Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Leslie Hargis: Propaganda

by Leslie Hargis
ENG 102

Propaganda is an extremely powerful tool that has evolved into a dominant force, which has singlehandedly ripped apart the democratic process and jaded the original agenda of our country. Like most other highly effective devices conceived from desperation and greed, it can lead to absolute destruction when used improperly or irresponsibly. In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler says, “: for even propaganda is no more than a weapon, though a frightful one in the hands of an expert.” (Hitler, 1943, 179). Much like the production of the atom bomb, its invention opens a floodgate of damage and will ultimately lead to the demise of the creators. According to the World English Dictionary, propaganda is “the organized dissemination of information or allegations.” It is, “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, or nation.” (Dictionary.com).

As with every element of life, there are at least two sides to every debate; and so in the simplest of terms, propaganda can be used for good as well as for evil. Of course there are various shades of grey that color the spectrum of propaganda. Unfortunately, the negative uses of propaganda vastly outweigh the positive motivations. Propaganda can be found in nearly every television and radio advertisement; the good type and the negative forms. Organizations such as the American Cancer Society and PETA are two of the many groups that utilize the media, especially television, for their causes. For example, when the American Cancer Society launched their major advertising campaign, stating a claim to being the “official sponsors of birthdays”, they utilized a propagandistic technique known as positive endorsement and testimonial. Celebrities such as Keith Urban, Usher, Colby Colbert and others were used to endorse the movement to gain the attention of the viewers. It is highly effective. In this example, propaganda is not used with ill intentions and does not have the underlying tone of deception as say a political smear ad does. An example of a grey area of propaganda would be the animal rights activists PETA. PETA has a genuinely honest and moral mission; however, their demonstration techniques and radical one-sided barraging of opinions tend to overwhelm the masses and produce a counterproductive effect. Their uses of propaganda seem to sit on the outer limits of tolerable. Their intentions are pure at heart, but the means to demonstrate their opinions are in the grey area of propaganda. There are far better ways to go about expressing one’s opinion than to harass someone and ruin others’ property in the name of animal rights.

As the motivations and uses of propaganda move on, the scales begin to tip to the side of evil when the consequences of the propaganda’s actions prevail over the intentions of good. It is this type of propaganda, the negative influences, that society today has come to know and grown accustomed to. In terms of propaganda, evil resides in the blackened hearts of the men and women of power who cowardly use techniques to wage wars, to rally for destruction and who claim to be advocating for the greater good. Religious movements, political figures, advertising companies and the mass media industries control what information is dispersed to the public, and their actions are carefully calculated, as if playing a permanent game of chess. To think that a driving force in our society today is preconceived manipulation and planned to a “T” by a group of people who claim to be morally responsible and ethically correct creates a cause for great concern.

Historically, propaganda has evolved from a means of disseminating information to the Ancient Roman society into total control and the repression of free thought. Pope Gregory XV founded the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, whose task was to initiate the spread of Christianity. (Graves 2010, 1). Although a religious movement with noble intentions of instilling faith, the Catholic Church was and always will be a major player in the game of negative propaganda. The use of visual symbols is another technique to influence the masses and was a popular choice of the American government to rally the nation against an enemy in WWI. (Graves 2010, 1). Perhaps for the first time in history, the true nature of propaganda and ultimately horrifying ramifications of its use reared its ugly head during the Nazi movement of World War II. Once the world witnessed the effectiveness of a hate speech, one of the most evil propagandistic methods, the human psyche was forever altered and new heights of evil and deception could be reached. Time magazine can be quoted saying, “…no Nazi has helped Adolf Hitler so much as the taut, vivid, sometimes hysterical, little man whom all Germany knows as "The Doctor," famed Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, now Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.” (Time, 1933,2). Together, Hitler and Goebbels quickly gained popularity and support through condescending, demanding hate speeches. It seems that as soon as propaganda took on the face of Nazi Germany, it has reached a point of no return; an irreconcilable new normal in the way propaganda and mass media work in collaboration. Since then, it seems that American culture revolves around a fixed set of information that is strategically marketed towards an audience who is losing their right to free thought and slowly transforming into a conformist community. Negative propaganda has taken a gaping lead in the race to the most effective form of mass persuasion.

In America today, the message that our leaders are sending through the mind control of propaganda is that everyone has the right to an opinion and everyone’s rights are constitutionally protected; everyone except the general public, the mass population. Through the techniques of half-truths, false realities, distorted information, character assignations, hidden sources and double speak, the government has found a very successful way of swaying the masses into action; action that the puppet masters needed all along. (Copeland, Johnson-Cartee, 2003, 164-171). It seems that with every election comes a new low for political campaigning. Perhaps it is a new strategy to assassinate an opponent’s character rather than lobbying the good a candidate intends to do. With advances in technology came new tactics and innovative tools for the art of deception. The media is no longer driven by the constitution, or compelled to deliver an unbiased information bank from which the public is able to draw conclusions and opinions independently. The motivation now is profit, whether it is monetary, stature, political power or influential force. The bottom line is that propaganda works.

