Swimming Against the Stream

21st Century Propaganda #8: Infection and Diagnosis

Hate, hunger, and pride make better levers of propaganda than do love or impartiality.

Jacques Ellul – Propaganda


An Infection of Words spread through the Media in the Canadian ‘zombie’ film  Pontypool.

So then Propaganda surrounds us. (The series starts here.) What can we do to at least find a reasonable way of weighing the details of life surrounding us in this virtual bubble? There are two answers lodged in one question here. First: What practical steps can we take to make sure we are as little effected by the all consuming maw of illusory communications as is humanly possible? Second: Are there any ways of identifying voices we can trust from the various perspectives of this fictional panorama? No easy task. We shall deal with this in our concluding essay next time. Let’s tackle the practical issue first.

The main principle is this. We are all infected by today’s Propaganda. As Jacques Ellul points out intelligence is no defense. The very people who think themselves most up to date are often the most heavily propagandized. So the question then is not how to avoid propaganda, but how to recognize the depths of our own infection. In a way our situation is quite similar to the only Canadian postapocalyptic film I have ever seen: Pontypool. Which has the end of the world coming through an infection of words. And this is brilliant for being a direct correlation to propaganda and for it taking place in Canada one of the most politically correct hot spots on earth, complete with legislation to back it up. In Pontypool the radio station at the core of the film is also a source of this lethal infection. All communications media spread the infection. Conversations also spread it. And this verbal virus effects people by driving them completely murderous. It’s a excellent analogy, if a bit too extreme to help us to understand our own level of propaganda infection.

Knee Jerk test

Allow me to suggest a better indicator: The Knee Jerk Reaction.

Obviously the concept of the Knee Jerk Reaction is related to the reflex test where a physician taps a specific spot on your knee to see if your leg moves involuntarily. But there is a big difference between this physical test and our propaganda test. When your knee jerks that’s a very good thing. It means your reflexes are working correctly. But emotionally the knee jerk reaction means something exactly the opposite. It means when you hear certain words, concepts and names you react instantly, and usually it’s not very pleasant. That’s the Knee Jerk Reaction. And that’s a serious problem.

Now we all have them, Knee Jerk Reactions. Someone is talking about something and as soon as a word or possible thought passes through the air you are immediately disturbed. So you hear words like Trump, or abortion, or gay, or taxes, or war, or trans, or Clinton, or Macron, or Merkel, or Putin, or Obama, or Thatcher, or Reagan, or Republican, or Democrat, or feminism, or Muslim, or Christian, or atheist, or God, or witchcraft, or Satan, or Marvel, or DC, or Star Wars, or Harvard, or Yale, or Texas, or Russia, or China, or Africa, or blackface, or liberal, or equality, or free speech, or nationalist, or socialist, or vegan, or McDonald’s, or Starbucks, or T-Series or anything else that instantly changes your mood and there, my friends, lies your propagandized soul exposed for the world to see. And to the degree you find yourself at a loss of control in your anger, hatred, disgust, or fear that is the degree to which you can reckon yourself fully propagandized by something. And we all have these Knee Jerk Reactions. Don’t bother to deny it. Because that too will be a sign of the same.

Let’s Look For Your Jerking Knees. (Click to Expand)



Did You Figure Out What Causes You To Lose Your Mind?

Now I’m not saying there aren’t reasons for reactions. Oh there are… Except, once said, we have to then come straight to this point: How can we trust the sources of our news and information. When I first started to understand the depth of our envelopment in Propaganda we weren’t yet living in THIS world. Yes each news outlet had its viewpoint, but we hadn’t been bogged down in endless conspiracy theories yet. There was no Internet to spread the immediate reactions. If a pastor in Florida burned copies of the Koran in Florida no one even knew about it, let alone died in Palestine. And so I would say to folks then when I read Time Magazine or watch CBS News I know that something has happened, but I don’t necessarily trust that media’s interpretation of the facts. I came to understand this early because I was in a primary Jesus People group when I was young. Reporters from national news services occasionally wrote stories on us and I was always impressed by how little they really understood of what they had seen. Their stories were usually skewed by the reporters bias. Good reporters I learned sought to be fair, acknowledging their own biases, and working to put them aside. Not only are very few reporters today that good, but the idea of putting aside your biases today is nearly a lost art. (I say nearly, but fortunately not totally.) But today’s reporters proudly display their political biases and completely skew their news accordingly. Then again in these late postmodern times truth is seen as a relic of dead Western Civilization. Resulting in a new phenomenon, not merely changing the narrative, in which the word ‘narrative’ equals the word ‘spin’, but removing the veracity of the event at all. Fake News

