By David Swanson, Let’s Try Democracy, December 2, 2022
Remarks on Massachusetts Peace Action Webinar
Much of the global so-called communications system suffers from similar faults; I’m going to focus on the United States. One can examine those faults through numerous topics; I’m going to focus on war and peace. But the worst fault, I think, is a general one that applies to all topics. It is that of endlessly suggesting to people that they are powerless. A few weeks back, the New York Times ran an article claiming that nonviolent protests all over the world had ceased to work. The article cited a study by Erica Chenoweth, but if you linked to the study it cost a fortune to access it. Later that day Chenoweth tweeted a thorough debunking of the article. But how many people see a tweet from someone they’ve never heard of, compared with how many people see a supposedly big and important discovery made and trumpeted by the New York Times? Almost nobody. And who ever sees a New York Times article suggesting, what is actually true, that war fails on its own terms far more than nonviolent action does — and on any reasonable terms, far more than that? Absolutely nobody ever.
My point is not about a particular article. It’s about millions of articles that all build into them the understanding that resistance is futile, protest is silly, rebellion is dumb, the powerful pay no attention to the public, and violence is the most powerful tool of last resort. This grandest of all lies is piled on top of the characterization of popular majority positions as fringe opinions, so that people who favor peaceful, just, and socialistic policies falsely imagine that few agree with them. Many opinions, including popular ones, are worse than marginalized. They are virtually banned. There’s a show of debate within an acceptable range. On the right you have, for example, the view that playing the World Cup in Qatar is perfectly fine, and on the left the view that such a foreign backward place using slave labor and abusing women and gay people should be shunned. But nowhere, left, right, or in the so-called Center, can the U.S. military bases in Qatar — the U.S. arming and training and funding of the dictatorship in Qatar — be mentioned at all.
For years there’s been, for example, a media debate on Iran ranging from the need to bomb Iran because it has weapons — weapons that could destroy the world if bombed and that it would be likely to use only if bombed, all the way over to the need to impose deadly sanctions on Iran because otherwise it will soon have those weapons. The record of decades of lying about and punishing and threatening Iran, and of Iran not actually developing any nuclear weapons, is inadmissible. The fact that the United States itself maintains nuclear weapons in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty is inadmissible. The fact that Iran has a horrible government is treated as shutting down any questioning of U.S. policies — policies likely to only make that government worse.
A primary justification of war in U.S. media is what it calls “democracy” — meaning, if anything at all, some slightly representative government with some slight respect for some select range of human rights. This might seem an odd position for media outlets that generally discourage the public sticking its nose into anything. But there is an exception, namely elections. In fact, people have largely been redefined as voters for one day every couple of years, and consumers in between — engaged self-governing people never. However, most candidates to oversee a budget, the majority of which goes into militarism, are never asked for a position on that budget or on militarism. Candidates for Congress with extensive policy platform websites typically make no mention that 96% of humanity exists at all — unless you consider it implied by their expression of devotion to veterans. You have a choice between the candidate with no foreign policy whatsoever, and the candidate with no foreign policy whatsoever. And if you judge them by their silent behavior or by that of their respective parties, or by which corporations are funding them, there’s just not much difference, and you’ll have to research all that information rather than have it thrust upon you by the media. So, when it comes to foreign policy, or budgetary policy — when it comes to the question of whether or not to dump into wars amounts of money that could transform the lives of billions of people for the better if spent differently — making elections the sole focus of public participation pretty well eliminates any public participation.
But there’s no announcement in the media that the public will have not even any pretense of a say over foreign policy. It’s just done that way as if there were no other, and it’s not thought about. Nobody knows that the U.S. once came close to mandating public votes before wars. Few know that wars were supposed to be authorized by Congress or that wars are now illegal whether or not authorized by Congress. Numerous wars happen with hardly anyone aware of their existence at all.
In the old joke the Russian sitting by an American on an airplane says he’s on his way to the United States to study its propaganda techniques, and the American asks “What propaganda techniques?” And the Russian replies, “Exactly!”
In an updated version of this joke, the American might reply either “Oh, you mean Fox,” or “Oh, you mean MSNBC,” depending on which church he belongs to. Either it’s obvious propaganda, for example, that Trump won an election and perfectly normal to have claimed for years that Trump was owned by Putin. Or it’s obvious propaganda that Trump works for Russia, but simple straightforward news reporting that Trump had an election stolen from him. The possibility that two competing propaganda systems both include the primary ingredient of horse manure doesn’t occur to people so long habituated to thinking of propaganda as something only others could be infected by.
