Saturday, September 22, 2012

Propaganda 101: Overview

Hey! Did you know four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum? How many of you have heard that one before? It’s from a gum commercial. 

Commercials are a form of propaganda. It’s using the media in an effort to influence you, the viewer/listener/reader. They want you to buy into the benefits of their product or service. No prob, it’s what they do. Just keep that claim in mind about the dentists, and we’ll look into other areas where we are vulnerable to propaganda.

A government uses propaganda as a tool to steer its culture and control its people. If you didn’t before, you know now. Prime examples include the Nazi propaganda machine in World War II. Adolf Hitler had an entire country convinced they were super men, superior to every race on the planet, and the Jewish people were the enemy of mankind. Look at this example:
The poster's caption, translated, is "Warmongers, War extenders." The intent is obvious. The Jew is portrayed as a sinister enemy, evil and cold. Here's another:
The Caption, again, says, "Long Live Germany!" and portrays Adolf Hitler as a messianic figure. The dove in the background settles on him the same way a dove settled on Jesus at his baptism, and God's favor shines down from above.

So we see two purposes of propaganda: dehumanize the enemy, and draw popular support for your agenda.

Germany wasn't the only player in the propaganda war. Here are some examples from our side:
This portrays a grotesque German sowing the seeds of war and destruction. The style, a la Salvador Dali, is stark and shocking in its content, made to disturb the beholder to action.
Here's one that plays on every parent's fear: That of protecting our children from the shadow of Nazism.
And this last one portrays the German as a demonic figure, watching from behind every corner to spy on us.

These are all very open examples. There is no doubt about what they are trying to do, and that is to bend public opinion in their favor, to coerce cooperation from the masses.

Surely, you say, you should be able to spot propaganda from a country mile and dismiss it, right? What if I suggested you were being subjected to propaganda on a more subliminal level, and not only letting it happen, but being bent by it? We can't always help it.

Let's look back at our dentists in the sugarless gum commercial above, and apply it in a slightly different way. "Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum."
This seems to say that eighty percent of all dentists recommend this particular product to their patients. That isn't what this says at all, and here's how the numbers shake out:

First, let's take a look at how the question is phrased. "Do you recommend sugared gum or sugarless gum for for your patients?" Like there's another choice? Ever been in one of thos polls where none of the answers fits how you really think? That's deliberate. It's so they can juggle the numbers later to get the results they want.

Second, on our gum commercial, is the sample. Let's say the team polled five hundred dentists. four hundred and ninety of those dentists might have wanted to say it doesn't make a difference to them, but that's not an option on the poll. So they settled and said, yes, if their patient HAD to chew gum, sugarless would probably be the way to go. The other ten dentists just got disgusted with the pollster and hung up or chased them out of the office with a drill.

The final results are based on a sample of the poll results. So the pollsters take five samples, hand-picked, and leave in the result from one of the psycho-dentists. That makes four out of five dentists surveyed, doesn't it?

Commercials aren't the only place you see this kind of covert propaganda, either. The news media, political parties and others use these tactics and others to shape opinion and coerce public support for their agendas.

In future posts, we'll examine some of the ways the public swallows things they normally would lynch someone over. Next week, we'll look at the role of a willing press. See you then.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Diagnosis: Log-Eye

Something occurred to me this week. I shared it on my Twitter page (Yeah, I sucked it up and managed to open one of those), and I want to elaborate on it here:

If you see the world as it should be, that makes you part of the problem. If you see the world as it could be, that makes you part of the solution.

Let me dig a little deeper here. the world is full of people who know better than everyone else how things ought to be. Most of them are politicians. You know the type. They think everything boils down to enough government programs to "fix everything." Government programs for roads. GP's for food. Clothing. Shelter. GP's to make sure your kids are all immunized. GP's to tell us what kind of food is "best for us." Where we should live. Whether we should smoke. What habits we should have. Who we should be nicer to. What is too dangerous for us normal folk to do. They know better than we do how to spend our money, so they take it from us in the form of taxes. And those who they think make too much money? Well, let's just tax them more. No one should have a Cadillac until everyone has a Kia, right? "From each according to his ability to each according to his need." (quote by Karl Marx, in case you're wondering)

Why stop at politicians? Church people can be just as bad. You know the type. They are so busy telling everyone else they're going to Hell, they neglect the part about telling them about Heaven's Free Gift. They're so hung up on the rules of their religion, you simply can't force them to have fun. They can find something wrong with that cream puff on your plate if you give them another 5.4 seconds to think about it. Don't you just want to just slap the Hell out of them?

