Social Media and Propaganda

Among the key points Jacques Ellul makes in his magisterial book, Propaganda,is that one aim of modern (WWII and after) propaganda is to direct its communication to the masses so as to make individuals in the masses feel as though they are being communicated to more or less one on one.

The new social media only enhance this technique, it seems. For example, it is now routine for millions of Americans to receive an email “from” the President of the United States “signed” “Barack.” Of course, it’s a mass-email, but the tone is informal, as the signature appears to be. For another example, the cable “news” channels feature talk-show hosts and “news” anchors who routinely ask what “your” opinion is on a matter, and they invite you to send an email or to “text” (a relatively new verb) them. The effect on some people, even if they are jaded, may be, if only for an instant, to make them feel special.

The purposes are several: to raise money, to maintain ratings, to solidify a “base,” which might also be appropriately called group-think. These purposes haven’t changed much if at all over the decades, but, in my opinion, social media are something that would not have surprised Ellul (with regard to technique) but that may have astounded him, so perfectly tailored are they (email, Twitter, facebook, texting, etc.) to the mass/individual deployment of communication about which he wrote. I imagine his response (though it would be in French) to be something like a simultaneous “Of course/Wow!”

It may be important to emphasize that, with the kind of propaganda Ellul discussed and with which we are bombarded (or spammed), there is little if any difference in techniques between mass media and political communication and between any points on the political spectrum. That is, plenty of people probably receive emails “signed” “Mitt.” Also, don’t MSNBC’s ads about itself (one example) look basically like political ads? To what extent is almost anything a “news” cable channel does advertising? As they “report” (whatever!), they advertise themselves.

It may be the case that Fox News has virtually obliterated the boundary between a medium and a political party, at least compared to CNN (one example), but still, all mass media have to serve somebody (pax Dylan), such as a corporation, multiple corporations, or a corporate/political establishment. They’re not serving you and me, even though they ask us–personally!–to text our opinion.

When/If The Lies Stop Working

When Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was lying–for (arguably) an honorable effect. He was deploying hyperbole rhetorically. Of course, lots of people feared other things besides fear, such as death. But Roosevelt and/or his advisers determined that some mass-reassurance was needed (I deduce), and so Roosevelt and/or speech-writers chose hyperbole and lofty phrasing to deliver the message, “This situation will be sorted out–eventually; be calm.” It is probably fair to characterize this kind of lying as appropriate because it is intentionally translucent: we see through the veil of rhetoric to a message that (whatever other faults it might have) isn’t, in spirit, dishonest.

Most political lying isn’t of this kind, however–however and obviously. Observing the GOP primary-process may provide a good opportunity to see the effects of typical lying that ceases to work. Thus:

Mitt Romney, lying about his deliberately crafted moderate past, said to CPAC, “I was . . . severely conservative.” You will probably agree that “severely” is/was ill chose and therefore a “tell.” You may agree that a better speech-writer may have found a way to phrase this so it didn’t sound like an obvious, awkward lie. At any rate, the audience didn’t seem to buy what Romney was selling; however, the long-term effect may be nil if he wins the nomination and the presidency.

We cannot know for sure, but Newt Gingrich probably lied about the “open-marriage” proposal. Gingrich himself aside, you’d have to go with the odds and guess that a cheating man would the liar in the situation. For the short term, the lie seemed to work, especially as Gingrich distracted people from it by attacking the media. But the long-term effect? –Hard to say because it’s hard to say what variables have played into Gingrich’s having sunk into the mire. A broader problem for Gingrich may be that the old 90’s, non-Rooseveltian hyperbole (Obama = “Illinois radical”) may be out of gas.

Rick Santorum lied when he claimed he didn’t confront a woman (she claimed Obama is a Muslim and is an “illegitimate president”) because she seemed physically infirm. The video shows a slightly embarrassed Santorum as he probably is deciding not to correct her because correcting her will tick off the audience, and because such beliefs about Obama work to the GOPer good. There is no evidence that this lying didn’t work for Santorum, as far as I know.

