Political Hay

For a New Propaganda

What better to propagate than liberal democracy, freedom, and human rights?

By 3.10.05

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"Talk much about a thing," said H.H. Brackenridge, "and you will put it into the people's heads." Today Brackenridge, one of the lesser Founding Fathers, is forgotten, but his words should remind us of the continuing importance of propaganda.

I mean propaganda in the Latinate sense, as in "things to be spread or extended to a broader area or larger number." The original propagandist was the Roman Catholic Church through its Congregation for Propagating the Faith, later the College of Propaganda. The mission of the College was not to spread disinformation, but to propagate Christianity in the newly discovered Western Hemisphere, Asia, and Africa. It wasn't until the word became corrupted with the stench of politics in the mid-19th century that it began to take on a negative connotation. William Safire in Safire's New Political Dictionary notes that "current usage is definitely pejorative" and that propaganda is "one of the few [words] that mean the same to both Communists and anti-Communists."

But if we concentrate on propaganda's original meaning, "that which ought to be propagated," we might ask ourselves what better to spread than liberal democracy, freedom, and human rights? And who better to do the spreading than the people with the biggest, baddest metaphorical pitchfork?

Liberals not only cringe at the use of the P-word -- with its associations to Nazi depictions of the verminous Jew or American wartime propaganda of the menacing, bespectacled, and bucktoothed Jap -- but they recoil at anything resembling ethnocentrism or the idea that America (or The West) is somehow superior to war-torn, starvation-plagued, Islamo-Fascist hellholes like Darfur. Liberals do not regard America's brand of liberal democracy as something we need to be exporting. To many libs the U.S. remains a racist country with rigged elections, one whose military tortures innocent Iraqi civilians and whose government wants to rob grandma of her Social Security check. Who are we to impose such loathsome values on other nations? What liberals prefer to ignore is that many of these hapless wretches would sell their left kidney and half their liver to get into the U.S. in order to be exposed to such loathsome U.S. values.

The sad irony of U.S. foreign relations is that America is one of the few nations actually doing something to bring freedom to Islamo-fascist hellholes like the former Afghanistan, and yet it is often resented for just this reason. The helpless often resent those that provide assistance. Men in particular. Receiving help from an Alpha country like the U.S. can be an emasculating experience, so it is not surprising that Americans are resented. I'm not sure what psychologists call this condition, but I call it the Canada Complex. The fact that their southern neighbor is the world's superpower and they are 90-pound weaklings makes Canada (or France or Germany) feel like helpless girlie men. Britain is less susceptible to this malady, because despite being a tiny island, it can more than take care of itself militarily, and considers itself intellectually and culturally superior to the U.S. Also the two countries largely share the same values.

None of this need distract the U.S. from the important job of spreading freedom and democracy abroad. But there needs to be ways to accomplish this other than flying in the troops. Until recently there was. It was called the United States Information Agency. Launched by President Truman as the Cold War began to heat up, USIA's primary mission was to spread the truth about the U.S. and combat mostly Communist disinformation. In an op-ed piece last month in the Washington Post, four former USIA directors noted that until recently every U.S. embassy was staffed with a USIA officer whose job it was to recruit U.S. friendly academics, journalists, and intellectuals. It was the task of these recruits to represent America's positions to their host country's opinion leaders and media representatives. The pro-democracy movements that led to the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall were greatly encouraged by the work of the USIA. As America has begrudgingly learned since 9-11, the fierce and bloody battle for hearts and minds is just as important as the battle for Baghdad.

With the end of the Cold War, however, the USIA was seen as expendable and its budget and operations were slashed dramatically. The results of this shortsightedness are evident in the vehement anti-Americanism seen nightly on television news. How bad is it? Shortly after 9-11, but long before the invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on European MTV. One of the first questions from a Norwegian student was, "How does it feel to represent a country commonly perceived as the Satan of contemporary politics?"

America needs to propagate its message of freedom and democracy and counter its negative image abroad. The U.S. government cannot expect Norwegian students and Iraqi insurgents to tune into Voice of America or read The American Spectator Online. Most of the world's population gets but one view of America from their native media, a media run by emasculated pseudo-intellectuals. Liberty and freedom are too important to leave to people with no knowledge or experience of either.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.