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The Fine Art of Propaganda

THE FINE ART OF PROPAGANDA

contains exerpts from "The Fine Art Of Propaganda; A Study of Father Coughlin's Speeches" by The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Edited by Alfred McClung Lee & Elizabeth Briant Lee, and published in 1939 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.

THE FINE ART OF PROPAGANDA

THE WORLD is beset today by a confusion of conflicting propagandas, a Babel of voices in many tongues shouting charges, counter-charges, assertions, and contradictions that assail us continually.

These propagandas are spread broadcast by spokesmen for political parties, labor unions, business associations, farm organizations, patriotic societies, churches, schools, and other agencies. And they are repeated in conversation by millions of individuals.

If American citizens are to have a clear understanding of conditions and what to do about them, they must be able to recognize propaganda, to analyze it, and to appraise it. They must be able to discover whether it is propaganda in line with their own interests and the interests of our civilization or whether it is propaganda that may distort our views and threaten to undermine our civilization.

Propaganda more than ever is an instrument of aggression, a new means for rendering a country defenseless in the face of an invading army. While it has been used in a halting way for centuries, within the past few years we have seen it prepare the way for Hitler to seize the Saar, Austria, the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. It is called a new instrument of aggression because development has given it an effectiveness never before experienced in the history of the world.

Never before has there been so much propaganda. Never before have there been so many propagandas of such great importance to the lives of all of us. And never before have there been such powerfully implemented propagandas. The modern news-gathering sy stems of the newspapers and the gigantic radio broadcasting facilities of the world have made the chief differences, but refinements in propagandist methods have kept pace.

As generally understood, propaganda is opinion expressed for the purpose of influencing actions of individuals or groups. More formally, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis has defined propaganda as "expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends."

Propaganda thus differs fundamentally from scientific analysis. The propagandist tries to "put something across," good or bad. The scientist does not try to put anything across he devotes his life to the discovery of new facts and principles. The propagandist seldom wants careful scrutiny and criticism; his object is to bring about a specific action. The scientist, on the other hand, is always prepared for and wants the most careful scrutiny and criticism of his facts and ideas. Science flourishes on criticism. Dangerous propaganda crumbles before it.

Because the action sought by a propagandist may be beneficial or harmful to millions of people, it is necessary to focus upon his activities the same searchlight of scientific scrutiny that the scientist invites. This requires a considerable effort. We all have a tendency to make a virtue of defending opinions or propagandas that apparently fit in with our own opinions and of opposing as vigorously any others. But socially desirable views and proposals will not suffer from examination, and the opposite type will be detected and revealed for what it is.

Propagandas which concern us most are those which alter public opinion on matters of large social consequence-often to the detriment of large sections and even the majority of the people.

Any effort to analyze the propagandas involved in the public discussion of such matters confronts us first with the seven ABC's of Propaganda Analysis. We must have the feel of these seven ABC's before we can. fully appreciate the uses made by propagandists of the seven Propaganda Devices, the "Tricks of the Trade." Our seven ABC's are:

ASCERTAIN the conflict element in the propaganda you are analyzing. All propaganda contains a conflict element in some form or other-either as cause, or as effect, or as both cause and effect.

BEHOLD your own reaction to this conflict element. It is always necessary to know and to take into consideration our own opinions with regard to a conflict situation about which we feel strongly, on which we are prone to take sides. This information permits us to become more objective in our analysis.

CONCERN yourself with today's propagandas associated with today's conflicts. These are the ones that affect directly our income, business, working conditions, health, education, and religious, political, and social responsibilities. It is all too easy to analyze some old example of propaganda, now having little relation to vital issues.

