[ORIGINALLY BROADCAST ON 4/3/2013]
Dr. Michael Parenti is an internationally-renowned lecturer and author, most recently of ‘The Face of Imperialism’. In this interview, he discusses the use of entertainment media as propaganda, and the relationship between government agencies and the production of such content. Later on in the talk, Dr. Parenti also provides his take on the media’s coverage of the Obama Administration’s escalating use of drones, and the recent death of Margaret Thatcher. A great listen as always so enjoy, spread the word, and peace!
Guy Evans: Welcome everyone to Episode 66 of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast. I’m Guy Evans, and my guest today is Dr. Michael Parenti. He’s an internationally-known lecturer and author, with his most recent published work being ‘The Face of Imperialism’. He also has the website MichaelParenti.org where you can view his upcoming speaking events and access a collection of his articles. It’s worth noting that he previously appeared on this podcast back in Episode 13, which you can download at SmellsLikeHumanSpirit.com. So Michael, thank you very much for joining me once again, and let me also wish you Happy May Day.
Dr. Michael Parenti: Yes, thank you Guy. I posted that on my Facebook – Happy May Day wish to all friends, even enemies. May their minds and hearts be cleared of the grime and selfishness that propels them right now.
Evans: Absolutely. Well, I received a very interesting e-mail from a listener asking for a podcast examining the use of entertainment as propaganda, and I immediately thought of yourself Michael, [and] getting in touch with you. You once wrote that “the entertainment media are the make-believe media…they make us believe.” In your view, which images and themes in particular are we as audiences generally asked to believe in?
Parenti: Well, first of all there’s militarism. There’s the violence, there’s the guns. I don’t go to any movie where the ad shows somebody pointing a gun. Glance down the page though – there are usually 2-3 of the 7-8 shows [on offer] that have a little advertisement that shows somebody pointing, fearlessly pointing – a gun. It could even be a woman now too. The new woman resembles the old man if you ask me, at least in Hollywood. So there’s that, there’s militarism, there’s a kind of patriotism of seeing the world filled with evil and threats. Nature, for instance – there’s always the slimy creature from the lagoon [that] comes, [and] people are taught to fear nature. [There’s] giant ants, green ants, that come down and eat cars or something. Those are some of the values that I see. Learn to be a good solider. Fight, kill, defend. Fight against aliens, communists, terrorists, gangs, and the like. That’s one set of values and with that comes a set of patriarchal tough guy glorification, scorning weakness.
For years, you won’t see it now, but for years there used to be the ‘swishy gay’ who’s kind of ‘bitchy’ and kind of evil almost… [they always would do] naughty, rotten things. That’s kind of gone by the way, as public attitudes change. [There’s] the racism – I was raised with black people [being represented as] Aunt Jemima, Bojangles, Stepin Fetchit, tap dancers, and there’s been a real improvement there. Both in television and in movies you can see black judges, black lawyers, black detective captains, now [they are not always [portrayed as] the criminal. So that’s been an improvement, although I would not say there’s no cause for complaint in the kind of roles that are available for black men and all those beautiful black women, but y’know, the roles are limited and there should be much more exploration of just ethnic lives in general. Not only Blacks, but Latinos, and White Ethnics, and immigrants, and that kind of stuff doesn’t get explored. You might also complain about with the media is what’s missing – what’s not there. There just isn’t enough really human stories done in a human way, and not in a contrived, pumped up, silly way. That’s what I found.
Evans: Absolutely, and as you mentioned, these values often carry with them real ideological content. I’d like to ask you just how much of a hand do governments, or aspects of governments such as intelligence agencies, have in the production of popular entertainment media?
