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Some First Thoughts on Propaganda

So I've been working on the media piece - about the role of media in creating and nurturing national mood - and, of course it's impossible (for me, anyway) to digest what I'm seeing down into a blog post because it's a woolly topic and one where I keep picking up threads - Homer! - Habermas! - and following them out to distraction.

Which means I've been reading a lot. I've looked and looked for the pithy quote that sums my position, or even a book to point you to. And to be honest, haven't found it.

The closest things I've found have been in Clausewitz and in Thucydides, about which more later.

I've talked in the past about 'wicked' problems - problems that are not readily reducible to formulas, which cannot be 'rationalized' in the traditional sense (although recent advanced in agent-based modelling are actually beginning to put a net over them) and which we have to conceive of in different ways than the formal, rational, deterministic ones we use in discussion, planning, and often in politics.

The result of living outside those rational models (which we do, whether we admit it or not) is that we spend a lot of time not knowing how we're doing.

Prince Hal stated it best:
KING HENRY V
I tell thee truly, herald, I know not if the day be ours or no;
For yet a many of your horsemen peer
And gallop o'er the field.
MONTJOY
The day is yours.
KING HENRY V
Praised be God, and not our strength, for it! What is this castle call'd that stands hard by?
MONTJOY
They call it Agincourt.
When you don't know if you are winning or losing, when the decision is outside rational calculation, how do you decide what to do? Combat is obviously the extreme case, but it serves as an example of anything that must be done that is difficult and where the outcomes are unknowable. You act on faith, and prejudice, and to a lesser extent, on fear.

You have faith in yourself and those with whom you are struggling. You are prejudiced, because you believe that your succeeding - Henry and the English winning at Agincourt - is better than your failing. And you are afraid, both of the real losses that will come if you lose, but of the loss of reputation, of esteem, of the regard of trust of your fellows. back to Henry:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood's cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
In early warfare (and in modern as well) one of the roles of the leader is to inspire the troops with speech before the battle. Thucydides is full of these speeches:
Remembering this, the old must equal their ancient exploits, and the young, the sons of the heroes of that time, must endeavour not to disgrace their native valour; and trusting in the help of the god whose temple has been sacrilegiously fortified, and in the victims which in our sacrifices have proved propitious, we must march against the enemy, and teach him that he must go and get what he wants by attacking someone who will not resist him, but that men whose glory it is to be always ready to give battle for the liberty of their own country, and never unjustly to enslave that of others, will not let him go without a struggle.
These speeches amplify the faith, prejudice, and fear of those who listen to them. Is that a reprehensible thing? To us, those three words are themselves pejorative.

The arguments that support them we call propaganda, which is itself a significantly pejorative term today.

But should it be? And if it is, what does that mean in terms of how we function as a society?

The LA Times today had an article about the new film on Flight 93, which cast a fascinating light on the issue. The article, "Is America ready for movies about 9/11?" talks about films as propaganda:
While some might think Hollywood is moving too quickly, history suggests otherwise. Within five months of the Pearl Harbor attack, Republic Pictures had cranked out "Remember Pearl Harbor," the first in a series of Hollywood films that sought to depict the war and rally the American spirit.

"The nation was totally mobilized for war," said Robert Sklar, a cinema studies professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, who watched from the roof of his apartment building as the twin towers fell. "There was an Office of War Information that had some direct control over Hollywood, and there was the Army Signal Corps producing documentaries. People like Frank Capra and John Ford and John Huston went into the military and made films."

Some films were overt propaganda; others were more subtle.

"There was a string back then about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and kind of holy crusade that came after that," said Richard Jewell, a professor in USC's School of Cinema-Television. "There were a lot of movies made during that time period that dealt with events in the war that weren't that great for the U.S. but that were used for propaganda to show how brave our people were even when they lost battles, like Bataan and Wake Island."

Only after the war was over did movies take a less one-dimensional view.
More nuanced movies began coming out shortly after the war's end, such as "The Best Years of Our Lives" in 1946, about soldiers trying to resume their prewar existences, up through "The Men" in 1950, about wounded soldiers trying to recover physically and emotionally in a veterans' hospital.

"Relatively soon after World War II, we were able to show the soldiers in a much more complex light as opposed to having them be unambiguously heroic," Rodman said. "We could show the cost of the war on our soldiers, which is something we could not have done during the war."