Lawyers are my third bunch of contestants. Of course, I think they are so busy making money off of other people's misery, they can't see and don't care about the legal implications that they encumber the rest of us with. The bigger problem is, some DO know and care. Groups like the ACLU who spend most of their time trying to tell the rest of us what we should and should not believe.

Okay, yeah. These are the folks who see the world as it should be. They are all "other people" focused. The problem is always with someone else. They are concerned with making us all get along. Someone else needs to be more accepting. Someone else needs to be more open-minded. Someone else needs top pay more. And these folks are just the ones to make us all fit their image of "How the world should be."

Let's look at this from the other angle: Those who see the world as it could be. They are the sincerely religious who know that one's eternal fate is between them and God alone. They might share their beliefs, but are never "in your face" with it. It becomes part of a healthy discussion that never alienates, never pushes away, never condemns.

Someone very wise once said, "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away." (Paul of Tarsus, from his First Letter to the Church in Corinth, aka I Corinthians, Chapter 13. Like how I did that?)

So Love does not hang around military funerals and wave signs about how God hates ANYBODY. Love doesn't pay attention to how much another person makes, and why "they aren't paying their fair share." Love comes from within a person and reveals the best in them. It is what the world could be, people.

Those who see the world as it could be are centered on themselves and how they can do something to make someone else's life better. They don't keep score. They just do. They love and expect nothing in return. They see the best in the world, because they give the best in themselves. They accept without having to agree. They don't need a law to tell them what hate is. They're too busy loving others to worry about it. Let me clue you in, folks: "Hate Crime" is s stupid term. If someone is committing a crime against someone else, it automatically counts as hate. Just punish the crime, and you deal with the hate at the same time.

The wisest man to walk the Earth said once, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." (Jesus of Nazareth, from Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 7).

Tell you what. Let's quit trying to make the world into what it should be, and start making it what it could be. We could all do with a little less stress worrying about something beyond our control. Just do what you can. Love one person who's unloveable, who drives you bananas. You don't have to agree with them. Just do something good for them. If everybody can do that, don't you think we can fix a whole lot of things? Don't be part of the problem. Be the solution. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Man Behind The Curtain

Hi, folks.

I’ve been pretty quiet lately. I’d love to say it was from being super busy, which would be true, but that wouldn’t be the whole truth. I could throw in a medical consideration or two, but compared to some other folks, I’m pretty healthy.

No, fact of the matter is, I’ve been quiet because I’m in the middle of a meltdown of sorts. It seems to be common among writers, though I never noticed it until I began meeting more writers. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, look at what we do. We have voices in our heads having conversations with each other, and sometimes they include us as well. And if that still sounds like a nice stable, sane person, we make those people miserable for the sake of entertainment. Sure, sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned or a deep concept to explore. But most of the time we really come across as sociopathic schizophrenics.

My real struggle is with depression of sorts. It used to be a whole lot worse. Believe me, I was a walking train wreck at one time. It turns out I could name several prominent figures associated with literature who had “instabilities” of a similar nature. Kate Greenaway, one of history’s greatest children’s book writers and illustrators, struggled with dark times as well. Just look at her children. They may be playing Maypole and Hopscotch, but they’re miserable little tykes, reflections of her own struggles. Beatrix Potter was another fellow depressive. Edgar Allen Poe, and a host of my own contemporaries all seem to have us in company.

So am I comparing myself to Greenaway, Potter or Poe? Oh my, no. I bring them up I guess in wondering why most writers I know also want to sometimes hide safely behind our work and withdraw from the world. To be honest, I spend more time crying than I need to, and sometimes I just want to curl up in a corner and disappear. I don’t like Twitter, Facebook, or blogging. I’d rather just be invisible, and let my work talk for me.

Am I complaining? I don’t think so. I’m just letting you all know why I get quiet once in a while. I think those of you who are writers can understand. Those who aren’t, now you know. Oh, I’ll keep hanging in there. But sometimes a guy just has to take a breather.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Author Interview: Barbara Ehrentreu

A squall line approaches from the south. Distant rumbles of thunder follow the flashes of lightning that streak through the column of the cumulonimbus drifting slowly across the horizon. Fascinated, I watch the storm grow in strength. Anyone out there is in for ride.

