Tag Archives: propaganda

Silly Season in the Culture Wars

https://www.gocomics.com/johndeering/2021/03/05

If the only message you have is to stoke your base’s grievances, occasionally you have to make some up.


This week contained a lot of important news, so you might imagine that conservative news networks would have a lot to talk about. You might even say they had work cut out for them.

  • President Biden’s $1.9 trillion (with a T) spending bill was being debated in Congress, and the opposition message wasn’t getting through to the American people. In one poll, the proposal won support from 68% of Americans, including 37% of Republicans.
  • The battle against the Covid pandemic had major developments: Biden announced that enough vaccine for all adult Americans would be available by the end of May, two months earlier than previously thought. Meanwhile, Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi were removing mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions from their economies, and others were thinking of following suit — despite the fact that daily case-numbers and death-totals are either worse or not much different than when those restrictions were announced.
  • The Senate has been holding hearings on the January 6 insurrection, including testimony from the FBI director.
  • Police reform and voting rights bills passed the House.
  • Refugees are returning to our southern border.
  • A big-state Democratic governor is battling scandal.
  • The Senate still has Biden nominees to confirm. Surely one or more of them has done something worth getting upset about.
  • Biden is planning another trillion-with-a-T infrastructure bill to rebuild America in ways that Trump promised but never delivered on.

Serious stuff. Worth calling viewers’ attention to. Some of it even invites a conservative spin.

But instead, right-wing hosts like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity filled entire segments of their shows with Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, two purported examples of “cancel culture” that (1) are trivial by comparison to several of the issues I just listed, and (2) don’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny.

Let’s examine the reality at the root of these controversies.

Mr. Potato Head. Not quite two weeks ago, Hasbro announced that it was changing how it markets its Mr. Potato Head toys:

Hasbro is officially renaming the MR. POTATO HEAD brand to POTATO HEAD to better reflect the full line.

In other words, Hasbro is de-centering masculinity: Instead of being an “accessory” to her husband, Mrs. Potato Head is now an equal member of the family. Horrors! Your daughter might get the idea that she can find her own place in the world, and doesn’t need a man to define her. And then the Hasbro announcement got even more sinister:

Launching this Fall, the CREATE YOUR POTATO HEAD FAMILY is a celebration of the many faces of families allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family with 2 large potato bodies, 1 small potato body, and 42 accessories. The possibilities to create your own families are endless with mixing and mashing all the parts and pieces.

So the toy is no longer hetero-normative. If they want, children can build a family with two Mommies or two Daddies. The branding no longer fights that. (Like that matters. I mean, you never cross-dressed Barbie and G. I. Joe, right? Sure. Me neither.) Of course, if you want a Potato Head Family with a Mommy, a Daddy, and a Tater Tot of your own gender, that still works too. (And you can still remove Daddy’s mouth, so he can’t yell at the Tot.) As best I can see, there are no losers here.

https://tribunecontentagency.com/article/20210303edshe-b-tif/

Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss situation is similar: A private enterprise is managing its brand in a way that hurts no one.

When Theodore Seuss Geisel died in 1991, the copyrights on his works passed to his widow, Audrey Geisel, who lived until 2018.

In 1993 she founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises, whose stated mission was to “protect the integrity of the Dr. Seuss books while expanding beyond books into ancillary areas.”

Since then, DSE has done a pretty good job keeping Geisel’s flame burning.

Dr. Seuss — who died in 1991 — was one of the top-earning dead celebrities of 2020, with $33 million in total earnings, according to Forbes. That’s up from $9.5 million in 2015. His estate actually earned more than any late celebrity except for Michael Jackson, whose estate earned $48 million.

So maybe they know their business, and their judgement deserves the benefit of the doubt. Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six of its more obscure titles would no longer be published.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

None of these six was particularly popular.

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks.

For comparison, DSE sold over half a million of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

So what about these particular six books is “hurtful and wrong”? Unless you have copies lying around — and most people don’t, that’s what it means to be unpopular — it’s hard to judge for yourself. In situations like this, mainstream publications don’t want to call your attention to something just to demonstrate how hurtful it is. (And nether do I, so I’ll provide links you can chase if you’re curious rather than post the images themselves.)

The problem isn’t with the text of the books so much as the illustrations. None of them that I have seen is aggressively racist, like Nazi caricatures of Jews often were, but they contain demeaning stereotypes of Africans and Asians. (The anti-Japanese cartoons Geisel drew after Pearl Harbor, though, are aggressively racist, as many cartoons of the era were. None of them are currently being published by DSE.) You’re not supposed to hate these books’ non-white characters so much as find them different and strange. (The theme of Mulberry Street is that you don’t have to go far to see bizarre things, like “a Chinaman who eats with sticks“.) And a lack of diversity doesn’t help: The monkey-like African natives in If I Ran the Zoo would be less problematic (though still far from acceptable) if they weren’t the book’s only black characters.

(For what it’s worth, I’ll tell a story on myself: When I was three, I had pneumonia and my parents took me to the hospital. In the waiting room, I saw a Black family, maybe the first real-life Black people I had ever noticed. Dark skin was something I only knew from cartoons, when characters fell into mud puddles or got blown up with dynamite. “Mommy!” I announced (or so I’ve been told). “Those people are dirty.”)

If you’ve watched many old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons — a lot of which have quietly been taken out of circulation — you know that none of this is unusual for the era. Explicitly non-white characters were rare, and the ones that do show up represent something “other”; you’re supposed to react to them, not identify with them. So the problem isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a bad man in the context of his time — in many ways his books were more progressive than their competitors — but that some of his work has aged badly.

What should be done about that depends on what you want Dr. Seuss to be in 2021. If he’s to be a historical figure — a leading children’s-book author of the mid-to-late 20th century — then his work should speak for itself. Leave it alone, and organize a conversation around it, as HBO Max did when it briefly withdrew and then re-launched Gone With the Wind. (GWTW is a spectacular example of 1930s movie-making, as well as a valuable artifact in the history of America’s attitudes towards race. So I encourage you to watch it. Just don’t imagine that its Lost Cause mythology is an accurate depiction of the Old South or the Reconstruction Era.)

But if Theodore Geisel’s legacy is supposed to be timeless — Audrey’s vision — if his work is supposed to live through our era and beyond, then it needs to be curated. Parents and grandparents should be able to trust the Dr. Seuss brand. When you sit down to read to your four-year-old, you should be able to pick up a Dr. Seuss book without worrying that you might put something bad into a developing mind.

That curation is precisely what Dr. Seuss Enterprises was doing when it removed these six books from its catalog. By taking this action, DSE is making it more likely that kids will still be reading The Cat in the Hat or How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2050.

The conservative policy vacuum. To understand the overblown response to the Potato Head and Dr. Seuss news, think back for a moment to Reagan Era conservatism. Whether you loved it or hated it — and even if you believed some ulterior motive was hiding in its background — you knew its defining principles:

  • Bold foreign policy that maintains America’s military strength and isn’t afraid to use it.
  • Free trade.
  • Less regulation, lower federal spending, and lower taxes.
  • Local self-determination with less central control from Washington.

That all went out the window with Trump. He liked to spend a lot of money on weapons, brag about American military strength, and occasionally threaten other nations with “fire and fury”. But he also pulled back from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; distanced the US from allies like NATO, Japan, and South Korea; and let Vladimir Putin do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted to do it. Mao was probably wrong when he referred to the US of his era as a “paper tiger“, but Trump’s America really was one.

Free trade was replaced by tariffs and trade wars. Some regulations went away — particularly those protecting the environment — but others he stretched to interfere more aggressively in the decisions of US and foreign corporations. Big spending (and big deficits) weren’t worth mentioning any more. And no president in my lifetime did quite so much to impose federal policy on cities and states that didn’t want it. (Last summer, only resistance from the Pentagon kept him from invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active-duty troops into American cities.)

As a result of this reversal, and the absence of any new guiding principles to explain it, today’s Republican Party no longer has a policy agenda. The 2020 Republican platform was to support Trump — period. When the GOP controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it couldn’t decide what to do with that power, other than pass one big tax cut for rich people. It couldn’t even fulfill its promise to repeal ObamaCare, because that would leave a void that it had no idea how to fill. “Complain all you want that the covid-19 relief bill has been packed with all sorts of unrelated stuff from the Democratic wish list,” Megan McArdle wrote yesterday. “At least the Democrats have a wish list. What’s the Republican equivalent?”

Conservatism today is defined not by principles or programs, but by a Leader, an identity, and (most of all) an attitude: Conservatives are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. Mad at “Them” — the libs, the Deep State, Big Tech, the blood-drinking pedophiles — who keep threatening and insulting them.

But the Biden administration is policy-centered, so to the extent that Biden is driving the national conversation, Republicans have little to say. If they wanted to oppose Biden on substance, they’d need to have a Covid relief proposal of their own. (Ten GOP senators did make a laughably low-ball offer that they knew Biden couldn’t accept, but even they only represented themselves. The Republican leadership offered no proposal at all.) Or a coherent response to January 6 and the larger problem of domestic terrorism. Or an infrastructure plan. Or an immigration plan. Or something.

With no ideas to offer, they can only keep their base riled by promoting a never-ending string of “outrages”. Otherwise they’ve got nothing.

The cancel-culture freak-out. The essence of Trump’s message to his base (a message no other Republican is in a position to compete with) is grievance: Somebody is trying to take something from you, so you need a strong authoritarian leader to fight for you.

Some of these threats may be exaggerated, but they have at least a foothold in reality. Many Democrats really would like to take away assault rifles and other military-grade weaponry, or at least stop Americans from buying more. But the number proposing to “disarm” the country entirely is vanishingly small. Many Americans do compete for jobs with foreigners abroad and immigrants at home, though trade and immigration also create jobs and the balance is debatable.

But other “threats” are almost entirely imaginary: Non-white races are trying to “replace” you. Gays and lesbians are conspiring to destroy marriage and the family. Liberals want to criminalize Christianity. Big Tech is trying to steal your voice. Covid is a conpsiracy to take away your freedom. It has become a formula: When the Right needs to energize its base, they invent some nebulous force — “Them!” — that is trying to take away something that should be yours.

This week’s Seuss/Potato story has made this technique really obvious, because the frame fits so badly. Nothing is being taken away from anybody. Whatever you had hoped to do with Mr. Potato Head, you can still do. No one is coming for your Dr. Seuss books. And if you want more, you can buy more, except for a few books you probably had forgotten even existed. What’s more, the rights to those books never belonged to you anyway; if Dr. Seuss Enterprises thinks its brand is healthier without them, that’s up to them.

Conservative rabble-rousers did their best to pretend something else was happening. “They are banning Dr. Seuss books,” said Glenn Beck. They. Not the legal owners of the copyrights, or the organization created by Seuss’ widow to protect his legacy, but a nebulous “panel of ‘educators’ and ‘experts’.”

How much more do you need to see before all of America wakes up and goes “This is fascism!”? This is fascism. You don’t destroy books. What is wrong with us, America? Go out and buy those books today. Find out if you can get them. Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, because it’s the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America.

Beck is so strongly attached to these six books — none of which are being destroyed — that he gets some of their names wrong.

He wasn’t alone. On Fox & Friends, Donald Trump Jr. also warned about the sinister “they”, and seemed to imply The Cat in the Hat had been canceled.

There’s no place that they won’t go. This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, they canceled the Muppets. They’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs. … I literally know The Cat in the Hat by heart without the book there because I read it so many times to my children.

(I almost forgot about the Muppets. Last month, Disney Plus began streaming all five seasons of The Muppet Show, making it more easily available than it has ever been. But Disney committed the unforgivable sin of putting content warnings on some episodes, like the one where Johnny Cash sings in front of a Confederate flag. But you can still watch it. No one has had the Muppets taken away from them.)

Kevin McCarthy similarly implied that the most beloved Dr. Seuss books were being canceled — not by the organization charged with maintaining his brand, but by people who don’t like Dr. Seuss. He tweeted “I still like Dr. Seuss” and then read Green Eggs and Ham on Twitter. Why didn’t he read If I Ran the Zoo and show us the primitive African natives?

