Drug War Prisoners

DRUG WAR TALK: Propaganda and McCaffrey's Lapse

Outgoing Drug Lord Barry McCaffrey was in the news recently with his view that "War on Drugs" should be dropped in favor of a more suitable expression. Illegal drug use in America is like cancer, McCaffrey explained, and government policy in the field of illegal drug use should be thought of less as a military campaign than as a public health measure. Bury the idea of a "War on Drugs," McCaffrey suggested, and think in terms of disease and medical intervention.

Had Barry gone soft? McCaffrey among the avant-garde in Drug War policy thinking? Nothing was said at the time, at least in public, by Drug War hawks in Congress, but flirting with harm reduction and the idea that illegal drug use calls for medical intervention may have cost the man his job. In the fall of 1999, McCaffrey caused a flurry of excitement when he compared America's prisons to Soviet era gulags, and, going further, by announcing that White House policy was leaning towards the release of 250,000 Drug War prisoners. This undoubtedly went too far. News that McCaffrey would be replaced as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy followed soon after.

Give the man the benefit of doubt. It would be easy to characterize McCaffrey as merely duplicitous. But suppose a message from the harm reduction front had reached his ear and led him to question his stand on needle exchange or some other aspect of harm reduction policy. Untrained in the politics of equivocation and accustomed to command over his troops, McCaffrey may have toyed with the idea of solving America's drug problem in some novel fashion.

Blabbing to the press, however, violated a key tenet of propaganda, which is to keep the attention of the public focused on a set of principles from which no departure is permitted. Objection's to the Director's lapse would have been raised by officials responsible for Drug War propaganda, for whom the expression "War on Drugs" is no mere metaphor. For such officials, the common features between the War on Drugs and wars of a more conventional sort include the need for well conducted propaganda. Without effective propaganda, the benefits of the Drug War would soon be lost on the American public.

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The new American Heritage Dictionary defines propaganda as "the systematic propagation of information reflecting the views and interests of those who advocate a certain doctrine or cause." This is one sense of the term. There is also the dictionary's "selected truths, exaggerations, and lies of wartime propaganda."

The word had a place in religious politics. Cultivation of correct belief was a job the Catholic church took on to combat rival Protestant beliefs originating in the Reformation.

The pioneer of modern propaganda was Adolf Hitler. In 1923 Hitler made the following pronouncements:

"The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction but to convince," and "The content of propaganda is not science any more than the object represented in a poster is art. The art of the poster lies in the designer's ability to attract attention ...."

Attract attention with the aim of convincing -- how is it done? Hitler lays down some important principles.

The first is to make few points, but repeat them over and over. "Persistence is the first and most important requirement for success." And though Hitler did not come right out and say this, persistent repetition of a Big Lie is more effective than persistent repetition of a small one.

Second, limit intellectual content; don't invite people to think. The larger the target audience, the more important a reduction of the intellectual component. "The more exclusively [propaganda] considers the emotions ... the more effective it will be."

Third, focus on only one enemy. "With too many enemies, objectivity will put in an appearance," and raise the question whether some or all of the points made in the propaganda outflow are false.

Fourth, appeal to exalted feelings; these carry the greatest weight of emotion. Hitler's propagandists appealed to love of family and children. Family values were an important feature of their message.

In short, keep it simple, stress emotion, don't invite comparisons, and aim high.

There is no need to slam Hitler's analysis of propaganda out of a need to slam Hitler. He may be right when he claims to apply what are "obvious psychological truths." The difference between us today and Hitler in regard to propaganda may be a degree of frankness. Hitler used propaganda and admired its use. Hitler despised reason and appealed to emotion, the emotion of the so-called masses. He said this openly, which would not be a smart move in America.

Allow that propaganda is essential to Drug War strategy and that Hitler's principles are valid. Then how may propaganda be employed "to convince" a public the size and sophistication of America's if the intellectual, truth-bearing quotient of the message is as low as Hitler says it must be?

A report published in 1995 when Lee Brown was Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy makes some odd statements about drug use in general and marijuana use in particular. The National Drug Control Strategy of that year opens with a message from Director Brown. It says that President Clinton has vowed to keep the nation the strongest in the world, and to preserve it as a force for peace and freedom. Illegal drug use creates violence at home and around the world, reducing the scope for freedom and democracy. But the President's vow cannot be realized until illegal drug use has been stamped out. Every citizen has an obligation to support the War on Drugs in order to halt violence and lessen the threat to freedom and democracy that illegal drug use poses.

"Drug use," the Strategy reads, "and the crime it generates are turning the American dream into a nightmare. Many citizens, most of them working class people, live in neighborhoods where drive-by shootings, street-corner drug sales, and drug related assaults occur on a daily basis. These Americans fear for their lives and the lives of their children."

