by Nic Veroli

Propaganda & Morals

Not everything is new in our post-9/11 world. In fact, it could be argued that the attacks against the WTC and the Pentagon two years ago only accelerated certain long-standing trends. The multiplication of U.S. military bases in Central Asian countries, the war on Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism more generally, as well as the war against Iraq (and the threatened wars against Syria, North Korean, Iran, etc.) can all be seen as a continuation of preexisting U.S. policies or general tendencies in U.S. society (oil imperialism, militarization of civil life, unilateralism, etc.).

For instance, systematic, state-sponsored propaganda to rally public opinion for war goes back at least to the First World War's Committee for Public Information, which had to create a pro-war climate out of a generally antiwar public sentiment in six months' time. Nor did this sort of strategy stop after World War I, even if the CPI was disbanded.

The enormous domestic and international propaganda campaign that was unleashed within days--if not hours--of the 9/11 terrorist acts is thus nothing terribly new. From the almost immediate marketing of the "War on America" slogan by the networks here to the air-dropping of a few packets of lentils and ketchup in between devastating bomb raids in Afghanistan to the regular issuing of "terror alerts" by the FBI/CIA, it has all been a pretty familiar trip, even if there were a few novelties added into the mix.

But simply to reduce propaganda to a performative effect of language--that is as a communication that produces behavior (say, obedience or hate) as opposed to knowledge or understanding--is insufficient. And though University of Washington linguist Sandra Silberstein writes very interestingly about propaganda in her book War on Words, that is certainly the main limitation her analysis comes up against.

After all, almost every act of language carries, folded within it, this performative dimension. Otherwise humans would cease to speak (imagine asking your dinner companion: "Honey, pass me the salt, will you?" And he or she responding: "Ah, yes, I understand you believe the salt is on the table," etc.). So this use of language "to do things with words" (as the British philosopher John Austin was fond of saying) is not a quality that is unique to propaganda. The real issue here is that of describing the formation of a social arrangement in which the exercise of speech by some spells the end of democracy for all. For this is what propaganda is: the monopolization of the means of communication by one very small sector of society.

But even if one wished to limit him- or herself to a more formal critique of the onslaught of conservative rhetoric this country has been submerged in over the last two years, different tools would be needed than a social-scientific description of linguistic uses and their transformations in the post-9/11 world. In the end, if anything ought to be criticized in this sort of work exemplified by Silberstein's book, it is that it remains far too modest for the task at hand.

This is where philosopher Alain Badiou's little book Ethics comes in. Badiou proposes some bold ways of rethinking the concepts of good and evil which have been so crucial to the Bush crew's attempts at justifying their permanent war-mongering. Even better, he does so in a style that is broadly accessible (the book having been originally written for French high-school students).

Indeed, conservatives would have you believe that the "war on terrorism" is waged as much to "rid the world of evil" (as Bush himself has repeated on countless occasions) as it is to protect U.S. national security. What is surprising is that our Christian fundamentalist president has something remarkably secular in mind when he is speaking of "evil." What he means by it is the violation of people's human rights. Laura Bush insisted, in a radio address shortly before the invasion of Afghanistan, that the Marines were going to forge ahead into the maelstrom on a feminist mission to save Afghan women and restore their human dignity. The administration consistently insisted, before invading Iraq, that its projected war against that country had as much to do with restoring democracy for the downtrodden Iraqi people as it did with getting ahold of its oil reserves or destroying its stock--so far unproven--of weapons of mass destruction (but, of course, who's heard any talk of democracy since Rumsfeld has taken Iraq over as his private fiefdom?).

Whether these invocations of the "ethics of human rights," as Badiou calls it, are genuine or cynical efforts at manipulating public opinion is beside the point. In both wars, many people--following national columnist Christopher Hitchens--bought the argument regardless of the administration's true intentions, figuring that, if the result was the liberation of Afghan women from the yoke of fundamentalist patriarchy or the establishment of political democracy in Iraq, then they were all for it.

Beyond the two patently false assumptions it makes (first, that the end can ever justify the means, and second, that U.S. domination is equivalent to women's liberation or the institution of a democratic society), this argument must be attacked on its own terms if we are to finally overcome the illusion that imperialism can ever do anybody any good. This is what Badiou does. He argues that the ethics of human rights is unacceptable because it defines people as victims. In other words, those whose human rights are violated are always conceived as passive objects of suffering whose only chance is to be redeemed by a white knight draped in the red, white, and blue.