Parenti: They are sometimes brought in by Hollywood as advisors. Now if it’s a war movie, you often need the Pentagon for certain kinds of equipment, y’know. The studios do not carry really militant grade helicopters, troop carrier helicopters or certain kinds of missiles, or tanks and the like. So they can get eager co-operation from the Pentagon but it comes at a price – the Pentagon has to vet the script, make sure the U.S. military comes off looking unblemished and devoted, and selfless and dedicated. So they pay a very high price in having to get the support of a military. There was a time, back when the CIA wanted no part of any series, any T.V. series. The FBI was all over the place, I mean – J. Edgar Hoover was Mr. Public Relations. When I was a kid, there was a radio show, before television ever came in…and Hoover had a hand of the production of it. It was called ‘Gangbusters’, and the Feds were the guys who came in there…the Gangbusters were the FBI, ‘fighting crime’ in those days, until it got more popular, more imperative to fight communism. [Now] it’s terrorism of all sorts, real or imaginary. And we have a President of the United States who does the same stuff, I mean, just today he comes on with a statement and says, “We do know that there is chemical warfare in Syria.” We don’t know [this]. He admitted [that] they can’t find it, they can’t name it, [that] they don’t know what quality, what kind, [the] method of delivery. Syria invited a U.N. inspection of the area where they said this white phosphorous, or some other kind of gaseous stuff was seen, and [Syria] said they’re welcome to investigate. The U.S. commanded that the investigation must be every facility within Syria – the same demand they made with Iraq, and Iraq complied and [this led to] the U.S. [recording] every bombing target they wanted when they subsequently invaded Iraq. So co-operation just means you put yourself in the hands of the aggressor. But it’s a lie – you have Presidents getting up and making all sorts of assertions and statements, and for what? [It’s the] same thing as the movies – to play upon fear, to play upon people’s fears.
They’ve discovered [that] when you can frighten the public, they will rally around you. They’re ready to surrender their rights and if it means protecting hearth and home, and children. So [the public] get behind their leaders, and the leader convinces them that the leaders of these other countries are strange, and crazy, and Hitler admirers, and they wage inhumanitarian wars as if there really were humanitarian wars. [It’s the notion that] there [are] all these things and we have to do something, we have to stop them. Once you demonize the leaders of these other countries, then you get license to go and bomb them, and kill their people. You’ll notice that there’s no such thing as the Syrian government, it’s always this Syrian regime. The Assad regime. Khaddafi’s regime. [Conversely], Mubarak had a government in Egypt. Mubarak was a Western guy. He opened that country to the IMF, to the World Bank, to corporate capital – he wasn’t using the resources of this great country Egypt, with its great culture. He wasn’t using those resources for the development and betterment of the people, he was throwing that open to be plundered and pilfered the way so much of the world is. He was President Mubarak; he wasn’t called ‘strongman’ Mubarak or ‘dictator’ Mubarak, and all that. He was called President Mubarak, and it was called the Egyptian government, all the time, the Mubarak government. It was not [a] regime. So they play with images and words, and their goal is to incite fear in the public that they have to rally. That public has to fork over its tax money, [as] the Empire feeds off the Republic. That public has to do without decent funding for schools, [the] break down of transportation. We’ve still got bridges in the Bay here, in San Francisco, [in] Berkeley, that still aren’t being properly restored or fortified. Everything is so expensive; everything is millions and millions of dollars. All the State governments, the local governments, are all broke. Some of them are selling off their public assets like their schools and libraries and hospitals. [They are] selling off to meet budgets, in a state of financial crisis. All of this to create a military state that is protecting us from the challenges and fears that really are challenges and fears to corporate America, but not to us. [It’s] no challenge or fear to me. It’s no fear to me. I would pay the same amount in gas or less if these countries owned their own oil reserves, and didn’t have to…look, Citgo or Venezuelan oil was publicly owned. We didn’t have to pay any more; we paid a lot less actually. I’m sorry; I’m rambling all over the place.
Evans: It’s ok.
Parenti: What I’m saying is [that] Hollywood fits in this whole thing of mobilizing images and these kinds of themes and values.
Evans: Sure. And often there’s an overly simplistic view of events, [in terms of how] it’s presented, as you mentioned there, [so] the political world kind of mirrors the entertainment world. The idea that there’s ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, and that’s the end of the discussion. And another thing, another tactic is to fragment people into y’know, stereotypes and archetypes. How damaging do you think that is, the fact that we tend to see the same stereotypes being played out in popular film and other popular entertainment?
Parenti: Well, the stereotypes serve the purpose of creating that same reality. I was thinking just a minute ago of, I don’t know remember the movie. It was a movie about the FBI fighting against the guys who killed those three…Goodman…Schwerner…I forget. Three civil rights [workers]. This was back in the 80’s or so, do you recall that movie?
Evans: Not off the top of my head no, no.
