Apr 1 2003

Propaganda: From Misdeeds to Mistakes

A March 13 story in the New York Times “Week in Review” section attempted to illustrate how propaganda works. And it did, though probably not in the way reporter David Rohde intended.

The subject was how young Kurds in Iraq hate Saddam Hussein, but are also deeply suspicious of the United States’ intentions toward the Kurds. Where do they get this “warped perception” of America? Rohde blames “websites run by Islamist organizations, satellite television stations and scores of pamphlets and books that spread false or exaggerated accounts of American faults and misdeeds.”

The Times complained: “Rather than removing war criminals from power, the United States itself is a war criminal in this world-view.” The article dismissed a list of victims of U.S. actions–from Hiroshima through Vietnam to Afghanistan–as “classic propaganda, of the kind disseminated through the Third World by the Communists during the cold war: seizing on what Americans see as a fault or tragic mistake, like racial segregation in the 1950s or the killing of innocent civilians in Vietnam, and recasting it as a malicious defining characteristic of an evil society.”

But if it’s propaganda to turn a “tragic mistake” into a “defining characteristic,” isn’t it also propaganda to treat “defining characteristics” as “tragic mistakes”? Isn’t it propaganda, for example, to present U.S. racial segregation as confined to the 1950s– rather than a centuries-old policy that still persists in various forms?

After blaming the suspicion Kurds feel toward the U.S. on misguided websites and satellite TV, the second-to-last paragraph of the lengthy piece acknowledges that reality might also play a role: A Kurdish source “pointed out that the United States continued to aid Mr. Hussein after the Halabja attack,” in which Hussein allegedly gassed Kurds. “And, like other Kurds, he bitterly complained that the United States abandoned them after encouraging uprisings in 1975 and 1991.”

Perhaps this treatment explains why Kurds find those websites and TV channels convincing. And perhaps similar realities around the world explain why so many reject the “tragic mistake” as an explanation for U.S. behavior.