Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Federalist's propaganda article is conspiracy theory dressed up in terrible scholarship

Stella Morabito has written an essay for The Federalist arguing that "propagandized ideas seem to have taken America by storm," and describing the "propaganda methods and tactics" she sees at work. Most of this is uncontroversial and obvious to the point of utter banality. For example, we learn from a Stanford Law Review paper on "collective belief formation" that - wait for it - people conform sometimes! Also, it turns out, according to an allegedly obscure book by Meerloo, that "a sense of enforced isolation is a cruel and effective tool for instilling loneliness". And so on.

Most of the quotes in this article are just elaborations of ideas that Americans in the 21st century are utterly familiar with and that no one would bother to contest. One might wonder why Morabito feels the need to dignify such a trivial argument with so much intellectual authority - but not for long! Because this is The Federalist, and soon enough we come to the actual crux of her argument:
American conservatives are by and large clueless about propaganda methods and tactics...Meanwhile, the Left has been employing social psychology and depth psychology on the masses for decades.
ICYMI: liberalism is a total propaganda operation, while conservative ideology is just the hapless common sense of clear-eyed Americans who care about logic and reason.

This is obviously the central claim of Morabito's piece, and the one she's trying to buttress when she works in her endless and completely superfluous quotation. It also happens to be a position that all of the authorities she appeals to unanimously reject. And when you strip away that scholarly pretense, all that remains is the sort of crackpot conspiracy theory that we usually hear from Alex Jones or late-night call-in AM radio.

Consider, for instance, her reference to Propaganda by Jacques Ellul -- the radical leftist Jacques Ellul. Here is his classic conception of propaganda, which he lays out almost immediately:
Propaganda is very frequently described as a manipulation for the purpose of changing ideas or opinions, of making individuals "believe" some idea or fact, and finally of making them adhere to some doctrine -- all matters of mind. Or to put it differently, propaganda is described as dealing with beliefs and ideas... This line of reasoning is completely wrong. To view propaganda as still being what it was in 1850 is to cling to an obsolete concept of man and of the means to influence him; it is to condemn oneself to understand nothing about modern propaganda. The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action.
Ellul is contesting precisely the notion of propaganda Morabito tries to advance. She certainly begins by echoing him: "Political propaganda aims to mobilize the masses," she writes. But almost instantly, she slips back to talking about "propagandized ideas", propaganda that dictates how we are "supposed to think," "mass delusion," "political correctness and groupthink," "brainwashing," and so on.

These aren't just mistakes in formulation: she has to put it as she does for two reasons. First, Morabito wants to attack an ideology. It's not enough for her to argue that Democrats are tricking people into voting a certain way, or into donating time to particular causes; she wants to insist that people have been tricked into thinking a certain way, into holding certain wrong beliefs, into valuing things they should not value. She wants to bring down a whole platform of political beliefs and ideas -- and to do that, she has to insist that propaganda can somehow impose doctrine.

Which leads to the second point: Morabito has cartoonish, quasi-mystical ideas about what propaganda can do. She is openly arguing that a faction of political operatives (and various co-conspirators) have used a set of social engineering tricks to brainwash millions upon millions of Americans. Half of the country's most deeply and passionately held beliefs -- beliefs that often form the core of their personal identities, that they base major life decisions on, and that they invest an enormous amount of time into thinking about -- all of this is just a delusion that they would shake off if only they were to think about things logically.

This is the sort of absurdity behind some of the article's most bizarre, conspiratorial claims, like the declaration that "Most who protest the RFRA laws are more likely pawns than true believers." Let's consider this point for a moment and see what it would actually entail.

In her article, Morabito extensively invokes Meerloo's "Rape of the Mind" as a book "that cracks the code on what we are living through". Much of that book describes at length various methods of brainwashing used against prisoners as a way of demonstrating how this sort of thought-control actually works. For example, in one instance,
The victim is bombarded with questions day and night. He is inadequately and irregularly fed. He is allowed almost no rest and remains in the interrogation chamber for hours on end while his inquisitors take turns with him. Hungry, exhuasted, his eyes blurred and aching under unshaded lamps, the prisoner becomes little more than a hounded animal...If the prisoner's mind proves too resistant, narcotics are given to confuse it: mescaline, marijuana, morphine, barbiturates, alcohol. If his body collapses before his mind capitulates, he receives stimulants: benzedrine, caffein, coramine, all of which help to preserve his consciousness until he confesses... 
Next the victim is trained to accept his own confession, much as an animal is trained to perform tricks. False admissions are reread, repeated, hammered into his brain. He is forced to reproduce in his memory again and again the fantasied offenses, fictitious details which ultimately convince him of his criminality... 
In the third and final phase of interrogation and menticide the accused, now completely conditioned and accepting his own imposed guilt, is trained to bear false witness against himself and others. He doesn't have to convince himself any more through autohypnosis; he only speaks "his master's voice."
I quote the passage at length to make a point: it takes an unimaginably intense and extraordinarily sophisticated program of torture to brainwash someone. It is not something you can do with a wave of the hand and a Jedi mind trick. To turn millions upon millions of Americans into anti-RFRA "pawns", you would have to literally imprison them and subject them to a horrific regimen of torture for an extended period of time. And somehow, this would have to be an ongoing process -- for "as soon as the brainwashee returns to a free atmosphere, the hypnotic spell is broken."

