"The field of media studies is exploding... I bring my approach as a historian to a conversation about media's place in modern culture"
Brett Gary became fascinated by propaganda and the control of information when he was just out of college and working for a United States senator.“I was assigned the task of responding to letters from the senator’s outraged constituents. In doing so, I realized that the senate stationery afforded me the power to appease constituents. I was essentially the staff propagandist!”
He was also coming of age during the Reagan administration. “Brilliant propaganda spectacles were shaping the national discourse. Anyone not interested in propaganda and how it functioned at that time wasn’t paying attention.”
After he received his Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Gary wrote his first book, The Nervous Liberals. The book looks at anxieties about propaganda between World War I and the Cold War. “During that time, people feared that demagogues and dictators would use new media technologies like film, radio, shortwave, print, and later television to seduce the public through propaganda.” As Gary researched this period, his thoughts turned to the limits of the First Amendment, and the ideas for this next book - which he is currently in the midst of writing - began to take shape.
“The new book centers on the work of Morris Ernst, the country’s foremost First Amendment authority during the middle decades of the 20th century,” says Gary. “Ernst was a fascinating person. He defended a host of important figures – including James Joyce’s publisher - in cases where literary modernism came up against the censors.” Ernst also worked with Margaret Sanger to ensure that licensed physicians were able to get information and birth control technology to their patients. “Here was a moment in American culture where literary modernism and sexual modernism are both being granted their legal legitimacy in the federal courts – and there’s one guy who’s orchestrating all this: Ernst. He wanted to win landmark cases.”
Gary sees the contemplation of Ernst’s life as a way for his students to sort through mid-century American history. “Ernst’s life reflects tensions and paradoxes within the culture at a time when American liberalism and censorship were being defined. There is richness in the complexity of his story. My task as a teacher is to ground my students in the details of complicated historical processes.”
He says his students are up to the task because they are “extremely sharp and sophisticated critics of culture.” In fact, one of his goals is to see more of his excellent masters students move into the PhD program. “If we could create a pipeline to our doctoral program - or other good programs around the country - we’d be performing a valuable service for our students and the intellectual community at large.”
After teaching modern history and literature at Drew University for several years, Gary joined the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication because he wanted to be a part “a dynamic and research-rich university. I also wanted to participate in a department that is moving ahead in really interesting ways. The field of media studies is exploding and the department recognizes that there is a place for historians in the field. By teaching here, I bring my approach as a historian to a conversation about media’s place in modern culture.”