Tuesday morning, as Christopher Wray verified that white supremacist groups were involved in the Capitol insurrection and Antifa wasn’t, Ted Johnson noticed a subtle difference in what news networks were covering.

The Washington Post provided the numbers:

Over the course of the past week, Fox News has spent 4 hours and 38 minutes on Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Biden’s comments about Neanderthals, according to a tally by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. That compared to 42 minutes from CNN and 39 minutes from MSNBC on those topics.

Fox News on Tuesday alone devoted an hour and nine minutes to Dr. Seuss — more than the combined amount it spent on the coronavirus vaccine and FBI testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection.

https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-dr-seuss-obsession-numbers

So this is what conservative media has come to: If you have nothing to say to America, and yet you need to keep your base riled up, then you need to rile them up about nothing.

Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric

It’s not just that conservatives define terms differently. Sometimes their relationship to words defies definition entirely.


If you’re like most liberals, you probably from time to time take a walk on the other side of the line. Maybe you channel-scan through Fox News or even Newsmax. Or click on some of the links your Trump-adoring relatives send you. Or listen to a speech by some politician you can’t stand. Maybe you go so far as to read entire books written by people like Tucker Carlson or Newt Gingrich, or by academic types who are probably liberals themselves, but have spent years studying Trump supporters in rural Louisiana or in Evangelical churches.

And you still don’t get it.

It’s worse than just that you can’t follow the arguments, such as they are. You can’t even understand the words. Why is it “cancel culture” when Josh Hawley loses his book contract after cheerleading an insurrection, but not when Colin Kaepernick gets drummed out of the NFL for protesting racism? What does it mean when conservatives say “America is a Republic, not a Democracy“, as if that explained something obvious? Why are college professors and Hollywood actors “the elite”, but billionaires like the Kochs and the Mercers aren’t? Why is it “socialism” to subsidize windmills, but not coal mines? And who exactly are these “real Americans” that Donald Trump speaks for, when the American electorate rejected him by over seven million votes?

https://theweek.com/cartoons/964993/political-cartoon-kaepernick-gop-cancel-culture

The cancel-culture example. The usual liberal response when we run into one of these one-sided pejorative terms, terms that apply to us but never to them, is to charge hypocrisy. From the way the term applies to us, we intuit a definition, then ask why conservatives don’t apply that definition consistently. [1]

Wil Wilkinson, formerly a vice president at the liberal Niskanen Center, is sometimes pointed out as an ironic victim of “cancel culture”, because he recently lost his job after making an unfortunate joke on Twitter. [2] The irony comes from the fact that Wilkinson has been a critic of the whole cancel-culture conversation. To some conservatives, Wilkinson getting “canceled” is like the moment in a horror movie when the monster attacks the guy who’s been claiming there’s no monster.

Interestingly, though, Wilkinson himself still doesn’t believe cancel-culture is a thing. He defends his skepticism by stating his faith in something else: the power of definitions.

I also tend to believe that terms that successfully pick out real things in the real world — terms that aren’t merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments — can usually be given a definition that allows us to get at least a rough handle on what’s included and excluded from the category. But I’ve yet to encounter a definition of “cancel culture” that overcomes my suspicion of sloganized epithets.

Wilkinson quotes L.D. Burnett: “There is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’. There is only culture.” In other words, societies have norms, and violating those norms leads to consequences. If you behave in ways your community considers unacceptable, people will shun you in an attempt to shame you into compliance.

In the Burnett/Wilkinson model, the examples of so-called cancel culture are just situations where norms are changing. Actions that used to be acceptable (like a male executive referring to his female secretary as “my girl”) have become unacceptable, and actions that used to be forgivable examples of bad taste (like making racist or sexist jokes at the expense of a co-worker) are now firing offenses.

If you still believe in the old norms, then the consequences that follow from violating the new norms are extreme over-reactions. But instead of openly debating the old norms versus the new norms, old-norm advocates simply apply a pejorative label to the new-norm consequences.

Slogans like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. … That’s why “cancel culture” tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content.

I was glad to see Wilkinson bring in “political correctness”, because that is an important example of the same phenomenon: Groups that used to be politically and culturally powerless, or even invisible, (like non-whites, women in the workplace, gays and lesbians, or Hindus) can now demand to be treated respectfully. If you show the kind of disrespect that used to be common, you will face consequences.

Instead of debating that norm-change openly, though, people who refuse to adjust to the new norms apply the pejorative label “political correctness” to the consequences. Like “cancel culture”, the term has no definition.

https://jensorensen.com/2015/07/28/advice-conservatives-never-give-themselves/

Let’s go meta. Burnett points out that labeling some action as “cancel culture” is itself an attempt to induce shame. In other words, it tries to enforce what the shamer sees as a norm.

Wilkinson’s article is also trying to enforce an unstated norm, one about how people are supposed to think and argue: Words are supposed to have definitions, and not be “merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments”. Arguments are supposed to appeal to universal principles that go beyond just “my side is right and your side is wrong”. People who violate those norms should be ashamed of themselves, and the rest of us should refuse to take their arguments seriously until they change.

In academic circles, those standards go without saying. No one in any field would write in a journal article: “I’ve decided to leave ‘the elite’ undefined, so that I can apply the term pejoratively to my enemies but not my friends.” From the academy, similar norms have trickled down to the educated classes — who don’t always respect or observe them, but nonetheless accept that they ought to respect and observe them.

We sometimes forget, though, that not everyone thinks this way. In fact, there was a time when no one thought that way. Entire civilizations have functioned without definitions or universal principles.

Definition versus usage. If you’re a physicist, the word “red” has a very precise definition for you: light with a wavelength between 620 and 720 nanometers. For the rest of us, not so much. I’ve been using “red” for as long as I can remember, and I didn’t know that definition until I just looked it up.

It’s not that I have some other definition of “red”. I don’t have one at all, and yet I never feel the lack of it. I have a very clear idea what “red” means. I just can’t express it in words.

I don’t remember learning “red”, but I suspect it was the same way I’ve seen parents teach it to their children: Somebody pointed at red things and said “red”. When I tried to imitate them, they corrected my mistakes and cheered when I got it right. Eventually my performance became flawless.

Sometimes an undefined term has a paradigmatic example. At the paint store, “red” is specified by a color card: If something resembles the color card, it’s red. Similarly, “sweet” is the taste of sugar. To the extent that a taste resembles sugar, it’s sweet.

You could live your whole life without ever learning the dictionary definition of anything. Your community would train you in the proper usage of words, and when people disagreed, some paradigmatic example could resolve the dispute. The idea that you’re supposed to be able to define your words in terms of other words would just go right past you.

That’s what’s going on with “cancel culture”, “political correctness”, and the conservative phrases I listed above. They don’t have definitions, they have usages. People learn how to use these terms by hearing other people use them, then doing trial-and-error until their usage matches the rest of the conservative community.

So why isn’t Colin Kaepernick an example of cancel culture? Because it’s not used that way. If someone pointed at a dandelion or a banana and said “red”, I would just know that they’re wrong. I couldn’t explain why they’re wrong; they just are. “Red” isn’t used that way.

What does “America is a republic, not a democracy” mean? Nothing, actually. The phrase has a usage, not a meaning. Conservatives say it when liberals object to some minority-rule tactic like gerrymandering or the Electoral College or giving Wyoming the same number of senators as California, but DC and Puerto Rico none at all. If you’re hoping for some definition of “republic” that turns that usage into a meaning, though, you’re not going to get one.

Oral culture versus literate culture. If you want to see a society just beginning to grasp how to use the definitions and principles of logical thought, go read one of Plato’s dialogues. Most of them follow the same formula: Socrates is talking to somebody who uses a word, like “courage” (Laches) or “temperance” (Charmides) or “justice” (Republic). Socrates asks them what the word means, and they give him an example of its proper usage. So Laches says: “He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.” Socrates points out that an example isn’t a definition, and they go round and round from there.

What becomes clear in these dialogues is that in Golden Age Greece, definitions were kind of a new thing, and the idea that you ought to be able to define the terms you use was novel, even a bit weird. Literate culture was still being invented, and it was trying to replace an oral culture where words had proper usages, but not definitions. Folks like Laches clearly expected a process like this: If two people aren’t sure they mean the same thing by a word, they trade examples (“Fire trucks are red.” “Ripe strawberries and tomatoes are red.”) until the agreement is clear.

Universal principles were similar innovations of literate culture. In the previous oral culture, traditional wisdom consisted of stories, and of aphorisms that might be the morals of stories. Aphorisms typically are not even trying to be universally true, like principles, but often come in contradictory pairs. So “Always look before you leap” contradicts “He who hesitates is lost”. Oral-culture discernment revolves around understanding the story you happen to be in. Is the current situation part of a look-before-leaping story or a hesitate-and-lose story? A stop-and-smell-the-roses story, or a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines story? [3]

Discernment is primarily a community process that depends heavily on tradition and authority. That gives it a resilience and stability, but also makes it prone to perpetuating a community’s bigotry and justifying the self-serving pronouncements of corrupt authorities. (It’s way too tempting to discern that we’re in a you-have-to-yield-to-me story.) Literate culture’s logic aimed at replacing discernment with more individual and algorithmic processes like measurement, calculation, and deduction.

In spite of its books and intellectuals, Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally an oral culture. Trumpist conservatism is built on top of it. One of the challenges conservative Christians have faced since pledging their allegiance to Trump is how to justify supporting a man who has literally no Christian virtues, and who appears to understand nothing about the Christian religion.

The answer they found was a story: the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the refounding of the Temple in Jerusalem. A key player in that story is Cyrus the Great of Persia, who was not a follower of Jehovah, but nonetheless was used by Israel’s God to fulfill His promise to Jeremiah and the Jewish people.

For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest. For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a “vessel theology” around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.

That’s how oral culture works: This is the story we’re in, so we should do these things. No principles of action are being proposed, so you can’t argue about it in a Socratic sense. It arises from a process of community discernment, not a process of logical thought.

If you push further on Trump’s transgressions, you’re likely to hear that Christians believe in forgiveness. A text from the Bible will be quoted to prove it. Of course, they didn’t believe in forgiving Bill Clinton, but that also is Biblical, because the Bible contains both harsh and forgiving verses. Clinton was a harsh-verse situation, and Trump is a forgiving-verse situation. [4] If you can’t see that, you’re not part of the community. [5]

If you look at how QAnon works, it too is an oral culture. A few weeks ago, The New York Times profiled a “digital warrior” of QAnon.

For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. (She once spent several minutes explaining how a domino-shaped ornament on the White House Christmas tree proved that Mr. Trump was sending coded messages about QAnon, because the domino had 17 dots, and Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet.)

When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.

This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.

“I am really good at putting symbols together,” she said.

Q has identified the story we are living inside [6], and the community now attempts to discern how current events fit into that narrative.

How should we respond? I wish I had a better answer. The main advice I have is to recognize what’s happening and stop doing things that don’t work, even if you think they should work.

The factor you have the most control over is your own thinking. So: Don’t read meaning into things that don’t have any meaning. And don’t respond as if they meant the things you think they ought to mean. “Cancel culture” and “political correctness”, for example, are a sticks-and-stones situation. If they meant something negative, and that meaning applied to something you were doing, then you should probably feel bad about it. But they don’t mean anything; they’re just words that are said in particular settings.

Rather than answer based on the meaning you imagine a phrase has, question it. If the person you’re talking to thinks a term has a meaning, let them explain it. Chances are that they can’t. Let them be frustrated rather than you. (WWSD. What would Socrates do?)

When dealing with people you know well, consider the possibility that they don’t know (or have forgotten) that literate culture and logical thought are even possible. Providing an example of a different way of thought will probably not produce sudden results. But over time it might be significant.


[1] A few conservatives also interpret this behavior as hypocrisy. Robby Soave of Reason wrote:

If you only criticize cancel culture when it’s your side being canceled, then you aren’t really attacking the concept—you’re just playing defense for your team.