For now, pass over the statement that drug use is responsible for the crimes that make life a nightmare for many citizens, and not a profit-driven black market made inevitable by the total Prohibition that is the core of Drug War policy. The Strategy relies on the assumption, nowhere openly acknowledged, that illegal drug use as a whole leads to the nightmare Brown describes. Brown's Strategy suggests that marijuana users, cocaine users, heroin users - all users of illegal drugs are liable to provoke the crime of drive-by shooting. Following Mein Kampf, the Strategy could be said to use the propaganda device of lumping its adversaries together. All drug use is tarred with the same brush, an artful use of the Big Lie.

The National Drug Control Strategy of 1995 observes the principle of keeping it simple. Brown calls the work of the Drug Enforcement Administration "the cornerstone of US domestic policy." Other aspects of domestic policy such as education, health, or housing are assigned less prominent positions. Brown grants a need to promote economic growth, reduce youth violence, and increase availability of health care. But the way to realize this need is to wipe out drug use and lock up users. Once this is done, education, health, and other problems will be resolved. Lock up users, and the problem of gang violence will melt away. No solution could be simpler than that.

The principle of appealing to emotion and downplaying reason is evident in the Strategy's discussion of the relation between guns in school and marijuana use. A 1993-1994 survey found that of high school students who bring guns to school, two thirds smoke marijuana, while of those students who do not bring guns to school, only one fifth smoke marijuana. The Strategy suggests a link between drug use (read "marijuana use") and the crime rate that, supposedly, bedevils the nations' youth. The figures suggest a connection of some kind. The reader is led to assume the link is causal: marijuana use causes the importation of guns to school. A first year statistics course would put paid to the question of a causal relation. But the Strategy does not alert the reader to the questionable nature of its message. It propagates the idea that marijuana use disposes high school students to bring guns to school, adroitly linking marijuana use to the emotion of fear.

The problem a propagandist faces in a society that protects free speech is that appeals to emotion ultimately wear thin. People tire if an emotion is too incessantly drummed in. The idea that marijuana use turns people violent looks silly if enough people suspect the opposite. The propagandist has to work overtime to persuade, or else resort to terror, which is the propagandist's fallback position.

In a totalitarian society terror can be used to subdue unruly elements of the public, those who have not been convinced by propaganda and don't mind showing it. Terror is used openly, without need for concealment. In America, the use of terror in the prosecution of the War on Drugs presents as "law enforcement." This preserves the appearance of a gap between democratic and totalitarian formats, but hardly lessens the impact on a wayward citizen.

Ignoring the risk of unpleasant consequences, however, what can the opponent of Drug War propaganda do? In principle, reason by itself does not diminish the hold of propaganda on emotion. For every reasonable objection raised, the contrary can be proposed, neutralizing, if not refuting the intended argument. For example: The cost of the Drug War is too high. (But no expense is too great to rid the country of the menace of drug use.) Half a million otherwise law-abiding men and women are locked up in America's prisons. (But that is what the War on Drugs is for. Half a million locked up drug users means half a million fewer on the streets.) Inner city violence �. (That can be stopped if more police patrol the streets.) Corruption of public officials�. (But every barrel has some rotten apples.) The Drug War can't be won. (That's being defeatist; with enough money and political will it can be won.) The Drug War is an armed assault against an otherwise law abiding segment of the American public. (Nonsense. Drug use is a cancer that requires surgical excision.)

The point is that the propagandist's appeal to emotion is not addresed by arguments that appeal principally to reason. Only emotion equal or superior in strength to the strength of the emotion inspired by propaganda has a chance of replacing it. Appeal to a higher emotion, and only then do you have a chance of defeating the propaganda you deplore.

The key to the success of California's Proposition 215 in 1996, legalizing the use of marijuana under certain conditions, was advertising the emotion of compassion. Compassionate use, not use, was the theme of the debate at election time. Compassion is a complex emotion, operating on a higher, closer to spiritual level than the more base emotion of fear. Proposition 215 was voted in because a more powerful emotion than fear of marijuana use was embraced by the electorate. Victory at the polls showed that the dynamic of propaganda had been understood by those who put the cause of medical marijuana to the public vote.

Those whose aim is to cut through Drug War propaganda and convince an electorate to believe differently had better attend to this principle: define the emotion that colors your own, alternative belief, and make sure that it surpasses the emotion of the propagandist. By itself, being reasonable is not enough to outdo the effect of skilfully used propaganda.

For their part, officials in the propaganda department of the Drug Enforcement Administration will make sure that McCaffrey's replacement seeks their advice before venturing to repeat McCaffrey's lapse.

The interested viewer may consult National Drug Control Strategy: Executive Summary, April, 1995. Passages from Mein Kampf are taken from the translation by Ralph Manheim, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1943.


The Committee on Unjust Sentencing, Winter 2000




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