Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#42, July 7, 1999


by Marylaine Block

While the bombs were dropping in Kosovo, I couldn't help thinking of Groucho Marx, caught in the act, saying, "Who're you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Remember the daily breathless reports about the anticipated arrival of the Apache attack helicopters which were going to do devastating pinpoint attacks on the Serb armies? Look! they've reached the staging area! Look! They're being used in training runs! (During which one of them crashed.)

Turns out the magic Apaches never got into the war at all. What happened to them? Did the public relations machine crash head on into reality?

It wouldn't be the first time the military PR machine was caught overstating our successes. Remember the Patriot missiles that sure seemed to be destroying Iraq's Scud missiles during the Gulf War, and were later found to have hit not a single one.

But the military is hardly the only one trying to convince us of the truth of things that never happened, and the falsity of what we saw with our own eyes. The name of the game is spin, and everybody does it.

What makes it easier for the spin artists is that we've been in training all our lives to believe spin and ignore the evidence of our senses. As kids, we were told that "sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me," by people who knew from their own experience that being called Pizzaface and Loser hurts a lot.

Ads keep promising their products will make us sexy and popular, and we keep right on buying them even though they never do the trick, and we are still stuck with being just our ordinary selves. We may be distrustful, but desperate hope keeps us willing to buy into the spin just one more time.

My generation, which grew up believing that government mostly did the right thing, was probably the last generation to be shocked when our government lied to us, about VietNam and Watergate. After years of spin and disappointment, we began to expect lies and hype. Republicans kept asking us why we weren't outraged about Clinton's lies; the answer may well be that by that time, our reaction was, "hey, he's a politician, he lied, so what else is new?"

Unfortunately, our cynicism hasn't made us immune to being suckered. It just meant that spinmeisters have had to get much, much better at altering our perceptions of reality.

Spin is the corporate response to widespread public distrust of genetically engineered foods. The dairy industry and the USDA assure us there's no difference between regular milk and milk produced with bovine growth hormone - but just to make sure we can't prove them wrong, they refuse to label the milk so we can tell which milk is which.

Holocaust denial has flourished because deniers ha've convinced the press the issue is not truth but fairness, and that to be fair, they must treat both sides in a conflict as equally valid, regardless of historical and scientific evidence.

Now public relations firms fight legislation their clients don't like by creating fake "grass roots" groups to convince legislators that the public doesn't support those laws (a practice known in the trade as astroturfing). The insurance industry set up groups like the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices to convince people that insurance reform would mean less health care and more bureaucracy. Philip Morris' homegrown Smokers' Alliance convinced legislators that taxing cigarettes to discourage teenage smoking was just a sneaky way for the government to pry more tax dollars out of our wallets.

How can we believe so many things that don't match our own perceptions and experience, let alone the data? Like that our own public schools are good but public education is a failure? That violent crime is skyrocketing when it's been steadily declining? That though we personally are better off than we were four years ago, most people are worse off?

That sure sounds like someone's hype machine has wormed its way past our cynicism and straight into our gut. Maybe that's because we have not yet learned to ask the key questions:

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