The Power of Propaganda


"Printer's Devil" is episode #111 of the famed American television anthology series, "The Twilight Zone."  The title derives from the expression "printer's devil", describing an apprentice in that now defunct trade.

The initial plot set-up is based partly upon the well-known Faustian bargain with the devil motif:  a mysterious, seemingly eccentric man brings inexplicable success to a local newspaper by working as its reporter and Linotype operator, eventually revealing that he wants the editor's eternal soul in exchange.  The episode was written by Charles Beaumont and based upon his 1950 short story, entitled "The Devil You Say."  The opening narration sets the stage:

"Take away a man's dream, fill him with whiskey and despair, send him to a lonely bridge, let him stand there all by himself looking down at the black water, and try to imagine the thoughts that are in his mind.  You can't.  But there's someone who can-and that someone is seated next to Doulas Winter right now.  The car is headed back toward town, but its real destination is the Twilight Zone."

Douglas Winter, the editor of a newspaper called The Courier, is being pushed out of business by a big conglomerate paper called The Gazette.  Though Winter is an exceptionally kind and accommodating boss, his staff begin abandoning him when he is unable to pay them.  After the Linotype operator quits, the only remaining employees are Winter and his girlfriend, Jackie Benson.  Winter is an earnest dreamer who sees the paper as his sole purpose in life; faced with its demise, he drives to a nearby bridge to contemplate suicide.  He is approached by a strange man named "Mr. Smith", who says that he came to town hoping to join The Courier as a Linotype operator and reporter.  

Even after witnessing Smith's speed and precision with the Linotype machine, Winter tries to talk Smith out of taking the job, saying that he cannot pay him or even resume operation of the paper due to a delinquent $5,000.00 bank debt.  Amazingly, Smith offers to lend Winter the money.  The deal is struck.  Shortly after his hiring, Smith produces a report of a bank robbery that occurred only hours ago.  Business booms for the little newspaper, as Smith daily scoops The Gazette on dramatic news stories, with special editions which sometimes hit the streets less than a couple of hours after the reported events occur.  

Ultimately, the rich owner of The Gazette offers to buy out The Courier.  Though Winter doubts that his paper can stand up to The Gazette and puts The Courier's success down to luck, he still refuses to sell the paper.  The following day, fire completely destroys The Gazette building.  When an edition of The Courier goes on sale just two hours later, Winter is accused of arson.  Winter has witnesses to account for his whereabouts and when he asks Smith about the fire, he is evasive.  Jackie Benson, ever suspicious of Smith, prods Winter for information about where Smith came from, and implores Winter to fire Smith once the $5,000.00 loan is repaid.  Winter refuses, and becomes irritated when Jackie asks what he was doing at the bridge where he met Smith.  

At last, Smith reveals why he joined The Courier:  he wants Winter to sign a contract assuring Smith's continued services in exchange for Winter's immortal soul.  When Winter is reluctant, Smith uses a variation of doublethink, arguing that while he believes himself to be the devil, he is clearly mad, and to a sane sophisticated person like Winter, things like souls and the devil clearly do not exist.  Fooled by the father of lies, Winter signs the contract.  Eventually, however, he awakens to the reality that Smith is somehow causing the evil events about which he reports, and tells Smith to begone.  Smith responds that this is now impossible because of the contract, and then writes a story about Jackie being injured in a car crash 90 minutes hence.  He tells Winter that when he joined the paper he modified the Linotype machine so that anything typed on it actually happens, and threatens to write that Jackie died of her injuries unless Winter commits suicide.  This would allow Smith to claim Winter's soul instantly and move on to other conquests, rather than work at the paper for the remainder of Winter's natural life.  Winter tosses aside the offered gun and goes frantically in search of Jackie.  Meanwhile, Jackie confronts Smith, who agrees to leave town if only she gives him a lift, and offers to drive.

