Patriotic propaganda

Jeff Morosoff, Assistant Professor, Hofstra University

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?

One thought on “Patriotic propaganda

  1. Phil Hecken

    Well put. There is no question that “American” patriotism is rightfully viewed by others as American “propaganda” (just as we are either conditioned or taught to view such demonstrations by others as extremist or, at best, highly nationalistic exercises). Perhaps more to the point are the lengths to which entrepreneurs are willing to promote flag desecration and false patriotism in defense of (or under the guise of “free speech”); we may see foreign nationals burning an American flag and react with horror, yet we think nothing of the complete disregard of the flag code by supposed patriots at home. Even more noxious is the complete disregard of both taste and decorum shown by businesses in promoting their wares behind the veil of “patriotism” (“Memorial Day Sale” anyone?). While there is nothing inherently wrong with true patriotism, most Americans are painfully (and perhaps blissfully) unaware of its roots nor are they cognizant of just how easy it is for those with an agenda to spur Americans to take actions which are guided by false patriotism and an underlying sense of duty, when in fact these actions are not in the least “patriotic.”

    Those who would call for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning or decry any politician or news anchor for not wearing a lapel flag pin too often think nothing of allowing the American flag to touch the ground or fly, unlit, after dark. Equally off-putting are sports teams who wantonly and willfully affix stickers, patches and decals of the American flag to their teams’ uniforms (or worse), under the guise of “supporting America” (or the particularly ubiquitous “support the troops”). While these actions may fall under the banner of “patriotism,” they are at best empty gestures and at worst, insidious marketing gimmicks designed to sell merchandise to an unwitting public (often at great markups and with little or no profits being returned to the community or the troops). But hey, that’s the “American Way.”

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