Like a Fine Wine – Propaganda Gets Better with Age
By Vedran Vuk
Casey’s Daily Dispatch
Today, I wanted to step way back in time to the Civil War. In April, depending on your geographic location, this time of year brings the American Civil War back into the press with some article recounting the events. In this spirit, CNN had a very interesting poll on current perceptions of the Civil War. The original intent of this poll was rather easy to see through. Hmm… I wonder why the poll asked Tea Party supporters whether their sympathies lie more with the Confederacy or the Northern states?
Unfortunately for CNN, they didn’t get their juicy story labeling the Tea Party as a bunch of pro-Confederacy racists. In fact, the poll shows the greatest numbers of Confederate sympathizers are found among political moderates with 29%. You know those moderates and their crazy pro-Confederate ways. Nonetheless, CNN found something really interesting: 42% of the polled do not believe slavery was the main reason for the war, while 54% believe that slavery was the primary reason.
Now, I’m not here to change your mind on the subject. That’s the role of a history publication and certainly not Casey’s Daily Dispatch. But I did want to discuss these numbers. In my opinion, they do not measure sentiments toward the Civil War. Instead, this poll gauges the power of propaganda. Regardless of your opinion, the poll shows that about half the country disagrees. We’re not talking about a debate on the merits of Obama’s new healthcare. In that debate, one would expect various opinions. We’re talking about an event where 600,000 were killed, entire cities were leveled, and the country was temporarily torn apart. Yet, 146 years later, Americans can’t agree on the primary reason for the war.
I find this frightening. With enough time and propaganda, a large portion of the population can be led astray. And not only will they believe the bending of the truth, they will fiercely and angrily defend it. Where do the untruths come from? Well, largely from governments. But you can see possible propaganda angles from both sides in the Civil War. After the war, the North needed to put its actions including war crimes in a better light. Hence, ending slavery suddenly became the primary reason for the war.
But you could look at the non-slavery reasons in the same light. How many Confederate veterans do you think told their kids and grandkids that they fought for slavery? Probably not many. Furthermore, on a personal level, most clearly didn’t fight the war for this reason. And that seems self-evident. Simply put, poor white Southern farmers didn’t charge a mile of open field at Gettysburg so that rich plantation owners could outcompete them with slaves. But then again, what the individual soldier thinks rarely has much to do with the cause of a war.
In wars today, the same sort of business goes on. Is the U.S. fighting in the Middle East for security, freedom and democracy? Or is the fight a part of a long-held foreign policy mentality designed to enrich the military-industrial complex? The truth is somewhere in the middle. And just like the average Confederate soldier during the war likely didn’t see his struggle as one for the slave plantations, most average guys in Iraq don’t see themselves as pawns for Halliburton’s net income.
Propaganda goes far beyond just wars. If our country can’t agree on the reason why 600,000 were killed in the Civil War, then what other common wisdom has been propagandized? Did FDR really save us from the Great Depression? Is the Federal Reserve an agent of price stability or value destruction? Is democracy the path to prosperity? Many of these issues are simply taken for granted. However, once one starts to look at the details, the clear and unquestionable "facts" become highly debatable.
Propaganda is an extremely powerful tool. With enough effort and time, the public can be convinced of practically anything. And should we be surprised? The Democratic Party has been praising FDR for 80 years, the administrations in power always back the Fed, and democracy has been the justification for numerous U.S. conflicts. These ideas have been around so long that a large part of the population sees them as undisputed facts. The same will be true with our times today. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to find my grandkids coming back from school one day in the distant future telling me how Obama’s Recovery Act saved the country from the Great Recession and Bush fought for freedom in Iraq.