Those Powerfully Unified Persuasion Machines Chugging Away

With all the advertising and the overheated political talk, along with the constant pop-culture buzz out of Hollywood, and the fashion buzz out of wherever that buzz comes from, and religious imperatives, if that’s your thing – and peer pressure if you’re a teen, and the parallel pressure if you’re an adult, to own the right stuff, and live in the right place, and get your kids in the right school, and to drive them there in the right sedan or SUV or whatever – it’s a wonder you even know what you think. You’ve been told what to think – or more precisely, somehow things have worked out so that you’re embarrassed when you think something doesn’t fall in the right slot, so you stopped doing that a long time ago. You just keep track of the slots and hope you get it all right. You don’t want to be a weirdo. No one does. We are communal animals, no matter what the Republicans say. And they think only the official approved thoughts about freedom and personal responsibility and rugged individualism and not ever asking anything of anyone. They think that stuff without deviation. And the left thinks whatever it is they think without deviation. It all has to fit in the limited number of appropriate and approved available slots.

Of course most people are happy with this. They think they’re thinking, and that’s a nice feeling. You can get all smug about that. And others will say wow, you’re really thinking! They say that because you got all the appropriate bromides lined up in the right order, with just the right key phrases – the devastating quips – so that they pat you on the head and say yes, you are officially a member of this tribe. It’s a ritualistic thing. You masterfully enunciated the precise totems and taboos. Good for you. And this, as is obvious, describes what political conventions are all about. The balloons from the ceiling are another matter. But there’s not a whole lot of thinking going on.

But think about it – life isn’t set up for thought, just an imitation of it. Yes, ignore the internal irony of that sentence. And other people are not happy with that at all. They get all alienated. Are their thoughts even their own? Descartes a long time ago came up with that famous definition of identity itself – I think, therefore I am. And if you follow his logic, these days most people aren’t. They may not even exist, in Cartesian terms. Their thoughts are the thoughts of others. The next time you’re in Paris stand on the corner of Boulevard St-Germain at Rue des Rennes and stare at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés – the old, old church where Descartes is buried – that I-think-therefore-I-am dude. Across the street is the Hôtel Madison, where Camus finished his famous book on alienation, L’Étranger. You can stay in his room, and a few doors down the street are the Deux Magots and the Flore, the two cafés where Sartre hung out, being all existential. It’s all a puzzle. And somehow it’s always raining in Paris. And you might realize that you are not alone in thinking that your thinking may not even be thinking. But cognac helps.

The problem is that there are far too many powerfully unified persuasion machines chugging away all the time. Out here in Hollywood they even offer tours – Universal Studios out in the Valley, Paramount down on Melrose, Warner Brothers over the hill in Burbank, and so on – you can see how it’s done. In the political world you cannot see how it’s done. And that’s a problem.

But this week, Politico reported here on the business relationship between Republican think-tanks and the talk radio right:

If you’re a regular listener of Glenn Beck’s radio show and you wanted to contribute to a political group that would advance the populist conservative ideals he touts on his show, you’d have plenty of reason to think that FreedomWorks was your best investment.

But if you’re a fan of Mark Levin’s radio show, you’d have just as much cause to believe that Americans for Prosperity, a FreedomWorks rival, was the most effective conservative advocacy group. And, if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity are who you listen to, you’d be hearing a steady stream of entreaties to support the important work of the Heritage Foundation.

That’s not coincidence. In search of donations and influence, the three prominent conservative groups are paying hefty sponsorship fees to the popular talk show hosts. Those fees buy them a variety of promotional tie-ins, as well as regular on-air plugs – praising or sometimes defending the groups, while urging listeners to donate – often woven seamlessly into programming in ways that do not seem like paid advertising.

This is pretty clever:

“The point that people don’t realize,” said Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of the talk media trade publication TALKERS Magazine, “is that (big time political talk show hosts) are radio personalities – they are in the same business that people like Casey Kasem are in – and what they do is no different than people who broadcast from used car lots or restaurants or who endorse the local roofer or gardener.”

The Heritage Foundation pays about $2 million to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s – and considers it money well spent.

That is followed by about three thousand words of excruciating detail – just how it all works. It’s basically payola. Yes, Frankie Avalon was never really that popular. His label paid big bucks for air time. And maybe that explains Pat Boone too.

