Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Master of Distortion


WHEN HIRED to do a hit job on someone, propagandist Tom Bissell uses many of the same techniques used in his hit piece on the Underground Literary Alliance.

One of the tricks is to get his blatant putdowns out front. He asserts them as fact, planting them in the reader’s head as if they were facts.

For instance, note this sentence from “Euphorias of Perrier,” an essay about Robert D. Kaplan which is also included in the Tom Bissell collection Magic Hours:

“Kaplan's real problem, which has becoming growingly evident is not his Parkinson's grip on history or that he is a bonehead or a warmonger but rather that he is an incompetent thinker and miserable writer.”

The designations given to Robert Kaplan set the tone for the entire essay, predisposing the reader to thinking about the target in Tom Bissell’s terms. It enables Bissell to get away with further distortions that fit the theme he’s laid down.

One could examine the essay, sentence by sentence, pointing out distortions, and spend an entire book doing so, because nearly every sentence is a distortion. The bombardment of misrepresentation is so full it becomes overwhelming. The density of it is too much for the brain to handle at once. The brain is forced to accept the essay in its entirety. Or, we accept the objectivity and good faith of the essayist as a given. We’re not trained to believe it could be a nonstop subtle assault on the truth.

I’ll give one example to show what I’m talking about. Here’s a sentence about the second President Bush, talking about how he changed after 9/11:

“Bush has gone from an isolationist to an interventionist minus the crucial intermediary stage wherein he actually became interested in other places.”

This sounds plausible, doesn’t it? I bought this presentation myself on first examination. It’s a trademark Tom Bissell phrase which comes off as effective and insightful. Surely as solid as any sentence in the book. It’s obviously true.

But is it?

Look at the first part of the sentence, which has George W. Bush entering the Presidency as an isolationist. By “Bush,” we also mean his entire team, which happened to be in this case a very strong team. Two of them, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, ran the first Iraq war for Bush’s father! Added to the team were aggressive individuals like Don “Rummy” Rumsfeld.


Were any of these people ever going to disengage, Ron Paul-style, from American Empire? Was George W. Bush truly not interested in “other places”? Of course not!

All of them—W included; W being a Bush maybe most of all—had significant investments in that world; in those “other places”; particularly the Mideast, which in Bissell’s narrative they were suddenly expected to disengage from! To call them “isolationist” at any time is an absurdity. They’d be expected, on the contrary, to maintain a strong interest in the world, and to look for opportunities to strengthen their standing, settle scores, and so on. Which is what happened. Why else were they there, in positions of power? Why did they go after those positions? To disengage? To be isolationist?!

How does Tom Bissell get away with calling them isolationist?

He gets away with it because the mass media was selling two narratives about George W. Bush at the beginning of his administration. A minor narrative and a major narrative.

The minor narrative was that George W. Bush was not his father’s son; i.e., the media exaggerated minor personality differences between the two men; even though the fact that W brought in much of his father’s team showed the actual differences between the two men were slight.

The major narrative depicted George W. Bush as an isolationist uninterested in foreign policy—a narrative which was always a lie.

We buy it when Tom Bissell repeats the lie in his Robert D. Kaplan essay because we remember, vaguely, the storyline of George W. Bush as isolationist. The sheer memory of a media talking point has become a fact in our brains.

When you have a media without scruples, containing an essayist without scruples, willing to pile on distortion after distortion, lie after lie, to create an intended effect, you’re dealing with propaganda at its most masterful and devious.

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