In his book, How Propaganda Works, (see previous post) Prof. Jason Stanley seems to be mostly concerned about propaganda from the press and “establishment” that diverts the attention of the oppressed from how downtrodden they truly are in western liberal democracies such as ours. (It’s all a bit nebulous and I may be getting this wrong, of course, but that’s the impression this old skeptic gets.) He inveighs at length against the promotion of “false ideologies” without ever giving us a clear idea of what qualifies as an ideology, let alone how the false ones are to be distinguished from the others. I cannot believe that this is accidental: he knows perfectly well that the question of distinguishing truth from falsity is one of the enduring central foci of the whole philosophical enterprise.
He notes along the way that liberal democracies are not the only societies subjected to propaganda, that totalitarian societies also have their propaganda. And he notes that demagogues are major emitters of propaganda. He’s not much concerned about totalitarians and only to a limited degree about demagogues—as may have seemed quite reasonable in 2014—but much of what he says that sounds most interesting and relevant in the Age of Trump deals with totalitarian and demagogic propaganda.
Indeed, the closest he comes to letting us know what he means by “flawed ideology” is when he says:
“National Socialist ideology involves a hierarchy of race, an explicit elite group, and the dehumanization of other groups. It is an example of what I will call a flawed ideology. When societies are unjust, for example, in the distribution of wealth, we can expect the emergence of flawed ideologies. The flawed ideologies allow for effective propaganda. In a society that is unjust, due to unjust distinctions between persons, ways of rationalizing undeserved privilege become ossified into rigid and unchangeable belief. These beliefs are the barriers to rational thought and empathy that propaganda exploits.” [Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works (Kindle Locations 264-268). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.]
About the clearest his argument ever gets is when he uses Adolph Hitler to demonstrate that speech need not be insincere to be propagandistic. Stanley asserts—very believably, it seems to me—that Hitler’s vile calumnies against the Jews accurately represented his actual vile innermost feelings. Of course when Der Führer said in Mien Kampf, “Was there any excrement, any shamelessness in any form, above all in cultural life, in which at least one Jew would not have been involved? As soon as one even carefully cut into such an abscess, one found, like maggots in a decaying body, often blinded by the sudden light, a Kike,” he no doubt meant to be taken figuratively regarding the likeness of Jews to Brachycera larvae and employed the simile to excite disgust and revulsion. Yet there is equally no doubt that it was a sense of disgust and revulsion that he himself shared in.
It’s hard to doubt that Mein Kampf is propaganda, but it’s sincere propaganda.