One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.

 

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Disgusted

I was determined not to add my voice to the outcry about the latest revelations regarding Donald Trump’s utter contempt for women whom he sees simply as objects placed on earth to satisfy his sexual urges. I really didn’t want this blog to lower itself to that level, the level of the gutter where this man seems to be most at home. But there are a few things that really need to be said.

I begin with the fact that the revelations about his vulgar comments regarding women do not really surprise me. I am past being surprised by anything this man says or does. But I continue to be amazed that those women who still follow him continue to do so regardless. For example, take the case of  Cynthia Schiaroli, a retired elementary school teacher in Reading, Pennsylvania who insists that she will vote for Donald Trump:

“I am not voting for him to be pope,” [she said].
While Schiaroli was “disgusted” by the tape and said she would have a serious problem with her own husband saying anything like that, she believes Bill and Hillary Clinton have said and done things just as bad, if not worse.
“Hillary gets passes for everything,” Schiaroli told CNN Money on Saturday.

This woman dismissed Trump’s comments as no worse than the kinds of things Bill and Hillary Clinton say, which makes me wonder how she comes by this inside information about the private conversations of the Clintons, but it matters not. Her blind dislike of Hillary Clinton makes it impossible for her to even consider leaving the Trump camp. This, in turn, leads to a question.

How does one get from the hatred of a woman one doesn’t even know, except from media reports and mud-slinging sketches put together by marketing firms, to blind support of a vulgar, narcissistic, megalomaniac? There is a leap there somewhere and it is impossible, I suspect, to follow it. “I can’t stand Hillary, therefore I will vote for the man bent on demeaning all women and those who disagree with him while he clearly lacks the knowledge to run the country he insists only he can save.” Clearly this is a muddled mind.

Trump was reported to have said at one point that he could shoot someone in the middle of main street in front of a number of witnesses and he would still have thousands of loyal followers behind him. I thought at the time this was simply another example of his propensity to brag and blow himself up in his eyes and those of his adoring minions. But I am beginning to believe that he was right. It doesn’t seem to matter what he does; those loyal to him are also purblind to his obvious shortcomings — if one can use such a mild term to describe this man’s total lack of character.

When this election is finally over — and it cannot possibly come too soon for my liking — we will really have address what might be called “the Trump phenomenon.” That is to say, how is it possible for thousands of people to hang on this man’s every word — so many of which are bald-faced lies — and grant him license to describe someone like Hillary Clinton as a “horribly flawed person.” Why does this not strike a chord in his followers suggesting that this comment, among so many others like it, is the epitome of hypocrisy: it is the pot calling the kettle black. And there is little evidence that the charge against Clinton has any grounds whatever in the truth.

But the truth seems not to matter. For his mindless minions, as I have noted in the past, this man can say whatever he wants to say and it will be believed. Indeed, for those who have attached themselves to him like Velcro this man defines what is true and what is false. This may change from day-to-day, but it makes no difference: what he says is all that matters. Those who would criticize him are simply out to get him which proves, in their minds, that he is right and they are wrong.

In this regard, I do suspect that when this man comes under attack he becomes the victim no matter how well-grounded in truth the allegations against him might be. He is under attack from the Establishment, an ill-defined group of smart-ass liberals who are “out to get us” — which is why his minions need someone like Trump to hang on to. He gives them a desperately needed sense of power which they otherwise lack and he says and does those things his followers would like to say or do but have heretofore been disallowed  by the have-it-alls. It is interesting in this regard that the woman quoted above can’t stand Hillary because she “gets passes,” is allowed to get away with everything. The Establishment protects its own in the tiny minds of the fearful minions.

The sheer illogicality of the Trump phenomenon beggars belief and demands close scrutiny by those who claim expertise in understanding the meanderings of troubled minds. For myself, I easily lose my way and feel like Alice in Wonderland where everything is upside down and back to front. It’s not a world in which I want to try to find my way, but I do hope there are others who will make the effort and then reveal to us how this could possibly have happened.

