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Are We Still Charlie Hebdo?: The Growing Dissonance between Extremism and Free Speech

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

(Article originally published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

I started preparing this essay a month or two ago to collect my thoughts about the after effects of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and how the limits of free speech are being tested as extremism and intolerance increase in Europe and America. Now, the latest attacks in Paris on November 13th have made me reevaluate my original thoughts and given them new urgency, but have not substantially changed my views. The key issues I will discuss are the nature of Daesh, the refugee crisis, climate change, media hypocrisy, right-wing extremism, and free speech. These are complicated issues, obviously, with many interwoven factors at play, and I will do my best to make sense of the situation as I see it.

Let’s begin with a brief look at what Daesh is (one thing I have learned from philosophy is that linguistic terminology matters; I don’t like the term ISIS because it was chosen by them and it disparages the ancient Egyptian goddess and Roman cult figure Isis; the term used by the French government and Secretary of State John Kerry is “Daesh”, which is more useful because it delegitimizes the group and they hate it). From what I can gather, the purpose of this self-declared Islamic Caliphate is to gain and hold as much territory as possible in order to establish a haven for what they consider pure Islam, all while making incessant war against neighbors and non-Muslims until their awaited apocalypse. For brevity’s sake, an apocalyptic death cult that happens to follow the words of the Koran literally. This long article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood does a good job explaining the rationale behind the erstwhile Caliphate. One of the conclusions is that, despite how it looks from Western eyes, Daesh is a very reasonable and consistent group of people; it just happens that their reasons and consistency spring from a bloody and black-and-white ideology deriving from 7th century Arabia. Up to now, Daesh has seemed content to wage war only in its own neighborhood of Syria and Iraq. Unlike al-Qaeda (which was responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack), Daesh is not primarily a terrorist organization but an actual government, however illegitimate and doomed to failure. (It is also highly relevant that the two groups have long been feuding for the soul of Islamic jihad, and are in no way allied). The attacks in Paris could have two possible interpretations: Daesh is branching out to international terrorism for the first time, either out of desperation after recent setbacks or to further their apocalyptic aims; or, the attacks were claimed by Daesh only after the fact, and were actually carried out by desperate European-based sympathizers who were unable to reach Syria themselves. As far as its origins, it is not too hard to trace the rise of extremism wherever violence and instability holds sway. Four years of a bloody civil war in Syria, combined with over a decade of bloody war in Iraq, created the perfect conditions for an organization such as Daesh to thrive. One of the lessons of history is that, in spite of some rare exceptions, periods of violence and revolution do not suddenly end in peaceful and stable governments.

If we are to attach blame to the creation of Daesh, it must be said that the US and its allies bear no small part of it. First and foremost for the illegal and disastrously managed war in Iraq, but more indirectly from the decades of unquestioned alliance and support for Saudi Arabia, a country which has almost single-handedly allowed the extreme Wahhabi sect to spread and produce jihad across the Middle East and the World (the US has an extremely long history of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of business; Saudi Arabia is different from many of the historical examples in that the support continues today with virtually zero public backlash). There is enough blame to go around, however; do not think that I absolve the dictators and mullahs and imams who have themselves actually done the most killing (it is almost too obvious, but I don’t want to come under the familiar charge of being anti-American just because I point out the facts). The Saudi royal family, the Iranian Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guards, Israel and its increasingly hardline and rightward skew, the Palestinians who resort to violence and terrorism, Russia, and Britain and France and the greedy and racist colony legacy they created all play a part in brewing up the toxic sludge that represents the modern Middle East.

One group that does not bear any responsibility whatsoever for the Paris attacks or the existence of Daesh are refugees. Syria had a population of around 22 million before the war, and nearly half of these have been dislocated by force or desperation. At least four million have found shelter abroad, mostly in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. There are another three million refugees from Iraq trying to escape Daesh (figures here). The refugees seeking shelter from wanton violence and destruction of homes are not themselves terrorists trying to kill Westerners. As we will see, the big political winners from terrorism, besides the terrorists themselves, are the far-right political parties that wallow in and cater to extremism and xenophobia of any kind. This includes the French National Front, which will probably see yet another surge of support for its anti-immigration and Islamophobic platform. Every country in Europe and the Americas has a political party of this sort, which have generally grown both more popular and mainstream as the wars and and subsequent refugee crisis have grown in inverse proportion to economic stability: UKIP in the UK, Lega Nord in Italy, the Republicans in the US,  Dutch Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Pegida in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, True Finns in Finland, Jobbik in Hungary (which has been instrumental in physically stopping the largest numbers of refugees into the EU), and several others all follow the same rancorous script. Though these parties are comparatively small in some cases, they have an outsized voice and influence on the public and political discourse, which they help to poison. They must be denounced loudly and immediately as soon as they use hatred fear, and intolerance of other races and religions to further their selfish political and economic ends. It is encouraging to see, now almost a week after the latest Paris attacks, that there has in fact been such a large pushback against extremism. It must continue unabated, however.

On a deep level, if Europe and America want to ameliorate both the immediate and long-term situation in the Middle East, one of the two best things they can do is to accept many more refugees (as in, all of them). Countries like Germany and Sweden are acting responsibly and charitably in the refugee crisis. Every other country leaves something to be desired after setting extremely low thresholds for asylum applications and doing as much as possible to discourage refugees (and immigrants in general). It is not only the only moral and humanist solution to such a tragedy, but the best way to economic and political security. After all, no country benefits by having a failed state and terrorist breeding ground on its doorstep. In addition, Europe and the US should do much more to provide assistance to internally displaced refugees in Syria and Iraq, and create safe zones. Whatever is being done is not even remotely enough. It goes without saying that if the Middle East is ever to emerge from its miasma of retributive violence into something vaguely resembling the more modern liberal democracies that most of you (readers) enjoy, it will need a strong and educated middle-class. Not only does this generally not exist now, but every month of war, destruction, and privation over a huge swathe of this territory is preventing entire future generations from the possibility of ever attaining a peaceful and prosperous life. This is very important and typically gets lost in the fog of war and apathy.

