The dictionary defines propaganda as the deliberate spreading of information, ideas, or rumors in an effort to either help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, or nation. Most commonly propaganda is used in the political arena. However, it can take used to convince others to embrace a particular scientific, environmental, religious or even moral position as well, making it a part of almost all aspects of life.
Unfortunately, the term is usually associated with lies or half-truths, but that’s not always the case; in fact, some of the most successful propaganda is based on the truth, though that truth may be hidden behind the propagandist’s particular slant or style of delivery. In most cases, however, the role of the propagandist is to convince large numbers of people to think a certain way, making it a powerful tool, especially in the wrong hands. Of course, having strong opinions or being especially dogmatic about one’s beliefs does not automatically make one a propagandist.
What defines a propagandist is someone who makes a living attempting to persuade others to their cause, perspective or perceptions and refuses to consider contrary perspectives or viewpoints as valid or worthy of consideration. As such, and as the ability to do this I rarely a paid job, true propagandists are rare (though, for some reason, they seem to be growing in number as of lately).
Throughout history there have been a number of individuals who seem to have a gift for such tactics. Often this ability to pursued large numbers of people has been to the detriment of peace and human freedom, although sometimes it has been used for more positive ends as well. Additionally, it must be remembered that one man’s propagandist is another man’s “voice of reason”, making it even more difficult to determine with certainty just who is the propagandists.
However, there are a few people out there who history agrees has—or continues to—use the art of persuasion to their own ends with an adroitness matched by few of their contemporaries. So who are these master manipulators of the public perception and how effective have they been throughout history in shaping the way we look at the world around us? Without further ado, here is my list of the ten most successful, powerful, or otherwise well known propagandists ever to take to a podium, microphone or the written page.
10. Dr. Walter Martin
It’s a sure bet most readers have never heard of this man, which is not remarkable as his following was almost entirely confined to the fundamentalist wing of late twentieth century evangelical Christianity. However, for a time this fiery New York City born minister/author was one of the best known and most vociferous opponents of cults and other religious belief systems in the world. Known for his work battling non-Christian cults—which he defined to be any religious belief system at variance with mainstream, evangelical Christianity and the basic tenets of orthodoxy such as the resurrection, virgin birth, atonement, scriptural inerrancy and other traditional teachings of the faith—by the 70s and 80s he was filling auditoriums to overflowing with crowds hooked by his bombastic rhetoric, subtle wit, and dogmatic certainty. What made his most effective, however, was his base of knowledge about what other religions taught as well as his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible (which he could quote in several biblical languages) Famous for his uncompromising, hard core positions and the often heated debates he both participated in and fomented when taking on those who were, from his perspective, “outside the pale of orthodoxy,” his targets included Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses, Scientology, Christian Science, New Age beliefs, and, for a time, even Seventh Day Adventism (though he later changed his mind about them.) Not surprisingly, he also skewered Darwinists (and the belief in evolution in general), secular humanists, atheists, homosexuals and the far-left. His legacy lives on to this day—long after his death in 1989—through his writings (Martin was a prolific author with more than two dozen books to his credit, many of which remain in print) and through the work of the Christian Research Institute—an organization Martin established in 1960 designed to train Christians in the art of apologetics and evangelism. As a result, today there are literally scores of ministries on cults and apologetics, all out there striving hard to ensure that the “light of truth” is not stamped out by the work of the devil (or Tom Cruise and Shirley McLain and their ilk.) John Calvin (one of his heroes) would have been proud.
9. Madalyn Murray O’Hair
What Walter Martin was to Christianity, this fiery tempered and always outrageous activist from Pittsburgh was to atheism. An acerbic personality who enjoyed a good tussle whenever she could arrange one—especially against any Christian she came in contact with—O’Hair became one of the most hated women in America by almost single-handedly managing to get the Supreme Court to outlaw prayer in the public schools. (Actually, O’Hair was one of several plaintiffs having filed similar challenges at the time; hers apparently simply being the first one to come before the docket.) She turned her sudden and unexpected fame as a result of the still controversial 1963 decision into a launching pad to make herself one of the most ardent proponents of the separation of church and state and one of the greatest enemies of religion in modern times. Abrasive in both public and private, with views that put her at odds with almost everyone, what made her not only controversial but, in many people’s eyes, evil as well was her opinions in regards to sexuality (for example, she called herself a sexual “libertarian” who condoned sexual experimentation by children as young as twelve years). While this might have been a problem for most people, she actually seemed to enjoy the notoriety it brought her (though it’s likely her bombastic, confrontational style may have hurt her side more than it helped and may have even had a hand in making the term atheist a dirty word in the lexicon of many people today.) Her private life appeared to be as tempestuous as her public persona, with multiple marriages, several sordid affairs, and a number of children born to different fathers, as well as numerous run-ins with the police (which often brought her even more sought after attention and headlines). It all came to a not unexpectedly violent end in 1995, however, when she—along with her son and an adopted granddaughter—were killed by one of her staffers in an extortion plot gone bad. To add insult to injury, one her other sons by an earlier marriage, William Murray, went on to become—you guessed it—a Baptist preacher!
