Don’t Be A Sucker


This is from a 1947 film made by the War Department, to teach people how to detect and avoid fascism.

It’s a bit of “physician, heal thyself” when you get to the piece where a clueless demagogue is talking about how he’s an “AMERICAN AMERICAN” and is being gawked at by supportive police officers.

It’s billed as “anti-propaganda” because the idea is to get people to not fall for propagandistic rhetoric. That’s certainly an old problem that goes back to ancient times; Plato’s Socrates tries to put his sandal down on the rhetoricians whenever he gets a good chance. Phaedrus is a rhetorician who seems to believe that any argument can be made to sound truthful; Socrates is a philosopher, concerned only with truth. It’s a dialectic that Robert Pirsig renews in the meltdown of his main character, Phaedrus, who is trying to figure out (my reading) whether there is an absolute quality of living, or whether it’s all illusion. Phaedrus’ eventual breakdown is from an over-love of winning arguments at all costs, much like Ryonusuke Tsukue’s pursuit of an evil sword-style in Sword of Doom. This is a discussion that plays itself out endlessly.

That’s why I think it’s a shame that we still have to warn people not to believe propaganda. Obviously, we still do.

One consistent element of US political ideology is anti-intellectualism. The cops who are following the demagogues’ arguments are portrayed as (to put it generously) working class and not very bright. The gentleman who gets the last word in, “I’ve heard this kind of talk before but I never expected to hear it in America” seems to be an intellectual stereotype in his own right: he’s well-dressed, well-spoken, and (by implication) a Jew who fled Europe when the nazis came to power.

This is billed as not propaganda because it’s against propaganda.

“Where did it start? It started right here. If those people had stood together, and protected eachother, they could have resisted the nazi threat. Together they would have been strong, but once they allowed themselves to be stricken apart, they were helpless.”

Yet, it is replete with all the techniques of propaganda. It includes fake “ending stories” about what happened to the various characters based on their decisions. It deals from the bottom of the deck, shamelessly.

The entire film is here.

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I don’t think that the way to fight propaganda is with more propaganda. The best weapons against propaganda are laughter and philosophy. Those are two of the main weapons that are being deployed by resistance to Trump – mostly laughter – because, damn, he sure is silly.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    Laughter eh? It is not, of course, an accident that the first Age of the Sophists in democratic Athens gave us Aristophanes as well as Aristotle.

    Aristophanes’ Clouds even takes aim at the pretensions of the rhetoricians, as aspiring sophist Strepsiades makes clear upon admission to their brotherhood:

    “This [commit himself to the tutelage of the sophists] I will do, for I trust in you. Moreover there is no drawing back, what with these cursed horses and this marriage, which has eaten up my vitals. So let them do with me as they will; I yield my body to them. Come blows, come hunger, thirst, heat or cold, little matters it to me; they may flay me, if I only escape my debts, if only I win the reputation of being a bold rascal, a fine speaker, impudent, shameless, a braggart, and adept at stringing lies, an old stager at quibbles, a complete table of laws, a thorough rattle, a fox to slip through any hole; supple as a leathern strap, slippery as an eel, an artful fellow, a blusterer, a villain; a knave with a hundred faces, cunning, intolerable, a gluttonous dog. With such epithets do I seek to be greeted; on these terms they can treat me as they choose, and, if they wish, by Demeter! they can turn me into sausages and serve me up to the philosophers.”

  2. secondtofirstworld says

    My history teacher quoted someone (it flees my mind who it was), saying that “It will take 5 years to remove the culprits of Nazism, it will take 50 years for followers to die, but it will take 500 years for the ideology to die”. This is why people need a reminder.

    Laughter certainly helps but only so far as speech doesn’t devolve into a tool of tyranny. The massive amount of bigotry upon which Nazism built a strategy to win an election has existed for centuries, the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression was just window dressing.

    Trump is different in the sense, that 80 years ago fascists and communists failed to win Americans over because they wanted allegiance to their supremacy. Trump builds his own on American exceptionalism, and ridiculing Trump equates to ridiculing what makes America special. All he has to do is to destroy the credibility of those criticizing him by labeling them fake.

  3. John Morales says

    Many people conflate Fascism with Nazism.

    (As a child I lived in Spain under Falangism — we got a patriotic fascist curriculum in school)

  4. John Morales says

    This is billed as not propaganda because it’s against propaganda.

    If it really is against propaganda, then to whatever degree it succeeds or fails it can’t be pernicious propaganda, which implies not all propaganda is pernicious.

  5. says

    It’s billed as “anti-propaganda” because the idea is to get people to not fall for propagandistic rhetoric.

