Wed. Apr 24th, 2019

Degrees of Propaganda: The University and Public Opinion

This talk was given as the keynote address to an open-session of the Faculty Senate at Howard University March 29, 2019.

When black scholars hear the call to equal opportunity in darkness, they must remember that they do not belong in the darkness of an American culture that refuses to move toward the light. They are not meant to be pliant captives and agents of institutions that deny light all over the world. No, they must speak the truth to themselves and to the community and to all who invite them into the new darkness. They must affirm the light, the light movement of their past, the light movement of their people. They must affirm their capacities to move forward toward new alternatives for light in America. Vincent Harding in Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (p. xi). The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition.

Please allow me first to thank Dr. Walters and the Faculty Senate here at Howard University for this invitation. In truth, there are times when it feels as though I’m in my own institutional darkness so I certainly hope that if others here or elsewhere ever feel the same that I can speak some truth to us all in what then would be for me a “new darkness.”

I intend to briefly summarize and develop three tracks of overlapping thought: 1) An acknowledgement of a continuing context of colonialism or colonization, 2) the impact of that context on the developed role of the university and specifically the HBCU and, 3) the specific function played by propaganda in the maintenance of that institutional role.

In preparing some comments for today I thought first of a recent interview I conducted with a friend and former colleague, Dr. Jelani Favors, about his new book, Shelter in a Time of Storm How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism, and in particular a point of disagreement, one I have found runs through my work and experience as an academic, an activist and a journalist; that is, the difference in emphasis between initial intent and impact or effect. Specifically, Favors argued against the previous work on the history of Black universities in the U.S. of William Watkins arguing that, like many, he too accepted the “dominant narrative” that “these spaces were bastions of conservatism, constructed either through white philanthropic efforts or by the order of white politicians. Many of these studies have confined their analysis to contrasting vocational training with the liberal arts…” which causes many to miss what Favors describes as the HBCU’s “second curriculum” one that saw teachers and students engaged in a struggle to “link the fate of the race to the curriculum.” From there, Favors argues, HBCUs would play a central role in advancing the political and social struggles of Africans in America (my phrasing) until some important post-Black Power-era institutional shifts, a point to which I will return.

However, where I disagree with Favors and others is in this area of emphasis where I find a tendency to focus on the making of the best of a bad situation tends to entirely supplant focus on what precedes that need. Analysis, for me, requires that intent is supreme. So when Watkins writes in White Architects of Black Education, that the founders of what would become today a collection of HBCUs were developed on models that, “represented classic colonialism,” he appropriately shows where our analyses must start and finish, as opposed to the ability of some to transcend. Of course, this is not to say pay no attention, offer up no praise. No. I am speaking specifically of emphasis and analysis. The intent of these universities was to serve a colonial function which continues today of necessity given there has as yet been no successful revolutionary adjustment of the national political trajectory. Or, as Russell “Maroon” Shoatz writes of violence, its scientific opposite is not non-violence or the absence of violence, but counter-violence or the appropriate social application of Isaac Newton’s physical laws regarding equal and opposite force to stop what is already in motion. Similarly, despite valiant efforts to the contrary, still-on-going, the founding colonial principles of the U.S., its institutions and, of course, its universities – including HBCUs – remain intact and the activism my brother and colleague Dr. Favors emphasizes was, contrary to his focus, for me, born of broader national and international political movements forcing their way on to campus, not the other way around and were themselves in response to that initial intent, that colonizing function. Campus movements were meant to be, as many who would evolve in the Africana studies movement would attest, the “intellectual wing” of the broader Black Liberation struggle.

I wanted to start there because in my own work (some produced, some not), be that in communication or media studies or Africana studies, my preference, which has not gone unchallenged by any means, is that focus be placed on the intent of power, the owners of means of production or as Karl Marx said also, the “means of mental” production. In fact, I have come to abhor arguments about “agency” – unless it has “intelligence” in front of it – if for no other reason that such approaches seem to discourage institutional analyses. Yes, we as individuals can make some choices, do have – if not free – ranges of thought which may not be fully prescribed, but this should not mean we de-emphasize in any way the tremendous energy always being put to managing our behavioral outcomes in favor of an extant process of colonization. So when Watkins describes the colonial origins of the HBCU he, again, correctly situates the problem: the United States as an aspiring empire historically, and a rivaled but still singular and dominant global force today, does what empires do, they establish subjects not citizens, and relate to those subjects as target populations, with as media scholar Chris Simpson has described, a philosophy of “communication as domination,” largely preparing them/us for their/our role in the extractive relationships colonialism develops. The cultural and material productive capabilities of these populations must be set for appropriation, extraction and popular symbolic representation that, as Fanon described, “testifies against” the colonized original. So, and specific to my own generational example, related well to this talk, very little of my professional HBCU experience reflects what I grew up watching on A Different World. That truly must have been a different world.

