The Problem of Propaganda

Hoang Nhat Thong (left) and Viet Khang (via http://www.nguoi-viet.com)

Last week, the Vietnamese government sentenced two musicians on the charge of “anti-state propaganda,” apparently the first case in recent memory that Hanoi imprisoned artists under the charge. But within the month the government put on trial three writers on the same charge of “anti-state propaganda,” so the accusation is clearly not a new one.  Vietnam is still a one-party state in the Chinese mold; while similarly opening up its economy, the government still maintains tight control over all communications and the arts.

The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.
This leads me to the particular charge of “anti-state propaganda,” an Orwellian construction which is common in Communist or post-Communist states such as Vietnam. It may seem peculiar to attack this particular epithet when the larger concern is for these artists’ and writers’ human rights. But when the charge for the “crime” involved includes the incendiary and imprecise word propaganda I think it is important to get involved in the semantics.The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.

Propaganda, like terrorism, is one of those post-modern words that has been used so often by so many to have lost any concrete popular meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t insist that it does have some real definition, especially when it is being abused to send people to prison by repressive governments.

We could begin by looking at its roots, which my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes dates to the 17th century, when Pope Gregory XV instituted a committee of Cardinals called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the congregation for the propagation of the faith. Commentators on propaganda often point to these origins and forget perhaps two critical aspects of the congregation. The first is the most obvious: the evangelical nature of the Church, which was dealing with the challenge of the Protestant Reformation at that time.

But most easily forgotten in our more secular age is the fact that even as late as the early 17th century the Catholic Church directly and indirectly ruled as a temporal power in Europe.  That is, the Church was a state.  This is important to my argument which will follow.

However, if you forget or choose to ignore that the Church was a state, then the roots of propaganda in state-mandated ideological propagation starts you on an entirely unproductive semantic path leading to today, when anybody or anything can be engaged in — or, more precisely, be accused of — propaganda.

It is distressing that the otherwise wholly moral scholarship of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which held a massive and disturbing exhibit for several years (ending in 2011) on Nazi propaganda, could not be more precise when it came to defining what propaganda is. Here is what they have on their exhibit web site:

“Scholars, journalists, and politicians have long argued about how to properly define propaganda and distinguish it from other forms of mass communication. Propaganda is biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.”

(Bold in the original.)  In this definition there may be lost on the visitor to the exhibit or the site an insight made by Hannah Arendt during one of the war crimes trials after World War II: this definition fails to take into account the particularly warped reality of the Third Reich. The Nazis not only controlled every aspect of communications, but every aspect of those communications were used to serve the state. “Bias,” in that context, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how the Nazis approached propaganda.

But outside the Nazi context the definition could very easily be applied to any other form of “mass communication,” from legitimate advertising, to social marketing, to newspaper editorials, to political communications. “Bias” is the key word here. It is the essence of any practical choice we face, especially in politics.  More specifically, when we attempt to persuade the public on any important matter — childhood vaccination, for example — aren’t we engaged in an inherently biased activity? (Do we give opponents of vaccination equal time?)  Or to put this more precisely: I am sure those Vietnamese musicians and writers demonstrated ample bias in their attempt to shape domestic public opinion and behavior against the government. (If they didn’t before, I’m doubly sure they do now.) Does that justify their trial and imprisonment on charges of “anti-state propaganda”?

The Memorial isn’t alone in its imprecision. This site includes a standard list derived from a ground-breaking work from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis done in the 1930s.  It includes some of the usual suspects — bandwagoning, plain folks appeals, fear, testimonial — and provides some examples of propaganda that includes Enron, Newt Gingrich, the John Birch Society and the Office of Strategic Information.

All of this makes me extremely uneasy, mostly because you could apply most, if not all, of these critiques to a series of highly effective vaccination public service announcements that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a few years ago. (Unfortunately, my combination of key word searches failed to pull them up.) They featured a series (bandwagoning) of grandparents (plain folks) with their grandchildren on their knees, talking about (testimonial) what it was like when they were children, losing friends and family to the diseases that ravaged kids at that time (fear). But then there was hope (glittering generalities): vaccines were developed to protect children, vaccines that protect their own grandchildren.  Is this propaganda?

The other list includes only one government agency (the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Information), with the possible exception of the Maoist International Movement which may be funded by the Chinese government. This, too, is disturbing. We may not like what Newt Gingrich has to say or the way he says it, but how does that make what he says propaganda?

This is the core of my argument and why I mentioned the crucial distinction that propaganda had its root in the Church as state. If a musician can be imprisoned for engaging in “anti-state propaganda” — and a definition provided by the Holocaust Memorial seems to support the government’s case, then our understanding of this word is corrupted.  Let me define propaganda down.

Propaganda is defined as:

Communications by a state or its directly control agents.

That deliberately and substantially distorts, misleads or lies,

Against a material or corporeal enemy.

There may be concerns about what we do about the “communications” of terrorist or quasi-state entities, or the lies that are admitted by political enemies. As with my argument about terrorism, we have other words for them. They are terrorists, or liars, or engage in libel or defamation. (Some of these are legal causes of action in their own right; propaganda is not.) These words may not be as satisfactory as propaganda, but we need to hold propaganda in reserve against those states that maintain a monopoly over communications to real effect — and, as we have seen with Hoang Nhat Thong and Viet Khang, to direct detrimental effect over individuals.

It goes without saying that these musicians and their writer cousins are not propagandists. But many in their country may not know anything else because only their government tells them what to think. We can change the way we think about what governments tell us, and the way we think about propaganda, and this is a good place to start.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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