Propaganda in America today is so successful because it manipulates and creates a no-way-out situation for the subjects. This unwinnable predicament that the victims find themselves in was carefully planned to allow zero room for reason or debate. As the years went on, propaganda techniques have shifted; however, the original formula holds true. Similar to blackmail, propaganda leaves its victims with no other option but to comply and submissively fold. The puppet masters feed the general population something to fear, and then quickly rise to the role of the protector before any truth or rationality is exposed. They bully action out of us and antagonize anger and fear, capitalizing on emotional blackmail and extort sympathy. As Adolf Hitler reflects, his mastery of propaganda becomes evident: “The whole art consists in doing this (calling the masses attention to something) so skillfully that everyone will be convinced that the fact is real, the process necessary, the necessity correct, etc. (Propaganda’s) effect, for the most part, must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” (Hitler, 1943, 180). All things considered, this may not be so bad if the creators were up front with their motives and agendas. However, being noble and forthright is dangerously close to being in compliance with our constitutional rights and, not to mention, would create a less than desirable effect in the eyes of the overseers. Propaganda is one of the greatest weapons of mass destruction ever created by man.

When exploring the finer mechanics of control, one underlying concept remains constant. There seems to be a sure fire formula for influencing the masses, i.e., fear plus anger equals control. The American government, by creating a monster to be fearful of and by evoking anger, has successfully gained the upper hand against free thought and rationality. By controlling the media, the government utilizes propaganda to its fullest capacity. In the forward of his book, Gerry Spence noted that, “We have become a culture that is fed hate; that has grown to crave hate, a hate-addicted culture that, like any other psychotic entity, can destroy itself absent treatment at the hands of those who still retain their ability to love and forgive.” (Spence, 2006, xii). This simple emotion seems more easily accessable and far more powerful than its counterpart, compassion. The real question of propaganda is who is being affected. Who is being targeted? Who is actively participating in this charade?

Anyone and everyone are affected by propaganda and we all have something to lose. There is a fine line between being educated and influenced by experiences, and perception and being conned into a frame of mind through manipulation and deceit. Fortunately for the government, it is more cost effective to gain popularity through the latter. Propaganda easily crosses generational lines by both the source and the victims. After all, we learn from those who have gone before us, and unfortunately, the ones who have gone before us have found the plutonium equivalent to swaying the majority. When examining the “silent generation”, ages 65+, we tend to find individuals who are set in their ways and tend to take a slower and steady course, unfaltering and unchanging. These folks tend to hold an ambiance of nostalgia. Having said that, older generations would most certainly benefit from taking a temperature check on their actions throughout the years and seeing how many if any were directly influenced by propaganda. The younger baby boomers and older generation Xers tend to be the most damaging to the cause. Here we tend to find ones who are easily swayed and tempted by materialistic idols and monetary gain- the go-getters. The younger generation, the “Millennia’s”, those who are just coming of age, feel socially and ethically responsible and are less inclined to be tempted by the darker arts of persuasion hold a slight advantage in this front. (Samuelson, 2010).

It would be unfair to generalize the generations and pigeon-hole a particular group into being a certain way. Equally, several other factors come into play when shaping an individual’s social scope of practice. It has been proven that propaganda only works when the audience is actively listening and then responding through actions. True, that when the deck is stacked it is hard to beat the house; however, with the right ammunition and education, propaganda can be diminished into the pages of history once again. Under the right conditions, hope can be found in all of the generations. Similar to the counter culture of the 1960s, the younger generation may, too, hold the key to changing the face of our country, by bringing in new blood and exposing the tainted. The future is anyone’s guess; though the direction it is headed in currently is not a sunny one as our government would like for us to think.

Works Cited

"Germany: We Demand!" TIME Magazine. July 10, 1933: 2.

Graves, Lisa. "Propaganda." Source Watch. March 9, 2010.

Hitler, Alolf. Mein Kampf. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1943.

Johnson-Cartee, Karen S., Copeland, Gary A. Strategic Political Communication: Rethinking Social Influences, Persuasion, and Propaganda. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Miller, Mark Crispin, interview by Ken McDermot Roe. "Propaganda 101: How to Manufacture Consent." History Counts (July 4, 2010).

"Propaganda." Dictionary.com. 2010.

Samuelson, Robert. "The Real Generation Gap." Real Clear Politics. (March 8, 2010)

Spence, Gerry. Blood Thirsty Bitches and Pious Pimps of Power: The Rise and Risk of the New Conservative Hate Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

Straker, David. "A Brief History of Propaganda." Changing Minds (2010).

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