The Failure Of Public Opinion
By Maryam Sakeenah
Countercurrents.org | 21 May, 2008
The paradox in today’s world is that alongside the loudly professed commitment to democracy, public opinion still does not ‘have a say’, especially in the domain of international affairs. American diplomat John Bolton said in a recent interview:
Interviewer: You do not seem to doubt the ‘go-it-alone’ approach of the United States although anti-Americanism is rising across the world. Doesn’t such a negative view of America in world public opinion weaken US power?
John Bolton: I do not think so. I have looked at public opinion polls in France in the late 1940s and early 1950s during the height of the Marshall Plan aid. They had a very negative attitude towards the United States then. But did it make a difference? There were also negative attitudes about the United States because of Vietnam. There were negative attitudes about the US when Reagan wanted to deploy intermediate range ballistic missiles. I do not think the president should base his foreign policy on American public opinion polls, let alone foreign opinion polls. (Der Spiegel)
A frequently used ploy to control public opinion is through manipulation and state control of media as well as using propaganda mechanisms. A pertinent case in point is the manipulation of the Weapons of Mass Destruction spectre. The propaganda and the outrage against the ‘axis of evil’ it kicked up helped create a justification to launch the War in Iraq. The media played ally and tool, creating terror of the heinous weapons hidden somewhere in the dark corners of Saddam’s backyard. Most people accepted the Bush administration’s depiction of the War on Terror as a campaign against Weapons of Mass Destruction. Too little critical examination of the way events, issues, threats and policies were framed was done, and no alternative perspectives were given to the people apart from the official line. Hence public opinion in the US and elsewhere was effectively kept tame and any possibility of expression of outrage over the attack on Baghdad was successfully diminished. Public opinion, in such cases, shows itself to be extremely malleable, mould-able, manipulate-able.
One strategy of controlling and weakening public opinion is creating and nurturing misperceptions and building on them. Stephen Kull has gathered interesting information to illustrate this. A convenient and oft-used misperception is to justify foreign policy by proving it to be in the ‘supreme national interest’. Stephen Kull writes, “The public must be able to see the link of foreign policy with national interest. If Americans are told and explained to by their president that a certain policy is in the vital interest of the government and give a compelling argument, the people will withstand all the casualties in the process. Military losses should not be publicized.”
THE ROLE OF THE MASS MEDIA
In order to promote propaganda, the State needs to use the mass media, which is easy in totalitarian states. However, in democratic societies, a conflict between the free media and the government may result as the media tries to bring to light what the government prefers to conceal. This clash has heightened due to the advent of new technologies, especially the internet where free information inflow and exchange is available.
However, the media is dependent on the government also for information. The government is more empowered and resourceful to be able to control information inflow, to manipulate journalists by feeding them information and ‘shaping’ the news. This can lead to curbs on the media and strict censorship to control public opinion, such as in the case of emergency in Pakistan. Media coverage of the military operations is usually prohibited or strictly censored, for example the ongoing war in Pakistan’s restive tribal belt receives little attention, owing to a hostile environment for the media in the heavily militarized region. Similarly, during the Red Mosque Operation in Islamabad, the media was safely kept out, given little to cover and let in only much later for a cosmetic ‘display’ of the huge ‘arsenal’ recovered from the debris of the dilapidated masjid. By ‘not showing the dead bodies,’ as the government had demanded from the media before the crackdown began, public sympathies were kept in check and a popular backlash averted.
THE PARADOX OF AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY TRADITION
According to ‘worldpublicopinion.org’, 73% of Americans reject American policy in Iraq. 70% agree that Guantanamo prison camps are illegal, 77% want USA to renounce its nuclear weaponry and 76% want the United Nations, not United States to have the pre-eminent role in world politics.
Human Rights abuses in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have been highlighted and widely condemned. Peace movements like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Citizens for Peace etc. turned vociferous and organised themselves for a forefront role. The effort to show the world a forgotten human cost of war which is expediently cast aside as ‘collateral damage’, was commendable indeed and was helped greatly by a free media.