Straw Woman

There is an informal fallacy in logic that is committed with great frequency. It is called a “straw man argument.” It occurs when person A misrepresents the argument put forward by person B and attacks the misrepresentation — which is always a weaker form of person B’s original argument. Thus, I might argue that you should stop smoking because there is a very high correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, and despite the fact that a strict cause between cigarette smoking and cancer has not been shown — due to the fact that some people smoke and do not get lung cancer and some who do not smoke  get lung cancer anyway. You might then say, “oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that there really is no risk in smoking because no one has been able to show a causal relationship between the smoking and lung cancer.” In this replay we see the “straw man,” a weaker (distorted?) form of my argument that is easier to attack because it is vulnerable.

A similar sort of thing is taking place in today’s political contest for the office of president of the United States. The opponents of Hillary Clinton have created a “straw woman,” a fictional person who closely resembles the female form of the devil (Trump has actually called her that, among other things!) and who is in no way like the original. This fiction is easy to attack because she embodies evil, is ambitious, dishonest, weak, and determined to bring the country down about her ears.

Now, I don’t know the “real” Hillary Clinton but from what I have read, despite her flaws, she is nothing like the creation of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. But since the real Hillary will be hard to beat, the creation has taken her place in the minds of a great many voters who now hate the woman and would not vote for her even if she could walk on water.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, of course. So it is easy to “sell” this fictional person to the voters of this country who almost certainly fear strong women in their lives in order to sell them their own fiction, a man who “tells it like it is” and offers us his proven expertise as a successful businessman and a refreshing alternative to politics as usual. Clearly, this is a fiction and nothing like what we know about the man himself. But it is a fiction that “sells” and in the minds of a great many people is preferable to the straw woman they have grown to hate and fear.

To be sure, attacks on politicians whose image has been created for us by marketing experts are always terribly weak, though commonplace. Such attacks tend to miss the mark because we have no way to know precisely who those people are and what they will do when elected to public office. Such is the case with Hillary Clinton — and Donald Trump, to be honest — because the straw woman has become the main figure in the target practice that has become politics. Create the image you want to hate and start slinging mud. That’s now the name of the game.

As responsible voters, we must do whatever we can to put aside those caricatures and try to see who the people running for office really are: listen carefully to what they have to say, “vet” them to know as far as possible how much experience they have had and what sort of track record they have thus far. We must rely on the media, which is a problem, but there are sources that are known to be unreliable (e.g., Fox News) and there are sources that are known to be reliable (e.g., the New York Times, CNN, and PBS — or even the BBC). The latter sources are more likely to present us with a true picture of the candidate than are the former. But, in the end, we must be as sure as we can be that the person we vote for is the person himself or herself and not a straw image that will hurst into flames as soon as elected.

Counterfactuals

What with the Trumpet going on about how if the people who were attacked in Paris had been carrying guns there would have been fewer deaths it would appear it is time for another logic lesson. I realize I have touched on this in a past blog post, but apparently the Republicans aren’t listening — or at least the loudest one.

Here’s the thing: you cannot, logically, verify or falsify a counter-to-fact conditional statement. It simply cannot be done. You can speculate about what would have happened IF something else had not happened — say what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Poland — but you cannot verify any speculation you might choose to make.

Consider the following simple case. “If it had rained yesterday I would have taken my umbrella to the store with me.” Now we can verify that you actually went to the store and we can even verify whether or not it rained — let’s agree that it did not. But since it didn’t rain there is simply no way we can verify the truth of your statement. It is counter-to-fact. We might speculate that since you are a cautious sort and have a brand new umbrella that you have been dying to show off you might well have taken it to the store with you had it rained. But since it didn’t rain (presumably) we will never know. Never.

Similarly, when the Trumpet says that IF the people at the concert in Paris who were attacked by terrorists had been carrying guns THEN there would have been fewer deaths, we can say with certainty that he doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about — which is not all that unusual. Again, we can speculate and we can appeal to the emotions of an audience of conservatives in Texas, or wherever, who are gun-totin’ folks who tend to think as does the Trumpet. But it’s just that, an appeal to emotion that cannot be proved one way or the other. The fact is that there was a terrorist attack in Paris and many were left dead as a result. It is terrible, but it might have been even worse had the people who died been carrying guns.

