Power, illusion and America's last taboo

4 July 2009

Two years ago, at Socialism 2007 in Chicago, I spoke about an “invisible government,” a term used by Edward Bernays, one of the founders of modern propaganda. It was Bernays who, in the 1920s, invented “public relations” as a euphemism for propaganda. Deploying the ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays campaigned on behalf of the tobacco industry for American women to take up smoking as an act of feminist liberation; he called cigarettes “torches of freedom.”

The invisible government that Bernays had in mind brought together the power of all media — PR, the press, broadcasting, advertising. It was the power of form: of branding and image-making over substance and truth — and I would like to talk today about this invisible government’s most recent achievement: the rise of Barack Obama and the silencing of the left.

First, I would like to go back some 40 years to a sultry day in Vietnam.

I was a young war correspondent who had just arrived in a village called Tuylon. My assignment was to write about a company of US Marines who had been sent to this village to win hearts and minds.

“My orders”, said the Marine sergeant, “are to sell the American Way of Liberty as stated in the Pacification Handbook. This is designed to win the hearts and minds of folks as stated on page 86.” Page 86 was headed WHAM: Winning Hearts and Minds. The marine unit was a Combined Action Company which, explained the sergeant, “means that we attack these folks on Mondays and win their hearts and minds on Tuesdays”. He was joking, though not quite.

The sergeant, who didn’t speak Vietnamese, had arrived in the village, stood up in a jeep and said through a bullhorn: “Come on out everybody, we got rice and candy and toothbrushes to give you!…”

There was silence.

“Now listen, either you gooks come on out, or we’re going to come right in there and get you!”

The people of Tuylon finally came out, and stood in line to receive packets of Uncle Ben’s Miracle Rice, Hershey bars, party balloons and several thousand toothbrushes. Three portable, battery-operated, yellow flush lavatories were held back for the arrival of the colonel.

And when the colonel arrived that evening, the district chief was summoned, and the yellow flush lavatories were unveiled. The colonel cleared his throat and produced a handwritten speech.

“Mr. District Chief and all you nice people,” he said, “what these gifts represent is more than the sum of their parts. They carry the spirit of America. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no place on earth like America. It’s the land where miracles happen. It’s a guiding light for me, and for you. In America, you see, we count ourselves as real lucky having the greatest democracy the world has ever known, and we want you nice people to share in our good fortune.”

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, even John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” got a mention. All that was missing was the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background.

Of course, the villagers had no idea what the colonel was talking about. When the Marines clapped, they clapped. When the colonel waved, the children waved. As he departed, the colonel shook the sergeant’s hand and said: “You’ve got plenty of hearts and minds here. Carry on, Sergeant?”


In Vietnam, I witnessed many spectacles like that. I had grown up in faraway Australia on a steady cinematic diet of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Walt Disney, the Three Stooges and Ronald Reagan. The American Way of Liberty they portrayed might well have been lifted from the WHAM handbook.

I learned that the United States had won World War Two on its own and now led the “free world” as the “chosen” society. It was only much later when I read Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion that I understood something of the power of emotions attached to false ideas and bad history.

Historians call this “exceptionalism” - the notion that the United States has a divine right to bring what it calls liberty to the rest of humanity. Of course, this is a very old refrain; the French and British created and celebrated their own “civilizing mission” while imposing colonial regimes that denied basic civil liberties.

However, the power of the American message is different. Whereas the Europeans were proud imperialists, Americans are trained to deny their imperialism. As Mexico was conquered and the Marines sent to rule Nicaragua, American textbooks referred to an “age of innocence.” American motives were well meaning, moral, exceptional, as the colonel said. There was no ideology, they said; and this is still the received wisdom. Indeed, Americanism is an ideology that is unique because its main element is its denial that it is an ideology. It is both conservative and liberal, both right and left. All else is heresy.

Barack Obama is the embodiment of this “ism”. Since Obama was elected, leading liberals have talked about America returning to its true status as a “nation of moral ideals” - the words of Paul Krugman in the New York Times. In the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote that, “spiritually advanced people regard the new president as ‘a Lightworker’ . . . who can help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”

Tell that to an Afghan child whose family has been blown away by Obama’s bombs, or a Pakistani child whose family are among the 700 civilians killed by Obama’s drones. Or Tell it to a child in the carnage of Gaza caused by American smart weapons which, disclosed Seymour Hersh, were resupplied to Israel for use in the slaughter “only after the Obama team let it be known it would not object.” The man who stayed silent on Gaza is the man who now condemns Iran.

Obama’s is the myth that is America’s last taboo. His most consistent theme was never change; it was power. The United States, he said, “leads the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good . . . We must lead by building a 21st century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people.” And there is this remarkable statement: “At moments of great peril in the past century our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and lifted the world, that a we stood and fought for the freedom sought by billions of people beyond their borders.” At the National Archives on May 21, he said: “From Europe to the Pacific, we’ve been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law.”

