Propaganda and Pre-understanding


Propaganda! What is it? Simple question. No? They say that propaganda is information that is not impartial, that is biased, used to influence or to deceive. But, that begs another question.  What does non-biased information look like?  Media, News, Opinion, Science?

There is, in the history of philosophy and philosophical theology, a school of thought that grounds all acts of understanding, and therefore all communication of meaning, in what’s been called a pre-conscious mode of understanding. Let us call this pre-understanding. Emerging from the work of Wilhelm Dilthey and the German school of human sciences, this concept was more fully fleshed-out by another great German philosopher in the mid-twentieth century by the name of Hans Georg Gadamer. (See his work: Truth and Method.) According to Gadamer and the hermeneutical concepts he elaborated concerning legal and biblical interpretation, all understanding (of any text or message), whether it be a biblical passage or the nightly news with Dan Rather; all acts of understanding are grounded in and guided in advance by certain presuppositions or prejudices about the subject matter at hand, its relation to the world, and how that world addresses me personally. In other words, there is no objectivity or pure impartiality in human understanding; all meaning is interpretive, perspectival, and constituted upon one’s presuppositions or pre-understanding, if you will. But, if understanding itself is already predisposed in a specific direction, than the act of communicating information must itself be chock-full of certain predispositions as well. As Martin Heidegger (another German philosopher) noted, even the act of selecting some topic for thematic development (a news story, for example) is already guided by a pre-thematic grasp of the situation, guided by prejudices lodged in our pre-understanding.  In other words, we pick and choose elements to include or dismiss in our story or theory, and how they relate to one another, based again on pre-conscious assumptions, intuitions, directions.  If understanding is itself prejudiced, then there can be NO impartial messages.

It is in this light that we must try to clear away some of the cobwebs and the idle chatter that contend for our attention today regarding the events in Ukraine. We must be careful not to be guided solely by those historical prejudices and presuppositions that always and already seek to control our present understanding. Those of us in the West, and I mean Americans specifically, have been raised on the mother’s milk of Russian fear-mongering and Russia-bashing. We have been trained since the earliest part of the last century to believe certain ‘truths’ about Russia, the KGB, the Kremlin, and communism. Even as babes in the womb, ontogenetically our development may have been influenced by such maternal worries. ‘Fear the Bear! He wants to devour us and make our children his slaves.’ There are a host of truisms out there like this that compose a substantive portion of our pre-understanding whenever we approach a text, a verbal report, or video on events in Ukraine. Now, of course, a similar process occurs in the minds of Russians who see or hear reports in their world about the West. Each side is constrained by, and laboring under, a different (and in this case potentially oppositional) pre-understanding. It is the way we are able to process messages, interpret them meaningfully in our world, and within the worldview with which we are familiar and comfortable. Such pre-understanding affects not only us mortals (i.e., the common people), but our vaunted press, their corporate bosses, and naturally, the politicians and lobbyists who turn the dials, press the buttons, and make the news.

Of course, each side wants you to believe their understanding of the “facts.” But, it is difficult to get beneath that pre-understanding, to shake it loose, if you will, so that one may see things differently. “I” and “Thou” become separated by an invisible wall of misunderstanding grounded in a pre-thematic grasp of the situation that was laid down long ago. We are each, in short, embodied, historical peoples, thrown into a world (with its worldview) without grasping that it is part of the very air we breathe. It informs us without our knowing, and without our blessing. It is what those German philosophers called our intransigent facticity and our unavoidable historicity. It is inscribed in our languages and our customs, in our habits and our preferences, in our values and our desires. It becomes our second nature.

Mind you, it is not human nature per se; indeed, it is not even natural, i.e., given at birth. Rather, it is cultural – a construct, an artifice. But, as civilized human beings this is our legacy and our albatross. It hangs around our necks like a studded choker, determining our reactions, beliefs, motivations, and interpretations. This is the largest problem we face talking to one another across the school yard, the street, the country, or the ocean. It is not a pessimistic view of things, but simply the way things are.

Americans want to believe that Russia is expansionist, aggressive, evil. We are programmed to believe that; it is part of our pre-understanding. Of course, the Russians are quick to defend themselves by talking about American imperialism, its cultural hegemony, KFCand its covert support not only for Ukraine, but for other world-historical events over the past century. Who is right is often a function of where you come from; what pabulum you’ve been raised on. But, sometimes it behooves us, when the door has once been cracked open (as it was with Edward Snowden’s revelations) to rethink our values, our loyalties, re-evaluate our news reports, and our professional politicians, and see that there may be “truth” — value, substance, understanding — in what the other side is seeing that we have not seen, or have seen  but only ‘through a glass darkly.’ We must work diligently to overcome the limits of our pre-conceived ideas about the Other, and learn to identify where our own prejudices and presuppositions are really inhibiting our view of what may in fact be happening.

