Don’t Say His Name

 

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As you may have noticed, I long ago stopped saying the name of the forty-fifth White House occupant. In fact, I’ve even made a point of avoiding the use of his image wherever possible. And there will be popsicles in hell before I ever call him “President”. You may have assumed that this is personal, that it reflects a mere gut reaction to the man’s loathsomeness. Or that it’s some kind of superstitious hokum like the aversion to saying Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. Quite the opposite — it’s a logical, thought-out strategic decision.

I started thinking about this when I read a post by George Lakoff on his blog.  Lakoff, as you may know, is a former professor of linguistics at Berkeley and an expert on framing. The title of his book Don’t Think of an Elephant is a good indication of the frustrating challenges he tackles and the seemingly near-impossible strategy he advocates. How can you not think of an elephant? Just by not thinking about an elephant, you’re thinking about what you’re not going to think about –namely a pachyderm.

Along the same lines, he recommends not repeating the lies of the W.H.O., because even if your aim is to debunk them, you’re helping them spread just by mentioning them. And yet if you don’t debunk them you’re allowing them to spread unchecked, which in effect is helping them spread. It sounds like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

There are a couple of solutions, or at least partial solutions, to this quandary. The first is to mention the gist of the lie as succinctly and fleetingly as possible, without repeating the actual words. The second is to serve up “truth sandwiches”. Which is to say, you first state the factual alternative to the lie, then mention the substance of the lie, then reiterate the truth. That way, not only are you stating the truth twice as often as the untruth, you are also placing iterations of the truth in the most strategic positions — people tend to remember what they hear first and what they hear last better than what they hear in between.

Given the problem with repeating That Guy’s lies, it seems plausible that just repeating his name also could be problematic. That to say his name is to spread his fame. Remember, we’re dealing with a megalomaniac despot who cares about one thing only: promoting himself and his brand. Doesn’t it stand to reason that repeating his name might help him in that pursuit? And flashing around his smug mug might do likewise?

At this point I don’t have any solid research to indicate that verbally or visually boycotting him will make a significant difference if any. But if there’s a reasonable chance that it will make any difference at all, then it’s certainly worth making a bit of effort to come up with alternative ways of referring to him and the filth he spews. So I urge you: don’t say his name. And for that matter, the less you can even dwell on the elephant, the less permission you give it to trample you.

 

White Guilt, White Pride and White Privilege

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White guilt, white pride and white privilege are all terms that get thrown about quite a bit these days. What do they really mean? How do they all fit together? To answer that, we must look at the behavior and mindset of those who enjoy (if that is the correct word) white privilege.

What defines “white privilege”, anyway? In the past, it was an easier phenomenon to identify.  White privilege meant being able to vote. It meant being able to live in the neighborhood you wanted to live in, go to the school you wanted to attend, work at the career you wanted to work at. It meant being able to drink from the same water fountain and use the same toilet as everyone else. It meant not having to worry so much about being lynched.

Today, these blunt injustices have been (mostly) eliminated. But that doesn’t mean white privilege is extinct too.  It’s just a bit more subtle — at least usually.  Today, white privilege means not being stopped by police as often. It means not being reported as suspicious if you enter a white neighborhood.  It means having one person describe you to another person without referring to your ethnicity.  It means maybe a car dealership will offer you a lower price than they would offer an African-American. (Yes, this has been known to happen.) It means being able to speak your mind — even in an uninhibited fashion — without being perceived as violent, angry or thuggish. It’s absolutely unthinkable that a black president could ever get away with the kind of toddler tantrums the 45th White House occupant does.  Or that a black Supreme Court nominee would get away with the kind of unhinged self-indulgent hissy fit that Brett Kavanaugh threw. Or that a black senator would be able to play the childishly petulant game of threats that Lindsey Graham did because Democrats were trying to vet a Republican nominee. (It’s also unthinkable that a female of any race could get away with these behaviors — male privilege is closely allied with white privilege.) White privilege means being able to bask in “white pride” while rejecting “white guilt” (both of which are actually misnomers, as we’ll see shortly).

