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How Propaganda Works Hardcover – May 26, 2015
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How propaganda undermines democracy and why we need to pay attention
Our democracy today is fraught with political campaigns, lobbyists, liberal media, and Fox News commentators, all using language to influence the way we think and reason about public issues. Even so, many of us believe that propaganda and manipulation aren't problems for us―not in the way they were for the totalitarian societies of the mid-twentieth century. In How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid. He examines how propaganda operates subtly, how it undermines democracy―particularly the ideals of democratic deliberation and equality―and how it has damaged democracies of the past.
Focusing on the shortcomings of liberal democratic states, Stanley provides a historically grounded introduction to democratic political theory as a window into the misuse of democratic vocabulary for propaganda's selfish purposes. He lays out historical examples, such as the restructuring of the US public school system at the turn of the twentieth century, to explore how the language of democracy is sometimes used to mask an undemocratic reality. Drawing from a range of sources, including feminist theory, critical race theory, epistemology, formal semantics, educational theory, and social and cognitive psychology, he explains how the manipulative and hypocritical declaration of flawed beliefs and ideologies arises from and perpetuates inequalities in society, such as the racial injustices that commonly occur in the United States.
How Propaganda Works shows that an understanding of propaganda and its mechanisms is essential for the preservation and protection of liberal democracies everywhere.
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"Provides valuable insights into an important and timely subject."---Michiko Kakutani, New York Times Book Review
"[T]he book crackles with brilliant insights and erudition, while also managing to explain the arcane preoccupations of analytic philosophy in a way that's accessible to a wider audience."----, Bookforum
"How Propaganda Works deserves huge praise and should be read by anyone who cares about politics and language. Its trove of tools and insights is impossible to completely summarise here." ― The National
"As with other books that expose hidden patterns in American political life from a great height (those that come to mind are Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow), the lofty perspective of How Propaganda Works challenges researchers to fill in gaps with more detailed, particular explanations of how and why."---Stephen Siff, Journalism & Mass Communications Quarterly
"Rich and thoughtful. . . . The best way to fight propaganda is to become savvier about how it manipulates, how it actually works, as Stanley does in his work." ― Desmog Canada
"Brilliant and incisive." ― Survival: Global Politics and Strategy
"[A] timely and important work that contributes a good deal of theoretical understanding to a crucial yet relatively neglected topic of inquiry." ― Spinwatch
"A book uniquely suited to its time. . . . An example of political philosophy at its finest." ― Voegelinview
"Stanley tracks propaganda's history across continents and through decades, illuminating its power to make people vote against their own best interests. And what he has found is [that] the words being used may be as important as the politics behind them."---Nick Osbourne, Boston Globe
"Citing examples ranging from historical racism in America to Citizens United, Stanley's critique of propaganda and ideology will only prove more influential as public and political opinion is further polarized. . . . [A] useful examination of propaganda's pervasiveness." ― Kirkus Reviews
"Stanley has produced a highly stimulating book that brings the issue of propaganda to the attention of political philosophers and draws on an impressive range of philosophical and social scientific sources to illustrate his analysis and provide support for his claims. It is bound to be widely discussed and debated."---Jonathan Wolff, Analysis
"A searching, eclectic, lively and personal book."---Matthew Festenstein, Political Theory
"This is a valuable, one might say indispensable, book in a time when demagogues are succeeding at a level the world has not seen since World War II. I recommend it highly."---Robert J. Sternberg, PsycCRITIQUES
"The book's topic is fascinating, and Stanley’s discussion of the relevance of theories of slurs for an analysis of large portions of public discourse and flawed ideology and its relation to the ideals of liberal democracy will hopefully bear on future research in this field."---Raphael van Riel, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice
"A powerful historical account of how propaganda was employed by totalitarian regimes in the past, but it reaches way beyond that. . . . Stanley provides an impressive, holistic view of what propaganda has been historically and how it mutates in the service of today's illiberals. As with every enemy, one needs to be able to recognise it first in order to resist it. And for that reason, it is worth reading Stanley's stellar work on propaganda."---Mateusz Mazzini, New Eastern Europe
"A timely and insightful investigation into the mechanisms of language, social psychology and economic structure that allow propaganda to go largely unnoticed in a democratic context."---Fahad Y. Al-Sumait, Global Discourse
"Filled with compelling examples, this book examines what propaganda is and what threat bad propaganda poses for democracy. The case it makes―which is conceptual, normative, historical, and empirical―is persuasive and provocative. Stanley is tackling an important topic that many philosophers ignore but shouldn't."―Tommie Shelby, author of We Who Are Dark
"This ambitious book brings Stanley's insights from epistemology and philosophy of language to bear on the self-masking role of propaganda in democracy. Generous use of concrete political applications enliven the book's arguments and drive home the topic's normative importance."―Rae Langton, University of Cambridge
- Publisher : Princeton University Press; First Edition (May 26, 2015)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 376 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0691164428
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691164427
- Item Weight : 1.19 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.75 x 1 x 8.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,422,070 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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For instance, right at the beginning (page 3) he introduces (but fails to define) his concept of "flawed ideology" (implying some ideologies are flawed, and others are not.) He then proceeds to say: "When societies are unjust, for example, in the distribution of wealth, we can expect the emergence of flawed ideologies... In a society that is unjust, due to unjust distinctions between persons, ways of rationalizing undeserved privilege become ossified into rigid and unchangeable belief." This is basically Marx's theory of class identity and class-based struggle. Characterizing differences in prosperity as "the distribution of wealth" and differences in philosophy as "ways of rationalizing undeserved privilege" implies fundamentally Marxist assumptions about the nature of wealth (something "distributed" by the system) and class identity ("undeserved privilege"). You can certainly make an argument for these things-- as indeed, innumerable Marxist scholars have-- but they are NOT self-evident truths to be tabled without critical examination. Such a intellectual presentation that fails to acknowledge its obvious intellectual pedigree would fail any decent dissertation committee.
