Thursday, February 02, 2017

social media as sociological propaganda--the not-so-soft totalitarian impulses in the red state and blue state civic religions

Last year we spent quite a bit of time going through Jacques Ellul's Propaganda as a way to reflect upon the career of former Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll.  Of course when Ellul published his book he was not thinking immediately about what we call megachurches because megachurches as we know them did not exactly exist back then.  But he had a warning about what would happen if the Church were to embrace propagandistic techniques of the modern, technocratic sort influenced by the social sciences.

Last year, almost a year ago, actually, I made the case that a person like Mark Driscoll should essentially not be understood as a pastor at all in any conventionally historical sense of the term.  Driscoll's own explication of what he's trained himself to do and how he does it makes him not so much a pastor who is the shepherd of flesh and blood souls but a propagandist, a master of multi-media messaging techniques.  This isn't even much of an attack on Driscoll in itself, but rather a formal citation of Driscoll's own descriptions of what he did and why he did it with cross reference to what Ellul described propaganda entailing.

But, of course, last year was an election year and so what Ellul had to say regarding propaganda is worth revisiting in light of that.  There are any number of books that authors at Slate or The New Yorker or maybe a few other publications have said "predicted" Trump.  Well, to throw yet another book on the pile, if we want to look at the work of an author who observed the persistence of populist agitator demagogues in American politics; and if we wanted to look at the work of someone who anticipated the balkanization of groups that avail themselves of propaganda then Jacques Ellul's book Propaganda could be said to have not only "predicted" Trump, but the potentially impassable red/blue deadlock in which both sides regard the activities of each other as nothing less than totalitarian gambits.  I've seen more than just a few declarations on arts blogs to the effect that with the election of Trump the United States is already a fascist regime.  If it is it couldn't have become one merely because Trump got elected because it's hard to know what executive powers Trump has right now that Obama didn't have about eight weeks ago. 

This is not an endorsement of the red or the blue as such, more an observation about a deeper problem, which is that it seems the reason the United States will fail and deserve to is because the two party system has embraced propagandistic techniques that have trained their respective partisans to think and feel and react in essentially totalitarian ways.

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 249
... Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.

pages 249-250
... This really is the ultimate problem: democracy is not just a certain form of political organization or simply an ideology--it is, first of all, a certain view of life and a form of behavior. If democracy were only a form of political organization, there would be no problem; propaganda could adjust to it. ... But if democracy is a way of life, composed of tolerance, respect, degree, choice, diversity, and so on, all propaganda that acts on behavior and feelings and transforms them in depth turns man into someone who can no longer support democracy because he no longer follows democratic behavior.

pages 251-252
But the creation of the etiological myth leads to an obligation on the part of democracy to become religious. It can no longer be secular but must create its religion. Besides, the creation of a religion is one of the indispensable elements of effective propaganda. [emphasis added] The content of this religion is of little importance; these feelings are used to integrate the masses into the national collective. We must not delude ourselves: when one speaks to us of "massive democracy" and "democratic participation," these are only veiled terms that mean "religion." Participation and unanimity have always been characteristics of religious societies, and only of religious societies. [emphasis added]

page 256

... With propaganda one can lead citizens to the voting booth, where they seemingly elect their representatives. But if democracy corresponds to a certain type of human being, to a certain individual behavior, then propaganda destroys the point of departure of the life of a democracy, destroys its very foundations. It creates a man who is suited to a totalitarian society, who is not at ease except when integrated in the mass, who rejects critical judgments, choices and differentiations because he clings to clear certainties. He is a man assimilated into uniform groups and wants it that way.

... A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself--of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas makes the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a "totalitarian man with democratic convictions," but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely "the sacred formulas of democracy" while acting like a storm trooper.

If you think the United States needs to be rescued from the Democratic or Republican parties to the point that you wish for a functionally single-party regime then you're a totalitarian ideologue.  In Ellul's parlance, the only difference between you and a Nazi is that you're a totalitarian person with democratic convictions, but ... this doesn't mean you embrace democracy as a mode of governance, rather, you embrace democracy as an etiological myth that explicates the human condition.

