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We all like to think that we are rational, clear-thinking individuals who are eminently capable of filtering out the hype from the substance where any type of mass communication is concerned. (We do concede that inter-personal communication is trickier to assess.)
For the life of me, I don’t know why we think this way, because the evidence is sharply tilted to the contrary.
Propaganda, whether it be political or commercial, WORKS!
It works on you, and it works on me. The degree may vary, but the fact that propaganda works has been established beyond the point of debate. Advertising – just so we are clear – is propaganda. And advertising works on all of us to some degree even if it only communicates name recognition. Here is the tricky point: Name recognition – even when it is negative - conveys familiarity and credibility virtually regardless of the subject at hand. We are programmed to be suspicious of people, ideas, cultures, places and products we don’t know. Propaganda drops our guard. In fact, if Stalin – albeit guilty of some of the greatest crimes against humanity in history - was alive and retired here today, he would probably be addressing the Tea Party as a motivational speaker.
How so? Well, his extreme views apart, he has (or should have) name recognition; and this is a celebrity culture. Sadly, given the state of our educational system right now, it seemed appropriate to add the qualifier
Propaganda is particularly effective when people are, so to speak, conditioned to being conditioned. What do I mean by that? I’m referring, in particular, to the combination of educational and media influences which prepare Americans for adult life. They embed fundamental assumptions which are not necessarily true. Indeed, some are outright lies. Many are distortions. Some are admirable. However, on balance such assumptions are worrying. They distort our ability to think clearly to a truly alarming extent. In short, they foment ignorance.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
- Isaac Asimov, column in Newsweek (21 January 1980).
In terms of specifics – instances where propaganda has been outstandingly successful – I would like to draw your attention to the following:
- Government is the problem: This is pernicious nonsense, because the simple fact is that we need government because there is a great deal we cannot do by ourselves no matter how rugged and individualistic we are. Also, there are services we need and want, which government is best equipped to provide. Social Security and Medicare are two. The list is long. Clearly, there can be good government and bad government – and there is vast room for improvement in ours - but the same applies to any institution or activity, government or private, created by humans. We are a flawed species. Nonetheless, the Right Wing has succeeded in establishing a fundamental mistrust of government – a different thing entirely from keeping a prudent eye on things - as a consequence of four decades of propaganda. That has led to a massive destruction of confidence in government, and the current state of gridlock whereby commonsense action to help the economy – and there are numerous excellent ideas available - cannot be implemented. In effect, they have seriously damaged our social capital – trust and willingness to cooperate – to a point where the National Interest is being harmed. A country without social capital is in trouble.
- The U.S. is overtaxed: Currently, the U.S. is one of the most lightly taxed countries in the developed world. What is wrong is that those who either have, or earn the most, are proportionately paying the least. That is palpably unfair and inefficient. and to have a 71,000 page tax code is ridiculous.
- A rising tide raises all boats: This is code for saying that if you favor the rich, the rest of the population will benefit too. The track record is otherwise. Since about 1974, the bulk of the American population has seen no increase in real earnings while the top few percent have prospered. Meanwhile, the populations in numerous other countries have thrived. Quite why almost no one either spotted, or made an issue of this extraordinary situation, is answered by the belief of so many Americans is such clichés as: “We have the greatest economy in the world.” We do have the largest; but, as it happens, we also have one of the un-fairest – and have had for decades. It is noteworthy that after a long period during which both the rich and corporations have prospered, the earning power of most American households is in decline. After nearly four decades of frozen earnings, that is bitter gall indeed.
It is in the context of the truth, that propaganda has an excessive role in American life, that I would like to express my admiration for all those involved in OccupyWallStreet. They have cut through the propaganda – a rare thing in the U.S. – and they are drawing attention to the core fact that if we don’t change the status quo, the consequences will be extremely unpleasant at best; and they could be catastrophic.
The protesters are widely accused of having no message (propaganda yet again). In fact, they are focused on the fundamental one.