Like death, taxes, and the poor, propaganda will always be with us. But today propaganda is in hyper drive. Its use by elites invested in political correctness and identity politics have created dangerous divisions among Americans.
Whether these elites are academics who preach grievance studies, media pundit-parrots, or politicians with a wet finger in the wind, all play a part in rubbing resentments raw and sowing bitterness. Ultimately, the point of propaganda is to shift our perceptions to get people to conform to an agenda. After all, wars are usually won and lost on perceptions of reality, not reality per se.
To grasp the mechanics behind of some of today’s psychological warfare, let’s take as an example the resurgence of anti-Semitism, a hateful sentiment that goes hand in hand with attacking Israel’s right to exist.
Much has been written in the aftermath of freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) recent public remarks. She said she got a “calming feeling” when thinking about the Holocaust because, she claimed, her “ancestors,” the Palestinians, sacrificed much for the purpose of giving the Jews safe haven.
Many writers, from The Federalist to The Atlantic, have focused on her menacing denial of the historical record. Others, like Phyllis Chesler, warn that anti-Semitism, or, frankly, Jew hatred, has been rising in the West, and is especially rife among the keepers of high culture. All the while, a campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel has been pushed hard on college students as well as on corporations.
Words as Grenades
But what about Tlaib’s choice of words? How might it play into a campaign against Israel in particular or the Jewish people in general? Here’s the quote:
There’s always kind of a calming feeling I tell folks when I think of the Holocaust, and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence in many ways, have been wiped out, and some people’s passports. And just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time. And I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right, in many ways. But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away and it was forced on them.
Tlaib complained of being silenced by her critics, but she has the force of social and mainstream media behind her. Also, her word-brew seemed to acknowledge “the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.” On the surface, that looks like something an ally of Israel would agree with.
She also gave it all a soft and earnest delivery. And that pretty much did the trick here. Many would give her the benefit of the doubt in terms of sincerity, and therefore would let her public statement stand.
Powerful political allies, who have 90 percent of the media behind them, ran to her defense, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi demanded apologies from President Trump and pretty much anyone who took issue with Tlaib.
An interesting aside: there remains some squeamishness about all this even in the left-wing media, as we saw when CNN’s John King called Tlaib out for “rewriting history.” But there too Tlaib’s statement bore fruit, because it helped to ferret out dissent within the ranks of the political left.
But what of those who are ignorant of history, whose ranks have swollen thanks to miseducation in K-12 and anti-thought colleges? Might Tlaib’s words, if developed into a repeated narrative, nudge the ignorant towards accepting them as truth? And what about the innuendo of rationalizing the Holocaust? This was a new and improved agitprop grenade thrown into an old psychological war.
Public Opinion Cascades
If we had to classify Tlaib’s statement as a propaganda technique, it would probably fall under the category of “transfer propaganda,” in which a deceptive association is made for emotional effect. The goal is ultimately to prod a public opinion shift in order to move an agenda forward.
Tlaib was no doubt aware that a lot of folks would be offended by her false narrative: the claim that Palestinians willingly and generously sacrificed much for the express purpose of giving Jews a safe haven after the Holocaust of the 1940s. Thus, the purpose of her softly worded preface: “There’s always kind of a calming feeling I tell folks when I think about the Holocaust.” That’s really a shocking juxtaposition of words.
Clearly, it’s the shock effect of Tlaib’s preface that really gets our attention. It also gets her claim circulating in public discourse. That’s how an “availability cascade” is supposed to work. According to Cass Sunstein’s and Timur Kuran’s wonkish definition, an availability cascade “is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.”
In their paper published 20 years ago in the Stanford Law Review, they explained that no matter how wildly implausible an idea may seem, it can eventually become widely accepted as plausible if it is made more available through repetition, especially by public influencers and endorsers. It can then result in a public opinion shift. Robert Cialdini, author of the best-sellers “Influence” and “PRE-suasion,” gives a pithier explanation: “What’s focal is causal.”
Just So Misunderstood
But Tlaib’s toss of her agitprop grenade was really just Phase I. Phase II was her protestation of being taken out of context. This allowed her to double down on being the injured party.
Policing my words, twisting & turning them to ignite vile attacks on me will not work. All of you who are trying to silence me will fail miserably. I will never allow you to take my words out of context to push your racist and hateful agenda. The truth will always win.
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) May 13, 2019
Her claim of injury and being taken out of context was propped up by all the usual suspects, including virtually all House Democrats. But most importantly, by manufacturing the controversy, she got platforms to defend her, i.e., to promote her agenda.
Her high-profile and protected political status guarantees access to those platforms as a speaker and social influencer. Late-night host Seth Meyers gave her the floor to further inject her perceptions, intentionally or not, into the minds of a youthful electorate increasingly ignorant of history.