DOUBT that your opinions are "your very own." They usually aren't. Our opinions, even with respect to today's propagandas, have been largely determined for us by inheritance and environment. We are born white or black, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or "pagan"; rich or poor; in the North or East, South or West; on a farm or in a city. Our beliefs and actions mirror the conditioning influences of home and neighborhood, church and school, vocation and political party, friends and associates. We resemble others with similar inheritance and environment and are bound to them by ties of common experience. We tend to respond favorably to their opinions and propagandas because they are "our kind of people." We tend to distrust the opinions of those who differ from us in inheritance and environment. Only drastic changes in our life conditions, with new and different experiences, associations, and influences, can offset or cancel out the effect of inheritance and long years of environment.

EVALUATE, therefore, with the greatest care, your own propagandas. We must learn clearly why we act and believe as we do with respect to various conflicts and issues-political, economic, social, and religious. Do we believe and act as we do because our fathers were strong Republicans or lifelong Democrats, because our fathers were members of labor unions or were employers who fought labor unions; because we are Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, or Jews? This is very important.

FIND THE FACTS before you come to any conclusion. There is usually plenty of time to form a conclusion and believe in it later on. Once we learn how to recognize propaganda, we can most effectively deal with it by suspending our judgment until we have time to learn the facts and the logic or trickery involved in the propaganda in question. We must ask:

Who is this propagandist?
How is he trying to influence our thoughts and actions?
For what purpose does he use the common propaganda devices?
Do we like his purposes?
How does he use words and symbols?
What are the exact meanings of his words and symbols?
What does the propagandist try to make these words and symbols appear to mean?
What are the basic interests of this propagandist?
Do his interests coincide with the interests of most citizens, of our society as we see it?

GUARD always, finally, against omnibus words. They are the words that make us the easy dupes of propagandists. Omnibus or carryall words are words that are extraordinarily difficult to define. They carry all sorts of meanings to the various sorts of men.

Therefore, the best test for the truth or falsity of propaganda lies in specific and concrete definitions of the words and symbols used by the propagandist. Moreover, sharp definition is the best antidote against words and symbols that carry a high charge of emotion.

Our seven Propaganda Devices make the application of these seven ABC's of Propaganda Analysis somewhat easier. Before describing these devices, however, let us discuss the nature of propaganda further by answering some pertinent questions regarding it:

When does a propaganda conform to democratic principles? It conforms when it tends to preserve and extend democracy; it is antagonistic when it undermines or destroys democracy.

"What is truly vicious," observed the New York Times in an editorial on September 1, 1937, "is not propaganda but a monopoly of it." Any propaganda or act that tends to reduce our freedom in discussing important issues-that tends to promote a monopoly of propaganda - is antidemocratic.

How broadly should we define democracy? Democracy has the four following aspects, set forth or definitely implied in the Constitution and the Federal statutes:

1. Political-Freedom to discuss fully and effectively and to vote on public issues.
2. Economic-Freedom to work and to participate in organizations and discussions to promote better working standards and higher living conditions.
3. Social-Freedom from oppression based on theories of superiority or inferiority of group, class, or race.
4. Religious-Freedom of worship, with separation of church and state.

With all such general freedoms and the specific freedoms implied by them are associated definite responsibilities. Thus, with freedom of the press goes the responsibility for accuracy in news and honesty and representativeness in editorials.

In short, democracy is the one political, economic, and social philosophy which permits the free expression and development of the individual in a culture.

Why are we sometimes misled by propaganda antagonistic to democracy? Few people have had the opportunity to learn how to detect and analyze propaganda. Most books on propaganda are for the benefit of the propagandist or the academic specialist rather than of the public.

They are frequently in such technical terms that they may be understood only by persons familiar with the nomenclature of psychology and sociology. Furthermore, most of these treatises deal with the propagandas of the past, not of today. It is today's propagandas, flowing from today's conflicts, which interest and concern us most.

"Propaganda," said an editorial in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, September 3, 1937, "is good as well as bad. `We are surrounded by clouds of propaganda.' ... It is up to each of us to precipitate from those clouds the true and the false, the near-true and the near-false, identifying and giving to each classification its correct label."

