Propaganda

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Probably just about everyone bends the truth a little, but some people feel justified in just making things up if it will, in their opinion, advance their cause. Some of this is hard to detect, but some is absurdly easy, with a little thought.

One example is that of George Soros. That’s not his real name, as he freely admits. He was born György Schwartz, in Budapest in 1930. No doubt he changed his name for a sinister reason? Yes, he changed it because he was Jewish. What was happening to Jews in Europe in the 1940s?

Some claim he joined the Hitler Youth (and greatly enjoyed it), that he collaborated with Nazis, that he was a protege of Hitler. He was 14 at the end of World War II, barely old enough to join, and he DID pose as Christian with a Hungarian official who himself had a Jewish wife in hiding. You or I might have done the same had we been Jewish in that time and place. This sort of “passing” had previously caused great paranoia in Spain hundreds of years earlier when Jewish families had ostensibly converted to Christianity and married into the nobility, while continuing to practice the Jewish religion in their homes. That became a matter for the Spanish Inquisition. One might have thought people would have been somewhat less paranoid in the 20th century. Soros said later that he enjoyed 1944, when the Nazis took over Hungary, because he got to see his father’s heroism in saving a lot of Jewish people from the Holocaust.

Did he collaborate with Nazis? He accompanied the Hungarian official (something someone else would probably have done if he hadn’t), posing as his godson, as the official inventoried a Jewish property Nazis had taken over. He also took summonses to Jewish people, and warned that if they answered them they would be deported.

After the war he moved to England and attended the London School of Economics. After graduating, he moved to America and managed hedge funds, which made him very rich. Does this make him a Communist, as several have accused him of being? If he were, would he have contributed to setting up democratic institutions in eastern European countries after the fall of Communism?

But being Jewish, surely that means he’s a Zionist. Except that he has contributed to Palestinian causes and criticized the Israeli government, much to its irritation.

The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was based on the idea that contribution of money counts as free speech, something conservatives applaud–as long as it’s CONSERVATIVE speech. It’s perfectly okay for billionaires to spend huge amounts on CONSERVATIVE causes. Apparently it’s heresy when they contribute to liberal causes. That’s Soros’s sin–that and (arguably) being Jewish.

Another example is the anxiety over Sharia law. This is customary law associated with Islam, and many people are anxious about Islam, especially since 9/11. Yes, there was a terrorist attack that killed 3,000 or so people then, and there have been a few other attacks in the USA that have been fairly horrible, but not on the same scale. Considering the amount of anxiety, it’s a bit surprising there have been so few. Especially when you consider that American retaliatory wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have killed at least hundreds of thousands and destabilized the whole Middle East. Muslims, especially of that region, have some reason to believe their countries have been targeted because (at least in part) of their religion, and have little reason to sympathize with our anxiety about them.

The anxiety has gone to the extent of state legislatures in this country outlawing Sharia law. Why would this be necessary? One commentator pointed out that Sharia law is already practiced in the USA–among Muslims. Nobody else is subjected to it. We have our own legal tradition, whatever its faults, and for Sharia to be applied to everyone, it would have to be imposed. Three to five million Muslim American citizens aren’t in a position to do that, even if they wanted to–and I suspect many of them don’t. Many probably came here for economic opportunities or to escape Middle Eastern violence. As long as they’re allowed to follow their own customs, I doubt they want to impose anything on anybody. The idea that Sharia would destroy the United States seems obviously false.

Even more recent has been the response of some conservatives to the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shootings in the high school: that the students criticizing politicians for not passing legislation that might have kept them safe are actors, and that the shootings never happened. The same thing has been said about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; the difference in Florida is that the students in Parkland are old and articulate enough to speak for themselves. The students in Connecticut were too young. Conservatives see any attempt to take guns from the hands of the irresponsible as a threat to their own right to weapons.

