What Is Propaganda – Part 2?

Back in the 1940s, Donald Duck, quoted in a GI instructional manual, declared “Propaganda” revolved around ideas of communications control. These notions were put forth by master media manipulator (the Karl Rove of his day) Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment: “I think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play” and “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”

The precepts of modern propaganda date back to the early 20th century, when the “public mind” was scrutinized by democratic institutions. Edward Bernays, the father of American public relations (and nephew of Sigmund Freud), wrote: “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.”

But propaganda is even more deeply embedded in Western church culture. It begins with the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, a religious order established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 (later renamed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope John Paul II). The purpose was to spread Catholicism and its values by missionaries the world over.

There is now a museum dedicated to it on its own street in Rome. The Museo Missionario di Propaganda Fide, a new institution documents four centuries of the Catholic Church’s missionary work and resides in a portion of the 17th-century, Baroque Palazzo di Propaganda Fide. It was designed by Francesco Borromini and Gianlorenzo Bernini and sits only a few hundred yards from the Spanish steps.

For those who follow milestones of propaganda, visiting the source of the word, if not the deed, may be sobering.

The Museo Missionario (Via di Propaganda 1C; 39-06-698-80266; www.museopropagandafide.it) narrates the history of Roman Catholic missions through documents, photographs, sculptures and models. The collection draws from the art cache and archives of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, a religious order established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622; it was later renamed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope John Paul II. The Palazzo served as the headquarters of the Congregation, the purpose of which was to spread Catholicism and to protect missionaries from persecution.

One of the museum’s highlights is the intricately carved wooden library designed by Bernini for Pope Urban VIII, whose signature bumble bee symbol embellishes the painted coffered ceiling. Further on, visitors can peer down into Borromini’s magnificent Chapel of the Magi through the second floor galleries. The chapel’s subject, the wanderings of the three wise men and their epiphany, is an allegory for converts to Catholicism who find salvation through Christ. Visitors can enter the chapel on the ground level of the palace following a trip through the museum.

7 thoughts on “What Is Propaganda – Part 2?

  1. Greg

    As an information theorist, I take issue with your equation “Propaganda = Information”. If anything
    you’ve made a sign error: “Propaganda = -Information”. Recall Goebbels’ prescription “keep saying it”.
    Repetition (i.e. redundancy) is a reduction in information content, as is “keep it simple”. Both reduce
    the information content in order to increase the fidelity of the delivery channel.

  2. Lloyd Quinn

    Well said. In common usage, “propaganda” has become a loaded term, defined solely in terms of its use by totalitarian regimes of right and left, which used it not just to inform but to sway minds, not to open them to varied opinions but to make them hostile to dissent.

  3. Steven Heller Post author

    Mr. Quinn,

    Your comment deserves an answer. The equation is not meant to be offensive, and I regret that it has that effect on you.

    Just as you state, PROPAGANDA is neutral until it is given context. It originally meant propagating or spreading the faith. That is the simple statement I am making. Goebbels perverted the word, just as the Nazis perverted the Swastika. And if you’ve read what I’ve written in the past you’d see that point in other pieces. I talk here about Bernays, he used the term to connote advertising and publicity. But he also saw it as a powerful force, and, frankly, not unlike the perversity of Goebbel’s methods. Still Bernays was talking about its importance to democracy.

    This post is to announce this fantastic museum which refers to the ORIGIN of the word in public parlance and the street on which it resides. The equation is not Nazi = Church or the other way around. It is Propaganda = information. That information in the wrong hands and even in the right hands can and is manipulated for good and bad.

    We can run around in circles calling this or that pernicious. But you have to admit, knowing how the word is used in the negative, and learning that it was also used in other more positive contexts, Bernays and Pope Gregory, takes the edge off the word itself.

  4. Lloyd Quinn

    The word propaganda is neutral, it just means propagation of ideas or mindsets. Whether it is good or evil depends on methods, purpose and impact. Because of the evil of Nazi propaganda, it has become a loaded term, but, really all advertising is propaganda. We just got an avalanche of it in the “battleground states” last fall, full of pure falsehoods and misleading versions of facts.
    Your narrow selection of examples creates a psychological equation between Nazi Propaganda and Catholic Missionary work that I find not only personally offensive, but also consider to be the most pernicious kind of propaganda, because it is subtext and plausibly deniable, but as a professional in the field, clearly you would know what you are doing.

  5. Jim

    You compare Karl Rove to Joseph Goebbels? Give me a break, Mr. Heller. Why not the biggest liberal propagandist in recent memory. . . David Axelrod? Oh, I forgot . . . doesn’t fit your agenda.

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