'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

In Defense of God (aka Brian Eno)

I'd like to comment on Brendan O'Neill's Reason Online review of Rampton and Stauber's Weapons of Mass Deception that has been making the rounds on some blogs. I haven't read the book but it doesn't really matter because the author mostly just uses reviewing the book as an excuse to make an argument.

O'Neill presents the following thesis: the American people supported the Iraq War not because of a propaganda campaign launched by hawks, but because of the ineffectualness of the left in offering a coherent case against the war. He characterizes the position that propaganda had a large role in influencing American opinion regarding the war with a quote from Brian Eno: "the new American approach to social control is so much more sophisticated and pervasive that it really deserves a new name. It isn't just propaganda any more, it's 'prop-agenda '."* O'Neill backs up his central thesis by noting the ineptness of the Bush administration's case for war:

Maybe I missed something, but I don’t recall a history-making propaganda show in the run-up to the Iraq war. I do remember the Bush administration, Tony Blair’s government, and right-wing groups flailing around for some justification for their squalid war -- latching onto unconvincing claims that Saddam had links with Al Qaeda and that he could launch his weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes’ notice … This looked less like "prop-agenda" than a desperate cobbling together of "evidence" that might win favor for Gulf War II.

I agree with O'Neil that the Bush administration's case for war was logically unconvincing; I disagree with the implication that it follows that there was no "history-making propaganda show". I think O'Neill misunderstands the nature of propaganda which very rarely gains its power from the veracity of a logical argument. Does the multibillion dollar advertisement industry influence the behavior of consumers by means of its ironclad debating skills?

Note that O'Neill's central thesis, that America supported the war because of the ineffectualness of the left, when applied to the whole world rather than just America is not so much false as inapplicable. It's inapplicable because the majority of the people of the world did not support the USA's invasion of Iraq. Throughout Europe, despite the actions of their governments in some cases, people were overwhelmingly against the Iraq War. South American and Central American countries, perhaps because of their firsthand experience with the USA's humanitarian interventions of the past, were even more critical. In his concluding paragraph, O'Neill cites "opinion polls that suggest a majority of Americans and Britons supported the war", but in the case of Great Britain, this statement is simply false -- opinion polls showed that Britons were evenly split regarding the Iraq War.

But in America things were different. According to O'Neill the difference was that the left didn't spend enough time "developing a coherent case against the war." His evidence for this claim, as far as I can tell, is that he asserts that it is true. So let me enumerate some arguments offered by the left against invading Iraq:

1.)It's immoral: thousands of innocent Iraqi's will be killed. The country will be wrecked causing more suffering and strife.

2) It's illegal: international law has no provision for a first strike. Period.

3) It's going to be extremely costly: everyone's favorite anarcho-syndicalist philosopher Larry Lindsey got fired for saying that it could cost "1% to 2% of America's gross domestic product", which is correct now to the order of magnitude.

4) It's being justified with a pack of lies: let's remember the Niger uranium claim was exposed before the beginning of the war. Etc.

5) Its real justification is much less noble: Halliburton, oil, Etc.

Are these arguments less coherent than Bush's case for war? By his own admission, as noted above, O'Neill views the case given for war as hawks "flailing around for some justification." Reason Online's tagline is "free minds and free markets." -- what O'Neil is arguing is that the left's ideas lost out in a market of ideas, which may well be true but only if the market of ideas resembles a real world market much more than the free markets that lead to utopias in fables told by members of the Libertarian Party. If antiwar ideas lost out in a market of ideas it was mostly because of forces that were external to that market.

It is an empirical fact that prior to the Iraq war, a large percentage of American's viewed these two statements as true:

1) Iraq is currently a direct threat to my personal safety.
2) Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 911.

Since these statements were not widely believed anywhere else in the world, it follows that we can view them as the reason Americans supported the invasion. But (1) and (2) are both false. In order for O'Neil's thesis to be correct it would have to be true that (1) and (2) were believed because of the left's ineffectualness. But the left is similar in scale and visibility in America as it is in, say, Great Britain where (1) and (2) were not widely believed.

Why then did Americans believe the above assertions? Not because the left was making an incoherent argument but because the means that it had at its disposal to convey its argument were not as powerful as those of the hawks. Look, during the run up to the Iraq War, the left organized and executed perhaps the biggest single day coordinated activity in the history of the human race: the February 15th demonstrations. The fact that so few Americans even noticed these demonstrations is a testament not to the ineptness of their organizers but to the power of those arrayed against them. Was UN inspector turned anti-war activist Scott Ritter unable to convince a larger number of people that Iraq no longer possessed significant quanities of WMD's because of his lack of eloquence or coherence? Or was it because he didn't appear as a consulting expert on CNN night after night? As Jonathan Chait wrote in that radical left rag, The New Republic, "government and business have melded into one big 'us.' ", and one aspect of that 'big us' is the mainstream media. The left simply has nothing equivalent to Fox News. When you talk about the power of Chait's big us what you are talking about is something very similar to what Eno was describing.

* -- O'Neill makes it seem like Eno's quote is in Weapons of Mass Deception but it was actually in an essay Eno wrote commenting favorably on the book.

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