Monday, January 7, 2008

Manufacturing 'Truths'

By Hajrah Mumtaz
(Courtesy DAWN)

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State." — Dr Paul Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under Adolf Hitler's Nationalist Socialist regime.

The words hold relevance for Pakistan today. After a turbulent year that in itself augured ill for the country's future, came the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Just over a week later, the government is engaged in a bitter blame game in the attempt to deflect responsibility everywhere but upon its own minions and shadowy agencies. As the dust slowly settles, some civilian politicians have fallen towards the relative front and this has resulted in a citizenry divided: where some people are referring with disgust to the politicians' past reputations and practices, others are reacting sympathetically.

By way of background noise, references made by politicians both in the King's Party and out of it are gnawing away at the idea of the federation and are hardening provincial divides. At the same time, the citizenry is angrily debating whether democracy is at all relevant to Pakistan's needs since earlier democratic governments fell far short of standards.

In these bleak times, people are taking sides on the basis of what they know to be true. Depending on their sympathies, for example, some of us 'know' that X, Y or Z was corrupt or inefficient, while others 'know' that A, B and C acted out of the best intentions. We 'know' this because we read it in the newspapers, saw it on television, heard it from inside sources and wagged our heads in agreement during drawing room conversations.

Goebbels' words indicate that what we 'know' may not necessarily be the 'truth' — if, indeed, any such animal exists — and may in fact be the result of a vast flood of propaganda and lies that have been insisted upon for so long that they have become the truth.

As Herman and Chomsky pointed out in Manufacturing Consent, state authorities or governments employ indoctrination techniques and propaganda to bolster support for their policies. Significantly, the crux of the book is how the media, on purpose or unwittingly, become the tool through which the lies and half-truths are disseminated.

The military has been in power in Pakistan for most of the country's 60-year history and shows no indication of ever wanting to give it up. The assertions that certain extra-constitutional steps were "in the best interests of the country" must be viewed in this light. At the same time, the reputations of a number of politicians and parties must also be revisited with this knowledge.
Most of us 'know' that our democratic governments were tainted by institutionalised corruption on a massive scale, because this is what we have been repeatedly told for the past eight years in particular, and over decades in general. (By the same token, I wonder, do we 'know' that non-democratic governments were squeaky clean? Or is that just not talked about?)

It is worth examining who was doing the telling, and who was in power long enough to repeat the same shady 'truths' over and over again. Could this government be in the business of manufacturing such 'truths'? It is entirely possible that our 'knowledge' is the result of a massive propaganda machine that has consistently run defamation and character assassination campaigns against civilian political leaders. Over the years, little proof has been offered by way of explanation while damning such politicians.

True, ample evidence of maladministration and corruption has been presented by the press. Little of this evidence, however, has been the result of independent investigative journalism. Most of the news reports upon the actions or statements of others. For example, when the press reports the dismissal of a government under charges of corruption or maladministration, the allegation is being levelled by the individual or institution doing the dismissing, not the press itself. Furthermore, such allegations are never proved or disproved through a credible trial. And what's more, even if the press raised suspicions of misrule through solid investigative journalism, it would still be up to the courts to pronounce upon the veracity of the allegations.
Ironically, it was also Goebbels who wrote: "Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play."

The point is not whether our politicians are blameless, but whether we have been offered any credible proof that they are not. Sadly, the idea of being innocent until proved guilty is not in evidence in Pakistan and any hope for it was stamped out with the dismissal of independent-minded judges.

The Big Lie theory, as such methods of indoctrination have been referred to, is a propaganda technique first defined by Hitler in Mien Kampf as a lie so "colossal" that no one would be able to believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." While Hitler used this theory with reference to his view of Judaism, it is amply in evidence in Pakistan today. We have, after all, a government audacious enough to first present a theory as ludicrous as a murderous sun-roof handle, and then admit that the statement was made without taking all evidence into account. Fortuitously, in this case there was hard evidence to disprove the government's claim otherwise it may easily have gone down in the annals of history.

Furthermore, it is worth pondering the etymology of the word 'media'. It is the plural for 'medium', which since the early 17th century has been used in the context of an 'intermediate agency' and carries the additional meaning of 'medium of communication.' In this broader sense, the media include not only the formal agencies that disseminate information and ideas — newspapers, television etc — but also the informal systems through which, generally speaking, each of us knows what he knows. These informal systems are the verbal avenues for the exchange of ideas, such as debate, discussion and even rumour or gossip, since these too are amongst the streams of information that together constitute the well of knowledge available to any individual.

Such informal streams of the media can be and are extensively used by Pakistan's well-connected, entrenched and institutionalised propaganda machine. The power of the media in terms of shaping the perspectives and perceptions of individuals is not only immense but in terms of the informal media, also truly frightening because of its nebulous nature.
The thinking person must ask himself, "How do I know what I know, and how do I know whether it is true?"

Post-script: "To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed . . ." — George Orwell, 1984.

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