Convenient Literature: Propaganda and the weaponisation of art

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Abrar Fahyaz

“The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. So, I raise my glass to you writers, the engineers of the human soul.”

What a nice and wholesome thing to say, right? Clearly, this must have come from a person who really appreciates the art of writing, a true literary connoisseur. So, whose words are these, you ask? These are the words of the kindhearted and benevolent premier of the Soviet Union and just an all around nice guy—Joseph Stalin.

Yes, the same person that imposed massive state-sponsored censorship of everything deemed to oppose the revolution by even the slightest bit, and literally burned down libraries because they contained certain books he didn’t like, said that writers were the engineers of the human soul. Really makes you think, doesn’t it?

In order to understand this self-contradictory view, one that is enough to make Orwell blush, we must acquaint ourselves with what is perhaps the greatest weapon ever devised by mankind—propaganda. Simply put, propaganda is a form of literature, used to induce an emotional response, rather than a rational one, in the audience through the application of biased or straight out wrong information. When well-produced, it’s impossible to distinguish from other works of art, but at other times, even the less intellectually gifted among us can see right through it.

There is this image which inevitably comes to our minds whenever we hear the word “propaganda”; it’s the image of a glorified Stalin speaking of socialist realism while his people starve, or perhaps it’s that of Kim Jong Un doing basically the same thing. Now, while it is true that these are examples of propaganda, we must understand that these are examples of the poorly executed kind. In reality, things aren’t so black and white, and like I said before, it can often be virtually impossible to distinguish one from a real work of art.

The People’s Republic of China is one of the foremost masters of effective propaganda. Rather than just painting indoctrinated pictures and making weird videos singing praise to the supreme leader, they did something more effective; that is, they used literature. Contrary to popular belief, you won’t find books about parliamentary democracy in China locked up in secret libraries, but rather completely available to the public. The beauty of it lies within what they teach their people: That democracy is a mess of infights, political groups that hunt for power, thereby undermining the people; a system which promotes discord and undermines social harmony; a system infested with interest groups, corruption, and populism using the overrated ideal of free speech to undermine the well-being of the country; competing and opposing parties while sidelining what should really matter—the state itself.

What we believe to be the perks of being a free nation, are looked upon by the Chinese as the disadvantages of being free. Ever wondered about uprisings in Communist China, or their lack thereof? This is the reason, the reason why even under such an oppressive regime there’s been barely any.

Stalin’s sentiments regarding literature may seem like the deranged delusions of a dictator. But consider a similar Cold War-era comment by the CIA’s then-chief of covert action: “Books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.” He also used a military metaphor for culture, calling books “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda”.

Despite the shared rhetoric, the CIA did not use Soviet tactics to neutralise writers deemed threats. But the American government, and the CIA in particular, has long been keenly interested in using literature to promote American ideologies and undermine communism abroad. The most popular example of this would be comic books; just as the character of Captain America was conceived to defeat Hitler, the character of Iron Man was created to fight the evil USSR.

In fact, the Cold War was so lucrative for the comic business that it propelled a near-bankrupt comic studio into becoming the multi-billion dollar franchise we now know as Marvel. The US used propaganda literature so compellingly that its effects still persist to this very day. Dropping subtle hints about the evil Russians in books and movies, intentionally amplifying the magnitude of Soviet failures, and so on and so forth, creating The Red Scare we know and love today.

Animal Farm and 1984, books by Orwell, a staunch socialist himself, were labelled as critiques of communism and not of Stalinism, while books like Metamorphosis by Kafka, which critiqued capitalism, were marked as simply showing the absurdity of life. The American initiative was so spectacularly successful that people, even today, defiantly protest against policies like universal healthcare and cheaper education on the grounds that they are “communist”. And therefore, even though it may not seem like it, the US are the true monarchs of indoctrinating literature.

Propaganda is an undeniable part of literature, whether we like it or not. We can trace it back to the Assyrian epic of Gilgamesh and the glorified sculptures of Egyptian Pharaohs. There are thousands of years of literature, produced with the sole purpose of indoctrination. It existed, still exists, and will probably continue to exist for time eternal.

It will reach us in the form of text books praising the ruling party while ignoring its faults, it will come to us in the form of superheroes following our cultural ideals, it will come as the over glorification of some great conflict or with the raising of political figures to the same level of esteem as gods, and it will inevitably end with us, the people, being so utterly blinded by it, that we forget how to even question it.


*The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.     

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