[2] “If Biden really wanted unity,” Wilkinson tweeted, “he’d lynch Mike Pence.” The joke — that if Biden did lynch Pence, he’d be carrying out an ambition of radical Trumpists, thereby promoting unity — was lost on his bosses, who focused on the apparent call for violence. They don’t let conservatives get by with the it’s-a-joke excuse for endorsing violence, so they didn’t accept that excuse from one of their own either.

[3] Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato is all about life on the boundary between oral culture and literate culture. The reason Plato was so hostile to poets, in Havelock’s telling, was that poetry was the source of the aphorisms that competed with principles. As long as people revered the poets as fonts of muse-inspired wisdom, logical thought would never take hold.

[4] “The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same, but the medical practice changes.” – Mark Twain, Europe and Elsewhere, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice”

[5] An example of how the same narrative can be either positive or negative: Compare the Biblical characters of Esther and Jezebel. Both are women who marry foreign kings, and use their influence to make the king more accepting of the religion of their homeland.

Esther is one of the Old Testament’s great heroines, and Jezebel one of its villainesses. The difference is almost entirely a my-team/their-team thing: Esther is a Jewish queen of Persia who uses her influence to save Jews from persecution. Jezebel is Phoenician queen of Israel who induces King Ahab to open Israel to the religion of Baal. (Trumpist pastors have begun calling Kamala Harris “Jezebel”. It appears to mean nothing more than that she’s a powerful woman they don’t like.)

[6] The story is that “elites” at the top of the media and the Democratic Party (but also some Republicans) are Satan worshipers who practice pedophilia and drink human blood. Donald Trump is the hero who is going to bring them down. The exposure and punishment of these crimes, leading to mass arrests and executions, is always just around the corner.

The Orwellian Misuse of “Orwellian”

TrumpSpeak sends the word’s original meanings down the memory hole.


A theme I return to now and then is how the Right takes a word that has been effectively used against it and breaks that word through repeated misuse. I’m not sure when this practice began. Probably it had already been going on for some while before I noticed it; I was reading Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, a 2008 book whose apparent purpose is to destroy any notion a reader might have of real fascism. (Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? Take that, liberals!)

Word-breaking doesn’t always work — the Bush administration and its apologists never did completely break the word “torture” — but far too often it does. One of the great recent successes of conservative word-breaking is “fake news“, a once-useful term that originally referred to serious-looking links invented to be social-media clickbait and attributed to websites that purported to be newspaper sites, but weren’t. (For example, there is no Denver Guardian.)

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was a major beneficiary of viral fake news, like the Denver Guardian’s “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment murder-suicide” which was shared on Facebook more than half a million times, in spite of being a complete fiction that had been reported by no actual news organizations. Promoting fake news was, in fact, one of the primary ways Russia supported Trump. Obviously, this wasn’t something Trump wanted people to talk about, or even think about. Something had to be done.

So by repeated misuse, Trump captured “fake news” and redirected it to refer to accurate news stories he didn’t like. As a result, “the fake-news media” no longer brings the Denver Guardian to mind. Instead, it now encompasses The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN.

Today, if you use “fake news” in its original sense, no one will know what you mean. Mission accomplished.

https://www.centralmaine.com/2019/12/18/todays-editorial-carton-5/

We’re currently witnessing a multi-year campaign to break “socialism“, a word George Orwell sometimes used to describe his own political philosophy. But in a world where Joe Biden and Jon Ossoff are “radical socialists”, how can you even start a conversation about public ownership of the means of production? Such a thoughtcrime is not yet impossible, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

https://www.laprogressive.com/socialism-stigma/

“Religious freedom” and “religious liberty” are likewise broken. Now they primarily refer to Christian privilege. So Christians can ignore anti-discrimination laws because they have “religious liberty”. Meanwhile, the rest of us only have “religious liberty” in situations where conservative Christians agree with us. For example: A Christian pharmacist’s “religious liberty” is violated if he has to fill a birth-control prescription, and so a pharmacist of some other religion might claim a similar privilege. On the other hand, a Hindu waitress who doesn’t want to serve steaks should just find another job; firing her would not create any kind of religious-liberty issue.

But the latest word the Trump and his allies are trying to break is particularly ironic: “orwellian”. Vox explains:

When Josh Hawley and Trump Jr. use the term “Orwellian,” they are indulging in precisely the kind of lazy and dishonest obfuscation Orwell railed against. They are taking the haze of imprecise associations that have accumulated around the word — bad, dystopian, someone somewhere overreaching probably? — and trying to attach them to such urgent issues for human rights as a politician losing his book contract after a scandal and the most powerful man in the world getting kicked off a social media platform. They are, to put it in terms of which Orwell would approve, lying. They are pretending that very reasonable actions from private corporations are the same as the government kidnapping citizens and shoving their faces into cages full of rats to brainwash them. And they are trying to convince their followers to pretend the same thing, until the pretense becomes real and everyone agrees to believe the lie. [links added]

Originally, “orwellian” had a variety of related meanings, all of which derived directly from George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. The word might, for example, refer to a bold lie that completely inverts the truth, like the 1984 party slogans: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

Rudy Giuliani’s statement “Truth isn’t truth” — which supposedly explained how an honest man like Trump might commit perjury if he testified under oath — is orwellian in this sense. But so is Trump’s claim that Democrats are stealing the 2020 election, because that claim is itself the center of Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election. The related lie that Democratic “election fraud” centered in majority-Black cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee is similarly orwellian, because inner-city Blacks are precisely the people most likely to be disenfranchised by Republican tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression.

“Orwellian” might also legitimately refer to an authority’s demand that you believe what you are told rather than what you can see for yourself. That usage derives from this 1984 quote:

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

So Trump was being orwellian when he told a VFW convention: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

But probably the purest meaning of “orwellian” would apply to the process I’m describing here: breaking a word so that the idea it once captured so well becomes inexpressible. As Orwell wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

If Trump and his allies succeed in breaking “orwellian”, they will have gone a long way towards removing this thought from the public mind. Then “orwellian” will have lost all substantive content, and will simply become a way to cast shade: “You said something I don’t like.”

And we will have lost any term that expresses what just happened.

Republicans Start Reaping the Whirlwind

Republican officials who want to recognize reality, do their jobs, and follow the law are finding themselves branded as Republicans In Name Only.


Early in the classic movie A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is arguing with zealous young William Roper about the importance of the Law. Roper asks whether More would extend the benefits of the law even to the Devil himself, and More turns the question around: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” Roper allows that this would be a fine idea, that he would be willing to “cut down every law in England” in order to pursue the Devil. And More responds:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

In the weeks since the election, Republicans like Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and even Trump appointees like Attorney General Bill Barr, and cybersecurity czar Christopher Krebs have been learning a similar lesson, not about Law, but about Reality.

For decades, Republicans have been motivating their base voters by dabbling in fantasies and conspiracy theories. But they have always imagined that the craziness could be put back in its bottle after it had served its purpose. In the waning days of the Trump administration, however, the fantasy world has taken over and demanded fealty. Republican officials who want to recognize reality, do their jobs, and follow the law are finding themselves branded as villainous turncoats, Republicans In Name Only.

Few in the GOP have the courage to stand up to that pressure. A Washington Post survey this week found that only 25 Republicans in Congress (later rising to 27) are willing to admit that Joe Biden won the election.

Two Republicans consider Trump the winner despite all evidence showing otherwise. And another 220 GOP members of the House and Senate — about 88 percent of all Republicans serving in Congress — will simply not say who won the election.

And soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump responded to that report by wanting to know who those disloyal Republicans are.

25, wow! I am surprised there are so many. We have just begun to fight. Please send me a list of the 25 RINOS.

And it’s not just the Stolen Trump Victory fantasy, it’s also the Covid Isn’t a Big Deal fantasy. Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine is facing calls for impeachment from his own party, because he insists on taking action to save his citizens’ lives. Viewed from the Conservative Fantasy World (CFW), his attempt to slow the spread of a deadly virus

promotes fear, turns neighbors against neighbors, and contracts the economy by making people fearful to leave their homes.

Other Republicans have taken note. South Dakota’s Governor Kristi Noem has seen Covid burn through her state like a wildfire through a dry grassland, and done essentially nothing to stop it. With visions of national office, Noem does not dare tie herself to reality.

At the end of the Trump administration, the CFW is not just one or two fantasies, it is many: Antifa is burning down our cities! Hunter Biden did [I can never quite figure out what]! The Deep State invented the Russia hoax! Joe Biden has dementia! The DNC server is in Ukraine! Bill Gates is trying to micro-chip us all! Anti-Covid restrictions are a plot against religion! Democrats are protecting an international pedophile ring! George Soros is financing a migrant caravan invasion of our country!

It’s not just an occasional rabble-rousing slogan any more, not just a Willie Horton ad or a food-stamp-lobster story that can be set aside after the inauguration. Republicans now live in a 24/7 fantasy world, and if anyone attempts to leave it, there are consequences.

As in the extreme branches of Islam, apostasy will not be tolerated. And the apostate cannot seek the protection of facts or logic or law, because in the zealous pursuit of liberal devils, all those barriers have been cut down.

Georgia. The consequences are most visible in Georgia, which Joe Biden won by just under 12,000 votes. That margin has held up through three recounts, including a hand recount (which would have corrected any problem with the voting machines).

In the CFW, however, Trump did not lose by seven million votes nationwide, but in fact won a resounding landslide. If only “legal” votes were counted, Trump would win 410 electoral votes, carrying even California. Former three-star general and pardoned felon Michael Flynn recited the catechism:

There is no doubt in my mind that he won this election. Hands down. In a landslide. I believe that at the end of the day we’re going to find out that he won by a massive landslide and he’ll be inaugurated come this January.

That landslide victory has to include Georgia’s 13 electoral votes, so anyone involved in verifying the vote totals or certifying the election must be part of the Biden Steal, including Kemp, Raffensperger, Republican state election official Gabriel Sterling, and a 20-year-old computer geek working for Sterling. All of them, including the 20-year-old, have been getting death threats. This set off Sterling, who delivered an epic rant (video, transcript).

Joe diGenova today asked for Chris Krebs, a patriot who ran CISA, to be shot. A 20 something tech in Gwinnett County today has death threats and a noose put out, saying he should be hung for treason because he was transferring a report on batches from an EMS to a county computer so we could read it. It has to stop. Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. … This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.

The “senators” he is addressing are David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the ones involved in the January 5 runoffs, where Republicans need to win at least one seat to retain control of the Senate. Both are in a tricky position that prevents them from upholding reality, or even denouncing the threats of violence against fellow Republicans. They need the full support of Trump’s personality cult if they’re going to win their elections. But they also need the suburban voters who did in fact put Biden over the top last month.

At a time when Republicans need to unite, they are attacking each other. They are also asking their voters to believe contradictory things: Trump is going to win a second term, but Perdue and Loeffler need to win to keep President Biden from having a Democratic Senate. Republicans should come out and vote, even though the rigged voting machines will flip their votes to Democrats.

How did this happen? The Republican reliance on fantasy has grown tremendously in the last four years, but it didn’t start with Trump.

Back in 2012, in “Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide” I picked out these bits of political whimsy:

  • Raped women don’t get pregnant.
  • The uninsured can get the medical care they need in the ER.
  • Tax cuts pay for themselves.
  • Gays can be “cured”.
  • Obama’s election proved that racism is over.

Of course, even then that was far from a complete list. “People who work hard aren’t poor,” is a perennial favorite, and you can always find some (white, of course) Republicans ready to tell you that slavery wasn’t really so bad. An entire genre of fantasy falls into the form “The real victims of discrimination are X” where the choices include all manner of privileged groups: men, whites, Christians, straights, and so on. And who can forget the Atlas-Shrugged vision of the productive rich, whose largesse provides for the rest of us by “giving” us jobs?

