Tag Archives: propaganda

How Propaganda Works

Jason Stanley has written an insightful book in the language of philosophers. Let me try to translate.

The popular view of propaganda is that it’s nothing more complicated than repeating the same lie over and over: Just keep telling people that voter fraud is a serious problem, Mexican immigrants are disease-carrying criminals, and more guns will solve the gun-violence problem; eventually they’ll start believing such things and repeating them to their friends. You pound a lie into people’s ears until it starts coming out their mouths.

But why do some falsehoods and misdirections catch on while others don’t? Why are some notions impervious to contrary evidence? How do they win out over truths whose perception ought to be in people’s best interest? Why, for example, will a person be unmoved by a hundred accounts of climate change from qualified experts, then listen to one crank claiming it’s a conspiracy to establish world socialism and think, “I knew it!”

In the marketplace of ideas, not all products are created equal. Some are born with inherent advantages that don’t depend on logic or evidence. How does that work?

In order to explain in an intellectually rigorous way, Yale Philosophy Professor Jason Stanley has to define or redefine a bunch of terms, and then argue that these concepts will survive the slings and arrows that other philosophers are likely to launch at them. For a layman like me, that makes for a slow and repetitive book (though not a tremendously long one: a little less than 300 pages). But while some of the basic ideas are familiar — motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, echo chambers, dog whistles, and so on — it’s rare to see them assembled in such a complete package.

Defining propaganda. Stanley proposes a broader definition of propaganda than just lies; it’s “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate”. In less technical terms, it’s the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, or stereotype to eliminate certain facts or points of view from the discussion.

A specific use of a slur, for example, may not contain any false information, but instead pushes out of mind the humanity of the slurred person or group. Having police pay special attention to “thugs” doesn’t sound as bad as racially profiling young black men. Undermining “that bitch at the office” is easier to justify than driving women out of the workplace. The point of view of “thugs” or “bitches” doesn’t seem worthy of consideration.

Democratic propaganda. The canonical examples of propaganda come from totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, which had ministries of propaganda and officially sanctioned media like Pravda. But Stanley is more interested in the special problem of propaganda in countries that style themselves as liberal democracies, where ideas are supposed to be debated freely in an independent press in front of a autonomous electorate. In America, the echo chambers have unguarded exits. Why do so many citizens choose to remain inside?

Stanley points up a key difference: In a totalitarian state, you can easily recognize propaganda, but don’t know whether to take it seriously. (When Hitler cast the Jews as vermin he wanted to exterminate, a man in the street might have shrugged and said, “That’s just propaganda.”) In a liberal democracy, we take the news media more seriously, but have a harder time recognizing when it contains propaganda. (Example: Judith Miller’s NYT articles about Saddam’s WMD program.)

Another difference is that while propaganda fits perfectly into totalitarianism, it strikes at the heart of democracy: If citizens are not rational actors who use the democratic system to defend their interests and values, but instead are manipulated into some other kind of public discussion, then what’s the justification for giving them a say at all?

Two kinds of propaganda. Stanley breaks propaganda down into two types: supporting and undermining. Supporting propaganda is in some sense straightforward: It promotes what it appears to be promoting. For example, a government might raise support for its war effort by publicizing real or imagined atrocities committed by the enemy.

What’s more dangerous for a democracy, though, is undermining propaganda: appeals to public values to promote goals that in fact undermine those very values. For example, by popularizing the false belief that America has a significant voter-fraud problem, voter-suppression tactics can be put forward as necessary to defend the integrity of our elections. A laudable democratic value — integrity of elections — is used to undermine the integrity of elections.

Similarly, the false belief that Christians are discriminated against in America justified Kim Davis in denying marriage licenses to gay couples. The democratic values of equality and fairness were invoked to undermine equality and fairness.

Flawed ideology. Those examples raise another key concept in Stanley’s system: flawed ideology. A flawed ideology is a set of false or misleading ideas that are impervious to evidence. 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.

For example, suppose you are addressing people who believe (or at least take seriously the possibility) that President Obama’s anti-ISIS policy is intentionally inept, because he’s a secret Muslim. Instead of making that claim explicitly, all you have to do is activate the flawed ideology by calling the President “Barack Hussein Obama”. Your audience will add the secret-Muslim point to whatever other criticisms you make of Obama’s moves in the Middle East.

What’s more, content that is evoked like this (and not explicitly stated) is harder for the listener to filter out. Stanley gives the non-political example: “My wife is from Chicago.” If the speaker says, “I am married”, the listener might consciously consider whether or not that is true. But “My wife is from Chicago” calls attention to the claim about Chicago, sneaking in the idea that the speaker is married.

In mid-conversation, it may be hard for the listener to specify exactly what content has been evoked by “Barack Hussein Obama”, much less consider whether it is true. Similarly, when Newt Gingrich referred to Obama as “the Food Stamp President”, he evoked all the content that had been previously associated with food stamps: that undeserving people get them because they’re too lazy to work, that most of those lazy people are black, that (because he is black himself) Obama is on their side rather than the side of hard-working white people, and so on. Challenging the explicit claim — that food stamp usage increased during the Obama administration — misses the point, because that part is true. In fact, challenging it and letting supporters defend its accuracy only reinforces their impression that the unspoken content must be true as well.

Flawed ideology is social. Once a flawed ideology exists, it gets reinforced by each use. So American Christians who believe they are persecuted closely followed the Kim Davis story, and came away more convinced than ever that they are persecuted.

But where does flawed ideology come from in the first place? Stanley roots flawed ideology in self-interest, particularly our unconscious attraction to comfortable ideas that tell us we are good and justified in what we hope to do. But the ideas most impervious to evidence aren’t just the ones that further our personal interest, but the ones that support our social identity.

Stanley gives the example of the near-universal belief among pre-Civil-War Southern slave-owners that slavery was justified, and that blacks were too lazy, stupid, and childlike to benefit from freedom. To turn away from that complex of beliefs, you would not only have to realize that your own standard of living is based on a great wrong, but you would also have to indict your parents, your church, your teachers, your friends, and your entire community for conspiring to commit that injustice. Literally everyone you had believed to be good might have to be reclassified as evil. So the stakes are far higher than just increasing the labor expense of your plantation or learning to make your own bed. Changing your ideas about blacks and slavery could change everything for you.

No wonder so few people did. Ideas like slavery could not be examined dispassionately, carefully weighing evidence for and against. Hearing persuasive criticisms of slavery would naturally evoke fear of losing your whole sense of self, so you might seize pro-slavery rationalizations like an overboard sailor grabbing a life preserver.

Today, the reason so few Americans leave their unguarded echo chambers is that those echo chambers are communities that define their social identity. As our politics becomes more polarized and entire states see themselves as blue or red, changing your ideas about abortion or race or Islam or guns or capitalism could mean becoming a whole new person with new friends and memberships, maybe living in a new town or neighborhood. Even your family relationships could be shaken.

Some ideologies threaten democracy more than others. As far back as Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have recognized that different forms of government are based on different values. A dictatorship values decisiveness and loyalty, an aristocracy refinement and breeding, a plutocracy wealth. A corporate state reveres efficiency and orderly procedures. Democracies are based on competing values of freedom, fairness, and equality; and a properly functioning democracy fosters a constant debate about how to balance those values and compromise each with the others.

So the propaganda that most threatens democracy isn’t the kind that argues directly for the values of another system — if people really want more efficiency, we should talk about that — but the undermining propaganda that invokes freedom, fairness, and equality to justify actions that diminish freedom, fairness, and equality.

Consequently, the flawed ideology that most threatens democracy is the self-justifying ideology of privileged groups, like the Confederate slave-owners. If our group has some unfair advantage that is based on foreclosing the options of other people, we will naturally want to believe that our advantage doesn’t really exist (there is no inequality), or that it’s actually fair because of the comparative virtues of our people and those who lack our privileges, or that the un-privileged folks are freely choosing not to do the things that (in reality) the system discourages them from doing.

Complexes of ideas that tell us such things — that freedom, fairness, and equality demand that my people keep their privileges — are so welcome that they seem obvious and natural. “Of course,” you say, “I should have seen that myself.” That nagging sense that our way of life is unjust and unsustainable vanishes. We are the good guys, and those who want to take away our advantages are the bad guys.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis frames climate-change denial just that way in this clip from the movie Merchants of Doubt.

It’s not just a head thing. This is very much a heart issue. It’s not the science that’s affecting us. I mean, the science is pretty clear. It’s something else that’s causing this rejection. Many conservatives, I think, see that action on climate change is really an attack on a way of life.

The reason that we need the science to be wrong is otherwise we realize that we need to change. That’s really a hard pill to swallow, that the whole way I’ve created my life is wrong, you’re saying? That I shouldn’t have this house in the suburb? I shouldn’t be driving this car? That I take my kids to soccer? And you’re not going to tell me to live the way that you want me to live.

And along come some people sowing some doubt, and it’s pretty effective, because I’m looking for that answer. I want it to be that the science is not real.

So: personal interest leads to social identification with the people who share those interests; maintaining social identity prevents the examination of notions that would threaten our way of life, leading to flawed ideology; the false information contained in that ideology can be activated and reinforced by propaganda that may contain no false information of its own; with the result that freedom, fairness, and equality seem to demand the maintenance of our unfair and unequal advantages — “You’re not going to tell me to live the way you want me to live.” — even if it ultimately means that others will have their freedom diminished. The resulting beliefs are then almost impossible to refute with evidence, because such an argument is tied to a threat to the believer’s community and social identity.

[Propaganda is a topic the Sift returns to every now and then. My favorite previous articles in this series are “Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation” and “How Lies Work“.]

The Artful Puppet Master

How Fox turned the first Republican presidential debate into a plus for the GOP.

