Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Politics & Society
At present this includes posts on history of Zionism and modern Israel and Palestine as well as current events. Continue this setup? What of other histories? Adjust name of category? Currently includes Islamism (distinct from Islam) as an ideology of terrorism. Also currently includes Islamophobia and hostile denunciations of Islam — but see the question on Islam in Religion and Atheism.
By the time Union troops had begun to make deeper incursions into the western frontier of the Confederacy, well before they cut the South in two by taking command of the Mississippi, the acting abilities of captured rebels had gained legendary status. They lied about enemy strength, location, troop movements, and command structure. They told fabulous tales of starving and discouraged comrades and said they’d rather lose their liberty among the bluecoats than die like dogs in the muddy trenches.
Their ability to recount such stories, which tugged at the heartstrings, did not seem to upset the Northern troops. Instead, they marveled and often laughed at their resourceful Confederate cousins, slapping a thigh and shouting, “Oh, that Johnny Reb!”
It was all part of the game. White soldiers generally forgave other white soldiers. Why, after all, blame a good person for resorting to subterfuge when their lives and homes were in danger? American culture, since whites first began to settle the discovered territories of Massachusetts and Virginia, tacitly accepted the fact that white people are mostly good. As proof, we may point to the gift of white civilization, which we bestow upon all who fall beneath our gentle heel. And there’s more.
If you search the web today, you can, for example, learn much from conservative thinkers who trumpet the good fortune of slaves who were taken from Africa to live in the greatest country on Earth. How else would they have been led to Christianity? Surely, white apologists tell us, masters would not abuse their valuable property. It just stands to reason. And can you imagine all the bountiful food and fresh air? They were clearly better off. Such attitudes lie at the root of white complaints about the ingratitude of inferior people.
As you might suspect, the playful disinformation game was strictly a whites-only affair. You should understand that white superiority wasn’t (and isn’t) based on the idea that whites score higher than anyone else on the intelligence tests they have written. A careless reader who skims the surface of caucasian apologia might think we reached the top of the pecking order thanks to our brainpower.
But intelligence plays only a minor role here. The manly virtues of strength, courage, righteousness, trustworthiness, and honor mark the true nature of the white gentleman. Here we find the foundations of the benefit of the doubt we still extend exclusively to whites. When the gentleman resorts to violence to defend his property or his supposed honor, we presume he must have had good reason. When a white man brandishes a weapon, we must do our utmost to hear him out and talk him down.
White superiority is chiefly about moral superiority, not intellectual superiority. After all, the inferior person may frequently demonstrate shrewdness, using innate intelligence for dark purposes. Presumption of innocence does not apply here. Heaven help the sly person of color who outsmarts the morally superior white man.
I saw a tweet from the U.S. President honouring the 245th anniversary of the U.S. army. It made disturbing reading, at least for me.
“We” / “our country” = a fraction of the white population and none of the slaves or indigenous people. Ought not the birth of a nation be remembered as a collective celebration, a liberating memory for the bulk of the white population, slaves and First Nations?
“every milestone since”? What does it mean, exactly? I had understood that the primary reason for an army was for defence. What “milestones” in defence are we referring to here? Not long ago I wrote what an Australian history would look like if we refocused the war events so that they became paragraphs of mourning and tragedy.
I feel privileged to have lived to see some remarkable changes happening in the UK, Europe and the United States. It’s really quite amazing to be writing this so soon after my recent depressing thoughts about the United States.
Some places in the U.S. are beginning to explore genuine alternatives to the traditional police forces — outsiders have for years been fairly stunned by how often we hear of wild west type violent acts by U.S. police. The stories have become hideously depressingly routine.
I understand that much of the change has been a consequence of the power of the video capture. The Vietnam war was said to be the first war telecast live into living rooms on the invading nation. That helped add momentum to the protests. But it takes time, years, for sanity to spread widely and deeply enough so that there is finally a critical mass of activists demanding change and being heard in some quarters so that at last change is actually beginning to happen. Small steps, but that’s how we all learn to walk.
Our nations have been built on racism, including various forms of genocide, sins that have been sublimated beneath the imperial “greatness” and national prosperity that were their fruits. It’s amazing to see how far we have finally come now that we can contemplate on an international scale the tearing down of monuments glorifying white supremacist imperialist histories.
This surely is a cultural and ethical turning point, or at least a signpost that times have indeed been changing.
The news item that was the final straw that prompted me to write this post was downgrading of Little Britain by the BBC. The few times I tried to watch it I simply couldn’t. I failed to understand how certain groups that were being satirized could generally find it funny. Punching down is not funny. I’m relieved to now learn that my problem was that I was ahead of my time.
It’s a very different world from a few decades ago. Some things really are far, far better and promising than ever before. Now, if only we can make it through climate change as organized societies. . .
. . .
