AP English Period 5
March 30, 1999
(Empty Slogans = Propaganda) in
"The Fifty-First Dragon"
"It is simply this-man is not sufficient. He must have a rallying cry, a slogan by which to die and by which to live."
Heywood Broun sold his first short story, "The Fifty-First Dragon", to the New York Tribune. It was written during the post-Great War period and as such reflected the amount of empty propagandizing the Americans did to entice young people to join the war effort. It can in fact be argued that, as Broun puts it in his 1939 Nutmeg preface to this story,
"The story says that an empty slogan is better than no slogan at all... but it is a doctrine on which some of the most dangerous causes in the world have been founded."
When the United States entered the war in 1917, the nation was deeply divided. President Woodrow Wilson had just won re-election partly because of the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Wilson established the Committee on Public Information which spread pro-war propaganda throughout the nation. The slogans were trite and did not address the deep betrayal the nation felt. Broun put it aptly when he wrote of the second European War looms in Europe, and a man with a guitar steps in front of the microphone to sing Ickey-Ickey-Oo" " In "The Fifty-First Dragon" the Headmaster, much like Wilson, came up with the idea that if you give the uneducated a slogan and some basic training the natural end product is a powerful killing machine. The protection that the magical word Rumplesnitz gave Gawaine very much paralleled the strong, forceful, and unbeatable war cult Wilson had created. Instead of a single word being magical, Wilson became a modern-day Hephaestus while using slogans like "Rivets and Bayonets, Drive them home" to magically forge a nation of iummigrants into a fighting whole. According to the outspoken pacifist Randolph Bourne, war sentiment spread gradually among various intellectual groups. "With the aid of Roosevelt," wrote Bourne, "the murmurs became a monotonous chant, and finally a chorus so mighty that to be out of it was at first to be disreputable, and finally almost obscene." Once the war was underway, dissent was practically impossible. "[I]f you believed our going into this war was a mistake," wrote The Nation in a post-war editorial, "if you held, as President Wilson did early in 1917, that the ideal outcome would be 'peace without victory,' you were a traitor." Indeed those who did not believe in something loss their validation or in other words "Without a belief man is helpless against the dragons."
It is no surprise then that along with a new infusion of morale came a double dose of governmental censorship. The Departments of State, War and Navy developed a set of regulations even before Congress formally declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. These regulations restricted publication of information about the location of troops or weapons, planned tactics, the location of missing troops or ships still subject to possible rescue, and news about operational weaknesses that could be used by the enemy. Subsequently, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which banned attempts to cause insubordination in the armed forces or to conspire to achieve these results. As a result of this act, many German-language and Socialist newspapers were banned from the mails. When the act was challenged in court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes framed the "clear and present danger" test that balanced the government's effort to wage war and a dissenter's right to free speech. In 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act which forbade writing or publishing "any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution, military or naval forces, flag, or the uniform." This act was mainly used to harass unpopular radical and pro-German publications. Many sweeping generalities of the Sedition Act were later repealed. Before American entry into the war, U.S. journalists reported the war from both the allied and German and Austrian sides. However, information in the war zones was tightly controlled by the military.
Shortly after the war, the United States continued to manipulate public opinion. This was seen in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. In this controversial murder case in Massachusetts that lasted from 1920 to 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants who had arrived in the United States in 1908, were charged by the state with the murders of a paymaster and a guard and the theft of more than $15,000 from a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1920. The execution of Sacco, a shoe worker, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler, caused world-wide protest.
The trial took place in Dedham between May 31 and July 14, 1921. The state's case was based primarily upon two facts: Sacco possessed a pistol of the type used in the murders, and the accused when arrested were at a garage attempting to claim an automobile that had been seen in connection with the South Braintree crimes. What many regarded as inadequate evidence played a large part in the trial. Also, there was contradictory testimony from witnesses. The judge, Webster Thayer, and the jurors were accused of bias. When the jury returned a verdict of guilty, an outcry arose from socialists, radicals, and many prominent intellectuals throughout the world, who claimed that the two men had been condemned because they were guilty only of being immigrants and outspoken anarchists. Heywood Broun was one of these people. He felt "and...feel passionately about the issue. The men were no yet dead." Indeed Sacco and Vanzetti were not electrocuted until 1927. There is no doubt Broun would have thought "That's not good enough." Had he lived to witness the 1977, proclamation, by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, that recognized the faults of the trial and cleared the names of Sacco and Vanzetti. The murder of innocents for the sake of popular belief and propagandizing is precisely what Broun meant by "Dangerous causes". This killing of the peaceful dragons in The Fifty-First Dragon" by a ,magic-word-happy Gawaine frightfully parallels the previous form of governmental brainwashing. his termination from the World due to his radical beliefs, were the ultimate "injustice" Mr. Broun faced. Yet, he had predicted in "The Fifty-First Dragon", that the disillusioned citizen is humored to a point (he had published 2 prior articles on Sacco and Vanzetti) but is not tolerated when the integrity of the state is threatened (The reparation of the World was at stake.)
After your country or in Gawaine's case, you school, has been served, where does one store the disillusionment. There is no doubt that winning World War I was in the long run important militarily and economically for the United States. Similarly, the knight school undoubtedly needed the extra lettuce crop. But the question remains, what do the young men who have absorbed the various words do with words while on the battle field facing an enemy that quite suddenly looks all to human, or in Gawaine's case is all too passive. Indeed, propaganda is only as effective as its staying power. This in turn is affected by the nature of the receiver. One could further stipulate that only those without the proper reasoning tools could be effective killers. Gawaine, then seemed to be the only reasonable choice in the entire school to undertake the slaying of dragons. But even he became privy to the deceit of the Headmaster.
This reasoning brings us to the only possible conclusion; An empty slogan is no slogan at all. It is simply government's manipulation of information and public opinion. The reasoning that Gawaine is given is that no one can hurt him with his incantation. The ultimate goal of government is the destruction of enemy morale and thereby the strengthening of soldier morale. The enemy must be made to feel that his cause is hopeless from the start, has no chance of ultimate success, and is based upon delusive ideals. Or at the very least it is necessary for the governmental soldiers to believe this of the enemy. The emptiness of the slogan is compounded by the blind trusts in the negativity of the propaganda. Broun gives the example of an atheist who "tries to raise himself up to it [faith] by using negations as his bootstraps. Nobody talks so constantly about God as those who insist that there is no God."