Jacques Ellul’s “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” Part 1

General Review of Book Thus Far (up to page 156)

I’ve been reading Jacques Ellul’s excellent book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, and wanted to distill here some of the ideas that have been cooking on my back burner since I began reading it.

The word “propaganda” comes from the same Latin roots that form the word “propagate.” That is, in essence, the whole purpose of propaganda: the ensure that a certain set of ideas propagates throughout the society, or at least the segments of the population that matter. Central management of “The Message” coupled with use of the scientific method is a key differentiator of propaganda from other forms of information transfer. In truth, propaganda is like a contagious mental brain disease; an independent, insidious, invisible force that is really pulling the strings in our world by corrupting the minds of the most educated and industrious citizenry.

Ellul takes a very expansive view of propaganda, which is both good and bad. The book is good in that it opens up the reader’s mind to the many insidious pathways that propaganda can take into our minds, and alter our actions with our own cheerful consent. However, Ellul at times sees propaganda “behind every tree and bush” so to speak; the line between mere interpersonal communication and propaganda becomes blurred at times in his writing. Not everything is propaganda. Ellul makes the point that propaganda isn’t used by dictators; propaganda makes dictators. It is the birth canal of totalitarianism, as it justifies and feeds the innate urge to dominate that all men feel. In a society that is under oppressive thought control, one wonders what is really the master puppeteer – is the dictatorial clique, or have they been “snared by their own trap,” and now propaganda thinks their thoughts for them as well?

The book is a handy criminal record of the governments of the 20th century; Fascist, Communist, or Western. The governments overwhelmingly focused on are America, Nazi Germany, Britain, France, Red China, and the USSR. That being said, the book is somewhat dated since the Cold War ended in 1991, and the threat of World Communism is currently vanquished. Furthermore, being a French writer, Ellul writes on issues parochial to French politics, such as the Algerian War, the wars in French Indochina, and various other Francophonic African countries. This can make the book difficult to follow at times, when one lacks the necessary historical background to understand the points Ellul is trying to make.

Even disagreement can be used for propaganda purposes. It is interesting to compare the “Conservatism Inc.” establishment Republicans with the self-criticism that was permitted in the Soviet Union. In the USSR, it was perfectly allowable to criticize government policy within circumscription. Those that deviated too much from the permitted norms were sent off to Siberia. Those that deviate too far from the milquetoast faux conservativism of the modern donor-run Republican Party are threatened with job loss, public humiliation, and even death threats. This type of “managed dissidence” is crucial as a safety valve when running a modern state, as this dupes those that are against the state’s policies that they have an effective avenue of change through due political process. It also converts them from likely troublemakers into active participants in the state’s kabuki drama. In truth, no such path to change or reform exists.

Good Propaganda is True Facts

It is a total mistake to assume propaganda is false. In fact, the skilled propagandist rarely lies, and goes to great lengths to ensure the information he composes his material with is completely factual (as well as believable). Discovered lies lead to immediate mistrust by the target population. As Ellul mentions multiple times in the work, Joseph Goebbels was not a career liar. Goebbels insisted that any propaganda message sent out was completely factual, even bad news.

Ellul repeatedly harps on the idea that propaganda is usually factual information, and that lies are rarely used. Ellul and I however, have a basic disagreement on what constitutes a “lie.” As I recall from Lutheran Confirmation, the pastor instructed us on “lies of commission” (where I say something I know is not true), and “lies of omission” (where I don’t speak up about something that I ought to). The propagandist is in fact, an artful liar that is most skilled at lies of omission. He uses facts to support a case and lead the target population to “draw their own conclusion”, when only one conclusion is possible from the facts presented. Competing currents of opinion are simply not spoken of, and facts that would subtract away from supporting the desired conclusion (leading to the desired action) are not mentioned. This strategy is employed routinely by the American news media, especially in the debate over illegal immigration.

Ellul even claims that German news communiques during the war were more truthful than Allied ones – however, I am having trouble agreeing with this. I recall seeing in the Time-Life Photographic History of the World War II book collection many photographs of the clandestine press that operated in Resistance zones during the war. The Germans used SS attachments equipped with triangulation equipment to hunt down (and presumably execute) anyone making unauthorized radio broadcasts, or trying to communicate with the Allies. Possession of mimeograph equipment was generally prohibited in the occupied territories.

Propaganda, the Educated Classes, and IQ

This work demands a comparison with the ideas and facts presented in The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. According to the Bell Curve (as well as Charles Murray’s other more-recent book, Coming Apart), the United States (and our world in general) is becoming increasingly stratified by a cognitive elite; that is, people with high IQ’s.

Highly educated people have the misconception that propaganda is a tool used by dictators to deceive and dupe the masses into accepting illegitimate rule. Unfortunately, this group of people is the ones that are most susceptible to the wiles of propaganda, due to the enormous quantities of information they consume. Contrary to intuition, the highly educated person is not immune to propaganda. In fact, due to the huge quantities of information they consume, they become low-hanging fruit for the propagandist to convert to his cause. This situation is compounded today with the rise of the knowledge workers, the cognitive elite, and the internet. While such people possess great mental capability at consuming information, they often are incapable of thinking critically about it in the entirety or capable of synthesizing competing arguments or explanations to the claims put forth by the propagandist. This is in contrast to the lumpenproletariat, who are largely immune to propaganda, as their information consumption pales in comparison to a member of the cognitive elite.

