News of My Disappearance Has Been Mildly Exaggerated

To those of you who have written to ask or have been wondering in silence the answer is, yes, the combination of finishing a dissertation while planning for a cross-country move and a new job and also welcoming another son into my family (born in the living room, no less) has ground to a halt what little was left of my bloggy momentum. There is, though, a piece of mine in the latest New Atlantis in which I offer a Burkean’s lament over the death of conventional wisdom, focusing on – what else? – the science and pseudo-science of food, as well as a review in the November TAC of Susan Brewer’s Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, which I liked quite a lot. I was, however, quite frustrated by Brewer’s unwillingness to face down the consequences of her research for the traditional hagiography of one Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

Least satisfying of all is Brewer’s claim—made in both the introduction and the conclusion, and in each case entirely without argument—that even deceitful state propaganda can be tolerable if the cause is sufficiently noble. Brewer notes at the start that she believes World War II—“a legitimate war,” she calls it—fits this billing. She supplements this diagnosis with her attempt to distinguish the “censorship, exaggeration, and lies” relied on by the likes of the Bush administration from the “strategy of truth” adopted by FDR. But the facts make it hard to sustain such an interpretation: from Brewer’s own account, Roosevelt lied to the public about his intended policies as he ran for a third term in 1940, censored news reports that were deemed insufficiently optimistic, and of course sent 180,000 Japanese Americans to concentration camps. (“Pioneer communities” was the official term.) Even the truth-telling strategy Brewer champions was itself an advertising move, based on the recognition that “too much salesmanship” on the part of the Office of War might turn people off, while more “straightforward and practical” instructions on what to do and believe would “regain public confidence in official propaganda.” If the cartoonish film and poster campaigns of the Wilson administration are the point of comparison, then the Iraq War’s salesmen come off rather well, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that in each case the public was being dishonestly sold a war by men who would barely have to sacrifice, much less fight and die, to implement their preferred policies.

All of which raises some natural questions: Are there circumstances in which state officials are permitted to lie, suppress non-strategic facts, or otherwise distort the truth in the service of an official agenda can be licit? If so, what circumstances are those? And more generally, what sorts of threats might be posed to a democracy by its government’s ability to exploit its inherent authority by functioning as a sort of advertising agency for itself?