Propaganda Prop # 8: False Equivalence

Imbalance concept. Black scales with red sphere and cube.

In a video making the rounds on the Internet not long ago,  an interviewer asks several science-minded individuals why they believe in evolution and not creationism, and coaxes them into saying that it is essentially because science is based on observable evidence, while religion is based on pure belief.  He then innocently observes that, hey, evolutionists discuss events that supposedly happened millions of years ago, and you can’t witness them since they were so far in the past; so why is that better than believing things you can’t see that supposedly happened thousands of years ago, or that happen on some spiritual plane of existence? By suggesting that putting faith in physical evidence is as arbitrary as putting faith in dogma,  he was slyly invoking false equivalence, the eighth in our series of propaganda tools.

A false equivalence, as the name suggests, is comparing or equating things that are not appropriately similar. (“The First Amendment applies to the Internet even though it hadn’t been invented when the Constitution was written; so the Second Amendment gives me the right to own an AK-47.”) This tactic is often labeled false analogy, which theoretically could be classified as something different: a false equivalence is saying that two related but dissimilar things are essentially the same, while a false analogy is saying that two unrelated things are comparable (“You cheat at solitaire, so you have no right to criticize me for being a racist.”). But in practice, the distinction is often so slight and so difficult to pinpoint that it’s really no false equivalence to just consider them interchangeable.

Quite often, the F.E. seems to be a valid analogy at first blush, but if you examine it more closely, you see that the subtle distinctions are actually quite substantial. It isn’t necessarily that the differences are more numerous than the similarities, but they are more significant. In the photo above, the two objects have certain things in common: e.g., they are both regular geometric solids, they are both shiny, they are both smooth, and they are both red. But clearly they are not the same.  One is a cube and one is a sphere. One is heavier than the other. It may be that they are different sizes, or made of different materials,  or that the cube is hollow. In any case, the differences literally outweigh the similarities.

Recently when discussing vegetarianism, I made an allusion to my 40 years of personal experience with the topic, and someone remarked that I might as well cite 40 years of faith healing or psychic work as proof that those activities are valid.  The point was that all of them involve anecdotal evidence; but the anecdotal evidence is being used in very different ways. And it’s a false equivalence for at least three reasons.

First, as I perhaps should have made more clear, my “experience” is not limited to my own vegetarianism, but to my having read about, met and talked to, literally hundreds of other vegetarians, and to having done a great deal of research on the topic.  Second, it’s a comparison between the purely hypothetical and intangible — i.e., psychic powers and faith healing — and the tangible and demonstrable; diet definitely does have an effect on health, and there’s ample evidence that a vegetarian diet can have a positive effect. Third and most important, unlike the psychic and the faith healer, I’ve never cited my personal experience/research as “proof” of anything; on the contrary, I suggest that it’s reason to doubt conventional wisdom — i.e., that consuming meat is necessary for good health. (Which is to say that when you have a premise that doing thing A invariably produces result B, yet you have hundreds of random individuals who’ve been doing A for years with results consistently the opposite of B, it might be prudent to examine your premise a little more closely.)

It’s very easy to drift into those murky waters, because we all like to make comparisons — they help illustrate, clarify and amplify. But no two things are exactly alike; so it can be a bit tricky to determine where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate analogy. Sometimes, then, the false equivalence is a sincere logical fallacy rather than an attempt to deceive. In many cases, however, the analogist steps blatantly over the line; even when not doing so deliberately, he/ she does so as part of an overall inclination to distort in order to attack or defend a particular position.

The interviewer in the video may or may not have been intentionally dissembling, but he definitely was operating under a false premise: namely, that religious authorities are at least as qualified to speak about science as are scientific authorities. This stems from the great fundamentalist fallacy that religious texts should be interpreted as literally as scientific texts. But in fact, religion and science are two totally different spheres of cognition — two different languages, if you will. Those who understand this can be both scientific and religious if they so choose. Those who don’t are likely either to condemn religion as being unscientific (its actually nonscientific) or condemn science as being “blasphemous”.

False equivalence is often invoked in discussions of religion. One popular motif is to maintain that the absence of faith is itself a sort of faith. A few years ago, there was even a movement among the Christian Right to have “secular humanism” officially declared a religion, so that it would be a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state to enact secularist policies such as prohibiting school-enforced prayer. Cute.

Of course, this was a political maneuver as much as a religious one, and you’ll certainly encounter plenty of false equivalence in discussions about politics and current events. Turn on the talking heads and before a quarter of an hour has elapsed,  chances are you will have heard at least one faulty comparison.

One of the most popular manifestations is the “both sides do it” narrative,  which sometimes manifests as the tu quoque — Latin for “you too”, a fancy way of saying that it takes one to know one.  As you might imagine, I get that one thrown at me quite a bit. (“You’re a propagandist yourself”. “You’re promoting your own causes.” “You’re using straw men and cherry picking while accusing other people of doing the same.” Etc, etc, etc. Which is a clear indication that someone either is distorting my words or is confused about the concept in question.)  Sometimes a tu quoque is a valid point; quite often, it’s just a knee-jerk attack from someone who feels that he/ she absolutely must attack, but really has nothing to say.

The “both sides do it” is my favorite specimen of false equivalence because it offers so many possible applications. Accordingly, I’ll be devoting a separate discussion to it in the near future.

