Politics & Policy

Propaganda Protection

Herb Meyer’s new essay is a great defense against indoctrination.

Many of us are seeing kids we care about — relatives, friends, neighbors, students — go off to high school or college this fall. Joyful occasions, mostly, but for many of us, there’s a sense of unease, too. We worry about the kind of ideological climate our kids — America’s kids — will be immersed in, and the kind of political indoctrination they’ll be subjected to, on almost any 21st-century American campus.

Of course, the broader society we live in is saturated with the same Left-elite propaganda. The mainstream media have been pushing it at these children of the Nineties since the day they were born. Happily, for most of that time, most of them weren’t listening. They were kids, focused — with all the self-absorbed intensity of youth — on people and events within their own small, concrete worlds. It didn’t matter too much, then, if the economic, political, and national-security news on the radios and TVs around them consisted of actual facts about America’s situation or Left-elite fantasy. Most of it sailed right over their heads, making no mental dent.

The cultural wing of the Left-elite propaganda machine had much better luck. A national debt in the trillions was — and still is — a boring abstraction to most kids. A parade of wildly provocative music-business superstars, drumming out loud, rhythmic endorsements of sex, drugs, and defiance, and most of them competing to outgross each other — now that’s a concrete, vivid youth attention grabber in spades. It made an impact on our kids that we could see, even before they understood the words.

The Left-elite’s political message got their attention later, but when it did, most kids embraced it at first, because it connected with their nascent political ideals. To paraphrase just a little, “Free goodies for everybody” appeals to the natural generosity of youth, and siding with “the poor and oppressed” against “rich exploiters” sounds brave and righteous. The good news, here, is that for many, their own experiences, in school and elsewhere, gave them hard-to-miss opportunities to develop and hone the realist’s essential armor: a healthy, “show me” brand of American skepticism.

We grown-ups — some of us, anyway — did our best to build on that skepticism in ways that would inoculate our kids against Left-elite distortions. We talked to them about contemporary politics and the nightly news, offering contrasting opinions on everything from global warming to riots in the streets to the dangers of a nuclear Iran. We did our best to go beyond opinions, trying to lay out some of the broader sets of facts that form the foundation for those opinions — facts about economics, foreign policy, and American and world history. Along the way, we filled in, as best we could, the gaping holes in the knowledge students of this generation were acquiring about the pre-21st-century world. Now, we’re hoping that our efforts — along with our kids’ essential decency, natural curiosity, and well-earned skepticism — have, in effect, vaccinated them against the Left-elite onslaught most of them will face on American campuses today.

Nonetheless, we worry, and with reason. The political propaganda most of our kids will be hit with on campus won’t be new, but the forceful omnipresence of it, in class and out, will be new, and unsettling, for many. And when political seduction doesn’t work, many campuses today have networks of professors, students, and outside special-interest groups that try to shame or intimidate those who resist into adopting politically correct views. Some will be swept up, for a while at least, succumbing to Left-elite fantasies about America’s problems and the things we must do to solve them. Many more will learn to hold their tongues to avoid being targeted by tenured bullies or student mobs.

They themselves — depending on how brave and/or prudent they are — may or may not have the experience of being shouted down with accusations like “racist” and “fascist.” Still, it’s unlikely that many will get to graduation time without seeing that happen to others with politically incorrect views not unlike their own. Here, the danger of being intellectually overwhelmed is matched by an opposite danger: the danger of growing so angry and cynical that their own thought processes become almost as ideologically rigid as those of their opponents, resulting in different sets of distortions about the world we share, but distortions nonetheless.

So what more we can do, at this late date, to protect our kids from both dangers and help them stay solidly grounded, intellectually and psychologically? I have a suggestion. Give them an anti-ideology booster shot by giving them a copy of How to Analyze Information, a deceptively simple eleven-page pamphlet by Herbert E. Meyer.

Herb Meyer knows a thing or two about analyzing information. In the 1980s, his analyses of data about the Soviet Union gave his boss, CIA director William Casey, the evidence he needed to tell his boss, Ronald Reagan, that the conventional wisdom about Soviet strength and stability was wrong. Presidents before Reagan had thought America had to settle for holding the line against Stalin’s heirs; they didn’t think any of us would live to see the whole Soviet structure come tumbling down. President Reagan dreamed of a Cold War victory from the start, but, unlike Left-elite dreamers, then and now, he was also a solidly grounded realist. That’s why he chose a tough, smart realist like Bill Casey to head the CIA, and tasked him with analyzing the data anew in order to give him a realistic assessment of Soviet economic strengths and weaknesses, and of the effects they had on the Soviet people and on the Kremlin’s ability to control them. Casey handpicked Meyer to assist him, and their analysis said, in essence, “The Soviets are weak and vulnerable enough to defeat, if enough American pressure is applied at the right points.” And President Reagan, to his everlasting credit, proceeded to do just that.

Meyer makes no mention of any of this in How to Analyze Information. In this short essay, he ignores politics, mostly, using instead homely, everyday-life examples to illustrate seven key steps we need to take in order to gather and analyze information in ways that will let us find the most accurate and relevant answers to our questions.

His seven steps are deceptively simple, too, and his examples more so, making them almost as clear to kids as young as 13 or 14 as they are to college students. In fact, they’re so simple that some critics disparage the whole essay as simple-minded. What these critics miss, I think, is the fact that most basic truths are simple and obvious — after the fact. They seem that way because when we apply them, they make sense of our experience, making whole groups of happenings fall into place so clearly that we can’t imagine we didn’t see the connections and patterns and grasp their implications before.

Meyer’s first step is my favorite: “You cannot make sense of information unless you know where you are when you look at it.” He follows this with two examples, a concrete geographical one, then one about placing yourself, accurately, in relation to others, academically and personally, at high-school graduation time. He concludes with this:

Until you know “where you are” you cannot make good use of the available information. That’s because you cannot know what specific information you’ll need next, or what the information you’ll be looking at when you get it will mean. So take the time to figure out “where you are” — literally or metaphorically — before moving on to the next step.

This is good advice. Kids who learn to see themselves and their own situations honestly and accurately will see other people and situations more clearly too. They will anchor themselves in reality in ways that make it harder for propagandists on any side to overwhelm them. Small wonder, then, that Left-elite propagandists usually skip this step entirely, or try to sell our kids a version of it that invents flattering facts and ignores inconvenient ones.

— Barbara Lerner is a frequent contributor to NRO.


The Latest