Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and Propaganda

I have been wanting for a while to write something about the whole uproar surrounding WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning (presumably the chief hero in this whole thing whose natural allies seem to have temporarily forgotten about him because of the drama and visibility of Julian Assange’s current situation). But every time I start focusing on a particular aspect, I find that it has already been covered better than I can do by someone else, often Glenn Greenwald in particular. Some other pieces that I have liked are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Instead of echoing what other people have already articulated, I want pull back and look at the current events in light of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, which I mentioned in a post on 23 November. The following is a mix of paraphrases and direct quotes from section 4, “Propaganda and Democracy,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects.” I intend to tie some of the ideas below to the Bradley-Manning-WikiLeaks (BMWL) brouhaha later, perhaps next week.

Summary

In Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul asserts that raw facts are subordinate to propaganda. “Facts do not assume reality in the people’s eyes unless they are established by propaganda. … For modern man, propaganda is really creating truth.”

He further asserts that propaganda is totalitarian by its nature, not because it has been used to the limit by totalitarian states, but because “the ultimate aim of all propaganda” is to provoke “action without prior thought.” This implies that propaganda is immanently anti-democratic since democracy depends on individuals being informed and able to participate in debate and deliberation to judge the quality of decisions being made by elected government officials and the agents of the state that are, in theory, accountable to the elected government.

Ellul notes that many people, especially journalists and commentators, in democracies tend to believe that “nothing can touch democracy: on the contrary, [democracy] impresses its character on everything it touches.” And even many people who study propaganda carefully harbor a belief in the possibility of setting up “a propaganda system that expresses the democratic character and does not alter the working of democracy.”

Although a democracy may not allow the means of propaganda to be formally monopolized, the “trend everywhere is in the direction of a very few, very powerful companies controlling all the propaganda media. … Assuming that information is an indispensable element of democracy, it is necessary that the information promulgated by the State be credible. Without credibility, it will fail. … The problem then is whether the State will support a private competitor who controls media equal or superior to its own but makes different propaganda. It may even be entirely legitimate for the State to suppress or annex such a competitor.”

“Some will say: ‘Freedom of expression is democracy; to prevent propaganda is to violate democracy.’ Certainly, but it must be remembered that the freedom of expression of one or two powerful companies that do not express the thoughts of the individual or small groups, but of capitalists interests or an entire public, does not exactly correspond to what was called freedom of expression a century ago.”

Ellul proceeds to quote Rivero, who says:

“In the nineteenth century, the problem of opinion formation through the expression of thought was essentially a problem of contacts between the State and the individual, and a problem of acquisition of a freedom. But today, thanks to the mass media, the individual finds himself outside the battle … the debate is between the State and powerful groups. … Freedom to express ideas is no longer at stake in this debate. … What we have is mastery and domination by the State or by some powerful groups over the whole of the technical media of opinion formation … the individual has no access to them … he is no longer a participant in this battle for the free expression of ideas: he is the stake. What matters for him is which voice he will be permitted to hear and which words will have the power to obsess him.”

And here Ellul points out: “It is in the light of this perfect analysis that one must ask oneself what freedom of expression still means in a democracy.”

“…what characterizes democracy is that it permits the expression of different propagandas. This is true. But it is impossible to permit the expression of all opinion. Immoral and aberrant opinions are justifiably subject to censorship. Purely personal opinions and, even more, certain political tendencies are necessarily excluded. “No freedom for the enemies of freedom” is the watchword then. Thus the democracies create for themselves a problem of limitation and degree.”

“In time of war, everybody agrees that news must be limited and controlled, and that all propaganda not in the national interest must be prohibited. From that fact grows a unified propaganda. The problem that now arises is” that war “is no longer an exceptional state” but is “permanent and endemic.” And Ellul asserts that propaganda itself is responsible for this perpetual war footing.

He goes on to note that democratic propaganda “is an instrument not of passion but of reason. … The tradition of respecting the individual has not yet been eliminated, and this leads to all sorts of consequences. First, it limits propaganda. The democratic State uses propaganda only if driven by circumstances—for example, traditionally, after wars. But whereas private and domestic propaganda is persistent in its effects, governmental and external propaganda evaporate easily. Besides, such propaganda is not total, does not seek to envelop all of human life, to control every form of behavior, to attach itself ultimately to one’s person. A third trait of democratic propaganda is that it looks at both sides of the coin. The democratic attitude is frequently close to that of a university: there is not absolute truth, and it is acknowledged that the opponent has some good faith, some justice, some reason on his side. It is a question of nuances. There is no strict rule—except in time of war—about Good on one side and Bad on the other.”

