Getting Smart About Stupid Communication
By David Swanson
Reducing political discourse to advertising slogans loses almost everything of value. Without lengthy books that develop complex ideas, we'd be so lost we'd never produce a worthwhile bumper sticker. The notion that facts don't matter because only emotional appeals to "values" sway anyone is an absurd and arrogant over-simplification. And, yet, something is gained, as well, in producing powerful and catchy imagery and slogans that at least disrupt the way people think about things. Rewriting "Columbus discovered America" as "Columbus invaded America" does alter the entire story. The image of tiny activist boats going up against enormous whaling ships does reverse the imagery of heroic sailors battling a leviathan. "Support the troops, bring them home," is a useful slogan.
A useful website, with an excellent book for sale on how to construct powerful stories that begin to change the way people think is http://smartmeme.org The book is packed with excellent examples and even worksheets to get you thinking about how accepted wisdom can be challenged in 10 words or less. The book is short and packed with enough imagery and redundant pull-quotes to presumably appeal to the shortest known attention span, but would be well worth reading in plain text.
Inspired to go short and visual, myself, I've just created the flyer illustrated at the left. I may find a better way to do it. Or maybe the folks at http://smartmeme.org can think up a way. The accepted wisdom I want to challenge is the belief that, no matter what other catastrophic consequences are involved, it is better for dark-skinned foreign people to suffer continuing violence under a U.S. occupation than it is for them to take their chances and work out their own fate after that occupation ends. To many people in the United States, the possibility of violence after a withdrawal of U.S. troops is a horrific nightmare, while the certainty of ongoing violence during an occupation is not a concern. Somehow, this sort of thinking needs to be challenged. And there may be an image or a slogan that does the job, whether I've found it yet or not.
But there may be another layer of assumed nonsense underlying the racism and militarism involved here, possibly several, and they can almost certainly best be understood through a great many more words than fit on a poster. And putting them on a poster once they are understood may, nonetheless, enrich the understanding. Here's an example of what I mean. The following is offered as an example in the book:
"Republicans put purple ink on their fingers for Bush's 2005 State of the Union Address. The purple dye invoked the ink that was applied to Iraqi citizens' fingers at the polls after they cast their vote in the first election since the U.S. invasion. For Republicans, it served as a visual cue for the Bush administration's new 'Freedom is on the March' story of U.S. foreign policy. This control meme was created in an attempt to re-justify a military invasion that had been exposed as an illegal operation based on lies -- when the U.S. failed to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Of course, many Americans believe the weapons of mass destruction existed even though not found, and many in fact believe that they were found. But the above account still makes sense, as far as it goes. Those paying attention knew full well that there were no "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, and it was quite apparent that the Bush White House had no basis to claim otherwise. Had something been found, that lucky break would not have altered the falseness of a great many claims made in the lead-up to the invasion. Yet, the story still makes a certain sense. Or, rather, it would if not for a giant gaping hole in the accepted logic employed. Simply put: a nation's possession of weapons does not in any way legalize an attack by another nation. Had every claim about Iraqi weapons been true and honest, the invasion would still have been absolutely illegal and immoral. But the government and the corporate media framed the debate so successfully as one about whether or not Iraq had weapons, that radical meme busters still play their assigned role in that bogus debate.
But this critique is essentially to say to the SmartMemers: Yes, but more of it. If we want to debunk the purple-fingered march of freedom and the weapons as war justification, then we have to communicate the actual status of the law and the actual motivations behind the wars. We have to shift the conversation to one about war profiteering, imperial base construction, and oil. And if we can do so with clever props and posters, more power to us. We probably can't do it otherwise. Certainly, many smart memes helped turn the U.S. public against the war lies five or six years ago. But the revelations and taboo ideas don't endure long in the corporate media, not because they're less pithy than those of neocon Neanderthals, but because of who owns the media. My only complaint with the structural plan laid out in SmartMeme's book "Re-Imagining Change," is the practice of purchasing ads in corporate media. Doing so can have good effects but is guaranteed bad ones as well, namely the funding of the propaganda you are challenging.
If we had our own media outlets, we could develop our thoughts and images in short, medium, and long form every day of the year, producing far more powerful memes than we are capable of creating as outsiders and gadflies. The messages we need most desperately are the ones that will persuade people to struggle for the creation of major independent private or public news media. If a meme can do that, it will have to be a GeniusMeme.