7 Replies to “Propaganda? Not in the West!

  1. Didn’t propaganda start out as a neutral term? Wasn’t it supposed to simply describe the best way of getting a message out to the largest number of people in the quickest time? But then it became an odious term in the 20th century for obvious reasons.

    And I would say that the existence of propaganda signals that a society has reached a level of mass participation previously denied i.e. that previous ages had their ideology e.g. the divine right of kings, the “superiority” of the British taken for granted whilst they were carving out their empire. But the fact is that these ages did not permit much participation from the masses. It was only when the masses opinion became a potent thing, that various groups found it necessary to try to appeal to these masses.

    Similarly, a true totalitarian state would not need propaganda. If the ruling group has absolute political power over its subjects, then why would the rulers care what the subject think? The subjects would know they were enslaved and powerless. It is only when they actually have (at least potential) power that there is a need for propaganda.

    And one of the vital requirements of propaganda is a keen insight into the prejudices of the masses. That is why, according to one writer I can no longer recall, propaganda has nothing to do with changing people’s opinions. To try to effect such a change would be to try and appeal to people on a conscious level, it would be a laborious thing, it may not work, and even if it did, it may not achieve what was truly desired – which is to mobilise the mass e.g. by getting them to vote for a candidate, buy a product, go on a march etc. No, you have to know beforehand what the mass wants i.e. what the common prejudices are etc.

    (Which can lead to some amusing efforts cf. Tory participants on the old “Have I Got News For You” trying to appeal to “the kids” and one Teddy Taylor revealing that he was a real groovy Bob Marley fan!)

    • I’m not sure when ‘propaganda’ became a dirty word, though opinion manufacturers do a sterling job of keeping us from applying it to the advertising which assails us 24/7.

      Forty years ago I was an adult education teacher working on a project with a retired headmaster on a course aimed at unemployed steelworkers. “And how shall we propagandise it?” he asked. I was surprised by the neutral way he used the term, not as a pejorative but as a practical measure without which our efforts must surely fail.

      The art of propaganda appears to consist of (a) identifying the hearts’ desires of a target audience, (b) placing these – usually subliminally – at the heart of efforts to sell us a new car or their chap for the Oval Office, (c) leaving us convinced we arrived at purchasing decisions/political opinions all by ourselves!

      Don Draper: “we don’t sell folk on products; we sell them on dreams”

      Or, which is the same thing, on the avoidance of nightmares.

      • Perhaps propagandists are often – or usually – taken in by their own propaganda. Or am I being hypocritical? We all want to get our own messages out there.

        One of the most astonishing things about the seminal Bernays book on the subject is that the author makes the implicit assumption from the very start that “democracy” automatically means guidance from the elite.

        I’ve also pondered on how Malthus’s economic views played into the needs of capital with such brutal logic. He said, Don’t feed the poor because it makes it worse even for them. Thus, did he shamelessly play on that natural compassionate urge to justify a monstrous programme that served the rising capitalists well. Indeed – he was indispensable to them. Like Bernays, Malthus was a ferociously efficient perpetrator of the needed ideology.

        But I used the word ideology to describe supposedly pre-propagandist times! Well – in a Hegelian sense, it’s difficult to separate the strands out!

        • Perhaps propagandists are often – or usually – taken in by their own propaganda.

          Don’t they have to be? The depraved baddie – Dick Dastardly revelling in his love of evil – is the stuff of caricature. (A comic example is Mark Heap as Robert Greene in Ben Elton’s sublime Upstart Crow.)

          In reality we homo sapiens appear hard wired to think of ourselves – with occasional descent into self loathing, itself often narcissistic – as Good. To get our eight hours a night we massage away any shortfall between that perception, and what we actually get up to. This is surely why cynicism usually gives rise to stupidity.

          Or as a pal who worked in advertising once put it to me: “lying begets credulity”.

          But perhaps Upton Sinclair most succinctly nailed it.

          It’s hard to get a man to see a truth his salary depends on him not seeing.

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