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Wrapping Up the Election -- From Red Rock Eater News Service

by Phil Agre Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2000 at 12:29 PM

An aristocrat who is related to five kings, W. has inherited his office without the trouble of counting the votes. It's nice that George has finally found something that he wants to do, but it's a real problem for the rest of us. We are compelled to face the problem of living in a country without a legitimate government. What do we do? Do we break laws? Do we burn things down?

Wrapping Up the Election -- From Red Rock Eater News Service Wrapping Up the Election -- From Red Rock Eater News Service

By Phil Agre

Sun Dec 24 10:15:09 2000

Here are some notes to wrap up the election.


It must be hard for George W. Bush. He's always had things handed to him by his father's friends. And now his father's friends have handed him the White House. An aristocrat who is related to five kings, W. has inherited his office without the trouble of counting the votes. It's nice that George has finally found something that he wants to do, but it's a real problem for the rest of us.

We are compelled to face the problem of living in a country without a legitimate government. What do we do? Do we break laws? Do we burn things down? Well, no. Society needs institutions, and this isn't like recess where the rules have been suspended for a while. We'll pretend that the institutions are in effect until such time as George W. gets out of Al Gore's house and we can put the institutions back into effect in a legitimate way.

Legitimacy is a tricky thing. Nobody has the power to make a country's political institutions legitimate, because anybody who did have that power would already *be* the country's legitimate institutions. That's why we make myths about the Founding Fathers, and why we treat the Constitution as quasi-sacred. Otherwise every next question of legitimacy would initiate a regress that could never stop.

And that's the regress that faces us now: the Supreme Court, ultimate giver of law, has shown itself to be lawless. We have no appeals. So lots of people have chosen to pretend that something legitimate has happened, since the alternative -- acknowledging reality -- seems so much worse.

What, then, is legitimacy? It has two aspects, which we might call subjective and objective. An institution is subjectively legitimate if its putative constituents regard it as legitimate. Government is by the consent of the governed. But no institution is legitimate unless it is also objectively legitimate, meaning that it conforms to norms of justice and rationality such as the rule of law. Of course, no absolute authority exists to settle disputes about the objective aspects of legitimacy, because any authority that does claim to settle such disputes must itself be legitimated.

The point, rather, is that individuals and minorities must always have recourse to claims about objective legitimacy. Subjective legitimacy is intrinsically fuzzy, since it is not violated if a single nut doesn't go along with the consensus. So the goal of the US civil rights movement, to take an example, was to deprive an unjust and irrational institution of its legitimacy through appeals to objective norms of justice and reason, and to wrap itself in the founding myths of the country in doing so.

That's why I found striking the recent news that Otpor -- the Serbian student movement aimed at subverting the late government of Slobodan Milosevic -- was largely trained and funded by the Republican Party and supplied with frequently polling results by Republican pollsters, and especially that the training consisted largely in lessons on the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, taught no less by a military guy.


The first principle of nonviolent resistance, according to the lessons that Otpor learned, is to take away the authority -- the legitimacy -- of the institutions. In Otpor's case that legitimacy was hanging on a thread already, thanks to years of corruption and vote fraud, and so their main job was to make this fact visible with images and slogans and wait for the legitimate opposition to get organized. (It was the Democratic Party and its trainers and pollsters that helped with this.)

The irony here is deep. Nonviolent resistance in the United States, of course, originated with the aforementioned civil rights movement, which got it partly from their own reading of Christianity and partly from Gandhi. The racist establishment the civil rights movement was fighting was at that time affiliated with the Democratic Party, but it has since changed over to the Republicans, who today are intertwined with scores of think tanks devoted to curtailing the enforcement of civil rights laws, all of which are applauding John Ashcroft's recent appointment to attorney general.

The Republicans, though, have considerable experience undermining the legitimacy of democratic institutions. They do this, as is their habit, through projection: by issuing false claims that non-Republican office-holders are themselves undermining the legitimacy of the institutions in which they hold their offices. Thus, for example, the false accusations of judicial activism against the Florida Supreme Court or the attacks on the various Florida canvassing boards, all defended on the most irresponsible grounds. And the pattern goes back many years, for example to the thoroughgoing smear campaign against Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, and Al Gore. It is a dangerous game, and it is now coming back to haunt them.

