Propaganda is the ring of Sauron.
Those who read THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, or, perhaps, saw the movies, will recall that the Ring is a ring of power, and that it is, finally, always evil.
No one can use the power of the ring without succumbing to evil, no matter how earnestly they intend doing good. The best and brightest realize that the Ring will corrupt anyone who tries to use it, and they find the least corruptable being that they can find, and the ring damn near destroys him. The archetype predates Tolkien. It predates Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. It predates Plato’s Ring of Gyges.
The fictional elders realize something that many in Washington, and, significantly, the squatters in the White House don’t: You cannot get a good result from a bad process. You can’t cheat your way to honesty. You can’t screw your way to chastity.
And so, you can’t lie your way to the Truth.
When I was a book critic for several newspapers over the years, I was asked many things by my editors, but I was never asked the most crucial question: What criteria do you use to judge a book?
Why! I’d have said, if asked: The book comes with its own yardstick. The author will tell you, through their writing, how well to judge whether they succeeded in what they set out to say.
You can’t judge a black romance novel on the same terms you would give, say, a precious collection of postmodernist short stories by a darling of the self-appointed intelligentsia. You can’t judge Mickey Spillane by the same standard you judge Kurt Vonnegut. The author supplies their own yardstick. That’s the code I always kept to.
In the same way, the criminal will always betray itself. “Criminal” here being the action and not the initiator of the action. The crime cannot help but point back to itself. The crime supplies its own shackles, one could say.
In Watergate, what UNDID Nixon was his desperation to get re-elected. It was burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex that tripped him up.
The really meshugginah shit he’d been pulling in the name of destroying a country in order to save a war, he was getting away with! No problem.
Invade Cambodia and Laos (and consider how tempting invading Iran, as the ultimate bait and switch, is becoming …), congress and the press will fulminate, but nothing happens. Burglarize Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get “dirt” on him to smear him over the Pentagon Papers? Hey, grab a pass and help yourself to cookies on the way out.
But it was Nixon’s paranoia with actually winning a presidential election that proved his undoing. That was why they were at Watergate: the “plumbers” were removing bugs they’d put in DNC headquarters during an EARLIER burglary.
So, too, Ronnie Reagan and George HW Bush used the Iranian Hostage Crisis to beat Carter (although the “landslide” was Reagan 51% and Carter + Anderson 49%). And it was the deal they made that gave “Iran-Contra” its name, and, while they all skated — Reagan famously said, “I didn’t know,” but took responsibility, and, in the final somersault in the triple, looked resolute and walked away almost unscathed — it crippled his last two years in office. The crime supplies its own shackles.
And Bush had to invade Panama, and ended up facing down Iraq, facing some of the weapons WE’d given them to fight … wait for it … Iran.
So, too, the Bushies came into power obsessed with carrying out the program that was eerily (for some, TOO eerily) prescient about a “Pearl Harbor type event.” A big part of that was deposing Saddam, and controlling the vast Iraqi oil fields.
This was supposed to provide counter-leverage against OPEC raising prices (Iraq could pump more oil) and against the political leverage that, say, the Saudis could put on Europe and Japan, who are almost entirely dependent on Middle Eastern oil.
It would, as well, preserve the vibrant American economy, by keeping massive price hikes from suddenly triggering a recession. Again, they could pump more oil. In theory, this would buy us the most armies in the real world version of RISK, and everyone would be happy: Israel, Europe, Japan; Iran would be contained, the Saudis could be both protected, AND threatened by a large US presence — now, post 9-11 NOT on Saudi soil.*
[* Gee, Osama insisted that the US remove their troops from sacred muslim lands, and quietly, we did, just as John F. Kennedy removed the medium range missiles that we ringed the USSR with, in Turkey, Greece, etc. Funny: since we removed our troops from Saudi soil, no more attacks. Now: isn’t that at least as credible as the assertion that Bush had “kept” any more attacks from happening since 9/11.]
So, the Bushies learned from Watergate, as the Reagan Administration learned from Watergate: Shred the documents. Burn the tapes.