Not even Meerloo -- who oddly insists that there "actually exists such a thing as a technique of mass brainwashing" -- supposes that it could happen in any society remotely resembling ours. The degree of control necessary is only even possible in a country where "a single group -- left or right -- acquires absolute power and becomes omniscient and omnipotent"; and even then, the interrogator can only "make most of us his victims...temporarily."

But perhaps the most serious problem here is that Meerloo, who the article relies upon so heavily, wrote his book in 1956. If Morabito were at all acquainted with the field, its history, and its scientific basis, she would surely understand that the Pavlovian behaviorism the author grounds his analysis in has been thoroughly discredited for over half a century. As Chomsky wrote in his seminal Case Against B.F. Skinner,
it is important to investigate seriously the claim that the science of behavior and a related technology provide the rationale and the means for control of behavior. What, in fact, has been demonstrated, or even plausibly suggested in this regard?
The answer, Chomsky concluded, is nothing: such "speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior." There's simply no evidence that people can be controlled in the way that Meerloo (and Morabito) suppose -- in fact, there isn't even a coherent explanation of how this would work. "Pavlovian and operant conditioning are processes about which psychologists have developed a real understanding," Chomsky wrote. "Instruction of human beings is not."

The notion that a political elite could actually exercise ongoing thought-control at the scale of national populations through clever propaganda is exactly as insane as it sounds. And yet somehow even that isn't as insane as the other premise of Morabito's article: that all of this is being orchestrated by "the Left's machine."

This is explicit conspiracy theory, and even if it had even the slightest basis in reality it certainly has no basis in the scholarship Morabito relies upon. She invokes Bernays, for instance, to suggest that it is an "elite" that wields propaganda -- to her audience, this is code for the leftist alliance of Democratic officials, ivory tower academics, decadent celebrities and so on. The claim only advances her argument if understood this way. But Bernays, in the passage she alludes to, argues something quite different:
Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject. But there are usually proponents and opponents of every propaganda, both of whom are equally eager to convince the majority. 
This conception of propaganda gives us no reason to suppose that it would be the exclusive province of any particular interest group; on the contrary, since propaganda is just "an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine," it's obviously ubiquitous in politics.

Or consider the position of Ellul. There's no need to speculate, for he is completely direct:
This is the case in the United States....for financial reasons, a democracy reduced to two parties, it being inconceivable that a larger number of parties would have sufficient means to make such propaganda.
Again, no one has a monopoly on propaganda, and in fact the only reason we still have Democrats and Republicans is that both parties can afford to propagandize.

So the luminaries meant to add weight to Morabito's argument do no such thing -- on the contrary, they tend to openly disagree with her. Another detail worth mentioning is that their position happens to be correct. Anyone who has ever seen Fox News, or who has ever heard the name Frank Luntz, can notice some general problems with this claim that American conservatives don't do propaganda. In fact, the right clearly has an extremely sophisticated and modern understanding of propaganda, and its apparatus for disseminating messaging is in many ways far more robust than the left's.

And even this is a simplification. As Bernays teaches us, propaganda emerges anywhere anyone is advocating for anything - that's why our culture has to be understood as a massive tangle of propaganda, the sum of millions of interests aimed in a million different directions. Morabito, in contrast, entertains a vision of power so childish and tribalistic that even she finds it embarrassing; thus she tries to co-opt the authority of actual scholars, even as she advances wild theories about "the power elites who now control the media, academia, and Hollywood" and their transhumanist "push to end 'fleshism' by enacting laws that protect non-biological entities from discrimination."

One wonders if The Federalist's editors, at least, felt any sense of shame about publishing this piece -- but I think it pretty unlikely. After all, they're propagandists, too.