Propaganda works because it feeds into and off our pre-understanding. It is self-validating and self-reinforcing.  We must learn to see how that process is working to undermine our view of events.  Try to hear the other side; not because they are “right” but because we may be listening all-too-absent-mindedly to the pre-conscious narrative playing in our heads. But, more important, it is now Western propaganda, the vicious and visceral rhetoric currently coming from America – burdened by such profound prejudice and presuppositions – that is creating this vast amount of global static, a horror that is inching all of us ever closer to war.  What a shame!

42 Responses to Propaganda and Pre-understanding

  1. Disaffected says:

    Great post and great graphic! Looks like you’re back on a roll again Sandy! Great coincidence as well that this post: In the Lie of the Beholder by Illargi showed up on The Automatic Earth as well. Although Illargi focuses on the current financial shenanigans involved in propping up the current global order here, it’s all cut from the same cloth. It appears that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: traditionally Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, are loose in the world and being given free reign, although I would argue that they are currently embodied by Peak Energy, Peak Environmental Destruction (to include AGW), Peak Finance, and Peak Political Unrest.

    Not surprisingly, the peak powers in charge realize all of this at some conscious level or another, and are simply trying to “change the narrative” as the marketing types say. Peak democracy, in the form of inverted totalitarianism, is being applied (militarily where necessary) to the global populace as a last deperate measure to prop up a global capitalist regime that has run out of options and is running headlong into the four horsemen above. We seemed to have crossed a political tipping point of sorts this summer, which aligns perfectly with the AGW stories we’ve been hearing about the Arctic sea ice and methane hydrate releases. Hate to say it, even though I’m just about always the pessimist in any room, but I don’t think there’s any turning back now. Although the final descent may still involve many ragged steps and take several hundred years or more to unfold, I think we’re about to take a very large one that is going to shock many of complacent among us into stunned recognition of where it is we’re headed. It won’t be pretty.

  2. One of the best blog posts I have ever read: you bring truly valuable information to the news and its discussion.

  3. source dweller says:

    Hi Sandy,
    Well, you’re really back in form, discussing German philosophers! Having developed a healthy skepticism over the years, I believe I’ve got a somewhat functional BS meter by now. I’m concerned about the situation in Ukraine of course, but find few sources of reliable news. The opinion of the German pilot & aeronautical expert that MH17 was shot down by cannon fire from one or two Ukrainian SU-25’s directed at the cockpit, along with the photo evidence, seems compelling. If correct, botched false flag op ? Botched assassination attempt on Putin himself? (returning in the Presidential plane from Brazil to Russia that day and time within 150 or 200 kilometers of MH17? – verification needed – very similar markings to Malaysian Air) Just a warning to Putin? (a bit excessive!) Botched military exercise by Ukrainian BUK brigades? The Germans have a lot of skin in the game, and I expect are not, these days, spellbound by visions of empire, and likely have pretty good BS meters themselves.
    Can you suggest a good source of news?

  4. the Heretick says:

    At the cabin in the mountains was a copy of “The Dragons of Eden”, which I read years and years ago, skimmed a bit of it in the quiet with the morning coffee. Seems Sagan felt there was quite a bit of our behavior which is mostly automatic. But then we are the thinking animal, are we not?

    “In general, human societies are not innovative. They are hierarchical and ritualistic. Suggestions for change are greeted with suspicion: they imply an unpleasant future variation in ritual and hierarchy: an exchange of one set of rituals for another, or perhaps for a less structured society with fewer rituals. And yet there are times when societies must change.”
    ― Carl Sagan, Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence

    I’m not so sure Americans believe Russia to be expansionist, aggressive, and evil, as much as they just view the world in general that way, which may just go to reinforce your point. A sizable number of people I talk to think it’s time for US to just mind our own business, needless to say they aren’t news anchors or network executives beholden to the multi-national conglomerates which issue their paychecks; they may however be beholden in other ways.

    What is telling politically is that the current occupant of 1600 mouths the amen propaganda, he may seem to be less quick on the trigger, but he’s not telling the truth either, is he? This is counted as an improvement by those who want ot believe that they themselves are more “progressive”. What is conveniently forgotten is that the original Progressive while being somewhat of a reformer, expanded upon the Monroe Doctrine and believed in carrying a Big Stick.

    Personally, i think our foreign policy has become just that bit constrained because they don’t want to institute a draft, and they are finding fewer people willing to become Wounded Warriors- TM.
    It is also just barely possible that some in the Pentagon have been doing some cost benefit analysis, have learned a few lessons about projecting military power, and have realized that wars fail w/o complete mobilization.

