I. What is Propaganda?
Propaganda is any sort of art, media, or literature that promotes a political viewpoint, especially through deception or cheap appeals to emotion. Propaganda is intended to energize political supporters and win new converts to the ideology, and it does this by showing only one side of the story and leaning on emotions like fear, anger, and patriotism.
The word “propaganda” has a negative connotation – that is, people tend to use it for practices that they disagree with. It’s typically used to describe things like Communist propaganda or Fascist propaganda. These phrases imply that there’s something dishonest and sinister about propaganda. However, all political groups engage in propaganda, and it’s not clear why there should be something wrong with creating emotionally powerful art with a political message (provided the message itself is an acceptable one).
Naturally, this is a very hard line to draw: what looks like propaganda to one person might look to someone else like political art with a powerful, uplifting message. Some theorists say that propaganda is in support of the ruling powers, whereas art that resists this power should not be called propaganda. However, this isn’t always an easy difference to see, especially when propaganda crosses borders and moves through history.
To make things as clear as possible, let’s simply say that propaganda is art that presents a political view without using logical arguments. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
II. Examples of Propaganda
The film Triumph of the Will is a remarkable work of Nazi propaganda. The film presents Hitler and the other Nazi leaders as figures of boundless strength and honor, lifting the German nation to new heights of prosperity. The negative aspects of Nazi rule are entirely ignored, and the film contains a number of outright lies.
Triumph of the Will was so successful among the German people that the Allies thought they should have something to counter it. An American filmmaker created Why We Fight, a series of documentary films about the Axis powers and their abuses. Ironically, Why We Fight actually used some footage from Triumph of the Will, but presented it in a different context so that it made the German people look like dupes. Unfortunately, Why We Fight also employed racist stereotypes against the Japanese, and also contained several lies.
Political art is always propagandistic in some way, even when it is beautiful and admirable. For example, the street artist Banksy creates satirical propaganda for a pro-economic equality and anti-racist platform. His pieces are visually striking and emotionally powerful, but they use emotional appeals rather than logic, so it’s fair to call them propaganda.
III. Common Propaganda Techniques
a. Raw Emotional Appeal
This is by far the most common propaganda technique – nearly all propaganda uses the emotions in some way, especially emotions of fear, patriotism, anger, and pity. These emotional appeals are not solely found in propaganda, but they are quite common.
Xenophobia means “fear/hatred of outsiders,” and it covers a broad range of prejudices. A patriotic ad campaign, for example, might depict foreigners as menacing, unclean, or deceitful. This plays on people’s worst prejudices for political gain, and is one of the most common propaganda techniques. Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and nativism (hatred of immigrants) are all different types of xenophobia.
c. Plain Folks
In “plain folks” propaganda, the speaker presents himself or herself as just a “regular person.” For example, Sarah Palin is known for making folksy comments and adopting the demeanor of an average working-class American, despite her vast wealth and influence. Such appeals are not based in logic, and therefore they are useful for propaganda.
d. Logical Fallacies
Sometimes, propaganda will appear to be logical, and this is when it gets dangerous. When propaganda pretends to be logic, it’s dishonest and can easily lead people astray. A logical fallacy is an error of reasoning that still looks OK on the surface, and many propagandists will deliberately include such fallacies in order to fool the reader.
e. Name-Calling/Ad Hominem Attack
An ad hominem attack is when you criticize the other person rather than criticizing his or her arguments. In propaganda, this often involves simply calling the other person names – anything from “idiot” and “loser” to “snob” and “egghead.” Clearly, such arguments have no basis in logic.
f. Appeals to Identity
These are arguments based on a group mentality. (e.g. “You’re an American, aren’t you? Well, real Americans support lower taxes.”) Lower taxes may or may not be a good idea – that’s something to decide through a debate. But if one side simply claims that they represent the whole group, excluding those who disagree, then the argument is no longer focused on the real issue, and then we’ve gotten into propaganda territory.
IV. The Importance of Propaganda
Powerful people have always used rhetoric and the arts to promote their rule. Human beings are naturally responsive to their emotions, even when they think they’re being completely rational, so it makes sense for governments to leverage that principle in conveying their message. Similarly, on the other side, revolutionaries and protesters use propaganda to rally people to their cause. Unfortunately, propagandists aren’t always strictly moral, and sometimes they are willing to use lies and deception to get people on their side. This is why propaganda has a negative connotation.
All the same, people do have strong feelings about politics. So it makes sense to use the arts in a political manner, and thus propaganda is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, inspiring works of art have often contributed to people’s spiritual awakening, so why shouldn’t these things contribute to their political evolution as well? As long as the propaganda is not dishonest, and as long as it’s not in support of a repulsive political cause, there’s no reason to see it in a negative light.
V. Examples of Propaganda in Literature and Art
The American artist Gustavo Garcia has worked with the Invisible Children foundation to create art related to the problem of child soldiers in Uganda. His drawings are powerful representations of the pain child soldiers undergo. This work is undeniably propagandistic, because it presents a political viewpoint without any logical arguments. However, the view he presents is an admirable one – that children should be allowed to learn and grow rather than being kidnapped and forced to fight. (At the same time, we might wonder whether it would be more interesting to hear from Ugandan artists on this subject, rather than seeing their experiences represented by an American who has not lived through them.)
When we read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we typically see classical poetry on Greek/Roman mythology. Many readers don’t realize that the book actually had a purpose as propaganda. When it was written, the Roman Empire was going through profound changes and many people still questioned whether the ruling dynasty deserved to be in power. Ovid’s poems subtly portrayed Emperor Augustus as a mythical hero, even a divine being, thus shoring up support for him among the Roman people.
The oldest monuments in the world can be seen as propaganda. Take, for example, the pyramids of ancient Egypt (the oldest over 5,000 years old). These structures were built to house the remains of powerful rulers and their children, and the grandeur of the monuments was an expression of the rulers’ divine power. By building these magnificent works of architecture, the rulers of ancient Egypt solidified their hold on the minds of their subjects.
VI. Examples in of Propaganda Popular Culture
The earliest superhero comics (especially Superman and Captain America) were extremely propagandistic. The comics showed all-American heroes dressed in red, white, and blue, punching out America’s enemies and delivering stern lectures on American values. During WWII, these enemies included Nazis and Imperial Japanese soldiers. After WWII, the principle was extended to include Communist North Koreans and North Vietnamese. Unfortunately, many of these political enemies were East and Southeast Asians, so the comics frequently resorted to racism in an effort to portray America’s enemies as less than human. Early Captain America comic books are especially full of racist stereotypes and offensive terminology for Asians.
During the Cold War, the US government set up a program in which famous jazz musicians traveled to Eastern Europe to draw people toward American culture and away from the Soviet Union. Were the jazz musicians involved in propaganda? Maybe, or maybe not. After all, their music was not specifically about politics, but they had been sent to Eastern Europe specifically to promote the United States.