What? You didn’t know how all that worked? But heck, everyone knew – save for scattered bevies of easily manipulated dim-witted pre-teen girls.

But are we all now just easily manipulated dim-witted pre-teen girls? David Frum offers this:

Just imagine if the CBS Evening News were to accept $2 million from a pharmaceutical company, and then run news spots about the excellent benefits from taking that company’s medication. Imagine if the Los Angeles Times accepted $2 million from a company promoting a natural gas pipeline, and then published editorials advocating government approval of the pipeline route. Imagine if columnists at the Financial Times accepted money to tout British bonds or German stocks.

Shocking, right? Yet for millions of Americans, conservative talk radio is a news source much more trusted than CBS or the Los Angeles Times or the Financial Times.

Shocking, right? Well, maybe – but not really surprising. And Will Wilkinson thinks Frum is missing the point:

More interesting than the superficial pay-to-play aspect of this story is what it reveals about the increasing integration of the conservative economy of influence. What we’re seeing is a set of once disparate pieces coming together into a powerfully unified persuasion machine.

Yes, that is a good turn of phrase. And in Hollywood terms, it’s like seeing a major studio being born. They used to call them dream factories.

And Wilkinson adds this:

If you want to be cynical about the way all this works, here’s how to be cynical about it. Right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups constantly tell the folks on their huge direct-mail lists – older people, mostly – that America, the greatest country in the history of the multiverse, is going to hell in a hand-basket, and quick, unless! Unless you dig deep and send checks to the Americans-for-a-More-American-America Foundation or ProsperityWorks or whatever.

Then, the boards of these organizations reward their friends in management and fundraising with handsome salaries (just think what they’re forgoing in the private-sector!) and spend the rest of the money on programs that may or may not have a clear relationship to the institution’s mission. Right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups are, to a significant extent, transmission belts conveying the cash of fearful, constitution-loving widows into the bank accounts of “movement” professionals in Washington, DC. The first-order distributive-consequences of these pay-for-play radio deals have to do with which Washington institution gets to tap which audience’s potential donor pool.

This is pretty much a cash-extraction racket, and it works pretty well. And you thought you were an independent and bold thinker? Whatever were YOU thinking?

But that the whole idea – no real thinking – and Kevin Drum adds this:

Will says he isn’t sure if lefty think tanks work the same way, and I’m not sure either. Certainly they appeal to fear in some of the same ways (conservatives will take away your reproductive rights, conservatives want to wreck Medicare, etc.), but I don’t think the appeals to inchoate fear are quite as insidious as they are on the right, and I’m also pretty sure that being part of a lefty think tank isn’t quite as lucrative at it is on the right. But I could be wrong! Still, if things were really the same on the left, then CAP and EPI and other America-hating socialist idea mongers would have their own deals with Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. But they don’t.

What can we learn from that? Democrats don’t ever do that powerfully-unified-persuasion-machine thing. They can’t. They aren’t that organized – or they are more prone to actual thinking, not imitation thinking. They’re just not that tribal. That sort of thing bores them. They don’t see tribal loyalty solving any particular policy problem.

And on the other side it does get a bit absurd, as now Michele Bachmann says that she is onto President Obama’s secret plot:

“This hasn’t been talked about very much – the president’s plan for senior citizens is Obamacare,” Ms. Bachmann told party activists here. She added, “I think very likely what the president intends is that Medicare will go broke and ultimately that answer will be Obamacare for senior citizens.”

And Jonathan Chait takes if from there:

Medicare is a single-payer program – the kind liberals have always wanted for the non-elderly, but didn’t get. Turning Medicare into something like the Affordable Care Act would be to move them off single-payer health care and onto a regulated system of private insurance. That would be a conservative plot. I don’t think Obama is planning it, and if he were, it would prove he’s far more right wing than anybody imagined.

I’m trying to think where Bachmann dreamed up this notion. The essence of Tea Party ideology is that Medicare is virtuous and American as apple pie with Obamacare is a socialist plot. In that way, Bachmann’s fevered accusation makes sense.

But she is screaming that Obama – that evil man – has a super-secret plan to take away your socialized medicine program and force you to buy private insurance from giant for-profit corporations. Beware of this man who says these things are best done by the market and the Invisible Hand. This has to be stopped!