Digression on Climate Change: It is well-known that there will be a crucial international conference on climate change in Paris next month in which virtually every nation in the world will attempt to come to an agreement on how to combat the warming of the planet. The stakes were already high enough, considering the consequences of continued indifference in the face of climatic upheaval, but the terrorist attacks in Paris occurring less than a month before the conference raises the pressure even more. It has long been well-known and documented by scientists and historians that environmental issues like deforestation, drought, overpopulation, and resource scarcity heavily contribute to human conflict. Before the outbreak of a genocidal killing spree in Rwanda in 1992, for example, the population carrying capacity was at the absolute limit, meaning that way too many people were competing for not enough resources (Jared Diamond discusses this and related issues convincingly in his book Collapse, which I reviewed here). In Syria, it should be noted that there were four years of extreme drought which ruined farmers and forced more people into overcrowded cities, all prior to the peaceful uprising by restive Syrian citizens against a repressive and indifferent government. It was only after months of peaceful protests and brutal government suppression that the real civil war started, and we know well that peaceful moderates do not long survive in bloody civil wars. Thus, the conditions were ripe for the formation of a group like Daesh. Though climate change’s very existence is denied by Republicans in America, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders recently spoke for the growing number of people who not only accept the reality of the crisis, but see the direct link climate change has on political and military conflicts. Lest you still see this as just a liberal fantasy despite overwhelming evidence, the Pentagon and military leaders in America and NATO see climate change as an immediate risk to national security as well.

Voltaire said, or is supposed to have said, something along the lines of “Though I hate what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This can be seen as an early defense of the right of Freedom of Speech, later adopted in the new country of America as the First Amendment to the Constitution. Although it would appear to be an unlimited right, it has been challenged over the years and its limits have often been tested. Nowhere are the limits pushed and tested as much as in the face of intolerance and violence, or the mere threat of violence.

Let’s now take a trip back in time and revisit the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris of January 2015. Besides the murders themselves, an act of outrageous maliciousness, I was troubled by the reaction to the event by the media and the world at large. It need not be said that violence and murder are inexcusable under any circumstances; I say this anyway because it has been discussed around the edges of the event that because Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam and drew pictures of Mohammed, such a tragic outcome was somehow expected or even preordained. The mindset that produces such thought is one lacking in critical thinking skills, perspective, empathy, and intelligence. I can understand the series of causes and effects that can produce mass murderers, religiously motivated or otherwise. The killers were Muslim outsiders in a secular society that limited their economic possibilities, and often expressed prejudice against them, even by the government. They were also of Algerian descent, like a majority of France’s Muslims, which can only remind us of the lingering effects of the long and brutal Algerian war which ended only two generations ago. To understand broader context is not to excuse or even sympathize with violence of any kind. Most of the world’s peaceful Muslims will agree. Though they are often just as disenfranchised or economically limited as the killers, yet they do not curse the world and go on murderous sprees.

Another troubling thing about the media coverage and public outcry of the Charlie Hebdo murders is the total saturation of the news coverage itself and the unprecedented knee-jerk support for Charlie Hebdo by politicians who would condemn the magazine in their own country, and support for France by many of the same politicians who would never come close to supporting France’s culture of free speech. Thinking back to the worst massacres that we have witnessed in the last few years, there are several that stand out in my mind as even more appalling than Charlie Hebdo. One is the 2011 Norway massacre where a white right-wing Christian terrorist single-handedly killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in two separate attacks on the same day. Most of the victims were children and teens at a summer camp. Though this prompted an outpouring of sympathy and condemnation from around the world, there was not nearly as much as there was after the Charlie Hebdo killings, nor was there a show of solidarity in Oslo by world leaders and a viral slogan. Even more disturbing and tragic are the continued massacres and atrocities by the Nigerian jihad group Boko Haram (by far the deadliest terrorist group in the world), and specifically an attack only four days before the one on Charlie Hebdo in which thousands of people were reportedly murdered, with subsequent information saying that perhaps it was “only” a few hundred people instead (though no reporting has ever been able to confirm). This was an event mentioned in the world news, but quickly forgotten by most people even more quickly than they forget about the weekly school shootings in towns across America. A third incident which happened only three weeks before Charlie Hebdo was the massacre at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban which killed 145 people, 132 of which were young children. There are two possible reasons why Charlie Hebdo was a much bigger deal for people around the world, much more well-known and publicized in the media, and attracted much more sympathy than the other three massacres I mentioned which were all much more violent: Charlie Hebdo’s victims were white Europeans who were killed in the name of free speech by French-Algerian Muslims, which means that white and non-white people from all across the political spectrum had reason to be shocked and angered. In the Norway massacre the victims were also white Europeans, but the perpetrator was counter-intuitively (according to the narrative we are used to hearing from the media) a white European male as well, thus diminishing the duration and strength of the shock and public outcry, while the Boko Haram attack four days before Charlie Hebdo was already out of the news cycle by the time of the Paris attack, most obviously because even though the terrorists were also African jihadists, the victims were black Africans, thus diminishing the sympathy and interest by a large segment of the western media and population that now openly condemns racism but still engages in it; likewise with the Peshawar attack perpetrated by the infamous Taliban on schoolchildren. This troubling comparison tells me that to much of the media and large parts of western society black and brown lives matter less, and that white terrorists are written off as exceptions while Muslim terrorists are seen as a representation of the entire world population of Muslims. The way these type of events are shown in the media is both a cause and an effect of these biased opinions.