No examination of false equivalence is complete without some mention of the very popular “reductio ad Hitlerum” — the tendency to summon up the specter of Der Fuhrer to stand beside anyone you don’t like.  If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this one, I’d be as powerful as Hitler.

The fact is, nobody is really like Hitler. That’s what makes him such an effective illustration but such an ineffective and inappropriate benchmark. Sometimes someone may have something in common with Hitler in a very small way (you may know lots of short, dark-haired former painters who speak German), but never to the extent that fiery rhetoricians suggest. A Hitler analogy is almost always out of line.

That being said, we also should acknowledge that the over-sensitization to Hitler analogies has created its own problems. Sometimes you might hear an exchange like this:

Mr. Smith: You’re very firm in your beliefs, but that isn’t always a good thing. The Nazis were firm in their beliefs, too.

Mr. Jones: There you go, comparing us to Nazis and comparing me to Hitler.

Smith did no such thing, of course. He gave Hitler his proper treatment: as the ultimate extreme we all should avoid, and a powerful illustration of what excesses firmness of conviction can lead to. It is Jones who is making the false equivalence. This is a propagandaphile’s delight: a false equivalence about a false equivalence.

Propaganda Prop # 7: Cherry Picking


You may have heard that the Associated Press recently was compelled to issue a retraction because of an embarrassing photo accompanying an article about global warming.  The article had identified the photo as depicting ice melting at the North Pole; but in fact, it was a seasonally thawed “lake” (actually more of a pond) some 300 miles away. Chances are you heard about this from an anti-science relative, along with the comment, “Aha! This proves that global warming is a hoax.” To which, perhaps, the only suitable response is: “Aha! This proves you know how to cherry pick.”

Cherry picking, the seventh in our series of propaganda tools, consists of zeroing in on evidence that reinforces one’s argument, and discarding evidence that doesn’t.  It’s the result of confirmation bias, which is a tendency — a tendency very deeply ingrained in the human species — to seek out confirmation of one’s beliefs and values. It usually doesn’t entail inaccurate information so much as incomplete information — facts ripped away from their context with other facts that would drastically affect their interpretation.

A frequent telltale sign that you’re being cherried is the reporting of a single anecdote followed by the words “this proves that…”. A single occurrence rarely proves anything except as noted above: The statement “This proves you know how to cherry pick” may be assumed accurate with reasonable safety, because doing something even once proves that you’re at least capable of doing it (it’s pretty damn hard to fly a plane once unless you know how). But it doesn’t prove that you do so habitually, and that’s the basis for “proofs” supported by cherry picking.

You might think that the Associated Press itself was guilty of cherry picking, but most likely it just committed an honest flub, placing the wrong picture with the right story. That’s been known to happen before. As far as Alex Jones and company are concerned, however, the journalists and editors were “blatantly lying”, which proves that global warming is a myth. But the AP had no need to lie or cherry pick, because there is an abundance of photos that starkly reveal thawing polar ice caps on a massive scale.

In any case, the AP gaffe is a journalistic lapse rather than a scientific lapse. It has no bearing whatsoever on the enormous mountain of evidence compiled through decades of climate science research. Yet the deniers speak as if they believe they can bowl that mountain over with a single cherry — from an entirely different orchard, no less.

The op-ed piece pushed by Jones and his faithful flock (it was re-posted from another website, Natural News) employs both of the most common cherries picked by the cult of climate science denial: (A) citing the beliefs of a few of the 3 percent of scientists (many of them affiliated with the petroleum industry and/or right-wing think tanks) as being more substantive than the 97 percent who have reached a consensus on global warming; and (B) citing instances of cold weather as contradicting warmer climate. Actually, long-term warming can contribute to short-term cooling; and the article also ridicules this sound fact as further proof that scientists are “incompetent”.  It also brandishes a couple of phrases that qualify as both straw men and framing: “Earth worshipers on the Left”, suggesting that it’s the “other side” and not the anti-science fanatics who have systematically politicized this issue; and “the lie that mankind’s loathsome habit of improving life is killing the planet”, suggesting that it is the anti-science fanatics rather than the scientists who represent true progress. Cute.

The article also indirectly pays homage to “Climategate“, a faux “scandal” that science deniers falsely claim impugns climate research. They really pulled out all the stops on this one. There’s even a nifty explanation for why scientists are so devious and nefarious: “to take away your mobility and force you into crowded urban centers where you can be more easily controlled”.  Heaven knows people in those crowded urban centers are nothing but automatons, with evil scientists pulling their strings.

Cherry picking may be thought of as the flip side or complement of an error that all of us have been guilty of at some time or other: faulty extrapolation — more colloquially known as “jumping to conclusions” . We tend to draw conclusions in line with what we want to believe, even when the evidence is insufficient. And then we try to convince other people that those beliefs are accurate by reversing the process, selecting facts that support the faulty conclusions.

In 1998 a fraudulent study proposed a causal link between autism and certain vaccines. This gained a great deal of traction with the public, in part because children begin to manifest symptoms of autism at about the same age they get the vaccines. So the two must be related, eh? It’s like surveying the smog in Los Angeles and deducing that it must be caused by palm trees. (Which appears to be just what Ronald Reagan may have done.) It’s a classic case of the cardinal sin of sociology: confusing concurrence with cause — or as it’s been expressed, confusing “with” and “because”.