One can speculate about either possibility. But one cannot prove it either way. Thus the Trumpet’s claim cannot be said to be true. Or false.

Either/Or (Both?)

One of the basic lessons in a logic class is the distinction between two types of disjunction. On the one hand, there is the exclusive disjunction that maintains either A or B, but not both. The inclusive disjunction, which is considerably more common suggests that either A or B, possibly both. In the latter case I might have either soup or a sandwich for lunch, possibly both. In the former case the traffic light is either green or red, it cannot be both (at the same time).

One of the “big” issues that is taking up considerable air time these days is (not global warming, but) one-day fantasy football leagues like “Fan Duel.” A number of states, including Nevada (!), have insisted that these games are a form of gambling and they have disallowed them in the state until or unless they are licensed. The N.C.A.A. has determined to penalize college football payers who get involved, because the N.C.A.A. likes to present itself as the guardian of purity in college sports. States like Nevada, I presume, want a cut of the profits which, we are told, run to the billions of dollars. Those who defend the activity insist that it is not gambling, but a game of skill. In a word, they insist there is an exclusive disjunction that insists that weekly fantasy leagues either are gambling or they are games of skill. And since they are games of skill they cannot be a form of gambling. But this is clearly false: we have here an inclusive disjunction, because it could be both: fantasy football leagues might be both gambling and a game of skill — like poker.

In the end, it strikes me as a tempest in a teapot. The issue is clear: the football one day fantasy leagues that are raking in billions of dollars and paying countless millions to swamp the TV networks with advertisements are clearly both games of skill (one needs to know a thing or two about football) and a form of gambling, since players pay in to the leagues and stand to win big if the players they pick each week pay off.

When I become Commissar of Culture I will rule this entire discussion out of order. These games are a form of gambling, period. So, isn’t it time we turned to more important issues? Heaven knows there are tons of them out there!

Calm Voice of Reason?

Ben Carson, one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president, speaks calmly and with supreme confidence. He appears to be every bit the medical doctor dispensing a prescription to a sick nation. In an atmosphere charged with the electricity generated by such clowns as Donald the Trumpet, Dr. Carson strikes many as the sensible alternative. His popularity is increasing daily. But when one gets past the calm exterior one worries about the substance of his positions. He claims, for example, that women are primarily responsible for rape and that Obamacare is a form of slavery. Moreover, in a personal letter addressing me by my first name, Ben asked my support for his candidacy and noted that he opposes such things as Planned Parenthood, and

“believes in peace through strength. We must defeat our enemies before they become strong enough to destroy us. We must seal our borders right away.”

Now there’s a bit of paranoia for you and the typical Republican appeal to fear.  He believes the country needs a “spiritual awakening,” which (apparently) only he can bring about. Indeed, he has a number of strange views that worry those who seek to know where the candidates stand on critical issues.

In an interview on CNN following the publication of a recent book, for example, he advanced the notion that if the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany Hitler would never have been successful in carrying out the “final solution.” As Yahoo News reports, in part:

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”

The comments drew a swift response from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler’s gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the organization. “The small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.”

What we are dealing with here is what logicians call “counterfactuals.” It’s impossible to prove or disprove counter-to-fact statements of the type “If the Jews had been armed the Holocaust very likely would not have happened” We can have fun with such statements, as many historians do in speculating about the past, but we must bear in mind that it is just that: speculation. Whether or not the Anti-Defamation League had responded as they did to Carson’s remarks, it is clear that those remarks are on the weakest possible historical grounds. They cannot be proved or disproved. The man seems to be enamored of unverifiable historical claims, however, since he said in the same interview that

 “passengers on Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11, helped avoid further tragedy by rushing the gunman.”

There is simply no way of knowing whether this claim is true or false. We might like to think it is true, but that is neither here nor there.

Thus, in the case of his claim about the Holocaust, the notion that IF the Jews had guns THEN Hitler would not have been so successful in carrying out his Final Solution is totally unfounded, mere speculation. One might be tempted to say it is irresponsible in the climate of the discussion (can we call it that?) of gun control in America in 2015. When the issue is raised, as it invariably is, in an atmosphere of heat and very little light, it is irresponsible to seek analogies with situations that never occurred —  suggesting what would have been the case if events had not turned out as they did in the last century.

