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How Propaganda Works: Book Review

How Propaganda Works (2015), Jason Stanley. This seems a timely topic, to be told by a philosopher with experience. It is academic, making it a difficult read and a bit repetitious. He covers topics that seemed tangential to the topic, but intellectually interesting. A basic tenet was: “no system the usurps the autonomy of persons can be acceptable, even if it is in the name of greater social efficiency or the common good. The lessons of history show that humans are too prone to confuse the furtherance of their own interests with the common good, and their subjective explanatory framework with objective fact” (p. x). Basically, elites have the authority to push their own interests as the common good and use flawed ideologies to convince the rest of society that they are the workers to support the “thinkers.”

Stanley assumes that the focus is on liberal democracies that champion individual liberty and autonomy. It turns out this was a proposition that has gone in and out of favor. The best example from the ancient world was classical Greece under Pericles. Plato and Aristotle were not fans, with Plato preferring the “philosopher king.” It remained relatively out of favor until the American experiment beginning in 1787. It was something of an American ideal but limited in actual practice—treatment of Indians and the use of slavery were the primary but not only exceptions. Stanley defines “political propaganda as the employment of a political ideal against itself. Someone who presents subjective values, or self-interested goals, as the embodiment of objective scientific ideals is therefore producing paradigm examples of propaganda” (p. xiii). Racism is a continuing issue related to propaganda. “Philosophy is self-consciously devoted to the ideal of objective truth. Yet philosophers from Aristotle to the present day have justified slavery and racism” (p. xv).

Introduction: The Problem of Propaganda. Nazis: language of the Third Reich (LTI): “The sole purpose of the LTI is to strip everyone of their individuality, to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction” (p. 1). Heroism was Teutonic race as the blood-soaked conqueror. There was a hierarchy of race and dehumanizing other groups.

When wealth is skewed there will be flawed ideologies allowing propaganda supporting these elites. “Demagogic speech both exploits and spreads flawed ideologies” (p. 5). The Republican Party used dog whistles as implicit racist messages. Poverty was tied to inferiority, especially being lazy and stupid. James Madison recognized the problem but assumed that a representative democracy would provide safeguards.

“Plato distinguishes between five forms of government: an aristocracy, a timocracy [associated with honor and victory], an oligarchy, a democracy, and a tyranny. An aristocracy, Plato’s favored form of government, is ‘government of the best’” (p. 8). Democracy means freedom with the potential of equality, like between men and women or freemen and slaves. It also could bring government transparency, rule of law, and equality, liberty being key. Plato notes that this is unstable and free speech leads to propaganda and undemocratic practices. “Masking the undemocratic nature of a state with democratic vocabulary is an existential threat to a democratic regime. … If liberty is the freedom to pursue one’s self-interest, then political equality leads to a system in which each person is free to pursue her self-interest. … Propaganda short-circuits economic reality” (p. 11). One assumption is the superiority of collective reasoning for decisions, the deliberative conception of democracy. Propaganda undermines joint deliberation.

“The economic structure of managerial society seems to raise obstacles for democracy. [Efficiency is preferred over liberty.] … Public opinion across a range of issues is often radically misaligned with national policy” (p. 16-17). Think climate change, for example. Group identities increase certain kinds of propaganda. With two parties, expect artificial group identities. Plato expected society to give each person an occupation that is most beneficial to society, without any free choice. Hard work would be a central value in this system. Note that the European Union is run focusing on efficiency, not liberty. The efficiency model has been in place for American public schools for much of the last hundred plus years.

Chapter 1: Propaganda in the History of Political Thought. Liberal democracy means propaganda won’t be banned, given freedom of speech. Humans are subject to manipulation and flattery, making propaganda effective. This “flaw” was noted by both Plato and Aristotle, with demagogues likely resulting in flawed ideology and demagogic propaganda. There is a tension between property rights and equality. The result if the likely instability of liberal democracy. “The liberties allowed by democracy too easily allow demagogues to seize power and thereby end democracy” (p. 33). Treating people equality (political equality) is one form of recognition respect. WEG Du Bois (1868-1963) recognized the lack of equality for black people.

Chapter 2: Propaganda Defined. Samuel “Huntington argues that effective leadership in a democracy requires a people who have the proper obedience to authority, and worries about the undermining of such obedience caused by an excess of democratic expression. Huntington worries about the increasing power of the national media and its role in challenging political authority” (p. 40). There is a relationship between flawed ideological belief and propaganda. That does depend on what is the “correct” ideology, which makes the analysis harder (or biased). “Given the relation between ideology and propaganda, it will often not be clear at the time when a particular contribution to public debate is propaganda” (p. 41).