Parenti: The racists and the murderers were fought off by ‘tough guy’, two-fisted, FBI guys. A few of them just went in there and poked and beat ‘em. That isn’t the way they were fought off. They were fought off by these few – by these brave civil disobedient, freedom riders who came down and stood shoulder-to-shoulder and took a beating. I mean, something way more courageous, way more impressive, way more democratic and human than the old Gene Hackman, beats you with [his] gun or whatever, y’know. So that’s where the movies fail, they fail to show us just ordinary…the greatness of ordinary people doing and arising to extraordinary things.
Evans: Sure. I think it’s important to realize, as you mentioned there, past events are constantly being reshaped as well as the view and perception of historical figures. A recent example of this was in the media’s coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and I know that you just wrote an article about this.
Evans: The phrase ‘Thatcher saved Britain’ was mentioned over and over and over again in the days following her death. What do you make of this reaction?
Parenti: Well they did the same when Reagan died; they did the same when Nixon died. History is being made right at the point of origin, and they start fabricating, and anybody digging back now through the media [archives] to find out how people were feeling about Thatcher would come away with the impression that she was mourned at a great and brave leader. Oh, I mean, the Thatcher legacy is very real. It’s in the flat wages; it’s in the high, heavy rents, y’know. You know what rents are in London. It’s in the privatized services that used to be much better when they were publicly run. She’s terrible. They sometimes now…you get a fawning statement like the one President Obama put out that she stood ‘shoulder-to-shoulder with America’, and she was a great leader, and this and that. He talks about how she broke the glass ceiling as a woman. The first Prime Minister, female Prime Minister. [He] made her sound like a feminist. Guy, that’s such a misleading impression, as Obama is so often misleading. I mean, she was about as feminist as Benito Mussolini or Hitler or somebody! I mean, in her eleven years as Prime Minister, she must’ve made about forty top cabinet-level or sub-cabinet-level appointments. You know how many women she appointed? One. One, I think out of what? She must’ve had about, I’d say, about forty appointments, maybe more. She had one woman [appointment] and it was inconsequential, and she never said a word on behalf of the struggles that women face. I mean, she was a woman struggling in a man’s world, yeah…but she was not in any way, interested in making that a larger issue for women. She was totally indifferent to that. And yet, they praised her for that, as if she had given us something – and she hadn’t at all. Margaret Thatcher was out for Margaret Thatcher, and she was out for the class [on] whose behalf she ruled.
Evans: Speaking of Obama, what do you make of the level of discourse, or lack thereof, that the media has enabled thus far in relation to the Obama Administration’s escalation of the drone program?
Parenti: Well, they’re treating drones like great old, wonderful inventions that really are going to make the world safe, and we can really kill people we don’t like with impunity now. Drones are now being allotted, y’know, to sheriff’s offices and police departments. I live right here in Alameda County in California. The Alameda Sheriff has a drone!
Parenti: [They can] have this thing flying around. Yeah. And they can take pictures, and photograph you in your house. Your very privacy is lost, y’know. And that’s not an empty complaint. There are those of us that work in the progressive moment who have evidence that we are cased. That we are followed at times. We were tapped. I’ve actually had a tap break-in and say something, taunting [me]. Making it clear that there was someone listening to the conversation on the phone. That’s when they move from surveillance to harassment, y’know.
Evans: That happened to you personally?
Parenti: [It] happened to me personally. Not when the conversation was on. I hung up; [I] had been talking to a lady friend in Seattle who’s close to me. I hung up, and about fifteen or twenty minutes later, the phone rings at it’s a woman mimicking her style of talking and repeating things from the conversation. I said, “Who is this? Who is this?,” and she just kept going on. And then, on another occasion, I had some guy call up and just leave a taunting message. [There were] other people in the office – they were sort of laughing or something like that.
Evans: And this was recently? When did this happen?
Parenti: No, no, this was some years ago. Oh, about fifteen years ago. Occasionally I’m still cased, but you can’t talk about this, you can’t mention it, ‘cos people think you’re paranoid, crazy. Like such things don’t happen. But that would be very odd. I mean, [there are] these enormous files when you write away for your file, and you see all sorts of conversations that are overheard and reported on, and the like. You know that they must’ve gotten that, not from the tooth fairy, but from surveillance. Surveillance is one of their dreams, one of their major preoccupations.