In this snap-shot, anyway, Romney’s lying seems awkward and ineffective, Gingrich’s seems tired, and Santorum’s seems just fine.

Is Republican Atavism Becoming a Liability?

Because Republicans seem almost always to know how to beat the Dems, I feel as though the safe answer to this question is “No.” After all, until the Southern Strategy stops working in presidential elections, etc., one would be rash to suggest that atavism of the racist kind were becoming a liability.

That said, please consider this quotation from Rick Santorum, from a TV interview in the past 48 hours or so:

“I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved. It already happens, of course, with the camaraderie of men in combat, but I think it would be even more unique if women were in combat.”

Obviously, he’s arguing against placing women in combat-situations. Problem: In most war-related deployments, all women and men are already in potential combat-situations. One may be driving a supply-truck in a convoy and get attacked. Is there any evidence that women, because they are women, are performing poorly in the military? I haven’t seen any. In other words: moot point?

Second, such an observation belongs to a broader pattern of Santoromesque views on gender and sexuality: If a woman gets pregnant, no matter the circumstances, she must give birth–even to the extent of being forced to give birth. Two gay or lesbian adults who want to get married must be prevented from doing so . . . because . . . because . . . ? Because Rick’s a conservative Catholic, even though the Constitution isn’t. Rick, go to Mass, but when campaigning, please talk about the economy, nuclear weapons, health-care, foreign policy, global warming (yes, it’s real), clean water, the public infrastructure, and so on.

Third, something may be unique or not. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Fourth, when did “camaraderie” become a problem in the military?

Fifth, all of this seems like tired material (“moot point”). The U.S. is clearly getting more and more comfortable with “gay marriage,” and why wouldn’t it? Who in the hell cares what sexuality the married couple down the street is? They do, of course, but aside from that, why spend any time worrying about it or making “gay marriage” illegal or talking about it in a presidential race? Why not merely ask to borrow their lawn-mower? Rick’s entitled to his personal view on the matter, but that’s it.

Unencumbered once again by data, I hesitantly hereby opine that old-time GOP rhetoric like this–designed to pump up the bass on the base, I gather–seems to be getting much less effective.

But we’ll see. Never underestimate that base, and never overestimate the Dems. Santorum strikes me as dim, boring, and reactionary, in no particular order. But I’m just one data-free person, although not unique.

Of “Demagogue”

Let us take a brief etymological tour, courtesy of the OED online, of “demagogue.”

It used to be a neutrally descriptive, if not an honorific, term, it seems; an example from the OED:

1719 Swift Let. to Young Clergyman, Demosthenes and Cicero, though each of them a leader (or as the Greeks called it, a demagogue) in a popular state, yet seem to differ.

Demagogue=pedagogue, in the sense that the former practices democracy as the latter practices teaching.

But in the very same era, the word was also used pejoratively, as it is now, and the neutrally descriptive connotation subsequently disappeared:

2. In bad sense: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.

a1716 R. South Serm. II. 333 (T.) A plausible, insignificant word, in the mouth of an expert demagogue, is a dangerous and a dreadful weapon.

One doesn’t hear or read the word very much in everyday media nowadays, perhaps because it sounds old-fashioned?

Another possibility is that the political spectacle of the pseudocracy is such that almost all politicians and many visible media beasts must be demagogues to do their jobs, as their jobs have become defined. Arguably, the main job of many state- and federal-level politicians is to be demagogues, and to govern is to practice a hobby, at best. If this is the case, then those interested in politics a) understand that politics = demagoguery now or b) think that a demagogue who agrees with them is a good leader (or candidate), and think a politician or candidate who disagrees with them is a demagogue–at best.

That is, one might posit that people with some critical distance from the whole process is likely to see almost all politicians as demagogues, albeit with differing degrees of demagoguery: neither Tom Coburn nor President Obama, for example, comes close to sinking to the level of
Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. One might then simultaneously posit that if the demagogue is being effective in an inappropriate, manipulative appeal to a voting bloc, then that voting bloc probably doesn’t view the demagogue as a demagogue.

