I’ve been thinking about movies lately. Like John Boorman’s Excalibur, when Nicole Williamson as Merlin is asked by Nigel Terry’s Arthur, “What is the greatest virtue of knighthood?” Merlin answers, “Truth. That’s it, yes, it must be truth, above all. When a man lies he murders part of the world.”
Well, these days, with respect to the war in Iraq, the murderers are clearly winning, both literally and figuratively. On both sides of the conflict, lies and myths are driving the public to support war and oppose peace, in part because a certain type of leader knows that by encouraging these beliefs he can cement his own hold on power.
Two stories I read recently highlight this. From today’s LA Times: Rumors thrive in a nation shaped by myth.
For decades under Hussein, Iraqis lived in a country perverted by propaganda. Little was known about the outside world or the dealings of the government. The people’s mood was controlled by innuendo planted by Iraqi intelligence operatives and by shreds of vague information that spread through alleys and boulevards. This created a parallel reality, which at its most outlandish featured last year’s televised proclamation by Mohammed Said Sahaf, then Iraq’s information minister, that U.S. forces were not in Baghdad, even as gunfire from advancing troops rang out behind him.
Street gossip is merging with a new phenomenon: satellite TV. Satellite dishes symbolized the end of Hussein’s regime and brought the unfolding of events into living rooms. Live broadcasts by Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language channels show what is happening in Iraq, from kidnappings to suicide bombings to gun battles between American troops and insurgents. U.S. forces claim that these outlets have stepped beyond the boundaries of news gathering and are inciting uprisings and sabotaging efforts to build a democratic Iraq.
On a visit to the Middle East this month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said he “didn’t have enough fingers and toes” to count what Washington considers to be Al Jazeera’s numerous inaccuracies.
Al Jazeera is often first on the scene of a story. Its breathless commentary and images of dead Iraqi civilians undercut the U.S. message that the occupation is improving the country. The bloodshed the channel shows sometimes offers an eerie counterbalance to assessments by Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, who has described battles between insurgents and U.S. forces as “upticks” in violence.
Hamida Smaysam, dean of media studies at Baghdad University, said: “Everyone is watching Al Jazeera and other Arab TV stations. There’s a war of information going on, and the Americans have not been able to fill the gap.
“Al Jazeera is not intentionally distorting the facts — it’s just rushing into exciting news and making quick conclusions,” she said. “But at the same time, the Americans want to hide things.”
Meanwhile, back here in America, our own little Ministry of Information has been busy putting out its own twisted version of reality with a fair degree of success. For proof of that, look at this latest report (Americans continue to believe Iraq supported al Qaeda, had WMD) from the people at PIPA, the Program on International Policy Attitudes:
According to a new PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll, a majority of Americans (57%) continue to believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, including 20% who believe that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 attacks. Forty-five percent believe that evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found. Sixty percent believe that just before the war Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction (38%) or a major program for developing them (22%).
Despite statements by Richard Clarke, David Kay, Hans Blix and others, few Americans perceive most experts as saying the contrary. Only 15% said they are hearing “experts mostly agree Iraq was not providing substantial support to al Qaeda,” while 82% either said that “experts mostly agree Iraq was providing substantial support” (47%) or “experts are evenly divided on the question” (35%). Only 34% said they thought most experts believe Iraq did not have WMD, while 65% said most experts say Iraq did have them (30%) or that experts are divided on the question (35%).
Not surprisingly, perceptions of what experts are saying are highly correlated with beliefs about prewar Iraq, which in turn are highly correlated with support for the decision to go to war.
Perhaps most relevant politically, perceptions of what the experts are saying are also highly correlated with intentions to vote for the President in the upcoming election. Among those who perceived experts as saying that Iraq had WMD, 72% said they would vote for Bush and 23% said they would vote for Kerry, while among those who perceived experts as saying that Iraq did not have WMD, 23% said they would vote for Bush and 74% for Kerry.
It’s all very depressing. The truth would set us free, but we’re too busy wrapping ourselves in a warm, fuzzy cloak of tailor-made deception to notice. Will enough of us on each side of the conflict catch on, allowing us to craft a better future for our children? I’d like to believe so. But in the face of stories like these it sure doesn’t seem likely. I’m left with the embittered, defiant response that Daryl Hannah’s Pris gives in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, “Then we’re stupid, and we’ll die.”
To which my inner Roy Batty can only smile and say, “No we won’t.”