Communication as domination in this country begins immediately. As Chela Sandoval has said, we are all being “located” for assignment from birth, then targeted with a national anthem that makes absent its revealing third verse which would remind us of the violent threats leveed against enslaved Africans and poor Whites who went off by the thousands to fight with the British. We are then doubled-down upon with pledges of allegiance to that very flag – risen and flown in defense of slavery – forcibly making us refer to God only as a subliminal communicative weapon against socialism and communism. Knowledge of this would make more palpable the work of Gerald Horne who describes a counter-revolution of 1776, one that, contrary to popular mythology, for African people, for Black people, enshrined enslavement toward a permanent denial of freedom. We still struggle to realize this in part because of what Patricia Bradley has described in her work Propaganda and Slavery, as the “metaphor of slavery.”  This skillfully developed mechanism of the 18th century prepared Whites to fight Whites by making reference to enslavement, in their newspapers, pamphlets, and sermons, but carefully and only in the context of their White colonist servitude to the British. The actual enslavement and broader conditions of Black people were unmentioned. So much so that when Paul Revere made his famous ride it was with the earliest in colonized rebranding that he made Crispus Attucks White in print sacrificing Attucks’ Blackness for the sake of symbolic support for the project of galvanizing White anti-British sentiment to propel their White rebellion. After all that, what can anyone say today about Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez in Argo, Johnny Depp as Tonto, or Christian Bale as Moses?

It is here that the genius of Cedric Robinson and a brief summary from his Black Marxism is particularly relevant. The advent of this country, as is the case with any, has accompanied its own particular mythology. As Robinson said, “It is by now generally understood that the formation of nation-states and political reigns precipitate the development of founding myths—myths of origin … Though the process may have been obscured by time in more distant eras, the emergences of the bourgeoisies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made it explicit.”

For us here today, a focus on the national mythology of racial hierarchy, the role of the university and that of the Black scholar is of particular relevance. In a twist of Noam Chomsky’s point about there needing to be greater degrees of propaganda in societies claiming democracy and freedom the national mythology had to be evolved and weaponized as African people moved from official forms of outright enslavement to those more indirect and sophisticated – but no less extractive or wealth-producing – forms of managing a social order. Robinson continues:

During the era that followed [enslavement], when manufacturing became the most advanced form of production and democratic institutions the most significant political creed, the African was represented as chattel in their economic image, as slaves in their political and social image, as brutish and therefore inaccessible to further development, and finally as Negro, that is without history. And later, during the industrialization of the country’s economy, when individuality and manipulative acumen were at a premium, the Black was a pathetic sharecropper, unskilled and unambitious—the “happy darkies” for whom the society possessed a paternalistic obligation. Finally, in our own time, with the development of corporate structures and the myth of the intensively rationalized and rational society, Blacks became the irrational, the violent, criminal, caged beast. The cage was civilization and Western culture, obviously available to Blacks but inexplicably beyond their grasp. Black historiography developed in opposition to this cloned thought and sensibility in American consciousness. This was not the intention. Nor, in its beginnings, did it seem likely, since the first efforts at writing the history of the race had occurred some decades after the ending of the ennobling literature that had accompanied the abolition movement. With the Emancipation signed, there was no longer a demand for historical excursions into the Negro’s African past to substantiate their humanity and its irresistible degradation by slavery. The noble savage had ceased to have a function. But reconstruction had rekindled the ideological attack on Black people. Sixty years after the assault had been renewed, Du Bois would unhesitantly designate its source:

The real frontal attack on Reconstruction, as interpreted by the leaders of national thought in 1870 and for some time thereafter, came from the universities. Their collective judgment of Black people, their “silence and contempt” as Du Bois characterized it, became American history. And since men such as these were also intimately involved in the construction of the nation’s agenda for the academic study of its political processes and structures, their shared assessment of Blacks was also a prescription: In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. . . . It is not only part foundation of our present lawlessness and loss of democratic ideals it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.

