Tuesday, June 29, 2010
HOW TO RECOGNIZE BAD POLITICAL SPEECH, 2006
Photo of Lurene Gisee, August of 2007.
Unpublished essay by Lurene Gisee, September 2, 2006, “How to Recognize Bad Political Speech.” There were several drafts of this essay, at least one from October of 2004. I made another in 2007, but found it rambling.
The 2012 version below is my final because I corrected an error in the first paragraph. It’s hard to know for certain when I first drafted earlier forms, but probably before 2002.
Essentially, it’s an essay about the wealth of conspiracy theories popular with the left, especially around election times. I submitted this to the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed section, editing it slightly for the 700 word requested limit, but they declined.
When I view this essay today, I still think it is unpublishable because it lacks examples, details. It was written with an eye on politics in the U.S. but could be applied elsewhere. Many repulsive lies are told within authoritarian societies outside the U.S., spoon-fed to nearby populations, and believed today. These lies are so common they are like spit on the sidewalks of the non-democratic world. I don't want to give them more traction by citing them all here. I would prefer to stimulate questions about where 2009's theories are circulated. Let people figure for themselves.
For instance, think of 2009 Iran. Think of the many Islamic dictatorships near Iran. Think of personalities like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Or go back two decades. If you want to see examples of lies the American left nursed during the Cold War, think of the stories you sometimes heard about the old Soviet Union.
Some fell for such stories. Here is a small section of an interview with Eldridge Cleaver, who was with the Black Panther Party in 1966. He went seeking paradise in the communist world between 1968 and 1975.
The interview was done by editors Lynn Scarlett and Bill Kauffman of Reason Magazine in February of 1986. Cleaver reports what he truly saw in the Communist world of the late 1960s:
"You know, the communists teach you that the dictatorship is a transient phase—that once capitalism is eliminated, then the state will wither away and you will have freedom. Well, when you look at those governments up close and see how they treat their own people, you can't believe in that. You see that people are using that preachment of the withering away of the state as their excuse to justify their own dictatorial power."
Why is this of use today?
You can easily let Cleaver's 1986 words in quotes above help you recognize, through comparison, the savage duplicity of militant Islam in 2009, and acknowledge what dictatorial Islam wants its cheerleaders to believe.
Think of Palestinians especially because, since Cleaver went to Russia and Cuba in the late 1960s and returned to the U.S. a changed and disillusioned man, no population has been forced to digest and accept as many conspiracy theories as Palestinians have since the rise of the PLO and Hamas; falsehoods regarding Israel and the U.S. are nearly all they get from the Arab masses in surrounding dictatorships as their political schooling, as explaination about their own regimes. They blame their lack of progress on Jews, overwhelmingly.
There's quite a lot of conspiracy nonsense about Jews in the United States and Europe, too. But in America and Europe, people who believe such things are people who were never quite right with the laws and decisions of their societies in the first place.
All that aside, though, the structures of thought necessary in dictatorships are similar, whether it's Communism, Fascism or Militant Islam. This vague essay reminds me of it all.
How to Recognize Bad Political Speech
By Lurene Gisee
Few positions, especially in politics, can be absolutely proved. As a voter, journalist or politician, your aim is to acknowledge and then point out weak veins of a theory. As a politician, journalist or historian, you want to watch the public turn the weak theory around, see it backward, see it sideways, and ultimately, see right through it. The commentator who is able to do this honestly from the start deserves attention.
The consequence of a widely accepted falsehood is an uneducated public and, in some cases, a tragic election result.
We’re talking about something more than controversial rhetoric. The last few years seem to have produced an assortment of conspiracy theories. What does that term mean? We should at least argue about it since so many Americans say they’re displeased with the results of the last election.
A conspiracy theory is an explanation of events, circumstances surrounding events, or history through one or more groundless suppositions. These theories make allegations and presume the existence of cooperative agreements between two or more individuals or groups. Such theories are intended to encourage suspicion and deep animosity within a population toward two or more individuals, or toward countries and ethnicities.
Conspiracy theories use your innocent unfamiliarity with a topic like a car uses gasoline. They spring up in the aftermath of tragedy, when it’s time for the traumatized citizen to piece together some feeble understanding.
Why should we care? We should care about conspiracy theories because, ultimately, false explanations for complex events erode public power. Conspiracy theories chip away at the confidence we have in information. Down the line, theories can influence populations at the ballot box and -- even more importantly – make the failure to act through the ballot box the sad result of an election. It’s one of the hazardous holes that suddenly trip a liberal democracy.