The reputed autism-vaccine link has been soundly discredited, but that won’t stop people from believing it anyway if they are determined to do so. Okay, if you wanna believe it, go ahead. As long as you keep it to yourself, you may be guilty of nothing more than being misled into a faulty conviction.  But when you start trying to sell your misguided belief to other people, you’re committing propaganda via the genus Pluckus redfruitus.

Sometimes people confuse cherry picking with illustration by example. (My attackers have been known to do so.) It’s an easy mistake to make — the line does get rather blurred. So let’s see if we can make it more distinct.

Suppose I’m discussing a certain extremist fringe group — we’ll call it the Koo Koo Klan — and I mention that it is racist.  Then I illustrate this with a particular incident in which the group burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. Am I cherry picking or just providing an example? In a sense, it depends on whether the cart came before the horse.

If I’m basing my racist characterization of the KKK only on this one incident, then I just might have crimson-stained fingertips. There might be other reasons why they burned a cross on this family’s lawn. Maybe it was a twisted gesture of affection instead. Maybe they picked a yard totally at random. Maybe they didn’t like families with a certain number of kids or who drive a certain type of car. But if the organization has a history of burning crosses for racist reasons and has explicitly made racist comments in its official documents, promotional materials and speeches, then my conclusion is on much more solid ground; and my inference about this one action being of racist intent is more reliable, and may reliably be taken as an illustrative example rather than a definitive cherry.

As you no doubt are aware, cherry picking is a sort of Olympic sport among political pundits and partisans; and it often leads to some rather fascinating contortions of reason.

Consider, for example, a column by right-wing commentator Larry Elder titled What About the Stupid Lies Democrats Believe? (Elder, incidentally, is the author of the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, which rehashes talking points that he and his fellow ideologues utter frequently even though they’re supposedly forbidden from doing so. They include the claim that “illegitimacy” is “America’s greatest problem”. Really.) Apparently on the defensive about criticism of the loony things right-wingers believe, he mentions just one of many –i.e., that President Obama is a Muslim — and plucks a few cherries to make it sound like that might not be such a fruitcake belief after all. Then he counters with a list of 5 “lies” left-wingers supposedly believe — which somehow excuses or mitigates the lunacy of right-wing beliefs. (That’s an evasive tactic we’ll be examining in the future).

His list of 5 supposedly wackadoo Democratic beliefs is really not far-fetched at all. and is highly suspect for several reasons. One of these “lies” in particular really jumps off the page at you:  “George W. Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election”. Which he dismisses with this quote from the New York Times:

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.

As we discussed in an earlier post (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored) the allegation of a stolen election in 2000 is founded on numerous factors, all involving soundly documented instances of malfeasance by the Bush camp and/or the GOP on his behalf.  There was, for example, the unwarranted (and evidently unlawful) purge of tens of thousands of likely Democrat voters, months before any ballots were even cast, from the rolls in Florida — where Bush’s brother just happened to be governor and his local campaign chair just happened to be Secretary of State.  And there was the blatantly partisan intervention by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court — two members of which had direct ties to the Bush family and/or campaign — which included unnecessarily halting the Florida recount. And on and on and on.

But Elder ignores all of this, and focuses only on the projections of the media consortium which reviewed ballots long after the election was over.  And it gets even better. He singles out a single statement by a single media outlet summing up the results.  Not that it really matters. He could have found a similar quote in just about any major newspaper. As we discussed before (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup), the consortium examined the outcomes under several different counting scenarios; and Gore would have won most of them — including any scenario involving a statewide recount of all ballots!  And this, mind you, is even after all the shady shenanigans by the Bush gang. It’s hard to see how anybody could wring an unequivocal Bush victory out of all this, but that’s exactly what the media did. In nearly every case, news reports trumpeted the recount scenarios favoring Bush in its headlines, while burying in fine print the much more significant results favoring Gore. George W. Bush was not picked by the voters, but he was picked repeatedly by the cherry harvesters.

In short, Elder fails to make a case that the stolen election narrative is even wrong — much less that it belongs in the same corner of the loony bin as Obama the Muslim (not to mention death panels, forged birth certificates and Benghazi cover-ups). Yet he purports to have established both with a single quote from a single newspaper. He’s balanced quite a stack of cherries here.

In addition to overtly political topics, you’ll hear the sound of cherries being yanked from trees in relation to a number of other hot-button issues that almost invariably get linked to politics. Probably the two canards I hear cherried most often are: “gun control doesn’t work” and “American media has a liberal bias”.  (Both of these constantly chanted mantras are on Elders list of things you can’t say. Really.) We’ll be dissecting both of these myths in due course. For now let’s just note that “proving” either of them would require an Everest-sized heap of data; but proponents of these beliefs are generally content just to “prove” them with a nugget or two carefully plucked from the mass.

Several years ago, the ever-entertaining National Review ran what may be my all-time favorite instance of cherry picking. There is unquestionably a liberal bias in the media, it declared, because x number of media outlets during a certain period of time ran y stories about “gun control” and only z stories about gun ownership.  First off, the ever-entertaining NR was selecting a single issue as the determining indicator of bias. Then, it heavily stacked the deck by comparing coverage of “gun control” to coverage of gun ownership — how often is the latter really newsworthy? And do you really think that right-wing media would never have any interest in covering “gun control”? This illustrates just one of the many reasons why I can never resist affixing “ever-entertaining” to “National Review”.

