Anger sells. By using agitprop, we can use passions to override intelligence.
At one point in the history of ancient Sparta, the leadership hit upon a political panacea: start wars. The Spartans were extremely militaristic, and when domestic disagreements got out of hand they would go start a war. Everyone would get angry(er), march off to battle, defeat some somebody, and return home happy(er).
The Spartans frequently attacked Thebes, in Boeotia. The Thebans weren’t much for warfare, and the Boeotians found themselves repeatedly subjugated and humiliated by Sparta, as were quite a few other city-states.
At least the Thebans were until Epaminondas came along, lengthened the spears, modified the classic phalanx, and gave Sparta a first rate butt-whuppin’.
In the loss to Thebes, Spartan King Agesilaüs II was wounded. For all of their brutality, the Spartans were quite egalitarian among themselves, and their acid tongues gave rise to the term ‘Laconic wit.’ One of the soldiers walked up to the King and added salt to his wounds by saying, “Funny how good they’ve gotten with all the training we’ve given them.”1)The actual quote is from Plutarch, Lycurgus 13.5-6, “This is a fine tuition-fee which thou art getting from the Thebans, for teaching them how to fight, when they did not wish to do it, and did not know how.” I think I heard my version in a BBC special years ago, and I like it better. It’s more, well, Laconic. (Special thanks to Josiah Ober and Mark Pyzyk at Stanford for their help in identifying the quote and source.)
In fact, the Thebans had gotten very good from their training, and the Spartans reaped what they had sown. Not only did Boeotia throw off the Spartan yoke, but Epaminondas ultimately changed the political landscape of ancient Greece, further weakening Sparta.
Continue reading below.
The take-home points are, a) anger consolidates your position, and b) sooner or later it comes around to bite your six.
Which brings up agitprop, from the Russian агитпроп, a portmanteau derived from ‘The Department of Agitation and Propaganda.’ This was the communist ministry charged with disseminating the ideals of the Russian Revolution. After their 1917 coup, the Bolsheviks sent agitprop trains out into the countryside, in order to convert peasants into revolutionaries. Some agitprop was instructional, addressing things like education and health. But a lot of it was, well, agitation and propaganda. Lots of fists, flags, flames, fulminations, lots of red color (revolutionary red to be sure, but it’s also a very agitating color), lots of anger & zeal & patriotism.2)For more posters click here.
And who’s against patriotism?
It worked. Agitating people makes them impassioned, so impassioned that they often buy into whatever the agitator is selling. Give people something or someone to fear and loathe, and they forget their personal problems, forget their public protests.
They park their brains at the door, and join your cause.
From Communism to Capitalism to Fascism
In a searing but amusing irony, agitprop heavily influenced capitalist advertising, and became a frequent cudgel in the partisan politics of ‘enlightened’ countries. What is somewhat surprising however, is that the right uses agitprop as well, and at times better, than the left.
That even includes fascists. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, was very clear that everything he knew about mass media, he learned from Madison Avenue.
And it continues today. Note the clever poster at right. What I find fascinating is that the designer apparently found no irony in associating Nazi Brownshirts with leftist politics; in attacking a biracial African-American president by using icons of racial purity; nor in affiliating bureaucratic boneheads with either political party (the shirts aren’t easy to read but they say NSA, EPA, DOJ, IRS).
Polemics (from the Greek πολεμικός, meaning ‘war’ appropriately enough) uses outrageous images and words, which (surprise) enrages people, and gets them on your side. It’s a tactic of political partisans of all stripes. As I have noted repeatedly, it’s not liberal and conservative, it’s not right vs left; it’s extremists vs moderates, it’s dogmatism vs rational thought and open discussion.
Park your brain and board the train.
Death to Goldbricks! courtesy BrooklynBrainery.com. This is my translation of the Russian, and I don’t know any Russian. The phrase Бьем по лжеударникам is complicated, I looked around the Internet and finally found a discussion on MasterRussian.net. A Russian friend also suggested ‘Death to false achievers.’ Лже is ‘fake’, and Ударникам is a shock worker, someone whose production and quality set the standard for everyone else. Sort of a workers’ ‘gold standard,’ which gave me the idea to use ‘goldbrick’; that, in turn, gets its name from fake bricks of gold sold by con artists, and gradually came to mean any fake or fraud.
Proletariat Vol. 1 courtesy Sean’s Visual Communication.
Obama Brownshirts courtesy ThePeoplesCube.com.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The actual quote is from Plutarch, Lycurgus 13.5-6, “This is a fine tuition-fee which thou art getting from the Thebans, for teaching them how to fight, when they did not wish to do it, and did not know how.” I think I heard my version in a BBC special years ago, and I like it better. It’s more, well, Laconic. (Special thanks to Josiah Ober and Mark Pyzyk at Stanford for their help in identifying the quote and source.)|
|2.||↑||For more posters click here.|