One more bit of hypocrisy is the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack was clearly and unambiguously an act of terrorism in which 12 people were killed in Paris, but many more people are killed every week by the US government in drone strikes, which must feel like terrorism to the people who live in fear. We know that missiles are rained down on supposedly high-value targets in uninteresting and out-of-the-way places like Pakistan and Yemen without any due process or guarantee that innocent men, women, and children will not be killed (they may be a majority of the victims for all we know, though all males are officially classified as “military-aged males” and assumed to be guilty). A detailed report by The Guardian has concluded that US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen killed a total of 1147 people in hundreds of failed attempts to kill just 41 men. When a missile blows up houses and cars full of people and kills at least as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack, that seems like terrorism to me. And such violence is likely to create many more terrorists than were possibly killed in the original attacks (a fact conceded by former Air Force drone operators themselves), thus increasing the probability of more strikes such as the one on Charlie Hebdo in the future (and just as such attacks are likely to make more and more westerners see all Muslims as enemies or terrorists).

The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted the trendy show of solidarity “Je suis Charlie” by millions around the world, which is not a bad thing in itself, but I am afraid that much of the solidarity was a superficial and knee-jerk response to the tragedy, not one which examined the sources and possible solutions to the set of circumstances that led to this attack and could lead to more in the future. From my personal point of view as a long-time resident in Europe, people across Europe as a whole are somewhat more thoughtful about such tragedies than the American people as a whole were after 9-11, but the fact that we have witnessed wars and terrorism in the past 14 years since then has created for many people a perspective either more empathetic or more cynical. At the same time Europe is still in the midst of economic troubles which have helped fuel the rise of a slew of right-wing xenophobic and anti-Islamic parties in every country, a large number of Europeans are also seeing that the absolute protection of free speech and tolerance is the only way to peacefully maintain an increasingly multicultural and globalized society. The question of tolerance is one that has not always been correctly understood or handled by either political leaders or citizens. There are limits to both tolerance and free speech, though it is admittedly difficult to tease out these limits, especially when faced with real-world tragedies that prompt unthinking reactions.

Just as there was a media double standard during the Charlie Hebdo massacre, likewise for the November 13th Paris attacks. The scale is much greater in the latter case, with at least 136 deaths and hundreds more injured. But the reaction was similar in that Daesh itself conducted other attacks on civilians in other countries within 24 hours of the Paris attacks, but with little reporting by the media and little interest by the public. 26 people were killed in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Baghdad, while 43 people were killed and hundreds wounded in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Beirut. Neither of those have the high death toll of Paris, but does it matter? After all, as I have shown, “only” eight people were killed in Charlie Hebdo attack but that was a bigger news story by ten or hundredfold than greater massacres of the same time in other countries. Some of this is cultural, and the fact that Paris is a central city in Western civilization, and one that many Western people have visited and feel a connection to. But still, does that matter? I love Paris as much as anyone, as well as free speech, and I hate terrorism and any kind of violence, but that does not make me feel more rage and frustration in either the case of Charlie Hebdo or the November 13th attacks as the ones in Beirut, Peshawar, Nigeria, Baghdad, Oslo, or the weekly school shootings in America. My rage and frustration is the same, and comes from the same source, directed at the same cause. I do not think Islam is the root of the problem, nor do I think that closing borders and blocking asylum and aid for refugees is the solution. These are just two of the ways I have complete and fundamental difference of opinion with the intolerant bigots in our own countries (such as my very own Congressional Representative in South Carolina, a Republican named Jeff Duncan, who blamed refugees and Muslims for the attacks before the blood had even congealed on the streets of Paris, or every single Republican presidential candidate and most of the Republican state governors).

Let’s look at some more case studies in tolerance and intolerance. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel once declared the idea of multiculturalism in Germany to have failed. I do not know if she was just trying to appeal to her conservative voters, but such a statement is irresponsible and untrue. This idea that immigrants cannot be integrated into a society only feeds the xenophobic bigots who have now become quite vocal and strong in most European countries. The fact that the rise of these groups has coincided with economic recession and unemployment is in fact no coincidence. Blaming outsiders is an appealing message to certain types of people who feel economic strain and see a threat to their traditional way of life. That does not mean that it is the fault of the immigrants, who are almost always under much more economic strain than their detractors, but of the political and economic elite who create the conditions that the people will either succeed or fail in. Whatever she meant by citing the failure of multiculturalism, Merkel has at least proven to be a courageous leader in leading the way for European countries accepting refugees. It is still not enough.

On the other hand, the right-wing nationalist and xenophobic parties have been spreading hate and intolerance. They grow stronger when people become fearful of violence and terrorism. It is well-known that toxic public discourse and intolerant speech by political leaders directly leads to violence by their troubled followers. It happens time and time again that some misguided soul takes out murderous aggression on an innocent party that had been vilified by some right-wing hate-monger. This point cannot be stressed enough. One clear limit to free speech exists at the first instance of violence, the threat of violence, or even the mere hint of violence. This goes not just for physical violence but for anything that qualifies as unnecessarily extreme aggression, intimidation, emotional bullying, etc. There is a paradox of tolerance, which is that one must be intolerant of intolerance in order to maintain a civil and open society (I have previously discussed this paradox at greater length here).

Let me indulge in a thought experiment, and let us imagine a growing fringe political party that doubles as a hate group. One of their keys beliefs is that beards are evil and unwelcome in their country. While this is a ridiculous position to hold, it is merely an opinion that happens to be small-minded and wrong (my sense of morality tells me that opinions can sometimes be wrong just as facts can). An invisible line is crossed, however, when the anti-beard group’s legitimately free speech turns to calls for violence, retribution, or even economic and social sanctions for people with beards. This is intolerance that cannot be tolerated in an open society, since it operates outside the bounds of civility and freedom from fear and violence that are the foundation a free society is built upon. In other words, though I hate what the anti-beard group says, I will defend their right to say, but only insofar as it is exercised as one particular opinion and way of life but not as a call for violence and intolerance against others who do not hold that opinion or other varying attribute (such as religion, sex, sexuality, skin color, or facial hirsuteness).