Now when I see news I wonder if the event even happened? Is it Fake News? And even that phrase ‘Fake News’ is a hotly contested neologism. The Left claims that all Fake News is Right slanted. The Right claims the same about the Left. But I think its use points out the exact reality we find ourselves in. Not only is it the interpretation that is at stake but now the actual reality is in question. So what to do? How do we avoid being dragged into these propaganda wars within our own minds? And across the fiction of news as it has devolved in this hysterical age? We will talk about sources in our last essay. But for now let’s work on developing our powers of observation.

So a sudden story erupts. It’s not a hurricane in Florida, an Earthquake in Chile, but rather it’s one of those many events that have gripped us one after another for years now. There is a photo. A short video. A protest somewhere. A march. Suddenly it’s politically hot. Everyone’s talking about it. People pass stories, interpretations, memes on social media. You are meant to feel stupid if you don’t agree with the dominant and instant media interpretation. It’s ‘trans bathrooms’, ‘Grab ’em by the pussy.’ Charlottesville, Jefferson, Portland, Berkeley, it’s the MAGA hat kid with his ‘smirk’, it’s Jussie Smollett and his ‘noose’, it’s comments at the Academy Awards, or by a rising political star. What do you do?

How an Online Propaganda Mob Forms

First of all, Back the hell up! Do not form a opinion on the first day or three. Because, as we have seen, what actually happened isn’t even known yet. When the Covington Catholic boys incident was at last known everyone had to apologize. Because full videos from the day, uploaded on the day, were completely ignored by folks who interpret these events for us on television. And the event that supposedly got everyone so worked up… never happened! And yet there are still folks who will swear they ‘know what they saw’ without ever having watched the full video. And that, my friends, is the most egregious effect of Propaganda upon us. It can change the reality of what we see into what we wish to see.

Edinburgh Bookstore

These are called Books. They slow you down. Allow you to think before you react. Read them.

So back off! Have courage. Don’t share your opinions, your conclusions, your accusations, your anything! about these things on social media. Don’t pass on articles proving ‘the point’. Don’t assume you know. Because you know what? You probably know nothing. And how can you? The event is still unfolding. There are those who still don’t understand what the presence of Antifa meant at Charlottesville. Why? The mainstream media omitted them from their narrative. Yes it was absolutely frightening to see the presence of this new White Nationalist movement. But it was just as blood curdling to see honest to God Communists there as well. And the authorities let them come together. So what actually did happen? And will you over react to what I just written? And yes, I fully realize these things are molten hot.

ChanaSue Lang

Learn to talk, even to disagree.

So my advice: STOP. Stop passing on your pet Propaganda on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. That doesn’t mean stop thinking. Au contraire! It means start thinking and stop that jerking knee. Reacting is what the goal of all Propaganda is. Stop with the pointed jokes against (fill in the blank). Stop spreading pro/anti gun, PETA, Christian, LGBTQ+, Atheist, Trans, etc. Propaganda. Dehumanization and real hatred are the only things spread that way. Stop with commentary on things that happened this morning that quite literally you can’t know anything about yet. Stop getting newsfeed alerts on your phone. Stand back from it all and get your breath and mind working again. Stop fantasizing about doomsday and revenge scenarios. Learn to read again, not merely to skim. Read books. Make no phone zones. Try to understand history in order to understand the current hysteria. Find trustworthy sources. Don’t listen to movie stars, sports stars, television stars about politics. What they say about the craft of acting is valuable. What they think about current politics is usually just Knee Jerk Propaganda.

Matilda Lost

Get Together with Real Humans in Real Time. Play Physical Games.