    All of this being said, I just can’t believe that our masters in the DC/NYC duopoly really want to plunge us into WWIII, although God knows they could probably whip up enough frenzy to accomplish just that if they put their mind to it,especially if they allowed green hair and tongue piercings in boot camp.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Sagan is wrong… as always! Humans are not naturally hierarchical. 😉

      • the Heretick says:

        He doesn’t say that exactly, more that we think more than we realize with our reptile/amphibian brains, and my addition is that the spinmeisters know exactly how to appeal to our baser emotions.

        • kulturcritic says:

          “In general, human societies are not innovative. They are hierarchical and ritualistic…” What is this?

          • the Heretick says:

            When I look around our societies sure seem ritualistic, everything from shaving for work, to the introduction of new TV shows. I do take your point though, really I do, much of our behavior is programmed from above. That was probably a poor quote, my thinking was more along the lines of the manipulation of the masses, star Spangled Banner, Wounded Warriors – TM, the total sham that are political parties.

  5. Disaffected says:

    All of this being said, I just can’t believe that our masters in the DC/NYC duopoly really want to plunge us into WWIII
    May be, but I think they’re willing to roll the dice and take us to the brink to get their way. The US record on brinkmanship is long and well established, from the murky back scene maneuverings of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the even murkier still false flag events of 9/11 and everything that’s gone on since.

  6. Thomas says:

    Sandy, thanks for this really enlightening post – enough material for me to muse over for a week and try to realize the real meaning of it in my daily life !

    I have found this site (run by a Russian diplomat in-exile) very good and profoundly as honest as he can be – expressing his views, his doubts, his fears…
    I guess you will appreciate it, too.
    Please tell me what you think !
    Best regards to all

  7. Only one word describes this post: excellent. It is also the best post of yours that I can recall. I am sharing it as far and wide as I can.

  8. the Heretick says:

    Joe Biden’s Son Is Now On The Board Of One Of Ukraine’s Biggest Gas Conglomerates
    “The White House shot down any notion of a conflict of interest with Hunter Biden’s appointment. In a statement provided to Business Insider, Joe Biden spokesperson Kendra Barkoff said Hunter’s appointment did not constitute an endorsement by the vice president.”

  9. the Heretick says:

    maybe this can help clarify matters a bit.

  10. Disaffected says:

    Looks like Israel and Hamas are back at it this morning, just in time for the US to begin Iraq III and Putin to counter US/EU economic sanctions with a few of his own. One can only hope that cooler minds will prevail when the weather cools, but I wouldn’t bet on it at this point, what with the EU begin dependent on Russian gas for heat. Things could get interesting here pretty damn quick, and one would assume the US is trying to paper over its underlying economic bankruptcy by rattling sabers militarily. Might well be the last arrow in the quiver at this point.

    • I’m with you, DA. I’ve been pretty much in a permanent state of what the Brits call ‘gobsmacked’ as this festival of US and EU inanity has unfolded. This morning I see that Poland wants to prosecute Russia for its food import sanctions at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Monty Python could not have come up with anything more absurd.

      • Disaffected says:

        Lot’s of commentary out there now that the US and Russia are very rapidly painting themselves into a corner from which there will be no alternative but war with all these sanctions, counter sanctions, and false flag events. I’m of the opinion now that the MH17 shootdown could very well have been a botched assassination attempt on Putin, in which case Putin knows that fact as well. If that’s the case, the west has seriously shot themselves in the foot once again and they know that Putin knows it as well, and Putin will no doubt never trust the west again and will act accordingly. All of which bodes ill for detente, or whatever it is they’re calling it these days.

        • kulturcritic says:

          detente or double entendre LOL

        • DA, do you also think Putin is painting himself into a corner? The general restraint of Russian rhetoric and action are about the only handholds for hope that I’ve been able to find in this ridiculous and utterly pointless mess. The massive cognitive dissonance and projection onto Russia of values and behavior that have historically typified America and many of the EU nations, demands a demon of some sort. It’s the only way to avoid dealing with the consequences of their own psychopathic and sociopathic policies.

          The Russians are in a situation akin to encountering a couple of violent, mentally ill people on a deserted street. They do their best to remain mild and nonthreatening, but no matter what they do or say to calm the situation while maintaining their own sovereign integrity—the Russian government, after all, has to pay attention to its own citizenry with its much longer historical memory—the mentally ill US-EU axis [wink] twists it into the opposite and uses that as an excuse to inflate their irrational outrage further.

          Like you, all sorts of questions run through my mind. Is this crisis a symptom of an unraveling national psyche on the part of the US that is being aided and abetted by the supine poodles currently leading the former European powers? Or is it a perverse Strangelovian calculus of power in an undeclared resource war where the Russians have more natural resources and a population recently tested by profound adversity?

