The temptation of propaganda
Religion & Liberty Online

The temptation of propaganda

Law & Liberty just published a talk I gave at the Philadelphia Society meeting earlier this year on conservatism and the future of truth.


We live in an age of propaganda. We are saturated by it from advertising, intrusive technology, and the latest politically correct fashion. We also live in a time that requires us to make lots of distinctions to solve complex problems, which propaganda makes almost impossible.

While all ages and people are tempted by what Josef Pieper calls the “abuse of language, abuse of power,” the French social philosopher Jacques Ellul, argues that contemporary technological society makes propaganda more pervasive. Ellul writes

“ propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world…

In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace.”

3 ways to resist propaganda

In the essay I suggest three ways to both resist propaganda and the temptation to use if for our own ends.

  1. We need to be more assertive in addressing foundational weakness of modern social sciences and sciences and politics.
  2. We need to be philosophical in our approach and avoid the temptation of knee-jerk reactions or ideological responses.
  3. We have to avoid the  temptation to fall into brand building at the expense of truth.

In the third part I address Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed as an example of an important argument that has slipped into a brand. I  agree with many of Deneen’s critiques of liberalism and think some of his worries about the market are correct. But as I argue:

The real difficulty is when an analysis becomes a theory of everything and becomes immune to critique; when the narrative trumps the facts. Most troubling is that in the face of serious critique it appears as if the facts don’t really matter. Deneen’s argument has become a brand. It’s bold and attention grabbing. So why stop? Subtle argument doesn’t work in this culture anyway. We have to have a brand.

This may sound harsh to call it a brand, but Deneen basically told us this himself. In April 2019, he gave lecture sponsored by First Things at Catholic University of America where he argued that that we need to use “Machiavellian means to [achieve] Aristotelian ends” First, I don’t think it’s possible to attain Aristotelian ends with Machiavellian means—Machiavelli would consume Aristotle for lunch.

But careful readers will notice that Deneen gives us here an insight into what he is doing. The idea of using Machiavellian means to obtain Aristotelian ends helps makes sense of the book: It doesn’t matter whether his argument is correct. It doesn’t matter whether Locke and the Founders are actually to blame. It’s a “Machiavellian means” to attain his desired “Aristopopulist” end—an overturning of liberalism.

It’s a brand. But brands can destroy when they become propaganda and undermine truth.

You can read the  whole piece here


Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute