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The Commies Are Coming: Sorting Through the Fog of Propaganda

We must learn to identify where our own prejudices and presuppositions are really inhibiting our view of what may in fact be happening. This is the West’s challenge today in response to the volume of propaganda being hurled in our direction about Putin and Russia.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Propaganda! What is it? Simple question. No? Of course, we all know that propaganda is information that is not impartial, that is biased, not trustworthy — used specifically to influence or to deceive. But, that begs another question. What does non-biased, trustworthy information look like or sound like? News, History, Opinion, Science?

Let us first settle a prior, epistemological question. There is, in the history of philosophy and philosophical theology, a school of thought arguing that all acts of understanding — and therefore all acts of knowing and communication of meaning — are grounded in what is called a pre-conscious mode of understanding. Let us call this ‘pre-understanding.’ Emerging from the work of Wilhelm Dilthey and the German School of the Human Sciences, this concept was more fully fleshed-out by another German philosopher in the mid-twentieth century by the name of Hans Georg Gadamer (cf. Wahrheit und Methode, or Philosophical Hermeneutics). According to Gadamer and his analysis concerning the science or theory of interpretation, ‘hermeneutics,’ all understanding (of any text or message), whether it be a biblical passage, a legal brief, or the nightly news with Brian Williams; all acts of understanding are grounded in, and guided in advance by, certain presuppositions or prejudices about the subject matter at hand, its relation to our world, and how it addresses me personally. In other words, there is no objectivity or pure impartiality in human understanding; all meaning is interpretive, perspectival, and constituted upon one’s presuppositions or pre-understanding, if you will.

<figcaption>Americans are predisposed to believing that Russia is expansionist, aggressive, evil.</figcaption>
Americans are predisposed to believing that Russia is expansionist, aggressive, evil.

But, if understanding itself is already predisposed in a specific direction, than the act of communicating information must itself be chock-full of certain prejudices and predispositions as well. As Martin Heidegger (another German philosopher) noted, even the act of selecting some topic for thematic development (a news story, for example) is already guided by a pre-thematic grasp of the situation, guided by prejudices lodged in our pre-understanding. In other words, we pick and choose elements to include or dismiss in our story or theory, and how they relate to one another, based again upon pre-conscious assumptions, intuitions, or predispositions. If understanding is itself prejudiced, then there can be NO impartial messages.

It is in this light that we must try to clear away some of the cobwebs, the fog, and the idle chatter that contend for our attention today regarding the events in Ukraine and the confrontation building between Russia and the West. We must be careful not to be guided solely by those historical prejudices and presuppositions that always, already seek to control our present understanding. Those of us in the West, and I mean Americans specifically, have been raised on the mother’s milk of Russian fear-mongering and Russia-bashing from at least the days of the Soviet Union. We have been trained since the earliest part of the last century to believe certain ‘truths’ about Russia, the KGB, the Kremlin, and the ‘communist threat.’ Even as babes in the womb, ontogenetically, our mental development may have been influenced by such maternal worries and concerns. “Fear the Bear! He wants to devour us and make our children his slaves.” There are a host of truisms out there like this that compose a substantive portion of our pre-understanding whenever we approach a text, a verbal report, video, or news story on events in Ukraine or those concerning Putin’s Russia.

Now, of course, a similar process occurs in the minds of Russians who see or hear reports in their world about the West. Each side is constrained by, and laboring under, a different (and in this case potentially oppositional) pre-understanding. It is the way we are able to process messages, interpret them meaningfully in our world, and within the worldview with which we are familiar and comfortable. Such preunderstanding affects not only us mortals (i.e., the common people), but our vaunted press, their corporate bosses, and naturally, the politicians and lobbyists who turn the dials, press the buttons, and make the news; or, according to some Presidential aide, those actors who ‘make history.’

Of course, each side wants you to believe their understanding of the "facts." But, it is difficult to get beneath that pre-understanding, to shake it loose, if you will, so that one may see things differently. "I" and "Thou" become separated by an invisible wall of misunderstanding grounded in a pre-thematic grasp of the situation that was laid down long ago. We are each, in short, embodied, historical peoples, thrown into a world (with its unique worldview), without grasping that the view is part of the very air we breathe. It informs us without our knowing, and without our blessing. It is what those German philosophers called our intransigent facticity and our unavoidable historicity. It is inscribed in our languages and our customs, in our habits and our preferences, in our values and our desires. It becomes our second nature.

Mind you, it is not human nature per se; indeed, it is not even natural, i.e., given at birth. Rather, it is cultural – a construct, an artifice. But, as civilized human beings this is our legacy and our albatross. It hangs around our necks like a studded choker, determining our reactions, beliefs, motivations, and interpretations. This is the largest problem we face talking to one another across the school yard, the street, the country, or the ocean. It is not a pessimistic view of things, but simply the way things are.

Americans are predisposed to believing that Russia is expansionist, aggressive, evil. We are programmed that way; it is part of our pre-understanding. Of course, the Russians are quick to defend themselves by talking about American imperialism, its cultural hegemony, and its support not only for Ukraine, but for other aggressive world-historical events over the past century. Who is right is often a function of where you come from; what pabulum you’ve been raised on. But, sometimes it behooves us, when the ‘doors of perception’ have once been cracked open, (as they were with Edward Snowden's revelations about the US National Security State), to rethink our values, our loyalties.

It may be time to re-evaluate our news reports, and the words of our professional politicians, and see that there may be some ‘truth’ — value, substance, understanding — in what the other side is saying, a truth that we have not seen before, or have seen previously, but only ‘through a glass darkly.’ We must work diligently to overcome the limits of our pre-conceived ideas about the ‘Other,’ learn to identify where our own prejudices and presuppositions are really inhibiting our view of what may in fact be happening. This is the West’s challenge today in response to the volume of propaganda being hurled in our direction about Putin and Russia.

Propaganda works because it feeds into and off of our pre-understanding. It is self-validating and self-reinforcing. We must learn to see how that process is working to color, indeed reconstruct, our view of events. Given our philosophical position here, however, I will not suggest that there is some purely objective interpretation of events that can be given to us. There is no strictly objective view; but only variations on a theme. Still, we must try to hear the other side; not because they are ‘right’ but because we may be listening all-too-absentmindedly to the pre-conscious narrative playing continuously on autopilot in our heads. But, more importantly, it is now the Western narrative, Western propaganda, the vicious and vociferous rhetoric currently coming from America — burdened by such profound prejudice and presuppositions — that is creating this vast amount of global static, a horror that is inching all of us ever closer to war. What a shame!

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