Propaganda is defined by the tactic, not the target

Recently I read two seemingly very different posts. One was forwarded in an email from a relative. It’s a 1200-word rephrasing of the now-famous question, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” The other, linked from a Facebook site, urged liberals to stop trying to understand rural white Christians, whom it portrayed as irredeemable bigots.

The emailed essay was written for an intensely conservative online “magazine” with a stable of 4,228 writers (this particular author has contributed 178 posts). It came out a few days after the “shithole” remark went public, and is based on the writer’s one-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal nearly 50 years ago. She starts out by describing widespread public defecation, and ends by echoing the President’s question, why would we want people from there to come here? (Her answer is that “liberals” are “pushing the lie that Western civilization is no better than a third-world country” because they want to “destroy America as we know it.”) In between, she describes Senegal as a place of universal endemic corruption, where duty to one’s own family overrides all other ethical or humanitarian considerations—so that it is culturally “normal” to ignore suffering strangers, or to rob and neglect those one is hired to care for.

The other piece has been circulating on liberal sites since it was written, shortly before the 2016 election, by an anonymous blogger who says he grew up in conservative rural America. He asserts that rural white Christians are irremediably racist and anti-intellectual by virtue of their religious teachings, their suspicion of education, and their heavy reliance on in-group messaging. Their economic and social problems are the result of their own shortcomings. He passionately urges members of the open-minded, educated, intelligent “liberal coastal elites” to stop trying to understand rural Christians: it’s futile.

These superficially opposite messages use the same playbook.

  • The writer claims personal experience of a group most readers won’t know well, and proposes himself/herself as a uniquely qualified interpreter of that group (“THEM”).
  • THEY are defined by a triad of religion, race, and region. Rural, white, and Christian are synonymous. Senegalese is synonymous with Muslim and villager. Each package is monolithic. If you know one thing about them, you know all you need, because the rest ineluctably follows.
  • THEY are bad. (Bigoted, closed-minded, stupid, filthy, corrupt, casually cruel… the specific charges are based on whatever stereotypes of that group prevail within the writer’s target audience.)
  • THEIR badness is baked into THEIR culture. THEY have chosen to be this way. In no way is any of it OUR fault, and there is nothing at all WE can do about it.
  • WE, on the other hand, are good. (Open-minded, educated, clean, honorable, humane…) Goodness is baked into OUR culture. WE don’t have to work at it or change anything. In fact, WE’d better not! That’s enemy talk!
  • THEIR badness menaces OUR goodness.
  • Fear THEM! Stay far away from THEM!

This is propaganda.

It’s easy to spot the destructive fallacies in views we disapprove of. We need to recognize logically and ethically indefensible arguments even when they come from those who claim to share our own views.

Propaganda rejects groups of people—not actions or beliefs. It does not fight tyranny, ignorance, disease, bigotry, or cruelty; it pins those labels onto a specific demographic, and then tells us to fight that entire group as if we were fighting evil itself.

Propaganda claims to defend grand values, but it is merely a manipulative technique, not a message. Just as a hammer’s purpose is to pound nails, the purpose of propaganda is to urge its audience to distrust as many other human beings as possible. Recognize it not by the group it targets, but by how it affects its listeners.

A road paved with stones that say things like “fear others” and “understanding is futile” and “outreach is dangerous” leads to no place I want to go.

 

 

 

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Shocked, I Tell You

 

After the election I noticed that my black friends and colleagues were less astonished and indignant than my white liberal friends, though no less dismayed. This has led me to four thoughts.

First: Oh, right. This is an America black people recognize. Obama might have been President, but the governor of Mississippi still doesn’t give a rodent’s rear for the black population of this state whose flag still flaunts the Confederate emblem. Dylann Roof was pre-Trump, not a newcomer, and black parents around the country have been teaching kindergarten kids how not to get shot by the cops for decades now. I suppose it makes a change from teaching them to get off the sidewalk, but not that much of a change.

It’s just (some) white liberals who are all shocked. (So yes, I felt kind of naïve.)

Second: African Americans have a lot to teach the rest of America about being in it for the long haul. The rest of us have a lot to learn about how to stay sane, how to set goals, and how to organize to meet them. This is a ground war.

Third: Lots of white liberals are mentioning how hard it is to stay healthy and productive in this political climate. All that extra time and energy consumed in reading and responding to the news, organizing an event or two or three–late to work, short on sleep, distraught and furious and scared… Welcome to the world many Americans have lived in all along. Those of us who thought we didn’t have to worry about our government actively attacking us and our friends and families—let’s use this experience to help us begin to understand how discrimination can systematically undermine the emotional and physical health of entire communities.

