I saw an interesting comment earlier today, actually a quote by Joseph Goebbels, a name synonymous with the word propaganda. He said once;
"Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting of their own free will."
An exhortation, if any further were needed, to be profoundly suspicious of those who are unerringly confident to the point of the instant rejection of alternative points of view. In fact, I would say in most cases, people believe Goebbels invented or perfected propaganda as a tool for Adolf Hitler. And if you think that, you’d be wrong. In fact, if you believe that, you yourself are a victim of propaganda.
While Goebbels was an excellent student of the art and he used it with great effectiveness in Hitler’s Germany, he was in no way the inventor of the idea.
What exactly IS propaganda?
The dictionary gives the following information:
information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.: "he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda".
synonyms: information, promotion, advertising, publicity, spin, disinformation, counter-information, agitprop, info, hype, plugging, puff piece, the big lie
In thinking about early examples of propaganda I immediately thought of the Jewish leadership in the days of Jesus. Were their efforts of misinformation against Him, not propaganda? And then I thought of Adam and Eve in the garden. We know Satan as the “Father of Lies”- was his message to Eve not one of disinformation and enticement to act in a way she otherwise would not have acted? And I would be remiss if I did not remind you that Saul Alinsky dedicated his Rules For Radicals to Satan.
So, understanding that propaganda has been with us since the beginning perhaps we should have a better understanding of how it has been used in recent history and how we can combat its use against us.
To look at the modern use of propaganda we have to look before 1930s Germany. The use of posters is widely connected to early 20th-century propaganda, and this was certainly true in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Slogans and images were used to inspire the people and promote the efforts of the revolutionaries. Maybe this effort looks familiar, but more on that later.
In reality, what is propaganda if not advertising?
Born in Austria in 1891, Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, a fact he used to his advantage whenever possible. Brought to the US by his family at a very young age, he graduated from Cornell with a degree in agriculture. Unfortunately for the world, he would not go into farming.
Bernays had great success in both the political and commercial realms. While we will focus more on the political, his commercial successes were many. He promoted smoking as a glamorous and even healthy act for women during the 1920s- In a time of social change around women’s suffrage, it was portrayed as empowering “Torches of Freedom”, as Bernays dubbed them. While he was making Lucky Strike cigarettes appealing to the nation’s women, he was extremely dismayed that his own wife chose to smoke, destroying her cigarettes anytime he found them.
There was a highly successful campaign with the American Dental Association for public water fluoridation. We might find it hard to believe, but bacon used to be considered of little value, a cut of meat that was often discarded or the fat was rendered into lard. He made bacon and eggs a desirable meal, the “All American Breakfast”. A hairnet company hired Bernays to campaign for the “need” of hairnets and soon many government agencies required their use. Dixie cups also benefited from his campaign of disposable cups being more healthy than washing and reusing a glass. Proctor and Gamble profited from his touting the purity and floating of Ivory soap.
While we are used to advertisements that convince us we might “need” a product or service, what of government using the same methods to convince us we need and want certain behavior from our politicians and officials? As we look at the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916, the slogan “He kept us out of war” and “America First” were two that swept him back into office. Obviously, we did get into WWI, so how was that received after running on a platform of peace? Did you ever hear of Bernays idea, “Making The World Safe For Democracy”? Americans were sold on the idea that it was in our best interest to become involved.
Bernays efforts would be very similar to what we might call branding today. He turned the negative connotation of propaganda to what we now call public relations. In his book Propaganda, he asserted that public relations were a necessity, not just a gimmick.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
Bernays was Jewish, so we might imagine what he thought when he learned that Joseph Goebbels was using his method and writings in Hitler’s plans for the Jews of Europe. A foreign correspondent informed Bernays in 1933 of what the Nazis were doing with his work. Bernays later recounted this in his autobiography in 1965:
“They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”
It clear from his work and personal comments that Bernays placed financial gain and personal ideology over benefits and/or harm to the people and nation. It seems his object was simply to shape public opinion without regard to the end result.
What is interesting to me is that some of the most progressive thinkers on the 1940s saw the danger of Bernays. SCOTUS Justice Felix Frankfurter warned FDR about using him in any sort of leadership role in relation to WWII, outlining how he and his colleagues were
“professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism, and self-interest.”
Joseph Goebbels was not his only student.
In 1961, Ronald Reagan warned of the propaganda that would be used to promote socialized medicine, old people dying, poor people kicked to the curb. These were some of the arguments that brought about Social Security. A few years later we were given Medicare, in 1993 the effort by Hillary Clinton to go to single-payer health care and again with Obamacare. Rahm Emanuel was famous for his “Never let a crisis go to waste” comment and with good reason; a crisis is always a time when people are more susceptible to having their thoughts managed and directed in a desirable direction.
Today, we are bombarded from every direction by propaganda, and in many cases -as it was last century- some people are becoming exceedingly wealthy in the process of manufacturing reality. For instance the Global Warming/Climate Change hoax/lie/fake news. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.” How does this tie in with all the surveillance, data collection and data retention programs are in place to keep us safe and protect us from terrorism?
Charges of racism, homophobia, class warfare and misogyny are all terms of propaganda used and intended to marginalize and demean. It is impossible to have an honest discussion and debate on the issues when one side makes every effort to shut off the debate with false charges.
Was 9/11 a "crisis that should not be wasted"? It brought us FISA courts, The Patriot Act, NDAA added many provisions, TSA, Homeland Security -all put in place for our security and in most cases, we readily accepted it all.
If you think there is a significant difference between the left and right in American politics, you are a victim of propaganda. Both want the government to control the people, they might disagree as to what degree, but neither believes in Constitutional liberty. They’ll pay lip service to supposed wrongdoings, talk of rogue agencies and bureaucrats, yet neither side suggests arrest, indictment, and trial. And we have not addressed the memes and such that permeate social media, often intended to inspire and motivate. In this case, we do it to ourselves!
What is a citizen to do? How can we combat this insidious cancer?
Education, if you dare. If we don’t make an effort to learn, we will be treated like sheep and mushrooms, and deserve it. Allow yourself to be open to reality, facts and truth. We often are prevented from moving forward by confirmation bias...we only read and follow things that enforce our preconceived ideas. Truth has no agenda, none of us is 100% right all the time. Our bodies need physical nourishment, we don’t fast for extended periods of time, why do we fast from feeding our knowledge pool?
As you can see from the history of propaganda, we cannot simply read articles or reports and expect we have the full story, all the facts. It would be nice if we could do as Detective Joe Friday of Dragnet did and ask for, “Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts”. As a writer and researcher, I can attest that finding the truth is no easy task, but the search is well worth the effort.