Dr. Carson’s demeanor is reassuring and it is a pleasant change to hear at least one candidate speak calmly and assuredly about issues that confront us all. It is, in its way, a breath of fresh air. But when one reflects on what is said and not the manner in which it is said, one realizes that this man is not all that far from folks like Donald Trump at the far right of the political spectrum. Beneath the calm exterior one can sense an element of hysteria. We need to listen to what these people say and not be taken in by the fact that they seem self-assured and confident in the claims they make. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be supported. Speculation is just that: it is not fact and it is ultimately groundless.

Third Option?

The devotees of guns who insist that the Constitution guarantees them a right to carry automatic weapons are fond of saying that the “cure” for the incredible number of guns deaths in this country — including the latest mass shooting in Oregon — is to lock up the crazies before they start shooting. “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people,” or some such nonsense. If there were no guns, of course, there would be no shootings. It’s simple logic.

But the hard-liners are convinced that there are two options, and only two options that face us: either we lock up all those who are likely to shoot random citizens or we continue to live in a state that is rife with domestic terrorism where an “accidental” shooting happens almost daily and there have been 986 mass killings since Sandy Hook; where 4.2% of the world’s population privately own 42% of the weapons. In an interesting article in the web blog “Vox, Policy and Politics” it was noted that Donald Trump, of all people, realizes, perhaps unwittingly, that the first option is not an option at all. As Trump was quoted as saying (pardon the syntax):

you know, oftentimes this happens and the neighborhood’s just, you know, we sort of saw that about him, it really looked like he could be a problem’ but it’s often hard to put someone in an institution for the rest of their lives based on the fact that he looks like he could be a problem.

My goodness, it seems a bit of the truth leaked in there somewhere among the cobwebs that befuddle this man’s consciousness. It is clearly the case that we cannot go around locking up anyone who we (which of us?) think looks like he or she might be on the verge of shooting someone else. This would lead to the worst form of fascist state and even the extreme right wingers don’t want that — I would hope. As the psychiatrist Dr. Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University has noted:

any attempt to predict who is most likely to commit a mass shooting — and therefore prevent it — runs up against the fact that these events are extremely rare, and as a result have only the broadest, least useful risk factors associated with them. […]

The risk factors that are linked to these events — basically, being an angry young man — are so widespread in the population, he explained, and so weakly predictive of an individual actually committing a mass shooting as to be practically useless. “The answer is yes, at least of the most highly publicized, most fear-inducing cases of stranger shootings, by and large they are angry young men,” said Appelbaum. “But that doesn’t get you very far, because there are a lot of angry young men who are angry for all kinds of reasons, and unless one wants to lock them all up or put them all under 24-hour surveillance, it’s really impossible to build on a description that general to come up with effective preventative approaches.”

So, the conclusion that is reached by those who want to marry their guns and continue to shoot first and ask questions later is that things must go on as usual. We simply must put up with it. Better still, we should all go out and buy guns to protect ourselves against the “other” people who are crazy — as though we wouldn’t be certifiably crazy if we were to run out and buy guns just for the sake of protecting ourselves. It’s called “paranoia.”

What’s lost in this discussion, as the Vox article notes is the obvious third option: gun control. But that is not “on the table” in Republican circles and Trump, at the end of his interview, went back to the standard notion that we simply must be more wary. No one should take our guns away from us.  Even though, as I have noted in previous posts, the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee every Tom, Dick, and Sally the right to carry automatic weapons, or, indeed any weapons of any kind. What it guarantees is the right of the militia to carry weapons in order to guarantee that we would never be a land occupied by armies, our own or others.

But, there’s another one of those “facts” which people like Donald Trump choose to ignore out of a sense of obligation to the weapons manufacturers who provide them with the big bucks they need in order to be elected to high office. Now there’s another of those ugly facts that we would prefer to ignore.