None of the foregoing should be construed as an admonition against countering the prevailing paradigm. If I didn’t favor questioning “conventional wisdom”, this blog wouldn’t exist. (The prevailing paradigm, in case you really didn’t know, includes the “conventional wisdom” that media have a “liberal bias”; that “gun control doesn’t work”; that “both sides” are equally hostile and over the top; and that scientists are unscrupulous and inept.) But if you’re going to challenge experts in their own field, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than your beliefs. And if you expect your beliefs to be taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, those beliefs need to be backed up by more than a few cherry picked facts wrenched out of context.


Propaganda Prop # 6 : The Straw Man

straw man

Once upon a time when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better, I got into a discussion (i.e. argument) with a relative on a topic that he had strong beliefs about. That topic was the hazards posed by certain chemicals used in growing and processing food — a hazard which, he was convinced, was nonexistent, but was merely a fraud concocted by devious scientists, or the government, or some other “them” who couldn’t be trusted. At one point, he said to me, ” if it wasn’t for chemicals, you couldn’t live.” Although I wasn’t even familiar with the term at the time, this was my first real awareness of the straw man tactic, which is the sixth in our series of propaganda techniques.

A straw man is an oversimplified substitute for an actual issue or another person’s actual position on an issue.  Although the term’s origins are unclear, the apparent idea is that metaphorically, someone constructs a cheapened likeness of another person (or position) and knocks it down, then claims to have struck down the real person (or position). I’d never said that all chemicals are harmful; I was perfectly aware, in fact, that the human body is made of them. What I was saying was that it’s a good idea to be informed about what chemicals are harmful and to avoid them if possible.  That’s an argument that’s much harder to dismiss than the watered-down version my relative threw back at me.

You’ve surely had plenty of straw men thrown in your face; there’s not much way to avoid it. If you mention to anyone, for example, that you’re opposed to the war (any war) you’re quite likely to hear someone say “How can you not support the troops?” Or “Why do you hate America so much?”. Or something like that. Mention that you favor reproductive choice, and you’ll surely be labeled “pro-abortion”, and you may even hear someone say that you support “killing babies”.  Either of which constructs a straw effigy in front of the real problem of how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In April 2010 the state of Arizona passed Arizona Senate Bill 1070, putatively aimed at curbing illegal immigration. Many citizens, not only Arizonans, expressed concern and outrage because some provisions of the bill opened the door to harassment of legal immigrants or even natural-born citizens of darker complexion.  (Do you suppose it’s just a coincidence that the bill has connections to white supremacists?) But ideological extremists who spoke of opponents to the bill almost uniformly characterized them as being anti-immigration reform, or pro-illegal immigration, or some other such straw personage, often even suggesting that those bleeding-heart libruls who didn’t like the bill should just invite all the filthy scum illegals to come and live in their neighborhoods.

Now it’s certainly possible that some of these people honestly don’t know the difference between objecting to a specific law and objecting to the broad objectives the law supposedly addresses (I’m glancing in your general direction, Ms. Malkin). But some of them did a deliberate switcheroo, replacing substance with straw. Well, after all, they were taking their cue from the straw twins embedded in the bill’s official name: The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which implies that law enforcement officials strongly support the measure, and that brown people from south of the border are responsible for higher crime. Both of which are, to say the least, unsupported conclusions.

Chances are that at some time during the past few months you’ve seen this graphic making the rounds on the Internet:

OWS hypocrisy

The idea, of course, is to suggest that the participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement are sniveling hypocrites for being anti-corporation when, like the rest of us, they use products manufactured by corporations. Trouble is, the Occupy movement was not organized to protest against corporations. It was organized to protest against corporate greed, corporate crime and corporate domination of government policy. Those are things that many Americans are concerned about, including many who revile OWS.  But it’s a lot simpler and a lot more effective just to dumb down the OWS position as being “anti-corporation”. Don’t strike a match with so much straw flying around.

Almost every criticism/ attack I’ve heard directed at OWS has been a straw man. Indeed, if you’re one of those who are generally classified as “liberal”, you surely get attacked by scarecrow platoons on a regular basis.  “Liberalism” is a rather broad and nebulous concept — much more so than “conservatism”, which is itself a rather imprecise label. And since the lifeblood of propaganda is oversimplification, it makes sense that those who smear “liberals” will dumb down their talking points and employ vast hordes of straw figures to make their case. (“Conservatives”, by the way also tend to invoke reverse straw men to present their own convictions — which is to say they oversimplify them in a positive direction. They might attire their belief, for example, in a supposed Second Amendment right to own guns as “supporting the Constitution”. What they mean in is that they support their own dubious interpretation of one little segment of the Constitution.)

In fact, my absolute favorite single source of straw men is Liberal Logic 101, which has the avowed mission of pointing out the inconsistencies and stupidities of “liberals”; but the site would be more accurately called Straw Man of the Day. Let’s look at a couple of recent examples of its wit and wisdom:


This one’s a double whammy: it suggests, first that “responsible adults” are the main target of firearm regulation, and second that it really matters whether teenagers “think premarital sex is okay”.  Comparing an innate biological drive with a culturally conditioned addiction,  this cutesy graphic sidesteps two genuine issues: (1) The dividing line between “responsible” and “irresponsible” adults (as if adults were the only ones affected by guns) is often crosshair-thin; and a gun blurs that line faster than just about anything else in the known universe, and (2) Teenagers already think sex is pretty okay; and they’re going to go on thinking it’s okay unless adults inflict some extremely heavy psychological damage; and it just might be prudent to be more concerned with preventing pregnancy and potentially fatal disease than with trying to reprogram their hormones. It’s an artificial dichotomy (something straw-sculpting propagandists just love) to suggest that one must choose between discouraging premarital sex or being prepared for lapses in judgment.

