Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Propaganda: Though This Be Madness

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."

Polonius, Hamlet,
Bill (Shakespeare)

When most people think of Propaganda they think of sinister people -- clever people, master manipulators --wearing swastikas or hammers & sickles -- plotting ways to brainwash ordinary people into becoming faceless automatons saluting the image of the Great Leader.  Oh, and they almost always play chess, --which just proves they are psychopaths.  We all knew these people in High School –although they didn't have the uniforms or the emblems in the photo below.


The Propagandists are the Puppeteers --and we, the Puppets --doomed to play out our roles in scenarios scripted for purposes we do not understand.  A conspiracy.  This too we learned in the brutally hierarchical world of High School.

It never occurs to us that the Puppeteers may themselves be Puppets,  hardly aware of why they do what they do.  They are controlled by other agents -- who are controlled by still others, in an endless regression – without consistent logic or method. 

And controlling everything is…the Matrix.   The movie was right.

Shakespeare knew this. He presumably based Hamlet on the movie.  So, Polonius does not mean that Madness comes from Method -- that it is a distraction, a mere tactic.  But rather that the Method derives from Madness.  And that we are all screwed.

We don’t want to believe that things evolve from chaos willy-nilly over time.  We want to believe there's some kind of Purpose – some “Design” (another word for “method”) .  We want to believe that we have some Free Will, even if it is suppressed.  Somebody somewhere has to know what's going on, right?  Like Mom and Dad did when we were kids.  In this sense, we are all ontological Creationists.   

However, I would suggest that  what we perceive as “method” in Propaganda really comes from madness, the craziness of civilization (sic) itself.

All societies are schizophrenic  -- and propaganda is one way of controlling the consequences.  Illusion to fight delusion, if you like.  Happy pills to keep reality at bay.  By definition, that means papering over the inherent contradictions – and assuming   deeper purpose, or at least “design”, when all we are trying to do is to achieve a quick fix and superficial gratification – or maybe just have our cake and eat it too.

Ours is the smartest, most advanced, most technologically capable society ever – and clearly headed for self-destruction, as it destroys the planet.  How is that possible?  Madness is a priori .   So,  we must convince ourselves that it’s OK to burn coal and frack Mother (earth) and drive SUVs because we’ll figure a way out … later.  Or our kids will -- because we'll be dead. Ha Ha.

I know, I know …WTF are you talking about?

That’s the trouble. WTF is anyone talking about?  Reality is complex and we like things simple. Like God and Country.  The Flag.   Kill terrorists.

To elucidate…before you join the army!

Uncle Sam wants you alright.  Unfortunately, he may also want you dead.

Back to the basics…..

Propaganda can be defined as the deliberate attempt to influence public opinion through the transmission of ideas and values for reasons consciously thought out, and designed to serve the interest of the propagandist, either directly or indirectly. Whereas information presents its audience with a straightforward statement of facts, propaganda packages those facts in order to evoke a certain response.

This  conventional, and very limited definition of “propaganda” (including both religious propaganda   and commercial propaganda  such as advertising) depends on the idea of deliberate and conscious agency where the agent  “the propagandist” (the puppeteer mentioned earlier)  works consciously, logically  and deliberately behind the scenes to manipulate our perceptions and feelings.

Ah yes, method!  Puppeteers and puppets.  God and Man. Man and Puppies

There is always an immediate purpose – get your money, persuade you to join the army --whatever. 
Reassuring. Wars are not so bad!  There are cute puppies.  But nothing is that simple. Nothing is what it seems.

The  huckster can bring the crowds in – but he doesn't own the tent.  And may know little about the show.   He's drunk when he's not separating you from your hard-earned cash.

But the crowd thinks he isthe Circus.

You have to look what is behindpropaganda – and behind that too.The Circus is entertaining -- but the animals are abused.  And the clowns jacked up on cocaine. The bearded lady is a man.  And one day the tent comes down and people die.
What is hidden in the background can determine success or failure.   "‘Ware the madness" – there are many kinds.    And the result is dead people.

Edward Bernays—was influenced by de Bon and Freud.  He represented a cultural elite that feared the masses.  De Bon’s theories about the masses resonated, as did Freud’s notion that human beings are savage animals animated by primal instincts --lust and greed and envy.   Who better to know about Lust, Greed, and Envy than Bernays' masters?

