Propaganda Shapes the Past, Present & Future

Lawrence Davidson examines how indoctrination from previous eras is being resurrected around two crises — U.S. curricula and foreign policy — with debate raging around one and largely absent from the other. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participating remotely in the Sunday Morning TV Talk Shows on March 6. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

By Lawrence Davidson

There is a famous quote from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, that goes, “those who control the present control the past and those who control the past control the future.” This process is achieved by substituting propaganda for reality. In so doing, thinking is bound to present culturally acceptable storylines that support official views of the past and are designed to carry on into the future.

At the present moment in the United States, this is exemplified by popular responses to two crises. The first involves a majority of U.S. states that are seeking to use political power to control how their past is officially taught and interpreted. This is being done with the hope of forging a unified view among future citizenry — one that returns to perceptions of U.S. history, race and gender characteristic of a time before the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. This mindset accepts segregation and discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation and the like as reflections of acceptable traditional values.

The second crisis involves the revival of Cold War perceptions to shape the present and future U.S. public views concerning Russia and Ukraine. Here, the proffered story is of a bipolar world — one side, led by the United States, is allegedly a “free world” and the other side, led by Russia, is a hostile, dictatorial and expansionist world. These perceptions are characteristic of the time prior to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would seem this past point of view, like the domestic mindset mentioned above, never went away but only retreated. In this way, past manipulated mindsets reemerge into the present when circumstances are right, and threaten to ideologically skew the future.

Let’s examine these two crises beginning with the efforts of the American states.

On the Domestic Scene

The “En L’An 2000,” or “Life in Year 2000” by Jean-Marc Côté depicts the futuristic culturization of humanity. (Françoise Foliot , Wikimédia France, Paris, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A revealing Portside article of Feb. 14 describes how 36 American states either have or are seeking to pass laws that censor the teaching of both local and national history so as to tell a traditional, Eurocentric story. This effort seeks to deny the demonstrable facts about the role racism has played in shaping social and economic development since the nation’s inception. Against this trend, 17 U.S. states have moved to officially expand their history and social studies curriculum to make it more racially and class inclusive. [In a few states both types of effort are underway.] 

We should state clearly that the teaching of such a culturally approved official history has always been pursued in the United States, and is indeed not just an American tactic. It is a ubiquitous practice in much of the world. As public education evolved in the American colonies during the 19th century, it had specific goals: (1) to make the young as literate and skilled as necessary for an evolving capitalist economy and (2) to teach political loyalty. If in this effort there was any reference to or concern for “the truth,” it was allegedly to be represented by the daily repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

In the case of the United States, this two-pronged purpose for public schools came to be safeguarded by indoctrinated citizens themselves sitting on state and local boards of education. It is they who began the censorship of school textbooks and libraries, minimizing uncomfortable and “divisive” topics such as slavery, lynching, systematic discrimination against non-white peoples, the genocidal attack on native peoples, and the history of labor struggles and unionization. The success of this censored teaching is the reason the history of non-white Americans is so often left out of the curriculum.

It has only been in the last 50 or so years, beginning with the civil rights movement, that this treatment of U.S. history has been challenged. If the 17 U.S. states expanding their curriculum to make it more racially and class inclusive are an expression of that challenge, the 36 states seeking to increase censorship are part of the reactionary response to progressive actions ranging from Affirmative Action to Black Lives Matter.

Most recently there is the exaggerated response to Critical Race Theory — a largely academic investigation of the role of institutionalized white racism in American history. It should be noted that these efforts at censorship now go hand in hand with the wave of voter suppression laws promoted by the same rightwing political forces.

As of now, the national organizations that represent U.S. teachers, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), both shaped by the past few decades of progressive change, stand against the conservative, reactionary effort to turn the clock back. As AFT President Randi Weingarten put it, the organization stands against the “culture warriors” who “are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.”

However, reactionary state legislatures and fanatical parents have the ability to intimidate more than just teachers. They can scare and manipulate school administrators who hire and fire teachers. If the legislators of those 36 states noted above hold their positions through multiple elections and stay their reactionary course, they can repopulate public schools with teachers of their own persuasion.