Of course, political operatives like Karl Rove or James Carville will recognize a demagogue when they see one and applaud his/her behavior when the behavior serves a purpose with which they agree.

Obama’s State of the Union Speech: A Little Chin-Music

I did not watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, but I did catch the opening 20 minutes of it on Youtube. Such speeches are a veritable feast of strategies and tactics for those of us who made the dubious choice to teach rhetoric and writing. In the first 20 minutes, at least, President Obama seems to have chose to go “high and tight” with the rhetoric–to borrow from the lingo of baseball.

In baseball, pitching “high and tight” means that you deliberately throw the ball out of the strike zone and, both vertically and horizontally, near the batter’s head. The purpose to put a bit of doubt, if not fear or anger, in the batter’s pysche, and to keep him (or her) from leaning over the plate, drooling over a fat pitch. The message is “back off.”

I don’t think that was President Obama’s message, per se, although a larger strategy seemed to be to defuse Republicans’ faux outrage over “big government” and “out of control spending.” I say “faux” because they rarely if ever talk about cutting defense-spending, which accounts for a huge percentage of discretionary spending, and they had an opportunity during the Bush II years to cut “big government,” and they didn’t. And yes, I know, the Dems are as “faux” as the GOPers in this regard.

“High”: No, the president did not seem to be under the influence. But he chose to–and/or was advised to–keep the rhetoric lofty and vague–all about “winning the future,” “beating” the rest of the world at (games of) education, invention, and economic competition. He conjured the nostalgia of post-Sputnik, when we “beat” those pesky Russkies. He flattered us. He did provide some concrete examples, but even these appealed more to pathos (emotion) than to the hard facts of the national ledger. He used the balanced expressions we recall from John Kennedy’s speeches–gay and lesbian persons will no longer be prevented from serving the country they love because of whom they love, etc.

He shared a pithy slogan: “win the future.” By staying high–lofty, general, nationalistic, gazing toward a bright future–he took away a Republican opportunity to be petulant and crabby. Perhaps Joe Wilson was tempted, again, to be rude and to shout, “You lie!” But in response to what? Obama backed him off the plate, so to speak. You lie because you said America is unique and great? Because you said we could win the future? Hard to get a purchase on that kind of rhetoric.

“Tight”: By embracing bi-partisanship, he figuratively hugged the Republicans, or at least tied them up so they couldn’t swing at him (or his pitch) immediately. They couldn’t very well get miffed about his coming out in favor of innovation, education, economic competitiveness, working together, and winning the future. He probably supports the value of oxygen, too; can’t argue with that, either. Consensus all around!

“High” again: by staying lofty, Obama positioned himself above the bickering fray–momentarily, and for public consumption.

What did the GOPers object to, judging by a decision not to applaud, or reluctance to smile and nod?

When Obama suggested taking away subsidies of oil companies, Boehner did not applaud. He probably gets money from such companies, so in this context his decision makes sense. On the other hand, he implicitly came out in favor of oil companies, like the enormously popular BP. A bit of a pickle, that.

They seemed reticent to respond favorably when he mentioned trimming the budget. He prefers to use a scalpel–or pretend to use one. They prefer to use a chainsaw–or pretend to use one. They want to pretend to slay Grendel and Grendel’s mother: Big Gub-ment (as I noted, they had a golden opportunity and passed). He wants to take a nip and a tuck–maybe.

Mostly hoo-ha, the speech? Of course. That’s the genre. That said, it was probably rhetorically–maybe even politically–smart for President Obama to do as Sal “The Barber” Maglie, a professional pitcher, once did: stay high and tight, also known as playing “chin music,” because the ball is quite close enough to hear, buzzing by at 80+ miles per hour.

Obama, Kairos, and Prosopopoeia

Strategies and tactics identified and practiced in ancient rhetoric appear in our political, social, and academic discourse all the time, chiefly because they’ve been absorbed–to some extent unconsciously–and not because writers and speakers have necessarily studied rhetoric.

