Propaganda & Persuasion, Ethics Short Response Paper – Is propaganda in the 20th Century a pessimistic enterprise?

Matthew Lipscomb

Dr. Heather Palmer

Propaganda & Persuasion, 2/8/2011

Ethics Short Response Paper



Q: Do you think propaganda in the 20th Century in fact rests on a fundamentally pessimistic vision of the human psyche and its latent drives (aggressive, sexual)? Or do you think it offers more of a productive outlet for desire? How?
My conviction is that to just explain propaganda as being ‘just pessimistic’ is potentially conflational; which is to say that it has an irresponsible flattening affect and is too limited to allow for critical nuances that should be taken into account. Pessimism is a dimension – or perhaps a vector; but it cannot adequately explain the full range of dichotomies and their related forces: their respective interplays at work all mixing, dancing and sometimes confronting each other, as it were, at least in terms of a more comprehensive theory of overall governing dynamics – such as that which will be argued to be at work within the world in this paper. A certain degree of pessimism is warranted – but so is the essence of hope.

In Cormack McCarthy’s novel, The Sunset Limited, the character of the professor makes the statement that Western Civilization went up in smoke in the chimneys of Auschwitz. Such a nihilist viewpoint is not without warrant. In many ways, the grand metanarratives of the 20th century – such as Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and Nietzsche’s  ‘will to power’ – found their full expression, and, many would argue, full articulation and subsequent end result in the Nazi rule and ruin. Christians who argue for an escalating degeneration of world affairs leading up to a so-called ‘end times/rapture’ eschatological culmination of religious theories would be hard pressed to argue that the world will ever be as bad as it was at that point in time. In the midst of a world situation where committed pacifists like Dietrich Bonhoeffer became committed conspiratorial assassins – there arose what we now refer to as our own ‘Greatest Generation.’  In this sense, the awfulness and despair of an inescapable situation brought about tremendous bravery, sacrifice and innovation.

One can even argue – however unpopular it may be in the assertion thereof – that the war had the end effect of radically transforming the culture of at least two countries from being radical and war-like – to veritable cornerstones of peace, technological advancement and societal advancement; these being, namely Japan and Germany. It should be pointed out that the national character of Japan was once deeply and profoundly feared. The so-called ‘rape of Nanking’ is a horrific account of man’s capacity of evil and tremendous carnage.  In today’s day and age, however, Japan has in fact conquered the world. Not by buying people up to their necks and chopping their heads off for sport, or by betting on the sex of unborn babies and then gutting the mothers with machetes to settle the question (as they did prolifically in Nanking to the Chinese citizens for a period of six weeks in December of 1937). Today – they have conquered the world with semiconductors. The national character and culture (which I would argue to be the aggregate existential/psychosocial content of its citizens) was not done away with – but it was radically transformed into a beneficent force.

The two examples of our so-called “greatest generation” – which set about to transform our own country in amazing ways – as well as the examples of nations radically transformed, are only two examples of what I argue to be illustrations of immense good coming from tremendous national (and arguably individually psychosocial) catastrophe. This catastrophe of war is itself representative of the full capacity of what the human psyche can come to be and come to represent – both on a micro-personal level, and on an aggregate macro-national socio/national-cultural level. In 1970 Edwin Starr sang the popular anti-war song (a propaganda tool in and of itself) “War – what is it good for?” Perhaps, using the examples here, we could toss out an answer?

Secondarily, and on a more honest note – I believe that, essentially, propaganda is a neutral force. It is neither intrinsically bad, nor intrinsically good. It can incite wars. It can win them. It can argue for and/or against them. It is the background to the ongoing interaction of man and man, man and group and even man and nature. If anything, it is grounded in more then just the psyche – but moreso one’s ‘existential posit:’ or the full representation of oneself contextually and relationally understood to all and everything else. To argue for its principle foundation as being the psyche is an oversimplification. I hold propaganda to also be potentially non-will mediated; which is to say that it is potentially spontaneously and unconsciously-derived – possessive of a potential non-purposefully directed affluence. This is a second archetypical conflation that is directed against propaganda. Because man is sufficiently advanced enough to potentially assume that nothing exists outside of either Will or Language, this does not presume it to in fact be so. An evolutionary biologist could, utilizing the same understandings as we associate with propaganda, easily juxtapose the dynamics and mechanics of specieal[1] evolution.