The tragedy that sets one thinking, though, is that the US still carries on with Afghanistan and Iraq; that Guantanamo still harbours prisoners clandestinely where torture goes unabated and scores go missing at the hands of state agencies on the hunt for the ‘elusive terrorist.’ The fact that stares one in the face is that Liberalism spearheaded by Western societies and their values of freedom and individual liberty ring hollow in the face of the appalling apathy towards the overwhelming public opinion against the unjust crusade shown by those at the helm of affairs.
The quality of thought in democracies has reached the lowest ebb of impoverishment with a mass naivete or even apathy running wild, leaving public opinion quite inconsequential and easy to dismiss by the foreign policy makers.
An interesting case in point is that of Cindy Sheehan, the American peace activist who was stirred into action following the death of her son serving the US army in Iraq. The sense of futility in the life lost for a vainglorious end made her organize a campaign to pressurize the government to stop the War. Despite a swift gathering of support, Sheehan suffered hostile, sneering and apathetic responses, leaving her frustrated and disappointed. Announcing officially that she was calling it quits, Sheehan presented a vociferous, unplugged critique of the American attitude:
“Hundreds of thousands of people are dying for a war based on lies, that is supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. People of the world look on us Americans as jokes because we allow our political leaders so much murderous latitude. We are rapidly descending into a fascist corporate wasteland… My son was killed by his own country which is run by a war machine and even controls the way we think. Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed as we play politics with human lives. It is so painful. We are worried more about elections than about human beings.”
The Communist stereotype was swiftly replaced by the Muslim stereotype after the Cold War. To create a subdued, unquestioning and unprotesting mindset that accepts the logic and ‘nobility’ of a ‘crusade’ to wipe out the evil ‘terrorist’ and teach some civilization to the barbarians in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Muslim stereotype proved useful. The media helped create the stereotype, to the extent that today 3 in 4 Americans say they would prefer not living in a neighbourhood where a Muslim family lives. To neutralize opposition to the ongoing war, hatred and fear of the enemy is created.
Yet it is also the media which has the power to undo stereotypes through objectivity, information, awareness, understanding and sympathy. For example, the stereotype of the ‘black’ in the West was undone largely by the media and a number of works of art and literature as well as movies came onto the scene humanizing the ‘black’ and creating sympathy for his predicament_ for instance, ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley, the works of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and more recently ‘Blood Diamonds.’
INEFFECTIVE PUBLIC OPINION
The modern man is dependent on others to formulate his own opinion, and is conformist in behaviour, avoiding risk and playing safe to go on comfortably. This makes him a cog in the machine of the system, an agent of continuing the status quo, a strength for the establishment’s policies_ without perhaps being aware of it.
The ignorant mass-man is instrumental to policy making_ the more of such men, the better. Like the Pakistani President Musharraf who, in his bold defection from democratic, traditional norms and values, sought strength (in his own words), from ‘the support of the silent majority.’
THE CULTURE OF CONSUMERISM
This process is aggravated by the commercial consumerist culture. Erich Fromm has mentioned the emergence of the ‘marketing personality’ in the modern age, incapable of genuine opinion-making and effectively expressing it. The ‘marketing personality’ grows out of “the experience of oneself a commodity and of one’s value as exchange value. To be a social success as a ‘commodity’ one has to be an empty vessel into which one can pour in the right trait at the right time.” The consumerist, brand-conscious, brand-suffocated culture creates passive recipients of information. It makes people with limited self-awareness as the fast-paced life pattern leaves little time to reflect and introspect. Life is too full of luxuries and comfort to desire a change in the status quo. The consumerist individual gets his Mac Donald’s hamburgers everyday, has a two-room apartment, a girlfriend and Levi’s jeans, and is likely to continue like this… so Iraq does not count, nor does the noise Ms. Sheehan makes.
