Crappy Music: Propaganda

“What’s your definition of propaganda?”

The question left me flat-footed. I didn’t want to answer because a) I was fighting a cold (still am), so I was thinking fuzzily, and b) I think fuzzily even when I’m healthy. (Relatively healthy, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

What precipitated the question was my posting of the following video to Facebook, a video the questioner had emailed to me and other left-leaning friends, but hadn’t posted herself. She usually posts these things to FB, but for reasons of her own, didn’t this time.

The video in question.

Funny, huh? Well, it is if you lean left and/or aren’t a GOP fan. While entertaining, this video is a lazy parody (read: takes easy, massively-obvious potshots; reaches for only low-hanging fruit, etc.) and also serves as pure propaganda. I said as much in my post.

Which prompted my friend’s question during an online chat. “What’s your definition of propaganda?”

My working definition relies on that old phrase coined by a Supreme Court justice, “I know it when I see it.” The original usage was in an opinion written regarding a pornography case, but has since been applied everywhere from modern art to science fiction literature. (Before you begin to question my motives, I do lean left, myself. But I recognize propaganda when I see it. And this is one such example.) A more precise, but still rather loose, definition would be: “A single-minded attempt to sway or reaffirm an audience’s opinion.”

It’s a simplistic definition, but a handy one. A lot falls under it: advertising, marketing, political speech of all sorts, motivational speakers, self-help books, movie trailers, the lies your best friend tells you to make him/herself look good. When we think of propaganda, we usually think of political speech, especially negative political speech. Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” the whitewash documentary of Hitler’s rise to power, come to mind for many people as a prime example of political propaganda.

Another thing that comes to mind regarding political speech: it’s propaganda when the other side uses it but it’s the truth or simple persuasion when our side uses it. Bullhockey. Propaganda is propaganda, even when it’s truthful, especially when it’s used (especially like a bludgeon) to trumpet one side’s point of view versus an opposing point of view.

The Old Spice guy is propaganda. Tony the Tiger is propaganda. The latest Lady Gaga music video is propaganda. Your favorite novel is propaganda. It’s all shades of gray, not black or white. About the only thing in your life that isn’t propaganda is your alarm clock. It just tells you the time: when to get up, when to go to bed.

Communication isn’t all about lies. It’s about the truths that become lies, and the lies that become truth. And how truth and lies can become a hammer we use to beat on our perceived enemies.

This has been a simplistic post by a guy who ain’t a deep thinker. Caveat emptor, post hoc ergo propter hoc, pax vobiscum, hoc tui.

Today’s Prevarication: All of this makes perfect sense even though I still have a cold.

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About Bruce Diamond

Despicably proud old man. Text-extruding asshole (thank you, John Scalzi) with a skewed vision on life, pop culture, writing and general assholiness. Not a scholar, not a gentleman, not Martin or Lewis. But still trying to make life fun and funny.
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8 Responses to Crappy Music: Propaganda

  1. parsingwind says:

    Well, Bruce, that definition covers a whole lot of territory, so much so that it still leaves a person with the essential dilemma of sorting all the propaganda that comes our way. If, as you say, “About the only thing in your life that isn’t propaganda is your alarm clock,” then I still have to decide what truth is in what lie and what lie is in the truth. Now, I’m comfortable with ambiguity, but wonder if your response isn’t a bit of, well, a cop out. The alarm clock reference, I suspect, means that eventually most of us achieve concensus concerning what the key facts are, but I’m not so sure if that’s the case. Heck, even my the time on my alarm clock is the result of a lot of historic standardization–and a little political debate over daily savings time or standard time. Here’s a link to a great little article on how the human mind likes its propaganda, and will cling to it despite the facts: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney. It’s called “The Science Behind Why We Don’t Believe Science,” and even though it’s from the very left leaning Mother Jones, it’s a very interesting view at why we humans just don’t like to let the facts get in the way of our lies, whether we swing right or swing left.

  2. But you see, the argument you seem to be making is that only lies, prevarications, or the like can be called propaganda. Not so. As I said, even the truth can become propaganda , especially if you use it in a single-minded way to bludgeon your perceived opponents.

    Let me ask you this . . . what about the posted video isn’t propaganda?

