Creel, Goebbels and us

Thanks to Dawn News

It is a fallacy that dictatorships control our thoughts and democracies free them. The fact is that the two work in tandem, often as pacesetters to spur each other.

Joseph Goebbels stands accused as the forefather of thought-control and mass hysteria the Nazis whipped up against anyone who came in their way. Goebbels, however, had a role model in George Creel, a veteran journalist of the Denver Post who was enlisted by President Woodrow Wilson to turn a nation of pacifist Americans into warmongers and haters of Germans.

Creel headed the Committee on Public Information set up by Wilson at the start of the First World War to coordinate “not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the propagation of faith”. With the state’s enormous resources and with the help of a conniving (democratic?) media Creel found success within six months.

“The war-mongering population … wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb to limb, go to war and save the world,” wrote Noam Chomsky about America’s diabolical manouevre that the Nazis were to emulate years later. “It was a major achievement, and it led to a further achievement. Right at that time and after the war the same techniques were used to whip up a hysterical Red Scare, as it was called.”

Intellectuals, including eminent writers, were more vulnerable to the nationalistic virus than they are thought to have been. In Britain, around the same time as Creel’s exploits, David Lloyd George, chancellor of the exchequer, was given the task of setting up a war propaganda bureau (WPB). He appointed the successful writer and fellow Liberal MP Charles Masterman as head of the organisation.

Masterman invited 25 leading British authors to the WPB headquarters to discuss ways of promoting Britain’s interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G.K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G.M. Trevelyan and H.G. Wells. All the writers present at the conference are said to have agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the WPB became known to the general public. Some who attended the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government’s view of the situation.

The information ministry set up in Britain during the two wars was to become the prototype for similar ministries in India and Pakistan, and elsewhere in the developing world. Like Creel, who had on his committee the secretary of state, navy and so forth, the ‘information ministries’ are ably assisted in India and Pakistan by every government department, led by the home and defence ministries and their intelligence outfits, to create and disseminate propaganda.

A new US bill aimed at taming the foreign media perceived as hostile to American interests is expected to continue to lean on the tradition set by Woodrow Wilson and which has been dutifully followed by eager beavers elsewhere. There are of course different ways of dealing with a channel like Al Jazeera for example. One is to not allow it to broadcast in a country by legal or bureaucratic fiat, as happens to be the case in India.

The other way is to bomb the supposedly recalcitrant broadcasters as happens in the Middle East. In Pakistan journalists can be killed or made to ‘disappear’. In India, in the tradition of Creel, they are co-opted.

Some of the provisions of the US bill that purports to curb “anti-American incitement to violence in the Middle East” have set off alarm bells in the Arab world. The bill pleads gratuitously that though freedom of the press and freedom of expression are the foundations of free and prosperous societies worldwide, “with the freedom of the press and freedom of expression comes the responsibility to repudiate purveyors of incitement to violence”.

Then it comes to the point. “For years, certain media outlets in the Middle East, particularly those associated with terrorist groups, have repeatedly published or broadcast incitements to violence against the United States and Americans.”

“Television channels that broadcast incitement to violence against Americans, the United States and others have demonstrated the ability to shift their operations to different countries and their transmissions to different satellite providers in order to continue broadcasting and to evade accountability.”

“Television channels such as al-Manar, al-Aqsa, al-Zawra, and others that broadcast incitement to violence against the United States and Americans aid Foreign Terrorist Organisations in the key functions of recruitment, fundraising, and propaganda.”

So what is one to do about the US concerns? The American bill provides that the US would “designate as Specially Designated Global Terrorists satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as [such] … to broadcast their channels, or to consider implementing other punitive measures against satellite providers that transmit al-Aqsa TV, al-Manar TV, al-Rafidayn TV, or any other terrorist owned and operated station.”

The United States would consider state-sponsorship of anti-American incitement to violence when determining the level of assistance to, and frequency and nature of relations with, all states.

And finally, it would “urge all governments and private investors who own shares in satellite companies or otherwise influence decisions … to oppose transmissions of telecasts by … Specially Designated Global Terrorist owned and operated stations that openly incite their audiences to commit acts of terrorism or violence against the United States and its citizens”.

How is Pakistan going to cope with its provisions? The best hope is that it will target only the ‘rogue’ channels in the Middle East, but who knows.

The truly amazing thing about the success of institutionalised propaganda is that it gets people worked up into such a frenzy that they readily embrace the absence of morality in their connivance.

A few weeks ago I met a group of pleasant, prosperous and generally agreeable Indians in San Francisco. The discussion revolved around the sacrifices that American democracy had to make to accommodate the authoritarian provisions of the Patriot Act.

Those present were Brahmins from Maharashtra, who would normally have fought the fascism of Mumbai’s Shiv Sena. But what one of them said to me on behalf of the others left me marvelling at the penetrating yet dangerous logic. “The Patriot Act has corroded some of my democratic rights, true. But I accept it because it has given me security against terrorism.”

The power of Creel and Goebbels over the people’s mind is like nuclear waste. It is not going away anytime soon, and its lethal effects could last for decades, even centuries.

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