21st Century Propaganda #1: Pickled In It
“The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment.” Propaganda – Jacques Ellul
Things are getting weird out there. Although maybe by ‘out there’ I mean ‘in here’, in that moment when a reader slides eyes across these digital screens and then following that comes a reaction. And yet what happens in this cyber world (Does anyone use the word ‘cyber’ anymore? Or ‘virtual’? Has it all started to seem like actuality now?) has serious ramifications across the real globe. (But is it a globe anymore? Maybe the flatness of our screens has finally created what we mistakenly believed about the ancient people, that they, the ignoramuses!, actually believed the world was flat. But for us it is! This map of contextual geographies is now blindly being accepted for reality. But whose?) So yes, things are getting weird in here, and in turn out there. And people seem to be walking around in a concussed daze. And everyone has their pet theories as to whom is the culprit, which group, what viewpoint, which Weltanschauung, which bunch of absolute evil idiots is responsible for the state of this exhausted mind-numbing gut-wrenching time we live in.
Now if you’ve been following my words at all for the last few years you’ll realize that I rarely touch directly upon what be could construed as political topics. This isn’t an accident. I certainly have opinions on many issues. Some may even be correct on some level. But it is not my wish to add to the chaos of noise emanating from the glow of these screens. I also believe that most what passes for political opinion in these days is not politics in any good sense of the word. If I don’t think all of the hot topic issues of the day aren’t by and large politics then what do I think all of this palaver is? That, my friends, is the what I am intending to write about here, to try to elucidate. If possible, and mostly it is not. What passes for political opinions these days is predominantly Propaganda. And I am not using that phrase in its standard usage, which comes across as “The lies they tell, versus the truths we know.” I have other fish to fry. In fact were going to cook up the whole lot. Let’s make a meal out of them. Not only the lies they tell but also the ‘truths’ we believe, whomever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are. So I warn you if it seems like I’m coming after your beliefs it’s because I am.
Now before I get started with this subject, and so that you don’t suspect that what I’m really trying to do is some clever form inverted propaganda to subvert your ideas while pumping up mine, let me put my own cards on the table so that you know where I stand and you can see when I’m going after my own folk.
First of all I am a Christian. What kind? Neither fundamentalist nor liberal. Hopefully a Christian in line with the historical faith and brain intact. Next… politically? Extremely independent. I can safely say no party represents my thinking. I wouldn’t mind if there were. But I’m not going to put a checklist here of hot topics and where I fit in. But trust me I’m all over the map. Yet even that is a complete oversimplification. If I ever write directly about some pet subject you’ll know. And who knows maybe I’ll spill a few mung beans here and see if they sprout. I generally shy away from any party politics and the demonization of ‘them’. Which of course is the point of this whole series on propaganda.
I’ve lived in Hawaii as a child, in California in the San Francisco Bay Area as a teen, in New York City during my 20s and 30s and finally in Alaska for my 40s and 50s. Plus I’ve spent quality time in Europe from England and France through Switzerland, Poland and all the way to Georgia. And so my view point is shaped by all of these environments. Plus I’ve been researching popular music and film culture since the 70s. I’ve hung out with Jesus people, hippies, punks, vets, pomo-hipsters, conservative Christians, Asians, Europeans, etc. etc. Needless to say I do not have simplistic opinions. I’m not saying that to brag. I’m saying it so that you, the reader, know that I am not going to have an obvious set of dogmas to respond with if you wish to ask questions.
So let’s get down to business here.
The first thing we have to get is a working definition of Propaganda. As I mentioned above, the standard way people seem to think about propaganda is as the ‘lies they tell versus the truths we know’. I have a CD of the influential Noam Chomsky talking seriously about propaganda, corporate propaganda, big biz manipulation. Somewhat accurate as far as he goes. But he doesn’t go nearly far enough. For instance he doesn’t for one second acknowledge the fact that he too is in danger of making propaganda every bit as encircling as that made by states and corporations. And by NOT making that clear he actually becomes without a doubt a very serious propagandist. In other words there is not one moment when he scrutinizes his own side for Propaganda. Thus he isn’t really exposing propaganda he is talking about ‘us and them’, which is the essence of Propaganda. But not the definition of Propaganda. (To be clear I am capitalizing the word propaganda when I refer to the thing not when I refer to the practice.)
Before I attempt that working definition of Propaganda let me give you a few sources for my own thinking. Source ‘A’ Number One is the French thinker Jacques Ellul. Around 1982 I first read his 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (first published in French in 1961 as Propagandes). And frankly even though I was around 27 then I wondered why I hadn’t read his book much earlier. Few experiences in my life have been so illuminating. It was as though someone had simply unblindfolded me. I had been wondering why so much in our society had been moving the way it did and here was a solid chunk of the answer. We all in our advanced technological society had been pickled in Propaganda for years. So much so that we could hardly distinguish the contours of our prison distracted as we had become. How good is his book? Well let’s put it this way, read from one perspective the book could be seen a propaganda manual. One could easily take the principles he uncovers and become a successful propagandist. But, of course, that is not his aim. His aim is to expose the beast as nakedly as possible. It is not an easy read. But once you wrestle with it you can no longer plead ignorance. The panoply of techniques for adjusting us to our milieu are staggering. And there is no way I can do justice to his work, which remains as valuable today as when it was written, though it requires some historical knowledge to really make it come alive. That was also just as true the day it was published. But I will dip into his ideas freely as I write.
Other folks who have in one way or another contributed to my thinking on the subject include: C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and a few other scattered essays. Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. The works of French thinker Paul Virilio. Marshall McLuhan’s writings on the nature of media. Anthony Rhodes’ Propaganda, The Art of Persuasion: World War II. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. And various works by many other writers, Susan Sontag’s On Photography was helpful, likewise Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam, though here as with the whole Adbusters mentality, like Chomsky, we enter upon Propaganda disguised as anti-propaganda. And I have also of course studied the real Propaganda itself. Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, Communist propagandas from various eras and countries. (I highly recommend the documentary East Side Story about Communist musicals.) And of course there is American, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Advertising, Pop Music, Feminist, NRA, LGBTQ, Alt-Right, etc ad nauseum. Everyone makes propaganda these days. The real issue is who doesn’t?
But that still doesn’t answer the question: What is this thing? Propaganda. And then there is another question lurking in what I’ve already said. If everyone is already making it maybe it’s not so bad. Why even bother?
A quick answer to the second question first, which we will return to in more depth later. I do not believe I am alone in feeling the viciousness of the divisions of the present age. More than one soul has pointed out the fact that we all seem to be shouting, nay screaming, at each other in this time of polarization. Whether in scorn or fear people are walking around separated and isolated from those holding divergent opinions. (Or is it that Propaganda has actually isolated all of us from each other?) And it is NOT going to get better in the continuing course of events. Nor through anything that might call itself a Revolution. There are a few, very few, good signs, and they do not at present constitute any remotely optimistic forecast for the future.
Because as long as we remain pickled in our Propaganda marinade we shall continue our downward slide.
But I haven’t defined this Propaganda thing yet? What am I really talking about?
Well I’ve run out of space… You’ll have to visit again for our next essay, A Working Definition of Propaganda.
Swim Against the Stream