Chapter Two: Vessels of Myth, Conduits of Narrative
“Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.”
“Ideology is a ‘Representation’ of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence.”
“Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself; the masses have to be won by propaganda.”
The narrative is omnipresent, built upon a foundation of ubiquitous myth. Every day you are immersed in modern propaganda, which is defined in the concluding quote of the above cited examples as “a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.” You are a participant in a war, a war of ideas and information, even if you do not wish to acknowledge yourself as such. You are a participant in ideology, even if you do not consider yourself to be an ideologue. Each moment of your life, while you are conscious and awake, you are bombarded with propaganda which reinforces within you an “imaginary relationship” which you as an individual conceive of as a representation of your real condition as an existent subject within society.
The media is the cannon by which you are convinced to believe certain things. Within your mind, information percolates, bubbles, bursts, and detonates as you absorb it, and you assimilate it in ways which reinforce your imaginary view or concept of yourself and the relationship that self holds to culture and society. But what is the media? What are the vessels of myth, the sluices which carry narratives to you and pour those narratives into your ears and eyes so that you can use the material to erect a fantasy of sorts within your mind to represent how you see yourself in relation to everything and everyone else?
We generally believe the media to be limited to those entities which have traditionally carried information: the print, radio, an television news media organizations who go out and get the raw data, package it, and present it to you filtered of extraneous details and fortified with analysis to render that data into information, which is chock full of context and perspective. This is too limited a definition of the media. The media is ubiquitous, expansive, and omnipresent. The advertising agencies, the focus groups, the posters and flyers drawn up by various smaller and independent organizations, bands, artists, all of these make up the media. The non governmental organizations, or NGOs, which release white papers and study results in their “consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relation of the public” to this or that are also part of the media; as are the various government bureacracies like the State Department, whose Secretary can by mere fiat determine whether or not a group is a terrorist group or a politically and socially acceptable entity acting legally. The think tanks, foundations, web sites, and other funnels and filters of information are also part of the media. You are part of the media, with your voice in the street whenever you are approached by news crew looking to sample your opinion.
In point of fact, it is very hard to think of anything or anyone who isn’t arguably a part of or a participant in the media. That’s the ubiquity of the media; it holds us all in its grasp even as we refer to it derisively as the “liberal media,” or the “mainstream media,” thinking all the while that we are elucidating for ourselves a position wholly separate from the media as regular folks, when in fact, we have merely enunciated that we the conservative media or the fringe/marginal media. The great danger of human existence is to assume that you are of no consequence and to resign yourself to be cast about on the waves of history, resenting all the while the encroachment and advance of the media into your life. You invited them in with your passivity, with your pretend existence as an ambivalent or apathetic observer or non-participant. You participate, whether you want to or not, and whether you realize it or choose to deny it.
Many of us are like the Apostle Peter, who when faced with the prescient Christ who foretold of his thrice denial, insisted that such a denial was not possible. Not only was it possible, it was inevitable. Peter thought that he would observe the trial of Jesus; and that he would not participate or be found out. He made the classic mistake many of us make, assuming that he could exist and be of limited or no consequence.
Participation is our destiny, and even those who abdicate active roles for passive apathy accomplish an active role for ourselves in doing so. Given the pervasiveness of the media, the altogether cogent argument that each individual in a society is a participant in that media regardless of whether or not he or she recognizes that fact, there is no escaping our inevitable action and reaction dynamic. As the quote by Althusser from Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses sets forth, we construct our imaginary view of ourselves and our relationship to “real conditions of existence” utilizing the the stew of propaganda which we are daily immersed in by virtue of our citizenship in a society where the media is all-pervasive. There is no avoiding the media, because we might as well openly acknowledge the reality: Les médias, c'est moi!
We may well acknowledge that while the news media carries the narratives and myth of the state to us, we perpetuate those narratives and myths with our retellings, additions, and subtractions to those narratives and myths when we discuss them amongst ourselves and our peers. This blurred distinction is important not only because it establishes the citizen as a vessel of myth, but because it shows how we are enlisted in the information war, no matter how unwittingly, by our reaction. It also points in some ways to another blurred distinction, one in which many of us among the population, considering ourselves to be citizens participating in democratic society, recoil at any narrative which states that our role is cosmetic at best and irrelevant at worst where the real decision-making is concerned by responding in the fashion of Louis XIV: “I am the state!”
