Wednesday, June 30

How we love "propaganda"!

Since Fahrenheit 9/11 was first discussed, "propaganda" has become the darling word of our truth-seeking media mouths. Virtually everyone loves to call Moore's film "propaganda." Merely pronouncing the word seems to bring satisfaction.
Perhaps saying "propaganda" excites a sense of pride and wonderment at one's own powers of analysis. If we only say "this or that is propaganda," then we swiftly assure ourselves a position of dispassionate objectivity. Some use the word to dismiss Moore's entire film; others, simply to suggest that Moore has a "point of view." The broad spectrum of meaning implied in this practice encounters no obstacle, as no one bothers to define the word, which is carried away in the currents of a whim.

To join the "propaganda" party, I would like to say that one thing that disappointed me about Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it participates (to a degree) in what seems to me to be the biggest piece of propaganda of the day in the United States, one that is conspicuous by its at once unstated and ubiquitous nature. Specifically (unless I simply overlooked this aspect of the movie), Fahrenheit 9/11 fails to mention the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed by U.S. forces. It does suggest that children were killed, and even shows the body of one of them, but why does it not state a number? My sense is that this is because the number of Iraqis killed must, in accordance with an unquestioned assumption that is a distinguishing feature of American society, remain not only unspoken, but uncalculated. The deaths must remain essentially incalculable and out-of-bounds for civil discourse. U.S. military forces in Iraq even breached a Geneva Convention that dictates that occupying forces must tally civilian deaths because the keeping of such records was deemed "impracticable." No one seems to have noticed this. No one who appears angry about Moore's "propaganda" took the U.S. leadership to task for this breach of an international treaty.

One sequence in particular of Fahrenheit 9/11 has been repeatedly called "propaganda" for suggesting that children were killed. Moore shows children playing in the streets and follows this shot with images of government buildings in Baghdad being bombed. Right-wing commentators cry foul, saying that "Sadaam's Iraq was not all that peaceful." Moore's answer to this criticism, which is not without its justification, is that popular media have already covered Sadaam's wickedness extensively over the last four years and, with two hours at his disposal, he thought he would draw a different picture. Well, perhaps if people knew the number of Iraqis killed by U.S. cluster bombing, by the use of depleted uranium, and by all other manner of firepower the U.S. forces have used, then these self-righteous commentators would not be so quick to label this sequence "propaganda." As I see it, the sequence merely condenses a fact of the invasion that was repeated a countless number of times throughout the invasion. It is perfectly factual that lots of children played in the streets of Iraq before (and during) the U.S. invasion. It is also perfectly factual that thousands of them were cut down by U.S. firepower and are still dying and suffering horrific health problems as a consequence of the U.S. military actions in their country. So, what is the point in railing against Moore for his "propaganda" in this sequence? Many Americans (%40-%60, by recent estimates) still believe that Iraqis were directly involved in the attacks of 9/11. Can you imagine how many are still in the dark about the number of U.S.-provoked civilian deaths in Iraq and elsewhere? If this street-play-to-bombing sequence is propaganda, it is hardly as decisive as the "official" propaganda it serves to counter. The sequence of images would have been more decisive--and less vulnerable to facile charges of "propaganda," I think, if Moore had cited a figure to support it.

The 'law of silence' that reigns over all these deaths is a piece of mute propaganda that apparently not even Moore feels he can get too close to. In liberty-loving America, the vast majority of our public figures and politicians would find it impossible to invoke these deaths as an argument against U.S. military aggression. It just could not happen. And I wonder, why is this? Why do we all have to act as if the lives of civilians in other parts of the world are negligible to the point of being unspeakable and, as Rumsfeld might say, unknowable?

For anyone who might take an interest in this question, my April 11 post presents links to ongoing research into this question. In November 2003, MEDACT estimated that 20,000 to 55,000 Iraqis had been killed in the U.S. invasion.