It is dangerous for a deep reason, that institutions can only remain objectively legitimate if appeals to reason have any effect in the society. By using their vast access to the media to promote a jargon that is fundamentally irrational, and to use that jargon to decimate rational thought in every sphere of public life, the right has created a mirror game in which everything is turned backward, and in which the society's institutions could not possibly be legitimate.

Undermining legitimacy is central to the jargon: people who differ with the far right face twisted accusations that there are doing so illegitimately, for example being called "biased" or "partisan" even if they were not speaking in any capacity to which those words could be applied. Likewise, members of the far right took over many Usenet newsgroups by issuing similar accusations against anyone who disagreed with them, even to the point of filing bogus complaints with their opponents' ISP's or employers. Principled conservatives presumably regret all of this, and refrain from using the jargon themselves. But thus far they don't seem unhappy about it.


I was struck throughout the post-election conflict in Florida at the quality of the legal work that was done by nearly everybody -- all of it on impossibly accelerated schedules. Someone should benchmark election law when it comes time to bring the legal system into the 21st century. There were only two major exceptions to these high standards of quality. One was the ridiculous decision of circuit Judge Sanders Sauls, which was just a personality problem. The other exception was the United States Supreme Court, whose stay order and decision in Bush vs. Gore were both pieces of junk.

Those documents were both terrible. They were badly reasoned, and they failed even to apply conventional methods of analysis. The final decision was especially bad; it was factually shoddy, it cited precedents in ways that were basically false, and it consisted of a confusing patchwork of opinions that allows itself to be read as 5-4, 7-2, or even as 3-6, depending on how you looked at it.

But the most shocking aspect of the Supreme Court's decision is that, even though they provided nothing approaching a basis in precedent to support their holding on Bush's equal protection claim, they declared that their decision does not provide a precedent for future decisions. Because the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the law, it is accountable only through its obligation to give rational arguments for its decisions, and through the requirement that its decisions serve as precedents. No court can anticipate all of the circumstances in which its decisions might later become relevant, and so it has an incentive to frame those decisions in a rational way, lest the court be blamed for causing perverse legal consequences in future cases. This court refused that responsibility, and with it any pretense to legitimacy.

What is more, in the present case some of the foreclosed consequences of establishing a precedent are entirely clear. If the court can dilute the rational basis test for finding equal protection violations in state laws to this degree, and if it can apply the equal protection test to a right that it itself regards as a creation of the state legislature and not as a Constitutional right, and if it can find an equal protection violation in a situation where the harm is so speculative and applies to so few people, and where the people are not members of any suspect category, and where no claim has even been made that the harm was intentional, then a whole lot of other equal protection claims thereby become feasible. If the court had been intellectually honest about their decision then we would all be celebrating a new golden age of equal protection. But it wasn't, and we aren't.

Yet another disturbing aspect of the decision was the concurrence by Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas. Whereas the majority only had a problem with the Florida legislature's standard for counting the votes, the concurrence would also have overturned in a sweeping way the actions of the Florida Supreme Court. Others have explained more expertly than I could why this concurrence was wrong -- the simple answer is that the legislature gave the courts broad powers to settle election contests.

What was disturbing was the appeal to precedents from the Jim Crow era in which the Supreme Court struck down state court decisions that were flagrantly irrational, and that in the context of the times were plainly intended to flout the authority of the federal government in matters of civil rights. As Justice Ginsburg observed in her dissent, nothing the Florida Supreme Court had done came remotely close to meeting the standard established in those cases.

The fact that Justice Rehnquist was using Jim Crow era precedents in this particular case is highly significant. Rehnquist, as is well known, got his start as a Republican activist against minority voting rights, and his entire career has been devoted to reestablishing the "states rights" regime that predated the 14th Amendment jurisprudence of the civil rights era. This is a pattern on the right: taking the rhetorical and legal tools that have arisen to help people defend themselves against oppression, and using those tools against the people who developed them.