In other words, assuming the present politicians can keep their elected positions, rightwing propaganda will be used to control present education long enough to shape how the past is taught and interpreted. This will impact the future in a sort of circular process that will go on until the thought police are removed from positions of authority.

The Foreign Policy Scene

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 16, 2021. (NATO, Flickr)

The same process of resurrecting a traditional mindset is now taking place in the area of foreign policy. Here the traditional worldview is represented by Cold War tropes resurrecting Russia as Europe’s perennial bad guy. In this case it is not rightwing reactionaries who are the driving force. Rather it is the centrist Democrats, heirs of Cold War thinking, who interpret present-day events in Eastern Europe in terms of an ideologically colored pre-1989 past.

The current trouble centers on Ukraine and its ambition to join North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO). If Ukraine had done so, Russia’s southwestern border would have been in the hands of a hostile Western alliance. The Russians initially approached this dilemma in a peaceful manner. Moscow approached the West and demanded a security treaty that would have halted the eastward expansion of NATO and ended any speculation about Ukraine joining that alliance. However, the U.S. and NATO refused to consider such a treaty and thus considerably narrowed Russian options.

Russia’s bid for a security treaty had solid historical reasons behind it. I laid these reasons out in my analysis Russia Reacts to NATO and History on Jan. 20. These historical facts had long ago been deleted from the Western Cold War storyline that depicted the Soviet Union as ideologically driven to imperial expansion. This traditional interpretation of Russian motives, only partially papered over since 1989, has now been resurrected.

For instance, President Joe Biden has accused President Vladimir Putin of wanting to “re-establish the Soviet Union.” A more realistic interpretation of the present would suggest that by refusing to negotiate a limit on NATO expansion eastward and declaring that NATO would remain open to the possibility of Ukrainian membership, Western leaders forced Russia to take action against Ukraine.

Putin-Biden virtual summit on Dec. 7, 2021. (Presidential Executive Office of Russia)

In other words, the past in the form of years of post-World War II anti-Soviet propaganda now shapes present perceptions and has assured a violent future for Ukraine. This same propaganda has been censored to hide the hypocritical nature of the U.S. position on the present crisis.

Consider the following facts so often censored out of popular perceptions: MSNBC host Medhi Hasan noted in an on the air monologue, “The United States would have ‘more credibility’ to condemn the recent actions of Russia in Ukraine if it wasn’t currently supporting illegal occupations by its allies around the world — and if it didn’t have its own long record of carrying out brazenly unlawful invasions of sovereign countries.” He recognized this hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. while still being critical of the Russian treatment of Ukraine.

In contrast, consider the following attempt to resurrect an idealized yet official perception of the past. The New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens has complained that the Ukraine crisis shows us that

“at some point in the last 30 years, the concept of the ‘free world’ fell out of favor. … The free world is the larger idea that the world’s democracies are bound by shared and foundational commitments to human freedom and dignity; that those commitments transcend politics and national boundaries; and that no free people can be indifferent to the fate of any other free people, because the enemy of any one democracy is ultimately the enemy to all the others.”

Though Stephens no doubt believes this, it is a hollow idealization of a world that never was.

The inability of Americans — even those who profess expertise — to consider U.S. hypocrisy while welcoming Stephens’ fantasy is a measure of popular loyalty to a traditional storyline about the past. This story precludes the possibility that today’s Russian Republic might have the same security needs as any other country.

Indeed, Russia is actually acting much as the United States would have acted during the Cuban Missile crisis if the Russians had not reversed course and removed their missiles. I think we can safely say that if the U.S. and NATO had reversed course and given Russia the reasonable security guarantees it sought, things would have turned out differently for the Ukrainians.

States of Perception

We all live in multilayered states of perception shaped by culture and open to interpretative manipulation in areas, among others, of history and politics. That means that culture can be the seedbed for much propaganda.

In some cultural milieus traditional ideas about race and gender have become official guides to history despite the harm done by generations of discrimination. In some cultural milieus traditional Cold War ideas make Russia an object of fear and enmity undeserving of secure boundaries.

This being the case, it should come as no surprise that there are millions of white people mostly, though not exclusively, in the American South and Midwest who are quite willing to throw the idea of egalitarian democracy out the window. It should also come as no surprise that the American people never hear about the many thousands of Ukrainians who were critical of their country’s alleged “sovereign right” to join NATO.

