The Origins of Propaganda (Part One)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held an exhibition titled “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” in Washington, D.C., from 2009 and 2011. This dramatic collection of German National Socialist state artifacts included photos, posters, newspapers, radio broadcasts, film productions, even children’s games and toys. It was a frightening, lurid, and claustrophobic display of the most puerile, racist, warmongering politics witnessed during the 20th century.
Germany’s propaganda program was deep and vast. It left virtually no aspect of life uncontrolled by the regime. Over the course of its 14 years, the National Socialist regime exerted control over not just the entire government but the churches, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artist guilds, medicine, and sports. No other regime besides the Soviet Union wielded such totality over the daily lives of its citizens.
If there were a single, accepted definition of propaganda, then, it would be found in this definitive collection of propaganda’s greatest horrors. Helpfully, the Memorial published a guidebook to the exhibition using the same title. Propaganda, it explains,
as used in this book refers to the dissemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior. Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end. In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct. The propagandist transmits only information geared to strength his or her case and consciously omits contrary information. Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal. It is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations. Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.
That is a comprehensive definition of a complex but dangerous phenomenon of contemporary political life and one whose effects we live with every day. It represents the general consensus of experts in the field. Its examples are easy to identify in the exhibition and the book. I do not doubt, in any way, that the examples on display and catalogued in the hardbound guidebook are examples of Nazi propaganda.
Unfortunately the definition falls apart almost immediately on any close or critical inspection. This definition, in whole and in part, can precisely describe not just propaganda but all political expression—the latter of which I’m sure the authors and experts would agree encompass much more than propaganda itself. This is dangerous ground. If we could hypothesize banning propaganda by fiat based on this definition, we would find ourselves banning all political expressing or legitimizing all propaganda. This definition, then, is a logical cul-de-sac from which political speech—the most important and therefore most protected of type of expression—cannot escape. If propaganda is political speech, and political speech is propaganda, then everything we say or think has the same taint. Common sense tells us this cannot be true. Propaganda and political speech are different things. If they were the same we would have one word to describe them both.
It is important to start with a definition because, unfortunately, the word propaganda needs one. In popular use, it has been abused so much that it has lost practically all intrinsic meaning: A satirical talk-show is propaganda. News is propaganda. An advertising campaign is propaganda. A public health announcement is propaganda. Scientific studies are propaganda. A newspaper editorial is propaganda. A child’s television program is propaganda. A radio call-in show is propaganda. A social media meme is propaganda. The President’s speech is propaganda. An art exhibition is propaganda. A music concert is propaganda.
Propaganda, in this context, is not a positive connotation (and certainly begs the question of whether the accusers read and applied the sophisticated definition quoted above). It concerns leave us to distill this already utterly denatured word into something far simpler and clearer than the official understanding recorded above: propaganda is political speech I do not like.
Let us examine the Memorial definition line by line to demonstrate convincingly that propaganda, as defined here, can easily be applied to virtually any other sort of political expression.
1) [D]issemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior
The sole purpose of political speech is to shape public opinion and behavior. If I nail a poster to a wall that reads only VOTE FOR SMITH, I am disseminating information about a political candidate. Let us presume that Smith actually exists, so it is truthful. I aim to shape public opinion – to support Smith – and behavior: I want people to VOTE FOR SMITH. Under this definition, then, the most elemental political speech – advocating a candidate for political office – is propaganda.
Let us suppose that instead of a poster reading VOTE FOR SMITH I post a sign that reads VOTE FOR FIDO. Presuming I am not running a dog for office, this is blatantly false. And yet it, too, is political speech: it suggests that voting for a dog would be better than voting for somebody else. I am still disseminating information. I am still aiming to shape public opinion – questioning their faith in the electoral system or the candidates themselves – and their behavior: who knows whether they will vote at all?
This is not hypothetical at all, as this antique Yippie poster from the Chicago Convention of 1968 demonstrates:
2) Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.
I could write a letter to the editor of my local newspapers arguing that climate change requires immediate policy changes to avoid hurting people. This would summarize an immensely complex issue in about 200 words. It is for mass consumption, since I have written the newspaper and not my friend across town. It is prima facie biased: I am not going to make the argument of my detractors for them. And it is geared, perhaps naively, to a particular end: the change in policy to avoid the consequences of climate change. And yet under this definition, the staple of popular political speech – the humble letter to the editor, used by newspapers for a century to reflect and reach their democratic readership – is propaganda.
(3) In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct. The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.
These two sentences taken together define the trial lawyer, defending an innocent person against a charge that may end their life. The trial lawyer does not want to foster independent judgment and thinking: they want an acquittal. They do not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it to the audience to determine which is correct: those are the jury instructions. The defense attorney ignores or attacks the variety of viewpoints in order to make the most convincing case to the jury. Under this definition, then, the defense attorney engages in propaganda.
(4) Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.
When we take this into account, we probably think of something like this famous poster produced during World War II to encourage women in the workforce. It remains fresh and the symbols are not hard to parse: a woman in coveralls rolling up her sleeves to take on what had been exclusively a man’s job in wartime production. It is designed to focus attention and distract from any complex concerns about a woman’s place in the workplace. It is easy to see this as propaganda since encouraging weapons production during wartime war is generally seen as an overriding concern of the state. It is regularly described as such.