Thus, for example, the practice of issuing bogus claims of double standards against the supposedly liberal media, and the practice of appropriating liberals' words and giving them new and twisted meanings. This latter practice is exceedingly common, and it seems almost like a reflex among numerous people who appear to be unacquainted with any other way of talking about politics. In using Jim Crow era precedents and equal protection reasoning against Al Gore and the Democrats, Justice Rehnquist was declaring victory. Indeed he was spiking the ball -- engaging in a gratuitous display of ugliness that we can only hope history will remember.

The fact that Justice Thomas joined with Rehnquist and Scalia's concurrence was especially horrible. I can understand a conservative African-American opposing affirmative action; affirmative action is inescapably problematic and controversial, and in a perfect world it would certainly not exist. But for an African-American Supreme Court justice to concur with this twisted abuse of Jim Crow era precedents to decide an election is completely over the top.


In the wake of the electoral debacle in Florida, a broad consensus has emerged that the American electoral system needs to be reformed. For example, upwards of 90% of Americans in polls say that the country needs uniform national standards. Particular attention has focused on voting machines, particularly the punch-card ballot machines whose confusing design and malfunctions create such havoc in the generally poorer areas where they are still being used. And certainly the voting machines should be fixed. But even though voting machines are a technological problem that we can fix in a technological manner, we need to keep in mind that fixing the voting system is a much larger problem.

The fact is, the current system is the way it is because it benefits someone. It is not an accident that most of the voting problems in Florida affected Democrats, or that politicians from both parties fell over themselves to fix the military absentee ballot problems that disproportionately affected Republicans. It was the Republicans who thought it appropriate to respond to Republican voting fraud by hiring a Republican company to disenfranchise thousands of largely Democratic voters. It is the Republicans who have opposed the fraud-resistant "motor voter" laws on the grounds that they make it too easy to vote. (They really say this.) It is the Republicans who oppose Congressional representation for the District of Columbia on the grounds that the majority of the District's residents are Democrats. (They really say this too.)

It has been considerate of the press to portray our voting system problems as a bipartisan matter, because that will provide the Republicans with a face-saving way to reverse their historical record of hostility to effective voting rights for anyone but themselves, if that is what they choose. But it is not true.

Recent reports by the Wall Street Journal remind us of just how broad an issue voting rights is, and how complex the whole social system of voting. No voting machine will guarantee that voters in poor areas are always assigned to polling places that are within reach of public transportation, or that voters will be notified of the location of polling places by any means more effective than a small announcement in the newspaper six months before.

Will we have laws to ensure that rich and poor districts have equally good technology for locating a voter's registration, or that rich and poor districts will both have enough poll workers to avoid long lines? Are we going to require long enough voting hours that working-class people have a chance to vote? Local authorities have a thousand ways of suppressing voter turnout in poor neighborhoods if that's what they want, and the lack of a tax base in poor communities already makes it likely that the elections will not be run well.

An equal chance to vote, in other words, goes far beyond demonstrable government intent to suppress voting. Not that I'm saying anything new here: this was all plain common sense during the civil rights era, back when conservatives believed in local control. The recent election, however, reveals that conservatives believe in local control provided that they control it. Having been burned by local control that they didn't control, perhaps they can be shamed into supporting uniform standards for effective voting rights. National standards for voting would enjoy the economies of scale that locally organized voting so obviously lacks, and it would make effective voting into an issue for everyone, rather than the subject of thousands of local budgetary fights.

The fact is, the United States' voting system is poor by the standards of many third world countries. We do not have an independent election commission. We have state elections being regulated and certified by the campaign chair of one of the candidate's campaigns, a conflict of interest that would be considered obscene in Serbia. (Then we have that same campaign comparing their *opponent* to Slobodon Milosevic.)

My point is not the cliche that the US should stop lecturing everybody else about democracy -- democracy is simply the right way to live, and everyone should be lecturing everyone else about it whether they are perfect themselves or not. My point, rather, is that the United States should stop pretending that it is sui generis, and develop some capacity for shame when it fails to live up to the standards of Nicaragua.


