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Good propaganda goes under the radar

The scene is thus; Bill’s in Nottingham, precisely five minutes before they stop selling breakfast on a Sunday. Three friends (actually four if I include myself, and was teased enough in my teens that even I often forget to include myself) are hunched over a table in the sort of way you only can if you’ve been unwittingly repatriated by the maître’d from a pleasant four-person table outside in the sun, to an anxiety-inducing indoor bar stool table. Clearly, the maître’d does not like us as much as we thought they did when we entered their restaurant. 

The menu is vast and we are hungover. I’m trying to choose between the Eggs Royale or the stack of bacon-maple-syrup pancakes. Another two have already settled on the Full English and vegan Full English respectively. My other friend is deliberating as to whether he can get away with ordering the calamari AND the mozzarella sticks along with his BBQ chicken burger.

After we’ve placed our order, our attention is diverted to the unnecessary table decorations. As we were fiddling with the mock-Bonsai tree that whoever designed this particular franchise restaurant thought would be appropriate, even though nothing in this restaurant is even remotely of vaguely Japanese heritage, my friend happened upon the leaflet I picked up in the market earlier that morning. The leaflet was detailing the myriad ways in which the Chinese Communist Party was evil and needed to be stopped in its despotic tracks. Considering the circumstances, I decided that taking a leaflet is pretty much the definition of “the least I can do”. 

Rifling through it, he said “you see, I want to agree with them but there’s something I just can’t get my head around. Why, if they are so against the CCP, would they be willing to be sponsored by the American government?

This leaflet is simply dripping in pro-US propaganda”. I was slightly confused about what he meant until I turned to the final page. I saw that the anti-CCP campaign that I assumed was being supervised by a group of decent and concerned Chinese expatriates, was in fact being subsidized by the US government. My friend had a point; it was more difficult to take their crusade against the CCP seriously knowing that they were being financed by one of the only countries in direct competition with the CCP. 

propaganda

Credit: Sinitta Leunen

This led to a question that has been turned over by many groups more intellectually discerning than us; can political campaigns ever be free from bias? This leaflet, with all the horrors of life under the CCP regime unfolding (literally) before us, could surely be commended for trying to raise awareness of a terrible period in Chinese history.

We have all heard the stories about Uyghur Muslims being detained in re-education camps, journalists imprisoned for daring to speak out against the government, and prisoners being involuntarily exhumed of their vital organs in a literal rendition of Never Let Me Go that is as harrowing as Ishiguro foretold. All of these things are abhorrent – any civilized person or nation can see that. It is for that reason, and many others, that I duly consented to pick up their leaflet that morning. 

However, upon closer inspection the leaflet became problematic. As much as I agree with the sentiment, the campaign was being funded by a government that has repeatedly voted against abortion, gay marriage, and the rights of immigrants to settle in their massive country. And that’s the thin end of the jingoistic wedge.

By supporting this campaign, you are ignoring the hypocrisy of the US government and in a sense, supporting their interests. Not that I thought the woman I took the leaflet from was some pro-US-oil-interest fanatic. I think it’s fair to say that the woman out leafleting probably doesn’t have too much of a say on the funding of the anti-CCP campaign.

However, the inescapable fact is that by leafleting, she was promoting their cause. And by picking up the leaflet, so was I. Now, this really becomes a question of which nation poses a greater moral and tangible threat to humanity. I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to that question. If I did, it would probably be “Russia”. 

It wasn’t just the flagrant bias towards the United States that we took issue with – the leaflet was dripping in phrases such as “evil”, “hellish”, and “immoral”. Any decent English student will tell you that such use of language is at best unsubtle, and at worst, so partisan as to be in itself dissuasive.

In this country, we are used to serious political discussions that steer clear of such emotive use of language, because all such language can do is gesture toward extreme prejudice. We scoff at the likes of FOX News, Piers Morgan, and Nigel Farage; those whose lexicon is so forceful that it only really signals that they are, inescapably, an idiot. This leaflet was employing the same tactics as Piers Morgan, and nobody ever wants to be used in the same sentence as Piers Morgan. 

I can only really liken it to Godwin’s law, which states that whoever is first to invoke the Nazis in an internet argument has already lost said battle, whatever it may be. In the political sphere, a measured, fact-based argument will always succeed over an emotional one (even if hordes of people on Twitter seem to have missed that memo).

By resorting to such language as “evil” and “wicked”, the leaflet was doing its own cause a disservice. There’s no need to cast such judgment over the CCP’s antics. All you need to do is state the facts, for they are terrible enough on their own. To my mind, all such inflammatory language achieves is in singling itself out as obvious propaganda. 

propaganda

In the twenty-first century, “propaganda” is a word that carries inherently negative connotations. The term conjures anti-Semitic cartoons published in Der Stürmer, or caricatures of the French Navy during the Napoleonic wars.

The way people use the phrase “propaganda” nowadays is almost synonymous with “a lie”. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In its purest form, propaganda is simply political literature. It’s everything from a poster on the Tube to a pre-election party manifesto. It’s the newspapers you read, and the TV programmes you watch. In fact, one could argue that everything is propaganda, in much the same way as one might argue that everything is political.

It’s the music you listen to and the conversations you have with your friends. It’s the books you read and the social class you identify yourself with. It’s putting the bins out, or picking up litter in the park. In the same way that almost everything can be connected to somebody’s worldview, almost everything is in some way influenced by politics and influences other people’s politics. Hence, it could be considered propaganda. 

What we really need to distinguish between here is good and bad propaganda. That is what my friends and I were trying to define that Sunday at around noon. There are some that will argue that the only difference between good and bad propaganda is whether you agree with the view they are trying to argue. To my mind, that is beside the point.

In fact, I would say that such an argument is incredibly dangerous. To denounce all viewpoints that do not conjoin with your own simply for the sake of it, could only snowball into… well, the kind of situation we have found ourselves in now. 

I want to argue that, if the language you use makes it easy to determine your political leanings, then that is what defines bad propaganda. As much as I agree with the point the anti-CCP campaign was trying to make, it seems clear that the leaflet itself is the product of a particular worldview. Insofar as political literature goes, it is an example of bad propaganda.

The measure of good propaganda is whether it can be detected as “propaganda” at all. Good propaganda, as any political analyst will know, is insidious. It goes under the radar. It is good propaganda because you do not realise the political viewpoint of the author whilst you’re reading it. Good propaganda is performative; it impels you to think or act in a certain way, whilst being careful not to draw too much attention to itself. It does not cast any light on the opinion of those who wrote it.

Author

  • Rebecca Clayton

    Rebecca Clayton is a writer and essayist, an alumnus of both King's College London and University College London. Rebecca is most interested in the myriad ways cultural theory can unlock new meanings within classic and contemporary works of literature. Other interests include stand-up comedy, classic rock, and cats (all alliteration is purely coincidental - Rebecca doesn't only like things beginning with 'c').

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