It’s difficult to criticize conspiracy theories without pause. You’re in sacred territory from the moment you get involved. Conspiracy criers use the banner of Free Speech to harp upon political failures of the past. Such harping is noticeable because it’s done long past the point of utility. To the conspiracy theorist, each presidential term is a new slant on Watergate, or McCarthyism, or Segregation – take your pick.
Of course, they are portraying themselves as upholders of enlightenment, which is a profoundly easy thing to concoct decades after a political scandal or controversy has passed.
Conspiracy theorists are in some ways deliberate in their approach; they go to geographically sympathetic populations from the start – often populations which are politically weak. That is where they know they’ll get tentative, but receptive ears. They are mindful of local cultures, and know full well the tastes, taboos, laws and sufferings therein to exploit.
While there is no foolproof guide, here are at least a few ways to recognize such political manipulation:
1. Theories almost always either manipulate the audience’s ignorance of obscure topics, or reshape a historical event as a platter on which to serve fresh rubbish. Conspiracy theories are easier to maintain amongst the very poor or uneducated, partially because the theories there are moved with less resistance, and more readily through word-of-mouth.
2. Conspiracy theories seek far-off societies, distant in time or geographical space; Far-off lands can be fashioned for nearly any use in a story. The public’s unfamiliarity with foreign cultures helps, too. Many Americans, for instance, innocently but mistakenly believe Brazilians speak Spanish, when it’s actually Portuguese they understand. In another common error, many of us mistakenly characterize Iranians as Arabs, but they are not. Moslems they are, but Arabs they’re not.
3. Theories often adopt a self-serving story line that builds credibility for an ideology or population. For example: Propagandists for the Soviet Union commonly circulated theories that could have been titled something like, “How the U.S. Economic Depression of the 1930s Really Happened.” Needless to say, communism was positioned as the system that would have saved the United States from economic woe.
4. There is usually either a total victim highlighted garishly, or a greedy, criminally motivated antagonist of some sort, portrayed amid a kind of political odor. Theories almost always target wealthy or elite sections of a society.
5. If you look closely, theories often contain contradictory elements in their very structures, statements that can’t be right if other facts in the same theory are true.
6. Theories almost always depend upon relatively closed social, business or governmental groups that are outside normal public scrutiny or view; theft or deception in high offices is a crucial ingredient in conspiricism. This means bankers’ committees, national intelligence agencies, and ethnic or religious groups, to cite just a few.
7. Intellectuals are sometimes heavily represented in the maintenance of credibility for a theory. We can see books being mentioned as props more than ever. Also, the mechanics of movement for the theories have modernized. We can use the World Wide Web now. We can see hit-pieces against ethnic groups and countries that contain graphs, charts, art and historical timelines. Today, we see photographs, pamphlets and journals giving ink to the most ridiculous political conspiracy theories we’ve seen since the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. In those days, theories were embarrassingly ubiquitous, and deepened the hurt of an already traumatized population.
8. Things will seem to fit that, in reality, have nothing to do with the subject being discussed. The fact that a shirt worn by a murderer appears to fit the accused proves nothing. We need a lot more than that to form an assertative statement in public, especially for political decisions.
9. Be on guard for any statement that dumps an entire ethnicity or nationality behind a banner or political belief. Blacks, Asians, Jews, Indians, French. Also, we see different professions targeted, like some financial professions, scientific specialties. The fact is, you can seldom find agreement on any subject in a room full of people belonging to a particular ethnicity, profession or culture. This is common sense, really. But it’s easy to forget simple things, isn’t it?
In conclusion, slanderous theories sink into obscurity when the true details are produced and calmly presented in an intelligible, summarized and well-publicized format. As long as the audience is not made to feel that its intelligence is being insulted, or that its fanciful suspicions are being ignored, there is a good chance of seeing such theories brought up for public discussion. Then, they can either be disproved, or appreciated for whatever truth they contain.
Especially with politics, much of what a spectator needs to know is the motive of the speaker.
Conspiracy theories inevitably bank on the stewing prejudices of a society – notions floating within the constituency that cannot be decently claimed by it. The anonymous nature of theories fortifies their longevity and durability; it is their greatest strength. No one claims the theory officially, and few accept it palpably.
Theories lean heavily on the guilt of the audience, giving the audience a participatory, emotional relationship to the theory. That’s why they work, over and over again. Be especially wary if holes in the body of evidence are given “content,” and subsequently dressed up as “fact.” Such things are words born in vacuity; they never knew content.
It might be dismally true that when individuals openly admit the most repulsive of theories to the public square, the theory itself turns to plain vulgarity, and the society has been fooled into pursuing its own decay. We need to be aware of ourselves.
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