Leading up to Thursday’s debate, most liberals I know were somewhere between smug and gleeful. The Republican presidential process had started out as something of a circus, with more candidates than anyone could remember and a corresponding need to say outrageous things to stand out from the crowd. And then Donald Trump got into the race, openly characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, and responding to criticism from Senator Lindsey Graham by saying Graham was “not as bright as Rick Perry” and revealing his personal cellphone number.

With Trump in the race and rising to the top of the polls, the other candidates started acting out like five-year-old boys competing for a pretty kindergarten teacher’s disciplinary attention. Previously, Ben Carson had set the gold standard for crazy, with his comparisons of ObamaCare to slavery and the IRS to the Gestapo. But now Mike Huckabee was talking about Obama “marching [the Israelis] to the door of the oven“, and discussing using the military and the FBI to stop abortions. Rand Paul was destroying the tax code with a literal chainsaw, and Ted Cruz went even further by cooking a strip of bacon on the barrel of an AR-15. Lindsey Graham seemed downright eager to be in a war with Iran. (“We win!“)

It got so bad that even Democrats were getting a little uncomfortable, thinking about how these shenanigans reflected on America. Humorist Andy Borowitz was only partially kidding when he wrote:

As preparations get under way for the first Republican Presidential debate, on Thursday night, a new poll shows that Americans are deeply concerned that the rest of the world might see it.

Hours before the debate, this showed up on my Facebook newsfeed.

For  a real news network or even an unbiased political entertainment network, none of this would have been a problem. (Pass the popcorn and let the insanity begin!) But the debate was being hosted and televised by the official Republican Party Ministry of Information, a.k.a. Fox News. So although a debate that descended into kindergartenish chaos would make great television, Fox’ brain trust recognized that such a spectacle would hurt the conservative movement it has worked so hard to foster. They saw that as a problem.

They solved it brilliantly.

If you watched the debate through your liberal glasses, you may not have recognized their achievement; to you, everybody probably looked just as scary and unhinged as you expected. (When Huckabee started talking about invoking the 5th and 14th Amendments to protect the personhood of the unborn, he seemed seconds away from calling for federal troops to occupy abortion clinics. But moderator Brett Baier wisely moved on.) However, in the eyes of moderates, independents, and low-information voters, I suspect the debate raised the image of the Republican Party and its gaggle of candidates.

How did Fox manage that? Artfully. I learned a lot by watching.

The problem and the solution. The first step in solving a problem is to state it precisely: The Republican Party’s problem is that its conservative base is shrinking and far out of tune with the rest of the country. So as they campaign for the nomination, candidates constantly have to choose: Should they appeal to the base voters (who will be the majority in the upcoming primaries), or to the American public as a whole (who will judge the eventual nominee in the general election)? For example: Members of the conservative base love to hear pledges that Republicans in Congress will shut down the government this fall and keep it shut until Obama knuckles under and agrees to defund Planned Parenthood. But the public as a whole is ready to be done with that kind of brinksmanship.

So the path to a Republican presidency involves walking a tightrope: leaning far enough to the right to get the nomination, but not so far as to topple out of the mainstream voter’s consideration. Mitt Romney (who I think was a far better candidate than he gets credit for) couldn’t manage it in 2012. His actual record as governor of Massachusetts would have been hard to defeat: He was a problem-solver who could work across the aisle to come up with bipartisan programs other executives wanted to imitate, the way ObamaCare imitated RomneyCare. But he had to pander to right-wing extremists to get the nomination, and he couldn’t recover in November.

Since then, the problem has only gotten worse: The base has gotten angrier and more demanding, while the white Christians who provide its membership continue to shrink as a percentage of the population.

The worst possible thing for the image of the party would be to lob a series of questions into that gap between the base and the average voter: Ask Ted Cruz about his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Ask Ben Carson if Hitler might actually have been a teensy bit worse than President Obama. Ask all the candidates how they plan to avoid war with Iran (if they do), or what they would say to the 16 million people who will lose their health coverage if ObamaCare is repealed, or whether they think our scientists are conspiring to deceive us about climate change, or why they want to force women to bear their rapists’ children.

Once you understand that, you also see the solution: Control the questions and control who answers them. If an issue makes the party look bad, just don’t ask about it. And when most of the candidates stand united around an unpopular position, pick out the one with the most moderate record and ask him to defend it. That answer will look completely different to the two camps: The base voter will see that you’re really putting this guy on the spot. But the average voter will listen to the answer and say, “Hey, these Republicans aren’t as far out as I thought.”

And finally, there’s the special problem of Donald Trump, whose wild statements have been turning off Hispanics, women, and other key demographics. Here, the solution is to excommunicate him: Trump is not a real Republican, so all the bile he expresses is just personal and has nothing to do with the party.

See nothing, say nothing. For two hours in that arena in Cleveland, large chunks of American political discourse just vanished, without even leaving a puff of smoke behind.

The environment, for example, was simply not an issue — not just climate change, but also pollution, oil spills, endangered species, or any other environmental concern. Bashing the EPA is a standard Republican applause line, but there was no cause for that here, because the environment did not exist. It was so far off the radar that Jeb Bush could express puzzlement that Hillary Clinton hasn’t endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline. Rand Paul didn’t have to explain why he once proposed a 42% cut in the National Park Service budget, and Ted Cruz didn’t have to justify his proposal to sell off large chunks of federal wilderness lands.

The related issue of energy policy was also off the table, so no one had to defend burning coal, or fracking, or drilling for oil offshore, or in other fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. No one had to explain wanting to end subsidies for wind and solar power.

Economic inequality was also not an issue, despite the fact that it has come up in several of the candidates’ campaigns: Rand Paul has talked about “the income gap”, and Rick Santorum has charged that “Middle America is hollowing out.” Just about every candidate has questioned whether the American Dream of economic mobility will be available to future generations. But none of that came up.

A related phrase you won’t find in the transcript is minimum wage. A large majority of the public supports raising it, because people who have full-time jobs should not have to live in poverty, and businesses whose workers need food stamps are the real moochers in our society, not the hard-working people they underpay.

But as far as I know, Rick Santorum is the only Republican candidate who wants to raise the minimum wage at all, and even his proposed rate is far smaller than the $10.10 that President Obama supports. (Bernie Sanders wants a $15 minimum.) And while I haven’t found a direct quote of a candidate openly calling to repeal the federal minimum wage, several seem to dislike it on general principles. Marco Rubio has said, “Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of having the middle class attain more prosperity.” And the Rand Paul 2016 Facebook page posted a link with the comment “How the minimum wage hurts everyone.”

Student debt wasn’t in the questions, and only came up because Marco Rubio volunteered that he used to have some. “How is [Hillary Clinton] gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” But that was just a fact, not a problem, so no solutions were necessary.

Equal pay for women? Off the table. Prosecute bankers whose law-breaking contributed to the Great Recession? No mention. Again, Marco Rubio volunteered that he wanted to repeal the only real financial reform Congress passed after the collapse, Dodd-Frank, inaccurately blaming it for the failure of small banks. But Fox completely omitted Wall Street reform from the agenda.

No one was asked about government shutdowns — including Ted Cruz, who more than any other person was responsible for the last shutdown. Another shutdown in the fall is a real possibility, and Cruz in particular wants that option left on the table. But it wasn’t discussed.

Although many candidates called for ending ObamaCare and none defended it, no one was asked how to replace it, or what they would say to the millions of Americans who have health insurance now, but will lose it if ObamaCare is simply repealed without a replacement.

Although all the candidates oppose the Iran nuclear deal and several criticized it during the debate, none was asked how he plans to avoid going to war.

The Black Lives Matter movement rated one question (to Scott Walker, who dodged it. He didn’t say whether he thought police were over-aggressive towards blacks, but merely called for better police training. There was no follow-up.)

Voting rights? Not an issue. Gun violence? Nothing.

Pin the tail on the moderate. Rather than draw attention to the most rabidly conservative positions the candidates have taken, Fox repeatedly picked out the candidates’ most moderate positions and asked them to justify why they weren’t more conservative.

For example, most of the ten candidates oppose allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. But Marco Rubio was asked to justify favoring such exceptions (which he denied, misleadingly). No one was asked why he would force a woman to bear her rapist’s child. (The one counter-example to the pattern was when Scott Walker was asked to justify his opposition to abortions that protect the life of the mother. He dodged, and there was no follow-up.)

Governor Kasich was asked to justify accepting the money the federal government offered his state to expand Medicaid, but Governor Walker wasn’t asked to justify turning the money down in Wisconsin, thereby denying coverage to 87,000 Wisconsin residents. Kasich talked about the good that money has done in Ohio, delivering a paean to compassion and the effectiveness of government that is totally atypical of both his own philosophy and the Republican Party as a whole.

Kasich got to give another heart-warming speech about love and acceptance when asked how he would respond if one of his daughters turned out to be lesbian. But Mike Huckabee wasn’t asked why he believes same-sex marriage will lead to “the criminalization of Christianity“.

Jeb Bush was asked why he favors immigration reform. (Ted Cruz volunteered that he led the fight against the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.) On the campaign trail, I believe all the candidates have come out against the executive order by which President Obama has prevented DREAMer deportation, and the Republican-dominated House has voted to deport them, but Fox did not find DREAMer deportation worth mentioning.

Rand Paul had to justify why he wants to stop the NSA from collecting the phone records of Americans who have done nothing wrong.

Trump. From the opening question, the moderators made their position clear: Donald Trump is not really a Republican. That opening was a lesson in how apparently neutral questions can in fact be targeted. Brett Baier asked:

Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.

Only Trump raised his hand, and that invited follow-up questions, a reminder that an independent run by Trump “would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” and a direct attack from Rand Paul:

This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. … He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.

Trump was later asked about his past support for “a host of liberal policies” (partial-birth abortion, an assault-weapon ban, and single-payer health care), and his donations to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. He has justified those donations as a normal business practice, and so he was asked “what specifically” he got in return.*

Megyn Kelly finally brought it home:

In 2004, you said in most cases you identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on the stage things like clowns and puppets. When did you actually become a Republican?

