Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Value Of Propaganda

I always thought of propaganda as being a bad thing. In fact, in school I was taught about it as if it were a bad thing. Communist propaganda. Nazi propaganda. Socialist propaganda. Marxist Leninist propaganda.

In truth, Merriam Webster defines it more broadly:
Main Entry: pro·pa·gan·da
Pronunciation: "prä-p&-'gan-d&, "prO-
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin, from Congregatio de propaganda fide Congregation for propagating the faith, organization established by Pope Gregory XV died 1623
1 capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions
2 : the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3 : ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect
Whenever some history class made reference to Nazi or Communist propaganda, I always had the same recurring thought: How stupid must those people have been to fall for that shit? The answer, it appears, is not very. I have since decided it has nothing at all to do with intelligence but rather a willingness to believe. I think the kind of people who are susceptible to propaganda are those who are mostly already on board and just need a little rally point to get all the way there. A way to overcome the last, lingering doubt that tickles the back of their brain so they can join the herd of true believers. The non-believers are (as non-believers always are) the skeptical ones.

If propaganda were just a persuasionary device it would rank neutral on the scale of good and evil. I can think of lots of things that fall under the category of mere persuasion. I use ideas and information to persuade occasionally right here on this blog (when I am not busy alienating both of my readers). The problem with propaganda is that it's often tempting to misrepresent data in order to produce the desired thought outcome.

I accept a certain amount of propaganda in times of war because I think it's important to play up your victories and soften your opposition. War is as much psychological as it is physical. As such, the media swarm around Pat Tillman's voluntary tour of Afghanistan didn't bother me. I would consider this to be "good" propaganda... Pat Tillman giving up a multi-million pro-football career to selflessly serve his country was an amazing and uplifting story. The story around his death and subsequent receipt of the silver star was not. Friendly fire is a cold fact of war. It is a hideous circumstance but there is no dishonor in dying that way. The only dishonor was trying to turn Tillman's death into something it wasn't and awarding him a silver star for it.

I was a little more suspicious of the gloriously produced rescue of Jessica Lynch. If the information we received about Jessica Lynch's capture had been factually correct, or if her rescue hadn't been carefully scripted (they waited a day to rescue her to ensure a film crew was ready?) it would have served as "good" propaganda. As it turned out, the facts were purposely distorted to achieve a desired result -- thereby falling into the "bad" propaganda category.

There are some striking similarities in the distortion of the Tillman and Lynch events, as documented in today's congressional hearing:
Tillman's death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

His family was initially misled by the Pentagon and did not learn the truth for more than a month. Tillman was awarded a Silver Star based on fabricated accounts -- who fabricated them still isn't clear after several investigations.

"We don't know what the secretary of defense knew, we don't know what the White House knew," Waxman said. "What we do know is these were not a series of accidents, these stories. They were calculatedly put out for a public relations purpose. ... Even now there seems to be a cover-up."
*snip
The committee also heard Tuesday from Jessica Lynch, the former Army private who was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq in 2003. She was later rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital, but the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of heroism on her part.

Still hampered by her injuries, Lynch walked slowly to the witness table and took a seat alongside Tillman's family members.

"The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate lies," Lynch said.
There is value in "good" propaganda but "bad" propaganda created in order to manipulate our responses betrays trust that will never be recovered.

At least for me.

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