And finally get back to reality. Have people over for dinner. (I’m extremely serious about this.) Remember all those people you hate so much, who believe that tripe that you would never swallow, they are humans too. And if you sat down to dinner with them you would find that out. Unless you are so propagandized that all you can see is the shallow symbols of opposition. Very few conservative folk are actually that dreaded Far Right ogre you imagine. Most Left leaning souls are not the mindless SJW’s. But you may indeed meet those with whom you disagree. Then talk. Have a real conversation. Perhaps the most salient quote from Jacques Ellul is this Discussion ends Propaganda.” Don’t be afraid. Just do it. Even with the most polarized people you encounter, if you can, if you dare. For it is only by learning to do so that we can avert the true disaster of a new American Civil War.

Fortunately there a few signs of hope.

In our conclusion we’ll examine the possibility of trustworthy sources. And examine the hope embedded in this moment.

Come back soon.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia


Finally you can support us out here on the edge. And it will truly be appreciated. Use this PayPal link. I can access it from anywhere. Even here in Tbilisi Georgia.

Thanks! CLICK ME.

Oh and if you haven’t read the rest of this series you can start here.


And for more practical advice on finding reality again try this essay.



10 responses

  1. Julian Garner

    Excellent post! Thank you.

    March 11, 2019 at 1:19 AM

  2. I might be young and naive (probably) but I do not remember there being anything remotely near the level of untruth and propaganda that we see in the news today, in the Pre-Trump era. I was interested in politics before Trump got elected, and followed the election with interest, but after the election, it simply became impossible to know what the truth was. My solution has simply been to give up following news altogether.

    March 11, 2019 at 4:45 PM

    • Julian I think you are right. It’s odd that by many metrics the world is in a better place than it has ever been. Active wars are minimal. Poverty has been decreasing. Infectious disease likewise. More and more people have access to more and more goods. And yet the tensions in the west are even worse than in the Sixties, and they were horrible then. Why?

      I hate to keep pointing to the same issue over and over again, but it’s the Propaganda mills cranking out the fear which produces hatred. And one could argue that there has always been hatred. But now it is amplified. It’s the difference between talking to a group of people without a microphone and talking through the amplification system of a football stadium, while being televised. The words might be the same, but the effect? That’s on another planet.

      And behind the Propaganda is the technology, which shapes every inch of our lives. And along with the technological milieu are the philosophies we have created to live in this age. So if you say the word Truth to the elites in education, politics, the media, they just give you a knowing smile, you naïve simpleton.

      But is the answer to not know? This has been tried too. And I think ultimately the answer is no. It works for a while. However eventually the larger forces come for the reaping. Jacques Ellul pointed out there are three layers of knowledge. There are the waves on the surface. The stormy daily back and forth of news and information. These things are generally ephemeral but the most distracting. Then there are the currents underneath, the general direction of the flow, regardless of the waves. These are the things we really need to understand. Then there are the deeps. The places where the currents to not touch. These are the eternal issues and truths. Our problem today is that most people pay too much attention to the waves, very little attention to the currents and have assumed that the deeps have disappeared in the froth of the waves.

      And so the main issue for us is how to understand the currents, which then helps to make sense of the waves, and also send us down to depths. That’s what I will be writing about next. How to identify honest thinkers of any stripe. How to compare and contrast. It’s time to become submarines! And to move against the stream. Which sounds like the Anadromous Life doesn’t it?

      March 11, 2019 at 11:08 PM

      • It is probably true that material conditions in the west are improving rapidly, though I wonder if the same is true for the lower classes or for those in third world countries, I don’t know enough about these things to have a informed opinion. However, obviously we are becoming more technologically advanced and that has many material benefits for most citizens.

        Why then the spike in depression, malaise, fragmentation? I honestly think that these things are the corollary of technological advancement, that as we get more materially comfortable, we get more spiritually sick.

        The question you might need to ask is WHY the propaganda mills are churning out more propaganda? Is it because politics have become the Ultimate Concern for many westerners? Are technologies like social media driving misinformation because it gets clicks and making the conversation more toxic? Is it because there is no longer a common narrative or a interpretation of reality all of us can rally around? Was there ever a time when there was such a common narrative? Are the problems of polarization just being amplified by social media?

