propaganda

Words may fall into obscurity for lack of use, even though they refer to realities that still figure prominently in our daily lives. Here’s one that has been little used since the days of the McCarthy hearings: propaganda. We need to blow dust off that word and reacquaint ourselves with what it means, because we are now immersed in it.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” It comes from the name of the Vatican’s Congregatio de propaganda fide (“Congregation for propagating the faith”), established in 1622 to promote Catholic missionary activity. Eventually, propaganda referred to any large-scale effort to inform the public.

However, the term gained a negative connotation in the late 19th century as European political leaders rallied their people by spreading messages of German national pride, English national pride, Russian national pride, etc. As they ratcheted up their rhetoric, they made ever more outlandish claims that depicted themselves as heroes and their neighbors as villains–even more so when war broke out. California Senator Hiram W. Johnson said at the time, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

We find ourselves in a similar situation. Around the globe, national leaders extol their moral superiority to recruit fanatics who will trample upon their neighbors’ basic rights. They use emotionally charged words to promote their causes and dismiss the claims of others.

As a writer, I’m keenly aware of the power of words. They can rescue, counsel, and encourage. They can also incite bigotry, suspicion of foreigners, and insurrection against the state. Simply because a leader says something emphatically and repeatedly, I cannot assume it is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance” (see 1 Tim. 4:9). Like the people of Berea when they first heard the astonishing news of Jesus Christ, I need to check today’s propaganda against Scripture to see whether it’s true (see Acts 17:11).

 

A friend suggested that I take my antique mantel clock to a repair shop in an unfamiliar part of town. Waiting for the shop to open, I noticed a barbershop beside it. I needed a trim, but the barber’s tinted window did not allow me to see how many customers might be waiting, so I stepped inside.

canstockphoto3884183The tall, young barber said he could take me in half an hour, and pointed to two little boys seated with their family. Apparently, the shop catered to African-American men. That was true of the barber, his customers, and several neighborhood men engaged in conversation with him. Hairstyle wall posters featured African-American models and a large Zulu tribal mask hung next to them.

When the repair shop finally opened, I left my clock next door and came back to wait my turn. The spectators gossiped and joked loudly until the barber motioned me to his chair. Then the room fell silent, a couple of men drifted away, and one who remained crossed his arms to regard my white face with apprehension.

The barber tried to make conversation with me, but I know nothing about sports teams–though he offered opinions about the NFL, NBA, and college football. The bystander, who’d been so talkative for the past half hour, said nothing.

Finally, the barber held a hand mirror in front of me and asked how the haircut looked. “It’s fine,” I said. “The length’s just right.”

Our spectator dropped his arms and broke into a smile. “Yes, sir. It looks mighty fine,” he agreed.

“Hair is hair,” the barber told him. “We take all kinds here.”