You may actually be the totalitarian ideologue the United States needs to be rescued from, if it's even meaningful to speak of such a thing being possible.  The United States may need to be saved from Trump but if it even merits saving (and I'm no longer sure it does) it may also need to be saved from you.  Every empire crumbles at some point, after all and what's the use in exporting democracy to the rest of the world if here at home we increasingly behave toward each other on the internet like the fascist demagogues we pretend to ourselves and others we're afraid may hijack the future of the United States. 

Which, in the end, seems to describe how people can behave on Twitter and Facebook and in reaction to those speakers whose ideas they believe cannot and should not and must not receive a hearing. The red and blue partisans at this point may both be totalitarian ideologues who have convinced themselves that "my" activism is democracy itself while "your" activism is evil, un-American, anti-democratic, and not worthy of constitutional protections.  It is not necessary for civic religions to have explicit deities so long as rituals are observed.  Americans have managed to fashion for themselves red state and blue state civic religions and some of these people even labor greatly to pretend that the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in the New Testament validate their respective civic religions. 

Last year we also took a little stroll through the thing Ellul described as horizontal propaganda.  It would seem difficult to read these descriptions of what it is and not think of how readily this is made, hour by hour, even minute by minute, on social media.
page 81
This propaganda can be called horizontal because it is made inside the group (not from the top), where, in principle, all individuals are equal and there is no leader. ... But the most remarkable characteristic of horizontal propaganda is the small group. The individual participates actively in the life of this group, in a genuine and lively dialogue.

page 82

Vertical propaganda needs the huge apparatus of the mass media of communication; horizontal propaganda needs a huge organization of people.

A member of a small group must not belong to other groups in which he would be subjected to other influences; that would give him a chance to find himself again and, with it, the strength to resist.

page 84
Horizontal propaganda thus is very hard to make (particularly because it needs so many instructors), but it is exceptionally efficient through its meticulous encirclement of everybody, through the effective participation of all present, and through their public declarations of adherence. It is particularly a system that seems to coincide perfectly with egalitarian societies claiming to be based on the will of the people and calling themselves democratic [emphasis added]; each group is composed of persons who are alike and one actually can formulate the will of such a group. But all this is ultimately much more stringent and totalitarian than explosive propaganda. Thanks to this system, Mao has succeeded in passing from subversive propaganda to integration propaganda. [emphasis added]

Thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media networks horizontal propaganda is remarkably easy to create and distribute.  Half a century after Ellul wrote about the difficulty of creating horizontal propaganda there may well be no easier kind of propaganda to create and distribute than horizontal propaganda in the age of social media.  We make it and pass it on without even, perhaps, thinking that we are propagandists, if propagandists at a very low level.  But your Facebook wall might as well be a propaganda platform if you use it to address the nature of society.  Some people even know they're political advocates.  Ideally they should also know they are participating in the generation of propaganda, too.  Ellul's observation about propaganda was that it was no longer "optional".  Every technologically advanced society would have no choice but to use it.  That was half a century before Facebook or Twitter were developed.  This has been an issue for far longer than any era of "alternative facts" because for partisans of red, blue, or green there can always be alternative facts. 

Those who might suggest that education could defeat the effectiveness of propaganda might want to read the part where Ellul wrote that state-administered public education IS propaganda, at least pre-propaganda, a series of hoops kids jump through so as to prepare them for the more grown-up sorts of propaganda. 

So far as the red and blue and what Christians are alleged to have to believe, what the red and blue civic religions have in common in the United States is that, to the extent that they wish Christians to take these things seriously, they retrofit Jesus in such a way as to ensure that a vote for the red or the blue is considered morally obligatory.  Whether you have to vote for Trump or against Trump, for Clinton or against Clinton, what is at stake is not necessarily devotion to Jesus Christ as presented in the synoptic Gospels or the Gospel traditionally ascribed to John, but a red-state or blue-state Jesus.

page 230
... Propaganda is a total system that one must accept or reject in its entirety.