How nearly right are our answers? The Institute lays no claim to infallibility. It tries to be scientific, objective, and accurate. When it makes mistakes, it acknowledges them. It asks the readers of this book as well as the subscribers for its regular bulletin, Propaganda Analysis, to check its work further and also to co-operate with it by supplying documented evidence on the sources of propaganda and on censorship or distortion of essential news in press, radio, and newsreels. Chiefly the Institute seeks to acquaint its subscribers and other readers of its materials with methods whereby they may become proficient in making their own analyses.

Some of the devices now so subtly and effectively used by good and bad propagandists are as old as language. All have been used in one form or another by all of us in our daily dealings with each other.

Propagandists have seized upon these methods we ordinarily use to convince each other, have analyzed and refined them, and have experimented with them until these homely devices of folk origin have been developed into tremendously powerful weapons for the swaying of popular opinions and actions.

We have all emphasized our disapproval of a person, group, or thing by calling it a bad name. We have all tried to reverse this process in the case of something for which we have had admiration by labeling it with a "virtue word" or "glittering generality." And thus, we have all used two of the propaganda devices.

In order to avoid technical language, in order to make our findings more generally useful, the popular terms for these propagandistic devices have been retained here. Considerable experience with them by scientific analysts, business men, teachers, and college and high school students indicates that they have the two necessary qualifications for our purpose: They are workable. Anyone can use them.

To explain fully the uses to which these simple-sounding devices are being put by professional propagandists requires more than a brief definition. But a brief definition can give the gist of each. It is therefore possible and certainly desirable to get the following thumbnail descriptions of each before us.

The chief devices used then in popular argument and by professional propagandists are:

  • Name Calling -giving an idea a bad label-is used to make us reject and condemn the idea without examining the evidence.
  • Glittering Generality-associating something with a "virtue word"-is used to make us accept and approve the thing without examining the evidence.
  • Transfer carries the authority, sanction, and prestige of something respected and revered over to something else in order to make the latter acceptable; or it carries authority, sanction, and disapproval to cause us to reject and disapprove something the propagandist would have us reject and disapprove.
  • Testimonial consists in having some respected or hated person say that a given idea or program or product or person is good or bad.
  • Plain Folks is the method by which a speaker attempts to convince his audience that he and his ideas are good because they are "of the people," the "plain folks."
  • Card Stacking involves the selection and use of facts or falsehoods, illustrations or distractions, and logical or illogical statements in order to give the best or the worst possible case for an idea, program, person, or product.
  • Band Wagon has as its theme, "Everybody-at least all of us-is doing it"; with it, the propagandist attempts to convince us that all members of a group to which we belong are accepting his program and that we must therefore follow our crowd and "jump on the band wagon."

    Once we know these devices well enough to spot examples of their use, we have taken a great and long step towards freeing our minds from control by propagandists. It is not the only step necessary, but it is certainly the most important.

    Once we know that a speaker or writer is using one of these propaganda devices in an attempt to convince us of an idea, we can separate the device from the idea and see what the idea amounts to on its own merits. The idea may be good or bad when judged in the light of available evidence and in terms of our own experience and interests. But a knowledge of these seven devices permits us to investigate the idea. It keeps us from having our thought processes blocked by a trick. It keeps us from being fooled.

    In testing each statement of a propagandist, then, we merely have to ask ourselves: When stripped of tricks, what is he trying to sell us? Is it something we want?

    NAME CALLING Name Calling-Giving an idea a bad label is used to make us reject and condemn the idea without examining the evidence.

    Bad names have played a tremendously powerful role in the history of the world and in our own individual development. They have ruined reputations, stirred men and women to outstanding accomplishments, sent others to prison cells, and made men mad enough to enter battle and slaughter their fellowmen. They have been and are applied to other people, groups, gangs, tribes, colleges, political parties, neighborhoods, states, sections of the country, nations, and races.