This leads me to try and create a rough IQ breakdown of susceptibility to propaganda. This depends on a variety of personality factors as well, such as perseverance and a penchant for independent and free thought.

Very Bright – Such people are generally immune to propaganda, since they consume a great deal of information, but are often dogged and relentless in the pursuit of genuine knowledge. Furthermore, very bright people often have hobbies and interests that are too parochial for the propagandist to even know. Their reading habits may also be confined to subjects through which it is very difficult to make propaganda work, e.g. mathematics and the hard sciences.

Bright to Normal – These people are the keyboard upon which government can play. They consume great quantities of information, but generally can’t think critically about it, or synthesize original ideas for themselves. It becomes easy to present them with one end of the dogbone, and have them take off and run with it.

Dull – Such people are the shock troops of a revolutionary movement, as they can be bought over with lies about democracy, free speech, better working conditions, etc. They can be motivated to action when sufficiently prodded about striking back against the “oppressor du jour.” Sophisticated arguments presented in large books or lengthy television programs are generally useless against Dulls.

Very Dull – This demographic is generally useless to the propagandist, since they are too dim to grasp any of the arguments being put forth, or able to understand the exhortation to action. Their slothfulness, amorality, and insubordinate attitudes make them useless to any revolutionary movement. One can read up on the life habits of such people in the excellent book Arrest-Proof Yourself by Dale C. Carson.

The Targeting of Propaganda by Class and IQ

There is a significant socio-economic barrier to the effective deployment of propaganda. Ellul correctly states that televised propaganda is useless against people that don’t own televisions (as was the case in many Communist countries where the USA was beaming pro-Western TV signals). Likewise today, propaganda on the internet is useless against people that don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet and computers. This might explain much of the success of talk radio in becoming a conservative stronghold, as a radio and replacement batteries is far cheaper than a computer and a monthly internet bill – and thus, the desire to fulfill the propaganda need can be fulfilled far more cheaply.

There is also the cognitive barrier, which is based on the target audience’s IQ. The propaganda directed at the educated, urbane professional in a societal leadership role is far different from that leveled against the inner-city lumpenproletariat. As we have seen in the Ferguson and Baltimore riots, the lumpenproletariat is given marching orders to action; to fulfill innate desires to kill and dominate, to strike back against the oppressor, to dominate, and to settle old scores. However, to the more educated crowds which sympathize with the street thuggery, the propaganda is not laced with exhortations to action, but are instead focused on justification and rationalization for the carnage and lawlessness. High-IQ members are important to the cause; they must not be sacrificed needlessly to police guns or obtain professionally-crippling felony convictions. But low-IQ inner-city blacks are easily replaceable fodder. Don’t get angry at me; I’m just telling you what the strategy is.

Personalized “Ministries of Propaganda”

I have no idea what Ellul would have thought about the internet; I think he would be overwhelmed at the information overload. On the one hand, the internet is a powerful tool for freeing men’s minds, since the spectrum of opinion is so variegated. However, people can’t search for things they don’t know exists, so a great deal of the truly diverse realms of opinion (e.g. The Dark Enlightenment) remain unknown to most internet users.

Sadly, the internet actually has morphed for many people into a “personalized Ministry of Propaganda”, where one can choose a small number of preferred websites to consume news and information from, and totally ignore outside attempts to contradict the propaganda lines sown into the headlines. While I am a routine DrudgeReport reader, I can spot ridiculous headlines when I see them. I enjoy Drudge because he summarizes things so well, and still provides links to “the other side.” But to get all your news from a single website is pure folly in today’s information-rich world.

I haven’t gotten far enough into the book yet to know how to resist propaganda, or detect it. My prior method was the drowning method: read so much that it becomes impossible for one agenda to guide your thinking. Before graduate school kicked into high gear, I would read the English-language translations of most of the major world newspapers and news magazines, e.g. South China Morning Post, Daily Mail, New York Times, Wall Street, BusinessInsider, Forbes, VICE News, Slashdot, Wired, ArsTechnica, and a slew of others I can no longer remember (this is in addition to reading dense opinion articles written by serious writers like Pat Buchanan). I think reading from a diverse number of sources is key to remaining free from the cerebral chokehold of propaganda. Even though were live in a world of agenda-driven news, everyone has their own independent agendas, which are often diametrically opposed. This is hardly a new tactic for staying informed; read from a diverse set of sources, and attempt to take a “fuzzy Boolean intersection” of news from each individual source. However, this approach is still not guaranteed to yield the truth, but it’s certainly better than relying on one news source for all your information needs.

The internet news media has really become two competing Ministries of Propaganda, with websites like Huffington Post catering to the urban, progressive, high-income, single, childless, educated (mis-educated…?) college crowd, while its antithesis DrudgeReport is reserved for rural, white, middle class, married, two-point-five kids type of people. It is not these websites alone, but also all of their supporting websites that are routinely linked to in the headlines (e.g. DrudgeReport routinely links to BreitBart, a highly-conservative leaning outfit; likewise with HuffPo and AlterNet). The net result is that each grouping of websites functions as a de facto Ministry of Propaganda that satisfies each camp’s innate craving for ideological affirmation.

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3 thoughts on “Jacques Ellul’s “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” Part 1

  1. Pingback: On Working Out, Mindmapping, my Writing Backlog, and a Long List of Blog Topics | unpropaganda

  2. Pingback: Is Reasoned Persuasion a Dead Art? | unpropaganda

  3. Pingback: More on Propaganda from Jacques Ellul | unpropaganda

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