New York

Propaganda and Its Props

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PATRIOT Act, Megan’s Law — a novel study of lawmakers’ pet names for pet bills

An interesting study by George Mason University grad student Brian C. Jones of the names lawmakers attach to bills and laws makes us breathe easier: We’re unlikely to ever see a bill titled “The Rudy Giuliani 9/11 Victims Act.”

And Jones’s study does spark an awareness of the tools of propaganda. In this era of nonsensical, nonstop political campaigning, such reminders can’t hurt.

Jones’s project for his master’s thesis tested the fictitious and real names of bills among several hundred fellow students at the Virginia school.

rudy-drag-NU141.jpgOne of the examples he used in the survey was the real anti-terrorism bill, on which he slapped Rudy’s name. The bad news is Rudy’s name kinda fouled up Jones’s results. That’s because the good news is that faux-9/11 hero Giuliani seemed to be enough of a polarizing figure, now that he’s a presidential candidate, that his name didn’t make the students necessarily want to support an anti-terrorism bill any more than if it had been called “The Terrorism Act” or the unfortunately real name, “USA PATRIOT Act.”

Now, if Rudy had been a victim — instead of a phony hero who mentions 9/11 more often than a nun says, “Hail Mary” — that would be different. Megan’s Law, a real law named for the victim of a sex offender, resonated more with the students surveyed. So did a phony name, the “Alice Walker Juvenile Crime Act.”

The impact of mass-media b.s. about such bills is beyond the scope of Jones’s study. He does come up with other morsels that I’ll get into in later posts, but don’t think for a minute that you’re too smart to be influenced by such silly things as the names of bills and other emotional appeals. Jones cited Ted Brader‘s 2006 book, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work, noting:

[Brader found] that those more familiar with politics were influenced by political television advertisements at a higher level than those less familiar with politics.

This isn’t a new idea. French sociologist Jacques Ellul is dead, but his ideas live, particularly (for me) his ’60s book Propaganda, which is still an extremely relevant read and makes a similar point to Brader’s. Writing about the mass media and propaganda, here’s the prolific Ellul from one of his books:

It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment. Mass media provides the essential link between the individual and the demands of the technological society.

What I got from Propaganda is that we all get got by propaganda.

In other words, if you’re aware of the world around you, particularly the political world, then you’re more susceptible to propaganda than those slack-jawed yokels who aren’t so interested or aware.

Often referred to as a “Christian anarchist,” Ellul painted a frightening portrait of society, viz. this passage in Propaganda:

There is no chance of raising the intellectual level of Western populations sufficiently and rapidly enough to compensate for the progress of propaganda.

Propaganda techniques have advanced so much faster than the reasoning capacity of the average man that to close this gap and shape this man intellectually outside the framework of propaganda is almost impossible. In fact, what happens and what we see all around us is the claim that propaganda itself is our culture and what the masses ought to learn.

Only in and through propaganda have the masses access to political economy, politics, art, or literature. Primary education makes it possible to enter the realm of propaganda, in which people then receive their intellectual and cultural environment. The uncultured man cannot be reached by propaganda.

As we get inundated more and more by marketers political and otherwise, here’s one more quote from Ellul’s Propaganda that might agitate you:

Propaganda seeks to induce action, adherence, and as little thought as possible. According to propaganda, it is useless, even harmful for man to think …. Action must come directly from the depths of the unconscious ….. This is the basic condition of the political organization of the modern world, and propaganda is the instrument to attain this effect.

An example that shows the radical devaluation of thought is the transformation of words in propaganda; there, language, the instrument of the mind, becomes “pure sound,” a symbol directly evoking feelings and reflexes. This is one of the most serious dissociations that propaganda causes.

Propaganda sometimes deliberately separates from man’s real world the verbal world that it creates; it tends to destroy man’s conscience.

In advance of the next year and a half of media blitzes in the presidential campaign, consider yourself warned.