Propaganda is a word that has fallen out of fashion. Three generations of American schoolchildren born during the Cold War were taught to be on the lookout for sinister Communist propaganda, but today, a decade-and-a-half after the fall of the Berlin Wall, propaganda is dead and buried, right?
Not so, say the authors of two new books about contemporary propaganda and its savvy use - not by enemies of state but by American presidents themselves.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, who co-wrote Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (Tarcher/Penguin, $11.95) and Micah Ian Wright, author of You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want! (Seven Stories Press, $15.95) go at propaganda in very different ways. Wright's take is subversive, whereas Rampton and Stauber look at the issue head-on. But the worldview that informs both books is the same: If you think your government isn't manipulating you, you're wrong.
"Propaganda is sort of a dirty word," Stauber said in a recent interview. "People identify it with Stalinist Russia or Hitler's Germany. But in dictatorships, fear and torture and repression are the favorite way of maintaining control. It's in democracies like ours where there really is the most propaganda.
"As someone who has written about this for 10 years, I would say that here in the U.S., we're the most propagandized people in the world. But we call it advertising and public relations. Public relations in particular is the most insidious form of propaganda because it's designed to be invisible, and the best propaganda has to be invisible. Otherwise people see through it."
Stauber and Rampton, who made a bit of a splash a few years back with their book Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future, argue that the Bush administration's "perception management" strategies have essentially fooled the American public into supporting an unjust war.
Weapons of Mass Deception will, of course, anger Bush supporters and all others who consider themselves conservatives, but wait: Stauber concedes that our current president is only following in the footsteps of his predecessors, both Republican and Democrat.
"Every administration builds on the previous administration's use of spin and propaganda," Stauber said. "If you look at the history of political propaganda and its use by presidential administrations, there was a real turning point with Reagan, and I would argue that the Reagan administration took propaganda in the White House to a whole new level. For one thing, Ronald Reagan was the creation of professional propagandists. ... Ronald Reagan was primarily an actor who PR geniuses were able to package as a politician."
For Wright, pro-war propaganda is an opportunity for humor. His book, which includes a foreword by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and an introduction by leftist historian Howard Zinn, bears the subtitle "Remixed War Propaganda." That means that Wright has taken old "Support the War Effort" posters and updated them to point out what he views as the absurdities of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Millions of troops are on the move ... All To Protect Your Oil Supply! Is your SUV really worth their lives?" reads one poster that shows hundreds of fresh-faced GIs. Another reads "We're winning, right? So why does this 'War on Terror' seem like the beginning of Vietnam?"
After 9/11, explained Wright, "there was an actual series of ads that came from the National Security Administration, and they were pseudo-World War II propaganda. They all had the same message: 'Information security begins with you,' which is a very essential part of their job - gathering and collecting information, the compilation of data for the NSA.
"The idea that they used these motifs and these themes from World War II struck me as a bit disingenuous. In one, there was a female U.S. sailor looking up and to the right toward the sky while two towers behind her burn. So obviously they're trying to get across 9/11 imagery. So I just started repainting old World War II posters and putting in new text to reflect that kind of mentality."
Wright said his work is a commentary on the way in which the government disburses information - and on the news media that report it.
"When you look at the world around us, I think its painfully obvious that we live in a world where we are being constantly propagandized," Wright said.
Wright's book, and the book by Rampton and Stauber, will evoke strong reactions; Wright says he has even received death threats.
But hey, it's only propaganda. Don't kill the messenger.
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.