    If I don’t support the message, then it’s called “propaganda”. If I support the message, then that’s not propaganda, but “education campaign”. Obviously I don’t buy such definitions. If somebody tries to push some message without giving arguments and good reasons for believing them, then it’s all propaganda. At least that’s how I define it.

    a rhetorician who seems to believe that any argument can be made to sound truthful

    I tend to believe this. I have witnessed countless cases where good debaters took bad arguments and made them sound really convincing. I have also done that myself. In debate tournaments sides are chosen randomly, you can never choose for which side you want to argue. That means I have to defend positions I disagree with about half the time.

    Last time I participated in a debate tournament, one of the topics was “this house condemns the use of Internet browser ad blockers.” I won the debate by comparing ad blocker use with piracy and proving that it is unethical and basically the same as stealing. The content creator puts ads and expects to earn revenue. Yet because of ad blockers content creator earns nothing. The person who installed the ad block plugin gets some digital content for free even though the content creator never wanted to give it away for free. That’s the same principle as with piracy (you get digital content for free, the person who created this content gets nothing). And that’s stealing and that’s unethical. Debate adjudicators though that my argument sounded convincing, so I won. Conveniently, none of my opponents mentioned that most of the banned ads are for penis enlargement miracle pills and, since you are not going to click on those anyway (no clicks = no revenue), there is no difference whether you use ad blocker or no.

    What really bothers me is that often proving incorrect arguments is a lot easier than explaining how things really work. For example, alternative medicine supporters can easily “prove” that their treatment works, because one person got better after their treatment. That’s quick and simple to explain. But if I wanted to explain how evidence based medicine really works (placebo effect, large randomized samples etc.), then I might as well need a book length explanation. This is not something I can explain in a couple of minutes.

    I don’t think that the way to fight propaganda is with more propaganda. The best weapons against propaganda are laughter and philosophy.

    I’d say the best weapon is good arguments and explanations why something is wrong. But sometimes jokes work well too.

  6. says

    cartomancer@#2:
    if only I win the reputation of being a bold rascal, a fine speaker, impudent, shameless, a braggart, and adept at stringing lies, an old stager at quibbles, a complete table of laws, a thorough rattle, a fox to slip through any hole; supple as a leathern strap, slippery as an eel, an artful fellow, a blusterer, a villain; a knave with a hundred faces, cunning, intolerable, a gluttonous dog.

    Now, I feel small.

    Which is quite OK. That’s why the name of Aristophanes is still known. He didn’t say “covefe” though.

  7. says

    secondtofirstworld@#3:
    My history teacher quoted someone (it flees my mind who it was), saying that “It will take 5 years to remove the culprits of Nazism, it will take 50 years for followers to die, but it will take 500 years for the ideology to die”. This is why people need a reminder.

    I don’t think the ideology of nazism will ever die; but that’s because I see it as an instance of a particularly nasty form of all-or-nothing totalitarianism that would have probably been familiar to the Mongols or Akkadians.

  8. says

    John Morales@#5:
    If it really is against propaganda, then to whatever degree it succeeds or fails it can’t be pernicious propaganda, which implies not all propaganda is pernicious.

    That would presuppose we had a shared idea of what was good or bad, which we could then apply to determine which propaganda was for good or otherwise. The problem is that propaganda aims to set or reset that idea, so it’s kind of circular, or at least self-modifying.

    Hm, I wonder if we could define propaganda as a self-modifying ideology.

  9. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#6:
    If somebody tries to push some message without giving arguments and good reasons for believing them, then it’s all propaganda. At least that’s how I define it.

    That’s pretty close to my definition, as well: it’s a form of authoritarian argument: “this is bad because I told you it’s bad three times.” Having someone should their opinion in my face doesn’t make it any more true.

    I tend to believe this. I have witnessed countless cases where good debaters took bad arguments and made them sound really convincing. I have also done that myself. In debate tournaments sides are chosen randomly, you can never choose for which side you want to argue. That means I have to defend positions I disagree with about half the time.

    I was listening to a debate, once, where one of the debaters said, “I don’t believe this position, but it’s my job to air it as well as possible without being dishonest or manipulative.” I thought that was well done.
    Debate-club style debates are fun; I’ve done a few of them (and mostly lost) ( e.g.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rSScJinPoQ I think Schneier’s arguments carried less weight than his name, and I would have preferred to be arguing the other side but he got to pick)

    “this house condemns the use of Internet browser ad blockers.” I won the debate by comparing ad blocker use with piracy and proving that it is unethical and basically the same as stealing. The content creator puts ads and expects to earn revenue. Yet because of ad blockers content creator earns nothing.

    Argh! It’s a good argument, but it completely ignores the content provider’s agency: they chose a business model that is basically not very good. That’s not my fault – they can do what Forbes Magazine and others do, and not give the content if you have an ad blocker (which is why Forbes doesn’t appear on my radar screen any more) There are moral arguments against randomized ads, too, which apply! Argggh! That should have been a slam dunk!