A good example was and is Barack Obama’s major speech on race, a speech he was more or less forced to give during the campaign because of his opposition’s having seized on the alleged controversial remarks of the Reverend Wright,  pastor of a church the Obamas attended.  (I should point out that the remarks and rhetoric of Reverend Wright, captured on video, probably did not seem controversial to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with African American church traditions–as Obama subtly alluded to in his speech.)

No doubt Obama, his campaign directors, and anyone else with a hand in composing the speech ever uttered the words “kairos” and “prosopopoeia,” but both concepts figure significantly in his speech.

A definition of kairos, from the site Silva Rhetorica: “The opportune occasion for speech. The term kairos has a rich and varied history, but generally refers to the way a given context for communication both calls for and constrains one’s speech. Thus, sensitive to kairos, a speaker or writer takes into account the contingencies of a given place and time, and considers the opportunities within this specific context for words to be effective and appropriate to that moment.”

“Prosopopoeia” is a synonym for “personification,” but more specifically it refers to when a writer or speaker shifts into another’s voice or point of view briefly.

How did Obama deploy kairos?  First, I’d argue, by turning a defensive position (forced to say something about Wright) into an assertive position (giving an extended, formal speech on race, in which might be embedded remarks on Wright).  He made the speech “major” before he gave it. Second, I’d argue, by deciding to go to Philadelphia and Independence Hall to give the speech.  Philadelphia, city of brotherly love and site of the writing of the Constitution, which in effect and in print defined African American slaves as 3/5 human. Symbolism, anyone?

Then Obama opened his speech this way:

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.”

So, having deployed kairos, he then began the speech conventionally and patriotically, by quoting famous words. Later in this section, he compares slavery to original sin.  As I watched/heard the speech live and heard “original sin,” I knew he’d moved from the conventional to the serious.  One may quibble with the Christian context of the analogy, and/or one may think it is too melodramatic.  I thought it was apt in the sense that the colonies and then the Republic stumbled over slavery and that the U.S. has never fully recovered, partly because it has never fully confronted the implications and consequences of slavery. Note that the Governor of Virginia recently and “mistakenly” left slavery out of a proclamation concerning Confederate history.  Way to prove Obama’s point, governor.

To conclude the speech, Obama deployed prosopopoeia–personification. For a moment, he allows “Ashley” (and an elderly Black man) to speak for him, or at least to articulate a point for him:

. . . She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

A sentimental anecdote? You bet. An obvious parable? You bet.  The elder black man shows up to support Obama’s candidacy, not because the man and Obama are black (so the parable reads) but because of a selfless young white woman–in the South.  And a white person and a black person are working together, for Obama, in the South. A subtext may be this: Obama may have been indirectly saying to his opponents, who extruded as much emotion and visceral reaction out of Reverend Wright’s rhetoric as possible, “So now the campaign is about emotion, playing on people’s heart-strings? Okay!”

Classical moves in a contemporary speech, with a lot at stake: instructive.

When Does Political Lying Not Work?

Fred Allen kisses Jack Benny

Granted, a pillar of our political spectacle is lying. We’re inured to most political lying, and even when some lies disturb us, we may choose to overlook them or to pretty them up by thinking of them as “truthiness” (pax, Colbert). Some people wanted to overlook Nixon’s and Clinton’s lies, and indeed, Clinton survived the exposure, so to speak, of his lies about a White House dalliance.

Radio comedian Fred Allen once observed, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a firefly, and still have enough room for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.” (That’s a nicely written joke, by the way, partly because we don’t see the specificity of caraway seeds coming, and also because the joke just keeps building until the very last word.) At any rate, if we replace “sincerity” either with “truth” or “shame” and replace “Hollywood” with “American politics,” then Allen becomes a political scientist. Going to American politics in search of truth or shame is indeed like going to Hollywood in search of sincerity.

