Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reason #6--Words Matter

We are taught Marxists not capitalists spread “propaganda." They “infiltrate” and they “recruit.” They talk about the “working class” or “the proletariat” revolution against a “bourgeois system.” They talk about the “abolition of private property” and a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

In these words, we hear the things Americans hate most. In a country founded on “free speech,” “propaganda” suggests lies dictated from above. To “infiltrate” is to undermine the will of the group. To “recruit” is to brainwash. We hear “working class” as blue collar. And “bourgeois” is a stuffy, European word in which many hear a put down to their way of life.

We work hard our whole lives for a few nice things--a house, a car and a little plot of land--and this is what we see as the “private property” the communist wants to steal. “Dictatorship,” too, is an anti-American concept, the antithesis of our democracy.

But what we hear and what is being said are often two different things. In this case, Marx’s use of "dictatorship" (a century before the 20th century fascism we associate with the word) means a stage of authentic political control by the will of the people--the character of that control is up to us. Right now, many would say we live in something close to a global dictatorship run by corporations.

In fact, Marx’s vocabulary sounds so alien because it talks about those things Americans simply learn not to talk about. Our fears of Marxist concepts reveal who we are.

Anyone reading this probably knows we are thoroughly propagandized already.We are propagandized, first and foremost, by family ideas that spring from relationships in the system. Our churches reconcile social divisions and war-making with the often compassionate and peace-loving messages of the prophets. We are propagandized in the classroom by textbooks (generally censored from the right and left). Our politicians propagandize us; this is how they run for office and maintain public support once in office. We are also propagandized by large corporations, which own all of our major media and control its content through the economic vote of corporate advertisers. Wherever we work, the interests of that organization propagandize us.

This is not all bad of course. Propaganda is a neutral thing, neither true nor untrue. Originating with the early Roman Catholic Church in its efforts to spread Christianity, propaganda is simply a term for any mechanism used to intentionally spread ideas. What we believe is generally based on a long history of propaganda that favors the current system, even as we see all the tell-tale signs that it is breaking down.

Narrow systems of propaganda, like gossip, keep us from questioning the system in fundamental ways. It is not the system that is making our life miserable; it’s the damn traditionalists, or the administrators, or the students. It’s not the system; it’s the night crew or the customer or the patient who makes me not want to get out of bed in the morning. Capitalism’s most insidious propaganda is that which operates at the level of tribalism, dividing full-timers from part-timers as slickly as Crips get divided from Bloods.

As Americans, we have been heavily propagandized down to the level of our language while, at the same time, being taught that propaganda is evil. That’s a neat trick. Think about that. If there is a single, clear symptom of just how diseased our system is it is that we have multifold, multilayered systems of propaganda that insist they are not propaganda.

We just choose what propaganda to believe based on that which is embraced by our families, our churches, our schools, our news media and our social cliques. Interestingly enough, the negative connotations for the word “propaganda” started with Protestant propaganda against Catholicism. But propaganda is not denominational--Jesus and the Apostle Paul did the same thing. They were two of history’s greatest propagandists, and that doesn’t mean they were liars; that means they spread new ideas deliberately and effectively.

Christians must recognize the Creator of the universe as a propagandist who used the ingenious tool of an illegitimate child born in a manger as his or her chief propagandist. Judaism has Abraham and Moses and all of the other Old Testament prophets: Islam, Mohammed; Buddhism, Siddhartha or the Dalai Lama; Hinduism, Lord Krishna. Each religion has its priests, ministers, rabbis, monks, shaman, gurus and yogis. Each one a crucial piece in a mechanism for intentionally spreading ideas.

And I am a propagandist as both a writer and a teacher, though both professions deny it. Both professions like to pretend to be objective, but data comes with theory. Information without ideas is meaningless by definition. What most writers and teachers do is propagandize as safely as possible, teaching those ideas generally already accepted by most of society. It's called keeping your job....

....And, of course, that is why one aspect of the relationship between students and teachers is based upon suspicion. The trick is to BS the teacher, writing opaque nonsense or regurgitating what’s been said. Though I'd guess most teachers believe in what they do, students have good reason for the doubt. It goes back to the roots of American education, for instance. In the mid-1800s, the economic incentive behind the spread of public education was to develop an industrial workforce. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, describes the cause and its predictable effect:

“ . . . the spread of public school education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. A journalist observer of the schools in the 1890s wrote: ‘The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent: the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly.’”

Our approach to education has evolved a great deal over the past century, but most of us know that chill. Teaching what I know about writing is a daily battle for sincere communication in an atmosphere hostile to such communication on many levels. This atmosphere stems in part from the assumption of the teacher as authority and student as empty vessel. Fighting that subjective game, I try to be honest about my own ignorance. When I don’t have an answer to a question, whether it is a stylistic dilemma or a simple comma rule, I try to admit it. This is a little like throwing blood to an audience trained as sharks, but I know of no better way to get at reality.

My students are just as fearful about expressing their own ignorance, to each other and to me. Both teachers and students are trained to project an idealized image of themselves, which means denying much of what we really know. Since we don't learn unless we make use of what we do know and recognize our limits, breaking down false fronts is essential to real learning....


Brian Dowell said...

Back in 1981, I remember that my 11th grade "American History" teacher was a crusty old WW2 vet who spent the ENTIRE term teaching us the 50,000 different ways to spot a "Comm'nist". When he wasn't talking about Commies, he was railing against school desegregation, and lamenting the fact that the South lost the "War of Northern Aggression". But that's not propaganda, is it?


Danny Alexander said...

Great to hear from you, Brian, and a great story!

It's amazing how much of this goes on still, maybe not in such blatant Cold War (or... antebellum?) terms but sometimes. I know I hear stories of right wing propaganda in our proud Shawnee Mission public schools that blow my mind.

And it's obvious just in terms of what's familiar and unfamiliar at the college level, how little any of these ideas have been challenged.


Danny Alexander said...


I tried to post to your Sunday blog, the one about race, but I guess I'm too dumb to figure out how to do it or I need to be invited or something....

Anyway, if you check back in here, this is a response to that blog--

I like how you hold the line here, Brian. As far as I'm concerned, with the history we've got, there's no level playing field for using this word. Blacks can disagree on its uses, but as a white man I really never feel I have the right to use it, except to talk about it, as you have.

For that matter, the white race (I hate the whole concept of race but we're stuck with it for a while yet, huh?) has done so much violence to the black race over the past 400 years, we have no right to condescend to blacks in any way shape or form. I get that from your perspective and agree. Ironically, maybe where we come from makes that easier to see. I know I'm not from the South proper, but Oklahoma was something like the lynch capital of the country in the 20th century.

Let's see, how long do they say you can expect to deal with the after effects of a break up--half as long as the original relationship?

Anyway, what is the math for getting beyond 400 years of brutalizing a race of people? I'm pretty sure 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement--a period that ended with the assassination of the most unifying leader--is a little early for whites to get haughty and self righteous about anything racial.

I respect your thoughtful approach.