Understanding Propaganda


Individual, private relationship, and group, public propaganda.

If one can perceive and understand (have concepts, mental constructs for) the political propaganda of individual, personal relationships, then you can also perceive the propaganda of the public church and the secular state, by pattern extension. One starts with the overt forms of the personal and public forms of ideology, propaganda. One overt form is blame put upon women for not obeying men.



"You don't love me because you (fill-in-the-blank)."

"You don't love me because you are selfish."


Public: Religious

"You're not a good Christian because you (fill-in-the-blank).

"You're not a good Christian because you do not attend Mass every week.


Public: Secular

"You're not patriotic because you "(fill-in-the-blank).

"You're not patriotic because you criticize the president.



Propaganda of private, personal relationships, and that of the public religious and secular state is effective only through the deep acceptance of unconscious definitions of personal, psychic concepts, or identities. Propaganda, ideology, works only so long as the subtext of the message, the meaning and definition of identities, goes unexamined. Indeed, this is of such crucial importance that much of formal education is learning what not to see, what not to know, what not to feel—learning as disconnection. This is what Krishnamurti means by "freedom from the known." Freedom from the unknown, known. There is nothing mystical about this, though the process is anything but fully understood. "Consciousness raising" means learning what we know, without knowing–revealing the massive unconscious lexicon of identity, of who we are. The now-cliche Greek dictum to know thyself is incomplete without knowing thyself within the cultural context. This is the ideology of TV soap operas. Full attention is devoted to every nuance of private, personal, one-on-one relationships, to the total exclusion of this personal revelatory work within the larger cultural domain. It's okay to know that your brother-in-law is deviously scheming to hide a marital infidelity, but it's not okay to know that the priest or the president is deviously scheming to blame the poor for poverty through the tacit use of blaming words. "Work hard and get ahead. Devote your life to Jesus, or obey the corporate masters, and you will be rewarded."
When one can discover the overt, then work can begin on the subtle, subversive, unconscious, internalized propaganda. That's a deep challenge for us all. The universal condition is that each of us is born into a massive propaganda system that is presented to us as real, as not propaganda. Understanding that what is presented as "not propaganda" is a form of propaganda–that is the core of ideology. It's the universal human condition. No one gets a free pass out of this struggle.
This is taboo. When I offered to give a lecture on the topic of human social organization and culture at a major university in Southeast Asia, the social sciences department was interested. When I sent an outline and title, "Culture is Propaganda," the department academic contact rescinded the invitation to speak, adamantly asserting that the word propaganda is unscientific and reflects my ideological bias. That message from the university to me is in itself demonstrative of the power of ideology, of propaganda. It's taboo to discuss the identity between the process of human cultural learning, and the nature of the content and meaning of that learning. Cultural instruction is indoctrination, whether the context is an Amazonian tribal culture or the American techno-culture. I mention this event here because had I used the acceptable terms, acculturation or socialization, a commotion would have been averted. Studying human cultural practices and beliefs is acceptable when the scientists are trained to use big words that distance the human behavior from the human meaning. This is a crucial point. Being "scientific" means disconnecting human behavior from human meaning, indeed, as Chomsky has pointed out, the very use of the label "behavioral sciences" used by many academic departments around the globe, is focus on mechanical actions divorced from human meaning. Academic training in the study of the human condition is purposely deflected from examining anything but the most superficial reality. Behavior, personal or social (impossible to differentiate) is not the object of study if understanding human existence is the goal.

As a case in point, Chomsky has discussed the work of Thomas Carothers, a careful, honest scholar. Carothers painstakingly detailed the facts of the failures of US foreign policy to promote democracy in Central America. His work in describing the historical facts is impeccable, yet when he ventures to explain why US foreign policy has failed, he is confused, offering a suggestion that US foreign policy is “schizophrenic,” applying a technical term for a serious psychological disorder. The resort to big words, and complex abstractions removed from the concrete events of human history–academics are trained to do this. For a "good" social scientist or historian, it's unconsciously reflexive, so deeply submerged in ideology that it's incorporated as a function of the autonomic nervous system. A more plausible descriptive term for US foreign policy in Central America is hypocrisy. The goal of US foreign policy is not what is claimed. It's propaganda: the best propaganda isn't perceptible as propaganda by either the recipients or the approved messengers. This is too obvious, too simple, too direct, too truthful, and therefore, too dangerous. Blindness to ideology is learned, and it's sincere. Shared ideology is not a conspiracy; it's a self-serving strategy cloaked in noble rhetoric. Who benefits from shared belief systems and actions warrants scrutiny. As a first prinicple, privilege protects privilege.

