The news we want, true or not


(1) Never underestimate the enemy
(2) The persuasive power of honesty

I am seeing many, many headlines making little of the Russian forces in Ukraine.  They say they haven’t achieved, and won’t achieve, their goals; they’re inept, ill-equipped, under-fed, and demoralized.

Certainly, all that is what Americans want to hear.  And it’s what the gatekeepers — the editors and assignment editors, online, broadcast and print, those who decide what gets presented and what gets called “news” — want us to hear, given their own prejudices.

I doubt that the reality is anywhere near so dire.  The Russians are one of the foremost militaries in the world.  They had months to plan this invasion and prepare logistics, etc.  And the facts on the ground are that, at this writing, there is street fighting door-to-door in Mariupol and an imminent siege of Kyiv.

What we want to hear about the enemy may bear little semblance to What Is.

And if we believe our self-generated propaganda, we are likely to be unprepared when we meet the enemy in person.  He or she is likely to be far fiercer than our dream world imagined.

I recall my childhood, when the attribute most often ascribed to Communists was cowardice.  Cowardice did not build the Soviet Union, or win the Cuban revolution (Let alone, notably, our forces’ conflicts with Cuban forces in Granada.) or the current Russian war against Ukraine.

Sometime between 1973 and 1977, as an undergraduate, I was wandering the stacks in the university library and happened to glance at a book on a shelf:  Sykewar, by Daniel Lerner.  This was the story of the American propaganda campaign against Nazi Germany, as conducted through official channels.  I took the book from the shelf, borrowed it, read it; and it changed my life.

Early on, the author says that the Americans chosen to work in that effort could not have been rank-and-file average citizens.  The self-generated American propaganda, not from official channels but in the popular media, had by that time demonized all things German in the American popular mind.  Folk who believed that way could not possibly say anything persuasive to a German populace who had every good reason to regard themselves as upstanding human beings; and who regarded Hitler as little less than their savior.

The second point the book made that impressed me, pertained to the persuasive power of honesty.  The official-channels American propaganda effort chose to make no intentional effort to propagandize.  Basically, they operated as a news service, and sought to present the news as news, without any intentional bias.  On the one hand, the effectiveness of the program depended entirely on its credibility with the German audience, and any heavy-handedness was likely to move the listeners to turn off.  On the other hand, the presenters’ biases were inevitably implicit in their choices of what to present and how to present it.  The audience would be savvy enough to filter out those influences, but at the same time could not avoid being influenced by them.  Accepting their biases as is, the presenters could be trusted.

In short, honesty sells.

All of which recalls to me what I have already said many times, that there is no truth apart from love for the persons addressed.

And that won’t happen if one holds the enemy in contempt.

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