But, Badiou claims, humans, insofar as they are passive, are no different than animals. If we are interested in an ethics that applies specifically to humans, then it is vital to begin by conceiving of ourselves as agents of our lives. In order to do this, however, we must abandon the ethics of human rights in favor of an "ethic of truths," one that begins by defining what is good and positive about life rather than what is painful and bad. For this is all that the ethics of human rights can do: It can only say what is not right, what one should not do to others, or at best, the very minimum that humans deserve if they exist. And this, Badiou claims, is unacceptable.

Ethics, he argues, ought to be a positive endeavor at constructing the good. Anything less is a sham and a swindle. A genuine ethic, an ethic of truths, must provide some guidance for the construction of a better world, not a set of instructions for how we are to protect ourselves from the worst horrors of this one. Reciprocally, Badiou defines "evil" as simulacrum and as terror. A simulacrum is a perfect illusion, as in the giant computer program that simulates a fake reality in the 1999 film The Matrix. In Badiou's sense the word means pretending to be working for social change when one is in fact doing one's best to maintain the status quo. (The conservative "revolution" of the mid-'90s and the Nazi National Socialist "revolution" of the 1930s would thus both qualify as evil in this simulacral sense).

Evil is also terror in the sense of the dreadful inertia produced by this simulacrum that negates the possibility of any future. According to Badiou's conception of evil, then, both the attacks of 9/11 and the administration's war on terrorism (including its threat of preemptive nuclear strikes) would thus have to be considered the depths of evil. And it is here that the superiority of Badiou's philosophical or moral critique of propaganda fully reveals itself over the more common critique of propaganda as misinformation or misrepresentation that Silberstein's book exemplifies. Whereas Silberstein can only point to discrete instances of misinformation that are always waved aside as exceptions, Badiou's philosophical critique of the values on which the Bush administration bases itself reveals systemic problems in its actions.


But knowing or believing that some act is evil can tell you, at best, only about its likely effects. It cannot tell you anything about its causes. Perhaps that's why throwing around words like "good" and "evil" can so often seem no more meaningful than a childish competition of praise and insult: "Mine is the best" says the first boy. "No, mine is better!" retorts the second. Something in us wants more.

So, if everything our rulers tell us is nothing but what Plato called a "beautiful lie" designed to get us to quietly do their bidding, then what are the true causes of the various wars and conflicts the U.S. seems to be getting involved in faster than the eye can blink?

The short answer, of course, is oil. This is the argument journalist and political cartoonist Ted Rall makes in his little book about Afghanistan. There is something compelling in the simplicity of the explanation that he offers: The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in order to build an oil and natural gas pipeline from neighboring Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Period. The evidence he offers to support this thesis is strong: From the fact that the region possesses what may be the world's largest oil reserves to the observation that both the president brought to power by the U.S. after the war and the U.S. special envoy there are ex-employees of Unocal (the oil company that has been salivating over the thought of a pipeline running through the country for the last 10 years), everything seems to point in that direction. But while there is no doubt that the U.S. would stand to gain tremendously from the pipeline and that Hamid Karzai, the pro-U.S. president, is really gung-ho about the plan, the stabilization and reconstruction program that would be needed in Afghanistan for such a scheme to move ahead makes its price prohibitive. The result is that the U.S. has almost entirely abandoned Afghanistan to its own resources while it falls, once again, into a spiral of violence and conflict. Meanwhile everyone, including Unocal, agrees that the pipeline is, at this point, nothing more than a pipe dream.

Does this mean that Rall is completely wrong and that oil had nothing to do with the whole Afghan debacle? No: Rall certainly gathers sufficient evidence--and this is why his book is definitely worth reading--that some interests in the U.S. power elite are eager to gain access to Central Asia's energy resources by any means that'll get the goods.

States, however, like other institutions, are composed of different factions with relatively different goals and interests, and any large-scale policy such as the war on terrorism results from a coalition of many smaller pressure groups. So, while the thirst for oil is definitely a more significant factor in the Bush administration than it was for the Clinton administration, it is not the only one. In fact, by looking at the actual results of the war in Afghanistan, one can gather that at least one other issue had to do with the U.S.'s global geo-military strategy: The main result of the war in Afghanistan was the installation of several important new military bases in the region. When you know that the U.S. has military installations in 160 countries worldwide, you can't take that to be an accident.