        I think your analogy is spot on, the problem with contemporary politics is that events that are quite irrelevent in the grander scheme of things (waves) gain national attention and cause uproar because of the way these stories validate tribal political concerns. Look at any of the insane symbolic stories that have become national news recently, the Covington thing comes to mind. Why on earth are we obsessed about the facial contortions of a young catholic? In the current climate, I’ve decided its much wiser for me to focus on the deeps, then try to sort out the details of trivial incidents that have grabbed national attention. It just does not seem to be a good use of my time.

        March 13, 2019 at 7:39 AM

        • Julian thanks for another thoughtful reply. If Ellul is correct, technology breeds propaganda as mass communication. It completely changes our behavior. Or as Marshall McLuhan said ” The Medium is the Message. Or the medium is the massage. All media work us over all of the time.” By media he doesn’t only mean communications media. For him a light bulb is a medium. Media are extensions of ourselves. Thus the car is an extension of our feet. We now live in the host of technology. It is our nature. And this applies even to the Hutterites. It effects the whole world. Some places are living in a delayed effect. But that is all.

          Poverty is indeed much less than it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago. Again this is a mixed blessing. For some statistics read this Wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_reduction

          And I do recommend studying the currents. The deep is worthwhile and meaningful to be sure. But it is awfully hard to get the average person to seriously consider it if they don’t understand the drift. Likewise by studying the currents then the waves are of much less impact. We can compare this to dam building and cracks in them. There maybe cracks in the dam of civilization. We see them. Many people say someone should fix the dam now and go below the dam and warn the people. These are like the waves. The immediate. Someone else like myself says, the dam will break one day. Let’s get much further below and work on a new structure for the future. That is the currents in our ocean analogy. Finally someone else says I’m going to keep studying engineering so that we can have dams that don’t break. Or decide we don’t need dams at all. Those are the deeps. The deeps are important. But this dam will still break. So what shall we do?

          I highly recommend Jacques Ellul’s writing. His work remains absolutely essential understanding the drift of the present.

          Here is the only video interview with him with English subtitles. But I could recommend several books. Consider this an hors douevre. Watch it!

          March 13, 2019 at 8:36 AM

  3. Pingback: 21st century propaganda | Leadingchurch.com

  4. Pingback: 21st Century Propaganda: Addendum #4 | The Anadromous Life

  5. Firstly, whoo hoo! A Jacques Ellul video. What an unexpected pleasure.

    Secondly, I believe that the well-being/ well-being trends of the population of Western industrialized countries are very often misrepresented and misunderstood. And, by misrepresented, I mean, a fake positive story is presented – which is accurate for the top socio-economic quintile or decile – but wildly inaccurate for the majority of the population. I will speak here only of the US, but many of my comments apply to other developed countries. Very often we are presented with optimistic stories, usually pointing to global GDP trends and sometimes (as above) trends regarding people exiting poverty. China’s growth in the past 20 years (due to their population size) – drives impressive improvements on that score. This is doubtless a “good thing” but doesn’t say anything about what is going on in any particular country (other than China). Human beings mostly care how they are doing relative to some meaningful benchmark – often, they compare themselves to their parents or to their own expectations for how their lives would turn out. And, the majority of the American population sees that in many important ways they are *worse off* than their parents. I link here to a blog entry by Peter Turchin – in which he discusses the economic trends AND the weird resistance most elites show when information about these trends is presented to them. I will confess here, that until 3 years ago, I was just as blind and resistant to what was going on as anyone. NB: the deterioration in popular well-being shows up also in the growing rates of suicides, deaths from overdose, and alcohol-related fatty-liver disease [written up in two papers by Anne Case & Angus Deaton]. In the past three years, America’s population has experienced declines in life expectancy. This is, to my knowledge, unprecedented among modern developed countries. http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/population-immiseration-in-america/

    June 8, 2019 at 3:57 PM

  6. Thanks April. I believe that the major sectors of propaganda have traditionally been politics, education, and economics. The Peter Turchin piece links politics and economics together quite well. All three of these areas we are always focused upon progress in a lock step that prevents any sane analysis. Thanks for demonstrating that fact.

    And I’m glad that you finally discovered the Ellul documentary.

    June 8, 2019 at 5:23 PM

  7. Pingback: 21st Century Propaganda #7: Christian Propaganda | The Anadromous Life

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