“This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature [or form]? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VIII – 11
“All war is deception.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
As previously discussed, “we need to differentiate between the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’. Strategy is defined in relevant part by Webster’s as ‘the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war’. Tactics, by contrast, is defined in relevant part by Webster’s as ‘the art or skill of employing available means to accomplish an end’ and ‘the study of the grammatical relations within a language including morphology and syntax’. By better understanding the tactics of propagandists, you not only gain a certain degree of immunity from their influence, but insight into their strategic ends.”
Today we will address strategy and tactics in the form of a case study. The context is the so-called “War on Drugs” and state’s efforts to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use. The strategy is to exacerbate so called drug crime violence by obliquely attacking the burgeoning states effort to legalize marijuana and those who trade in legal marijuana by deliberately putting them at risk. The primary tactic in question is misdirection. When analyzing propaganda, it’s important to ask who brings the message, what do they want me to think, why do they want me to think it and how do they benefit? The leader of this campaign against the American people? United States Attorney General Eric Holder. Let’s examine the what, why and who benefits from what Mr. Holder wants you to think.
“Darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it is simply its absence.” – Terry Pratchett
As we’ve previously discussed in the Propaganda Series, The Sound of Silence, propaganda is not always language or images. Sometimes it is the lack of words. It is just as important to “listen to what is not said” as it is to “listen to what is said”. Sometimes though, propagandists try to time travel. They employ a tactic in an attempt to change the present by attempting to change the past. I say “attempt” for reasons that will be clear soon enough.
When a propagandist tries to pull off this particular trick, they don’t need a fancy machine or a black hole or a magic potion as is the staple trope of science fiction and fantasy time travel. They need nothing more complicated than a pen or a typewriter. In the present, a word processor and some basic HTML coding skills will serve that purpose. Maybe Photoshop or GIMP. When a propagandist tries to change the present by changing the past, they don’t call it time travel. No. They don’t call it anything, because they really hope you don’t notice what they are doing. Silence will work often, but they are not above a bit of misdirection. Well executed propaganda does, after all, have much in common with stage magic.
When we citizens and media consumers catch their slight of hand, we don’t call it time travel either. We call it historical revisionism. Just this week, the Obama Administration was caught red-handed doing precisely that in relation to the Edward Snowden case.
One of the key concepts of advertising is “get ’em while they’re young”. Building brand loyalty in a child can make for a lifelong customer. The same adage applies to propaganda. Young minds are impressionable. There was valid psychology behind the Nazi’s formation of the Hitler Youth. Just so, there is valid psychology behind the production of war toys. When you teach children that American military might is always right (as well as hours of fun!) and that violence is not only an acceptable but the preferred method of dispute resolution, they are getting the message. You don’t see a lot of “Ambassador” or “Diplomat” toys. The G.I. Joe toys and plastic Army men of my youth were little more than jingoistic bits of plastic designed to give children the chance to vicariously be a “real American hero” without the trauma psychological and physical that we all eventually learn usually accompanies being an actual war hero in real life. Continue reading “Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Child’s Play”→
Upon the suggestion of long time and valued blog contributor James in LA, this column on “Zero Dark Thirty” and the controversy surrounding that film is offered as a supplement to the earlier entry in the series on propaganda,”Propaganda 102: Holly Would and the Power of Images“. It is in part movie review and in part a critical examination of the film’s content as related to the controversy around whether or not this film is pro-torture propaganda. Thank you for the excellent suggestion, James!
Is “Zero Dark Thirty” (ZDT) a good film? Is ZDT propaganda? If so, is it pro-torture propaganda (i.e. does it support or promote the idea of torture as a valid and/or necessary intelligence gathering methodology)? Let us examine these questions . . .
Mythology can be seen as the social glue of diverse groups. It is the accumulation of tales, beliefs, moral strictures and mores that gives a specific population a sense of homogeneity, allowing it to exist with synergy. This is true of nations, ethnic groups, religions and even political movements. One of the defining conditions in our nation is that we are one of the most diverse on this planet when it comes to religions and ethnicities. All of our original thirteen states came into existence via individual peculiarities of settlers, religious sects, slavery, climate and the spoils system of colonialism. About a third of the citizens of those thirteen colonies, of the nascent United States, chafed under foreign domination and engendered a rebellion against the British Empire’s exploitation. Among that fractional populace, there fortunately resided a group of the colonies wealthiest citizens and greatest minds. The rebellion succeeded and a decade later a government emerged created by the novelty of a Constitution delineating how it was to be run.
