Press, Pressure, and Propaganda
The “Press” got its name from the application of pressure onto blank paper to leave an impression — the written word. Newsprint is like an artists’ canvas, in that respect; and a symbolic enactment of what is deemed the originary state of the mind as being “blank slate” or tabula rasa.
In broader terms, however, making impressions on paper is only the first step in the goal of attempting to apply pressure on consciousness — to impress something deemed “newsworthy” or even “sensational” upon the nerve-endings of the consumer of the press.
The written word has a long history of uses and abuses, of course. The abuse of speech has long been of great interest and concern to me, particularly in the practice of propaganda, which really took off with the First World War and the technical problems of mass mobilisation and the systematic organisation of mass destruction. Yet, despite the efforts of numerous social observers to expose propaganda when it occurs — or what some, such as Jacques Ellul or Noam Chomsky more broadly deem “the propaganda system” in its totality — propaganda seems as ubiquitous as ever. Propaganda was born amidst destruction in order to wreak havoc upon speech, and upon the truth that all sincere and authentic speech aspires to reveal — therewith, also, to confound human reason and perspicuity.
The forms of lying and the ways of deceit are many. In consequence the definitions of propaganda have also tended to be plural and manifold. Nonetheless, it is an essential aspect of what we call “propaganda” that some element of deceit and some factor of deception is implicit in the communication which may, at first, be difficult to recognise. Even where the propagandist speaks a truth, he may do so from concealed motives — not to honour truth but to establish his credibility, for example, so that when it comes time to speak the big whopper of a lie his or her words will have the ring of truthiness or plausibility. He baits the hook, and reels in his audience, inducing in them a false perception of reality.
It may be enough to say that, while all authentic and sincere speech aspires to reveal the truth, propaganda pulls in the diametrically opposite direction — not revelation but velation; not transparency but obscurantism; not reason but rationalisation and cunning; and not truth but power is the dominant matter. Some element of duplicity is involved. Under the guise of providing a liberating insight or promise of freedom, the often concealed purpose of propaganda is to capture human perception and will, and to secretly and surreptitiously convert the individual’s purpose to the propagandist’s purposes, even without the audience’s knowing that it has been so manipulated, violated, co-opted, compromised, and essentially led into captivity.
If the essential ideal of all valid democracy is the ideal of “the free development of the personality,” then it becomes evident why propaganda represents such a challenge to democracy, for it aims not to liberate but to subjugate.
(By the way, this democratic value or ideal of “the free development of the personality” does not appear to have its origins in the Athenian state, or in tribalism or paganism. It appears to be an addition brought about by the universal religions, that no human being may be coerced or intimidated into religious life. A man or woman must come to God, truth, or faith by their own free will and not by threats, violence, or coercion. Where religious institutions and powers have forgotten this, becoming unreasonable or spiritually impotent as in the Inquisition, they have become degenerate and decadent.)
One of the great virtues of the internet lies in sometimes revealing the propaganda functions of the mainstream media, and it is my experience this morning with one such instance that aroused my thoughts once again on the subject of propaganda. On Thursday of this past week, the Conservative Harper government here in Canada brought down its latest budget. On the same day, here is how the headline of the Conservatively-oriented Financial Post read
“Cheers all around as Ottawa drops tariffs on hockey gear, other retail goods” (Thursday, 21 March, 2013)
However, the following day, apparently after some sober deliberation on the budget details, here is how The Globe & Mail headlined its story on the federal budget, (and both headlines appeared in the same Google news feed),
“Retailers warn of price hikes as Ottawa budget boosts tariffs” (Friday, 22 March, 2013)
Included in The Globe article (but not in the pro-government Financial Post article) was this observation about the supposedly dropped tariffs,
“While Thursday’s federal budget put a spotlight on lower tariffs for sports gear and baby clothes – a potential $76-million annual break for consumers – it also included proposals for steeper tariffs on goods imported from 72 countries, which could cost Canadian shoppers $330-million.”
The headlines are, of course, diametrically opposed in meaning and it is not at all uncommon to see this contradiction in the news feeds reporting on the same event. Nor is it the case, as The Globe article on the budget makes clear, that there were “cheers all around” at a supposed tax reduction, for in the broader picture it is actually a tax increase — a fact not reported in the pro-government paper, for which the warm fuzzy of a “mom and pop” story (one that the government wished to highlight while burying the other details of a tax increase) of a tariff relief on the cost of sports equipment (hockey) and baby clothes should have been seen as a case of “perception management” or spin. The author of The Financial Post article duly fell into lock-step with the government’s spin and propaganda, which is to be perceived as anti-tax.
That the “federal budget put a spotlight on lower tariffs for sports gear and baby clothes”, as The Globe reports, is a piece of cynical “bread and circuses” politics that the Post dutifully regurgitated without probing too much into the budgetary details. The Post thereby participated in a public deception and piece of “perception management” that must have been quite pleasing to the ruling party, whose members like to project a public image of themselves as competent financial managers and anti-tax crusaders.
This kind of propaganda and “perception management” has even acquired, recently, it’s own accepted euphemism, as “political truth,” — a euphemism for misrepresentation and outright deception. In fact, a lie is now acceptable and normal as long as it is not called a lie, but called a “political truth”, and is a frank admission that the state along with some complicit parts of the mass media, are engaged in systematic propaganda and public perception management.
Many people, I’ve found, are vulnerable to this kind of manipulation without understanding the consequences of it. The propagandist counts on that ignorance for the success of his trade. I do highly recommend Philip Knightley’s powerful book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam, as an excellent (being both instructive and quite entertaining) corrective and training in mental self-defence.