Columnist Susan Wozniak: Propaganda is the crack a nation might step on


Published: 6/28/2021 7:09:02 PM

Does folklore still matter? Is there an oral culture? In the era of social media allowing instant conversations across the world, the question might seem absurd. Unless, that is, while you’re taking your 4-year-old granddaughter for a walk, she says to you, “Gwanma, do you know if you step on a cwack, you get dead?”

I laughed — but only in my mind — because when I was in elementary school, kids chanted, “If you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. If you step on a line, you break the devil’s spine.” That’s folklore, as are the games children might play at recess, like Red Rover, or the chants girls recite while jumping rope.

And, yes, we probably used the phrase, “You get dead,” but that is not folklore. It’s just a young child learning grammar.

No matter what our race or ethnicity, if we could dig deep enough into the lives of our ancestors, we would find tales of heroes and deities who were spoken of in languages we do not know, which may have ceased to exist long ago. Some of those tales later became literature, allowing names like Selena the moon goddess and Viking warrior Ivar the Boneless to become immortal. Whoever our forebears were, they learned their cultures by example and through the spoken word. Even technology was learned by watching and listening to elders. After all, there were no text books explaining how to knap stone.

Given the long lifetimes these names and stories have enjoyed is reason enough to believe that we may still learn through orality. But, what is oral tradition today? It certainly is not the tribal origin stories that circulated among our illiterate ancestors. For us, it is simpler and more personal. It might be the story of how a great-grandfather decided to leave his native country or how his wife joined the movement for female suffrage. Or, it could be simpler still. It might just be a simple sentence. “Granny loved pecan pie and made it every year, on her birthday.” It could be anecdote about the then 5-year-old boy, who would become your father, went fishing for the first time with his father.

However, such a tale might not be accurate, as the availability of DNA testing is showing. No, your maternal great-great-grandfather was not an Hungarian who met his wife while on the run, escaping from the archduke’s military. You may have been told that your beautiful Great-Aunt Elizabeth had two children, only to discover that is wrong because along with your DNA test, came links to census data and photos of headstones that show a third child who is never mentioned.

Why would a family story be inaccurate? Perhaps, Grandpa preferred not to talk about escaping from Russia or Great-Aunt Harriet avoided telling why she never married. They simply remained silent to avoid pain. However, the now “official story” might have originated with a child, misunderstanding the after-dinner talk of the adults overheard while crouching behind the closed door. Or, the years blurred the chronology of long-ago events.

Like family stories, social media is full of both misunderstandings, as well as outright lies. The odd thing about social media is that is simultaneously both oral and published. It is oral because people talk about what they read, both to support and to negate what appeared on their screens.

Unfortunately, social media is also a means of transmitting propaganda. While an oral tale is not necessarily propaganda, both orality and social media are excellent means of circulating purposefully misleading information.

Propaganda is purposeful. The history of the word propaganda is surprising. While it sounds like Latin, it is not a word Cicero or Caesar would have known because it originated within the Catholic Church’s Counter Reformation. After the Age of Reason, it became a secular, political term which exploded in the 20th century with its great, divisive wars and omnipresent political theories, as well as its widely available forms of media. It is now a means by which political factions promote themselves by demeaning their opponents.

How did I get from walking with a charming preschooler who earnestly warned me about the danger of stepping on cracks to what only can be called a destructive force? Because my sweet little granddaughter believed what she heard. Folklore meant to link people together, to create identities. Propaganda seeks to sow dissent. Propaganda is the crack that a nation might step on, causing its virtues, its ideals and its strengths to “get dead.”

The solution? Research through a reputable source everything you might hear.

Susan Wozniak can be reached at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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