Words matter. We’re not just saying that because we’re eloquent writers… and stuff. No, we’re saying it because: words matter. Language is a social contract that exists between all of us and with that agreement comes a certain amount of trust. We judge people based upon how they speak. We tell and read stories to entertain and inform. We trust language as something firm in our lives, and we also tend to believe the things we see written in headlines, in the news, and by our own government. That is why ideas of “Alternative Facts” can be so scary, and why propaganda has been so effective throughout our history.
Nobody in History Ever Lied
The origin of the word, Propaganda, can appropriately be traced back to the Catholic Church. The Sacra Congregti d Prpagand Fid or Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith, was established is 1622. Its objectives were to convert pagans and propagate the Catholic faith. From that came the word we know today, but it is worth mentioning that the word itself did not have a sinister meaning until later in history. It is also worth mentioning that just because the phrase was coined in 1622, that does not mean that the art of deception and promotion did not exist before that time either.
For instance, Julius Caesar wrote and published the Bellum Gallicum between 58 BCE and 49 BCE. They were Caesar’s own first hand accounts -told in third person- of his many victories in the Gallic War. It is very likely many of his writings suffered from at least some embellishment, as the real purpose of the documents were to influence and win favor with the common people in Rome. Caesar knew that if he could influence the commoners to love him, then the Senate could do nothing against him, especially when he eventually marched into Rome at the head of an army and was declared emperor. You see, leaders -whether on Twitter or by other means- have been exaggerating their accomplishments throughout history, not just for narcissistic reasons but as a tool to control others.
That is worth remembering when someone like Donald Trump plants people in the audience of his news conferences, with the explicit purpose of laughing and applauding on cue. That is worth remembering when someone like Donald Trump inflates his own importance and victories on social media. That is worth remembering when someone like Donald Trump refuses to believe or even acknowledge the existence his own words and failures. That is worth remembering when someone like Donald Trump believes that the rules do not apply to him. Propaganda is the art of making opinion of the powerful reality for all, and that is worth remembering too.
There Has Never Been Any Propaganda in War
The tactics of propaganda are not necessary when despotism reigns. In a time before democracy, dictators and supreme leaders did not need to convince their people to do anything. The people did it because they had no choice. However, in a place like Ancient Athens, propaganda became a way of life. The citizenry was actively engaged in the game of politics, and were conscious of their own interests. That meant in order to sway the strong-minded citizenry the Greeks used everything from games, to the theater, to the assembly, to religious festivals to extol their ideas or denigrate those of their opposition. These machinations and subtle manipulations became a simple way of life, and it has continued into modern democracies ever since.
Propaganda has become even more important in today’s world, where democracy is now the dominant form of government. The most obvious examples come in times of war. During World War I the US Government created the Committee on Public Information, to keep the American people committed to fighting the Kaiser and his “evil” German hordes. During the Great War the CPI first used fact, but quickly started embellishing those facts to make American victories seem more impressive. They gave stories to the newspapers, such as how “the First Division to Europe sank several German submarines.” The story was easily proven false when reporters interviewed the commanding officers of the division and learned they had not even encountered any German submarines. The CPI used newspapers, posters, and new technologies like radio, telegraphs, and even the movies to promote their pro-war agenda. They had scores of “four minute men” who were trained to go to social gatherings and talk favorably about the war in conversation. However, this heavy handed campaign backfired and the American public became highly critical of the obvious propaganda tactics of the organization. It was about this time that the word propaganda also came to have negative and sinister undertones.
During the Second World War, many Americans came to associate the term with fascist regimes, such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. So, in Word War II the government instead subsidized the Writers’ War Board. It was an independent agency that expressly promoted government policies through art, literature, and even comic books. The WWB made movies with big celebrities, sold war bonds, and created pro-American posters to support the war effort. Officially, the US Government took the stance of having no propaganda, but the civilian led WWB has been called “The greatest propaganda machine of all time.” It was so good that -as a nation- we still internalize a lot of Wolrd War II through the images and ideas that were first created by the WWB. In essence their propaganda became part of our history and our culture.