If the church accepts it, two important consequences follow. First of all, Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity. [emphasis added] We have already seen the effect of propaganda on ideology. In fact, what happens as soon as the church avails itself of propaganda is a reduction of Christianity to the level of all other ideologies or secular religions.

This can be seen happening throughout history. Every time a church tried to act through the propaganda devices accepted by an epoch, the truth and authenticity of Christianity were debased. This happened in the fourth, ninth, and seventeenth centuries (of course, this does not mean that no more Christians were left as a result).

In such moments (when acting through propaganda), Christianity ceases to be an overwhelming power and spiritual adventure and becomes institutionalized in all its expressions and compromised in all its actions. It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax. In such times there appear innumerable sweetenings and adaptations, which denature Christianity by adjusting it to the milieu.

Thus reduced to nothing more than an ideology, Christianity will be treated as such by the propagandist. [emphasis added] And in the modern world we can repeat in connection with this particular ideology what we have already said on the subject of ideologies in general. What happens is that the church will be able to move the masses and convert thousands of people to its ideology. But this ideology will no longer be Christianity. It will be just another doctrine, though it will still contain (sometimes, but not always) some of the original principles and the Christian vocabulary. [emphasis added]

The other consequence affects the church itself. When it uses propaganda, the church succeeds, just as all other organizations. It reaches the masses, influences collective opinions, leads sociological movements, and even makes many people accept what seems to be Christianity. But in doing that the church becomes a false church. it acquires power and influence that are of this world, and through them integrates itself into this world.

Perhaps it's preferable in the United States for civic religions to be malleable and to be adaptable and amenable to some pretense of Christianity.  This is probably going to be less and less strictly necessary.  The thing we may want to keep in mind is that when it comes to civic religion the more vaguely defined the divine principle is the better.  It becomes more impossible to prove or disprove whether or not this or that policy conflicts with that civic religion, whether we're talking the red or the blue.

The Mediator
Emil Brunner
page 25
Whether he adored his totem animal or the gods of the sun, the moon and the stars ; whether by the practice of magic he tries to gain control of supernatural forces; whether by the practices of asceticism and of Yoga he achieves union with the 'Wholly-Other'; or whether in union with his fellow-countrymen he brings a solemn sacrifice to the high gods, or somewhere in solitude he approaches the Ground of all being in mystical contemplation; one thing remains the same, namely, that just as man is homo faber, so also he is homo religious. He is this even when he renounces all mythology, all ideas of a supernatural being, and becomes an agnostic or an atheist. The dimension of the infinite, of the absolute, of the unconditioned, is not empty for any human being, even when he has cut himself adrift from all traditional religious ideas. If he no longer has any personal gods, all the more surely he has one or more impersonal gods-something which he regards as taboo, something which may not be touched at any cost, whether it be his Communism or his Nationalism, his civilization or 'life.' 'Man always has God or an idol.' ...

In our day and place those gods might be the Democratic and Republican parties to which loyalty is given regardless of what history may reveal.  A Republican can convince himself the party has been in favor of small government regardless of whether or not Republican administrations have overseen the ballooning of the surveillance state and a Democrat can convince himself his party is against the hawkish politics of the Republicans in spite of the fact that Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all got us neck deep in military confrontations.  These don't seem to be political machines that are dedicated to the responsible and restrained use of power so much as securing it for themselves and regarding it as tyranny that the other party should actually be able to wield whatever power the first party may have had at its disposal by way of the executive or legislative branch just a few months ago.  If anything the abstracted ideals of what people tell themselves their parties stand for are all the better for not having to be tethered to questions of why it should be democracy when the favorite party has control and why it would suddenly be fascism when things are otherwise.

If the United States has only become a fascist state because Trump won then what powers did the government not have just a few weeks ago that it has now?  Then again, if you regard whatever state you live in as an iteration of Babylon the Great and bear in mind the paradoxical teachings from Scripture that we are called to pray for those in authority and to remember that authority can play a positive role in promoting the good and discouraging evil while also recognizing these are always corrupted to one degree or another by sin, it doesn't have to be the end of the world if America as we know it comes to an end.  It's going to come to an end at some point anyway.  The trouble is that Americans seem to have reached a point where if America as we know it comes to an end then the world itself is somehow not worth living in.