Those born into white privilege are often quick to ridicule what they refer to as “white guilt”. Conservative pundit George Will, in a typical right-wing combination of smugness and cluelessness, said:

[White guilt is] a form of self-congratulation, where whites initiate “compassionate policies” toward people of color, to showcase their innocence to racism.

The trouble is, “guilt” is being misused in this context, summoned forth because there isn’t a single word that adequately expresses the concept. It really isn’t about guilt as such, but about moral indignation and civic responsibility. It’s certainly true that we cannot be expected to bear the burden of culpability for actions committed by our forebears several generations ago. The very suggestion is preposterous. But that doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to clean up the messes they left — particularly while we’re living on land forcibly taken from Native Americans and enjoying the benefits of a society built on the backs of African slaves.  British journalist Sunny Hundal had an excellent response to people like Will:

Not much annoys me more than the stereotype that to be liberal is to be full of guilt. To be socially liberal, in my view, is to be more mindful of compassion and empathy for others … to label that simply as guilt is just… insulting.

But while liberals are not really advocating guilt per se, it’s fascinating and illuminating to see how reactionaries react to any such implication.  They often will say that they “refuse to apologize for being white” — as if anyone asked them to. When Chelsea Clinton was the nation’s First Child, her school teacher offered as a possible essay topic the question “Should white people feel guilty?” It apparently was one of those devil’s advocate type of topics meant to provoke debate and reflection — to encourage independent thinking, in short. I once had a teacher assign a discussion group the task of explaining, on short notice, the benefits and positive things about slavery; and I seriously doubt if anyone assumed he was promoting that institution. But if a professor instead assigned students the task of defending reparations for slavery and word got out, you can bet the right-wing media would go on a rampage.

Indeed, the right-wing media went bonkers — well, more bonkers than they were already — declaring Chelsea’s teacher’s assignment to be yet another instance of supposed “liberal indoctrination” at schools. And they emphasized their point by embellishing the tale in the retelling, even altering the proposed title to “Why White People Should Feel Guilty”. It was pretty clear that what was raising their hackles was not just the suggestion that white people might feel guilty, but the suggestion that white people had ever done anything wrong.

And there are a couple of glaring ironies here. First, those partakers in white privilege who so loudly protest that they want no truck with “white guilt” are quite often Christians. And one of the core principles of Christianity –if not THE core principle — is the tenet of original sin, which holds that we bear the burden of guilt for misdeeds not just through a few generations, but through all generations. According to this dogma, which a great many Christians adhere to in one way or another, we are all guilty just by being born human; and yet many folks who believe that also vociferously reject the notion that we might be “guilty” by being born white humans.

Second, these individuals generally also are embodiments, even if subtly and indirectly, of white pride. Some even openly declare this, and put white pride in the same league with “black pride” and “gay pride”. But there is of course a huge difference. The latter two categories are celebrating how demographic groups have persevered in the face of discrimination, persecution and oppression; the “white pride” folks are celebrating a demographic group that has been on the dishing-out end of discrimination, persecution and oppression.

Even many people who don’t march around displaying swastikas and Confederate flags, are often jingoists; they display their American flags (sometimes alongside their Confederate flags) and make an issue of standing for the National Anthem — and watch carefully for anyone who doesn’t do likewise so they can heap on the condemnation. They vigorously apply the technique of flag waving — which is to say they equate their own ideology with “patriotism”, and the ideology of anyone else with anti-Americanism.  Anyone who dares to criticize the government, they declare, is a traitor — if and only if the government is controlled by Republicans. But they are, of course, hasty to do a total about face the instant a Democrat and/or a black person is elected president. They shout “America first”, and try to come up with spurious justifications for keeping out (non-white) immigrants.

Jingoists loudly proclaim that they are “proud to be American”. But what does that really mean? Generally, pride is a word properly applied to a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction at one’s accomplishments and attributes. But being American is neither an accomplishment nor, really, an attribute. It’s merely the result of being fortunate enough to have been born in the United States.

