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Visiting professor speaks on 'Topplegate'

Stuart Ewen's starting point was the picture of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling in Iraq, an event he called "topplegate." He then showed slides of Iraqis kissing Marines at the event.

But wait, "none of these people were citizens of Baghdad," Ewen said, citing information by alternative media reporter Ted Rall. The jubilant Iraqis were members of the United States-based Iraqi National Congress, whose leader Ahmed Chalabi stands a chance of being the next president of Iraq.
Visiting professor speaks on 'Topplegate'
Visiting professor speaks on 'Topplegate'
Visiting professor speaks on "Topplegate"

By MATTHEW VAN DUSEN Star-Tribune staff writer Sunday, April 27, 2003
 http://www.casperstartribune.net/articles/2003/04/27/news/casper/5e71ac71c5a3ea5263ee00209d7d4380.txt

Stuart Ewen, who gave the Demorest lecture at Casper College Thursday night, looks like the New York academic type.

Actually, he doesn't. But based on that description, or maybe his mug shot, people can extrapolate his attitude toward any number of issues and develop emotional responses to him. And that was the point of his talk.

Ewen, a professor at Hunter College in New York City, was speaking as part of the College's Humanities festival called Manufacturing Consent: The Media, Spin and Public Opinion.

His thesis was that "the use of images may in fact pose a threat to the democracy we claim to be defending."

His starting point was the picture of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling in Iraq, an event he called "topplegate."

He then showed slides of Iraqis kissing Marines at the event.

But wait, "none of these people were citizens of Baghdad," Ewen said, citing information by alternative media reporter Ted Rall.

The jubilant Iraqis were members of the United States-based Iraqi National Congress, whose leader Ahmed Chalabi stands a chance of being the next president of Iraq.

About the time of "topplegate," he noted, American companies Bechtel Corporation and Halliburton were landing lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq.

"Topplegate" was a staged event to mask the fact that, while Iraqis weren't fond of Hussein -- a terrible man, Ewen said -- they also do not want an American occupation.

From there, Ewen went into the history of controlling public opinion, and people generally, through images.

He referred back to Gustave LeBon, a 19th Century French thinker who was concerned that the old means of controlling the people, such as religion and the monarchy, were losing power.

LeBon concluded that the "crowd," or regular citizens, thought in images, particularly emotional ones. This happens, in part, because people think of photographs as actual traces of reality.

One images, however, evokes another, not necessarily connected to the first. LeBon and others after him concluded the public could be made to follow a series of loosely connected images and have a set emotional response,

Ewen gave an example: "Plane flies into World Trade Center; Osama bin Laden."

Or, in the first case, the picture of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling amidst cheering crowds implies a justified war. The images and the emotions they provoke take the place of real discussion about whether the Iraqi people actually welcome the United States military.

This is a well-developed form of social control, he said, that is tied in to most aspects of our lives.

"The power of suggestion can be integrated into communication itself," he said.

Unfortunately, that is the way the mass media and advertising function and Ewen sees a big problem with that. It also leads him to ask:

"Can you have a democracy in a society where the calculated inducement of experience has taken the place of public discourse?"

The lecture led one audience member to ask why the techniques of persuasion have not been used more effectively by progressive movements, such as environmentalists.

Ewen answered, in part, "orchestrating reality is a very expensive thing to do and you need enormous resources at your disposal."

He went on to say the educational system should also teach children about images and how they might be used to influence causes both bad and good.

People "need to move beyond self-flagellation about publicity" and use it to their benefit, he said.

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