“Propaganda is one thing; prevarication is another,” wrote Charles Blow this past Saturday in his New York Times column about the liberal number of lies in conservative Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech last week at the GOP convention.
But I have to disagree with Mr. Blow: Propaganda and prevarication are indeed the same. Propaganda derives from 1622, when the Catholic Church created Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith) to spread the message of Rome to counter the Protestant reformation. Jump to Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew whose 1928 book Propaganda included this:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
Bernays held a positive view of propaganda, but those questionable precepts were further transformed by Hilter in Mein Kampf:
In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility… in the primitive simplicity of their [the masses] minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
Propaganda is about repetition and displacement of one reality with another reality or lie. Prevarication is a tool of the propagandist. Tell the lie from a position of authority—in print or in person—and it will become what is perceived as truth.
“There is some degree of mythmaking and truth-stretching in every campaign,” Blow wrote, “but the extent to which Republicans have embraced ignobility in this campaign is astounding. They have used their convention podium to unleash a whole lot of half-truths, so many that fact-checkers have been working overtime. But trying to chase down every lie is like trying to catch every bug in a log. It’s almost impossible.”
The biggest and best case for a free press anywhere is its ability to parse the truth from fiction, and show where those half-truths are used as propagandistic lies.