If Your Election Lasts Longer than Four Years. . .

Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

In the current climate, with perhaps the most bizarre run up to a Federal Election in U.S. history, now seems a good time to re-read Jacques Ellul’s study of modern scientific propaganda which is helpfully titled Propaganda. In this important work, Ellul examines the techniques of the Russian, Chinese, and Nazi propagandists. Many of these techniques are regularly employed throughout the world. Propagandists (whether they call themselves that or not or whether they are aware that they are or not) continue to employ and perfect these techniques.

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We are constantly bombarded with propaganda. In the (post)modern world, many of us in technological societies are so immersed in propaganda that we are like flying-fish who momentarily discover that they are wet before they are pulled back into the water. Perhaps, it is more like moving through a warm spot in the pool, noticing the temperature change and hoping that it’s not what you think it is. That is, we may not realize that we are immersed we may only notice that we have encountered someone else’s propaganda.

Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being slowly heated, many people don’t even notice it is happening.

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Do you recall when a News Interruption during regularly scheduled programming meant something truly incredible or historic had happened? It meant even those of you who don’t normally watch the news need to watch the news tonight. A shuttle has exploded. A major earthquake has hit. Someone has been assinated. etc.

Of course there was a boost in ratings on these nights and announcing the news before the news has become standard practice. Kanye West is broke. Chris Rock is hosting the Academy Awards. Michael Jackson is dead. Donald Trump is running for President. Colbert his hosting the Late Show. Syrian refugees need new homes. etc.

As Ellul notes many of us think that we are not susceptible to propaganda. Yet, for most of us, we only identify that with which we disagree, the propaganda of our enemies or opponents, as propaganda. We tend to associate propaganda with lies only. The truth, especially our truth, the truth of my party, is not propaganda. Michael Moore’s films are clearly propaganda but Rush Limbaugh is just telling it like it is. But propaganda is propaganda whether it is truthful or deceitful whether it is mine or theirs. Propagandists are not concerned with consistency but with effectiveness.

According to Ellul, the Supreme Law of the propagandist is effectiveness. The propagandist (who may or may not see herself as a propagandist) wants the target to do something, i.e. buy a product, vote, give them money, vote, or not vote, etc.

We tend to call propaganda only that with which we disagree or that which we immediately recognize as propaganda likely only recognizing it because it is not well executed. Yet, according to Ellul, this narrow understanding is a tragic and potentially fatal misunderstanding. It keeps one from ever getting one’s head out of the water. Moreover, it may play into the propagandists hands like a magician’s misdirection.

If Your Election Lasts Longer than Four Years. . .

For propaganda to be most effective it must be ubiquitous and steady. People joke about the election cycle beginning as soon as the last election is over. The Presidential Election campaign may be longer than the Presidential term in office.

“It’s funny because it’s true.” — Homer Simpson

Yet, that one cannot discern when an election cycle is over and when another one begins is exactly what Ellul noted and anticipated as a condition for the effective use of propaganda. The great techniques of propaganda are ineffectual in a two week election campaign, he notes. Imagine a two-week election campaign. It sounds like a fairy tale. (19) Rather, Ellul suggests,

What is needed, then, is continuous agitation produced artificially even when nothing in the events of the day justifies or arouses excitement. Therefore, continuing propaganda most slowly create a climate first, and then prevent the individual from noticing a particular propaganda operation in contrast to ordinary daily events. (20)

Ellul’s description of the prerequisite for effective employment of propaganda in a political campaign seems to be an apt description of the media in the United States. Of course, the political pundits present themselves as those who will help us divide the truth from the lie, the truth from mere propaganda. But remember the propagandist is not concerned with whether or not she is telling the truth or lying. Rather as Stephen Colbert acknowledged truthiness is good enough.

Rather than guides to the truth political pundits are more akin to the men who sit around the fire in Plato’s cave and think they are shining light in dark places. It is fitting that we sit in front of a glowing box to hear their wisdom. Political pundits are still deep in the cave and a part of the propaganda system. Indeed, I suspect, most of us know what a particular commentator is going to say before he or she says it. So, we tune in not to learn something new but to see how they are going to say it.

That these pundits are more concerned with ratings and entertaining us than with truly educating us and unmasking deception is evidenced by the confusion that shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show elicited. Were we getting better commentary and better entertainment from these comedians than from the so-called political experts?

Søren Kierkegaard would love the irony of this age. We go to the reporter for entertaiment and to the comedian for current events. Yet, he would not be surprised.

While this post may sound like I am sliding into conspiracy theory, I assure that I do not think there is any vast conspiracy in the United States. Yet, there are those who are happy to feed our fear of conspiracy in their propaganda. In the USA, there are multiple parties (not enough political parties for this Parliamentarian) with varied and mutually exclusive agendas each using the techniques of the propagandist. They are doing it because it is effective. It is the reason that we see the same commercial three times in a short period of time when it debuts. It is effective. Our attitudes are shaped and we are moved to action. Unless, we truly step out of the onslaught of propaganda. Unless we take a Sabbath from our technological society and shut off the pundits.

In another post, I’ll take a look at the “well-informed man”. According to Ellul, the so-called well-informed man is the one who is most susceptible to propaganda.


 

The following is good introduction to Ellul’s thought:

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