Sunday, November 20, 2005

Propaganda 99

"The Chinese People's Liberation Army is the great school of Mao Zedong Thought"
 circa 1969
From Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages

We may find artwork such as the Mao poster to be amusing, and feel at least faintly proud that our government, here in the USA, does not publish things like that.  Those of you who are amused and faintly proud might be interested in this remedial course, Propaganda 99.

Probably all governments engage in propaganda.  Surely, any of the Administrations in the history of US government could be accused of such infractions.  To some extent, any communication from the government could be considered propaganda, but it would render the word meaningless to give it such a broad definition.  How, then, can we define propaganda, at least for the purposes of this essay?  Start with the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition:
Main Entry: pro·pa·gan·da
Pronunciation: "prä-p&-'gan-d&, "prO-
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin, from Congregatio de propaganda fide Congregation for propagating the faith, organization established by Pope Gregory XV died 1623

1 capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions
2 : the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3 : ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect
The M-W definition seems a bit weak, or at least insufficiently detailed; to understand the word fully, one must appreciate not only what the word strictly denotes, but also the connotations of the word.  Propaganda is understood generally to have a connotation of something underhanded, sneaky, improper, and insufferable.  In short, propaganda is wrong.  In some cases, it is an effort to influence people to agree with your opinions, without openely asking them to agree with you.  In that way, it is manipulative.

It may contribute to the understanding of propaganda, to examine closely the meaning of the term, manipulation.  Again, referring to Merriam-Webster, to manipulate means "to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage."  I would propose a different definition, again for the purposes of this essay: to manipulate is to attempt to influence another person's behavior without making a clear statement of intent to the person, and without giving them a clear and uncoerced opportunity to decline to cooperate.   As illustration, consider the following two statements:
  • Gee, the grass sure is getting long out there...
  • Honey, I think the grass is getting too long.  Would you please mow the lawn today?
from peaceposters.orgThe first statement is manipulative, albeit mildly so.  The second statement is different:  it is clear that the person making the request has an agenda to influence the listener's behavior, explains the rationale, and gives that listener a clear opportunity to accept or decline.  According to this definition, this site would not be a propaganda site, despite being designated as such here.  

In contrast, there are many examples of true propaganda, gleaned from recent headlines: Catapulting the Propaganda or Wagging the Dog?, Buying of News by Bush's Aides Is Ruled Illegal, George Bush's Leveraged Buyout of Social Security, The Man Who Sold the War, Former CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson Resigns, and The Office of Strategic Influence Is Gone, But Are Its Programs In Place?

Much of the art of living peacefully is the practice of the habit of avoiding manipulation.  Likewise, government in a democracy should be government by consent; manipulation has no place in a democracy.  It goes without saying that propaganda has no place in a democracy.

Of course, governments do what they do.  Once elected, politicians and their appointees behave as they please.  Citizens would be well advised to try to elect only persons who do not engage in propaganda.  Once the leaders are elected, those same citizens would be well advised to remain watchful for, and intolerant of, all efforts at propaganda.  Indeed, they would be well advised to resist all forms of manipulation.  This has two benefits.  For one, it helps keep the government in line, operating in a manner consistent with democratic principles.  Two, it helps citizens interact gracefully with each other.  

Source Watch, a site put up by The Center for Media and Democracy, has a nice collection of propaganda tactics here.  They also have a page, PR Watch, where they publish examples of propaganda.  Their blurb:
PR Watch, a quarterly publication of the Center for Media & Democracy, is dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry. It serves citizens, journalists and researchers seeking to recognize and combat manipulative and misleading PR practices. It specializes in blowing the lid off today's multi-billion dollar propaganda-for-hire industry, naming names and revealing how public relations wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phony 'grassroots' front groups, spy on citizens, and conspire with lobbyists and politicians to thwart democracy. We expose the hidden activities of secretive, little-known mega-firms such as Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller and Ketchum PR--the "invisible men" who control our political debates and public opinion, twisting reality and protecting the powerful from scrutiny.
This is good.  But they release their collections quarterly.  Bloggers can do much better, if only because examples taken from current events have a much greater emotional impact, and thus provide better illustrations for teaching purposes.  For example, The War Is Over, by Ron Beasley of Middle Earth Journal, dissects the use of the faux antiwar resolution in the US Senate, showing how it was essentially a propaganda ploy.

It has occurred to someone who thinks bigger than me that it might be useful to have a blog that performs such dissections on a daily basis.  That could be a lot of work, so I would like to invite anyone who is interested to let me know (joseph/dot/j7uy5/at-sign/gmail/dot/com) if they might be willing to contribute content.  Or just let me know if anyone would be interested in even reading such a thing.  If there is enough interest, I would set up the blog and give publishing permission to some selected individuals or groups.  It might be fun, as well as serving an educational purpose.  If I could get a half-dozen people, each person would have to write something about once per week to make it fly.  I would welcome input from all points in the political universe.  In fact, ideally it would include content from the right as well as the left.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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