I have held off on a much overdue proposed new definition for the word propaganda, but it looks like I need to accelerate that discussion. Stay tuned.
In Russia, the P-Word Is No Longer Adequate, Clearly. Consider These Three Options for What Should Succeed It.
Speaking as a philologist — while the profession remains legal under existing Russian legislation — I say Russia is seriously overdue for a re-definition of the term “propaganda.” The term has long been flexible, of course, but surely it has passed the breaking point here.
How so? When Russian TV news airs false reports of enemy troops crucifying a local toddler; the Russian Foreign Minister decries the fictitious rape of a schoolgirl by migrants in Germany; the Russian president urges his military chiefs to use the war in Syria to develop his nation’s weapons systems; and the Russian Minister of Culture, a great reveler in great revelations, literally ascribes his people’s triumphs over adversity to an extra chromosome in the national gene pool — sweeping all of Moscow’s continuous and unbelievable logo-fallout under the familiar P-Word rug is no longer, you’ll agree, a very reasonable option.
Reminiscent of the rapid neutral-to-evil evolution of “appeasement” after the Munich conference of 1938, Russian “propaganda” has evolved, in a mere 30-odd months, from something relatively simple and broadly understood — say, “the distortion of facts for political purposes” — into a larger and darker entity we don’t have a name for. Yet.
What we do have are unwieldy definitions waiting for a word — like this one:
Dual-purpose weaponized disinformation that seeks to
(a) convince the dim or easily distracted of the truth of things and ideas that are false, potentially inspiring one group or both to act on the falsehoods in various ways (among them voting, speaking in public/on the air, arming oneself, and traveling great distances to shoot at strangers); or
(b) convince the less dim and/or more attention-paying that truth and falsehood are themselves outmoded concepts, that in the new-millennium info-space, in which anyone carrying a device can be a “news source,” issues have become so complex that understanding and interpreting them definitively is not feasible for the non-expert, especially if/when several divergent “competing narratives” exist, each with a “right to exist” or a claim to offering “balance” (“It’s a he said/she said case,” “There are two sides to every story,” etc.) — the end result of which is the stage-by-stage recalibration of the concepts “information,” “opinion” and “words somebody typed” as synonymous.
Given definitions like this, the need for something rather more wieldy is obvious. But what? One possibility is “post-propaganda,” which neatly joins the original term with a prefix that has lately come to suggest a certain “beyondness”, namely the off-the-deep-end variety — in good part because Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. (And rightly so: it is hard to recall a year further off the philological deep end that one in which a serial, brazen and unrepentant liar is elected president of the United States.)
Yet if “post-propaganda” seems a good enough choice at first blush, the logo-history of “post-something” combinations suggests that its service is likely to be limited — and one wants something more than a bridge-word to a term with a longer linguistic shelf-life. In the public interest, therefore, let’s consider three additional options, one of which may prove more durable:
1. “Mediaphrenia” This usefully suggests just how schizo- the mass media have become in Russia, where wildly unbelievable claims are routine; it’s not for nothing that in 2014, Russian media “coverage” of the Ukrainian revolution and Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted the line “If Goebbels were alive today, he’d be a coffee gofer at Channel One.”
But the term is already taken, so to speak: it is the title of an excellent series by Igor Yakovenko, a former Russian State Duma deputy and secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists who has for several years been chronicling the degradation of Russian public discourse, logical faculties, perception of reality and more in Russia’s Ezhednevny Zhurnal. More to the point here, however, “mediaphrenia” doesn’t lend itself well to official pronouncements by state representatives — a significant part of what the old standby “propaganda” did. For that we need another term, perhaps
2. “Prop-zakharova” This one incorporates the richness of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s bizarre spokesperson Maria Zakharova, a tap-dancing xenophobe known most recently for crediting the Trump election to “Jewish money” and suggesting that Facebook and ISIS may be in cahoots.
While Sergei Lavrov, the nominal Foreign Minister, has indeed over-fulfilled the plan for truth avoidance while satisfying the Ambrose Bierce definition of diplomacy (“the patriotic art of lying for one’s country”), three negatives hurt him here: he’s too foul-mouthed (бля! — i.e. the word that Russians use like Americans use “fuck!”, a word that Lavrov is fond of), can’t dance a lick (ouch, бля!) and, most important, has a last name too short to work in the English version: “prop-Lavrov” sounds like a California ballot initiative. Perhaps one that failed for lack of Jewish money.
But the more mellifluous “prop-zakharova,” like number 1, is limited, working only on the official-diplomatic level; you can’t really call Channel One’s nightly non-news news “prop-zakharova” except when it’s focusing on Masha Z. herself — hoofing, fantasizing, fact-stomping and so on. Plus, the state-owned Channel One’s Katya Andreyeva, Russia’s Mary Poppins of national media lying, would be deeply offended at the apparent snubbing of “prop-Andreyeva.” Anyway, if 1 and 2 are not quite right, how about
3. “Putin-aganda” (alternate: “Putin-à-ganda”) This one has the obvious virtue of direct reference to Russia’s great and powerful Oz, the short man atop the tall Vertical who is responsible both for everything done in Russia that is good and for everything that we are told is good. Those are the only two categories of state action; deeds that take place outside them are not done, they are committed — by “national traitors,” “fifth columnists,” the “enemies” who surround Russia and the other “enemies” who make up the rest of the world. Fortunately, we have a president who will not rest until these deeds are committed no more, and financial support for both media and state putin-aganda will not be spared toward that end.
Still not wieldy enough for you? OK, the floor is open for more “propaganda”-replacement options. But please submit entries is a timely fashion. Eventually everyone does start paying attention to the man behind the curtain, and his tenure as great and powerful comes to an end. At that point, we may see the traditional “Russian propaganda” of our youth reappear. We will no longer need a new word for it, and we will welcome the old one back as we would any other familiar friend from yesteryear — who happens to lie, but nice and predictably, like a rug.
By Mark H. Teeter, Ph.D., former opinion page editor of The Moscow News and The Moscow Times. He writes the weekly column Moscow TV Round-Up for the latter and edits Moscow TV Tonite on Facebook.