I would further argue that a fully democratic nation whose voting citizens are composed almost wholly of illiterate idiots is always preferable to a nation ruled by the most benevolent dictator but where freedom of speech is limited. The limits of democracy are seen insofar as its demos, or people, take active and informed interest in the decisions of the nation. So in the former case, though the ignorance or indifference of a sufficiently high percentage of voting citizens in a democracy could easily lead down the road to fascist dictatorship, the fact that it was firstly and presently still democratic weighs conclusively in its favor. This shows the promise and the limitations of democracy: nothing is guaranteed except what the citizens enable; everything is possible; but it can still be corrupted by propaganda and the preying on of the basest human emotions of hate, greed, and intolerance.

In the years after 9-11 in America, the people made the mistake of allowing fear and the illusion of security eclipse their freedoms. There is still much work to do to dismantle the security and surveillance state that was erected during those years of democracy in its lowest ebb. Similarly in Europe, leaders feel pressure from the right-wing parties that scream for closed borders and a stop to immigration, and for added security measures that will sacrifice hard-won freedoms for an illusion of safety. It must not be. Just as free speech must be protected at all costs, Western countries must not give in to the fear that terrorists aim to create. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That is still true in that our society remains fundamental strong, free, and open, and there is nothing that terrorists can do to change that other than make us fear them so much that we remake our society in their image, and waging more endless wars of their choosing.

Wise men are able to say things that echo long after they are gone, and it’s the same once again with Voltaire, one of my favorite Parisians, who said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” It was hard to miss the fact that one of the six Paris attacks was on a theatre on Voltaire Boulevard. Though this could be coincidental, it is not hard to imagine the attack planners targeting such a symbol of everything they hate: music and drama, philosophy, satire, reason, and enlightenment. The quote applies quite easily to the insanity that is Daesh, but let’s not hesitate to look at our own recent past. European civilization is easily the bloodiest in history, and that is why it is crucial for us to remember our own past in order to forge a new future.

Let me close with the words of another wise humanist and antiwar activist, Bertrand Russell, whose message to the future (which is the present for us) was the following: “The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say, love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

A Poem for Syria

While the people were shopping, the bombs were dropping,

while the tanks were rolling, the people were strolling,

while the babies were crying, the people were buying,

while the people were sleeping, the mothers were weeping.

The Political Importance of the Liberal Arts

We have heard much about the relative decline of the American education system over the past decade (or two, or three). While there is much truth to these various assertions and statistics that document the decline, there have been a wide-range of different diagnoses of the root source of this general decline, as well as different proposed solutions. A common political response is broad rhetoric calling for an increase in development of the so-called STEM fields– Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The last two American presidents have both specifically cited this solution in their State of the Union addresses, and have both increased funding for organizations and initiatives in these fields. Additionally, work visas for immigrants to the US are more readily available to applicants with a skilled background in the STEM fields. The thinking is that this type of expertise is necessary for innovation, and that this innovation will drive the economy and secure the future for the ‘winners’ of the most well-educated nation competition. All of this information is rather uncontroversial, and I certainly have no problem with more focus and funding for education on any kind, whether it is STEM-oriented or otherwise. An objection I have, however, is that the emphasis on STEM field competition seems to be in danger of becoming a sort of Zero-Sum game, in which a top-down political and corporate mandate for more STEM education means a corresponding decrease of perceived importance or respect for other fields or types of education that may not seem to lead to instant innovation or economic dynamism. I am speaking especially about the cultural fields of education known as the Liberal Arts, or the Humanities.

The Liberal Arts encompass areas such as History, the Arts (Performing and Visual), Literature, Languages, and Philosophy, among many more. If we wanted to compare them with the STEM fields on more equal footing, we would need to call them by an easily-understood acronym– HALP (or perhaps HALLP?). Since this obviously not very appealing, we will stick with either of the classical phrases of Liberal Arts or Humanities. The original Latin meaning of artes liberales signifies what was thought necessary for a free citizen to study. This is exactly the case I would like to make here in regards to the political importance of the Liberal Arts.

I would characterize professional, technical, or vocational curricula as various types of training, with a goal of developing specific skill-sets for a particular employment. The areas of the Liberal Arts, however, lead to a more universal and well-rounded education. In this sense, Education, derived from its original Latin meaning of “leading out of”, is conducted not for any specific end in itself, other than a more general and complete individual intellectual development and understanding of the world. I would argue that a person with this type of education could be taught virtually any skill with a certain amount of training, but that education itself is a more profound and long-term (ideally lifelong) personal development.

Once again, I have no problem at all with the emphasis on the advanced training in the STEM fields, but I am afraid that, in the current social and political environment, this emphasis can lead to a drastic undervaluing of the conception of a more universal education as represented especially through study of the Liberal Arts. The USA is fortunate to have a strong system of universities which still maintain a rich Liberal Arts tradition. I do not think this system can remain strong indefinitely given the social and financial pressures. When I was entering college over a decade ago, I knew that I wanted to do my ‘major’ in History, not because I was planning for any specific future employment but because I liked it and was interested in it (a quick glance at the topics on this website will reveal that I still hold this and other humanistic interests). In a scene that has no doubt occurred to many students countless times over the past decades, I was always asked by acquaintances and interlocutors “what I wanted to do with that degree after I graduated…become a teacher?” It is maintained by many folks that someone who studies history is either unemployable, or can only work as a teacher (in history, of course). The pressure is great to spend the valuable formative years on training that leads to employment, rather than education that is interesting and intellectually and personally fulfilling.

