Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Propaganda and Confusion

with 5 comments

Okay, I have no idea what that title means.

It’s Sunday, which means that I got up and went to work and then came out and played music to myself so that I could read to it–and yes, if you’re looking at the time stamp on this, that means I get up early.

Today, I was still reading the art book from yesterday, although I didn’t run into the kind of thing that would make me write a really long boring post just because I was aggitated.

And I’m glad I didn’t pronounce on the virtues and vices of Alick McLean before I’d read his essay.  In spite of the indications in the introduction, McLean did not produce a long postmodernist screed about the Papacy using architecture as propaganda.

In a way, that was too bad, because what was really wrong with that essay was that it was incredibly and nearly endlessly boring.  The man can’t write his way out of a paper bag, and he tends to list things, so that if you are trying to learn this stuff–or even just to sort of understand it–you find yourself taking the list items one by one and finding the photo plates that illustrate them and then going back and forgetting anything and starting all over again.

I am, obviously, one of these people who knows absolutely nothing about art (about painting and architecture and sculpture), and I am also a person who knows absolutely nothing about writing about art.

If you gave me a book of essays on literature, I could read it and tell you if it was valid and helpful or a mass of nonsense.  I could at least tell you whether it corresponded to consensus thinking in the field, or consensus thinking in the field from sixty years ago.

With critical writing about literature, I’m like a lot of other people who have tried the postmodernist/structuralist/whatever and found it useless.  I’ve gone back to reading the men (all of them men) who turned Literature in English into an academic field to begin with–Yvor Winters, Alan Tate, Cleanth Brooks.

With writing about art, I have no idea what’s going on.  I’m going to venture to guess, here, that Alick McLean’s problem is that he can’t write, and not that his subject matter requires him to do what he did in the essay I read.

I say this because the next essay, on the development of painting in Italy from icons to the Quatrocento, is very well written indeed, and wonderfully easy to follow, even if I have to work to actually understand some of what it’s about.

I don’t mind having to work to understand what I read.  In fact, I mostly like it, except right before I want to go to sleep–and then I don’t read before bed anymore.  I do aggressively simple variety puzzles and drop off with my glasses on.

The article on painting is written by Alexander Perrig.  A Google search found dozens of hits for buying his books, of which he’s written many, including what seems to be a textbook.   What I couldn’t find, anywhere, was a standard issue bio.

I have no idea why this book I have does not include short bios of the authors.  But the man can write, and the article is interesting, and I’ve picked up several things I didn’t know before I read it, not all of them about art.

What I haven’t figured out is the thing about “propaganda,” because although neither McLean nor Perrig runs at the word with the heavy-handed obtuseness of somebody trying to make political points, they both use it now and then.

And I’ve finally figured out that I have no idea what it means.


I don’t think that’s entirely right.

I do know what the word meant originally–it was the official line of a government or other institution meant to capture the mind of the public to its point of view.  It was always biased and half-true.  It almost always went along with an official attempt to suppress any contrary information or dissent.

Using the original definition, my guess is that the only propaganda out there at the moment–at least for us in the US–are the endless PSAs about smoking and drugs that now accompanying nearly every aspect of daily life, and the promotional materials for various attitudinal campaigns (like the one on bullying).

The biggest problem with this sort of thing is that dissent becomes unhearable–is that a word?

If you say the anti-bullying campaigns are intrusive, emotionally coercive and the invasion of the rights to privacy of most students–you immediately get branded as somebody who wants bullying to go on and students to feel bad.

The same goes for all the rest of the campaigns like it, including the ones about smoking and drugs.  Try to protect your child from participating in the role-playing and emotional openness sessions that comprise so much of most of these programs, and you’re immediately branded as somebody with a psychological problem that must be “overcome.”

Most of the propaganda I have been personally acquainted with in my life has been part of a larger effort to change not just behavior, which would be legitimate, but the inner thoughts and feelings of large populations–children in the schools, of course, but also adults in workplaces or just adults who care for children.

And as these programs clearly do not work, and continue to not work, they become expanded–schools demand that students toe the line not only while they’re on school property, but even when they’re home on what is supposed to be their own time.

A student can be expelled for bullying or homophobia even if the incident occurs in his back yard, and the areas in which a school expects to be able to regulate his behavior get wider and wider.

