From: Z Magazine Online, October 2007 Volume 20 Number 10
By Dave Brichoux
Rather than telling the truth about U.S. actions in other people’s countries, mainstream media present us with a false picture, a patriotized history. In this imaginary world, U.S. actions have the same five characteristics regardless of place or time. They are:
- self-sacrificing (not for selfish U.S. interests)
- benevolent (intended to help the people of the target country)
- self-defensive (never aggressive)
- freedom-pushing (trying to force others to be democracies)
- legal (possessed of legitimate authority)
We can call these five the core myths of patriotized history. Events and facts from real history that show U.S. behavior as opposite to these five myths get removed or redefined as their own opposites, so that the message, the meaning conveyed by the texts, always conforms to them.
One reason patriotized history is so powerful is that it is rarely delivered directly. A lie is most vulnerable when it is held up for examination as an explicit claim. This encourages listeners to consider whether they agree or not, whether they know enough to agree or disagree, and even to do some research and find out the facts. By contrast, if the lie is slipped into the conversation as if it were something we all already know to be true and agree upon as a matter of course, it is likely to go unchallenged. It is even more convincing if it is the implied, but unspoken message. Strongest of all is if it is implied in the negative, by its absence.
Message Stated As A Claim
Consider the following text: “This is no different than if a police officer in this country is shot at…. You would take into custody the person doing the shooting,” said Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesperson for the U.S. Central Command (Craig Gordon, “U.S. Admits Raid Went Awry,” Newsday, February 7, 2002).
The message here is that the U.S. military in Afghanistan is the legitimate authority, like a police force at home in its own country; the patriotic change here is an authority shift. But by stating it directly as a claim, Mills foolishly encourages us to evaluate it and to think about whether we would agree that Afghan troops occupying our country and shooting us if we resisted should be seen as legitimate an authority as our own police (whose bosses we can unelect), or whether we would consider them criminals. Because it encourages us to question the authority shift by presenting it directly as a claim, this is the weakest sort of delivery technique there is; a mainstream media editor would be unlikely to make this sort of mistake. (Note that the message is weaker because it is presented by a member of the U.S. government and as part of a justification for U.S. behavior. It would have been far stronger presented in a critique by someone who wasn’t part of the U.S. government.)
Message Stated As If We
Already Knew It
Other techniques present the message to us as if it were something we already knew to be true: “The great supporters of human rights during the Cold War now quite readily either roll them back in their own countries or encourage others to do so and turn a blind eye” said Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s secretary general. (Jane Wardell, “Int’l Rights Group Slams U.S.; Amnesty International: U.S. War On Terror Has Heightened Insecurity,” CBS News, May 28 2003).
The article says Khan is talking about the U.S. and Britain, so the patriotic message here is that during the Cold War, the U.S. was a supporter of human rights. This is a standard U.S. act removal. It is stated directly, but not as a claim. Instead, it is treated as if it were something we already knew to be true. This makes it stronger and less likely to be examined than if it were presented as a claim.
In unpatriotized history, of course, the U.S. was a great enemy of human rights during the Cold War; it overthrew democratic regimes with relatively good human rights records, replaced them with the world’s most horrible dictatorships, supported dictators who tortured huge numbers of people all over the world for decades, and did a lot of torturing itself. It used sexual torture, especially administering electric shocks to the genitals, common practice for U.S. soldiers interrogating the people of South Vietnam. It also used slivers under the fingernails, pushing people out of helicopters to their deaths, imprisonment in tiny cages or barbed wire coffins so small that the prisoners couldn’t move without puncturing themselves, and many other techniques. These are documented by the U.S. troops who did them. U.S. support for its client torturers is also documented by Amnesty International. But there is no way a reader of this text could ever get this impression, given the way the message is expressed. The message is also much stronger because it is presented in a criticism of U.S. foreign policy.
The title of the article above uses the same technique when it refers to the “U.S. War On Terror.” Put this way, the text makes it appear as if we all understood already that the U.S. opposes terror as a method, something that is manifestly false.
Consider the following discussion question presented by PBS: “Join the discussion: Are U.S. efforts to bring democracy to Iraq ill-conceived? Or is it a mission vital to America’s national interests? What should the U.S. mission in Iraq be?” (PBS, “Frontline,” February 12, 2004).
The message of this text is that the U.S. is trying to bring democracy to Iraq, an obvious falsehood and a reversal of the definition of democracy. Democracy (in unpatriotized definitions) says that the citizens rule and have the power to remove, in elections, those who wield the power of life and death over them. The U.S. is killing the citizens of Iraq, the very people that democracy says are to be the rulers. It is also controlling Iraqi skies, spying on the citizens with remote-controlled drones, targeting those who resist U.S. domination, and trying to establish mechanisms of future U.S. domination of Iraq, including U.S. client status for “Iraqi” military and police whose job will be to target “insurgents” (i.e. Iraqis) rather than to defend Iraq from foreign powers, such as the U.S. No one is talking about allowing Iraqis to vote and run in elections for the U.S. government, despite the fact that democracy says these U.S. actions give them that right—and this is just counting the evidence that is openly available in the very sources that claim this is democratization.
