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June 29, 2006

The High Price of American Gullibility


by Paul Craig Roberts

What explains the gullibility of Americans, a gullibility that has mired the U.S. in disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that promises war with Iran, North Korea, and a variety of other targets if neoconservatives continue to have their way?

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 the 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 at CounterPunch.org 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 terrorists."

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."

Sugarcoated 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?


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    Paul Craig Roberts wrote the Kemp-Roth bill and 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 author or co-author of eight books, including The Supply-Side Revolution (Harvard University Press). He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon chair in political economy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and senior research fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has contributed to numerous scholarly journals and testified before Congress on 30 occasions. He has been awarded the U.S. Treasury's Meritorious Service Award and the French Legion of Honor. He was a reviewer for the Journal of Political Economy under editor Robert Mundell.

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