That said, the Republicans’ lies about legislative changes to the health-care system fascinate. I will pause here to grant (once more) that all politicians lie, not just Republicans, and that there may well be much to which to object in the legislation, so I’m not indirectly defending either the Democrats or the legislation. I’m merely concentrating on the Republicans’ lies because they seem especially intriguing, and even from the perspective of rhetoric’s long tradition of hyperbole, they astound. Let’s review a few of them:

The legislation is an example of socialism.
No, it isn’t. There isn’t a reliable definition of socialism that will encompass this legislation, partly because it will provide more customers to health-care corporations, doctors, and hospitals that are not of the government. This legislation makes Obama look like . . . Eisenhower. Eisenhower: not a socialist.

The legislation includes provisions for “death panels.”
No, it doesn’t. Not even close.

The legislation was written in secret
. No, it wasn’t. Obviously, there was lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, chiefly to do with legislative process-trickeration (pax, Bobby Bowden), but the main proposals were reported on exhaustively and are now being listed, ad nauseum, by newscasters, and are not being greeted by surprise, let alone shock.

The legislation was strictly a product of left-leaning Democrats. No, it wasn’t. The Republicans made similar proposals in the 1990s, and no serious conception of a “Left” in American politics can include such basic, pragmatic proposals as doing away with the infamous “donut hole” and attempting to prevent insurance-companies from cutting off benefits pretty much arbitrarily. True, some self-identified Leftists may like some of the proposals, but the proposals themselves are not of the Left.

The American people opposed this legislation. No. Those citizens paying some attention were and are of widely varying (and mutable?) opinions, and besides, you lost me at “the American people,” which is always the start of an unsupportable generalization, albeit a favorite one of all politicians.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me the Republicans decided to lie big because they believed their tactics, cumulatively, would amount to a successful strategy to a) defeat all health-care legislation and b) consequently wound Obama’s presidency irrevocably. They went for the knockout punch, it seems, just as Speaker Gingrich did when he threatened to shut down government, thereby challenging Clinton to Potomac duel The punch didn’t knock Obama out, and indeed he seems to have won this bout, and please pardon the rhyme.

At this level, at least, the lies didn’t seem to work. They did, however, seem to rile up a considerable number of citizens, to harden what some call “the far Right” (not sure how accurate that phrase is), and to intensify the pre-existing condition of disliking and disrespecting President Obama. But is this reaction, this riling up, good news for the Republicans, or does it leash them to a kind of political outpost? Example: John McCain must now grovel, touring with Palin, needing to lurch to the right.

(I don’t know whether this is lore or not, but I’m told that the package-company UPS studied the situation and decided that nothing good in terms of efficiency or safety could come of left turns, so that UPS drivers rarely if ever take left turns. Have the Republicans temporarily dedicated themselves to right turns only? Poor McCain’s Straight Talk Express seems to be spinning in a clock-wise direction on Arizona highways, and note that Palin isn’t really in the vehicle.)

Moreover, it’s hard to deny that many aspects of health-care are in dire need of legislative fixing and that constituents in every Congressional district and state suffer from the problems that need fixing. (Again, I’m not arguing that the legislation passed is the best, or even a good, way to fix the problems.) So why not stay in the game, as it were, and negotiate on some things with Obama and the Democrats–in order to address some problems constituents may face? That is, why not spend even 5 minutes out of your political hour on policy? Answers: Because total political victory was deemed more important than legislative victory, and because the knock-out-punch strategy admitted of no cooperation of any kind.

I’m left with a tautology: political lying doesn’t work when it doesn’t work. With Bush and Rove (and Clinton?), it almost always seemed to work, so perhaps we shouldn’t blame the Congressional Republicans and reactionary mass-media-pundits from going for the Big Lies. It looked like a winning strategy.

But perhaps we could posit that, eventually, political lying doesn’t work when it comprises the entire political effort, when demonizing the opponent ceases to be a means to an end and is the end itself. “Eventually,” however, is the sad adverb. Eventually can take one hell of a long time and look like the cousin of forever.

As many observers (from all along the political spectrum) have noted in recent days, the Republicans appear, at least, not to have had a second act, a plan B. That circumstance and the big lies that helped create it are fascinating, at least to a rank political amateur and a professional student of rhetoric like me.