The Fine Art of Propaganda



Once upon a time, this blog was going to be about my writing. My process. But deep in the research of a novel set in the 1930’s, I found myself in a dark mirror of our own times:

“Perhaps the most important lesson yet learned from the steadily rising conflict between democracy and the dictatorships is that, if American citizens are to have a clear understanding of conditions and what to do about them, they must be able to recognize propagandas, to analyze it, and to appraise it.”— The Fine Art of Propaganda, A Study of Father Coughlin’s Speeches, (hereafter TFAoP) Harcourt Brace and Company, 1939

Time travel with me, and let’s explore and discuss the ideas set forth in this book.

“The first principle of action in a democracy is that all mature members share through their representatives in the making of decisions affecting public policy. They must understand the decisions such leaders make, and they must have alternative courses to which to turn by peaceful means. It is thus essential in a democratic society that young people and adults learn how to think, learn how to make up their minds. They must learn how to think independently, and they must learn how to think together. They must come to conclusions, but at the same time, they must recognize the right of other men to come to opposite conclusions. So far as individuals are concerned, the art of democracy is the art of thinking and discussing independently together.”—TFAoP, foreword

Social media is a perfect vehicle for propaganda. It allows us to isolate ourselves in pools of like-minding people, echo chambers that heat our emotions and confirm our suspicions without ever being asked to listen to someone we love or respect who has a different opinion.

Propaganda thrives on emotion. It shuts down thought, analysis, and discussion. A democracy cannot survive when propaganda goes unchecked and unchallenged. Our democracy cannot survive if we let propagandas separate and isolate us. We need to slow down, think deeply, and truly engage in conversation. This conversation cannot be left to the internet where it may never be seen my those who disagree. We must bring the conversation into the flesh-and-blood world of our family, friends, and neighbors. We have to learn to think critically and discuss independently together again.

So what is propaganda?

I’m going to use the definitions offered in TFAoP: “As generally understood, propaganda is opinion expressed for the purpose of influencing actions of individuals or groups. More formally, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis has defined propaganda as “expression of opinion or actions by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends.”—TFAoP, page 15

All political parties and all governments use propaganda. It is our job to figure out whether the propaganda is beneficial to our democracy or not. Again, I am going to refer to TFAoP:

“When does a propaganda conform to democratic principles?

It conforms when it tends to preserve and extend democracy; it is antagonistic when it undermines or destroys democracy.

How broadly should we define democracy?

Democracy has the four following aspects, set for or definitely implied in the Constitution and Federal statutes:

1. Political—Freedom to discuss fully and effectively and to vote on public issues.
2. Economic—Freedom to work and to participate in organizations and discussions to promote better working standards and higher living conditions.
3. Social—Freedom from oppression based on theories of superiority or inferiority of group, class, or race.
4. Religious—Freedom of worship, with separation of church and state.

In short, democracy is the one political, economic, and social philosophy which permits the free expression and development of the individual in a culture.”—TFAoP pgs. 18-19

TFAoP explains “the ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis” like this:

ASCERTAIN the conflict element in the propaganda you are analyzing. All propaganda contains a conflict element in some form or other—either as a cause, or as the effect, or as both cause and effect.

BEHOLD your own reaction to this conflict element. It is always necessary to know and to take into consideration our own opinions with regard to a conflict situation about which we feel strongly, on which we are prone to take sides. This information permits us to become more objective in our analysis.

CONCERN yourself with today’s propaganda associated with today’s conflicts. These are the ones that affect directly our income, business, working conditions, health, education and religious, political and social responsibilities. It is all too easy to analyze some old examples of Propaganda, no having the little relation to vital issues.

DOUBT that your opinions are “your very own.” They usually aren’t. Our opinions, even with respect to today’s propagandas, have been largely determined for us by inheritance and environment. We are born white or black, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or “pagan”; rich or poor; in the North or East, or South or West; on a farm or in a city. Our beliefs and actions mirror the conditioning influences of home and neighborhood, church and school, vocation and political party, friends, and associates. We resemble others with similar inheritance and environment and are bound to them by ties of common experience. We tend to respond favorable to their opinions and propagandas because they are “our kind of people” We tend to distrust the opinions of those who differ from us in inheritance and environment. Only drastic changes in our life conditions, with new and different experiences, associations and influences, can offset or cancel out the effect of inheritance and long years of environment.

EVALUATE, therefore, with the greatest care, your own propagandas. We must learn clearly why we act and believe as we do with respect to various conflicts and issues—political, economic, social, and religious. Do we believe and act as we do because our fathers were strong Republicans or lifelong Democrats; because our fathers were members of labor unions or were employers who fought labor unions; because we are Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Catholics, or Jews? This is very important.

FIND THE FACTS before you come to any conclusion. There is usually plenty of time to form a conclusion and believe in it later on. Once we learn how to recognize propaganda, we can most effectively deal with it by suspending our judgment until we have time to learn the facts and the logic or trickery involved in the propaganda in question. We must ask:

Who is this propagandist?
How is he trying to influence our thoughts and actions?
For what purpose does he use the common propaganda devices?
Do we like his purposes?
How does he use words and symbols?
What are the exact meanings of his words and symbols?
What does the propagandist try to make these words and symbols appear to mean?
What are the basic interests of this propagandist?
Do his interests coincide with the interests of most citizens of our society as we see it?

