top of page

How Propaganda Works - Jason Stanley

Happy Spring Everyone!

Hopefully everyone is enjoying their longer days of daylight. If you have made it to this and opened this blog post, then you've seen the new and updated website! There are new challenges that will be added periodically as well. Such as running 30 miles for the month of March. I made it to 28.8 miles, so that was pretty damn close! The cold weather and snow halted good running days, but the weather is coming around to spring feeling. Feel free to join the running challenge! Hopefully the refreshments are more welcoming to our new and usual visitors.

Now to regular scheduled programming, today's feature is the most recent read. Currently I am reading Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Just really getting started with this one and I took longer than I hoped to finish reading Stanley's book but here we are and I'm excited to share what we have from it.

The author is the son of a direct refugee and survivor of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. His father Manfred Stanley, passed away in 2004 and owned a massive number of books that it covered every wall in a room of his home. Jason's stepmom wanted to send him some of his dad's collection. His father and stepmom were both professors at Syracuse. Because of Manfred's tough path in Germany, he devoted his academic career to "a theoretical repudiation of authoritarianism in all of its various guises". The elder Stanley also published a book himself.

The younger Stanley's goal in this book is to explain how sincere, well-meaning individuals, under the power of flawed ideology, can unknowingly produce and consume propaganda. Manfred's book pointed to what he terms "technicism" which is the view that scientific expertise and technological advancements are the solutions to the problems for the human condition. "My father saw two chief dangers in the technicist worldview. First, it seeks to replace a liberal education with vocational technical skills. The technicist educational system therefore seeks to rob us of the capacity for autonomy. Secondly, a technicist culture encourages a tendency to defer one's practical decisions to the epistemic authority of experts" (xi). I'd like to digress to a separate point with this in mind that I believe has some correlation. Following this paragraph, we shall sidetrack for a few.

I will try to keep this "rant" rather short because even the issue itself at hand could ultimately lead those who oppose these thoughts to discredit what I think because I have no "expertise" in said subject/area, however this is the very reason to sway away from the article's main topic. The elephant in the room and in these following paragraphs will be the almighty COVID topic. Respectfully, one would be foolish to believe that COVID could not have been propagandized in some form or fashion, since its inception in 2019. Definitely still have to offer my highest condolences to whoever lost someone by way of this virus or disease. Which leads me to an interesting play of semantics. Or have diseases and viruses always been the same thing? I recall visiting numerous places and hearing the automated PA announcers refer to COVID as a virus and disease.

This next idea will maybe resonate with the conspiracy theorists, but I will not doubt the possibility that the virus unintentionally and mistakenly got out of one of the labs where they test said biology. Or the other possibility that it very well was intentional just to see how citizens and governments alike would respond. In some locations, it would seem that hospitals and health centers are using it as a marketing ploy. I noticed signs from smaller health and wellness clinics/centers that advertise how they provide quicker COVID tests compared to the overloaded hospitals. Not to mention how COVID has literally become its own business and raised profits for so many companies involved with health, wellness, and cleanliness.

I actually had the COVID paragraphs deleted via a frozen computer crash so it's coming from memory as I retype this portion. Personally, I feel I noticed the counter measures to COVID, such as the signage and "rules" for public etiquette were mass produced and manufactured in little to no time as if the shit was already planned. One fact about the pandemic is that this has been the largest transfer of wealth in human history. So, to be cliche, the rich are getting richer and the poor, well you know the rest.

At this point, I shall digress, leaving one lasting statement/thought: once again, none of the shit you read has to be true or "real" for you. The beauty about life is you affirm or deny whatever is real in your world under reasonable and realistic circumstances. This is also the purpose of this blog, to create a space for open and respectful point of views and to learn and expand. Now I shall try to recall how we dive back into the lovely topic we have at hand today, because COVID and propaganda could very well have crossed paths.

One last portion of the preface that does not to need to be left out is the politically motivated operations enacted to diminish the black communities in America. A decently educated and conscious adult in this country should also have some recollection of these things work in the world let alone this country when it comes to the treatment of minorities. "Throughout the 1990s the state and federal prison system was massively expanded, an expansion motivated in the guise of objective science. The decade featured notorious examples of the kind of technicist discourse that presents racist ideology in the guise of objective science"(xiv).