Ellul refers to and endorses a distinction made by Harold D. Lasswell between the propagandas of totalitarian regimes and democratic regimes. The former customarily use propaganda to produce effects in the masses that the ruling elite do not participate in. Conversely, the propaganda of the latter usually springs from what those in power really feel and which they want the masses to participate in — “It is a communal action.”

At this point, Ellul judges that everything said above about democratic propaganda “adds up to ineffectual propaganda. … Precisely to the extent that the propagandist retains his respect for the individual, he denies himself the very penetration that is the ultimate aim of all propaganda: that of provoking action without prior thought. By respecting nuances, he neglects the major law of propaganda: every assertion must be trenchant and total. To the extent that he remains partial, he fails to use the mystique. But that mystique is indispensable for well-made propaganda.”

Furthermore, “propaganda always creates a schism between the government and the mass. … Ultimately, even if one tries to maintain confidence and communion between the government and the governed, all propaganda ends up as a means by which the prevailing powers manipulate the masses.”

The conclusion is that employing the techniques of propaganda leads to abandoning “the traits that are characteristic of democracy but paralyzing for propaganda: the combination of effective propaganda and respect for the individual seems impossible.”

As an addendum, “Jacques Driencourt has demonstrated that propaganda is totalitarian it its essence, not because it is the handmaiden of the totalitarian State, but because it has a tendency to absorb everything. … It means that when one takes that route, one cannot stop halfway: one must use all instruments and all methods that make propaganda effective. One must expect … that the democracies will abandon their precautions and their nuances and throw themselves wholeheartedly into effective propaganda action. But such action will no longer have a special democratic character.”

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, translation by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner, Vintage Books Edition, 1973 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1968) 235–242.

Authority pt. 1: two types of authority

The scriptures are rife with examples of people leading and following other people. But they also indicate that each person should follow none but God. Is this not the essence of the first commandment?

To illustrate, chapters 8 and 12 of 1 Samuel reveal that the Israelites’ desire for a human king signified a rejection of and rebellion against God, who is the source and only legitimate possessor of authority. The idolatry of the human monarchy was the root of subsequent trouble and suffering.

And in Matthew 20:25–28, Jesus affirms that authority should not shape people’s interactions. He doesn’t bother with an explanation, but it seems plain to me that all people must share equal status because God created us in his image. There are two basic problems with injecting authority into human relations. First, it creates unequal power dynamics that are arbitrary and contrary to God’s perfect will. Second, it implies idolatry because a human must take a place that rightfully belongs to God.

His rejection of authority is jarring on its own, but Jesus doesn’t stop or even pause there. Instead, he points straight at a radically different and unnatural ideal to guide interpersonal relations: voluntary servanthood.

But I should step back and clarify what I mean by his rejection of authority because some would understandably dispute that authority is rejected here and elsewhere in scripture. First, passages such as Romans 13:1–6, Titus 3:1–2 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 definitely affirm authority in the sense that they instruct us not to rebel against civil government and other forms of institutional authority merely for the sake of making a point. We should seek to live peaceably as far as reasonably possible.

But there are circumstances in which opposing institutional authority is not only acceptable but also necessary, as illustrated in scriptures such as 2 Kings 9, Daniel 3, and Acts 4 among others. Determining when to defy requires the exercise of wisdom and discernment in each case individually rather than the application of any rule or formula to all cases uniformly. That said, I think that it is appropriate to distinguish between two broad types of authority and that the distinction makes the question of when to reject authority less daunting.

On one hand we have constituted authority, which is an obtained status that entails a right to decide matters in a certain scope and to command and expect obedience. I think of this as authority in the pejorative sense, which I will abbreviate as A1. I believe that the Bible acknowledges God alone as the rightful bearer of A1 with regard to humans.

God delegated freely to people a measure of A1 over the natural environment of the earth, but there is no legitimate basis for any human to assert A1 over any other human. A1 among humans is necessarily institutional, hierarchical, and legalistic in nature. Ecclesiastes 5:7–8:

If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.”

On the other hand is immanent authority, which is a capacity to elucidate and to motivate people. I will abbreviate this type of authority as A2.

I believe the Bible signals that God rejects human-to-human A1 and endows certain people with A2. A1 is based on status, A2 on competence. A1 benefits primarily the bearer, A2 the others. I associate A1 with authoritarian leadership, A2 with authoritative leadership.