GUARD always, finally, against omnibus words. They are the words that make us the easy dupes of propagandists. Omnibus or carryall words are words that are extraordinarily difficult to define. They carry all sorts of meanings to the various sorts of men. Therefore, the best test for the truth or falsity of propaganda lies in specific and concrete definitions of the words and symbols used by the propagandist. Moreover, sharp definition is the best antidote against words that carry a high charge of emotion.” TFAoP, pgs. 16-18

One more important point. Harmful propaganda ignores or twists facts to try to make something appear to be reasonable and logical that is not reasonable or logical at all.

“Propaganda … differs fundamentally from scientific analysis. The propagandist tries to “put something across,” good or bad. The scientist does not try to put anything across’ he devotes his life to the discovery of new facts and principles. The propagandist seldom wants careful scrutiny and criticism; his object is to bring about a specific action. The scientist, on the other hand, is always prepared for and wants the most careful scrutiny and criticism of his facts and ideas. Science flourishes on criticism. Dangerous propaganda crumbles before it.”—TFAoP, page 15

For the next few weeks, let’s analyze and appraise current propaganda, thinking and discussing independently together. Here is a piece of propaganda that was published as this blog post was being written. Post your own example in the comments, or use this one and let’s discuss.

“The press was trying to make it seem like we were ignoring the facts,” Spicer told Fox News’ Sean Hannity during an interview that aired Tuesday night (you can see it here). “The facts are, sometimes when you look at a situation, in the same way that you can look at a weather report. One weather report comes out and says it’s going to be cloudy, and another says it’s going to be light rain. No one lied to you. It just means you interpreted the data in a way that you felt got you to a conclusion.”


5 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Propaganda

  1. Meg

    I’ll take the example you’ve given, and the questions you have given to ask about a piece of propaganda.

    Who is this propagandist? The Press Secretary, a federal employee.

    How is he trying to influence our thoughts and actions? He wants people to believe that the assertion he made for the president, that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” he said, visibly outraged. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”, and he wants people to believe that he is not lying.

    For what purpose does he use the common propaganda devices? To make it seem like the enthusiasm for Trump’s presidency is… unprecedented.

    Do we like his purposes? I don’t.

    How does he use words and symbols? He uses “the press” to impugn all press that fact-checked his statement. He uses “the facts are” to then say you can look at verifiable numbers of people and interpret those numbers in different ways and still be correct.

    Someone else pick it up from there!

  2. Meg

    A much better weather analogy would be: two people are looking at an analysis of the weather yesterday, when it rained. One person says, “it rained” and the other person says, “it did not rain.” The fact that it rained yesterday is observable and measurable. One of these people is correct, and the other no matter how he interprets the data is incorrect.

    Spicer uses a weather forecast analogy to introduce uncertainty into a situation that is measurable.

    • AuntyBooks

      Hi, Meg! I like this analogy. I don’t like his purposes, and I think he is using propaganda in a way that is not in the best interests of the people of this country. I would be happy to discuss any of his statements with people on this blog.

  3. I come from certain principles rather than “facts” or “alternative facts. ” Facts, so called, are indeed more slippery than we are taught at school.
    Discernment is an ever-needed and ever-challenging task, one we don’t get to hang on a hook in the closet and take out when we need to don a cloak of thoughtfulness.

    • AuntyBooks

      Welcome to the conversation, Mirka! I agree that facts are slippery….but I think there is a difference between ‘facts’ such as measurable events that have actually occurred, such as the rain in Meg’s post, and opinions or even eye-witness accounts in which we have to take our own viewer bias into consideration. For instance, if three people witness a car accident there are facts–what actually happen–and there are the various eye-witness accounts to take into consideration. To figure out the facts, you must listen to each account carefully and decide based on the physical evidence and the other eyewitness accounts what actually happened.

      It gets very slippery when an event such as a questionable police shooting takes place. Suddenly the witnesses prior experience with police becomes important to their interpretation of what they have seen. I have had several encounters with the police that have made me question their motives and the way they treat poor people. A good friend of mine has only ever had positive experiences with the police. She always affords the officer the benefit of the doubt.

      The problem comes in if when discussing the case I use what TFAoP calls Card Stacking–selection and use of facts or falsehoods, illustrations or distractions, and logical or illogical statements–in order to give the best or the worst possible case for my opinion.

      I have sat on juries and listened as competing lawyers worked stack and shuffle the facts and attempt to play the emotions of the jurors. Our legal system functions on the belief that in discussing these conflicting arrangements and interpretations of evidence, the jurors will come to a sensible agreement.

      One of the problems in our world today is people who expose themselves only to what TFAoP calls, “‘monoploistic’ Card Stacking, of submitting ourselves to a barrage of evidence presented from but one viewpoint.” This would include people who read only one news source or listen to one news station. We need to listen to liberals and conservatives. And we need to discuss our ideas in a truly democratic way.

      Hmmmm. I think my next post will be on card stacking!

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