None Dare Call It Propaganda

By Ben Price

It's hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head. - Sally Kempton

Rush Limbaugh would hoot derisively if you called his radio program and accused him of spreading right-wing propaganda. Even though, clearly, that is what he is doing and everyone to the left of Father Charles Coughlin (McCarthy era radio broadcasting conservative and noted anti-semite) knows it, you can't get away with saying so. Do you know why? It's because he's been successful at propagandizing Americans and their media owners (that part was easy!) into doubting the legitimacy of such criticism.

But there should be no doubt. In 1965 Jaques Ellul Published Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. It is the classic text on the subject, full of insights into the conscious manipulation of the psychology of masses by political and economic powers with the means to implement such programs and the "free time" to invest in researching the target population's vulnerabilities. (Obviously, the most profound vulnerability of the working class is their lack of "free time" or free capital to hire help in resisting the onslaught of disinformation that is culled, sculpted, groomed, packaged and distributed for their consumption). I'll come back to Ellul's book in a moment.

The strongest argument made by the Limbaughs, Hannitys , O'Reileys, Coulters and their unkind is this: you can not fault them as anti-democratic propagandists in a democratic society that's supposed to tolerate all points of view. You can't say their viewpoint is illegitimate and at the same time claim to defend democratic ideals.

This premise, which successfully conceals their disingenuousness under a veneer of egalitarianism, perpetrates a neat bait and switch. The notion that the ideas they promulgate deserve the same respect as any other opinion expressed in the "market place of ideas" slips past our skeptical challenge because they rightly predict that we have it as a social priority to appear fair-minded. Never-the-less, we really should challenge their claim to equal time and polite consideration when it becomes clear (as it ineluctably does!) that what they are advocating is the overthrow of the will of the people, to be replaced by the oligarchic rule of a corporate elite.

Recognizing that this is their goal does not liberate our tongues to speak our opinions freely even though they would have us let them speak freely (though in disguised terms) about the overthrow of the rule of the governed. In fact, these right-wing ideologues adopt the vernacular of the patriot and intone against the "freedom hating liberals" who would challenge their ascent to power, and they get away with it without being challenged for the false premises and the dishonesty that underlie their well-funded and aggressive strategy.

How does it work so well for them? How have they been so successful at co-opting the discourse of liberty and turning it to the advancement of democracy's extinction? Why can at least 50% of the American electorate stomach George W. Bush's assertions that his pre-emptive military doctrine, rejected by most of the civilized world, is really just a tool for the global spread of democracy? How is it that the popular media ideologues who serve as echo chambers for this militant administration's global aggression manage to use the jargon of liberty without being laughed off the podium? Jaques Ellul had this to say:

With the help of propaganda one can do almost anything, but certainly not create the behavior of a free man or, to a lesser degree, a democratic man. A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself - of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas make the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a 'totalitarian man with democratic convictions,' but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely 'the sacred formulas of democracy' while acting like a storm trooper.

Enter Limbaugh and the "Ditto Heads." Enter Hannity and Coulter. Enter O'Reiley. Exit rational thought. So, you don't think propaganda is so effective, that it can really change the direction of human society? Please consider as Ellul continues:

All democracy that is maintained or propagated through propaganda eventually scores this success, which is its own negation with regard to the individual and the truth.

But can things really be that way?

I said above that, generally, those who tend to deny propaganda's efficacy unconsciously hold a concept of the inalienable value of the individual. Those who accept its efficacy hold a materialistic concept. So far as I am concerned, I would much prefer to be able to assert that man is invulnerable, that few dangers exist for him in present-day society, that propaganda can do nothing to him. Unfortunately, the experiences of the last half century are not encouraging in this respect. Moreover it seems to me that the belief in propaganda's harmlessness and the spreading of this belief are ultimately detrimental to man. For man then is reassured in the face of attacks, he believes in his invulnerability and in the ineffectiveness of the attack, and his will to resist is greatly diminished. Why lose one's time and wastes one's efforts defending oneself against propaganda if propaganda is merely child's play and empty talk by ridiculous tyrants? If the propagandee takes that attitude, he is in the most favorable position to obey without knowing it, to drift into the routine of propaganda while claiming to be supremely superior.

The only truly serious attitude - serious because the danger of man's destruction by propaganda is serious, serious because no other attitude is truly responsible and serious - is to show people the extreme effectiveness of the weapon used against them, to rouse them to defend temselves by making them aware of their frailty and their vulnerability, instead of soothing them with the worst illusion, that of a security that neither man's nature nor the techniques of propaganda permit him to posses. It is merely convenient to realize that the side of freedom and truth for man has not yet lost, but that it may well lose - and that in this game, propaganda is undoubtedly the most formidable power, acting in only one direction (toward the destruction of truth and freedom), no matter what the good intentions or the good will may be of those who manipulate it.

We can't beat this insidious enemy by being polite. We can't win a rational argument against propagandists who use your commitment to fair-minded reason as a weapon against you. Not everyone must read Ellul's study, Propaganda or Nobel prize winning Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power, or Gustave LeBon's 19th century book The Crowd, or Princeton Psychologist Julian Jaynes' revolutionary The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to make a stand against being colonized mentally through the propagandistic manipulations of language employed by the enemies of people-run democracy. Not everyone needs to fight the enemy with intellectual precision. At the water cooler on the job: that's the best place to kick the lies in their cups. Knowing the fight is "on" is the most important step forward we can take. Taking back the truth from its hostage takers is job one.

Sure, you can expect to be put-down with the usual character attacks from the ideologues. Can't you hear Limbaugh scoffing right now: "Who me? Propaganda? Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: who are you going to believe? Yours truly, purveyor of truth from the Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies on the Excellence in Broadcasting Network, or that Frenchman?"

"That Frenchman?" That's the argument? Go figure. Limbaugh brags about being able to take on "liberal" opponents with one half of his brain tied behind his back, and I suggest we take him at his word. The half Limbaugh likes to use is the limbic lobe--that part of the brain that is emotionally reactionary to its environment. Come on, Rush. Come on Sean. Come on Bill. Come on Anne. Bring it on! We're going to re-define you!