Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Nature and Limits of Propaganda

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s foremost polemicist, argued that propaganda must be simple enough to be appreciated by the common people. A propagandist is a “true artist” and “master of the popular soul.” They have the acumen vis-a-vis their audience’s ability to perceive information. Propaganda, however, should be perceived as amoral. It depends on the goal it seeks. This is a historical irony since Goebbels was the major lackey of Hitler in committing mass atrocities/genocide in Europe.

Russian socialist theorist Plekhanov made a distinction between agitation and propaganda. The former utilizes ideas and slogans to shape people’s opinions, for immediate purposes, while the latter aggressively espouses the principles of Marxism-Leninism with the view of transforming the infra-culture and superstructure of society. Also, Lenin, in his work, “What needs to be done” also distinguishes one from the other according to the quantity of ideas being advocated and the means by which they are projected to the masses:

"The propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc. In a word, he must present “many ideas”, so many indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment etc and utilising this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”. Consequently the propagandist operates chiefly by means of the printed word; the agitator by means of the spoken word. (underline mine)"

Juxtaposing this view with the advent of information and communication technologies,  Lenin can be indicted for limiting the perceived images agitators can get across and the information people can absorb through this method. Agitation, as Lenin defined it, requires bigger forces to achieve its purposes. This view can be undermined by the capability of social networking sites (SNS) to make information spread like wildfire.

Moreover, propaganda is not merely an “art of persuasion”. The Bolsheviks elicited support from peasants and workers, not only because they intended to “brainwash” them, but also due to their skill to magnify existing social issues and trends, giving them sharper and precise focus. 

Propaganda shapes collective attitudes by manipulating significant symbols. Cyphers and codes can be expressions of allegiance. This can be witnessed in Hitler’s swastika and Nazi gesture and Mao’s Red Book which sustained the cult of personality in China. The zealous Red Guards, composed mainly of students, persecuted those who gave low esteem to the state-published booklet. This continued during Zhou En-Lai’s Thought Reform campaign in 1950s which smothered the power of Western/capitalist principles through massive indoctrination, struggle sessions (public humiliation of “enemies of the state”), among others.

Propagandism, however, entails significant costs. Sustaining a campaign warrants infusion of resources for the constant stream of ideological information. This compelled Stalin in 1930s to build Russia’s largest propaganda aircraft, Tupolev ANT-20, which served as the “voice from the sky” of the Communist Party. It was used to drop printed leaflets and even became a radio station hub and film projector. Mao was effective in projecting ad nauseum propaganda by inculcating among the youth his personal vision of Chinese socialism. In the same manner, Marcos, during Martial Law, ordered the religious singing of Bagong Lipunan hymn to project a "compassionate government."

Russian propaganda, of course, also had its offensive dimension. Glavlit, USSR’s main censorship organization used to employ at least 50,000 “watchdog” staff to eliminate anti-state information and make sure that printed materials are compatible with the state’s ideological spin. In the same vein, Marcos, with his Bagong Lipunan campaign, encouraged developmental journalism and clandestinely imprisoned anti-regime journalists. I remember Ariel Ureta being punished for mocking Marcos’s slogan---“Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, bisikleta ang kailangan.” As a result, he was forced to make his rounds inside Camp Crame using his bicycle.

Propaganda, to be effective, must be planted on a fertile field for it to prosper and influence a community. It is essential that it is congruent with people’s desires and aspirations. Hitler’s persecution of the “non-Aryan” race struck a chord in the hearts of Germans who, during that period, also desired global supremacy and freedom from the clutches of major powers which punished their country post-World War I. The masses’ lack of education and discernment of issues make them susceptible to ideological appeals.  However, propaganda can only be effective as long as the propagandists deliver their pronouncements. Hollow promises can cause disillusionment among the people.

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