Monday, August 01, 2016

Propaganda in the Twenties

Part 1 of this series
Part 2 of this series

Part 3:

You have to understand what propaganda is to grasp just how dangerous it is. But you also have to learn to recognize it when you see it so you don't fall victim to it.

If you are reading this, you probably have fallen victim to propaganda. If you've ever purchased something you have seen in an ad, you are a victim of propaganda.

The word first came into use in the seventeenth century as the Catholic Church was trying to recover from the Protestant schism. (If you're Catholic you are probably familiar with the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.) Of course, it wasn't the first time propaganda was used. You can find recorded instances dating back to ancient Athens. You know about Greek theater - but did you know it was very often used as propaganda? Of course you do know if you know anything at all about ancient Greek theater. Of course you do. And those who don't? Shame on you! Ancient Greece is part of American history, after all.

The twenties were a time when propaganda was becoming its own kind of institution, a time when Edward Bernays had yet to overthrow governments with US taxpayer dollars but was still selling you soap and cigarettes with his uncle Freud's psychology theories, his uncle, father of modern psychology, the man who theorized about the id and the ego.

Ego has, for some reason, become synonymous for narcissism and self-importance, but that is not the original meaning of the word. The "ego" simply means "self." More specifically, it's the part of the mind that mediates between the conscience and the unconscience. It's what gives a person a sense of identity.

Then again, psychology itself is misunderstood. You can thank American pop psychologists whose egos in the general sense of the word reduced the real science of psychology to a pseudoscience, a grand tradition that continues today with such celebrities as Dr. Phil.

What is the science of psychology, then? It is the study of the human mind. It seeks to understand human behavior through the conscious and unconscious experiences of individuals AND groups.

Like everything in life, it can be used for evil. 

While white Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were slugging homers and entertaining white and black Americans alike, an Austrian corporal enamored with his white skin was beginning to understand the power of psychology to promote an agenda. Ideas were one thing, but symbols, flags, and fear would win over supporters. Symbols ARE important to our world. Semiotics (or semiology) is the study of signs, symbols, and how they are significant. It is closely related to the field of linguistics, which studies words. Both are inseparable from psychology, and from these comes propaganda. He thought the Social Democrats he despised had used what he called the "infamous spiritual and physical terror" to win supporters in Vienna. Fear is a powerful seller.

Iron Cross, First Class assigned ex-servicemen to National Socialist meetings to silence hecklers and protestors, then organized Ordnertruppe - strong arm squads - to keep order. Later they were officially renamed "Sturmabteilung." Storm Troopers. They wore brown shirts and eventually took to breaking up meetings of OTHER political parties. Political rallies became violent. Iron Cross, First Class even led one of these attacks, which landed him a three month prison sentence (only one of which he served.)

The concept of the "hero" is also a good seller, born of the same manipulation as fear. Though baseball players had been used to sell products since the late nineteenth century (the famous Honus Wagner baseball card was printed for a tobacco company,) it wasn't until the twenties when endorsements began to be common as the United States was undergoing what could be called a "consumer revolution." Prior to WWI, endorsements were rare and were mostly limited to sporting goods, part of the reason baseball developed a reputation as a "healthy" endeavor.

Then came the ads for cigarettes, beer, sodas, and guns, among other things. As endorsement advertising grew, so, too did the controversy surround it. Baseball Commissioner Landis worried that money for endorsing products was a guise for payment to throw games, though he never acted on it. Endorsements were seen as fraud by many parties, including the FTC, not to mention that Americans widely viewed the practice as objectionable. (The fraud charges continued for decades - Mickey Mantle got into trouble for endorsing a brand of milk he did not drink.)

None of these things would have been possible without Sigmund Freud or his nephew Edward Bernays, father of the field of "public relations" and Woodrow Wilson's WWI propaganda minister. Baseball players had been symbols of health, and once the view had been firmly established, they could have sold anything, even guns to children. And nobody thinks twice about it.

That's what propaganda does - it normalizes a product, a brand, an idea, an ideology. That's the point of marketing and propaganda of other sorts. You appeal to a person's ego, or a group's ego, and you choose words and symbols that will arouse specific emotions in them, and they come to see that product or idea as right or true to them. Sure, people objected to the baseball player endorsements, but enough just accepted it as normal that it became normal. Babe Ruth didn't buy his kids the guns he sold. It was enough to give the perception that he liked the product.

This works whether you are sending a seemingly positive message, as in "I like this product," or an inflammatory message - "I hate this product." "I hate this person." "I hate this group." It works by appealing to the ego - that sense of self, including all the hyphenated words that come with it (self-esteem, self-importance, self-awareness, etc.)

The flag.

Is there a more potent piece of propaganda than a flag? The flag inspires feelings of pride, patriotism, and belonging for those who support it. For those who don't? Loathing. Disgust. Evil.

For most Americans and Westerners, the flag that Austrian failed artist designed is a symbol of the worse evil bestowed upon mankind. The simple flag - red background, white circle, and black swastika (once a symbol of harmony found in ruins of ancient Egypt, Troy, China, India, and elsewhere), became the embodiment of death and destruction.

This was AND STILL IS the worst period in human history. The trick is to keep it from happening again. (Not everyone loathes the swastika flag, and indeed it is making a comeback among a swath of Trump supporters.)

"A symbol it really is! In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalist idea, and in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man." - Mein Kampf

What is propaganda?

Chances are, you have fallen victim to it. Buy these cigarettes. Buy Coca Cola. Buy America.

Think, people. Think.

No comments: