Thursday, 3 March 2011


What is the role of propaganda in modern society, and is it only useful in authoritarian societies? Modern propaganda was first institutionalized by the state by England during the First World War when a department of information was established, but it became a widespread practice in the era of Totalitarianism in the 1930s. The goal of propaganda is to convince the public of the correctness of government (and/or business) policies and practices, and to forge consensus and conformity.

Hitler's minister of propaganda Josef Geobbels employed the brilliant film-maker Leni Riefenstahl who made Triumph of the Will to deify Hitler and prepare the nation psychologically for war. Goebbels was a master propagandist using all means at his disposal to re-create German culture from the top down and forge a new identity and induce mechanical and spiritual conformity on the part of all citizens. Few have reached the evil genius of his level in manipulating an entire nation's social consciousness and views on all issues from family to war.

In the contemporary period advertisements, talk radio, TV analysis programs can be so convincing that the citizen will be persuaded to vote for a politician whose policies have been or will be completely antithetical to the interests of those voting for the candidate. This is not to suggest that modern advertising is as ruthless as that of Reich Minister Geobbels; only that it is much more subtle, complex, and above all an integral part of the entire society. Modern propaganda permeates all sectors from music, films - commercial and documentaries - TV, newspapers, magazines, blogs, schools, think tanks, publishing companies, and of course many companies devoted entirely to the art of  'marketing and public relations', otherwise known as propaganda in the time of Reich Minister Goebbels.

The business of propaganda is in every sector and it is itself big business without which neither the corporate nor political world can do without. This is because in the Age of Anxiety and cynicism contemporary humans living in an open society and with access to mass means of communications must conform through persuasive techniques rather than force into accepting the market political economy and its institutions. But how do we explain the situation in the Middle East and North Africa where society is not as open as in the West and not as flooded with modern means of communication?
Was propaganda by the state alone responsible for keeping the million of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa loyal to authoritarian regimes for decades, or was it the entire institutional structure that served to keep the people in subservient conformity until the younger generation exposed to new ideas and
seeing no future with existing regimes decided to risk dying in order to bring regime and perhaps institutional change.

Effective propaganda whether in Muslim nations or in the West is effective when it has become an integral part of the mass social consciousness and the individual's mode of thought and behavior to the degree that she/he is not even aware that they are conforming institutionally as a result of propagandist influences. In the era of Islamophobia throughout the West, cultural relativism is one way to have a greater appreciation of what is going on “over there,” and the second is self-criticism. This is not to say that cultural relativism should be taken to extremes to justify anything people wish to default.

If we resort to moral absolutes to condemn “the enemy” for falling victim to propaganda under Islam, would it be appropriate to adopt the same criteria to judge how millions of people are convinced that 'the demonized enemy' is of the 'alien faith' and thus perfectly appropriate to invade and occupy their country militarily as was the case with Afghanistan and Iraq. Is mass mind control through various means of propaganda responsible for millions of otherwise moral people supporting immoral policies and acts by their government?  If we are to resort to moral absolutes and claim moral superiority over “the enemy” on the issue of censorship, what about using the same criteria to judge the corporate-owned media that has historically used government “planted stories” regarding foreign and domestic policies?

Scholars like Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman who have addressed this issue in Manufacturing Consent. Mickey Huff and Peter Phillips of Project Censored keep a more up-to-date account of media censorship. Besides self-censorship that is essential for people to keep their jobs and survive in a culture of uniform conformity presenting itself as “pluralistic,” over the past decades there have been many stories that start in the media to test public reaction and then taken up by government, although it was government that planted them in the media.

There are countless such examples from how a country fall into favor with government and media - as the case of Israel that has been treated with a very favorable coverage in the US for decades, versus how government, media and most institutions have portrayed the Arabs. A more specific example of differences between approaches to censorship between closed societies like China or some Arab countries and an open society like the US is the case involving the blog that leaked the Pentagon documents about the war in Afghanistan.

Documentary film maker Michael Moore and Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers) joined forces in autumn 2010 to secure the release of Bradley Manning who leaked the confidential papers to WikiLeaks. Swedish authorities succumbing to US pressure targeted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the Australian national who chose Sweden as the base of operations because it is the most lenient country in the world for journalists. Subtle and overt pressure on expression of ideas comes from all directions for those working in the mainstream western media, but no one calls it propaganda and very few would argue that it is based on the model that Reich Minister Goebbels was pursuing.

There is the notion that just because there is a liberal bourgeois regime operating under a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, that automatically translates to all voices being heard equally, and that propaganda is something 'the enemy does'. One could argue that the web affords all voices the opportunity to be heard, but to what degree is the web shaping public opinion in comparison with mainstream media and institutions which are also a large part of the web?

There is a presumption that the Western media and government have inculcated into the public mind that the US and for that matter western nations have some kind of moral superiority, a “secular Liberal purity” over Islamic countries where “Sharia law” prevails. Westerners would probably feel an asphyxiating climate in Islamic countries, but that is attributable to cultural conditioning, just as many Muslims see the West as hedonistic, morally decadent, hegemonic, and destructive. Propaganda is ubiquitous throughout the world, but “propaganda” is what the other is doing, while “we are merely informing and educating the public”  in a benevolent manner, and at worst engaged in public relations.

As I have noted in a previous posting about Wikipedia and the possible alleged Zionist influence, propaganda is subjective reality. Unlike the Islamic Middle East that appears to people in the West as crude and direct in fostering propaganda, in the West the machinery is often subtle, sophisticated, and complex, above all deliberately portrayed as an integral part of the “open society” designed to protect citizens by informing and educating them for their own good. Co-optation has been one of the most significant aspects of subtle and sophisticated mechanisms of western propaganda.

After all, is it not true that hip-hop and rap music started as protest music in poor black communities, but quickly became part of the white establishment and used by the mainstream institutions to foster conformity? And is it not true that rock and roll also had protest roots but it too became so establishment that we now have “Christian rock” and a rock tune as background music for cereal commercials? Why should the West censor music when it can more easily co-opt it and use it as propaganda to serve the establishment?


Anonymous said...

What of the propaganda submitted via an Eastern route found in this article?

In the context of propaganda, this article could be viewed as attempting to conform a specific population, but it does not appear to be very persuasive--with one exception--their military. And you may find elements of a strategic tactic (Sun Tsu)-- seeding fear.

This article also reflects on a survey presented in the form of a questionnaire in China; but, one might ask, "who were the recipients of such a survey and who assessed the 2005 results?"

If we read this article written by the unseen hand and give merit to further investigation labeling it propaganda-data exhibit A, it would still provide information.

Communism/Marxist theory does not mix well with any heirarchical society. And for those who might think differently, an illustration: it is similar to believing iron and clay can adhere together in order to form the feet of a large statue.

The question that was asked by Pontius Pilate in early AD could be asked again today:

"What is the truth?"

The truth was staring him in the face.

Anonymous said...

Any nation/society that fosters or culturally conditions (oh, and inculcates into the public mind) a cultural and/or religious belief that females are inferior human beings - who shouldn't have and certainly shouldn't demand the same basic rights as males is a morally bankrupt society. That, for many of us, is one reason why Western nations have a right to feel moral superiority. There's plenty that's wrong with Western society but rights to education, economic independence, equality before the law, choice of partner and the freedom of expression and freedom of and from religion are precious and envied by those less fortunate in Islamic states