Since 1945, “by deed and by example,” the United States has overthrown fifty governments, including democracies, and crushed some 30 liberation movements, and supported tyrannies and set up torture chambers from Egypt to Guatemala. Countless men, women and children have been bombed to death. Bombing is apple pie. And yet, here is the 44th President of the United States, having stacked his government with warmongers and corporate fraudsters and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, teasing us while promising more of the same.

Here is the House of Representatives, controlled by Obama’s Democrats, voting to approve $16 billion for three wars and a coming presidential military budget which, in 2009, will exceed any year since the end of World War Two, including the spending peaks of the Korean and Vietnam wars. And here is a peace movement, not all of it but much of it, prepared to look the other way and believe or hope that Obama will restore, as Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, the “nation of moral ideals.”

Not long ago, I visited the American Museum of History in the celebrated Smithsonian Institute in Washington. One of the most popular exhibitions was called The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. It was holiday time and lines of happy people, including many children, shuffled through a Santa’s grotto of war and conquest, where messages about their nation’s “great mission” were lit up. These included tributes to the quote “exceptional Americans [who] saved a million lives” in Vietnam where they were quote “determined to stop communist expansion.” In Iraq, other brave Americans quote “employed air strikes of unprecedented precision.”

What was shocking was not so much the revisionism of two of the epic crimes of modern times but the sheer routine scale of omission.

Like all US presidents, Bush and Obama have much in common. The wars of both presidents, and the wars of Clinton and Reagan, Carter and Ford, Nixon and Kennedy, are justified by the enduring myth of exceptional America - a myth the late Harold Pinter described as “a brilliant, witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is so extraordinary to see an African-American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race - together with gender and even class - can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what matters, above race and gender, is the class one serves.

George Bush’s inner circle - from the State Department to the Supreme Court - was perhaps the most multi racial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary.

To many, Obama’s very presence in the White House reaffirms the moral nation. He is a marketing dream. Like Calvin Klein or Benetton, he is a brand that promises something special - something exciting, almost risqué, as if he might be a radical, as if he might enact change. He makes people feel good. He’s postmodern man with no political baggage.

In his book, Dreams From My Father, Obama refers to the job he took after he graduated from Columbia University in 1983. He describes his employer as “a consulting house to multinational corporations.” For some reason, he does not say who his employer was or what he did there. The employer was Business International Corporation, which has a long history of providing cover for the CIA with covert action, and infiltrating unions and the left. I know this because it was especially active in my own country, Australia.

Obama does not say what he did at Business International; and there may be nothing sinister, but it seems worthy of enquiry, and debate, surely, as a clue to whom the man is.

During his brief period in the Senate, Obama voted to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He voted for the Patriot Act. He refused to support a bill for single-payer health care. He supported the death penalty. As a presidential candidate, he received more corporate backing than John McCain. He promised to close Guantanamo as a priority and has not. Instead, he has excused the perpetrators of torture, reinstated the infamous military commissions, kept the Bush gulag intact and opposed habeus corpus.

Daniel Ellsberg was right when he said that, under Bush, a military coup had taken place in the United States, giving the Pentagon unprecedented powers. These powers have been reinforced by the presence of Robert Gates, a Bush family crony and George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, and by all the Bush Pentagon officials and generals who have kept their jobs under Obama.

In Colombia, Obama is planning to spend $46 million on a new military base that will support a regime backed by death squads and further the tragic history of Washington’s intervention in Latin America.

In a pseudo event staged in Prague, Obama promised a world without nuclear weapons to a global audience mostly unaware that America is building new tactical nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war. Like George Bush, he used the absurdity of Europe threatened by Iran to justify building a missile system aimed at Russia and China.

In a pseudo event at the Annapolis Naval Academy, decked with flags and uniforms, Obama lied that the troops were coming home. The head of the army, General George Casey, says America will be in Iraq for up to a decade; other generals say fifteen years. Units will be relabeled as trainers; mercenaries will take their place. That is how the Vietnam War endured past the American “withdrawal”.

Chris Hedges, author of Empire of Illusion puts it well. “President Obama,” he wrote, “does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel.” And so you are kept in “a perpetual state of childishness.” He calls this “junk politics.”

The tragedy is that Brand Obama appears to have crippled or absorbed the antiwar movement, the peace movement. Out of 256 Democrats in Congress, thirty are willing to stand against Obama’s and Nancy Pelosi’s war party. On June 16, they voted for $106 billion for more war.

In Washington, the Out of Iraq Caucus is out of action. Its members can’t even come up with a form of words of why they are silent. On March 21, a demonstration at the Pentagon by the once mighty United for Peace and Justice drew only a few thousand. The outgoing president of UPJ, Leslie Cagan, says her people aren’t turning up because, “it’s enough for many of them that Obama has a plan to end the war and that things are moving in the right direction.” And where is the mighty MoveOn these days? Where is its campaign against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what exactly was said when, in February, MoveOn’s executive director, Jason Ruben, met President Obama?

Yes, a lot of good people mobilized for Obama. But what did they demand of him - apart from the amorphous “change”? That isn’t activism.