8. Glenn Beck
What Rush Limbaugh is to radio, Glenn Beck—a forties-something former DJ from Everett, Washington—is to television. Known as a “paleoconservative”, he is lauded by his fans as a constitutional stalwart who tirelessly defends traditional American values from secular progressivism while being ostracized by his critics as a conspiracy theorist who employs incendiary rhetoric to boost ratings. A six-times New York Times bestselling author for his books outlining his political perspective, the Catholic-turned-recovering-alcoholic-turned-Mormon probably has more influence on the American electorate—second only perhaps to Rush Limbaugh—than any man today. In fact, it is possible he played a significant role in energizing the right-wing enough during the 2010 elections that he shifted the balance of power in Congress (despite the fact that he doesn’t consider himself a Republican). A mixture of hard-core political conservatism, down-home American family values, ardent pro-life religious morality, staunch anti-Communism and anti-George Soro conspiracy-ism, Beck makes for an entertaining if sometimes off-the-wall and even borderline goofy host. However, while his generally amusing and even genial nature makes him seem harmless, his efforts at exposing the far-left nature and even Marxists sympathies of some of President Obama’s closest advisors and associates makes him a major target of the left. His worries about the impending collapse of the American currency system also has a tendency to scare his audience and can seem a little disingenuous for a man who makes tens of millions a dollars a year, but that doesn’t stop the folks from watchin’.
7. Rush Limbaugh
Perhaps no man in the world is better suited to sit behind a microphone for fifteen hours a week pontificating on everything from “feminazis” (his derogatory term for feminists) to the “drive-by media” (his term for the liberally-slanted main stream media famous for its attacks against conservatives), all for a measly 50 million dollars a year. Nearing 60 years of age, the often married Limbaugh shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon and even seems to have been reenergized by the Obama administration in ways he hasn’t been since Bill Clinton was in the White House. An ardent Republican, his support for the “tea party” movement in the 2010 elections no doubt had a major impact on Republican gains—especially in the House and among governorships—making him easily one of the major driving forces behind modern conservatism today. Claiming to possess “talent on loan from God” Limbaugh is heard by anywhere from 14 million to as many as 30 million listeners a day (depending on what source you query) on over 600 stations, making him the single biggest talk radio host in America (or the world, for that matter). How successful a propagandists is he? Consider that he is so successful that he is the driving force behind efforts from the Left to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine designed to, if not silence the sonorous voice of the Right, to at least muzzle it a bit.
6. Al Gore
Bill Clinton’s Vice President for eight years and—except for some hanging chads in Florida—very nearly president of the United States in 2000, Albert Arnold Gore, Jr. has since gone on to bigger and better things; in this case, battling the scourge of global warming. Though not a climatologist or an environmental scientist himself (Gore’s education was as a journalist though he spent most of his life as a congressman and senator from the great state of Tennessee), he none-the-less chose to champion the noble cause of saving the Earth from mankind’s recklessness. A life-long “green democrat” and ardent supporter of the Kyoto Accords (which would have put severe restrictions on the amount of green-house gases each industrialized nation could produce), he went on to co-direct the award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, a sensationalized effort designed to educate the public about the dangers of global warming. While the documentary was well received, later problems with the science behind it brought his cause into some disrepute, while his only superficial understanding of the complexities of global climate change have repeatedly tripped him up as a spokesman for the movement. Despite that, he remains one of the most vocal proponents of environmentalism in the world and an enthusiastic supporter of eco-friendly technologies, despite the fact that many of his solutions to the scourge of global warming may be more disastrous to society than the supposedly dire consequences global warming threatens.
5. Michael Moore
Every political perspective has its propagandists and that is no less true for the left as it is for the right. While Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity dutifully beat the drum for conservatism, it is up to the fifties-something producer from Flint, Michigan to sound the charge for liberalism (or, as it is currently known, progressivism). An ardent left winger dating all the way back to his early years working for the ultra-liberal Mother Jones magazine (whom he sued for wrongful firing in 1987, thus providing him the resources to make the first of nine of his documentaries) he has since made a name for himself as a filmmaker who uses satire and extremely one-sided interviews to lampoon, insult, or otherwise deride everything from big corporations to the Bush administration to gun ownership. Though not a particularly brilliant man, his ability to mix humor with political commentary makes him a especially effective champion of the left and a thorn in the side of many a conservative, though it’s unclear exactly how many minds he manages to change with his films. (Like most propagandists, he tends to preach to the already converted, making it unclear exactly how much real influence he has.) He has his audience, however, who will undoubtedly continue to rally around him for as long as he continues to provide them ammunition to use against those who would threaten their utopian view of the world.
