Critically evaluate the deployment of the ‘essential trinity’ (myth, symbols and rhetoric (O’Shaughnessy, 2004)) by the contemporary United States.

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A university essay regarding the use of propaganda in the contemporary United States.

Submitted: August 03, 2016

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Submitted: August 03, 2016

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Critically evaluate the deployment of the ‘essential trinity’ (myth, symbols and rhetoric (O’Shaughnessy, 2004)) by the contemporary United States. 

Critically evaluating the deployment of O’Shaughnessy’s (2004) ‘essential trinity’ (myth, symbols and rhetoric) in contemporary America is the same as critically evaluating the deployment of propaganda. O’Shaughnessy himself conveys this idea when he says ‘The trinity of rhetoric-symbolism-myths is the conceptual anatomy of all propaganda’ (2004, p66.) meaning that these concepts are used in order to change or solidify the opinions of the general public. With this in mind it is appropriate to consider each of these aspects individually with the aim to fully understand the deployment of propaganda by the US government and various media outlets, with specific attention on modern day America, most notably since the 11th of September 2001.

The use of propaganda in the form of rhetoric, symbolism and myth by news broadcasters, other media outlets and by the central government of the United States since 9/11 has undeniably been used to gain the support of the American public for US foreign policy and military action overseas. This idea of using propaganda for war purposes on the general public is by no means new. The Vietnam War gives a perfect example of the need for public support when entering conflicts, with reference to the idea of ‘Vietnam Syndrome’; that there was a dramatic decline in public support for the war and this is subsequently why it was lost (Mariani, 2011.). Historical examples also include US World War One propaganda, which claimed that German soldiers killed babies with bayonets during marches (Ransom, No Date.) in order to de-humanise the German army and garner support for US involvement in the war. This example highlights the idea of myth as a tool of propaganda, which will be discussed in more detail throughout this essay.

Alongside myth, symbolism and rhetoric are also vitally important in the deployment of propaganda according to O’Shaughnessy’s ‘essential trinity’. However it is not the purpose of this essay to critique O’Shaughnessy’s ideas on propaganda. Instead, it is the intention of this essay to critically evaluate the deployment of propaganda, in the forms of myth, symbolism and rhetoric, in contemporary America. This will be achieved by identifying examples of the use of all three aspects of the essential trinity and whether these examples were effective in achieving their objective in altering or hardening public opinion. In conjunction with this, this essay will also discuss the powerful influence of nationalistic and binary propaganda in the aftermath of 9/11 which has consequently led to the erosion of some individual liberties, leading to dwindling support for more interventionist foreign policies by the US government.

The first point to discuss is the deployment of myth in contemporary America. The type of myth deployed by the US government in its immediate reaction to the events of 9/11 came in the form of traditional American myths of the Wild West that aim to encapsulate common national values and also historical vigilante justice. The ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ scenario put forward by President Bush supported this idea while also making the ‘War on Terror’ fit in with the notion that freedom and justice will prevail by any means necessary (Huff & Rea, 2009), adding to the fact that the heartstrings of Americans were firmly tugged and romantic ideas of Wild West justice were at the forefront of their thoughts. Also, as Chomsky (1991. p.26) argues, the American public do not want to get involved in overseas conflicts, so to make them support interventionist foreign policy you have to ‘…whip them up. And to whip them up you have to frighten them.’ This re-imagining of Wild West justice, with Al Qaeda taking the place of the Native Americans or the outlaw bandits has fear at the centre of its effectiveness. A fear of a return to an American society where the fear of attack is constant and justice must be done by whatever means necessary. It is significant to this line of thought to also mention the way that religion is closely associated with mythology (Tracy, 2005).
This allows us, through the fact that the United States is a fundamentally religious country, to better understand how the mythical undertone used by the US government when addressing the nation following 9/11 was so effective in gaining mostly unquestioning support for its planned ‘War on Terror’. In other words, due to American citizens being religiously inclined and therefore tending to have a positive view when it comes to mythology and traditional values, the deployment of myth by the US government and media post 9/11 was and is more likely to gain the public’s support for its retaliation to the attacks.

O’Shaughnessy (2004b, p.93) summarises the points made previously regarding the deployment of myth and also describes exactly the reaction of the US citizenry, along with the propagandised reaction of the US government to the events of 9/11 when he states that ‘Myth creates solidarity in adversity by offering answers that can be probed no further’. If, however, one were to ‘probe’ further (and some did and still do) and ask questions of the government regarding the events of 9/11, the cries of ‘un-American!’ and ‘terrorist sympathiser!’ would not take too long to begin (Huff & Rea, 2009b.). This makes the deployment of myth by the US government in this case all the more effective and cunning; ‘you’re either with us or against us’ said President Bush, almost immediately forcing the American public to choose a ‘side’ and to denounce any criticism of American foreign policy.

