History is about questions; propaganda, answers

by The Editor

ARTICLE: What is the relationship between history and propaganda, and propaganda and secrecy in turn? It is an interesting question. History is often taken for granted. It is assumed that it exists somewhere out there, and it is the business of an eccentric few to define it. But in truth it is a contemporary business and a society’s attitude towards it say much about us. In the article below I look at this relationship and how these two ideas – history and propaganda – relate.

History is about questions; propaganda, answers

By: Gareth van Onselen

24 April 2012

The purpose of history is to understand; the purpose of propaganda, to simplify. For while simplicity is seductive it is also restrictive and so, once caught in its embrace, the questioning mind is silenced, control augmented and progress stifled. And that is propaganda’s desired effect.

History’s great value, then, is intricately linked to education. It is an analysis through which one might learn, in order to improve one’s self and the world in which one lives, by evaluating what we know and discovering that which we do not.  Thus, making better decisions today. Propaganda, by contrast, promotes ignorance; and its only value is to those whose ambition it serves: a temporary manipulation designed to dumb-down and misdirect. Its purpose is not to interrogate but to dictate. So that we ask no questions. When it is not presented, it is enforced. Often, and to its great benefit, it has a susceptible audience.

We possess a natural inclination to want to lessen ambiguity and complexity. Not only are such things unsatisfying but they require effort to understand – and an acceptance that the world is not always as it appears to be. That can be a difficult fact for those who crave the easy security which accompanies conviction. Thus, an appreciation of history – its nature and study – is often a counter-intuitive exercise; for the world is complicated and human nature marked by inconsistency and uncertainty.

In contrast, the simplicity propaganda offers up is comforting: a clear, coherent and attractive truth (if not distorted); easily understood and practically applied. And so propaganda is often appealing from first principles. This is its most dangerous trait: a world reduced to black and white, us and them.

Societies that value and appreciate history have accepted two things: first, that past human events hold within them important lessons, from which one can better understand current affairs; second, that discerning the right lessons from the wrong ones is a contemporary exercise – often contested and rarely consistent. Thus, a premium is placed on evidence and sound reasoning, as the two cornerstones on which understanding is built. Once constructed, a historical narrative is offered up for public scrutiny, so the veracity of competing interpretations might be weighed against it and it against them – always with the purpose of improving knowledge by gauging some new insight against the strength of the argument that underpins it.

Counter wise, there are no societies which value or appreciate propaganda, only those confused by it. Indeed, the very minute propaganda is revealed for what it is, it is denuded of its power. In order to exist – and to be effective – propaganda must trade by another name and often ‘history’ is the guise it dons. It plays on history’s contested nature, offering up the pretence of cogency and coherence but, in truth, it is selective and manipulative; undertaken to fulfill some ostensible political purpose.

In such societies there is no debate. There is one true history alone and competing interpretations are shot down as illegitimate from first principles, if not outlawed altogether. The only lesson to be learnt is the self-reinforcing one propaganda dictates: the status quo is fully justified, indeed, necessitated by the past – not as a response to it but as the inevitable truth. And not to be accepted or rejected on evidence but in order to distinguish enemies from friends.

Is the propagandist always aware of what it is they are doing? Yes. Out of ignorance it is perfectly possible to sand down into some shiny new truth an ugly historical fact, but that is not propaganda, merely bad history. This might well serve the propagandist’s agenda, but it is the fact that they have an agenda which separates them from the ignorant and, on this count, there is nothing unsophisticated about their intent. Indeed, more likely, there is an intelligent mind at work. So much so, in fact, the propagandist will claim they are history’s keeper, its great protector; their concern ‘the truth’, their motivation your best interests. And thus, their story, the definitive version. They lie.

The extent to which propaganda exists in a society is a good litmus test as to the health of its democratic culture. A healthy democratic order is questioning. One in which propaganda holds sway has all the answers. Totalitarianism, in its extreme form, is nothing but propaganda; and the road that leads towards it, defined by history’s manipulation and a failure to counteract the effect this has on the public mind.

It is easy to see, then, why propaganda has a close relationship to secrecy: because the desire to control information lies at its heart and no lie is more complete than the one that simply eliminates knowledge absolutely.

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