Anatomy of Propaganda – Part One
From the silent reels of A Victim of the Mormons in 1911 through director Alex Gibney’s HBO TV movie Going Clear in 2015, film for more than a century has been a favorite tool used by those inciting hate—particularly religious bigotry.
Preying on irrational fears and ignorance, bullies with cameras craft one-sided propaganda that simultaneously mocks people of faith while stirring incendiary hatred against them. Launched with preconceived agendas that never waver, story lines are immune to any facts, evidence and eyewitnesses threatening to contradict them. At a time when religious hatred and violence are spreading at an alarming pace, adding bigoted propaganda to the mix can only make for a dangerously combustible combination.
While the word “propaganda” began as a neutral term that described the effort of Catholic missionaries in the 1600s to spread the faith, the 20th century saw it hijacked by those with ambitious hate-filled agendas. In his 1928 treatise Propaganda, Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, laid out how the arts of persuasion could be used by the deceitful for nefarious ends:
“Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.”
Bernays cites as an example an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan manipulating the fears and prejudices of “the common man of the older American stock” against “the newer immigrants” to the point “he buys the sheet and pillow-case costume, and bands with his fellows by the thousands into a huge group powerful enough to swing state elections and to throw a ponderous monkey wrench into a national convention.”
As film technology advanced as an entertainment and news tool, it was co-opted by propagandists and bigots who recognized the power of images. In the early 20th century, Mormonism was a favorite target of a status quo threatened by a new religion. A decade of propaganda demonized the faith, culminating with the 1922 film Trapped by the Mormons. The films led audiences to believe their women would be kidnapped and enslaved as wives.
Likewise, Hitler and his propaganda henchman Joseph Goebbels used vile films to incite hatred against the Jews, spreading myths and stereotypes in setting the stage for what would be the massacre of 6 million. While films like Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Triumph of the Will and Olympia were used as propaganda to glorify the Nazi regime, it was historically less well-known films that served to stir up religious hatred with naked propaganda. They included The Eternal Jew, The Rothschilds and Jud Suss, which was shown by decree to the thugs in Hitler’s SS.
Fast forward to today’s combustible period in which religious violence is tragically taking lives around the world. Film sadly remains a vehicle for religious bigotry and those who seek to incite hate.
Christians are made fun of through such films as Jesus Camp and Saved, while one-sided films like Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa placed a target on Catholics. Mormons are parodied in films like Orgazmo, while Islam was mocked in the small production Innocence of Muslims that created a worldwide controversy.
All of which brings us to Gibney’s Going Clear TV movie, allegedly about Scientology, also used to incite religious hatred. As the product of openly atheist author Lawrence Wright and Gibney, who has a track record of blatantly one-sided films, especially when it comes to religious issues, Going Clear’s propaganda reflects the aggressively anti-religious crusades of these two friends and collaborators.
Gibney and Wright employed unreliable and discredited sources, crackpot psychological theories, claims from admitted liars that have been disproved in court, and a thinly disguised personal hatred of religion under the phony disguise of unbiased journalism. The result was two hours of stereotypes and religious demonizing that served as an ode to bigoted anti-religious propaganda of the last century.