Sunday, January 22, 2006

On truthiness, propaganda, and the rise of fascism

Today's NY Times Op Ed piece by Rich, "Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito" (reprinted in full by Nevada Thunder) will be his last for a few months: To my readers: Starting next week, I will be on a book leave, writing nonfiction about our post-9/11 fictions. See you in the spring. Ah, me. What will I do without my regular infusion of Rich? Maureen Dowd may be the funnier pundit, but Rich is the more accurate marksman of the two. Today, he draws parallels between faux memoirist James Frey and faux salt-of-the-earth, regular guy Sam Alito. He begins with an allusion to Stephen Colbert's neologism, truthiness (thank heavens Rich knows the proper attribution for this word!) and moves on into more serious turf: It’s when truthiness moves beyond the realm of entertainment that it’s a potential peril. As Seth Mnookin, a rehab alumnus, has written in Slate, the macho portrayal of drug abuse in “Pieces” could deter readers battling actual addictions from seeking help. Ms. Winfrey’s blithe re-endorsement of the book is less laughable once you start to imagine some Holocaust denier using her imprimatur to discount Elie Wiesel’s incarceration at Auschwitz in her next book club selection, “Night.” In reality, some bright lights out there really are suggesting that Wiesel's dark, haunting Night is a fabrication. Let's all thank Oprah (never thought I'd write that) for drawing attention to one of the best Holocaust memoirs ever written. But, back to Rich. What’s remarkable is how much fictionalization plays a role in almost every national debate. Even after a big humbug is exposed as blatantly as Professor Marvel in “The Wizard of Oz” - FEMA’s heck of a job in New Orleans, for instance - we remain ready and eager to be duped by the next tall tale. It’s as if the country is living in a permanent state of suspension of disbelief. He continues with an analysis of the fictionalization of Sam Alito's history by Republicans and Democrats alike -- even by Alito himself. For the fiction-writers in my crowd, however, Rich's most resonant message comes early on (emphasis mine): Democrats who go berserk at their every political defeat still don’t understand this. They fault the public for not listening to their facts and arguments, as though facts and arguments would make a difference, even if the Democrats were coherent. It’s the power of the story that always counts first, and the selling of it that comes second. Accuracy is optional. Propaganda, that's what it's all about. Remember Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will? I can imagine Hitler (an unofficial executive producer of the film, according to Wikipedia) briefing Riefenstahl during the film's creation: "Give 'em a story they can believe in." Fascism does not emerge from a vacuum. It thrives on nationalistic sentiment, which in turn depends on powerful and convincing propaganda. Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and George W. Bush wouldn't exist if there weren't widespread hunger for their message: that we are Number One, that we stand for freedom worldwide, that we are beset by foes on all sides, that the enemy lives among us. People want to believe. But the message of Bush, O'Reilly, and Limbaugh is not for all Americans. As the recent 'War on Christmas' proves, it's not Americans who are beset on all sides, but Christian Americans, and, I would argue, White Christian Americans. Those of us who are not Christian, or who are gay, Liberal, or have the wrong pigmentation, are left wondering: Whose country is this? Hitler manipulated the German nation with the tools of fear and hate for many years before becoming its Führer. He had a simple message for his people: you are great, superior to all others; what keeps you down are those who are different. The Jews. The gays. Socialists, Liberals, Communists. Foes that live among us. It has become unfashionable to draw parallels between the rise of Nazism and present day America. Some folks think it's a non-starter, something which silences further debate (see Law, Godwin's). I think it's a conversation we must have if we are to avoid any further movement into Nationalist America. For example, we should consider whether September 11, 2001 was our Reichstag Fire. Let's ignore the many domestic conspiracy theories, and assume the official version of events is wholly accurate. Nevertheless, 9/11 led to the Patriot Act, our version of the Reichstag Fire Decree. As a Jewish kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, I lived and breathed the Holocaust. I was taught -- no, that's putting it lightly. I was lectured to, berated, shaken like a rag doll, and made to never forget that we must never forget. Remember Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Can't happen in America? Remember the Japanese internment camps. Remember Guantanamo. My wife, Karen, has a chilling angle on all of this: the Nazi analogy is inappropriate because Bush's America isn't all that different from business as usual. Compare President John Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts to President Bush's recent actions; we haven't come very far since 1798. Add to that our record vis a vis American Indians, immigrant Asians in the West, slavery, post-Civil War oppression of black Americans, and the abuses under Joseph McCarthy, and Bush & Co. begin to take their appropriate place in American history. Unfortunately, Americans are poorly educated in American history, never mind world history. It is no accident that our children's education lags way behind other developed nations. It makes it that much easier to write propaganda. D. Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger Robot Buddha said...

