Friday, February 18, 2011

Guns, Germs, Steel & Propaganda

Some books seriously alter the way you look at the world...and, for me, over the past one week, there have been two such books: Jared Diamond`s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), and Jacques Ellul`s Propaganda - The Formation of Men`s Attitudes (1965).

Diamond`s book covers an amazing range of topics - agricultural economics, linguistics, anthropology, history, evolutionary biology - all this, to address  a deceptively simple question: why did wealth and power become distributed as they are now, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated , subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

A part of his answer lies in the fact that the Eurasian land-mass provided a much more dynamic, competitive environment for the emergence of densely populated zones; of people living in close proximity to domesticated animals and birds. Over time, they grew resistant to diseases acquired from these animals; diseases against which the people of the New World had no immunity. As a result, entire civilizations were wiped out - in Mexico alone, the population plummeted from 20 million to 1.6 million due to smallpox - within a just a few decades after Hernán Cortés and conquistadors waded ashore with their horses, steel swords - and germs.

Close knit societies also developed systems of writing and communication that were accessible to the masses. This in turn enabled them to exchange ideas and improve on technological innovations, and to strengthen social networks through religion, propaganda and ideology. And this is where Diamond`s ideas connect with those of Ellul.

According to Ellul, the prevailing technological society and propaganda are Siamese twins - one cannot exist without the other. He regards propaganda as a sociological phenomenon which aims to intensify existing trends, to sharpen and focus , and, above all to lead men into action (or inaction, by preventing interference) - either towards Agitation (resentment, rebellion), or Integration (adjusting people to desired patterns).

Interestingly, he designates intellectuals as the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda because they - (1) absorb the largest amount of second-hand, unverifiable information, (2) feel the compelling need to have an opinion on everything, and (3) they consider themselves capable of "judging for themselves"   :)

Now, this makes you take a fresh look at the ongoing world conflicts, and the Twitter-FaceBook revolutions sweeping through the Middle East, and wonder...


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