Tag Archives: propaganda

Telling the truth, even when you don’t want to

My granddaughter’s kindergarten teacher asked her class what it meant to be “honest.” My granddaughter replied that being honest requires that, “You tell the truth even if you don’t want to.”

We should demand the same definition of honesty in politics.

Our relatively short-lived experiment in “government of the people, by the people and for the people” as described by Abraham Lincoln, is dependent on voting by informed and educated citizens. Becoming informed and educated is not an easy task. Both sides of any issue or supporters of opposing candidates present their side in the best light possible. Each disparages the other side. Both use half truths, vague accusations, distracting but emotional rhetoric and blatant lies to sway our votes. The media loves a fight and many “news” sources seem to try to amplify the misinformation rather than provide real facts.

One of the most effective marketing techniques is to use fear. Anti-abortion supporters depict health care providers who perform abortions as evil outsiders who take advantage of desperate women for devious purposes. The other side describes their opponents as extremists trying to put government in some of the most intimate decisions women make, forcing a return to coat hangers and knitting needles. Neither picture is true.

We have heard how the unaccompanied minors crossing our borders are bringing deadly diseases in our midst. Those who seek tighter gun controls depict post numbers of daily gun deaths. Gun control opponents try to convince us that bad guys with guns are going to take everything away from us all unless we ourselves are armed.

Issues such as the initiated measure to set aside money from the oil extraction taxes for land and soil conservation brings out the worst in all of us. One side depicts a wasteland covered with oil sludge. The other side sends out press releases projecting that in 25 years there will be no farmland for sale in the entire state because it will have all been bought up by hunting preserves and state parks. Children will either never see a duck or  their schools will be short changed needed dollars. The sound bites from both sides have a little truth, some omissions of facts, much exaggeration and sometime out-and-out falsehoods.

Behavior scientists have studied how we come to believe what we do, even when the evidence points in the opposite direction. We come to our beliefs as a result of our own experience and world view. Our emotions push us to nod in agreement to the side of an argument that coincides with what we already believe. Even when we hear logical, documented, vetted arguments to the contrary, we dismiss those points because they don’t fit with what we think we know. For example, the opponents of the ballot’s conservation measure persisted in repeating the bullet point that 75 percent of the money designated by proposed constitutional amendment would be required to be spent every year. The measure specifically says that 75 percent of the amount set aside every year must be allocated, not spent. On the other hand, the proponents of the measure glossed over some supporters’ past efforts to change the state’s corporate farming laws, even as those same groups made the claim that farmland would be protected by that very law.

Our own emotions play tricks on our logic and political marketing. Public relations teams deliberately use deceit to sway our thinking. How can we possibly make good decisions?

We can expect better. Most issues have two valid sides and there are honest, sincere, caring people who support both sides. We should be suspicious of arguments that depict everyone on the other side as stupid, evil, outsiders, without morals, or less religious than ourselves. Dehumanizing an opponent is a basic tenet of propaganda. It is a deliberate attempt to manipulate us.

We can ask questions, especially if we think we already know the answer. We can stop being afraid. Fear doesn’t solve problems or keep us safe.

We should ask that our side, as well as the other side, be honest and tell the truth even when they don’t want to.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


Loving our enemies and others

Nelson Mandela’s birthday was last week. I watched an excerpt from an interview done with him by Bill Moyer some years after he was released from his 27 years in prison. Moyer asked him if he personally was mistreated in prison. Mandela said he and others were subjected frequently cruelty and abuse. They were deprived of freedom in their most productive years of life. They were tortured, beaten and isolated.

Moyer asked if the prisoners felt hatred toward the people who guarded them and tortured them. Mandela was not a saint. He was a flawed human being who was in the middle of a violent and hate-filled struggle. His response to Moyer’s question, however, is worth pondering. He said that the wardens who worked in the prison were human beings. They had problems in their lives as well and, in many ways, were also exploited by apartheid. They, too, were victims of a system they could not control. Mandela said he and his fellow prisoners reached out to their guards and tried to help them with their problems, prayed for them and their families. As a result, they developed a relationship with the very people who imprisoned them. Because Mandela and his fellow prisoners saw their wardens’ humanity, they could not hate them.