A fine piece of writing. The Reichstag analogy isn't that far off... Terri Schiavo, 9/11, Presidental blowjobs, gay marriage, immigration, etc., etc. There will always been some new horror--real or imagined, natural or man-made--that the Gov. will use to distract, divide, and conquer the plebians.

1/22/2006 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Donahue said...

I can't tell you how much I'm going to miss Frank Rich till he returns...

BTW, you wanna know what my big paranoid fear is? 2008 rolls around and Bush refuses to leave office because we're at war.

1/23/2006 05:52:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

You and me both, Jim.

Robot, thanks. I vote for imagined. Control the population through fear of the unknown.

1/23/2006 08:07:00 AM  
Blogger Shelbi said...

I think there's a reason God calls people 'sheep' so much in the Bible. Not because we're cute and cuddly, but because we're a little dumb, and we tend to follow our leaders blindly.

Add the threat of wolves who want to eat us, and you've got mass hysteria and a stampede. I have this awful feeling that we are heading straight for a cliff.

It seems to me that a lot of Christians have begun to see non-Christians as non-humans.
And I think a lot of non-Christians see Christians as, if not non-human, then at least a little lower on the evolutionary scale;-).

This attitude from both sides scares the hell out of me.

If I'm not mistaken, that is how Hitler convinced so many people it was okay to kill Jewish people: if they were less than human, then it was okay to exterminate them.

It was how slavery was justified in the minds of people: if blacks weren't really humans, then it was okay to own them as property.

It's how Osama bin Laden justified slaughtering thousands of innocent people on September 11: if they're not Muslim, then they don't deserve to live.

Jeez, I could go on and on.

My point is,none of us can forget that, at the end of the day, we are all still human. None of us should forget our past, or we will be doomed to repeat it.

Your post evoked a lot of strong emotions in me, can you tell? I feel like I've got an itch I can't reach when I think about this kind of stuff.

Do you think I'm on a slippery slope here, or could it really happen again?

1/23/2006 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Could happen again? It is happening again. Sorry if I'm bumming you out, Shelbi, but that's how I read current US politics. I really don't think we can take another 3 yrs of shrub. I'm hoping for a big turnaround in Congress in '06 followed by impeachment.

1/23/2006 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger Shelbi said...


I was afraid you were going to say that.

1/23/2006 07:32:00 PM  
Blogger Helen Wheels said...

Douglas, you are corrrect sir. Until the democrats admit that we're already living under fascist rule, we can't escape it. A good example of the warning signs of fascism are pointed out by Professor Lawrence W. Britt. Here's the excerpted 14 warning signs of fascism (culled from the more famous - and successful - of the fascist regimes):

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.

3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The methods of choice—relentless propaganda and disinformation—were usually effective. Often the regimes would incite “spontaneous” acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and “terrorists.” Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.

4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.

5. Rampant sexism. Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.

6. A controlled mass media. Under some of the regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite. The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.

7. Obsession with national security. Inevitably, a national security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually an instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any constraints. Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting “national security,” and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. Unlike communist regimes, the fascist and protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless by their opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. Propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the “godless.” A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.

9. Power of corporations protected. Although the personal life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite saw the corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military production (in developed states), but also as an additional means of social control. Members of the economic elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests, especially in the repression of “have-not” citizens.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. Since organized labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were considered subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal. Universities were tightly controlled; politically unreliable faculty harassed or eliminated. Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent were strongly attacked, silenced, or crushed. To these regimes, art and literature should serve the national interest or they had no right to exist.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations. The police were often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into trumped-up criminal charges and sometimes used against political opponents of the regime. Fear, and hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse for more police power.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Those in business circles and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources. With the national security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the general population.

14. Fraudulent elections. Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.

Sorry so long a post!!!

1/25/2006 10:33:00 AM  

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