Propaganda and De-humanization: “The Brain with David Eagleman” PBS

The study of history is the study of human nature. However, it’s not the only way to understand human behavior. Science can also illuminate the mysteries of human behavior. Scientists may approach the problem in a different way, but they are also trying to understand human beings. So, I was thrilled when David Eagleman turned to the subject of ethnic/religious conflict in the third program in a series on the brain.  And he used the War in Bosnia (something I’ve spent years studying) to illustrate the problem.

What have scientists found? That when people are confronted with people in our out group (however defined) our brains react as if they were objects, not human beings. The ability to empathize with those in their out group had been lost. How does this de-humanization happen? Usually, through propaganda.

I’ve spent years studying religious/ethnic conflict to come to the same conclusion. He also proposed the same solution: educate students to detect propaganda. In other words, we need to educate students to be good B.S. detectors and independent thinkers. This is one of the reasons why the humanities are so important, particularly philosophy and history.

Here’s the link to the website for the PBS program:  The Brain with David Eagleman

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Ronald Reagan Would Have Loved Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” |History News Network

Last month PBS aired a documentary on the evacuation of Saigon as the North Vietnamese closed in. I just recently watched it and I was captivated by this part of the Vietnam era that I knew so little about. But knowing so little about this episode I wasn’t sure how accurate the story was. The reviews were mostly positive. The New York Times called it “concise and gripping.” Stephani Merry from The Washington Post described the documentary as being “like an intricate piece of woodwork. It’s painstakingly crafted, sturdy and incredible to look at.”
But Ron Briley, reviewing the documentary for the History News Network, took a more critical view of film. He claims that it as a heroic version of events, missing the broader context of American brutality. He ruefully declares that “the harsh reality of the Vietnam War was far more complex, and commemorating the conflict by depicting the war as a noble cause in which Americans were saving the Vietnamese people from communism does little to help the nation cope with what really happened to America and its ideas in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Last Days in Vietnam is an intriguing look at the fall of Saigon, but it is often quite misleading in its larger depiction of the Vietnam War and its meaning.”
I agree that the larger context is important, but I would still recommend watching the documentary. It raises important questions about how we engage with the world, especially in the places where we bear some level of responsibility for the chaos and violence. In Saigon the Americans were forced to leave behind many Vietnamese who had loyally served them. This is the same issue that we in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to many others. What obligation do we owe to those foreign nationals that have made great sacrifices and risked their own lives to help us?

History News Network | Ronald Reagan Would Have Loved Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam”.

Last Days in Vietnam

Thomas Cromwell, a Man for All Centuries – NYTimes.com

History is full of interesting stories, but few rival those surrounding the court of Henry VIII. Henry’s court was a place of intrigue and full of interesting characters but none so interesting as the king himself. Who could forget the king that had six wives and a penchant for chopping people’s heads off? A quick glance at the history section of any bookstore attests to the popularity of all things Henry VIII. Television has also gotten in on the Tudor dynasty fad. On Showtime the popular series The Tudors ran from 2007 to 2010. Now PBS is getting in on the action and last night aired a new Masterpiece theater series centered on Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor court appropriately named Wolf Hall. On Tuesday (April 7) PBS will also air a documentary Inside the Court of Henry VIII (I can’t wait!). Thomas Cromwell is not as well-known as his great-great-grandnephew Oliver Cromwell, but the role he played in Henry VIII’s court had important implications for English history. He was central in steering England toward Protestantism despite the King’s continued sympathy for Catholicism.

Cromwell is somewhat of a controversial figure, but few doubt his Machiavellian nature. This probably accounts for his current rise in popularity. As Jim Dwyer notes in The New York Times: “this is high season for him and his ilk. Dirty things done dirty, clean things done dirty — people who get stuff done, somehow or other, now rise in glory on stage and film. Perhaps the long stall of Washington politics has made us yearn for those grease-stained mechanics whose unseen guile, we imagine, would protect the engines of power from seizing up. Says Henry: ‘I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents.’” Unfortunately today dirty tricks are put in the service of making sure nothing gets done. This all leads to cynicism and perhaps this is why we are attracted to the dirty politics of Henry’s court.

Thomas Cromwell, a Man for All Centuries – NYTimes.com.

For an overview of Cromwell’s life see: Who was the Real Thomas Cromwell? BBC

Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey

Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey