups have points of view strongly colored by egotism. It also reminds us that the goals of nations are almost never what they are announced to be. The goal of the nation-state -- any nation state -- is not to tell the truth. Propaganda, on the other hand, fosters arrogance. In fact, propaganda cannot exist without attempting to boost arrogance. Its very purpose is to turn some people into the tools of others. When we’re trying to construct a picture of what’s going on in the world we would do well to keep this contrast in mind.
All of us, of course, can decide whether we prefer as realistic a view as possible or one that caters to our own self-approval. That will determine whether we look first to history or listen mainly to propaganda. It’s a personal choice. It tells us who we are.
©John R. Turner
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