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.

 

 

 

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?

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.

Chemo’s Side Effect #1: Misdirected Fear

Ed and I spent his last weeks afraid of infection because of the lowered white blood cell count chemo causes: limiting visitors, limiting hugs and kisses and handshakes, forbidding children to visit. For the past two years we’d been a kind of “aunt and uncle” to a friend’s small child. Because he was on chemo, he never hugged little Maddy again, and the last time she ever saw him, she was scared to go near him because she’d been warned she might make him sick.

I spent my days in a state of vigilance, trying to protect him, staring alertly in the wrong direction for an enemy I didn’t know how to recognize. We made a trip to the emergency room, leading to an overnight hospital stay, because I thought he was running a temperature that might indicate an infection: a trip that was expensive, exhausting, upsetting, and cost him all the eleven pounds he had managed to regain after our initial hospital stay. And he didn’t have an infection after all.

What if he had had an infection?

Would it have made sense to fight against it like a tiger if that meant intervention cascading after brutal intervention, family shoved aside while the doctors desperately tried one more tactic to rescue a dying man from a quicker death?

We were afraid of the wrong things.

Choosing my Husband’s Pseudonym

This is a weird thing to do and it makes me feel like I’ve got two husbands.

I don’t want to use real names in this blog, but this whole section is about my husband’s death and its aftermath—I have to call him something. Saying “my husband” in every sentence gets clunky. I’ve read blogs where the writer’s family members are referred to by their initials alone, and I find that distracting. The cutesy abbreviation “DH” is useful in certain venues, but I’ve never liked it and I’m not about to start using it now. I also don’t want to plaster him with a fake nickname.

So I think I’ll call him Ed, after two men who were important to him, one of them a good friend who died of cancer long ago.

Choosing a pseudonym is a kind of falsification. But in another way it feels truthful and appropriate: my husband, the real man with his own thoughts and opinions, is gone. Now what’s left is my memories and ideas about him, and as we can’t ever know another person completely, it makes some sense to put a new name on this construction—I suppose.

I still feel like a bigamist!

On being asked, “How are you doing?”

In a public or holiday setting, I focus on trying to participate more or less normally in the social situation. But when other people (I mean those who are not close friends or family) see me there, it triggers their dormant memory of my husband’s death, and they may feel it as their opportunity to share a sympathetic moment.

There are ways of doing this that work. Yesterday at Easter service two people offered me loving hugs, one of them a woman I honestly didn’t recognize even a tiny bit. It was nice. They were giving me something that I could receive from them. They didn’t ask for anything back.

On the other hand, a well-meaning pastoral person asked me at the cookout, in a serious voice, how I was doing.

Here is a tip for those who wonder what to say to a bereaved person: don’t ask solemnly, “How are you doing?” It’s like a kid asking for an elephant: if I could give it, you’d find you didn’t want it after all.

Instead I recommend another question I was asked at the same cookout: “So what have you been doing lately to be good to yourself?” I could honestly reply, “Planting trees.” But in response to the minister’s inquiry I merely said that I was done with my food, and asked him where the garbage can was. I couldn’t really think what else to say. The images and feelings he was asking me to tap into are ones I don’t access in company.

By all means, employ the usual formulas of daily living. It’s okay to ask “How are you doing?” in a casual manner, expecting a formulaic response. But please don’t invest the question with that mournful, soulful emphasis, as if you wanted a heartfelt answer. You’re just asking to be allowed to take a postcard away with you as a wistful little souvenir of another person’s recently bombed landscape. Right now it’s winter and I have chores to do. Don’t be a tourist. If you really want to know more about what it’s like here, stick around. Carry water. Chop wood.

Someday, chances are you’ll come back here to live.

On Being Told What to Do (re: cats)

Being told what to do doesn’t sit at all well with me. I foresee that this might be an ongoing theme, hence the specific heading about cats in this one.

Since I became a cat owner I’ve been coming in for more than my usual share of people telling me what to do. One camp tells me not to let the cats out because they can get run over. (More on this another time.) Another camp says not to let the cats out because they’ll catch birds. (If there’s an equally vociferous group asserting that it’s mean to keep cats indoors, they must not have my number.)

Did I ask?