This is another instance of paranoia. Taking guns away from anyone is worse than taking lives, even the lives of children. The position guns rights people are taking is that guns are necessary for self-defense. In some cases this is true–mainly in the case of soldiers and police–but even in these categories questionable shootings happen.

And gun rights seem to apply only to certain segments of society. When the Black Panther party asserted their rights to carry guns and defend their neighborhoods some fifty years ago their actions instigated a gun control initiative by then- governor Ronald Reagan. While black criminals use guns (Chicago is frequently cited in this connection), there really aren’t many mass shootings by blacks. I can only remember one in Texas a few years ago. Mass shootings are almost exclusively committed by white males. Very few have been committed by Muslims, blacks, or Hispanics. And I just read today that most such shooters have been home schooled by religiously conservative parents. If true, that’s quite interesting. Why would that population be so angry?

Is all the paranoia on the rightwing side? Or all the propaganda? No, propaganda is practiced by anyone involved in politics on any level, and propaganda is designed to make people FEEL paranoid. That’s a very old trick. Divide and conquer doesn’t apply to just one political group. A bumper sticker on a nearby street proclaims that the car’s owner doesn’t believe the liberal media. Fair enough. I don’t believe the conservative media. But I DO believe in the First Amendment, which means I have to tolerate what conservatives (or others) have to say, whether I agree or not (and I often don’t). And they have to tolerate what I say.

But that’s one of the primary things that makes this country worth living in: we’re allowed to say what we believe. When we express our beliefs we may discover that some of them are stupid. I think that applies to everyone, not just conservatives or liberals. In the eyes of God most of us are probably not too bright.

And one of the things that makes us not too bright is taking our own beliefs without any grains of salt. Like most people, I like being confirmed in my own opinion. That doesn’t mean my opinion is right, so I have to be watchful that I’m not making stupid assumptions. It’s an easy thing to do, and I can be caught saying and thinking foolish things as easily as anyone else.

Many people are unaware of the history of religious wars in Europe. The Thirty Years War in the 17th century is considered to be the most destructive in history until the World Wars of the 20th century, and that’s one reason why our Founding Fathers decided religion had to be separate from government. Different denominations had used government to punish people they felt believed the wrong things. This had obviously caused resentment, and persecuted denominations took opportunities  for revenge. The obvious way to avoid such conflicts was to not allow ANY religious group to dominate any governmental institutions. Let them have their churches, mosques, synagogues, and private schools. Let them all be equal in the eyes of the law.

But there are always groups who want to tell others what to do. It’s popular now to chant the mindless motto, “Government is the problem.” The idea that human society can survive any time at all without being governed has been disproven over and over again. A society without regulation may create a powerful economy, but some of the activity instigated will be criminal, and some will be powerful people rushing in to fill a power vacuum. Criminals don’t want laws, and when people propose deregulation I think we should take a close look at how they plan to benefit. Allowing wealthy people to control political discourse means the wealthy will get what they want, often at the expense of the less powerful and wealthy, No wonder there’s a narrative that poor people are to blame for their poverty, and that they’re takers rather than makers. Believing that’s always true gives wealthy people the excuse to arrange things the way they want them, and mistreat poor people. There’s plenty of history to confirm that opinion: we can begin with the reasons for our Revolutionary War.

I think the most dangerous thing about propaganda is that it promotes the idea that people we agree with are good and those we disagree with are evil. That’s way too simple, and it’s an idea that can be manipulated way too easily. Propaganda is designed to make us frightened and angry and to persuade us of things that are against our interests. It’s easy to dismiss all conservatives or all liberals as propagandists; it’s much harder to listen to different voices dispassionately, and decide things on the merits of each case, rather than on the basis of our emotions. Conservatives often say liberals want to feel good. Of course that’s true. I just think it applies to conservatives too.

