The Banality of Propaganda

The annals of the awful art  — Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Japan’s and America’s during World War II — show that it does not have to be sophisticated. The Israeli president’s display of Mein Kampf  just proved that again.

I watched a video clip Sunday of Isaac Herzog that takes all cakes in the way of silliness that also manages to be pernicious. In it the Israeli president holds a copy of Mein Kampf, translated into Arabic.

The video was made one day after an immense demonstration in London in behalf of a ceasefire in Gaza and the freeing of Palestinians from Israel’s long, violent repression. Here is part of what Herzog had to say:

“I want to show you something exclusive. This is Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. It’s the book that led to the Holocaust, and the book that led to World War II. This is the book that led … to the worst atrocity of humankind, which the British fought against.

This book was found just a few days ago in northern Gaza, in a children’s living room which was turned into a military operations base of Hamas, on the body of one of the terrorists and murderers of Hamas, and he even makes notes, he marked, and learned again and again of Hitler’s ideology of killing the Jews, of burning the Jews, of slaughtering the Jews.

This is the real war we are at. So all those who demonstrated yesterday — I am not saying all of them support Hitler. But all I’m saying is by omitting to understand what Hamas ideology is all about they are basically supporting this ideology. ”

You can view a one–minute, 22–second version of this video clip here, or a longer, BBC version here. In both, we watch the Israeli head of state play the Holocaust card, the Hitler card, the Jewish victim card and the Hamas-as-murdering-burning-slaughtering-monsters card all at once.

I cannot identify the television network that showed the shorter version of Herzog, and I am astonished that the BBC took it seriously enough to broadcast it, but this is the Beeb these days — always on for the trans–Atlantic cause.

[Related: What We’re Not Hearing About Oct 7]

How remarkably flimsy propaganda is in most cases, I thought after watching Herzog and taking my notes. This is true in many, many cases in the annals of the awful art — Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Japan’s and America’s during World War II. As you look at it now, none of it is very sophisticated for the simple reason it does not have to be.

Propaganda is about forceful impact, subtlety the last thing on the propagandist’s mind. The banal will always do. The Japanese during the Pacific war were “Japs” or “Nips,” and in the plentitude of American propaganda images they had buck teeth and pencil mustaches and wore round glasses over their evil Asiatic eyes.

After watching the Herzog video I went in search of footage from London the previous day. There have been many demonstrations against Israel’s savage military campaign in Gaza since hostilities erupted Oct. 7, and may there be many more, but London last Saturday looks like the biggest to date.

“Free Gaza,” “Ceasefire Now,” “Not in Our Names” — these were among the things shouted and scribbled on placards as the protest wound slowly through Central London from Hyde Park to the U.S. Embassy several miles away. The police estimated the number of protesters at 300,000. From the footage—all I have to go by—I would put it nearer half a million.

If you watch enough propaganda, contemporary or historical, you find that it does not matter even if the scripts and images betray the crudity and indignity of those producing the propaganda. The intent is solely to capture the thoughts and feelings of the unthinking majority however this needs to be done.

Israeli Propaganda Department Is Desperate

But this project is more difficult now, in the age of digital media and an increasingly influential independent press. So it seems to me. People can see more and see it more clearly and immediately now, providing they choose to look. And more and more people are so choosing.

If the idiotic Herzog clip told us anything, it is that the Israeli propaganda department is in a desperate state, having already lost the public-relations war as the Israeli Defense Forces dig the hole deeper by the day.

After watching the Herzog video and then the London footage, I thought of a memorable passage in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

Arendt was looking back to the Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union when she wrote her celebrated 1951 treatise. But the thought seems never to have been thereafter far from her mind.

In a conversation with a French, free-speech activist not long before her death in 1975, Arendt had yet blunter words as to what eventually comes of circumstances such as ours. “If everybody always lies to you,” she said to Roger Errera, “the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

Half a century before Herzog made his video and demonstrators filled the streets of London, Arendt called last weekend perfectly.

