Propaganda


ReevaIt will not come as a surprise to hear that the front page of The Sun bears a gigantic image of a half-naked woman. She pouts towards the viewer, with one hand playing with her streams of blonde hair and the other toying with the string of fabric that sits between her ample breasts. Something distinguishes this particular bombshell. She is dead.

In an unsurprising yet nonetheless gruesome move the U.K’s bestselling newspaper has decided to illustrate its coverage of the slaying of Reeva Steenkamp at the hands of her boyfriend, Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, with a huge photo of the woman in a bikini. I was already growing tired of articles that simply referred to her as “his model girlfriend”. True, the status of the killer is the reason for the death to be newsworthy but you’d think the victim deserved to be named. These dubious moral standards, though, seem almost saintly in comparison with The Sun’s leering, near-necrophiliac exploitation of her body.

This depraved opportunism sits within a long tradition of Sun front pages. The most notorious are, of course, the sneer of “GOTCHA” with which it announced the sinking of the Belgrano and the deaths of hundreds of young Argentines, and the headline of “THE TRUTH” beneath which it announced a pack of lies about Hillsborough. Last year’s entry into its abhorrent annals was a gigantic photo of the mutilated corpse of Gaddafi, above which a headline roared “THAT’S FOR LOCKERBIE”. Grotesque as it is to be so celebratory over anyone’s mutilated carcass, the fact that we still have no good idea of who was behind the 1998 bombing made this especially toxic.

One can fret too much about the tabloids. The fact is that while papers like The Times and The Guardian sell fewer copies they are read by people who are far more influential. Broadsheet readerships tend to be smaller but more select and, thus, the mistruths and illusions they promote are more dangerous. It is nonetheless disturbing to observe the gallons of sewage with which the tabloids flood the middle and lower classes.

One almost forgets that their supposed reason for existence is to provide news. Their raison d’etre is blind fear and futile resentment: exploiting rather than informing popular concerns and giving readers the impression of abject powerlessness. The Sun, then, promoted frightening yet fictitious stories of terrorist plots such as “Al-Qaeda…fitting women suicide bombers with fake breasts that explode” and screamed “TRAITORS” when MPs failed to back the domineering measures held to be essential in coping with the exaggerated threat. Such is their disdain for the truth and their readership that even the buxom lasses on the third page are organs of propaganda. In 2004, Zoe, 22, from London, expressed the opinion that “the world is better off without Saddam”. Thanks.

The soullessness extends beyond political reportage. The Daily Mail, for example, and its online empire, is noted for its exploitation of celebrities. The replacement of coverage of influential people with that of famous individuals is depressing for its vacuity but its obtrusiveness and prurience is also grim due to the callous attitude that The Sun’s front page reflects. So invasive is its portrayal of the stars that it has published 975 articles, all of them crammed with photos, devoted to the six-year-old child of Tom Cruise. This is nothing, though, compared to their plans for the unborn spawn of actress Evan Rachel Wood. This week, to her disgust, they published shots of her ultrasound scan.

I have observed the grim irony that the media institutions which pretend to represent social conservatism are themselves lewd, disrespectful and uncaring. They not only embody these features, though, but are among their foremost promoters in our society. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had cause to detest Rupert Murdoch after he intimidated his employees into publishing the Hitler Diaries, speculated that the brash Australian loathed England and was on a mission to “moronise and americanise the population”. Even if this was not his intention it is, in large part, his achievement.

It is not enough to regret that our newspapers are a Ballardian mishmash of prurience and paranoia. The rot goes deeper. Our television schedules are filled with the vapid exploitativeness of reality programmes the tabloids have tirelessly promoted. Our performers expose and embarrass themselves for the publicity they offer. Our politicians speak in crude soundbites tailored for their headlines. They have bred culture that exists not to enlighten but to degrade: coarsening tongues, dulling minds and hardening hearts. It may be their more sophisticated and pretentious cousins that have helped to formulate the grand ideas that have thrown our society off a reasonable path but it is they that work to ensure that citizens are leering, sneering and often stupefied observers.

I hate adverts. This is hardly an original opinion – hell, I’m sure you feel the same. But while it’s trite to say that they’re repugnant insults to everything good about humankind it’s also true, so let’s hate adverts together.