The Korean War similarly gave rise to "The Steel Helmet" in 1951, a grunt's view of the war zone, but "MASH" didn't materialize until 1970 — and though set in a Korean War mobile medical unit, the movie was generally viewed as a Vietnam allegory. A year after the 1975 fall of Saigon, more direct treatments came out, such as "Taxi Driver" in 1976, which helped establish the now-familiar character of the troubled Vietnam veteran; "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home" in 1978, followed by "Apocalypse Now" in 1979.

Between Korea and Vietnam, the role of the filmmaker moved from the propagandist to the critic, and our national hero moved from John Wayne to Travis Bickle.

The problem, of course, is that without the self-confidence of faith - and yes, without prejudice and fear - it's probably very hard to fight a war. To many, that's a feature, not a bug, I get it. But...

...let's put war aside for a moment and ask ourselves how it is that we can function as a society without a certain kind of faith (I'm not suggesting religious faith, but rather the kind of faith that Schaar talks about:
"To be a patriot is to have a patrimony; or, perhaps more accurately, the patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts; one is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines what he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two are barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its homes and fears come from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those who will come after.

But such primary experiences are nearly inaccessible to us. We are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. Robert Frost's stark line, "This land was ours, before we were the land's." condenses the whole story of American patriotism. We do not and cannot love the land the way the Greek and Navaho loved theirs. The graves of some of our ancestors are here, to be sure, but most of us would be hard pressed to find them: name and locate the graves of your great-grandparents."

"But if instinctive patriotism and the patriotism of the city cannot be ours, what can be? Is there a type of patriotism peculiarly American: if so, is it anything more than patriotism's violent relative nationalism?

Abraham Lincoln, the supreme authority on this subject, thought there was a patriotism unique to America. Americans, a motley gathering of various races and cultures, were bonded together not by blood or religion, not by tradition or territory, not by the calls and traditions of a city, but by a political idea. We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles, and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic. They make the American nation unique, and uniquely valuable among and to the other nations. But the other side of this conception contains a warning very like the warnings spoken by the prophets to Israel: if we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we."

Schaar's claim is made against the kind of reflexive and abstract cosmopolitanism that Chris Bertram talks about today:
I recently wrote a review of a couple of books on global justice, one of which expended a great deal of effort in explaining how a liberal cosmopolitanism could be consistently combined with a reasonable patriotism. For some reason, the concern to combine these positions seems to especially concern liberal Americans who want be good patriots and think of themselves as endorsing universal values at one and the same time. Well I guess I agree about this far: that, within the limits justice allows, one both may feel an affection for one’s country and compatriots and promote the good of that nation and community, just as one can legitimately promote the good of one’s family and friends within the bounds set by justice.
To Bertram, patriotism is a kind of affection; like the affection one might have for a sports team or a television show (yes, I'm being a bit dismissive, but affection is itself a dismissive term). Schaar (and I) would disagree.

To Bertram and others, the intention is to reclaim the sphere of the political from the sphere of belief; to create an abstract, Rawlsian, rules-based justice and then expect that the result will be something other than the Panopticon.

I'll switch to a scene from Yankee Doodle Dandy (released in 1942):
President: I'm sorry I missed the opening of your show. George: Maybe it was just as well.
President: Don't worry about it. We understand each other perfectly...The Herald Tribune says that you make a better president in I'd Rather Be Right than I am.
George: Don't forget, that's a Republican newspaper.
President: I can remember you and your family very well - the Four Cohans.
George: Do you really, Mr. President? That was a long time ago.
President: Yes, it was while I was attending school near Boston.
George: (smiling to himself) I was a pretty cocky kid in those days - a pretty cocky kid. A regular Yankee Doodle Dandy, always carrying a flag in a parade or following one.
President: I hope you haven't outgrown the habit.
George: Not a chance.
President: Well that's one thing I've always admired about you Irish-Americans. You carry your love of country like a flag, right out in the open. It's a great quality.
George: I inherited that - I got that from my father. He ran away to the Civil War when he was thirteen - the proudest kid in the whole state of Massachusetts.
President: So you've spent your life telling the other forty-seven states what a great country it is.
George: Well, I never thought of it just that way before, but I guess that's about the size of it. And I lost no time either. It started with a very funny incident about sixty years ago...
So here's the question. Could we have won World War II without George M. Cohan, Frank Capra, and Michael Curtiz? Without Rick's Cafe Americain? How would history have been different if M.A.S.H had been released in 1952?

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