It was hard to miss her implication that the right answer was never.

Results. I suspect that when all is said and done, we’ll find out that Fox’ effort to pick the candidate — favoring Rubio and Kasich while trying to cast out Trump — had very little effect. But in the way the debate showcased all the candidates and made the Republican race seem much less clownish than it has otherwise been, I think Fox has scored a major victory for its party.

All in all, the evening resembled one of those holiday dinners where you introduce your fiance to your crazy relatives for the first time. All day long, you short-circuit the discussions that will set Aunt Jenny ranting about the Jews, or evoke one of Uncle Bob’s long pointless stories. You carefully approach your sister only when her husband is around to keep her in line, and you seek out Cousin Billy early, before he starts drinking. Only in the car, after hours of threading a safe path through the labyrinth of family issues, do you finally begin to relax. And that’s when your spouse-to-be says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so worried about. They don’t seem that bad to me.”

* Trump replied that because he was a contributor, Hillary had to come to his wedding. I wish I were doing Twitter for Hillary, because I know exactly how I’d respond. Of course she should deny that money was her reason for attending, and she should promise to attend all his future weddings as well, whether he gives any more money to her campaigns or not.

Rich Lowry’s False Choice

If you don’t like racist police, you must want no police at all.

There’s a rhetorical trick that everybody needs to learn to spot, because it’s widely used and very convincing if you’re not on guard: the false dilemma. In the false dilemma, an author or speaker cuts an entire universe of possibilities down to two: the one he likes and an alternative that is obviously horrible.

A particularly nasty false dilemma is the heart of Rich Lowry’s “#SomeBlackLivesDontMatter“, which appeared on the Politico website Wednesday. (Lowry is a longtime editor at National Review. Why Politico publishes his work is something of a mystery.)

Lowry starts with the familiar conservative trope that black activists don’t care about black-on-black crime.

Let’s be honest: Some black lives really don’t matter. If you are a young black man shot in the head by another young black man, almost certainly no one will know your name. Al Sharpton won’t come rushing to your family’s side with cameras in tow. MSNBC won’t discuss the significance of your death. No one will protest, or even riot, for you.

Of course, no one should protest for you, because protest is a tool for addressing the government, not criminals. So protesting against some random street criminal who shot some innocent civilian would make no sense. (This is frequently missed point on the Right. For example, the protests after Trayvon Martin’s death weren’t directed at George Zimmerman, but at the local legal system that wasn’t taking Martin’s death seriously.) But keep going, Rich.

The Baltimore Sun ran a headline (since changed) that had the air of a conundrum, although it isn’t very puzzling, “With arrests down in Baltimore, mayor ‘examining’ increase in killings.” According to the paper, arrests have dropped by about half in May. The predictable result is that violent crime is spiking.

The implication is clear: More people need to be arrested in Baltimore, not fewer. And more need to be jailed. If black lives truly matter, Baltimore needs more and better policing and incarceration to impose order on communities where a lawless few spread mayhem and death.

The reason Baltimore can’t get this “better policing” — somehow synonymous with “incarceration” — is because the black community doesn’t like the bad policing it’s been getting.

If the message is supposed to be that they don’t want the police there, it has been received.

Of course, literally no one is saying that the black neighborhoods of Baltimore shouldn’t be policed. (That’s why Lowry needs the if. If he could quote some black or liberal leader calling for no policing, he’d really have a point against them. But since none is, he needs a hypothetical.) And now that Lowry has cut the alternatives down to (1) continued racist policing and (2) no law enforcement at all, it’s clear that the people protesting against racist policing should just shut up.

It is wrong for the police to shrink from doing their job, but the last month in Baltimore shows how important that job is. This is especially true in dangerous, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. They need disproportionate police attention, even if that attention is easily mischaracterized as racism. The alternative is a deadly chaos that destroys and blights the lives of poor blacks.

Again, he quotes no one saying that police don’t have an important job, and he offers no evidence at all that policing in Baltimore has been mischaracterized as racism. That’s just what Lowry wants to believe and wants you to believe. (If someday we reach a point where all the apparently racist actions of police have been “mischaracterized”, the #BlackLivesMatter movement will have succeeded.)

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

Newspeaking About Torture

If you can’t ban a word, break it.

One major theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the importance of language to oppressive governments. From the beginning of recorded history, crude dictators have punished people for criticizing their rule. But modern, sophisticated dictators change the language itself, so that thoughts undermining the ruling ideology are hard to put into words, and no one would understand what you were saying if you did.

Orwell described this technique in detail in an essay he appended to 1984, “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.

That’s a fine strategy if you already run a totalitarian government like the one in Orwell’s Oceania. But it completely ignores the problems faced by movements still trying to rise to power, like today’s American conservatives. Despite controlling Congress, they can’t just ban words they don’t like.

All they have besides Congress is a media empire, vast wealth, and an amazing degree of message discipline. What can you accomplish with those resources?

Just by being loud and persistent, you can try to alter common usage to favor your ideology. Sometimes that works (“death tax“) and sometimes it doesn’t (“homicide bomber“). But the real challenge is to disarm a word that works against you or for your enemies.

In Oceania they’d simply remove the word from the dictionary and correct everyone who kept using it. (“It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not proper Newspeak.”) Or they’d keep the word, but remove all its offending meanings, again correcting the people who persisted in using it incorrectly.

But what if you don’t have that kind of power? American conservatives solved this problem a long time ago: If you can’t ban a word, you apply your resources to break it through misuse.

I’m not sure when this started. (That’s the great thing about breaking a word; eventually everybody stops using it, so it never comes to mind again. Your tracks are covered, because hardly anybody ever asks “How did zimzam become unusable?”) Maybe it was during the Reagan years, when liberal became an insult to throw at people you don’t like. I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying attention to the right things then. None of us were, or we might have tried to defend liberal rather than just stop using it.

I first noticed word-breaking* years later, during the second Bush administration. A lot of nasty stuff was happening then: The U.S. government was torturing people in secret prisons, spying on its own citizens, locking people up indefinitely without trials, and manufacturing bogus reasons to invade a foreign country. The administration was justifying all that by putting forward bizarre new legal interpretations of “the unitary executive” and the nearly unlimited “Article II power” he had whenever he determined that we were at war. Standing previous conservative small-government and fiscal-responsibility rhetoric on its head, the administration was creating huge new programs to buy off key constituencies, and not raising any revenue to pay for them. (Just tack them on to the deficit. No worries.)

As I was reading an Economist article characterizing Bush’s ideology as “big-government conservatism”, I wondered: Why use such a cumbersome phrase, when English already had a perfectly good word for this configuration of ideas and policies — fascism.

The answer was that fascism had become unusable, because misuse had broken it. Just when America needed the word to describe what was going on, conservatives were instead discussing “liberal fascism” and “Islamo-fascism” and so forth. In the conservative media, suddenly anything and everything was fascist, except the kind of militaristic, torturing, secretive, prying, corporatist, big-government conservatism that had been practiced by Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Pinochet — and was increasingly being adopted by Bush.

The word fascist could have been a rallying call for the enemies of American conservatism. But conservatives averted that threat by breaking fascist through misuse. As a result, today you are perfectly free to talk about fascism — I just did — but no one will know what you mean. Fascist is nothing but an insult now; it has no real content. If you use it, you aren’t saying anything in particular, you’re just being aggressive and rude.

Terrorism was broken in another way, like a proud wolf who gets turned into an attack dog. Terrorism used to have a clear meaning: threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians for political purposes. It was an ideologically neutral description of a tactic that any political movement might resort to. But after a decade of misuse, terrorism has become any violent act conservatives disapprove of. So the Fort Hood massacre is terrorism, even though it was an attack against a military base. Whatever ISIS does is terrorist, even fielding an army and fighting pitched battles against other soldiers. But hardly anyone (except me) called the Sikh Temple murderer what he was: a white right-wing Christian terrorist. White Christian right-wingers can’t be terrorists any more; it’s an oxymoron.

More recently, religious freedom and religious persecution have been broken. A generation ago those were ACLU words, used by atheists, Jews, and other minority movements that struggled against oppression by the Christian majority.

That oppression hasn’t disappeared; in many ways it’s getting worse. But the words to fight it have been hijacked so that they’re barely usable any more. Today, religious persecution is telling a Christian baker that a gay couple is part of the general public his business serves. Or maybe it’s just saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Religious freedom means that a Christian employer is “free” to block any part of his employees’ health-care coverage that he doesn’t like, and a Christian pharmacist can freely decide whether he approves of your prescription (and the lifestyle it implies) before he fills it. Separation of church and state — which used to be the hallmark of religious freedom — is now a Communist idea that is part of the conspiracy to persecute Christians.

So now, when Kennesaw, Georgia won’t let a Muslim group rent space to worship in their town, or a parole officer forces an atheist to attend a religious program under threat of returning to jail, there are no words to describe what’s happening. Calling it “religious persecution” just confuses people.

And that brings us to torture. For the longest time, the primary defense of the Bush torture program was that it didn’t happen. There was no torture, there was just enhanced interrogation, a phrase brazen enough to do Newspeak proud.

But that defense has become untenable now that the Senate report on torture is out. Once the public heard the details, the claim that this wasn’t torture was exposed as ridiculous. (That’s only going to get worse as more details appear.) And although some are trying, the word torture can’t be reclaimed from the dark side. There’s no way to say, “We’re the Torture Party and that’s a good thing.”

But there is an alternative strategy: misuse the word torture until it breaks.

Dick Cheney pointed the way during his Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd. When Todd asked how Cheney defined torture, Cheney deflected with this:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.

Todd followed up by asking whether rectal feeding was torture, and Cheney continued his distract-with-shiny-objects strategy.

