A philosopher tries to parse the logic of propaganda in democracies
David V. Johnson
How Propaganda Works
by Jason Stanley
Princeton University Press
$29.95 List Price
The 9/11 attacks occurred the week I had to defend my dissertation in philosophy. I took my first tenure-track job (yes, such a thing existed back then) during the launch of our now fourteen-year-old “war on terror.” As I made my way in academia in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency, my new colleagues and I would inevitably discuss the authoritarian and distorting turn of American public discourse. How could so many be so cowed and so misled into supporting such an obvious misadventure as the Iraq war? How could our leading institutions—and especially the media—fail so miserably to underline the immorality of torture and question the claims as to Saddam Hussein’s threat to national security? This dismal time raised the specter of propaganda, and posed the questions of how the false alibis of power could hold such sway in a liberal democracy and what could be done about it.
In 2004–2005, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan. By then, I had become so radicalized by the American political situation and so frustrated by the restrictive horizons of my research—my specialty was ancient Greek philosophy—that I felt I had to make a choice. On the one hand, I might continue on the academic track and try to speak out where I could. (Like many of my peers, I was an active extramural blogger.) On the other, I could leave the ivory tower behind and plunge into journalism.
One of my Michigan colleagues during that year was Jason Stanley, a distinguished philosopher of language and epistemology. Although we didn’t chat about topical issues at that