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Political scientists point to many indicias of a free society’s descent into totalitarianism. These include political, cultural, and economic, symptoms. Yet it all starts with words and ideas. Financial penalties, bank account surveillance, curfews, travel restrictions, and mass detention centers do not sprout up overnight. Decades of ideological conditioning precede them. This process uses and distorts speech and communication.

Most books and films on the Nazi, Stalin and Mao eras focus on the horrors, not on the preliminary symptoms and early stages of these totalitarian systems. This is a crucial error, for it does not guide future generations to spot the telltale signs of a society slipping towards modern tyranny. No society is immune from this danger. It raises its ugly head in every generation.

The first step down this perilous road is a small elite gaining control over mass communication. The elites hope to transform citizens with inalienable rights into subjects without innate rights.

Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell divided interpersonal communication into three major categories. The first two are beneficial while the last is pernicious.

The first step down this perilous road is a small elite gaining control over mass communication.
The first category is informative speech, where one party imparts undisputed factual information to another and both agree that the facts are true. This information mutually benefits the communicator and listener. Informative content should be the bulk of educational material in elementary and high school.

The second form of communication is persuasive, where the parties do not assume the truth of the statements, and one party is attempting, by rhetoric and logic, to convince the other of their veracity. Both parties know one is trying to persuade the other, and the person standing to be persuaded can change his mind or not. Often both the persuader and the “target” benefit if the persuasion succeeds. Most commercial negotiations and sales as well as sincere political, academic and legal debate, fall into this category. Communication at university should have hefty doses of information and high quality debate and persuasion.

The third category of mass communication is propaganda. Often, this category has elements of information and persuasion to make it seem credible. Yet the hallmarks of propaganda are deliberate omission of information, taking statements out of context, gross generalizations, contradictions, confusion, and downright falsehoods. Often the source of the propaganda is filtered through a front so the listener does not know who generated the message. The targets do not know their minds are purposely manipulated. Endless repetition and simplification overcome the logical infirmity of the content. This is the sound of soft tyranny buzzing in our heads.

When the propagandists believe their message is not spreading fast enough, they will graduate to punishments such as social censure, or loss of employment to make the message stick. This explains the Twitter mobs and dismissals of professors, editors, and CEOs who do not toe the propagandist’s line. It is terrifying how quickly the public in strong democracies has accepted the idea of getting cancelled. Cancel culture also accounts for the sudden changes in the names of popular products, censorship of authors such as Dr. Suess, and messages about inclusion, sustainability, and stakeholders on company websites.

The crucial difference between propaganda and the other categories of information is that only the party producing the propaganda benefits from it, while the target almost never benefits, and often suffers from it in countless ways.

If you live in a society where primary, secondary and tertiary education is trending away from information and reasonable persuasion, and is moving toward propaganda, you are living in a society transitioning away from freedom and republicanism and into the modern form of tyranny called totalitarianism.

So how are we faring, in the first quarter of the 21st century, on the quality of our communication? In the United States, (and most of Europe), primary education socializes our children and does not prepare them for the modern economy. School teaches children to read well enough to absorb straightforward ideas. Some countries have better math and computer skill preparation than others. Analytical reading, writing and grammar skills have become weaker as Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, and a host of other social media platforms have shortened youngsters’ attention spans.

Most primary and secondary schools teach nothing about personal finance and entrepreneurship. In the United States, parents are in an uproar over the propagandist curricula in elementary schools. Elections have been won on this issue.

Many communications experts agree that the constant repetition, contradictions, hypocrisies, and threats behind the propagandist messaging create a mass mental fog or haze that permeates the entire culture. Joost Meerloo, in his book, Rape of the Mind, has called this “menticide”.

The only way to break the spell of this mass brainwashing is to rebut the propaganda loudly and often. The elites know this, so they send an army of fact checkers and censors to prevent it.

Those who want to preserve the civil society must keep speaking out on a variety of issues, despite the risk. If we do not, the window of liberty will close and we will no longer face mere Twitter mobs and firings. The next phase is informants, forced affiliations, and dragnet roundups to “re-education centers”. This is the sound of hard tyranny. We must prevent this. We still can.

The Maccabees, who were fighting Hellenist propaganda, knew this too. They knew that fellow Judean elites were pushing the dominant global Seleucid culture in pursuit of their own wealth and status. Matthias and his family realized that the window of preserving the Jewish Commonwealth was closing fast. Their cry of “Who is like you among the Gods, My Lord” broke through the haze of Hellenistic brainwashing. Judah The Maccabee’s daring acts of defiance taught the silent majority that resistance to global tyranny was possible.

Yoram Ettinger, former Israeli ambassador, noted that the Maccabees were an inspiration to George Washington in America’s founding revolution against despotism. When Washington saw a Jewish soldier at Valley Forge lighting a Hannukah candle, he said, “Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Maccabees’ success though it is long passed ….”

We need to heed the cry of the Maccabees and clear our minds of the propagandist haze. We are not as lost as our elites would have us believe.

Ann P. Levin lives in the biblical heartland of Israel. She is a legal writing instructor. Her book, Burning But Never Consumed: The Hebrew Bible in Turbulent Times is available on Amazon.