    The world has resounded with cries of "Heretic," "Hun," "Red," "Yankee," "Reb," "Democrat," "Republican," "Revolutionary," "Nazi," etc., and their equivalents in all languages. Our personal lives have echoed with such words as "sissy," "moron," "bully," "tramp," "wayward," "unscientific," "unprogressive," "inhuman," "grasping," "easy-going," and "backward."

    Individuals and groups can be found who bear any one of these labels proudly. Other individuals and groups can just as easily be found who regard any one of these labels as the worst epithet to shout at an enemy.

    Practically all primitive tribes call themselves by names that mean "the people" or "the real people." All outsiders they call "foreigners," "earth-eaters," "cannibals," "ill-speakers," or some other term they regard as disreputable. The Welsh, for example, called themselves the Cymry, but our present term for the Welsh derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "foreigners" or "jabberers."

    One of the most treacherous things about Name Calling is that bad names, like Glittering Generalities, are omnibus words. They are words that mean different things and have different emotional overtones for different people. When we spot an example of Name Calling, we must ask ourselves these questions: What does the name mean? Does the idea in question-the proposal of the propagandist-have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the name? Is an idea that serves my best interests and the best interests of society, as I see them, being dismissed through giving it a name I don't like? In other words, leaving the name out of consideration, what are the merits of the idea itself?

    We must constantly remind ourselves of the danger of omnibus-word reactions. Such reactions, rather than detailed appraisals of a philosophy and its ideals, are what we commonly encounter.

    GLITTERING GENERALITY Glittering Generality-associating something with a "virtue word"-is used to make us accept and approve the thing without examining the evidence.

    We believe in, fight for, live by "virtue words" about which we have deep-set ideas. Such words are "civilization," "Christianity," "good," "proper," "right," "democracy," "patriotism," "motherhood," "fatherhood," "science," "medicine," "health," and "love."

    For our purposes in propaganda analysis, we call these "virtue words" Glittering Generalities in order to focus attention upon this dangerous characteristic that they have: They mean different things to different people; they can be used in different ways.

    This is not a criticism of these words as we understand them. Quite the contrary. It is a criticism of the uses to which propagandists put the cherished words end beliefs of unsuspecting people.

    When someone talks to us about "democracy," we immediately think of our own definite ideas about democracy, the ideas we learned at home, at school, and in church. Our first and natural reaction is to assume that the speaker is using the word in our sense, that he believes as we do on this important subject. This lowers our "sales resistance" and makes us far less suspicious than we ought to be when the speaker begins telling us the things "the United States must do to preserve democracy." If we have permitted our "sales resistance" to be lowered by the use of "democracy" as a Glittering Generality rather than as a carefully defined term, we may soon find ourselves being "sold" such an anti-democratic notion as a "Corporate State" under a "democratic" disguise, one of Father Coughlin's tricks.

    The Glittering Generality is, in short, Name Calling in reverse. While Name Calling seeks to make us form a judgment to reject and condemn without examining the evidence, the Glittering Generality device seeks to make us approve and accept without examining the evidence. In acquainting ourselves with the Glittering Generality Device, therefore, all that has been said regarding Name Calling must be kept in mind, and especially should we remember what has been said about omnibus words.

    Propagandists are most effective in the use of both of these devices when their words can make us create devils to fight or gods to adore. By their use of "bad words," we may be led to personify as a "devil" some nation, race; group, individual, policy, practice, or ideal; we may be made fighting mad to destroy it. By their use of "good words," we may be led to personify as a godlike idol some nation, race, group, or the like. Before we are led to any such position, we should know what the propagandist is trying to do with us. If we are to be led, we should be led with our eyes open, not blindly.

    In analyzing a Glittering Generality, we must ask ourselves such questions as these and suspend judgment until we have answered them: What does the "virtue word" really mean? Does the idea in question-the proposal of the propagandist-have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the name ? Is an idea that does not serve my best interests and the best interests of society, as I see them, being "sold" to me merely through its being given a name that I like? In other words, leaving the "virtue word" out of consideration, what are the merits of the idea itself?