Bifurcation

There is a host of informal fallacies, so-called, that most of us commit unknowingly every day. The most common of them is the ad hominem fallacy in which a person’s claim is dismissed because of the type of person putting forth the claim. Thus, we might reject the claim made by Jones because Jones is a narrow-minded cretin. The fallacy arises because even though Jones may, in fact, be a narrow-minded cretin, his claim int this case might be well founded. Attention is drawn away from the claim to the person making the claim, Hence it is fallacious reasoning.

But there is another fallacy that is also quite common and perhaps even more insidious in its way. It’s called the fallacy of bifurcation. It rests on the fact that an argument relies on a false dichotomy to draw its conclusion. Most disjunctions are loose, non-exclusive disjunctions, as in “I will have either soup or a sandwich for lunch. ” (I might have both.) Lose disjunctions allow for the middle ground. Some disjunctions do not allow of any middle ground, as in “either you live in New York or you don’t.” You can’t have it both ways. These are called “exclusive disjunctions” and they are very rare (even in this case one could both live in New York and not live in New York if he or she had homes in both New York and Minnesota). There is seldom a situation that does not allow of a middle ground: most disjunctions are non-exclusive, as in the case with the soup or the sandwich.

What all this is leading to is the observation that we have all (or most of us) fallen for the notion put forward by the dirty energy companies that we must either have dirty energy or we must have a weak economy. It’s usually in the form “either jobs or the economy.” This is a classic example of the fallacy of bifurcation. Experience has shown — as though common sense would not — that we can have it both ways. We can have clean energy and boost the economy at the same time. This has been proven in the solar industry where thousands of jobs have been created and, as I recently argued, it has been shown in places like Chicago where 139,800 jobs have been created in the clean energy industry. And yet we will continue to hear from Big Oil, for example, that we simply must continue to destroy the earth by constructing monstrosities like the Keystone Pipeline because it creates jobs — the implication, again, is that the only industry that can provide jobs is the dirty energy industry. The argument is clearly self-serving. But it is also persuasive because, like all fallacies, it rests on an emotional appeal. People fear the loss of jobs and it is that fear (coupled with a weak critical faculty) that results in their acceptance of what is at heart a weak argument.

In addition to the appeal to emotion that rests at the heart of what amount to dozens of common fallacies which results in their being so persuasive there is the fact that we don’t teach logic to many people any more. We don’t teach many things that would help them gain control of their minds so that smiling, glad-handed thugs would not take possession of them. We don’t teach Latin much any more, despite the fact that knowing  Latin helps us gain a better grasp of our own language and since language is essential to thought, it is thought that suffers in the end. If one wonders why old-timers like myself keep going on about the demise of contemporary education it might be worth a moment to consider the fact that by focusing on what the children in the classrooms want and tossing out essential subjects like logic and Latin (and history, mathematics, economics, literature, and even English) we deprive the young today of the ability tomorrow to see the fallacies that lie at the heart of so many appeals by unconscionable agents whose only desire is to gain a profit or otherwise make life easy for themselves at our expense.

Sorry, Hillary

Please understand that I am a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter. I think she is a bright and very capable woman and I would dearly love to see her take a run at the Presidency in 2016. At the same time, as a teacher of logic for 42 years and a responsible blogger who tries hard to see both sides of complex issues, I must point out that Hillary wasn’t thinking clearly earlier this week when she testified to a Senate committee about the killings in Benghazi last September. Facing an angry Republican Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, Hillary apparently lost her cool and pounded the table as she said:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” Clinton responded, suggesting that Johnson was focused on unimportant semantics. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”

Now think about it: if we want to “figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again,” don’t we have to think about the possible causes? It does matter whether the cause was a planned attack or a simple, spontaneous outburst over a low-budget film on U-tube that angered Muslims all over the world. That is, it does matter whether it was a “protest or…because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans.” What matters is why this happened, and Johnson was right to pursue this line of questioning and Hillary seems to have lost her presence of mind (and her cool) in the heat of the moment. I don’t judge her in this case because I can only imagine the pressure she was under, but I do point out that her response makes no sense. Figuring out why it happened requires an examination of possible causes. It’s simple logic.