Activism doesn’t give up. Activism is not about identity politics. Activism doesn’t wait to be told. Activism doesn’t rely on the opiate of hope. Woody Allen once said, “I felt a lot better when I gave up hope.” Real activism has little time for identity politics, a distraction that confuses and suckers good people everywhere.

I write for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, or rather I used to write for it. In February, I sent the foreign editor an article that raised questions about Obama as a progressive force. The article was rejected. Why? I asked. “For the moment,” wrote the editor, “we prefer to maintain a more ‘positive’ approach to the novelty presented by Obama . . . we will take on specific issues . . . but we would not like to say that he will make no difference.”

In other words, an American president drafted to promote the most rapacious system in history is ordained and depoliticized by the left. What is remarkable about this state of affairs is that the so-called radical left has never been more aware, more conscious, of the iniquities of power. The Green Movement, for example, has raised the consciousness of millions of people, so that almost every child knows something about global warming; and yet there is a resistance within the green movement to the notion of power as a military project. Similar observations can be made of the gay and feminist movements; as for the labor movement, is it still breathing?

One of my favorite quotations is from Milan Kundera: “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” We should never forget that the primary goal of great power is to distract and limit our natural desire for social justice and equity and real democracy. Long ago, Bernays’s invisible government of propaganda elevated big business from its unpopular status as a kind of mafia to that of a patriotic driving force. The American Way of Life began as an advertising slogan. The modern image of Santa Claus was an invention of Coca Cola.

Today, we are presented with an extraordinary opportunity, thanks to the crash of Wall Street and the revelation, for ordinary people, that the free market has nothing to do with freedom. The opportunity is to recognize a stirring in America that is unfamiliar to many on the left, but is related to a great popular movement growing all over the world.

In Latin America, less than 20 years ago, there was the usual despair, the usual divisions of poverty and freedom, the usual thugs in uniforms running unspeakable regimes. There is now a people’s movement based on the revival of indigenous cultures and languages, and a history of popular and revolutionary struggle less affected by ideological distortions than anywhere else.

The recent, amazing achievements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, El Salvador, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay represent a struggle for community and political rights that is truly historic, with implications for all of us. These successes are expressed perversely in the overthrow of the government of Honduras, for the smaller the country the greater the threat that the contagion of emancipation will follow.

Across the world, social movements and grassroots organizations have emerged to fight free market dogma. They have educated governments in the south that food for export is a problem rather than a solution to global poverty. They have politicized ordinary people to stand up for their rights, as in the Philippines and South Africa. An authentic globalization is growing as never before, and this is exciting.

Consider the remarkable boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign - BDS for short - aimed at Israel, that is sweeping the world. Israeli ships have been turned away from South Africa and western Australia. A French company has been forced to abandon plans to built a railway connecting Jerusalem with illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli sporting bodies find themselves isolated. Universities have begun to sever ties with Israel, and students are active for the first time in a generation. Thanks to them, Israel’s South Africa moment is approaching, for this is, partly, how apartheid was defeated.

In the 1950s, we never expected the great wind of the 1960s to blow. Feel the breeze today. In the last eight months millions of angry emails, sent by ordinary Americans, have flooded Washington. This has not happened before. People are outraged as their lives are attacked; they bear no resemblance to the massive mass presented by the media.

Look at the polls that are seldom reported. More than two thirds of Americans say the government should care for those who cannot care for themselves; 64 percent would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for everyone; 59 percent are favorable towards unions; 70 percent want nuclear disarmament; 72 percent want the US completely out of Iraq; and so on.

For too long, ordinary Americans have been cast in stereotypes that are contemptuous. That is why the progressive attitudes of ordinary people are seldom reported in the media. They are not ignorant. They are subversive. They are informed. And they are “anti-American”.

I once asked a friend, the great American war correspondent and humanitarian Martha Gellhorn, to explain “anti-American” to me. “I’ll tell you what ‘anti-American’ is,” she said. “It’s what governments and their vested interested call those who honor America by objecting to war and the theft of resources and believing in all of humanity. There are millions of these anti-Americans in the United States. They are ordinary people who belong to no elite and who judge their government in moral terms, though they would call it common decency. They are not vain. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America’s citizens. They can be counted on. They were in the south with the Civil Rights movement, ending slavery. They were in the streets, demanding an end to the wars in Asia. Sure, they disappear from view now and then, but they are like seeds beneath the snow. I would say they are truly exceptional.”

A certain populism is once again growing in America and which has a proud, if forgotten past. In the nineteenth century, an authentic grassroots Americanism was expressed in populism’s achievements: women’s suffrage, the campaign for an eight-hour day, graduated income tax and public ownership of railways and communications, and breaking the power of corporate lobbyists.

The American populists were far from perfect; at times they would keep bad company, but they spoke from the ground up, not from the top down. They were betrayed by leaders who urged them to compromise and merge with the Democratic Party. Does that sound familiar?

What Obama and the bankers and the generals, and the IMF and the CIA and CNN fear is ordinary people coming together and acting together. It is a fear as old as democracy: a fear that suddenly people convert their anger to action and are guided by the truth. “At a time of universal deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth a revolutionary act.”

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