Propaganda and censorship have had a bad rap, pummeled in the twentieth century almost into swear words, but in their essence and etymology, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. They’ve just been put to bad use – and hence, have developed bad meanings.
Propagare is Latin for the cognate English word ‘propagate’, to spread forth, to disseminate, even to preach. The form in which we know it, propaganda, is the future passive participle, which implies a sense of necessity or obligation, something that must be taught and promulgated like, say, the Gospel. The Church’s curial office for spreading the Faith used to be called Propaganda Fidei, set up by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, when everyone spoke Latin and understood what this implied. In 1967, when everyone no longer did so, the name was changed by Paul VI to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The term was tainted by the Communists and the Nazis, who promulgated their own evil doctrines by underhanded and heavy-handed means. Hitler appointed Goebbels head of his ‘Propaganda Ministry’ when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Goebbels was a master of how to make people believe the unbelievable, convincing the German people – many of whom, like all people of all time, were in some sense gullible and open to suggestion – that Hitler was a saviour; that euthanasia, the killing of undesirables, was a good thing; that Jews and certain other groups were untermensch, subhuman; that there was such a thing as a mythical ‘Aryan’ race. Watch some of the films, and wonder. And Goebbels wasn’t the only one; everyone was propagandizing to attain their aims, aided and abetted by the modern media, especially television, which is basically a device for hypnotizing people.
But we should define our terms: What really is propaganda, and when does getting a message across become somewhat unsettling, if not outright immoral? The term is now thrown about with some degree of recklessness, and we need to be precise.
The late great Neil Postman does a very good job of describing propaganda in this insightful article, well worth a read. Following Aldous Huxley (of Brave New World fame), Postman makes a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ propaganda.
One defining line between the two is an over-emphasis on appealing to the emotions, rather than the reason. In bad propaganda, there is an attempt to deliberately short-circuit the rational and critical faculties, so that we believe the irrational. Advertising is all about this, and more on that in later posts.
Another is that bad propaganda leaves out essential truths, or uses lies, often subtle, subliminal and difficult to detect.
But, most of all, propaganda in the bad sense has a bad intention, to lead people to think and do evil. The propagators of such propaganda are often aware of their evil, which is why they need the first two characteristics – emotions and lies. If the recipients were to be made aware of the evil, they would become immune to the propaganda.
And where would propaganda be, without a good dose of censorship, which also has good and bad varieties. Limiting or even forbidding information is not in itself wrong – for there is some duty to control the spread of falsity, and not everyone need, or should, know everything. Censorship becomes bad when truths are deliberately suppressed that we have a right, even a duty, to know, or when a just freedom – even to false opinions – is lost.
Take, for example, a woman with child entering an abortion clinic, and then a pro-life advisory centre. Both are going to use what we might describe as propaganda and censorship, to convince the woman to a certain course of action, either to abort, or to keep, her child. They both may use emotive means, the first, showing the ease of the procedure, getting rid of the ‘problem’; never calling the baby a ‘baby’, but rather a ‘product of conception’.
The one will emphasize the difficulty of motherhood, especially single motherhood; how children limit one’s life, and so on, while the pro-life centre may show 4-D ultrasound photos of her baby – using that relational term – in the womb; she may hear the heartbeat and be regaled with the joys and blessings of motherhood, all the while minimizing, or at least contextualizing, the difficulties of single parenthood; she will be told of the horrors of abortion, the regret and guilt that inevitably follow.
If they are they both using propaganda, is one bad, the other good?
Well, the abortion centre is, on the whole, lying, and with a nefarious purpose: to kill the child. The pro-life centre on the other hand emphasizes certain truths, with a good purpose, to ensure the child will live.
Of course, the best for us humans – and I speak here as a disciple of Saint Thomas and John Paul II – is to decide matters using our reason, the brains and minds God gave us, and not be dominated by our emotions one way or the other. Sure, our passions, loves, desires, even our hates, may play a part in our decisions and points of view, but at the end of the day, reason, which is God’s image in us, is the power that allows us to see the truth, that adequatio rei et intellectus, the conformity between the mind and reality, which is the only thing that will set us free from ignorance, and consequent manipulation.
So, even if a moral decision is very difficult, and contrary to our emotions, we must still do the right thing, such as carrying a baby to term.
We live in a world of propaganda, most of it of the bad sort, and Postman suggests that the term has become so tainted that the notion of ‘good’ propaganda cannot save it. I’m not so sure, and am loathe to let words just go. There is a good sense of trying to sway people to the true and the good, if they cannot (yet) see it with their own minds.