The very next sentence, Stanley points to research by neuroscientist Carl Hart that suggests that scientists colluded with politicians in a racially biased act to exaggerate the risks of certain illegal drugs to justify draconian policies (whoops does that sound like life in the last 2.5 years in the name of COVID? or I'm sorry in the name of health and safety). These outlandish and distorted sentencing policies for cheap versions of cocaine used in the black communities versus versions of the same drug in wealthy white communities were one example. Hart has another example of how the arguments that motivated the differences in sentencing for crack cocaine and the purer versions favored by wealthy whites were part of a racist scientific narrative about drugs and blacks dating back to the early 20th century. Stanley also mentions Bush's Iraq war as pure propaganda. We shall now leave the deeply packed preface lol.

The introductory chapter begins with what can damn near be guessed as the most commonly used example of propaganda to get the readers going. Which Stanley brings us to Nazi Germany. He speaks on how the nationalist socialist ideology inadvertently strips the youth in Germany of their innocence and sways them toward the Nazi thought processes. "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 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 barriers to rational thought and empathy that propaganda exploits" (3). One of the most recurring ideologies Stanley points to is how the rich feel they undoubtedly deserve their spoils, and it should be no other way.

Stanley references Plato in The Republic, which I have not read but you can get some interesting information from thinkers of that era. However, Plato see democracy a bit different back then. An aristocracy of philosophers was thought to be the most ideal republic for Plato. Stanley goes on to argue the possibility that the vocabulary of liberal democracy is a mask for an undemocratic reality. Yet, propaganda posed a more specific threats to all forms of democracies.

The influence of money seems to be growing as the years past. Specifically, the sway of funds in politics lead to slim pickings at best sometimes. "Propaganda is of course not the only obstacle to the realization of liberal democratic ideals. The influence of money politics means that voters are presented with a narrow choice of options at the voter's booth. The choices are all between candidates who were able to raise the titanic sums required to run for national office from corporate and special interests and wealthy oligarchs. The candidates do not differ from one another in their representation of the interests of wealth and power, though they often represent different corporate interests: lawyers versus doctors, for example" (19). If I am being redundant, my sincerest apologies, however, this is why I do not and will never. In my opinion, America's government resembles an oligarch more than anything. Citizens vote for these characters that sit in buildings that make decisions and votes in their best interests and not the people that "voted" them there.

Stanley kicks off chapter one with what is some straight to it shit. I read the first sentence and was prepared to quote that, now it seems to be more appropriate to include the introductory paragraph to chapter one. "There is a simple and compelling argument, known since Plato, which would lead us to expect that even apparently robust liberal democracies are such in name only. The argument is as follows. A certain form of propaganda, associated with demagogues, poses an existential threat to liberal democracy. The nature of liberal democracy prevents propagandistic statements from being banned, since among the liberties it permits is the freedom of speech. But since humans have characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation, allowing propaganda has a high likelihood of leading to tyranny, and hence to the end of liberal democracy" (27). Stanley links the history of philosophy, politics and propaganda.

Political philosophy concerns itself with normative judgements, how things ought to be. These kind of thoughts and actions led to the study of social theory, which is what is expected within reasonable capacities in human societies. Here's something that does not sound too far off for me: "There is a commonly held view that politics is simply about power and interests, and the political vocabulary is only ever used strategically. The rhetoric of political and moral ideals is just one more weapon in a game whose object is to seize power and, along with it, the goods of society" (31). Being the CEO or owner of a business or company are also positions that one would wield their power and authority. Therefore, for a politician to not think about it would not be farfetched.

I shall use this one last brief quote from chapter one as we move on. "Philosophy, classically understood, has as its task both the presentation of reality and the explanation of the illusions that deceive us from recognizing it" (33). Well shit, that's deep and straight to the point, ay?

Getting into the next chapter and still setting the table with Nazi Germany examples, Stanley refers to the German scholar, Victor Klemperer and his writings of the Language of the Third Reich. Where the point of emphasis being to encourage citizens to rush over deliberation and into direct action. “Propaganda is not simply closing off rational debate by appeal to emotion; often, emotions are rational and track reasons. It rather involves closing off debate by ‘emotions detached from their ideas.’ According to these classical characterizations of propaganda, formed in reflecting upon the two great wars of the twentieth century, propaganda closes off debate by bypassing the rational will. It makes the state move as one, stirred by emotions that far the evidence for their intensity. It is in this way that all propaganda unites citizens as one. Propaganda is manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” (48). This quote can very well mirror life as we see it today.