  3. parsingwind says:

    Oh, now I’m with you on how truth can be used to bludgeon someone. Been known to do some truthful bludgeoning myself. And I’m not saying this video isn’t propaganda, as it is in full bludgeon form, truthful or not. Truths, facts, reality–whatever you want to name it, often conflict with one another and vie with one another for our attention. Sometimes they’re only partial, and sometimes they can only be seen through a lie. My question is how do you sort through it all, how do you discern the useful truth, the inconvenient truth, from lies or irrelevant truths? And yes, we have to be responsible in how we express our own personal truths, and try to avoid swinging the biggest truth bludgeon we can find. But what do you do when no one is listening? And the truth you have to express will make some kind of relevant difference in the world? And lack the patience of a Dalai Lama?

  4. The only way, in my mind, to discern the useful truth is to think critically and do a lot of reading. Don’t limit your news intake to just one source, or one side. Read articles that actually provide citations, and make sure the citations aren’t all one-sided or sourced from organizations funded by a single group (for instance, the Tea Partiers being founded and funded by the Koch Brothers). Keep your mind open. I’m probably just preaching to the choir on this.

    It’s like thinking critically about advertising and the use of weasel words. For example, an ad for a weight loss supplement will show before and after pictures of people with quotes like “I lost 40 pounds and you can, too!” What the ad doesn’t do in many of these instances is link a direct causal relationship between the product and the result. “I lost 40 pounds,” without saying how, is a use of weasel words. Did the person lost 40 pounds as a direct result of using the product? Many times, that explicit statement isn’t made. Just the amount of weight the person lost.

    I’d definitely tag that as propaganda. Listen to the way the words and phrases are used, whether in advertising, political speech or discussions with your friends. Think critically. Find the facts.

    I’m a bit of a spoilsport when it comes to chain emails, whether from coworkers or from friends. If something sounds too good to be true, I’ll usually look it up on snopes and then reference the article in a reply email. Gets me removed from group emails faster than farting in an elevator to empty it of people.

    And sometimes I wonder why I don’t have more people reading my stuff. Must be my negative attitude (as it is probably interpreted when I attempt “wet blanket” stuff like the above).

    Or I get friends questioning me on my blog with stuff I can’t answer.

  5. phaedrus64 says:

    Bruce,

    That is asking a lot, especially from the general American public. Remember these are people who have been taught to believe everything an “authority figure” tells them.

    Long gone are the days when one could trust mass media to relay news with little incursion of op-ed. Now we have “ditto-heads” and parrots of Glenn Beck. Feel free to add any left-wing commentators as well to that very abbreviated list. Americans are not taught to check “facts” or even go through the effort to question anything.

    I would argue that virtually all the information we receive is propaganda. It doesn’t have to be the bludgeoned sort of information to be propaganda.

    I have a challenge for you Bruce. Try to name one piece of information that was presented to you that was completely free of any propaganda.

  6. Let’s try an example of a simple phrase we all like to hear: “I love you.” That’s information we treasure. But can such a simple phrase be fraught with propaganda? If you over-analyze it, then yeah. What are the implications and obligations that accompany “I love you”? Is the person saying it looking for your approval in return? Of course they are. The expectation attached to “I love you” (please say you love me, too) can be interpreted as propaganda: a single-minded message meant to sway its audience.

    The weather report. Simple information without propaganda attached to it, right? Maybe the information contained within the weather report, sure (though you could have a meta-discussion about why the USA still uses fahrenheit when the rest of the world uses celsius), but the information surrounding the weather report — advertising — definitely counts as propaganda.

    Your monthly electric/phone/cable bill: Used to be, you’d just get the bill in the mail, cut a check and send it back. Now your bill has advertising messages printed on it and other circulars stuffed in the envelope. Even the return envelope might have advertising on it. More propaganda.

    I have to go back to the alarm clock, even though Parsing Air argues that the agreed-upon time has a bit of political history behind it, probably to the point where propaganda has been used to sell a time concept (daylight savings time) to the American public.

    I guess I’m not up to the challenge, Phaedrus.

  7. phaedrus64 says:

    That was a very weak response. I expected something more from a master prevaricator. At least you could have picked apart my comments like some former bosses we both know.

    Going back a few threads, I do take issue with some of your comments about Weird Al in comparison to Spike Jones but I may get around to commenting on that thread later.

  8. One: I’m still suffering from a cold. (No sympathy? Fine. Be that way.)
    Two: I’m not a master prevaricator. Apprentice, at best.
    Three: “Former bosses.” Now I know who you are.
    Four: So, basically, you’re here to troll. Have fun. At least I’m a genius in France.

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