The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Propaganda

Square circles


I just want to draw some attention to this post on Naked Capitalism that I thought was an excellent analysis of the dilemma of left-wing electoral politics.

They have done so mainly by convincing a layer of affluent, middle-aged professionals that the Left ultimately represents a threat to their most cherished social values: meritocratic, individualistic, cosmopolitan liberalism. In the US, this perceived threat has mainly taken the form of a repeated insistence (against absolutely all psephological evidence) that a Sanders candidacy would inevitably lose to Trump, thereby extending the life of his cartoonishly villainous regime. This same threat was used to convince older Black Democratic voters in the South that the defence of centrist liberalism was the only alternative to a perpetuation of Trumpian white supremacism. In the UK, the same effect was achieved by convincing a small but strategically crucial section of middle-class voters that Jeremy Corbyn was an advocate for Brexit and an antisemite, and that voters should instead lend support to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or abstain).

Secondly, again in each case, a nationalist, and increasingly irrationalist, populism on the Right has attracted enough support from some of the social constituencies who we might have hoped would unite around a radical social democratic agenda to make it impossible for that programme to win a majority. In the UK this was the constituency which voted for Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’. In the US, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist populism mobilised lots of his base.

His failure to deliver on any of his promises (either to build a wall on the Mexican border or to bring jobs back to the rust belt) has undermined much of his credibility with that section, which is partly why increasingly deranged conspiracy theories are circulating among his die-hard supporters. There isn’t much reason left to vote for Trump, if you didn’t benefit from his tax cuts, or don’t believe he’s engaged in a secret war with the ‘deep state’.

This is exactly right, but I would cast it in another way.  There is still a large segment of opinion on the left that wants to engage in electoral politics but without taking into account voter subjectivity.  Well, of the votes meaningfully available to the left (construed as generously as possible) in Western countries, they do not conceive of the universe in the way that many people, particularly on the economic and environmental left, want them to.  If you are interested in exerting power via electoral politics, you must seriously engage with the subjective reality that these voters live in.  In the USA, one large group views Trump and all his supporters to be a critical values threat (what I’ve been calling the “dire aesthetic emergency” — keep in mind that I do not use “aesthetic” in a derogatory and trivializing way), another group (black voters) exist in a state of justified mistrust towards the rest of the electorate, and another group wants economic improvement but only if it is obtained through an aggressive posture towards those they view as an outgroup.  How these groups formed is a matter of a complex social history that is not fully amenable to class politics via “vulgar Marxism”.

Perhaps because it is, ultimately, the expression of inchoate and malleable emotional forces, nationalism can become attached to various political projects and tendencies. Its most extreme manifestation may have been in the murderous modernity of mid-twentieth century fascism, but the New Right of Thatcher and Reagan also managed to convince xenophobes and nationalists that they were on their side, willing to endorse racist and militarist projects as long as they also got to sell off public utilities and slash taxes for the rich. So the discourse of nationalist authoritarianism has proven remarkably flexible over the years, being used to justify everything from imperialist war to the destruction of the British coal industry. But the purpose that conservative nationalism always serves is to provide alternative explanations for historical events to those that would inform a progressive response: blaming unemployment on immigration; blaming union unrest on unpatriotic militant workers; blaming crime on the supposed moral degeneracy of ethnic minorities.

In the UK, the most recent and powerful iteration of this narrative was the Right-wing argument for Brexit. The Brexit story offers a compelling and plausible account of almost all of the cultural, social, political and economic changes of recent decades that many UK citizens have cause to regret, while promising an easy remedy to them. The weakening of our democratic institutions, the collapse of manufacturing industry and the consequent loss of secure employment in many places, the changing cultural composition of our cities and other communities: all could be laid at the door of EU membership. Of course a few of the people who voted Leave did so out of a hard-headed Left-wing understanding of the EU as an institution committed to the implementation of neoliberalism. Of course almost everyone who took such a view was a committed supporter of lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn. But absolutely every relevant survey suggests that the proportion of leavers who were motivated by this view, free from any nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ or restoring cultural purity, was statistically negligible. A certain section of the American Left loves the idea that Brexit was in fact a vote against neoliberal policy rather than the reactionary form taken by dismay at some of its effect. The truth is, for most of its supporters and opponents, a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall.