As improbable as the rebellion against the world’s greatest power might have seemed, the ongoing success of this enterprise is even more of an improbability. From the beginning most citizens saw themselves as attached more to their individual states, than to the Federal Government. The subsequent history of this country is well-known, but what I think often gets missed is that the history as we know it is mostly a creation of an American mythology, which has given consistency to this diverse enterprise and served to inculcate waves of immigrants into seeing themselves as part of America. While a nation’s mythology may serve it as “social glue” it can also contain within it seeds of social dysfunction. What follows is my take on the American Myth of the “Rugged Individualist” and why though it may have had initial utilitarian value; it has become cancerous within our country and may lead to the disintegration of America as we know it. Continue reading ““Rugged Individualism””→
“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, VI, 21.
Anyone who has read my work here or known me for any length of time has heard me use this quote before. It is more than just a pithy quote from one of the great Stoic minds of antiquity, it is a summation of one of my personal ethics. Earlier this week, Professor Turley posted an item about former President Bill Clinton entitled “Clinton: We Don’t Need A President Who Will Not Tell You The Truth“. The gist of the article was that a President who lied under oath as Clinton did most certainly didn’t need to be critical of other politicians lying as it was simple hypocrisy even if the point former President Clinton made was valid. This brings us to a prime and necessary component of the propaganda scenario, the liar. Lying is a commonality in our species. Everyone lies about something some time. “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat, honey.” “I was ambushed by baboons on the way to work this morning.” “I can’t go out tonight because I have to stay home and wax my dog.” Or the classic . . .
These are not the lies that are of primary importance in propaganda. White lies, while not necessarily ethically the best thing in the world, are a social lubricant that helps keep society cohesive. If everyone told the truth about everything all the time, the homicide and suicide rates would probably sky-rocket. We are going to focus on the truly bad actors. The liars in propaganda who are looking to get you to do something they want that is usually not in your best interests and/or harmful to others. Since many dangerous liars are sociopaths or psychopaths, the question becomes how do you spot a liar, a sociopath or a psychopath? First we start with how to spot a generic liar before considering how to spot socio- and psychopaths at a later date.
As mentioned in the last installment of this series, silence in various forms can be just as potent a propaganda tool as words or images proper. Variations of this tactic were presented as were examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at its utilization. This last week a news story appeared that illustrates one of the major types of failure associated with this tactic and it is one that is every more likely and hard to avoid in the Information Age. This type of failure is known colloquially as the Streisand Effect; whereby an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.
Named for singer Barbra Streisand, it is a modern term for an old phenomena. Similar to the meme of “Banned in Boston”, it revolves around the idea that forbidden fruit is the most tempting and that banning or censoring something often makes that item or information more desirable. Babs got her name attached to this propaganda phenomena when in 2003 she attempted to suppress photographs of her residence and inadvertently generated further publicity. This publicity was notably “improved” – although if you’re Babs you might say “exacerbated” – by the World Wide Web.
“Silence is argument carried out by other means.” – Che Guevara
“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.”
– “The Sound of Silence”, by Simon & Garfunkel, lyrics by Paul Simon
“Darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it is simply its absence.” – Terry Pratchett
“In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.” – Henry David Thoreau
Just as darkness is the absence of light, silence is an absence. We’ve considered the word and the image as propaganda up to this point, so let us pause to consider their antithesis as a form of propaganda. The phrase “[t]he only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is often attributed to 18th Century Irish born English statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, although what he actually wrote in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents was that “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Regardless of the apocryphal attribution, the quote goes right to the heart of the issue of silence being a form of propaganda. Like most tactics of propaganda, silence has multiple forms and uses. Let us examine some of these variations on a theme.
“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.” – Sigmund Freud
“One man’s ‘magic’ is another man’s engineering. ‘Supernatural’ is a null word.” – Robert A. Heinlein
Words are magic . . . or so it seems. Words can make people change their minds. Words can make others take actions even against their own best interests. Words can shape the world, determine the fate of nations and people, create and destroy. However, as Robert Heinlein noted, one man’s magic is another man’s engineering and in the modern world, propaganda is the most engineered form of communication possible.