It is interesting that, within the American milieu, it is the presence or absence of competitive ideas that make these two cases different. In the case of the U.S. domestic scene, the power of white racists is localized and confronted by a larger cultural bubble that is critical of their efforts to censor history.

In the case of U.S. foreign policy there are very few who are critical of the traditional Cold War propaganda. Thus, there is no larger context to support perceptions that might accept Russia’s security needs. Thus, debate rages on one front but is largely absent on the other.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.

This article is from his site,

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

27 comments for “Propaganda Shapes the Past, Present & Future

  1. Mark Stanley
    March 12, 2022 at 10:02

    The skewing of American history has been going on for a long time. In 1842, at the inception of the Smithsonian, they had a distinct policy to deny all pre-Columbian contact. Today, schools still teach the “Columbus and Leaf discovered America” nonsense. Truth–there were plenty of old world visitors here prior to that time.
    Lately, I’ve been studying ancient American culture east of the Mississippi for a project. I love history and archaeology, so I was shocked how ignorant I was. Native American culture 1000 years ago was extremely rich, expressed in the art. In 1200 A.D. The city of Cahokia, Illinois had a population of about 20,000 people. At that time, the city of London’s population is estimated to have been about 14,000. And yet, do American schoolchildren know about Cahokia? Nyet.
    Here Lawrence Davidson is spot on. Americans are patently ignorant concerning world affairs.

  2. michael
    March 11, 2022 at 16:21

    How about an in depth examination of the SMITH MUNDT ACT of 1948 and it’s modernization in 2012 under NDAA reauthorization. Also what kind of audience would a SNOWDEN- PUTIN long interview get? Those Neilsen turds would say not worth it.

  3. Dianne Williams
    March 11, 2022 at 14:03

    1-“ Russia’s bid for a security treaty had solid historical reasons behind it.” The West and NATO’s response to Putin’s bid —proof please that the Russian people are behind Putin’s bid— also has solid historical reasons behind its response.

    2- When listing all the US’s atrocities, perhaps a more evenhanded, honest reporting would also list Putin’s atrocities.

  4. Frank O
    March 11, 2022 at 12:43

    The author is mostly correct and brought an important point missing in really sane conversations (not NYT “liberal discussions”) – education.

    Indoctrination is the key to education here. And I agree with many right wingers in their cry against the teachers. Not all teachers are like the ones we see in some pockets who go and beyond the general biased stand forced by most of the other teachers. We would not be talking about all race or gender issues today if the teachers teach the kids to be respectful to everyone. American education is broken beyond any quick fixes. Highly politically biased statements are found in high school geography book. There is no subject taught in high schools, other than math and to some extent science, without portraying all other countries, particularly eastern including Russia inferior and in all negative lights directly or indirectly. This is my finding from California books.

    Why can’t the education be just objective? When we teach children to look down upon “the other” Americans and rest of the world, how will we expect better from them when they grow? The equality, fairness are taught at kindergarten if you are lucky. But that remains in the same rudimentary level if continues beyond kindergarten years.

  5. B McDonald
    March 11, 2022 at 00:11

    Propaganda is not required or even helpful to those on the right side of history.

    • Dianne Williams
      March 11, 2022 at 14:06

      Required only of the powers waging the war and devastating to the few who seek the truth of the situation and alarmingly effective to bring the masses to one ‘side’ or the other.

  6. Mary Caldwell
    March 10, 2022 at 19:45

    Was Russia to wait quietly as Ukraine was accepted into NATO membership, watch as missile sites were constructed along its border and THEN take action ?


    • Lawrence Warren
      March 11, 2022 at 11:21

      Sadly, your sound and entirely appropriate question seems not to have occurred to many, if any, commentators.

    • JohnnyK
      March 12, 2022 at 17:04

      The only point is, why does Russia did not take any actions against other countries joining NATO before? At least four different countries around its borders are NATO members.

      And another question that remains is, why does NATO expansion provokes such a massive outrage from Russia if they do not plan to engage? If Russian plans are of peace, they might join NATO too. Or would it be some problem? I’m not 100% sure about it, but I heard in many outlets that Russia also wanted NATO to pull back from its current countries to where they were before the collapse of URSS. Does that make any sense? NATO is not an obligatory act. Countries adhere as they please.