However even after the war, concepts of propaganda could still be found in most civilian life. If you are a child of the 80’s or 90’s -as we are- you may remember the Ad Council, and it might surprise you -as it did us- that it was established in 1942 to drum up support for the war. The Ad Council then moved on to domestic issues for the government and private agencies. They became a form of domestic propaganda, working on everything from those famous “War on Drugs,” commercials to their “Campaign for Freedom,” which promotes the War on Terrorism. However, domestic propaganda does not only come from the government. It also comes from companies trying to sell their products, or even news agencies trying to boost their ratings. In 1898, we even invaded Cuba -in part- because William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer sensationalized the sinking of the USS Maine to sell papers. In some ways, their actions were no different than Fox News declaring that there is a “War on Christmas,” -which considering that Christmas advertisements start going up on October 15, there clearly is not.
Words Don’ Matter
Everything we have mentioned so far as been pretty obvious propaganda. Most people would look at the examples of World War II, the sinking of the Maine, commercial advertisements, or even Reagan’s War on Drugs, and probably agree with us. However, it is the subtle manipulations that tend to be the most effective and most sinister. Word usage and word choice can change your brain. Words like peace and love can strengthen our frontal lobes and promote cognitive functioning. While, negative words can increase our fear centers and produce stress hormones. So labeling something like a “War on… Anything” will put most people into a fight or flight mode. However, labeling a law that expands government surveillance and reduces civil liberties as the Patriot Act, will put people at ease. Arguably it is also catchier than “The Government Taps Your Phone Act.”
We tend to think of propaganda as grand campaigns of misinformation, but the truth is that they don’t have to be splashed on posters or on your TV screen to manipulate how you think and feel. Words are powerful. They shape our perception of the world around us, and changing words to have different meanings or falsely labeling actions or laws can have an incredible impact on people, even as we know it is happening. These days, the manipulation of language has never been so apparent as than during the infancy of the Presidency of our current President Infant. Donald Trump is a man who labels his opponent as “Crooked Hillary,” or “Lying Ted.” He -despite his limited vocabulary- is actually a master at using subconscious secret code words. Words like “get” or “achieve.” He uses props as a tool of distraction, because of course he does. Remember Donald Trump is a reality TV producer. He knows how to put on a show.
Now you have his surrogates on TV openly lying about easily disprovable facts and then calling them alternative. In our opinion, this is perhaps the most dangerous and chilling thing that has come out of the Trump White House. Calling lies by any other name is how reality starts to warp. Remember, words have power, and the phrase “Alternative Facts” is already trending. We laugh at it now, but it is entering the lexicon like a slow moving virus. If it gains ground than it will give Donald Trump and his team a safe and reliable place to hide their lies. We cannot let that happen. We cannot play their propaganda game. We need to call things what they are, and a lie is a lie.
Donald Trump Lies for the Good of the Nation
According to The Oxford Companion to American History, the word propaganda is defined as: “the deliberate attempt by the few to influence the beliefs and actions of the many through the manipulation of ideas, facts, and lies.” In the end, even the word propaganda is a work of propaganda. It is a word used to downplay what is essentially a campaign of manipulations, lies, and falsehoods. In the past, we have justified certain actions as propaganda, because we understand their end game. The Catholic Church wanted to propagate their religion. America wanted to support their efforts in the World Wars. Businesses and advertisers want to sell you things. However you feel about those goals -right, wrong, or indifferent- at least we understand them.
The problem with Trump’s new alternative facts is that they only seem to serve one end goal, the ego of Donald Trump. They do not serve a national good or even a bottom-line. They are all about Trump and how he wants us to perceive him. This is extremely worrying. When propaganda only serves the needs of one person’s ego you get countries like North Korea or Zimbabwe. Remember, Julius Caesar used propaganda not for the good of Rome, but for the good of himself, and a few short years later the Republic of Rome was never the same. We are not necessarily condemning or condoning the practice of propaganda itself. To an extent it is a fact of modern life, but when it is used to prop up the perception of one individual above all others, especially a -now- powerful world leader, than that is when we start to worry.
So it is worth remembering that these are not alternative facts, and we will refuse to call them as such. History has shown what happens when you stop calling a lie a lie.