(I wonder what the future holds for all of that stolen loot in the British Museum?)
I turned away from all of this news about Trump and his supporters condemning certain cities for their Democrat governors and mayors, and the poison of liberalism infecting those cities and their populations, and how the populations there, we are further assured, are terrorists, thugs, looters, . . . . to escape for a moment in medieval history and here is what I read:
Date: July, 1209
Place: Béziers (south France)
Author: Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, a monk and media apologist for the “State” powers
Topic: the troublesome inhabitants in southern France who opposed the natural and beneficial order of the Catholic Church
Extract from his tract. We begin with a wonderful city, a great city, but one “infected with a poison”:
Béziers was a most notable city, but entirely infected with the poison of heresy. Its citizens were not only heretics, they were robbers, lawbreakers, adulterers and thieves of the worst sort, brimful of every kind of sin. I hope it will not weary the reader if I give some examples of the evil ways of these people.
Of course. They are heretics; it is never enough to leave the account there. Heretics are by definition opposed to all that is good so anecdotal and true media bytes are routinely sought out to drive home the point:
 An example of brutality. One night just at daybreak a priest of the city was going to his church to celebrate the divine mysteries, carrying a chalice. Some of the citizens laid an ambush, seized him and beat him violently, breaking his arm and seriously wounding him. They took the chalice, disrobed him and urinated on him to show contempt for the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
 Another example. On another occasion, in the church of St Mary Magdalene in the city, the citizens in an act of dreadful treason killed their lord Raymond Trencavel Viscount of Béziers, and broke the teeth of their Bishop when he tried to defend the Viscount from their attack.
Isn’t that always how these things work? Nonconformists, outsiders, . . . it’s never enough to leave it at that, for powers that feel threatened by their existence. Character defects, pernicious motives, are assumed. Instances of wrong become the defining characterization of all.
And the mayor or equivalent of the city was a “do-nothing” heretic at that. He just let the heretics do as they wished, without restraint. He even went so far as to show solidarity with his citizens . . .
 To return to our main theme; before the crusaders arrived at Béziers, the Viscount of Béziers, Roger (of noble birth and a nephew of the Count of Toulouse, who was following his uncle’s evil example and was doing nothing to restrain the heretics), had promised the citizens of Béziers that he would not under any circumstances desert them, but would stand firmly by them to the death and would stay in the city to await the coming of Christ’s soldiers. . . .
The authorities gave fair warning to the people but they refused to comply. A show of force was necessary. Domination was necessary, a new type of army from the outside was brought in, and though it was a renegade group within that army who initiated hostilities, law and order was restored:
 Seeing this the servants of the army (who in the common tongue are called ribands) became extremely angry. They approached the city walls, and – without the knowledge of the chiefs of the army and quite without consulting them – mounted an attack. Astonishingly, they captured the city inside an hour. What more? They entered it immediately, killed almost all the inhabitants from the youngest to the oldest, and set fire to the city.
Peter. 1998. The History of the Albigensian Crusade: Peter of Les Vaux-De-Cernay’s Historia Albigensis. Translated by W. A Sibly and M. D Sibly. Woodbridge: Boydell.
It doesn’t seem right to be posting about religion and politics right now. (Recent posts have been sitting in my drafts for a little while and were auto-scheduled to go live.) The news I’m seeing and hearing these past few days is giving me a feeling reminiscent to some extent of 9/11. Even though I saw 9/11 logically as a “to-be-expected” blowback from decades of U.S. policies in the Middle East that perspective did not override feelings of horror and despair for the suffering inflicted on Americans that day. The whole world for a moment was on your side.
Now you have the world’s worst pain from the coronavirus entirely as a result of failure of leadership (blaming China or WHO doesn’t cut it; other countries have not allowed the pandemic to run away anything like the way it has in the U.S.); you have 40 million unemployed; and you still have the same racist divide and nation-wide riots that I recall from the late 1960s. And just when you need a leadership to articulate the pain and frustration at the systemic racism and injustices in order to begin to unite the nation you get an ignorant bully (that’s far too mild a description – I have a hard time finding the most appropriate words) who glorifies strength and the violence of the state and frames all protesters as violent anarchists who deserve to have the dogs set on them.
To this outsider, it really looks like you are totally screwed, a failed state, even. I say that with some sense of horror and shock, not as an insult. I really hope your nation can find some way through the current polarizations and come together in a positive way.
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein show in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks that since the 1970s dominant forces within the Republican Party have been working to delegitimize their political opponents and erode public confidence in their political institutions. The authors focus in particular on Republican Party threats to bring down economic hardship on Americans if a Democrat President doesn’t yield to their demands — without any compromise. It’s a helpful little book that puts today’s surreal miasmic fog of words, claims, assertions, accusations into context.
