It is easy to find a man in almost any line of employment who is twice as efficient as another employee, but it is very rare to find one who is ten times as efficient. It is common, however, to see one man possessing not ten times but a thousand times the wealth of his neighbor.

— Willford I. King The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States (1915)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Propaganda Lessons From the Religious Right. It’s no longer enough just to correct the specific misinformation that comes from the Right. We need to figure out how their propaganda works.
  • Distribution of Wealth. Concentrated wealth at the top isn’t just bad for the people at the bottom. It’s bad for the economy in general.
  • Short Notes. Why Koran-burning is news now. What teaching in Florida is really like. Haley Barbour’s fictional history of southern Republicans. What the WaPo can learn from Digby. And the Dutch example for dealing with teen sex.

The Weekly Sift is now on Facebook. I haven’t done much with the page yet, but keep watching. If you have advice, write on the wall.

Propaganda Lessons From the Religious Right

The most frustrating thing about this election campaign is how much of it is based on nonsense and fantasy. If we were just losing a reasonable debate about, say, the role of government, I think we’d all know what to do: go back to the drawing board and come up with better policies and better ways of explaining them.

But what if we lose because sizable numbers of people believe that President Obama is a Muslim who hates white people? Or that the new health-care law institutes death panels? Or that the Democrats are part of some sinister plot to recruit children into homosexuality or impose sharia law?

What drawing board do we go back to then?

So often we seem to be in a battle with something we can’t see. The other side makes a claim that is provably false — like that Obama has raised taxes or quadrupled the deficit — and rather than ask for examples or evidence, large numbers of people just nod their heads. We can’t get important issues like global warming or the increasing concentration of wealth on the national agenda, while the other side can conjure issues like the ground zero mosque or Obama’s czars out of thin air.

How does that work?

In a word, the problem is propaganda: The Right has the Left way outclassed in terms of propaganda. And because most of us have no idea how propaganda works, we feel like we’re battling with ghosts.

For a long time the Sift has been pruning the branches of propaganda: I do a Disinformation Watch article every now and then, and most weeks some outrageous lie gets debunked in the Short Notes. But that’s like digging up individual dandelions. The other side can produce a hundred new lies in the time it takes to debunk one.

This week I want to look at the larger structure of propaganda: Why does it work? Why are so many people so ready to believe these things?

Beyond Lying. The fundamental misconception most liberals have about propaganda is that it’s just lying: Say something false, repeat it often enough, and people will start to believe it. Superficially, “death panels” worked that way. Overnight the phrase was everywhere, repeated by so many people that it seemed like there must be something to it, even it had been exaggerated.

But if propaganda was just lying, then truth-telling would undo it. All we’d have to do would be to get more people telling our truth than their lie, and we’d win.

How often have you seen that work?

Beyond Framing. A frame is a metaphoric template that organizes the individual facts about an issue. What makes them so effective is that most of the action is unconscious: You can invoke a frame by using some of its words and images, without ever justifying that it’s the right way to think about the issue. When neo-cons talked about “appeasing” Saddam, that one word invoked the whole Hitler/Munich frame, in which the enemy is implacable and war is inevitable. And because those ideas stayed in the background, they didn’t have to support them with evidence.

The problem is that counter-framing also doesn’t work very often — for reasons that liberal framing godfather George Lakoff understands but has trouble communicating. It’s in his books, but it seldom comes across.

What most liberals miss about framing is that effective framing doesn’t happen in mid-debate. Effective framing is laid down in layers, over decades or even centuries. (Ironically, this is why the word framing frames its subject badly. Framing suggests a one-time event where you decide what’s in the picture and what’s out.)

The only way I can think to explain this is through the example of a small-but-specific issue: The current religious-right argument that anti-bullying campaigns in the schools are part of some sinister gay agenda that takes away the rights of Christian parents. And I want to describe some of the layers of frames that make their argument so undeservedly convincing and so hard to argue against.

It Starts With the Devil. Like a lot of traditional faiths, the Christian Right’s theology includes a Devil. This isn’t the place to argue about the existence of a Prince of Darkness, but I want to point out what you can do once you have a Devil in your theology.