Fourth: After the election I heard / read some harsh language from liberals about groups that “should have” been more active, more politically engaged, more effective in getting out the vote. Setting aside the many other reasons this complaint is unjust, I’ll just say, I’ll be using my newfound sense of weary Sisyphean struggle and looming threat to help me think about what it feels like to be still protesting this same old stuff that you protested when you were younger, that your parents protested, that your grandparents protested, and that has been killing your family and friends since, oh, maybe 1700, give or take a century. No one group can do all the heavy lifting for themselves and then be told on top of that that they should have been helping someone else, too.

To those reading this who are African American, or belong to other groups that have been threatened and marginalized and dispossessed and killed all along—to whom this is not a new situation—I apologize for every time I’ve complained about my recent burden of insecurity, because complaining about it implied that I had assumed that I should forever belong to a protected group, and that fighting injustice was something I did on other people’s behalf, for extra credit. I was wrong. So I’m starting a local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice).

Letter to an Oncologist

You sat next to your patient, looking at her latest results. Half to yourself, you asked, “Is it time to despair?”

 

It has been a tough cancer to predict and a tough one to treat. Every time you thought that you were one jump ahead, it popped up in a completely different corner, grinning at you. Now, shockingly, despite the successful surgery, here it is: brutally gnawing on her spine.

Is it time to despair?

It depends on what you hope for.

We can “despair” of finding a parking spot in time for our meeting, or of getting the life partner we want. Small or large, that’s localized despair, wearing a lowercase “d”. When we realize a specific hope will not be realized, we replace that hope—maybe after a dark pause—with another one: there are other fish in the sea…

Despair, with a big “D,” means the loss of Hope with a big “H.” It’s not the realization that the particular outcome we sought is no longer on the table, but our descent into the icy spiritual crevasse of believing that we have run out of things to hope for.

As an oncologist, what you hope for is a cure, or at the very least a long remission. And there you sit, only a year or so after the first diagnosis, looking at the evidence that “cure” and even “long remission” are words whose time is running out.

So: is it time to despair?

If all you have to offer her is the chance to watch her children grow up, then it is time for you to despair. Because you no longer believe you can give her that.

But your despair is not hers. Do not assume your tunnel vision must be mirrored in her. She still has so much to hope for: treatment for the debilitating spinal injury, and vigilant reduction of the new and looming tumors. The precious seasons: how many? Summertime in her childhood family home. Her children’s next accomplishments, or the next laugh at their silliness. Time to plan ahead; time for family and friends to show their love; time for her to plant something that will live for years in her garden. Energy to write, and to pursue her vocation. The ongoing development of wisdom and insight. A clear enough understanding of her medical situation so that she can weigh her options, and decide wisely when to seize an opportunity. And, who knows when, a quiet end, free from horror.

Reshape your own hope into a new one: the hope that you can support those footsteps. Offer the generous heat of your commitment. Share with her your own knowledge, experience, compassion, and perspective. Tell her and her husband what they might expect, what you think her symptoms mean, whether there is a way to mitigate them. Listen to them. Respect their journey. Help them as they decide whether it’s time for a new therapy, or time for a trip to France, or time to call Hospice.

Is it time to despair?

Only if you all you ever had to offer her was a cure.

Do you value your own knowledge and spirit so little?

Books on Death and Loss: My List

I am a compulsive reader. Ed and I re-read the Aubrey-Maturin series together during the nine weeks between his diagnosis and his death. For the next nine weeks, though, I don’t think I read a single book, for probably the first time since before I could read at all. I’d pick one up, put it down…

When I finally became able to read again, I alternated between re-reading familiar detective stories, and seeking out books about death, dying, and loss. I needed to see what others had experienced and what kind of sense they made of it. I wanted to be accompanied by people who had been down this path. I wanted to fit our experiences into a wider picture–whether it was as specific as the modern American medicalization of cancer, or as broad as how humans grieve. As I read I sometimes nodded, sometimes shook my head and argued, sometimes put the book down to cry. When I finished I would go looking haphazardly for the next book.

In case someone else needs such a list, here are the ones I’ve read in the past 10 months or so. (I’ve left out a couple of would-be inspirational volumes in which I could not discern practical information or a gut-level response to death.)

