Think about Oliver, for a moment. Or rather, think about the scheming vile Jew at the heart of Charles Dicken’s novel “Oliver Twist”. Let’s consider the wicked hebrew into whose clutches poor defenceless Oliver falls when he has escaped the rigours of the Victorian workhouse.
Charles Dickens was not an anti-Semite, as such. He did change the portrayal of Fagin as vile after the original 1837 version of the story to be more neutral. This after Eliza Davies wrote to him about “the vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”.
But the point of Oliver Twist was not to do an injustice to a persecuted minority, but to use the tool available to him to tug at the heart-strings of an anti-semitic nation. What better way to do that, than to drop the young hero Oliver into the care of the despised few that were said to drink the blood of children?
What better way to change people’s view about the plight of the poor children, than to use common short-hand assumptions about things to achieve a specific outcome. When we want to portray the bad, in our modern times, do we not put a swarthy turbaned man in a narrative? It’s an immediate villain, laden with prejudgment in the reader.
My easiest way into your heart is not to appeal to your reason or your intellectual faculties. No, humans are not so sophisticated. I convince you better by telling you a story that you want to hear, and by carefully picking the symbols in the story, I can shape your instant assumptions about things.
Like with Dickens choice of Fagin as the villain, I can shape the narrative without writing a word, and I can put you into a frame of mind where it is easy to force you to believe me. I can convince you to be a racist, or a saint, or a devil. With enough time I can convince you to kill your fellow man, or go out and rescue him.
All I need is a hook, and line, and a sinker. I need a Fagin. Or a hooded-teen. Or an immigrant. Or a Roma. Then I will reel you in, and make you mine, and the best part is that you will convince yourself that it was your own reasoning and your own decisions all the time.
You do not actually want numbers. You don’t want data. You don’t want facts. You are a story telling ape. Evolution and nature has shaped you to be a verbal pattern seeker. You see everything as having a beginning, a middle and an end. Facts and reason mostly just aids you in affirming what you already believe.
You want a story. A narrative. A context. If I can give you that, and if you’re amenable to it, you will give your mind to me. This is the power of the story, and the power of the story is always propaganda for something.
Propaganda is a word that has a bad reputation. People mostly associate it with deceit and lies, but the real definition of the word is simply: Propaganda consists of the planned use of any form of public or mass-produced communication designed to affect the minds and emotions of a given group for a specific purpose, whether military, economic, or political. If you look back to the beginning of this essay, you can understand that what Charles Dickens did in Oliver Twist was pure propaganda.
In itself propaganda is a neutral tool. Like a hammer it can be used for building a house, or for murdering others. Propaganda doesn’t have to be lies, as long as it attempts to affect the mind and heart of you for a specific purpose. Manipulative, yes. Deceitful, not necessarily.
Where propaganda is most effective, is where it speaks to something that the listener already suspects or actually thinks. Articulation of the message might push someone from mere thinking to vocally supporting. Propaganda can break intellectual isolation of an idea, and give it legitimacy. If it is uttered, it can be reacted to. One such reaction can be assent.
This is why propaganda has such a bad reputation. The reputation is a ward against the effectiveness of it. If something is said to be propaganda, it becomes less potent because the mind raises barriers to obvious propaganda. Therefore the most effective propaganda is that which seeks a particular audience, and speaks to the feelings of that audience, and which pretends not to be propaganda. Like a novel, or a short story, or an article.
If we stick to the same era, another remarkable propaganda novel is Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which is very anti-slavery. The main character, Huck, is the racist lens that we view the black character Jim through. At the start of the novel, Huck is quite the little bigot in his dealings with Jim.
Again, Twain uses the natural assumptions of the reader when Huck thinks that Jim is child-like, superstitious, and dim. The white reader of the time most likely held those views themselves, and wouldn’t think much of the description. However, where Dickens used Fagin as a prop to instil sympathy for Oliver, Twain makes the reader comfortable by playing to the reader’s set views about people like Jim. Then he usurps that feeling to achieve his effect; a damnation of slavery itself. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a very effective propaganda tool.
Most of the best novels are, from Lord of the Flies to Lord of the Rings. In essence, a story is a narrative with a conclusion about something. The story always pose one overriding question to the reader, and the mass of the novel strives to answer that question.
It can be a simple question like “Will Frodo drop the One Ring into Mount Doom when he gets there”? It can be a complex question as in “Is barbarism lurking beneath the surface of man?”. It can be “does the boy get the girl?” And so on.
And as a writer, it is my job to stack the cards right so that the reader agrees with the answer to the question – which I of course decide before-hand. A novel consists of the planned use of written communication designed to affect the minds and emotions of a given group for a specific purpose.