But, importantly, its bold and unmistakable iconography has been recycled many times over during the many iterations of the feminist movement. It can still speak in new ways, challenging our understanding of propaganda as presented by the Memorial. The appropriation this American icon to support the work of the Pakistani children’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, below, demonstrates the enduring power of visual imagery and symbols, no matter the cultural context. Its goal, as seen in the text written next to the mural, couldn’t be clearer. And yet under the definition outlined above, this image of a young girl shot in the head for trying to go to school would be defined as propaganda.
As a practical matter, particularly in developing democracies, the use of symbols is important because illiteracy or a lack of a common language makes the printing of ballots particularly fraught. In this example, Nigerian political parties have been distilled to their logo and party initials. This is hardly propaganda but it is clear to see how bold, simple symbols and compelling graphics would help a candidate or party.
(5) it is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.
This is a strange paragraph for its peculiar qualifications, vague definitions, and tenuous connection to related disciplines. By tying together private institutions and governments it breaks down an important legal divide between people and those they elect to lead them. If the First Amendment gives the people the right freely to assemble, to petition their government for redress of grievances, to publish and to speak, then this paragraph erases the moral distinction defining a group of people protesting on behalf of themselves. “Cause” is a mushy synonym for what is properly called a political agenda.
And what do advertising and public relations have to do with this? The weak language used here to tie them to propaganda suggests the authors recognize they are not the same thing but they are unclear about the nature of the relationship. They are related because they use the same technical tools: various media (text, radio, television, etc.), language, images, audience surveys, targeted marketing, and so on. But so, too, do news organizations. Is propaganda “linked to the news media”?
This definition could have drawn a bright and important line if it had simply asserted that propaganda is the exclusive domain of the state. But that would have legitimized the vile collection of Nazi paraphernalia collected for the purpose of defining propaganda: the National Socialist party, prior to taking government control, used the same tactics as the National Socialist government. This Hobson’s Choice demonstrates that without the benefit of hindsight there is simply no bright line to be drawn dividing propaganda from political expression under this definition.
(6) Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.
What other weapons are there? The Memorial’s definition does not define the actual means or media – the specific vehicles for delivering the propaganda product. Here we find the Memorial’s definition both overbroad and stunningly limited. The definition refers to the “dissemination” and “transmit” of “information” and only later broadly identifies “written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms” to deliver desired emotional responses in an audience. Presumably these must be delivered in some medium, which is left unidentified. But there is no “dissemination” without a platform, whether that is a live performance, a publication, radio or television broadcast, web site, e-mail, or even a telephone call. If we leave aside coercion – the threat of violence and the total control over all aspects of civic life – then there are no other means of mass persuasion. But this definition does not consider the idea of total control of society.
While the Memorial has condensed the expert consensus defining propaganda, it does not parry other arguments that define propaganda. One of the major modes of thought emerging in the last 100 years posits that propaganda is a product of both the technological era and the emergence of mass culture in the 20th century. Mass literacy, improved living standards, and consumerism created a market for popular periodicals, radio, television, and movies that were the result of technological innovation. World War I not only saw the wireless radio, mass newspaper distribution, basic literacy, and the strong central state converge on information “dissemination,” it also inaugurated mass organization as the belligerents mobilized tens of millions of young men for military service and their home fronts to support them. Many observers believed that this was the only era in which propaganda could exist in pure form.
This argument is in one sense obvious but in another completely fallacious. Political communication has always used all means available to it. Those making political arguments did not simply ignore one medium in favor of another. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany emerged, their regimes took advantage of all these methods to reach a wide audience. Many of them were very new, including motion pictures with soundtracks, and propaganda experts in the West conflated the emergence of these new media and technology with propaganda itself.
As I will argue later, the nature of propaganda is such that the state uses all means available to them. It is control of the means of production – and not the produced means or messages by themselves – that define propaganda. Any state that can control communication with the public engages in propaganda. The means change, evolve, expand or become obsolete, but the aspect of control does not.
I do not mean to attack the Memorial and what remains an important exhibit at a critical moment in our political history. We both have the same goal, in fact, which is to point out both the fundamental evil of Nazi ideology and the danger of unchecked and weaponized political speech. My main concern is that the Memorial did not go far enough. In addition to the racist bile and agitation, race-baiting and war-mongering, hate and lies and distortion, the root of Nazi propaganda was the control of all those things which meant that decent people could not reach the same audience and a subject population had no alternative means to learn the truth. Additionally, as we’ll see later, Germany’s coercive state apparatus served as the stick to propaganda’s carrot to enforce political conformity and mobilization.
Moreover, propaganda distracts. Calling something propaganda allows us to dismiss it. It keeps us from understanding what is really being done. Calling a Nazi poster propaganda doesn’t help us identify why it bothers us, why it challenges our conscience. Other words work better because they are clear and precise: incitement, racist, subversive, disloyal, hysterical, divisive, hateful, false, incomplete, distorting, twisted. That way we can really and honestly attack and respond to political expression that calls out our devils.
We have many ways and means of political expression: polemic, opinion, argument editorial; satire, parody, caricature; exaggeration, hyperbole, overstatement, embellishment; mockery, scorn, disdain, ridicule; judgment, verdict, condemnation; endorsement, praise, celebration. All of these would be, and have been, swallowed by the single pejorative propaganda. And if everything is propaganda, then there is no open and legitimate means of political expression.