Unable to find Jackie, Winter returns to the paper and uses the Linotype machine to write a new story.  The car carrying Jackie and Smith runs off the road, but Jackie is uninjured and Smith vanishes.  Winter shows a confused Jackie the story he wrote, which says that Smith left town and that his contract with Winter was declared null and void due to Winter's failure to fully understand its terms.  Winter resumes operating The Courier after destroying the infernal Linotype machine and having it hauled away.

Exit the infernal propaganda machine, along with its Satanic majesty, Lucifer, prince of darkness-aka Mr. Smith.  He is gone, but just for now.

This story begs certain questions:  How do we perceive ourselves? Do we think of ourselves as strong or weak, effective or ineffective, as liked or disliked? Would we characterize ourselves as successful, in harmony with ourselves or internally conflicted? Anxious and hostile, or kind and loving? Are we difficult to get along with, or easily pleased? Self-perception is important.  Psychotherapists know that one of the most important factors in sickness or in health is an individual's picture of themselves.  Change this picture, and you might even be able to change the person; at the very least, you will change their behaviour.  This is precisely what Smith understood about Winter, and then used that knowledge to gain dominion over his life and even his afterlife.  

How do we see others? Our next door neighbours, the homeless, the affluent, those living in distant India or Africa? Perceptions are important here too.  They help to guide behaviour.  They determine action, whether we like it or not, whether or not they are accurate.  So too is it with any generalized picture we have of humanity.  It shapes our thoughts and actions. Our generalized understanding of mankind interacts with and influences our view of ourselves and helps to shape our interpretation of human nature and destiny.  The nefarious fake news generated by the evil Linotype machine at The Courier expresses one such version of humanity-an evil one.

It was once possible to speak of a fairly unified view of mankind in a given historical period or culture.  There was the classical view of man, the Christian view, the Renaissance view, the Confucian view, or the Vedic conception of humanity.  But in our time, no single view of mankind is dominant.  There is confusion and a Babel of voices.  Some views of humanity in the world today are vague but pervasive.  They are expressed more at the level of emotion than of thought.  They are latent in various cultural forms and remain uncriticized by most of us.  WOKE ideology is the prime example of this phenomenon.  Other views have been more carefully worked out by thoughtful and scholarly people.  They may be embodied in a whole system of ideas.  It is difficult to ascertain which sort of viewpoint has the greater influence.  Certainly, the popular views of mankind expressed in the mass culture have a great and unsuspected power over us, as the poet T.S. Eliot suggested was the case with "the literature we read for amusement."  These media are promoted for profit by some, shared without full comprehension by many, and experienced by nearly all of us today.  

The mass media plays upon our minds and feelings continuously.  TV, movies, music, the internet and social media all surely play their part in shaping our thoughts and feelings about both ourselves and others.  But views of mankind are even more embodied in the attitudes of cultural and class groups.  Whatever the implicit views of mankind we absorb from our culture and from the mass media, or elsewhere, our behaviour is likely guided by them.  They are part of the world of assumptions by which we gauge other people's actions and attitudes.  They are part of the picture of ourselves, for our self-image reflects the appraisals we think others are making of us.  

But just like the news stories generated by the devil's printer, implicit views of mankind may be quite false.  They may be distorted, over simplified, or only half-truths about humanity.  The pervasive cult of transgenderism is one such salient example.  We all know at a very deep level that men cannot become women, or vice versa.  This delusion defies both nature and sense.  It is, at bottom, a lie.  We therefore need to be keenly aware of these pictures of mankind which are omnipresent in our culture.  We need to evaluate and criticize them.  Such awareness, evaluation, and critique are only possible, however, if we have clarified our own view of mankind.  We need an articulated body of understanding to set against the many alternative views that compete for our acceptance and loyalty.  

One of the ways to develop a critical understanding of human nature, condition, and destiny is to examine some of the carefully worked out views of mankind offered by the major thinkers of the contemporary world.  That requires setting these views side by side for comparison and to let them raise questions for each other.  Such comparison is important to appraisal of their claimed relevance and adequacy, but even more, it helps us to develop our own constructive interpretation.  One example might be to consider the claims of critical race theory vs. The historically proven benefits of a meritocratic race blind society.  In this respect, we could contrast the theories of a Robin De Angelo or Ibrahim X Kendi vs.  Those of a Charles Murray or Thomas Sowell.  Destruction of The Gazette in our story represents violent censorship of the dominant competing narrative, so that propaganda from The Gazette reigns  supreme, unchallenged by truth.