But imagine what a media outlet that supported democracy would be like. Positions would be debated based on public opinion and activism, which would be encouraged. (Currently U.S. media gives halfway decent coverage to protests if they are in China or any designated enemy, but it could do much better even on those and should be doing it in the U.S. Media ought to treat activism and whistleblowing as partners.)
Solutions would not be speculated about while ignoring their success in numerous other countries. Polling would be in depth and include questions that followed the provision of relevant information.
There would be no special interest taken in the opinions of the wealthy or the powerful or those who have been wrong the most frequently. Whereas the New York Times recently ran a column by one of its staff who bragged about not believing in climate change until someone flew him to a melting glacier, basically suggesting that we ought to fly every jackass on Earth to a melting glacier and then try to find some path to undo the damage of all that jet fuel, a democratic media outlet would denounce the open scorning of basic research and condemn the refusal to admit error.
There would be no maintenance of anonymity for official liars. If a military official tells you that a missile that lands in Poland was fired from Russia, you first of all do not report that until there’s any evidence for it, but if you do report it and it later becomes clear that the official was lying, you then report the liar’s name.
There would be special interest taken in serious, competent studies of facts. There would be no reporting that an elected official was tough on crime through policies known for several decades not to reduce crime. There would be no reporting on anything called a national defense strategy without identifying the speaker as in the pay of weapons profiteers or without noting that the strategy is similar to others that have long endangered people rather than defending them.
People would be distinguished from governments, both within the United States and outside of it. Nobody would use the first-person plural to refer to something the U.S. military secretly did as if every person in the United States had done it collectively.
Meaningless dangerous phrases would not be used or quoted without explanation. A war that utilizes and increases terrorism would not be labeled a “war on terror.” A war whose participants mostly want out of it and which is, in any case, a policy rather than a person or a group of persons, would not be described as being encouraged by “supporting the troops.” The most obviously provoked war in many years would not be named “the unprovoked war.”
(My apologies if you’re new to the genre of webinars going over the countless ways in which the war was provoked, but there are thousands of such webinars already, and top U.S. officials, diplomats like George Kennan, spies like the current CIA director, and countless others warned of the provocations of expanding NATO, arming Eastern Europe, overthrowing the Ukrainian government, arming Ukraine [which even President Obama refused to do because it would be a provocation] etc., etc.. I fervently encourage you to catch up on a handful of the gazillion videos and reports freely available and generated over the past 9 months. Some places to start are
Celebrations of war culture prior to sports events would not be mentioned without reporting whether tax dollars paid for them. Movies and video games would not be reviewed without mentioning whether the U.S. military had editorial oversight.
A democratic media would cease advocating for what those in power demand and begin advocating for wise and popular policies instead. There is nothing neutral or objective or godlike about focusing attention on Ukraine but not Yemen or Syria or Somalia, or about reporting on Russian horrors but not Ukrainian ones, or about denouncing democratic shortcomings in Russia but not in Ukraine. The opinion that Ukraine must be armed and negotiations must not be considered is, like it or not, an opinion. It is not some sort of absence of opinion. A democratic media would give the most, rather than the least, attention to those popular opinions getting the least traction in government. A democratic media would advise people, not just on fashion and diet and weather, but on how to organize nonviolent action campaigns and how to lobby for legislation. You’d have schedules of rallies and teach-ins and of upcoming hearings and votes, not just reports after the fact on what Congress has done as if you couldn’t possibly have wanted to know about it beforehand.
A democratic media in the United States would not leave out any of Russia’s outrages, but would include all the basic omitted facts that we’ve all told each other on thousands of redundant webinars for months. People would know about the expansion of NATO, the abrogation of treaties, the deployments of weapons, the 2014 coup, the warnings, the dire warnings, the years of fighting, and the repeated efforts to avoid peace.
(Again, you can start with those websites. I’ll put them in the chat.)
People would know the basic facts of the war business in general, that most weapons come from the U.S., that most wars have U.S. weapons on both sides, that most dictatorships are propped up by the U.S. military, that most military bases outside their nation’s borders are U.S. military bases, that most military spending is by the U.S. and its allies, that most U.S. aid to Ukraine goes to weapons companies — the five biggest of which in the world are in the Washington D.C. suburbs.
People would know basic facts about the failures of wars on their own terms and about the costs never considered: what could be done with the money instead, the environmental damage, the damage to the rule of law and to global cooperation, the boost given to bigotry, and the horrific results for populations.
Just as a German can recount statistics on the sins of Nazi Germany, a U.S. resident could tell you within a few orders of magnitude the number of people killed and injured and made homeless in U.S. wars
People would know basic information about nuclear weapons. In fact, nobody would believe the cold war ever ended or restarted, since the weapons never went away. People would know what nuclear weapons would do, what nuclear winter is, how many near misses there have been from incidents and accidents, and the names of individuals who have preserved all life on Earth even when they’ve been Russian.
