Archive for March, 2010

Here’s the link to the third trailer for my coming video series on propaganda and ideology in contemporary media.

Click on the image to watch the video.


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Sarah Palin, Idiot or Genius?  (I'm going with dangerous fool)

Sarah Palin, Idiot or Genius? (I'm going with dangerous fool)

As early as 1937, the Institute of Propaganda Analysis was established as a means of combating propaganda and agitprop in America.  Edward Filene established a set of seven key propaganda techniques that are used to present a particular agenda.  Those techniques are highly powerful tools of persuasion, and even though it seems we should be able to recognize such obvious tactics of manipulation, they are still very much in use today.  It is clear, when examining the speeches of Sarah Palin, that her mass popularity is due largely to her exploitation of raw emotion and unthinking patriotism.  Such high passions, when stoked by political propagandistic rhetoric, can develop a huge following.

Filene’s seven techniques of propaganda are as follows:

Name Calling:  Can be subtle, from politically charged negative connotations regarding policy; to outright overt slander.  Such terms in American politics as ‘socialist’ can be seen as rather benign, to the highly inflammatory ‘terrorist.’

Glittering Generalities:  Using desirable but vague terms, such as ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘Patriotism,’ ‘real.’  These terms have become meaningless in the ways they are deployed but have strong connotations of rightness and become impossible to argue against.  Such statements as ‘do you love freedom?’ are ridiculous, but the converse can only be ‘no, we hate freedom’

Transfer:  Transfer is the attachment of certain ideas and ideologies to other objects in order to borrow credence or affinity.  In the past, such icons as the flag, home, apple pie have been used as fetish objects for America, but in recently history the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become symbols of transference.  We also now have ‘main street’ as a source of expertise.

Testimonial:  Using spokespeople with certain authorities to provide testimony lends credence to an argument, even when that testimonial is irrelevant to the proposed position.  For example, Palin aided the Republican ticket by bringing to it an association with working mothers.  Her experiences as a working mother presented the Republican party with an avenue to a large number of conservative wives who may not have felt any attachment to John McCain.  Her testimonial was a cynical attempt to appeal to a large voter demographic that the Republicans have often alienated.

Plain Folks:  Invoking plain folks is a way that many politicians connect to ordinary voters.  Politicians who may have been raised in elite backgrounds will often remove their suits and be seen wearing working class clothes or be photographed in working class environments in an attempt to be seen as representing folks from ordinary working environments.

Card Stacking:  Often politicians will only present one side of an argument, perhaps exposing the flaws of an opponents policies, without addressing how these flaws can be fixed or how the opposing candidate would service such an issue.  The republicans have spent a great deal of time attacking the Democratic health care reforms, without devoting any time to addressing the very real problems with the current health care system.

Band Wagon:  The notion that ‘everyone’ agrees with certain policies and that the majority is right.  Presenting certain belief systems as natural and desirable convinces that those who disagree are in the minority and are by their minority status, implicitly wrong.

While Sarah Palin is not a good orator at all, she has been well schooled by the Republican party in the art of propaganda, and it is clear that she has been groomed to naturally deploy classic propaganda techniques.  She regularly, in all of her speeches, utilizes all seven of these techniques throughout both her campaign and currently in the teaparty meetings.  From her statements that Obama ‘pals around with terrorists’ has ‘death panels’ and is a ‘socialist;’ her frequent use of meaningless but politically potent terms like ‘freedom,’ ‘real America’ and ‘grassroots;’ her use of symbols like her down home Alaska ‘main street’ to give her credibility as a spokesperson for average Americans;  her testimonials from ‘real’ people like ‘Joe the Plumber;’ her constant allusions to herself as a plain ole’ hockey mom;’ her misrepresentations of Democratic policy (it was she who invented the health care ‘death panels’) ; and finally her constant attending of the Tea Parties and affirmations that this is a growing concern for real Americans.  It is clear that Palin is using highly exploitative techniques to further her political agenda.

This can be seen very clearly in her recent closing keynote address at the Nashville Tea Party Convention, on February 06, 2010.  By examining Palin’s address, we can see, using Palin’s own words, how she is indeed is a masterful propagandist.