And clearly, it's not. As Noam Chomsky has been pointing out in book after book for over 30 years--and does once again in his recent Rogue States--there are significant segments of the U.S. elite that have pushed for a quite coherent imperialist strategy since at least World War II. Nor are they limited to Republican foreign-policy hacks. The Clinton administration, for instance, in spite of current nostalgic myths about its multilateralism, threatened to use and did use unilateral force against Iraq on a regular basis. From former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to former UN ambassador Bill Richardson to Senator (and current Democratic presidential candidate) John Kerry, Democratic politicians have been asserting--quite as loudly as their counterparts--the U.S.'s right to crush Iraq, even without the explicit approval of the UN Security Council. After accumulating mountains of irrefutable (and easily verifiable) evidence, Chomsky finds himself comfortably claiming that if there is one "rogue state" that American citizens ought to be concerned about, it is their own, and not Iraq or North Korea, or Iran, or any of the other 60 countries Bush mentioned as potential terrorist-aiding states in his 2002 State of the Union address. This is vintage Chomsky.

Of course, Chomsky's book does not explain why what has become known as the "Washington consensus" continues to be at the heart of our national political elite's catechism--regardless of the lies individual politicians have to tell Americans in order to get elected.

If there is one thing to be criticized about Chomsky's work, it is that it assumes human history to be one long, uninterrupted plane of domination: There are elites and then there is us, the common people, and those rat-bastards have been pouncing on us since before the flood! The problem with this perspective is that it makes it look like history is constantly repeating itself. That's probably why, pretty inevitably, whenever Chomsky concludes one of his masterful speeches, some whiny teenager or some stupefied soccer mom will stand up and ask him what can only be called The Chomsky Question: "What can we possibly do, Mr. C?" To which Chomsky answers almost inevitably: "There's plenty you can do, plenty!" though he's never nearly as specific as you'd want him to be.

The problem with the "eternal plane of domination" thesis is not so much that it's not terribly cheerful (though there is also something to that), but that it doesn't allow or account for anything new ever happening in the world. While it's true that those rat-bastard elites have been on top for a long time, it's also true that the conditions under which confrontations between the top hats and the rabble take place have changed tremendously, say, since the end of the 19th century. Hence, in a post-Cold War, globalizing world we need to understand not only how the Washington foreign-policy consensus maintains itself, but also how it can be broken, how something new can be affirmed in its place.

Dominick Jenkins' book, The Final Frontier, is a really good start for understanding how that can happen. Jenkins, a historian of science by trade and an environmentalist activist by calling, recounts the origins of military programs for constructing chemical weapons during World War I and the ideological campaign that was necessary to overcome strong public opposition to the continuation of those programs afterwards. In the big picture of things, what Jenkins is doing is explaining the roots of that infamous American institution, the military-industrial complex.

Americans, Jenkins argues, accepted, and continue to accept now, two myths that make it extremely difficult for them to fight against military research and the consequent need to use military hardware.

The first myth is that scientific and technological progress will inevitably result in social progress. Thus, one of the key arguments used by military officials to save chemical weapons programs from cuts after World War I (when they were first invented and used) was that the use of chemical weapons is more humane because it ends wars more quickly by achieving supreme victory of one side over the other more rapidly.

Of course, the ultimate consequence of this way of thinking has been global nuclear annihilation, the instantaneous war rather than the "humane" war. And this is the ideal that the Bush administration is edging ever more closely toward with its blabber about America's so-called right of nuclear preemption. Today's arguments for bombing a country to smithereens under the pretense of "surgical strikes" are the equally stupid and inaccurate descendants of those original rationalizations.

The second myth that Jenkins uncovers, one on which the whole of U.S. foreign policy is based, is that American democracy can be "exported" by means of military intervention. Notwithstanding the fact that it's not at all clear why anyone would ever want to import American democracy into their country, there is the terribly convenient fact that preoccupation with exporting democracy has often served to keep Americans too busy to notice it's withering at home. Witness the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act during the weeks following the WTC bombings, when we were all too busy discussing which country we were going to "export democracy to" next.

Jenkins has undoubtedly hit the jackpot, and his call, at the end of the book, for a "global deep science movement" of scientists, engineers, and technicians that would insist that decisions about the direction that scientific research takes ought to be made not by military-industrial elites but by scientific workers themselves, is certainly welcome. This, Jenkins argues quite cogently, could only happen if they entered into coalitions with other segments of society such as the environmentalist movement, disarmament and peace activists, and others. And indeed, it is difficult to think of many more positive and momentous things that could result from the current crisis than the creation of such a movement.