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Bystander Apathy: The Battle for Our Hearts and Minds
6 November 2001
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City; for over half an hour she put up a desperate fight against her assailant, and 38 neighbors later reported hearing her ongoing screams for help. But no one helped - not one witness even so much as called the police. Neighbors later said that they had felt powerless and confused during the attack, and certain someone else would do something to stop it. So they had gone about their business instead, closing the windows to keep out the screams.
Kind of the way many of us are coping with the war these days. The media bombard us with anthrax paranoia, patriotic military shots, and spokespeople who BS well but provide no coherent information. Cameras flash and pundits cheer as Bush attends a baseball game, bounces off Air Force One with his dog or delivers a canned speech, but intelligent discussions of the deeper implications of bombing Afghanistan are a mainstream n ews rarity. Unconscionable new domestic "collateral damage" developments float by each day - tax breaks for the rich, decimation of civil liberties, potential Arctic Refuge drilling, fast track trade agreements, what have you - but the sheer speed and enormity of the societal restructuring breed confusion and apathy.
So we shut our windows and thoughts, absorbing the Emmys rather than the ugly reality of war.
And then comes the US government's stepped-up assault to capture the hearts and minds of citizens at home and governments abroad. Much has already been made of the $3,500 per day contract given to the Rendon Group, a public-relations firm now charged with advising the US military on improving "public diplomacy" (i.e. propaganda) and countering opposition messages. The Pentagon's purchase of all rights to Ikonos satellite pictures of Afghanistan, pictures detailing massive civilian casualties, is another convenient way of keeping unpleasant realities away from the suggestible masses; the recent appointment of "The Queen of Madison Avenue" Charlotte Beers to Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is similarly unsettling. From a prominent Texan oil family, Beers went on to chair two major advertising companies and her current assignment is no less than rebranding the United States. According to Colin Powell, not only is Beers "fluent with this sort of thing, but she is from the advertising business. I wanted one of the world's greatest adverti sing experts, because what are we doing? We're selling. We're selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy. It's the free enterprise system, the American value system." If it's good enough for Coke and deodorants, it's good enough for the US government.
So the terrorist training camp known as School of the Americas continues to operate Stateside, but has changed its name to The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation to fool those pesky protesters and retain US public funding. Why stop indoctrinating terrorism when you can just rebrand? In spite of its lofty name, the International Coalition Against Terror is mainly composed of the countries manufacturing and stockpiling most of the world's weapons of mass destruction.
Bush continues to sell his rollback of civil liberties as "preventing more atrocities in the hands of the evil ones." Not to be outdone, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson defended his agency's much maligned handling of the anthrax crisis with, "Something that's factual at this moment proves not to be factual in retrospect. That doesn't mean it wasn't factual at the time." Any further questions?
One of Beers' first branding projects was working with the Ad Council (formerly known as the War Advertising Council) on a series of commercials to "distill the values and virtues of American democracy." One spot, called "I am an American," features speakers of various ethnic backgrounds and invokes E PLURIBUS UNUM (Out of many, one) to show that "our diversity makes America great."
Let's propose another Ad Council spot: "I am aware." It will show ordinary citizens across the United States, indeed across the world, rising up to combat the societal rollback taking place in the name of supposedly fighting terrorism. It will invoke common sense in realizing that dropping bombs on a ravaged people and promoting mass starvation does not induce peace. It will show that diversity makes the whole world great, and that the actions of a single person from afar can sometimes mean the difference between life and death for another.