From Propaganda to Communications and back to Propaganda - racism and its costs


As many Americans grapple with the rise of hatred and racism in politics we often forget that one of the greatest and darkest examples of propaganda delivered via the mass media was American. Between 1942 and 1943 the US Treasury Departmentunleashed the best of American writing, directing and acting in a radio show called “The Treasury Star Parade.” It came at a time when the US was struggling in the war. So, beyond the variety show name was some of the most powerful propaganda ever produced – easily eclipsing the Creel Commission’s work in World War I. This program, with a rich pallet of horror to draw from of Nazi and Japanese war crimes, did what propaganda was supposed to do in wartime – it reduced the enemy to a monster, and scared the hell out of the homeland audience. The call to action was to buy war bonds.

A classic example was a radio play “Chicago, Germany” by outstanding radio playwright Arch Oboler. He was the genius behind radio plays such as “The Chicken Heart,” and “The Laughing Man “ on a show called “Lights Out!” The play "Chicago, Germany” end like this:

MARION:

To have children--

3RD NAZI:

Verboten.

MARION:

To have a home--

3RD NAZI:

Verboten.

MARION:

To walk in the park with your kids--

3RD NAZI:

Verboten.

MARION:

To go shoppin' on payday--

3RD NAZI:

Verboten.

MARION:

And if you haven't got the money -- window shop--

3RD NAZI:

Verboten.

MARION:

And see the children growin' up and goin' to school--

3RD NAZI:

Verboten.

MARIO

-- and gettin' smarter than you, and they grow older, and you grow older with the man you love and -- and just livin' like human beings! But now, I'm - I'm not a human being any more. They said so. Verboten -- everything verboten for me -- for people like me -- who are just plain Americans. The thousands they were killing, and the thousands they were tearing out of their families to die in their labor camps-- We weren't human beings any more! We were slaves! That's why I cried, Ann. I suddenly saw that all those months trying to shut out what was happening just to stay alive-- I'd been kidding myself in a way you didn't do! For this was their world. They'd won. And what you said was true -- there wasn't any place left in the world for us. And there wasn't anything I could do about it. We'd lost the war -- and I'd helped lose it. And now it was too late. Too late to fight. Too late to even cry. (SOBS) Too late to even cry!

MUSIC:

ACCENT ... THEN IN BG

This has been a play about an America that must never happen -- that will never happen -- NEVER!

MUSIC:

TRIUMPHANT ... QUOTES "MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE" ... TO A FINISH

At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I'm supposed to tell you about investing at least ten percent of your earnings in war savings bonds and stamps. I can't do that now. What else could we say to show you the absolute necessity of winning this war? Now, go out, each and every one of you and not only meet your quota but double it if you can. Remember, your quota is at least ten percent of your salary -- more, if you can -- invested in war savings bonds and stamps. Our watchword must be "WORK, FIGHT, and SAVE." This is your country. Keep it yours.

And the treatment of the Japanese was even harsher. Shown as inhuman brutes bent on killing, the program recounted Japanese atrocities with detail and horror.

Now, the key of propaganda is to do just that – to motivate the public by twisting reality to cause fear, nationalism and raise awareness. The father of public relations, Edward L. Bernays, framed it this way his 1928 book Propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Propaganda in American grew up motivating a reluctant nation to send it sons to the horrors of trench warfare by reframing the war. The Germans were made to be brutal killers, savage creatures that raped and murdered the innocent. The war was framed as a clash between good and evil.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a new propaganda machine was created – more sophisticated, and with a different goal. To win the war, America would need its citizens to sacrifice, work hard and buy war bonds. To do this, films, radio programs and posters not only framed the war as good virus evil, but cast American forces as heroic, and the Axis are evil and cruel. But that information could be very selective: There was no mention of heroic black airmen, the Holocaust, the fire bombing of Tokyo, and other narratives that went outside of the propagandist toolkit.

When the war finally ended, CBS tapped brilliant playwright Norman Corwin to frame the meaning of victory. It was called on a Note of Triumph: “So they’ve given up. They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse. Take a bow, GI. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.”

This was nothing new; it is just new to the modern ear. Racism and hatred were common political tools in the 19th century; it just takes a Google image search to find countless terrible cartoons from the time. Media were wildly biased, more political tools than outlets of information.

President Woodrow Wilson was openly racist and anti-Semitic. He strives long and hard to push Jews and blacks out of the federal government. Southern political bosses used fear and hatred for years to win elections.

But this was all long ago, and the racism and fear tactics of the Treasure Star Parade came well before the age of modern communication – but the tactics live on. So, what is the difference between the cruel lies of 1940’s propaganda versus the lies of today? Ethically, both are wrong. It was far from excusable in the 1940s, and it is simply hard to fathom today. Russian cyper-propogandists crafted division, fear and anger online to forge instability in America. They used racism to sway some to vote, and lies to get minorities not to vote at all.

In a media savvy nation, more and more people are tuned off not only by partisanship, but by the lies and hatred that have crept back into the national dialog. So, from a communication perspective, seeing modern communication revert to propaganda is disturbing. It focuses the attention for fringe elements – sending out messages coated in hate and fear. All the while pushing the main stream to tune out. It also elevates the lies of racism, and mainstreams their argument of hate and ignorance. Propaganda is dangerous, and it can harm not only the fabric of society, but the fabric of democracy. When it moonlights as real news, and starts debates that should have been over long ago, it reveals a weakness in our society.

So, what is the solution? Well, it is crucial to call a lie a lie. And, to shine a light on racism, not accepting it as some sort of alternate belief, such as “white nationalism” but as hatred and intolerance. Education, truth and rising above a mud fight are the paths to defeat angry people speaking in fear. We need to start with common ground, and then agree on truth. These are small steps, but they lead back to a place of dialog, honesty and one with no place for hatred and lies.

#propaganda #racism #hate #WWII #moderncommunication

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