I was reminded once again of Charlie Kirk’s The MAGA Doctrine and how his political opponents are portrayed. They are not a Party to be reasoned with. The thought of compromise can never occur. The Party is a collection of people who are literal villains, evil characters who must be removed entirely from any position of influence.
As an outsider, I look in vain for serious political debate between the two major parties in the US. What I see, instead, is one side constructing an Alternative Reality bubble. Their words only have meaning to anyone within that bubble and no-one else.
Obviously democracy can only work where there are tolerance and acceptance of the legitimacy of the other side’s position. Throw that out and we have a kind of intolerance that allows for no rational cooperation or reconciliation. That’s when one enters dangerous territory.
In this post I document one dataset of this delegitimizing process from The MAGA Doctrine by Charlie Kirk. This is a book that Donald Trump highly commends to his supporters. I take it as one fair indication of how the pro-Trump Republicans and associated far right supporters perceive their political opponents, the Democratic Party. Read the excerpts of what Kirk writes about his political opponents and see if you can find any room for serious discussion or debate. All quotes are from the electronic ePub edition, so no page numbers, sorry. By the way, as an Australian I find myself completely flummoxed by the very idea that any politician in the U.S. — Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez — is actually a “socialist”. Kirk’s understanding of “socialism” is simply perverse.
. . .
Democrats ignore facts; are deluded “socialists”.
All thanks to the free market socialists want to destroy. If anything, economic growth rates and progress have slowed in the past few decades as the welfare state, to which the socialists give all the credit for such advances, grew. The new socialists and Democrats steadfastly ignore these facts. And it is this delusion that makes the MAGA Doctrine more important than ever.
Continuing my outline of Celine-Marie Pascale’s article The Weaponization of Language. Wherever possible hyperlinks take you to the direct source online. Hopefully, interested readers will find leads to many other relevant sources here either by direct or indirect links.
Celine-Marie Pascale surveys the way disinformation enters our everyday discourse, making “ordinary people” “unwitting tools of right-wing movements”.
Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all. – Klemperer: Language of the Third Reich
Despite its [=the great replacement theory] French origins, the ISD’s analysis has revealed that the theory is becoming more prevalent internationally, with English-speaking countries now accounting for 33% of online discussion.
Julia Ebner, co-author of the report at ISD, said: “It’s shocking to see the extent to which extreme-right concepts such as the ‘great replacement’ theory and calls for ‘remigration’ have entered mainstream political discourse and are now referenced by politicians who head states and sit in parliaments.”
(Iqbal and Townsend)
Weaponized language is a powerful form of symbolic violence that tills the soil for physical violence. Following the Christchurch massacre, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue identified 10 Twitter accounts that were most influential in propagating the idea that white people are under attack; eight of these were in France, one belonged to the extreme right site Defend Europa, and the other belonged to Donald Trump (Iqbal and Townsend, 2019). Weaponized language has preceded and accompanied every act of collective violence. In mundane discourses weaponized language normalizes hate and hate groups through purportedly ordinary language.
“Illegal Alien”, “Chain Migration”
In the United States, for example, the term ‘illegal alien’ is often used to dehumanize those seeking asylum. Political and media discourses often refer to ‘chain migration,’ when in fact they are talking about family reunification. Many in the United States use the term ‘chain migration’ simply because they are repeating the only phrasing that they have ever heard. However, we come to see the world as we learn to name and describe it. Metaphors and linguistic frames seep into everyday discourse and gradually become part of a worldview. In every country, the racialized citizen is an illegitimate citizen whose welfare is precarious. Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Latino hate speech is directly correlated with increased hate crimes against Muslims and Latinos in the United States (Beutel, 2018).
Pascale notes two other extremist trends in the U.S.:
the creation of a naturalization task force to revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens (Vega, 2018 (podcast); see also Lind, 2018 for the racist context)
Such attacks on children have been made possible by the very intentional linguist practices that preceded these actions. Trump’s Twitter account has been identified by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue as one of the 10 most influential accounts in the world for propagating the extreme right-wing paranoia that white people are being eliminated through migration and violence (Iqbal and Townsend, 2019).
. . . we are familiar with the practices of ‘othering’ that devalues people and excludes them from deserving empathetic consideration. A lack of empathy is easily leveraged into a willingness to disregard harm done to those who are ‘othered,’ and then escalated into a willingness to inflict harm upon them, which is often rationalized as selfprotection. Ultimately, ‘othering’ blames victims for the suffering inflicted upon them.
It’s not only the U.S. and Europe, of course. It’s happening throughout the world. Racial slurs have preceded genocidal acts throughout history and up to today (e.g. Buddhist Myanmar’s purging of Muslim Rohoginyas).
Nationalism depends upon slurs that are used to construct groups of people as being less than human, as being potentially violent predators, and as deserving any harsh treatment they might receive. Slurs have been used to create dehumanized enemies throughout time. It is the essential first step that justifies physical violence.