Indeed, DuBois would call this the “propaganda of history.” It is also a sadly humorous paradox that these very universities which benefitted or were even launched by profits from slavery were still seen as insufficiently pro-slavery by Thomas Jefferson inspiring him to found Virginia University as a specifically pro-slavery institution of higher education that he felt would be a southern rival to Harvard. But returning briefly to Robinson it was the Reconstruction era’s assault on perceived Black progress that brought about fascinating responses from the “Black intelligentsia,” responses I think are relevant to our moment now. Robinson describes an initial Black intellectual response to the brutality of Reconstruction that mirrored what was done during enslavement and also in response to the newly formed unified approach to Blackness held by both Northern and Southern writers all trying to justify their post-Civil War positions and relationships in relationship to nominal Black freedom. Black intellectuals took to a renewed promotional campaign promoting the value as citizens to the country that only formerly held them in bondage. Once it was clear this tactic was of little value a developing Black “petite-bourgeoisie…,” says Robinson, “required a history that would, at once, absolve their guilt by association with the catastrophic ending of slavery; lend historical weight to the dignity they claimed as a class; and suggest their potential as participants in the country’s future.” Further, “They required a Black historiography that would challenge their exclusion from the nation’s racial parochialisms while settling for those very values. When their historiography did begin, it was not so much a bold initiative against the certainties of nationalist and racialist histories as [it was] a plea for sympathy. Black history thus began in the shadow of the national myths and as their dialectical negation. Consequently, it contained its own contradictions (e.g., the trivialization of social action) while enveloping those that occurred within the dominant American history. Generations later it would give rise to a more critical and truer opposition, but for the time being, it was to match American history in the coin of the realm; monument for monument, civilization for civilization, great man for great man.”

Of course, for us today, it is worth further highlighting Robinson’s point that it was the national structure of universities that from which much of the intellectual production and thrust against Black humanity originated, was propelled, given license. And it has been against that backdrop that Robinson describes the “dialectical negation” of clamoring for a sympathetic entrance into a society they desired. And while later, still following Robinson, there would be a more radical and aggressive historiography it is this moment to which I think we have both returned and never fully left. That is, in a far more obscure and insidious way, aided by a wildly destabilizing media environment – a point to which I will return momentarily – Black historiography still struggles within an advanced colonial context to negate society’s denials of access, while still clamoring for a sympathetic recognition of value historically and today often by rebranding revolutionary politics, individuals and histories as merely trying to “transform American democracy.” Recent histories from traditional scholars supplemented by a rising social media punditry class have, for example, attempted to recast Malcolm X and Kwame Ture as democratic party liberals whose support for a neo-liberal, establishment Barack Obama presidency was axiomatic while others have captured the reparations imagination of many by rebranding its radical potential along more conservative lines while using claims of American citizenship and an abandonment of Black liberation traditions as a basis for their argument and approach. This is what our fight today looks like in a sophisticated neo-colonial arrangement where we see so much of that dialectical attempt at various negations against being cast(e) as that “irrational caged beast” in this era of “corporate structure” and claimed “rationality.” In other words, today, Robinson’s description of a Black intellectual need to  “match American history in the coin of the realm…” would now include a need to rebrand previous revolutionary attempts at restructure and redistribution as merely immature, primitive and to be improved upon with loud calls of allegiance to the state.

Similarly, and concomitantly, the national systems of media and communication, both in their study and deployment, very much evolved too within these same universities as, again, forms of “domination.” These studies would take on the very nature of the political, economic, intellectual and “Deep State” leadership from which their calls into being came. As Karl Deutsch has described, as former colonies around the world sought independence in the middle of the 20th century the U.S. and Western systems of communication were being developed as “supra-national” methods of imposing colonizing interests into the media environment of target populations around the world: hence Dr. Huey Netwon’s righteous proclamation that there were no nations to which we can any longer hope to decolonize given, in part, the militarized reach of U.S. communication technologies. This would of course include the development of digital and satellite technology and, in particular, the privatization and mass deployment of military communications technology itself rebranded as a net positive – pun intended – for society. This internet and media which can only be understood ironically as “social,” has by now become the filthy exponent of an initial national philosophy of “communication as domination.” The target audience has certainly become the intended pliant, atomized, isolated, consumer of ads, propaganda and psychological warfare sought by the shapers of our environment from the start. Borders and privacy, material and immaterial alike, from crossings to consciousness, have all become figments of an imagination that itself is likely not our own. 