What happened in Benghazi was terrible and it does demand answers to the question why. This is especially so given the current unrest in that part of the world — and the attitude of the radicals in Libya toward all Westerners. And if that answer suggests that the State Department was remiss in not responding to requests for increased security, or if perhaps it was indeed a spontaneous outburst over a  hateful movie, we need to know. The Republicans typically tend to make hay even when the fields are wet  (it’s hard not to look for hidden agendas), and during the campaign when this story broke I thought it was just another political ploy designed to garner votes for candidate Romney. But in this case they are right to seek answers so that, as Hillary correctly points out, this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

Propaganda

As we all know, propaganda is a concerted effort to get people to believe something and presumably to act on those beliefs. Effective propaganda is based on bombast and rhetoric that appeals to our fears and desires: it may or may not involve blatant falsehoods, as Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC tended to do. Usually, it involves half-truths — that is, statements that have a modicum of truth in them and seem plausible if one doesn’t really think about them. And the propagandist does not want listeners to think about what they hear!

Let’s say I want you to vote for my candidate, Jones. Now It is generally known that Jones was divorced a few years ago and later married a woman who had been his secretary. A good propagandist will twist the facts and embellish them so the story comes out that Jones is a womanizer who was unfaithful and left his wife high and dry after his torrid love affair with his secretary in a Miami hotel. If he is the least bit concerned about law suits, he will rely heavily on innuendo — a suggestion that Jones is a womanizer, not a bald-faced statement to that effect (“Jones was seen by several witnesses coming out of a Miami hotel with his secretary several months before his divorce.”). You get the picture: filter in a few “facts” but make sure you create the impression that the man is scum and not worthy of anyone’s vote: use loaded language and strong emotive overtones. The idea is to persuade, not to tell the truth. In fact truth is the real victim here — if it is not Jones.

The radicals just prior to the American revolution had a huge problem: how to persuade the majority of Americans who considered themselves loyal British citizens that they must cut all ties with the mother country and go to war? As a number of historians have noted, the remarkable thing is that the revolution happened at all: Americans really had very few gripes with the mother country and all were of a mind to regard revolution as a last resort. Don’t underestimate the power of words carefully chosen!

To begin with, of course, they stopped calling Britain the “mother country.” They used emotive language, calling Britain “the rotten island” that was out to pillage America and steal its wealth, rape its women and turn its children into slaves. In fact, the propagandists in the mid-eighteenth century used the term “slavery” again and again to great effect. The idea was to instill in the American citizens — many of whom right up to the end, even after Lexington and Concord, regarded themselves as loyal British citizens — a love of liberty and a hatred of England. They insisted that Great Britain would “overwhelm the virtue of the people” of America. As John Miller tells us in his remarkable study of the period (Origins of the American Revolution), “the America of 1775 was made to appear tied to a bankrupt, rotting state that sought to keep itself alive by sucking the strength from its colonies.” Further, “every shilling squeezed from the colonies, Americans were told, went to ‘tyrants and debauchees‘ and was spent on vices that would have made Nero blush.” Note the clever use of exaggeration and bombast: arouse the emotions of the listener or reader and generate a hatred of the desired object, Britain. And keep stressing Britain’s desire to tax Americans, to reduce Americans to slavery. Sound familiar?

It worked, of course, as millions of Americans in a very brief period were persuaded to go to war against the most powerful nation on earth — a nation that had only yesterday been a trusted ally of the colonists and their protector against a hostile world, expelling the French from the continent. It is indeed food for thought. With Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in the lead the British radicals were not the only effective propagandists the world has ever known but they did perform an amazing turnaround in a very short time. And it was done without radio or TV. Truly remarkable.

We need to think about this at this time because there are unscrupulous people who are busy marketing their politicians like boxes of cereal and they desperately want to sell them to us without letting us know what the ingredients are. And the underlying rule is: the end justifies the means. It matters not if what we say is true, we shall repeat it often enough that people will come to believe it in the end. If it turns out later to be false, it will be too late: strike quickly and often and repeat the message until it is no longer questioned. The last thing the propagandist wants is for the listener, viewer, or reader to think about what is said. Logic and reasoning have no place at the table of the propagandist: it’s all about persuasion at any cost. Be on your guard! It’s out there and it’s out to get your vote!