Rebranding White Supremacists
Hate movements have learned to rebrand themselves so they can attract larger support.
White supremacists have rebranded themselves as the “alt-right”, “as if they are a legitimate party with a platform beyond white supremacy.” (Pascale, 910) Alt-right is a “usefully” vague term that found a web and social media revival in 2015:
While the nationalist, white identity-obsessed core of the alright remained the same, the nature of its supporters began to shift. Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis chronicle this evolution in their 2016 report on online misinformation and disinformation. They explain that the “accommodatingly imprecise” alt-right label had, by the 2016 election, been embraced by, or at least was being used to describe, a range of “conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” (Marwick and Lewis, 3). The reemergence of the alt-right also coincided with, and indeed was driven by, a rising tide of global far-right extremism.
The same report demonstrates through detailed media citation and sentence topic analyses that the far-right articles gained far more mass media coverage than their small numbers would predict. Mainstream media was the booster for extremist right-wing talking points merely as a result of noting and commenting on them. Breitbart and other extremist blogs had a relatively small audience but nonetheless were able to “set the mainstream agenda” with the help of mainstream media:
These [extremist] media, instead, depended on the signal boosting power provided by center-left establishment publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.com to ensure that their messages would spread to a national, or even global, audience. That’s how Pepe the Frog lept onto the public stage. That’s how Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram post became a national news story, and ultimately, a talking point in two presidential candidates’ campaigns. That’s how many Americans first heard the term “alt-right.”
We also know how others such as religious fundamentalists and those who call themselves conservatives deploy language that justifies hatred towards other religious, racial or unorthodox gender-identity groups.
There is debate, of course, and challenges are mounted. But the challenges work both ways as one group seeks to subvert another: Black Lives Matter is met with All Lives Matter; immigrant Dreamers are met with We Are All Dreamers.
The most serious stage of the problem is when people can no longer find other positive or neutral words to frame the issues that are dividing society.
Four-fold Strategy of Right-Wing Authoritarianism
One group of people who study these sorts of phenomena, how societies work, how different groups react and respond to adverse situations and each other, are the sociologists, the political scientists, the historians, the anthropologists, the psychologists. These academics are the ones who are coming under regular attack as “left-wing”, “liberal”, just as serious climate scientists, and now even many medical scientists, are being widely attacked by authoritarian and right-wing extremists. Meanwhile, the media reporting on these attacks is itself branded “fake news”.
It would be nice to think that merely responding with “fact-checking” would be the answer. Unfortunately, if it were so simple we would not be in this state of affairs now:
Global circumstances would seem to invite social sciences in general, and sociologists in particular, to fight back by entrenching ourselves in the world of objective facts. This path is important and perhaps irresistible when politicians and media openly make statements that are certifiably false. However, a retrenchment of empiricism will not deliver us from this historical moment, just as it did not prevent it from arriving. Indeed, it is often government efforts to slide facts that lead to the preposterous logic they present to the public. As Montaigne reminds us, falsehood is not the opposite of truth. Unbound by logic and fact, those willing to weaponize language have boundless possibilities. The four-fold strategy of right-wing authoritarianism leveraged through censorship, propaganda, disinformation, and mundane discourse can itself debilitate resistance, as it is intended.
Beutel, Alejandro. 2018. “How Trump’s Nativist Tweets Overlap with Anti-Muslim and Anti-Latino Hate Crimes.” Southern Poverty Law Center. May 18, 2018. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/05/18/how-trump%E2%80%99s-nativist-tweets-overlap-anti-muslim-and-anti-latino-hate-crimes.
Iqbal, Nosheen, and Mark Townsend. 2019. “Christchurch Mosque Killer’s Theories Seeping into Mainstream, Report Warns.” The Observer, July 7, 2019, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/07/christchurch-mosque-killer-ideas-mainstream-social-media.
Klemperer, Victor. 2013. Language of the Third Reich: LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Marwick, Alice, and Rebecca Lewis. 2017. “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online.” Data & Society Research Institute. https://datasociety.net/library/media-manipulation-and-disinfo-online/.
Pascale, Celine-Marie. 2019. “The Weaponization of Language: Discourses of Rising Right-Wing Authoritarianism.” Current Sociology Review 67 (6): 898–917. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392119869963.
Phillips, Whitney. 2018. “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators.” Data & Society Research Institute. http://datasociety.net/output/oxygen-of-amplification/.
Pascale’s discussion of “fake news” is wide-ranging and I am only selecting a few sections to cite here. Read her full article for the bigger picture.
Continuing my outline of Celine-Marie Pascale’s article The Weaponization of Language. Wherever possible hyperlinks take you to the direct source online.
Stalin coined the word ‘dezinformatsiya’ in 1923 “to describe false information spread systematically through media and public announcements to intentionally confuse or mislead publics.” What is of particular interest at this time, however, is the use of the term “fake news” to “decry reality as fake”. Examples are cited in relation to Syria, Myanmar, Spain, Venezuela, and no doubt we can all think of many more.
In these examples, the charge of ‘fake news’ is a form of disinformation in itself. Governments are using the charge of ‘fake news’ to reshape reality as they attack information and people that they want to discredit. Sherine, one of Egypt’s most famous singers, jokingly implied it was not safe to drink from the Nile and was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the country by ‘spreading fake news’ (BBC, 2018). As is evident in these examples, the charge of ‘fake news’ is levied by government leaders to dismiss or to attack people and ideas that are verifiably true.
(Pascale, 905f. Italics original; bolding added)
Today, world leaders use the charge of ‘fake news’ to discredit challenges to power, to attack free speech, and to undermine human rights (Martin, 2017; Schwartz, 2017)
From the Schwartz article linked in the above quote:
“These governments, they’re pushing the boundaries of what it’s possible to get away with in terms of controlling their national media,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, “and there’s no question that this kind of speech makes it easier for them to stretch those boundaries.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back against the idea that Trump bears responsibility. “This story is really ridiculous,” she said in an email. “The president isn’t against free speech but we do think reporting should be accurate.”
The spread of the phrase has come against a backdrop of rising violence and persecution against journalists . . . .
Trump’s go-to insult has become such a touchstone that members of far-right groups or political parties in countries like the Netherlands or Germany often write “fake news” in English in their tweets, said Cas Mudde, an international affairs professor at the University of Georgia.
“I have seen it particularly in social media used by radical right leaders who have been clearly influenced by Trump’s use,” he said. “Even if they have a tweet in Dutch, there will be a hashtag #fakenews in it.”
Returning to Pascale:
Disinformation campaigns are designed to consolidate power by provoking reactionary responses that sustain epidemics of social unrest. For example, the US intelligence community pummeled Chile with disinformation in order to unseat the democratically elected President Salvador Allende and install Augosto Pinochet (Carter, 2014). Recently, researchers have documented that Russia targeted specific racial groups in the United States with more than 80,000 posts and thousands of ads that mimicked the style of Black Lives Matter activists in order to stoke racialized conflict and unrest (Associated Press, 2018). Each of these postings proliferated through social media re-postings.
“or it might distort reality by representing an unusual circumstance as a common one.” — we see this almost daily with Trump description of the Democratic Party as “radical Left”.
Disinformation might contain complete falsehoods or partial truths, or it might distort reality by representing an unusual circumstance as a common one. Disinformation campaigns also often incorporate conspiracy theories which delegitimize mainstream media and are used to target people and ideas. For example, Nazi ideology, rife with conspiracies theories regarding Jews, is one of many examples of a disinformation campaign. Jewish conspiracy theories remain today. In 2018 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán forced the closing of the Central European University (CEU), a private university funded by George Soros, an American of Hungarian and Jewish origin. Orbán, who has promised to defend his Christian homeland, claimed the CEU was part of a plan by Soros to flood Hungary with non-Christian immigrants (Stanley, 2018).
Conspiracy theories are a complete subject of their own and I hope to be posting soon on some new academic publications that have come out these past two years addressing their nature, reasons, and function in today’s political climate.
Reasoned debate is replaced by emotional spectacles
“The president’s proclivity to twist data and fabricate stories is on full display at his rallies. He has his greatest hits: 120 times he had falsely said he passed the biggest tax cut in history, 80 times he has asserted that the U.S. economy today is the best in history . . .
“Nearly 25 times, he has claimed that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was No. 1 in his class at Yale University or at Yale Law School. . . .
“This is one of those facts that can be easily checked with a Google search, yet the president persists with his falsehood.”
(Kessler et al., 2018)
Trump is known to have made the same false claim more than 120 times (Kessler et al., 2018). Donald Trump seems to be drawing from Lenin’s old aphorism that a lie told often enough becomes the truth. However, in the internet age Lenin’s aphorism could be updated to ‘If you make it trend, you make it true’ (DiResta, 2018). Truth and politics have never been on the best of terms (Arendt, 1967link is to PDF) but we have entered new territory. It isn’t only the numbers of lies that pose a threat.