4. Joseph Goebbels
Perhaps no man in history used the power of propaganda with more horrific success than did the aspiring novelist/poet turned propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda and Hitler’s chief attack dog from 1933 to 1945. A man whose keen intellect and oratory skills were on par with those of the fuehrer whom he so loved, in controlling every aspect of communications in Germany throughout the war, Goebbels methodically but successfully managed to turn an entire nation into aggressive and militaristic anti-Semites and anti-Communists, making the holocaust and the general brutalities of the Second World War possible. It could be said that without Goebbels skills, the Nazi Party might never have come to power (it was Goebbels who set up the Party’s spectacular torchlight parades and grandiose events) or have been as successful in turning so many Germans into the monsters some of them would become. Goebbels was not merely a mouthpiece for National Socialism, however, but one of its true believers who remained a loyal part of Hitler’s inner circle long after Goering and Himmler—along with most of the other top Nazis—had deserted der fuehrer in the closing days of the war. In fact, he remained so fanatically dedicated to Hitler—whom he saw as a sort of semi-deity—that he chose to die alongside of him in his bunker beneath Berlin in April of 1945 rather than escape the city (but not before ordering the family doctor to poison his six children while he and his wife, Magna, stood by and afterwards took their own lives).
3. Friedrich Nietzsche
Perhaps one of the most influential voices of the nineteenth century belonged to the German philosopher Nietzsche, whose prolific writings on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science influenced many of the great political and social revolutions of the twentieth century. He was also an ardent atheist and an amoralist, whose ideas were thoroughly at odds with the Judeo/Christian ethics of his age and led many then and now to consider him the father of secularism and even atheism. While it is difficult to determine precisely where on the political spectrum Nietzsche belongs, in his day he was a vociferous opponent who railed against some of the greatest minds of his era—among them Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza—often with great success. While not a propagandist in the truest sense of the word, his dogmatism was contagious to the point of being overwhelming, resulting in him becoming one of the driving forces behind the primordial philosophies and political systems of the nineteenth century, including, among them, fascism and Nazism (both of which were heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s writings). It’s not clear to what degree some of his later ideas may have been influenced by declining mental health (possibly resulting from having acquired syphilis years earlier) but many of his ideas are still championed by many intellectuals on the left to this day, ensuring that his perceptions will continue to find an audience well into the twenty-first century and, perhaps, beyond.
2. Karl Marx
There can be no doubt that few man have had as much an impact upon the history of the twentieth century than the German philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx, whose greatest work of literature, Das Kapital, was to lay the foundation for a political system—Communism—that would set the century aflame. A propagandist of the first order, Marx’s theories calling for the elimination of private ownership and his demands that capitalism—which he considered the be one of mankind’s greatest oppressive forces—be replaced with a type of stateless, classless utopianism. Though his ideas have repeatedly proven impractical and unworkable when used as the basis for an economic system and Communism has resulted in the death of literally hundreds of millions over the last century as dictators and tyrants of various stripes have attempted to impose them, his ideas served as a swan song for many and one that continues to play a role in the lives of over a billion people on the planet today. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like today had not Marx come along, or what horrors the twentieth century might have avoided had he pursued law rather than philosophy—as his father had desired.
1. Joseph McCarthy
Though not a propagandists by profession, few can deny the power the Wisconsin senator wielded during the early fifties as he repeatedly made claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere. Charging that Commies had infiltrated the State Department, the Truman administration, Voice of America, and even the United States Army, for a time his accusations did much to harm or destroy the careers of a number of politicians and other individuals both inside and outside of government. Eventually his inability to produce evidence to back up his claims took the sheen off his career and the senate ended up censuring him in 1954, effectively bringing an end to his reign of terror. He would die just three years later from hepatitis exacerbated by alcoholism, but his name and the term McCarthyism would remain forever synonymous with the tactic of making reckless, unsubstantiated accusations against ones opponents designed to challenge their character or patriotism for political gain. By all accounts, not a very nice guy.
Honorable Mentions: Sean Hannity (amiable and even likable ultra-conservative; sort of Limbaugh-Lite); Bill O’Reilly (not a true propagandist, but definitely a demigod who is “watching out for you”!); Oliver Stone (movie producer who has single-handedly turned conspiracy theories into blockbuster entertainment); Ann Coultier/Laura Ingraham (two far-right ladies who really need a day-job); and Barbara Streisand/Jane Fonda (two left-wing ladies who have way too much time on their hands.)