Selling the State: Propaganda and the Construction of Public Legitimacy in the Postcolonial World

AHA Session 118
Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Mark Kramer, Harvard University
Mark Kramer, Harvard University

Session Abstract

This panel brings together five scholars who are all wrestling with the question of how government entities manufacture consent across ethnic and national boundaries. Spanning three continents and six languages, these historians are doing cutting-edge, topical scholarship on the role of language in shaping how populations understand the world around them. Regardless of the location and the period, these papers show that the truth is profoundly malleable and that populations are often susceptible to manipulation and control. At the same time, these papers reveal the dangers inherent in propaganda as populations become aware of their own agency and more discerning in what they are willing to believe.

Jessica Pearson’s paper sets the stage for the panel by giving an overview of the role of propaganda in the twentieth century. It looks at the struggles that the colonial world faced in trying to maintain the allegiances of the countries that had once been under their charge. Papers two and three look at specific instances where colonial powers fought to convince their subject populations that they were better off submitting to the advice and leadership of their larger neighbors. Claire Roosien explores Soviet efforts to solicit the loyalties of Uzbek populations through poetry and art, while Margaret Peacock examines the fight over historical legitimacy by British, Soviet, American, Israeli, and Egyptian broadcasters over the airwaves of the Middle East. Lastly, Olga Dror uncovers the heretofore unexplored history of the construction of the image of “Uncle Ho Chi Minh” for Vietnamese children in an attempt to solicit emotional connections between the Vietnamese leadership and its reluctant population.

In what we are increasingly calling “the post-truth age,” there is a real mandate for the careful study of how information and propaganda are constructed, conveyed, and consumed in the modern world. As a testament to the topicality of this panel, Dr. Peacock sent out a search for one additional panelist on H-Net in December, 2016. She received no fewer than fifteen responses from scholars around the world. Dr. Peacock decided to bring all of these scholars together in a Facebook group, and they have now formed two additional groups who are also submitting panels to the AHA (“Ways of Seeing, Shaping, and Documenting Subjects Under Post-Colonial Conflict” and “Economic Nationalism, Non-Alignment, and Neutrality During The Cold War,” submitted by Dr. Mustafah Dhada). Membership on that Facebook group has steadily grown. It is our sincere hope that we can use this opportunity to build new transnational connections at the AHA with people working on propaganda, to attend each others’ panels and engage in intelligent conversation, and to form a consortium of scholars that can add to the debates on this important topic.

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