There is a strong temptation, again especially among economic leftists, to see favorite leftist bugbears (e.g., the construction of European institutions while neoliberalism still seemed to bear the Mandate of Heaven) as the “real” thing that underlies the false consciousness of nationalist resentment.  Arguing this requires the kind of psychologizing that typically heralds weak armchair sociological reasoning.  Perhaps if one were already in power, one could use economic policy or withdrawal from neoliberal globalization to abate the underlying impulses that motivate proto-fascist ideation in the population.  This is putting the cart before the horse.  There is no evidence that catering to those impulses before attaining power enables you to create a cadre of voters that is more motivated by economic policy than by latent cultural resentments.

There are therefore two overall options:

  1. Accept the electorate as it is (yes, fully understanding the power of capitalist media to shape public opinion without overestimating it or imputing omnipotence to it). Then make a decision as to what are the palatable compromises in order to exert power.
  2. Set aside electoral politics as the center of available political progress and do the hard work, outside the question of elections, of raising public consciousness and reshaping the attitudes of the electorate.

This is, of course, not a complete dichotomy, since a combination of the two is possible.  The option that has not been available at this present time, however, is running on a platform that centers economic and environmental improvement, given the constraints of the electoral system and its social history to date.  This is not a circle you can square.  The prospects for this have improved (the fact that Corbyn and Sanders got as far as they did is a relevant indicator), but the world is not “there” yet.

The Usefulness of Alt-Left, EmoProg, BernieBros, and FireBaggers

The existence of all of the above phrases brings joy to my life. I consider it like nature giving skunks a broad white stripe down their back, as an extra “bad, very, very bad” warning.

All of these phrases are, or were, used by centrists to disparage people to their left.

Emo-prog: “You have emotions about issues, which means you aren’t serious! Why can’t you debate reasonably about how many brown people we should kill, whether torture works, and how many people should be raped in prison? Having emotions mean you can’t be trusted with these decisions.”

Fire-Bagger: “You’re just like the tea-baggers because you want Obamacare to include a public option so that it can’t easily be destroyed by Republicans or gamed by insurance companies. Don’t you  understand this is the best we can do, and Republicans would never dare destroy it! We’ll build from it. People like you, you’re just like right-wing crazies who want to shut down the government!”

BernieBro: “You’re all men, you oppose Clinton because she’s a woman, and you’re racist. Racist and sexist. How dare you criticize the most qualified woman in history for Iraq and Libya. Only brown people in America count. And all you young women who support Bernie, you just want to sleep with young men. Traitors!”

Alt-Left: “There’s no difference between people who want universal health care and people who are Nazis!” (Notice that alt-left is the functional equivalent of FireBagger–name people for their exact opposite and pretend they’re the same.)

So I’m very grateful for these phrases because anyone who uses them non-ironically marks themself as my enemy (or a complete fool under the sway of my enemies). It’s that simple.

The centrists (who are really conservatives bordering on reactionaries) who bill themselves as the center left, assume that actual left-wingers have to vote for them. “I am offering a crumb, sir, a crumb, and the Republicans are not offering even a crumb.” They grow very very offended when left-wingers dare to stand up for actual left-wing principles, such as not bombing brown people to smithereens, or making sure everyone gets health care, or increasing the minimum wage to something, well, honestly, still pretty shitty.

Anyone who uses these phrases is a bad person. They aren’t as bad as actual Nazis or Republicans, but they are basically evil people. Hillary Clinton, their avatar and savior, couldn’t even bring herself to support a national $15/hour minimum wage, and they have done nothing meaningful, while in power, to stop climate change, despite acknowledging it is real.