One certainly can feel grateful or happy to be an American. But proud? That implies that you were somehow involved in the Constitutional Convention or the Battle of Concord. In other words, if you are “proud” to be American, but refuse to feel “guilty” for being white, you are implicitly taking credit for the good things done by your ancestors, while explicitly disavowing any blame for the bad things they did. “American pride” is very closely allied with “white pride”; the word nationalism is almost inextricably linked with the word whiteAnd in both cases, “pride” more properly should be called arrogance.

This tendency to embrace “white pride” while rejecting “white guilt” — and being able to get away with it — is white privilege in a nutshell. Today, white people whose most significant achievement is being born in America are in a position to determine the fate of hard-working immigrants who take great risks in an effort to become Americans themselves. They also are in a position to restrict the voting rights of ethnic minorities — including NATIVE AMERICANS. It doesn’t get much more white,  or more privileged, than that.

 

“Snowflake”: Anatomy of a Slur

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The popularity of “snowflake” as the cutesy insult du jour is both very interesting and rather disturbing. It’s used, of course, by the Cult Of Trumpery to belittle those who refuse to join the cult, but it’s particularly intended to single out them librulz — on the apparent assumption that nobody else possibly could be alarmed by the rise of fascism in America.

One fascinating thing about this epithet is its astronomical irony. Calling someone a snowflake is meant mainly to suggest that they are fragile, overly sensitive, easily damaged or offended. But the people applying the label are doing so in defense of a petulant toddler who, among many other things, threw a tantrum against Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s merchandise; against the cast of Hamilton for supposedly booing Mike Pence (they didn’t); against Saturday Night Live for lampooning him almost as well as he lampoons himself; and against the media and even the National Park Service for accurately reporting the size of his inauguration crowd (just let that one sink in).

And his fans themselves are often prone to gross overreactions even as they berate other people for being “snowflakes”. Recently there was a viral story about a Massachusetts man who wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper expressing his disgust with a yard sign that said “Hate has no home here”.  A 13-year-old boy penned a response that was absolutely priceless, and gives a person hope that the U.S. may have a future after all. He closes his letter by pointing out the absurdity of someone (supposedly an adult) becoming unhinged over a benevolent yard sign, and then disparaging others for their “snowflake sensitivity”.

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Another characteristic of (literal) snowflakes that may be suggested by this appellation is their uniqueness — it’s become proverbial that no two of them are alike. And there is speculation that the current application of the word was inspired by a line from the 1999 film Fight Club (based on the vastly superior Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name):

You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.

And consider the irony of this: if members of the Cult Of Trumpery really are ridiculing dissenters for their supposedly vain perception of personal specialness, they also are tacitly acknowledging that they themselves subscribe to a mindless herd mentality.

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What’s most disturbing about “snowflake”, however, is its white nationalist connotations. It has been widely reported that the term originated in Nazi Germany, where it was applied derisively to Jews because the ash from the crematoriums reminded soldiers of snow falling.

Mind you, there is no solid evidence that this story is true. But then, the Cult Of Trumpery has been more than willing to buy into all manner of unfounded beliefs and rumors: Obama is a Kenyan Muslim; Hillary caused the deaths in Benghazi; the Clinton Foundation committed fraud; climate change is a hoax; millions voted illegally; Muslims cheered on 9-11; immigrants pose a threat to the economy and to safety; Obama “apology tour”; death panels; etc., etc., etc., etc. So it’s not very likely that they’ve questioned this myth, either. In other words, it appears that many of them have called people “snowflakes” while believing that the term has its roots in the Third Reich.

Furthermore, there is a troubling etymology that is much more substantially documented. During the Civil War era, it was common for white racists to refer sarcastically to African-Americans as “snowballs” — a usage which already had been around for a century or so — and this later morphed into “snowflakes”. Unlike the Nazi narrative, this one is unquestionably true. (We might note that abolitionists also applied the term to those who supported slavery; but in this usage it was deriding people who perceived themselves as superior rather than deriding people whom the user of the label perceived as inferior.)

So the big question here (aside from why such folks consider it so important to ridicule other people at all) is this: given the widely reported belief that “snowflake” is of Nazi origin, and given its unquestionable racist associations, why do so many people nonetheless embrace it so wholeheartedly?