We bind ourselves up in the state, we identify ourselves as being singular with it when it conforms to our imaginary and perceived relationship to the real conditions of our existence, and we only repudiate it when the state goes in the opposite direction of our personal ideology. If the state has been inconsistent, it has been so in the same manner of our own pronounced inconsistency. It is perhaps not surprising that the media, an entity made up not only of those organizations which are traditionally accepted as the media, such as print, radio, and television news, but also those organizations and individuals such as the bloggers, pundits, and the audiences who routinely identify with and dissociate from the state in the aforementioned manner, might also demonstrate inconsistencies as well. After all, we are all one great hodgepodge.
The great distinction of totalitarianism and totalitarian movements is that they have been movements of mass more than anything else, even as they attempted to dress up in the language of class struggle and oppressed minorities or peoples who faced persecution at the hands of some Other. The totalitarian is by his nature an advocate of pervasiveness and ubiquity; and he is total in his saturation and permeation of a society. He is so total, in fact, that all lines of distinction tend to become blurred between the state and the individual, the media and the state, the individual and the media. This homogenous existence is the end result of totalitarianism. We are all the same.
To question this sameness, to deny that you are the state, is to set yourself in opposition to everyone else who does acknowledge their affiliation with the state in such a way as to tacitly endorse even those portions of state action which they virulently oppose. It is to be unpatriotic, if you will; it may even be anti-American.
Moreover, the acceptance of this homogenous identification, this infernal sameness, is the end of rational thought. We see this most clearly in our philanthropic endeavors or our human rights advocacy, where some common characteristic is seized upon to compel diverse groups of people towards a common cause: you know it as unity. In the name of achieving some laudable end, we set aside our differences and obliterate that which divides us to come together and sing kumbaya, or “We are the world, we are the children.” The absurdity of the thing is obvious enough to thinking individuals, but the price of admission to such bonhomie is the surrender of one’s capacity to think. Don’t think for a moment about the fact that we clearly aren’t the children in Africa, whose distended bellies and malnourished bodies can’t even sustain hair follicles on their heads, because the price of empathy is the obliteration of rational distinction.
You can’t be compassionate, the thinking goes, unless you identify with the sufferer by taking on his or her identity as your own even if you can’t or won’t assume the real suffering. The surrender of difference, of rational thought, of distinction in order to maintain credibility as as a human being will also inure you to the fact that many charitable endeavors are criminal in their siphoning off of contributions for administrative costs. A good many of these philanthropic organizations embezzle some ninety cents of each dollar in contributions to sustain their bureaucracies.
Besides, the real reason one contributes so readily to such nonsense and buys the CD or downloads the iTunes version of such a song isn’t altruism at all; rather, it is the desire we have to maintain our imaginary relationship to real conditions, to keep apace with our peers and friends in the race to do good. Vanity, vanity, all is fact vanity.
If you participate in this, if you fail to reject it wholesale, you are in some way endorsing it with your participation and your failure to be difficult. The failure to be difficult and obstinate is perhaps the greatest sin of our time. No one bothers to consider what the root causes of human suffering are; moreover, no one cares to make the uncomfortable connection between human action and human consequence. We can’t blame Africa for its plight, even though its governmental models fail to present deliverance to its people. It is the fault of the colonial powers, or the imperialists, or the system of capitalism; it is never the fault of the Africans for failing to effectively resist the forces which emanate from those systems and historical constructs. Oppression is perpetuated upon indigenous peoples most effectively when the oppressor enlists a few of the indigenous to serve as his agents.
What we have failed to see about Africa, or Asia, is that their failure to overcome the cycles put in place by colonialism and imperialism is as much due to the leaders of African states as it is to the continued machinations of the IMF and the World Bank. Someone has to take the loans, and someone has to accept the obligation of paying them back even after overthrowing the previous government. The problem of Africa is that there are so few African leaders who show any willingness to be difficult and obstinate in the face of financial piracy. Resistance is the obligation of every man who finds himself put at a disadvantage or under an obligation by a third party such as a corrupt government or oligarch. A lack of resistance is tantamount to an assent to enslavement.
The success of the state depends on its determination to identify, shape, and influence these realities with propaganda, and this often entails direct action in order to blunt, undermine, or quash any meaningful resistance. There are certain requisites for maintaining standing in one’s community, and we all pay those tolls in our daily lives. Those of us who question the matters are derided as difficult non-conformists who object simply to object. The fact that it is our right to do so in a free society without fear of reciprocity and retaliation is apparently lost on the virtuous souls who routinely pontificate their outrage whenever someone engages in ‘unacceptable’ speech. The reality that dissent is a powerful form of resistance, and that resistance to tyranny up to the point of violent revolution is a notion touched upon by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln in his Inaugural Address, and even John F. Kennedy is lost upon those who insist upon strict adherence to the state’s line.