      The Ukraine PEOPLE chose a president who displayed his pro-Western/pro-NATO intentions. Why does Russia have any right to forbid Ukraine to join the EU or NATO? Again, if Russia does not plan to attack, they should not worry about NATO around their borders. NATO acts to protect its members (or at least should).

      In a world where we should be looking for peace, we are now trying to find reasons to begin wars. We should focus on how we, as global citizens should be looking for ways to protect our sovereignty by trading in fair manners, not by trying to choke a country’s people, culture, infrastructure…

  7. TonyR
    March 10, 2022 at 16:15

    “States rights” was just a white washed facade to hide the wish for states rights to continue slavery.  I want our children and future generations to learn as much of the real story of America as possible warts and all.  Including genocide, slavery, imperialism, racism, corporate control etc.  No more “look at those happy well fed ‘servants’ they are so much better off now than when they lived in africa”

  8. Tedder130
    March 10, 2022 at 15:54

    I experience exactly what John Ressler states above. Any inclination to ask for acceptance of President Putin’s concerns are met with scorn and claims either of his madness, his autocratic dictatorship tendency, his derangement, as if NATO was a benign, democratic institution and Ukraine was equally democratic and not full of Nazi sympathizers and Nazi actors.

  9. Crazy Talk
    March 10, 2022 at 14:42

    We must remember that we are animals and subject to the laws of nature. Only the strong survive in order to propagate the species. Is it fair? Fair has nothing to do with it. It’s just the way it is.
    Ranald Mackenzie used the scorched earth policy to subdue the Commanche, a tactic he learned from General Sherman on the march to the sea, yet no one weeps for the South.
    In turn, the Commanche used the same tactic on the early settlers in Texas and kept the Spanish from coming North from Mexico, the French from coming west from Louisiana and displaced tribes from the East encroaching on their land.
    One cannot judge the past using the mores of today.
    This divisiveness is being used to weaken us as one nation and can only lead to disaster. Doesn’t the Constitution ban Ex Post Facto laws?
    It all depends in which propaganda one believes.

  10. Peter Loeb
    March 10, 2022 at 14:26

    Many thanks to Lawrence Davidson. Lost in all of our thoughts is the depth of these propaganda-
    made beliefs (myths) throughout our history. These myths are not quite “as American as apple pie”
    but are prevalent throughout our world in various forms. The myths are not only clear in recent US-
    Russian history for decades if not centuries. Examples are many from the 17th and 18 century, including
    the US “Alien Registration Acts” (1920-24) and The Truman Doctrine (1947).

    More personally I am pained to have to read current newspaper so-called “reporting” with its
    consistently anti-Russian slant.

  11. Anon
    March 10, 2022 at 13:55

    An article that discusses how propaganda shapes our reality, past present and future, and doesn’t discuss WWII falls woefully short. That war is the creation myth of the neo-liberal Empire – which is why every bad guy is Hitler, every sign of weakness is Munich, every hero is Churchill.

    Do a web search of “Putin Hitler” and you’ll get an earful.

    This is the context in which you swim, and until you question its assumptions, you’ll never be able to substantively critique a Jewish president governing neo-nazis.

  12. Jeff Harrison
    March 10, 2022 at 13:25

    The old golden rule… do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The US (NATO) bombed the crap out of Serbia (killing two Chinese diplomats in the process) because allegedly the Kosovars were being abused and killed by the Serbs. The US (NATO) destroyed Libya and turned it into a failed state because Qaddafi was allegedly plotting to do some evil to somebody in Libya. The US committed the ultimate war crime of aggressive war (according to the chief justice at the Nuremberg war crime trials after WWII) by attacking Iraq (and Kofi Annan agreed). Where were the calls for sanctions by the world against the US? Disconnection from SWIFT? etc etc etc. But let Russia do the same thing – move to protect ethnic Russians in the Ukraine that are being shelled with some 14,000 killed so far and nothing that The West can throw at Russia is enough. It is not at all clear to me how the US continues to get away with it.

  13. MK
    March 10, 2022 at 12:58

    Amazing that the same author can be 100% correct on the Russian part of the Article, and miss completely the American history part of the article.