I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

The misuse campaign is on. The American Thinker blog reports on the “real torture scandal in America“, which is abortion. General Boykin says “Torture is what we’ve done by having the IRS go after conservative groups.” The Koch-funded American Energy Alliance is calling EPA fossil-fuel regulations “torture”:

Whether it’s the costliest regulation in history or the coal-killing power plant rules (that Obama’s law professor says raise “constitutional questions”), it’s clear that the CIA isn’t the only government agency engaged in torture. At least the CIA isn’t torturing Americans.

The AEA illustrated its point with this cartoon:

Yes, “raising energy costs” and “harassing property owners” are now torture.

Expect to hear a lot more of this. Soon, every inconvenience to a conservative special interest group is going to be “torture”. Anything and everything will be “torture” — except a CIA interrogator looking into the eyes of a helpless (and possibly innocent) prisoner and threatening excruciating pain, trauma, or humiliation unless he talks.

Torture can’t be defended, so the word torture has to become meaningless. If you can’t ban a word, break it.

* I anticipate the question: “What about the ways that liberals try to change the language?” There are a number of words liberals have tried to remove from the language, like nigger or faggot. We discourage men from referring to adult females as girls, and so on. But these efforts have been above-board and transparent. For example, we have largely removed nigger from common usage among whites by openly discussing the reasons whites shouldn’t say nigger. If conservatives want to start a similarly open discussion to convince people to stop saying torture, I invite them to try.

The Summer of Snowden I: language of denial

We now have seen enough NSA denials to decrypt what they’re really saying.

Liberal, conservative, or independent, our news media does a bad job covering stories that play out over months. “News” is what’s happening right now — the newest revelation and the latest denial — embedded in a cloud of speculation about what might happen tomorrow. That focus on today’s scoop increases political polarization: When today’s headline contradicts yesterday’s and tomorrow’s is different yet, it’s tempting only to remember the ones that fit your prior bias. The one’s that don’t fit, well, they were all refuted by later developments, weren’t they?

In this series I’m going to take a longer perspective. What do we know about the NSA’s domestic spying that we didn’t know (or weren’t as sure of) in May? And I’m going to begin the series with a topic that would fit better in a college-course syllabus than a news article: vocabulary.

That may sound boring, but it’s the right place to start. The big reason this story keeps ping-ponging between alarm and reassurance is that the words the NSA uses in its comforting denials don’t really mean what you think they mean.

Ping-pong. Since June 5, when The Guardian and The Washington Post began publishing NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, revelations about the NSA’s spying on Americans have had a back-and-forth quality. Something alarming comes out, then more details are released that make the initial story seem overblown, then we discover that the comforting safeguards in the second round of stories are often violated in practice, and on it goes.

So, for example, the public’s initial worries (ping!) about domestic spying were countered by assurances (pong!) that it happened only under warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which had been established by Congress in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That felt familiar, like the police-procedural shows on TV; authorities have to convince a judge they have a good reason to be suspicious of you before they can invade your privacy.

Then Snowden revealed just how open-ended those orders can be: Verizon was ordered not to turn over not just data about specific people connected to a particular terrorism investigation, but data about all calls going through its system. Apparently, the NSA was building a database of all phone calls in the United States — who called who, when, from where, and for how long. Ping!

But then we found out (pong!) that further FISC orders were required whenever the NSA used the database, and the database itself had auditing procedures to make sure analysts weren’t just messing around with it whenever they wanted. The Week reports:

In order to access the stored data sets, the NSA needs to have a real tangible reason. … [The] law has been interpreted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to relate only to the way in which the data is used.

And then last month (ping!) it came out that the FISC had reprimanded the NSA for lying to it about what it was doing:

The court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding N.S.A.’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program.

Those abuses, we are told, were all corrected in 2011 (pong!), so everything is hunky-dory now.

Meanwhile, another Snowden leak (ping!) gave us an internal audit in which the NSA found it had violated its own safeguards 2776 times during the year ending in March 2012. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that even this report is incomplete: “the thousands of violations only include the NSA’s main office in Maryland—not the other—potentially hundreds—of other NSA offices across the country.”)

But the violations appear to be accidental and trivial. (Pong!Senator Feinstein assured us that the Senate committee overseeing the NSA “has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes.” Well, except for NSA officers who spied on their partner or spouse. (PIng!) But that almost never happens (assuming we caught them all) and usually is abusing the NSA’s foreign intel, not domestic intel. (Pong!)

What has been reported as fact provides fertile ground for worrisome speculation: How hard it would be to hide a needle in that haystack of violations? And what if there’s a further layer to this onion, and malevolent or overzealous analysts have ways to circumvent the audits? The NSA, after all, is supposed to have the best hackers in the world. What if a few of them have hacked the NSA’s own systems? Snowden himself must have circumvented a few internal procedures to escape with all those documents.

Decrypting the NSA. Here’s the first lesson to learn from the Summer of Snowden: When the NSA makes those comforting denials, it is choosing words carefully and using them in non-standard ways. This summer we’ve heard so many denials that we’re now able to properly interpret statements that were constructed to obfuscate. (This work builds on the glossary that the Electronic Frontier Foundation started compiling during the Bush administration.) Ironically, this is a standard code-breaking technique: If you can induce your opponent to send a lot of coded messages, you have much more data to use in breaking the code.

Collect. In the  Free Online Dictionary, this is the first definition for collect:

To bring together in a group or mass; gather.

So if someone were gathering information about you and storing it in a database, you would probably say they were collecting information about you. Conversely, when the NSA says they aren’t collecting information about you, you probably think they are denying the existence of such a database.

They aren’t. In NSA parlance, information hasn’t been collected until it comes to the attention of a human analyst. If no database query returns your information to a person, it hasn’t been collected.

And so we can have public exchanges like this one in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 12:

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon): Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: No, sir.

Senator Wyden: It does not?

Director Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Three months later we found out about the Verizon court order. Clapper undoubtedly knew in March that the NSA was assembling a database containing information on everyone who uses a phone, but since the number of Americans whose information is seen by a human analyst is less than “millions”, he could say no.

A small-scale analogy: Imagine that your neighbor raids your mailbox every day before you get home from work, steams the letters open, photocopies them, files the copies, and then reseals the envelopes and returns them to your box before you notice. In NSA terms, as long as he is just filing the copies and never reads them, he’s not collecting your mail.

Content. In the NSA’s public statements, only the body of an email or phone call is considered content. Anything in the header of an email — including the subject line — is metadata and not content. Likewise, the fact that you called so-and-so at a certain time from a certain place and talked for so many minutes is not content, even if what you said is easily deducible from that information. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer quotes the following example from Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau:

You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.

The Guardian has a good summary of what metadata means in the context of email, phone calls, web browsing, Google searches, photographs, and posts to Facebook or Twitter.

The EFF points out that content is defined much more broadly in the FISA law itself:

any information concerning the identity of the parties to such communication or the existence, substance, purport, or meaning of that communication

If the NSA used the law’s definition, it could not deny that it’s accessing the content of your communications.

Conversation and communication. Similarly, the NSA makes a distinction between communications and conversations. Your conversation is in the content of your phone call, while the communication includes the metadata. So in 2006 Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden was able to say:

the activities whose existence the president confirmed several weeks ago … is not a driftnet over Dearborn or Lackawanna or Freemont grabbing conversations that we then sort out by these alleged keyword searches or data-mining tools or other devices that so-called experts keep talking about. This is targeted and focused. This is not about intercepting conversations between people in the United States. This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is associated with al Qaeda.

In reality, Hayden did have a driftnet gathering up metadata to feed into data-mining tools, as he later acknowledged. He just wasn’t feeding in conversations.

Specificity. Director Hayden’s statement is an example of another kind of trickery, which I made a little more obvious by the way I edited his quote: Denials are almost always about specific programs, not about the totality of the NSA’s activities.

The typical scenario goes like this: Questions will be raised about PRISM or XKeyscore or some other NSA program, and the official response seems to deny that the NSA is doing a certain kind of thing. But if you read the response carefully, all it really says is that the NSA isn’t doing that thing under that program.

Take another look at what Hayden said. If some other NSA program actually were scanning the content of conversations for keywords, he would not have lied.

Target. In an interview with Charlie Rose in June (beginning at about the 26-minutes-to-go mark), President Obama said:

President Obama: What I can say unequivocally is that, if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA. cannot target your e-mails.

Charlie Rose: And have not?

Obama: And have not.

The law does not allow the NSA to “target” an American’s phone calls and emails. But the ACLU explains how your privacy can be violated without “targeting” you.

if an American is communicating (however innocently) with a foreign “target” under the [FISA Amendments Act of 2008], the law allows the government to collect, inspect, and keep the content of that communication. … The target need not be a suspected terrorist or even suspected of any kind of wrongdoing. … While official defenses have flatly stated that targets under the FAA must be both foreign and abroad, the statute only requires that the government “reasonably believe” those things to be true.

The Washington Post elaborates:

Analysts who use the [PRISM] system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. …

Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially.

In July, AP reported that the system sucks in data about a vast number of non-targeted people.

For the first time, NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis disclosed that the agency sometimes conducts what is known as three-hop analysis. That means the government can look at the phone data of a suspected terrorist, plus the data of all of the contacts, then all of those people’s contacts, and all of those people’s contacts.

If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

Or, as Ben Brooks summarizes: “Two hops is a lot of people, three hops is basically anyone.” The ACLU concludes:

these exceptions and loopholes open the door to the routine interception of American communications. And this doesn’t just result from the odd mistake; this is what the law was designed to do. … Domestic communications can be retained forever if they contain “foreign intelligence information” or evidence of a crime, or if they are encrypted or aid “traffic analysis.” That’s a lot of exceptions. And even communications that do not meet any of these criteria can be stored in the NSA’s massive databases for as long as five years.

Once your information has been pulled out of the general database by such a search, it enters “the corporate store“, a database which NSA analysts can access without further court orders — even though you were never “targeted”.

