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.


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. 3: the body of Christ

This is the last installment in a three-part series of posts on authority. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Disciples of Christ who accept my assertions about A1 vs. A2 and their implications face the question of how to exist as a community if we are not to seek the formal order of hierarchy.

The community of Christians depicted in Acts is analogous to Israel during the period of judges. The community of Christians today is analogous to Israel during its period of monarchy. I won’t get into the controversy of the who, how, and why of this transformation other than to say that many in the community felt it necessary and appropriate to rein in the proliferation of shortcomings that were on display in the network. Priorities had to be set and choices made. A central issue was (and remains) the tension between the desire for maximizing the number of conversions versus maximizing the depth of spiritual maturity in each believer. And there was (and remains) tension between the impulse to live at peace with the state and the society it encompasses versus the inevitable trouble entailed in witnessing for truth among the deceived.

Benjamin Tucker asserts, “Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.”

I believe that God dislikes human relations that are based on A1 — authority in the pejorative sense. I also think that most people dislike A1, at least when they don’t wield it. Further, I believe that God wants the catholic church (not the Roman Catholic Church but everyone that Jesus recognizes as a follower of his) to embody his mysterious non-hierarchical order, which confounds the human intellect. I regard this as part of our mandate as his witnesses in the world. However, I do not believe that he wants us just to destroy hierarchy wholesale.

This leads me to two questions. First, why did the Israelites want to exchange an A2 society for an A1 state? Second, how can we become a network that fulfills God’s will and demonstrates his order?

Israel’s apostasy

There were probably several factors in the Israelites’ desire to have a human king, but I believe that chief among them was that they found it too burdensome and terrifying to relate to God directly. Remember that their conception of God differed from the conception of God that most Christians have today. We could do with a lot more of the fear of the lord that they had. On the other hand, they wanted something that we have, and take largely for granted, and probably can’t really imagine lacking — a mediator.

Moses was reluctant to lead and insisted on having a mediator, Aaron, between him and the rest of the Israelites. Similarly, when God called his people to the summit of Mt. Sinai, they refused to go and insisted on having a mediator, Moses, between them and God.

Moses had a fear of people, and the people had a fear of God. But isn’t a fear of God a good thing (e.g., the beginning of wisdom)? Yes, but we might differentiate between reverent and irreverent varieties of fear of God. The Israelites’ refusal to heed God’s call to meet him at the summit of the mountain is an example of an irreverent fear of God — a refusal to trust him, in this case.

Christ mediator

Christian doctrine holds that Jesus Christ took a form both fully human and fully divine. The significance of this for our purposes here is that we can orient toward God in the form of a human who was subject to all the frailties and temptations that we face as humans. This makes the mediation of Jesus Christ a key that unlocks our ability to include A2 in and exclude A1 from our interactions.

Jesus acts as the human, and therefore less-scary-than-God, mediator that we want between God and us, and he does not ask for a mediator — such as Aaron — between him and us. However, Jesus is not merely a human but is God the Son. So Jesus is our mediator in a sense, yet there is actually no mediator since him who would be mediator is in fact God. Being both divine and human, Jesus is the exclusive source and bearer of A1 authority among humans. This paradox of the God–man who is king leaves us with no excuse for mis-assigning A1 authority to humans.

But his authority is not limited to the A1 type as God. He also displayed unmatched A2 during his ministry in human form on the earth. He brings an astounding, incomprehensible order. It is not the formal order that we are familiar with from the innovations conceived by humans. Our factitious order is a counterfeit of God’s artless, spontaneous order. Jesus is the king of kings, but he doesn’t create a hierarchy that we recognize in the delegation of portions of A1 to subordinates.

Jesus doesn’t just mediate between God and humans as God and human; he also mediates between monarchy and anarchy as the monarchal head of an anarchic community. It is as if a network of kings existed as a community in anarchy — yet with one king at the center of, over, and within all. Many people find this too paradoxical to take seriously. My only reply is that I no longer see truth untouched by paradox. (Here I mean eternal truth rather than merely accurate assessments of temporal reality.)


So how can anyone proceed from current circumstances toward the ideal I have sketched? Devising a plan would require employing means that are contrary to the end. I only propose that we stop subscribing to the false religion of formal order. I see no reason to fight with the hierarchy of Christendom. I merely withdraw my support for it. I tolerate it as well as I can, viewing it as a temporary arrangement that must disintegrate eventually. I recognize its flaws and place no faith or hope in it. But I also trust that God is working through it and is preparing us to exit at the right time as Noah and all exited the ark.

Incidentally, my view of the state is equivalent. I see no good case for promoting large-scale, direct conflict with the state. I simply give it no moral support. I pay taxes and make the other token gestures toward obedience without paying it any respect in my heart. This seems enough for now.

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