All Art is Propaganda

One of the most attractive concepts of the base-superstructure dichotomy in Marxism is that some things hold traction and permanence, while others are constructions (rather than everything being a construct). Of course, this is a simplified version of Marxism, of which I am by no means an expert, but I find the distinction revealing. Propaganda, the art of a crafted message, is one of those most malleable things, , but while the most obvious propaganda is political, most propaganda flows implicitly from the individual–everything from clothing to food, to what beer or liquor you drink. I called this implicit propaganda because, often, the choices are not deliberate messages. I choose my beer by some combination of taste and cost, but in the beer summit hosted by President Obama, the brands were more traditionally politicized. Likewise with clothing–there is a message in each outfit–even if that message is “I don’t care” or “I want you to know that I don’t care.”

Orwell singled out art alone as propaganda because the audience for art is larger than the audience is for each clothing choice. Likewise, art is much more likely to be explicitly propaganda as the result of deliberate choices by the artist, while in personal propaganda there are more likely to be ulterior motives for the choices and some people will be more deliberate in crafting their message than others.

In the internet age, there is even a service, Reputation dot com, that promises to help protect your reputation online. The need for this service stems from the issues of permanence, legitimacy, and the speed of change online. The first two are what the sites advertises on, stressing how hard it is to remove malicious rumors online, and also that, online, anyone can post anything, which makes it difficult for users to determine truth from fiction (though the site does not seem to care about the truth of the matter so much as creating a positive image for the client). I have added the speed because news, information, and communication is happening at such rapid speeds that it is difficult to keep up–and easy for people to write a review in a fit of (any) emotion. Sometimes, it is easier to post online than it is to remember what you have said. But Reputation dot Com is correct that the internet has a lengthy memory.

Thus, there is a curious mix of new ideas, thoughts, and arguments, with many crackpot ideas still floating around and popping up. And all this has only limited policing or oversight. This means that publishing is much easier (note the self-publishing boom and the proliferation of blogs, particularly on websites of traditional news outlets). So, yes, the internet is a wonderful way of spreading thoughts and opinions because there is almost always an audience (for me: you!), but there is also a lack of authority to much of it (sorry, I’m just a graduate student who feels compelled to write from time to time–I am author, (sometimes) editor, and publisher). At the risk of sounding hypocritical and offending self-publishers everywhere, I often feel that self-publishing, while it serves to get some authors published who are truly excellent and find audiences, is more about a culture more interested in self-promotion and their own egos than about quality. Sure, crowd-sourcing novels can sometimes result in excellent books, but my gut instinct is that the amount of rubbish has increased out of all proportion.

In this, I am a snob. I have my own reasons for writing and publishing online, and some of it is that I feel that I have things worth being said and also that a self-published blog on my own site is different than publishing a book or working for a news outlet. I will stop here as I do not control the other actions of other people and people certainly have the right to publish online, but I fear that they are doing so at the expense of the authority of traditional publishing and print publishing (sometimes for very good reasons), and has helped bring about some of the journalism issues that have come about in the last few months.

I prefer writing on paper because edits and changes have permanence. I just crossed out four lines , something that would not appear on a typed file (though the paragraph and a half I added in the actual post do), but here and now I see where I had an issue with my though and/or writing. On paper there are necessarily drafts and edits; typed, everything and nothing is in a final form. Perhaps this is fitting for a generation that often seems to have an innate understanding of postmodernism.

One of my concerns here is that the internet enables this uncertainty and enables one or more shell personae (in my younger years I went online and engaged people under a variety of aliases, particularly for some online games). It has not yet reached anything like Neal Stephenson’s digital world in Snowcrash, but while the internet is transparent to tech people, for most people it is easy to put up that shell and to be someone who they are not offline. Everything is propaganda, and nowhere more so than the internet.

Thermopylae

How often does a military defeat set a standard for excellence? How often does a defeat create an aura of invincibility? Even a defeat like The Alamo just became a rallying cry, and the Roman republican defeats showed both their weaknesses and their resiliency, not their invincibility.

The only defeat with this result was the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 brave Spartans (and several thousand other Greeks) held off the main Persian army for days while the Greek force collected and came out for the main battle, or while Athens evacuated. What a marvelously successful propaganda effort this was. The Spartan force was slaughtered, but for two men, and other losses were heavy. High command was splintered and thus no expeditionary force was forthcoming. Likewise, if the Greeks had truly meant to hold the pass as a delaying action, why was this force sent instead of the massive force sent to Tempe the year before?

An answer may be that this was a rogue action taken by Leonidas in order to drag the Greeks out of complacency and force an engagement. If a Spartan king and hundreds of his peers met with Persia, surely the main Greek army would come out and fight with them, but of course that did not happen–and yes, the army had been basically assembled, albeit without most Athenian aid since they were manning ships at the time. Sparta lost 298 full citizens, including a king (for comparison, Sparta went to the negotiating table for peace in the Peloponnesian War when just over a hundred Spartans were captured), and with a successful propoganda campaign this catastrophe became a heroic sacrifice for the liberty of Greece. Spartans at the forefront of the campaign, suffering losses, but fighting like madmen and never surrendering, never retreating and only losing when impossibly outnumbered. Furthermore the number 300 stands out because this same propoganda campaign that pushed the Spartans as the saviors of Greece likewise de-emphasized any other states involved. The very fact that it was just 300 redoubled the heroism of this ‘sacrifice’.

Granted, the images of Thermopylae, from Frank Miller’s 300 to Stephen Pressfield’s The Gates of Fire to Herodotus to Plutarch’s Sayings of Kings and Commanders, are visually stunning. When the Persian emissary asks Leonidas for his weapons, the answer is blunt: molon labe . Warned that the Persian archers would cloak the sun with their arrows, Leonidas or another veteran Spartan responded that this is good, they will have their battle in the shade. The original thin red line holding back an onslaught (with other Greeks by their side), and when the Persians found an alternate path, most of the army was sent home while the Spartans and a few others held a hilltop until they were all killed. But looking beyond these images, the battle was a waste. It was a fleeting pause in the Persian advance and nothing more. No decisive land battle happened that year and the deaths were wasted.