Our Founders signed onto the idea contained within the Declaration of Independence that men had the right to cast off their government when that government became “destructive” to the ends of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Abraham Lincoln declared in his Inaugural Address that “If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one.” In a 1962 speech from the White House, John F. Kennedy declared that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
In a world where the media and the state are linked, where the state often owns media outlets, as it does with three of the seven national television outlets in Italy; or where the media moguls of the world often aspire successfully to political office or influence, as in the case of Silvio Berlusconi, an Italian prime minister who came to control six of the seven national Italian television outlets by owning three of them as a private citizen and controlling the other three as prime minister, we cannot say that the state and the media are separate, but we must convince ourselves that we are separate from the state and the media and adopt a critical eye towards both.
We do not have to descend to cynicism, but we must retain a sense of the incredulous. If we do not, we run the risk of being unable to distinguish between the truth and myth contained within the narratives foisted upon us each day by the state and the media. We may face ridicule for our non-conformity, and a thousand arrows of invective and vitriol may be fired our way, but we are the sentries upon which a free society depends: an informed and skeptical citizenry immunized from manipulation. Such an informed and skeptical citizenry was revealed to be nearly non-existent when it became apparent that the Bush Administration had paid three commentators to write columns and interview guests in order to advance legislation favored by the Bush Administration concerning marriage and pregnancy.
Journalism and Payola; or, Promoting the Common Good Through Necessary Measures.
In a story originally reported by Greg Toppo of USA Today, it was revealed that Amstrong Williams, a syndicated television personality, was paid $240,000 “regularly comment on the NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act) during the course of his broadcasts.” The Department of Education paid Williams to not only promote the bill, but also to interview the DOE’s Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots which would then air on Williams’s show, and to persuade producers affiliated with The Black Forum, a group of African-American journalists to address the bill on their shows as well. Williams did not disclose the contract with the Department of Education on air, nor did he ever speak critically of the bill in any way.
What is so extraordinary about the fact that Williams did not speak ill of No Child Left Behind or the rapid expansion of the Department of Education’s funding is this: it was the custom of the Republican Party to include within its platform a call to abolish the entire Department of Education from 1980 on, up to the time when George W. Bush came into the Republican presidential nomination on a wave of primogeniture and compassionate conservatism.
In point of fact, conservatives, of whose circle Williams was a supposed member in good standing as a former aide to Clarence Thomas and the host of a show entitled The Right Side, had bitterly decried and denounced the Department of Education and federal intrusion into education since the late seventies establishment of the department under Jimmy Carter. No Child Left Behind was an extraordinary expansion of federal oversight and intrusion into education, which conservatives had for decades contended was best left to local control.
Additionally, the following was noted in Toppo’s article: “Williams' contract was part of a $1 million deal with Ketchum that produced "video news releases" designed to look like news reports. The Bush administration used similar releases last year to promote its Medicare prescription drug plan, prompting a scolding from the Government Accountability Office, which called them an illegal use of taxpayers' dollars.” So there you have it: an ostensibly conservative president and an ostensibly conservative commentator expanding federal power over education after two decades of staunch conservative opposition to federal power over education.
The fact was that the Bush Administration had not merely paid Williams $240,000 to promote their pet legislation, they had also used similar ‘video news releases’ to push their Medicare prescription drug plan, which was itself an expansion of another government program traditionally denounced by conservatives from all quarters. Consider the Bernays quote at the beginning of the chapter: “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.”
The media was not independent of the state, it was on the payroll as an complicit party to the state’s effort “to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.” The payola scandal that had begun with Armstrong Williams would expand to include two other journalists, syndicated columnists Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus. Gallagher received a federal contract from the Department of Health and Human Services in the amount of $21,500 for helping to promote President Bush’s $300 million plan to promote marriage.
Gallagher’s work included “drafting a magazine article for the HHS official overseeing the initiative, writing brochures for the program and conducting a briefing for department officials.” Additionally, Gallagher’s work for a private organization, the National Fatherhood Initiative, was funded to the tune of $20,000 through a Justice Department grant. Now, while Armstrong Williams was paid to write columns and promote a bill under consideration on his show, Gallagher’s work was for private and public organizations, and involved her writing brochures, drafting articles, and composing essays.
