Saturday, March 24, 2012

Devices of Political Persuasion: Historical Amnesia and Deniable Slander

Jonathan Haidt’s recent op-ed piece in the New York Times notes that in public affairs folks tend to respond to moral appeals more than appeals to their self-interest.  “When people feel the group they value – be it racial, religious, regional, or ideological – is under attack, they rally to its defense.”  Political positions that get the votes are developed as narratives that appeal to moral concerns.  This is a fundamental concept of political activity in a society that has the vote.  We see it in the competing narratives now being spun by the Republican candidates for President.  In this election year the American public will be subjected to a lot of these narratives.

What he does not mention is that effective political narratives steer clear of some topics but also evoke feelings or implications that should not be mentioned.  Some things are best forgotten; others too crass to mention are best implied.

An example of the first is the careful avoidance by the Republican candidates for President of any connection with George W. Bush, or those who with him crafted and administered our country’s policies for eight years.  They have been out of office for only four years, but we hear no mention of that administration.  Could it be that the folly of an unjustified and underfunded war in Iraq promoted by lies, with so many Ameircan lives lost (to say nothing of the many times more Iraqi lives lost) is best left unmentioned?  The Bush policy in Iraq gave new life to Al Qaeda after it had been nearly totally crushed in Afghanistan.  Bush and those in power with so much cost to the country -- Chaney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc. – have baggage best forgotten. 

So some stories have nuances you want to avoid in crafting a political narrative.  At the same time there are nuances you want to cultivate – some of them too crass to invoke directly.  Political narratives have to suggest connections and association without really saying them:  implications that can be denied but implied.  A good example is the title of Dinesh D’Souzsa’s newly published book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  D’Souzsa’s title has a couple of layers of nuance:  hinting meanings without exactly affirming them.  The word “rage” linked to Obama suggests that behind Barak Obama’s appearance of unflappability there is a seething caldron of malice, all of it carefully controlled so as to mask it from the public.  For a black man the hint of rage is dangerous:  No angry black man can be trusted; none can be elected President.  (Indeed, a young black man in a white neighborhood in Florida has been shot dead merely on the basis of suspicion.)  But there is another nuance in the title: it hints of the famous Bernard Lewis article in the Atlantic, “Roots of Muslim Rage.”  Buried in D’Souzsa’s title is implication that Obama is a Muslim, a claim based on the identity of a father he scarcely knew.  As in the previous Presidential election the rumor was circulated that Obama is really a Muslim who pretends to be a Christian.  Like the Islamists who attacked our country on 9/11/01 Obama is secretly planning to destroy this country.  
The point is, Obama is not what he appears to be:  He presents himself as placid, stable, unflappable but is in fact he is driven by rage.  He appears to be a Christian but in fact he is a Muslim, and (as many Americans believe) Muslims cannot be trusted. 

These are meanings best not mentioned specifically; they are too transparently gross, crass, to be affirmed directly.  They are merely a weak nuance; indeed they are eminently deniable.  Slanderous associations are best left for the reader to infer.  Deniable slander.

The point of D'Souzsa's title is:  Nothing about Obama is what he appears to be.  Behind the exterior of stability there is seething hatred.  Behind the Christian blandness there is Muslim enmity.

If you can persuade me of that -- that nothing about Obama is what it appears to be -- then you can make me believe all kinds of things about him.  
As Newt Gingrich says, "You will never see Obama the same."  Exactly.

No comments: