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!

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Money Matters

As you are doubtless aware, the college football season started recently. In fact, it started with a game in Dublin, Ireland between Notre Dame and the United States Naval Academy. That’s right, they flew the Naval Academy’s football team to Ireland to play a game. That would be our tax dollars, folks, part of our “defense” spending. And we might also note the “fly overs” at a number of other major games last weekend that have become a part of the jingoistic spectacle that is now American sports and which probably cost a dollar or two of our “defense” spending as well.

And we could total up the bill with other recreational spending on the military here and all over the globe where we have forces protecting us against whoever it is they are protecting us against. I suspect the cost of softballs alone would feed a family of four for a year. But that is speculation because I doubt very many people are privy to the inside dope on just what our defense spending goes toward. Ron Paul’s son recently had the audacity to suggest that there should be an audit of the Pentagon, but that suggestion fell on deaf ears and closed Republican minds.

But the Republicans are eager to cut federal spending and bring the government down a peg in order to help balance the budget. Yeah, right! So where will the cuts come from? You guessed it, social programs. 60% of the federal budget in the coming year will go to “defense” spending — Department of Defense, war, veterans affairs, and nuclear weapons programs. 6% will go to health and human services, 6% to education, 5% to the individual states, 4% to the Department of Homeland Security, 3% to Housing and Urban Development, and 4.5% to other programs. Oh, and there’s also a projected 1.5% that will go to helping develop and support new energy programs other than nuclear weapons programs. There are a few other piddling items, but you can see from this list where the major cuts will come — given that the “defense” budget will actually be increased in the future if the Republicans have their way. The cuts will come from programs designed to help folks survive and better themselves. Paul Ryan, for example, has suggested that Pell Grants be frozen or reduced in order to force the colleges and universities to reduce tuition costs for the nation’s college students.

Ryan’s suggestion reminds me of one of our local legislators who pushed through the Minnesota legislature a plan to increase the speed limits on two-lane country roads in order to reduce the speed of the vehicles and reduce accidents on country roads. That’s right: increase the speed limits in order to reduce the speed of local traffic. You heard it here, folks, it’s called “newspeak” or “policalese.” Whatever you call it, it’s hogwash and Ryan’s plan to cut Pell Grants in order to reduce tuition costs for students falls in that category.

Thus, if this crew is elected to run our government, we can brace ourselves for cuts to social programs that help people receive an adequate education, feed themselves, and find temporary shelter when they fall on hard times — while, at the same time, the military gets more money for softballs, golf balls, tennis balls, fly overs, and trips to Ireland to play football. I begin to know how Alice felt in Wonderland.

Lies and Omissions

A recent article on the Fox News Website — of all places — gives the lie to Paul Ryan’s speechmaking at the recent Republican National Convention. The article, by Sally Kohn, was paid for by Fox, apparently, and notes that Ryan was “dazzling” but full of bull-pucky. I was going to paraphrase the article and point out the highlights (with appropriate comments and asides), but I figured readers might charge me with distortion — after all, this was an article published by Fox News which is not known to lean the least bit to the left, though Ms Kohn is apparently not on the Fox payroll. So I decided to simply pass along Sally Kohn’s article in full and let the reader decide for himself or herself whether it is to be believed. Apparently Paul Ryan is not.

After describing the initial impression of Ryan as “dazzling,” Ms Kohn goes on to discuss the inside of his speech, which she called “Deceiving.”

On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was  Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

The good news is that the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth. Said fact checkers have already condemned certain arguments that Ryan still irresponsibly repeated.

Fact: While Ryan tried to pin the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating on spending under President Obama, the credit rating was actually downgraded because Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling.

Fact: While Ryan blamed President Obama for the shut down of a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, the plant was actually closed under President George W. Bush. Ryan actually asked for federal spending to save the plant, while Romney has criticized the auto industry bailout that President Obama ultimately enacted to prevent other plants from closing.

Fact: Though Ryan insisted that President Obama wants to give all the credit for private sector success to government, that isn’t what the president said. Period.

Fact: Though Paul Ryan accused President Obama of taking $716 billion out of Medicare, the fact is that that amount was savings in Medicare reimbursement rates (which, incidentally, save Medicare recipients out-of-pocket costs, too) and Ryan himself embraced these savings in his budget plan.

Elections should be about competing based on your record in the past and your vision for the future, not competing to see who can get away with the most lies and distortions without voters noticing or bothering to care. Both parties should hold themselves to that standard. Republicans should be ashamed that there was even one misrepresentation in Ryan’s speech but sadly, there were many.

3. Distracting

And then there’s what Ryan didn’t talk about.

Ryan didn’t mention his extremist stance on banning all abortions with no exception for rape or incest, a stance that is out of touch with 75% of American voters.