The consumerist culture goes on producing ‘mass man’ by the dozen. The mass men help perpetuate the order, maintain the status quo, sterilize and deaden public opinion and make the world full of George Orwell’s ‘sheep’ of ‘Animal Farm’, chanting the State’s slogan ‘Four legs good, two legs bad,’ but switching over to ‘Four legs good, two legs better’ when expedient propaganda woos their simple, comfort-choked intellects. Winston White sums up this psychological phenomenon thus: “Every individual wants to fit in and be accepted. He strives for this by being like what most of the members of this reference group consider standards of behaviour (other direction) and acts accordingly; he conforms. Since in conformity, he is careful not to do or say something that will rub the others the wrong way, the idiosyncratic rough edges of his personality are rubbed away; in consequence, he becomes scarcely distinguishable from those whose approbation he seeks.” It is this conformism that renders public opinion impotent and sterile.
It has been argued and proven by Mc Clelland that Americans, much more than others, want to associate themselves with majority opinion (and are hence more ‘other-directed’) because it bears the stamp of ‘being right.’ An American voter said, “Just before the election it looked like Bush would win, so I went with the crowd. It didn’t make any difference to me who won, but I just wanted to vote for the winner.” Despite the quagmire in Iraq, President Bush won a second term because the war statistics were perhaps still not enough to radically change the public opinion of a people who are increasingly conformist.
Foreign policy, in particular, is one aspect which carries little importance to the average voter in stating his choice. According to a survey, only 19% Americans consider foreign policy perspective of the presidential candidate when making their choice… and this about a country whose foreign policy embraces the entire globe!
THE ‘DUMBING DOWN’ OF AMERICA
As a result, the average American is both ignorant of and insensitive to America’s manoeuvring of global politics and its adventures abroad. A progressive economy, individual liberty and personal comfort are all that matter. He cannot see beyond his two-room luxury apartment. Christopher Lasch calls this a malaise of ‘narcissism’ gripping the West. ‘Narcissism’ is an obsession with the self. The narcissist believes that his personal comfort guaranteed by brand labels makes him satisfied with the system as a whole, and so his country’s unjust foreign policy elsewhere does not bother the individual. Literary critic Harold Bloom has called it a ‘dumbing down’ of the American public, for which he blames the media and the education system. Public opinion in the US, the world’s greatest democracy, is impotent. This is the paradox of liberal democracy. Ironically, however, it is also this nation which, by virtue of an adventurous, domineering and interventionist foreign policy, influences global politics profoundly. It has managed to insulate its foreign policy making process from public opinion, safely and exclusively reserving it for lobbyists, interests-groups, inner-circle diplomats, the CIA and FBI to carry on clandestinely, without the burden of the public sanction. The ‘dumbing down’ is complete. The information level of the American public is rather low_ a lot less adequate to its grand agenda.
POST-ELECTIONS PAKISTAN: ‘THE GREAT BETRAYAL’
Any ‘democracy’ is meaningless and hollow if public opinion is not empowered. This is especially true in the case of Pakistan today. Following the elections, the public reposed great hope and trust in the elected representatives to a bring a change in the country’s ill-thought role in the War on Terror which justifies the brutal onslaught on our own people by characterizing the victim as ‘terrorist’ and demonizing him sufficiently so that questions are not asked, sympathies not provoked. However, with a lack of will shown by the government to negotiate the problems instead of taking up the military alternative has dimmed hope. After a welcome lull, the spate of maniacal reactive suicide attacks engineered by shady characters seems to be in the offing. This time, however, it has been our own choice. We failed to commit to justice and peace and let go of the opportunity to make amends and stop the madness that has brought in its wake so much hurt. This time, again, we chose to betray the public trust, to sideline public opinion.
Public opinion is the voice of the human sensibility and must not be perverted through manipulation. It is sacred and sovereign and carries within it the potential to rehumanize the morass we call ‘international politics.’
It is only when lobbying, expediency, secrecy, manipulation and Machiavellian diplomacy is replaced with the basic democratic value of inclusion of the genuine ‘vox populi’ into foreign policy making will the cutthroat international order be replaced with a more humane and egalitarian order on the basis of the principles set by international law, and embodied in the universal human values that exist in little corners of men’s hearts. It is about time we realize the potential and promise in the human voice that holds in it the amplitude capable of ushering in a newer, better world for all.