The Juxtaposition Deception
The weird trick that Tlaib and so many others employ with propaganda and persuasion is to juxtapose word and associations so the negative might appear in a positive light, or vice versa. “Calming feeling” invokes peace, while “Holocaust” refers to mass murder and unspeakable atrocities. It’s a really bizarre, abnormal coupling.
So the loaded word “Holocaust” was put it into the context of the idea of calm and peace. It predictably packs an emotional gut punch for many. At the same time, others will swallow and digest the association, as prescribed. It’s dressed up in language and syntax that, when clinically parsed, could pass among some as an awkward but innocent and heartfelt expression.
With the media, Hollywood, the House majority, and an alliance of hardcore socialists on your side, the gut punch stands. And if you, as a critic, defend yourself, you are being “dishonest and disgraceful.” We should expect more such episodes to come.
Whether or not Tlaib had any ill intention, or actually believes her own propaganda, is really beside the point. Her word-brew offers a classic case of how propaganda works. In 1965, Jacques Ellul wrote in his classic work, “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes“:
Propaganda by its very nature is an enterprise for perverting the significance of events and of insinuating false intentions. There are two salient aspects of this fact. First of all, the propagandist must insist on the purity of his own intentions and at the same time, hurl accusations at his enemy. . . The second element of falsehood is that the propagandist naturally cannot reveal the true intentions of the principal for whom he acts.
So, Tlaib’s episode represents a lot of things. It’s a feint. It’s psychological projection. It’s a desensitization technique. A form of covert persuasion.
Her use of syntax allows her to claim that there was no intention to downplay the tragedy of the Holocaust. She even calls it a tragedy, don’t you see? The “calming feeling” simply comes from her claim that the Palestinians were saviors of the Jews.
Anita Dunn’s Coupling of Mao and Mother Teresa
There’s nothing really new here with such use of language for mass persuasion. Propaganda is always meant to overcome resistance to unpopular ideas. The needle moves more quickly when you are able to get things out in the open and elicit sympathy for your cause by pretending to care about those you view as enemies. For example, when campaigning for president, Barack Obama invoked the name of Ronald Reagan to pander to middle Americans, yet had contempt for those voters, whom he described as bitter clingers.
Anita Dunn stands out in my mind as one of the most interesting cases of the juxtaposition/transfer technique. While serving as Obama’s communications director in 2009, Dunn got a lot of media attention for stating in a commencement speech to high schoolers that her “two favorite political philosophers” were Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa.
When criticized, Dunn claimed she had only intended some irony. But if you view the speech, she is entirely earnest, claiming that the two of them—Mao, the mass killer of tens of millions, and Mother Teresa, the saint of Calcutta—were basically on the same page at getting things done, making one’s own choices, etc. That’s akin to saying Adolph Hitler and Leonardo da Vinci were of like mind because they both liked to draw and paint. But most profoundly, Mao and Mother Teresa were not on the same page with respect for life, both in and out of the womb.
The real irony here is that Mao would have had Mother Teresa taken out and shot as a bourgeois subversive who had “an extremely bad tendency.” The net effect of Dunn’s comparison was to create a moral equivalence in the minds of her impressionable audience. It’s a juxtaposition that erases all lines between good and evil, between life and death, between kindness and cruelty, between freedom and coercion, between truth and lies.
What’s The End Game?
If we let this stand, where does it all lead? No doubt some are tempted simply to take Tlaib’s words at face value. They may be well intentioned, and maybe—if gullibility is a virtue—we might even say Tlaib is well intentioned. But good intentions do indeed pave the road to Hell. That’s why we should never toy in such a way with the word “Holocaust” in the public square. Such language should be beyond the pale, especially by a member of Congress.
This is especially true as we see anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head again on both sides of the Atlantic. Take a glimpse of the Mardi Gras parade float that publicly featured grotesque caricatures of Hasidic Jews that looks like something dreamt up by Goebbels’ crew of propagandists in Nazi Germany. Shamefully, it was exhibited in 2019 Belgium.
What are we supposed to think? And when we see blatantly anti-Semitic tweets by Tlaib’s freshman colleague Ilhan Omar, and the refusal of Democrats and Twitter to censure her—what are we supposed to think? The list goes on.
The point is that terror always begins with propaganda-spawned group think. Effective propaganda allowed the Nazis to carry out the Holocaust even though 90 percent of Germans were not members of the Nazi Party. Propaganda got the Armenian genocide underway in Turkey in 1915. And it was a constant vilification campaign against the Tutsis on radio and throughout Rwandan society that led to the genocide of half a million of them the very recent year of 1994.
But of course, the abuse of words as prelude to terror is not an invention of the 20th century. It hearkens back thousands of years to the biblical warning from the Book of Isaiah, 5:20: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.”