Before she begins her speech, she states to the crowd ‘god bless you,’ reaffirming her allegiance to the Christian Right.  Of course, this is a form of transference, borrowing authority from both God and the Christian institutions.  Note, however, it is the generalized ‘god bless you’ so as not to alienate those of differing sects of Christianity.  She never says ‘thanks to Jesus’ and never invokes different saints, which would identify her as belonging to a specific sect of Christianity.  Instead, her invocation of god is an all encompassing, inclusive (generic and thereby meaningless) usage.

The first statement of her speech is ‘I’m so proud to be an American,’ again, a statement that in itself has no meaning, but can be interpreted as being opposed to Michelle Obama famously stating ‘for the first time, I’m really proud to be an American.’  Palin’s use of the phrase is a totally unqualified statement, implying that just being American is a source of pride and that one need not do anything to actively participate in that pride.  This is another form of transference.

Her second statement is ‘Do you love your freedom?’  This, of course, is a glittering generality,a nonsense statement that has no meaning, but is ideologically powerfully loaded.  The implication is that democrats are a threat to freedom, and that she is an arbiter of freedom.  That those who attend the teaparty are freedom lovers, those who oppose the teaparty are by default, freedom haters.

Her next statement is to thank those who have, past or present, served their country in the armed forces.  This is again, transference, taking support and implied testimonial from those who have fought in war.  So far we are three statements into a speech, and she has managed to deploy five different instances of propaganda, and her speech has another 45 minutes remaining.  She then, once again, states ‘I’m so proud to be an American.’

Finally, she states ‘Happy Birthday Ronald Regan (another instance of transference and an implicit endorsement given by a dead man), before starting her speech proper (we’re only a minute and nineteen seconds is, folks).  She then goes on to make a joke about C-Span not being invited to attend closed door healthcare meetings, but she extends to C-span an invitation to the teaparty.  This, of course, is the bandwagon approach, giving a sense that the teaparty is inclusive, and the site of ‘real’ American grassroots politics.

She then turns her attention to Nashville itself, stating she is happy to be there, the home of great barbecue and country music, establishing her affinity for plain folks and plain folk cultural product. She then announces that she is speaking out for common sense, conservative principles.  Of course, the phrase common sense is a glittering generality.

She then states that America is ready for another revolution, and addressing the members of the teaparty itself, states that ‘you are a part of this,’ another example of bandwagon sentiment.  She follows this up by stating she is so happy to see ‘real people’ involved in politics, not ‘inside the beltway politicos,’ again the invocation of both plain folk and another glittering generality.

Two minutes into her speech, and it becomes clear that every single statement made is carefully planned as ideologically loaded and is scripted line by line, to include some strategy of propaganda.  Sarah Palin is not a smart woman, but she is a very dangerous woman because while having empty policies and no real direction for her campaign, she is skilled in deploying ideology and propaganda techniques.  Sadly, while not actually having any policies, she is ultimately using empty language; language that is ideologically loaded but signifying nothing, displaying no policies or even denoted meaning, but designed to arouse emotion, patriotism and anger, but not to effect any kind of change, progressive or otherwise.

Sarah Palin is an empty signifier, telling us nothing, but whipping up emotion and directing that emotion toward political ends, and in the long term that is more deadly than any form of terrorism.

For her full speech, please click the link below.

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Here’s the second trailer for my coming show on propaganda.  Check it out!

So that’s Mind Control:  Propaganda in the 21st century!

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Kim Jong-il, leader of North Korea

Kim Jong-il, leader of North Korea

Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, is a man that most have an opinion of.  Yet what is that opinion based on?  How have we come to our conclusions about the sanity/capabilities/health of this man?  He is a man who we really know little about.

Even our supposed ‘knowledge’ of his health is questionable.  He is a secretive man, leader of the most secretive regime on the planet.  His capital, in the centre of a closed country, is not accessible to us decadent westerners, and the few diplomats and journalists who have been granted access to Pyongyang were closely monitored in all reportings, recordings and were given guarded guided tours.  North Korea lays ownership to all knowledge of its state affairs.