I mean, at least Republicans have the grace to say, “No, I don’t believe in climate change. Therefore, I don’t think inaction will kill billions.”

Democrats and Labour and other “third Way” movements say, “This is a terrible, terrible problem which will kill wads of people, and, yes, I will sign a piece of paper but will do nothing that matters despite knowing that failure to act is effectively mass murder.”

So, Alt-left.

Great phrase. Use it early and often if you’re a douchebag centrist. It saves a lot of time for everyone.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

The UK is a Propaganda Society

People cannot make correct decisions if they believe lies:

In May 2013 the reputable polling company ComRes asked a representative sample of the British public the following question: “How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?”

According to 59% of the respondents, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war.

This is similar to the fact that on the eve of the Iraq war, 70% of Americans thought that Saddam was involved in 9/11.

The information problem, that people believe what they hear repeated, and the way it interacts with our media system is another problem we’re going to have to tackle if we want a long cycle of prosperity after this cycle ends.

Liberals aren’t real people—or crazy

As Bill Scher points out, Beck’s rally was pathetic:

Glenn Beck: 87,000Louis Farrakhan 837,000 ’03 anti-war protests 1,000,000

But the media chooses to massively highlight Beck’s pathetic numbers.  Why is that?

The two answers I see are as follows.  The media has a right wing bias and Beck’s followers include a number of crazies, his movement has the implicit cloud of violence hanging over it, and it’s smart to pay attention to idiot ideologues with guns.

What Left?

David Sirota nails it:

Behold, for instance, major environmental groups’ attitude toward the Gulf oil spill.

We know that before the disaster, President Obama recklessly pushed to expand offshore drilling. We also know that his Interior Department gave British Petroleum’s rig a “categorical exclusion” from environmental scrutiny and, according to the New York Times, “gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf without first getting required [environmental] permits.” Worse, we know that after the spill, the same Interior Department kept issuing “categorical exclusions” for new Gulf oil operations, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar still refuses “to rule out continued use of categorical exclusions,” as the Denver Post reported (heckuva job, Kenny!).

Undoubtedly, had this been the behavior of a Republican administration, “the left’s” big environmental organizations would be scheduling D.C. protests and calling for firings, if not criminal charges. Yet, somehow, there are no protests. Somehow, there have been almost no calls for the resignation of Salazar, who oversaw this disaster and who, before that, took $323,000 in campaign contributions from energy interests and backed more offshore drilling as a U.S. senator. Somehow, facing environmental apocalypse, there has been mostly silence from “the left.”

So true.  On virtually everything.  Principles which change depending on who is in power are not principles.

But don’t think this gets donors and readers off the hook.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been told “we can’t run with that, our readers won’t tolerate it.  They /want/ to believe in Obama.  They need to believe in Obama.”  (Well, actually, who knows if it gets them off the hook or not. I never believed it.  I believe you can tell people the goddamn truth and still get traffic.)

That has waned somewhat, but in early 2009 the number of things I wanted to say that I couldn’t either get published or front paged was rather extraordinary.  What happens in such situations is that writers, even when not explicitly edited, start self editing.  “Everyone knows” certain things, but hardly anyone says them, which is why you get the weird sight of people saying “everyone knew”, but then you look into the person’s archives and find they never said what “everyone knew”.

Of course, everyone didn’t know, but even before Obama took office, and especially in the month after, those of us whose jobs it was to watch closely say who he was appointing, and with a few exceptions, his appointments (or lack of appointments, as when he left Bush USA’s in office, something no other President had done) told the tale.  At that point anyone whose need to believe wasn’t Hindenburg sized, knew that liberals were about to get royally screwed up by Obama.

Oh well.

Can’t You See! Can’t You See?

Image by Blue Canoe

Image by Blue Canoe

A friend recently gave me what is apparently a classic book on improvisational theater, called Impro, by Keith Johnston. The entire book is remarkable, and worth reading for anyone, not just those in the theater, but my favorite passage is the one below:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed ‘mad’ when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me. I treated her rather as I would a Mask – that is to say, I was gentle, and I didn’t try to impose my reality on her. One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people – it was as if she was a body language expert. She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that I later found to be true, although this was at the beginning of summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I’m remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

‘Ah,’ said the teacher, blocking her, ‘but this flower is especially beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. No one seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorizing, and on selecting. Actually it was crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. Since then I’ve noticed such behaviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it.

Johnston was concerned by this imposition of reality, because he believed that the way we socialize children drives out their creativity – they can no longer think outside of the categories, clichés and storylines they have been taught. It’s an entirely valid point of view – school not as “learning facts” but as “having reality imposed on you”.

But when I read that story, I recognized the girl, because I cannot tell you how often I have said, in disgust, “Can’t you see!” And then in sadness, “Can’t you see?”

Most people can’t see. They don’t see. They refuse to see.

They are given or find a schema for organizing the world with neat little categories, they slot things into those categories as soon as they can, and then they don’t think about them. They learn storylines that explain the world “Islamo Fascists want hate us for our freedoms” and they fit every event, every person, into the storyline somewhere, ignoring any information that doesn’t fit.

As a child you may have gone through the phase of “what’s that”, and the phase of ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what?’

A child points at a flying object and says “what is that?”

“A plane”.

“What’s a plane?”

“It caries people places.”

“How does it fly”?

“Air under the wings pushes it up.”


“It just does”.

And that’s where most of us break down. We get into the habit of brushing the questions off, of shutting them down, of not answering them fully. We accept the name as the thing. What’s a plane? Do you know it if you know it flies? Do you know it if you understand how air flow on the wings keeps it up? Do you need to know how its engines work? How the flaps and the rudder work? The effect of increased altitude. The nature of the composites?

At what point can you be said to know what a plane is?

What if you just think that a plane is anything man made that flies? What about helicopters? Are they then planes?

And does it matter that some planes are different than others – prop vs. jet, multi engine v. single, fly by wire vs. traditional controls, standard wings v. tilt forward wings, etc?

It matters if you have to fly one, perhaps. Or if you need to buy one. Or if you need to get the right one to get somewhere fast enough. Or if you need to build one, or maintain one.

But those are all the tasks of specialists – really, for most people you need to know how much it costs to buy a ticket, how soon it’ll get there, and when you should get on.

So perhaps you don’t need to know.

But in the sphere of public political knowledge the same principle applies. I will lay you odds that not one person in one hundred could give me a coherent definition of terrorist that didn’t turn their own government into terrorists. Not one in ten could tell me what the differences are between Hezbollah and al-Qa’eda, and tell me how they matter in dealing with the organizations. (You wouldn’t try to land a jumbo jet on a VTOL pad, would you?)

False categorization, and superficial categorization then are two sins of sloppy thinking and they come from thinking that once you name something, you don’t have to think about it much any more.

Then there are false analogies. Let’s take Islamo-fascism. Think about if for a few minutes. In what way is it productive or revealing of the motives of al-Qa’eda, the Muslim brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah to compare them to fascism (which to most people means the German Nazi party.) Are they say, movements that exalt the State and patriotism above all else? Are they movements that blur the boundaries between corporations and the state? You can go down the list of what it means to be fascist like this and find that the matches aren’t all that strong. Some exist, but it’s clear that these organizations don’t have much to do with fascism. (It also becomes clear that those movements are each different from the other in significant ways.)

There’s nothing wrong with using analogies in your thinking—it’d be hard to think about anything abstract without them. But sloppy use of analogies, of cramming things into the analogy is potentially deadly. (For example, pre-Iraq war people used to use Japan and Germany as analogies for what the reconstruction and occupation of Iraq would be like. At the time a number of us argued those were bad analogies. Closing in on 3,000 deaths have told us that we were right. Bad analogy, deadly results.)