Another case of myth being used in contemporary America after the events of September 11th 2001 is the widespread claim that the hijackers of the aeroplanes were fanatical followers of Islam. Despite this, within Barret, Cobb and Lubarsky’s work 9/11 and American Empire (2006a) the author of the chapter ‘The Remaking of Islam in the Post 9/11 Era’, Yasmin Ahmed, states that ‘…the fact that the accused hijackers themselves were not at all religious…those who knew the accused hijackers report that they were indeed non-practicing Muslims’ (p. 269). With this in mind it becomes even more important to question the widely claimed myth that these people were fanatical followers of Islam. By spreading this myth far and wide in the aftermath of 9/11, not just in the United States, but across the entire planet, through mainstream media and government sources as well as within films produced in Hollywood, the criminalisation of Islam can be argued to have begun. Ahmed (2006b) goes on to back up this argument later in the chapter by describing the consequences of the deployment of myth regarding Islamic extremism when she argues that ‘there is a fierce propaganda war, driven by the underlying assumption that Islam itself is the problem’. This suggests that the consequences of the US deployment of myth since 9/11 includes the criminalisation of Islam and the American public’s support for war in the Middle East. This leaves us with a vital question to discuss in the future; were these consequences intended, and if so, why?

An additional aspect of the deployment of propaganda in contemporary America is the use of symbols or symbolism alongside the previously mentioned use of myth. There are numerous ways that symbols have been deployed as a part of propaganda in contemporary America. However, having discussed myth in relation to post 9/11 America, it is appropriate to do the same with symbols. On September 11th 2001, the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were targets of the attacks, with the White House as another suspected target. These buildings themselves are symbols of American wealth, military power and political influence on a world stage (Denton, 2004). Attacking these pillars of American strength symbolises an attempt to bring down America and the things that make it the massive influence it is on a global scale. Or perhaps these buildings symbolise American greed, the apparent American thirst for war and American political corruption.

Symbols are clearly subjective, however the biggest symbol for all that is American and, based on some of the myth outlined previously, what the United States stands for, is the American flag. Despite being used as a symbol of American strength, unity, freedom and bravery before 9/11, the increase in exposure of these themes to the general American public (and the rest of the world) through the use of the symbol of the Stars and Stripes, is obvious and was obvious at the time. It can be argued that the reason behind this was the association that had been made, by media outlets and the US government in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, between the US flag and patriotism. To display the US flag is patriotic, to decline to do so is unpatriotic (Bratta, 2009). This relates to Huff and Rea’s (2009) argument, mentioned previously, regarding the questioning of the official story of the events of 9/11. To question the official story is symbolic of being unpatriotic in much the same way as declining to display the American flag, while displaying the US flag is patriotic and symbolic of accepting the US government narrative of the events and supporting the subsequent military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Consequently, the deployment of symbols and symbolism in this context has also proved useful for the US government in its foreign policy objectives, giving its supporters a banner to rally under while also, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, rapidly increasing nationalist sentiment and emotional reaction to the events, as opposed to a rational response. Chomsky (1991b. p. 16) offers an explanation as to why this may happen in times of adversity when he states that ‘rationality is a very narrowly restricted skill. Only a small number of people have it. Most people are guided by just emotion and impulse’. It can be argued that Chomsky is correct in this idea. As he suggests, there were less people who thought rationally about what was happening and therefore less people who were likely to criticise or question the foreign policy of the US government or indeed the official narrative of the events of September 11th. With this in mind it becomes clear that the deployment of an emotive symbol such as the American flag in times of adversity is a smart manoeuvre by both the government and mainstream media who both perpetuate the official story of 9/11 as fact.

In some ways the American flag symbolises what Cuffaro (2011. p.7) quotes George W Bush as saying on September 11th 2001: ‘Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America’. This leads us on to the third aspect of O’Shaughnessy’s essential trinity; rhetoric.

The purpose of President Bush’s rhetoric is quite clear. By using the word ‘foundation’, Bush, or his speech makers, invoke the thought of America’s founding fathers, of the great national myth of the Wild West, the frontier and the constitution. If we move closer to the present day it is clear to see that terrorist attacks may not, in themselves, be enough to touch the foundation of America. However on the back of the events of 9/11 and the consequent War on Terror for the last fourteen years, numerous acts and laws have been passed in the United States that do touch, and indeed move, the foundation of America. One such example is the US Patriot Act. It can quite easily be argued that the Patriot Act is in fact unconstitutional, meaning that it violates some of the rights that Americans have under the constitution of their country. An example of this is the eerily Orwellian nature of the US government’s ability to indefinitely detain citizens without a trial on the grounds of ‘counter terrorism’ (Smith, 2009). This example seems to suggest that the US government is quite happy to become a totalitarian state in order to fulfil its ambitions in the War on Terror. In contrast to this, Amendment six of the US Constitution states that ‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district’. The National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Homeland Security Act are similar in their unconstitutional aspects. This means that Bush’s unflinching foundations of American society do not need to be touched by terrorist attacks when they are violated by US politicians on the back of the events of 9/11 and with the pretext of anti-terrorism.