One of my biggest issues is ignorance and the undeniability of propaganda when it is in plain sight. Television is one of the best ways to spread propaganda, in my opinion. I had to jump over to the next page to include this quote as well. "But liberal democratic cultures seem on the surface free from propaganda: politicians and televisions hosts shy away from the claim that they are delivering overt propaganda. In liberal democracy, propaganda standardly occurs masked" (49). Let me know if this phrase sounds familiar: Don't believe everything you see and hear?

Moving forward, Stanley titled a chapter and writes on language as a mechanism of control and one that masters language can be a swaying individual. "We should expect there to be linguistic means by use of which one can make an apparently reasonable claim, while simultaneously, merely by using the relevant vocabulary, wearing down the ideal of reasonableness. Because these linguistic means should be available for use to make any point whatsoever that may come up in debate about policy, we should expect that they function to exclude whether one takes the affirmative or the negative position on the debate. Indeed, if there were no linguistic means of excluding the perspective of certain groups from debate, while simultaneously representing oneself as contributing to the debate, that would raise the suspicion that reasonableness is not in fact the ideal of public reason" (129). Ever imagine how successful salespeople kill it? One thing they master for sure, is language and the art of persuasion!

It is intriguing to think that language can even be manipulated to gain control, but once again, one would be foolish to believe that this is not a real-world possibility by the elites. The idea of authorities, in some places, are damaging in my opinion as well. "Imperatives are also implicated in the way I have suggested in explaining the force of certain speech acts, which can be taken as commands to update one's epistemic preferences. The mechanism here is familiar from the literature on ideology. Figures in the media, as well as teachers in schools, exploit their positions as epistemic authorities to issue assertions that are not supposed to be taken as proposals, but as commands" (143). Wow, while I do not agree that all teachers take this stance intentionally from an epistemic standpoint, I would have to add that some parents adopt this stance as well. In my opinion, parents acting as epistemic authorities can cause issues. Turning to the media figures, I don't trust anything that comes from them.

Still riding this topic, a couple pages later, Stanley reinforces his point of how the normal citizen just willingly adheres to an epistemic authority type figure. "One cannot command another person to believe something, unless one simultaneously presents evidence for the belief that is to be adopted. I cannot successfully command you to believe that you are on Mars right now. However, in combining epistemic and practical authority, my assertion can have the effect of a command to changes one's belief. This is what happens when we are in school listening to teachers or watching the news. One can command someone to believe something, by presenting oneself as an epistemic authority, whose expert testimony is sufficient to back up one's practical command" (145). Once again, parents do not know everything as I believe this applies again. Be aware of what does not sound and feel right for yourself!

Politically, undermining propaganda is presented as an embodying ideal. Stanley keys two things that determine the successful undermining of propaganda. One depends on people having beliefs that are resistant to the available evidence, the evidence that reveals the tension between goal and goal. Secondly, since undermining propaganda conceals a contradiction of sorts, the beliefs that are resistant to evidence must themselves be flawed in some ways. This is the information that kicks off the "Ideology" chapter. "The philosophical puzzle of ideological belief has always been to explain how we could come to have beliefs that are resistant to evidence in this way" (178). The philosophical puzzle is rather that as soon as we reflect upon our beliefs in external things, we realize that it is inconsistent with the available evidence. In my Future voice, "shit!". That's my best synopsis on that lol.

Stanley argues in this chapter that societies with flawed social structures tend to give rise to flawed ideological belief. I agree with this sentiment and the most obvious place to start is with rich and poor, which Stanley does, however I just found a quote that goes along the lines of politics. "Here is a possible example of the kind of problematic partiality in question; I do not claim it is a description of how things are. I considered in the introduction the possibility that political party affiliation is a method to deceive citizens to import partiality, such as being a sports fan, into a realm in which it is not appropriate, namely, political decisions. If so, then political party affiliation is illiberal. Beliefs that are connected to one' s identity will be difficult to abandon. So it will be difficult to abandon the beliefs connected to one' s identity as a political party member" (182). While I will not be a hypocrite because I enjoy sports as my interest has only dwindled down to the teams I support. (Ravens, Lakers, ManCity) This quote is a nice description for one of the reasons I choose not to vote. A lot of politicians are also some sketchy figures and whether you vote or not, you will be taxed in some form or fashion lol.