    TRANSFER Transfer carries the authority, sanction, and prestige of something respected and revered over to something else in order to make the latter acceptable.

    In the application of the Transfer Device, symbols are constantly used. With the Cross, the propagandist lends the sanctity of the Christian religion to his program. The flag, standing for the nation and for patriotism, performs a similar service. Cartoonists make "Uncle Sam" portray an aged consensus of public opinion. These symbols stir emotions. At their very sight, with the speed of light, is aroused the whole complex of feelings we have with respect to church or nation.

    Propagandists seldom permit a Transfer to depend upon one symbol. Music, pageantry, uniforms, ritual, scenery-all are studied and utilized when appropriate.

    How can we analyze the Transfer Device, now that we know how to spot it? How can we distinguish its legitimate from its illegitimate-its fair from its unfair-application? We must teach ourselves to suspend judgment until we have answered these questions:

    What is the proposal of the propagandist, stated as simply and concretely as possible? What is the meaning of the thing from which the propagandist is seeking to Transfer authority, sanction, and prestige? Is there any legitimate connection between the proposal of the propagandist and the respected and revered thing, person, or institution? In other words, leaving the propagandistic trick out of the picture, what are the merits of the propagandist's proposal viewed alone?

    "A lie," wrote Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (My Struggle), "is believed because of the unconditional and insolent inflexibility with which it is propagated and because it takes advantage of the sentimental and extreme sympathies of the masses. ... There fore, something always is retained even from the most impudent of lies." And lies, we must remember, take a vast number of forms, the chief seven of which are the unfair applications of our seven Propaganda Devices.

    TESTIMONIAL Testimonial consists in having some respected or hated person say that a given idea or program or product or person is good or bad.

    "The Times said ... ," "John L. Lewis said ... ," "Herbert Hoover said ... ," "The President said ...," "My doctor said ... ," or "Our minister said ... ." Some of these Testimonials may merely give greater emphasis to a legitimate and accurate idea, a fair use of the device others, however, may represent the sugar-coating of a distortion, a falsehood, a misunderstood notion, an anti-social suggestion. The rest of such sentences may, of course, have given the impression that "So-and-so, a bad man, advocates such-and-such an idea, and therefore the idea is bad," or that "So-and-so, a good man, advocates such-and-such an idea, and therefore the idea is good."

    In short, Testimonial is the fourth device used by skillful and dangerous propagandists to convince us of an idea before we become critical and examine the evidence in the case. It is also the fourth device-in our list of seven-used by fair propagandists to interest us in a useful idea so that we will examine the evidence and may eventually accept the proposal.

    To beat bad propagandists at their game or to prove to ourselves that the propagandas we like are really as good as they sound to us, we will all do well to ask ourselves the following questions regarding each Testimonial we hear: Who or what is quoted in the Testimonial? Why should we regard this person (or organization or publication or whatnot) as having expert knowledge or trustworthy information or reliable opinion on the subject in question? Above all, what does the idea amount to on its own merits, without the benefit of the Testimonial? There are three ways in which the Testimonial Device may be utilized unfairly. These three ways are:

    1. The use of untrustworthy sources.
    2. The distortion of facts or opinions contained in and attributed to trustworthy sources.
    3. The alleged quotation of facts or opinions from a reputable source that do not come from that source.

    PLAIN FOLKS Plain Folks is the method by which a speaker attempts to convince his audience that he and his ideas are good because they are "of the the people," the "plain folks."

    Politicians, labor leaders, business men, and even ministers and educators win our confidence by appearing to be people like ourselves-"just plain folks among the neighbors." In election years especially do candidates show their devotion to little children and the common, homey things of life. They have front porch campaigns. For the benefit of newspapermen, they raid the kitchen cupboard and find there some of the good wife's apple pie. They go to country picnics; they attend service at the old frame church; they pitch hay and go fishing; they show their belief in home and mother.

    In short, these men would win our votes, business, or other support by showing that they're just as common as the rest of us-"salt of the earth"-and, therefore, wise and good.