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4 thoughts on “Propaganda

  1. Julian Scala

    Allen –

    As usual, a clean and workmanlike job. I agree with all of it right down to this sentence, “The idea that human society can survive any time at all without being governed has been disproven over and over again.” But that’s where I get off. Or do I? I don’t agree that government is necessary; in fact, we spend most of our time in not being governed — that is, in either directing ourselves or cooperating with others, without coercion, to get things done. To the extent that we do experience governance, the larger share of it comes into our lives not from the state but from our employers. In spite of everything, the public sphere generally allows us a fair amount of freedom of action. It’s the workplace that makes us slaves, with a strong assist from the marketplace. In the workplace, as a rule, we are at least reluctant and sometimes even seditious slaves. The marketplace — talk about propaganda! — tries hard to make us accept willingly the many forms of constraint that it seeks to impose on us, of which the most obvious and comprehensive is debt peonage.

    Given this state of affairs, the second-best solution from an anarchist’s point of view is not less state interference but more. Your long-term anarchist is likely to be a short-term socialist, since relative to the private sector government is the lesser evil. At least, it is potentially so. In the United States, government does to some extent restrain the excesses of the marketplace. The tax system does involve some downward redistribution. Other countries, including Canada, go somewhat farther: their governments protect their citizens from corporate rapacity by, say, providing universal subsidies for health care and regulating health-care costs. These are comparatively limited measures, but they do seem to suggest that even if governments universally begin as engines for upward redistribution and organized exploitation they can be turned to other purposes — the People can seize the cannon and turn them against their makers.

    But this is where I have a difficulty. I doubt whether it is possible, even in the very long run, to make government the useful servant of the people. With great effort, it’s possible to achieve limited and often temporary gains. As a rule, however, government will in time snap back into its natural role as a machine for ravaging the many for the benefit of the few. Even the most liberal of modern governments aren’t really very liberal. Elected politicians know who they’re working for, and they’re not working for us. In most places, they’re working for the rich and powerful. Otherwise, they’re working for themselves. “Representative democracy” is an oxymoron. Representatives are a tiny elite, removed from their constituents; even if they’re not corrupt, they’re aloof, self-regarding and beguiled by power. It’s in the nature of the thing that it should be so.

    The usual view is that anarchists have an absurdly optimistic and sunny idea of human nature. Realists raise one eyebrow, shake their heads sadly and return to their various adult conversations. I would reverse the equation. Anarchists take the darkest possible view of human nature. They look at history and conclude that, all in all, no one is really fit to lead others, except, possibly, on an ad hoc basis and on the ground of some special expertise.* It is as much as anyone can do to manage himself, and no one is really more than intermittently good even at that limited undertaking.

    I’d go so far as to say that a world without governments is not only a desirable outcome but a necessary one if there is to be a world in the long run. We’re getting toward the end of the centenary of the First World War. When you consider that war, the astonishing thing is that at the end of it people didn’t say to one another, “Well, that nation-state business — turned out to be a bad idea, didn’t it?”** If the First WW didn’t convince them, the Second Ditto ought to have done the job — but no, the state emerged from the war, as it does from all wars, strengthened and invigorated, and with a citizenry too proud, docile and scared not to keep it going.

    I’ve rather drifted away from the subject of propaganda, but I’ll try to respond to some of your other points soon.

    *Even there, it doesn’t do to take anyone’s word for it: history has been, in very large part, the plaything of three types of charlatans: doctors, lawyers and priests — the three primary products, in fact, of the medieval universities and their modern successors. Science, with difficulty, has somewhat diminished the charlatanism of doctors; the other two are about where they’ve always been, and they’ve been joined by the social scientists. From the beginning of society, no doubt, there were people who in perplexed times stepped forward to say, “Trust me — I know what I’m talking about.” Later, this formula was amended to, “Trust me — I know what I’m talking about, and I have a diploma to prove it.”