But they didn’t REALLY learn the lesson from Watergate: the wrong that you do will, weirdly, call itself to attention. We do not know why this is so, but it is, by all empirical science and observation, so. It is a fact of the human condition, known for thousands of years.
Why, it’s even discussed in the Bible. (It’s a popular book, we are informed , in Bush circles.)
The real crime is what trips you up. The core.
They tried to gin up the stakes on Saddam. They had “chemical weapons,” but they wanted nuclear weapons, too, so they came up with aluminum tubes (for CENTRIFUGES!) and yellowcake uranium (to enrich to WEAPONS GRADE, and “mushroom cloud”).
And Joe Wilson was sent by the CIA to verify what turned out to be a bad Italian forgery. And, after the famous fourteen words, Wilson’s wife (legally and indisputably) an undercover CIA operative, was deliberately revealed as such to discredit Wilson.
CIA referred to the Attorney General. Then-AG Ashcroft recused himself, appointed GOP prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who only, finally, tried one party, Scooter Libby.
They thought they learned the lessons from Goebbels without grabbing the evils. (Madison Avenue snapped up those propaganda techniques after the war. We have only sophisticated and refined them.
But the great trap of propaganda is that, finally, it’s lying, and the liar is, finally the party most deceived.
I used to see it in Hollywood. I know publicists, and they would put out press releases. And a lazy press would plagiarize from their press releases (hey! who’s gonna complain?) adn then articles come out in newspapers and magazines.
And people read the hyperbole with various degrees with skepticism, from cynics like me, who know EXACTLY how media sausage is made, to the far end of the spectrum … the publicists, who, for some reason, begin to believe that their own hype, that’s been quoted back to them verbatim, is the GOSPEL TRUTH.
And they begin to make their decisions based on a world where their lies are truths. But the universe is a big arm, and always wins arm-wrestling matches. You can only lie to yourself for so long before there’s a correction. Frequently that correction hurts. Because the universe is under no obligation not to grind you into dust.
Sentience only gives you the opportunity to keep from getting caught in the gears of the world. Should you become caught, it really doesn’t matter whether you were sentient or not, the same physics applies in either case.
And that’s why propaganda is the ring of Sauron.
There is no way to use it, without, ultimately, being corrupted by it.
And that’s why it always ends up pointing straight back at the lie that’s at the core of the crime. Nixon: reelection. Reagan: election. Bush: conquest.
I’ll be fair; to a much lesser degree, Clinton: illicit sex*
My Quaker great-grandmother had a favorite saying she used to bedevil everyone with (if that’s not an oxymoron): Be sure your sins will find you out.
The lesson is NOT about how to better shred files, erase tapes and leave fewer fingerprints. The lesson is NOT about how to better run the shell game with a bigger pea at higher stakes.
The lesson is about telling the truth.
Otherwise: these sorts of things have a way of remorselessly tracking you down. As, happily, do also GOOD things that you do in secret. In some religions, it’s called “karma.” And, no matter what happens, Bush, Rove, Cheney and the rest now spend ALL their time trying to patch the holes in their leaky raft of lies, deceptions, and tricks. Their entire lives are now enmeshed in the web of their own weaving. And it cannot be a happy thing. Imagine for a moment that Gulliver had staked himself down with Lilliputian threads.
Whatever they had ever hoped to accomplish by arrogating the presidency … well, that’s pretty much gone now. The crime supplies its own shackles.
Be that as it may:
I’m a big believer in the truth (or, rather, as much truth as we can perceive).
It’s supposed to set us free, you know.
[* In deference to my pagan friends, I must note that the President (Clinton) had, at an earlier date, sex with Miss America Elizabeth Ward Gracen — a “one night stand,” according to the Associated Press. When Clinton became the American President, having had sex with Miss America, the country had the longest period of prosperity and economic growth in US history. This is perfectly in keeping with ancient fertility rituals going back to the corn king and May queen. This may not necessarily have been a negative.]
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