In addition to fantasies about how the world works, the CFW has included fantasies about events, like Saddam’s mobile chemical-weapons labs, the Benghazi stand-down order, Barack Obama’s birth in Kenya, and ObamaCare’s death panels.

The CFW is marked as much by what it leaves out as what it invents. Global warming isn’t real, and neither is systemic racism. Science has no more claim to authority than any other belief system, and evolution is “just a theory”. The human failings of the Founders have been airbrushed away, as have any unworthy motives behind American wars, or any economic contributions made by undocumented immigrants.

Trump’s advantage. None of that is new. But the key insight of Donald Trump, the one that allowed him to push aside so many better qualified and better connected Republican rivals in 2016, was that the balance of power between Fact and Fantasy had decisively shifted in favor of the unreal. Pre-Trump Republicans had treated the CFW the way an imperial power treats a colony: They went there when they needed something, like votes or campaign contributions. But when it was time to staff a government, Republicans like the Bushes or McCain or Romney would draw from the same expert class Democrats did. Considerable effort might go into explaining policy in fantasy-world terms, but the behind-closed-doors discussions that shaped those policies happened in the real world.

And don’t think that the full-time denizens of the CFW didn’t notice. They may be deluded, but they’re not stupid. They understood very well the phoniness of reality-based Republicans who merely humored them. Trump, on the other hand, stood out as more authentic, precisely because he had given himself whole-heartedly to the fantasy.

TrumpWorld. In exchange for his undivided loyalty to the fantasy other Republicans only exploited, the true-believing base awarded Trump the power to define that fantasy. Today, the CFW is what Trump says it is. If Trump’s ego will not allow him to face his defeat, then he didn’t lose. Anyone who says he did is a RINO, and any media outlet that reports the facts is Fake News. In the absence of any reliable independent source of information, any story is as good as any other. The only difference is who you trust and what you want to believe.

This kind of loyalty is an asset beyond the dreams of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. But unfortunately for those Republicans who have hitched themselves to Trump’s CFW-defining power, he does not believe that he is hitched to them. He cares nothing for how loyal you have been in the past, but only about whether you support what he is saying now. If you don’t, he will turn ’round on you.

And how will you stand upright in the winds that blow then?

Why All the Bush Nostalgia?

It’s not President G. H. W. Bush himself that I miss. It’s an era of public trust in a shared reality.


It was weird, wasn’t it? Watching and listening to all that nostalgia for George H. W. Bush and his presidency?

I know, this is what we do when somebody dies: We retell his story to display him in the best possible light. We did it with John McCain just a few months ago. We do it all the time.

But even so, wasn’t it a little extreme? Bush, after all, was never particularly beloved when he was active. He only made it to the presidency by hanging on to Ronald Reagan’s coattails, and he always gets second billing when people recall the Reagan-Bush Era. He served only one term. When he stood for re-election in 1992, he was challenged in his own party by Pat Buchanan (the ancestor of today’s American First xenophobes), and got only 37% of the general election vote (the worst incumbent performance since Taft in 1912).

The Soviet Union fell on his watch, but hardly anyone believed then or now that he caused it. (It’s equally absurd to claim that Reagan caused it, but that’s a different argument.) The accomplishments he was lauded for at the time look worse in light of subsequent events. His greatest triumph, putting together the coalition that won the Gulf War, (which temporarily zoomed his approval rating up to 90%) turned out to be the prelude to his son’s disastrous Iraq invasion. His $100 billion bailout of the bankrupt savings and loans became a model for the much bigger and less popular bailout of the big banks after the real estate bubble of 2008. His pardons of the key figures in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal are precedents that I’m sure Trump’s people are studying. He is also remembered for his “No new taxes” lie, the racist Willie Horton ad, and the appointment of Clarence Thomas.

So what was all the nostalgia about? A number of writers have tried to explain it, some more convincingly than others.

The Un-Trump. It’s not like Bush left his eulogists nothing to work with. In many ways he was an admirable guy: After enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday, he flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He went on to live a life of public service: as a congressman, diplomat, Director of the CIA, vice president, and then president.

He was a family man, married once and for life to Barbara, with whom he raised another president as well as a governor. His personal demeanor was friendly and gentlemanly. One word nearly everybody uses to describe him is decent.

Those qualities led to the first and most obvious theory: That praising Bush the First was a backhanded way of criticizing the current president, who so obvious lacks all those virtues.

Bush could be testy, but was never cruel. He was intelligent, courteous, careful in his speech, and distinguished. His patrician upbringing and overall success in life gave him a secure ego, so he could respect expertise, let someone else be the smartest man in the room, and take seriously the findings of scientists. In the light of the current crises of democracy and the environment, even a liberal like me can look back at Bush and think “If only we still had Republicans like that.”

The last of his kind. But more than the man himself, there is something about his era that we would like to have back. But exactly what it is isn’t so easy to put your finger on.

In “The Last True Republican Presidentrecites a litany of “lasts”. Bush was the last president who

  • was shaped by the distinctive culture of the New England WASP upper class
  • came from the so-called “Greatest Generation” that was forged in the fires of depression and world war
  • was alive during World War II
  • fought in any war at all
  • represented Eastern establishment values of prudence, pragmatism, tolerance, measured judgment, and internationalism
  • got more than 53% of the vote (in 1988)
  • was a moderate Republican
  • had significant experience in foreign policy
  • seriously believed in the Republican Party’s legacy of fiscal conservatism

Legitimacy. That list points in two directions that two other writers pulled apart: Peter Beinart called attention to Bush as “the last person to occupy the Oval Office whose opponents saw him as a fully legitimate president.”

That’s because in the contemporary United States, presidential legitimacy stems from three sources. The first source is democracy. Although America’s system of choosing presidents has many undemocratic features, many Americans associate presidential legitimacy with winning a majority of the vote. The second source is background. Throughout American history, America’s presidents have generally looked a certain way. They’ve been white, male, (mostly) Protestant, and often associated with legitimating institutions such as the military, elite universities, or previous high office. Americans are more likely to question the legitimacy of presidents who deviate from those traditions. The third source is behavioral. Presidents can lose legitimacy if they violate established norms of personal or professional conduct.

George H. W. Bush was the last president who could not be impugned on any of these fronts.

Bill Clinton never got 50% of the vote (because he ran in three-way races with a Republican and independent Ross Perot), and was characterized as a “draft dodger” who would be incapable of commanding respect as commander-in-chief. George W. Bush was installed in office by the Supreme Court after he lost the popular vote. (Though Bush’s re-election campaign got 50.7% in 2004.) And Barack Obama may have won handily twice, but his race made him unacceptable to a large number of white Americans (who sought out bizarre theories like Birtherism to justify their rejection in terms that weren’t explicitly racist). Donald Trump not only lost the popular vote by a wide margin, but since taking office his actions have been anything but “presidential”. (Just to pick one example out of many, it’s impossible to imagine GHWB publicly distorting an Democratic congressman’s name into “little Adam Schitt“.)

Whether you liked Bush-41 or not, he was the president and everyone knew it. That didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but after a quarter century without that kind of universally accepted legitimacy, we miss it.

The WASP aristocracy. Ross Douthat picked up on Bush’s WASPiness: The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, he claims, may not have been fair or representative of America, but it simply did a better job than our current “meritocratic” leadership class. He describes

Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

The new ruling class, Douthat claims, is as “self-replicating” as the old one, but since they have fooled themselves into believing they earned their places at the top of the pyramid, they have less of a sense of responsibility towards those beneath them. (Chris Hayes makes this point better and at some length in The Twilight of the Elites.)

Douthat goes on to claim (and this is where he goes off the rails in my opinion) that we need an aristocracy, and that the current one needs to gain self-consciousness and become “a ruling class [that] acknowledge[s] itself for what it really is, and act[s] accordingly”.

Fareed Zakaria, who knows he would have no place in a WASP-dominated world, lauds the old establishment’s “modesty, humility and public-spiritedness”, noting how many of the powerful men on the Titanic let women and children board the lifeboats.

The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured.

In my terms, they felt like the owned the country. Today’s CEOs and political leaders are just renting America — and seem likely to trash it before their lease is up. Zakaria calls on today’s upper crust to recognize how much accident and luck is involved in their ascendancy and “live by one simple old-fashioned, universal idea — rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.”

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that. But even so, I don’t want the WASP aristocracy back. There’s got to be something else.

Shared reality. Strangely, the moment when I finally started to feel like I understood Bush nostalgia was when I listened to a discussion that didn’t mention Bush at all: Chris Hayes’ conversation with environmental writer David Roberts on his Why Is This Happening? podcast.

What they talked about instead was what Roberts has called the “epistemic crisis” in the US. In other words, due largely to right-wing propaganda that shapes the worldview of about 1/3 of the population, we have lost our ability to form a public reality.

Roberts, who was a graduate student in philosophy before turning to journalism, found himself wandering back into epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies how we know things) because of what he was seeing in his coverage of climate change: The science is clear, the problem is urgent, and the solution (drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels) is obvious, but nothing happens because it no longer seems possible to turn scientific truth into the kind of public knowledge that produces political action.

Instead, people who live inside the right-wing bubble are told that the scientific community is corrupt. (Trump responded to a recent government report on climate change by saying that climate scientists have a “political agenda“, and Trump supporter Rick Santorum expanded on that comment by saying that “A lot of these scientists are driven by the money they receive.” If climate change weren’t real, he says, they’d be unemployed.) Similarly, they are told that fact-checkers at the major news-gathering organizations produce “fake news” and academic research is left-wing propaganda. (The Washington Post Magazine recently featured a profile of a leading voice in the pro-Confederate movement. The fact that academic historians uniformly disagree with his version of the Civil War does not bother him in the slightest. “A lot of people think if you have half the alphabet after your name, you’re automatically right on everything,” he says.) When every economic model showed that the Trump tax cut would balloon the deficit, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin simply asserted that it would cut the deficit, as if one opinion were no better than the other.

“Call it 30% of Americans,” Roberts estimates, “have basically hived off from mainstream institutions of knowledge creation and knowledge verification, and have created their own hermetically sealed world.”

To me, this is the basis of the other Bush nostalgia explanations. President Obama won clear majorities twice, but acceptance of his legitimacy couldn’t penetrate the conservative bubble. The WASP aristocracy was able to accept and promote a public version of reality that today’s leaders either can’t or don’t want to deal with. As a result, Bush had go back on his “no new taxes” pledge because reality and consistency with his other values demanded it: He was against deficits, and taxes have to be part of any realistic deficit-reduction plan. So he proved faithless to conservative orthodoxy, but faithful to reality. He couldn’t simply assert that the deficit would go away because he wanted it to. (Trump, on the other hand, is talking about “paying down debt“, but also about more tax cuts, not cutting Social Security or Medicare, and raising defense spending.)

That’s the big difference between politics in the Bush Era and today: 25-30 years ago, political debates took place inside an arena of shared reality. You could have your own opinions, but you couldn’t have your own facts. Now, if you’re a conservative Republican, you can. Reality is whatever the Leader says it is.

That common reality is what I miss. Not the Bush administration, not the WASP aristocracy, and not even George H. W. himself, no matter how great a guy he may have been. I miss a sense that I live in the same world with all my fellow citizens, that facts about that world can be determined by trusted institutions committed to objectivity, and that ultimately all our opinions and predictions will all be judged according to what really happens.

The Media isn’t “Polarized”, It Has a Right-Wing Cancer

As individuals, liberals and conservatives share all the failings humans are prone to. But left-wing media and right-wing media are structured differently, and the implications are huge.


What’s the difference between right-wing media and left-wing media? Or between conservatives and liberals in general? If you have an answer, how do you know that your answer is objective, rather than just a reflection of your own bias? (As John Locke observed more than three centuries ago: “Everyone is orthodox to himself.”) Or if you think there is no difference, couldn’t your both-sides-ism itself be a bias? Wouldn’t it be odd if Right and Left had exactly the same levels of reasonability or factuality?

How would you know?

Network Propaganda. In Network Propaganda, (whose text and illustrations are available free online, as well as for sale as a book or e-book) Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts go to great lengths to produce an objective look at how news travels through the different regions of the US political universe.