Who does this fool? Notice that the exchange between Director Clapper and Senator Wyden wasn’t on some Sunday talk show; it was in a Senate committee hearing. We also have writings from FISC judges who complain about being misled by the NSA. And that leads to Part II of the Summer of Snowden series (which might appear next week if space allows): Why constitutional checks and balances aren’t working.

Keeping the Con in Conservatism

This week RedState.com founder and Fox News pundit Erick Erickson had an embarrassing plagiarism scandal. No, he didn’t steal somebody else’s attack on ObamaCare or their analysis of immigration reform. On Tuesday Erickson emailed his subscribers a 600-word endorsement of an investment newsletter. He didn’t just forward a link, he wrote in the first person with feeling, and signed his name:

[Mark Skousen] is the most brilliant and accomplished financial advisor I know. … Let’s face it: Making money in Obama’s America is tough — and keeping it, harder still. So we can all use as much trustworthy financial advice as we can get. The best investment advice I know of, bar none, can be found in Mark Skousen’s Forecasts & Strategies — and I urge you to give it a try.

Such sincerity. Clearly, if you trust Erickson’s view of the political world, you should trust Skousen’s view of the financial world.

It sounded just as sincere in 2009 when Ann Coulter sent a virtually identical email out to her subscribers.

Ericson’s defense is also striking: He denies he made money. He’s just “happy to support a friend”. Alex Parene points out the problem here:

If, as Erickson claims, he did not get paid for this endorsement (or, rather, if he wasn’t paid to have his name affixed to this boilerplate get-rich-quick scam email), then his claim to moral purity is that he sold out his readers for free.

If you follow the links, you wind up listening to a video explaining “the elite SS-4 income stream” that “can make you America’s next millionaire” which you’ll learn more about if you subscribe for a mere $99 for the first year.  (BTW, Mark is a nephew of Glenn Beck’s hero W. Cleon Skousen.)

There are, of course, people whose business it is to track the recommendations of investment newsletters and rate how they do. That opinion on Skousen is far less glowing. But what do those people know with their “facts” and “data”? Those are the same kind of people who couldn’t see how the polls were skewed to favor Obama, when actually Mitt Romney was cruising to a win — which he totally would have had if not for voter fraud (that nobody can find any evidence of other than the fact that Romney lost).

The dirty secret of the conservative movement is that this stuff happens all the time, as Chris Hayes pointed out in this tweet:

Now why would he say something so rude? Maybe he remembers Glenn Beck pushing his viewers to buy gold while not mentioning that he was a paid pitchman for Goldline, a less-than-upright gold-selling company. Or that Freedom Works paid Beck and Rush Limbaugh to say nice things about them. And Americans for Prosperity paid talk-radio host Mark Levin. Politico writes:

The increased willingness of non-profits to write big checks for such radio endorsements – which appears to have started in 2008, when Heritage paid $1.2 million to sponsor the talk shows hosted by Hannity and Laura Ingraham – seems to be a primarily, if not entirely, a conservative phenomenon.

Former Fox News pundit Dick Morris came up with a great money-making idea. He sent out fund-raising emails for SuperPAC for America, which spent a pile of that money renting Morris’ email list. So money Morris’ followers sent in “for America” just cycled back into Morris’ pocket. (Similarly, Sarah Palin spent PAC money to promote her book, and even to buy copies of it to give away.) Republican candidates also spent money renting Morris’ list, and (totally coincidentally), Morris praised them on Fox.

And then there was the time the Malaysian government paid American conservative bloggers under-the-table to trash the democratic opposition.

You just don’t see this kind of stuff on the Left, where the standards are simply higher. For example, Fox News host Sean Hannity regularly speaks at fundraisers for Republican organizations and Republican candidates, but MSNBC suspended Keith Olbermann just for writing a check to Democratic candidates. In 2010, Fox News was a nice place for Republican politicians to draw a paycheck while they decided whether to run for president. I will be truly shocked if Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic hopeful gets hired by MSNBC. (Eliot Spitzer is the exception that proves this rule. When MSNBC hired him, who imagined he could ever again have a political career?)

So why is this? Rick Perlstein got into the issue a little deeper a few months ago in a Baffler article The Long Con. He signed up for the email lists of conservative sites like Townhall and NewsMax, and started getting a completely different kind of spam: Not just appeals for candidates and charities, which liberals get too, but get-rich-quick schemes and miracle cures. (He quotes Ann Coulter’s Skousen endorsement, not realizing we hadn’t seen the last of it.)

What Perlstein noticed is that the right/left difference isn’t just in conflict-of-interest standards at the top. It’s a cultural difference that goes all the way down. Conservatism is built out of subcultures like multi-level marketing (i.e. Amway), pyramid schemes, televangelist networks, conspiracy-theory groups (i.e., the John Birch Society), and so forth. (The self-promoting conflict-of-interest stuff goes way back too: The one thing I remember from reading the classic None Dare Call It Conspiracy in high school is that the solution is to expose the conspiracy by buying a bunch of copies of None Dare Call It Conspiracy and giving them to your friends.)

The subject matter may be different, but the thought-patterns are the same. If you believe that evolution is a conspiracy of atheist biologists, then why wouldn’t you believe that global warming is a conspiracy of socialist climatologists? And if a secret cabal can launch a decades-long plan like faking Barack Obama’s birth annoucements and grooming him for the presidency, of course those people would have secret investment strategies that keep them rich without effort. If Cleon Skousen can show you the hidden patterns of history, why couldn’t Mark Skousen reveal the hidden patterns of finance?

Across the board, there is a resentment-of-expertise theme, combined with the myth of the Turncoat Expert, who can let you see behind the facade … for a small fee, of course.

[Little did I know when I started writing this that Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald was coming out with something on the same topic the same day.]

To Succeed, Fail Boldly

Five doomed proposals for changing the national conversation

From one point of view, it all came to nothing.

Two weeks ago, liberals around the country thrilled to the story of Wendy Davis’ filibuster. With a few minutes of help from a raucous gallery of protesters, Texas State Senator Davis’ 11-hour speech ran out the clock on the special session of the legislature that Governor Rick Perry had called to pass a draconian anti-abortion bill.


For two weeks, anyway. But Perry was still governor, so he called yet another special session. And the Republicans still had majorities in the legislature, so Friday the same bill passed the Senate and was on its way to Perry’s desk. In spite of massive protests, in spite of a viral video that made another new heroine out of Sarah Slamen, the legislative result is the same as if everyone had just stayed home.

Soon we’ll probably be able say the same thing about Moral Mondays in North Carolina. The Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature and they’re not afraid to use it, so they’re going to pass whatever they want, no matter how many religious leaders protest, no matter how many Carolinians they have to arrest.

So it’s pointless, right?

In the long term, no, it’s not pointless. This is the only way things change.

Losing my shrug. Let’s start with the obvious, even if it doesn’t seem all that consequential. A few months ago I’d have shrugged if you told me Texas and North Carolina were about to pass a series of laws that would impose real hardships on women and the poor. “The South,” I’d probably have said, “what can you expect?”

Well, Wendy Davis and William Barber have taken away my shrug. Like lots of other blue-state folks, I have been reminded not to write off Texas and North Carolina. Red states are not monolithic blocks of small-minded people. Progressive forces may be losing there right now, but they’re fighting. And people who keep fighting just might win someday.

If you don’t believe that, recall how the Religious Right and the Tea Party got where they are today. For decades, right-wing extremists rallied for proposals they couldn’t hope to pass into law, and mostly still haven’t: human life amendments, balanced budget amendments, the gold standard, defunding the U.N., and so forth. They failed and they failed again. And sometimes they succeeded when no one had given them a chance. (When the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate 84-8 in 1972, its ratification seemed a foregone conclusion.) But today their point of view has to be dealt with, and in some states is dominant.

Before you can win, you have to change the conversation. And the only way to do that is to fight battles the conventional wisdom says you can’t win. You’ll lose most of them. For a while you’ll lose all of them, because the conventional wisdom isn’t stupid. But that’s how things change.

The only way to change the direction of the wind is to keep spitting into it.

How conventional wisdom shifts. I have written in more detail elsewhere about how conservatives manipulate the supposedly liberal media. Journalism is not a conspiracy, but there is an unconscious group process that decides what news is, what can be stated as a simple fact, and what has be covered as controversial. Partisan groups can pressure that process and get their desired response, independent of whether most individual journalists agree or disagree with their views.

In that article I focused on how outside pressure can make known facts seem controversial. So, for example, global warming is almost always covered as if it were in dispute, when in a scientific sense it is well established. But powerful voices will argue with journalists who say global warming is a fact, so instead they write he-said/she-said articles, or leave the global-warming angle out of a story entirely.

Today I want to focus on the opposite side of that same unconscious media groupthink: Anything that is stated forcefully by one side and not contested by the other will be covered as if it were a fact.

So: Texans are all conservatives. Only people on the right care about “morality” or “the family”. “Moral issues” are the ones about sex — abortion, contraception, homosexuality — and the moral position is the conservative position. Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, making sure workers get a fair wage — all that sermon-on-the-mount stuff — those aren’t “moral” issues.

If you don’t regularly and loudly contest those notions, they’ll get reported as facts. They’ll provide the background assumptions that frame the coverage of everything else.

Wolf Blitzer’s evangelism. The clearest recent example of this principle was Wolf Blitzer’s embarrassing interview with an atheist mother after the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma in May. Blitzer badgered the woman to “thank the Lord” for her and her child’s survival until she finally had to confess her atheism.

So is Blitzer is an evangelical Christian trying to push his religion on CNN? Nope. Wikipedia says Blitzer is a Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. I can’t say from that precisely what he believes about God, but he was almost certainly not pressuring this woman to proclaim her Judaism.

Instead, Blitzer was applying two seldom-contested stereotypes:

  • Oklahoma is in the so-called Bible Belt, so everybody must be some kind of conservative Christian.
  • There are no atheists in the foxholes. When life and death hang in the balance, everybody becomes religious.

Probably Wolf had been hearing loud proclamations of Christian faith all day, and no voices on the other side. (This is another kind of groupthink. It’s not considered rude to thank Jesus in these circumstances — even in the presence of people whose loved ones Jesus apparently chose not to save. But conservative Christians would take offense if you said, “Stuff like this just shows that everything’s random and you can’t take it personally.”) So it became a background “fact” of his reporting that the people of Moore were having an evangelical Christian response to their survival.

Candle-lighting vs. darkness-cursing. We can wish for harder-working more-objective journalists who will seek out the truth and cover it fairly, regardless of the power dynamics. But in the meantime journalism is what it is, and we’re just being stupid if we let conservatives manipulate it and don’t fight back.

The facts on the ground today are that the media will challenge a pro-choice Catholic to reconcile the contradiction between his politics and his faith, but not an Evangelical who votes to cut Food Stamps or reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. (Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you fed me. … I was sick and you cared for me.”) Want to change that? Join the Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh, or start something similar in your own state capital.

In the short term, you may not change any votes in the legislature. But if enough people contest the previously uncontested “facts”, those “facts” leave (what Jay Rosen and Daniel Hallin call) “the Sphere of Consensus” and enter “the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy”. The conventional wisdom changes.

From defense to offense. So far the big progressive protests have been efforts to resist conservative aggression: rollbacks of women’s rights in Texas, unemployment insurance in North Carolina, workers’ rights in Michigan and Ohio.

It’s time to go on offense. In addition to resisting the regressive agenda of the right and timidly putting forward small proposals like universal background checks for gun buyers, progressives need a blue-sky positive agenda that we keep making people notice. Just because we can’t pass it in this term of Congress doesn’t make it impractical. (When have conservatives ever been constrained by that?) You have to keep proposing it until people get used to hearing it; only then will they look at it seriously.

So here are five bold proposals that are “doomed” according to the conventional wisdom. Their complete impracticality is a “fact” and will continue to be so until loud voices move them into the Sphere of Controversy, from which they can get serious consideraton.

  • The Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 and fell three states short of ratification when the ratification deadline passed in 1982. Supporters of the three-state strategy claim the deadline doesn’t count and in 2011 got ratification through one house of the Virginia legislature. But the ERA gets re-introduced in every session of Congress, most recently in March. Only the fact that the conventional wisdom says it can’t pass, protects politicians from explaining why they disagree with “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
  • Single-payer health care. Of all the existing plans to help the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance, Obamacare is the most conservative. (It’s Romneycare, after all.) Conservatives opposing Obamacare have offered no plan to fulfill the “replace” part of their “repeal and replace” slogan. And yet, if you watch Sunday morning political shows on TV, Obamacare is the “liberal” position. It’s better than the status quo, and I support it on those terms. But single-payer is what gives Europe, Japan, and the industrialized parts of the British Commonwealth lower costs and higher life expectancies than we currently have. It would do the same for the United States.
  • End corporate personhood. Few actual humans defend the idea that corporations should be people with full constitutional rights. A variety of constitutional amendments have been proposed to reverse this piece of conservative judicial activism (which in particular has no basis whatsoever in the originalist constitutional interpretation conservatives claim to favor). Bernie Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment says: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations.” Everybody who runs for office should be challenged to state a position on that.
  • A federal Reproductive Rights Act. The current reproductive-rights situation in states like Texas resembles Jim Crow: Women’s constitutional rights are not repealed directly, but are made impractical by a series of restrictions transparently introduced for that purpose. In the same way that the Voting Rights Act protected minorities’ right to vote (until recently), a federal Reproductive Rights Act should impose federal oversight on states that have a history of infringing women’s rights.
  • Replace the Second Amendment. The overall situation of weapons and society has changed so much since 1787 that it’s hard to attach any meaning at all to the full text of the Second Amendment. I don’t have a revised text in mind yet, but I think the amendment should defend the right of individuals to procure appropriate tools to defend their homes, while giving Congress the power to control military hardware.

Benghazi Hearings: Congress as Reality TV

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to write about Benghazi without becoming part of the problem. So much nonsense has been spouted that simply saying “Benghazi” in certain circles is code for “impeach President Obama“. And that puts the rest of us in the don’t-think-about-an-elephant zone, where even explaining why something is nonsense reinforces it.

This week it got worse. Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held new hearings on Benghazi, showcasing what Chairman Darrell Issa referred to as “whistleblowers” who “revealed new information that undermines the Obama Administration’s assertion that there are no more questions left to answer about Benghazi.” (When has there ever been a subject with “no more questions left to answer”? If that’s the goal, hearings will continue forever.)

In anticipation of those hearings, apparently without knowing exactly what the witnesses would say, Mike Huckabee predicted on his Fox News show: “I believe that before it’s all over, this president will not fill out his full term.” (Senator Inhofe at least waited for the hearings to happen before he predicted impeachment.) Repeating a talking point I heard elsewhere on Fox and saw in comments all over the internet, Huckabee claimed Benghazi was “more serious” than Watergate “because four Americans did in fact die” — a statement that could only make sense if President Obama had been part of a plot to kill them. (As Bob Cesca has pointed out, American embassies and consulates were attacked 13 times during the Bush administration, with far a death total far beyond four. You probably don’t remember any of those incidents.)

If you listened to such predictions at length — and they were made 24/7 on Fox and the rest of the conservative media — you were primed to jump straight from “new Benghazi revelations” to “high crimes and misdemeanors”.

Then we get to Wednesday. Three State Department insiders did testify, and they did provide new information that made the Obama administration look bad. However, none of the new information is on the scale that the hype predicted, and much of it contradicted conspiracy theories popular on the Right. But their testimony did give an excuse for headlines about “new Benghazi revelations” that then fueled even more discussion of some of the same conspiracy theories that the testimony directly contradicted.

Let’s see if we can sort this out. Before listening to anybody’s commentary, I recommend looking at the Wikipedia article on the attack as a whole. Seeing the basic outline of what-happened-when will immunize you to a lot of the obvious nonsense being thrown around.

Like any event that turns out badly, Benghazi leaves three avenues for criticism: lack of preparation and precautions before the fact, debatable decisions made during the event, and inaccurate statements made after the event. (A comparison to the “other” 9-11 is useful: The government ignored warnings that attacks were imminent; in hindsight, you can imagine pulling first-responders out of the second tower as soon as the first one collapsed; and clean-up crews were given bad information about the toxicity of the debris.)

At Benghazi, you can argue that the State Department sent people into too dangerous a situation with too little protection. You can blame the administration for the deployment and Congress for not appropriating enough for security.

You can also wish that some kind of rescue force could have been sent to save the four American lives. That’s the gist of the most quoted testimony Wednesday: Gregory Hicks talked very emotionally about four special forces soldiers who wanted to get from Tripoli to Benghazi, but couldn’t. When you look at actual timelines, though, the transport plane they failed to get onto arrived at Benghazi after the four victims were already dead. Hicks also wished an F-16 could have flown over Benghazi as a show of force that might have discouraged the second attack. But the Pentagon has made it clear that the nearest planes, based in Italy, are not on 24-hour alert and actually could not have been scrambled (together with the needed in-air refueling tanker) in time.

And finally, you can criticize what the administration said about the attacks afterward. This is probably the most legitimate criticism, but it’s also the least consequential, because at that point the attack had already happened and the four Americans were already dead. You can accuse the administration of making misleading statements — like no administration ever did that before — but nothing in the aftermath is remotely criminal or actionable. (It’s even arguable that what we see in the changing talking points is an ordinary bureaucratic turf fight, unrelated to the November election.)

Only a charlatan can say that Benghazi is “worse than Watergate” and then focus on Susan Rice’s performance on the Sunday talk shows. Nobody died because of what Rice said on “Meet the Press”.

To me, a story that is every bit as important as as Benghazi itself is: What has happened to our national conversation that has caused us to discuss Benghazi in such an outrageous way? It’s tempting to say, “Oh, that’s just politics.” But it really isn’t, or at least it didn’t used to be. Try to imagine the Democrats in Congress treating 9-11 this way: “It’s far worse than Watergate; thousands of Americans are dead.”

There was certainly no lack of 9-11 conspiracy theories that Democrats could have winked and nodded at. Plenty of crazies put up web pages claiming that 9-11 was an inside job. One poll claimed that a third of the country believed the Bush administration had at least some role in letting the attacks happen.

Democrats in Congress could have pandered to that view. The model Republicans have used with Benghazi (and Solyndra and Fast & Furious, both of which have fizzled as scandals, despite being “worse than Watergate” for a time) would have worked just as well: Don’t endorse any specific theory with checkable details, but announce over-the-top general judgments that only the most extreme conspiracy theories could justify. Lump all the theories under one vague label (Benghazi!) and leave your rhetoric slippery, so that you can encourage all the nutcases without pinning yourself down. Turn every new detail into a promise that more revelations are coming.

The Democratic leadership never went down that road. 9-11 was a national tragedy, not a political football. There were hearings and investigations, and some people in both parties asked tough questions, but that’s where the comparison ends. Getting tagged as a Truther was the kiss-of-death in the Democratic establishment. (Ask Van Jones.)

But the Republican leadership has gone down that road with Benghazi. And the result is that lots of the Republican rank-and-file will tell you that Obama should be impeached for Benghazi!, even though they can’t quite say what Benghazi! means, beyond “four Americans are dead”. On the Reality-Based Community blog, Andrew Sabl spelled it out:

At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.

Sabl described what specific charges would look like and challenged his readers to come up with some. None did.

Steve Benen made a similar point:

Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there’s been a cover-up, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political “scandal,” no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that’s scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there’s no underlying conspiracy to be found.

And so Wednesday, Chairman Issa advertised “whistleblowers”. But he never said what exactly they blew the whistle on.