Sometimes forgetting logic and thinking and enunciating the precise tribal totems and taboos can make you sound like a fool. Then you get that awful moment when someone in the crowd, and then others, say wait – that’s backwards. And then things really fall apart.

But at least New Jersey is safe – “The office of Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is claiming that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is a confidential adviser whose interactions with the governor should remain secret under New Jersey’s executive privilege.” Yes, make sure you are aligned with the tribe. And every tribe has a shaman.

As for where this tribal stuff leads, in Commentary, Peter Wehner in this item discusses a 1990 speech from the former dissident playwright and fan and friend of Frank Zappa, and then president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, The Anatomy of Hate:

People who hate, at least those I have known, harbor a permanent, irradicable feeling of injury, a feeling that is, of course, out of all proportion to reality…

In the subconsciousness of haters there slumbers a perverse feeling that they alone possess the truth, that they are some kind of superhumans or even gods, and thus deserve the world’s complete recognition, even its complete submissiveness and loyalty, if not its blind obedience. They want to be the centre of the world and are constantly frustrated and irritated because the world does not accept and recognize them as such; indeed, it may not even pay any attention to them, and perhaps it even ridicules them.

They are not thinking. And they get locked into group-think:

Anyone who hates an individual is almost always capable of succumbing to group hatred or even of spreading it. I would even say that group hatred be it religious, ideological or doctrinal, social, national or any other kind is a kind of funnel that ultimately draws into itself everyone disposed toward hatred.

There is more, and Havel concludes his speech by warning that that the corner of the world he came from “could become – if we do not maintain vigilance and common sense – fertile soil” for collective hatred. It had happened before, after all.

And the key is vigilance and common sense – just stop and think. And actually think – none of that artificial thinking. And Wehner adds this:

Fortunately in America today the kind of collective hatred Havel warns about hasn’t really taken root. But his words are nonetheless worth reflecting on in the context of modern American politics. The reason is simple: politics often stirs up intense feelings. This makes perfect sense, given that it involves issues of power and consent, liberty and order, rights and duties, ethics and morality. A huge amount, including our way of life, hinges on how political matters resolve themselves. People are right to feel strongly about these things.

But we all know that political passions can, under certain circumstances and with some people, give way to hatred.

It already happened. Wehner just pretends we’re not quite there yet:

Vigorous debate, colliding worldviews, and even fierce advocacy are one thing; hatred is quite another. Hatred is easy enough to spot in our adversaries; it’s a good deal more difficult to see it among our allies (where we may pass it off as fiery passion). And it’s hardest of all to see when hate begins to take root in our own heart, which is often divided against itself.

We shouldn’t be naïve about this. Politics won’t ever be confused with a garden party. Even during America’s most impressive political days, when figures like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Adams and Hamilton bestrode the scene, politics roiled people’s emotions. Savage accusations were made. Motives were questioned. Duels were fought. I get all that. But that doesn’t mean hatred in politics doesn’t take a toll on our nation or on those who harbor the hatred.

What’s needed, at least in part, is for political leaders to set the right tone, including calling out one’s own side when it’s warranted.

And then he invokes Reagan:

I’m reminded of a story Mitch Daniels tells about Ronald Reagan. According to Daniels, “When one of us – I confess sometimes it was yours truly – got a little hotheaded, President Reagan would admonish us, ‘Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.'”

Reagan himself was on the receiving end of many slanders, yet he remained a model of graciousness and good manners. Those qualities, by the way, never caused him to hollow out his political principles. Civility was not a synonym for weakness.

Tell that to the mad-as-hell Tea Party crowd. Reagan would be drummed out.

And Wehner offers a bit of pap:

Self-government depends on treating our fellow citizens, even those with whom we profoundly disagree, without malice and even, on occasion, with some measure of charity. “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,” the book of Ecclesiastes says, “for anger resides in the lap of fools.”

As someone who has been involved in his share of contentious debates during the years, I’m the first to admit that a spirit of grace isn’t always easy to attain and a gentle answer isn’t always the easiest one to provide. But during my better moments, I realize it’s important we try.

It may be too late for that. Most people think they’re thinking, and that’s a nice feeling, and get all smug about it. But it’s pretty much a matter of thinking only what will fit in the limited number of appropriate and approved available slots. Yes, I think, therefore I am. But what if you are really just someone else?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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