    ** Of course, some people did adjust their actions to some such conclusion — the Red revolutionaries who flared up in any number of places only to be put down everywhere but in Russia, where Stalin flummoxed them with another oxymoron: “Socialism in one country.” But even the idea of the League of Nations reflected a dim recognition of the fact that there was something fundamentally wrong with the concept of the state.)

    • I can’t disagree entirely with what you say here, but, undesirable as it may be, I think lack of government is even less desirable. The idea that ordinary people can run their own affairs is an idealistic one, but I think when a central government (however distasteful it may be) gets too weak bad things happen. Russia and China in the last century are obvious examples: insufficiently strong government led to extremely oppressive government. In this century the example of Libya is instructive: the overthrow of Qaddafi (not an especially nice man, but I doubt you’ll disagree that political leaders usually aren’t) left Libya in a mess in which it sounds like criminals are the most powerful forces, and are busy doing the kinds of things criminals do, but on a larger scale, since there’s little or no authority to restrain them. The picture is somewhat different in Iraq, but it’s hard to believe that our invasion did much of a positive nature there. It not only destabilized the country, but (arguably) the entire region. Not that Saddam Hussein was a nice person either, but I wonder how many Iraqis would say things are better now than when he ran things. Possibly more than I think, but they’ve had to wade through an awful lot of blood to get to where they are now. Maybe that will turn out to be positive in the long run, but it doesn’t look that way at present. We could see the situation in Libya not so much as anarchy as government of a sort, but of a sort that makes no pretense of serving anyone but the powerful, who in this case seem to all be literally criminals embodying all the worst aspects of government. As humans seem to me to be now (I hope we survive long enough to reach a higher level of evolution) the lack of a sufficiently strong central government creates a vacuum that will almost inevitably be filled with something violent. The violence may not always be extreme, and may be directed primarily at the restraint of criminal behavior, but the danger of revolutions (especially violent ones) is that you never know what you’re going to get. Russia came out worse after the civil war. If China came out better, it was only in a very relative way. The violence of the American revolution gets played down in the history books, but it was certainly there. As I recall, about a tenth of the population moved either back to England or to Canada. And ours was much more fortunate than the French, Haitian, Russian, and Chinese. Thanks for your response. I always enjoy our discussions.

      • Alexander Scala

        Allen –

        Bad things happen when government is weak; bad things happen when government is strong. In either case, government is a medium in which bad things happen. An anarchist society would almost certainly suffer to a greater or lesser extent from violence and injustice, and there would always be the danger that government would reassert itself as a consequence of some power play from within or some invasion from without. In fact, you could say that the story of government is a story that always begins, “A motorcycle gang rode into town….” But the violence and injustice would at least be limited in its consequences. Government is a lens that magnifies the incapacity or the wickedness of individuals. I don’t see any argument against anarchism in your remark that in the cases of Russia and China “insufficiently strong government led to extremely oppressive government.” The pre-revolutionary governments in both Russia and China were, to the best of their ability, extremely oppressive. The government of pre-revolutionary France was weak, but none of France’s many successive governments — except the one conducted under foreign domination in 1940-44 — has been as oppressive as the one overthrown in 1789. The well-constructed government of Weimar Germany operated very smoothly and democratically to promote Hitler into the chancellorship. The trouble in places such as Libya and Iraq is that all of the contending criminal gangs either want to be the government or to set up little separatist governments of their own; anarchy is not anarchism. Anarchism is cooperation or mutual aid; anarchy is the war of all against all — until someone wins and becomes the government. In Iraq, the semi-independence of the Kurds, in an at least semi-revolutionary semi-state, seems on the whole to be a positive outcome in an otherwise dismal situation. But who is largely responsible for that dismal situation? The ruling elite of the United States, a parcel of fools and villains whose folly and villainy were magnified a thousandfold by the instrument of government. You’re right that the American Revolution was a more violent affair than it’s generally made out to be, although battlefield deaths were nothing to the deaths by disease — in large part among American prisoners starved and brutalized by the British. What’s overlooked is the extent to which the Revolutionary War was a civil war, one conducted with great savagery in the two regions in which it was most pronounced — the Carolinas and lower New York State. But I would argue that the Revolutionary War wasn’t necessary. Britain couldn’t really control the colonies. Its armies wandered around the landscape looking for some way to force a conclusion. Meanwhile, for most Americans, life went on in a context of weak state governments. Washington and his army had little to do with winning the war, but the army’s existence, however ineffectual, kept alive the national principle favored by the elites, the principle that prevailed finally in 1788. But I’m not sure that the question whether revolutions generally turn out well or badly has much to do with anarchism. Government is a fiction whose existence is contingent on the consent of the governed. If the consent is withdrawn, the fiction evaporates. I think most anarchists favor projects that by proposing alternatives to government action imply a withdrawal of consent. Occupy Wall Street was one conspicuous project of that kind, but there have been many others. The new tendency among state governments to disregard or defy federal ukases, such as in the matter of illegal immigrants, is an interesting example of devolution. So is the legalization of marijuana by some states. Voter turnouts continue to diminish. Civil disobedience is on the rise. These are all straws in the wind — not much in themselves. But there’s an emerging tendency. Whether it’s enough to retard, much less reverse, the growth of state and corporate authority promoted by both of the major parties is difficult to say. In any case, there’s also the paradox that for most anarchists the second-best solution is socialism — not less government, but more government of a different kind and for different purposes. And socialism, after an absence of many decades, does seem to be returning as a force in American politics. Julian

