The Propaganda Weapon: Fake News and False Memory
When I was an undergraduate, one of my professors (and later my supervisor) steered me in the direction of propaganda analysis. He had been a resistance fighter in Belgium during the Second World War and had been mightily impressed by the power of propaganda to mobilise the energies of the nations for collective mass suicide. Having lived through that period, he came to see the propaganda weapon as the chief danger and threat to the realisation of any kind of human or humane social order.
So, I dived right into the question of propaganda with a sense of mission, both here in Canada and in Germany, where I eventually went to continue my studies and most especially to research the social legacy of the Nazi propaganda system in terms of its current impacts on the German language.
Louis’ way was not to begin with definitions. Definitions were conclusions, not beginnings, and were framed only from direct experience and after long, patient study and reflection on the data. Consequently, I began my propaganda studies without a functional definition or a working hypothesis, although, one after another, I adopted other researcher’s definitions only to discard them shortly afterwards as insufficient.
We did begin with an assumption, though, that propaganda was pathology or a symptom of a situation of social pathology. We approached it, then, as if in the situation of the epidemiologist or medical researcher who is confronted with a previously unknown and terrible disease, who must identify and isolate the active agent in order to develop the cure or the inoculant. Our approach to propaganda was, similarly, one of “mental hygiene” as being also a necessary complement to physical hygiene. The assumption we had was that propaganda violated the integrity of the mind or soul, inducing pathological behaviours that required mental defences or countermeasures. We would diagnose and analyse propaganda, identify and isolate the effective elements of propaganda, and develop those countermeasures.
This had been attempted before. The American Institute of Propaganda Analysis (1937 – 1942) was active during the interwar years. I have all the circulars which they published then. Ironically, even revealingly, the Institute of Propaganda Analysis voluntarily closed up shop when the United States entered the war in 1942, fitting testimony to the old saying about truth being the first casualty. They never reformed after the war, either.
The widespread — perhaps even naive — assumption amongst researchers (including me at the time) was that if people were made aware of the tricks of the propagandist, they would begin to arm and shield themselves against being manipulated or violated. It came as something of a shock to me when, during my studies of the history of Nazi propaganda in Germany, I discovered that many people already knew many of those “tricks”, knew that they were being manipulated, but went along with it anyway, even enthusiastically. Providing them with prophylactics or shields or countermeasures would have made no difference at all. Many wanted, indeed needed, to believe the propaganda despite knowing that it was mostly untrue — fake news and false memory.
This “will to believe” is what is called “symbolic belief”. Harry Enten at The Guardian devoted an article to that phenomenon back in March, 2012 (“Why Obama is a “Muslim”“). Symbolic beliefs are beliefs held with dogmatic and fanatical certainty despite the subject knowing in their “heart of hearts” — tacitly and implicitly — that it is untrue or very probably untrue. Much that is currently named as “fake news”, “false memory”, “post-truth”, conspiracy theory and the problem of “post-historic man” belongs to this phenomenon of “symbolic belief” directly connected with propaganda and the need to believe — even if it leads to “heroic” self-destruction.
This need to believe that takes the form of “symbolic belief” seems to have many propaganda researchers stumped or mystified. It leads into the murky subjective world of inner motivations and intentions. I’ve found Iain McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics and the divided brain somewhat helpful in that respect: The Master and His Emissary (as well as Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom). Despite all the lip-service that is paid publicly to “freedom” or “the truth that sets free” when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, many people — perhaps even most people — prefer the comforting familiarity of “the mind-forg’d manacles” as William Blake called it. The “preference for the familiar” (as British conservative Michael Oakeshott defined conservatism) can indeed be diabolical in that respect, and particularly in respect of what Blake also calls “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”. I’m not entirely persuaded, though, that this “preference for the familiar” (or “loyalty” to precedent or to “the natural order of things” as the conservative Edmund Burke called it) is sufficient to explain “symbolic belief” as a whole.
Propaganda, as we know it today, had its beginnings largely in the First World War, the first “industrial scale” war. Hitler attributed the defeat of Germany in World War I solely to the superior effectiveness of the Allied propaganda weapon, which he then honed to a near science. Some researchers, though, credit the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France as being the first modern propagandist. Others credit Napoleon, on the other hand, with being the first propagandist.
But the story of propaganda (its weaponisation, as it were) begins with the Catholic Congregatio de Propaganda Fide or “The Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” (or “the Roman Congregation for the Evangelisation of the Peoples”, or “Roman Congregation of Propaganda”) founded in 1622, the aim of which was to largely combat and roll back the Protestant Reformation. But it has earlier, more benign and auspicious precedents that are truly revealing when we reflect on them in relation to its subsequent history culmination in contemporary propaganda technology.
The very words “propaganda” and “technology” are closely linked historically. The sciences of the High Middle Ages distinguished between what was called “The Trivium” (logic, grammar, rhetoric) and “the Quadrivium” (music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic). Together these constituted the “seven liberal arts”, but the Trivium constituted the high arts and the Quadrivium the lower arts. The very first use of the word “technology”, I found, was associated with the Trivium as “reasoning about the means”. A later Age of revolutionary disposition inverted all that. Elevating logic, grammar, and rhetoric to the high sciences was judged to be largely irrational, and it is from the Trivium that we get the word “trivial”.
It makes complete sense, though, once you understand the concerns of the most creative minds of the High Middle Ages. They were not interested in the “facts of the matter”, but in the “truth that sets free” — eternal, abiding truth and how to represent it adequately within the secular order in a way that inspired the soul to awaken. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric were all about how to inspire the soul with knowledge of the “truth that sets free” or by planting the seed of faith or inspiration in the human soul. This was the origin of “propaganda” and of the meaning of “technology” as “reasoning about the means” — those means by which eternal truth — or the truth that sets free — could be adequately represented in language via logic, grammar and rhetoric and in such a way that it would arouse the soul to faith by inspiration, or what we call “quickening of the spirit”.
Propaganda and technology have very ironic origins indeed! Having started out as sacred arts and sciences, they were largely weaponised during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, finally ending today as profanations of their original forms — not to awaken or inspire the soul to “the truth that sets free” but rather to enslave it, debase it, and entangle it in “the mind-forg’d manacles”.
Ironically, there is still a thread of a connection between the old means and ends of propaganda and technology as being the sciences of inspiration and their newer technocratic forms. Whereas the old sought to awaken and inspire the soul, the new seeks rather to merely enthuse or arouse the lizard brain and calls this “awakening” (“irrational exuberance” and the engineering of bubbles being a case in point) or to instill “branded behaviours”, or all those matters, like “perception management”, that belong to what Algis Mikunas called “technocratic shamanism” (in his essay “Magic and Technological Culture”).
This is, necessarily, a fairly cursory overview of the origins, history and development of what we today call “propaganda” (or technology). There certainly was a “technology of propaganda” in the High Middle Ages, although it certainly did not mean then what it has come to mean today. Inspiration and enthusiasm are not quite the same thing. One might say that the latter is only the shadow of the former. And certainly the Catholic Church itself, during the Counter-Reformation, contributed its own share to that profanation.
We can only understand “propaganda” as it was then and what it has become now, by recognising that there is a valid distinction between the “truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter”, and that this question bears on the relationship of eternity to time, or the infinite and to the finite and all that is temporal or transient. By following that historical trajectory we can appreciate the meaning of the Kali Yuga as an ongoing “fall into time” and terms like “spiritual materialism”.
Jean Gebser’s “ever-present origin” and the “truth that sets free” are practically synonymous. But if we continue on our current trajectory in this matter, no outcome seems likely other than total brutalisation and total dehumanisation of the species.