Kim pulling strange faces, is a favourite subject in the media

In the media, Kim is lately being depicted as an unstable madman, a vulnerable man, suffering from ill health.  The imagery of him is often of a man pullling strange faces or looking dishevelled, or sporting a ludicrous haircut.  and yet the imagery of him is at the same time ambivalent, often contradicting itself.

In further images of Kim, he is presented as a strategic gamesman, holding the world to hostage or ransom, plotting publicity coups and having the world’s leaders bow to his whim.

A naked Kim, an incompetent madman?

holding the world Hostage

Kim as a dangerous thug, holding the world to ransom

Alternatively, Kim is presented as a strategist, able to get the world’s leaders to bow at his feet.  The fear that North Korea has nuclear capabilities has transformed the image of Kim from being incompetent buffoon, to deadly thug, able to destroy the world.  The knowledge of North Korean nuclear capabilities, coupled with the belief in Kim’s instability has created a mediated figure that is both incompetent and deadly.  He has become a cartoonish supervillain more suited for the pages of marvel comics than for front page news copy.

Kim manipulates democrats

Kim manipulates deomcrats, and has the Clintons (and by association, the Obama administration) at his feet

The symbolism with Clinton is clear, and promotes a Republican belief that democrats (represented by Bill Clinton in this image) and by association, Hillary and the Obama administration, are soft on terror, that they cater to the whims of terrorists and that Kim is a dangerous gamesman, able to manipulate geopolitics.

But how do we know the things we know about North Korea?  What channels of knowledge does this information pass through and get filtered by, until it reaches us?North Korea has one close ally, it is bordered by China, and due to a shared communist history, has some remaining diplomatic ties.  All of our knowledge of North Korea, then, comes from Chinese Intelligence agencies.  These of course, are managed by the Chinese Communist Party.  China often shares its intelligence of North Korea with South Korea, a country that is still in the midst of a cold war with North Korea.  Any intelligence shared by China with South Korea is then tempered by China’s desire to maintain trade and political ties with North Korea.  Consequently, great diplomacy must be exercised by China in its trading of information.  South Korea is a trade and military partner with the United states, and South Korea shares military intelligence with the American government.  That information will be passed by the United States military (after examination, filtering and further censorship) to reporters and journalists.

The end result is that any and all information that is known about North Korea, is not uncovered by investigative journalists (remember the fate of those two women journalists who last year ventured into North Korean teritory?  They were quickly picked up and held for several weeks) but rather is filtered, manipulated and transformed by several stages of censorship at the international level, until we have our end product, an ambivalent gestalt of a man who is both mad and a gamesman, harmless and deadly, vulnerable in a human way, and inhuman in an animalistic manner.

Kim as Cartoonish Nightmare

Kim as cartoonish nightmare

Our image of Kim Jong -Il then becomes nothing more than cartoonish fantasy where we have constructed him as an imbecillic thug, blindly leading his country into famine and disaster or else a genius strategist capable of leading his people into world destruction and conquest (surely those two portraits are incompatible, no?)

Update.  Indeed, so little is known about Kim’s health, that two years after his 2008 stroke, there is still speculation as to the cause and severity of his disease.  According to South Korean political analysts, Kim may (or may not) have chronic kidney failure (it is known he has diabetes), judging by the paleness of his fingernails.  The full article can be accessed at the Times website.

Here’s the link:


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Propaganda in the 1950s was overt, explicit, and to our contemporary perspective, easy to identify as a codified and manipulative text.  This is a dangerous thing, because we’ve come to believe that propaganda is by its overt nature, easy to recognize.  Well, old propaganda is quite easy to spot and we congratulate ourselves in being smarter than our forebearers, but have propaganda and the desire to control the public disappeared entirely?  Such an attitude that propaganda is obvious and therefore easy to spot is a dangerous view to have, as this is to deceive ourselves into thinking that ALL propaganda is easy to recognize and therefore has little to no power.  But it is precisely that ‘I’m too smart to fall for that trick’ mentality that causes us to succumb to the persuasive power of propaganda.  Propaganda, and media indoctrinate us into believing that we are in control of what we consume, that as consumers we have choices (if you don’t like it, you can always change the chanel), however, if propaganda and ideological texts were indeed so obvious to spot, we’d dismiss it and it wouldn’t have any effect.  That is, we’d dismiss it until the propagandists refined their product enough to slip below our radars.

