We can only have a free country if debate is honest, respectful and rational. That requires maturity and clear thinking. Is that too much to ask? I’m tired of slimy hucksters in government and journalists who ape them in the style of Punch and Judy. In the words of a scheming baddie (from an old movie I saw recently), “The people are emotional, and easily led.” I happen to agree. Like children at a fair, we pay dearly for cheap thrills and are enthralled with crude entertainment.
Life is a lot like television. Or the internet. Or a sprawling mall full of countless shops. We find ourselves surrounded by an unending variety of things, yet pass by most of them, unsure of exactly what we’re looking for. After we’ve dabbled in this and dabbled in that, we discover that what we’re really looking for is someone else to talk to, to share our experience with. It’s hard to dabble without wanting to babble.
I say babble because what most humanity really wants isn’t so much an analytical discussion, as a basic confirmation that they belong. We tend to gravitate toward others who share our common interests. We want to enjoy, savor, relish, revere, celebrate, laugh at, and in all ways reinforce our own experiences with those of others in a state of mutual acceptance. And we’d prefer not to argue about it.
Wanting to remain in our own comfort zones with our like-minded buddies, leaves us vulnerable to group-think. Popular notions aren’t really thinking at all. Our desire to feel comfortable influences us. Emotions end up carrying more weight than intellectual deliberation. We aren’t really comfortable thinking a lot about our identity or our allegiances. We just want to be who we are, in whatever group we choose. We tend not to see how vulnerable we are to those who would exert control over our lives.
Those aspiring to leadership, as well as their supporters, know that wielding power and authority is facilitated by manipulating public perception and thereby, public opinion. This manipulation is called propaganda, a set of tools, used to influence what we think. In 1937 the Institute For Propaganda Analysis released the “Ten Commandments of Propaganda”. Reading this list of strategies gives us pause, as it seems to be a good description of what both politics and journalism have become in our time.
- Divide and conquer
- Tell the people what they want.
- The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.
- Always appeal to the lowest common denominator.
- Generalize as much as possible.
- Use “expert” testimonial.
- Always refer to the “authority” of your sources.
- Stack the cards with “information.”
- A confused people are easily led.
- Get the “plain folks” onto the “bandwagon.”
Even though these propaganda tools were the product of an analysis of pre-WWII practices, they have stood the test of time and remain effective tools in the hands of the “bad guys”. But just exactly who are the bad guys is another question. Today, one person’s bad guy is another person’s patriot, and vice versa. The problem is that almost everyone uses propaganda anymore — that is, the spokespersons for most positions. So, just because you use propaganda doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad guy. My purpose isn’t to say that those with whom I disagree are the bad guys. But that seems to be the general feeling now days. You’d think that by now people would be able to see through the phony baloney. But, as P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every day.” And it seems like their numbers are increasing.
Something I have noticed in the news — whether it’s a politician, a commentator or a reporter who is speaking — it is common practice now to “frame” an argument in a way that is advantageous to your particular position. If you can successfully “frame” your argument, you have established political capital for yourself, whether or not you actually “win” the argument.
The opening statement in any dialogue creates an implied functional definition of terms, setting the parameters of discussion. If the listener is not alert, he may not even be consciously aware that certain assumptions or implied opinions have been made, giving the advantage to the person who has thus “framed” the argument. This strategy seeks to bulldoze one’s opponents into submission before they realize what’s happened. It also is designed to confound, confuse and frustrate one’s opponents, which generally gives you more time to regroup, if at first you don’t succeed.
Without mutual agreement as to basic assumptions, no meaningful progress can be made discussing the merits of any issue. Rational discussion descends into a mire of finger-pointing, name-calling, dirt-throwing, ill-tempered, back alley gang activity — which is pretty much what we have in government and the media today.
Here’s an example of “Framing” an argument:
“Nostalgia is recalling the pleasures of sitting in front of a big fireplace but forgetting you had to cut wood for it.”
This statement assumes that nostalgia must include yearnings of past pleasures while not allowing yearnings for the labors required to obtain those pleasures. In other words, It establishes the bias that work is not a thing for which one may feel nostalgia. By thus cleverly limiting the definition of nostalgia, work (effort put forth to earn anything) has been devalued.
Anyone who looks at work as a significantly meaningful aspect of life, for which one may feel nostalgia, will be unable to even discuss the subject — as introduced by the above statement — without first presenting a refutation of the basic assumption made in the opening statement.
Recently, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (who was confirmed by the Senate despite having failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in income tax) referred to the process leading up to the recent raising of the debt ceiling as, “…this terrible debate we’ve had the past few months: should the U.S. default or not…” (Notice the word, “terrible”, placed there specifically for propaganda purposes. The implication is that such important decisions, left in the hands of Congress, create negative and destructive baggage that could be avoided if we instead let the President make the decision.)
But I digress. Returning to “framing” an issue, notice Mr. Geithner’s point that the question of default was the focus of the debate. Obama’s team wants to maintain big government, which means authorizing more borrowing (raising the debt ceiling). To Geithner, and those like him, government spending is their sacred cow. They cannot realistically consider doing away with it. They must continue to spend. So, to them the choice is clear: either raise the debt ceiling or default.
The question has been framed in this way: Because government spending must remain at certain levels, to refuse to raise the debt ceiling (which will enable us to borrow the money we need to spend) is to force us into default.
But others do not agree with that at all. Conservatives would say the so-called “terrible” debate was about government spending. They want government spending cut drastically so that we can pay off our debts. And drastic spending cuts will prevent us from defaulting. Conservatives want a “balanced budget”, which means you only spend the money you already have. They want to stop the out-of-control deficit spending, which is nothing more than continuing to buy on credit without considering how long it’s going to take to pay it off or how much money the interest will come to. Conservatives see so much debt as a bad thing, and they are willing to make changes in government spending to get out of debt.
Many Americans have become so fed up with the distortions, disinformation and propaganda that now passes for debate, that they no longer respect the media or trust the political process. They are so fed up with the news and politics that they want no part of it. They become citizen drop-outs and seek comfort in their personal identities and their personal associations. In my opinion, these represent most of the casualties of propaganda. Now, the propagandists have fewer targets to aim at. Their job becomes easier.
Self governance only works when the majority participates. When great numbers of citizens do not exercise their right to vote, they make themselves vulnerable to the power of a few, as we have today. The wonderful potential of Democracy, is that the voters will be wise. But if they vote foolishly, that can never happen. My prayer for this nation is that “We The People” pay attention to what’s happening, think clearly, learn the truth and vote wisely, in order to hold accountable those who abuse their positions of authority over us. It’s up to us.
To whom should I speak?
Whom should I warn?
Who will listen to me?
Their ears are dull, they can’t pay attention.
For them the word of Adonai has become unattractive, an object of scorn.
This is why I am full of Adonai’s fury;
I am weary of holding it back.