        P.S. Not only can people manage their own affairs — they do manage them to a very considerable extent. What they can’t manage with justice or even competence is other people’s affairs. Have you seen that film (it’s on Youtube) taken by a camera mounted on the front of a San Francisco streetcar a day or two before the earthquake in 1906? The car runs along Market Street, which is a medley of wagons, automobiles, streetcars, bicycles, pedestrians and carriages, all engaged in an intricate dance unmediated by either traffic lights or traffic cops. Pedestrians wander casually across the street; by common consent traffic keeps somewhat vaguely to the right. Vehicles of all kinds turn in from the side streets. There are no collisions. Everyone negotiates his passage with everyone else. You see something similar in the case of the vast miscellany of boats on the Grand Canal in Venice. Studies have shown that traffic moves more, not less, freely and quickly, with fewer accidents, in the absence of traffic lights and even stop signs.

      • Yes, I agree that state and local resistance to the federal government is a good thing as a way of withdrawing consent. I wonder, though, if anarchism would be strong enough to resist what you term a power play from within, let alone invasion from without. Much of the problem of government, both in its own mischief and in its failing to resist forces trying to influence it are the result of concentrated power. The thrill of such power led us to international adventures just as soon as we felt able to undertake them. And concentrated power in the private sector leads to undue influence on government, which in turn causes unfortunate efforts both domestically and internationally. Is anarchism a likely scenario? It may be desirable, but I don’t really see it happening. Conservatives in this country have spoken, in the words of Karl Rove, about government being “small enough to drown in a bathtub”. Do they really mean that? I doubt it. What they more likely mean is that they want no force to be able to counterbalance corporate power (which government could, but is unlikely to want to do very consistently). Of course they also like to talk about deregulation, and that probably is valuable at times, but it seems to me too much and too little regulation are equally bad, most of the time. Propagandists have managed to persuade a lot of people that pollution is okay, for instance. I think it’s a tremendously more serious problem than most people think, but few want to hear that opinion–especially those with the power to do anything about it. I’m just rereading Mary Renault’s fictional biography of Alexander the Great. He seems to have wanted to provide good government, and (at least as she portrays him) was nearly as successful at that as at conquest. His government is compared to that of Athens at that period, when Athens had badly degenerated in the previous century, and were persuaded by demagogues that Alexander, and his father Philip before him, intended the city only harm. Sound familiar?

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