I recently returned to school and earned a Master’s degree, which was quite rewarding for me even if it did not directly lead to new or higher-paying employment, or necessary on-the-job skills. In the United Kingdom, where I studied, I became aware of the fact that upcoming budget cuts from the government would slash and burn a number of departments throughout the university system. My own department of Classical Studies would soon be phased out permanently, as well as several modern language programs and countless others. This is a failure of leadership.  In America, while I am happy that STEM fields are apparently receiving better funding and support, I have to take strong issue with the harsh budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels. For shamefully short-sighted reasons, a number of politicians feel that the best way to make up for their (mostly self-inflicted) budgetary shortfalls is to cut funding for education. It is inconceivable how people could be elected or certainly re-elected who support such measures. Many politicians consider the enormously outsized and wasteful military budget to be sacrosanct, while having no qualms in cutting off any education programs whatever (not to mention the select few who want to eliminate the Department of Education altogether). I would submit that re-allocating even 10% of the monstrous “defense” budget towards education would be a more efficient, forward-looking, ethical, and a valuable use of public funds (and who could disagree that a more well-educated population itself would do more for the ‘defense’ of a country than the newest redundant fighter plane or missile). I will rest my case (and my rant) with the support of the two charts below.

Back to the topic at hand, I maintain that education, especially universal liberal education, is necessary for the maintenance of a healthy democratic society. This is exactly the position of American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952), who was one of the most important and influential theorists and reformers of modern school systems (not only in America, but in Turkey and China). In several books, especially his 1916 Democracy and Education, Dewey describes how education should be a synthesis between the needs of the individual and the society, whose ultimate aim is to teach a person how to live. As a tireless defender of democracy, Dewey knew that a well-educated population was necessary for the survival of an ordered society. For example, without learning how to think independently and use critical judgment, how can a person be expected to choose leaders or public policies? This type of independent and critical thinking, as well as broad cultural and historical perspective, is developed especially through engagement with the Liberal Arts. Dewey’s progressive style of education fell somewhat out of favor during the Cold War, when technological and scientific education was promoted as essential for national survival (e.g.: the “Sputnik” moment and the Space Race). With the political, financial, and rhetorical emphasis now finding favor with the STEM fields, it is, in my opinion, imperative to not lose sight of the importance of liberal, progressive, humanistic studies as well. While better STEM training can lead to technological, industrial, and economical growth and innovation, a more universal Liberal Arts education can lead to a stronger Democracy– that is, a body politic that is curious, cultured, creative, and critical.

(For some further reading, I can endorse these related opinions about justifying culture by Alain de Botton, why knowledge is not about securing a gain on student debt by Emmanuel Jaffelin, and how higher education became corporatized.)

The Techniques of Propaganda

It’s so easy for propaganda to work and for dissent to be mocked.

–Harold Pinter, playwright and winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature

It can be difficult to differentiate what defines propaganda as opposed to other forms of persuasion. Propaganda tends to have a level of subjectivity or lack of partiality that allows for its sympathetic interpretation of merely ‘education’ or ‘information’ if it is ‘our side’ who does it, while carrying the negative connotations of the word ‘propaganda’ if it is ‘the other side’ that does it; basically, we understand it depending on whether it comes from Us or Them. In a book by Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, propaganda is defined as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” In general, it is safe to say that propaganda can be considered a one-sided and biased informational message that appeals to the emotions rather than the intellect. Traditionally, most forms of propaganda have appeared as some form of print media, such as posters, pamphlets, newspapers, etc, while the growth of technology has facilitated its use into radio broadcasts, television, film, and internet. Another aspect to keep in mind is the similarity between propaganda and advertising.

There are a number of problems with propaganda prima facie, but I will contend that its right to exist is not one of them. Since propaganda is subjective, it cannot legally or practically be separated from the right to engage in free and open speech. Problems arise only when propaganda incites violence or hatred, or when the means of propaganda becomes concentrated in too few hands, so that free speech and discussion is subverted. Both of these characteristics lead inexorably towards a totalitarian state, as can be seen in Communism/Stalinism and Fascism/Corporatism (according to Mussolini, “Fascism should more properly be called Corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power”). Therefore, all speech inciting hatred/violence/intolerance must not be tolerated (as I discussed in a previous post called Karl Popper and the Paradox of Tolerance). Even more importantly, perhaps, there should be a highly diverse, independent, and critical media.

This latter point is important because the influence of propaganda can only be mitigated when there is ample information available in an open marketplace of ideas that can challenge the monopolization of propaganda by any particular interest group. According to a 2012 study by Freedom House, roughly one third of  countries have a Free Press, one third Partly Free, and one third Not Free. Today in China, for example, all media is state-controlled and the internet is censored (and this in a country of 1.4 Billion). In Russia, the media is heavily controlled and intimidated by the de facto single party. In America, while the situation is obviously not so grave (the USA is ranked 22nd out of 197 countries in press freedom), there have been some rather disquieting trends, however. In the last 30 years, especially since the Reagan administration, the number of major corporations that control almost all of the American media market has dropped precipitously from 50 to a mere 5. The dissemination of information, therefore, has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with a corresponding diminution of diversity of information and opinion. Thus, the propaganda that is now spread by these few corporations is more powerful, more difficult to challenge, and more difficult for normal citizens to detect truth from lies. See this interesting article on the website Truth-Out for more information on the centralization of informational control. Additionally, the competition between the more powerful media interests becomes more fierce and more partisan, leading to less nuance and rationality in political discussions, and more demonizing of those who have different opinions.

We have seen all of these things happening in America recently. With the elections approaching in November, we will see yet more polarization of all political issues into narrow corporate interests for one side or the other. The fact that unlimited and secret money can be spent on this propaganda ensures that things will get much worse before they get better. The only solution is an educated and aware citizenry who judges issues on their merits and not on emotional propaganda. Fortunately, in America, the internet is not yet censored or controlled by the major media corporations, and is therefore the best place to gather and evaluate information in an objective and productive way. (For more information on the deeper issue of social control through propaganda, which I am not prepared to discuss at this time, see for example Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent [excerpts here]).