It is true that universities play a tremendous role in shaping minds that may support the most radical projects. But that is not their intent or purpose. For Robinson their role was to shape national will against a liberated, human, citizen designated variously as African, Negro, Black and worse now in forms heard without the possibility of avoidance simply due to 3 elite conglomerates owned and run by the wealthiest White men determining the pop cultural tastes of every 12-18 year old on the planet. For Chris Simpson the university was the warehouse for state and intelligence agency development of propaganda and psychological warfare. For Frances Stonor Saunders they were but a smaller part of a larger Western post-War shaping of the globe along capitalist logic. And it is her summary of one of those shaper’s statements that I’d like to have help segue and shift toward a conclusion here because it is the insidiousness and reach that Saunders’ work speaks so strongly to that perfectly situates the moment we are in. The use of communication with targeted design to manipulate, be it called propaganda, public relations, psychological warfare and operations, marketing, advertising or strategic communication, ultimately is meant to create an environment, one as Marshall McLuhan said makes us fish who haven’t discovered water as it is always beyond our perception, that will govern in relative anonymity and obscurity. It sets a tone so then, as Saunders says:

It [is] not a matter of buying off and subverting individual writers and scholars, but of setting up an arbitrary and factitious system of values by which academic personnel were advanced, magazine editors appointed, and scholars subsidized and published, not necessarily on their merits—though these were sometimes considerable—but because of their allegiance.

I hate to say it, but it is, “build it and they will come.” Put differently and more recently, when a report was done about the relationship between the current White House and Fox News the founder of the network Rupert Murdoch was considered as having “invented” Trump. But, no, as the story said, “Murdoch didn’t invent Trump, but he invented the audience. Murdoch was going to make a Trump exist. Then Trump comes along, sees all these people, and says, ‘I’ll be the ringmaster in your circus!’” And this is where we most certainly are on a grand scale. We are all the invented audience now prepared to accept so much of what is clearly wrong, to accept, participate in and welcome the created circus. Centuries of that dialectical effort at negation and then, as Tom Porter says, being the “negation of the negation,” has many Black scholars accepting that class role Robinson described, a willingness to limit or be limited in our political responses and forms of our scholarship. A second reconstruction as my comrade says has many of us still fighting back with attempts to reconcile systemic and systematic oppression of Black people with claims that our movements have only been meant to become part of what is and willing to accept that academic freedom really only means rewards – or fancy chicken – goes to those who remain free within strict and prescribed boundaries. It requires little more than simply selecting carefully who is on television, appointed to highest posts, allowed enormous salaries to not teach and assuring that those who do are paid the least, never given time or room to produce intellectually or to be known beyond their immediate classrooms.

Dr. Favors does reach a conclusion in his aforementioned new book that helps explain some of what causes both our HBCU relative academic and student malaise as it relates to activism and critical scholarship. Simply put, in a version described more broadly by a recent documentary about the American university, the state “starved the beast.” Money for social science and the humanities have just dried up in comparison to those in STEM-related fields. Those fields, of course, lend themselves far more to military and intelligence agency needs and far less to those of the material and social conditions of the communities from which students come. When Fanon talked of it being necessary that the colonized be denied even the right to dream of liberty he was certainly not joking. By creating a precipitous drop in financial support for intellectualism, world’s of ideas and critical thinking we have mostly seen an overt attempt to return to or the recreation of a contemporary industrial system of education buttressed by a media system so meticulously shaped to as appear natural and inevitable and it is a testimony to the hard work, struggle and basic humanity of so many that things are just not worse.

I’ll close with the words from Drs. Ruth Perry and Yarden Katz of MIT from a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. If it indeed is true that “when White people catch a cold we get pneumonia,” then what she has to say about the broader national tendency at the university should prepare us further, if we are not clear already, for war:

… universities have been transformed to run like corporations, top-down and hierarchical, relying on impersonal bureaucracies rather than collegial debate to make decisions. Research is viewed instrumentally, as it is at the corporations that sponsor it. The line between education and business has all but dissolved. Corporations lease campus land for their commercial buildings and help direct research in campus labs. The atmosphere encourages students to work on their “pitches” for corporate jobs rather than identify problematic assumptions. Students’ imaginations are trained to develop new products and open new markets rather than to think about what would constitute human fulfillment. We end up reproducing the view that the ‘real world’ is inevitably one of competition, anxiety, isolation, and fear.

