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Why Do You Think They Call It “Propaganda”?

Everybody’s talking about it. The White House spent $3.2 million on one minute of Super Bowl to run two ads that link illegal drug use to terrorism. The ads, which splice brief confessionals with big white words, are dark, spare, exquisitely controlled, created for the White House by high-style British director Tony Kaye (American History X). But their message is so bizarre you might suspect the groovy-and-goateed Kaye of playing a trick on his clients — inventing a propaganda campaign that works against itself.

On the other hand, does drug czar John P. Walters genuinely hold drug addicts responsible for terrorism? When House Speaker and Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert floated the drug-terrorism connection in the fall, Hastert had forgotten that, if drugs were decriminalized, they wouldn’t be trafficked by criminals. But that’s hardly the point. Nor is it relevant that 80 percent of methamphetamine is made right here in California, nor that the Taliban slowed opium production in Afghanistan. A responsible national drug program should be preoccupied with getting people off drugs, and even Walters must know that associating drugs with terrorism will dissuade no one from getting high. Linking drugs to terrorism serves only one end: to impress upon the public a primitive fear that illegal-drug profits fund terrorism. It does not matter how many people ridicule these ads; the idea will propagate without public consent. It works on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. It galvanizes fear. It frames the debate. It puts treatment advocates on the defensive side of an absurd fight. And the more the opposition complains about this high-priced campaign, the more the idea gets aired.

Scientist and philosopher Richard Dawkins would call this a powerful meme. Speechwriters know well how memes work; I suspect Republican pollster Frank Luntz even uses the word, with grudging respect for Rutgers University’s department of memetics. “Contract With America” was a good meme; so was “kinder, gentler America.” “Axis of Evil” sounds blockheaded, but it will be a long time before the countries it connotes will lose the connotation. Propaganda memes have proved especially efficient in anti-drug campaigns. “Just Say No” was an obviously pointless slogan, but it worked its simple-minded way firmly into the vernacular. We may understand that addiction is a complicated problem. We may wish that Bush would be wise like Richard Nixon and appoint a doctor to oversee his drug policy. But the tight-lipped disapproval still resonates. Why can’t addicts “Just Say No?”

And why do you think they call it “dope”?

The drug war continues to be a convenient campaign for an ambitious administration, not least because it keeps ordinary people under siege, giving law enforcement an excuse to tap phones without too much argument. But for now, opponents of the drug war will be too busy railing against the notion that terrorists get their money from drug pushers to accomplish too much else.