It starts with data.

We collected and analyzed two million stories published during the 2016 presidential election campaign, and another 1.9 million stories about the Trump presidency during its first year. We analyze patterns of interlinking between the sites to understand the relations of authority and credibility among publishers high and low, and the tweeting and Facebook sharing practices of users to understand attention patterns to these media.

What they found overall looks like this:

This aggregate view of the open web link economy during the 2016 election period shows a marked difference between the right and everything that is not the right. There is a clear overlap and interaction between the left, center-left, and center media outlets. These are all centered on the cluster of professional, mainstream journalism sites: the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and Politico form a basin of attraction for outlets ranging from the editorially conservative Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Business Week, or USA Today, through the liberally oriented MSNBC. Zooming in, we see that the right side of the spectrum, by contrast, has Breitbart and Fox News as its basin of attraction, has almost no overlap with the center, and is sharply separated from the rest of the map. The other leading sites on the right include the New York Post, the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, the Daily Mail, and the Washington Examiner. There is almost no center-right, and what there is, anchored around the National Review, is distinct from the set of sites anchored by Fox and Breitbart on the right. The Huffington Post, the Guardian, and MSNBC receive the largest number of media inlinks on the left, joined by Mother Jones, Slate, Vox, and Salon.

Dynamics. This structure produces two distinct dynamics on the left and right. People of all persuasions like to have their prior opinions reinforced, and so we are all susceptible to clickbait (fantastic headlines that appeal to our biases, but have no real substance) and fake news (made-up or grossly exaggerated stories that we want to believe). So both kinds of disinformation are constantly being produced on the extreme Left and Right alike. The difference is what happens then.

there is ample supply of and demand for false hyperpartisan narratives on the left. The difference is that the audience and hyperpartisan commercial clickbait fabricators oriented toward the left form part of a single media ecosystem with center, center-left, and left-wing sites that are committed to journalistic truth-seeking norms. Those norm-constrained sites, both mainstream and net-native, serve as a consistent check on dissemination and validation of the most extreme stories when they do emerge on the left, and have no parallels in the levels of visibility or trust that can perform the same function on the right.

In other words: False stories that come from the Left drift towards the center and get debunked. And that’s usually the end of them. Sites on the far Left know that a lot of their audience also listens to NPR or reads The New York Times. Even if a story has to make it all the way to the center-right (The Wall Street Journal, say, or National Review) before it gets shot down, the correction will filter back, making left-wing sites look bad if they keep repeating the false information.

Nothing similar happens on the Right.

Dynamics on the right tend to reinforce partisan statements, irrespective of their truth, and to punish actors—be they media outlets or politicians and pundits—who insist on speaking truths that are inconsistent with partisan frames and narratives dominant within the ecosystem.

In other words, the right-wing news ecosystem has no antibodies that fight infection by false information. Left and Right are each exposed to misinformation and disinformation, but nothing on the Right keeps it from taking root.

It is not that Republicans are more gullible, or less rational, than Democrats. It is not that technology has destroyed the possibility of shared discourse for all. It is the structure of the media ecosystem within which Republican voters, whether conservatives or right-wing radicals, on the one hand, and Republican politicians, on the other hand, find themselves that made them particularly susceptible to misperception and manipulation, while the media ecosystem that Democrats and their supporters occupied exhibited structural features that were more robust to propaganda efforts and offered more avenues for self-correction and self-healing.

Examples. The book illustrates this bifurcated pattern with

parallel but politically divergent false rumors, about Trump raping a 13-year-old and Hillary and Bill Clinton being involved in pedophilia, [and how the rumors] followed fundamentally different paths through the media ecosystems into which each was introduced.

The Trump-rape story was based on a Jane Doe lawsuit. It made an initial splash on the Left, as Democrats on social media shared and reposted  a Huffington Post article arguing that the case deserved media attention. But the same day as the HuffPost article, The Guardian ran a skeptical article, claiming the suit had been “orchestrated by an eccentric anti-Trump campaigner with a record of making outlandish claims about celebrities.” Within a week the story had virtually vanished, even from very liberal news sources.

The Clinton pedophilia story, on the other hand, began in May, 2016 and continued to rattle through the right-wing echo chamber for the rest of the campaign.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, made the accusation on-air, interviewed by Sean Hannity and by Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. Bret Baier, anchoring Fox News’s prime-time news show ran a detailed segment on the accusations of Bill Clinton flying to Orgy Island on the Lolita Express. Fox News online published the underlying materials. Rush Limbaugh discussed the allegation as something everyone knows. Trump’s campaign adviser and national security adviser in waiting, Michael Flynn, tweeted it out. Breitbart, the most widely shared right-wing online site whose on-leave CEO Steve Bannon was then running Trump’s campaign, aired an interview constructed of pure disinformation. It seems highly unlikely that any of the people involved—Prince, Flynn, or the publishers of Breitbart—thought that the accusation that Hillary Clinton had flown six times to Orgy Island was anything other than utterly false, and yet they published it four days before the election on Breitbart’s radio station and online. Not one right-wing outlet came out to criticize and expose this blatant lie for what it was. [my emphasis] In the grip of the propaganda feedback loop, the right-wing media ecosystem had no mechanism for self-correction, and instead exhibited dynamics of self-reinforcement, confirmation, and repetition so that readers, viewers, and listeners encountered multiple versions of the same story, over months, to the point that both recall and credibility were enhanced. It is hardly surprising, then, that a YouGov poll from December 2016 found that over 40 percent of Republican respondents thought that it was at least somewhat likely that someone was running a pedophilia ring out of the Clinton campaign.

This disinformation had real-world consequences. In December, a young man fired three shots in a DC-area pizza restaurant supposedly involved in the pedophilia ring.

Despite extensive efforts, we were unable to find an example of disinformation or commercial clickbait started on the left, or aimed from abroad at the left, that took hold and became widely reported and believed in the broader network that stretches from the center to the left for any meaningful stretch of time

A second set of examples came from the “fake news awards” President Trump announced in 2017.

Comparing the Uranium One, Seth Rich, and Lolita Express and Orgy Island diffusion patterns we observed in earlier chapters on the one hand, and the various winners of the “fake news awards” on the other hand, underscores the fundamentally different dynamics in the right wing as compared to the rest of the American political media ecosystem. When observing right-wing conspiracy theories, we saw positive feedback loops between the core of that network—composed of Fox News, leading Republican pundits, and Breitbart—and the remainder of the online right-wing network. In those cases we saw repetition, amplification, and circling of the wagons to criticize other media outlets when these exposed the errors and failures of the story. By contrast, the mainstream media ecosystem exhibited intensive competition to hold each other to high journalistic standards, and a repeated pattern of rapid removal of content, correction, and in several cases disciplining of the reporters involved. Moreover, in none of these cases did we find more than a smattering of repetition and amplification of the claims once retracted.

Why doesn’t the Left do the same thing? This is one of the book’s more interesting points. People watch news programs for two purposes: to stay informed and to have their worldview reaffirmed. Since the 1980s, the Right has established an alternate news system that primarily serves the second purpose. But this isn’t just an ideological crusade, it also makes money.

So why doesn’t a parallel system make money on the Left? (It’s been tried. Air America tried to establish liberal talk radio during the Bush years, but went bankrupt.) Various liberal news outlets exist, but they’ve never escaped from the mainstream news ecosystem. It’s tempting to claim some superior virtue on the Left, but that’s not where Network Propaganda goes. Instead, it finds a first-mover advantage: Once a self-contained right-wing propaganda system exists, it allows the left-wing audience to gets its worldview affirmation from the center.

But once one wing has established the strategy of partisan bias confirmation, the centrist media with their truth-seeking institutions and reputations suddenly deliver a new benefit to partisans of the opposite pole—as objective external arbiters they can offer institutionalized credibility to reinforce their view that what their opposition is saying is false. Once one partisan media pole is established, the coverage of existing objective media outlets takes on a partisan flavor without any shift in their own focus on objectivity.

The mainstream media will be able to reconcile their goals of truth-seeking and confirmation from the center with providing a steady flow of partisan-confirming news for the wing in opposition to the wing that is already in the grip of the propaganda feedback loop. The outlets that formed the partisan ecosystem have a first-mover advantage over outlets that try to copy them on the opposite side, because as they decrease the value of the mainstream media to their own audiences, they increase it for the putative audiences of their opponents. The further the first-moving partisan media ecosystem goes down the path of its own propaganda feedback loop, the greater its tendency to produce untrue statements, and the greater the opportunities for reality-check centrist media organizations to deliver news that is both truthful and pleasing to partisans from the other side.

Fox is not a news network. During the primary campaign, Fox News represented traditional conservatism and was skeptical of Trump. Consequently, it lost ground to Breitbart as the center of right-wing coverage. After the election, though, it regained its standing by going full Trump.

Chapter 5, “The Fox Diet”, demonstrates how not just the content, but the timing, of Fox coverage derived from what the Trump administration needed, rather than what was new or true or relevant.

One case involves the argument that Democratic activist Seth Rich was murdered to hide the fact that he, not Russia, was responsible for leaking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails. The other case involves use of a story surrounding a company called Uranium One to attack the integrity and independence of the key law enforcement officers involved in the special counsel investigation. The timing and pattern we show in these case studies strongly suggest that they were launched for the specific partisan purpose of deflecting the Trump-Russia allegations and undermining the special counsel investigation. And in the two specifically fact-based cases, we show that Fox News actively promoted these stories despite the fact that they were repeatedly fact checked and debunked by a wide variety of professional journalists.

Both the Seth Rich and Uranium One stories had initially flared and died down, but re-emerged months or even years later when Trump needed them to shift the narrative. Uranium One was initially an anti-Clinton story early in the campaign, but was repackaged after the election as an Deep-State-law-enforcement story when the Mueller investigation heated up and Trump needed to undermine its credibility.

Manipulating the mainstream media. The existence of a propaganda network, one that constantly accuses traditional journalists of bias, puts those journalists under constant pressure to prove their objectivity. Often this takes the form of “balance” — finding a negative story about one side to balance a negative story about the other.

a core driver of the [Clinton] email focus was misapplication of the objectivity norm as even-handedness or balance, rather than truth seeking. If professional journalistic objectivity means balance and impartiality, and one is confronted with two candidates who are highly unbalanced—one consistently lies and takes positions that were off the wall for politicians before his candidacy, and the other is about as mainstream and standard as plain vanilla—it is genuinely difficult to maintain balanced coverage. The solution was uniformly negative coverage, as Patterson and colleagues showed, and a heavy focus on detailed objective facts. The emails were catnip for professional journalists. They gave journalists something concrete to work with. They had the aura of salacious reporting of uncovered secrets, while being unimpeachably factual and professional. And they allowed the mainstream publications to appear balanced in that their coverage of the two candidates was equally hard-hitting and tough.

The result was that Trump by far got the advantage of news coverage during the campaign: Coverage of Clinton tended to be about scandals, many of which had dubious substance. Trump, on the other hand, got covered for his positions on immigration, jobs, and trade.

Articles about Clinton in The New York Times and Washington Post often had scandalous headlines that were walked back by details far down the column. Such articles were frequently cited on the Right (as NYT and WaPo stories seldom are) to validate an anti-Clinton narrative.

Consider where the actual balance-of-scandals tilted: the Trump sexual harassment stories had numerous first-person witnesses, while the Trump University fraud eventually required a $25 million settlement. Supposed scandals about the Clinton Foundation were almost entirely conspiracy theories, while the largely uninvestigated Trump Foundation is currently facing a lawsuit calling for its dissolution for self-dealing. And yet this was the balance of coverage:

The Right needs this kind of mainstream cooperation, because the number of people who live inside the right-wing bubble is somewhere iin the range of 25-30% of the population — not nearly enough to win elections.

Russia and other bad actors. The good news in the book is the authors’ conclusion that Russian social media campaigns, fake news entrepreneurs, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook’s news algorithms actually had little effect on the course of news coverage.