Jeremy Corbyn, the former U.K. Labour leader, third from left, leading the Ceasefire Now march in London to the U.S. Embassy, Nov. 11. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

It is a fine thing that fewer and fewer people are taken in by the psyops and propaganda blitzes of the national security state, the corporate media, and ruthless — indeed Hitleresque, I shall say it — regimes such as Israel’s.

But to live in a world in which one believes nothing of what is said is its own kind of misery. It is effectively a surrender of all public discourse and public space altogether to the malign, the indecent, the inhumane, the degraded and degrading. The truth, and along with it logical thinking and plain decency, become “alternative.”

Is there a way to build beyond our debased circumstances? Or are we to wander indefinitely in a state of negativity, of not believing, of alienation from our own polities?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Herzog in Tel Aviv on Nov. 3. (State Department, Chuck Kennedy)

My answer is yes to the first question, no to the second: There is always a way to build a different future — this as a matter of general principle. In this case the project must begin with the reclamation of language. Rejecting the official language of those in power, as so many people now do, is a start. We must then learn again to speak the language that is not spoken, the language wherein truth resides.

In large part because of how I have spent my professional years, I am especially sensitive to the power of language as it is used in the cause either of clarity and understanding or of obfuscation and ignorance.

The language of institutions, the language of power, is made of obscuring euphemisms — “global leadership,” “collateral damage,” “regime change,” “the intelligence community,” “the rules-based order,” and so on through the bureaucratic lexicon — and of bold falsifications such as Isaac Herzog offered us last Sunday.

Orwell described how the language of ideologues and bureaucratic mandarins devastates our ability to think clearly — precisely its purpose — in “Politics and the English Language.” Since he published his essay in Horizon in April 1946, the problem as we have it is seven decades’ worth of worse.

This use of language has disarmed language itself, depriving it of its assertive power such that speech or writing outside the orthodoxy can be dismissed as a site of serious discourse. Language is rendered impotent as a medium of creative thought or as a prompt to new, imaginative action.

The preposterous, insulting use of “anti–Semitism” that now besets us is a case in point. The obvious intent is to impose a vast silence to obscure the crimes of apartheid Israel.

[Related: Patrick Lawrence: Deeper Into Depravity]

The task before us is one of restoration. It is to take language back, to renew its life, to wrest it from the deadening influence of institutions, bureaucracies, and corporate media — these having deformed language into an instrument for the enforcement of conformity. This is why every shout and placard heard or seen in London or many other cities these days is important, an act of significance and worth.

Free Palestine Coalition protest in central London on Nov. 4. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Clear language is an instrument — unadorned, written and spoken plainly, colloquial in the best sense of this term but perfectly capable of subtlety and complexity. It is the language of history, not myth.

This language is spoken not in the cause of empire but always in the human cause. “Free Palestine,” “From the river to the sea”: These are two-word and six-word examples of the language I describe.

This is the language necessary to confront power rather than accommodate it. It is language that presumes the utility of intelligence and critical thought. It is meant for the posing of many worthy questions. It is unreservedly dedicated to enlarging what is sayable in hostile response to “the great unsayable,” as I call it.

By way of this language a more vibrant, fulfilling public discourse awaits us. By way of this language the Isaac Herzogs, Antony Blinkens and Ursula von der Leyens who pollute our public space can be reduced to what they are — liars and propagandists. The power of the language I describe will deprive the language they speak of all power.

Let us speak it, let us write it, let us scribble it on walls and sheets of cardboard. Let us know it as the most powerful tool available to those who refuse the silence Isaac Herzog sought to impose upon all those Londoners last weekend.

Portions of this piece are adapted from my new book, Journalists and Their Shadows, available from Clarity Press or via Amazon.


Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, lecturer and author, most recently of Journalists and Their Shadows.   Other books include Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored. 

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