It is hard to hate people, even those who hurt us, if we see them as fellow human beings and people like ourselves in some way. One of the techniques used in effective propaganda is to dehumanize the enemy, to make those who are on the opposite side of a problem seem unlike us. The conflict is depicted as one between us and them. “They” are not like us. They are aliens, liberals, conservatives, unpatriotic, anti-this, pro-that. We are, on the other hand, godly, patriotic, wise, thrifty, and brave. It is easy to hate those we understand to be evil, lazy and just plain bad. It is easy to buy into being told that those “others” are just not good like we are. The flattery of that can sway our thinking in dangerous ways to advocate for things that hurt us in the long run. Doing what Mandela did is much harder.

How would the debate on many of the issues we struggle with in the world be different if we did what Mandela did? Would the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, or any other conflict in the world, find a solution if each side tried to help solve the problems of the enemy instead of retaliating against them?

What would happen to the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing our borders from Central America if we saw them not as “illegals” but as some other mother’s children? How would we want our children treated in another country if the problem were reversed? How bad would things have to be at home for you or me to send our twelve year olds across Mexico and over one of the world’s best guarded borders?

If we see these children’s mothers as less caring and different from ourselves, it is easy to separate our lives and our experiences from theirs. The people I have met while on mission trips to Mexico and to Haiti have made me realize that parents love their children. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or the language you speak or the culture in which you live. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. Poverty, hunger, and violence force even loving parents to do things we would not do.

What if, instead of defending ourselves and our own little piece of the world from those “others” we think are trying to take it from us, we prayed for them? What if we worked to make life better for others? What if we took Jesus’s advice to love our enemies and our neighbors?

Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, whose birthday was also last week, said, “We all do better when we all do better.” Resisting the urge to see issues as us versus them and working, instead, for the common good makes life better for everyone. It is in our own best interests to question those Facebook posts, news releases, political advertisements and letters to the editor which depict those who disagree as less human than ourselves. Doing so makes it harder for others to manipulate our opinion and to persuade us to work for and vote for things that are detrimental to our own and others’ best interest.

I have some work to do to before I can follow either Mandela’s or Wellstone’s advice.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Black snow drifts

Last Tuesday, April 22, was Earth Day. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 as concern for the health of the planet grew. Cities were often covered in smog. Air quality alerts were not uncommon. Lakes, rivers and streams were polluted to the point of being unfit for recreational use. The world became aware of the extinction or near extinction of many species of animals. Roadsides were often littered with garbage tossed out of car windows.

Over the last 44 years, we have come a long way. Air quality in American cities and many cities around the world has greatly improved. Many rivers have been cleaned up and run cleaner than they have for a century. The efforts to save species close to extinction have been successful in some cases. Our roadsides, while not perfect, are far cleaner than they were before the 1970s.

We have made improvements in how much pollution our cars and trucks spew out. Factories and generation plants are more efficient and their smokestacks are cleaner. Our refrigerators are more energy efficient. Ozone destroying aerosols and freon are no longer used. Lead paints and asbestos are a thing of the past.

Becoming more aware of how our lives affect the rest of the earth has made a difference. We have more work to do if future generations are going to have a good place to live.

Scientists agree that we need to reduce our production and release of greenhouse gases such a carbon dioxide and methane and we need to do it soon. Other scientists point to the loss of rain forests and grasslands as sources of atmospheric carbon. All agree that loss of habitat for wildlife, such as the Asian elephant, the monarch butterfly and thousands of other species will have earth-wide affects in the future.

It is difficult to understand how we are all interconnected and interdependent. Day to day, life just seems to go on. When we are faced with a crisis, we step up and do what is needed. During WW I and WW II, citizens coped with rationed food, gasoline, steel and more. Homeowners grew Victory Gardens in their back yards and bought bonds to fund the war efforts. When faced with the disastrous results of the agricultural mismanagement and drought of the 1930s, farmers found better ways to protect the soil from the erosion of wind and pounding rain. We planted shelter belts and grew cover crops and strips in our fields. We developed shorter varieties of grains that took less moisture and stood up better in the wind. When our fertilizers showed up in rivers and lakes and produced dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, we found ways to use just the amount of fertilizer needed, when it is needed.

We made progress. In the drought of the 1980s, we had bulldozed some of the tree rows and neglected the soil until the dust began blowing again. Then in this part of the prairie, we had rain, much rain, and we again forgot those springs with dirty snow and blowing topsoil. For the next decade or more we had more than enough moisture to keep the wind from blowing our soil away. A bigger problem was dirt being washed away as snow melted, rivers and streams flooded and ditches overflowed. Things have again changed. In spite of what seemed like an abundance of snow last winter, the soil surface is dry. Even before this year’s snow was completely melted, dirt began to blow from unprotected fields. The possibility of drought worries us as we plan our crops and think about pastures for the summer.

