hfvdh9dyoxbne5tgkpv3Why is propaganda stupid – almost by definition?

I don’t mean it’s wrong, or evil. Like the Human Centipede, propaganda exists in a space where concepts like that don’t even seem to apply. What I mean is that it’s dumb. Cartoony. WW2 propaganda posters (for any side) look like bad science fiction movies made by Ed Wood.

Where’s the intellectual propaganda? Where are the Cold War posters that outline the intellectual and moral case against communism, rather than characterising it as a creed of the inhuman Ivan out to sap our bodily fluids?

If your first thought is “well, Joe and Jane Sixpack are dumb and they won’t understand smart stuff, so you have to speak their language” then I hope you have a second, because I’m not satisfied. Common folk have a lot of respect for their intellectual betters, so long as they don’t feel patronised or bullshitted. An easy influence technique is to convince someone that something’s over their head, and that they’d better just leave it in your hands. That’s the basis of the Stanley Milgram experiments. “I have a lab coat, and I know better than you, so just shut up and press the button, faggot.”

I think that we’re looking at the wrong side of the black box. Dumb propaganda isn’t popular because it’s easy to consume. It’s popular because it’s easy to spread.

There is a man called Mike Huben, who has produced a large body of material (of varying quality) arguing against libertarianism. Probably his best insight is this: libertarianism’s success (beyond a heavy PR campaign by the Koch Brothers) is that it breaks down to a few concepts that 1), sound good, and b) are easily spammable, even by stupid people. It doesn’t take a smart guy to shout “FREEDOM” like Mel Gibson, and if you can emotionally identify libertarianism with that simple, idealistic concept, you can turn any moron into an evangelist. You don’t make people argue for consequentialism or minarchism or fewer tariffs. You make them argue for freedom itself.

According to Huben, the philosophy’s success is based, not on being especially intellectually compelling, but by being really good at creating new followers. Hence, you get stuff like /r/EnoughLibertarianSpam. It’s one of those philosophies that has an incredible ability to turn people into characters from Snow Crash, their brains overwritten by a hyper-catching mental virus.

For years, we’ve tried to make spambots sound like humans. Libertarianism achieves the opposite, it makes humans sound like spambots.

Some religions could be described along similar lines. I’ve heard many atheists complain about “Godbotting”, where believers don’t actually engage in discussion or debate, but just repeat simple, canned messages (“God loves you!”, “I’m praying for you!”, etc). Without taking a position on either libertarianism or religion, it seems like a big part of surviving in a memeplex is that you have lots of short, mantra-like messages for quick and efficient spamming. In-depth arguing is a waste of time. It’s better to take that same effort and blast a thousand strangers with ads for intellectual V1AGR4 and C14L1S.

It seems things are still a volume game: quantity trumps quality, the effective positions are the ones that are quickly able to deploy lots of shock troops. They say nations are often still mentally fighting the last war. In the case of the internet, it that war is the American Civil War.

Regarding the ACW, historians often say that the Confederate cause was a Lost one before it even began. The North held all the cards. To quote Rhett Butler, “I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who’d be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines–all the things we haven’t got. Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They’d lick us in a month.”

But on the other hand, remember that the Union had a much more difficult strategic goal. They had to impress the rogue states back into the Union, while the Confederacy only had to continue existing. And various dominos fell in the Union’s favor. The Confederacy never thought they’d be fighting a war alone, they counted on support from sovereign nations like Great Britain and France (who needed cheap cotton). When that didn’t come, the Confederacy found themselves outnumbered, outgunned, and staring down the barrel of a blockade. But even then, the Confederates held out for nearly fifty times Rhett’s pronouncement. Why?

In large part, because footsoldiers were cheap. All you needed was a musket, and a bandolier with 40 rounds. At no other time was the role of huge numbers of men so evident. Cavalry was losing prominence, artillery had yet to come into its own, and the chief way to fight wars was via a numbers game.

If the Confederates had invested in a small number of elite, well-trained troops, they’d have been horsefucked. As it was, they eventually lost the war, but their ethos lives on in propaganda. Spam your way to success. We are Civil War Re-Enactors, all of us. Did I mention that one of the reasons they failed was because they finally ran out of manpower? A problem that will never occur in an intellectual arena where keyboards can copy and paste?

Ecclesiastes 9-11 has the following quote: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

That might have been true in Ecclesiastes’ time, but in the 21st century we have a more idoneous answer: the race is to the dumb.

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