Monday, August 3, 2009

The Absurdity of Truth in the Wake of Propaganda

One of the most terrifying aspects of public outlook is the ability for the public to be swayed by the opinions of the so-called intellectuals or public servants. It is in this vein of discussion where opinions are solidified and rules and regulations are set in stone. The difficulty with these judgments though is that so many ride on the necessitation of a further goal and sometimes goals which can be of a more incendiary nature and ultimately criminal. Propaganda, to be exact, has been a tool utilized with the aforementioned goal in mind; but to what extent and how ought the public at large know when propaganda is being used to further these goals of say world domination? Through the lens of philosophers, authoritarians, and victims the oft-arbitrary nature of truth will be examined as well as how propaganda has historically played a role in shaping societal truths.

The very word truth poses difficulty; when heard it is assumed that the speaker is genuine and has no ulterior motives. However, as Friedrich Nietzsche so eloquently states, “[knowledge’s] most universal effect is deception” (Nietzsche 43) because of the very nature of knowledge/truth. Nietzsche’s explanation of this deception for the Nazi’s comes in the form of the human’s inherent vanity. In the interest of ones self-preservation, too often - and similarly in Albert Speer’s memoirs Inside the Third Reich- one is “acting a role before others and before oneself” (Nietzsche 43).

Speer’s account of the vanity of Nazi’s and their desire for power could be drawn not from his words, but the very pictures themselves. His “Cathedral of Ice” for example not only raised Hitler above his audience so that they were forced to raise their heads in awe, but also gave the illusionary quality of the people being in a prison. The lights formed bar-like structures around the perimeter, and moreover, the name itself conjured up images of reverence and obedience. This use of visual propaganda can be likened to what Nietzsche refers to as the Nazi’s “deeply immers[ing their subjects] in illusions and dream images; their eye glides only over the surface of things and sees “forms”; their feeling nowhere leads into truth, but contents itself with the reception of stimuli […]” (Nietzsche 43). Not only does the structure call for the audience to heed to its impressiveness, but it also calls for the audience to ignore the true motives of the Nazi’s.

Speer’s architectural endeavors - with the purpose of control through propaganda – echoes Nietzsche’s idea of truth being likened to “[a] mobile army of metaphors” (Nietzsche 46) for Speer utilized the structures with the same intent of obedience and reverence. His constructions, like the “Cathedral of Ice” and “the New Chancellery,” themselves are the very metaphor to promote feelings of unworthiness in respect to their size, as well as, imposing order with the application of the neoclassical design.

“The New Chancellery” was Hitler’s conversation with the western world. He wanted it to not only “impress London society by the sumptuousness of the embassy” (Speer 108), but specifically to affect the “smaller dignitaries” (Speer 102). This specificity of person with which Hitler wanted to impress upon was a lower caliber, and thus, more easily swayed away from reality towards power and prestige. Hitler made excellent use of Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors” and employed someone who was adept at making his propagandistic vision a reality.

In Elie Wiesel’s Night, the affect that the Nazi’s had on the Jew’s in Sighet was palpable. Wiesel recalls the German soldiers wore “steel helmets” (Wiesel 27) that bore a “death’s-head emblem” (Wiesel 27) and while this in itself suggests impending doom, the Jew’s stayed in a state of denial. Before they had heard that the German’s were anti-Semitic, Wiesel stated that while they “had heard of the Fascists, […] it was all in the abstract” (Wiesel 27). In other words, the metaphor of the Fascist and their inevitable appearance in Sighet only spoke of the governmental responsibilities of this new command. The compliance with which the Jews in Sighet bore suggests the power of the propaganda and the ease at which one gives up sovereignty. They were “reassured” (Wiesel 27) by the soldier’s demeanor and hadn’t the slightest inclination of the true motives of the Nazi’s. Wiesel’s story shows this slow but pervading power that the Nazi’s employed beginning with their arrival, to the yellow star, and ultimately the Holocaust.

Even when the citizen’s of Sighet heard the stories that they were heading towards a terrible fate, they remained blind to their inherent right to freedom and one must take pause as to why anyone is not vigilant towards their personal preservation. The philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer saw truth as something that is asserted. He said as humans it is our responsibility to recognize when something is “false, not because it is formally defective, but because it fails to satisfy some material criterion. And it is our responsibility to discover what that criterion is” (Ayer 90). It is assumed that, like the soldiers initial demeanor, the ruler’s actions were proper, just as the Hungarians - who allied themselves with the Nazi’s - believed the lies Hitler was speaking about the Jews were true. Truth became a tool used to manipulate, and propaganda was its “mobile army.”

But propaganda is not only affective through the use of carefully constructed rallies, buildings, and lies disguised as truth; its implementation during times of crisis is paramount to fundamentally changing the way a nation views it’s fellow citizens, as well as how a people view one another. John Okada’s image of America in No-No Boy speaks volumes that societies consent in having an unrealistic sense of their surroundings, one that leaves the viewer in a fuzzy state of ignorance. Ichiro asks “[w]here is that place they talk of and paint nice pictures of and describe in all the homey magazines?” (Okada 159) This is in part the American Dream that people so ravishingly devour in hopes of being the “tired, hungry, and poor” that America accepts with open arms. Okada poignantly remarks through Ichiro that “[o]ne hears the voice of the Negro or Japanese or Chinese or Jew, a clear bell-like intonation of the common struggle for recognition as a complete human being […]” (Okada 134). Through No-No Boy’s characters, the reader experiences this struggle that fractures the lives and families when they realize even the American Dream comes with exceptions.