Lots of people right now are saying, oh well, the country survived Ronald Reagan, and how much worse can George W. be than that. That's not my view. The difference between W. and Reagan is that Reagan didn't have much of a bench. Faced with the problem of staffing the top layers of entire federal government, Reagan was forced to hire a bunch of crooks and fools, for example at Interior and the EPA, who contributed to the quite amazing record of official corruption that Republicans have tried to erase in recent years by promoting bogus investigations against Bruce Babbit, Alexis Herman, Henry Cisneros, Mike Espy, and Hillary Clinton, among others.

The difference with W. is that the conservative movement, having attracted high levels of funding from its wealthy beneficiaries, has recruited and trained a whole generation of pundits, staffers, and operatives, many of them very talented. Most of these people came of age during the wars of the Clinton era, when they did the day-to-day gruntwork that a campaign of personal destruction requires. Character assassination is all these people know. They have been positively reinforced by the Supreme Court, and now they will be taking second- and third-ranking positions throughout the incoming administration. All of the moral constraints that might have curbed the Reagan administration to some slight degree are wearing away, I think we can expect four bad years.

Of particular concern is the state of the media. One of the media's roles in a democracy is to call attention to false assertions on the part of the powerful. Yet during the campaign the media's role was pretty much the opposite. Its performance in this regard was nothing short of astonishing.

In the early part of the campaign, the media backed John McCain, until George W. Bush destroyed him in a bestial campaign of smears. So how did the media respond to this horror? It responded by shifting its allegiance to Bush, as every survey of media content, including those of conservative groups, demonstrated.

Bush then proceeded to destroy Al Gore in a bestial campaign of smears. So what did the media do? It called Bush "likable" and credited him with "character". And it explained that Gore's emphasis on reason and issues was just a "tactic" that he adopted because he isn't as likable or robust of character as Bush. I found this pattern terrifying. How can this media be trusted to keep the Bush administration honest?

Liberals are blaming Gore for his lousy campaign. For example, they ask why Gore didn't respond to the easily documented falsehoods that issued daily from the Bush camp. This blaming of Gore is simply more evidence of the liberal passive-aggressive death wish. Gore's major problem was not that he was timid, but that he didn't have the pundits with him.

Even if we stipulated, contrary to fact, that mainstream news reporting exhibits a liberal bias, there can be no disputing that the vast majority of political commentators with regular opinion slots in the major national media are conservative, and that the vast majority of the others are centrists at best. Conclusive proof of this pattern is provided by the simple fact that you read facts and arguments here that you do not read in the major national media.

Did you ever see a single commentator in the national media assemble a list of the false attacks on Al Gore's character by the Bush campaign? Can you assemble a list of a dozen-plus false Democratic attacks on Bush's character that were endlessly repeated by the pundits in the national news media? No, you can't.

The consequences of the pundit gap are many, and they go far beyond the ability of one side and not the other to lie with impunity. Have you noticed that George W. Bush often speaks in allusions? He often uses broad, vague words that allude to arguments that have saturated the media courtesy of the pundits. The party sends out its talking points, the pundits talk, and the candidate just alludes to what the pundits have said. That's what you can do when you have a few dozen message-disciplined pundits on your side.

Gore couldn't do that. He had to do everything himself. If he wanted someone to be attacked, he had to get someone in his campaign organization to do it. Bush, on the other hand, could do whatever he wanted at arm's length and not get called on it. That difference gave Bush a tremendous tactical freedom that Gore lacked.

On a few occasions during the campaign, it should be allowed, George W. Bush was asked how he could square his promise to establish "a new tone in Washington" with the savagery of his campaign. He tended to look surprised by the question, ducking it a couple of times before finally saying, look, this is politics. And no doubt it was politics as he learned it from his father's campaigns.

