Are YOU a Propagandist?

The Smarter You Get

Those old enough to have ever watched a World War II movie are likely to remember the infamous Tokyo Rose, the name given to any number of Japanese women (though largely ascribed to Japanese American Iva Toguri D’Aquino) whose role was to get on the radio to croon Japanese propaganda to the American military, offered with the intent of crushing morale. Given the outcome of that war, it’s safe to say the endgame didn’t quite meet the mission, but propaganda has long been a useful tool in pushing agendas and designing how the world and culture-at-large receives and perceives information.

Certainly it played a major role in the Cold War (how many kids were uniformly terrified of Russian spies or nuclear bombs hitting their grade schools?); it’s been an essential tool in how religion mesmerizes its masses, and, without a doubt, it is the machinery that foments discord between partisan politicians and their opponents. Yet even as heinous and manipulative as it is, propaganda has become so insinuated into the fibers of day-to-day American discourse that we barely notice it anymore; certainly we don’t seem to realize how affected we are by it or how we tend to use it ourselves to promote our own agendas and beliefs. In fact, we’ll raise a fist in objection to propaganda on one side of the divide while actively bandying our own version of the same. Social media has, in many ways, become a breeding ground for propaganda and I wonder if culture wouldn’t be better served if we rethought how we use it.

Constitutional scholar, Jonathan Turley, argues that the word itself, propaganda, translates literally to mean “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” Helping or injuring. Yet we seldom think of propaganda in the “helping” column, it’s so often used to divide more than bring together.  Even Turley acknowledges that the almost totally negative connotation of the word has sprung from its cultural use as a “value loaded” activity, one that uses selective language and cherry-picked ideas to manipulate people toward one thought or another.

Manipulation is hardly viewed as a positive force, and that is, in fact, how most people view propaganda: as manipulation. The taking of facts and using them selectively, disproportionately, even untruthfully, and often at the expense and exclusion of balancing information as counterpoint. We see that every day on Fox News, on partisan talk radio, cable news and websites on both sides of the political divide. We see it on social media, translated through what photographs, articles, and memes are posted and shared, what words are used to introduce those images; how headlines are focused and spun. Propaganda is everywhere and, to some extent, if you partake in sharing its messages, you’re a party to it.

Don’t think so?

Well, here’s a thought: propaganda is an equation that works with the energy of thought. The more you think something, the more you say something, the more you breathe life into that idea by your thoughts, words and actions, the more a thing IS. It’s just a matter of physics. Propaganda uses that equation for its own purposes: Think it + Focus on it + Say it + Talk about it + Share supporting information + Discard countering information + Argue it + Denigrate disagreement + Be relentless in promoting it = More of IT in the world.

Racism? That’s a big topic these days, one in which propaganda is being flung around every which way, and while it authentically remains a substantial and important issue in our society, the way we discuss it, frame it, and propagandize about it is exactly how it will remain manifested in our world. Scream and yell every generality, every inflamed accusation; attack on both sides with hyperbole and viciousness, and that’s what we’ll keep manifesting.That’s just the way it works. We can’t inspire change when we’re too focused on kicking the crap out of each other.

Don’t get me wrong; shining light where it is needed is a good thing. Pulling racists and racism out from the closet or from under the rug, the basement, or from behind a robe or computer screen is necessary. Honestly confronting the issues we cringe from is essential to productive conversation and practical progress. And certainly many of these steps occur in explosive ways after events like the Rodney King beating, Trayvon Martin’s death, or the more recent Ferguson case. But wise people understand that rage and demands for justice have to be channeled judiciously and with utter candor and openness, clear that each of these cases (and others) is individual, not necessarily comparable, with specific and differentiated facts and meanings. And despite the incendiary nature of all these events, none of them mean ALL of America is broken, or race relations have all gone to hell, or civil rights have no meaning in this country. None of these are true. Elements of each are true in specific cases, but the sweeping generalities being spewed like so many litanies are not only not true, they’re propaganda, and they’re demoralizing and damaging to productive forward motion.

Remember that equation? Now, think about what your goal is as a person communicating in the world, a person sharing information and engaging in conversation. If your goal is to promote peace and bring honest, tangible change to the world; to educate, uplift, inspire, challenge, reach out, and bridge divides, you’ll communicate with equanimity, fairness, specificity, intelligence, truth, compassion, and a willingness to listen and hear new information.

If, on the other hand, your goal is to relentlessly vent and call it activism; attack and insult and call it “debate”; promote greater divides between the races, or to push the meme that racism is utterly hopeless and unstoppable, do this instead:

• Keep talking about how all whites/all blacks are all fill in the blank.
• Create and promote as many false equivalencies as possible.
• Spin the news so that only the part that supports racism is featured.
• Post as many stories as you can find about bad cops and prosecutors.
• Generalize heavily and focus on the very worst of humanity.
• Comment and promote the idea that all whites “don’t value black lives.”
• Generalize widely that all black men are criminals/victims/innocent/guilty
• Ferret out and share stories that support that all cops are vicious.
• Keep pounding the drum that ALL of America is broken/unfair/insensitive/racist.
• Look for and share media that promotes that all politicians hate people of color.
• Support the notion that all who disagree with Obama are racists.
• Make it clear by what you say and post that in all tangles between cops and people of color, the cops are always wrong;
• And be sure to only post stories that promote all of the above.