It’s true for adults, too–Pat Buchanon was recently fired as a commentator on MSNBC for things he said in a book, off the air, on his own time–and not things that MSNBC should have been surprised by. 

I mean, Pat Buchannon is Pat Buchanon.  He’s been saying this stuff for decades.

But if you really want to see the excrement hit the rotary, be a public school teacher with a Facebook page.

The other interesting thing, of course, is that outside of Nat Hentoff, none of the usual suspects seems to want to take on the progranda and its coercive behavioral arm.  The ACLU isn’t suing a school district somewhere because it punished a student for refusing to take part in a Day of Silence, or sent him to therapy because he wouldn’t “disclose” in the feeling circle on anti-bullying day. 

It seems obvious to me that regulating behavior is one thing–and, in schools, entirely appropriate–but attempting to intrude on any person’s inner thoughts and feelings is entirely over the line.

It also seems obvious to me that the authority of a school or workplace should, most of the time, end when you leave the premises–that slavery was abolished in the 19th century and that nobody should get to own us 24/7.

Ah, but that must mean I think it’s okay for kids to bully kids, or for commentators to have yucky views about race.

I’m going to go see what I can get done.

Written by janeh

May 20th, 2012 at 10:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Propaganda and Confusion'

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  1. Really? In the middle of an election campaign and the current War on Whatever, you can’t think of any propaganda beyond what you listed?

    How about:
    Human-induced global warming (for or against)
    Anti-abortion laws are all about women’s health and/or saving the children
    Taxing the rich is bad/the holy grail
    The president is/isn’t a citizen
    Intrusive personal airport searches of 4-year-olds in leg braces and grannies in wheelchairs will protect us from terrorists

    Remember “Iraq has WMDs”? Remember “It’s All About the Oil”?

    Every advertising campaign you see is an attempt to promote a belief and influence and change behavior. So is every statement by a politician or special interest group. We swim in a sea of propaganda, and the rare moments of rest from the same, such as this blog, (almost completely) without ads, are notable.

    The thing I worry about is that as our children become more and more accustomed to revealing their whereabouts, participation, feelings, and beliefs 24/7 on social media, they become inured to constant surveillance and awareness of the authorities and companies who want to “monetize” their very existence. They don’t KNOW what it’s like to be alone in their heads, let alone have a thought everyone else isn’t privy to.

    How do you convince people like that that mental privacy exists, that it’s a right that needs to be fought for and protected? The argument against hate crimes laws baffles most people. They indeed think that what a criminal was thinking at the time can be determined, makes the crime worse, and should be punished beyond the original criminal penalty. How do you reason with that?


    20 May 12 at 1:36 pm

  2. I’d say ALL the PSAs and most of what you get in what are allegedly straight news and commentary shows are just details in a single propaganda campaign. The overarching theme is that “modern” government is too vast and complex a thing to be left to the voters–who, in there capacity as citizens, are childlike, stupid and savage creatures anyway, incapable of even understanding their own motives.

    Accordingly, political power must be concentrated in the hands of serious professionals–political science majors with law degrees who “done” government all their adult lives. The actual details of individual lives–diet, exercise, sex, work, playground activity and so forth–will be monitored by speicialists: nurses, counselors equal opportunity officers and the like.

    The beauty of it is that the campaign doesn’t even need a central office. All you have to do is restrict discussion to political professionals and specialists. They’ll be in complete and sincere agreement on the main points.


    20 May 12 at 3:54 pm

  3. “The beauty of it is that the campaign doesn’t even need a central office. All you have to do is restrict discussion to political professionals and specialists. They’ll be in complete and sincere agreement on the main points.”

    Welcome to the land of Oz, Robert. You (and Jane) have described the situation down here in Australia perfectly.


    20 May 12 at 7:58 pm

  4. I’m in general agreement with Lymaree and Robert. But what worries me is that for the last 50 years both Europe and the US have been solving today’s problems with tomorrow’s money and it looks as if tomorrow has arrived.

    Robert, I think there is a good chance that the whole elaborate system is going to collapse around our ears soon.


    20 May 12 at 7:59 pm

  5. What frightens me is that we are looking at pretty much a perfect rerun of the post-Versailles Treaty conditions that led to the rise of Hitler and the slide into World War II.


    20 May 12 at 8:40 pm

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