Thursday, May 19, 2011

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

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

Carl H. Mote, testifying in 1945 against the United Nations, then as now one of the great bogeymen of the Radical Right; he was fond of calling its predecessor organization the "Jewish League of Nations"

In elaborating the role of malaise in the context of the agitator, they caution that it is not something that can easily be documented by direct quotes from agitator’s speeches, but rather an analytical judgment: "It is an hypothesis, but it is a highly plausible one, because its only alternative would be to see the maze of agitational statements as a lunatic product beyond analysis."

It speaks for the value of their hypothesis that so much in this book sounds surprisingly and disturbingly current. Even though Muslim terrorism and abortion weren’t issues on the political horizon in the US yet. They describe malaise arising from condition “basic to modern society.” This offers a major explanation of why our present-day advanced societies are perpetually susceptible to such agitation. In a passage characteristic of the Frankfurt School outlook, they write, “Although malaise actually reflects social reality, it also veils and distorts it. Malaise is neither an illusion of the audience nor a mere imposition by the agitator; it is a psychological symptom of an oppressive situation.” And in the same vein:

Malaise is a consequence of the depersonalization and permanent insecurity of modern life. Yet it has never been felt among people so strongly as in the past few decades. The inchoate protest, the sense of disenchantment, and the vague complaints and forebodings that are already perceptible in late nineteenth century art and literature have been diffused into general consciousness. There they function as a kind of vulgarized romanticism, a Weltschmerz in perpetuum, a sickly sense of disturbance that is subterranean but explosive. The intermittent and unexpected acts of violence on the part of the individual and the similar acts of violence to which whole nations can be brought are indices of this underground torment. Vaguely sensing that something has gone astray in modern life but also strongly convinced that he lacks the power to right whatever is wrong (even if it were possible to discover what is wrong), the individual lives in a sort of eternal adolescent uneasiness. [my emphasis in bold] (p. 17)


Löwenthal’s and Guterman's description of the Simple Americans theme of agitation is striking, not least because it is so enduring – although today with call the Real Americans. As opposed to, say, an illegitimate black Marxist Kenyan Muslim President. They write:

The agitator makes no genuine appeal to solidarity. Even when he addresses himself to the vast majority of "American Americans" he suggests that what unites them is the common danger they face in the Jew. By making their precarious situation their major sign of identification, he retains his manipulative power over them. Under the guise of granting his followers identity the agitator denies it to them. He says in effect: If you belong to the common people you need not ask for something else because it is quite enough to be considered one of the common people rather than an enemy of the people. Anything else might expose you. For both he and his audience feel that the cement of our social structure is not love, solidarity, or friendship, but the drive to survive; and in his appeal to his followers, as well as in his portrait of their characters, there is no room for solidarity. There is only fear. [my emphasis] (pp. 108-9)

Them scary intellectuals
The theme of anti-intellectualism is one they discuss under the heading of Simple Americans. So many examples of this abound today that they hardly need mentioning. Though Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin come quickly to mind. They describe this twist:

That the agitator refers to his followers as common folk, a kind of "proletarian élite," might seem offhand to suggest that he seeks to disavow the anti-democratic implications of his discriminatory statements by the use of a well-tested device. But this is also a device which by its very nature often tends to transform democratic psychological patterns into totalitarian ones. Closely related to the common resentment against anyone who dares be different and hence implicitly directed against minority groups, it establishes conformism as a moral principle, a good in itself.

Seizing on the "simple folk" theme as a pretext for fostering an aggressively anti-intellectual attitude, the agitator describes his American Americans as a people of sound instincts and, he is happy to say, little sophistication. He suggests that, on one level, the conflict between his followers and the enemy is nothing but a clash between simple minds and wise guys, level-headed realists and crazy sophisticates. He delights his followers by proclaiming his own lack of intellectuality:

I do not understand political science, as an authority from an academic viewpoint. I am not familiar with the artistic masterpieces of Europe, but I do say this tonight: I understand the hearts of the American people. [quote from Gerald K. Smith, 1936]
[my emphasis in bold] (p. 109)
There is a deeply ambiguous side of this appeal that makes it effective as a form of far-right agitation. In this example, they are assuming an anti-Semitic agitator, but a different target would serve (Muslims, foreigners, bureaucrats in black helicopters):

The agitator, in praising the simple folk, praises only their humble and folksy ways, in which the latent savagery and brutality that is both repressed and generated by modern culture, still manifests itself. He offers them little else.

Attracted by the promise of a new spiritual home, the audience actually gets the tautological assurance that Americans are Americans, and Christians Christians. The simple American is a member of an élite by virtue of birth but in the last analysis, he can only be defined in negatives: he is a Christian because he is not a Jew; he is an American because he is not a foreigner; he is a simple fellow because he is not an intellectual. The only positive means the agitator has of identifying the Simple American is as a follower. The adherent who turned to the agitator in the vague hope of finding identity and status ends as more than ever an anonymous member of a characterless mass - a lonely cipher in an army of regimented ciphers. [my emphasis in bold] (pp. 110-11)
This is why it's so fitting that Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination in 2008, quoted Westbrook Pegler, an obnoxious old hardcore rightwinger of the sort that Löwenthal and Gutermann studied for this book. Quoted him on the virtue of people in small towns. The Simple Americans. The Real Americans.

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