On propaganda

Jews and Indians refused citizenship 

I ventured out to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC because the exhibit on propaganda came up during a staff meeting at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) this week. Kevin Gover, NMAI’s director, said that the special exhibit on propaganda spelled out the fundamentals of mass persuasion effectively. Gover added that you could replace “Jew” with “Indian” and the meanings would remain unchanged. 

So I decided to see for myself. 

State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, greets the visitor with posters chock-full of definitions of propaganda and then draws linkages between the concepts and how they played out in Nazi Germany. As you wind through the exhibit, you see how propaganda techniques were used in newspapers, posters, leaflets, books, movies and radio. 

The lesson plan is worthy of a college lecture: it defies simplistic views on audiences and avoids the pitfalls of assuming broad media effects on a passive public. But when it comes to deeper social science, the exhibit demures. There’s art and science in propaganda, and there’s a boatload of research to empirically justify certain techniques that impact audiences. Missing is the science behind why and how some messages have impact while others fail. 

What’s fascinating is the powerful graphics and messages that emerge in the collection of Nazi propaganda, and the exhibit pointedly notes that Adolf Hitler had no training in propaganda; in fact, he left school at 15 and hoped to forge a career as an artist. Perhaps his artistic bent led him to design the bold black, white and red Nazi flags emblazoned with the “hakenkreuz” (hooked cross) or swastika. The exhibit notes that the swastika symbol has become associated with malice and murder, yet the symbol is found in myriad cultures, ranging from the Persians to the Hopi, long before Hitler purloined it. 

In fact, a recent quilt exhibit in Greeley, Colorado, earned national buzz because one showcased blanket displayed the swastika prominently. The quilt, created in 1900, is dominated by the hooked cross, which, in some cultures, represents luck, well-being and creativity. But the quilt gave museum-goers pause because its powerful symbolism is frequently associated with hate. 

The quilt emerges from an era of unrivalled upheaval across the West: Buffalo Bill Cody set up camp near the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 for his popular “Wild West” extravaganza, while, at the same time in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a talk to the American Historical Association advancing his “frontier thesis” as the driving force to settle the savage wilderness. And in 1909, some 700,000 acres of tribal lands were opened to settlers in Washington, Montana and Idaho, courtesy of the Dawes Act. 

Because Indians were considered obstacles to westward expansion, courts made a distinction between citizens—settlers of the west who could hold title to land—and the Native denizens—occupants on the land considered undeserving of its bounty. Teddy Roosevelt wrote in The Winning of the West (1889): 

“The truth is the Indian never had any real title to the soil; they had not half so good a claim to it, for instance, as the cattlemen now have to all eastern Montana….The settler and the pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.” 

Because Indians weren’t accorded citizenship, they couldn’t own land, vote, nor represent themselves as “freemen.” The exhibit in Washington DC notes that Jews in Germany were stripped of their citizenship and made wards of the state in 1935. This regressive action—altering laws to suit the ideology of the time—echoes the plight of American Indians. 

The parallels are striking.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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