The High Price of American Gullibility
What explains the gullibility of Americans, a gullibility that has mired the
US in disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and which promises war with Iran,
North Korea and a variety of other targets if neoconservatives continue to have
Part of the explanation is that millions of conservatives are thrilled at the
opportunity to display their patriotism and to show their support for their
country. Bush's rhetoric is perfectly designed to appeal to this desire. "You
are with us or against us" elicits a blind and unquestioning response from
people determined to wear their patriotism on their sleeves. "You are with
us or against us" vaccinates Americans against factual reality and guarantees
public acceptance of administration propaganda.
Another part of the explanation is that emotional appeals have grown the stronger
as the ability of educated people to differentiate fact from rhetoric declines.
The Bush administration blamed 9/11 on foreign intelligence failures; yet, the
administration has convinced about half of the public that mass surveillance
of American citizens is the solution!
Many Americans have turned a blind eye to the administration's illegal and
unconstitutional spying on the grounds that, as they themselves are doing nothing
wrong, they have nothing to fear. If this is the case, why did our Founding
Fathers bother to write the Constitution? If the executive branch can be trusted
not to abuse power, why did Congress pass legislation establishing a panel of
federal judges (ignored by the Bush administration) to oversee surveillance?
If President Bush can decide that he can ignore statutory law, how does he differ
from a dictator? If Bush can determine law, what is the role of Congress and
the courts? If "national security" is a justification for elevating
the power of the executive, where is his incentive to find peaceful solutions?
Emotional appeals to fear and to patriotism have led close to half of the population
to accept unaccountable government in the name of "the war on terrorism."
What a contradiction it is that so many Americans have been convinced that safety
lies in their sacrifice of their civil liberties and accountable government.
If so many Americans cannot discern that they have acquiesced to conditions
from which tyranny can arise, how can they understand that it is statistically
impossible for the NSA's mass surveillance of Americans to detect terrorists?
Floyd Rudmin, a professor at a Norwegian university, writing in CounterPunch
(May 24, 2006) applies the mathematics of conditional probability, known as
Bayes' Theorem, to demonstrate that the NSA's surveillance cannot successfully
detect terrorists unless both the percentage of terrorists in the population
and the accuracy rate of their identification are far higher than they are.
He correctly concludes that "NSA's surveillance system is useless for finding
The surveillance is, however, useful for monitoring political opposition and
stymieing the activities of those who do not believe the government's propaganda.
Another reason for the gullibility of Americans is their lack of alternative
information to government propaganda. The independence of print and TV media
disappeared in the media consolidations of the 1990s. Today a handful of large
corporations own the traditional media. The wealth of these corporations consists
of broadcast licenses, which the companies hold at the government's discretion.
Newspapers are run by corporate executives, whose eyes are on advertising revenue
and who shun contentious reporting. The result is that the traditional media
are essentially echo chambers for government propaganda.
The Internet and the foreign news media accessible through the Internet are
the sources of alternative information. Many Americans have not learned to use
and to rely on the Internet for information.
Many Americans find the government's message much more reassuring than the
actual facts. The government's message is: "America is virtuous. Virtuous
America was attacked by evil terrorists. America is protecting itself by going
to war and overthrowing regimes that sponsor or give shelter to terrorists,
erecting in their place democracies loyal to America."
Sugar-coated propaganda doesn't present Americans with the emotional and mental
stress associated with the hard facts.
In National Socialist Germany, by the time propaganda lost its grip, Germans
were in the hands of a police state. It was too late to take corrective measures.
Not even the military could correct the disastrous policies of the executive.
In the end, Germany was destroyed. Does a similar fate await Americans?
Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal
editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review. He is coauthor of
Tyranny of Good Intentions.He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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