When Congress debated conservation compliance being linked with eligibility for crop insurance, farmers’ love for the land and careful stewardship was held up as a rational for not “telling us how to farm.” Indeed, many farmers fit those descriptions. Not all fields are blowing in the wind. Those fields neighboring road ditches with drift dirt piling up along the edge, however, are visible evidence that there may be justification for conservation requirements and call into question the image of farmers as careful stewards.

It is not our land to do with as we please. It is not our earth to use up and to throw away. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s, as is everything in it. Our ownership is temporary at best. At some point, we will sell our land or leave it to the next generation. We are just the short term caretakers. As such, we must make sure we steward this great gift with love and care and conserve it’s bounty for the future.

Black snow and drifting topsoil are signs that we are not taking care of what we have borrowed from our children and their children. We are called to do better.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Talking about politics in mixed company

While attending a conference recently, I had the chance to visit with an old friend over supper. We have known each other for more than 35 years. We visited about growing older, the changes in our work, caught up on the lives of our children and shared the joys of being grandparents. Eventually we got around to politics.

My friend is a Republican and I’m….not. We probably disagree about just as many issues as we agree on. We share many experiences and ethical positions. We have both been involved in sustainable agriculture for decades. We disagree mostly over how we get where we need to go, not where we are headed.

My friend bemoaned the fact that he didn’t recognize the GOP any longer, nor did he recognize the Democratic party. We both grieved the loss of moderation in politics. When, my friend complained, did both parties start leaning toward their extremes? What happened to moderate Republicans and where did moderate Democrats go? When did it become political suicide to compromise or to seek the middle ground?

Perhaps we both have selective memory when it comes to the politics of old. In the past, we experienced corrupt party bosses who extracted favors from people whom they elected. The twenty-first century is not the first time in our country’s history when the rich bought elections or those elected. The scale of monetary influence, however, has reached new highs in recent years. Political rhetoric has been vitriolic, mean and full of misinformation in the past. Certainly politics has never been without corruption, vote rigging, and influence peddling.

In the past, however, there were some restraints on how much money could be funneled by corporations into influencing elections. The Supreme Court opened a Pandora’s Box when they ruled in the “Citizen’s United” case that corporations are entitled to the same rights to free speech as are individual citizens. Apparently, free speech is the same thing as injecting money into politics. In the last four years, corporate money spent on elections has skyrocketed. We may believe that we are not like other voters and are not influenced by the negative advertising and media bought with those dollars. One would, however, have to live in a cabin the woods with no telephone, television, radio, internet or newspaper to be totally uninfluenced by the propaganda techniques those dollars can buy.

As I was growing up, our neighbors down the road had a mixed marriage. She was a Republican and he was a Democrat. They cancelled each other’s vote in most elections. They had frequent and heated arguments about politics. It never broke up their marriage. They knew they would not change each other’s opinions and they loved and respected one another. In recent years I have known politics to end lifelong friendships. We avoid discussing politics among friends because we make those discussions personal. Differing opinions are often depicted not as another way of looking at the world but as being evil, stupid, corrupt, dishonest. Liberal and Conservative, depending on whose mouth the words are coming out of, are used as derogatory and insulting descriptives. Both sides slide into the trap of describing the nefarious and corrupt motives of the opposite side, compounded by others’ profound stupidity for not seeing things our way.

Sometimes the charges leveled across the political aisle are deliberately misleading and even outright lies. We believe them because it seems to justify what we want to believe. Other times the information is partly true, but exaggerated. Most of the time, the sound bites and news releases that make up much of what passes as journalism is blatant public relations messages, using the same principles of opinion manipulation as propaganda.

Even though we call ourselves Christians and claim that our position is based on the teachings of the Bible, we skip the commandment to not bear false witness against our neighbor. We miss the admonition to place a positive light on what others say and do. It is false witness to claim our President is the antichrist or that our senators or representatives are corrupt, especially when we only have a facebook post or an email allegation to back it up. It is lazy citizenship and contrary to the Ten Commandments to repeat half truths and wild accusations of evil motives without spending some time to verify facts.

If political views range from very conservative to very liberal, the majority of people probably fall somewhere close to either side of the middle of the curve. In an atmosphere where the extreme on either end are winners with no compromise, the majority of us become losers. The goals we all share…a better life for all, freedom, and the right to a pursuit of happiness…become lost. We become a society of “them” and “us,” divided, alienated, angry. We all lose. We need differing opinions. None of us can see all of the unintended consequences of our proposals. We need each others’ points of view.

