Understanding Propaganda and Newspeak: Book Recommendation

J.P. Stern’s Hitler: The Führer and the people was published in 1974 but remains unmatched in breaking down and laying out the reasons behind the hold Hitler had, the psychological and emotional hold he had on his people. It’s a great book on how propaganda works. Understanding propaganda may be one of the most important things education can provide, and it should start young. Inoculation. My sister, who teaches middle-school, does a propaganda unit every year with her kids. It’s important to know how language can be twisted, simplified, and through such manipulations can start to justify the monstrous. This is a somewhat mysterious process and yet there are ways it works. The human mind is fragile. I think there is general resistance to that idea. Everyone thinks THEY would be able to resist. But, to quote Zero Dark Thirty, “Everybody breaks, bro.” Well, John McCain didn’t. But he was a rare bird. Why he DIDN’T break, why SOME people can resist, is ALSO an important area of study. Crucial, urgent – these aren’t just esoteric intellectual areas of questioning. They have urgent relevance for not just our era, but any era.

When it comes to Hitler and understanding what the hell happened in Germany that they all fell prostrate before him … biography and traditional history alone takes you only so far. You can understand the humiliation following WWI, the “stabbed in the back” fixation, and then the focus on an internal enemy to galvanize and unify the public … all of this we know. But it still can’t explain Hitler. Not totally. Traditional bios of Hitler, while they may be interesting, always fall short. There’s always a gap somewhere, a leap that has to be taken, over an unimaginable gulf. There isn’t one contributing factor that goes into “making” a Hitler. Hitler was unique. Like Stalin was unique. (They were unique in different ways.) A “Freudian” reading takes you only so far. Being a failed art student – for example – explains nothing. The number of failed art students who DON’T become murderous dictators could populate the planet two times over.

J.P. Stern digs into language and propaganda (Look at the chapter titles!) and how Hitler used it and what chords it struck in his listeners. Because it’s hard to hear those chords now. I’m not talking about Hitler’s ideas or his anti-Semitism – we can still hear all of that, I’m talking about how he used language to EXPRESS those ideas. This is a key point. Stern is also excellent on the kind of German Hitler used, because it wasn’t run-of-the-mill German – it had an “other” quality to it – a “you’re not from round here” quality – and Stern lays out how Hitler’s use of the German language sounded to Germans, and why it mattered. I would have no way of perceiving this stuff on my own since I don’t know German, I don’t know the history of the German language and how Hitler perverted it. But this book helps me understand.

Language is key. Orwell knew it. Orwell laid it all out in 1984 – as well as in his great essay “Politics and the English Language” (it should be required reading). Orwell’s insight: If you limit the words people are allowed to say – then you limit THOUGHT. Less words? Less thought. Once you remove words from circulation, the ideas/thoughts/conceptions attached to those words vanish as well. You eliminate the word for, say, liberty, or freedom – and you eventually eliminate the thing itself. The brain has contracted, the brain no longer has the capacity for individualistic thought: language has been co-opted by the State. The State is now IN you. Its language is your language. You accept the parameters imposed on you. You love Big Brother. How does this happen? Orwell shows us. (As does Mikhail Bulgakov in “Ivan Splits in Two” chapter in Master and Margarita. As does Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon.) Here’s Orwell on “Newspeak” in 1984:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

This vision should make everyone deeply uneasy.

We have a fiction that our minds are free. But they aren’t. We are all susceptible to influence, to persuasion. (I wonder if having an active and at times debilitating mental illness makes it easier for me to accept that the mind is a fragile thing? Like, every day, constantly, I have to work to handle/manage my illness. Sometimes it’s like trying to ride a wild stallion. How do you control your brain when it’s inside of you? These are questions I live with every day. But I have found – because I’ve been writing about this stuff for years – that people have real resistance to this discussion – they all think they would have resisted, that they wouldn’t be persuaded, that they are immune, that THEY would recognize propaganda … But … they don’t. The number of intelligent people on my various feeds Retweeting/sharing Lies, propaganda, conspiracy theories masked as truth … The thing about brainwashing is: You don’t know you’re brainwashed when you’re brainwashed.)

Being aware of this stuff helps me stay vigilant in my own awareness of groupthink and peer pressure – and (I believe) helped me extricate myself from a cult-like organization’s clutches, once upon a time. I read Orwell in high school. For whatever reason, 1984 really got to me. I absorbed the message about newspeak and I absorbed it YOUNG. Good inoculation against manipulation, as I said.

Propaganda is DESIGNED to disorient you. Very few people are totally immune. It’s good to know how it works.

I recommend this book for an excellent study in propaganda and its effectiveness. It fills a huge gap in the normal unsatisfactory “Hitler had one testicle and that’s why he killed millions of people” biography racket. Or, as Eddie Izzard jokes in one of his stand-up specials, Hitler as failed artist: “I can’t get the fuckin’ trees to look right I MUST KILL EVERYONE IN THE WORLD.”

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2 Responses to Understanding Propaganda and Newspeak: Book Recommendation

  1. Scott Abraham says:

    The “Who Goes Nazi” thought experiment would be the other side of the coin, or the edge of it.

    • sheila says:

      That’s Dorothy Thompson, right? She was amazing.

      There’s a recent book about personalities that tend towards authoritarianism … it’s on my TBR list. an academic study – which may be tough going – those books make me feel …. not smart … but I think it’s an interesting and important subject!

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