Thursday, May 25, 2017

Propaganda In Our Day: Even Its Opposite Is Untrue

Drug Enforcement Agency personnel or terriorists operating in Honduras? You be the judge.
Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP via The Intercept

It's spring in the 8th grade and we turn to the study of propaganda. The student who considers it his duty to challenge everything I do demanded to know why studying propaganda belongs in English class. I turned his question back to his classmates and the wary silence accompanied by bored inattention was broken by a lone raised hand. "Weasel words is about using words that don't mean what they seem to, and words are what we study in English." Good job. 

Of course we live in an age dominated by images that amplify words or often sidestep words altogether to convey ideas. And a veritable deluge of false narratives like Russiagate conveyed by any means. It makes for an interesting perspective for this old teacher reflecting that there is hardly anything new under the sun.

(This reminds me to show them the Assyrian relief on display at my alma mater with cuneiform exalting King Ashurnasirpal as he's blessed with the gift of fertilizing -- there's tree pollen in the winged spirit's handbag.)
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine
We've considered lots of advertisements, for that is the very air a child in the waning days of capitalism breaths from birth. I've also shown a clip from the 1947 U.S. Department of War film "Don't Be A Sucker" pointing out graphically the parallel between a demagogue's claims in Nazi Germany and a demagogue's claims in post-WWII America. Scapegoating, preying on people's fears, and exploiting the unemployed are clumsily demonstrated as a man in the Cold War crowd nervously turns the masonic ring on his finger muttering, "Hey, now they're talking about me." Any resemblance to current events is purely coincidental.

But the real fun began when I asked students to find a short video of any kind that exemplifies at least two of the propaganda strategies we've been focusing on: weasel words, glittering generalities, bandwagon and expert (in 2017 read: celebrity) opinion.

One student turned up an infographic-style video that animates a book on propaganda by evil mastermind Edward Bernays. I wasn't planning to study the history of propaganda but students now saw how it was used on behalf of the corporation United Fruit to effect regime change in Guatemala, and who invented the weasel words "public relations."

I knew this history already so it didn't stick in my craw quite as much as the next offering, a video titled "Propaganda video claims to show ISIS's 'workout program'." 

Screenshot from Daily Mail video

All the men are masked like DEA agents in Honduras, and some appear rather chunky. No voices are heard under the soundtrack of an Arabic (or Dari?) song presumably calling on idealistic notions of faith in the service of killing infidels.

Without an understanding of the words, the appeal of the images was strong for teenagers -- leaping through rings of fire, tumbling through obstacle courses and demonstrating proper knife fighting techniques. "They make it look so fun," one observed.

I will not be sharing this infographic with my students.

It would take an entire course on contemporary U.S. foreign policy to unravel the complicated lies about Islamic terrorism that conceal our lust for wealth and territorial ambitions. The documentary Reel Bad Arabs showed a plethora of Hollywood's efforts to demonize those sitting on top of what U.S. oil companies consider their rightful property. But in a week when corporate news was full of images of the president and Saudi Arabia's leaders dancing together with swords as they sold and bought $110 billion in weapons -- and a suicide bomber allegedly motivated by religion blew up scores of young girls at a concert in Manchester -- the layers of deception are too dense for my 8th grade English class.

As for the "fun" of combat, what empire has not employed propaganda to sell that notion?

When thinking about propaganda I often return to an essay by George Orwell published in 1939 about boys' "penny dreadfuls" sold in England's poorest neighborhoods. An interesting quote:

The American ideal, the ‘he-man’, the ‘tough guy’, the gorilla who puts everything right by socking everybody on the jaw, now figures in probably a majority of boys' papers.

Orwell concerns himself with framing, arguably the most powerful propaganda technique of all. (A question I posed about the "Don't Be A Sucker" film was: Where are all the women?) By directing our gaze to a narrow window on the world, other possibilities are negated. A constricted view offering compelling, false narrative meets the litmus test of truly sophisticated propaganda in that even its opposite is untrue.

I'm not going to push my own political analysis on 8th graders. That would be wrong, and not what I agreed to do when I signed my contract.

But I am going to try and plant a seed of doubt in their minds about their access to real information. Net neutrality is under fire (again), and we live in the sticks -- so online searching may or may not continue to be a unqiuely powerful way for my students to find real news. At least I hope they leave for summer vacation realizing it's their own responsibility to find some.

I'll let a teenage girl have the last word here: @angryhijabi's passionate appeal for an unbiased and unhurried examination of actual facts.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Din of Protesters Grows Louder By The Day #Aegis9

This op-ed I wrote appeared in the The Times Record on May 17, an installment in an ongoing series of opinion pieces submitted by Peaceworks of Greater Brunswick. I'm reprinting it here with added visuals and embedded links.

