Saturday, October 05, 2002

No, I am not about to write about President Bush and the rather clumsy manner in which he handles foreign politics, turning the opinion in Europe against USA to the point that the polls show that more than half the population of such an America-friendly country as little faithful NATO member Norway thinks that American Foreign politics does not benefit Norway.

Actually, I find it a little odd that we are not going to talk about President Bush and the pro-war propaganda which flows out of the United States these days, because I am about to talk about propaganda. To be precise, Aaron Delwiche's site named Propaganda.

Aaron Delwiche wrote me a very nice letter - media professor to media professor - and asked if I could please mention this in my blog. According to him
Propaganda Critic ( is a not-for-profit educational site inspired by the pioneering work of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The site has been revamped to include updated examples, streaming video clips, and fresh artwork by Carol Lay.

Thank you Aaron, I am flattered that you want me to mention you, that you think being blogged by me will get you more readers, and yes, it is the kind of site that I might blog. It is pretty, deals with an extremely interesting topic, and is thoughtfully set up. However...

The project of this website is as old-fashioned as the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA). In media theory the belief that propaganda skews the mind of those listening, to the point that words are dangerous and need to be restricted, belongs to the injection-theory branch of media studies. Studying propaganda outside of context treats humans as helpless receptors, blank pages upon which the manipulating press-secretary writes his evil opinion in ink that will never be erased. This view is as old as Leni Riefenstahl, but much less charming. The two-step hypothesis, the uses and gratifications theory and more recent theories of human reception and the creation of meaning, as well as both cultural studies and postmodern theory, reveals that it's not that simple.

Propaganda is useless drivel unless it is motivated by some social need. Hitler spoke to the poor in a Germany in crisis, and promised them wealth, work and power. If he had not had real power in Germany at the time and been able to give his followers benefits, the amazing works of Leni Riefenstahl would have been pointless - and even more important, never even considered for production. Aaron Delwiche's example of anti-American propaganda in Afghanistan totally overlooks the life the Afghani live, the promises they had been given while occupied by Soviet and their desperate need for some kind of change. One piece of paper does not create an army of child soldiers. Hunger, fear and desperation does.

This is where I'd have expected to see some examples of Bush' recent pro-war propaganda. It is as blatant as any flowery speeches from the Arab countries, and Aaron Delwiche would be familiar with the cultural context into which they are delivered and thus able to discuss and criticise them in context. His examples carefully exclude current American political propaganda. The closest thing to current criticism is an article about the Office of Strategic Information, but even this is angled to claim that Americans are critical to public propaganda, by criticising their blatant attempt at winning a war of words with Iraq over Kuwait.

One of my main problems with propaganda criticism goes hand in hand with my problems with some other concepts: objectivity and truth. Too often critics of propaganda think of themselves as objective, and from that standpoint they attempt to distinguish a lie from a truth. The dilemma for a social scientist is that truth is a matter of faith. "Do you believe that I tell you the truth?" Truth is socially constructed, depends on the acceptance of authorithy, and is vulnerable to change. This doesn't mean that I think it's impossible to study or to criticise propaganda; because there are times when rhetoric stops building on facts and becomes a network of interconnected make-belief, and emotional effect takes precedence over rational argument. But inherent in the study of propaganda is a problematic methodical issue: who decides what is true? The word "propaganda" is in itself problematic if it's left undefined, because who decides what is propaganda? During the exchange that's always done by the opposition, and by the winner after the conflict is ended.

However: Propaganda Criticism has a few examples which should not be offensive to anyone, it links to a period of media studies which is historically quite interesting in its instrumental and behaviouristic approach, and it might develop into something interesting down the road.

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