The Russians tried but were unlikely to have been a critical factor. The commercial bullshit artists made some money, but were peripheral. And while Facebook’s data team certainly did make it possible for a complete outsider running with little help from party institutions to identify millions of voters and reach out to them effectively, the Cambridge Analytica manipulative advertising and the dark ads part of the story was still, in 2016, more of a red herring than the game changer some made it out to be.

[Note: This is about the effectiveness of Russian social media campaigns. No one disputes that the DNC emails hacked by the Russians and distributed by WikiLeaks had a major impact.]

However, the existence of a right-wing propaganda ecosystem, with correspondingly low resistance to false facts it wants to believe, is a continuing vulnerability in the American political system. As long as it exists, it will be open to outside manipulation.

Russian propaganda seems to have targeted both sides, and Facebook clickbait sites tried to manipulate denizens of all sides of the American public sphere. But, just as we saw in the case of the competing Trump rape and Clinton pedophilia frames, the responsiveness and success appear to have been very different in the two parts of the media ecosystem. In the right-wing media the propaganda feedback loop enabled conspiracy theories, false rumors, and logically implausible claims to perform better, survive longer, and be shared more widely than were parallel efforts aimed at the left.

The authors also saw little effect from far-right-wing groups (like white supremacists) seeding their messages into the right-wing core. The problem wasn’t that VDare or The Daily Stormer manipulated Fox News into spreading racist anti-immigrant messages, but that Fox went looking for those memes.

In general,

a population with high trust in bias-confirming news and high distrust in bias-disconfirming, professional-norms-driven media will be more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns than a population that has generally higher trust in professional journalism on average, but lower trust in any given media outlet…. As Joanne Miller and her collaborators and, independently, Adam Berinsky have shown, for Democrats, the more knowledgeable they are about politics, the less likely they are to accept conspiracy theories or unsubstantiated rumors that harm their ideological opponents. But for Republicans more knowledge results in, at best, no change in the rate at which they accept conspiracy theories, and at worst, actually increases their willingness to accept such theories.

What can be done? Something, but not a lot. Mainstream media needs to recognize that it lives in a propaganda-rich environment, and that the propaganda does not come equally from both sides.

When mainstream professional media sources insist on coverage that performs their own neutrality by giving equal weight to opposing views, even when one is false and the other is not, they fail. … [T]he present journalistic practice of objectivity as neutrality has perverse effects in the media ecosystem we document here. By maintaining the “one side says x, the other side says y” model of objectivity in the presence of highly asymmetric propaganda efforts, mainstream media become sources of legitimation and amplification for the propagandists.

Instead of balance, mainstream journalism needs to focus on truth-seeking and accountability. The authors make an interesting suggestion about, for example, anonymous sources. A responsible editor will insist on knowing a reporter’s sources, but an irresponsible organization could abuse that practice. What if some independent, highly trusted organization were set up that news organizations could use to verify their anonymous sources without revealing them? The system might function like peer review in science.

Journalists also need to apply skepticism to illicitly obtained documents that come from, say, Russian hackers rather than whistle-blowers.

Recognizing the asymmetry we document here requires editors to treat tips or “exclusives,” as well as emails or other leaked or hacked documents with greater care than they have in the past few years. The “Fool me once, shame on you . . .” adage suggests that after, for example, the New York Times’s experience with Peter Schweizer and the Uranium One story, mainstream professional journalists need to understand that they are subject to a persistent propaganda campaign trying to lure them into amplifying and accrediting propaganda. This happens of course as normal politics from both sides of the partisan system, but our work here shows that one side is armed with a vastly more powerful engine for generating and propagating propaganda.

But ultimately the Right will have to fix itself. It may seem far-fetched at the moment, but traditional conservatives (as opposed to white supremacists or other right-wing extremists) must already realize that the current system is not working for them.

There is nothing conservative about calling career law enforcement officials and the intelligence community the “deep state.” The fact that the targets of the attack, like Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, or Andrew McCabe, were life-long Republicans merely underscores that fact. There is nothing conservative about calling for a trade war. There is nothing conservative about breaking from long-held institutional norms for short-term political advantage. And there is nothing conservative about telling Americans to reject the consensus estimate of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA that we were attacked by Russia and suggesting instead that these agencies are covering up for a DNC conspiracy. What has happened first and foremost to make all these things possible is that the Republican Party has been taken over by ever-more right-wing politicians.

The authors suggest that a series of election losses might motivate such a re-assessment of where the trends of the last 30 years have brought the conservative movement. Network Propaganda was published prior to the recent midterm elections, but we can hope that 2018 was the first in a series of such losses.

The Big Picture: From Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump

The author of On Tyranny is back with a travelogue of The Road to Unfreedom


For several years now, we’ve been observing a global trend of once-democratic countries moving towards fascism. The paradigmic example is Putin’s Russia, but various other “right-wing populist” leaders have taken their countries some greater or lesser distance down the same road: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Trump in the US, and (soon) Bolsonaro in Brazil. Even in countries that have held the extreme right at bay, some proto-fascist party has shown surprising strength: National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party, and several others.

Each country has a unique story to tell about personalities, opposition weakness, dissatisfaction among key voting blocs, or previous government corruption. But when you look at the larger picture, you have to ask why. Why now? Why the right rather than the left? Why everywhere at once?

Timothy Snyder has an answer for you. Like all big theories, it’s a bit speculative. If you want a case ready to take to court, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for way to tell one big story about the current crisis of democracy rather than framing it as an unfortunate convergence of many little stories, his recent book The Road to Unfreedom is as a good a narrative as I’ve found.

To an extent, I’m misrepresenting The Road to Unfreedom in this article. I’ll be focusing on the abstract stuff in the background, the frame that holds it together. But Snyder’s book is anything but abstract; it is also a detailed description of how the internal politics of Putin’s Russia led to the invasion of Ukraine, and then to information warfare against the European Union and the United States. It maps out the common tactics that show up again and again, from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump.

But why did those tactics work so well in so many different countries?

Two mythologies and the reality they hide. Snyder points to a sea change in the dominant mythology of democratic societies. For decades, we have been living under a flawed but more-or-less benign mythology he calls “the politics of inevitability”, which is a version of the myth of progress: Irreversible historical trends are pushing us towards an “end of history” in which all nations will become human-rights-respecting democracies joined in a global market. As we approach this goal, many good things are supposed to happen: societies become more tolerant, more and more groups achieve justice and get their rights recognized, and technological progress leads to economic growth that raises the overall standard of living.

The exact timing of these benefits may depend on some heroic action here or there, and occasionally there might be a temporary setback. But the overall outcome is destined; it just happens.

Politics in an era of inevitability becomes either boring or frustrating, depending on your point of view. On issue after issue — a new trade pact, a newly recognized civil right, a new market, new patterns of behavior that correspond to new technologies — there seems to be no real choice. The Future is going there; you either get with the program or you don’t.

Over the last two decades or so, that myth has been undermined, by a lack of progress, by hitting environmental limits, and by contradictions among the various values “the Future” was supposed to optimize. Climate change presents a possibility of dystopia rather than utopia. Both globalization and technological change have produced losers as well as winners. As new groups get their rights recognized, groups privileged by the old arrangements may feel less and less at home; society used to fit them like a glove, and it no longer does. The increased freedom of capitalists may lead to decreased opportunities for workers, and while overall economic growth may continue, the new wealth may simply pile up at the top.

Occasionally, the failure of inevitability manifests in some shocking statistic like this one: Life expectancy in the United States fell in both 2015 and 2016. The drop (from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2016) corresponded to an increase in deaths related to hopelessness: drug overdoses and suicides. In the face of such news, the rhetoric of inevitable progress becomes unconvincing.

The faltering of inevitability has made room for a rival myth that Snyder calls “the politics of eternity”: Your own group (whatever it is) is perpetually virtuous and innocent, but it is surrounded and assailed by evil enemies. He refers to this viewpoint as “eternal” because the story never changes.

When each day is devoted to emotional venting about supposed enemies, the present becomes endless, eternal.

Nothing your group does can ever besmirch its innocence, and the rightful steps it takes to defend itself will never be accepted by the evil forces that assail it. All victories and defeats are just temporary. Only an annihilating defeat or a millennial victory at the end of time could truly break the cycle.

Both myths hide the reality that history is whatever humans make it. We are perpetually confronted with choices, and many outcomes are possible. Humanity makes progress (or not) depending on what we do. Virtue is not something we are born with or inherit from our ancestors; it either manifests in our actions or it does not.

Fictionalization. Inevitability politicians offer an idealized future. Eternity politicians have no utopian vision, so they instead offer a return to an idealized past. If you are suffering here and now, inevitability frames your pain as an aberration or a temporary inconvenience or a worthy sacrifice. Eternity, on the other hand, has no better future to offer you, but it tells you who to blame.

An eternity politician defines foes rather than formulating policies.

One key difference between the two myths is that the Future actually arrives, a little bit at a time. So the case for progress is inherently a fact-based case. An inevitability politician may make up facts, perhaps, or twist them, but he can’t do without them. “A plausible future,” Snyder writes, “requires a factual present.”

But eternity-politics requires only struggle, and the less factual the struggle, the easier it is to maintain. A real struggle might come to some conclusion, but an entirely made-up one never will.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

So, for example, the millions of illegal voters who decide American elections can’t be stopped, because they’re not real. The struggle against them will go on forever. Democrats can never stop trying to take your guns, because they weren’t trying to take your guns in the first place. The War on Christmas will come back every year, regardless of anything the faithful might do to defend themselves.

People believe these narratives because they are emotionally satisfying, not because they are factual. And so eternity propaganda doesn’t simply repeat what it wants the public to believe, but attempts to destroy the public’s confidence in any factual present or coherent narrative of history. Snyder describes Putin’s propaganda during the invasion of Ukraine like this:

According to Russian propaganda, Ukrainian society was full of nationalists but not a nation; the Ukrainian state was repressive but did not exist; Russians were forced to speak Ukrainian though there was no such language.

The point is not to win a rational argument, but to make rational argument impossible.

The tools and attitudes of ordinary journalism have failed to deal with this more fundamental attack.

One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. … The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

And if the war is against factuality itself, the press becomes an enemy of the People.

in the Russian model, investigative reporting must be marginalized so that news can become a daily spectacle. The point of spectacle is to summon the emotions of both supporters and detractors and to confirm and strengthen polarization; every news cycle creates euphoria or depression, and reinforces a conviction that politics is about friends and enemies at home, rather than about policy that might improve the lives of citizens.

Already in 2014, as the Russia was invading Ukraine, Putin was unveiling a media strategy that has since become very familiar to American news consumers.

Western editors, although they had the reports of the Russian invasion on their desks in the late days of February and the early days of March 2014, chose to feature Putin’s exuberant denials. And so the narrative of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted in a subtle but profound way: it was not about what was happening to Ukrainians, but about what the Russian president chose to say about Ukraine.

You might think that history would be useful to a nostalgic movement, but only a vague, cherry-picked history will do. Putin, for example, is the heroic inheritor of both the czars and the Soviets who overthrew them. Similarly in the United States, Trumpists simultaneously revere the statues of slave-owning Confederates and blame slavery on the Democrats, claiming the legacies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as it suits them. Actual history will never support the perpetual virtue and innocence of Russians, Americans, or anyone else, so it must be made incoherent as well.

Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.

Why Russia? In the West, the Great Recession of 2008 was a hammer blow to the myth of inevitability. For communities that had been stagnant or even falling behind for decades, it put an exclamation point on a growing sense that utopia was not coming.

But Russia had gotten to that point much sooner. Within one generation, the fall of the Soviet Union blasted away the Communist vision of historical inevitability, and the corruption and incompetence of the Yeltsin regime discredited the market-democracy alternative. So Russia was the ideal place to hone the new tactics, because it was ahead of other nations on the path to despair and cynicism.

