Language and Power – Philosophy and Propaganda

David Johnson is my main editor at Al Jazeera America, so to the extent you appreciate the pieces I write there, you have him to thank (along with several brilliant assistant editors). All mistakes, of course, are my own!

But he’s also a philosopher and what one might call an “alt-academic,” someone who took his academic training and made a career in journalism. After sending him so much of my writing over the past year, it was a pleasure to read this essay by him on propaganda and philosophy.

In the piece, Johnson uses a book review of How Propaganda Works, by Jason Stanley (prof at Yale, also columnist at “The Stone,” the philosophy blog at the Times), to talk about the power of language, idea, and image, but also his own career and the role of philosophy in public discourse. He writes:

The 9/11 attacks occurred the week I had to defend my dissertation in philosophy. I took my first tenure-track job (yes, such a thing existed back then) during the launch of our now fourteen-year-old “war on terror.” As I made my way in academia in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency, my new colleagues and I would inevitably discuss the authoritarian and distorting turn of American public discourse. How could so many be so cowed and so misled into supporting such an obvious misadventure as the Iraq war? How could our leading institutions—and especially the media—fail so miserably to underline the immorality of torture and question the claims as to Saddam Hussein’s threat to national security? This dismal time raised the specter of propaganda, and posed the questions of how the false alibis of power could hold such sway in a liberal democracy and what could be done about it.

In 2004–2005, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan. By then, I had become so radicalized by the American political situation and so frustrated by the restrictive horizons of my research—my specialty was ancient Greek philosophy—that I felt I had to make a choice. On the one hand, I might continue on the academic track and try to speak out where I could. (Like many of my peers, I was an active extramural blogger.) On the other, I could leave the ivory tower behind and plunge into journalism.

As someone who has a “diversified academic career,” as we’re calling it, attempting to remain in academia and yet plunge into journalism, as well as an author of a string of essays about public engagement, I naturally found this narrative interesting.

Johnson then plunges into the book itself. And that, too, seemed important to me, because language undeniably has power and any state exercising that power can be accused of propaganda. So is there good propaganda and bad propaganda? How do we tell? Is it always subjective?

I haven’t read the book yet, but Johnson suggests that these questions are not satisfactorily answered.

So what, in the end, makes the propaganda that launched the Iraq war or attempted to end the “death tax” bad but other instances of propaganda—such as the campaigns that launched FDR’s war against Fascism, economic royalists, and want—good, or at least tolerable?

I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say the ends justify the means, but Stanley is surely onto something when he claims that the most productive role for propaganda in a liberal democracy is to shore up liberal-democratic ideals. In this view of things, the cure for the problem of propaganda isn’t to make less of it, per se, but to harness it into the service of undergirding the core values of our political system: reasonableness, pluralism, and equality.

I left academia to fight for these values. Although journalism is not propaganda, Stanley’s book clarifies what’s at stake when journalists fail to see how the propaganda of our liberal democracy is functioning.

One thing that’s clear – the reason David is a good, demanding, editor is that he’s a good, thoughtful, writer and thinker.

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