Evans: So, let’s try to flip the coin if we could and try to look at perhaps some positive developments that you see out there currently. You’re a student of history, so in the context of where we are right now, what gives you optimism for the future that perhaps things are moving in the right direction and we will get the types of change that we’re looking for?
Parenti: Well, you have the Occupy movement which came out of nowhere. Nobody predicted it. You had the Arab spring which nobody predicted. All the great Middle East specialists and Arabic specialists and the like…none of them [predicted it]. If they did, they kept it to themselves. So, what was re-affirmed by the Occupy movement is that there’s a substantial mass base that really sees a great divide in society of 1% and 99%. That was a remarkable propaganda step to make, to point out that ‘we’re not fooled by any of this, we know that it’s 1% at the very, very top.’ It’s not the top 20% that we hear, it’s not the top 15…it’s 1%. It’s really been less than 1%. 1% would be three million people. But, the super-rich in the United States [are] more like a fraction of 1%, maybe a quarter of 1%. About two-hundred thousand are really of the super-rich, of a nation of a three-hundred-something million, three-hundred-and-forty million by now. So we have that.
One thing that one should take heart [in] is that people don’t shut up. They don’t shut up. They keep fighting back. They keep complaining about the war, they keep raising questions about Guantanamo, they keep raising questions about the mistreatment of Bradley Manning, about ‘we’re not getting the whole story’. Much of that fight back is of course muffled and silenced by the media and its one single method of manipulation and suppression that they have of truth, [which is] simply omission. Simply not covering it, ignoring it, and pretending it’s not there. So, this is grounds for at least keeping hope. I would be even more hopeful if we could see a breakdown in the military, where we could see our military personnel saying, “We don’t wanna fight this war, this is not a real war, this is not a humanitarian war, this is a killing of people.” This is using depleted uranium causing all sorts of birth defects and horrors in Iraq now still. This is overthrowing a nationalist and killing him, and hunting him down because he’s using the resources of his country for the well-being of his country, and throwing it open to big corporate profits. I don’t want to fight in an army whose main goal is to keep the wealth safe of the Fortune 500.
To get [to] that consciousness is not such a cloudy hope. I remember towards the end of the Vietnam War, it was happening. The U.S. army was refusing to fight in Vietnam – that was why Nixon finally signed the peace treaty with Vietnam. Squad units and even platoon[s], and even a few companies mutinied and refused to make contact with the enemy, and go down the road and not go into the jungle. [Nixon] was having trouble getting them…and he had divisions that were pinned down in Europe, and he had a National Guard that he needed in the United States because there were about three hundred campuses that were up in arms, and resisting. [They were] serious rebellions going on. And that’s what we really need today, if people could see what a liar and pretender this President is, and how he professes to be concerned about this, that, and the other thing [but] doesn’t seem to get around to doing anything about it. So, I have both cynicism [and optimism]. It depends on what day you get me. I also feel that it’s not hopeless, not entirely hopeless. The reality of the ecological crisis and its relationship to an endless, limitless, profit-mania. The linkage between those two things, some people are beginning to [see]. So all we can do is just hope for the best. There [are] a lot of good books that have come out on these things. Someone once said years ago – as our books get better and better, America gets worse and worse. I don’t know if information per se is a cause for hope.
Evans: You might be right. So let me ask you, because I’m conscious of the time and I understand we’re running towards the end of this interview. I get e-mails from people quite regularly who listen to this show who say that they are getting a good understanding of some of the injustices and power structures that are acting upon them, and limiting them in their life, and not serving their best interests. I often hear from people who are quite angry actually about some of these things, and people who are desperate to try to affect change in any way that they can. What would you say on an individual level, or even on a group level, are the best ways that people can start to affect change? Is it joining in in protests, is it going to rallies, or do we need sort of a new technique at this point?