What we discover in this way is that few if any carefully worked out theories of human existence are purely descriptive and analytical.  They are most often normative and evaluative as well.  Though they try to tell us something about what we are, they contain a thesis or several of them about what we ought to be.  It thus becomes possible to organize most theories about mankind around three central themes:  First, a theory of humanity usually carries the assumption that something is wrong with us; it usually carries an answer to the question, "what is wrong with mankind?" Second, such a theory also contains a normative judgment-a view of what we ought to or could be.  That is, a second central motif has to do with the nature of human fulfillment, with what a "good" person is.  Finally, a third theme involves the way of moving on from what is wrong with us to what we are "meant to be" or to what human fulfillment involves.  Winter discovers this at the end of the story, when he realizes the importance of sacrificing himself and his paper to save Jackie.

The modern world is permeated by psychological categories.  We tend to look at one another and use psychological concepts to describe what we see.  Psychologists like Dr. Jordan Peterson might look at a person using psychological categories and conclude that they are "not adjusted" or "not fully functioning", or "not actualizing themselves".  If the difficulty is more serious and the individual is something of a problem to themselves or others, then the psychologist might say that the person is neurotic.  Or if something still more serious is wrong with the individual, so much so that they are estranged from reality, or cannot get along in the community, or if they are dangerous to themselves or others, they may even be labelled "psychotic".  This must be how Winter saw Smith when the little old printer pressed him to assign away his immortal soul.  

Any such diagnosis as to what is wrong with humanity depends upon some assumptions about what adjustment or healthy functioning are.  The goal may be described as full-functioning or emotional maturity.  Christian theology has parallel categories to describe the human condition and human fulfillment.  What is wrong with us is that we are sinful and without faith.  We have separated ourselves from God and the rest of humanity.  The goal for mankind is faith, forgiveness, followed by growth in grace, by love and hope, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  

From the psychological perspective, the way from what is wrong to the stated goal may be termed conditioning, education, reformation, or conversion therapy.  From the theological perspective, the only Way is by faith.  But faith is a gift from God.  We are finally saved or healed by God.  We cannot redeem ourselves.  We are not healed by our own good works.

What then is the role which the modern, internet version of the infernal Linotype plays in shaping such views of ourselves and each other?

Never in human history has it been so simple to pass off opinion as fact and get 100 or 1,000 or even 1,000,000 other people onboard with it.  Despite having all of the information in the world available at the drop of a hat-and constantly competing for our attention-it is difficult to differentiate between a well-meaning news article and a hard-hitting expose on a celebrity's sudden weight gain.  With our senses being constantly assaulted by everything from our electronic devices to our daily commutes to work, many of us are easily manipulated into beliefs and purchases we never desired and cannot explain.  Many of us are left in unhealthy cynicism about all institutions, from having our affections and loyalties constantly manipulated and tossed by the changing winds of public opinion and what is considered politically and socially correct thoughts or actions.

The digital age has certainly opened up new avenues for mind control, brainwashing, manipulation, propaganda, and negative influence.  Different brainwashing techniques arise from our interpersonal relationships, religion, cult followings, military scare tactics, medical monopolies, the media, and corporate entities.  "Media Control:  The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda" is Noam Chomsky's back-pocket classic on wartime propaganda and opinion control.  It begins by asserting two models of democracy-one in which the public actively participates (such as by voting)-and one in which the public is manipulated and controlled.  According to Chomsky, "propaganda is to democracy as the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state", and the mass media is the primary vehicle for delivering propaganda in Western democracies.  