This reminds me of a comment often made by a dear friend who is not a famous Harvard scholar: "It's all BS," she quips. This is a useful premise if it prompts queries and invites examination of the pronouncements originating with the powerful and their educated apologists in the academy. Chomsky has stated much the same in his comment (paraphrasing) that messages from the powerful contain no information. Privilege protects privilege. I would modify this to suggest that the messages do contain information but extraction of that information requires a "magic secret decoder ring." Consciousness raising is the acquisition of a metaphorical magic secret decoder ring. The fact that the US has not substantively changed its Central American foreign policy is evidence that, notwithstanding claims to the contrary by Carothers and others, democracy promotion isn't the goal of US Central American foreign policy. This is where the queries begin. The goal of intentional, overt propaganda is to prevent arrival at this juncture of unknowing.

The bulk of propaganda is not overt, not conscious, and cannot be readily articulated, and is not directed by elites. Some propaganda is intentional manipulation of conscious public opinion. Most is not–yet the submerged iceberg part that is not, isn't neutral. Injustices and false beliefs are purposeful but not conscious. This is central to the assertion that propaganda is synonymous with the sanitized, "scientific" terms enculturation and socialization. Culture is non-random: who benefits from specific belief systems is worthy of exploration. Yes, I'm claiming most of us don't know what we're doing. I place myself deep within this human predicament. If it's a truism that we don't know what we're doing, we do have some capacity to learn what it is we are doing. The question is will we get to some functional truth in time to stave off the ever-increasingly apparent looming catastrophes of climate change, environmental destruction, swelling population, and self-extinction by war.
I can report to you the experience of attending graduate school at a major university. Students know to assimilate the language of discourse used by the faculty. To appear scholarly and erudite, students practice using big words, and are given a mountain of publications filled with big words to read. Using plain words when a plain, English word will do is anathema to academic success. Success is defined by the extent to which a student can demonstrate proper obfuscation and obscurantism. 

Culture is not value neutral, nor power neutral. Belief systems that are not value-neutral or power-neutral is one definition of propaganda, and of the near-synonym ideology. The great bulk of learning is acquired without reflection, and more importantly, the great bulk of the message of learning is a subtext jam-packed with value judgments, normative rules, and definitions of who we are. The human unconscious is jam-packed with messages. Decoding the overt messages from others gives us purchase on the process of consciousness raising which we can apply to ourselves to explore the vast landscape of the inner unknown. Media analysis, examining the messages from advertising, should be undertaken in primary schools by eight-year-olds. That this isn't part of the curriculum of any state-funded public school in the US (to my knowlege), thus telling us something about the function of state-sponsored education. Thinking is not encouraged.

…but your professor doesn't want you to know this because the most deeply indoctrinated people in any culture are those who are enmeshed in the systems of power and indoctrination….ummmm, the innocent word "learning."

What we desperately need is to better understand what we are doing. Intentional, collective learning is far more efficient than undertaking this process isolated and atomized. Unfortunately, elites intentionally sabotage all collective efforts in this regard, whether in public schools or organized labor unions, or through other collective efforts. Understanding the power dynamics and the human condition is subversive, yet without some significant achievements in this domain, we may not survive this century as any form recognizably humane.

Paradoxically, those who understand the least about the human condition are those within the so-called social sciences. It’s far too dangerous to the centers of power to allow the highly-educated classes—the managerial apparatchiks—to understand the human condition. Not allowed. Allowing direct examination of the facts would encourage questions about the cultural values and cultural power structure. This is dangerously close to inviting people to see a monarch for what a monarch is, see a priest for what a priest is, and to see a boss at work for what a boss is. Not allowed.

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