Consider that Trump’s lies are different in kind, not just in quantity, from typical people. When ordinary people lie, we orient toward the truth in order to make our lies seem plausible (Carson, 2016; Frankfurt, 2005– link is to PDF). We want our lies to been seen as being true; this is the nature of deceit. Ordinary people craft lies with an eye to preventing ourselves from being exposed for having lied. This has not been the case for Trump, whose lies are not masked. Indeed, he openly bragged about lying to the Canadian Prime Minister about trade deficits. Trump is not attempting to get away with a lie. Rather, Trump’s lies convey an impression that he wields unconstrained power: he can say whatever he wants to say, and the world just has to take it. Perhaps it is even a little sweeter for him, when people know he is lying but can do nothing about it. To the extent that he seems to have impunity it is because he does not stand alone; he is part of a comprehensive system that brought him to power and ensures his survival. Even when media identify lies, a significant part of the population does not care – indeed he is part of a cohort of world leaders who adopt a very similar approach. Trump’s communication has been successful – even while those of us wedded to facts may think otherwise. Efforts to demonstrate the falsity of his claims are important yet never adequate. This is precisely why we, as sociologists, must pay attention to the use of language – not just matters of fact.
Disinformation campaigns online are a powerful, effective, and inexpensive means to generate political and social chaos. Disinformation and propaganda working together do more than create factions and tensions between them. They place factual reality itself at risk. The greatest danger is not that lies will be accepted as truth and truth defamed as lies, but that ‘the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed’ (Arendt, 1967: 50). Reality itself becomes more contingent and less objectively real. Reasoned debate is replaced by emotional spectacles.
Continuing in this post with my outline of Celine-Marie Pascale’s article The Weaponization of Language. This post addresses her section on a favourite topic of mine, one that I’ve posted many times about, Propaganda. I’ve fleshed out some of Pascale’s points by going back to her citations and quoting directly from them. (Other links point to the online articles themselves where available.)
Propaganda might be most commonly associated with the effort of governments to manipulate information and sentiments to gain public support for specific agendas (Messeryly, 2015). In the United States, the term propaganda has been used to characterize the kinds of interventions advanced by the Soviet Union. When the same critical lens is turned toward modern liberal political democracies, propaganda is often referred to as manufacturing consent (Ellul, 1973; Herman and Chomsky, 2002). In the United States it has been used to intensify capitalist impulses. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, developed propaganda (which he referred to as public relations) as a means to compel people to buy products they did not need. Propaganda’s sole task is to shape desires and dispositions. Through propaganda Bernays also pushed back on all forms of regulation and in the US made free-market capitalism synonymous with democracy. Bernays’ propaganda machine was so effective that it inspired Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany (Curtis, 2002).
Do click on and view that Curtis, 2002 link at the end of the above paragraph if you haven’t already seen it. It is a BBC documentary by Adam Curtis, 58 minutes long, and part 1 of a series of 4 that survey the way government and business have used the theories of Sigmund Freud to control the masses in an age of “democracy”. I’ve covered aspects of what he addresses in other posts here, in particular the influence of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays, we learn from a close family member in the doco, despised the masses, thought of them as “fools”. No wonder, when it shows how he became extremely wealthy by showing governments and businesses how to manipulate them.
But back to our Pascale article and to begin with the more obvious:
Some tools frequently used by propaganda are
easily understood symbols
We have come to expect the abundance of “slogans, images, and catchphrases” at election time.
With consistent exposure over time, propaganda becomes a language that thinks for you (Klemperer, 2013).
I looked up the Klemperer reference. Here are a few extracts from Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich:
Fox News is foremost in promoting the idea that official figures are inflated, whereas experts believe more people have died
As Donald Trump agitates for the US to reopen, the American right appears to have found a novel way to deal with the rising coronavirus death toll: deny it altogether.
Top Trump officials, huddled in the White House, itself the subject of a coronavirus outbreak, have according to reports begun questioning the number of deaths – and the president is among the skeptics.
It’s a handy thought process for an administration desperate to send Americans back to work even as deaths from the virus rise each day, with marked surges in some traditionally Republican states.
. . . .
Worryingly, the disinformation push seems to be working. An Axios-Ipsos poll found that the death toll has become a political issue, 40% of Republicans believing fewer Americans are dying from coronavirus than the official toll says.
A separate study, published at the end of April, revealed the stark consequences of prominent figures underplaying the impact of Covid-19. A group of researchers tracked the spread of coronavirus among viewers of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, after Hannity spent weeks downplaying the threat.
“Greater exposure to Hannity,” the researchers wrote, “leads to a greater number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.”
On how capitalism survives and thrives through propaganda see posts addressing aspects of Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Or better still, read the book to see how capitalism relied on advances in propaganda techniques to survive against popular interests and guide the democratic processes.
While media censorship may be the hallmark of authoritarian regimes around the globe, censorship also is associated with capitalist systems that prioritize the interests of advertisers, boards of directors, and profits over the interests of consumers and the general public . . . .
In an era that might be called ‘the information age,’ censorship flourishes in old and new forms. Fundamentally, censorship prohibits language that threatens hegemonic power. Consider that the interests of a free press have long been overshadowed by governments, corporations, and religious groups.
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Historically, US news corporations have censored information that would negatively affect the interests of advertisers and owners. Recently, censorship has taken a different form in the US.
