Saturday, December 23, 2017

Media manipulation in Romero's time

I just finished a great biography of Archibishop Oscar Romero, which I mentioned briefly in a prior blog post.  I just wanted to share a few highlights that really struck me.

I have long been worried that we seem to be in an era that is different from all prior ones in terms of how media has become so effective at manipulating public opinion, to the point that what is good is labeled bad, and vice versa.  To my thinking, it was as if we had come to a sort of epistemological end times in which even factually incorrect or morally abhorrent arguments could be framed and defended as being true and noble.  I even wrote a blog post in which I mused that the right-wing dictatorships of 1980s Latin America would have done better to simply spin their enemies into submission, instead of making them martyrs.

You can imagine then my surprise to find that Archibishop Romero had in fact been subjected to a vicious and ingenious spin campaign, not instead of but in addition to the very real violent repression.  It heartened me to some extent, first off to know that this trend I was seeing as unprecedented had in fact been deployed before, and secondly to see that it hadn't been that effective in the long term (though perhaps it is more effective in an age when we are so removed from direct contact with the world that a mass of people regard propaganda as being more real than reality itself).

Anyway, here are some amazing examples.  Just a month into his possession as archbishop, when Romero was really still trying not to offend the oligarchy too much, he was assailed by full-page ads taken out in the newspapers, and attributed to non-existent religious-sounding groups like the "Association of Catholic Women".  They even published a prayer for the exorcism of evil from the archbishop's soul, accusing him of sedition and incitation to violence.  This from the death squads that were massacreing unarmed civilians left and right!  There was a weekly magazine created for the express purpose of criticizing the Archbishop's sermons and actions.  Again, this only a few months into his term as archbishop, when he was still very equivocal in his political positions.  This magazine routinely referred to him as Monsenor Marxnulfo Romero (his real middle name was Arnulfo).  It was distributed for free in large companies and factories, and even government offices.  I can only imagine that there must have been an entire misinformed mass of working-class people who accepted these assertions at face value and sided with the murderous oligarchy.

A few years later, a group of his fellow bishops sent a letter to the Vatican accusing Monsenor Romero of being manipulated by Marxists and guerrillas.  This letter claimed that the plague of murders of priests had not been in fact carried out by government-allied death squads, but rather by their own guerrilla comrades, who suspected them of treason.  And the government orchestrating the violence was portrayed as a helpless victim, unable to ensure order because of the instability sown by Romero.

From there it got worse, with frequent (false) reports of the Archbishop's death on national news, as a tactic to intimidate him, and finally the reading of a list by the head of state repression, that placed Archbishop Romero as number two among public figures who had been infected by Communism and needed to be purged.

The last thing I wanted to share from this book is a line that I really liked.  In early 1980 (two months before he was murdered), "imminent civil war was in the air, and Monsenor Romero refused to accept these omens, more as a question of duty than for well-founded reasons; in effect, when all rational evidence is exhausted, hope remains an ethical obligation."  I have recently felt that hopefulness is the only right attitude to assume in many contexts, even when it is unrealistic, so it was nice to read such a reflection from a much nobler mind than my own.

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