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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Brainwashing is easy
I just finished reading Peter Maass's book Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. Written in 1996, it describes Maass's experience as a Washington Post reporter during the Bosnian war in the early 1990's. The book is excellent, in a massively depressing sort of way. I was particularly struck by these paragraphs:

When the votes were counted, the [Serbian] Socialist Party had picked up twenty-two additional seats in Parliament. Milosevic's remarkable success had nothing to do with slick propaganda--the stuff was crude and badly produced. Dead bodies, stiff anchormen, more dead bodies, more stiff anchormen. It would be tempting to conclude that he succeeded in brainwashing Serbs, and succeeded with such ease, because Serbs were stupid and backward (and very different from us). The theory would appear to be supported by the fact that the war in Bosnia was so despicable that, as any outsider knew, only a nation of mildly retarded people could be conned into waging it. But this notion would be wrong. The propaganda succeeded because it imparted a clear, Reaganesque message: Milosevic was defending Serbs who lived outside Serbia, and defending Serbia itself from the Islamic-Ustashe dangers lurking at its borders. Simple, clean, effective. Serbs swallowed it. In a similar situation, so might we.

I sought guidance from Milos Vasic at Vreme magazine. The wall above his desk was papered with cartoons, one of which showed a map on which America was identified as "the United States of Serbia," and the caption said, "What's Serbian pacifism? Greater Serbia to the Pacific!" Vasic was a master at exposing the lies of nationalists and the conceits of foreigners, and he had a standard response when asked for the secret behind Milosevic's brainwashing success: "You must imagine a United States with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line--a line dictated by David Duke. You too would have war in five years."