Creating Idols and Crushing Dissidents

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

-Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Reich-Marshall, Nuremberg Trials, WWII (ref. in Boler, 10)

It hurts to say it, but the man is pretty dead-on. In Digital Media and Democracy, Megan Boler begins the book by discussing the little-publicized (at least in America) anti-war protests after the September 11, 2001 attacks on a World Trade Center and before the invasion. Not only were the numbers in attendance grossly under-reported, but those who did get press were dubbed anti-American or unpatriotic.

What is patriotism, anyway? What is its role in modern politics and war? Merriam-Webster online defines patriotism as: “love for or devotion to one’s country”. Wikipedia’s “see also” recommendations include “national psychology”, “social patriotism”, “chauvanism”, and “jingoism”. Doesn’t exactly sound like the word is about love anymore.

It seems accusations of patriotism and anti-patriotism (again, I speak about the U.S.) are used mostly for political persuasion. Let’s take a look at the current protests happening in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. The cry from the left is clear: they want their unions. The cry from the far right reads more like what Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said: “The only assault is from a bunch of self-interested government union employees who are putting their interests ahead of the interests of the Wisconsin taxpayers, who have been funding their runaway spending. This is not the way public servants should behave.” As long as we keep playing the name-calling game, one may well call that socialism. (You knew it would come up sometime – we’re talking Obama-era-politics here)

I jest, but you get the point. The way to political “unity” (and thereby political support) is to separate “I” and “we” from “them” and “you”. WE are Americans, and that means WE love America, so WE support Policy X. If YOU don’t support Policy X, then YOU are not US. YOU are un-American. As Goering said, the formula is simple and transferable. I’m not calling anyone a Nazi, here. That’s not the point. The point is that the Nazis were masters of media when it came to spreading propaganda. At their time, the media they employed was technically new media (comics, newspapers, radio, film, etc.). Today, they average Joe can be both a consumer and a creator of new media, unlike in WWII era, when only the educated privileged had access. One might assume it was easier to influence Germans because they had no idea how to question authenticity of media – they were merely sheep – but are we faring any better today? Does the general public have a real grasp on how those with political agendas are using new media to influence their decisions? I’m not so sure.

I live in a world where I am surrounded by people who manipulate Facebook for fun, try to figure out search algorithms or Facebook’s underhanded ad efforts. It takes a serious will to remove my mind from the tech-nerd sector and move to the generally-ok-at-web public, but when I manage it, the reality is shocking. Does the average web user (again, in the US, which is arguably more savvy than the large majority of the world) understand that American Airlines’ game that allows them to add random free miles to their AAdvantage accounts is there only to get “likes” and thereby influence social and search rankings (Facebook popularity matters) and thus line their pockets in the long run? I seriously doubt it. Do they, then, understand that they are becoming chatting, posting, tweeting billboards for corporate America without being paid for it (or if they were rewarded for it, do they really understand the trade-off? Are they able to weigh the pros and cons with a full range of fact-knowledge?)? Do they realize that their “identity” is being pushed via rewards miles and free bagels (Einstein Bro.’s Facebook efforts) into a world where we are what we eat, buy, frequent, etc.? Now, more than ever, our identities are being zip-tied to products and causes in a lasting, traceable way. We are thereby influenced by the “identities” of others. If an American soldier is called unpatriotic on Facebook, roughly 300 people know it.

My great fear is the public does not understand the ways it is being influenced by those with political agendas, and they certainly don’t understand the implications of their support or condemnation of said agendas. Maybe this is a legitimate fear, or maybe the effects of new media efforts are no different than cutting-edge ads during the Super Bowl or on billboards decades ago.

UPDATE: I feel like this post is kind of rambling, so I hope to flesh this idea out more with some concrete examples in the post following.