Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Studies in Prejudice: Prophets of Deceit (5 of 6)

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

William Dudley Pelley (1890–1965)
While it may be practically impossible for an active politician to talk about political marketing in such terms, Löwenthal and Guterman are writing as social scientists:

The agitator does not spin his grumblings out of thin air. The modern individual's sense of isolation, his so-called spiritual homelessness, his bewilderment in the face of the seemingly impersonal forces of which he feels himself a helpless victim, his weakening sense of values - all these motifs often recur in modern sociological writings. This malaise reflects the stresses imposed on the individual by the profound transformations taking place in our economic and social structure—the replacement of the class of small independent producers by gigantic industrial bureaucracies, the decay of the patriarchal family, the breakdown of primary personal ties between individuals in an increasingly mechanized world, the compartmentalization and atomization of group life, and the substitution of mass culture for traditional patterns.

These objective causes have been operating for a long time with steadily increasing intensity. They are ubiquitous and apparently permanent, yet they are difficult to grasp because they are only indirectly related to specific hardships or frustrations. Their accumulated psychological effect is something akin to a chronic disturbance, an habitual and not clearly defined malaise which seems to acquire a life of its own and which the victim cannot trace to any known source. (p. 15)
The agitator exploits this condition, not to engage his audience in a program of action that would constructively address the underlying issues, but in a way to win followers in a way that “tricks his audience into accepting the very situation that produced its malaise.” And the rightwing agitator does this by directing his audience to focus not on what is producing this discontent but on who the agitator claims is hurting them. The Jews. The blacks. The Muslims. Liberals. Feminists. Gays. Pointy-headed intellectuals (a George Wallace favorite). The Insiders (a John Birch Society special). Immigrants (a perennial favorite). Unions. Communists.

This is not to say that there are no genuine villains in the world. There are plenty of them, individuals and institutions. But the distinction Löwenthal and Gutermann make with this particular kind of agitator is that they exploit vague feelings by giving their audience a phony villain and then have them focus on hatred of the villain, not on any real solution:

Those afflicted by the malaise ascribe social evil not to an unjust or obsolete form of society or to a poor organization of an adequate society, but rather to activities of individuals or groups motivated by innate impulses. For the agitator these impulses are biological in nature, they function beyond and above history: Jews, for instance, are evil—a "fact" which the agitator simply takes for granted as an inherent condition that requires no explanation or development. Abstract intellectual theories do not seem to the masses as immediately "real" as their own emotional reactions. It is for this reason that the emotions expressed in agitation appear to function as an independent force, which exists prior to the articulation of any particular issue, is expressed by this articulation, and continues to exist after it.

Malaise can be compared to a skin disease. The patient who .suffers from such a disease has an instinctive urge to scratch his skin. If he follows the orders of a competent doctor, he will refrain from scratching and seek a cure for the cause of his itch. But if he succumbs to his unreflective reaction, he will scratch all the more vigorously. This irrational exercise of self-violence will give him a certain kind of relief, but it will at the same time increase his need to scratch and will in no way cure his disease. The agitator says: keep scratching. [my emphasis] (p. 16)
In this context, vagueness is a special virtue:

Here the agitator turns to account what might appear his greatest disadvantage - his inability to relate the discontent to an obvious causal base. While most other political movements promise a cure for a specific, and therefore limited, social ailment, the modern agitator, because he himself indirectly voices the malaise, can give the impression that he aims to cure some chronic, ultimate condition. And so, he insinuates, while others fumble with the symptoms, he attacks the very roots of the disease in that he voices the totality of modern feeling. (p. 16)
Concludes in Part 6

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