The kissing cousin of analogies is the storyline. Humans almost automatically sort events into storylines and people involved into the events into various archetypes, starting with heroes and villains but moving on to ingénue roles, best friends, wise men, treacherous advisors and so on. Storylines are easiest to watch in the press and deciding what their proffered storylines are on any issue is something a lot of people spend a lot of time doing (the most famous in the blogosphere perhaps being Peter Daou).

Bush is an iron jawed man of resolve fighting evil terrorists led by the mastermind bin Laden. The Iraq war was about taking out Saddam’s WMD and was a glorious march of freedom. The Hezbollah/Israel conflict was about destroying a terrorist organization that had kidnapped brave Israeli soldiers. Israel is a small and beleaguered bastion of democracy surrounded by evil people who want to destroy it and cause a second Holocaust. Lamont was a one issue candidate supported by far left bloggers and the anti-war wing of the party.

Note that prominence of characters there. Character = story. Period. If you are the hero, you will be shown as the hero, no matter what you do. If you are the wise advisor, you will be shown as the wise advisor—the storyline will be changed to fit the character role you are expected play. John Kerry was a wishy-washy flip-flopper, therefore he couldn’t have been the man who won and deserved all those medals – the man who turned his boat into gunfire. Dean was angry, therefore the scream was manufactured.

Sometimes this heads into truly surreal territory. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, despite being willing to die for their cause were somehow cowards. More people voted in the Afghani election than the entire population, but the election was clean according to international monitors. Lowering taxes will increase tax revenues.

All of which is enough to make one want to roll on the ground and scream: ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!’

Now none of this is to say that categorizing things, using analogies, or using storylines is innately bad. Quite the contrary. Only the Zen master and the mad girl see the world without cutting it into parts and sticking it in a fryer.

What matters is cutting along the joints. Categorizing correctly. For example, Hezbollah is an organization that uses terrorism. Al-Qa’eda is a terrorist and insurgency organization. The Red Brigades were a straight terrorist organization.

Hezbollah has an army which is also capable of doing guerilla work. It’s not most usefully thought of as a militia – which is non professional. In fact, as a friend of mine who is a military analyst quipped “what do you call well trained light infantry who can also disperse and become guerillas? Special forces.”

When you classify things incorrectly you run into problems. Israel though it was facing just guerillas and a militia. They were facing an army made up primarily of special forces. The rest of the world thought that Israel still had the army that won all its wars – they didn’t, they have an occupation army used to shooting badly armed Palestinians, bulldozing houses and  using missiles to assassinate people.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, knew exactly what it was facing.

Sun Tzu put it best. “If you know yourself and your enemy you need not fear the results of a thousand battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy you will lose one for every one you win. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will lose every battle.”

Tell me this – which category does the US fit into?

When trying to categorize the thing to look for is things that don’t fit. Think Hezbollah is a terrorist organization? Ok, do the checklist. How much terrorism do they do? What percentage of their money is spent on what? When was their last terrorist operation?

Doesn’t take long to realize they aren’t the Red Brigades, or even al-Qa’eda, does it?

When using analogies the method is to simply run a checklist. Fascism has the following features. How many does al-Qa’eda match? Oh, not a good fit.

And when looking at storylines the question to ask yourself is actually mostly about people and the character role they are fulfilling. Is this person doing the things that someone who belongs in this role would do. If Bush is the steel jawed man of decisive action – why was he frozen on 9/11 and why did he not return to Washington? If al-Qa’eda is full of cowards, how did they manage to fight a war during the eighties? Why did bin Laden lead from the front lines during that war? Why are their operatives willing to die to complete their missions. Oh, they aren’t cowards.