Here’s another gem:


Is there really anybody out there who honestly doesn’t realize that President Obama has been subjected to more “background checks” than the Pope? Apparently so; and this straw men seems to be an attempt to recruit more devotees to birtherism. Or any of the other Photoshop conspiracy theories accumulating around the president. If gun owners were scrutinized with a microscope even a fraction as big as the one that has been trained relentlessly on Barack Obama, gun regulation advocates would be ecstatic. And chances are that just about everyone would be a lot happier, because there’d probably be far less gun crime.

Gosh, these are like eating peanuts — once you get going, it’s hard to stop. Let’s try one more for good measure:


The notion that “Obamacare” entails the government “making medical choices for you” has been a heavily used straw man since day one, and not one sliver of its straw has worn off. “Government takeover” is the straw phrase of choice that has been brandished against the Affordable Care Act ever since “socialized medicine” started wearing thin.

These priceless bagatelles from Liberal Logic 101 always end with the observation that “Yes, they are that stupid.” Well, it does appear that somebody is trying very hard to be “that stupid” — or else just very crafty. In any case, I recommend perusing the pages of that website if you’re seeking some textbook examples of straw men.

But really, you don’t have to seek them out at all. They’ll seek you out instead. It seems that straw men are breeding faster than mosquitoes in a swamp. I seem to hear more and more and more of them all the time. Ironically, I also seem to hear more and more instances of “phantom” straw men — i.e., people falsely claiming that someone else has used a straw man.  (See, for example, the attack on one of my previous posts at and/or my response to it.) Yes, we’ve reached that bizarre point in the so-called evolution of our species when the perception of a straw man has become itself a straw man.

Propaganda Prop # 5: Spin

The headline in USA Today was eye-catching: “Obama faces uphill battle for reelection.” But what was even more arresting was the accompanying graphic depicting poll results that matched him up against his potential GOP challengers. It demonstrated that he was in a statistical dead heat with all of them, and he was actually leading against at least one. So why didn’t the headline say “GOP challengers face uphill battle to unseat Obama?”  Well, because of a little thing called spin, which is the next in our series of propaganda tools.

We’ve all heard of spin, and we’ve hall heard plenty of spin. We’re surrounded by it, bombarded by it, saturated with it. And its power to alter perception is very much in proportion with its pervasiveness.

For better or for worse, President Obama almost certainly is headed for a second term. Indeed, it has seldom been in serious doubt. It’s not a definite thing, mind you; never underestimate the effectiveness of swiftboating and ACORNization; but you’d be much wiser putting your money on him than against him. Examine the chart on InTrade, which has become a very reliable predictor of such matters, and you’ll see that the probability of his reelection has hovered at around 60 percent for most of the past year or so, and only briefly dipped below 50 percent. Yet the conventional “wisdom” has always been that he has a better chance of building a cat house on the moon. Why? Because the media have relentlessly pursued the narrative that his electoral glass is half empty instead of (at least) half full, apparently hell-bent on making his November defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Spin is  not, strictly speaking, a technique in itself, but a species of technique application. And it isn’t strictly a political activity, but its application to politics certainly trumps any other usage these days – even commercial advertising, which previously was the primary domain of spin.

You also might notice that spin sounds very similar to framing; and in fact, they’re often used interchangeably. But in practice, there are generally certain distinctions between the two. Framing usually promotes one of a number of possible interpretations, while spin generally means reversing the polarity of a given perception — i.e., making an unfavorable result appear favorable, or vice versa. Framing might be thought of as a preemptive strike to mold perception of future events, while spin may be thought of as damage control to reshape perception of past events.  (Even in the example cited, the spin is applied to poll results that already have occurred.) You’ll witness spin in action after just about any election, as the losers and/or their backers try to explain to the public that defeat didn’t really mean what it meant.

One of the most brazen (and most successful) political spin campaigns ever occurred after the 2000 election, when the supporters of George W. Bush — who, at the very least, lost the popular vote — hailed the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that put him in office as a sweeping mandate that reflected the overwhelming will of the people. They sported maps that colored in the “red” and “blue” states and proclaimed, I kid you not, that three-fifths of the nation had voted for Dubya. Fox “News” hawked T-shirts blazoned with such a map, reflecting “Bush’s stunning victory”.  Not to be outdone, the reactionary blog Free Republic zeroed in on California, publishing a map that showed Bush carried more counties in that state, and declaring that he “beat Gore to a bloody pulp” — in a state Gore won by a 12 percent margin!

We should note that spin descends into such grotesque silliness not necessarily by providing false information, but by seizing on the wrong information. What those maps really proved was that Bush voters were spread out among a wider expanse of real estate than Gore voters.  Which is about as relevant as saying that Gore voters tended to live in taller buildings. (Hey, why not a 3-D electoral map that stresses depth rather than breadth of voter distribution?) That vast red territory is occupied largely by cattle, rattlesnakes and scorpions — none of which cast ballots in that election (at least to the best of our knowledge).