A gurgling rumble sound to my left brings me back to the beach. Just off shore, something is stirring beneath the surface of the water. With a diesel protest and grinding of gears, a massive yellow bulk emerges from the surf.  I catch a glimpse of black lettering as the driver’s window rolls down. A torrent of seawater pours onto the sand, along with three mackerel, two starfish and a horseshoe crab. The driver’s head appears. Coughing and choking, he manages to get out a single question: “Is this the way to Mill Valley High School?”

Folks and fellow castaways, help me welcome Barbara Ehrentreu, author of the teen novel If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor. This book has been racking up 5-star reviews all over the web, and for good reason. It explores one of the toughest things a teen can face, and that’s self-image.

Let’s face it. Liking the face in the mirror is one of the most challenging things about being a teen. So, without further ado, Here’s a conversation I had with Barb:

Cyrus: Teen years are rough on most anyone, especially when you’re not the one of the “beautiful people.” Why would you want to take us back there with If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor?

 Barbara: You know I based this on my younger daughter who was going through similar experiences at the time. She happened to be a senior in high school, but I wanted to write a younger character. Carolyn popped out when I started fleshing the character out and soon her experiences came to me.

Cyrus: Are there any episodes in the book based on your personal experiences?

 Barbara: Carolyn is very tongue tied around her crush and that happened to me a lot. Also she wants to be popular and I always did too. I didn’t want to be a cheerleader, though, but I did always want to look like Jennifer Taylor.

Cyrus: I think most of us as teens could point to one person or another out of our class and think that was the ideal person. They not only had it all together, they actually remembered where they put it. They were the most beautiful, or the most buff. It’s hard enough to figure out who you are at that age without the pressure of having to measure up to what or who we think is “perfect.”
What is the bottom line of the story? What One Thing do you want your readers to come away with?

Barbara: I think one thing anyone who reads this book should feel after you finish is that the best person to be is yourself. It’s kind of like the old cliche, the grass is always greener on the other side. A lot of kids are always wanting to be like someone else. You will have to see if this is true for Carolyn, my heroine.

Cyrus: Am I correct? Did I hear that your book is being used in schools already? How do you get it into a school?

 Barbara: No, it is not being used in schools, but I would love if it was. I am contacting librarians soon to see if I can start getting some readings. Then I will bring books and sell them or sell the ebooks. If the school wants to buy the book for their curriculum I would love that very much! Meanwhile that hasn’t happened, but the school year is beginning and I’d love this to work.
Cyrus: What other projects are in the works?

 Barbara: I have a finished novel also YA called When My Life Changed, which is about a fifteen year old girl whose father has a heart attack and undergoes triple bypass surgery. It’s all about how her life changes in a moment and the implications for both her family and her friendships. How she changes is the story. It is just about ready to submit. I’ve worked on it for about seven years!! Also I will be having five poems in an anthology for charity called Beyond the Dark Room coming out in September. In addition I have several stories that will be published in children’s magazines.

Cyrus: The story is told from a girl’s POV. Is there anything in there that boys can identify with as well?

Barbara: Actually, as you and several other men have mentioned, this brings men back to their high school days. A lot of boys were bullied and men can identify with my character and the environment. I just got a 5 star review from a man on Amazon, so I do think it appeals to men. I had a ten year old boy want an autograph from me too.

 Cyrus: Here’s the blurb, folks:

Carolyn Samuels is obsessed with the idea of being popular. She is convinced that the only thing keeping her from happiness is her too heavy for fashion body and not being a cheerleader. Hyperventilating when she gets nervous doesn’t help. When she is paired for a math project with the girl who tormented her in middle school, Jennifer Taylor, she is sure it is going to be another year of pain. With Carolyn’s crush on Jennifer’s hunky junior quarterback, Brad her freshman year in high school looks like a rerun of middle school. When Jennifer is the only student who knows why she fell in gym class, Carolyn is blackmailed into doing her math homework in return for Jennifer’s silence. Jennifer takes on Carolyn as a pity project since she can’t be seen with someone who dresses in jeans and sweatshirts. When Jennifer invites Carolyn to spend the night to make her over and teach her to tumble, Carolyn learns Jennifer’s secret and lies to her own friends to cover it up. Will Carolyn become a cheerleader and popular? Does she continue to keep Jennifer’s secret? Or will she be a target of this mean girl again?