Are bloggers a bunch of twenty somethings blogging in their pajamas? Well, political bloggers at least average about 40. We know that. And they tend to be ridiculously well credentialed as a whole. Are liberal bloggers anti-Semites (the current storyline being floated). Well, can you find a major liberal blogger who has said anti-semitic things? How often? How many? So they aren’t anti-semitic.

There is no such thing as a mind control ray, but controlling people’s thoughts is relatively simple – if you pick the categories, choose the analogies and create the storylines they use to make sense of the world – you control their minds.

And if you don’t want someone else sticking their stories in your head, the first thing you have to do is to put categorizing, analogizing and turning things into stories, off.

First you see. Really see something for what it is, in all its wonder. See that Hezbollah cares for the orphans, gives the widows pensions, picks up the trash, runs the hospitals and the soup kitchens. See that they grew out of a 18 year old guerilla war against an occupation. See when they have done terrorist acts, against who and under what circumstances. (Hmmm, bombed the marine barracks after the US shelled Shi’a villages). Note that they have a million Shi’a who voted for them. Realize that the core of their army are hardened veterans of 18 years of guerilla warfare.

Look at that and suddenly “terrorist” seems just silly. Beside the point. But what’s clear is they aren’t being destroyed by Israel. An organization which fills almost all of the roles of a government, whose military wing is a hardened guerilla army with the support of a million people used to the hardships of occupation and civil war. The organization has the capability of doing terrorist acts but which has joined the government and sworn off terrorism against the US. It’s primary foreign backer is Iran, which believes the US wants to destroy it, and thus is unlikely to abandon a military asset.

Those two paragraphs describe an entity very different from al-Q’aeda don’t they? Somehow “terrorist organization” doesn’t cover it, does it?

And it’s not hard – all it requires is that you see.

See first. And anyone says “it’s like” ask yourself, “in what ways is it like, and in what ways isn’t it?’ When someone say’s “oh X is just Y”, ask yourself if that told you anything. By knowing the word for it, do you know it? Is that word accurate? Is it big enough? You might argue Hezbollah are terrorists. But is terrorist a big enough word to encompass all that Hezbollah is?

And when someone tells you a story, ask yourself “are those people really playing their roles? Are they doing what people in those roles would do in a story?” If they aren’t, then the story doesn’t have predictive power. It doesn’t tell us what is going to happen next.

And this is important in even the simplest stories. One story Americans love is this, ‘the good guys always win.” Now, I’m not going to argue that story isn’t true, that often the bad guys win. What I’m going to say is something else – for that story to work for you, you have to be the good guys. The good guys don’t invade countries based on lies. They don’t enrich their cronies in companies like Haliburton before spending 1/10th the money to get the job done right with locals. The good guys don’t torture people. They don’t lock people up without giving them trials.

When the good guys win because they are good, and being good is more powerful than being evil, because it makes people want to be on your side, they do it because they are truly good.

People are acclimatized to play out their roles. You put someone in charge of a team and even if he’s never lead, he knows more or less what to do. You make a man a prison guard and most become brutes. We know how to be father, mother, coach, buddy, co-worker, teacher, student, patient, nurse… all of those roles are there, and we step naturally into them when we need to.

And if we all step into our roles in a story, the story generally happens as it should. But when people aren’t playing their roles, the story loses its explanatory power. Cowards don’t die for their belief. Good guys don’t torture. Terrorist organizations don’t pick up the garbage.

“Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

So remember, look before categorizing. Don’t accept sloppy analogies, and always see if the characters in a storyline are acting the way they should.

And while you may not see the world through the eyes of Zen master, or a mad girl – at least you’ll starting seeing again. And I think you may find that the world is a much more wondrous place, and much more beautiful and full of hope, when you don’t shut down wonder by sticking it in a hole and saying “but this flower is most beautiful”, shutting out all the other beautiful flowers in the world.

Published at some point in the past, but I’m not sure when or where.

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