Spring 2017 Topic Seminar: HIST 410, Propaganda and Thought Control

Spring 2017 Topic Seminar: HIST 410, Propaganda and Thought Control

Spring 2017, HIST 410: Propaganda and Thought Control, John Barry, Thursday 7-9:45, B470

It is often said that totalitarian societies are characterized by propaganda and control of symbolic productions, while democratic societies maximize freedom of belief and expression. This class begins with the opposite assertion – propaganda and thought control are, in fact, the cornerstone of democratic societies. In societies where governments and moneyed elites are cannot easily use brute force to control people, they must adopt more subtle means of control, and in the 20th and 21st centuries this has been the control of thought through carefully designed spectacles and constructed meanings of contemporary events.

This is not to say that force isn’t used in democratic societies, but an important part of the constructed meaning of democracy is that it is not used. While totalitarian societies control bodies, democratic societies control peoples’ minds. This is the lesson of George Orwell’s 1984. The contest over symbols and meanings in the so-called free or open societies is therefore more crucial than it is in closed societies. Thus, as we will see in this class, public relations and propaganda have merged in the 20th century with news reporting and journalism so that now they are completely indistinguishable, or, to say it another way, most major journalism is in reality public relations. One of the founders of public relations, Edward Bernays, wrote that, “The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process.”


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