The captivating Wikipedia article on propaganda lists 52 specific distinct techniques for generating propaganda and manipulating the receivers of the message. Ideally, I would like to have given some specific examples of how they are each used to influence or misinform people in practice, but in the name of brevity and the maintenance of at least nominal objectivity, I will leave it up to you to use your own imagination. Hopefully, you will also be more on the lookout for such techniques in the media at large (including advertising, which is often indistinguishable from propaganda). If we recognize it and understand it rationally, it already loses much of its power and allows us to maintain more political and intellectual independence.

Ad hominem
A Latin phrase that has come to mean attacking one’s opponent, as opposed to attacking their arguments.
Ad nauseam
This argument approach uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach works best when media sources are limited or controlled by the propagator.
Appeal to authority
Appeals to authority cite prominent figures to support a position, idea, argument, or course of action.
Appeal to fear
Appeals to fear and seeks to build support by instilling anxieties and panic in the general population, for example, Joseph Goebbels exploited Theodore Kaufman’s Germany Must Perish! to claim that the Allies sought the extermination of the German people.
Appeal to prejudice
Using loaded or emotive terms to attach value or moral goodness to believing the proposition. Used in biased or misleading ways.
Bandwagon and “inevitable-victory” appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking”.
Big Lie
The repeated articulation of a complex of events that justify subsequent action. The descriptions of these events have elements of truth, and the “big lie” generalizations merge and eventually supplant the public’s accurate perception of the underlying events. After World War I the German Stab in the Back explanation of the cause of their defeat became a justification for Nazi re-militarization and revanchist aggression.
Black-and-white fallacy
Presenting only two choices, with the product or idea being propagated as the better choice. For example: “You’re either with us, or against us….”
Classical conditioning
All vertebrates, including humans, respond to classical conditioning. That is, if object A is always present when object B is present and object B causes a negative physical reaction (e.g., disgust, pleasure) then we will when presented with object A when object B is not present, we will experience the same feelings.
Cognitive dissonance
People desire to be consistent. Suppose a pollster finds that a certain group of people hates his candidate for senator but love actor A. They use actor A’s endorsement of their candidate to change people’s minds because people cannot tolerate inconsistency. They are forced to either dislike the actor or like the candidate.
Common man
The “plain folks” or “common man” approach attempts to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms (and clothe their message in face-to-face and audiovisual communications) in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person. For example, a propaganda leaflet may make an argument on a macroeconomic issue, such as unemployment insurance benefits, using everyday terms: “Given that the country has little money during this recession, we should stop paying unemployment benefits to those who do not work, because that is like maxing out all your credit cards during a tight period, when you should be tightening your belt.”
Demonizing the enemy
Making individuals from the opposing nation, from a different ethnic group, or those who support the opposing viewpoint appear to be subhuman (e.g., the Vietnam War-era term “gooks” for National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam aka Viet Cong, or “VC”, soldiers), worthless, or immoral, through suggestion or false accusations.Dehumanizing is also a termed used synonymously with demonizing, the latter usually serves as an aspect of the former.
The creation or deletion of information from public records, in the purpose of making a false record of an event or the actions of a person or organization, including outright forgery of photographs, motion pictures, broadcasts, and sound recordings as well as printed documents.
The use of an event that generates euphoria or happiness, or using an appealing event to boost morale. Euphoria can be created by declaring a holiday, making luxury items available, or mounting a military parade with marching bands and patriotic messages.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt
An attempt to influence public perception by disseminating negative and dubious/false information designed to undermine the credibility of their beliefs.
An attempt to justify an action on the grounds that doing so will make one more patriotic, or in some way benefit a country, group or idea the targeted audience supports.
Glittering generalities
Glittering generalities are emotionally appealing words that are applied to a product or idea, but present no concrete argument or analysis. This technique has also been referred to as the PT Barnum effect.
A half-truth is a deceptive statement, which may come in several forms and includes some element of truth. The statement might be partly true, the statement may be totally true but only part of the whole truth, or it may utilize some deceptive element, such as improper punctuation, or double meaning, especially if the intent is to deceive, evade, blame or misrepresent the truth.
A euphemism is used when the propagandist attempts to increase the perceived quality, credibility, or credence of a particular ideal. A Dysphemism is used when the intent of the propagandist is to discredit, diminish the perceived quality, or hurt the perceived righteousness of the Mark. By creating a “label” or “category” or “faction” of a population, it is much easier to make an example of these larger bodies, because they can uplift or defame the Mark without actually incurring legal-defamation. Example: “Liberal” is a dysphemism intended to diminish the perceived credibility of a particular Mark. By taking a displeasing argument presented by a Mark, the propagandist can quote that person, and then attack “liberals” in an attempt to both (1) create a political battle-ax of unaccountable aggression and (2) diminish the quality of the Mark. If the propagandist uses the label on too-many perceivably credible individuals, muddying up the word can be done by broadcasting bad-examples of “liberals” into the media. Labeling can be thought of as a sub-set of Guilt by association, another logical fallacy.
Latitudes of acceptance
If a person’s message is outside the bounds of acceptance for an individual and group, most techniques will engender psychological reactance (simply hearing the argument will make the message even less acceptable). There are two techniques for increasing the bounds of acceptance. First, one can take a more even extreme position that will make more moderate positions seem more acceptable. This is similar to the Door-in-the-Face technique. Alternatively, one can moderate one’s own position to the edge of the latitude of acceptance and then over time slowly move to the position that was previously.
Lying and deception
Lying and deception can be the basis of many propaganda techniques including Ad Homimen arguments, Big-Lie, Defamation, Door-in-the-Face, Half-truth, Name-calling or any other technique that is based on dishonesty or deception. For example, many politicians have been found to frequently stretch or break the truth.
Managing the news
According to Adolf Hitler “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” This idea is consistent with the principle of classical conditioning as well as the idea of “Staying on Message.”
Propagandists use the name-calling technique to start fears and arouse prejudices in their hearers in the intent that the bad names will cause hearers to construct a negative opinion about a group or set of beliefs or ideas that the propagandist wants hearers to denounce. The method is intended to provoke conclusions about a matter apart from impartial examinations of facts. Name-calling is thus a substitute for rational, fact-based arguments against the an idea or belief on its own merits.
Obfuscation, intentional vagueness, confusion
Generalities are deliberately vague so that the audience may supply its own interpretations. The intention is to move the audience by use of undefined phrases, without analyzing their validity or attempting to determine their reasonableness or application. The intent is to cause people to draw their own interpretations rather than simply being presented with an explicit idea. In trying to “figure out” the propaganda, the audience forgoes judgment of the ideas presented. Their validity, reasonableness and application may still be considered.
Obtain disapproval or Reductio ad Hitlerum
This technique is used to persuade a target audience to disapprove of an action or idea by suggesting that the idea is popular with groups hated, feared, or held in contempt by the target audience. Thus if a group that supports a certain policy is led to believe that undesirable, subversive, or contemptible people support the same policy, then the members of the group may decide to change their original position. This is a form of bad logic, where a is said to include X, and b is said to include X, therefore, a = b.
Favorable generalities are used to provide simple answers to complex social, political, economic, or military problems.
Pensée unique
Enforced reduction of discussion by use of overly simplistic phrases or arguments (e.g., “There is no alternative to war.”)
Quotes out of context
Selectively editing quotes to change meanings—political documentaries designed to discredit an opponent or an opposing political viewpoint often make use of this technique.
Rationalization (making excuses)
Individuals or groups may use favorable generalities to rationalize questionable acts or beliefs. Vague and pleasant phrases are often used to justify such actions or beliefs.
Red herring
Presenting data or issues that, while compelling, are irrelevant to the argument at hand, and then claiming that it validates the argument.
Assigning blame to an individual or group, thus alleviating feelings of guilt from responsible parties and/or distracting attention from the need to fix the problem for which blame is being assigned.
A slogan is a brief, striking phrase that may include labeling and stereotyping. Although slogans may be enlisted to support reasoned ideas, in practice they tend to act only as emotional appeals. Opponents of the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq use the slogan “blood for oil” to suggest that the invasion and its human losses was done to access Iraq’s oil riches. On the other hand, supporters who argue that the U.S. should continue to fight in Iraq use the slogan “cut and run” to suggest withdrawal is cowardly or weak.
This technique attempts to arouse prejudices in an audience by labeling the object of the propaganda campaign as something the target audience fears, hates, loathes, or finds undesirable. For instance, reporting on a foreign country or social group may focus on the stereotypical traits that the reader expects, even though they are far from being representative of the whole country or group; such reporting often focuses on the anecdotal. In graphic propaganda, including war posters, this might include portraying enemies with stereotyped racial features.
Straw man
A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
Testimonials are quotations, in or out of context, especially cited to support or reject a given policy, action, program, or personality. The reputation or the role (expert, respected public figure, etc.) of the individual giving the statement is exploited. The testimonial places the official sanction of a respected person or authority on a propaganda message. This is done in an effort to cause the target audience to identify itself with the authority or to accept the authority’s opinions and beliefs as its own.
Third-party technique
Works on the principle that people are more willing to accept an argument from a seemingly independent source of information than from someone with a stake in the outcome. It is a marketing strategy commonly employed by Public Relations (PR) firms, that involves placing a premeditated message in the “mouth of the media.” Third-party technique can take many forms, ranging from the hiring of journalists to report the organization in a favorable light, to using scientists within the organization to present their perhaps prejudicial findings to the public. Frequently astroturf groups or front groups are used to deliver the message.
Thought-terminating cliché
A commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to quell cognitive dissonance.
Also known as association, this is a technique that involves projecting the positive or negative qualities of one person, entity, object, or value onto another to make the second more acceptable or to discredit it. It evokes an emotional response, which stimulates the target to identify with recognized authorities. Often highly visual, this technique often utilizes symbols (e.g. swastikas) superimposed over other visual images (e.g. logos). These symbols may be used in place of words.
Selective truth
Richard Crossman, the British Deputy Director of Psychological Warfare Division (PWD) for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) during the Second World War said “In propaganda truth pays… It is a complete delusion to think of the brilliant propagandist as being a professional liar. The brilliant propagandist is the man who tells the truth, or that selection of the truth which is requisite for his purpose, and tells it in such a way that the recipient does not think he is receiving any propaganda… […] The art of propaganda is not telling lies, bur rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”
Virtue words
These are words in the value system of the target audience that produce a positive image when attached to a person or issue. Peace, happiness, security, wise leadership, freedom, “The Truth”, etc. are virtue words. Many see religiosity as a virtue, making associations to this quality effectively beneficial. Their use is considered of the Transfer propaganda technique.