But all the while, Gallagher continued to promote the same programs and initiatives in her syndicated column as well, without ever disclosing that she had been paid some $41,500 in taxpayer money to do work on the side for a department of the United States government and a private organization funded by a Justice Department grant. The fact that her opinion was that of a mercenary obviously might have impacted her readers in a negative way, and they would have perhaps consider forays into the area of fatherhood and marriage as alien to the authority of the federal government if one of their own conservative columnists had not been banging the drum for just such expansions of federal oversight and influence. Gallagher’s take on the Bush initiatives in the National Review Online was thus: “The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples,” while also managing to “educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage,” which would “carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children.” Indeed.
The Bush Administration also hired actors to pose as journalists in a series of fake television news produced by Home Front Communications, where actors in various scenes gave the President a standing ovation as he signed the Medicare prescription drug benefit into law. The actors posing as journalists also gave glowing reviews to the Medicare bill, and the inevitable result was that the videos were disseminated by CNN to local news affiliates who broadcast them without any disclosure of their origin or the fact that they were faux news segments. There was no on-screen notification that the individuals appearing in the segments were actors. In point of fact, the video stipulated the following:
“In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.”
Karen Ryan wasn’t a reporter; she was an actor. She wasn’t objectively sorting through the details like a legitimate reporter, noting that the prescription drug benefit would have adverse consequences for the deficit and would exempt drug companies from negotiating prices for Medicare drugs with the government. She was there to shill on behalf of the benefit, to present only one side of the debate, the side favored by the Bush Administration, and the Bush Administration used taxpayer dollars to fund the entire shenanigan. Moreover, Ms. Ryan was quite prolific: she appeared as a reporter on behalf of the No Child Left Behind Act on WLFL-22 in Raleigh, North Carolina, in October 2004.
The Center for Media and Democracy investigated to see how extensive the use of such fake news reports was, and what it found was that 77 television stations used Video News Releases, or VNRs, distributed by either corporations or the government on subjects as varied as the health benefits of dairy, or the energy advantages of ethanol, without disclosing the fact the fact the reports were not in fact conducted by the station or any other journalism entity. But the bottom of the screen was clear enough: viewers saw the reporter’s name, the station’s identification, and the usually ticker of news scrolling by, without ever once hearing that the “report” they were viewing was actually an advertisement built and paid for by Pfizer or the Department of Energy. This despite the fact that the Federal Communications Commission requires disclosures of VNRs by media outlets.
Additionally, the problem wasn’t just that the reports were appearing as the product of the local news or its national affiliate; it was that the news anchors were reading scripts written by corporations to introduce and close the VNRs as well. Take Detroit station WJBK-2, which in 1991 aired a VNR by pharmaceutical company Upjohn on its anti-anxiety drug Xanax. The anchor’s take: Doctors say there seem to be few side effects to the drugs.” Side effects of Xanax include sexual dysfunction, blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, impaired attention, and addiction.
The problem was that the government effort to seed the media with stories advocating on behalf of legislation at taxpayer expense was illegal according to the Government Accounting Office, which found in 2006 after a review of 340 contracts covering seven departments that the Bush Administration spent $1.6 billion in taxpayer funds promoting its programs between 2003 through 2005. Where corporations are concerned, the use of VNRs is misleading and totally corrosive to the notion of a free, independent, and objective press abiding by journalistic integrity and ethics, but if the VNRs are accompanied by a disclosure, there is nothing illegal about airing them. Unfortunately, as the Center for Media and Democracy found, nearly all of the television stations reviewed did not disclose to their audiences that the VNR was not in fact news, but rather a long advertisement paid for by a corporation or an agency of the United States government.
The assumption of the viewer at home was that the commercials consisted of those minute and a half to two minute long breaks between the news programming, but the reality of the matter was that they’d been bombarded with pure propaganda masquerading as journalism. It’s one thing when you know that a clip on television is a paid advertisement, because you take it with a grain of salt. When the clip isn’t presented as an advertisement, but rather as television news or reporting, you don’t hold the same skeptical view of the information therein. You trust it more, or you view as being somehow more objective and honest than an advertisement.
The New York Times’ own investigation found that 20 government agencies had engaged in the use of such VNRs, distributing them to local news stations who broadcast the VNRs without disclosure to their audience, and presented the contents as actual reporting. As the New York Times’ noted, “It is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.” Here are a few examples, culled from the opening paragraph of the article:
"Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.," a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of "another success" in the Bush administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security"; the reporter called it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration's determination to open markets for American farmers.”