Cyrus: Okay, I want you to set up a scene and let us have short look at If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor:

Barbara: This scene takes place in gym and Carolyn is speaking with her best friend Becky while Jennifer Taylor and her popular group are behind them in the bleachers. Then it moves from there:
* * * *

            "Maybe it won't be so bad this year, Carolyn." Becky always tries to cheer me up now. This wasn’t true a few years ago. I had to cheer her up a lot. Becky’s brothers are just turning five, and they’re both in kindergarten. Her mom remarried after being divorced for ten years. Becky was just getting used to her new stepfather when her mom got pregnant. I remember how miserable Becky was the first year of middle school when her mom spent so much time with her twin brothers and didn’t have enough time to help Becky with her homework. Luckily, Becky’s stepfather is a history teacher, so she got very interested in history and current events.
            "Right, Becky, and maybe I'll learn to be a gymnast in ten minutes. Reality check, remember last year?"
            "Okay, I'm hoping it won't be so bad."
            "You mean like the dentist finding you only have one cavity and filling it the same day?"
            "You’re so lame, Carolyn. Since we're all older, maybe she'll treat us differently. People change over the summer you know."
            "Look at her, Becky."  
            Becky turns to look over at the group at the top of the bleachers and then turns back to look me in the eye. “You know you have to put that stupid day behind you.”
            I pretend not to know what she’s talking about. “What stupid day?”
            Like I don’t remember every detail. 
            “The zip line day.”
            “Oh, that day,” I say with a combination grimace and smile. “The day I wound up having to climb off the platform. I wanted to bore a hole into the ground so I wouldn’t have to walk past them but couldn’t, and everyone screamed at me:
            Breathe, Carolyn, breathe.”
            “You have to admit it was funny the way the gym teacher ran up the ladder like a squirrel to rescue you. Everyone laughed at how stupid she looked. Jennifer got the whole class going with that ridiculous ‘breathe, Carolyn, breathe.’” Becky looks behind her to Jennifer. “You know I wanted to run over and punch her, but I couldn’t because I was still on the platform, and it was my turn to go.”
            “Yeah, if I had a few more minutes, I would have been able to get up the courage to grip the zip line and hook myself to it. Stupid teacher didn’t give me a chance. This not breathing thing when I get nervous really sucks.” 
            Becky nods because she knows me so well. 
            “So then Jennifer started with that horrible chant, and of course, the whole class followed her, like always.” My eyes fill with tears as I remember, and my breathing is getting worse by the minute.
            “I thought it was a dumb idea to do ropes course stuff in school. We did it at my camp the summer before, and no one was forced to do it. Anyone could get nervous with Jennifer in front of them,” Becky comforts me. 
            I continue talking as if I’m in a trance. “Remember how last year whenever I ran into Jennifer she would whisper ‘breathe, Carolyn, breathe,’ so no one could hear it except me. Once she did it just before I had to go up in front of the class in math.   Sometimes she would do it in front of everyone and, of course, get a big laugh while I wanted to turn into a piece of furniture.” 
            Becky grabs my arm.  “Do we have to go back over this again? You need to forget about it.” She takes her hand away from my arm as I continue to speak. 
            “Becky, I can’t. The thing is it’s this bad movie in my brain looping the same horrible scenes. The funny thing is, most of the time, she would ignore me. I would never know what she was going to do. You have to admire someone so single-minded she managed to get to me at just the right time. You remember don’t you? And today did you see how she wore the same outfit as me? It’s spooky.”
            My funny breathing returns as Miss Gaylon tells us to line up on the yellow line alphabetically. I hope there will be someone to go between Jennifer and me. No luck. Jennifer is going to be behind me all year. I hold my breath. I couldn't stand more of the same this year. I pray for the day to end soon. A glance at my new watch shows me fifteen more minutes left of the period. Is Miss Gaylon's voice getting lower?  What is that pounding in my ears? 
            Jennifer turns to face me and I hear, "Breathe, Carolyn, breathe.” Then my world turns black.