Bernays served the Few – by exploiting the Many.  He thought he was controlling the hoi polloi…by giving them what they wanted.  So, behind Bernays were a lot of rich people. And behind that, memes about human nature. And behind that, culture and history.  Bernays said he didn't know tobacco was bad for you – despite a good half century of solid medical evidence, even at the time.

But did Bernays actually makeanything happen?  Or was he just another insect trapped in the web, rippling its threads?

Hold that idea for a bit…..  

Jump ahead in time.  Freud is now passé. Bernays?  Isn’t that a kind of sauce?

This is the age of polling psychology, neuropsychiatry, and the like.  The psycho-linguist,  George Lakoff sees propaganda in a different way,  emphasizing  perception– talking much of “framing” and metaphors – basic gestalts.

George is  a university professor and a liberal, with a proper beard -- so we can forgive him for being  not quite as kinky, as a conflicted conservative, with a “wide stance”.     In fact, George, unlike Bernays, is not a propagandist at all  -- even though his ideas are taken up by real, bona fide, paid manipulators of the masses -- even though his ideas weren't that new, sorta rehashed 60s stuff..Oh, George is jolly!

Despite George’s emphasis on the psychological of perception, semantics and the like --as opposed to Bernays’ preoccupation with the hankerings of the limbic system and dark desire, they both agree that propaganda can only be successful when it is unconsciously accepted .  In other words, both primal instinct  and semantic gestalts derive their power from being prelogical.  They generate the premises that generate logic.  .

“I see therefore I think therefore I am” wrote Merleau Ponty.   And Lakoff too.

“I feel therefore I think therefore I am”.  Bernays didn’t write that. But he should have.

Ideally,   propaganda gets us to accept certain ideas without questioning them –  to act upon suggestion, rather than follow the authoritarian direction of a Hitler or the logical arguments of a Socrates.
It is clear that Lakoff is aware of this – and, as a progressive who is opposed to plutocracy, it bothers him.  After all, he is a man of the Enlightenment who believes that ultimately  all we should have to do  is be reasonable --  and see things in the right context...er...frame. Then we can all agree and get along.  But the other side is notreasonable. So we have to ‘frame’ things so they will understand – as we do.   Which is, of course, manipulation.   Lest I forget, people also get 'framed" for crimes they do not commit

Lakoff’s ideas were used to sell Obama in 2008.  A Conservative in Progressive jeans.  

Oops....Obama’s failure to act as he had promised empowered the Tea Party. And the whole country lurched to the Right.

So, here’s the thing:  propaganda only works when it is accepted unconsciously. It is like hypnosis.  It works by suggestion, manipulating our own belief system with half truths.  “Your eyes are getting heavy.  You feel sleepy”.  Of course, you do – you have been staring at a shiny watch swinging in front of your eyes for two minutes, idiot!

Hypnosis cannot make people do things they really don’t want to do or don’t think are right.  If offers us illusions.  But sometime, somewhere, some-when someone will snap their fingers and you awake.

The same really applies to propaganda.  Obama’s propaganda worked because people were ambivalent about a lot of things.  Propaganda doesn't make people do what they don't want to or feel is morally repugnant.

Now,  a lot of people are not so sure about Obama. Progressive about some things; conservative about others. Call it the Obama Syndrome. Or Obamaphrenia.    But it is our fault.  Wanting our cake and to eat it ---endlessly.   Quite, quite mad. Behind Obama's victory was propaganda. Behind that Wall Street and wealthy backers.  Behind them…yup…the public, you and me.   Behind us – history and culture.  All madness,  Poor Polonius.  Poorer, still Hamlet -- he died. The Matrix... again
Confusing as all this is. We fortunate perhaps to be  driven by primal emotions – as Bernays knew – so, even when propaganda seems effective – it is temporary – because  where our beliefs conflict with  good ol’ fashioned human nature, human nature tends to win -- at least in the end.  We call this "progress".  

Human nature has little tolerance for a Wide Stance, which results from trying to reconcile contradictory memes. It is uncomfortable for one thing.  Unbalanced. And it is easy to get kicked in the balls in a fight.   Not really a good survival strategy.

And one of the strongest emotions is self preservation.  Dimly we understand that we are under threat, when we are torn in different directions.

To recap:  propaganda can only work if there is an existing belief system to support it – historical and cultural memes.  In addition,  some aspect of human nature – our primal be must support it.  Our social and technological and natural environment is always in flux; human nature is hardwired.  There is a dynamic and it is complex.

And if you get confused, just watch the Matrix again….