Ryan didn’t mention his previous plan to hand over Social Security to Wall Street.

Ryan didn’t mention his numerous votes to raise spending and balloon the deficit when George W. Bush was president.

Ryan didn’t mention how his budget would eviscerate programs that help the poor and raise taxes on 95% of Americans in order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires even further and increase — yes, increasethe deficit.

These aspects of Ryan’s resume and ideology are sticky to say the least. He would have been wise to tackle them head on and try to explain them away in his first real introduction to voters. But instead of Ryan airing his own dirty laundry, Democrats will get the chance.

At the end of his speech, Ryan quoted his dad, who used to say to him, “”Son. You have a choice: You can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution.”

Ryan may have helped solve some of the likeability problems facing Romney, but ultimately by trying to deceive voters about basic facts and trying to distract voters from his own record, Ryan’s speech caused a much larger problem for himself and his running mate.

‘Nuff said!

Leaning Left/Leaning Right

A business journal recently reported that 26 U.S. Companies paid their C.E.O.s more in 2011 than they paid in taxes to the U.S. government. This is not surprising in this day and age of tax breaks and subsidies for large corporations — and given the obscene salaries and benefits garnered by corporate C.E.O.s. The corporations in this country call the shots and are in the process of buying the government, as I have said in past blogs (though not with their tax money: they buy the politicians who make and execute the laws.)

What is interesting about this story is that the companies, including Citigroup, Abbott Laboratories, and AT &T, are of one voice in their objection to the report, claiming that the methodology is flawed — given that the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. collected the data and drew the conclusions. The Institute is reputed to lean a bit to the left. Therefore the study is not to be taken seriously we are told.

I have been corresponding with a fellow blogger named “Jack” who objected to some of the things I said about Paul Ryan on the grounds that the source I cited (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) is reputed to lean to the left. The claim is that we cannot rely on data or studies that draw on that data when it is collected by a group known to be biased. To an extent this is true. But it is a half-truth. Furthermore, it smacks of “shooting the messenger.” We don’t like what the messenger says, so we label him and dismiss what he has to say. This gambit, in turn, smacks of the ad hominem fallacy, which I have also blogged about. In any event, the comment deserves further comment.

I recall the Bishop of Maryland years ago saying he wished someone would write an unbiased history of the Civil War — from the Southern point of view. Clever, and even quite funny (especially for a Bishop!). But also much to the point: it is not humanly possible to make a claim without bias entering in at some point. The data are straightforward enough, but as soon as someone, anyone, begins to interpret the data bias creeps in: it’s unavoidable. In fact, it is not even possible to identify a group as left-leaning or right-leaning without bias creeping in. To those at the far right of the political spectrum, those in the middle seem to be leaning left. To those on the far left, the ones in the middle appear to be leaning to the right. It’s a matter of perspective. No one is without bias, and all perspectives are skewed.

Given that this is the case, the most any of us can do is read and think about what we have read. If a study is based on data that are available to anyone we can draw our own conclusions. We can read what those on the political left have written (supposing that we know who they are) and then read what those on the political right have written (same proviso). Then divide by 2 — or something. In fact, we can spend the rest of our lives checking data and critiquing the conclusions drawn by various groups from those data. Or we can accept as true the results of studies that have been conducted by responsible, bi-partisan groups and hope the conclusions they drew are reliable  — to the extent that any conclusions are reliable.

In a word, I realize that the Institute for Policy Studies has a reputation for leaning a bit left of center. But the conclusions they have reached about the 26 U.S. companies accords with much of the information I have available to me about U.S. corporations generally and since it “fits” I will accept it as true until or unless I have good reason to reject it. It’s a question of coherence and plausibility, not absolute certainty. That’s the best anyone can do, given the limits of human fallibility and the constraints of time.

Your Typical Pauper

A recent blog written by “Salty Political Musings” on July 7th received a belated comment this month from someone calling himself “Auth.” In his comment, Auth said that “In Wisconsin we have what is called Badger Care and it has . . . left the poorer citizens having nothing to pay for, when they are the folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year. .. . ” For some reason this comment showed up on my blog and I thought I would respond to it.

To begin with, I have a problem with anonymous writers, though I realize that the broad audience of the blogosphere demands for many people that readers not know who they are. Anonymity allows them the license to say what they think without fear of recrimination. I can understand that, and I respect it. But sometimes it is also a shield to protect the narrow-minded and bigoted, as in this case. The reference to the poor as “usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year” suggests a narrow, if not a closed, mind. It suggests stereotyping and castigating all of those who are below the poverty level — what is it, $23,000 a year for a family of four? — as beneath contempt. It suggests that we should have no sympathy whatever for those who struggle to keep their heads above water in an economy where many are going under for the third time. It suggests that the poor are a burden the rest of hard-working Americans must carry about on their backs. Finally, it suggests a heart closed to the pain and suffering of others. It is truly sad.