The real question now is not whether Bush himself is going to stand before his podium and slander Tom Daschl in the course of budget negotiations. The question is whether Bush is going to call off the dogs. During the campaign, no Democrat could say the first bad word without the Republicans trying to stick it on Gore, if only by pointedly observing that Gore hadn't told them to knock it off. (Of course, even when Gore did tell them to knock it off, as he did in Florida, they went ahead and stuck it on him for weeks afterward anyway.)

Well, during the coming years every ounce of conservative slime should be stuck back on W. W. was the intellectual author of the horrible campaign against John McCain in South Carolina, and the equally horrible campaign against Al Gore. He shouldn't be allowed to call in the rhetorical artillery every time he needs someone else to be destroyed in the next four years.


On the Wednesday evening before the election, I heard a terrifying interview with Charlton Heston on CNN. Wolf Blitzer presented him with an NRA advertisement that stated in huge letters that Al Gore wants to ban guns in America, and then with a video clip of Al Gore saying that it was false and a smear campaign. Heston simply called Gore a liar.

What most disturbed me was the language with which he did this. Despite the unambiguous language of his own organization's ad, Heston refused to address the question of whether Gore wants to ban guns. Instead, he kept saying that Gore was "against gun owners" and was now lying when he claimed to be "for gun owners". In doing this, Heston was using vague language to defocus the issue and make Gore's real position unthinkable. Gore supports a variety of gun safety and gun control measures that, while differing from the positions of the NRA, fall very far short of banning guns. But Heston persistently defocused the issue into the vague dichotomy of "for gun owners" and "against gun owners". Only extremes can be expressed in this language, and that was the point. The NRA was whipping large numbers of working men into a frenzy by lying to them and by promoting the use of language that is not consistent with rational thought.

Blitzer also confronted Heston with quotations from a newspaper in which he seemed to be calling, in clear and literal terms, for Al Gore to be killed. Heston denied that he meant to associate the killing language with Gore, even though he was talking about Gore's policies, and then he blamed his inflammatory comments on the frenzy of the crowd at the NRA event where he was speaking -- a frenzy that was produced by his own distorted rhetoric.

When liberals do this it is called "refusing to take personal responsibility". In ancient Greece it was called demagoguery and was understood to be the major threat to democracy. It is the modus operandi of the far right, and that is why the contemporary far right so often issues false charges of demagoguery against its opponents.


I received many responses to to my lengthy analysis of the new jargon. Let me address four of the most common responses in turn.

(1) You're doing it too.

Many responses took this form; as I mentioned above, throwing people's words back at them is an exceptionally common technique of the jargon. But it's important that not everybody who said "you're doing it too" was necessarily a member of the cult that I described -- the cult of people who have cultivated the jargon so thoroughly that they are not capable of civilized behavior and rational thought.

To the contrary, many decent people simply live in such a jargon-filled world that they are unacquainted with any other way of talking about politics. So, for example, I had people telling me things like "you criticize others for being biased, and not presenting both sides, but you, too, are a bit guilty of this".

Observe the civil tone of this. The person who wrote this is basically decent; it's just that his mind has become slightly infected with jargon. Note that his accusation against me is distorted. My "new jargon" message did not criticized others for being biased. So far as I can find, my only uses of the word "bias" throughout the campaign were in the context of demonstrating that the claims of liberal media bias were the opposite of the truth.

Indeed, I specifically criticized others for abusing the term "bias" (as he was doing) in an overly loose way in order to delegitimate the opinions of their opponents. Lots of people did this: watering down my argument into a vague cliche that could be turned back around against me. And most of them were not nice about it.

Now, of course, it is possible in principle that I am doing the things that I accuse others of doing. After all, people who talk in jargon do the things that they accuse others of doing all the time; it's called projection, and it's one of the central mechanisms of jargon. But none of the many accusations against me had the slightest merit, and few had enough detail that they could be rationally evaluated.

In fact, having learned the word "projection", some people proceeded to throw that word back at me by accusing me of projection in various vague and distorted ways. They seemed delighted to have learned a word that is so entertaining to wield as a weapon. The hall of mirrors gets bad at this point, with crazy people projecting their own projection onto me. It's a good thing that I believe in logical thought, or else I would be lost.