Propaganda is effective precisely because we DON’T recognize its presence.  It is only when ideology has changed, when our perspective has become different from that of the propaganda text, that we recognize it as such.  For example, cold war propaganda wasn’t seen as propaganda to those who were indoctrinated into cold war thinking.  Rather, American media consumers of the 1950s would watch film images of supposed Russian communists and compare those images with representations of them selves.  And yet, their access to such images were mediated and controlled by several different institutions; the military, the news presses, the government run schools.  Indeed, all information is filtered to us by several different institutions.  So, in teh 1950s, those who feared nuclear annhilation, were prepared to accept that Eastern Europeans had a nihilistic attitude which rendered them capable of escalating war to the point of mass global destruction.  Rather than being seen as a propagandistic attitude, such belief systems were passed off as common sense to any thinking being, and it was only ‘natural’ that with the mass proliferation of nuclear weapons, America would ensure its safety against Russian attack.

Cold war reporting was not seen as propaganda, rather, it was news, common sense, and seen as a sad but accurate portrayal of world events.  It was only with the collapse of the Soviet block that we began to recognize cold war attitudes as being cynical and manipulative.  Similarly, today, we may recognize Fox News as being highly propagandistic, and prefer to watch a show more in line with our own worldview (perhaps MSNBC, or even Comedy Central’s Daily Show) and yet these shows are no less ideological.  However, we tend to overlook the ideologies because they reinforce our own belief systems.  Over the next coming months, I will be looking at different media texts and exploring how ideology is invested in commercial media.

But have such strategies really changed.  The average person has an attitude or opinion about North Korea and its leader.  We have opinions about its cult of deifying leadership, its celebration of its rejection of Western (read progressive) values.  We believe it is a poor place, being held back by its communist principles.  And yet, how do we know these things?  North Korea is a closed state, it is a no fly zone for non-friendly trade partners.  It is a country notoriously difficult to enter and exit, and those who enter are prevented from travelling around without government escort.  Indeed, first hand reports about North Korea are scarce and few and those that visitiations that have been recorded are heavily restricted in what the reporters could have viewed.  This means that virtually all we know of North Korea is based on speculation and fantasy, our imagined extrapolation from tiny bits of mediated data.  And yet we have painted with very broad strokes a shared cultural fantasy of what North Korean life must be like – a composite image of Stalinist Russian communism, iron curtain Chinese communism, and a cartoonish vision of Kim Jhong Il based on fragmentary and anecdotal accounts.

North Korea, then, becomes our first example of  propaganda text of the 21st century.

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What is Propaganda

We like to believe that in this heavily media saturated world, we are all highly media literate, but what does that mean?  What is media literacy, and how do we learn it?  What processes do we go through to become familiar with the ways in which media disseminates its ideas and ideologies.  We fool ourselves into believing that because the media text is comprehensible, we truly understand it.  And yet, very few of us actually learn media literacy.  We have little understanding of the process of media manufacture (and I use the term manufacture, because it is a painstakingly slow process to create media texts), and for the most part choose to be ignorant about how media manipulates us.  We teach reading skills to students – schools and teachers spend hours teaching literacy and numeracy, thinking that these are the skills that students require to negotiate their world.  But contemporary students will grow into an adult world which will not be a literary textual world, but rather will be a media world where the texts they encounter are digital sound/image texts.  What skills do we teach the average person, as to how to recognize the media image as a codified text?  Media manipulates viewers through their ignorance.  It behooves the media industries to have a consuming public that is relatively ignorant as to how the media image conditions thought.  This blog is an attempt to address that lack, and is an attempt to expose how media, using the codified image, manufactures ideology in the viewing public.

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