The assumption seems to be that poverty is the result of a lack of will, that the poor are somehow poor on purpose. These people are not impoverished, they are “bums.” They bring it on themselves, thus we should not have any patience with them or any sympathy for their plight. This view is insensitive and naive to the point of stupidity. It suggests a prejudice strong enough to be called “bigotry.” I have no doubt whatever that there are some, perhaps many, who can be described as the poor are in this comment. I have said before that there are indeed many abuses of the welfare system. Let’s agree that there are thousands. For all those thousands, there are tens of thousands more who are pulled from under the waters and brought back to life as a result of the social programs that have come under attack by politicians on the right side of the political spectrum. This is not acceptable. Surely, we should err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.

When one reads that a Tea Party audience cheers and shouts “yes!” when Ron Paul is asked  by Wolf Blitzer during a primary debate whether an uninsured man should be allowed to die, one can infer that Auth’s position is not just an anomaly, but is rather widespread in this country. And this is deeply disturbing, though it explains why the Republican Party has received such broad support for its continued call for tax cuts and the reduction or elimination of social programs that sustain the poor. If, as one suspects, there are a great many Americans who regard the poor as lazy and unmotivated, who are poor not through accident but on purpose, then the attacks on social programs by people like Mitt Romney and Ryan Paul make perfect sense.

What is most disturbing about this phenomenon, however, is that we are supposed to be a nation of caring people guided by ethical and religious principles built around the notions of love and charity. But this may in fact be a fiction if there are enough people like “Auth” and those who cheered at Ron Paul’s comments about the uninsured. And if it is indeed a fiction then the character of this nation has assuredly changed for the worse. Time will tell.

Military Mystique

I recall seeing a photograph recently of President Obama sitting in a crowded room surrounded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in all their regalia. There they were fully uniformed, chests ablaze with ribbons representing courage, valor and years of experience defending the country in all parts of the world. And there was the skinny little President in his white shirt and tie looking very much out-of-place — and intimidated. They were considering how to wage war.

The photo made me reflect on an incident from my distant past when I taught at a private school in Katonah, New York and one Saturday we took a group of the boys to West Point for a basketball game. We were all dressed in our best bib and tucker and feeling very good about ourselves — until we started walking around the grounds of the academy. There were the cadets, ramrod straight and neatly pressed (not a wrinkle anywhere to be seen), eyes straight ahead, faces stern and heroic. I started to think myself shabbily dressed, even a bit of a slob — anything but “heroic.” I felt that way walking around Annapolis during my four years of college in that city standing next to a Midshipman as he ordered items from a sales person or walking next to him down the street.

What to make of this? I wonder if part of the reason why the President and the Congress are unwilling to take on the military is reflected in the subtle psychological messages blended into these impressions I recall here? We have a reverence for the military in this country that borders on worship: these are all our “heroes.” These feelings are reinforced every time a sports team hits the field, and our TVs remind us constantly how much we owe these heroes.  If one were to utter a criticism of any one of them it would be regarded as sacrilege. In fact, we have become a nation of military pageants and military presence. Ever since Viet Nam, it seems, the military is held up to us as a model of human achievement. I suspect it is by design. There are parades, fly overs, flags unfurled, uniforms galore, and the air filled with the strains of the National Anthem. It fills us with pride and a sense of awe and privilege. But it is also dangerous, it seems to me.

We need to beware of what I would call the “lure of the military mystique,” the sense that what these people say and do is always right, that they are the paradigm of all human excellence. I dare say that the politicians in this country are intimidated and awed by the presence in the room of a large man in uniform with ribbons agleam on his chest who has a “request” that simply cannot be ignored. It seems a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this is a small part of what Eisenhower was warning us about: some of the power of the military is assuredly wrapped up in the mystique and awe we all experience in the presence of men and women who represent courage, valor, and integrity. Who can say “no” to people like this?

As I say, it is a stretch, but one wonders why an ultra-conservative like Paul Ryan who is intent on slashing every social program in sight and leaving us all without a safety net in our old age would, at the same time (as Chair of the House Budget Committee), recommend increasing the military budget? Indeed, it is one of the oddities of this age that the Republicans generally who want to cut and slash the Federal budget refuse to consider any serious examination of the “defense” budget — much less cuts. And this in face of the fact that we spend 6 to 7 times as much on the military as China and more than the next 20 largest military spenders combined. In fact, this country spends over 40% of the total amount spent on the military in the entire world! Does it ultimately come down to a psychological trick that none of us is aware of: an inability to say “no” to those who are used to giving orders? I wonder.