    Our defense against this device, when used by the undemocratic or the otherwise anti-social, is simply this: We must ask ourselves what the propagandist's ideas are worth when divorced from his personality. In other words: What is he trying to cover up with his Plain Folks manner? What are the facts?

    Suspend judgment until we get enough evidence.

    CARD STACKING Card Stacking involves the selection and use of facts or falsehoods, illustrations or distractions, and logical or Illogical statements in order to give the best or the worst possible case for an idea, program, person or product.

    What might well be called "monopolistic" Card Stacking is a direct violation of America's Cracker Barrel Philosophy. Around our traditional cracker barrels, we expect each of our local spokesmen to present his case-to stack the cards-for a given proposal in the best way that he can. But we also insist that other spokesmen around the same cracker barrel speak right up and stack the cards in favor of their alternative proposals. From these conflicting arrangements and interpretations of evidence, we know that some fairly sensible compromise is likely to come.

    The dangers of "monopolistic" Card Stacking, of submitting ourselves to a barrage of evidence presented from but one viewpoint, are what prompted an editorial writer for the New York Times to observe on September 1, 1937: "What is truly vicious is not propaganda but a monopoly of it."

    When we are confronted with an effort at Card Stacking, we must remind ourselves to suspend judgment on the propagandist's proposals until we have answered such questions as these: Just what is the propagandist trying to "sell" us? Is this proposal in line with our own best interests and the best interests of society, as we see them? What are the alternative proposals? What is the evidence for and against these alternatives?

    BAND WAGON Band Wagon has as its theme, "Everybody-at least all of us-is doing it"; with it, the propagandist attempts to convince us that all members of a group to which we belong are accepting his program and that we must therefore follow our crowd and "jump on the band wagon."

    The Band Wagon is a means for making us follow the crowd and accept a propagandist's program as a whole and without examining the evidence for and against it. His theme is: "Everybody's doing it. Why not you?" His techniques range from those of the street-corner medicine show to those of the vast pageant.

    The propagandist hires a hall, rents radio stations, fills a great stadium, marches a million or at least a lot of men in a parade. He employs symbols, colors, music, movement, all the dramatic arts. He gets us to write letters, to send telegrams, to contribute to his "cause." He appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to "follow the crowd." Because he wants us to follow the crowd in masses, he directs his appeal to groups held together already by common ties, ties of nationality, religion, race, sex, vocation.

    With the aid of all the other Propaganda Devices, all of the artifices of flattery are used to harness the fears and hatreds, prejudices and biases, convictions and ideals common to a group. Thus is emotion made to push and pull us as members of a group onto a Band Wagon.

    "Don't throw away your vote. Vote for our candidate. He's winning." Nearly every candidate wins in every election bef ore the votes are in and counted.

    What can we do about the Band Wagon? Here are the questions we should certainly ask ourselves and should answer before we succumb to its wiles:

    What is this propagandist's program ? What is the evidence for and against his program? Does his program serve or undermine the interests of the group-my group-that he says favors him and his ideas?

    No fair use of the Band Wagon Device can suffer from such questioning. And there is never as much of a rush to climb onto the Band Wagon as the propagandist tries to make us think there is.


    This search for truth has been vastly stimulated by the spread and preservation of the democratic way of life. Only in a democracy do scientists, artists, technicians, philosophers, and ministers of religious sects have the freedom that permits them to strive for more and more accurate approximations of that eternal earthly goal of man, the truth.

    Our seven ABC's of Propaganda Analysis and our seven Propaganda Devices are offered therefore as workable means for aiding Americans to preserve their freedom of choice and with it their other freedoms embodied so largely in the expression, freedom of propaganda: freedom of speech and assembly, of the press, and of religion. In closing, then, let us merely sum up the spirit of our seven ABC's and seven devices in the following statements:

  • Don't be stampeded.
  • Beware of your own prejudices.
  • Suspend your judgment until more sides of the issue are presented.
  • Analyze them.
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