“. . . . [B]y keeping a watchful eye on men of extraordinary rank I have discovered that they are, for the most part, just like the rest of us.” — Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship
The Republican and Democratic conventions are over. The confetti has landed and the balloons have popped. The circumstances of the scripted pomp made it possible to see in the faces of the attending faithful both the past and the future: for Republicans a virtual sea of white, for Democrats a fair slice of what America looks like now and shall be evermore.
Pundits (a Sanskrit word for explorers; now referring to scholarly commentators for media outlets) were surprised at Romney’s modesty and lack of viciousness. Some were underwhelmed by the President’s speech and angered that he didn’t use the occasion to bludgeon his opponents or at least box them about the head and ears.
We can imagine that such events are carefully scripted to avoid such embarrassments as Clint Eastwood’s amateur hour show, but it is a measure of the political expectations of the day when the President is faulted for a speech that does not promise the moon, but remains firmly planted on this earth.
I’m not sure where the truth about the state of the country lies, but I am fairly certain that the lies about the country will be stated ad nauseam in the weeks that remain before Election Day. Both sides will endeavor to influence us—the masses—through sophisticated techniques of propaganda. Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, authors of a respected textbook in communication studies entitled Propaganda and Persuasion, conclude their fourth edition, released just after 9/11, with some generalizations about propaganda. Several of these bear repeating for they can serve as litmus tests—if the water turns red or blue as a result, there must be some propaganda about.
Propaganda, say Jowett and O’Donnell, tells people what to think and how to behave. When we get most of our information from the media we become the unwitting supporters of an invisible institution.
Even when it’s clear that we are receiving propaganda, we’ll still react favorably toward it. The familiarity of the message through the constant repetition gives us the comfort of the ‘known’ and creates resonance where there may have been none before.
People form up into opposing camps in response to propaganda and ‘fight’ for their ideological truths. How many candidates for public office offer to ‘negotiate’ or ‘compromise’ or ‘dialogue’ over the issues? Ummmmm. . . . almost one. Most of them assure us they’ll be off to Washington to fight corruption, cut our taxes, and defend our God-given values.
Media techniques and technologies operate 24/7, compiling research and data that can be mined, filtered, sorted, dispersed, compressed, and reconstituted by simply adding money. Jowett and O’Donnell note that, “People’s predispositions are easily identifiable through market research, making them easy targets for propaganda.”
Displays of aggression toward the enemy are likely manufactured for internal consumption. The authors add drily that these displays “may not phase the enemy, but they can bolster morale at home.”
Finally, propaganda may not be an evil thing in itself. It all depends on the context: one man’s assault weapon may be another’s Constitutional right. Propaganda comes in many guises, some of which are closer to the truth than others. The difficulty, of course, is finding the distinction between them.
The authors close with the somewhat world-weary hope that “in a free society, somewhere, somehow, alternative message systems always appear.”
Montaigne had another take on the matter of political leadership. Having served in public office and been welcomed at the courts of various European countries, he had opportunity to observe the rich and powerful close up. He likens the entourage around public figures to a religious cult and cheerfully observes that “the gravity, academic robes and rank of the man who is speaking often lend credence to arguments which are vain and silly . . . . or that a man who is entrusted with so many missions and offices of state, a man so disdainful and so arrogant, is not cleverer than another man who bows to him from afar and whom nobody ever employs!”
Religious politics, like secular politics, is never far from mind-bending justifications for its follies. There, too, we find fertile land for propaganda, for the very word, derived from a Latin term for propagating or sowing, was embodied by the Vatican in 1622 in the institution responsible for propagating the faith of the Roman Catholic Church. While it was thus originally a positive term it later came to have pejorative connotations through Catholic opposition to Protestantism.
When a religious institution feels its foundations to be threatened, either by a shift of the theological tectonic plates or the drift of social ethics, it often responds with a swift denunciation of the new and a demand for conformity. Falling into line is never referred to by such a gauche term however; the usual language is for unity over dissension, the preservation of the church as a structure being paramount over ethical considerations. In such ways, the church might actually lag behind society on important issues like gender discrimination, the ordination of women, and the role of women in an institution that has traditionally been supported and sustained more by women than by men.
Perhaps what we might come to reluctantly is the understanding that since propaganda, like the poor, is always with us, we have ample opportunity to study it and learn its forms and range. In politics, as in religion, there is much at stake, not the least of which is the universal desire for power and status. Propaganda arises from fear, the fear of losing control. Montaigne lightly dismissed such fears by saying, “Most of this world’s events happen by themselves,” and concludes, “The outcome often lends authority to the most inept leadership.”
But we do not have to leave it up to Fate. In a democracy, however fractious and fearful it is, the hope remains that where people act for the good of all their own needs are most often met. The process is slow, change is incremental, solutions will not be found through vilification or greed, but at some point we can turn around, look back, and see that the dots actually connected. Truth was lived in the struggle.