Government by propaganda

Posted: Feb 27, 2005 12:00 AM

First, the stab of an ominous headline: "First Amendment No Big Deal, Students Say." Then the subhead twists the knife: "Study shows American teenagers indifferent to freedoms." In an impressively large survey, a good third of students said that the First Amendment "went too far" in its language, "too far" defending individual rights.

"Only half of the students," the AP story explained, "said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories."

This kind of thinking cuts to the heart of American freedom, cuts to the heart and kills. Apparently, many young people readying themselves for adulthood are also readying themselves to live under tyranny.

And maybe liking it.

So, where did the kids pick up these notions? In the classroom? On the streets?

Many places, perhaps. But let's consider just one source: Maybe the kids are picking this up directly from their government.

"Statecraft is soulcraft," George F. Will has argued. Whatever that may mean precisely, in general there's no doubt: by example and by rhetoric, government can't help but teach. Looked at one way, perhaps statecraft's sole craft is "education."

And don't think that the kids are too dense to pick up on it. My children are schooled at home, and I know how savvy kids can be. They will readily carry a principle to its logical conclusion long before the adults have learned the principle's most immediate and obvious effects. Where adults see a small reform, the kids see a system.

And in government today, the kids not unreasonably see little hint of freedom ? despite all the talk. Instead, they see deliberate government manipulation of the populace. They see government take the people's money and then tell the people what to do, as if no one could parent or eat without being told how by some authority. And then even more frightening, governments have begun regulating what the people may say about government itself.

Perhaps the current propaganda offensives had their humble beginnings in politicians realizing the significant value of mugging for charities on "public service announcements," or PSAs, which provide real benefits to politicians in terms of name recognition and positive association. But taxpayer-financed political propaganda has come a long way. And don't think it is just a few idiotic programs of the current Executive Branch, faking news stories and turning a handful of columnists into ideological harlots. (Though that is indeed bad. Shameful, even.) It's many things . . .

  • It's the government-paid-for advertising campaigns touting legislation passed by candidates running for office, conveniently broadcast during the election campaign. This has been done at the national and state level, giving those candidates a taxpayer-funded propaganda voice for their political position on an issue.
  • It's the massive government advertising, in many cases for tourism, which puts the governor on television and thus before the public again and again and again in a very positive light ? without having to spend a dime from campaign coffers.
  • It was the Clinton administration's deal with the networks: cut back on the required PSAs, and instead surreptitiously embed the government-approved propaganda into your regularly scheduled shows.
  • It's even propaganda for dead politicians, like FDR. Courtesy of the National Endowment for Humanities, new generations of youngsters are being fed "the official line" about the Great Depression, even when that line is being rejected by more and more economists and historians.

And it gets even worse: while our government is spending ever more money telling us what to think, Congress and the Supreme Court have united to shove a government-regulated system for political speech into the very heart of our democracy.

What am I talking about? The Trojan Horse put into the American system, that vile tangle of Trojan-horse-droppings piled high, Campaign Finance Reform, of course.

The McCain-Feingold law has exchanged America's heritage of a free-for-all of advocacy and spending and debate for a government-approved and regulated line. It has not merely regulated who may give what amount of money. It coerces candidates into saying certain government-approved phrases, and prohibits some people from saying some things at all come election time.

Precisely when we need as many voices as possible. Speaking as freely as possible.

I've argued against the law many times, before it was enacted, and now, after we've endured an election cycle under its thumb. (Where? Here. And in my Common Sense e-letter.)

While its loudest advocates may think that campaign finance reform is just about money, and a few savvy political operatives may know it's mainly about keeping incumbents in power, the kids are taking the policy to its logical conclusion: government should be in charge. With widespread support for a law that undermines freedom of political speech, of course we should expect rising numbers of young people to draw the lesson that controlled speech is good, that free speech "goes too far."

It's time, now, for adults to draw (and teach) the right lessons: Government by propaganda, where after winning an election one side grabs the public purse for propaganda purposes, is something taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for. It's the very opposite of republican. Or democratic.

And prohibitions on political speech, whether courtesy of McCain-Feingold or the next bit of legislation coming from Capitol Hill, are not merely anti-democratic. They're the very stuff of tyranny.

These government programs are not scattered missteps. They are integral parts of an emerging system, and one that is becoming more permanent every day. They provide more evidence that ? absent a watchful populace and effective popular controls on politicians ? government tends to grow and liberty to diminish. This new system has got to go. Government by propaganda and by restricted speech deserves to be crushed with revolutionary fervor . . . and before the kids eagerly submit to tyrannies far worse.