Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Censorship & Propaganda

Here's some general inanity for ya.... 

Today, someone I know just finished editing (and is now uploading) a video requested by the State Department designed to combat Internet censorship in China, Iran and other members of the current Axis (of Evil!) powers.  In one of many ironic twists however, I just learned that the US government is paying some guy at this very moment to blog about how awesome the TSA is, and how it's really no big deal that an 8-year-old cub scout is on an anti-terrorist watch list.

Blogger "Bob", working for the US of A, writes:

"Anything involving kids or cats gets tons of mileage and everybody starts tweeting and retweeting that there’s an 8 year old on the no fly list.

There are no children on the No Fly or Selectee lists.

What happens is the child’s name is a match or similar match to an actual individual on the No Fly or Selectee Watch List."

Really Bob?  Cause it seems like you're splitting hairs here, aren't you?  Sure the kid isn't "really" on the No Fly list, but when it's taken 7 years and he's still not off your lists, and he (and his parents) still can't make it through an airport without being harassed because his name is a "similar match" to someone who might actually be a terrorist, it amounts to the same thing, now doesn't it?

If I'm arrested because you have a list of supposed criminals and one happens to have the name the name "Sean Malone" (and rest assured, there's quite a few of us out there!), and especially if this happens repeatedly and the matter is not resolved, then in reality, it is me who is on your list.

I'm getting away from the point though... Or maybe there's multiple points.  First is: The TSA is retarded.  Check.

The second, and perhaps more important is: The US Government is actively meddling in the affairs of Iran & China at the moment, while willfully ignoring the censorship in "friendly" nations like the UK, Canada, Pakistan, or Australia (to name a few), and while US government officials are coming out against outright censorship, other agents of the US government are paid to propagandize, ameliorating their own misdeeds.  Even the video my roommate worked on is itself propaganda, and not only that, but censored propaganda!  

All this gets me thinking on where we start drawing lines, and if line-drawing is entirely possible on this issue anyway.

In principle as I understand it, we view censorship as wrong because it abridges the people's right to form and disseminate their own ideas independent of the people in power (and by power... I mean, those people with the most powerful and greatest number of guns sanctioned by fancy titles and sometimes fine hats & sashes).  Censorship is wrong because it prohibits individuals from expressing their own ideas, no?  Well... I start to wonder about state propaganda because I believe that in general it has the same (and perhaps an even more insidious) effect.

The same, because it's the government using the people's own money & resources to buy or demand airtime and multimedia production, in order to influence individual thinking on an array of topics.  More insidious because it is much less direct, and therefore more effective at actually influencing people's beliefs.  American politicians are particularly good at this - especially insofar as they are much more professional and subtle much of the time.  But they are using the taxpayers money to fund projects which are designed to influence the very same taxpayer to, generally speaking, give them more money and give up more liberty.  It's a hell of a system, isn't it?  Imagine if Sears or Best Buy could forcibly take your money each year, and then turn around and use it to make TV commercials in order to get you to buy more of their products.  

Ridiculous, right?

Definitely... But, unfortunately, in the case of General Motors, the Armed Forces and the rest of the US government, that's precisely what they do.  Is this censorship?  No, I suppose not, since we are still free to express other ideas, or at least more free than most places.

Does it violate the essence of why censorship is wrong?  I suspect that it does.  And I think most people might be able to think back over Joseph Goebbels in World War II or any of the Russian communist propaganda and conclude that what they were doing was designed to eliminate individual thought and replace it with the will of those in power.  The US government is engaged in these activities constantly.  I've asked around and cannot find any official figures on this account, but the US Military spends an inordinate amount of taxpayers' money injecting themselves into movies and creating really spectacular recruitment advertising.

As of 2007, the total recruitment & advertising budget was in the realm of $1.4 Billion (PDF).

With that money - again, taken from the American people - they created countless nationally-aired television commercials like this one:

Looks awesome to be in the Marines, right?

So yeah... Fortunately, I'm not being censored, so unlike what I might experience in China - I can actually write about all this.  But it does seem that if I'm right that the essence of censorship is manipulating & controlling the ideas and beliefs of the public, propaganda winds up being in the same category.  Doesn't it?

If we're stuck having a government at all, I think that I would have to support a rule such that one of its (many) limitations should be that politicians cannot advertise to the general public with the publics' money.  It's just really bad form.

Speaking of bad form, bad ideas, and government propaganda, I have one more video for you:

Ultimately, I really don't see how the US has all that much righteous authority to be giving lectures to the Chinese on censorship.  Fortunately, few people are put in jail here for politically sensitive ideas, but in 2004 Viacom was made to pay a $3.5 Million fine simply because Janet Jackson had the gall to "accidentally" expose one breast on national television for approximately 0.357 seconds.  If anything, the US' only thing to teach the Chinese is how to be better at censorship.  The Chinese labor under the silly delusion that an effective way to control the public is with threats of jail and punishment, and trying to ban everything.  Politicians in the US suffer from some of that dementia as well, but mostly, they've developed a neat trick of using propaganda and more subtle threats instead.

One of the United States' favorites is the, "Regulate yourselves or we'll have to do it for you" style approach that was responsible for creating everything from the Comic Code Authority to the MPAA's ratings system.  Technically it's still not "censorship" because it's not actually against the law to watch an X-rated film or read an "unapproved" comic book.  Technically it very much is censorship to crack down on Viacom - just as it is the worst kind of censorship to create "hate speech" legislation, which we have also done.  The US censorship operation is much slicker than China's, and the principle of manipulating the public to do and think what the government wants is on display endlessly here.  Fortunately we do have enough liberty left that most of it doesn't work, but the State Department giving a lecture to the Chinese about controlling speech is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard just for sheer irony.

Any questions?

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