Thursday, May 25, 2017

Propaganda In Our Day: Even Its Opposite Is Untrue

Drug Enforcement Agency personnel or terriorists operating in Honduras? You be the judge.
Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP via The Intercept

It's spring in the 8th grade and we turn to the study of propaganda. The student who considers it his duty to challenge everything I do demanded to know why studying propaganda belongs in English class. I turned his question back to his classmates and the wary silence accompanied by bored inattention was broken by a lone raised hand. "Weasel words is about using words that don't mean what they seem to, and words are what we study in English." Good job. 

Of course we live in an age dominated by images that amplify words or often sidestep words altogether to convey ideas. And a veritable deluge of false narratives like Russiagate conveyed by any means. It makes for an interesting perspective for this old teacher reflecting that there is hardly anything new under the sun.

(This reminds me to show them the Assyrian relief on display at my alma mater with cuneiform exalting King Ashurnasirpal as he's blessed with the gift of fertilizing -- there's tree pollen in the winged spirit's handbag.)
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine
We've considered lots of advertisements, for that is the very air a child in the waning days of capitalism breaths from birth. I've also shown a clip from the 1947 U.S. Department of War film "Don't Be A Sucker" pointing out graphically the parallel between a demagogue's claims in Nazi Germany and a demagogue's claims in post-WWII America. Scapegoating, preying on people's fears, and exploiting the unemployed are clumsily demonstrated as a man in the Cold War crowd nervously turns the masonic ring on his finger muttering, "Hey, now they're talking about me." Any resemblance to current events is purely coincidental.

But the real fun began when I asked students to find a short video of any kind that exemplifies at least two of the propaganda strategies we've been focusing on: weasel words, glittering generalities, bandwagon and expert (in 2017 read: celebrity) opinion.

One student turned up an infographic-style video that animates a book on propaganda by evil mastermind Edward Bernays. I wasn't planning to study the history of propaganda but students now saw how it was used on behalf of the corporation United Fruit to effect regime change in Guatemala, and who invented the weasel words "public relations."

I knew this history already so it didn't stick in my craw quite as much as the next offering, a video titled "Propaganda video claims to show ISIS's 'workout program'." 

Screenshot from Daily Mail video

All the men are masked like DEA agents in Honduras, and some appear rather chunky. No voices are heard under the soundtrack of an Arabic (or Dari?) song presumably calling on idealistic notions of faith in the service of killing infidels.

Without an understanding of the words, the appeal of the images was strong for teenagers -- leaping through rings of fire, tumbling through obstacle courses and demonstrating proper knife fighting techniques. "They make it look so fun," one observed.

I will not be sharing this infographic with my students.

It would take an entire course on contemporary U.S. foreign policy to unravel the complicated lies about Islamic terrorism that conceal our lust for wealth and territorial ambitions. The documentary Reel Bad Arabs showed a plethora of Hollywood's efforts to demonize those sitting on top of what U.S. oil companies consider their rightful property. But in a week when corporate news was full of images of the president and Saudi Arabia's leaders dancing together with swords as they sold and bought $110 billion in weapons -- and a suicide bomber allegedly motivated by religion blew up scores of young girls at a concert in Manchester -- the layers of deception are too dense for my 8th grade English class.

As for the "fun" of combat, what empire has not employed propaganda to sell that notion?

When thinking about propaganda I often return to an essay by George Orwell published in 1939 about boys' "penny dreadfuls" sold in England's poorest neighborhoods. An interesting quote:

The American ideal, the ‘he-man’, the ‘tough guy’, the gorilla who puts everything right by socking everybody on the jaw, now figures in probably a majority of boys' papers.

Orwell concerns himself with framing, arguably the most powerful propaganda technique of all. (A question I posed about the "Don't Be A Sucker" film was: Where are all the women?) By directing our gaze to a narrow window on the world, other possibilities are negated. A constricted view offering compelling, false narrative meets the litmus test of truly sophisticated propaganda in that even its opposite is untrue.

I'm not going to push my own political analysis on 8th graders. That would be wrong, and not what I agreed to do when I signed my contract. I am going to try and plant a seed of doubt in their minds about their access to real information. Net neutrality is under fire (again), and we live in the sticks -- so online searching may or may not continue to be a uniquely powerful way for my students to find real news. At least I hope they leave for summer vacation realizing it's their own responsibility to find some.

I'll let a teenage girl have the last word here: @angryhijabi's passionate appeal for an unbiased and unhurried examination of actual facts.


loveEliz said...

Oh, my darling girl
It is a time for grief.
Sometimes my despair numbs my hope
But I will not give in to madness.
oh, my darling girl
she will not ever come home.
Her blood is splattered in a public place.
Now is a time for grief.
my tears give me no relief.
When will there ever not
be a time for grief?

Love, Eliz

Lisa Savage said...

Dear Eliz,
I think there will always be natural disasters that cause suffering, but the grief caused by human cruelty is not a given. We can choose a better way. love, Lisa