(2) Everyone does it.

Several people informed me that my argument were one-sided, inasmuch as Gore in particular or liberals in general also do the things I complained about. Nobody presented any evidence for this view, which they seemed to regard as self-evident. Those who presented actual arguments for it proceeded in pretty much the same way as the people who provided response (1), namely by watering down my argument so that any case of doubletalk in history could be equated with the phenomena that I described.

My response to these people is that, in fact, I rarely see Democrats or liberals do the things that I described in my "new jargon" article. The point is not that Democrats and liberals are completely pure; the point, rather, is that the new jargon is a specific repertoire of tactics with its own history and logic.

Maybe someone should perform a separate analysis of the varieties of doubletalk that Democrats and liberals use, but they rarely use the ones that I described. To give an example, I rarely see liberal pundits do something that is common among conservatives: pick a vaguely framed message (usually to the effect their opponents are bad people), string together a disparate handful of factoids from diverse times and places that seem in an impressionistic way to support the message, conclude that the chosen message captures the essence of the entire category of opponents that they are castigating, and then weave that message together with other assorted disparagements that have been spread about by that pundit or others.

If this were a liberal method then you would have seen someone, somewhere in the national media, put together a list of George W. Bush's false personal attacks on Al Gore's character and then conclude in a foggy way that all of Bush's accusations against Gore were false. But you never saw this, and for a simple reason: the fashioning of strategically vague messages and the gathering of random factoids that support the prescribed message are the central methods of public relations. That's where the Republican operatives and conservative pundits got them, and that's what they have proceeded to teach to their followers.

A subcategory of "everyone does it", common among liberals, was "this is nothing new". These people pointed to various kinds of doubletalk throughout history, and they asked what is new about the new jargon.

Again the argument depends on watering down my argument. The new jargon is new in a straightforward sense: plenty of current vocabulary items ("junk science", "political correctness", "pattern", "partisan", "bias", and so on) are now used in systematic ways that differ from the ways they were used ten years ago. Many of the common phrases of the new jargon didn't even exist ten years ago. So the new jargon is new in that sense. But it is also new in a deeper sense. Many of the underlying methods of the new jargon, including ones that I described in my various close-readings of jargon texts, are hard to find in the rhetoric of earlier times -- at least in the rhetoric of the 1980s.

At the same time, I do not mean to say that the new jargon is wholly without precedents. As I say, the new jargon derives from public relations, and is an extension and radicalization of the reason- destroying strategies that were pioneered quite openly by people like Edward Bernays. And while I do believe that the rhetorical technology of the new jargon is more sophisticated than the technology of any earlier period in history, I am not certain that the sheer intensity of the ideological assault of the 1990s is any greater than, say, the assault organized by the National Association of Manufacturers and its allies in the face of the post-war organizing boom of the Truman era.

(3) Are you saying they're mentally ill?

One element of the jargon, I said, is projection. Since projection is a psychological term, some people asked whether I am saying that the people who cultivate the jargon are mentally ill -- after all, I also called the Bush campaign "insane" for lying and exaggerating about Al Gore's supposed lies and exaggerations. It is a complex question.

I am certainly not saying that people who speak in jargon have organic diseases; I do not believe that they have anything wrong with their brain chemistry. Nor do I believe that the people who speak in jargon are simply expressing a childhood trauma that induced a mental illness that happens that take this form. That sort of hypothesis obviously makes no sense, given that most of these people did not learn the jargon as children. The question, then, is how the decision to speak in jargon interacts with personality structure.

I don't believe that everyone has a fixed and settled personality that is either neurotic or psychotic or whatever. I believe that people's character evolves over their whole lives through the interaction of factors on many levels. One of those levels is certainly the person's formative experience of reason, trust, and other basic aspects of human relationships. Another of those levels is cultural. Someone who grew up in a pathological environment might seek out a healthy environment in an attempt to set themselves straight. Another person who grew up in similar circumstances might listen to Rush Limbaugh and hang around with people who talk in jargon in an attempt to become a jerk. That's a choice.

