Sunday, May 15, 2011

Studies in Prejudice: Prophets of Deceit (2 of 6)

Gerald Winrod (1900–1957), radical Christian cleric and notorious anti-Semite

Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (1949)

Now, political speech is not the same as a scholarly paper designed to be read at an academic conference. Politicians of any kind need an ability to judge their audiences and communicate sometimes complex ideas in accessible ways. Campaigning and political organizing always have an element of marketing; they too frequently don’t amount to much but marketing. However, that doesn’t mean there is no meaningful distinction to be made between political styles, or between the demagogue and a run-of-the-mill politician. Löwenthal and Guterman explain it this way:

When the agitator tells his listeners that they are "pushed" or "kicked" around and are victimized by bankers and bureaucrats, he exploits feelings that they already have. Such stereotypes as "Wall Street machinations," "monopolist conspiracies," or "international spies" are present, however, not as well-defined ideas, but as tentative suspicions about the meaning of complex phenomena. As inadequate reflections of reality, they might serve as starting points for analysis of the economic and political situations.

The agitator proceeds in exactly the opposite way. He refers to popular stereotypes only to encourage the vague resentments they reflect. He uses them not as springboards for analysis but rather as "analyses" themselves - the world is complicated because there are groups whose purpose it is to make it complicated. On a social scale he stirs his audience to reactions similiar [sic] to those of paranoia on an individual scale, and his primary means of doing this is by indefinitely extending the concept of conspiracy.

Where others might speak of the ultimate implications of a political program he sees a deliberate plot: the New Deal is nothing but "good Marxian sabotage to break down the existing order ..."... The B'nai Brith is "a worldwide spy and pressure system" which has "unlimited funds" and "maintains its own Gestapo." … Even such a trivial occurrence as a polemical attack on a senator is sufficient for the agitator to evoke a "secret society" for "smearing of individual members of the senate." Phrases like the "Hidden Hand" or "International Invisible Government" appear in his writings and speeches again and again. (pp. 24-25)

I would add that one signal that a given explanation is based on a conspiracy theory is if it completely disregards human frailties and the not inconsiderable number of times that bad things happen because people in authority make dumb mistakes. Not to get too far off the topic and the time period, but some of the Kennedy assassination theories require assuming such a perfectly executed, intricate plan involving so many people that it would have to have exceeded all know human capacities to actually be pulled off.

Löwenthal's and Guterman's explanation just quoted gets to the "just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you" factor. Bad things do happen. Criminal conspiracies do take place. (See Watergate, Iran-Contra, Jack Abramoff.) Powerful decision-makers do things that affect many people’s lives unfavorably. The difference they point out here is that it's one thing to say, “Wall Street is screwing up” and use that observation to advocate a new regulation to limit the use of derivatives or raise requirement for bank capital. It’s another to use it to promote a vague notion that secret powers are doing bad secret things. They go on to explain how scapegoats eventually get substituted as targets for the anger, fear and hatred the agitator hopes to inspire in his audience. They call it "the process of blurring reality by encouraging paranoiac tendencies." (p. 25)

Continued in Part 3

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