A friend puts up a note about special cat collars to prevent predation (fine–interesting information, I’ll think about it) and within hours the Facebook fur is flying: “Domestic cats are an invasive species and belong indoors” squares off against “If you don’t want small things killed around your home, don’t get a cat.”

I love to share information. I like to blare my opinions, as long as I can do it without starting a brushfire in my family or community. But I try very hard to avoid telling other adults how to live The Righteous Life According to Me–as if their experiences were the same as mine and their priorities ought to be–and I do wish they would return the favor!

On not being in Selma March 2015

I’m a northern white liberal myself. I’ve more or less accidentally ended up living and working and breathing the furtherance of interracial understanding in the corner of America where I find myself. I kind of wanted to go to Selma.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes, but now I’m glad I didn’t participate in that orgy of unseemly self-congratulation. The enthusiastic righteousness of some of my erstwhile classmates and faraway Facebook friends is giving me hives: lapping up the sweet cream of being on the Right Side of History, flocking in fake marches and reveling in photo ops with picturesque heroes, taking selfies alongside the decorous survivors of the speechless dead.

It’s like a revival meeting where the saved gather together to smoke the hallucinogenic drug of spiritual complacency.

Where are the raucous ones who are still alive and still poor? Where, in all of this, is honor given to the wackos with bad hair, bad teeth, and cheap clothes, shouting angrily about today’s ongoing inequities? They’re not gone! I’ve seen them at gatherings of those who remain on the wrong side of the lines drawn by police, economics, reporters, and the Secret Service agents around the President.

These firebrands are the ones for whom assimilation was never the goal. They didn’t put themselves on the line so they could be allowed to wear suits and to follow some neutered program about when to talk, how to talk, or what to say. Where we’ve gotten to, we would never have reached without them. Now they face a more potent enemy than violence: they are ignored or disdained. As they were before the brief spasm of violence against activists made the news in the mid-1900s; as they have been since. It angers me to see feel-good liberals drawing away from the unassimilated soothsayers. Is it really true that the unforgivable sin is to not want to be middle-class?

My fellow white liberals, Selma 2015 is just a happy dance in one spot. We’re going to need firmer footing for the journey forward than is found in this morass of self-congratulation. We need brasher guides than these tidy ranks of survivors and the embalmed hippies singing 60s songs — last century’s warriors. Jumping on the easy, obvious, well-sponsored bandwagon at this late date doesn’t make our generation into any new band of warriors, either. The message of those who are dead and gone, and of those who live on in uncelebrated struggle, is that the people who grew up in a safety zone can accomplish nothing from inside it, even though — maybe because — it is largely in our minds. We are not really marching until we venture beyond that zone, to risk losing our job or getting tear-gassed or looking foolish, without knowing in advance which of those will happen. Selma in our souls should carry each one of us to a place where we struggle to fathom the strangers around us.

That Dress

First there was the dress, then there was the furor, then the sneer: “Yes, yes; context dictates color perception; we knew that. Yawn. Who cares about the damn dress?”

I’m here to say the dress is important.

First, it’s a mistake to simply attribute this whole brouhaha to visual contexts—to point out that we interpret colors in light of surrounding conditions, yada yada. That’s fascinating stuff, but actually it’s not what this is about at all. The point was not whether blue can masquerade as white in some settings—the point was that two people looking at the same photograph at the same time had different answers.

I have a jacket that is one color outdoors and another color by artificial light, and it’s fun to have people try to convince each other of its color, when some of them have seen it only by natural light and the others have seen it indoors. They are initially disconcerted to find themselves at odds. But once they look at it all together, they realize how lighting dictated their perceptions, and they agree on its color.

The message of The Dress is the complete opposite, and the buzz it started is anything but frivolous. Driving this viral conversation is the eternally astounding discovery that other people are truly different from us. Not merely apparently different because of their circumstances—they are different, period. Over and over again, two people looking at the same screen said what colors they saw—then stared at each other and said, “One of us has got to be crazy, and it’s not me.” This harmless garment, appearing on our tiny screens without any distracting moral or political agenda, announced with brazen clarity the existence of irreducible differences between people who assumed they were alike.

If we want to get along we can’t accomplish it just by doing the hard work of learning to meet in the central arena of our supposed shared values. We must also learn to live in a world where some people will always see blue and black, while other people continue to see white and gold. Now that’s scary.