From the beginning of his rule, Putin offered Russians narratives of danger, first from the terrorist Chechens. But after his fraudulent re-election in 2011 brought protesters into the streets, Putin decided he needed a larger enemy: the West, and particularly the United States. The protests, he claimed, resulted from a conspiracy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Putin’s subsequent information war on the West has been motivated by internal politics. Russians know that their own democracy is a fraud, but Putin needs them to understand that all democracies are frauds. No Western nation should stand as an example Russians can aspire to.

Trump. Snyder goes into considerable detail about the course of the Ukraine war (where the current stalemate serves Putin’s interest), as well as the particular myths that have made the European Union vulnerable to attacks like Brexit. But let’s skip straight to Trump.

Trump’s advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended upon American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray, on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character “Donald Trump, successful businessman” in the 2016 presidential election.

Snyder often repeats the  notion of “Donald Trump, successful businessman” as a fundamentally fictional character.

In these conditions, a fictional candidate enjoyed a considerable advantage.

From his campaign through his administration, Trump has been about spectacle and outrage, rather than about substantive plans to improve the lives of Americans — even the Americans who voted for him. He provides emotional benefits for his followers — an energizing anger, self-righteousness, and revenge against largely imaginary enemies — rather than healthcare or highways or schools.

Trump governed just as he had run for office: as a producer of outrage rather than as a formulator of policy.

This can only work for an electorate that expects nothing better from government. And in that sense, it is the failure of inevitability politics that made us vulnerable.

The American politics of inevitability also prepared the way for the American politics of eternity more directly: by generating and legitimizing vast economic inequality at home. If there was no alternative to capitalism, then perhaps yawning gaps in wealth and income should be ignored, explained away, or even welcomed? If more capitalism meant more democracy, why worry? These mantras of inevitability provided the cover for the policies that made America more unequal, and inequality more painful.

Trump’s message resonated (at least among whites) wherever there was hopelessness.

The correlation between opioid use and Trump voting was spectacular and obvious, notably in the states that Trump had to win. … Every Pennsylvania county that Obama won in 2012 but Trump won in 2016 was in opioid crisis.  … With one exception, every Ohio county in opioid crisis posted significant gains for Trump in 2016 over Romney in 2012. … In Scioto County, Ohio, ground zero of the American opioid epidemic, Trump took a spectacular 33% more votes than Romney had.

It was in the localities where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great. Without inequality, without a sense that the future was closed, he could not have found the supporters he needed.

Getting off the road to unfreedom. The recent mid-term elections demonstrated that Americans are not yet in thrall to eternity politics. The final tallies are not in yet, but in the best measure of national sentiment — the total popular vote for the House — Trump’s party looks to have lost by something like 8%. (Obama’s 2008 landslide was a 7% victory.)

But as we can see by looking at other countries, Trump is not unique. It was the failure of our politics and our culture that made us vulnerable to eternity politics. In Snyder’s view, we need to resist the charms of national mythology.

To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. To avoid the temptation of eternity, we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as a citizenry rather than as groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither.

He ends with a call for a “politics of responsibility”, one recognizing that history has no direction of its own, and that we have no pre-ordained special role inside it. We can make a better world if we collectively decide to do so, but we can’t just wait for the better world to arrive on its own.

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity, and exit the road to unfreedom

On Bullshifting

If you ever discuss politics on social media and your friend-o-sphere has any partisan diversity at all, undoubtedly you’ve run into this tactic: You’re in a discussion about some Trump outrage — favoring Putin’s interests over America’s, seizing the children of immigrants making a legal application for asylum, “draining the swamp” by asking us to stomach conflicts of interest an a scale previously unknown in American history, or one of the many others — when somebody comes out with “Yeah, but what about …” and then refers to some right-wing conspiracy theory you’ve never heard before about Obama, the Clintons, George Soros, the Mueller investigation, or something else.

It takes maybe five minutes to find whatever-it-is on Snopes, and maybe another ten (if you’re trying to be conscientious and not just rejecting unwelcome theories out of hand) to satisfy yourself that it really is a piece of baseless nonsense. [1]

And then what do you do?

If you just move on, no one else benefits from the research you’ve done, and other readers of the thread might think the point actually has some validity. (Although probably not. People who do this once have probably done it dozens of times, and their friends have caught on by now.) But if you respond, then the Trumpist comes back with three more ridiculous claims — the sources you’ve relied on are all part of the Deep State conspiracy, the Sandy Hook parents are really crisis actors, and you’ve ignored the implications of PizzaGate completely — and now you’re in a full-blown argument that has nothing to do with Trump at all. In fact, it has nothing to do with anything, because the whole discussion has veered off into CrazyLand.

And that was the point, wasn’t it? The person you’re arguing with actually doesn’t care about Andrew McCabe’s wife’s run for the legislature or Lisa Page’s text messages or how Vince Foster died or whatever else you’re now talking about. Once there was a discussion about something indefensible Trump was doing, and now there’s a discussion about bullshit. Mission accomplished!

This tactic is sometimes called Whataboutism, but that’s actually a more general term. The Whataboutist is also trying to divert your attention from an uncomfortable present issue onto some tangentially related issue, but there’s a difference: The Whataboutist’s new topic might actually be related and might actually be an issue.

So if you’re talking about Trump’s abuse of women and a Whataboutist brings up Bill Clinton, that’s probably also a bad-faith attempt to change the subject — it’s hard to see why Clinton stories that have been around since the 1990s are more topical than the long series of Trump stories that started coming out after the Access Hollywood tape appeared and may not be done yet — but at least it’s real: There actually was a Monica Lewinsky scandal, even if it has nothing to do with anything today. [2] Similarly, if you’re complaining about how the Trump tax cut blows up the deficit and someone tries to change the subject to the even-larger deficits of Obama’s first couple of years, that’s not just a true fact that a thoughtful person might actually wonder about, there’s even something important to understand about it. (Deficits intended to pull the economy out of a deep recession can be economically responsible. Deficits intended to keep an expansion going past its sell-by date never are.)

But when the topic you get derailed onto has no basis in reality, that trick deserves its own term, and I recently ran across one: Bullshifting. [3]

Bullshifting is a conversational judo move that uses your own outrage against you. Precisely because the suggested topic is so stupid and such a complete waste of your time, it’s hard not to respond. The Bullshifter is mimicking exactly the behavior you have probably fantasized about attacking. He or she is like a bird that pretends to be wounded to draw a predator away from its nest. “I’m so gullible,” s/he seems to be announcing. “I’m such a mindless drone for Alex Jones. I repeat every ridiculous thing Sean Hannity says. Come humiliate me in front of everybody.”

But the predator never catches the bird with the fake-broken wing, and you never successfully humiliate the Bullshifter either. Because Bullshifters argue in bad faith, they can make up whatever facts are necessary to wriggle out of any refutation you come up with. (In a good-faith argument, you can eventually reach mutual agreement on some kind of ground truth that future deductions can build on: Water is wet; granite is heavy. But bad-faith arguments are bottomless.) All that happens is that you get drawn farther and farther away from your original valid point. [4]

So what is the proper response to Bullshifting? When the culprits are people that the rest of your social media universe will recognize as wingnuts without your help, you should just ignore them, as hard as that is. If you feel that you must engage, I recommend that you label the comment rather than respond to it: “Nice attempt to bullshift. But my original point stands: [restate].”

If they respond by raging at you, repeat the loop: Can you ignore? If you can, do. If not, call bullshift and restate.

The first few times you do this, you may need to educate your social-media friends by posting a link to this article or some other explanation of the concept. If you’re lucky, the Bullshifter will leave a nasty comment here rather than on your Facebook wall. You will have successful shifted the shifter.

No need to thank me. It’s a public service of The Weekly Sift.


[1] This is an example of Brandolini’s Law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

[2] When Hillary was running for president, Whataboutists could make some triple-bank-shot argument about why Bill’s misdeeds were relevant. But now that both of the Clintons are private citizens and likely to remain so, there’s really no reason to ever discuss Monica again.

[3] I would credit the coiner if I could determine who it is. If you google it, you’ll find that bullshift also has several other meanings — that’s why I’m having trouble tracking down the origin of this usage — but they’re sufficiently different to avoid confusion.

This meaning of bullshifting derives from the technical meaning of bullshitting, as described in 1986 by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his seminal paper “On Bullshit” (which was later expanded into a book).

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So when a used car salesman tells you how conscientiously a car’s former owner maintained it, he is probably bullshitting rather than lying. Quite likely he has no idea what the truth of the matter is and doesn’t care. He just wants to sell you the car.

Donald Trump is the quintessential bullshitter. He described an instance of his own bullshitting at a fundraiser in March:

[Canadian Prime Minister] Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, “No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please.” Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — “Donald, we have no trade deficit.” He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed. … So, he’s proud. I said, “Wrong, Justin, you do.” I didn’t even know. … I had no idea. I just said, “You’re wrong.”

There’s been a lot of discussion in the media about when to label a false Trump statement as a “lie” rather than to use “demonstrable falsehood” or some other euphemism, none of which seem quite right. The problem is that the most precise characterization of the majority of Trump’s false statements — as well as his true statements and almost every assertion that comes out of his mouth — is “bullshit”, a word that most mainstream publications would rather not use.

[4] Unsurprisingly, the champion Bullshifter is Trump himself. In Helsinki, when he was asked whether he believed American intelligence services (headed by people he appointed himself) or Vladimir Putin, Trump first had to veer off into the “mystery” of the missing DNC server. (As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Poulsen explains, “Trump’s ‘Missing DNC Server’ is Neither Missing Nor a Server“.) Anybody who tries to cover his answer conscientiously first has to wade through the bullshit, which was why Trump spread it in the first place.

Returning to the Well of White Resentment

As Republicans in Congress back away from Trump, he throws red meat to his base.


When things go wrong, you go back to basics. As the down-home saying has it: “I’ll dance with who brung me.”

What “brung” Donald Trump to the White House was not the support of establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, but the white resentment that had built up during the eight years of the Obama administration. And as Congressional Republicans start to back away from him, Trump is responding by going back to that well.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild started studying the Trump base years before anybody knew they’d be the Trump base. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land,  she summed up their “deep story” — the narrative of how life feels to them — like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

It’s tricky to argue with this narrative, because they’re not wrong about being stuck in an unmoving line: Middle-class wages have been stagnating for decades. The jobs you can get without a college education are going away, except for the insecure ones that don’t pay much. And college is increasingly a highly leveraged gamble: If you don’t finish your degree, or just guess wrong about where the future jobs will be, you may end up so deep in debt that you’re worse off than if you hadn’t tried.

What’s wrong with that deep story is in who it blames: Immigrants, blacks, and Muslims, not the CEOs who send jobs to Indonesia, or the tax-cutting politicians who also cut money for education and training, or the lax anti-trust enforcement that keeps monopolies from competing for workers and funnels so much of America’s economic growth to corporations that occupy a few key choke points. The story, in a nutshell is: Get angry about the real problems in your life, and then let yourself be manipulated into blaming people who are even worse off than you.

Writing in The Washington Post on Friday, Christine Emba summarized how Trump uses this deep story.

First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin: Employment? Immigration? College? Take your pick. Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, [administration] officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!

Misdirecting blame onto well-chosen scapegoats is the heart of the Trump technique. Two weeks ago I described how environmentalists have been scapegoated for the decline in coal-mining jobs, taking the real causes — automation and fracking — out of the conversation. This week, in the wake of TrumpCare’s failure, a brewing rebellion in Congress, and the increasing likelihood that the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia will actually get somewhere, those dastardly immigrants and minorities were front-and-center again.

Why can’t working-class kids get into Harvard? Tuesday, the NYT’s Charlie Savage reported that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is looking for lawyers interested in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This appears to presage an attack on affirmative action programs which disadvantage white and sometimes Asians applicants.

Such cases have been litigated for decades, with the outcome so far that affirmative action programs are OK if they are narrowly tailored to serve the goal of creating a diverse student body, which can improve the university’s educational experience for all its students. (Two examples: A history class’ discussion of slavery is going to be more real if some participants are black. And an all-white management program might be poor preparation for actual management jobs.)

