Propaganda as the art of storytelling applied to politics

Where there is politics, there is propaganda.

The Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as follows: Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

While this is partly true, I believe, based on what I learned during my travels, that this definition itself is a biased and quite denigrating statement for what propaganda actually is. So this post will clarify what I understand under the word propaganda that I intend to use on several future posts of this blog.

Propaganda is used to promote a political cause.

Propaganda’s actual purpose is very often to increase legitimacy, either of the present, or of a claim for a future change.

  • Leaders lacking legitimacy often rely on propaganda to justify their leadership. They usually use the link they may have with a previous, charismatic, beloved leader or event to benefit from a transfer of the good values associated with him/it. Around 1370, Timur married a descendent of Genghis Khan to increase his legitimacy. Much later, the posters where Stalin is shown inspired by Lenin himself inspired by Marx are another good example.
111 - gori
Propaganda poster showing Stalin inspired by Lenin (and me pretending to be inspired by Stalin) – Stalin’s Memorial Museum in his native town Gori, Georgia.
  •  And of course the Kims apply this technique very thoroughly in North Korea, where every new generation of Kims use cult of the previous round of leader to increase his own legitimacy.
2 Kims
Pyongyang, North Korea. Here used to be only one statue (of Kim Il-Sung, the first). But when Kim Jong-Il (the second) died, his statue was added by Kim Jong-Un (the third). How to use the popularity of your ancestors to consolidate your own legitimacy.
  • In his novel 1984, George Orwell figured a Party whose motto was Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. And indeed, propaganda is often used by politicians as a way to rely on the past to promote a future change. The technique is easy: research your past to find one Killer Fact that can be used as an argument for a change. This technique is very typical for example in Eastern and Central European patriotism.
Metro station of Proletarians in Minsk, Belarus. Arguing that Belarus once spoke Belarusian, the authorities replaced all Russian signs by Belarusian ones, despite the reality that the majority of Belarusian are Russian-speaking nowadays.

Further, the Oxford dictionary definition mentions that the means used for propaganda are especially of a biased or misleading nature. And indeed there are plenty of cases where this is true:

  • We have already said how a Killer Fact from the past is used to justify a claim for the future, obviously it does not disturb the propagandists that the fact is completely isolated from its historical context and meaning (the 600th anniversary of an old battle, like the 1389 one in Kosovo, is an example).
  • Propagandists can also alter the history to better fit their objectives. Margherita Sarfatti, despite being the number 1 of womaniser Mussolini’s numerous mistresses, re-wrote the Duce’s biography to give him an image more in line with the family values that fascism was promoting. Beria, Stalin’s own bitch, also rewrote Stalin’s biography to glorify his role in the 1917 Revolution, and this way increase his legitimacy.
  • If some of the history is embarrassing, propaganda just eludes it. The heroes of the 1789 Revolution are celebrated in France, but not all of them. Controversial Robespierre played a major role in the years following 1789 but is felt as embarrassing in France because of the Terror he installed to defend the Revolution. History needed Robespierre, but not posterity, and that’s how the French official propaganda completely evicted him; removing Trotsky from the official October historiography under Stalin goes further, but is actually the same technique.
  • If there is not enough history, propaganda just invents it. Macedonia as a nation was missing the national identity it needed to exist on the international market place. President Ivanov thus launched the huge and controversial Skopje 2014 programme to address this issue. Some of it consisted in reconstructing some of the city’s past monuments destroyed during the 1961 earthquake. Some of it, more controversial, was about building statues of great people believed to be of Macedonian origin. And some of it, the most disputed, simply created new buildings that have nothing to do with any existing history, such as a baroque opera.
255 - Balkan - Skopje
When I visited Skopje in 2011, the city was being rebuilt almost entirely. This is the bottom part of what today is a huge statue of a rider who evokes Alexander the Great.

But propaganda does not necessarily rely on distorting the past. Sometimes it is just based on a certain interpretation of the past, and then by definition it is partial but not necessarily biased.

  • Think of what Nations decide to emphasize or not from their past. Which heroes they welcome in their Pantheon . How France reinforced the republican sentiment by naming streets ‘National’ and Squares ‘Republic’ in every town of the country.
  • Think of some choices of vocabulary. Riga’s excellent museum about the period when Latvia was in the Soviet Union is called Museum of the Occupation. Vilnius goes further by naming its equivalent museum Museum of the Genocide Victims. A memorial fund in Sarajevo also claims the use of the wordGenocide (Sarajevo canton fund for construction and preservation of veteran’s cemeteries, memorial centres, and monuments for genocide victims).
017 - Balkan - Sarajevo
Sarajevo’s Tunnel, that I visited in May 2011 and once more in January 2015. The museum is co-financed by a fund for “monuments for Genocide victims”.

Another example of vocabulary choice that supports propaganda is how Russia refers to the Second World War. Russia only considers the part it was involved in, that started in 1941, and names it Great Patriotic War, a war of defense of the Soviet state against fascism. It is clearly something of the past and completely irrelevant nowadays, when there is no Soviet state and no fascist threat anymore. And yet the War keeps being referred to in these terms by modern-day Russia, with 9 May celebrated as the Victory Day – an excuse for some Russian patriotism – while what other nations commemorate is more the end of the war or its memory (Armistice Day in France, Remembrance Day in the UK).

2012 05 Volga - 046 - Saratov
Behind this Lenin’s statue in Saratov, we see a huge sign celebrating the Victory Day (May 2012).

So after all, the Oxford definition is rather simplistic and quite symptomatic of the typical Western dogma of opposing the evil of the bad dictatorships to the goodness of the Western democracy. But everyone does propaganda, by, if not twisting, at least tweaking the reality to support their vision.

So the definition I would give to propaganda is rather a persuasion technique for politicians to make people believe in their present and future challenges’ legitimacy, which implies an interpretation of history that supports this vision – and this applies to all the countries, not just the so-called evil.



6 thoughts on “Propaganda as the art of storytelling applied to politics

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