‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.’
- Bernays, Propaganda (1928)
Right in the center of the Land of Oz, at the end of the yellow brick road, is a city surrounded by tall green walls. Emerald City, where everything is green: the houses, the streets, the storefronts, pennies, toys, people. To enter, one must wear green tinted glasses for protection against the ‘brightness and glory’ of the place. And everyone does, for if ever anyone disobeyed… they would find out that the city is ‘no more green than any other city.’ But no one does. No one remembers a time before the green tinted glasses.
Call it a hoax, a lie, propaganda. Call it ‘the artistic and contemplative construction of a world more real than reality itself,’ the marketing of ideas permeates into all forms of human social interaction -politics, religion, business, art, literature, song lyrics and coffee shop conversations- and the phenomenon is as old as human history itself.
One of the oldest examples is the mask of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. This solid gold ‘emblem of the exoticism, opulence, and quality of ancient Egyptian art,’ is in fact inaccurate. Tutankhamen was really a sickly pre-adolescent who died before accomplishing anything of note. But he was king, and kings were believed to be divine. Thus the mask whose grandeur, along with Tutankhamen’s fame, has not been surpassed.
Then there is the prominent Trajan Column in Rome’s Via dei Fori Imperiali, built in the year 113 A.D. to commemorate Emperor Trajan’s triumphant campaigns against the Dacians, a barbarian tribe from today’s Romania. Trajan is represented fifty-nine times, and his army appears efficient and ruthless. The message is clear: the Roman Empire is invincible.
Propaganda: ‘Information that deliberately attempts to persuade the attitudes, beliefs, or opinions of a target audience for ideological or political reasons.’
Before it became the bad word we know today, propaganda was just a very persuasive thought. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Constantine, and Pope Urban II all used different forms of propaganda, but the name was not coined until 1622, when the Catholic Church under Pope Gregory XV launched its first organized missionary activities. It referred to the propagation of Christian beliefs and the persuasion of large numbers of people about their veracity.
The negative connotations crept in during World War I, with Emperor Wilhelm’s formalization of propaganda production and Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau that, incidentally, recruited writers of such renown as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells to develop wartime messaging. But it was Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who truly infused horror into the word. World War II was a testament to how dangerous a persuasive thought can be.
Socrates once said that all information should pass through three sieves before it is shared: truth, good, and utility. The caveat is that all three are a matter of perspective. Whoever controls the angle directs the perspective. Thus ‘propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, [and] every work of art has a meaning and a purpose. […] Our aesthetic judgments are always colored by our prejudices and beliefs.’ Whether or not we realize it, all our thoughts are tinted.
The Buddha said: ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.’ Imagine a world in which, instead of ‘the Jew is contrary to our being,’ Goebbels had thought: ‘I believe people are really good at heart.’
Nothing is more powerful than a persuasive thought. Democracy started out as a thought. Relativity, another. The free market. Quantum theory. Evolution. Human rights. Nonviolent resistance. Constructive journalism. Thoughts give rise to ideas. Ideas shift angles of perspective.
Legend has it that, once upon a time, an illustrious Roman cardinal befriended a young Italian scientist who was bright but poor. The generous cardinal offered him a place to stay in a hollowed out space on top of a church honoring the founder of the Jesuit order, Sant’Ignazio di Loyola. Initially meant to second only Saint Peter’s Cathedral in magnificence, it was in fact the worst built church in Rome; the space had been set up to house a circular dome, but an architectural blunder had rendered the foundations too weak to support its construction. Thus the gap was sealed and disguised with a spectacular fresco, and the scientist housed in the empty room on top where, from the highest vantage point in Rome… Galileo saw that the sun does not revolve around the earth.
Our vision of the world is dictated by our perspective, and nowhere is that more evident, or beautiful, than in art. The artist can only paint the world as he sees it. Chagall saw it in color. Matisse, in simplicity. Picasso, in painful complexity. Monet, in a hazy dream. Piaf, en rose.
‘[The artist] accepts the facts of life, and yet transforms them into shapes of beauty, and makes them vehicles of pity or of awe, and shows their color-element, and their wonder, and their true ethical import also, and builds out of them a world more real than reality itself, and of loftier and more noble import.’
- Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist
Thus, ‘all art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.’ And isn’t that a wonderful thing.
That angle directs our perspective is a fact. That our prejudices shape our world is inevitable. Our freedom is in self-questioning, self-awareness, and what we do after. We can choose the glasses we wear.