For those who were once at Mars Hill ... now is probably not the time to become a brave internet warrior for truth, justice and the real American way.  This would be especially true if you've switched teams in the years since you left Mars Hill.  Why?  Because, to once again reference Ellul, the thing that most likely happened when you dropped the propagandistic cultural dynamics of Mars Hill is that you may have simply embraced the propagandistic approach of some other team, and in the wake of the last election cycle that could simply be the Democratic or Republican party lines.  The public good will benefit from fewer men such as Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage being taken seriously as having anything important to say about the human condition.  Now if you were a conservative or a progressive at Mars Hill, say, ten years ago, and are still that now, well ... okay.  The concern I have is that you don't regard the party lines as meaningfully synonymous with what Jesus taught.  To put it another way, neither capitalism nor socialism should be regarded as more than the popular options among Westerners for the "best" way to commodify and monetize human lives.

Just because there are different ways of worshiping Mammon doesn't mean they aren't both worshipping Mammon.  Just because Dan Savage and Mark Driscoll differed on a few points doesn't mean that "Savage Love" and Real Marriage can't reflect a core view about human sexuality.  About ten or eleven years ago a Mars Hill member opined that Mars Hill was needed and Mark's teaching was vital because the alternative was stuff like Dan Savage giving sex advice in The Stranger.  I remember reading the linked column and when I mentally compared it to what I remember Driscoll had to say about Song of Songs it seemed like Dan Savage and Mark Driscoll might as well have been the same guy.  Sure, neither are current Catholics and neither has nice stuff to say about Catholicism as a cultural milieu overall, and maybe they may back more blue and red agendas respectively, but they're both media agitators who get off on telling people how to think and they might both well feel that a life without sex is in some sense a life not quite worth living.

But to the respective fans of Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage over the last fifteen years the similarities could not be taken seriously because they could not be considered. 

Time will tell us (probably too soon) how Trump deals with the press and it's been a while since an entertainer has been in office.  Trumps disdain for the media in its journalistic form and its entertainment form may  be a contempt of the sort only an insider, if a gauche insider, can have for the industries.  Trump could be described as a kind of propagandist.

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

from footnote on page 252
... The propagandist is a technician and a member of an aristocracy of technicians that establishes itself above the institutions of a democracy and acts outside its norms. Besides, the employment of propaganda leads the propagandist to cynicism, disbelief in values, non-submission to the law of numbers, doubts on the value of opinions, and contempt for the propagandee and the elected representative; he knows how public opinion is fashioned. The propagandist cannot subject himself to popular judgment and democracy. Finally, the propagandist is privy to all State secrets and acts at the same time to shape opinions: he really has a position of fundamental direction. The combinations of these three elements make the propagandist an aristocrat. It cannot be otherwise. Every democracy that launches propaganda creates in and by such propaganda its own enemy, an aristocracy that may destroy it.

But then so could any and every member of Hollywood that condemns him as a propagandist.  If entertainers look with contempt on the Electoral College because by means of it the uneducated farmers had a means to elect Trump rather than Clinton how is that not a form of looking with contempt on the institutions of a democracy or its norms?  Have those artists and entertainers who have looked with contempt on elected representatives not shown themselves to be aristocrats of propaganda like the President they regard with scorn? 

That the aristocracy of our media empires, our ostensibly journalistic and entertainment castes, regard the present state as horrible doesn't mean these aren't groups of people who may ultimately hold democratic processes in as much contempt as has been said about a recently elected official.  The reason it seems the United States is ultimately doomed is that the red and blue partisans are totalitarian ideologues who only recognize the fascism of others and not themselves.  We should be wary of overweening government power but if we can't guard against what totalitarian impulses exist in our own hearts we can risk embodying those traits we damn most in others because we can't concede the possibility of those traits existing within ourselves. 

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