Then there are people who grew up in fair-to-middling environments, and who simply find themselves in a jargon-filled environment because of where they live or who they associate with. The pundits may offer them ways to have cruel fun at the expense of others, or they may pander to some mild insecurity by means of nasty stereotyping of people who supposedly regard themselves as superior, and they might ingest this poison without really thinking about it.

By this method an otherwise relatively healthy individual might be recruited into a cult whose members cultivate an irrational jargon in more and more extreme forms, to such an extent that it changes their personality structure. Those people, I would claim, induce a mental illness in themselves through their cultivation of jargon, and by practicing the kinds of abusive interactions with other people that I have dissected here. I don't know whether such people are literally capable of making themselves psychotic in a sense that a psychologist would recognize. Quite possibly their thought disorder will be confined to political topics and to a generalized selfishness and disregard for others.

My point is that the clinical theories, by focusing on one account of etiology and disregarding the role of culture and cultivation, have a shallow understanding of what mental illness is. So am I saying that they are mentally ill? Yes, the hard-core ones, but only in this more interactional sense of mental illness.

(4) So what's this about them being a cult?

I have indeed referred to the people who cultivate the new jargon as a cult, and a couple of people wrote to ask whether I mean it. I do, but again in a sense that needs to be defined. One person, a family therapist, wrote me an interesting message about having been asked to look into a religious group that appeared to be exhibiting cult-like tendencies.

His conclusion was that the group did in fact behave like a cult, but that there was no cult leader setting out to brainwash anyone, and no particular individual orchestrating the pathological group dynamics of thought-control. It really was something emergent as far as he could tell.

This family therapist then asked whether I believe that the cult of jargon is similarly emergent. Well, I certainly don't believe that the cult of jargon is a single hierarchical organization controlled by a single personality. Nor do I believe that any one person invented the jargon. As I say, it descends from public relations, and my sense is that it emerges through the echo chamber as scores of pundits copy one another, probably consciously, so that every small innovation in jargon gets instantly taken up, echoed, applied to other topics, and interwoven with the existing jargon.

Individual cult members choose to cultivate the jargon because they regard it as a way to smite the infidels. Having already dissociated all conscience about matters of truth and logic -- it is the infidels who they imagine to have no regard for truth and logic -- the cultists have no problem saying things that aren't true or don't make sense. They are not concerned with such things.

The cultists, then, in my understanding, are part of a dynamic that fuels itself through projection -- all of the evil gets projected into the infidels, and thereby seems to demand that even greater evil be cultivated. On the other hand, the individual techniques of jargon do come from somewhere. The pundits are just conduits. The individual talking points, vocabulary items, rhetorical techniques, stereotypes, etc are all devised by professionals in think tanks, at the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, on a thousand corporate PR staffs, and so on, all of whom know exactly what they are doing.

It bears repeating that all of these dynamics come in degrees. At one extreme, some jargon-speaking individuals are hard-core addicts who have wrecked their own minds just as thoroughly as any member of a therapy or self-realization cult. Indeed, I've had several friends go through such cults, and I have attended several indoctrination meetings at their invitation, including some at which I was the only non-cult member in the room. In this context I have deliberately entered into conversations with "trainers" in which they tried to take my mind away and I gave them just enough information about me to let them think that they were succeeding, just because I wanted to understand what they were doing. I learned a lot that way, and it has helped me to understand phenomena in many other areas of life.

The basic technique of cult mind-control, in my own experience, is to persuade someone to treat their doubts -- first their resistances to getting their life together, and then their resistances to giving all of their money to the cult and devoting their lives to recruiting new cult members -- as alien enemies to be isolated and rejected. The resistances might be labeled as machine-like tape recordings, or as the internalized voices of enemies, or as a fake mask that one adopts to avoid exposing one's real self to the world.

One develops the skill of identifying a resistance, objectifying it in this way, and then blowing past it to take the action that it would otherwise have prevented you from taking. The first resistances to be treated in this way might well be neurotic fears that stand in the way of worthwhile actions. But once the skill of dissociating resistances is cultivated, it is applied to ever more basic resistances, leading the individual to replace his or her entire personality with that of the leader of the cult.