  10. says

    John Morales@#4:
    As a child I lived in Spain under Falangism — we got a patriotic fascist curriculum in school

    Interesting! Do you believe that affected you?

  11. says

    I was listening to a debate, once, where one of the debaters said, “I don’t believe this position, but it’s my job to air it as well as possible without being dishonest or manipulative.” I thought that was well done.

    In competitive debates I have witnessed numerous exceptionally good speeches, which started with words “what I’m going to say is not what I personally believe”. Obviously I have done that too. Every time I have to defend either religions or “traditional moral values”, I just can’t abstain from making absolutely clear that everything I’m about to say is as wrong as it can possibly get.

    On one occasion these words were said at the end of a great speech and in a sarcastic form. The debate was about whether it should be made legal for people to buy and sell organs. The guy who was my debate teacher made a great speech in favor of free market and how every human ought to have a right to sell their organs if they want to. The last words at the end of his speech were, “Enjoy your freedom… Until you realize that your health is ruined that is.”

    I do have to admit that “without being dishonest or manipulative” is often ignored. In debate tournaments the goal is to win, and debaters (including me) say anything as long as we believe that certain words are likely to increase the chance of winning.

    but it completely ignores the content provider’s agency: they chose a business model that is basically not very good

    Of course. One of the amusing moments in debates is when I defend a position I disagree with, I know how my opponents could easily refute my arguments, but my opponents just don’t figure it out, and therefore I end up winning the debate.

  12. John Morales says

    Marcus @11, surely it did, but how can I tell? I imagine a number of my attitudes derive from that milieu.

    Point being, it wasn’t that bad a place, it was safe and civilised and relatively prosperous. Or so it seems to me, even now that I have a much larger perspective.

    And it was indisputably fascistic.

  13. John Morales says

    PS regarding perspective, I see how a lot of the problem was the intimate marriage of fascism with Catholicism; perfect partners, they.

    (Opus Dei!)

  14. John Morales says

    Marcus and Ieva Skrebele,

    I was listening to a debate, once, where one of the debaters said, “I don’t believe this position, but it’s my job to air it as well as possible without being dishonest or manipulative.” I thought that was well done.
    In competitive debates I have witnessed numerous exceptionally good speeches, which started with words “what I’m going to say is not what I personally believe”.

    And competitive debates you mean formal debates — which are about who is the better debater under a particular set of restrictions. Do appeals to emotion work well in that context?

    (Because they damn well do when it comes to propaganda/marketing)

  15. says

    John Morales@#15

    And competitive debates you mean formal debates — which are about who is the better debater under a particular set of restrictions.

    Yes. For me it was mostly debate tournaments organized by university debate clubs. More about that here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_debate In Europe we mostly have British Parliamentary Style debates. Sides are always chosen randomly, participants are given 15 minutes to prepare their speeches, and the goal is to make the best speech and to win the debate.

    Do appeals to emotion work well in that context? (Because they damn well do when it comes to propaganda/marketing)

    No, appeal to emotion is a waste of speech time (speeches are normally either 5 or 7 minutes long, so you don’t have much time that you could afford to waste). In British Parliamentary Style debates adjudicators must evaluate only the arguments presented in your speech. Whether the arguments were logical, relevant, important, and how well they were explained. Good rebuttal of opposing arguments also gives your team points. Debaters don’t get any extra points for beautiful oratory (it doesn’t hurt though). Wasting your speech time on logical fallacies does hurt, because adjudicators are expected to simply ignore them.

  16. John Morales says

    Ieva Skrebele, thanks for the response.

    That aside, I think you get my intimation.

  17. secondtofirstworld says

    @Marcus Ranum #8:

    I still think it could, at least its wide support, and for 2 reasons: one, even if not in America, but people start to drift away from pre-written scenarios as to how they should live their lives, and if they can shake religious doctrine, extremism isn’t far behind. Second, and more important: the far left and the far right only get popular when there’s a financial crisis, so as time passes, and new mechanisms are put in place to prevent a huge scale disaster, they won’t get many votes (hence why they’re losing in Europe now). Ironically Trump and Farage showed other nations that talking out of your as* is not a solution.

    @John Morales #4:

    Personally I don’t. I was an ultra-nationalist on the far right, I did not support nationalization (the country came out of a planned economy), nor did I think we needed to be superhuman. That being said, there aren’t many fascists anymore, most adhere to a mixture of local and Hitler worship or full blown Neo Nazism. Currently there’s a huge campaign targeting George Soros, accusing him of plotting against democracies and wanting to flood Europe with terrorists, but Israel can’t really defend the man since they too have reasons to dislike him. Yet, there’s no real Holocaust museum, and a specific place was chosen where the Arrow Cross helped deport Jews indirectly saying that only they took part in the genocide. I think neither of us has to introduce the other to the concept of a state wanting to go silent on its sins.

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