Nineteenth-century anarchism gave us the idea of “propaganda of the deed.” This refers to the use of outrages and atrocities to bring a political movement or event into public awareness, operating on the principle that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on June 28, 1914, was an example of “propaganda of the deed,” since the aim of Gavrilo Princep was to get people talking about the cause of Serbian independence. As the French socialist Paul Brousse explained:
“Deeds are everywhere discussed; even the masses are roused by them out of their indifference . . . . The new doctrines receive attention and are discussed.” (quoted in Werner Sombart, Socialism and the Social Movement ).
Propaganda of the deed is a subversive strategy that is parasitic on the media-entertainment system of the modern world, since it exploits the technological infrastructure of communication, the desire of media companies for profits, and the insatiable boredom of the modern masses. Thus Werner Sombart explains:
“You throw a bomb into a café where a hundred harmless people are sitting at their ease. Or you murder the Empress Elizabeth . . . . The more senseless the ‘deed’ the better, for then it will receive all the more consideration in every newspaper, and in every place where men forgather.” (Socialism and the Social Movement )
As scholars such as John Gray have noted, Islamist terrorism is presently the best example of “propaganda of the deed,” since a terrorist attack is simply a publicity stunt with lots of blood and carnage.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign made use of “propaganda of the deed,” although the carnage was only figurative. His refusal to act with presidential decorum and discretion made his behavior into a “man bites dog” story, and this ensured that his actions would “receive all the more consideration in every newspaper.”
I said that “propaganda of the deed” is “parasitic on the media-entertainment system.” It would be more accurate to say that it is parasitic on the official propaganda system, since it forces that system to announce the existence of dissidents, and thereby ensures that these dissidents “receive attention and are discussed.” We might also call it a “hack” of the official propaganda system, and it is a “hack” against which that system has very poor defenses.
This is evident in events here at Texas A&M, where the planned speech by Richard Spencer has hacked the University’s P.R. machine with “the propaganda of the deed.” The outrage and atrocity was in this case merely the prospect of Spencer speaking on campus, and this forced the P.R. machine to denounce—but also announce—the speech. Propaganda of the deed 101, you might say.
Now the university has committed itself to hosting an enormous rally in the football stadium, a rally that will mainly serve to get people talking about Richard Spencer. Of course most of them will say rude things about him, but some percentage of persons formerly oblivious to his existence will consider and discuss his ideas, and be converted. Propaganda of the deed forces the lumpen middle to take sides. It is designed to abolish apathy.
You would think someone on campus could have explained this to the administration. Heck, I know someone who could have explained it!
The administration’s latest move has been an attempt to scare students away from Spencer’s talk with a warning that, if they wander into the Memorial Student Center tomorrow evening, they might be photographed by the media and made into the poster child of the New National Socialism. As our Provost put it in an e-mail distributed this afternoon:
“Also be reminded that in choosing to attend an event, you may be photographed at it by media without your consent as it is a public forum, which may imply consent to the topic discussed.”
She is no doubt correct, since our media does not understand concepts like open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, or simply doing what the President and Provost are screaming at you not to do. But one would have liked to hear an academic authority advising the students who chose to attend a peaceful political discussion to employ those critical thinking skills she is otherwise so keen to promote.
If Spencer is a dangerous nut and this university has done its job, our students should see through his flimflam in five minutes. Well, the administration obviously believes that Spencer is a dangerous nut, and just as obviously believes that it hasn’t yet installed much in the way of critical thinking skills. This is why it is desperately luring students away with a free concert, and frightening them off with the threat of an embarrassing photo on page 1 of the Houston Chronicle.
This points to another aspect of propaganda of the deed, which is its power to incite panic in authority figures, and thereby substantially diminish their authority.