The 300-year period of the judges in the history of Israel is an example of a nation characterized by an absence of A1 and the presence of A2. As an aside, this is essentially what I mean when I refer to anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos). The word means literally no ruler, but I think of it more specifically as no fixed seats of power that are handed from human to human.

The period of the judges was one in which each person did what was right in his own eyes and followed others not under compulsion, but only voluntarily when a person demonstrated A2. The spirit of God would assign a certain function to a particular individual for a certain time and empower that person to execute the assignment. The label judge, which might be roughly equivalent to apostle in New Testament nomenclature — was applied to people who demonstrated A2 and earned the esteem of cohorts.

The spirit-enabled person had to choose whether to rise to the task, and failure was always possible due to temptation, distraction, opposition, and failure of others in the community to recognize the person’s God-given authority (A2). And this means that the other members of the community had to choose individually whether to follow a particular person to achieve an objective. They had to discern whether a person was a fraud or was really chosen by and filled with the spirit of God for a particular purpose.

Jesus affirmed that one who recognizes and welcomes a prophet, qua prophet, receives a prophet’s reward. This means essentially that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and relationship with God. There seem to be many people who feel that such an arrangement isolates individuals and leaves them vulnerable. This risk exists, but the arrangement also has the potential to liberate people to relate to each other while maintaining a constant orientation toward God. It allows God to direct and coordinate social interactions. The alternative is for this role to be usurped by humans and their institutions, which are really designed by and for the benefit of spiritual powers, authorities, principalities and dominions.

Hope and dissent

“The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” — Zhuangzi (庄子)

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

The words of this blog should be transparent and forgettable — disposable conveyors of durable concepts, paradigms, and paradoxes. I expect to write often about Christianity and sometimes about current events. I may also write occasionally about philosophy, music, science and who knows what else.

In any case, I am not a technician or specialist of any sort, and I hope this blog will have a nomothetic character. The following are the primary ideas and ideals that are likely to be reflected in this blog.

I value freedom and with it truth, neither of which can subsist without the other. In addition to these two things, I will address fear (often in the specific context of the culture and politics of the US, but elsewhere as well) since it seems to have an inverse correlation with freedom and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with truth.

I value equality. Dignity resides within every person, and human relations must be based on that equality.

Partly because of this, I loathe chauvinism in all its forms. Fear and ignorance seem to birth and sustain chauvinism, which stands opposed to truth and freedom. Chauvinism implies and even requires hierarchy, which institutionalizes and legitimizes inequality. Which brings me to my opposition to the modern state.

Anarchy is a touchstone by which I assess affairs of the world and their value. I do not consider anarchy a goal to be obtained or an ideology by which to be guided. So I do not consider myself an anarchist and am not one in any conventional sense of the word. However, I can sympathize to some degree with anarchists and probably share more in common with them than with any other group on the political spectrum — except perhaps libertarians, depending on how you choose to define and distinguish between anarchist and libertarian. My guiding principle in this area is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

On a tangentially related note, I am interested in the concept of the technological society as explored by Jacques Ellul. I am concerned with the encroachment on the individual implied by the proliferation of technique, and specifically the perpetual expansion of the modern state through the agglomeration of techniques.

Propaganda is one nexus of techniques that particularly interests me, and I will probably write a fair amount about the struggle required of the individual to maintain a personal, spiritual identity against the onslaught of techniques that would reduce him or her to an anonymous automaton in the abyss of mass society. I hope to write occasionally about the myth of progress, which is particularly important to contemporary propaganda.

I am a Christian — or, perhaps more accurately, am trying to become one more fully — and my favorite principle in Christian theology is that of regeneration/renewal (the Greek: παλιγγενεσία — palingenesia).

I want to see justice done and to see mercy granted. The paradox of justice and mercy in Christianity is one that I find particularly difficult to come to terms with.

And paradox is something that I appreciate. Not all paradoxes, but those that seem to contain a glimpse of truth with a capital T. And it seems to me that all truth involves paradox.

Last, I appreciate dissent. The jeremiad in the name of this blog is a reference to my given name and to one of my favorite verses in one of my favorite books of the Bible, Jeremiah 15:10, in which the author identifies himself as a man of strife and dissension. Jeremiah is alternately characterized as a weeping prophet; a prophet of doom, destruction, and judgment; and a plagiarizing prophet (because he quotes many other prophets). These characterizations are apt, but he also sounds a note of hope. Likewise, I seek to express views that are critical of the present world but that also point out reasons for hope, which paves the way to joy — thus the merry in front of jeremiad.

As I opened this entry with two quotes, so I close it with two:

“In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” — Georges Bernanos

“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” — Georges Bernanos