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Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Cyndy links to a ten-minute 1946 film called Despotism. You should watch it, maybe before reading the rest of this post. I'll wait...

It's something, isn't it? For one thing, it defines a continuum between democracy and despotism, not the simplistic sort of "with us or against us" nonsense that Bush babbles about. It also spells out four instrumental variables which locate a society on the democracy-despotism continuum: respect, power, economic distribution, and information. According to the film, a democracy is a society in which respect is mutual and widespread, power is shared by all, wealth is widely distributed and not concentrated, and information channels are broadly controlled and can be freely challenged. Despotism is the opposite: respect is restricted to fewer people, power and wealth are concentrated, and information channels are controlled by a few and demand agreement. In other words, the film takes a liberal, even socialist look at democracy and despotism, one with which I largely agree.

But it got me to wondering: Who made the film in 1946, and for what purpose? The opening credits say that the film was produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, in collaboration with Harold D. Lasswell, Ph.D. of Yale University. So, I wonder, who was Harold Lasswell? Well, he wrote the book on propaganda, literally. In 1927, he wrote "Propaganda Technique in the World War." During World War II, Laswell was part of FDR's propaganda team. From my limited research, it seems that most of his propaganda was aimed at the home front--getting Americans to support the war and to make sacrifices to further the war effort. So one question leads to another: Was Lasswell a liberal/socialist, making the film to show what he believed, or was he still making propaganda for the government? These are perhaps not entirely inconsistent for 1946, when at least some Americans probably still saw the Soviet Union as an ally rather than a menace and when the memories of the depression were still strong. Nevertheless, I don't think that the broad sharing of power and wealth that this film supports were ever really US government policy. And some of the other things I read about Lasswell suggest that he was much more the realpolitik type than he was a utopian socialist. Some of his propaganda methods are still in use, as you can see from this selection:
A particularly effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocity stories. "A handy rule for arousing hate," said Lasswell "is, if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man." Unlike the pacifist, who argues that all wars are brutal, the atrocity story implies that war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy. Certain members of the CPI [Committee on Public Information] were relatively cautious about repeating unsubstantiated allegations, but the committee's publications often relied on dubious material. After the war, Edward Bernays, who directed CPI propaganda efforts in Latin America, openly admitted that his colleagues used alleged atrocities to provoke a public outcry against Germany. Some of the atrocity stories which were circulated during the war, such as the one about a tub full of eyeballs or the story of the seven-year old boy who confronted German soldiers with a wooden gun, were actually recycled from previous conflicts. In his seminal work on wartime propaganda, Lasswell speculated that atrocity stories will always be popular because the audience is able to feel self-righteous indignation toward the enemy, and, at some level, identify with the perpetrators of the crimes. "A young woman, ravished by the enemy," he wrote "yields secret satisfaction to a host of vicarious ravishers on the other side of the border."
Nevertheless, whatever the motives behind the film, I think that it is a fascinating presentation of the actual elements of democracy and despotism, things which far too often go undefined in our miserable political debates.

BTW, you might enjoy the older version of the Pledge of Allegiance that is recited in the film.