The rich and poor argument would consist of the rich genuinely believing that all their spoils are acquired and shared equally and fairly. Don't think I should expand any further on how that perspective can be portrayed or even enacted in a real-life society, so we move on as I think the ending of this post is near lol. This would be considered a flawed ideology by Stanley. He also refers to the individuals that believe they were born into a privileged group, they think they deserve certain things because of their birth position.

There have been multiple trials of research throughout history that gives light to the way humans perceive things. That research shows how we are unconsciously affected by things that may lead to biases. "There is now a large enough body of research indicating that stereotypes affect the information we acquire via perception. The mechanism by which perceptual judgements are formed is itself a source of flawed ideological belief. It is furthermore a particularly nefarious source of biased belief, because of the strong pull to treat perceptual judgements as unbiased (hence 'eyewitness testimony'). We do not, for example, even ordinarily think that we pay attention to in perception is affected by our background biases." (214-215). Simply put, it is imperative that you educate yourself every day, to at the very least, be aware of such forms of bias and ignorance.

Flawed ideologies from the political level are very dangerous, yet effective for the oppressors. "What about the flawed ideology of these who do not control society's resources? As we have seen, in a society that is in fact meritocratic, the flawed ideology will take one form. But consider instead the flawed ideology of those who do not control society's resources in which there is an unjust distribution of resources. Since members of these groups are in fact oppressed, a flawed ideology could prevent them from recognizing their own oppression, or, with less commitment, prevent them from acting so as to alleviate their oppression. What reason is there to think that those who suffer from unjust inequalities will tend to develop a flawed ideology that prevents them from recognizing the injustice? (231). I could not agree more with this statement. Stanley offers other examples via Hume, Kahan and Rawls.

There are a number of theorists with mechanisms by which highly privileged groups win control over the media and public education. Stanley references the how the media operated and endorsed the Iraq war during Bush Administration. The war mantra was flooded on all media outlets until the citizens unconsciously adopted the will and interest to go to war. "It is the primary role of the news media in a liberal democratic state to ensure that claims of state emergency, which by their nature lead to the suspension of liberal democratic principles, are very rare and always legitimate. Some political theorists maintain that even in a liberal democracy, it is acceptable for the news media to endorse obedience to authority in times of existential emergency (though even this is clearly undemocratic). But before even contemplating so doing, it is the primary responsibility of the media in a liberal democracy, in the face of claims of emergency by political or economic elites, to police those claims. It is hard to see that a venue is a liberal democratic news media at all if it does not fulfill this, its central function" (243). Did not plan to extend the quote that far, yet it was necessary to provide that information. Wars and emergencies are clearly the moments of exception when ruling classes appear to be democratic in their responses. I personally hate all the news channels and tv lol. At my own pace, I search for the information that affirms my peace and process to succeed.

There were a few more quotes that I grazed by that I would have liked to include but I found my last one prior to completing this post. The final chapter, prior to the conclusion is titled "The Ideology of Elites", Stanley speaks on the different mechanisms by which the elite can attain social control over the masses in a democracy. Doubling down on the routes of control by way of media and the schooling systems in America, ring in the final chapter as well. Prior to becoming president in 1909, Woodrow Wilson held an address titled "The Meaning of Liberal Education", while I won't quote anything from, we can recognize racism and oppression was rampant during that era. Ultimately, the gist of his address was to continue to divide the country into followers and leaders.

Many powerful individuals believed this to be necessary to maintain social control. Stanley quotes some of David Snedden's work in relation to the social divisions at play in the country. "Snedden's vision of education, clearly reflected in Wilson's speech in 1909, was a system that divided society into groups, the most basic of which was the division into a small group of elites and a large group of followers. The elites were the ones capable of creative and intelligent decision making based on theoretical knowledge. The mass of followers would be equipped for what Snedden regarded as unintelligent practical tasks. This speech immediately make Snedden a celebrity in educational reform" (281). I do not fuck with the school system one bit in America, because as this quote suggests, it is not constructed to teach the masses.

They only gonna teach and tell you what they want you to hear. Stay woke, stay conscious, stay focused! If you've made it this far, first and foremost, THANK YOU SO MUCH. Secondly, I hope you gathered some valuable information that prompts your own research!

I found a quote in the book that I wanted to save for the end as a food for thought, if you will....

"For example, if I persistently lose knowledge through underconfidence, then I will come to doubt (and perhaps rightly) my own capacities. This process may reasonably be expected to lead to damage to my self-worth" (259).





Thank YOU,


10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page