May 28, 2007

Freedom of Propaganda

Quico says: "Chávez has been blessed with great enemies: they're so hard to defend" my friend replies when I express my distaste about RCTV chief Marcel Granier's elevation to the post of lead defender of press freedom. With his two-tone hair and his sub-Dali moustache, the erstwhile dean of Venezuelan anti-politics even looks like a comic book villain.

"Blessed with great enemies." Heh.

"You remember the April crisis?" I say, "the paro? the recall? I was all for the opposition all through that - but come on, man, the private TV channels were absurd! They didn't cover marches, they participated in them. They could have reported them, they could have acted like journalists, but they didn't, they chose not to. They chose to take sides, and that's not what journalists do. So don't you think it's a bit odd that it's this guy, who was giving those 'un-journalists' their marching orders back then, who's become the visible face of the 'save journalism' campaign?"

"But it's not about him," my friend goes on, "it's about the Venezuelan people's right to hear a diversity of views on TV. I mean, I agree with you, but the true reform of the media is simply not on the agenda here. What's being fought is a rearguard action against totalitarianism"

I know he's right. In my head I know it. I know today is marks an ominous milestone in the revolution's descent into authoritarianism. I'm not stupid, I can see these things. But in my gut, well...there's something about the canonization of San Marcel de Quinta Crespo, patron saint of repressed journalists, that I can't sit through with a straight face. And, frankly, I'm sick and tired of having to pretend that it isn't so just to avoid being branded a Chavez enabler.

I'm bitter. I wanted my press martyrs to be shining beacons, admirable, above reproach. I wanted Anna Politkovskaya but, I got Ana Vacarella. I can't help but feel a bit ridiculous mourning a channel that kept on running its 9 p.m. telenovela right up until the very end. I know that's wrong. But that's how I feel.

The RCTV shutdown episode, like every episode of Chávez-engineered hyperpolarization since 1999, has made genuine reflection nearly impossible, closing down once again the space for a critical dialogue about the state of the situation and the situation of the state (como diría Mafalda.) As the political climate heats up, both sides fall back onto their default positions, an automatic, tribal solidarity that treats the acknowledgment of uncomfortable realities as tantamount to treason.

In the opposition, a code of omertà has made it impossible to actually talk about anything the private media might have gotten wrong in the last 8 years. The usual canards about handing propaganda freebies to a totalitarian government are trotted out to squash discussion. The absolute virtue of RCTV's line is treated as axiomatic, beyond the need for evaluation. The sheer absence of introspective insight here is ominous - and it's made more ominous, not less, by the parallel turpitude on the other side.

In the government, only Chávez seems to have the balls to call a spade a spade, to forthrightly accept he's doing this to silence a troublesome outlet for dissidents. Sure, "conspirators" is the way he puts it, but anyone with a feel for Chavista-Spanish translation long ago figured out that when he means "disidentes" he says "conspiradores."

Conatel, on the other hand, tries to keep up the fiction that nothing remarkable is happening here, that all of this is quite routine, a bureaucratic procedure, nothing more. RCTV's license was not renewed, we're told, on aesthetic grounds ("the programming is too vulgar" - and this from the people who bring us La Hojilla!) For Conatel, what we're seeing is not so much censorship as a kind of muscular, applied cultural criticism, a line that brings to mind the provocateurs who justified the 9/11 attacks in terms of architectural criticism.

The two Venezuelas talk past one another, for the Nth time: two streams of bullshit running in parallel. No one puts forward a serious argument. The qualifier, of course, is that they have the tanks and all we have is our keyboards.

I, for one, intend to use mine. For me, the RCTV shut down wasn't really a violation of journalistic freedom, because for most of the last 8 years what RCTV has produced has been propaganda, not journalism. The RCTV shut down has been an abuse of propaganda freedom, which may not sound as noble, but in its own way is just as important to freedom of speech as the other kind.

Propaganda is the key concept here, and we need to understand it unsentimentally, see it for what it is. As Jonathan Chait puts it in The New Republic this month:
The word has a bad odor, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Propaganda is often true, and it can be deployed on behalf of a worthy cause (say, the fight against Nazism in World War II). Still, propaganda should not be confused with intellectual inquiry. Propagandists do not follow their logic wherever it may lead them; they are not interested in originality. Propaganda is an attempt to marshal arguments in order to create a specific real-world result--to win a political war.
Fox News is propaganda, and The Daily Show is propaganda. France's Liberation and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page are propaganda. Their basic goal is not to inform, it's to convince: and in any normal democracy, that's a normal, natural part of the political conversation a free society has with itself.

It's not often put this way, but the freedom to produce and consume propaganda is a fundamental component of freedom of speech. Because propaganda is just the broadcast version of what those of us who like politics do whenever we go out to a bar. We argue. We say things in the way we figure is most likely to convince the other side. We don't feel bound to present the other side's views in the most flattering light, because our goal isn't to elucidate, it's to convince.

To ban propaganda is to ban the cut-and-thrust of democratic political debate, to drive a stake through the heart of deliberation.

The problem is that Venezuela as a society has lost any sort of insight into the dividing line between propaganda and news. It's not surprising, it's been a long time since we've seen proper jounalism on Venezuelan television screens.
Propaganda is constantly, incessantly passed off as news. The "Chinese Wall" between editorializing and reporting crumbled a long time ago, in both the public and private media. It can be hard to find actual news at all. So we can hardly fault people for failing to realize the difference between them.

Now, for the last eight years we've had precious little reporting, but we've at least had some diversity in the propaganda on offer, a rough pluralist balance of un-news. From now on, though, what we'll be left with now is not "No Propaganda," but outrageously one-sided propaganda, a debate where only one side talks, where the governing party line is showered on people from all sides, all the time, with nothing to balance it.

The reality is that, this morning, outside a few big cities in Venezuela, people waking up and turning up the tube will have no access to any televised content critical of the regime. For all of the private media's faults, it's hard to shake this ominous sense that this really is a rear-guard action against totalitarianism, and we're losing.