The level of splintering among the Japanese-Americans is a true testament to the misinformation we readily accept. Those, like Ichiro, who chose to conscientiously object the draft, were considered traitors, but those who fought for the United States, like Kenji, were emotionally being chipped away at. The image of Kenji’s leg being cut inch by inch until his untimely death illustrates the hardship of fighting among a people who had just recently interned the Japanese. It also finds expression in his own need to delude himself when “[he] downed his thankfully” (Okada 119) and then surveyed his own father appreciating the alcohol he himself mindlessly ingested, suggesting it is not the taste to enjoy, but it’s physical and mental numbing properties.

Alcohol plays an important role in denying the facts of Japanese-American lives during WWII. Kenji not only drinks it to forget the pain of losing a leg inch by inch, but Ichiro’s father drowns out the truth as well. He not only uses it to drink away the reality of his son, Ichiro’s, misery, or his wife’s insanity, or his other boy, Taro’s, running away to the Army; but as a disinfectant as well (Okada 174). Moreover, as soon as the mother dies – symbolizing the nisei’s break from the issei – he quits drinking and begins life anew, suggesting the difficulty of maintaining ones culture and identity in a foreign land.

When Okada discusses the “apostrophe” (Okada 229) of an Irish name versus the removal creating a Japanese last name, this need to remove the traditional is further pressed upon the reader. Naomi Klein states in her book The Shock Doctrine this need to remove identity from the group who is being derogated. To further instill a level of inferiority, the CIA manual of 1983 stated a prisoner for example must be “segregated immediately,” (Klein 459) and then “[i]solation, both physical and psychological, must be maintained from the moment of apprehension” (Klein 459). When America was attacked at Pearl Harbor the immediate removal of the Japanese, regardless of their birthplace, was necessary to keep the level of fear among the “natural” Americans. It was also a tool to encourage the subordination of the Japanese-Americans. Much to their chagrin, they complied in order to show their American loyalty.

The Japanese paper “The Rafu Shimpo” encouraged their readers during the war to “[s]peak up now!” (2-14-42) to show that they were “loyal American[s]” (2-14-42) but with the local American papers, such as “The Los Angeles Times” or the “San Francisco Chronicle” it was difficult to break away from the pervading fear. Cartoon pictures in the Times just four days after “The Rafu Shimpo” was calling for their undeniable support of America, shows a Japanese – with knife in hand and scull encrusted on the uniform - drooling aggressively over helpless bits of meat which are attempting to inch themselves away from the devourer. Just below the derogatory depiction, a concerned citizen is writing into the Times suggesting that the “West Coast” ought “not overlook all those German and Italian “refugees”” (Times 2-18-42).

Furthermore, an editorial in the “SF Chronicle” relishes in Washington “oust[ing] enemy aliens” and calls the internment and separation “necessary and proper acts of national defense, regardless of the individual hardships and injustices involved” (SF Chronicle 2-1-42). This use of fear mongering and causing unnecessary hysteria does not help when the aforementioned paper’s front page saying the “Jap Armada” is invading a “Dutch [s]tronghold” (SF Chronicle 2-1-42). This “mobile army of metaphors” creates an atmosphere of hate and confusion.

These papers helped shape a world-view of the Japanese. Their derogatory statements clearly created a false sense of who the Japanese really were. “The Rafu Shimpo” was the voice of the steadfast Japanese but it was unheeded by the hysteria which propaganda so effortlessly stirs. Calling themselves “[l]oyal Americans of Japanese ancestry [who] pledge[d] to live and die for the Stars and Stripes” (2-3-42) would have been the ultimate American testament of their national pride, yet this truth was veiled in comments rich with strife.

Humans can be easily swayed when tragedy strikes or during times of civil unrest. We allow ourselves to be overcome with emotions based off of ignorance, and do not vigilantly search out the truth of the matter. When Nietzsche believed that truth could so easily be mocked by disguising words as knowledge, he makes a poignant statement: unless we are vigilant, the light will never be exposed.

Hitler made nations believe, by his use of grand settings and over-the-top gestures that the Jews really were enemies and the Jews believed that nothing terrible was going to happen until it was too late. Both Okada and “The Rafu Shimpo” illustrated what the tearing apart of families looked like and how loyal they truly were, while local newspapers cultivated peoples fear of the Japanese and misinformed the reader with assumptions based off of ignorance. Seemingly, no one sought the truth of the matter; they kept with the status quo and believed their lives would be blissful - unbeknownst to them – in ignorance and with blood on their hands.

Works Cited

Ayer, Alfred Jules. “Truth and Probability.” Language, Truth and Logic. 2nd ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1946. 87-90. Print.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007. Print.

The Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] Feb. 1942. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "From On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. 42-47. Print.

Okada, John. No-no boy. Seattle: University of Washington, 1981. Print.

The Rafu Shimpo [Los Angeles] Feb. 1942. Print.

The San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco] Feb. 1942. Print.

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. New York: Scribner, 1981. Print.

Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy Night, Dawn, Day. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. Print.

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