“A certain kind of propaganda is employed characteristically by demagogues; this is demagoguery. A demagogue is the tyrant Plato describes … in The Republic, one who sows fear among the people and then presents himself as ‘the people’s protector,’ all the while intending to exploit them” (p. 41). There is a connection between propaganda and ideology. The problem in a liberal democracy is propaganda is not recognized as propaganda. This is not a problem in a totalitarian state where propaganda originates in a ministry of propaganda. An obvious example in the US is not treating others with equal respect but still claiming a liberal democracy. One way is to focus on market efficiency, a common political tool. Cover up gap between ideals and reality.

“Advertising is a kind of propaganda that typically exploits an aesthetic ideal or an ideal of health” (p. 51). Ads can sell products that undermines health or has no effect while claiming better health (e.g., everything including cigarettes claimed as a wonder drug). The oil and gas industry certainly downplays global warming, usually by claiming uncertainty. Televangelists claim the “Prosperity Gospel” seeking donations.

There are different political ideals: monarchy means obedience to authority; democracy calls for liberty and equality. “Liberalism is a view in political philosophy that places the ideals of autonomy and equality above all others” (p. 66). Political propaganda can take multiple forms in part depending on the context, like running in a primary, representatives passing legislation, or talking to the media. Ideals can be supported or eroded, using techniques like nostalgia, sentiment, or fear. It could be liberty versus opportunity (e.g., tax cut versus infrastructure building). “The Republican Party does not draw votes from Black and Hispanic voters. It has engaged in a multiyear, concerted effort to the fear of voter impersonation to justify harsh voter registration laws” (p. 68), preaching fraudulent activity when it is rare. The term “Job creator” was used to defend tax cuts to the wealthy.

The Catholic had a ministry of propaganda (de Propaganda Fide) to spread Catholicism in the name of truth. David Hume considered religious belief a kind of flawed ideology. People with flawed ideologies do not consider them flawed.

Chapter 3: Propaganda in Liberal Democracy. Demagogic propaganda will be presented as a set of democratic ideals. John Rawls (a “pure proceduralist”) believed normative political philosophy includes “reasonableness” in public political forums and citizens’ votes are based on self-interest. Propaganda can be used to “sabotage discourse.” Stanley cites Fed Chief Ben Bernanke using “fiscal cliff” to end debate on proper Fed action. Laws should be based on a “fair and honest” process of deliberation. Policies based on deception are not legitimate.

Key rights of citizens are voting, civil equality, and education. These were emphasized by WEB Du Bois for African Americans, where he found a lack of empathy (no focus on other people’s point of view). There is the common good and the public interest. Practical rationality is “means-ends” reasoning. Rawls describes “original position” where one doesn’t know his/her actual place, a version of impartiality. [I prefer Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.”] Adam Smith used the term “impartial spectator” in Theory of Moral Sentiment (aka, “cognitive empathy”). Rawls emphasized that “demands that contributions to public debate are reasonable” (p. 105). Frank Luntz (called a Republican propagandist), working for Israel” emphasized showing “empathy for both sides.”

“A community is reasonable if it is governed by norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability. … An aspirational contribution is one whose effect is to yield an overall improvement of the reasonableness of a debate” (p. 108). Republican strategist Lee Atwater emphasized dog whistles in place of the N-word: forced busing, states’ rights, welfare, the poor, food stamps, etc. Emphasize blacks as lazy.

Chapter 4: Languages as a Mechanism of Control. The way it’s supposed to work is the “cognitivist truth-conditional framework,” which are reasonable, rationally consistent, objective, and logical. Common ground is fundamental, including propositions mutually presumed by the participants (social essentials).

Demagoguery violates this framework: exclude the perspective of certain groups. Exploiting stereotypes which could be related to blacks, Hispanics, Jews, women, or immigrants. Expressive propaganda states positions that seem reasonable but decrease empathy. These are attempts to describe the world. “Slurs signal allegiance to a perspective” (p. 148). Dehumanizing propaganda can lead to genocide. Code words can work as veiled slurs. Many white Americans, for example, have racial predispositions. These have been exploited by the Republican Party. “Illegal aliens” have been added recently.

A command could be issued to change the world in a certain way. Teachers and media people can exploit their position as “epistemic authorities,” including both descriptions and commands. Paul Ryan emphasized welfare programs as “poverty traps.” “Welfare” is set up as a stereotype especially for minorities. White poverty in Appalachia, for example, is usually ignored. Obamacare was immediately cast as socialized medicine in Republican circles, which for some reason made it unacceptable. Obama was described as Muslim, not correct but somehow became a slur.

Stanley pointed out the Nazi linkage of heroism to Teutonic hegemony. Jews were specifically excluded. Nazi ideology is extremely illiberal. Propaganda allows elites to control everyone else. Social networking can be used for propaganda, pushing “motivated reasoning” and affirming membership in some reference group using “shared ideology” versus the “ideological differences” of others. Reputations can be built up or destroyed. Lawyers and even judges can prejudice debate. Linguistic ambiguity can be a propaganda tool.