The Devil is the ultimate sinister conspirator, motivated by pure evil. Once you have a Devil, it follows without evidence that there is a conspiracy against anything true and good and right. How could there not be? The Devil is against it, and unless he has suddenly lost his innate cleverness and his characteristic ability to lie and tempt and cajole, he will have followers.

So if you are arguing in front of a Devil-postulating audience, you don’t have prove that there is a conspiracy against the Good — of course there is — you only have to identify that conspiracy. The Manichean frame (God/Devil, Good/Evil) is sitting there, waiting for you to connect yourself with Light and your opponent with Darkness.

Once you’ve done that, the hardest part of establishing a conspiracy theory — giving it a motive — is accomplished. So when President Bush said of terrorists

They are a movement defined by their hatreds. They hate progress, and freedom, and choice, and culture, and music, and laughter, and women, and Christians, and Jews, and all Muslims who reject their distorted doctrines.

large numbers of people just nodded their heads in recognition. They didn’t ask for evidence that such people exist or wonder why anyone would sign up with them. The Devil has minions. How could he not?

Layer II: Reverse discrimination. The second layer isn’t quite so universal as the Devil, but it has been used for decades in so many circumstances that it also can be invoked largely without evidence: Maybe the weak were persecuted generations ago, but in our era the tables have been turned, and it is actually the strong that are persecuted.

Now, it is claimed, the law favors blacks over whites, non-Christians over Christiansthe poor over the rich, gays over straights, foreigners over English-speakers, illegal immigrants over citizens, and on and on and on.

In general, minority rights are controversial in a democracy, and special action is required to make things equal. But no matter how bad things are for the minority in reality, the special action can always be cast as some kind of privilege. (The Little Rock Nine were escorted by the 101st Airborne Division. But I had to fend for myself when I went to high school.)

Almost invariably, the examples of reverse discrimination fall apart when looked at closely. (The Christian church near Ground Zero that hasn’t been rebuilt yet was part of a deal involving millions in public money. It’s not an example of Christians being treated worse than Muslims.) Majorities are powerful in America, and they can get their cases favorably resolved.

This layer serves two purposes. First, it corrupts the language of equality, devaluing it in the same way that counterfeit money devalues real money. “You’re discriminated against? No, look at me, I’m discriminated against.”

But in the longer term, the second purpose is even more significant: By constant repetition, the notion that the majority is persecuted becomes axiomatic — at least in the eyes of the majority. If a minority is claiming rights and wanting government intervention, it must be trying to claim an advantage. There’s no need to specify that advantage too exactly, or to substantiate examples of majority persecution.

You can see Layers I and II working together in the claim that same-sex-marriage advocates want to destroy traditional marriage. (“this is the ultimate goal of activists,” writes James Dobson, “and they will not stop until they achieve it.”) It’s an unmotivated conspiracy of the minority to oppress the majority. What would same-sex couples gain by destroying traditional marriage? How are opposite-sex couples harmed when same-sex couples marry? Among the faithful these questions are answered by the unconscious assumptions in the frame; more specific answers are unnecessary.

Tactics. There are other layers that have taken decades to lay down — the poor are lazy, traditional sexual morality is related to non-sexual moral issues like honesty and integrity — but lets just stick with those two and see how they influence tactics. The main thing to remember is: When you work within a long-established frame, you don’t have to prove anything, you just have to fill in the blanks.

Think about Glenn Beck’s chalkboard talks. If you make yourself watch one, I predict you’ll come out saying, “What was that all about?” They’re all names and labels: So-and-so is a Marxist and is connected to this other guy who has some kind of relationship with Obama. It doesn’t sound like an assemblage of evidence, because it isn’t. He’s just helping his audience identify an enemy that abstract principles tell them must exist.

And only now do the lies come in: to vilify somebody like Van Jones. And pointing out that the lies are lies gains very little: The point is the pattern of accusations, and if this one or that one isn’t true, well, what of it?

The lies exist inside a web of mischaracterization. No enemies are quoted in complete sentences or allowed to speak in their own words at length and in context. Everything is summarized and labelled.