Din of Protesters Grows Louder By The Day

This month Governor Paul LePage convened an opiate addiction roundtable in Augusta that was attended by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Why Maine? Because in 2017 an average of one person a day dies of an overdose. It’s a serious problem.

The press conference on the steps of the State House had to be moved inside because protesters led by Planned Parenthood had gathered, noisily demanding full coverage for reproductive health care for women. Even inside, videos recorded that the chanting was loud enough to drown out the man at the podium.

video shared on Facebook by Michael Shepherd

News coverage of the roundtable made reference to the protesters — thus amplifying their voices.

We who protest at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard are often told that protesting does nothing. Routinely barred from entering the regular “christenings” when a warship is completed, our messages typically reach thousands in attendance.

Reporters have told us they are warned that if they photograph or interview protesters outside the gates, they won’t be allowed inside to cover the event.
I created this Susan Collins costume by adding the logos of my senator's many corporate sponsors to a thrift store power suit.

It’s difficult to tell whether our congressional delegation see us as they are whisked through the gates in cars with tinted windows. On April 1 we did catch of glimpse of Senator Angus King at BIW, a man who shook my husband’s hand in Bath’s 4th of July parade while campaigning and told him that bringing our war dollars home “sounds like a good idea.” 

Senator King continues to support huge budgets for the Pentagon and to accept campaign contributions from its contractors.

I’ve shared copies of the UMass study demonstrating that military contracting is a poor jobs program with Senators King and Collins, and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin -- but the problem persists. Thus, I protest.
Aegis 9 defendant Jason Rawn channeling Senator Angus King on April 1
That Saturday I joined a tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience at BIW and was arrested for trespassing. News outlets around Maine carried a brief mention of the protest. As I arrived at school to do my regular job on Monday, coworkers cheered as they had seen television coverage of the protest. Now, my antiwar message has spread to many unusual audiences due to an unintended consequence of my arrest.
Mike Turk and Jessica Stewart are led away in handcuffs for transport to the Bath Police headquarters.

I was up for an internal transfer in my district, but the school board abruptly tabled the matter at their April meeting. I learned why a few days later: one board member was angry that I was protesting “the government who pays her salary.” Whether or not General Dynamics is now de facto an arm of the federal government would make an interesting high school debate topic, but whether my 1st amendment rights exist on the weekend probably would not. I’m entitled to freedom of speech on my own time whether my employers agree with me or not.

Artist Natasha Mayers took off her giant carbon footprint costume before entering the police van.

As a member of the Maine Education Association I took the matter up with my local president and he contacted our MEA uniserv director for advice. Officers there discussed the matter and advised that the district would have a “PR nightmare” on their hands if they attempted to discipline an employee for protesting outside of school hours at BIW.
Meanwhile, another colleague contacted me to say she wished she could be as brave as I was. One wondered why I had not told her of my arrest.

As a public servant, I do not use my position as an educator in order to espouse my political views. I see my job as teaching children how to think, not what to think.

Many of my coworkers marched in the massive women’s protests this year. Currently many are worried about the prospect of nuclear war. My arrest upped the ante and prompted them to ask, “Why am I not doing that?” I am delighted that they are discussing this possibility, because only mass civil disobedience is likely to bring the highly profitable war machine to a halt.
Did you know that thousands more jobs would be created if Bath Iron Works were converted to building sustainable energy components? Long time activist Jenny Gray shares a message often seen at BIW.

The final unlikely audience for my protest message was the law firm Drummond Woodsum, which provides counsel for most of the school districts in Maine. Consulted by my school board, they billed time explaining the 1st amendment and its ramifications. Subsequently, the board voted unanimously with one abstention to approve my transfer.
Aegis 9 left to right: Bob Dale, Russell Wray, Bruce Gagnon, Natasha Mayers, Mike Turk,
 Jessica Stewart, me, Mark Roman and Jason Rawn.

The Aegis 9 look forward to a jury trial this summer to explain our actions and further share our message: building warships at BIW is bad for the environment, bad for jobs and dangerously bad for our collective karma. Building sustainable energy solutions would be much better. As we await trial, we plan to go on protesting. My next unlikely audience: classmates at my 40th Bowdoin reunion in June. Will I disrupt commencement with my urgent plea for peace in our time? Stay tuned.
Lisa Savage is a teacher and literacy coach in RSU #74, a member of Peaceworks, and a director of the Maine Natural Guard campaign. She blogs at