No Thanks to Think Tanks

Today’s Devil’s Dictionary borrows its definition of the week from the incisive writing of Caitlin Johnson, who last Wednesday offered a concise explanation of the role of think tanks in the modern security state’s sophisticated system of information propagation (aka propaganda). Caitlin would probably agree that not all think tanks are nefarious, but she effectively shows how the system itself is designed to produce and promote only “convenient” (aka conformist) forms of thinking.

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September 13, 2023 03:37 EDT

In her newsletter last Wednesday, Caitlin Johnstone focused on reporting about new military technology that appeared in the British billionaire-owned newspaper The Telegraph. In its title the author extols the merits of a “war-winning swarm missile” that “will knock China out of Taiwan — fast.”

The title of Johnstone’s piece — “Think Tanks Are Information Laundering Ops For War Profiteers” —

highlights, in her usual down-to-earth muckraking style, the points to a flagrant and systemic conflict of interest, that deserves examination.

The configuration of actors is clear. On one side we find the defense contractors (the “war profiteers,” major players at the core of the military-industrial complex). On another is the “billionaire-owned newspaper” that publishes the article. And in the strategic middle lies a “think tank” that provides not just the copy but the supposed intellectual legitimacy of the story. Together, they work as a skilled trio acting out a well-rehearsed scenario in the interest of a US foreign policy that has clearly taken on the character of a new Cold War.

Johnstone specifically targets the author of the article, David Axe, a US military correspondent for Forbes, whose body of work she has tracked over the years. Though he published a graphic novel with the title, War is Boring, Axe has consistently demonstrated his deep commitment to the excitement of war. Johnstone doesn’t hesitate to characterize him as a seasoned “war propagandist.” She describes his piece in The Telegraph as a “covert advertorial for Lockheed Martin’s JASSM missile.”

To make her case, she reveals a relevant fact about the source of the story. It is entirely based on a study conveniently provided “by the military industrial complex-funded think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).” Allowing herself a note of Captain Renault-style irony,  Johnstone claims that readers will “be shocked and astonished and surprised and stunned to learn” that the Think Tank “lists the Lockheed Martin Corporation as one of its top donors.”

Johnstone’s description unveils for the unsuspecting reader a highly efficient, well-funded but largely invisible system conducted by a star-studded cast of top-level performers. It includes Washington politicians in the White House and Congress, the Pentagon’s sprawling bureaucracy, the powerful, monopolistic defense contractors and their army of lobbyists, the intelligence community and the indispensable think tanks that craft the narrative that will be confided to dutiful journalists such as David Axe.

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition, authored by Caitlin Johnstone:

Think tank:

An institution in which scholars are paid by the rich and powerful to think up reasons why it would be good and smart to do something evil and stupid.

Contextual note

Some may say that Johnstone is unfairly picking on an author who, in his publications, has demonstrated seriously detailed knowledge of all kinds of weaponry and takes a keen interest in the effects they produce. In his journalism, Axe has shown little interest in the logic of war itself. Does his passion for weapons and his skill at describing their performance justify Johnstone’s calling him “a war propagandist?”

A glance at some of his descriptions of war, even in the context of War is Boring, helps to justify this accusation. In a flattering C-SPAN interview in 2010 promoting the  graphic novel, he explained his feeling that “if war is boring then peace is way worse.” In the book, he makes it clear that he didn’t appreciate the dull moments of waiting around when nothing much is going on the battlefield. He seems to accept boredom as a casualty of war. In his own words, he relishes those “golden nuggets of excitement and the tiny little gems of a good story.”

Like most true war propagandists, Axe is sensitive to what war means for the US economy and the capacity of an empire to manage the world’s resources. When describing the war in the Congo, which he calls “the worst war Americans don’t know anything about,” he explains — presumably to justify the US military presence there — that Congo is “a country that really matters to the developed world” as “a source of much of the world’s rare earth minerals.” To clarify his meaning, he adds: “Without Congo, we wouldn’t have this high tech society we have.”

Axe concludes that his graphic novel on war in the Congo is aimed at getting Americans to feel more involved in that war. Whether that commitment to military action makes him a war propagandist, he seems to have assimilated the same imperialistic attitude that Elon Musk demonstrated concerning Bolivia’s lithium when he tweeted: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

In another interview about War is Boring, Axe boldly claims that he and the illustrator of his book do “not serve advertisers in the defense industry, and we also have imaginations and integrity. We know who we work for — our readers, not the government. Not the arms industry.” One is left wondering, given the connections Johnstone reveals, whether this isn’t his way of admitting that it’s in his journalism, rather than as the author of books, that he serves the arms industry. What is clear is that Axe believes deeply in the vocation of the US military to serve the needs of the corporations who have provided us with “this high tech society we have.”

Historical note

The concept of think tanks can be traced back to the Progressive Era in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The obscene prosperity of the Gilded Age induced the wisest strategists of capitalist success to find ostensible ways of demonstrating that “filthy lucre” could serve social and not just personal or commercial ends.

The emerging age of Public Relations (PR) reached maturity in the 1920s under the intellectual leadership of Edward Bernays, the author of Propaganda (1928). Wealthy philanthropists began to see think tanks as worthy investments, designed to persuade an otherwise skeptical public of their commitment to harness the best and most objective human intelligence in the formulation of enlightened public policy. Think tanks could thus be counted on to propose “wise policies,” independent of, but decidedly not in conflict with their own interests.

The prestigious British think tank, Chatham House, claims that think tanks emerged “as ‘study groups’ which brought together academics and government officials to discuss policy issues within a confidential setting.” This innocuous description paints a picture of the nation’s “brightest” concerting with democratically elected officials to produce a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds.” The description carefully leaves out the third party in the initiative: the enterprises or wealthy individuals who funded them.

Quite logically, the Cold War turned out to be the golden age of think tanks. They provided the perfect model of the use of “human intelligence” to address the needs of an age dominated by ideological rivalry. Humanity entered the age of mass and indeed global propaganda. Despite the end of the Cold War three decades ago, that age has been artificially prolonged to this day.

We can attribute the persistence of a culture of propaganda quite simply to the enduring success of an economic model based on a permanently militarized economy. Never has so much wealth and power been concentrated in a system too densely and intricately structured to be disentangled by even the most thorough and creative human intelligence.  This has produced a widely shared belief system — a permanently militarized mindset — fostered by think tanks funded by those certain to benefit financially from a growing obsession with national security.

In her brief newsletter diatribe, Caitlin Johnstone schematically sketches the complete logic of a system that stretches across global finance to politics, engages the massively profitable defense industry and employs think tanks to elaborate a respectable-sounding rationale. And of course, at the other extreme, it generously feeds the media with seemingly objective information and assessment. I’m not describing a conspiracy. It is a cleverly engineered, well-oiled structure — complete with a convenient revolving door — that allows everyone to interact, often without even thinking about how their specific role connects with the system.

What better way to ensure that nobody — not even the “thinkers” in the tank or the journalists spreading the wisdom they produce — realizes that they are actively producing something “evil and stupid” while sharing the belief that it’s “good and smart?”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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