The truth is often inconvenient. It stands in the way of some "higher" aim - or perhaps of a basic aim. To quote Tennessee Williams: "Mendacity is a system that we live in."
Fake news has been in the headlines lately. But the topic today is not these blatantly false reports of events that never happened. There is a longer tradition than fake news, and that is the twisting facts and perceptions to influence public opinion. Perception management is not a new discovery; it has been going on as long as there has been a story that can be used to get people to believe what you want them to believe.
One fairly early example can be seen in reports of the women's 800-meter race in the 1928 Summer Olympics. At this time many men - and women - deemed it improper for women to be racing round a running track. To this end many major British and American newspapers did not consider the truth to be of the utmost importance in reporting the event.
The Chicago Tribune reported that after the race, five women collapsed. They reported that the Japanese runner, who had taken second place, needed 15 minutes to recover. Knute Rockne, the famous football coach, reported that of the nine women who started, only six finished, and five had collapsed. Rockne said: "It was not a very edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion." The New York Times claimed that six women "fell headlong on the ground."
In the U.K. things were not very different. The Times came to the conclusion that the 800-meter race was dangerous for women. The London Daily Mail also said that the race was too difficult for the weaker sex.
But what actually happened at this event? Are the above reports accurate? The simple answer is no, they are not. On Aug. 2, 1928 nine women participated in the 800-meter race. Every woman who started finished the race. Only one fell down after finishing the race. Six of the runners broke the world record.
The problem is that at this time, women were putting great pressure on the Olympic Committee to include more women's events. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had originally agreed to include 10 events, but then cut the number to five events. In protest to this, Great Britain boycotted the women's events all together.
The result of these mendacious reports was that the women's 800-meter race was not brought back to the Olympic Games until 1960. The fact that world records had been broken, and the fact that due to the heat of the day some men had also collapsed after their 800-meter race, were of no consequence. The IOC did not want women competing in track and field. They should stick to tennis and equestrian events, which were more suitable for them. Running was for men and so it would stay for another three decades.
The truth was inconvenient. It got in the way of the story the IOC wanted to tell.
The same ability to manipulate reality to tell the story that an institution deems necessary can be seen in how the events of Nicaragua were reported when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States.
The public reaction to the American involvement in the Vietnam War was so overwhelmingly negative that when Ronald Reagan came to office, the new president was concerned how he and his administration could overcome the "Vietnam Syndrome." The Vietnam syndrome was the name given to the publics reluctance or abhorrence of their government being involved in a foreign war. The Reagan administration was not concerned with acquiescing to the public, who they ostensibly were representing, but rather worried how they could deceive, trick and manipulate the public into believing that imperial military adventures were absolutely necessary.
No longer was an informed electorate seen as a good thing. An informed electorate was only perceived as a hindrance. To avoid this, public perception had to be managed. Robert Kagan, today a columnist for The Washington Post and fellow at the Brookings Institution, was made chief of the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America by Ronald Reagan. Here his job was to make what the U.S. was doing in Latin America appear good, and what the "enemies" of America were doing appear bad. It was that simple. Kagan's colleague Elliot Abrams was convicted during the Iran-Contra scandal, but was later pardoned. He then worked on the National Security Council during the tenure of President George W. Bush, where he was no longer concerned with Latin America, but with the Middle East.
Let's go back to the 1980s and Nicaragua. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) staged a revolution and seized control of the government. But the Sandinistas were communists and in close contact with the USSR. While Jimmy Carter had tried appeasement, the Reagan administration decided that the Contras, the opposition to the Sandinistas, needed to be supported.
But the American fear of Communism had been severely damaged by the Vietnam War and the anti-communist rhetoric had been discredited. At this time, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Air Force J. Michael Kelly said, "The most critical special operations mission we have ... is to persuade the American people that the communists are out to get us."
There was a need for public diplomacy that would create support for the Reagan administration - even if they were to get involved in a foreign war again. American law does not allow taxpayers' money to be spent on domestic propaganda or lobbying. Thus, there was a need for private funding. This gap could be filled by media moguls, not least by someone like Rupert Murdoch, the British media mogul, who was soon to become an overwhelming American household name.
The State Department public-diplomacy office on Central America was staffed with Defense Department personnel who had training in propaganda. Experts in psychological warfare, like Lt. Col. Daniel "Jake" Jacobowitz, were given jobs here.
In a 1988-report in The Washington Post we learn: "According to military doctrine, psychological operations identify cultural and political weaknesses in a target country that can be exploited to induce the population to comply, whether consciously or not."