Shades Of Subjectivity

 

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Among those individuals who feel compelled to attack me because my writing challenges their beliefs, the most common refrains are along these lines: “You’re promoting your own ideology”; “You’re just as biased as the people you’re criticizing”; “You’re just expressing your opinion”; “You’re called The Propaganda Professor because you’re trying to teach propaganda”. These knee-jerk comments are not particularly worth responding to in themselves, but taken as a whole they reveal some interesting misunderstandings about subjectivity that we might as well try to clear up.

Here’s a sampling from my mailbag:

Like all propagandists, you’re just too quick to remind your readers that you’re somehow immune from bias. “Aw shucks, I’m just a home plate umpire who simply calls balls and strikes”…No educated person over thirty is unbiased or impartial. …. By the time one reaches your age, unless you’re a moron incapable of reason, or have been living in a vacuum, you’ve acquired a specific set of beliefs like anyone else. To suggest otherwise, like you do, is delusional.

 

Wow. It’s always amusing to hear form those people (total strangers) who claim to know me better than I know myself. I can only assume that they’re not only professing to be extremely gifted psychoanalysts, but also extremely gifted psychics. I must inform them, however, that their Ouija boards are very much in need of a trip to the shop for an overhaul. It’s hard to imagine a more knotted tangle of misconceptions than that above, which all came from a single reader.

One problem I keep seeing is that there is often a tendency to bundle bias, opinion, ideology, distortion and propaganda into a single entity — and then to demonstrate confusion about what each one really is. They’re all quite distinct, however, though they all are indicators of subjectivity. Let’s take a look at the different types, or shades of subjectivity if you will, and some examples of each.

1. Objectivity (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate as well as vanilla.”)

This is simply a straightforward reporting of the facts, with absolutely no intrusion of personality or judgment. Or is there? Why are the flavors listed in that particular order? Are there also other flavors that have been omitted? Why does the speaker feel compelled to say “as well as”, as if there would be any question about it? Why “as well as” instead of “both…and” or just “and”?

The truth is that aside from such very fundamental propositions as “two plus two equals four” or “the earth orbits around the sun”, it’s virtually impossible to maintain total objectivity. Nor is there necessarily any reason why we should in most cases. Subjectivity does not by any means automatically compromise accuracy.

When I first began writing this blog, I had the intention of striving for as purely an objective a tone as possible. I soon abandoned this criterion for two reasons: first, staying behind that line is so difficult that even balancing on it could be perceived as a failure to adhere to my objective; and second, subjectively presented material is just more fun and interesting both to write and to read.

2. Normal Subjectivity (“Fortunately, the ice cream parlor sells chocolate and vanilla.”)

So if we can’t have pure objectivity, then naturally our observations are tinged with our own likes and dislikes.  The speaker of the above comment feels that it’s a good thing that both chocolate and vanilla are being sold, and says so. Notice that this does not alter the accuracy of the central fact being related: the two flavors are still being sold, whether it’s fortunate or not.

Quite often, it’s a matter of what labels or adjectives are applied to a particular person, group of people or thing.  Note the difference, for example, between “gun rights advocates”, “gun culture” and “gun nuts”. They all might refer to the same group of people, but the individuals doing the referring are exhibiting very different attitudes. Or note the difference between “environmental activists”, “elite environmentalists” and “tree huggers”.

Again, these are examples of what we call “normal” subjectivity. There is no distinct dividing line on the scale of subjectivity that separates the “normal” from the extreme or calculated forms of subjectivity. The scale isn’t like a guitar fingerboard, where frets mark the distinct gradations. It’s more like the board on a violin, where the steps aren’t conspicuous, but are still evident when heard by a trained ear.

Yes, I exhibit subjectivity of my own. I find it very difficult, for example, to speak of Dick Cheney without the same snarl he displays when anyone dares challenge his supremacy. But that doesn’t mean that I lie or distort the facts when I’m discussing him. There’s no need to.

3. Bias (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate and other flavors.”)

Here there’s a very strong indication that the speaker favors chocolate over the “other flavors”. And that’s generally what bias boils down to: a manifest preference for one thing over another.  And it’s usually expressed in one of two ways: how much coverage you give one thing versus another, or how favorable or unfavorable that coverage is.  Bias tends to be quite consistent within a given source, whereas “normal” subjectivity may or may not be.