Again, compare to Democrats during the Bush administration. Lots of liberals called for Bush’s impeachment, but they offered specific grounds: breaking the laws against torture, or fabricating evidence to invade Iraq. You could argue with their reasoning or their evidence, but you knew what it was. Democrats in Congress could have made hard-to-pin-down code words out of Abu Ghraib or Katrina, and linked them (deniably) to wild conspiracy theories, but they didn’t.

It’s tempting to stop there, with the implication that Democrats in Congress have more honesty or civic virtue than Republicans. But I think there’s a deeper level to examine. Democrats didn’t pander to the third of the country that was open to a 9-11 conspiracy theories because it was only a third of the country. You can’t win elections with 33% of the vote.

Republicans are clearly not thinking that way. As I listen to Republican politicians talk about Benghazi, they seem to be making no effort at all to speak to the majority of Americans or to offer evidence that might convince a swing voter. They are talking to their base, which is probably about a third of the country.

What’s going on? I think David Frum had it right: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” The point of Benghazi! isn’t to deliver a majority of votes for the next Mitt Romney. The point is to get ratings for Fox and subscribers for Glenn Beck. The Conservative Entertainment Complex has taken control of the Republican Party and is managing the Party for its own purposes. A third of the country? It may not win many elections, but it’s a fabulous audience for an entertainer.

Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide

A week after Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, we should be long past the “OMG — I can’t believe he said that!” stage. It’s time to take a longer view and ask ourselves what the Akin incident says about the larger picture.

You can find takeaways at many levels. First, contrary to Akin’s personal damage control, he didn’t “misspeak“. He really believes that many pregnant women — like maybe this one — make up their rape stories.

At a slightly more general level, and contrary to Republican damage control, you can observe that Akin is typical of the party. Not only is his no-rape-pregnancy lie common, but Paul Ryan agrees with him about redefining rape, and the official party platform calls for banning abortion with no rape exception. (Mitt Romney claims to support such an exception, but as usual, he’s speaking out of both sides of this mouth. Whose delegates are writing this platform? And if he won’t actively oppose a no-exceptions party platform, what makes you think he’ll veto a no-exceptions bill when Congress sends it to him?)

But here’s what I think is the most important Akin takeaway. When confronted with an ugly consequence of his policies — women forced by law to bear their rapists’ babies — Akin papered it over by telling a pretty lie: It doesn’t happen; the female body doesn’t work that way.

Isn’t that pretty? Wouldn’t the world be nicer if no woman who “really” got raped had to worry about pregnancy? Of course it would.

Akin may not have intended to lie; maybe he believes what he said. But does he believe this bogus biology because it makes sense? Of course not. Because an expert told him? The “expert” is someone he sought out precisely for that purpose; real experts would have told him the opposite.

I have a simpler explanation: Akin believes the lie because it’s pretty. The lie tells him that he’s not a monster. It helps him avoid the ugliness of his beliefs.

That thought pattern makes him absolutely typical of the conservative movement today. When implemented, conservative policies cause a lot of ugliness. And when confronted with these ugly consequences, conservatives rarely adopt a more compassionate position. A few brave ones talk about necessary sacrifices and breaking eggs to make omelets, but most just paper over the ugliness with a pretty lie.

“Raped women don’t get pregnant” is just the first lie on my list. Here are four others:

2. The uninsured can get the medical care they need in the ER.

The lie. As he prepared to veto a 2007 bill providing health insurance to children, President Bush said it very clearly:

People have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.

That’s what Governor Rick Perry meant during his presidential campaign when he said:

Everyone in the state of Texas has access to health care, everyone in America has access to health care.

Mississippi Governor Halley Barbour agreed: “there’s nobody in Mississippi who does not have access to health care”

Why it’s pretty. It’s so distressing to hear statistics like 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance. (Texas and Mississippi rank #1 and #2 in percentage of the population uninsured.) But wouldn’t it be nice if that number didn’t really mean anything? if insurance was just a bookkeeping device, and nobody really went without care?

Why you shouldn’t believe it. It’s true that the uninsured can get emergency care. If you’re in a car accident, if you’re having a heart attack, if you’re not breathing when they fish you out of the lake — EMTs and the ER will do their best to save your life even if you can’t pay. But as the Houston Chronicle points out, emergency care can’t replace regular care:

About half of uninsured adults have a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease or diabetes. The lack of regular care for the uninsured is why they have death rates 25 percent higher than those with insurance; more than half of uninsured diabetics go without needed medical care; those with breast and colon cancer have a 35 percent to 50 percent higher chance of dying from their disease; and they are three times more likely to postpone needed care for pregnancy. Clearly, the uninsured don’t get the care they need

What it hides. Lack of health insurance kills people. It kills lots of people — more than car accidents or our recent wars. The technical public-health term is amenable mortality — the number of people who die unnecessarily from treatable conditions. An article in the journal Health Policy says:

If the U.S. had achieved levels of amenable mortality seen in the three best-performing countries—France, Australia, and Italy—84,300 fewer people under age 75 would have died in 2006–2007.

France, Australia, and Italy don’t have smarter doctors or better medical technology, but they do have something conservatives are determined to see that Americans never get: universal health insurance. When a questioner confronted Rick Santorum with these facts, he replied:

I reject that number completely, that people die in America because of lack of health insurance.

Of course he does. If he accepted what the public health statistics say, he’d have to admit that his policies condemn tens of thousands of people to death every year. “Pro-life” indeed.

3. Tax cuts pay for themselves.

The lie. The most recent vintage is from the Wall Street Journal’s defense of the Romney tax plan:

Every major marginal rate income tax cut of the last 50 years — 1964, 1981, 1986 and 2003 — was followed by an unexpectedly large increase in tax revenues

Or you could hear it from Mitch McConnell:

That there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy.

The claim is pretty widespread on the Right: Cutting taxes stimulates the economy so much that the government ends up collecting more revenue even at the lower rates.

Why it’s pretty. Everybody likes a tax cut, but deep down we all know that taxes pay for important things: roads, schools, defending the country, keeping the poor from dying in the streets, and so on. But wouldn’t it be great if we could pay less tax and pretend that money for all those things will appear by magic?

Why you shouldn’t believe it. This has been tried over and over again. It never works. Pointing out that it didn’t work for Bush is shooting fish in a barrel — nothing worked for Bush — but this didn’t even work when Reagan tried it. The Economist’s “Democracy in America” column looked up the numbers:

The federal government’s receipts for 1981-86, in billions of 2005 dollars:

1981    1,251.1
1982    1,202.6
1983    1,113.4
1984    1,173.9
1985    1,250.5
1986    1,277.2

Do you see the “unexpectedly large increase in tax revenues” resulting from the 1981 marginal rate income tax cut? Me neither! It took five years just to get back to par.

What it hides. A huge transfer of wealth to the rich. This lie is the first move in a cruel shell game: First, cut taxes with the promise that it won’t cause a deficit. Then, when it causes a deficit (as it always does), don’t respond “Oh, we were wrong. Let’s raise taxes back to where they were.” Say: “Government spending is out of control! We have to cut food stamps, education, Medicare …”

Stir the two steps together, and you get a cocktail voters would never have swallowed in one gulp: We’re going to cut programs people rely on so that the rich can have more money.

4. Gays can be cured

The lie. Homosexuality is a choice that results in an addiction, but (like alcoholics and drug addicts) gays can learn to choose differently and become ex-gay.

Why it’s pretty. Suppose you think gays are going to Hell, and then your son turns out to be gay. Or suppose you’ve been brought up to believe gays are evil, and then in junior high you start feeling same-sex attractions yourself. Of course you’re going to want to believe that this situation is fixable.

Why you shouldn’t believe it. It’s almost impossible to 100% prove a negative like “Gays can’t be cured”. But if a well-funded movement to teach people to fly had been running for years, and yet no one actually flew, reasonable people would develop a strong conviction that this wasn’t going to work.

That’s the situation with the ex-gay movement. The extreme lack of success has reached the point where the movement itself has started to splinter. The original ex-gay group, Exodus International, now rejects attempts to “cure” gays and instead focuses on “helping Christians who want to reconcile their own particular religious beliefs with sexual feelings they consider an affront to scripture.” This has caused a schism, with the new group, Restored Hope Network, continuing to promote therapies to cure gays.

What it hides. Pure bigotry is the only reason to discriminate against gays.

As discrimination wanes, it becomes obvious that unrepentant gays can find love, form long-term relationships, raise children who are a credit to the community, and (in short) do all the things that are usually thought of as part of a good life. They can also serve in the military, be good teachers, have productive careers in the private sector, pay taxes, do volunteer work — everything that constitutes good citizenship.

To prop up anti-gay discrimination (and even to try to reinstate it in places where it has been torn down), and to do so even though the people discriminated against didn’t choose to be gay and can’t change it — that’s pretty ugly.

5. Obama’s election proves racism is over.

The lie. John Hawkins put it like this:

So, the moment Obama was elected, people started asking the obvious question, “How serious of a problem can racism still be in the United States if a black man can be elected President?” The honest answer to that question is, “Not very.”

Just this summer, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby reacted the same way to a black man becoming head of the Southern Baptist Convention:

The pervasive racism [Martin Luther King] confronted is primarily a historical memory now, while King himself is in the American pantheon. … America’s racist past is dead and gone.

Why it’s pretty. Pat yourself on the back, white America! You used to have a problem, but you kicked it.

So if any blacks or liberals are still complaining, feel free to ignore them. They just want the government to give them “more free stuff” by taking what you earned, or to use the charge of racism as “their sledgehammer … to keep citizens who don’t share the left’s agenda from participating in the full array of opportunities this nation otherwise affords each of us”. If anybody’s really oppressed these days, it’s whites.

Why you shouldn’t believe it. Barack Obama’s election was definitely a sign of racial progress, just like Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947, Jesse Owens’ Olympic gold medal in 1936, or Jack Johnson becoming heavyweight champion in 1908. But racism didn’t end in 2008 any more than it ended in 1908.