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This is a new face of censorship for the United States and in line with what appears to be the cultivation of state control over news.
George Orwell is credited with warning that the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.
[Though the quote is widely attributed to Orwell there is no confirmation that he wrote it. A similar sentiment was expressed by Gramsci — we have posted about him before — who said, “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.“]
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In 2019 the number killed dropped but that’s hardly a substitute for not being targeted by death squads at all.
According to the International Federation of Journalists,
94 journalists and media staff were killed in 2018
Ninety percent of all journalist deaths remain unresolved.
According to Reporters Without Borders,
Around the globe 348 reporters were detained in connection with their reporting in 2018
. . .
Journalists are persecuted in countries around the globe including Eritrea, Turkey, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, China, Russia, South Africa, and Uganda.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime collects detailed information about journalists as well as about media advertising and editorial content …
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has called reporters ‘spies’ …
In the United States, Donald Trump has called both the press and individual journalists ‘enemies of the people’ …
Trump also has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to collect information on reporters and news media, as well as on individuals who post news on social media platforms …
The US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, created to combat disinformation and online extremism, has recently used online trolls to attack US journalists for disinformation, branding them as ‘Tehran collaborators’ for writing articles the US government perceived as being ‘soft on Iran’ …
Reporters Without Borders added the United States to its list of most dangerous places for reporters after a mass shooting at a local paper that left five reporters dead …
The last few days we have been hit with an intensified barrage of alternative reality from Trump’s tweets and press interviews and his online supporters over “Obamagate”, “Deep State” conspiracies and more bizarre assertions in relation to the covid-19 pandemic and the federal government’s response. How can any one person possibly keep up with untangling the webs and layers of lies and distortions?
One article that I had the fortune to stumble across this morning does truly make sense of what is happening. It is a sobering read. I once posted here on the way religious cults have been said to practice “logicide” (the killing of everyday meanings of words) to create alternative realities for members (e.g. teaching different meanings for common words, especially the word “love”). What is happening in the wider national discourses is far more complex, insidious and all-pervasive.
I’ll post some snippets. Bolded highlighting is my own and reflects my own particular interest; layout and formatting are also my own.
To do justice to the issues I will spread this outline over several posts. See the full article for sources of the many facts cited.
First, the problem —
The world is facing a violent intensification of the scope and reach of authoritarian politics at one of the most precarious times in global history. Public figures openly deride expertise, exalt opinion as fact, and favor brute force. We are witnessing government campaigns to undermine any version of reality that does not align with their agendas.
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Far-right authoritarian movements are produced through weaponized language that demeans, demoralizes, and confuses.
This is my second post on Charlie Kirk’s “manifesto” of the “Trump movement”, The MAGA Doctrine. My first post was a broad overview of the prism through which Kirk sees the world. Towards the end of his book Kirk reflects on how it all started, on what set him on “the road toward conservatism”:
Who is Charlie Kirk?
From “About the Author” in The MAGA Doctrine:
CHARLIE KIRK is the founder and president of Turning Point USA, the largest and fastest-growing conservative youth activist organization in the country with over 250,000 student members, over 150 full-time staff, and a presence on over 1,500 high school and college campuses nationwide. Charlie is also the chairman of Students for Trump, which aims to activate one million new college voters on campuses in battleground states in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. His social media reaches over 100 million people per month, and according to Axios, his is one of the top 10 most engaged Twitter handles in the world. He is also the host of The Charlie Kirk Show, which regularly ranks among the top news shows on Apple podcast charts.
As I look forward to a MAGA future, I also remember how I first started on the road toward conservatism.
I have a sixth-grade social studies teacher to thank—though not in the way one usually thanks teachers and other mentors. Deviating from the usual civics lessons around the time of the Iraq War’s start, this teacher railed against then-president George W. Bush. I would come eventually to see the war in Iraq as a mistake myself and to see the Trump-era Republican Party as an improvement over the Republican Party of the Bushes.
But of course the teacher couldn’t stop there. He went on to denounce the United States in general. He made the whole country’s history sound like a litany of evil, from genocide to slavery to oppression of women, capped by imperialism and mistreatment of immigrants. That’s a lot to foist on sixth-graders, though that’s normal in schools these days.
You may have had similar experiences in childhood yourself. It was one of those moments in which you know the authority figure probably has most of his basic facts right, but you still have a nagging feeling that he’s missing something, something you can’t immediately identify. You also know that even though you’ve only been alive and part of this country for a few years, you feel attacked. This place that you love and trust is being trashed.
It’s not that you believe the United States can do no wrong. You don’t dismiss the evils of slavery or think other terrible things from the history books are make-believe. You have a strong suspicion, though, that for all our mistakes, things worked out pretty well—not just for a few but for the population as a whole—eventually. There’s something fundamentally good about the United States, at least as compared to so many troubled and brutal places throughout the world, throughout history.
