March 8, 2011

On Reviewing Propaganda

By “propaganda” I mean a communication of information, ideas, and opinions that the communicator wishes its recipient to accept uncritically. His intention is to persuade and dissuade, not by surveying the evidence, weighing alternative hypotheses potentially explanatory of it, and submitting to his readers merely fallible judgments. It is, rather, to filter that evidence and then emotionally charge selected portions of it in a way that convinces his audience to submit themselves willingly to his judgment.

The challenge facing a reviewer of a work of propaganda is to reveal it to be propaganda without committing an equivalent sin against honest communication. While he must note the intellectual issues that the propagandist raises and critically evaluate the latter’s handling of them, he must not (a) appear to grant the propagandist’s conceit that his is a work of intellectual merit, (b) give the propagandist a victory by appearing to evade the alleged force of his “devastating” arguments, or (c) get into the gutter with him. 

The propagandist who has chosen the nonfiction book as his medium has his reviewer at a disadvantage. In order to marshal evidence for identifying the book’s genre as propaganda, he must risk appearing as uncharitable toward its author as he can easily show the author to have been toward his own opponents. The responsible reviewer must weigh that risk against that of granting the propagandist’s conceit that he is a fellow seeker of truth seeking criticism.

Unfortunately he must risk trying his readers’ patience (again advantaging the propagandist) by begging them in this preliminary post to accept, at least provisionally, his conceit that it is propaganda and should be reviewed as such.

While steeling myself to write this essay, I was struck by the similarity, at least on one point, of my situation with that of 20th century Catholic convert, Bishop Basil Christopher Butler, when he took on a Protestant critic of the Church:
“. . . a complete and exhaustive answer to [George Salmon’s Infallibility] would need to be a much longer treatise than this.  It is easy to pack into half a dozen pages enough clever charges against the Catholic Church to require a thousand pages in reply.  In this kind of warfare the aggressor always has an enormous advantage.” Basil Christopher Butler, The Church and Infallibility, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954, vi.  
Or as one contemporary theologian more succinctly put it

“It’s almost always tedious to refute tendentious reporting.”

But sometimes it’s necessary.