Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ellul, American Propaganda, and Tea Parties...

Jacques Ellul wrote "Propaganda" 45 years ago. In the book he articulates a theory about the development of a modern system of propaganda that is designed to enable societies to progress toward certain aims (political, technological, etc). In one section he describes 'sociological propaganda' in the U.S. Here is a very interesting excerpt:

"Another very curious and recent phenomenon (confirmed by several American sociologists) is the appearance of 'agitators' alongside politicians and political propagandists. The pure agitator, who stirs public opinion in a 'disinterested' fashion, functions as a nationalist. He does not appeal to a doctrine or principle, nor does he propose specific reforms. He is the 'true' prophet of the American Way of Life. Usually he is against the New Deal and for laissez-faire liberalism; against plutocrats, internationalists, and socialists - bankers and communists alike are the 'hateful other party in spite of which well-informed "I" survive...'

The agitator is especially active in the most unorganized groups of the United States. He uses the anxiety psychoses of the lower middle class, the neo-proletarian, the immigrant, the demobilized soldier - people who are not yet integrated into American society or who have not yet adopted ready-made habits and ideas... He makes groups act in the illogical yet coherent, Manichaean universe of propaganda, of which we will have more to say. The most remarkable thing about this phenomenon is that these agitators do not work for a political party; it is not clear which interests they serve... but they deeply influence American public opinion, and their influence may crystallize suddenly in unexpected forms."

Now, I have no doubt this sort of 'agitation', if it is genuine, occurs across the political spectrum. But, doesn't this sound a lot like the current explosion of "tea parties" that are taking place in the U.S.? Groups of people are coming together for a common cause that is nonetheless vague: They want to get rid of Obama, or his policies, or "liberalism"; they want "freedom" or "less government" or any number of things. Many of them claim to be neither republicans nor democrats, but independents. And what they desire isn't necessarily bad, but seems to be primarily a reactionary movement held together by the sorts of elements described above by Ellul.

What do you think? Is Ellul's description valid here? Does it still apply today? Have we become, in our age of ubiquitous media pundits and disaffected voters, a nation of 'agitators'?

1 comment:

bigolddaddy said...

We have not become a nation of agitators, but we let ourselves get kicked around by agitators, allowing them to dominate the airwaves and our national imagination. Perhaps that’s one of the downsides of free speech: we’re actually free to speak and soapboxes are there for those who want to use them.

One of the marvels – and dangers – of a democratic (as in democracy) form of government is the extent to which individuals can make a difference. (The rise of corporations has, IMHO, done great harm in curtailing that influence, but that’s a different discussion.) The system works best when individuals are educated about issues and candidates, discussing them with civility and respect, and bringing carefully considered and well-informed views to public forums and to the polls.

The role of the agitator is to whip up crowds, not to foster thoughtful conversations. Agitators trade on slogans, inflammatory language, and gross oversimplifications of complex issues. These can be quickly hurled at large crowds with little or no understanding required. Agitators go for the low-hanging fruit. And even though such tactics may bring disastrous results, they are easy and effective. Too bad.

There is much to be said about national news, polls, and media pundits – none of it good. I prefer conversations with friends and neighbors, local forums, and reading a variety of opinions (which agitators may dismiss as the “liberal elite”). Imagine what might happen if tens of millions of Americans quit watching TV and took some of that time to learn about neighbors’ needs and interests. We could put many agitators out of business while discovering that people living around us aren’t as crazy and dangerous as we’ve been told. And guess who told us?

Too idealistic? I don’t think so. For starters, reach for the telephone instead of the remote. We can provide lots of other suggestions for those who might be interested.