In relation to the deployment of rhetoric in contemporary America the previous example suggests that political rhetoric, despite its sometimes dubious validity as a sound bite, often has no literal meaning or consequence. This example can also be used to argue how political rhetoric is regularly used to cover up or disguise what is really happening. For instance, there will not have been many senators, or indeed the president himself, willing to publicly state that these acts were unconstitutional at the time of their passing. In addition to this, another example of the deployment of rhetoric in contemporary America is President Obama’s famous reliance on ‘Hope’ during his first presidential campaign. O’Shaughnessy (2004c. p.65/66) unwittingly describes what is happening here with Obama’s use of ‘Hope’ as a campaign slogan when he writes, ‘Rhetoric is emotional persuasion and its core is therefore emotion’. Clearly, the speechwriters, campaign leaders or Barack Obama himself understand the usefulness and effectiveness of rhetoric as a political tool. Chomsky’s point regarding most people being emotional beings rather than rational in certain situations is valid in this instance. In reality, hope means very little except to struggle on with the disappointment of the present. It is always hope for the future, meaning that the present is not what one hoped for, rather it is a place and time that one hopes to escape from. Despite this, the idea, the myths that people produce in their own minds, the symbolism of a better life, ultimately the propagandistic mechanism that is ‘Hope’ can be very useful in political campaigns. Another example of the clever deployment of rhetoric in contemporary America is another from President Obama’s election campaign. The ‘Yes We Can’ slogan is what O’Shaughnessy (2004d. p.73) would describe as ‘the vox populi method, to find a particularly striking phrase or dramatic moment to express what all are thinking’. With its obvious association to the idea of hope, it is apparent that this optimistic tone is what the American public wanted to hear following the beginning of the long drawn out saga of the War on Terror under George W Bush. It is also evident that Barack Obama and his team did their homework on public opinion prior to the presidential election. These examples involving the presidential campaign of the President illustrate the vital importance to political campaigns of well-timed and well worded rhetoric which targets public emotion in order to have the fullest effect.

 

In conclusion, the deployment of O’Shaughnessy’s essential trinity of myth, symbols and rhetoric is vital in the gathering of public support in a political context. These three aspects of O’Shaughnessy’s idea of what propaganda is are all aimed at public emotion, cleverly timed and worded in order to gain public support for whatever cause necessary. However, it can be argued that when one is conscious of the fact that they are being ‘worked on’ by propaganda, the myth, symbols and rhetoric are less effective in achieving their objectives. This argument can be seen as valid by the ever increasing critique of the official narrative of the events of 9/11, meaning that almost fifteen years of overseas conflict involving the US military since the events of that day has had a rather sobering effect on part of the US citizenry, finally able to wake up and see that they were the victims of both a terrible tragedy on their own soil, and a mass propaganda campaign playing on their emotions in order for the US government and military to have, what on the face of it seems to be a long drawn out campaign of revenge. The undeniably clever use of traditional American myths, the use of the American flag as an emotive symbol and powerful political rhetoric have changed the United States from a nation that believes in freedom, justice and equality to one that is a rabid dog on the world stage and one that seems to be sliding down the slippery slope to a questionable domestic future.

 

References

Ahmed, Y. 2006. The Remaking of Islam in the Post-9/11 Era. In: Barrett, K. et al. (eds.) 9/11 and American Empire: Volume II: Christians, Jews and Muslims Speak Out. Northampton (MA): Interlink Books. pp. 269-282.

Bratta, P. M. 2009. Flag Display Post-9/11: A Discourse on American Nationalism. The Journal of American Culture. 32 (3).

Chomsky, N. 1991. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Cuffaro, D. 2011. American Myths in Post-9/11 Music. Southampton: Sparkling Books.

Denton, R. E. 2004. Language, Symbols, and the Media: Communication in the Aftermath of the World Trade Center Attack. Piscataway (NJ): Transaction Publishers.

Huff, M. S & Rea, P. W. 2009. Deconstructing Deceit: 9/11, the Media, and Myth Information. [Online]. Available from: http://www.911truth.org/deconstructing-deceit-911-the-media-and-myth-information/. [Accessed 19/4/2015].

Mariani, J. M. 2011. Does It Still Matter? The Impact of the Vietnam Syndrome on American Foreign Policy. [Undergraduate Thesis]. University of Pennsylvania.

O’Shaughnessy, N. J. 2004. Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ransom, T. (N.D) War Propaganda Past Present and Future. [online]. Available from: http://web.stanford.edu/class/e297a/War%20Propaganda%20Past%20Present%20and%20Future.doc.  [Accessed 17/4/15].

Smith, C. S. 2009. The Patriot Act: Issues and Controversies. Springfield (IL): Charles C Thomas Publisher.

Tracy, J. F. 2005. Bearing Witness to the Unspeakable: 9/11 and America’s New Global Imperialism. The Journal of American Culture. 28 (1), pp. 85-99.

usconstitution.net. (N.D) The Constitution of the United States. [Online]. Available from: http://www.usconstitution.net. [Accessed 19/4/2015].


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