Show me in the clearest and most unambiguous manner that a certain mode of proceeding is most reasonable in itself, or most conducive to my interest, and I shall infallibly pursue that mode, so long as the views you suggested to me, continue present to my mind….Render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity…and the whole species will become reasonable and virtuous. It will then be sufficient for juries to recommend a certain mode for adjusting controversies…It will then be sufficient for them to invite offenders to forsake their errors….Where the empire of reason was so universally acknowledged the offender would either readily yield to the expostulations of authority, or if he resisted through suffering no personal molestation he would feel so weary under the unequivocal disapprobation and the observant eye of public judgment as willingly to remove to a society more congenial to his errors.
As noted by C. A. Mace in his introduction to J. A. C. Brown’s Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing (Penguin, London; 1963), these lines by Godwin are a ‘charming, if pathetic expression’ of ‘the belief that man is not only a rational animal but also a reasonable animal.’ They are charming because they are so optimistic and trusting, pathetic because the evidence of history seems to crush them stillborn.
I write these words on the day that Barack Obama has announced ‘plans to introduce legislation by next week that includes a ban on new assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and tougher gun trafficking laws’ and signed executive orders ‘designed to increase the enforcement of existing gun laws and improve the flow of information among federal agencies in order to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have them.’ (‘Obama Unveils Proposals For Toughening Laws on Guns‘, New York Times, 16 January 2012).
The relevance of Godwin’s quote to our current situation should be quite clear. As should the subject matter of Brown’s book. For we are now entering a phase of political discourse where the political subjects of this nation of ours will note just how bizarre the beliefs of political opponents can seem, how their susceptibility to the dark forces of unreason and irrationality can provide such plentiful cause for wonder and befuddlement. And we will be reminded, again and again, of the etymology of propaganda–which was defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘an association or scheme for propagating a doctrine or practice’–in the Latin propagare, meaning ‘the gardener’s practice of pinning the fresh shoots of a plant into the earth in order to reproduce new plants which will take on a life of their own.’ (TOP, p. 10)
PS: A rather facetious aside. As I read Godwin’s quote, I was reminded of my ‘charming and pathetic’ attempts, every semester, to regulate and render more orderly my conduct of the classes I teach by presenting a detailed syllabus–which articulates the course requirements clearly–and by talking at great length about how every student can maximize their chances of getting a good grade in the class.