From an examination of how President Woodrow Wilson's Creel Commission succeeded in the short span of six months to turn a pacifist population into a hysterical war mongering mob, to George Bush Sr.'s war on Iraq, Chomsky examines how the mass media and public relations industries have been weaponized as propaganda to generate public support for certain causes-especially war.  Chomsky also explains how the modern public relations industry has been influenced by Walter Lippmann's theory of "spectator democracy", in which the public is seen as a "bewildered herd" that needs to be directed, not empowered; and how the public relations industry in the West focuses upon "closing the public mind", and not upon informing it.  Media control is thus an invaluable primer on the secret workings of disinformation in democratic societies.  Just as Mr. Smith used the demonic Linotype to create news and cause catastrophe, the modern mass media machine misshapes and distorts facts in order to propagandize messages which manipulate and control how we see ourselves, others, and the greater world.  

A more hopeful view of the problem is presented in Bertrand Russel's classic book, "Free-Thought and Official Propaganda", a collection of essays written in response to the censorship and propaganda tactics employed by governments.  Russell argues that these tactics suppress individual thought and intellectual freedom, and that free thought is essential for a healthy society.  He examines the role of education, religion, and politics in shaping public opinion, and critiques the ways in which governments and institutions use language to manipulate and control us.  Ultimately, Russell calls for a society in which individuals are free to think for themselves and are not subject to the influence of the official propaganda machine.  This book remains relevant today as it explores the tension between individual freedom and state power, and the importance of critical thinking in an era of misinformation and fake news.

Why then are we so vulnerable to such propaganda?

C.S. Lewis provides a plausible explanation in one of his many brilliant essays on Christianity, entitled "Transposition", from his book "The Weight of Glory."  The starting point for his doctrine of transposition is, of all things, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.  He employs this to argue that the 'higher' experience of the emotions draws up the 'lower' experience of bodily sensation in such a way that the two, though distinct, are inseparable.  In other words, our experience as embodied creatures is such that, while we recognize soulful love as superior to carnal appetite, we cannot separate them.  He further posits that modern mankind has essentially made themselves into an animal by missing the reality of transposition.  The materialist view of humanity looks at the world and sees only facts.  The result is that

"He is therefore, as regards the matter at hand, in the position of an animal.  You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing.  You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger.  A finger is a finger to him, and that is all.  His world is all fact and no meaning."(P.114)

This then results in distractions like evolutionary psychology:

"A man who has experienced love from within will deliberately go about to inspect it analytically from outside and regard the results of this analysis as truer than his experience." (P.114)

Hence we progress from speaking in tongues to scientism (not science) and deconstruction of all that is true, good, and beautiful.  This all stems from our inability to make proper application of the signs, the pointers, that we have been given.  We have looked at the painting and only seen it as chemicals on solidified tree pulp, when we ought to have stood in awe and prayed for hastening of the day when the frame would be discarded and the true colours revealed:

"The critique of every experience from below, the voluntary ignoring of meaning and concentration on fact, will always have the same plausibility.  There will always be evidence, and every month fresh evidence, to show that religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral bio-chemistry." (pp.114-115)

This is precisely what Winter does at The Courier when he begins to realize that Smith is creating, rather than predicting or even reporting the news.  Winter is, like Lewis' dog, pointed to the inescapable and authentic feeling that something is wrong, but stares dumbly at Smith's finger, seeing only psychological facts and an absence of evidence.  Even when Smith reveals his true identity to Winter and presents him with a contract to sign away his immortal soul, Winter chooses to ignore meaning and religion, refusing to believe that a metaphysical being called the devil even exists.  It is only once Winter desperately accepts the reality of transposition-that the transcendent truths of human existence cannot be explained by psychology or science- that he is able to act effectively to perform the good and defeat evil.  

This then is the antidote to the evil power of propaganda:  our innate, God-given sense of what is good, true and beautiful.  We need only look to where God's Mighty Hand is pointing us, rather than trust in the soul destroying lies propagated by those who would lead us into temptation.


As G.K. Chesterton put it:

"You will not understand a word

Of all the words, including mine;

Never you trouble; you can see,

And all directness is divine-

Stand up and keep childishness:

Read all the pedants' screeds

And strictures;

But do not believe in anything

That cannot be told in coloured pictures."


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