Saturday, July 7, 2012

On Propaganda

I actively dislike 'pundit news', that is shows like Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly. I don't think these shows are about news or even discussion of news (as they purport to be). They are propaganda for a political party.

Now it's everyone's right to support their favored political party and even blindly do so, if they wish, by agreeing with just about everything that party proposes and disagreeing with just about everything the other party proposes. What I find offensive about people who follow these pundits, though, is that they always seem to forget it's propaganda. They eventually take what they hear as legitimate information upon which to base their world view.

On the one hand, you might say that people can be forgiven for doing so since each of these shows makes an effort to come off as 'objective' (notably Fox's 'fair and balanced' claim). I do not agree. These shows and pundits are all clearly biased, and anyone who uses the shows for information is an irresponsible citizen. A responsible citizen forms their own opinions based on facts they know about the world; they do not gobble down ready-made talking points from the filthy trough of propaganda and then vomit them up on cue when important issues are discussed.

In my post about Koan 18 in the Mumonkan (Tozan's 'Masagin') I commented on what (I believe) is the root cause of people allowing themselves to be fooled in this way. It's about avoiding the difficult effort to connect with reality on our own, which is very difficult to do with a deluded, cluttered mind-set. The reason for this is that a person in this mind-set (whether it be about politics, religion, or something in their personal life) is all response. They are not thinking deeply (or at all), just reacting. Propagandists exploit this to create a sick feedback loop. For the deluded person, the idea of having to connect with reality is disturbing. So the propagandist gives them a comfortable way of quickly disposing of all questions and issues without having to think or discuss or expend energy. In exchange, the propagandist turns the deluded person into an adherent who will think/vote as they are 'programmed' to.

Of course, another bad thing about propaganda is that it always seems to rely on demonizing someone. Fox demonizes liberals and the Olbermann's of the world demonize conservatives the same way cult leaders demonize anyone outside their religion. Hitler and other dictators are masters at it, because by creating adversaries for their adherents to hate and fight, the propagandist keeps his herd of adherents lost in a swirl of delusion that has nothing to do with reality. He can control what they think (even how they think), and that makes it easy to create some whip (usually fear) to drive them towards whatever ends the propagandist has in mind (usually power, money, and fame). Since a cluttered or deluded mindset always pulls a person off the path, the propogandists' aims can never be good for the people being controlled.

Propaganda is also very dangerous because just about anyone can do it and get their hands on the whip. For example, Sean Hannity. This is a guy who, in 1996, was given a huge stage by Fox News from which to pronounce his views on...everything. What were his qualifications up to 1996 that marked him as someone deserving of this? Let's run it down:
  • Education: High school diploma (he dropped out of two colleges)
  • Personal: Married with two children
  • Career: 7 years as a radio talk show host
And that's it. Since 1996, he's been a star on Fox News, written books, etc. This is not someone who in one's ordinary life we'd hand over so much attention and respect to around political and social issues. You might say he probably reads up on politics in his current role. I hope he does, but I don't know that for sure. Even if he does, I know lots of people who read up on politics and are also much more educated about our political system (or are just more educated). Why aren't they selected to be the voice of the conservative movement?

Hannity is better than Fox News' former puppet, Glenn Beck. His credentials are chilling in their total lack of anything to fit him out for the prominent role he stumbled into when his Glenn Beck Program first aired on the radio in 2000:
  • Education: High school diploma
  • Personal: First wife divorced him due to his substance abuse issues. He took a second wife later. Four kids.
  • Career: 13 years as a radio DJ/shock jock for a slew of radio stations, several of which fired him. In one case, it sounds like he was fired after being arrested for drunk and reckless driving.
This is someone millions of Americans followed religiously for years as a thought leader? If I run a cable new network, I wouldn't hire this guy as a weatherman! Which brings us to the broader question of why Fox News employs such minimally credible people so visibly? I think the answer is because you do not need credentials to be a pundit or to spew propaganda; you just need to have a loud voice (see Sarah Palin). This is why I question whether any of these people really keep up on politics in any meaningful way; such knowledge is beside the point in their role.

I will say that - in general - the most visible liberal commentators seem far more qualified. Take Rachel Maddow. Here's her resume prior to her Rachel Maddow Show airing on radio in 2005:
  • Education: College Degree in Public Policy (Stanford); Graduate work at Lincoln College (Oxford), PhD in Politics from Oxford. Maddow was the recipient of a John Gardner Fellowship and a Rhodes scholarship.
  • Personal: In relationship since 1999. No children.
  • Career: Several years as a radio talk show host.
Now am I saying a person must be a college graduate to be listened to? Or am I saying everyone should follow Maddow and dump Fox? No, on both counts.

I have met plenty of people in my life with loads of education - some with PhDs - who have their heads so far up their asses that if they told me the sky was blue, I'd open the window to check. I've also met people with minimal education who have incredible natural intelligence. To the other question, I would not advocate following any propagandist, educated or otherwise.

My point? If people find themselves unable to avoid the wrong mindedness of following 'personalities' or becoming lemmings around political, religious, or social ideologies, then they should at least be paying attention to who they're following! Is the person credible in some way that justifies turning over control of your thinking to them? Again, even if the answer is 'yes' it's still wrong to do so. However, we need to be careful - at least - because the Hitlers of history were not usually successful, well-educated, self-actualized people.

Unfortunately, the problem with wrong-minded thinking is that the most vehement response you would likely get if you urged them to break out of the mindset is the insistence that they are thinking for themselves. They're so invested in staying comfortable that they reject any notion that threatens the propaganda.  They'll deny it even as they tell you why Obamacare is bad, playing back word for word what Fox News says about the issue, and they will become defensive and angry if you question their position in any way that reveals they are powerless when they lack a talking point from the propaganda trough to vomit at you.

No matter how much one waves the flag or squawks about patriotism and democracy, propaganda adherents are not free. They are members of a herd of big, dumb cows waiting for someone to stumble on a way to crack the whip.

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