Despite all of the obvious evidence to the contrary, the text establishes the idea that the U.S. is trying to bring democracy to Iraq as the basis for discussion, as the fundamental “truth” that all sides are expected to agree upon before they start arguing (about other things). Noam Chomsky’s observation comes to mind: “Controversy may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encouraged within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns” (Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, South End Press, 1989).
Message Directly Implied, But Unstated
An even stronger delivery technique is when the message is not stated at all, but is directly implied by the text: “The Israelis consider the area a Jerusalem suburb and Palestinians consider it occupied territory” (Mike Hanna and Andrea Koppel, “Palestinians, Israelis trade attacks; tanks sent to West Bank,” CNN, July 19, 2001).
The authority shift here is unstated, but directly implied: if it is a Jerusalem suburb, then it isn’t occupied territory. The text implies that even the Palestinians think this. In other words, Jerusalem belongs to Israel and not to the Palestinians. This sort of delivery places the lie in the same “already understood to be true” category as the Amnesty and PBS quotes above do, but it goes them one better by making the lie itself unstated, although it is implied.
There are many similar examples. Often the message is not implied according to the rules of formal logic, which say that just because A implies B, it does not follow that not-A implies not-B. But in English, the implication is often there. Consider the following authority shifts:
- “Hundreds of other Iraqis have been seized since the war, often, according to critics, on flimsy suspicion, and held for long periods without charge, usually without their families knowing for weeks where they are” (Jonathan Steele, “Red Cross ultimatum to U.S. on Saddam,” the Guardian, June 14, 2004).
- “The United States is investigating whether the estimated 18 people killed during the Special Forces raid included friendly forces…. Karzai told the Washington Post this week he believes the United States did kill some innocents in the raid” (Craig Gordon, “U.S. Admits Raid Went Awry,” Newsday, February 7, 2002).
- “Although there is no official death toll of civilians in the war in Afghanistan and its aftermath, the human-rights group Global Exchange surveyed 11 provinces last year and determined that at least 800 innocent people had been killed” (Kim Barker, “Errant U.S. bomb kills 11 in family,” Chicago Tribune, April 10, 2003).
The message of all the above quotes is the same. If these citizens really were fighting the U.S. conquests of their countries, that would be a crime, and the U.S. would be committing no crime by capturing or killing them. The minute U.S. troops enter another country, the non- friendly citizens become non-innocent and the U.S. automatically has the authority to capture or kill them and the U.S. crime becomes the standard of legality. The power of this sort of message is also increased because it is often delivered in criticism of the U.S.
The four examples above all establish a practice as normal by saying that the U.S. (Israel, in one case) might have gone beyond it. (Has Israel taken something that was not part of Jerusalem? Has the U.S. captured or killed people who were not resisting the U.S. domination of their country?) By talking about going beyond it, the text makes the practice, which is actually a violation of standard norms, appear as the standard of ordinariness. Israel’s possession of Jerusalem, the U.S. killing or capturing of citizens who resist it in Afghanistan and Iraq now becomes the background norm because the text highlights the question of whether the U.S. (or Israel) might have violated it.
The strongest delivery techniques of all are those that rely upon complete omission. In these techniques, the message is delivered not by direct statement and not even by direct implication, but by the absence of the myth-violating events in presentations.
It is possible to omit an event in a way that not only keeps the reader’s attention off of it as a possibility, but also manages to imply that it could never have happened. This is done by discussing a topic in a way that points directly at the spot where the event would have to have been shown if it had happened and then not mentioning it. Consider the introduction to a Newsweek story on the question of U.S. torture since 2001: “Interrogators have pondered the uses of torture for centuries. During the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago, priests obtained the desired results by placing infidels on the rack but had less success with sleep deprivation, which, after three or four days, seemed only to induce hallucinations. Torture still works to extract the truth in the movies and on TV shows like the popular ‘24,’ but not in real life, say the experts. A prisoner who has his fingernails pulled out or his genitals shocked will say (and make up) anything to make the pain stop.
“Real-world choices are less black and white. Less violent but still coercive techniques can sometimes be effective. These ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques, like placing a smelly hood over a prisoner and making him stand or squat naked for hours in a cold and dark room, are called ‘torture lite.’ In modern times, these tactics have been used by British intelligence to unravel the command structure of the IRA and by the Israelis to stop Palestinian suicide bombers.
“Since 9/11, torture lite has been used by the Americans in the war on terror” (Thomas, Evan and Michael Hirsh, “The Debate Over Torture,” Newsweek, November 21, 2005).
