As America celebrates another birthday we are besieged by red, white and blue images in its various forms and at multiple venues. Parades, fireworks, plus countless local and national events repeat messages of patriotism and invitations to join in the joy of being American. Yet we often view similar public demonstrations of patriotism by people perceived as our enemies as propaganda.
Propaganda was not always a negative word and, in fact, its root — propagate — means to plant or spread seeds to increase populations of species. The 17th century Catholic Church formed the College of Propaganda to educate priests in the spreading of the faith. The word moved into the realm of evil when under Hitler’s Germany Joseph Goebbels led the Ministry of Propaganda to motivate the masses to support the Nazi regime; leaders of Communist governments in the Soviet Union and China did much of the same. Today’s Middle Eastern extremists are cited for using children’s textbooks, modern media and public demonstrations as propaganda to spread messages of hate toward Americans and inspire terrorist acts against the western world.
There have been many publications by political theorists and philosophers who believe that America’s special form of patriotism and its messages of devotion and pride in our country can clearly be seen as a form of propaganda. On our 235th birthday, we public relations practitioners — who often use the same fundamental tools as do propagandists — might ask ourselves what the difference is between American patriotism and propaganda as it’s defined in our 21st century. Your thoughts?