The bigger flaw, though, is that by building in a whole host of untenable Marxist assumptions about class and race and politics and human nature, the author makes this exploration of propaganda into just another long diatribe about social justice and dialectical materialism. "Good" propaganda is something oppressed people do, and "bad" propaganda is something privileged people do. In Stanley's conception, the morality or immorality of propaganda is derived from the class identity of the one doing the propaganda work. (This again is classic Marxism-Leninism.) The full explication of this deeply flawed and dangerous idea comes in pages 76-77, in which he basically admits that he is not attempting to be unbiased. "It might be thought that my project in this book requires a neutral stance, a nonideological perspective... The fact that there is no neutral stance cannot lead us to political paralysis, or to skepticism about political and moral reality." This totally undermines the legitimacy of his whole book, because what he's saying here is that this is self-consciously a work of ideology. There's a difference between a *perspective* (a lens through which to examine something) and an *ideology* (a self-referential set of beliefs).
How Propaganda Works is, sadly, an ideological work, not really that different from the kinds of studies commissioned by the Communist Party in China. Go back and read Bernays or Ellul, or (more recently) Peter Pomerantsev. Let this one go.
P.S. Not that it should matter, but I'm a liberal atheist.
Top reviews from other countries
In my opinion the biggest take-home from How Propaganda Works is that the moral dividing line is not between propaganda and ordinary speech, the most important moral dividing line is between propaganda that undermines democracy and propaganda that boosts democracy. Propaganda is a particular means of communication, used at times by all political systems but it is the only way that authoritarian political systems communicate to the public. Propaganda serves to conceal structural inequalities; it is the everyday means by which any authoritarian regime controls the populace.
Stanley is saying that propaganda is more of an issue in democratic systems because the bad kind is a direct threat to democracy. He calls the bad propaganda, “demagoguery”; as it was first described by Plato, in his book, The Republic, written twenty-four hundred years ago, it is a message that on the surface appears to be supporting democracy but the real intention is to subvert the democratic system.
How Propaganda Works was written before 2016. But Jason Stanley’s book “ How Fascism Works” focuses on Trump as the clearest current example. The current Trump Presidency is in a class all by itself when it comes to examples of demagoguery. For instance Trump’s focus on immigration and the immigrant caravans from Central America, weeks before the 2018 midterm election, was intended to heighten passions and inflame tensions in order to motivate his followers to get out and vote. The result was that more Republicans got out to vote in the midterms than might have otherwise if Trump had not stoked racial fears. Getting more people to vote seems to support democracy doesn’t it?
Jason Stanley points out that using racial prejudice to motivate political movements harms the deliberative process in democracies, because it makes it more difficult to have rational discussions about immigration, social welfare and other important issues when certain groups are targeted as less worthy of consideration.
If you need an example of what Stanley is getting at, look no further than the United States. We only have to look at the amount of child poverty, poor educational results, poor access to medicine for low income groups, diminished life expectancies, and poor post-partum survival statistics to realize that America is an outlier on major measures of public health, given its per capita GNP. To stoke fears about immigrants is really about playing to people’s prejudice, and what it does is make it far harder for anyone to deal constructively with issues like immigration, public health, and social welfare.
Since the invention and widespread use of the internet and social networks on the internet we are seeing the rise of a new danger. We saw it first come to prominence in the U.S. Presidential election of 2016 when Vladimir Putin outsourced computer hacking and trolling to shadowy individuals and organizations dedicated to one of Putin’s prime goals - that of weakening the Western Alliance. It is also a homegrown phenomenon in the U.S. perfected by Steve Bannon and Breitbart News, where propaganda is effectively outsourced to private individuals and groups using social media to sow hatred and prejudice.
Something just as alarming is the mushrooming of conspiracy theories on youtube and on the internet, also specialised in by the Kremlin via it’s T.V. mouthpiece: Russia Today. Trump himself is no stranger to this form of propaganda, during the Obama Presidency he actively promoted a discredited conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya. Conspiracy theories like Birtherism and the 9/11 “Truther” conspiracy are like hidden corrosives to the democratic system. The more people believe them the less they trust the government and the media, and the safer they feel inside of a bubble of fellow “truthers”. This makes them all the more susceptible to the next conspiracy theory or, and this is more dangerous, it makes them susceptible to trusting someone like Trump who seemingly creates his own reality and “alternative facts” whenever he likes.
I found “How Propaganda Works” did a good job of zeroing in on the major issues of Inequality, destruction of democratic deliberation, and the threat to our shared knowledge. It’s also worth noting his point that propaganda is the default mass communication system for authoritarian political systems. It works for Putin and Trump. It doesn’t work for democracy.
If you are a Philosophy or Social Sciences major you will love this book, it has a wealth of references to contemporary analytic and feminist philosophy. Otherwise I would recommend Stanley’s much more prescient book “How Fascism Works”.