    • March 10, 2022 at 18:10

      Agreed. The framing of the domestic education question in this piece is not seeing things as they are, in my opinion. I agree that the history we were taught in our schools when I was a youth was incomplete and distorted and needs change, but swinging the pendulum to the other extreme, which is what I’m seeing being attempted now, is not a solution but an overcompensation which is divisive and dishonest. My understanding is that parents aren’t against a more expansive teaching about the nation’s failings and wider focus on the great diversity of our citizenry. Where the schools go to far is when they teach dogmatically to tie students’ core identities with their status as oppressor and oppressed, due to the bodies and families they were born into. This has great potential to exacerbate divisions and potentially inflame resentments between children and teens who don’t even know each other or themselves by means of ideas.

    • David Ryan
      March 10, 2022 at 18:57

      Without a doubt.

    • public school graduate
      March 11, 2022 at 02:33

      What did the author miss?

  14. Carolyn L Zaremba
    March 10, 2022 at 12:39

    The author’s support for Critical Race Theory and for Randy Weingarten are misplaced. Critical Race Theory is based upon a falsification of American history, mimicking the 1619 Project, that places race at the center of everything, including the American Revolution, and twists the history of the Civil War. Also supporting the American Federation of Teachers and Weingarten is ridiculous since that union has continued to betray striking teachers and has approved the return of students to schools while the pandemic continues to rage uncontrolled throughout the country.

    • James Terry
      March 10, 2022 at 21:21

      Ms. Zaremba

      Do you think that the right wing is correct when it hysterically tries to abolish Critical Race Theory in schools even though CRT is only taught at the post-graduate level?

  15. James Terry
    March 10, 2022 at 11:50

    Excellent article. The continuation of the Cold War is now being carried out, not so much by conservatives, which is what happened in the late 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, but by the mainstream media and such liberal hacks as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. This demonization of Russia will continue unabated when alternative outlets such as RT America are shut down because their views are thought to be anti-American.

  16. Sam F
    March 10, 2022 at 11:39

    It is remarkable that US media revived antique “Cold War propaganda” of Russia as bad guy with zero factual basis.
    And that “debate rages” on the rights of minorities but “there are very few who are critical” on foreign policy.
    This is a failure of government structure. See CongressOfDebate dot org for the solution, now in the implementation phase. That requires reforms to eliminate economic influence upon all branches of the US government and mass media.

  17. John Ressler
    March 10, 2022 at 10:28

    This is yet another informative piece carried by CN that would do wonders to accurately inform the US citizenry of how we got here. Unfortunately, from my own experience in trying to spread what I consider to be the truth of the matter, most of those I send links to would like to hang me for even thinking beyond the official narratives so conveniently provided by our mis-leadership. The Ukrainian citizenry will pay a steep price for our wanton arrogance and grave miscalculations.

    • Lou
      March 10, 2022 at 13:35

      So true, among my friends and relatives, only one person has even bothered to check out Consortium news when I suggested they do so. These are not stupid people, and I can’t understand their attitudes.
      A steep price will be paid not only by the Ukrainian citizens, but also the Russians, and perhaps the rest of Europe. Of course American taxpayers will be fleeced, first by paying millions to Ukraine to set them up for this, and then more millions to rebuild the country.
      All the while, the American corporations and elites will make money first selling arms to Ukraine and then cashing in on sweet business deals accessing Ukrainian resources and
      selling their products to the US administration to send over to Ukraine, funded by our taxes.

    • Bill Rice
      March 10, 2022 at 16:58

      The anger displayed by the under informed or misinformed is truly staggering. It’s the mentality of George Bush “You are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Years of cold war mentality and the recent years of “Russia-gate” nonsense have divided the nation into obedient sheep with violent tendencies and those willing to question the validity of what passes as “news” and “US Intelligence.”

  18. Georges Olivier Daudelin
    March 10, 2022 at 10:27

    Vive le Peuple Chinois!
    Vive le Grand Renouveau de la Nation!
    Vive le Parti Communiste Chinois!
    Vive le Gouvernement du Peuple Chinois!
    Vive la Démocratie Populaire!
    Le vrai sens de la DÉMOCRATIE.

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