          If so, it has got to be about the most bizarre and certainly the biggest miscalculation in human history, if the American administration with a population almost completely unprepared for, let alone tested by, adversity, thinks it can wage a PR war to the tune of rattling sabers. That some people can even conceive of playing such a game when several of the countries involved have bunkers full of nuclear warheads boggles my mind.

          As to the thought that the CIA via its Ukrainian proxies might have been going after Putin [Who else would it be? Liechtenstein? The Archduchy of Grand Fenwick?] … If that were to ever prove true, I would gladly send all involved to the Hague for trial.

          Be this all as it may, the Putin government can still play chess. I hope they hold their nerve and continue to do so. The steppes of the Rodina are not just a physical geography, but also one of the mind—an observant patience inculcated by a long and arduous history. If I could advise Putin and his government, it would be to stay patient and out of reach.

          Uncle Sam has declined into a demented, tottering addict, smashing up the saloon, spoiling for another fight to cover up the holes in his soul. Better he should knock himself out. It’s probably the only way he’ll ever hit rock bottom and have a shot at recovering from the addiction of empire.

          Imagine what it would be like to survey this mess from On High in the company of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln [who vehemently opposed the Mexican War of conquest]. Alas, a means of Skyping with the Hereafter has not yet been discovered.

          So it goes.

          • Disaffected says:

            No, not Putin per se. I think he’s reacting as calmly and deliberately as possible, surely much more so than Obama, who I’m not sure is even in charge anymore, to be quite frank. But as the posturing on both sides continues I think it might well get to a point where one side or the other, given an ever narrowing range of options, miscalculates and does something stupid. Which is what the western strategists want in the first place, IMO.

            In other breaking stupidity, Slate has apparently embraced the war cheerleader mentality wholeheartedly. I’ve gotta stop reading this shit. It’s gonna give me a heart attack yet.


            • Disaffected says:

              And the more I think about it, the more the attempted Putin assassination makes sense and explains the whole affair. Somebody out there definitely wants to suppress that AnderweltOnline link, which tells me there’s definitely something to it.

            • Re Slate: Groan …

              David Stockman has a piece by Gareth Porter on his site about how McNamara and the hawks on LBJ’s staff and at the Pentagon kept the true sequence of non-events in the Gulf of Tonkin away from him in order to force a deeper/broader military intervention. It’s a chilling read because I can easily envision the same situation with Obama that you are. This piece explains how easily it can happen.


              A few years earlier during the Cuban Missile Crisis the generals tried a similar gambit with Kennedy. Fortunately for all of us, he had learned his lesson from the Bay of Pigs fiasco when he followed the advice of the Cold Warriors and studied tomes such as The Guns of August which fortified him against being manipulated. He also had his brother and battle tested friends like Ken O’Donnell who provided the sort of support that I doubt Obama has.

              • kulturcritic says:

                Gordon, what an incredibly articulate and humorous post.  I am picking you for my team. 😉 kC

                • Thanks, Sandy, that’s high praise indeed! Getting past the need to vent, being content to observe and be about my own business has done wonders for the clarity of my thought and prose.

                  I suppose that if they weren’t already, some geek at NSA is now prowling around my hard drives. If so, I hope his Russian counterpart is too. I still dream of exploring the galleries of the Hermitage and following in some of Bulgakov’s footsteps someday. Maybe my online comments will turn up in the system when I eventually apply for a visa … if the Archdruid’s catabolic collapse doesn’t get us first! 😉

                  • kulturcritic says:

                    Well, Gordon, if you ever get up the nerve, you have an open invitation from me to come to Russia.  I would be pleased to greet you in Moscow, bring you out for a short visit in Altai, and then send you on your way to Petersburg and the Hermitage.  BTW are you on any social media?  regards, sandy

  11. kulturcritic says:

    Well folks… the fact is Russia is now taking US provocation seriously and assessing their responsiveness. Here is Putin’s Economic Advisor on the situation.

    • the Heretick says:

      That clip is a real eye-opener.

    • Disaffected says:

      Too bad we don’t have such reasoned and measured discussion here in the US anymore. When I suggested to my aging mother last week that the whole Ukraine affair was a false flag event from the very start on the part of a US MIC marching hell bent for leather towards another imperialist resource war she told me that she was genuinely concerned I had lost my mind. Rest assured, the overwhelming majority of the American sheeple are as bamboozled by the MSM/Fox News media circus as ever. And in the end, you can’t have a functioning democracy if 90% or better of the people are living in a state manipulated, media controlled, state of delusion. Just won’t work.

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