The message here is that the U.S. didn’t practice or support the sort of torture “heavy” (not “lite”) that it did in places like South Vietnam and that it supported all over the world. The text points right at the spot where such information should have been mentioned if it were true, by mentioning the exact torture methods favored by the U.S. and by doing so in the context of an article about U.S. torture. But then it doesn’t mention the fact that the U.S. did this, thus implying that it didn’t. The information is so directly relevant at this point that the only way it could be unmentioned is if it never happened. But it did happen. I call this technique “denial by omission” and consider it quite powerful because it manages to thoroughly deny the truth without focusing the reader’s attention on the denial, thus avoiding the questioning and fact-checking that denials ordinarily invite.
Another example of this technique was provided by TV Guide during the 2003 conquest of Iraq. In an article on how to “help you help your kids understand” the war, TV Guide offered the advice of Dr. Stuart Goldman, who suggested that children be told “something along these lines” when they ask, “Why are we at war?” “When a country or the rulers of the country break big rules and hurt a lot of people and won’t stop, even though other people try to get them to stop, sometimes a country will send their soldiers in to force those bad people to follow the rules. Nobody wants to do it, but sometimes it’s needed to make the world safe for everybody” (Mark Lasswell, “Kids & the Television War,” TV Guide, April 12-18, 2003).
By speaking about “break[ing] big rules,” and “hurt[ing] a lot of people,” this text points right at the place where mention would (in un- patriotized speech) have been made of the fact that the U.S. was now and had been breaking the big rules. It had used the UN inspections in Iraq as cover for illegal activities (gathering information to use in overthrowing the government rather than disarmament), supported a coup attempt (foiled by the Iraqi government), repeatedly misled the inspectors, supported al Wifaq blowing things up in Iraq, attacked Iraq repeatedly without even the permission of the absurdly subservient UNSC, and openly declared that the sanctions would not be lifted (regardless of Iraqi compliance) without regime change in Iraq—and of course the current invasion was itself very illegal. As far as hurting a lot of people goes, most relevant are the sanctions themselves, maintained due to U.S. pressure, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths they caused. Yet the text doesn’t mention these facts, thus implying that they could not be true, since the context points right at them.
Consider the following excerpt from an article about Guatemala: “President Bush is scheduled to visit next week, and American diplomats say the lack of public security here is near the top of his agenda…. The squads of rogue officers, human rights experts and others say, are in a sense an outgrowth of Guatemala’s long internal conflict. Some former military officers who came of age during the bloody counterinsurgency operations of the 1980’s are members of the new rogue squads, according to human rights experts and opposition politicians…[engaged in] the old practices of assassination and terrorism….
“Erwin Sperisen, the national police chief…said, he has not been able to purge the 19,000-member force of officers who came from the two main police forces that controlled the country during the civil war and were schooled in torture and assassination.
“‘One has to break with this kind of schooling,’ he said” (James C. McKinley, Jr., “In Guatemala, Officers’ Killings Echo Dirty War,” New York Times, March 5, 2007).
No reader of this article would get the impression that it was the U.S. that overthrew democracy there and set up the dictatorships and supported the terrorist death squad governments because it wanted them to kill the people they were killing. Given the fact that the text does mention the U.S. and its alleged desire for “security,” and also, given that the article speaks quite pointedly about the current situation being a result of the past history, this text constitutes a denial by omission. It isn’t really possible for a reader to believe that the U.S. could be responsible for all this and yet not be mentioned in this context.
Omission also works when the text doesn’t point so directly at the place where the omitted fact would belong: “Despite a turbulent political history, Indonesians finished voting in their first direct election for president early Monday afternoon with no reports of election violence” (“Briefly: Indonesia; Voters Oust President,” Lawrence Journal-World, September 21, 2004).
This text never mentions the U.S. role in helping to shut down democracy in Indonesia 48 years earlier, in supporting the killers and feeding them names during the massacre of 500,000 Indonesians 7 years later, or in supporting the resulting Suharto dictatorship for 3 decades. It doesn’t quite force the implication that these events could never have happened, however, so we can’t really call it denial by omission. The effect is still the nonexistence of the facts in the reader’s mind, however. Readers exposed to such texts would never learn that these things happened. I call this simple omission. It is very common and has powerful results; most of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War is hidden this way, by simply not talking or writing about it.
One reason the system of patriotic lies about history has managed to take hold so strongly is because its falsehoods are presented in indirect ways, rather than as explicit claims to be evaluated. Why they are presented in these ways is an open question. Sometimes it seems fairly deliberate. Consider the many denials-by-omission about U.S. support for Saddam Hussein prior to 1990. This support is well known by the media, so we might assume its omission from many stories is deliberate. But other lies may at times be presented as truths because this is how those who tell them experience them, due to the unquestioned and unquestionable nature of the five core myths. This seems likely to be the case with redefinitions of concepts like democracy.
As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky point out, the “system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus [is] a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness” (Manufacturing Consent).
Uultimately, understanding why the media mislead us is not as important as understanding how they do so and how reality differs from what they tell us.
Dave Brichoux is co-creator (with his brother, Jon) of a website for the analysis of U.S. foreign policy propaganda, www.wausfpp.org. He works as a part-time lecturer in political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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