Propaganda and the Marketplace of Ideas

Depiction of the "pure Aryan" family, 1938

Last Monday our Lantos group went on an interesting and challenging tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s special exhibit, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. The exhibit takes visitors through the evolution of Nazi propaganda and offers poignant examples of its use during the years leading up to and during the Second World War. A recurring question for me was: how should democratic societies, which cherish free speech, guard against the stifling effect that propaganda has on the marketplace of ideas? Should propaganda be banned outright?

Interestingly enough, the images that were the most thought provoking for me were the ones authored by American propagandists. Some of the first pictures that visitors encounter in the exhibit hail from the United States, during the time of the First World War, when propaganda was employed to vilify Germans and encourage Americans to purchase Liberty Bonds that financed the allied war effort. In retrospect, Hitler regarded Germany’s inability to effectively use propaganda, as the American’s had done, as a primary cause of his country’s defeat during the First World War. The example of American propaganda convinced him of its power and the role it might play in the winning the war of ideas waged in Germany during the tumultuous years following the Treaty of Versailles. Ultimately, Nazi propaganda successfully out-competed the political platforms of other parties in Germany, gained a monopoly over the marketplace of ideas, and then halted the free flow of ideas completely.

As an American, my first thought was: should Americans be troubled that their country’s effective use of propaganda inspired Hitler to implement it is a tool of the Nazi party? Yikes! We touched on this topic during our group discussion and looked at instances in which propaganda has been used for good and for ill — on the bright side: public health campaigns have used propaganda-like materials to dissuade kids from using drugs or to promote the use of contraceptives in places with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. On the dark side: propaganda has been used to dehumanize others and instigate mass violence.

The entire exhibit brought me back to the question of free speech. In light of its risks, should we allow propaganda to be used at all? Is it possible to regulate propaganda in a democratic society that upholds the right to fee speech? This is an enormously challenging question and one that I suspect our Lantos group will continue to discuss over the next couple of months. From my vantage point, a group’s propaganda becomes dangerous when it tries to create a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas. Once propaganda eliminates the ability of other ideas to compete, the gates are opened wide for dangerous ideologies to take root and metastasize. Ultimately, a free marketplace of ideas is our greatest defense against the pernicious effects of propaganda, even though it paradoxically defends propaganda’s right to exist. That’s my two cents. In any case, the State of Deception exhibit is thought provoking and is definitely worth checking out.

On a side note: one of the final images in the exhibit is a portrait of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was included to show a contemporary political figure who may one day face prosecution before an international tribunal, similar to the Nuremburg trials. The consensus in our group was that featuring his picture distracted from the exhibit’s overall theme and purpose.

— David Peyton


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