These segments never originated in an independent and free media; they were filmed, funded, and distributed by a government to the media, which then broadcast the segments as news without so much as an ounce of disclosure as to their origin. Earlier, I noted that the media and the state had synchronized somehow to the point where the distinction between the two had become blurred. Each of the illustrations above confirms this thesis, which essentially holds forth that the media is nothing more than a vessel of myth, a conduit of narrative into which the messages are poured by the government; and those messages then flow through the sluices to the homes of every American man, woman, and child via their television on the nightly news.
If you wonder why it is that the reality of our world is so often overlooked by our media, to the point where the media can completely get the story wrong, as it did in the lead up to Iraq, the story of the Global War on Terror is perhaps the most informative example you can examine. In many ways, it is a continuation of the sort of media expropriation conducted by the government in the aforementioned examples.
Shifting Justifications for Intervention, Flexible Standards for Success: The Global War on Terror.
“Penciled in for 10 March.”
-George W. Bush to Tony Blair on January 31, 2003, regarding the impending invasion of Iraq.
“I’ve not made up my mind about military action.”
-George W. Bush to the American people on March 6, 2003.
“[Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.”
-Colin Powell, February 2, 2001.
“The most important thing is for us to find Osama Bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him.”
-George W. Bush, September 13, 2001.
“I don’t know where he is and I really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”
-George W. Bush, May 13, 2002
“Gosh, I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama Bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.”
-George W. Bush, October 13, 2004.
“We know he [Saddam Hussein] has absolutely been devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”
-Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003.
“I don’t believe anyone that I know in the administration ever said that Iraq had nuclear weapons.”
-Donald Rumsfeld, May 14, 2003.
“I think that the burden is on those people who think he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are.”
-Ari Fleischer, July 9, 2003.
''It was amazing I won,'' the president told Mr. Persson, referring to the 2000 presidential election. ''I was running against peace and prosperity and incumbency.''
-George W. Bush, in a conversation with the Swedish Prime Minister picked up by live microphones.
In the preceding section, I noted that every historical misstep by the state has its antecedent in some earlier misstep, usually statist or academic. The Global War on Terror as a misstep, insofar as the invasion of Iraq was achieved by manufacturing consent and manipulating intelligence, has its antecedent in an earlier misstep which took place when George H.W. Bush was the director the CIA under Gerald Ford.
Certain members of the Ford Administration were not convinced that the CIA’s assessment of Soviet military might were accurate. Chief among those in the camp of skeptics were Ford’s chief of staff Richard Cheney and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In order to ascertain the true picture of Soviet military prowess, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the CIA director at the time, a man named George H.W. Bush, concocted the notion of a Team B study group to independently review the raw intelligence in order to either confirm or repudiate the CIA’s findings, which were roughly as follows:
- The Soviet Union was on the downward slope of decline.
- It’s military might was declining due to the fact that the Soviets could not economically afford to maintain their military equipment or equip their personnel.
- If left alone, the Soviet Union would eventually and inevitably collapse in a matter of two to three decades.
One of Team B’s members was a young Paul Wolfowitz, who would go on to fame as one of the neoconservative architects of the second Iraq War. Indeed, Wolfowitz, together with his deputy Douglas Feith and a host of other neoconservatives affiliated with the Project for a New American Century, would be among the chief architects of American foreign intervention and empire around the globe. Three decades before, however, Paul Wolfowitz would prove his bona fides and usefulness to Cheney and Rumsfeld by heading up the analysts who made up Team B.
Team B’s findings, drawn from the same raw intelligence data as the CIA’s conclusions, differed greatly with the CIA’s assertions about Soviet power. Team B found that Soviet military power, far from being the corroded and decaying military infrastructure that the CIA asserted it had become, was as potent as ever. The air defense systems that the CIA had concluded were non-functioning and outdated after reviewing surveillance images, were in fact in perfect working condition. Team B pointed to the Soviet training manuals, “which proudly asserted that their air-defense system was fully integrated and functioned flawlessly.”
Of course, Soviet propaganda and official publications also asserted that the Soviet Union was a worker’s paradise and that the Communist Party existed to represent the will of the people under Soviet rule. There simply was no capacity within such a totalitarian state for any admission of weakness or insufficiency on any front, and pointing to a Soviet manual as evidence of the flawless functionality of Soviet air defenses was patently absurd.
As Thom Hartmann notes in his article “Hyping Terror for Fun, Profit-And Power,” Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld claimed “the lack of proof proved that undetectable weapons existed - they nonetheless used their charges to push for dramatic escalations in military spending to selected defense contractors, a process that continued through the Reagan administration.” A lack of proof proved that undetectable weapons existed. Indeed.
Consider the second to last quote at the opening by then Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer: “I think that the burden is on those people who think he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are.” As incomprehensible as this logic is, it worked to dissuade any real consequences for the Bush Administration as the months went by and no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. It worked in our present decade, just as it had worked in the Ford Administration when Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld had asserted that the lack of proof was proof in and of itself that undetectable weapons existed.
The power of myth in statism is this: if your ideology aligns you with the individuals or groups spouting such utter nonsense, you will abdicate your capacity for rational reflection and go along with their idiocy. For as Althusser noted, ideology is merely the representation of imaginary relationships to real conditions of existence. Consider what then Majority Leader Dick Armey said some time after it had become apparent that WMDs were not in Iraq, in regards to the briefing he received which convinced him to vote for the authorization of force in Iraq: “If I’d gotten the same briefing from President Clinton or Al Gore, I probably would have said, “Ah, bullshit.” But you don’t do that to your own people.”
Years after Team B successfully influenced policymakers to increase defense spending into the Reagan years, its members would go on to positions with think tanks and policy groups like the Project for a New American Century, which advocated invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein in the late 90s. After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, they would take central roles in the White House and the bureaucracies of the federal government. From there, they would hype a non-existent link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, along with manufacturing a crisis in the form of purported WMD arsenals held by Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, the role of the think tank is instrumental in explaining how individuals like Wolfowitz blend into the background after leaving the White House only to re-emerge years and even decades later to assume roles of great prominence in policymaking. Think tanks, the individuals they employ, and the views they put forth ultimately serve the role outlined by Bernays in his book Propaganda, for their efforts constitute “a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.” While their ostensible goal is to function as a safe refuge for independent academic study and intellectual process, a think tank in essence consists of nothing more than ideological mercenaries. Joon Nak Choi’s work “The Revolving Door: Charitable Foundation Funding for Think Tanks and Implications for Democratic Governance” found that between 2000 to 2007, “philanthropic organizations gave over $230 million to non-profit policy research institutes (“think tanks”). Choi went on to note the Harvard Law Review’s 2002 estimation that the top twenty conservative think tanks spent “more money annually than all soft money contributions to the Republican Party combined.”
Essentially, while we tend to focus on the role of money in politics, we give little attention to the role of money in the marketplace of ideas. Much of what makes it onto the news, whether in statistical analyses or study findings, emanates from think tanks, and their findings hold the patina of legitimacy by virtue of some academic connotation. We believe that the individuals who occupy think tanks are intellectual and academic types, the dry professorial individuals who spend their days poring over the data and reaching conclusions which are then revealed to the world in studies that make it onto the news.
The truth is that many of the think tank occupants are professional bureaucrats and political counselors whose party happens to be out of power. Choi references the work of R. Kent Weaver, whose 1989 screed “The Changing World of Think Tanks” concluded that “...governments in exile...where officials of the party whose presidential candidate has been defeated can seek gainful employment while they lick their wounds, wait for their party to come back to power and (hopefully) come up with new ideas.”
The reality is that thinks tanks are but one stop on a “revolving door,” as Choi calls it, which consists of individuals who transition from think tanks to political campaigns to the Executive Branch and back to the think tank. At all points, these individuals are the ones authoring and shaping policy, and they are paid for their effective articulation of specific positions and initiatives by philanthropic foundations whose boards and funders pay to see a particular worldview promoted at all costs.
An academic employed at a think tank, therefore, is no different from a journalist who takes money from a government to promote a particular viewpoint while existing above the fray owing to the connotations of independent thought and free opinion journalism and academia hold for most people. We believe that academics and intellectuals, like journalists, aren’t for sale, or at least that they should not be for sale. The truth is that in our world, everything is for sale, and one of the reasons we have no real changeover in policy even though we have changeover in government in the Executive Branch is because the entire model of state narrative myth “reinforces continuity in politics,” as Choi comes to conclude.
This model and the explanation it provides gives us the best possible explanation for why individuals from Team B could lay dormant for eight years under the Clinton Administration, and then re-emerge roaring in the second Bush Administration. The ideas are not “new,” as Weaver concludes, but rather new ways of saying and doing the same old things, to where the methods used to hype the threat of the Soviet Union in the late 70s with Team B are then used to promote the threat of Iraq in the late 90s and urge pre-emptive invasion almost two and a half decades after the fact.