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Saturday, October 22, 2011


In a Facebook "battle" recently someone posted an incendiary picture of President Obama talking to some school kids. The caption has him saying, "See, that's where you're wrong. It's everyone's lunch money." So it began. One side shouted its "hallelujahs" and "Thou sayest truly!" and the other complained about the lies and propaganda. That was the word that was used -- "propaganda". Now, I know that people I know were involved in that kerfuffle and I know that some of them might end up reading this, so I want to drop the topic and pick up the principle. Those of you who might be reading this and were involved in the dialog ... relax. It's not about you. It simply illustrates the point.

What is propaganda? According to the dictionary, propaganda is essentially "information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." Included in the idea is the concept that these ideas or rumors may be biased and may be presented in such a way that it would be misleading. Note that both of these are "maybes". If the aim is to help or harm a person, group, movement, etc., it will likely be biased (towards that aim), but not all propaganda is misleading. ("Bias" does not require "misleading".) (And there is almost no such thing as "unbiased".) The purpose of propaganda is to influence the thinking of the recipient of this message. While we tend to think of propaganda as "evil" in some sense, the definition would include advertising, as an example, where they hope to sell you something that you might like. "Dirty, rotten propaganda!" No, not so much.

In the example from Facebook, the battle began with ... propaganda. Obviously it was intended as humorous -- no one was claiming that the president ever said any such thing -- but with a message. The message was that the president would like to spread the wealth. The unspoken word passed around in that message was "socialism" (although genuine socialism is an economic or political concept where the collective or the government owns and administers the means of production and the distribution of wealth ... which hasn't yet been suggested as far as I know). Propaganda. The idea was to get the reader to respond negatively to the suggestion that we should not have private property, that there should be no differentiation in the "haves" and "have nots", that wealth should be distributed evenly to all. Propaganda.

In the Facebook example, the counter responses (which included the complaint that it was propaganda) were, as it happens, propaganda. Ideas like "It's bad that 1% of the population has 90% of the wealth." (A moral conclusion intended to make you think a certain way.) I liked this one: "You know who else was a big socialist? Jesus Christ." Now, this one leans more into the common perception of "propaganda" because it is, well, not true. Socialism enforces the redistribution of wealth. Jesus told His followers to voluntarily give. Not at all the same thing. But bandy about the "Jesus Christ" name and it might give you some traction. Propaganda.

We're into the run-for-the-presidency season. Expect propaganda. Expect it from all sides. Everyone, from the toothpaste seller to the guy running for President will want you to think that what they're selling is what you want. Well, in politics it seems it is, more often, telling you that you don't want what the other guy is selling. (In our upcoming vote for a new mayor, we did our research and decided that Fellow A would be wrong for Phoenix. Now Fellow A is running ads not to tell us why he would be right for Phoenix, but why Fellow B is "wrong for Phoenix" -- the line in the ad. So, apparently no one is right for Phoenix?) You will be deluged with messages that want to tell you how to think. Don't give that up. Do your own research. Don't surrender to the soundbites. Do your own thinking. You will, after all, be responsible for your own choices. And when you hear "your side" say something, remember that it is just as much propaganda as when "those other guys" say something. It's the nature of the beast.

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