If you do all that – as many, many people are doing online these days – you are being a propagandist. And you are not helping to educate, heal, or raise the consciousness of this country. You are, instead, publicly promoting your own anger and outrage, potentially at the expense of positive change. You are promoting thoughts and ideas that focus energy and agreement on the very worst of society. And the more the very worst is agreed upon, the more it is accepted, the more it is envisioned, the more it is tweeted, posted, shared, argued about, etc., the more it will continue to become, to grow and metastasize.

That’s just the way it works. And we don’t want that.

Without propaganda, without all this fire-stoking, people would be left to their own devices to analyze, adjudicate, and form their own opinions of current (even past) events. We’d be obligated to get beyond the caterwauling of others to smartly weight pros and cons, do our own research to ascertain what’s true and what’s hyperbole. We’d not accept sensationalism on face value, but would be open to ideas that might fly in the face of what we’d held as fact. We might even have the magnanimity to change a viewpoint or embrace an ideal that had previously eluded us. We’d talk openly and civilly share our, perhaps, contrary opinions without fear of attack or ridicule. We’d boldly allow for the option to not agree with propaganda, but instead promote notions of equilibrium, personal responsibility, and each and everyone’s obligation to take control of their own actions. From there we would likely have a better chance at bringing real change to the problems that harm us as a culture.

I’m all for that. By the way, he was too.

MLK_love not hate
MLK poster from OurTimeOrg

LDW w glasses

Visit for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

The Night They Burned My City Down: Remembering the LA Riots

It started 20 years ago today. The first time in my life I’d experienced a sense of true anarchy and danger, the safety of our families and homes left completely in our own hands as the police seemed to evaporate into the shadows. It was just days away from the birth of my son and to feel such vulnerability at that very vulnerable time was profoundly unsettling. For a girl from a Midwest farm town who had, heretofore, lived a protected existence even in the feistier environs of Los Angeles (my 80’s era gang-infested Argyle Avenue neighborhood notwithstanding!), this was a stunning turn of events. As my husband and I watched the advancing columns of smoke, the marauders making their way from points south toward Hollywood and beyond — burning, looting and killing along the way — it became cold-water clear that we were in the crosshairs and there was no one to call.

I looked at my husband with trepidation and said, “We live in a Hollywood Hills Tudor — albeit a shabby one — and they won’t know we’re renters!” See, word had spread that the pack was headed north with intentions to “Molotov” the homes of “rich white people,” and while we qualified for two out of those three defining features, it was unlikely any distinction would be made for our modest bank balance. My husband pulled his old hunting rifle down from the garage shelf, the only gun in our possession, and we kept vigil at the windows while neighbors gathered to stand watch over the only way in to our little cul-de-sac. We survived that night and it was in the days to come that we discovered they’d burned within just blocks of our neighborhood.

As someone with my own tale of police brutality (Loudly Against the Language of Racism), I’d felt particular pangs while watching the infamous George Holliday video of Rodney King’s beating and, subsequently, paid close attention to the trial, emotionally invested in its outcome. It was impossible to believe the four accused cops would not be convicted of at least some charge of brutality, and the justice being called for felt valid and assured. The date was April 29, 1992, it was a beautiful spring day and from the top of our neighborhood we could see the trees blooming throughout the hills all the way to downtown LA. I felt such a rush of affection for my beautiful city, a sense of community and goodwill. Maybe it was just hopeful hormones, but I wanted to believe the place of my son’s birth could fulfill the sense of the peace and beauty it exhibited that day. I don’t remember having the TV on at the time but somehow I became aware that the King verdict was in and called my husband to join me to watch the news report. We sat on the couch waiting for what we felt would be an inevitable conviction and when it was announced that all four defendants had been exonerated without charge, we looked at each other, stunned, and both of us acknowledged: “This is not going to be good.” And it wasn’t.

The tipping point was palpable, no doubt similar to the one felt prior to the Watts Riots of 1965, and the ramp-up was one of many rough years. Los Angeles had endured a particularly corrupt era of policing during the 80’s (when my particular story happened), one that would metastasize over two decades until it finally exploded into The Rampart Scandal in 1997. But until they named it, until it was on the radar, it was all Police Gone Wild on a daily basis: racial harassment, illegal arrests, false accusations, trumped up evidence, and vicious beatings that were not caught by any camera. The subsequent rage was deep and real but it was tamped down by the fear of crushing consequences, the fear that regardless of truth, these rogue cops, powerful and so entrenched in the systemic corruption of the department at the time, would have no compunction about destroying lives to get a collar. While surely there were good, honest cops somewhere in that mix, they, apparently, weren’t the ones patrolling the mean streets…that nefarious group ran things like it was the Dark Ages, clearly with the alliance of the controversial and inflammatory Police Chief at that time, Daryl Gates.

