The Joys of Propaganda – The New York Times
When it comes to facts, some leaders, like many a florid narcissist, will build a palace and gardens around their anxieties and swear allegiance to the flag flying above them. They supplant what is true with what they wish to be true and simply deny the evidence. This is a crude modern business and has very little to do with great propaganda, which relies on something much more systematic and more artful in the organization of human wishes. The good news, however, is that propaganda is back. I don’t mean the unfragrant mob of internet miscreants — hacking is to propaganda what stalking is to romance. I mean the impulse to choose a side and press its case with wily elegance. Those of us who grew up in the Cold War have rather missed it — the persistent, well-designed, all-encompassing salesmanship of Life’s Correct Path, backed up with textbooks, posters and unspeakable stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Last November, in the weeks après le deluge, in downtown Manhattan, the Russian chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin went head-to-head with Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. The event was as 1970s as Farrah Fawcett; as 1970s as encyclopedias and Tupperware. If I had the requisite amount of hair, I would have feathered it for the occasion. Karjakin is Kremlin-backed, as we spy-watchers like to say, and in fact Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, could be seen hanging around at the Fulton Market Building. This game was important to Putin because he believes in selling the Russian way of life, the Russian character and Russian power, a need that has outlasted both Communism and the Soviet Union. If you, dear reader, happen to be under 40, you might find it bizarre that a foreign leader would care so much about a chess match, but for the rest of us it provides a warm, fuzzy feeling.
What is “a way of life”? For example, the American way of life. What is it? Is it a series of values, traits and skills that others might do well to emulate, or a set of selfish boasts and vices that make the world a darker place? You decide. Or, rather: You don’t decide, but an imaginative use of propaganda will decide for you. Manipulating human belief might sound like an alarming project for governments and designers to undertake, but it’s one of the oldest professions in the book, and corporations, religions, entertainers and doctors, to say little of politicians, are dedicated to the art of making you think what you ought to think. Populism is based on the notion that people can think for themselves, but most people can’t and don’t want to; they need team colors and a direction of play that is worked out by other people. It’s almost heretical to say so, but when “the people” have spoken they often don’t know what they’ve said. For good or for ill, the art of propaganda must set out to persuade them of what they think.
At the time of World War II, this wasn’t so much resented as it might be today, and was considered by most of the Allies to be something of a gentle and spirited approach to the survival of the species. Everybody was at it, from sign writers and shopkeepers to gardeners and movie-makers. When Laurence Olivier climbs on a cart in “Henry V,” addressing his soldiers with hopeful passion, it wasn’t just Shakespeare, it was Shakespeare fitted up as propaganda, and sold to a nation fighting a good war in 1944:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne’er so base.
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Pure propaganda. And a beautiful thing. We are so used to thinking of propaganda as the work of malign forces and the enemy of our present freedoms — such as they are — that we forget what a boon good propaganda was to the arts. British women discovered how to “make do and mend” during the rationing of World War II, turning old clothes into new ones and making “fashion on the ration” a harbinger of new styles, and the habit was sold to them in a long series of advertisements and “public information” films. In a recent book, “Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II” by David Welch, we discover a golden period for the makers of meaning and the would-be winners of moral arguments, each of them eagerly trying (often with the government’s help) to embolden a sense of national camaraderie. Travel posters and advertisements were designed by Eric Ravilious or E. McKnight Kauffer, designs that not only brought the work of visual artists into the service of maintaining morale, but extended the people’s vision of what the nation was and why it was worth preserving. In 1940, an exhibit called “Britain at War” opened at the British Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair, and moved to the Museum of Modern Art the following year. Kauffer designed the show’s catalog cover, showing a soldier’s head in a Cubist pattern. T.S. Eliot contributed a poem, “Defense of the Islands.” This was all propaganda, but no less interesting and no less true to its artistic purpose. Kauffer, in peacetime, went on to design posters for American Airlines that invoke America as a place of progress and serenity.
Now that we live in a world of “alternative facts,” perhaps propaganda doesn’t look as menacingly coercive as it once did. A number of decades ago, the C.I.A. — under the guise of the Congress for Cultural Freedom — ran a covert operation to publish a literary magazine, Encounter, as a propaganda exercise. A literary magazine! A thing that published poems, essays, short stories and philosophical lectures! I swear, it’s enough to make you nostalgic. (Encounter closed in 1991.) Imagine the C.I.A. today thinking it was worth spending hundreds of thousands of dollars attempting to win the hearts and minds of the English-speaking world via the poems of Theodore Roethke and essays by Nancy Mitford. If anyone from the present administration, or from any of their beloved or reviled security agencies, were to publicly commend a poem, even by way of propaganda, the Russian leaders might die of shock. Propaganda comes in many forms, only some of them explicit.
Hollywood, for instance, and the advertising industry, churn out pro-war propaganda and sexist assumptions as if they were catnip to the people. “‘The Founder,”’ a new film about the businessman who wanted people to believe he founded McDonald’s, may be the first propagandistic movie of the Trump era. Sure, in many ways it appears to be a film critical of its central character, Ray Kroc. But the criticism doesn’t quite hold, and the movie feels like a prolonged ad for the idea of a burger company as a symbol of American success, and the notion of rich businessmen as natural born leaders. The character examination comes second to a more overpowering message: Greed is righteous. Even if you feel that the fight for dollars is a good war, this is not quite propaganda as Shakespeare understood it. Or Walt Disney. Or Steve Jobs. But at least it offers a current reality.