As explored here, the real exemplars of the advertising method are promotionals based around family life. The consistent message is that families – just like friends, careers, holidays and, indeed, all of existence – are tedious and frustrating things and that the only way to coexist without overmuch pain is to acquire the thing the ad is offering. This is painfully blatant in pre-Christmas promos. Here’s a great example: a shiny, happy advert which essentially asserts that you’ll have a dull and cheerless Christmas if “Santa” fails to bring a Nintendo Wii…

You see that father? Him with the greasy black hair? He would have been thrashing those children with a belt if they hadn’t received the Wii family pack. Do you want to be thrashing your children with a belt? Well then…

Microsoft’s latest suggests that worthwhile family experiences “all start with a Windows 7 PC”. Because having a laugh at the expense of a relative’s dancing literally never happened before Gates and his cronies put out their latest installment of humdrum gadgetry…

The catchphrase of the ad is that it’s “a great time to be a family”. Would it be anal to cite divorce rates nowadays?

What insults me about these godforsaken things is how – can I phrase this without sounding hugely pretentious? No – blind they are to human resourcesfulness. Your mind and body, they imply, aren’t capable of producing entertainment, stimulation and emotional fulfilment. Nah, you need another thing. This runs counter to all notions of human inventiveness and individuality, and – if y’all don’t mind me dropping the “c” word – that sheds a dim light on the whole “capitalism” thing. Liberty, if it means anything, has to mean more than the freedom to dance like a loon before a small, exorbitantly priced box.

As it happens I agree that theories of conspiracy can be entirely ludicrous and, indeed, harmful: the Protocols is a dark example from history, and the odd fantasies that Nick Harding details, which have Starbucks at the centre of a plot of Machiavellian proportions, are modern ones. (And, no, not the true one about them forcing cafés out of business – made-up, anti-semitic ones.) But if you’re to educate people you need an understanding of whether and why a theory is mistaken. And I’m not sure Harding does…

According to one new theory, Muammar Gaddafi was not overthrown because he was a crazed brutal dictator; he was ousted and killed because he was plotting to introduce a new Africa-wide trading currency to threaten the dollar.

Well, I doubt Gaddafi’s green inspired the war in Libya but is Harding implying that to avoid being a conspiraloon you have to accept the state’s rationale for war? That he was “ousted and killed” for being a “crazed brutal dictator”? Well, gee, I’m not entirely sure why they invaded Libya but if we believed our governments’ justifications Iraq was invaded for its WMDs; Grenada was liberated from the incoming Communists; the mujaheddin were freedom fighters who deserved support; Cambodia was never bombed and Vietnam had to be fought because the Maddox was attacked. (A brief note for those who’ve never liked the whole “sarcasm” thing: none of those were true.)

My point – again – is that opponents of supposed conspiracy theorising tend to understate the evident duplicity of institutions. (Never mind the more, er – disputable duplicity!) Thus, from such unreasonably trusting premises they’ll never educate the folk who’ve drawn irrationally grave conclusions. And, besides, they’ll let those institutions get away with it.

I’ll admit that Harding’s done some research, though. I’ve never experienced this corker…

…according to studies, belief in one theory suggests believers will accept other unrelated theories. So if you believe Disney planted subliminal messages about sex in the movie The Lion King, you are also likely to believe mobile phone GPS technology is used by the government to monitor citizens, or that the Wingdings font included with Windows has been used to send hidden messages.

I’ve sung the opening vocals from The Lion King since I was 3 and never worked out the lyrics. On hearing this theory, though, it struck me that they could be “arse and wanger”. No, I’ve not gone mad, I know they’re not, but I’ll still hear that every time it’s sung. Ah, there’s another section of my childhood spoiled.

It’s a shame that Joe Frazier, who passed away this week, has been defined as an opponent of Muhammad Ali. Having said that, I’m afraid I’ve read the same dictionary.

Throughout the men’s rivalry Ali would mock Frazier as an ugly and dim-witted oaf. Any one of these ensures you’re eminently punchable, but the Lousville Lip went further – charging Frazier of being an Uncle Tom; a pawn of the white man. This was crap, and hypocritical crap as well. Not just because Ali was a pawn of black supremacists, the Nation of Islam, but as in building hype around the non-existent racial element he was commodifying the black experience for the sake of — well, whoever profited, it wasn’t families in Harlem. Don’t get me wrong – Ali was a genius in entertainment and marketing as well as in the ring. Those three fights wouldn’t have been a quarter as thrilling if they’d shaken hands and exchanged salutations before the opening bell. But that doesn’t excuse him as a man – though, of course, his apologies would go some way towards doing that – or stop it from being evidence of how cautious one should be when someone claims to have identified a political conflict where it seems personal. Such claims appeal to the tribal element within us, and encourage people to choose sides not from their observations but on their allegiances.

Their third fight, in which a blinded Frazier was forced to quit after taking Ali to what felt like and wasn’t far from the brink of death, was a novel-worthy case of a bully getting humbled. Frazier, though, as shown in the splendid documentary Thriller in Manila, harboured a painful grudge for decades afterwards. I’ve no wish to sound like your teacher but I guess we can infer something about the destructive influence of bullies. Maybe. Or whatever.

I don’t really care about Occupy LSX (though it is a bad name). That’s not to say one shouldn’t care about it – I’m not saying my carelessness is a thing of virtue – it’s just there are lots of things worth caring about in the world and this one’s passed me by. For now. I’ll say this, though – it bemuses me that people seem to spend far more time going over the rights and wrongs and goings on of and at the occupation than they do reflecting on the causes it’s rooted in. For example, there has been a strange obsession with the C of E’s responses. I like the Church of England. I love their churches and I don’t mind their Anglicanism. Still, face it guys, they’re about as relevant as Leeds United. And while it’s clearly of interest to the protestors whether they’re allowed to stay or not, if the debate is focused on this question their protest will be defined not by its aims but by its mere existence. Might as well be challenging the price of spam.

I guess my point is that in today’s culture meta-arguments have a tendency to drain interest from real ones. So, as far as I can see, you’re more likely to find people discussing whether it’s consistent for an anti-capitalist to buy a latte from Starbucks than debating what the hell we’ll do with the banks. This has, to varying extents, affected every protest movement I can remember. From a propagandist’s eyes this would be valuable inasmuch as – paraphrasing Pynchon – it can get people answering the wrong questions. There are, it seems to me, also unconscious human tendencies behind it. The internal questions of a protest or movement tend to be much easier to comprehend than the external questions it’s grappling with. With everyone – even people as crude and uninformed as broadsheet columnists – apparently obliged to cleave to views on everything these days they’re easier to grasp and to propound. They also give a clear sense of being “for” or “against” something. It’s easier to “yay” or “nay” at chilly campers huddled at St Paul’s than come to a substantive opinion on the economy.

Internal, and external, critique is necessary, yes. You can’t promote a cause without a vehicle and you’ll have to work with others to decide the form this vehicle should take and the direction it should head in. (And, indeed, you might decide a cause is so malign that you need to take steps to impede its vehicle.) But it’s easy to forget that we don’t ride these vehicles for the beauty of it but because we hope that they’ll take us somewhere.

Savour this, from 2003…

Tony Blair today derided as “conspiracy theories” accusations that a war on Iraq would be in pursuit of oil, as he faced down growing discontent in parliament at a meeting of Labour backbenchers and at PMQs.

Now, wrap your chops round this, from the one-time US ambassador John Bolton…

…critical oil and natural gas producing region that we fought so many wars to try and protect our economy from the adverse impact of losing that supply or having it available only at very high prices.

Bitter taste, huh?

Meanwhile, Senator Lindsay Graham offers a portrait of the U.S.’s thinking in terms of the war in Libya…

Let’s get in on the ground. There is a lot of money to be made in the future in Libya. Lot of oil to be produced.

Is it a good or bad thing that politicians are revealing their lowest motives rather than being exposed? On the one hand, it’s nice that their existence is unarguable. On the other, if they keep this up they’ll put investigative journalists onto the dole.

Anyway, insisting that an argument is a “conspiracy theory” – as I’ve written, at some length – is often a nifty tactic used by people who’d like to make plausible and relevant ideas seem foolish and esoteric. Now, though, it seems that many powermongers don’t feel obliged to ridicule or even dispute the “war for oil” theses. They’re just like, “Yeah. So?” Perhaps the growing awareness of the shaky state of oil production means they doubt that people will be taken in. On the other hand, perhaps they think that fears regarding oil consumption mean that people will be more likely to tolerate a war if it’s for oil than something they can’t use.

I sympathise with people who people who think refrains like “war for oil” are a tad simplistic, by the way. But an act can have more than one intention. I don’t go to the pub for its spiced rum alone but I doubt I’d go if they took it off the menu.