  • Kitchen Table Wisdom (Remen)
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Kushner)–for some reason I’d assumed this would be sappy or simplistic. It’s not. The author is a rabbi whose son was born with a progressive, fatal condition.
  • Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows (Rehl)–realistic and practical.
  • Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief (Hickman)–the author’s teenage daughter died in a summer vacation accident.
  • For Widows Only! (Estlund)–the author’s husband died beside her unexpectedly one night, and she wrote this book to help other widows navigate their path.
  • This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t (Burroughs)–the author has been abandoned, abused, and addicted, and has watched those closest to him die of AIDS.
  • Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Bridges)–interesting theoretical perspective.
  • The Way of Transition (Bridges)–what he wrote after his theory met the fact of his wife’s death.
  • A Grief Observed (Lewis)–written by C. S. Lewis after his wife died.
  • Being Mortal (Gawande)–a discussion of how American medicine handles old age and death.
  • The Angel in My Pocket (Forbes)–about the author’s struggle to handle the sudden death of her young daughter.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking (Didion)–a memoir of the year after Joan Didion’s husband of many decades fell over dead at dinnertime one night.
  • How We Die (Nuland)–Dr. Nuland’s perspective is both personal, based on deaths within his own family from his childhood onwards, and professional: writing a couple of decades before Gawande, he tackles the same issues of the medicalization of death and dying.
  • Complications (Gawande)–not directly about death, but about decision making and the medical field.
  • H is for Hawk (MacDonald)–an account of the author’s reaction to her father’s abrupt death (an accomplished falconer, she got a goshawk). T. H. White is involved.

Of course, On Death and Dying belongs here. For some reason I haven’t finished it yet.

And one more thing: poetry. Written on the Sky, translated by Rexroth, a tiny volume you can carry in a pocket or purse, given to me by a good friend. Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor. Individual poems sent to me by hand, by friends and sisters: “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. “A Prayer in Springtime” by Robert Frost. Of course “Funeral Blues” by Auden.

And the hidden $$$ costs…

We know that chemo is paid for by insurance, mostly. But what are the side effects of that payment?

My husband and I worked for the same employer. Around the time of his diagnosis and treatment, two or three other people at our workplace also had catastrophic illnesses. One of our strongest benefits was a good insurance plan, but in the last week of June–one month after Ed’s death–all employees were notified that due to dramatically rising insurance costs, our insurance carrier would change, effective July 1st.

The new insurance plans have high deductibles, high out-of-pocket payments, and numerous exclusions. Our daughter’s medicine, for example, used to cost us $300 a year; now it is $1400 a year. So at the moment when our household income was halved and we were still negotiating the payment of our original medical bills, our insurance was taken over by a new company that took no cognizance of what we had paid in the first half of the year–more than doubling the year’s deductible and out-of-pocket costs–and that pays relatively little of our ongoing expenses. This has happened to every one of my colleagues, and they have suffered this loss in large part because of my husband’s last-ditch, ineffectual, extremely costly chemo treatments.

It’s seen as somehow obscene to weigh the financial costs of desperate remedies. Who cares what it costs? Is there any price to be put on a human life? Surely not. If the chance at six more months of life costs a million dollars, shouldn’t we spend the money?

But if the attempt to gain six more months of life ends up as the tipping point that spills every one of your coworkers into losing a good insurance plan… what then?

We need to think about these questions. It’s horrible to have cancer, to die of cancer, to lose a family member to cancer. It’s tempting to say we can’t put a dollar sign on the individual’s right to treatment. But the dollar sign is there, and it carries real consequences for other people’s welfare. We should not pursue desperate and costly remedies with such tunnel vision that we don’t see the implications for those around us.

And yet…

First, of course, when I say “chemo” I’m using shorthand for our own relationship to treatment. Not everyone’s experience is futile or destructive. My husband was not diagnosed with cancer until he was riddled with pervasive, long-standing metastases and his primary tumor was (in retrospect it becomes clear) a decade-old monster. Attempting to push back the tide at that point is a very different project from embarking on treatment after, say, the discovery of a single pea-sized nodule or a bad colonoscopy result.

But the overall point is the same: chemotherapy comes with more subtle side effects than nausea and hair loss. Doctors and patients and families should be alert to the emotional ones: the temptations to duck thinking about death, to relegate treatment to a clipboard schedule, to abdicate personal responsibility and difficult emotional tasks, because … CHEMO. The diagnostic skills to recognize those side effects are needed, along with the ability to prescribe for them. This prescription is one everyone involved should take, and the doses have names like “pulling together” and “listening” and “being present in the moment”–because … LIFE and DEATH.