Westerners usually refer to Chinese media as “communist/socialist propaganda”, or simply “propaganda”; similar thing for Nazi Germany. This had led me to believe that “propaganda” is a really bad word — just like the notion that “revolution” is a really good word. Now in US with the Right vs. Left media war more fierce than ever and two parties pointing fingers to each other and saying “this is just propaganda!”, it is both illuminating AND confusing about the true meaning of the word.
I came across this post by Mark Cassello the other day, which in my opinion serves as a great textbook material in civic education on the subject:
In Propaganda in a Democratic Society (1958), Aldous Huxley differentiates two forms of propaganda. The first, which he lauds, is called “rational propaganda.” This type of propaganda agrees with the “enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed.” In other words, the purveyors of and the recipients of both stand to benefit from the dissemination of this propaganda.
The second, called “non-rational propaganda,” is not necessarily aligned with anyone’s “enlightened self-interest,” but is instead “dictated by, and appeals to, passion.” The former, he argues, is vital to a democratic society that serves the long-term interests of all while the latter creates a world filled with “misery” in which people, moved by passion more than reason, are driven to act against their own self-interest.
Then Cassello went on offering his take on how the Right’s “non-rational propaganda” has come into dominance in the past 30 years, by establishing “fabricated foes” and manipulating the audiences’ fear and “desire to protect themselves and their families from some form of ‘violation’”. Finally he gave some advice for Democrats and the like on how to learn new, if they have any, media skills to make their “rational propaganda” feel as good as that of their opponents, for those, if I may say, less-enlightened people.
In some sense, I think this is essentially the point Bill Maher was trying to make in his criticism of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally early this month, all of whom I love, in that you really can’t win the battle in a noble way against a “dirty player”. Human nature tries to settle for one of two extremes and avoid the complicated in-betweens, and that’s the Right’s best game, even if it’s something as surreal and preposterous as Glenn Beck (see 10 Funniest Videos Mocking Glenn Beck).