Some words are probably irretrievable. It would be a brave blogger who mounted a campaign for acceptable fascism or a kinder eugenics.
"Propaganda" appears to be one of those words. It is now universally used as an insult - "that's just propaganda"; "typical lefty/right-wing propaganda"; "he/she is little more than a propagandist", and so on. The term is associated with totalitarian regimes, yellow journalism and jingoism in general; it conjures a mental image of Winston Smith cowering before the telescreen.
Quite right, say the imaginary Greek chorus. Who wants to be told what to think? Why let artistic media be sullied by the single-minded knocking-home of a point? In most cases, they would be right. One recent example, the cause of much schadenfreude on the Left, was the first part of the long-long-long-awaited adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. More qualified writers have cataloged the comical gulf between the film's ambition and its execution.
Suffice it to say that, when embarking on a movie project, the ideal starting point is probably "let's make a great movie and hopefully people might learn something along the way", not "let's cram as many of our beliefs as possible into two hours then hammer it into something vaguely film-shaped". Ditto most Christian cinema, ditto the oeuvre of Michael Moore. But what about propaganda that doesn't want to be mistaken for a work of art? What about, for dire want of a better phrase, honest propaganda?
I think it has its place. To illustrate how, I'd like to take a close look at two short films made to promote the most moral cause most of us can imagine: the defeat of Adolf Hitler. Both are animations, were made by Disney, are approximately the same length and were first screened in January 1943. There the similarities end.
Der Fuehrer's Face (Dir. Jack Kinney), if remembered at all, is mostly known as "the cartoon where Donald Duck is a Nazi". It deserves to be remembered as one of the purest embodiments of propaganda's negative connotations, as outlined above. Centered on the mindless repetition of a Nazi marching song parody/earworm, the film demands very little of its audience. It doesn't even trouble to distinguish between the three Axis powers.
Our hero is woken from his anatine slumbers by a motley fascist crew featuring caricatures of Goering, Mussolini and Hirohito, this last depiction shading much closer to Nazi racial ideas than any Allied propaganda should (Disney weren't alone in this). Mr Duck is then harried through a nightmarish - but curiously toothless - vision of a day in Hitler's Germany. The worst Der Fuehrer's Face can manage to say about history's easiest target is that the Nazis are a big bunch of meanies who like ordering people around for no good reason.
While true, this analysis could be said to lack geopolitical depth. It ends with a scene of ludicrously overblown patriotic sentiment. It all turns out to have been a horrible dream and our Donald, literally clad in the Stars and Stripes, tearfully embraces a miniature Statue of Liberty. As a final period, we get a tomato to Hitler's face. We win! Good Guys are good! Bad Guys are bad! Don't worry your pretty little heads about why, citizens! Buy more war bonds instead!
Am I being too harsh on a children's cartoon? No. This was 1943. The filmmakers might not have known, at that date, of the full horrors of Auschwitz. They did know, or had no excuse not to know, what the Nazis were really about; Kristallnacht was more than four years earlier. Der Fuehrer's Face doesn't address us as human beings, but as vectors of crude nationalism to be pointed in the right direction. It is Bad Propaganda, Exhibit A.
Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (Dir. Clyde Geronimi) is of another order entirely. I urge you, even if you don't usually bother to watch embedded videos, even if you don't read another word of this post, to set aside ten minutes to watch it. It is that remarkable.
Adapted from a non-fictional account by U.S. educator Gregor Ziemer, the film opens by asking "What makes a Nazi? How does he get that way?". To answer the question, it shows us the life of Hans, a typical German child. His parents are first made to present their credentials as pure Aryans, then to choose a name from a list of politically-acceptable options. Then his childhood, a parade of brainwashing depicted in various imaginative ways - the "fox and rabbit" scene in the classroom is especially ingenious.
By the time he's fully grown, Hans is an obedient killing machine and the narrator lays his cards on the table:
Manhood finds him still heiling and marching. But the grim years of regimentation have done their work. Now he is a good Nazi. He sees no more than the party wants him to, says nothing but what the party wants him to say and he does nothing but what the party wants him to do. And so he marches on with his millions of comrades, trampling on the rights of others. For now his education is complete. His education for... Death.
With the final word, the massed ranks of stormtroopers fade into a sea of identical gravestones.
"Trampling on the rights of others". In that brief phrase lies the fundamental difference between these two short films. Rather than establishing two monolithic blocs called Us and Them, Education for Death actually attempts to get to the truth of what was so horrific about Nazism. The audience is invited to solidarity with human beings everywhere, American or otherwise. The enemy is not depicted as a mindless animal who does what he does because he's just that evil, but as a different kind of victim - not equivalent to Hitler's true victims, but deserving of our pity.
Finally, Education for Death takes very few liberties with the facts. The brushstrokes are broad - this is wartime propaganda, after all - but every scene depicted here is derived from reality. The only major deviation from history is that no individual German lived from birth to adulthood under the Nazis, since the regime only lasted twelve years, but this is a forgivable (maybe necessary) simplification. The only concession to vulgar nationalism is the gratuitous - but very funny - depiction of Germany as an obese Valkyrie. As we've seen, it could be much worse. Here is Good Propaganda.
We can now inch towards a distinction between Good Propaganda and Bad. Good Propaganda doesn't seek to depict the whole truth and unashamedly sells its position, but relies on the truth to do so. Bad Propaganda operates without reference to truth, simply throwing whatever it can at the consumer for maximum impact. Good Propaganda speaks to our better selves, asking us to join in battle for the right reasons. Bad Propaganda aims for baser motives, pressing whatever buttons come to hand. These definitions are hopelessly vague and subjective, but "Der Fuehrer's Face vs. Education for Death" will do as a decent, rough model.
Where does this leave the most pervasive form of propaganda in American life - the political ad? It's barely worth the energy of typing to say that the vast majority of modern campaign material lies firmly on the Bad side of the ledger. The recent, already-infamous Obama spot linking Mitt Romney to a woman's premature death is nearly defensible on very narrow "house that Jack built" lines, but conservatives are right to be outraged; the insinuation is disgusting. On the Republican side, I leave it to the brilliant Michael Tomasky to detail the groaning edifice of mendacity that is the Romney-Ryan campaign.
I could make an effort here to wag my finger equally at both sides, but false neutrality is the bane of American punditry: I want you to vote for President Obama, more than once if possible*. Still, we all know that both campaigns could do a lot better than they have. The fatalist in me wonders if politics can be any other way in a mass-market democracy of 300,000,000 people. That doesn't mean we can't treat the example of Education for Death as something to aspire to, and leave Der Fuehrer's Face in the museum, where it belongs.
*Just kidding, GOP! Please don't bring back poll taxes.