Applied Tactics. The easiest way to see how tactics work is to look at some small issue you haven’t thought much about before. For me this week, that was the Religious Right’s attempt to smear a campaign against bullying in schools. (It’s part of the “gay agenda” to “sneak homosexuality lessons into classrooms”.)

It’s a comparatively young smear, so you can read a nearly complete collection of documents in a short time. Start with an article called Parents beware of deceptive “anti-bullying” initiatives. (You can pull the glossier print version off the main menu.)

If you come to the article wondering what is happening that you as a parent should worry about, you will be confused. LIke the Beck chalktalk, most of it goes right past the uninitiated, leaving a “What was that about?” feeling.

Instead you’ll learn that local anti-bullying organizations have “ties” to gay-friendly organizations. (Given how often bullying involves insults like “queer” or “faggot”, it would be strange if they didn’t.) They’re also “tied” to “President Obama’s controversial ‘Safe Schools czar’ Kevin Jennings”. (Czars are bad, even when they’re doing exactly what their job titles indicate.)

You’ll also learn about things that might happen or even could be happening right now: gay activists “infiltrating classrooms” which would be “transformed into indoctrination centers” with “mandatory homosexuality lessons”. But you’re well into the second page before you run into anything that actually did happen:

the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance [was] heavily involved in crafting state legislation that makes “sexual orientation” and “gender-related identity” protected categories in schools.

No clue what that would actually mean in terms of stuff happening in the schools, but it plugs into the “special rights” frame. The minority is oppressing the majority again! When good Christian kids scream “queer!” in some other kid’s face, they will be in trouble instead of the homo.

A variety of books and videos are identified as things to watch out for. They are pejoratively summarized in a few words, never linked to, and never quoted in complete sentences. The only way you can check these summaries is if they mention a title you can google and look up on your own.

(I managed to look up and read Just The Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth, a pamphlet intended for teachers and school administrators. The religious-right counter-pamphlet Just the Real Facts Please, is then easily seen to be a collection of non-sequiturs that use out-of-context quotes as excuses to go off on tangents. But how many people are going to go to that much trouble? Most will just know that there is a good pamphlet refuting the bad pamphlet.)

What to do? Imagine being a liberal parent and having a religious-right parent give you Parents Beware as part of a we-have-to-do-something talk. What can you say? You can’t argue with a case that hasn’t been made, with “ties” and sinister fantasies that don’t involve any checkable facts. It is impossible to prove that some organization you just heard of isn’t in league with the Devil.

This problem shows up again and again. Take the so-called Ground Zero Mosque: What exactly its opponents are afraid of and what exactly they want to do about it has remained fluid. Arguing about it has been like wrestling with a jello monster.

Tactically, when you have these kinds of discussions one-on-one, I recommend a judo strategy: Draw the other side out before you object. You can’t argue with unconscious assumptions, so make them state a problem and propose a solution. If they can’t, ridicule them for that — don’t take the bait and go down some tangent.

Long-term, we need to recognize that we can’t re-frame issues in mid-debate just by making up new slogans and new metaphors from scratch. The other side is using multiple layers of frames, the deepest of which have been laid down centuries ago. We need to get in touch with our own deep layers (which go back to the Enlightenment, the Sermon on the Mount, and timeless notions of fairness) and work to nurture and promote those ideas in everything we do. When we do that, we can speak with a power and authenticity that is very different from “spin”.

Wednesday in DailyKos I addressed a different level of propaganda: How right-wing money creates bogus think tanks whose bogus experts get quoted even in supposedly liberal venues like the New York Times.

Distribution of Wealth

Just about the only time I hear the phrase distribution of wealth these days is when somebody like Glenn Beck talks about redistribution of wealth — that’s when the evil Marxists come, take away the money you earned by your hard work and brilliance, and give it to the lazy stupid people.

This week, though, Slate’s Timothy Noah started a series called The Great Divergence, about why the portion of our national income that goes to the rich has grown so much over the last 30 years. (Inequality peaked just before the Great Crash in 1929, fell from the 30s through the 70s, and recently has returned to 1929 levels.)

