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The Moral Repugnance of the Propaganda State 
by Gregory Stephens
June 27, 2004

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A review of Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Marketing the War Against Iraq Paul Rutherford (University of Toronto Press, 2004)

In his book Weapons of Mass Persuasion, University of Toronto history professor Paul Rutherford takes a cultural studies approach to “Marketing the War Against Iraq.” This was a “War by Disney,” as one of his informants commented. The representation of this war “bore the signature of some of the most successful products of…made-in-America popular culture.”

In an interview cited by Antonia Zerbisias in the Toronto Star just before the book’s release, Rutherford seemed to lay out his own point of view clearly: "For a brief time the United States ceased to be a democracy and became a propaganda state."

For a short time? As a citizen I’ve been immune to claims of American exceptionalism since the Reagan years. Since 1980 I’ve been operating under the assumption that national democracy is mostly a myth, that plutocracy is our dominant reality, and that in mass media representations of national politics, a “propaganda state” is the rule rather than the exception.

Still, it was frightening and profoundly depressing to witness the United States plunge into “one of its periods of historical madness,” as novelist John Le Carré wrote. I agreed with Le Carré that the belligerent collective myopia leading up to and following the invasion of the invasion of Iraq was “worse than McCarthyism.”  And I have been hungry for analysis that would help me to understand this madness, and to move towards a long-term cure.

Rutherford’s statement to Zerbisias was refreshingly direct, if understated. But in his book he rather pulls his punches. Academic scholars are also often subject to what Paul Krugman calls the “tyranny of even-handedness.” When many U.S. citizens believe that even networks engaging in self-censorship and competitive flag-waving suffer from extreme “liberal bias,” then most reporters will lean towards a pro-establishment position. They hope to inoculate themselves from charges that they are insufficiently patriotic, or that they are “Bush haters”—the charge conservatives throw at anyone questioning current public policy.

Not many scholars aspire to the cult status of a Noam Chomsky, both marginalized in mainstream media and idolized by those who live on the margins. As a history professor with an interest in the mass media and popular culture, Rutherford doesn’t do prophetic outrage.

Late in the book, Rutherford does state his perspective more directly: “The propaganda state came to America in the guise of popular culture.” (191) But for the most part he focuses on describing what “information warfare” actually looks like, rather than engaging in critique. Rutherford is interested in the qualities of the Iraq war as a branded war, a commodity for mass consumption—“war as narrative and spectacle, as a form of ‘infotainment’.” (4)

And on this score Rutherford’s study succeeds. One of the best chapters is “Consuming War,” in which he lists the elements of eight different genres that were woven into the “Operation Iraqi Freedom” infotainment narrative:

1)  Tragedy; 2) Adventure; 3) Science Fiction (with Saddam Hussein as the “requisite monster”; 4) Action; 5) Human interest (the unending quest by reporters to find “signs that, yes, the Iraqis were eagerly awaiting liberation”) (138); 6) Mystery; 7) Comedy (such as the pronouncement of “Comical Ali,” Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, which prefigured the increasing disconnect from reality of U.S. spokemen); 8) Farce.

Weapons of Mass Persuasion makes good use of editorial cartoons, which often registered the cognitive dissonance that was being squelched in “serious” news outlets. One theme is the mutually exclusive, diametrically opposed worldviews on display on Fox News vs. Jazeera.

The cartoons Rutherford includes sometimes brilliantly illustrate the remarkable isolation of North Americans. One cartoon from Tribune Media Services has this caption: “Deep down in a bunker, cut off from the rest of the world, Americans watch the war coverage.” And in that bunker, a couple watching TV wave their flag and chant: “We’re #1!”

Such visuals distill the critiques of writers like Nicholas Von Hoffman, who in his book Hoax: How We Were Taken In compares Americans to a shark in an aquarium. They “don’t see the people outside the glass. It is as though America is in a 3,000 mile wide terrarium, an immense biosphere which has cut it off from the rest of the world and left it to pick its own way down the path of history.”

For those of us already painfully aware of how cut off most people in the United States are from the sources of information that shape global opinion, we may wish more prescription, and less description. That is not the task Rutherford sets himself. But the interviews he includes are sometimes illuminating. One penetrating chapters concerns “The Phallic Dimension” of this war. Judy Rebick, a chair of social justice and democracy at Toronto’s Ryerson’s University, found the “almost sexual excitement” that reporters and viewers expressed over America’s own weapons of long-distance mass destruction to be “really morally repugnant.”

Less successful are interviews from 20 Toronto residents that Rutherford weaves in. The notion of including ethnographic material in addition to readings of the media is admirable. Sometimes his participants allow Rutherford to express more direct points of view, such as his observation that they “were made uneasy about the messianic tone running through the rhetoric of politics.” (161) The problem for me is that Rutherford periodically drops in comments by people only referred to by their first name. One loses a sense of the personality behind these comments. Perhaps it would have been better to include separate sections in which he built profiles of his “citizens’ panel.”

But the relatively balanced tone of this book makes it a good candidate to be used as a class text, for Communication, Sociology, Cultural Studies, Popular Culture, and others.

The author provides enough “outside-looking-in” material on the American shark in its tank, or the patriotic cheerleaders in their bunker, that the enterprising reader cannot help but begin to make links to people in other bunkers. In the chapter “The War Debate,” Rutherford discusses Charlotte Beers’s attempt to “sell brand America” in the Islamic world. Beers had hoped to counter Osama bin Laden’s marketing of a “jihad against an unholy America.” (29) With a shock of recognition I realized that this was precisely the aim of conservatives such as the Dominionists, with their public declaration of war against the unholy liberals of America.

Perhaps Rutherford should have added religious epics to his list of genres: from The Ten Commandments to The Passion. America is a religion of sorts now, but also like an overzealous corporation. It brooks no competitors, and accepts no substitutes.

Propaganda “attempts to pre-empt debate” (13). American leaders are mastering new forms of propaganda as a means to discipline backsliders, or reign in wayward consumers. For most of the 20th century, Rutherford notes, American propaganda followed a “style much more akin to the sermon than the story.”  Propagandists in the late 20th and early 21st century have discovered that they can pre-empt debate much more successfully when people are absorbed in a story. But for the cheerleaders in the bunker, the sermon remains the same. The Propaganda State, “in the guise of popular culture,” claims a God-given right to rid the world of evil. In the process, it becomes like what it fears or hates. And that is still morally repugnant.

Gregory Stephens has taught at the University of California, and was recently a Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of North Carolina. He is currently in Oklahoma City, completing his second book, titled Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. Contact:

SOURCES (those not hyperlinked in text)

Paul Krugman, “To Tell the Truth,” New York Times 5-28-04.
Nicholas Von Hoffman, Hoax: How We Were Taken In (Nation Books, 2004).

Other Articles by Gregory Stephens

* Spreading Our Wings: Driving Up the Cost of Freedom, Continued
* Letting Go of America
* Projections and Erections
* Heartland Morality, American Politics