Recently, the Chattanooga Times Free Press carried an article Tiny water flea has longest genome (Times Free Press, Feb. 7, 2011, pg. A14). It explained that of all the living creatures that had had their genetic makeup fully sequenced, this certain species of flea has been shown to be possessive of the longest – fully 1/3rd larger then that of the human genome.  University of California, Santa Barbara marine biologist Todd Oakly – who was involved in the study – has argued that the increased number of genes could be related to the tiny creatures survival in increasingly polluted waters. Dynamics of macro and micro transformative and affluent dynamics exist beyond just the psychosocial substrate – they permeate every layer of existence of every living creature and thing. Nothing escapes the influence of something else. Nature is her own black propagandist. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that all that love really is, is mother nature’s own trick to assure the propagation of the species. Sure – it may be fun to postcolonially dismiss that as the bitter ramblings of a sexually frustrated patriarachalist, who failed at love and thus merely chose to philosophize about it in such a way as to make his failure his own success. Maybe- but then maybe not. On a rudimentary, level we can show the ‘psycho-social substrate of existence’ as being alive and actively influenced by both purposeful and inadvertent intents. But a closer and more honest take reveals a host of dynamics that have a hold upon us and influence us across a variety of levels.  The secular humanist may argue that it was the birth of cognitive potential that heralded the domination of the planet by man. Others argue that the same may prove to be his ultimate evolutionary undoing. If anything, the cognitive capacity of man to be both self-aware and ‘other’-reflexive accentuates and amplifies these counter-affluent dynamics, which we define as propaganda.

One door that is opened with a ‘scientific ethical view’ is that a ‘continuum of affluence’ is essentially existentially unzipped. This forces other doors and other potential nuances to be confronted as well. If existential affluence can be successfully exerted while fully abstracted from a psychosocial context – other contexts must be considered as potential involved as well. Many religious thinkers appose a dualist understanding of spirituality and physicality, arguing instead that – like the presumptions of propaganda to be purely an object of mental abstraction – those which may be considered ‘spiritual’ may in fact not be fully removed at all times from that which would be considered the ‘physical.’ If nature has her own voice of propaganda influencing both decisions and destiny – are there other elements of that could be seen to constitute an actual state of ‘systematic totality’ that by their respective authentic natures are transcendent to any and all presuppositions of any assumed ontological nature?

One lesson that can be learned – is the dangers of a haughty or a forced presuppositional view of ‘capital R’ Reality. If a view of reality is forced to conform to an assumed standard – does that assumed standard become the “capital T’ truth, any more then the denial of a subject that he or she is or is not under the legislating and authoritative influence of a propagandist, regardless of if they are or are not? It is as possible for an essentially free agent to willfully self-delude themselves with just as much fervor and efficacy as could any 2nd or 3rd party potentially. Existential authenticity, either contextual or self-reflective, can never be taken for granted. Its assurance is only approximated by constant vigilance against factors from every conceivable dimension. It may not always be consistently possible to properly adjudicate the presence or absence of either transcendent-to-self realties or those possessive of either relationally contextual and/or merely influence-yielding dynamics. Is it man – or is it nature herself? Is it my relation to my fellow man – or is it my place within this world itself? I have to ask these basic & fundamental questions before I can move on to the efficacy-power and quality-essence questions of influencing factors. This is perhaps the most-true value of pessimism in a situational self-introspective act: to always be cautious of any false presumptions. It is upon this foundation that any further work in regards to Ethics can and must begin.

In conclusion – the full historical understanding of the potential for human psyche must be taken into account, especially when examining the aggregate thereof – such as when looking at the character of a given nation. To only see it as a single state, at a single time, is a radical conflation – both in its nature and its potential. The qualities of the psychosocial desires of either a person or a national character must be seen through the lenses of an ongoing historical dialectic. If this can be understood from the perspective of man-to-himself – the affluence-inducing factors of his environment must also be taken into consideration, from the same understanding. Man is an agent of propaganda – and so is nature and corresponding scientific and possibly metaphysical law. The pursuit of justice and peace – either on a national level or the individual level – cannot be made without this ‘big picture’ understanding. These mechanics will work for or against us – regardless of whether we acknowledge their power and influence against us. Understanding them acknowledging them is the first step in utilizing them for our advantage.

[1] Not ‘special’ but of and related to the classification of species in terms of their various taxonomies and how they relate to various other forces – such as (here in this example) evolution.


About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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