So, Tunisia’s rare secularist majority will nonetheless be ruled by Ennahda. I don’t, at present, have a lot to add to last week’s comments. I’m just sad to hear it.

Someone who’s elated is George Galloway. I thought I’d said my last words on the man after – for want of a better phrase – becoming “indecent”. The trouble with the criticism of him, though, wasn’t that it was unfair – by and large – but that it was irrelevant. He’s even more irrelevant now but, still, unpleasantness deserves to be rebuked sometimes merely for being unpleasant…

They “should” choose them because their founder is “kind“? Jesus, George, if you’re going to lecture foreigners on who they should elect to rule their home you could at least give decent reasons.

There is a tendency – not restricted to “the Left” – to admire the strength of will and clarity of purpose of Islamists. (I doubt such people would endorse the consequences of their ideologies, but they do overlook them.) Their dogmatism is, to them, a sign of character and their contrary attitudes are a sign of independence. This seems especially attractive when they’re in conflict with imperialist states but for some this isn’t necessary. It’s a veneration of strong leadership; the kind of authoritarian instinct that makes a campaign seem attractive not because of its policies but because of its “brave” commander.

So, I was a train station the other day (among my favourite in-between-places places) and saw an advert for a granola bar that claimed its makers wanted “to increase deliciousness by 200%” and, thus, “put two bars in each pack”. “Shouldn’t that be 100%?” I thought, before informing several friends of the amusing idiocy of the ad. Then it struck me. Up and down the land this conversation was liable to be taking place…

“So, they thought doubling the product made it 200% more delicious?”

“Yes! The fools!”

“Indeed. And what was the product?”

“It’s a kind of granola bar…”

“What’s that? A sort of sweet, chewy mix of baked oats and honey?”

“Yeah, something like that…”

“Mmm…”

They had, in other words, created a rubbish advert that – thanks to naive souls like me – was a damned effective one. Is there no limit to these peoples’ villainy? They leave me with no choice but to discredit their product with the only tool I have available…

Well, if I’m going to cash in on Noam Chomsky’s market it’s about time I produced some media criticism. Have you ever curled up with your loved ones, before the tele, and realised that every other advert is devoted to assaulting you with the overt message that family life is a tiresome and joyless experience, only rendered bearable by the consumption of goods? Here, for example, we learn that your relatives are a tiresome load of a miscreants – a source of frustration and shame, whose grim reality must be obscured with nifty software…

In fact, they’re such a chore that you might as well remain in your separate rooms – disassociated from eachother – with, of course, nifty gadgets…

And the least said about this glimpse into Hell the better…

But, oddly enough, it’s when they try and be heartwarming that they’re most hideous. Because, after all, you can’t have a happy situation that’s inspired by affection for one another – it has to have been provoked by some kind of product. So, this dear old Mother thinks her sons are coming to home see her. In reality she’s being used for her sausages…

The core theme of 99% of adverts is that one can’t be secure or fulfilled without the thing it’s offering. In that sense, each one is a calculated insult to humanity.

This is the Sun’s front-page reaction to the terrorist atrocities in Norway…

Now, the murderer is said to have been blonde and Nordic. He could (read, could) have been a convert to Islam. (Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that people used these features as a stick with which to beat the people who’d assumed it was a Muslim. Blonde, Nordic people can embrace Islam too, y’know!) Still, there’s no evidence of this. None at all. And, while absence of evidence ain’t evidence of absence, there’s nothing to suggest it was Al Qaeda. Not an informational sausage. The idea – though not impossible – doesn’t come close to meriting a great big, scary headline.

It’s funny, really, after such controversy over their methods of obtaining information, to see papers merrily indulging in their favoured pastime of making it up. Doubtless, they’ll issue an apology if it turns out it wasn’t Al Qaeda but a lone villain or a member of a different group. (On page 61, below a story on Katie Price’s nose job or tax rates in Uzbekistan.) By then, however, as we saw yesterday, the damage will be done

The effect of misinformation on memory and reasoning cannot be completely eliminated, even after it has been corrected numerous times, say Australian psychologists.

Assistant Professor Ullrich Ecker and colleagues from The University of Western Australia outline their findings in a recent article published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .

Ecker says this effect, known as ‘continued influence effect of misinformation’, occurs even if the retraction itself is understood, believed, and remembered.

Update: According to the Norwegian police it was a neo-Nazi, not an Islamist. Shameful.

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