I wrote a book in 2010 called War Is A Lie, and updated it in 2016. The idea was to help people spot lies, like those told about Afghanistan and Iraq, more quickly. There is, I argued, never any need to wait for facts to emerge. There is no need to discover that people don’t like their nations occupied. You can know that ahead of time. There is no need to become aware that Bin Laden could have been put on trial, since no difficulty in that regard could ever justify a war. There is no need to realize that Iraq has none of the weapons that the U.S. openly possesses, since the U.S. possession of those weapons justifies no attack on the U.S., and Iraq’s possession of the same weapons would justify no attack on Iraq. In other words, the lies are always transparent. Peace has to be very carefully and laboriously avoided, and even after it’s been avoided, the best policy is to work to get it back and institute the rule of law rather than the rule of tooth and claw.
In my 2016 epilogue I noted that activism had stopped the carpet bombing of Syria in 2013. The enemy had not been made frightening enough. The war had been too much like Iraq, and too much like Libya — both generally viewed as disasters in Washington and around the world. But a year later, I pointed out, scary videos of ISIS allowed the U.S. to escalate its warmaking. Since then the Iraq Syndrome has worn off. People have forgotten. Russia — in the figure of Putin — has been demonized intensely for years, with both truths and laughable falsehoods, and everything in between. And then Russia has been extensively reported on for doing the most horrible things that can be done, doing them as the U.S. accurately predicted, and doing them to people who look like newsworthy victims to U.S. media outlets.
Finally, war victims are given some coverage, but without anyone pointing out that all wars have those victims on all sides.
The propaganda success in and since February has been staggering. People who couldn’t tell you Ukraine was a country a week before wanted to talk about nothing else, and to complete strangers, and their opinions have in many cases not changed in 9 months. Arming Ukraine until an unconditional Russian surrender became and has remained unquestionable, completely regardless of what the chances were of that ever happening, of what the chances were of causing a nuclear apocalypse, of what the suffering would be from the war, of what the suffering would be from the diversion of resources into the war, or of what damage would be done to global efforts to address non-optional crises.
I tried to get the most careful mention of the possibility of negotiating peace into an op-ed in the Washington Post, and they refused. The Congressional Progressive caucus tried to publicly suggest negotiations, even in combination with unlimited free weapons, and was so viciously beaten back by the media that they swore they never meant it. Of course, Nancy Pelosi and probably Joe Biden cracked down on such heresy privately, but the media was the public voice of outrage — the same media that, when Biden and Putin met last year, pushed both presidents for increased hostility.
Shortly after the so-called Progressive Caucus’s fiasco, the U.S. media reported that the Biden regime was urging the government of Ukraine to pretend to be open to negotiations, because that would please Europeans, and because it looked bad for only Russia to be claiming to be open to negotiations. But why feed that information to the media? Was it dissent within the government? Obliviousness to the dishonesty? Miscommunication or inaccurate reporting? Maybe a little of each, but I think the most likely explanation is that the White House believes the U.S. public is so much on its side, and so habituated to pushing lies about Russia, that it can be counted on to support asking Ukraine to lie to help keep Russia from looking morally superior. Who doesn’t want to be in on the dirty secret tactics to defeat the forces of evil?
Last week, I received an email from the National Endowment for Democracy that said “Ukraine shows one way for America to use its power on behalf of freedom: Instead of sending troops to fight and die for democratic illusions in inhospitable countries, send arms to help an actual democracy repel a foreign invader. No U.S. troops, no meddling in civil wars, no nation building, no going it alone.”
So, you see, some countries you attack are inhospitable, and when U.S. troops are present someone who matters is dying, even if it’s only a few percent of the deaths. Those wars on terrible inhospitable places are actually the fault of the people there and can properly be recategorized as civil wars to help Steven Pinker omit them and pretend war is vanishing. Those big coalitions of weapons customers badgered into participating in those wars don’t exist, and the wars were actually the building of the nations being demolished. But when you just give mountains of free weapons to another country and tell them never to negotiate and then tell everyone that it’s that country that refuses to negotiate and that it would be immoral for you to question them, well that’s called not going it alone. It’s practically the next best thing to actually ratifying treaties and complying with them.
This is the story that has been sold. To unsell it, we would need a communications system that allowed basic communications. Did you know that you can put up billboards in U.S. cities to sell weapons but not, in most cases, to oppose war? It’s forbidden. Did you know that if you oppose war lies too much in the wrong way you can be silenced on social media by private companies that allow and encourage war promotion?
We need what we have always needed: better understanding and debunking of media, better creation of independent media, and 0.1% of the U.S. military budget with which to transform our communications system.