We are all propagandists to some extent, putting forth our ‘best selves’ to the world, while hiding or minimizing our faults, foibles and failings (except, hopefully, in Confession). Every résumé and dating profile, introduction to a speaker, a mother waxing eloquent about her children, and even leaders striving to do the best for their country and people. Propaganda, all of it, but, again, we may hope, in the good sense.
More so, we are immersed in bad propaganda. The Covid debacle was, and still is, filled with such, as are any number of other crises facing our world, from climate change to homosexuality and transgenderism. The leaders of both Ukraine and Russia both strictly control their news sources and media, and the reader may decide whether what they do permit is propaganda in the good or bad sense.
And it’s not just war-torn regions. Trudeau here in Canada has put forward Bill C-10, the ‘Online Streaming Act’, enforcing government oversight of the entire internet by the ideological and Liberal-dominated CRTC. And this after his 600-million-dollar subsidy to ‘mainstream’ media outlets, but only those that toe the line.
Meanwhile, Biden has just instituted his ‘Ministry of Disinformation’, led by a certain Nina Jankowicz, who introduces her new ministry in this bizarre parody of Mary Poppins. (Caveat: What is once seen and heard cannot be unseen and unheard. I still have flashbacks from watching just part of the video).
I’m not sure how well Ms. Jankowicz will do, propaganda-wise. She is a bit too, well, obvious, but the past two years have convinced me that you can convince people of pretty much anything, so long as it’s on a news channel and/or from the government. Her song would have been a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live a scant few years ago, and in some dim sense I still hope it is. But, tragically, this Disney princess has the authority to put you in jail for a loooong time, for the crime of – you guessed it – spreading anything she, or her handlers, consider ‘untrue’.
We’re beyond even 1984, wherein wars may, or may not, be happening, and 2 +2 = 5. This is a weird inversion of Orwell’s prophecy – instead of a jackboot, it’s a stiletto heel stomping on a face forever. I can only say that if red-blooded, beef-eating, beer-drinkin’ Americans stand being told what they can say and cannot say by the likes of Ms. Jankowicz, well, as I alluded in the last post on Roe v. Wade, we may as well put a fork in the Ol’ Republic, for she’s as done as dinner.
There is hope: Ron de Santis, for one, is having none of it, and here’s hoping there’s millions more like him, even here in our own Dominion, who will stand for truth and freedom. But they will have a fight on their hands, as the power of Satan – liar, deceiver and murderer – waxes strong. As CCR sang back in the better old days, I see a bad moon risin’…
Meanwhile, here are some suggestions – which I hope are not propaganda in the bad sense – which may help us to see through propaganda:
- Immerse ourselves in perennial truths, those that cannot be otherwise. By this, I mean not only the truths of our Faith, in doctrine and morals, but also how these have been expounded by the great doctors of the Church, which has recommended Thomas Aquinas as a sure antidote to falsity.
- Keep a control on our emotions, especially when various images and reports come our way. Even the most tragic of evils, apparent or not, requires a rational and proportionate response.
- Control and limit our consumption of media, and be sure to check sources and spin. Also, as Postman points out, analyze the terms used. Are they accurate and true and, if not, are they deliberately misleading? If any given media is found to be lying and deceitful, chuck it.
- Look objectively at evidence. Do your own research, and do not give unlimited trust to ‘experts’. There is a healthy level of natural faith in others, but that has been undermined of late.
- Don’t over fret about world events, and live more locally, with solicitude for those things about which we can actually do something, our families, our schools, our parishes, our friends and those we meet in our daily rounds. It is for these that we will be asked for a reckoning, and the ‘duty of the moment’ is becoming a more vivid spiritual principle.
- Pray for the light and grace of the Holy Spirit. Stay close to the Church, the Eucharist, sacraments, Our Lady, the saints. Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
- Cultivate an interior life, the garden of our souls, and always, always, keep peace in our soul, for earthly events always pass, and our focus, goal and intent should always be heaven, gained by living a good, moral life.
I will close with the prayer of Teresa of Avila, in her Castilian Spanish, then in English. A very fitting one for anxious age:
Nada te turbe;
nada te espente;
todo se pasa;
Dios no se muda.
La paciencia Todo lo alcanxa.
Quien a Dios tiene,
nada le falta.
Solo dios basta.
Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.
God alone suffices.