The Post goes on to tell us that the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (S-LPD) was responsible for producing and disseminating "one-sided publications on Nicaragua and El Salvador, while pressuring the press into conformity with administration arguments. But it also planted stories in newspapers while concealing government sponsorship - an intelligence tactic called 'white propaganda' - and relied on the skills of Army psychological-warfare specialists to manage the perceptions of the American public."
At this time, there were widespread reports about how the Contras, Reagan's good guys, were carrying out human rights violations, as well as terrorist activities. There was a need to remove what were called "perceptional obstacles" - i.e. the truth. A strategy paper stated that: "Themes will obviously have to be tailored to the target audience."
There was a suggestion to include structures that had "credibility in the political center". One such structure was Freedom House, an institution which had a sound reputation at the time due to its stance on human rights. "Hot buttons" that were designed to anger America were created. Journalists who wrote stories that contradicted the American line were pressured to toe the line. Pieces that supported the administration's stance were to be written and placed in leading newspapers.
But more than this rather subtle approach to perception management, the Reagan administration produced "black propaganda" - that is lies. A minor instance of such black propaganda was the story that the Sandinistas were anti-Semitic. Although having absolutely nothing to do with the truth, this lie was widely propagated, as it bore great fruit in America.
Although the office responsible for propagating lies to deceive the public was shut down in the late '80s, to quote The Post again, "They can shut down the public-diplomacy office, but they can't shut down public diplomacy." Perception management became government policy under Reagan; today it is the accepted practice for all administrations. Public diplomacy and information warfare are integral parts of U.S. foreign policy. There are many other examples that can be added here, not least Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today, Freedom House, conscripted to be of use to the Reagan administration, has been joined by other leading human rights' groups, groups we would all like to think are above and beyond manipulation of the American government. Unfortunately, our innate aversion to human rights abuses is often being manipulated to serve another, less lofty, aim.
And now let us examine what is happening closer to home today. We are at a time when the People's Protection Units (YPG), a self-acknowledged branch of the terrorist group PKK, is being glorified. The women fighting with the YPG are being glorified in the Western media, being depicted as brave freedom fighters struggling against cruel oppression.
Depsite the cacophony created by such stories, there are other voices that are telling another story. According to Global Research: "The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and its Syrian spinoff, the YPG, are cult-like radical movements that intertwine Marxism, feminism, Leninism and Kurdish nationalism into a hodgepodge of ideology, drawing members through the extensive use of propaganda that appeals to these modes of thought."
None of the above is a crime. But what is so wrong with the PKK and YPG is nothing to do with any of the above. Rather, what is wrong with the PKK and YPG is that terrorist activities do constitute a crime. The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization.
The fact that the PKK, and thus the YPG, traffics narcotics to fund its terrorist activities constitutes a crime. The U.S. government only recognizes a few organizations as being both a terrorist organization and a narcotics trafficker. The PKK is one of them. The International Strategic Research Organization reports that drug smuggling is the main financial source for the PKK, and as a result, for the YPG.
The fact that the PKK, and thus the YPG, kidnaps children to transform them into soldiers, glorious female soldiers who will capture international attention, or striking young male soldiers to stand behind these female terrorists, constitutes a crime. Using child soldiers is a crime. Kidnapping children is a crime. In 2010, a Danish newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published a story about the PKK's child soldiers. The paper reported that there were approximately 3,000 child soldiers in PKK training camps, the youngest being 8 years old. Dozens of mothers camped out for months in Diyarbakır to demand that their children, abducted by the PKK, be returned to them.
Ethnic cleansing of the predominant Arab populations in the region constitutes a crime. Ten percent of the Syrian population is Kurdish. Tens of thousands of Arab residents have been displaced. Even more Kurds have fled the region. This should be no surprise if one remembers that the PKK is a Marxist-Leninist group, and the majority of Kurds are conservative and devout. According to a six-month investigation by The Nation, Arab residents have been evicted from their homes at gunpoint, and their villages torched or bulldozed. Under international humanitarian law, expulsion of a civilian population if there is no immediate threat of conflict is a war crime. If the expulsion is widespread and systematic then it is nothing less than a crime against humanity.
The PKK and its sister branch the YPG are terrorist organizations that have no regard for human dignity or for life. They deal in human trafficking, drug trafficking and terrorist activities. There is nothing about them that can be glorified or whitewashed. The American public should be inured to propaganda, white or black. But inundated constantly with fake news and false perceptions, it is understandable that it can sometimes be hard to find the truth.
Some things will probably never change in this world. Lies will always be used to try to manipulate public opinion. But it is time for the reader to take responsibility. Stories that are glossy and appeal to our innate human emotions need to be questioned. There are two basic and simple questions that need to be asked. Who has what to gain from us believing this story? And, What is the real story?