Given that prelude, imagine the sense of vindication when some hapless videographer actually caught an incident that mirrored what so many others had experienced with no one watching! It ripped both the lid and the scab off and response from the beleaguered inner city communities most impacted was loud, as was the outrage from those who were horrified by this exposé of blatant corruption and violence. As shocking as that video was, it paradoxically incited some hope, hope that for once the justice system would look beyond race and rap sheets to see the immorality of the act and judge accordingly. But that didn’t happen…and all hell broke lose.

On that seminal day after the verdict, we watched, in unedited real time, as white trucker Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten mercilessly. I screamed at the TV, “Where the _____ are the cops??!” while unfettered thugs circled and almost killed a man on live TV. Good Samaritans saved Denny’s life, as well as those of several others caught in the melee, but the cops seemed to have disappeared in those first incendiary hours. It was mayhem in its purest form and it spread like wildfire.

We were lucky to get through that night unscathed, unlike countless others, and while the worst of it was over the first three days, the official “riot schedule” ran for six. Six days of madness. Once the authorities found their footing (balls?) and the police were back in control, curfews were set and fiercely enforced. I remember being terrified that I would go into labor at an unwieldy hour and find myself handcuffed along the freeway while hightailing it to the hospital in Santa Monica! As it was, my son was born May 9th, five days after it was over, and even then we discovered completely empty streets as we drove from Hollywood westward, eerie and post-apocalyptic, particularly as you traversed smoking neighborhoods that looked as though War had paid a visit. It had.

Much debate followed, most of it deeply heated, about why, how and what to call it. Some stuck with “riots,” others demanded the more redemptive “civil unrest”; I waffled between the two. There was no denying the racial component of what had happened, the civil rights trigger to the event, but the riots were hardly reserved for righteous anger. There was far too much footage of people of every race and color grinning at the cameras as they looted stores with bold-faced impunity, shopping carts en tow to transport loads of ill-gotten goods. The larger message of necessary reform and the rejection of racism was abundantly pertinent, but so was the horror and rage felt at the, mostly, young men in wolf-packs responsible for the deaths of 52 people and massive damage to innocent shopkeepers, home owners and commercial districts. It was excused by many as an unavoidable response to bottled-up rage, an inevitable reaction to long-running social ills, but while this was true for some, and certainly a major component at the inciting moment of the verdict, the ensuing days of death, injury, looting and continued destruction stepped way beyond the bounds and muddied the message. The incessant media coverage, in fact, allowed us to witness both the best and worst of those involved, the most compelling contrast found between Damian “Football” Williams and his soulless and sociopathic beating of Reginald Denny, juxtaposed against Denny’s noble rescuer, Bobby Green, Jr., who hoisted the critically wounded man into his truck and rushed him to the hospital through burning streets and danger to himself. Both men of color, Williams and Green, they embodied the deeply conflicted feelings that permeated the event.

I woke up the morning it was all over and looked down at my smoking city feeling such loss; loss of community, loss of common purpose and any measure of acceptance and coexistence amongst our diverse population. The city awoke, too, relieved to be alive but every bone battered and broken. And the wounds were deep. The animosity between Blacks and Koreans, in particular, was brought into full relief, uncovering a deep chasm of distrust and hate that continues today in many communities. Beautiful neighborhoods were destroyed, blighted ones as well. Countless restaurants and retail stores, including the venerable Samy’s Camera, went up in smoke. Street after street of both residential and commercial districts were so knocked down, some have not come up to this day. Many people lost their businesses, never to rebuild, while others faced crushing financial burdens to reemerge. In fact, over one billion dollars of property damage was assessed after all was said and one.

But the human toll was most egregious.  Over 2500 injuries, some severe, and, most horrifically, 53 people lost their lives.

The LA Weekly has a good piece out, Then & Now: Images from the Same Spot as the LA Riots, 20 Years Later, which offers details and compelling comparative photos of neighborhoods and places, then and now. It’s both education and hopeful.  Wikipedia’s 1992 Los Angeles Riots page does a good job of laying out the timeline and naming the players. There are countless other articles; it’s a big story that will be analyzed and dissected throughout history.

My personal view is through the prism of my son’s birth (always to be connected to the event), my husband’s protectiveness; the coming together of people and neighborhoods in solidarity and defense, and the sad dispelling of hope about racial harmony in our city, at least then; is it better now? Los Angeles is a complex and beautiful metropolis that encompasses a staggering diversity of people, places, and beliefs. Civil unrest seems never too far from the radar, as hate and bigotry continue to brew in certain lower contingents of mankind, here and everywhere, but hope recovers and remains. Hope that we have more compassion for each other, hope that our police department has excised its bad apples. We’ve found unexpected outlets for our anger (can you imagine Twitter and Facebook after the Rodney King tape was revealed?!), we have effective forums and legal recourse in which to properly expose corruption and discrimination, and hopefully we’ve recovered with a sharp, unvarnished awareness that turning a blind eye to any injustice will surely destroy our vision.

LDW w glasses

Visit for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.