Who was J.P. Morgan?

It has been discovered in the last week that the financial firm of JP Morgan Chase & Co. has lost $2 Billion in risky hedge fund trading gone awry. This sum, incredibly, is a mere pittance to the firm’s overall profit margin, but has interesting ramifications. JP Morgan, throughout the financial meltdown, has been portrayed as the most responsible and sensible of the major Wall Street banks. The CEO, Jamie Dimon, has been widely respected for his apparent risk-averse approach, and he has maintained a certain air of being above the fray in relation to the other banks. Consequently, he has been the strongest advocate for minimizing government reforms, oversight, and regulations in wake of the enormous distress to the worldwide economy caused by the actions of financial institutions. Even President Obama said in an interview, after the news of the recent $2 Billion gambling loss by JP Morgan, that that firm was “one of the best managed banks there is” and that CEO Dimon was “one of the smartest bankers we got.” Sadly, there is no doubt that Obama is correct. In order to be a smart banker, and to be a top-notch bank manager, it is necessary to manipulate the government and the media, and to make a profit at all costs. In these cases, JP Morgan & Co. has always been one of the best. (UPDATE, 14 July: the losses are actually three times larger than previously reported, Dimon is still both CEO and board member of the Federal Reserve, and still stridently supports the claim that banks can regulate themselves)