Let’s start by debunking the logic: In 2008, a year when everything broke wrong for the Republicans, Obama got 53% of the vote. For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s more-or-less what a white Democrat would have polled. Does that prove racism is over? No, it just proves that Republicans already had the racist vote.

Then we get to evidence that points the other way: Trayvon Martin. (Nobody jumps to the defense of black men who shoot unarmed white teen-agers.) Birtherism. (No white president has faced this kind of persistent, baseless accusation.) The racial dog-whistles in the Romney campaign. The racist anti-Obama pictures and cartoons that circulate in viral emails. (But don’t you get it? These are jokes. Like the “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012” bumper sticker. Clever, huh?) The attempt to legalize anti-Hispanic racial profiling in Arizona and other states. I could go on.

It’s not just that 1 in 3 black men will spend time in jail, it’s that this fact isn’t seen as an emergency that requires outside-the-box solutions. If white men were imprisoned at the same rate (no matter what they were imprisoned for), the number of possible explanations and solutions would skyrocket. But black men … that’s just how they are; what can you do?

(For a longer discussion of racism in the Obama era, see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in the current Atlantic.)

What it hides. Indifference to human suffering. At a time when poverty is at a level we haven’t seen in decades, the House has passed bills to gut safety-net programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

That can only happen if the white middle class is convinced that the poor are different and deserve their fate. And the best way to accomplish this is through racial stereotyping: The poor are black, and blacks are lazy. Both statements are false, but they work.

How to respond. This is far from an exhaustive list; I just picked the pretty lies I could document and refute fairly quickly, and I didn’t even touch well-covered lies like “Global warming is a hoax.” or “Abstinence-only sex education works.” But I hope the five I’ve listed are varied enough to establish the pattern.

If you have any conservatives friends, relatives, or co-workers, you probably hear pretty lies all the time. (“The poor have it good in America. They’re the lucky duckies who don’t have to work, because the rest of us are paying for their X-boxes and cable TV.”) Probably you’ve already tried to respond by googling up facts and presenting them, so you understand that this never works.

I sympathize with your frustration.

But it’s important take the next step and ask why presenting the facts doesn’t work. It’s simple: Facts are not the source of the belief. Conservatives aren’t mistaken, they’re hiding something.

What they’re usually hiding is cruelty. Conservative policies are cruel, but individual conservatives usually aren’t, or at least they don’t want to see themselves like that. The only way to square that circle is with a lie.

Once the lie is in place, “facts” will be found to support it. A whole industry is devoted to supplying fake facts. And since fake facts are easier to manufacture than to refute, you will never fight your way through the swarm.

I don’t have a foolproof method for converting conservatives, but I can tell you this much: You don’t understand a pretty lie until you’ve seen all the way through to the ugly truth it’s hiding.

That’s where you should be focusing your energy. Don’t just refute the lie. Expose the truth.

How Lies Work

If you’ve ever seen a five-year-old stand over a broken vase and say, “I didn’t do it”, you might think lying is easy. But as Mark Twain observed: “An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.”

Effective lying in a political campaign is very hard work. The soil has to be tilled and the lie planted just so. You have to water it over and over again. And then, at just the right moment, you add that special ingredient that makes it sprout and flower.

Let’s look at the most effective lie currently spreading: President Obama is a threat to your Medicare. I live in a swing state (New Hampshire), so I’ve been seeing it in this ad:

At first glance, this looks like a rubber/glue lie: The guy who wants to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher program and then not fund it properly is Paul Ryan. How can the Romney/Ryan campaign turn that around and make themselves the defenders of Medicare?

They’re doing it, and it seems to be working. I can feel the pull of their ad, even though I know it’s false. How does that work? It’s a master class in propaganda.

Start with a kernel of truth. Whether or not you believe that current deficits are necessary to stimulate the economy, you should worry about the rising cost of health care: It’s not just that in the long run Medicare, Medicaid, and veteran’s medical benefits threaten to swamp the federal budget, it’s that health-care spending in general threatens to swamp the economy.

You can get spending growth down in two ways: Reform the system to deliver care more efficiently or deliver less care. The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) pushes the deliver-more-efficiently approach. Medicare benefits don’t change, but hospitals get reimbursed less for delivering them. (Some of the profit built into hospital payments covers the emergency-room costs of the uninsured. ObamaCare lowers the number of uninsured, so hospitals don’t need to charge the insured as much.) Also, the government curtails Medicare Advantage, a wasteful Republican attempt to build a private option into Medicare. (The private plans cost more, because the private sector is less efficient at things like this. The government has been picking up the difference.)

The result is an estimated $716 billion in savings over ten years.

That’s the kernel of truth: Because of ObamaCare, the government will spend $716 billion less on Medicare.

Till the dirty soil. Bad propaganda boomerangs, because people who recognize your ugly falsehoods resent you for telling them. So you never want to be caught telling a nasty lie.

However … you can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

If you want to convince people that President Obama is sabotaging the Medicare they deserve, you’ve got a lot to work with.

Obama is black. Romney doesn’t say, “You can’t trust Obama because he’s black”, because even whites who don’t trust blacks would be horrified to hear it said out loud. In this post-civil-rights-movement era, it’s rare to meet an open I-hate-niggers racist.

Still, race matters. White America does not give Obama the level of trust or respect a white president of either party would get. (Picture the outrage if a black congressman had interrupted President Bush’s state-of-the-union address by yelling, “You lie!”) And it’s different when blacks do things we accept whites doing. (Picture armed blacks protesting in a Tea-Party-like manner, with signs calling for revolution. Picture a black senate candidate threatening “second amendment solutions” if his side loses the election.)

You till this soil by talking about how “foreign” Obama is, and how someone needs to teach him “how to be an American“. If you just imply “Obama isn’t like you”, many whites will fill in the racist parts for themselves.

Blacks are lazy. They want the government to give them what white people earned. When Newt Gingrich calls Obama “the Food Stamp president”, he’s counting on his audience to fill this in. If they aren’t making the racial connection, Gingrich gives a nudge:

I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.

How did the NAACP get into this? Did they ever say they prefer food stamps to paychecks? No? Then what’s Newt talking about?

Ditto when Rick Santorum said:

I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.

In context, that statement is a complete non sequitur unless the government-gives-white-money-to-blacks idea is sitting your head.

Romney himself has tilled this ground with the Obama-gutted-welfare’s-work-requirement lie, which he dispatched Gingrich to defend.


Liberals favor people who don’t work over people who work. They’ve been tilling this one for years. But the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplaces, and Social Security and Medicare themselves — those are liberal ideas. Conservatives were against them every step of the way.

Nobody knows what’s hidden in the Affordable Care Act’s 2000 pages. Of course, if it had been 10 pages critics could say, “Nobody knows how ObamaCare will be implemented, because they left out all the details.” There’s always an angle.

This ground was tilled with Sarah Palin’s “death panel” lie — Politifact’s 2009 Lie of the Year.

As a result, many of the simple things the ACA does are not understood — like getting rid of the donut hole in Medicare prescription drug coverage. (That’s just one of the benefits seniors get from the bill. It isn’t “not for you”.) The pieces of ObamaCare are actually fairly popular, when people find out what they are.

The middle class is vanishing because all the money is going to poor people. In reality, all the money is going to rich people, but that process is complicated. The story that your hard-earned money is being taxed away and given to layabouts is much easier to understand.

A bunch of related misconceptions help out, like “Illegal immigrants steal our jobs.” The common element is that if you’re looking for someone to resent, look down, not up. The rich are heroes, “job creators” — not vultures who made a killing outsourcing everything to China.

Plant. Now look at what the Romney ad says: You (an aging white man) paid into Medicare “every paycheck” (because you worked for a living). But now Obama has siphoned $716 billion of those dollars into ObamaCare, a “massive new government program” which is “not for you”.

So who is it for? People not like you — the young, the non-white, the people who didn’t work.

Years of effort have pushed the idea that ObamaCare is a suspicious program put forward by an illegitimate president in order to give healthcare away to people who don’t work. If you’ve been buying the Republican message so far, you’ve been expecting something like what this ad is telling you.

Supply “independent” verification. Most people are too smart to believe something just because a TV ad says so. Instead, they look for independent verification. So they shrug off the claim that something is “the #1 movie in America” until they find out whether anybody at work has seen it.

But Americans have a lot less direct human contact than they used to. The difference is taken up by voices on the radio or emails from strangers who sound real. Many of them are not real, and conservatives have learned to exploit this avenue of false verification.

Last November, a “brain surgeon” called in to the Mark Levin show to say that ObamaCare would deny brain surgery to anyone over 70. He had the inside scoop, because he’d just come from a American Association of Neuro-Surgeons meeting where the new HHS guidelines document had circulated.

A viral email picked that up, amplified it, and kept people accessing the clip online. A hospital employee heard a doctor repeat it.

It was all fake. There was no meeting; there was no document; the guy who called in wasn’t a brain surgeon. He was just a voice in the ether, telling you something that somebody wanted you to believe.

Now this is going around:

Your Medicare premiums are going to double because of ObamaCare! There it is — the exact numbers! — independently verified by somebody who leaked the information out of BlueCross. But it hasn’t appeared publicly because of Obama’s 2012 campaign!

Except … it’s all fake. BlueCross has nothing to do with it. The numbers are made up.

It’s just something somebody wants you to believe. And it rockets around the country from cousin to co-worker to classmate. Inside information! Conveniently verifying the false thing that Mitt Romney is telling you.

No one knows how many of these fakes are out there, and by the time they get noticed and debunked the deed is done.

Nobody has succeeded in tracing such hoaxes back their sources, other than to note that they are overwhelmingly conservative. But they can’t just happen. No one can accidentally create such well-designed lies.

Don’t underestimate the power of lies. You may see some ad like Romney’s and say, “Nobody’s going to buy that.” But the ad is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the visible piece of a complete propaganda campaign, much of which happens in places you don’t see.