Review by Jill Malter
A classic work that is relevant today
October 10, 2005
I've witnessed the phenomenon of bright people falling for propaganda, hook, line, and sinker, on numerous occasions. I'm sure I'm taken in by much of it as well, but even I can't be fooled all the time.
Still, the answer is not to simply give up. On a few topics, I actually am well enough informed so that (while I still may be susceptible to propaganda myself) I can recognize the symptoms of others falling for it. And this is definitely a phenomenon one ought to look for in others if one wants to cure oneself! I do think we ought to try to become so informed about at least a few topics that we can recognize nonsense. On these topics, we ought to listen, but we also ought to be unafraid to state facts and make judgments. On other topics, we ought to be much more careful.
Perhaps the most dramatic examples for me have been some truly amazing statements about the Arab war on Israel made by some rather well-educated and generally skeptical people. It makes me wonder why those who are ready to challenge all sorts of claims in so many other areas accept some extremely dubious, afactual, and illogical nonsense about this topic without question, and repeat it to me. Are they unaware that they are making statements that may well be false? Are they unable to discuss this issue without making very controversial comments as if they were not only accepted and indisputable facts, but relevant facts as well?
On one occasion, when I suggested to a colleague that I happened to know quite a bit about the Arab war against Israel, hoping to politely give him a way to defer to me, temporarily, on a couple of facts, I merely got an outraged reply. Was I not aware that my colleague was a highly intelligent and well-informed person? What made me think that I knew something he didn't? I was more than a little surprised by such a reaction: normally if a person claims to know something better than we do, we listen, even if we disagree.
This book, written over four decades ago, helps explain a little of what is going on. It shows how intellectuals can be so horribly susceptible to propaganda. As both the book and Konrad Kellen's preface to it state, intellectuals absorb a great deal of second-hand and unverifiable information. They often feel a need to have an opinion about such information. In addition, they consider themselves so smart that they can “judge for themselves.” And they seriously underestimate their susceptibility to propaganda given that they can see mere idiots reject some of it with ease.
The truth, as Ellul explains, is that high intelligence, a broad culture, constant use of critical faculties, and access to and use of sources of information are indeed the best weapons against propaganda. They simply aren't used often enough.
Ellul shows how propaganda can have a powerful effect if one is saturated with it. It is useful, he explains, to have someone from one's own frame of reference come up with it. The German National Socialists were careful to put Englishmen on their radio. Anti-Zionists, by the way, are very proud to have Jews state their case, although we should all know that there is no objective reason to trust every Jew, any more than there is to trust every person.
We readers see how propaganda is most useful when it reinforces earlier biases and misconceptions. And how it becomes extremely powerful once a person makes an active commitment to a cause: that person finds it very tough to recant.
The book also shows how propaganda gets one to come up with strange ideas about what is relevant material to support one's arguments. That has the effect of precluding dialog with those who disagree with you. That's why my colleague “knew” better than to take anything I said seriously or reply to it coherently. And it is why careful and cautious statements on my part sounded not merely like admissions that truth was fiction, and vice-versa, but evidence that I was hopelessly biased, impervious to reason, and hooked on rather wild propaganda myself.
This book is fascinating. It made me realize that propaganda is indeed more effective than most of us might realize. And that it is dangerous. Ellul implies that propaganda may well be the most serious threat we humans face. And I think we ought to treat it as such.