Yet such propaganda is now simply part of academic science. Media outlets that cover science play a major role in this distortion. As the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin put it, most press coverage crafts an image of science as an objective pursuit, an instrument for unending progress to the benefit of all. Criticism of how the scientific enterprise actually works and affects people’s lives is nearly absent. Scientists (particularly at elite institutions) aren’t innocently co-opted into these schemes but are skillful participants, who, as Nelkin wrote in her 1987 book, Selling Science, ’employ increasingly sophisticated public-relations techniques to assure that their interests are represented with maximum media appeal.’

‘Conflict of interest’ does not capture the current state of affairs, which is better described as one of shared interests among universities, corporations, and the military. Working with big pharma, launching start-ups, and obtaining Pentagon grants are what make an elite American scientist.

MIT has helped to normalize a model of research that exemplifies the knotty military-industrial-academic complex. The MIT Media Lab is funded by ‘member companies’ who, in exchange, receive intellectual-property rights to the laboratory’s work. The members list includes powerful corporations from nearly every ethically challenged industry: fossil fuels (ExxonMobil), big pharma (Novartis, Hoffman-La Roche, Takeda), big tech (Google, Twitter, IBM, Intel, Cisco), weapons developers (Northrop Grumman), and big media (21st Century Fox, Comcast, Verizon).

Recently the Stevens Point campus of the University of Wisconsin proposed to cut 13 of its humanities majors, ‘including English, art, history, philosophy, and foreign languages.’ Language is the repository of our most subtle thoughts and noble feelings, the medium that stores our common knowledge and folklore — but no one has figured out how to commodify it yet. Closing research departments in the humanities is also an attack on labor. It converts programs with tenured-faculty slots into ‘service departments,’ based on even more precarious contract labor, that teach ‘basic skills’ to students in more strategically profitable programs. And so, another crack where academic resistance could take place is sealed shut.

Now, and in fact, part of that misunderstood increased contraction of pneumonia is that the languages of African people and of Black America, in particular, have indeed been made into commodity. The Hip-Hop Nation Language once spoken of by James Spady has absolutely been turned into colonial weaponry testifying against it progenitors creating billions globally for those same conglomerates while the communities from which the art is mined remain cordoned spatially and economically and absent any meaningful political control or anything akin to sovereignty. 

I have hoped here today to simply return our focus in some way directly to the central role played of propagated myth to the maintenance of an intentionally designed horrifically unequal country and world. My preference for this particular colonial framework, though also wonderful for closing gaps between often competing material and immaterial emphases of analysis, is today helpful in describing the intent of power and the context created by that intent in which we who are struggling find ourselves. For there to be any honest assessment where we are today as Black scholars or scholars at Black universities I have hoped to offer up for consideration the created interpretative environment in which our own work and ideas are then themselves considered. What “created audiences” are we then finding in our classrooms or at the other end of our completed works? What are the nature of the decisions made regarding distribution of salaries, funding and faculty governance and why do so many at HBCUs in particular find themselves outside what are at times thought to be conventional processes or governing practices? Or even why, when I once upon a time sought answers to compelling questions raised regarding hiring, pay, seniority, academic freedom, assaults on terminal degrees and full adoption of teaching hospital models of commercial education, was I told verbatim, “Dr. Ball, your problem is that you want to create new knowledge. We don’t do that here. Your job is to create menial laborers for the communications industry?” This was merely an honest assessment of our moment absent the broader context Ive tried briefly to outline today and one I know does not confront me alone. 

Thank you. And in the words of Fred Hampton, peace to those willing to fight for it.

(Unlinkable) References:

Ruth Perry and Yarden Katz, “Higher Ed, Inc., How the university became a profit-generating cog in the corporate machine,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2018.

5 thoughts on “Degrees of Propaganda: The University and Public Opinion

  1. We often talk about the commodification of hip-hop. We need not keep things in a US-only context. Dr. Ball: Have you done an imixwhatilike piece on the commodification of different types of music in other Black or colored spaces — lik soca, reggaeton, and Afrobeats? Thanks.

    1. No. But then again my discussion of hip-hop is far from only with a US context. Quite the opposite actually. In fact, my use of “colonialism” as the context by definition puts the commodification in a global context. So while I have not discussed those specific art forms per say we do have plenty on this and related subjects throughout the site, including discussions of hip-hop in a specifically international context. You are taking one passing line out of a presentation that did not have hip-hop or art as it’s specific focus and are reducing it to what you dismiss as what “we often talk about.” That is atop any list of things “we need not keep…” doing.

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