In the meantime, while we mull this over, the military continues to amass power and spread its influence throughout the world as we continue to spend more on “defense” than any nation in the world and people go to sleep hungry and homeless in a country of vast wealth.

Giving Us The Finger

I have touched on this before at the time when Mitt Romney announced his running mate, (you remember, the next President of the United States….sorry, the next Vice President of the United States) Paul Ryan. As a rule the Vice President of the United States is a titular figure —  he or she Chairs the Senate and mostly does PR for the President when he is playing golf or shooting buckets with some friends. But think of LBJ and think of Paul Ryan as next President of the United States. ‘Kind of sends a shiver up the back, doesn’t it? But he’s like us, he says, because he worked at McDonald’s and he drives a truck. Somehow I don’t find that very reassuring.

But what Romney’s selection does is, in effect, is to present his middle finger to the country. It says, in effect: (1) we don’t give a damn about the poor and those in need; we will continue to cut social programs while we increase “defense” spending;  (2) we don’t care about education and improving the public school system so our kids can compete with the world at large in the coming years — where they are rapidly losing ground; (3) we don’t give a damn about the planet as long as we can continue to amass profits and maintain our “way of life.” The only thing we really care about is saving some tax dollars so you can buy a few more pull-tabs or perhaps a new golf club and we can augment our off-shore bank accounts. And we think enough of you will buy into this plan and vote us in to office in November.

In a word, these two Republican candidates taken together represent the reduction of politics to greed and filthy lucre, pure and simple. There is only one thing that matters and that is tax dollars, though neither man seems to want us to know how much they pay in taxes! The fundamental message sent by a moderate Republican who has already announced a tax plan that favors the wealthy and has targeted the E.P.A. for “reductions” when he selects a Tea Party supporter who is known to favor cuts to social programs that help the poor while increasing defense spending is clear: people and the planet don’t matter. What matters is that we save a few dollars. Let’s hope the American public sees through the smiling political masks to the smirking faces beneath.

Political Choices

If a person is judged by the company he or she keeps, then Mitt Romney is doubly disappointing. First Donald Trump (about whom I have blogged previously) and now Paul Ryan the man with a heart of stone. Romney’s choice of Ryan as a running mate is especially disturbing.  The man has shown himself to be determined to eradicate every possible safety net that keeps the  poor, elderly, and chronically disadvantaged in this country from falling out of sight. As a recent editorial in the HuffPose by the Rev. Chuck Currie points out:

Ryan’s budget proposals affect the support of seniors, cut assistance to programs aimed at combating childhood hunger, and would leave people who have lost their jobs without heat during cold winter months. This isn’t hyperbole but reasoned analysis of his budget goals from non-partisan groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Ryan’s plans would eventually end “everything from veterans’ programs to medical and scientific research, highways, education, nearly all programs for low-income families,” according to the CBPP.

The Presidential race that was becoming boring in spite of the millions of dollars that have already been spent on it has just become a race of major importance. It now matters a great deal whom we vote for. While Obama has shown himself to be weak on environmental issues, too quick to wage war, and unwilling to take on the corporations that support him, he is certainly preferable to a man who is openly avowing a public strategy to eliminate the middle class, eradicate the E.P.A., and turn the government’s back on the poor and needy in this country. As Rev. Currie points out, this election has suddenly become a matter of extreme moral import: it’s not just a choice between Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee as it may have appeared at times.

The movement to cut taxes at all costs and eradicate protective agencies is disturbing on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin. To the extent that we support this movement, it shows us to be a greedy and self-serving people who lack compassion for our fellow human beings or concern for the planet itself. This sounds like exaggeration, but it is not. The time to attend to the issue of global warming, for example, was months ago and we still have largely ignored it — while many continue to deny it. But the attacks on social programs that assist people in real need are in many ways even more disturbing. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, estimates that 62 percent of Paul Ryan’s cuts as Chairman of the House Budget Committee were to programs for the poor. The frenzy to cut taxes by a people who pay less than most others who enjoy the benefits of a “developed” country shows us as a people unwilling to consider the real costs involved: our stewardship of the planet and a concern for human suffering and genuine human needs.

I really cannot believe we are at that point. My suspicion is that Mitt Romney has made a huge blunder in picking Paul Ryan as his running mate and that the American voters will see that this man represents the reductio ad absurdum of Mitt Romney’s political thinking.  Surely this approach to politics will be deemed unpalatable to the majority of voting Americans in November.

[I would only add by way of a closing parenthesis that Ryan’s favorite author, Ayn Rand, is by no stretch of the term a “philosopher” even though the Rev. Currie places her in company with the likes of Socrates. But the fact that she is Ryan’s favorite theorist — and that Ryan once said “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism” — tells us a great deal about the man himself, things we need to know before we vote in November.]