But, as in the example of the Obama polls, another way to spin is just to offer a strained interpretation of the facts. For an all-time classic textbook example we turn, as we so often do, to the great Rush Limbaugh. And the topic was not politics but, as you might expect, he did his damnedest to politicize it. It was the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged a portion of freeway around Los Angeles. Here’s how FAIR compares Limbaugh’s comments to events in the real world:

LIMBAUGH: On California contractor C.C. Myers completing repairs 74 days early on the earthquake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway: “There was one key element that made this happen. One key thing: The governor of California declared the [freeway] a disaster area and by so doing eliminated the need for competitive bids…. Government got the hell out of the way.” (TV show, 4/13/94) “They gave this guy [Myers] the job without having to go through the rigmarole…of giving 25 percent of the job to a minority-owned business and 25 percent to a woman.” (TV show, 4/15/94)

REALITY: There was competitive bidding: Myers beat four other contractors for the job. Affirmative action rules applied: At least 40 percent of the subcontracts went to minority or women-owned firms. Far from getting out of the way, dozens of state employees were on the job 24 hours a day. Furthermore, the federal government picked up the tab for the whole job (L.A. Times, 5/1/94).

Unable to wrap his brain around the notion that the big bad guvmint actually might be able to operate effectively on occasion, Limbaugh just blotted it out of the picture altogether. His recipe for turning reality on its ear was (1) Select some actual facts– i.e., that repairs were completed by a private contractor well ahead of estimated schedule; (2) Stir in some made-up facts — i.e., that the government cut corners on affirmative action and other regulatory measures; (3) Extrapolate an interpretation that is contrary to truth — i.e., that the efficiency of the project was due to the government “getting the hell out of the way”; (4) dish it up to the masses (serves several million).

That, folks, is spin at its spinfulest.

Propaganda Prop # 4: Framing

The year was 1984, and President Ronald Reagan, already the oldest president in the nation’s history, was up for reelection.  During his second debate against Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a reporter queried him about a mounting concern that he was growing too senile to function effectively. His response, in part, was, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In addition to being a memorable one-liner, it was one of the most potent displays ever of framing, the fourth in our series of propaganda tools.

Framing is a psychological and sociological concept that has many applications and has been the subject of a great deal of research and experimentation. But in the public arena – particularly in current events and politics – it essentially means establishing guidelines that influence how the public perceives a particular topic – or even what topic the public perceives.

The Reagan quip (which probably was prepared in advance, but which he made sound off-the-cuff), in a single sentence, switched the frame from age to wit. And a few weeks later the voters decided, by a substantial margin, that they preferred a president who could turn a good punchline to one who wouldn’t fall asleep on the job.

It isn’t always so easy to establish a frame with a single sentence, but sometimes it’s done with only a word or two.

When politicians railed against the estate tax, most folks just yawned. When they re-christened it the “death tax”, they got a better response. After all, everyone dies, so the use of the term “death tax” implies that we’ll all be taxed on whatever we pass on to our heirs. In fact, the first 5 million or so you leave behind will not be subjected to federal estate tax. But Fox “News” had its viewers believing that when they kicked the bucket, President Clinton would send a truck to their house to confiscate half their stuff. The estate tax had been framed.

Privatizing Social Security? Fuhgeddabout it. But when you frame it as “personalizing accounts”, it becomes a bit more appealing. And mind you, these manipulative neologisms are often applied by the very people who sneer at “political correctness” for supposedly overdoing the euphemisms.

Americans also probably wouldn’t have been terribly gung-ho about an Operation to Invade and Occupy Iraq.  But when it was framed as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and part of “The War on Terror”, that was another matter. (The Bush Administration dropped an earlier label, Operation Iraqi Liberation, apparently because it became clear that its acronym might sound a bit too candid.) It became routine to frame supporters of that exercise as “pro-troop”, suggesting that the anti-war demonstrators were in fact protesting against the military itself.

Few words these days have the framing power, at least in the United States, of socialism, and variants thereof. Most Americans may not have a clue what socialism really is, but they know it’s the spawn of Darth Vader, because they’ve been told it is so many times. Thus, it was all but inevitable that those who wanted to thwart the Affordable Care Act would dub it “socialized medicine”, along with “government takeover” of medicine and “Obamacare“.  The latter has long been used as a derogatory term by Obama’s political opponents to imply not only a government takeover but a takeover by one person. But in a very interesting wrinkle, the president’s own campaign adopted the word,  reframing a frame!

The “socialized medicine” motif is hardly new; it was conjured by Republicans in Washington in 1993 when President Clinton also attempted healthcare reform. In fact, they conducted a poll in which they asked respondents whether they approved of Clinton’s plan  for “socialized medicine”. Not surprisingly, more than half said no, and this gave them ammo to shoot down the Clinton plan. Later, after the dust had settled, an independent polling organization queried people about specific provisions of the defeated bill without mentioning that its source was the Clinton administration (and of course without calling it  “socialized”), and three-fourths of them approved. A word or two, included or omitted, can make all the difference in how the public perceives an issue.

The GOP poll was an example of a push poll, which often isn’t really a poll at all but an attempt to frame an issue by implanting a suggestion in the minds of individuals contacted. If you spend much time online, you’ve surely seen “polls” (ads) by right-wing groups (notably NewsMax) targeting President Obama with  questions like “Do you believe Obama should be impeached ?”  or “Is Obama the worst president ever?”

