Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Studies in Prejudice: Prophets of Deceit (4 of 6)

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

Excerpt from a 1936 speech by Gerald L. K. Smith (1898-1976), anti-Semite and founder of groups like the Christian Nationalist Party

Löwenthal and Guterman use these categories they use to describe the various aspects of rightwing demagoguery:

  1. The Eternal Dupes: convincing followers that they have been deceived but doing so not with the aim of actually educating them but of making them dependent on the agitator
  2. Conspiracy: invoking a deliberate and secret plot of evil groups and individuals, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a classic document of that type
  3. Forbidden Fruit: portraying the enemy as indulging pleasures denied to the audience
  4. Disaffection: exploiting cynicism about existing political parties and social values
  5. Charade of Doom: invoking the fear of an impending catastrophe without offering a meaningful "positive alternative"
  6. The Reds: meaning Communists, not Republicans; a perpetual favorite even in 2011, long after the fall of the Soviet Union
  7. The Plutocrats: adopting terms similar to leftist class struggle talk but with the intention of focusing it on a narrower group, like Jewish bankers or the Federal Reserve
  8. The Corrupt Government: obviously a perennial favorite, used to "play on the inchoate suspicions of his audience that vague impersonal and irresistible powers determine the destiny of the nation."
  9. The Foreigner: always a good topic for fear-mongering, it seems
  10. Creatures of the Underworld: this involved what Dave Neiwert calls "eliminationist" framing
  11. Call to the Hunt: rousing followers to "a cold, abstract, standardized fury that is closer to the paranoiac's destructive rage than to the passion of hatred."
  12. The Victim: here is focus is on anti-Semitism, the agitator’s claim being that Jews are persecuted because they deserve to be
  13. The Other: defining the enemy group as not-one-of-us
  14. The Menace: imputing various threatening characteristics to the enemy
  15. Either-Or: here they mean not simply Manichaean thinking, but the process by which the agitator moves his followers to a new set of values while pretending to defend the good old ones
  16. Endogamic Community: finding themes like nationalism to bind the audience together as an in-group
  17. Housecleaning: part of eliminationist thinking, related to "Creatures of the Underworld"
  18. Simple Americans: the same concept as Sarah Palin’s "real Americans"
  19. Watchdogs of Order: offering his followers the promise of "sadistic gratification" as future enforcers of order; this gets at the peculiar contrast between rightwingers’ simultaneous reverence for authority and hatred of the government
  20. Great Little Man: identifying oneself with the audience while "By his very protestations that he is quite the same as the mass of Americans he smuggles in hints of his exceptional status"
  21. Bullet-Proof Martyr: "For all his insistence that he is one of the common folk, he does not hesitate to declare that he is an exceptionally gifted man who knows and even admires his own talent" – and has a special mission for which he is being "singled out by the enemy" but which he accepts as his duty
Since the full text is freely available online, I won’t try to try to explain each of those in more detail. But following are some of the observations that I found particularly striking.

Conservatives and the commentariat have made "malaise" a term of mockery for the Carter Administration, the idea being that Carter believed that there was a generalized feeling of discontent, malaise, that was making people lose confidence in government. Eric Alterman recently invoked the term in Obama’s Awful '70s Show Echoes Jimmy Carter The Daily Beast 04/25/2011. A speech Carter made on July 15, 1979 became known as the "malaise" speech, though he didn't use the term in the speech; he referred to a "crisis of confidence." The "malaise" term for the speech apparently came from the memorandum by Carter’s pollster Pat Caddell that led to the ill-fated speech.

Löwenthal and Guterman make the concept of malaise central to the understanding of how the agitator markets his ideas to the audience that is receptive to it:

The analyst of agitation now faces the problem: are these merely fleeting, insubstantial, purely accidental and personal emotions blown up by the agitator into genuine complaints or are they themselves a constant rooted in the social structure? The answer seems unavoidable: these feelings cannot be dismissed as either accidental or imposed, they are basic to modern society. Distrust, dependence, exclusion, anxiety, and disillusionment blend together to form a fundamental condition of modern life: malaise. [my emphasis] (p. 14)
They do not define malaise here as a passing condition or an individual feeling, but rather "a fundamental condition of modern life." Although it does appear to the individual as a purely personal feeling: "On the plane of immediate awareness, the malaise seems to originate in the individual's own depths and is experienced by him as an apparently isolated and purely psychic or spiritual crisis."

Continued in Part 5

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