Parenti: Well, all of the above, and yes, some new things. Direct confrontations with policy makers, challenging what they’re saying. And also, [we need] the building of critical ideology. I mean, a lot of it really is an ideological battle. People are moved by ideas and notions, and ideas and notions come from words and information and such. So, to expose things and bring out things and challenge things is not simply a conversational thematic action. It’s a form of radical action. As an individual, there may not be all that much you can do, but if you link up with any number of very good groups that are trying to create a counter-consciousness, to challenge the one that we have, that makes things better and that makes things more difficult for them. They are limited. If they had their way, they would be paying no taxes and we’d be paying all…well, in fact that’s [almost] true. The corporations have got away [with that]. The rich too. They do pay some, way not enough. They would own the shirts off our backs; they would own everything. They would lend us the cars that we drive or something; I don’t know how to say it. And they are moving that way in Western Europe, its happening right there. They finally found a way to roll back social democracy, and they’re doing it. They call it austerity. They’re saying ‘this is what we have to do’. Well it’s your austerity. It’s on your back. ‘Us rich folk, we’re not suffering any austerity’. But this is something that they couldn’t do politically. They couldn’t do it back when. They had to make enormous concessions after World War Two to the working class. You had a red army right along the Elbe River. [There were] States in Eastern Europe where people were given [a] guaranteed right to a job. Free medical care, free education. Whatever you might say about the quality of some of those things, they still were getting these things. The working class in Western Europe had to be bought off and they were told ‘don’t worry’. In Western Europe, you had a huge communist party in France and Italy. You had really troublesome times, so they had to make all sorts of concessions.
This social democracy that you’ve seen in Western Europe was not something they were born with. Western Europe was [comprised of] third-world countries back in 1900, just like the United States was [at one time] a third-world country. [There was] high underemployment, typhoid epidemics in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Tenements, and people lived squalor, and overcrowded, and [they were] hopeless times. Labor won all those victories. Part of that was the threat of a competing system of such. So the ruling groups to turn around to their working classes and say, “Hey, look. You don’t have to vote Communist anymore. We’ll give you some health care, and we’ll give you a good health program, and we’ll give free education,” and so forth. Now, they don’t have to do any of that, and they’ve been trying to roll that back for quite a while and now they’ve found the way to do it. The way to do it is not trying to win right-wing parties in Parliament only – the way to do it is to take the contradictions, the self-destructive plunder of capitalism itself and beat the people over the head with it. Let them pay the costs of it. Let it come down on them. So they’re breaking things up and that’s why the Greeks were in the streets like that, and the Spaniards were, and people all over Europe were fighting. [It’s] because, piece by piece, they’re getting back to a free market capitalism of 1900. That is their goal. That is their passion. The only thing they want. There’s only thing they want, and that’s everything. They don’t want countries where the people have a high sense of entitlement, where the people have a high level of expectation about the decent life they and their children could and should live. They want you hungry, they want you desperate. They want you knuckling your forelock and ringing your cap, and toeing the turf and standing there and saying, “Yes sir. Yes sir. Oh, please hire me. Please sir. Oh yes, I’ll work at starvation wage. It’s the only job available.” That’s where they want us. They’re winning some very real victories over the last number of years, since Reagan and Thatcher as a matter of fact.
Evans: Well I think that’s a very accurate assessment of what’s going on Michael, and very timely given that this is the eve of May Day. Finally I just would like to give you the floor to let people know where [listeners] can read more of your work, the website, [or] anything else you’d want to get the word out about?
Parenti: My website is MichaelParenti.org. The most recent book [I wrote] is the one that you mentioned, ‘The Face of Imperialism’, which deals with a number of these questions that we’re talking about.
Parenti, M. (2011). The Face of Imperialism. Paradigm Publications: Brookline, Mass.
Parenti, M. (2012). Episode 13: The Corporate Plutocracy. Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast.
Parenti, M. (1991). The Make-Believe Media. Cengage Learning: New York, NY.
Roberts, D. (2013). Syria chemical weapons evidence ‘too degraded’ for proof. The Guardian. May 2 2013.
Parenti, M. (2013). Requiem for a Dominatrix. Michael Parenti Blog.
Obama: Margaret Thatcher was champion for freedom and women. Huffington Post. April 8 2013.
Lakhani, N. (2013). Margaret Thatcher: How much did The Iron Lady do for the UK’s women? The Independent. April 8 2013.
Lennard, N. (2013). Which police departments want drones? Salon.com, February 11 2013.
On this day, April 27 1945: Russians and Americans link at Elbe. BBC News.
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