You’d have a hard time getting approval of a “Bill to Discriminate Against Gays” even in the Deep South. But a law that did just that, when packaged as the “Defense of Marriage Act”, was approved by Congress, and a “Marriage Protection Act” was voted into law even in ultra-blue California. Nobody can explain exactly how allowing more people to marry would threaten the “institution” of marriage with extinction. And how can you defend it by reducing its numbers and restricting it to those individuals (heterosexuals) who are far less likely to stay married? Quite often, the topic is framed as a debate over religious beliefs (which are prohibited by the Constitution from being the basis of law) rather than about marriage equality.

But  large numbers of people are quite willing to overlook the absurdity of the proposition if it is expressed in resonant words. Some even believe that allowing gays to marry would open the door to marrying llamas or toasters. But hey, even that would result in more weddings, so how exactly would it be destroying marriage? How would your cousin tying the knot with his Corvette cause you to become less married? Is marriage a commodity in limited supply so that it needs to be rationed?

It’s a powerful testimony to the ability of ideology, expressed in the right language, to short-circuit the brain. It’s the power of framing at its finest.

Propaganda Prop #3: Bible-Thumping

“Prayer is a different thing for Republicans than it is for the rest of us; you don’t actually ask God for things, you sort of ask God to make clear to other people what he’s already shown to you.” — Garrison Keillor

Not long ago, a certain right-wing politician that you’ve probably heard too much about already published a book attacking President Obama. (Say it ain’t so!). The book was titled To Save America, and that’s certainly an interesting instance of the propaganda technique we call flag-waving. But it’s the subtitle that we’re concerned with here: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine. Not just because of the obligatory right-wing characterization of the president as a “socialist” (which is certainly dopey enough) but because of the use of “secular” as a pejorative. It’s an excellent illustration of the third propaganda technique we’d like to examine, a technique we call Bible-thumping.

Usually, Bible-thumping means brandishing specific scriptural passages in an effort to defend specific extremist views. But we’re using it in a broader sense, to include using religion in general to defend extremist views in general. In your Professor Of Propaganda’s lexicon, Bible-thumping is the conviction that not only does God take sides in every petty human squabble, but he invariably sides with arrogance, ignorance or bigotry – and ideally with all three at once.

Our illustrious politician-author, and others of his bent, proceed from three assumptions: (a) America was intended to be a Christian nation; (b) religionists are more moral and more patriotic than secularists; and (c) “conservatives” are religious and “liberals” are not.  All of these assumptions are premium grade horseshit. Granted, “liberals” are somewhat less likely to be religious than “conservatives”, but what’s far more significant is that “conservatives” are far more likely to be fundamentalists, and therefore far more likely to indulge in Bible-thumping – which is certainly no guarantee of moral soundness or patriotic fervor. (If you’re curious about how this secularist-basher applies Christian moral principles to his own life, have a look.)

We should note that Bible-thumping is an equal opportunity activity, not limited to followers of the Bible. You just as easily could quote the Koran, or the Upanishads or the Avesta or Peanuts. But it is the Bible, by far, that people are more likely to be pointing at your head when they say things like these:

  • “I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good… Our goal is  a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called on by God to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.”  (Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue)
  • “We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will be (sic) get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”  (Gary North, Christian Reconstructionist)
  • “We thank God that it (the atomic bomb) has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”  (President Harry Truman, after dropping the first of two holy offerings on Japan)
  • “God told me to run.” (paraphrased from several right-wing politicians. Considering that they often run against each other, it’s clear that the Almighty either is a fickle patron, or wants most if not all of them to lose.)
  • “America today begins to turn back to God.”  (a certain Bad Actor, explaining why a crowd had mindlessly assembled at his blatantly self-promotional rally.)

There is never a good reason to mix religion and government. NEVER. No matter what religion, no matter what government. And whenver anyone tries to do so, you should be suspicious of their motives. And you should REALLY batten down the hatches when you hear a politician, especially if he happens to be the leader of the nation, say something like this:

God the Almighty has made our nation. By defending its existence we are defending His work.”

I really hate to do this, but the nation this leader was referring to wasn’t the U.S. It was The Third Reich.





Propaganda Prop # 2: Flag Waving

When the 112th Congress, freshly perked up with newly elected Tea Party darlings, convened this week, they did something that had never been done before: they read the entire Constitution on the floor of the House. The whole thing. No, really. Well, except for, um, the parts they didn’t want to read.

In a sane society, the common reaction to such grandstanding would be disbelief if not outrage. After all, the time for reading the Constitution is long before you even decide to run for public office, not after you come to town to do the job on the taxpayer dime. But instead, the typical reaction was, “How nifty. Somebody in Washington is finally paying attention to the Constitution.”

Which is, of course, precisely the reaction they wanted. They were making good use of another common technique from the propagandist’s toolkit: flag waving – i.e., wrapping oneself in the cloak of patriotism. Patriotism itself is nothing objectionable, mind you. It becomes propaganda when patriotism is equated with a particular partisan ideology. And in contemporary America, that almost always means “conservatism” (which in truth is anything but conservative, but that’s another story).