I had planned to cover that series in this week’s Sift, but it isn’t finished yet. So next week I’ll discuss Noah’s points (and possibly the new book Winner-Take-All Politics which takes on related issues).

This week I just want to make one point: It’s no coincidence that high concentrations of wealth and bad economies go together. When you shift money from the poor and middle class to the rich, demand drops. That can turn into a deflationary cycle if business adjusts to lower demand by cutting jobs, which then lowers demand further.

What was the real difference between the Happy-Days economy of the 50s and the Grapes-of-Wrath economy of the 30s? We had the same natural resources, similar technology, similar culture. But in between, the war gave our government a reason to tax the rich and spend an enormous amount of money. That shifted the distribution of wealth, moving the economy to a high-demand, high-production mode rather than a low-demand, low-production mode.

Since the Reagan administration, we’ve been doing the reverse.

Short Notes

The best coverage of the Koran-burning minister came from Rachel Maddow:

For the most part, [this story] has been talked about in terms of religious freedom and First Amendment rights.  That‘s the way that the national, responsible mainstream media dealt with this story. But that‘s actually the wrong frame for this story. He is a kook doing as kooks do.

Religious nutjobs have burned Korans in public before and no one cared. But they’re newsworthy now because supposedly serious political figures like Newt Gingrich are mining the same vein of war-with-Islam craziness.

A major piece of the conservative government-is-evil rhetoric is to demonize everybody who gets a paycheck from the taxpayers: They’re all lazy parasites (unless they die, like the 9-11 firefighters).

From the Facebook wall of my sister the teacher, an essay by a Florida teacher explaining how things really are:.

I am required to teach Social Studies and Writing without any curriculum/materials provided, so I purchase them myself. I am required to conduct Science lab without Science materials, so I buy those, too. The budgeting process has determined that copies of classroom materials are too costly, so I resort to paying for my copies at Staples, refusing to compromise my students’ education because high-ranking officials are making inappropriate cuts. It is February, and my entire class is out of glue sticks. Since I have already spent the $74 allotted to me for warehouse supplies, if I don’t buy more, we will not have glue for the remainder of the year.

No doubt she’s living like a princess on her $28K a year.

Here’s what I wonder: Each kind of government worker — teachers, police, fire, and so on — knows that the conservative rhetoric about them is false. Do they realize that it’s false about the other government workers too? Or do they believe that the folks at the DMV are living it up?

Haley Barbour is rewriting the history of civil rights in the South to put himself and the Republican Party on the right side. The truth: When the Democrats embraced civil rights, white racists switched parties and became Republicans. And they were welcomed with open arms.

Digby points out one way in which bloggers are more thorough than Washington Post reporters: Before we quote a congressman, we’ll google him to make sure he’s real.

You know whose statistics on teen pregnancy and STDs we should envy? The permissive Dutch.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at

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  • Bill Stewart  On September 16, 2010 at 2:36 am

    It's not particularly the *religious* right wing – it's more the Rove/Norquist propaganda machine. You may remember some articles from later in the Bush years where evangelicals started to realize that the Bush Administration was just using them – they tend to be conservative, and they've got big well-marked buttons to push, and the propagandists had years of practice pushing them. The propagandists for the most part don't care about Islam as a religion – they care about it as a well-enough-defined large group that can be used as enemies, now that there aren't any more Commies hiding under our beds, and of course They have Our Oil.

  • xine  On September 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    There was a painful article in the New Yorker recently ( about the Koch brothers, speaking of “right-wing money creates bogus think tanks.” Maybe we need to recast Daily Kos as a think tank. 😉


  • […] as I explained in Propaganda Lessons From the Religious Right, the real Saul Alinsky doesn’t matter. To rally an audience that believes in the […]

  • By Stir the Pot « The Weekly Sift on June 11, 2012 at 8:20 am

    […] and why it’s so hard to do anything about it. How conservative propaganda works and why evidence doesn’t seem to dent it. How the economy has been stagnating for everybody but the rich, and why a supposedly democratic […]

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