Yet bias itself is not undesirable, nor does it necessarily indicate inaccuracy or falsehood. People sometimes call Fox “the most biased name in news”, which is certainly true enough if you actually classify the network as a news source, but the complaint is not particularly relevant. The problem with Fox is not that it’s biased; the problem with Fox is that it relentlessly lies and distorts, and passes off propaganda as legitimate news. These are not always functions of bias.

In sharp contrast, Media Matters for America is also quite biased. But unlike Fox, it makes no effort to conceal the fact, loudly proclaiming that it exists specifically to combat “conservative misinformation”. Yet Media Matters is excruciatingly thorough and accurate, and indeed more fair and balanced than Fox will ever be in its wildest nightmares. It also comes about as close as humanly possible to a purely objective journalistic voice.

4. Opinion (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate and vanilla, the two best flavors.”)

Opinion entails not only expressing your preferences, but your beliefs.  Such opinions frequently are conclusions based on a subjective definition of terms or subjective interpretation of facts. The conclusion, for example, that chocolate and vanilla are the “best” flavors might be based on the fact that they are the most popular — which in turn might be defined by sales volume.

But even opinion does not necessarily signal inaccuracy or dishonesty — not unless the speaker tries, as in the above example, to pass off those opinions and beliefs as fact. I probably don’t have to tell you that his happens constantly in the media and in politics.

Certainly, you’ll find an occasional opinion in my writings, but not that often. And only about minor matters — not as the main thrust of the discussion. This is not a blog of opinion but of facts. And when readers declare that I’m just expressing my opinion, they’re almost always confused.

A good example is the following statement from my post The Myth Of Hitler’s Gun Ban.

Given all of this, it’s pretty hard to make a case that “gun control” played a significant role in Nazi conquest.

Which also I paraphrased elsewhere by saying that “there is no reason to believe” it would have made a difference had the Jews been better armed. This, the Psychic Psychoanalysts proclaim, is mere opinion; and they just know that with a few more weapons, the Jews could have avoided their fate.

But in fact it is they who are expressing an opinion, and they have damn little to support it. It is a historical fact that oppressed minorities have usually fared poorly in armed conflicts against their oppressors, and nobody has yet presented any reason to believe that Jews in Germany would have been an exception — no reason except, “they just would have, that’s all”.

Now if I’d said instead that “it would not have made any difference had the Jews been better armed”, then you might get away with calling that an opinion, albeit a highly informed one. But when I say “there is no reason to believe…” any such thing, I am not being speculative or opinionated but realistic.

5. Propaganda (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate, which raises your IQ, and vanilla, the favorite of terrorists.”)

Propaganda, as we define the term here (and as it’s almost always defined in contemporary society) is deliberately manipulating, distorting or misrepresenting the truth in order to persuade other people to believe or disbelieve a certain thing. This is the sin that reactionary detractors love to accuse me of, since it’s the very thing I decry. But they have yet to produce any instances of my doing so.

Certainly, I have beliefs of my own. I believe that the earth orbits around the sun, that Paris is a city in France, and that my eyes are blue. But unlike most other people (certainly most Americans) I don’t crave having beliefs, and will do everything I can to avoid them; it takes a great deal to get me to believe anything.

Perhaps what the commentator meant to say was that I have values and principles of my own. This is true as well, of course. Indeed, I have probably more or less the same values and principles you do: justice, fairness, honesty, tolerance, love, truth, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we don’t all always have the same concept of what constitutes these things or how best to achieve them. Thus ideologies are born.

And contrary to rumor, I don’t have any ideology of my own. An ideology, as we commonly use the term,  is not just a set of principles, values and/or beliefs. It’s a standardized set of beliefs. I am not a Democrat, a Republican, a communist, a fascist, a socialist, a capitalist, a Libertarian, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist or a Scientologist. My practice is to see the positives and negatives in all such ideologies, and to weigh each issue on its own merits rather than how it fits into a preconceived template.

Yes, it requires more effort. But it’s worth it.