Walter Lippman in a 1925 book argued there is at best a “phantom public,” where the media speaks to a minority of the people with common interests and appeals to emotions not shared by everyone. Early 20th century educators argued that democracy functions as an ideal, which suggests that faith in those ideals can lead to blindness about violations.

Chapter 5: Ideology. “Undermining propaganda is a claim that is presented as embodying a political ideal, but that is in the service of the kind of goal that tends to undermine that ideal. … It depends on people having beliefs that are resistant to the available evidence” (p. 178). The importance of empirical evidence was important to David Hume’s skepticism. Stanley assumes that lack of skepticism is caused by flawed social structures leading to flawed ideological beliefs. Inequality is a major cause.

“Beliefs that are connected to one’s identity will be difficult to abandon” (p. 182). Quoting Hume: “emotion leads to excessive credulity in judgment—an unwillingness to amend judgment in the light of reflection” (p. 183). Being imbedded with family and friends means leaving friends behind is difficult. Karl Marx noted that ideology is the source of social injustice. Aristotle noted that revolutions are caused by 1) the desire for equality if others are perceived to have more than they deserve and 2) the desire for superiority. They claim that those with fortunes got them illicitly. People seldom blame themselves for any failings especially related to respect. Marx notes that an example of unjust “self-legitimation” are plantation owners in the Antebellum South. That means they viewed Black slaves as lazy and incapable of independence as “legitimizing myths.” They likely viewed the slaves as property, not the perspective of the slaves. The world is organized, just unfair.

Certain types of mistreatments have to be conceptualized to understand the mistreatment (“epistemically disabling”). Stanley notes sexual harassment as an example. Teachers in certain countries are banned from discussing certain topics to instill a flawed ideology. Self-interest and jealousy can motivate particular conceptual schemes.

“Ideologies discussed by philosophers from Aristotle to Marx: why do highly privileged groups believe the ideology of their own superiority, and why do oppressed groups accept the ideology of their own inferiority?” (p. 221).

Chapter 6: Political Ideologies. “Ideologies can be flawed … when they function as persistent barriers to the acquisition of knowledge” (p. 223). Some flawed ideologies relate to those controlling resources versus those that don’t (societies with an unjust distribution). Max Weber (1864-1920) has the elites developing “legitimizing myths.” “Self-affirmation theoryclaims people maintain a self-conception as “good people.” Political parties are made up of different interest groups, complicating their positions. Rich folk can be conservative or liberal. Lottery winners do tend to shift right. Roughly true as people increase income.

People can be brought up with uniform ideologies and tend to view outsiders as morally deviant. Motivated reasoning (often identity protection cognition) happens when students from different beliefs arrive at different conclusions based on group loyalty. Experiments have been made about protests of abortion clinics and military recruitment centers. John Rawls wanted a “diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. … the fact of reasonable pluralism” (p. 230).

Flawed ideologies can be associated with lack of equality or ideological uniformity. Max Weber: “Every highly privileged group develops the myth of its natural, especially its blood, superiority. Under conditions of stable distribution of power and, consequently, of a statist order, that myth is accepted by the negatively privileged group” (p. 232). This is puzzling because it is contrary to self-interest. Of course, the elites control the dominant narrative. The negatively privileged group may have to alternative ideology.

“Control of what is taught in the public schools amounts to control of the basic political dialectic” (p. 237). In the South this included “Black inferiority,” a stereotype threat. Ditto, the media: federal regulations (think campaign donations), advertisers, possible presidential ideology (wars mean no democratic norms). Stanley Milgram ran experiments showing the power of authority (e.g., electric shock). Elites believe their success was based on merit. The poor have little access to information, which is costly. “Minimizing start material inequalities is a precondition for democracy” (p. 265).

Chapter 7: The Ideology of Elites: A Case Study. Elites need a flawed ideology to support their wealth and power, usually claiming a meritocracy and their superiority. Aristotle distinguished between the abilities of the master (philosopher) and the slave (capable only of servile toil). The US used the school system for elite social control. Woodrow Wilson was a proponent, claiming those needing a liberal education and those handling manual tasks, technical education. Most followed the Plato/Aristotle logic. John Dewey was a proponent for elite education.

Efficiency became the goal of society (not democracy), which included social control. The attempt to link efficiency and democracy continued during much of the 20th century. Democracy as Stanley defines it values autonomy and equality. Unfortunately, Blacks, Indians, and women had different experiences. Consider the focus of history on multiple perspectives rather than a “single unified perspective.”

Conclusions.No one familiar with American history can ignore how difficult it has been to bend the arc of history toward justice. … Radical social movements in their time are always viewed as disturbances of the moral order. It is only retrospectively that social movements are viewed as speaking truth to power in ways that make moral sense” (p, 292).


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