My friend and I agreed that money’s influence needs to be restricted in politics. We agreed that determination of congressional and legislative districts needs to be removed from partisan politics and gerrymandering. We agreed that compromise must be held up as a desirable goal and not as a sign of giving in or of being weak. We need to change how we do politics for the best interests of future generations.

We agreed that becoming grandparents changes everything.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Oh, those awful political ads!

Billions of dollars are being spent by candidates for office all over the United States. In 2008, $5.3 billion was spent on federal elections alone. Even in a small state like North Dakota millions of dollars are spent to buy advertising, billboards, mailings, web sites and endorsements for the candidates for office.

In the contest for seats that have a national impact like the race between Rick berg and Heidi Heitkamp the stakes become even higher as organizations from around the country send money to the candidates to help in their campaign. The race for our second US Senate seat had, as of July 1, resulted in more than $3 million in campaign spending by the two candidates. They have another $3 million in the bank between them to try to influence your vote.

While the races for governor and US House of Representatives have lower stakes, they will still result in a total of more than two million dollars spent.

So far, according to their disclosure forms, the candidates for President of the United States had spent nearly a half a billion dollars by July 1, and there still were months before the election. The amount of money spent by candidates seeking our votes is mind-boggling.

Obviously, the money spent by a candidate has an impact on the election. If it didn’t, no one would give them any money. If the money spent on advertising, travel and public relations didn’t effect how people vote, there would be no point to spending billions of dollars on presidential elections.

There are rules about who can contribute, how much they can contribute, how the money is reported and what strings can be attached to the contributions. Recently the flood gates of contributions and spending were opened a little wider with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the “Citizens United” case which said it is a violation of corporations’ right to free speech to restrict their ability to make campaign contributions. The stakes went up.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t at least mildly disgusted by the money spent by both sides of the ticket to influence how we vote. At least we all make righteous protestations about the wasteful campaign spending we see in election years. Even those who benefit from the system, those elected to Congress, occasionally make feeble attempts to reform how we fund elections. No one seems to have a good idea for how to lessen the impact money has on whom we elect to represent us.

If we simply outlawed the practice of collecting money from political supporters and required candidates to spend their own money, only the rich could run for office. There is  a pot of money paid for with taxes or voluntary contributions that is divided between candidates. There used to be rules that said for every advertisement from one side in a debate, media needed to provide equal time to the other side. Politicians seem to be able to find the loopholes and the ways around the rules.

I have some suggestions.

Stop listening to political advertising. It is usually easy to spot. There are often flags and inspiring music, babies being kissed and hands being shaken while the candidate nods and smiles. The candidate is a saint, grew up in a home just like yours. They have worked hard. They understand you. They are good, noble, kind, and brave, and they have your best interests at heart. Their opponent is depicted as totally evil, corrupt or maybe even not too smart. These ads could be for either party’s candidate in most elections. Simply hit the mute button on your remote. Go to the bathroom. Get a snack.

Read and listen to the news with a large dose of skepticism. Many of the “news” items reported by radio, television and newspapers are the result of press releases. Many of them are printed or read word for word from information provided by the candidates’ media professionals. If the “news” seems to favor one side over the other and doesn’t present both sides of an issue, it is probably not actual investigative reporting but a press release. If a sound bite reduces the solution to a complex problem to a single sentence of less than six words, dig deeper.

Throw political mailings directly into the garbage can. Don’t read them, especially if they focus on what the candidate’s opponent thinks rather than what the candidate himself thinks.

Be careful in answering polls. Often the questions lead the answers or the options for your response are simplified answers to complex questions. Better yet, tell the pollster that you do not answer polls. Your opinion is important but polls are often used to influence how others vote. The only poll that should matter is the one that is cast at the ballot box.

Read, ask questions, learn more about the issues from both sides, not just the one that agrees with you. Finding sources of unbiased information is difficult but it can be done. Ask, “What does the person making a statement have to gain or lose if one side or the other wins?” Follow the money. Who paid for the mailing, advertisement or press release? Yes, it might drive up your blood pressure, but it might also change what you think.

Don’t just complain about how wasteful and disgusting campaign spending is. Make it irrelevant. Ignore it. Don’t be influenced by the slick advertising and clever sound bites. It won’t be easy. The techniques used to gain our support are exactly those used in propaganda and they are very effective. These techniques work or candidates and their friends would not spend millions of dollars on them.

The only thing that will really change campaign spending is for voters to become educated and aware. Make the dollars spent on negative advertising, exaggeration, spin doctoring and sound bites ineffective.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains