American News

The Art of Saying What Other People Think

The Ukraine conflict can teach us how to read propaganda and remain sane.
Russia news today, Russian latest news today, Vladimir Putin news today, Vladimir Putin latest news, Ukraine war news today, Ukraine latest news today, NATO news today, news on Ukraine War, Ukrainian news, Peter Isackson

Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on 5/11/2020. © Photographer RM / Shutterstock

March 08, 2022 14:28 EDT

This is Fair Observer’s new feature offering a review of the way language is used, sometimes for devious purposes, in the news. Click here to read the previous edition.

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March 8: Says

The logic of capitalism has always given an advantage to anyone capable of constructing a monopoly. Monopolies oppress potential rivals, hold consumers hostage, distort the very principle of democracy and stifle innovation. That’s why governments in past times occasionally tried to rein them in. That was before the current era, a unique moment in history when the biggest monopolies learned the secret of becoming too powerful for any government to derail.

Is Europe’s Newfound Unity a Liberal Illusion?


But there is at least one domain where the principle of democracy still reigns: propaganda. When it comes to distorting the news or simply inventing something that sounds like news, nobody has a monopoly. For the past six years or so, complaints about fake news have been rife. They come from all sides. And all those complaints are justified. Misrepresenting the truth has become a universal art form, thanks in part to advances in technology, but also to some great modern traditions such as public relations and the science of advertising.

On every controversial issue or every instance of a political or cultural conflict — from the Ukraine War to the censorship of podcasts — the interested parties will mobilize every piece of evidence (real or imagined) and every creative idea they have in their heads to produce something they want others to think of as “the truth.” It needs neither facts nor disciplined reasoning. It just has to stir emotion and sound somewhat credible. One of the standard techniques can be seen in the kind of reporting that uses an isolated anecdote to create the belief in a much more general threat.

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To take one prominent case, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official pretext for invading Ukraine was “denazification.” His implicit claim was that because there are neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine (which is true) and because over the past eight years some of them have stepped up to commit criminal acts in the name of Ukrainian nationalism, the current Ukrainian government can be held responsible for covering for Nazis. The corollary is that Russia has a legitimate mission to cleanse the neighboring country of them.

In his defense, Putin may have been influenced by a precedent that he feels justifies his arrogance. After the 9/11 attacks, the US government mobilized the resources of NATO to overthrow the Afghan government, which the Bush administration accused of “harboring” al-Qaeda militants. The world applauded at the time, but as time wore on and the great mission was never accomplished, that same world ended up seeing the invasion and occupation as an act of prolonged military folly. The whole episode nevertheless lasted for nearly 20 years.

The Designated Role of the Media: Reinforce Official Propaganda

Anyone trying to understand what is happening today in Ukraine just by consulting the media and the press will quickly discover a plethora of moving anecdotes but little substance. We are living through an intensive moment of massive propaganda. It has even produced a new journalistic genre: the article, interview or multimedia document revealing for the first time to the world what the evil mind responsible for the Ukrainian tragedy is really thinking. There are dozens of such articles every day.

As we reported last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, America’s chief official propagandist, provided an unintentionally comic model that journalists could imitate. In an interview about the Russian invasion in which Blinken started by explaining the precise process of Putin’s thinking, he later answered another question defensively, objecting: “I can’t begin to get into his head.”

Business Insider offers a typical example of an article that presents no facts or insights other than what one person “says” another person is thinking. This isn’t even hearsay, which is a form of news. It’s “listensay,” gleaned by a reporter for a specific purpose. The title of the article reads: “Former NATO commander says Putin has his ‘gun sights’ on more nations apart from Ukraine.” The author, Matthew Loh, has the honesty to reveal that James Stavridis, the expert he quotes, is “a retired four-star US Navy admiral and current executive at the Carlyle Group.” This contrasts with MSNBC, which provided the quote that Loh based his article upon in a televised interview with Stavridis. The cable network introduced Stavridis as the former NATO commander but studiously neglected to mention his role at the Carlyle Group.

Upon hearing an expert like Stavridis describe Putin’s most secretive thoughts, a discerning listener may begin wondering how he managed to “get into [Putin’s] head.” Does NATO possess telepathic technology? In reality, neither MSNBC nor Loh is curious about what the former admiral knows, whether through experience or telepathy. They only want the public to know what Stavridis “says.”

A truly attentive reader of Loh’s article might prefer to reflect on the question of what a former NATO commander might be tempted to say about actions undertaken in the name of resisting and rejecting NATO. After a bit of research revealing that the Carlyle Group is “the leading private equity investor in the aerospace and defense industries,” that same reader may begin to sense that what Stavridis “says” may be influenced by who he is and how he earns a living. 

At one point in the MSNBC interview, Stavridis could barely contain his pleasure with the current situation when he asserted: “Vladimir Putin may be the best thing that ever happened to the NATO alliance.” This at least has the merit of revealing the true reasoning behind the Biden administration’s stonewalling on the question of excluding Ukraine from NATO. Everyone knew that for the Russians, the very idea of Ukraine’s membership in NATO crossed a red line. The intelligence services should have known that it could even push Putin to act according to the promises he has been making for at least the past 15 years. 

Serious analysts like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt understood that long ago. This is where it would be useful to get into the head of US President Joe Biden and his administration and the policymakers at NATO. Could it then be that the NATO alliance, led by the United States, was less concerned with the security of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people than it was actively seeking to provoke Putin’s reaction as a pretext for expanding and reinforcing NATO? That certainly appears consistent with Stavridis’ logic. They could do so in the hope that Russia’s display of aggression would prove to the “free world” that NATO was more necessary than ever. 

NATO not only defines the ability of the US to be militarily present in other parts of the world, but it also gives structure to the military-industrial complex in the US, the source of profit the Carlyle Group depends on. The military-industrial complex sells its sophisticated weapons to its allies in Europe and elsewhere, making them vassals twice over, by binding them into an alliance if not allegiance with US foreign policy and making them loyal customers for American military technology.

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The propaganda blitz now underway is clearly exceptional, possibly because there have never been so many people the media can solicit to step and “say” what Putin “thinks.” This provides endless matter for lazy journalists who understand their job at the service of the military-industrial complex in times of (other people’s) wars is to take sides in the name of Western solidarity and in the interest of their own future employment.

Is Propaganda Immoral or Just Amoral?

The propaganda machine now unleashed on the world seeks to create an illusion of universal agreement about what, in reality, no one can be sure of. As always throughout human history, its aim is to prevent critical thinking, which means it is also an obstacle to problem-solving. That is why Stavridis can be so pleased with Putin’s aggression. Because it is a literally undefendable act, all right-thinking people will condemn it on purely legal grounds. But Stavridis and the entire propaganda machine take Putin’s sins as proof of NATO’s virtue. And the Carlyle Group executive believes that for that very reason, other nations have no choice but to align and support the extension of NATO.

Could this be a Pyrrhic victory for the propagandists? While it has worked at least superficially in the West and is being trumpeted by the media, the successful moral intimidation of other governments by a nation and a bloc not known for the impeccable morality of its foreign policy decisions and military actions in the past may be limited to the West.

The best illustration of this is Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s reaction to an initiative by the heads of 22 Western diplomatic missions who sent him a letter literally instructing him as an ally of the US to support a resolution of the UN General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Citing the letter, Khan commented: “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves…that whatever you say, we will do?”

Putin is undoubtedly a consummate knave and as narcissistic as they come. But, like Khan, he has every reason to fear as well as critique the inexorable imperial reach of the US-NATO military-industrial complex. Whatever selfish considerations motivate him, Putin is aware of his unique power to challenge an entity perceived even by its allies (at least ever since Charles de Gaulle) as having the personality of a slave-master or at the very least a feudal baron. Though none would dare to go public, the allies themselves are beginning to worry and have begun seeking in the shadows to change the system that defines their own abject dependence. But it’s far too early to talk about it. For the moment, they are willing to repeat what their master says.

The problem that lies ahead goes beyond any solution propaganda can imagine. Even if some or most Western governments slavishly follow the reasoning that NATO is their only hope of defense against the Russian ogre, people in Europe are now chattering amongst themselves about how the very logic of NATO has produced a situation in which Ukraine and its people are being condemned to atrocious suffering by the intransigence of both sides. NATO itself stands as the “casus belli.” And what reason does it invoke to justify its stance? An artificial idea of “sovereignty.”

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Most ordinary citizens can already see that NATO’s insistence on expansion has been and continues to be unduly aggressive. At the same time, the notion of US leadership in Europe and the rest of the world is no longer what it once was. NATO’s inflexibility is beginning to appear as a threat to everyone’s security for two reasons: It has exposed a nation it claims to protect to suffering and as Pakistan, a US ally, observes, it seeks to treat all others as vassal states.

This reality is becoming increasingly visible, no matter how much we listen to people cited in the media who think they can say what Vladimir Putin is thinking.

Why Monitoring Language Is Important

Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.

In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.

Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.

Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.

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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