Black comedian Chuck Nice lampooned the affirmative-action-is-keeping-my-kid-out-of-Harvard view Friday on MSNBC’s “The Beat”:

I am so happy this has finally come to the fore the way it should be, because whenever I walk onto an Ivy League campus, I always say to myself “Where are the white people?”

Emba’s article was more analytic:

Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods.

The real concern is how hard it is for children of the white working class to either get a top-flight education or succeed without one. Nobody’s laughing about that. But the compelling falsehood is to scapegoat blacks, who have an even smaller chance of getting ahead. The truly blameworthy people who get taken off the hook are the rich, and particularly the old-money families whose children have been going to Yale for generations. They’re the ones who are sucking up all the opportunity.

At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate.

If you want to blame somebody for why your children didn’t get into their first-choice schools, consider Jared Kushner. Daniel Golden had already researched Jared’s case for his 2006 book, The Price of Admission. In November, when Trump’s win made Jared (and Golden’s book) newsworthy, Golden summarized his findings:

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

It’s not that Somali immigrants are cutting in line ahead of your kid. It’s that there’s a different line for the very rich; your kid was never allowed to get into it.

Let’s shut down immigration, especially by people who don’t speak English. Donald Trump literally loves immigrants; that’s where his mom came from, and two of his three wives. His Mom, though, came from Scotland, where they speak something closely resembling English. And while Melania has a distinct Eastern-European accent, she was what Julia Ioffe calls “the right kind of immigrant. She is a beautiful white woman from Europe, and we like those.”

Those grubby brown Spanish-speaking immigrants, though, something has to be done about them. So Wednesday Trump endorsed a plan by Republican Senators Cotton and Perdue to cut legal immigration in half, and introduce a point system that favors English-speaking, youth, wealth, and education. (Homework: Try to figure out whether your own ancestors could have made it into the country under this system. I’m not sure about mine.)

The plan has virtually no chance of becoming law. Since it was introduced in the Senate a few months ago, no new sponsors have signed on. A number of other Republican senators criticized it, and it seems unlikely even to come up for a vote.

So the point of Wednesday’s push by the White House was purely to throw some red meat to the base. It also gave White House adviser Stephen Miller (who you may remember from his chilling quote in February that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”) a chance to get in front of the cameras and repeat a number of falsehoods about immigrants and their effect on the economy.

He also got to dog whistle to white nationalists. When CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged how this plan aligns with the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free … ), Miller waved aside the poem as something that was “added later” and accused Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias”.

The added-later part is true, sort of. Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” as part of a fund-raising campaign for the statue’s base, and it has been part of the monument for only 114 of its 131 years. The idea that its addition was somehow a usurpation of the statue’s original meaning is popular on the alt-right:

We’re having this “great war of national identity” because our New York-based Jewish elite no longer has the power to control the Narrative. The fake news Lügenpresse has steadily lost its legitimacy. Thanks to the internet, the smartphone and social media, they are losing control over everything from radio to publishing to video. I now have the capability to fire an Alt-Right cruise missile of truth from rural Alabama right back at David Brooks in New York City.

The “Occidental Dissent” blog recognized that Miller was repeating its case and felt suitably validated.

Chances are, you have never heard cosmopolitan used as an insult before, either. But that’s because you travel in the wrong circles. Nationalist movements have often used it to denote fellow citizens they thought might fit in better somewhere else. Stalin used it against Jews. It also traces back to Mussolini and Hitler. American white nationalists know this kind of history, which is what makes the word a good dog whistle.

Both these incidents go with Trump’s endorsement of police violence last week, the transgender ban, and his attempt to revive anti-Hillary-Clinton animus in West Virginia Wednesday. Governing is proving to be difficult, so he is trying to relive the glory days of the campaign. We should expect to see a lot more of it.

Climate of Propaganda

Bret Stephens’ climate column serves one very important purpose: It illustrates Jason Stanley’s model of propaganda.


Few issues in American politics are as frustrating as climate change. It’s a real concern with potentially catastrophic consequences. The basic scientific description of the problem — burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which warms the planet by blocking infrared radiation from escaping into space — is solid and hasn’t changed for decades. Every few years, the public seems to be getting energized about the problem, and it looks like we might finally get serious about taking action. But then we don’t.

At the moment we’re in one of our hopeless phases, where science-deniers are in power and we have to focus on preserving what little progress we’ve made rather than building on it. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up every year. That’s not a conjecture or the result of some complicated computer model, it’s a measurement that gets made regularly by a NOAA laboratory on a mountaintop in Hawaii.

If the overall situation is frustrating in one way, attempting to change people’s minds about climate change is frustrating in a different way. You can go into an argument feeling that you have facts and logic on your side, and feel the same way afterwards, but at the same time realize that you didn’t convince anybody. Too often, environmentalists come out of a debate with a feeling of “What just happened?”

A good case in point was the discussion sparked ten days ago by Bret Stephens’ introductory NYT column “Climate of Complete Certainty“, which raised the specter of “overweening scientism” — radical environmentalists who claim 100% certainty for their predictions of global catastrophe and are “censoriously asserting [their] moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables”. The problem, in Stephens’ presentation, isn’t the scientists doing honest research on the climate, it’s the people pushing “ever harder to pass climate legislation” and “demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy”.

In many ways, the column was just another page from the science-denial playbook written in the 1970s by the tobacco industry: Emphasize the uncertainty of scientific findings, and from there argue that any action would be too hasty. We shouldn’t ban tobacco products, or restrict where smokers can light up, or put excessive taxes on cigarettes, or hold tobacco companies liable for public health problems, or even change our own individual smoking habits, because there’s still doubt. Of course we should take action once it’s been proven that tobacco causes cancer, but until the evidence is so conclusive that even the Tobacco Institute is convinced — which it never will be — we should wait and see. [1]

So Stephens isn’t anti-climate-research, he’s just criticizing the people who want to take action based on that research.

Or is he? There’s a puzzling vagueness to the column that made it very hard to argue against. Stephens didn’t name any of the “overweening” people who claim total certainty for uncertain things, or even identify what those claims are. The only specific example in the piece is a lengthy analogy that has no direct connection to the climate: the data-driven managers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, who believed they were coasting to victory. They were wrong, so maybe the data-driven predictions of unnamed environmentalists are wrong too.

In other words, Stephens’ column is a very good example of that what-just-happened phenomenon. When I first read it, it seemed to be making some larger point that cried out for refutation. But the objectionable point had a vaporous quality; it didn’t seem to be contained in any particular sentence that I could quote and refute. Take this one for example:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

Like a number of other critics, I might argue with the characterization of 1.5 degrees in 130 years as “modest” — until humanity started affecting in the climate, a change like that usually took millennia rather than decades — but overall, the statement is correct: It’s indisputable that we’re changing the climate, but it’s a lot iffier to predict exactly how fast that change will play out or which catastrophic events will happen when. For example, the land-borne ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica might trickle slowly into the oceans and raise sea level over centuries, or one or more of them might suddenly slide into the water like an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke. Nobody really knows.

Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter that Stephens quotes admiringly (but who believes that “uncertainty, informed and bounded by science, is actionable knowledge” [2]), notes that changes in rainfall patterns are hard to predict: Some models show droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, while others foresee rainfall increasing.

I don’t have any trouble acknowledging that kind of uncertainty, and neither do most of the environmental writers I follow. So why do I feel like something Stephens’ column demands an argument?

What we’re seeing here is a masterful example of propaganda, as described in Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, which I reviewed in 2015.

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

What’s being activated in Stephens’ column is a stereotype that Fox News, talk radio, and other conservative media has been drilling into its audience for years: Liberals don’t respect you. They look down on you, they think you’re stupid, and because they’re educated they think they can fool you with technical mumbo-jumbo that isn’t true.

That’s the point of talking about the Clintons and using words like deplorable. By doing so, Stephens invokes a previously successful application of the stereotype. You know the way you resent and distrust Hillary? You should feel that way about anybody who wants action on climate change.

It’s also the point of offering no other examples, and no examples at all from the environmental movement. Who does the stereotype apply to? Whoever you need it to apply to. If listening to Bill Nye or Bill McKibben makes you feel stupid, apply it to them. Al Gore, sure. Your niece who just got back from college, or that know-it-all at work, absolutely. Even real climate researchers like Jim Hansen and Michael Mann — the kind of scientists Stephens’ column seems explicitly not to criticize — can be lumped in if you need to.

If Stephens actually made a case against any of those people, that attack could be fact-checked and refuted. If he specified some particular prediction as over-the-top doomsaying, that prediction could either be defended or it could be demonstrated that the real leaders of the environmental movement do acknowledge the uncertainties involved. But a charge made with complete vagueness, one left hanging for its target audience to apply as it sees fit, can’t be answered in any logical way.

That’s how propaganda works. And in particular, that’s the way you will see propaganda appear in conservative columns in respectable mainstream outlets like The New York Times, or in public speeches by supposedly respectable politicians. The real dirty work has been done elsewhere. The lies and stereotypes have already been planted: Immigrants are criminals who endanger your family. Muslims want to take over America, not assimilate into it; and they all support terrorism whether they admit it or not. The poor are too lazy to work, but want you to support them anyway. Blacks are inferior and can’t really compete with whites, so they want the government to take your job and give it to them.

Anyone who wants to take advantage of such notions doesn’t have to state them in places where critics might demand evidence or poke holes in the argument. Like Bret Stephens, the propagandist just has to allude to them vaguely. The target audience will receive the message, and will enjoy the spectacle of opponents flailing vainly to refute what was never really said.


[1] The tobacco playbook and how it has been used in all sorts of controversies over the last half century has been described in two books I’ve reviewed here in the past: Merchants of Doubt and Doubt is Their Product.

[2] I wish he’d stated that in less complicated language, because it’s a point that needs more emphasis in the national debate, and doesn’t require any difficult scientific analysis.

In everyday life, we deal with uncertainty in two very different ways, depending on the circumstances. When we don’t know what might happen, sometimes we freeze until we do know. If, for example, you have a peanut allergy and you don’t know whether the salad the waitress brought you includes some peanut-derived ingredient, you don’t just eat it and hope you don’t wind up in the ER. You send the waitress to talk to the chef, and you don’t do anything until she gets back.

But in other situations, we respond to uncertainty by preparing for all plausible outcomes. When your child is born, you have no idea whether she’ll want to go to college or what college will cost in 18 years. But you don’t wait 16 or 17 years until you have a clearer idea of what she’ll need; if you do, it’ll already be too late to start saving. The prudent thing is to start that college fund as soon as you can, even though you can’t be 100% certain it’s necessary.

If you’re not sure whether you left the oven on, you don’t start preparing for the possibility that your house might be about to burn down; you stop everything and go home to check, or have someone else check. But if you’re not sure whether your department is about to have a round of lay-offs, you don’t freeze until you know for sure; you start getting your resume in order and checking the temperature of the job market, just in case.

This isn’t fancy research-scientist talk; this is how ordinary people live. Sometimes uncertainty freezes you; sometimes it springs you into action.

We’ve let the fossil-fuel lobby get away with the argument that on climate change, uncertainty should freeze us. (Nobody can tell us exactly when Miami will be underwater, so let’s not do anything.) But this point didn’t make sense when the tobacco industry used it — you can’t be sure cigarettes will give you cancer, so keep puffing away — and it doesn’t make sense now. Certainly that’s not how the Pentagon or the insurance industry is thinking about climate change; they’re planning to live in the future however it turns out, so they’re preparing for the possibilities.

That’s just common sense. Rising oceans, more violent weather, changes in rainfall patterns — these are more like your daughter’s college fund or the possible lay-off than like the salad dressing that might contain peanut oil: Even if they’re uncertain, they’re significant possibilities that we need to be preparing against. If there were some quick way to find out for sure what’s going to happen — asking the chef, checking the oven — maybe it would make sense to freeze and wait; but nobody’s come up with a way to do that, so our preparations have to move forward without that certainty.