But there is certainly nothing new about the tactic itself. Back in 1775, Samuel Johnson remarked that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.  To which others have replied that it’s actually the first. Neither is strictly accurate; flag-waving is not the most commonly used propaganda technique. In fact, we hadn’t planned to cover it so soon, but sometimes a timely news item like the one above serves you something so delicious you just have to feast on it. On the other hand, it’s not the last thing propagandists would think of using, either.

The objective in wrapping your ideology in a star-spangled cloak is not just to make yourself appear patriotic, but to make those who do not wholeheartedly support your ideology appear unpatriotic. The Teabaggers want not only to present themselves as champions of the Constitution but also to suggest that certain policies of the current administration (especially “Obamacare”) are somehow unconstitutional. Democrats could either refuse to support the reading of the document (in which case the Republicanoids would say “What do you have against the Constitution, anyway?”) or go along with it (in which case they could say, “Aha! Why didn’t you think of this?”) Either way, brilliant ploy.

Every now and then, as if to validate the maxim that nothing is so enduring as a bad idea, certain right-wingers demonstrate their reverence for the Constitution in another way: proposing to alter it in order to ban flag-burning. That’s right: a political faction that loudly proclaims its support of “limited government” and personal liberty wants to give the government power to dictate how individuals might use their own property when it’s adorned with the very emblem of that liberty. The mind reels.

Just how big a problem do you suppose flag-burning is, anyway? When was the last time you ever even heard of an American citizen burning the flag? Thirty years ago? Forty? But there’s one prediction you can take to the bank: if they ever do succeed in passing such legislation, there will be THOUSANDS of flag burners in the streets to protest it. And virtually all of them will be genuine patriots who never would have imagined they’d do such a thing, but feel it’s their duty to challenge such idiocy.  (I might even be the first to strike a match.) Surely even Glenn Beck can figure that one out. But then, the real objective is not to protect the flag (as if there were only one in existence) or liberty; the real objective is to present themselves as morally superior by being patriotically superior.

This kind of tactic has been a right-wing staple at least since McCarthy, who under the pretext of ferreting out communist spies and subversives, put stars in his own crown by persecuting anyone who varied in the slightest from the conventional mold – which potentially included everyone.  And all you really need to know about most of today’s right-wing extremists is that they regard McCarthy as an unjustly maligned hero. Never mind that he destroyed the lives of countless innocent people; he was on the “right” side, so he was a demigod. (Ironic historical footnote that will no doubt be deemed as irrelevant: Yes, Virginia, there were a few communists lurking around. And how many did McCarthy actually find?)

In the post-Cold War world, it has become difficult to label your fellow Americans as communists without making yourself sound like a total ass (which doesn’t stop some from doing it anyway), so the usual approach is to tone down the epithet to “socialist” instead. (Neither communist nor socialist is really synonymous with un-American, but just try explaining that to a Tea Partier.) It’s not unusual for them to brand the president as a communist, a socialist and a fascist all at once, blissfully unaware of any contradiction.

James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, allegedly summed up the attitude by saying, “I never use the words Democrats and Republicans. It’s liberals and Americans”. More recently, Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann channeled McCarthy by declaring, “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.”

Just take a good look at the right-wing websites, books, magazines, newspapers and TV programs, and you’ll see the same theme hammered on over and over and over: “Liberalism” (whatever that may be) is evil, and “liberals” hate America. That has become the very backbone of contemporary “conservatism”. Consider just a few in the seemingly endless stream of vituperative book titles: “Treason; Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror”; “Let Freedom Ring; Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism”;  “Deliver Us From Evil; Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism”; “How the Left Swiftboated America; the Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History”.

The latter is especially interesting. It says that it isn’t just adherents of a particular ideology, or those who reject a particular ideology, who are un-American. Even criticizing one single person constitutes an attack on America itself – if and only if that person happens to be a Republican. In contrast, right-wingers who attack Barack Obama, even in the vilest and most childish terms, generally label themselves as “patriots”. Today’s “patriots” jeer when the President of the United States is awarded a Nobel Prize, and cheer when he fails to bring the Olympics to America.

And then there’s this literary gem: “The Real America; Messages from the Heart and Heartland”.  Got that? It’s only the “red” states that make up the real Amurrca.  Ask any of Sarah Palin’s admirers (and apparently she does have some) just what she has to offer of value besides being within spittin’ distance of Russia, and the answer you’re likely to get is that she’s a “real American”. You know, as opposed to those plastic Americans who have less reactionary views. Sarah herself is at least savvy enough to cash in on the divisive rhetoric, referring to small towns as “what I call the real America… very patriotic, very pro-America” areas of the country. You know, as opposed to the false America of those elitist metropolitan areas where people think they’re special because of their geographical location, and where major media outlets allow prophets like Palin to get their message out to Real America.

As publicity stunts go, perhaps the reading of the Constitution in Congress is harmless enough. It only cost taxpayers a million or so, and just think, that dough might have been squandered on something totally frivolous like school lunches or public libraries or even (shudder) saving the lives of a few impoverished children through communist/socialist/Marxist/Nazi/Muslim/Klingon healthcare. Maybe the Tea Party will even absorb some of the things the Constitution actually says, to root out what they fantasize it says. (Huh? The Second Amendment is really about militias? Gee, who knew.)

But don’t bet on it. Most likely, it will have exactly the kind of PR payoff they hoped it would. This is indeed the Real America now. And it’s a land where demagoguery, bitter partisanship  and “patriotic” polemics reign supreme. Get used to it.