Not just good about the United States—great.
The teacher wasn’t suggesting everything about the United States was hopeless, either, but he made clear he thought that conservatives were leading the country down the wrong road. They were fools, he seemed to suggest, who thought in their arrogance that the country could do no wrong. The best hope for us all, then, was liberalism, and not just classical liberalism but the left. A good dose of self-doubt and shame might rein in this country gone awry, and voting for the Democrats was probably step one, at least if we took seriously the implied civics lesson underlying everything else we were hearing in social studies class.
That’s an interesting and revealing “confession” or “testimonial”. It reminds me of the conversion experiences of the religious and moments that led others down the path towards extremist radicalization (see side box for some discussions about this process). Here are my thoughts as I read the above:
I have a sixth-grade social studies teacher to thank
There’s a warning there. One would hope there would be time and opportunity to learn far more about the many parts that make this world work before letting one’s views solidify.
Deviating from the usual civics lessons around the time of the Iraq War’s start, this teacher railed against then-president George W. Bush. I would come eventually to see the war in Iraq as a mistake myself and to see the Trump-era Republican Party as an improvement over the Republican Party of the Bushes.
The renowned war historian C.E.W. Bean made the message clear in his history of Australia in World War 1:
And then, during four years in which nearly the whole world was tested, the people in Australia looked on from afar [and] saw their own men flash across the world’s consciousness like a shooting star. Australians watched the name of their country rise high in the esteem of the world’s oldest and greatest nations. Every Australian bears that name proudly abroad today; and by the daily doings, great and small, which these pages have narrated, the Australian nation came to know itself…
We are repeatedly reminded of headlines like the following:
But it’s not true. It is a myth. Australian nationalism was alive and flourishing in the years preceding and following Federation in 1901. An Australian identity — the one that is propagandized today with its stress on mateship and egalitarianism — was there in the cultural, social and political life of Australians before 1914.
I wish I could locate the source of the words now but I recently heard a woman being interviewed on Late Night Live, I think it was, remarking that the Great War broke Australia. It changed us as a nation. We lost our confidence not just from the immediate trauma of the four years of battle but from the many traumas of trying to rebuild lives in the years following.
With Federation in 1901 the big question was what sort of nation Australians wanted to build:
‘’A new demesne for Mammon to infest? Or lurks millenial Eden ’neath your face?”
Was the continent to see repeated the evils of other civilizations, the ravages of war, the co-existence of great wealth and abysmal poverty, the rigid class structure of privilege, or was it, on the other hand, free of the taint of older societies, to produce a civilization in which the individual dignity of man had full respect?
(Greenwood, 199. The poetry is from the Bernard O’Dowd’s prize-winning poem challenging the emerging nation in 1900 to ask what sort of society it would make of itself.)
The mateship was there long before Gallipoli as anyone who has read Henry Lawson’s poetry should know.
Bitten deep into the consciousness of the men and women who espoused the Labour cause was a belief in the importance of solidarity, of sticking together, of being able to rely on one’s mate. (200)
And it wasn’t confined to the labouring class, either:
While the more advanced liberals had in common with the leaders of political Labour a belief in experimentation, a sense of Australianism, a recognition of the necessity for remedying social injustice by State action, and, in the larger view, an optimistic acceptance of the social democratic doctrine of progress, all this sprang from genuine conviction, for the faith to which they held and by which they acted was their own and not merely a pale reflection of Labour doctrine. (203)
Australian values (good and bad) were being self-consciously “defined and firmly established” from at least as early as 1901. There was a confidence we would scarcely recognize today, a confidence in the ability to transform and make a more just society, one free of poverty and inequality and exploitation (205).
There was a tone of self-confidence about the pre-1914 nationalist creed. The world was young, and despite the turmoil and depression of the nineties there was an idyllic and anticipatory assumption of future triumphs. Power and creative vigour, the impulse to assert the dignity of the ordinary man through a new Australian social order and the exhilaration of building towards an independent and native cultural tradition all belong to the movement. (207)
Geographic realities meant that the nation had to come together to work through a centralizing power. (See Australia and the United States – Interesting Comparisons for a comment on Australia’s attitude towards central government.) There was also the labour movement’s felt need to take control of the power that had formerly been used to oppress them into accepting unsafe and intolerable conditions. But the core values were shared by both sides of politics:
Humanitarian liberalism, whether of the Deakin [i.e. Liberal] or Fisher [i.e. Labor] variety, was in the ascendant until the war of 1914. Liberal and Labour governnicnts testified in action to their belief in the efficacy of State enterprise. Their social and economic principles were worked out in the field of public policy, and by experimentation they endeavoured to forge new instruments of social and economic justice . . . . Social aims, however, touched almost all legislation . . . . (210-11)