John Pierpont Morgan was born in Connecticut in 1837, to the New England version of the aristocracy. His father, Junius Spencer Morgan, was a wealthy trans-Atlantic banker who enrolled his son Pierpont (as he was called) at the best private schools, and at universities in Switzerland in Germany, before taking a position at one of the Morgan banks in London. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, J.P. Morgan gained power as a crafty financier involved in several industries and banks. During the Civil War, J.P. Morgan paid $300 to avoid serving his draft status in the Union Army, while serving instead as a bank-roller and war-profiteer. There was an incident, for example, in which he was responsible for the sale of 5000 defective rifles for a large profit, which was investigated by the government. Unsurprisingly, there were no charges brought against him.

John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913)

In contrast with the diverse group of infamous monopolists and ‘robber barons’ such as Commodore Vanderbilt and Jay Gould (railroads), John J. Rockefeller (oil), and Andrew Carnegie (steel), J.P. Morgan was primarily a money-man–that is, an investor of capital rather than an industrialist. In the many conflicts between the nascent railroad and oil industries for control of resources and land, J.P. Morgan showed that the next stage in the development of capitalism was the represented by the power of finance. In the case of the railroads, he could see that the suppression of competition was the most efficient and profitable course of action, and every deal he made multiplied his profits and control over other capitalists. The watershed moment in this history came in 1901, when J.P. Morgan bought out Andrew Carnegie and took control of his steel empire, reorganized it as the US Steel Corporation. Carnegie, who was a self-made man and a pure manufacturer rather than financier, sold for $400,000,000 and became the richest man in history. He spent the next 18 years giving away 90% of his wealth to education, libraries, scientific research, and world peace.

J.P. Morgan, on the other hand, became the head of the world’s largest, and first Billion-dollar, corporation. US Steel was actually worth $1.4 Billion, and it now controlled a majority of American steel production. This, however, was only one of J.P. Morgan’s diverse business interests. The power he amassed through his monopolistic policies in steel, railroad, banking, and other ventures like newspapers, livestock, and ocean liners, was enough to make him arguably the most powerful man in the world from 1901 to his death in 1913. He was received as a king by Edward VII, Kaiser William, and the Pope. In the Panic of 1907, J.P. Morgan arranged a deal to single-handedly bail out the U.S. government and restore confidence in an economy in crisis. This almost directly led to the Federal Reserve System of 1913, in which politicians and rival bankers wished to prevent one corporation (in this case, one man) from having so much power in the future. In addition, public opinion gradually turned hostile to J.P. Morgan after 1901 due to his anti-competition, monopoly-building practices, and he was often at war with Trust-busting Progressive leaders like Theodore Roosevelt.

Upon his death, this erstwhile king of finance was succeeded to the throne by his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr. His biggest claim to fame came immediately as World War I broke out, when he began financing the governments of Russia, England, and France. J.P Morgan Jr.’s extensive dealings, especially his favoritism towards England, surely played no insignificant part in escalating the war, drawing the U.S. into that destructive and absurd conflict on the side of the Allies, and continuing the Morgan family tradition of war-profiteering. Post-war, J.P. Morgan, Jr.’s notable accomplishments include financing Germany’s unfair reparation payments of the Versailles treaty, giving Mussolini a $100,000,000 loan prior to the Second World War, and fighting tooth-and-nail against President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. Fortunately, he was largely unsuccessful in this last endeavor, and many much-needed financial reforms and regulations were enacted in the wake of the Great Depression. One of these pieces of legislation was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. One of the main provisions of this Act was the forced separation of commercial and investment banks, which helped to mitigate risk to the national economy due to under-regulated banking conglomerates. Though this Act was imperfect and obviously not a panacea, it represented a positive step towards achieving a better balance of government regulation and free market enterprise. Naturally, it was gradually circumvented and undermined by a series of the “smartest bankers” of the day, who realized that new generations of politicians could be bought and controlled just like the old ones.

Despite 50 years without a financial crisis after the instatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, the weakening of regulation by the time of the Reagan-era 1980’s led once again toward the dangerous path of the consolidation of banking power, along with increasing risk of meltdown. After the formal repeal of the Act in 1999 by Bill Clinton, it was only 7 years before the nearly-fatal event occurred. By 2000, JP Morgan & Co. was back in full force, merging with Chase Manhattan Bank to eventually become the largest bank in the United States by assets, and the largest public company in the world (as of 2011). This is the context in which we find this venerable institution leading the way in the next round of financial wizardry at the public’s expense. How do we feel about this, the “best managed bank there is,” still fighting against needed reforms that will keep its dangerous power in check? Should it be left to its own devices, as CEO Dimon says, or should it, and all similar institutions be broken up so that they cannot willfully cause another meltdown?

I think the answer is self-explanatory. An easy step to take is mustering public opinion toward a reinstatement of an updated Glass-Steagall Act which will force the separation of commercial and investment banks (there are many online petitions calling for this exact thing, and a few progressive politicians leading the way). Likewise for a strengthening of the recent, but too weak (due to immense lobbying pressure from Wall Street), Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act. In addition, income from financial investments should not be singled out for a preferential tax rate of 15% but should be taxed as any other income. Also, there should be some sort of public ownership and control over at least a part of the enormously powerful financial machine that has been created since the days of the original J.P. Morgan. The rich will still be rich, and no one faults them for that, but they will be prevented from amassing and exerting the type of power which tends to happen when they are given special political privileges. Then, we will have a healthier, less risky, and more sustainable balance of regulated capitalism where many can succeed, and more equal democracy for all.

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