Magica verba est scientia et ars es.
The magic of words is science and art.
The science is in the methodology and psychology of execution. The art is in making the message appealing. This is the essence of rhetoric. How is this so? Let us first consider the methodologies of propaganda as a form of rhetoric before we look at the psychology behind these tactics. Although the psychology applies to both negative (black), positive (white) and value neutral (grey) uses of propaganda, in the context of this portion of the discussion, the word “propaganda” should be viewed with its maximum possible negative value load, i.e. the kind of bad propaganda designed to get you to act against your best interests or to harm others. Why? Because many of these tactics favored modern political polemicists are rooted in logical fallacies and outright lies. Knowing “snakes” as a category isn’t as useful as knowing “pit vipers” as a sub-category when the survival of the species can be at stake so we’ll consider the dangerous kinds of propaganda first. Why? Because if you treat all snakes like they are dangerous, then you are less likely to get bitten.
“I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out” – Katherine Dunn
“Until it is kindled by a spirit as flamingly alive as the one which gave it birth a book is dead to us. Words divested of their magic are but dead hieroglyphs.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
We return to the word; our most basic element of communication. The written word is naturally an extension of the spoken word. At the beginning of civilization, all propaganda was the spoken word. The primary limiting effect on the spread of ideas was the size of audience within hearing range of the speaker. Then came the image, the structure and written word. They had greater value in spreading ideas because of their inherently static nature. With the invention of paper and other portable means of propagating words and images, ideas were no longer tied directly to the speaker. The content was static, but the medium of exchange mobile. The primary limiting effect was the ability to reproduce these works manually by scribes and artisans combined with literacy in the ancient world being a comparative rarity.
Graphic art such as posters, paintings and film can be and often are considered works of art. Can propaganda using these mediums be considered art? Propaganda posters are considered art by many and in the design industry “propaganda” is considered a style all its own. Consider these examples and decide if you think they constitute art as well as propaganda.
Join the Turley Force as we discuss yet another facet of propaganda!
In the beginning, there was the word. And when addressing propaganda, the word was either persuade or coerce. This is the essential nature of propaganda: to change (or re-enforce if you are already sympathetic) your mind on a particular issue. As the first article showed, the most basic tool of propaganda is connotation/implication. Before venturing into the depths of the lingua tactical of propaganda, I thought it might be useful to illustrate some non-verbal and indirect methods of propaganda.
First we must realize that propaganda is the cultivation of an image. An image that relies upon idea(s) the speaker wants associated with certain people, organizations or actions. To that end, propaganda is essentially image control: seeking to create mental associations in the viewer be they emotional or rational and spreading that image/association through out a given populace. Keep in mind that literacy was for the bulk of human history limited to specialists such as scribes and/or the upper class who could afford education.
Very few people in the ancient world could read, but most of them could see. What better way to communicate the power of those who run a society to those who cannot read than by using a non-verbal symbol to send a message? Perhaps a symbol like a great building or monument. Something that says “we’re here, this is what we are about, this is our place and look what we can do” to the great unlearned masses. This form of propaganda is also as old as civilization. You could argue that it is older than modern civilization, stretching back to the late Neolithic period.
Originally, I drafted this article with a preface about the story Michael Hastings recently broke on BuzzFeed about an amendment to the latest defense authorization bill that would “legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences.” However, as I worked on it this morning, our very own poet laureate and research librarian extraordinaire Elaine Magliaro cut me off at the pass with her own excellent article on the subject. So instead of repeating the points she makes which illustrate why understanding propaganda is important, I will refer you to her post “How about Some Government Propaganda for the People Paid for by the People Being Propagandized?”
Now that the kid gloves have come off regarding the governmental efforts to control your mind by controlling both your information and how you receive it, let’s discuss the nature of propaganda. Now more than ever, it is important to know the basics of how propaganda works. Since words are the basic building block of the English language, we’ll start with asking what is propaganda, look at some general history of the practice, consider the importance of meaning of words, the ideas of connotation and denotation, and the process of selecting “value loaded” words.