That, in my experience, is how cults work, and it is not far different from the process of learning jargon. Every resistance to talking nonsense and acting like a jerk is labeled as the sanctimony of liberals and expelled. That is the purpose of projection: casting out every element of one's personality that is not consistent with playing one's part in an irrationally oppressive social order.

The pathology comes in different degrees. In reading the jargon-laced messages that people have sent me, and interacting with some of them, there is a clear spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are hard-core cultists who are aggressively irrational. I've talked about them already. In the middle of the spectrum are people who engage in false accusations, twisting of language, falsely throwing your words back at you, and so on, but who have no rancor about them and are genuinely puzzled that you have a problem with them. Their minds are far enough gone that they have a jargon-answer ready for anything you might say to them, but they have not yet descended into the harsh, snide vituperation of the really whacked-out.

And then at the normal end of the spectrum, as I've said above, are rational people who live in a culture of jargon and simply don't know any other way to talk about politics. These latter people, for example, will often back off and apologize when it's pointed out in polite and analytical terms what they are doing. They retain enough of their rational faculties to recognize what they have done when it is pointed out to them, and they will actually admit, yes, you're right, I was taking your words and mechanically throwing them back at you without having any real argument in mind to support what I was doing.

This latter group are the people who are retrievable, who retain some healthy parts to their minds, and who have not yet made jargon into the organizing principle of their personalities. It is important, in my view, to address those people. They have already developed antibodies to most of the nonconservative ways of talking that are currently in widespread use in American political culture. The democratic language of the 1980's will not work on these people, much less the democratic language of the 1930's. A working majority of democratically-minded people will not be reassembled until a new language emerges, one that squarely identifies the jargon for what it is, that swears off irrational thought-forms of its own, and that speaks to the many legitimate points that sane conservatives have actually raised.


Many people have supposed that my word-by-word analyses of jargon follow some esoteric technique that one could learn from a book. It is true that I was originally motivated to perform this sort of analysis by the tradition of close reading in literary criticism. It is also true that I find most of the "critical thinking skills" taught in logic and rhetoric classes to be woefully insufficient for practical purposes. If anyone does want an introduction to serious ideas about literary analysis, the best place to start in my opinion is with the following seriously smart book: Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, eds, Critical Terms for Literary Study, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. (There is also a second edition that I haven't seen.)

But the main thing I want to emphasize is that anybody can perform this sort of analysis. The important things to know about it are not technical but intuitive. The first intuition is that you are treating the stuff as a scientific specimen. Everything you do is aimed at holding it still so that it loses its assaultive force.

This is particularly true when dealing with abusive, name-calling, sarcastic, scornful, mocking types of rhetoric that are aimed at you as a person, or that stun the rational faculties by playing with strong, primitive emotions. But it is also true for any sort of illogical propaganda. Quite regardless of whatever literary or psychological vocabulary one might invoke, the purpose of word-by- word close reading is simply to freeze the rhetoric and deprive it of its power to wound, confuse, or bait.

You know how when you say a word ten times it suddenly sounds strange and loses its meaning? This is similar: the literary critics call it defamiliarization. It's a way to stop taking the jargon for granted and letting go by without thinking about it, and giving it more of a detailed response than just shaking one's head and rolling one's eyes.

Indeed, the hardest part of analyzing the jargon is simply having the presence of mind to document it. You read a nonsensical op-ed column and then you toss the newspaper; you hear something twisted on the radio and then go about your day; someone assaults you with right-wing rhetoric and you can't get out of there fast enough. Or else you feel provoked to respond intemperately, which is of course just what they want. In either case rather than dealing with the stuff rationally your mind spasms and spits it out, as if stung by an electric shock, and only by draining the stuff of its shock-value can you retain the presence of mind to capture it for science.

The next intuition is the importance of naming. Putting a name on a twisted rhetorical device serves many purposes. It pins it down so that it loses its ability to scramble the mind. It helps you to notice patterns, because once you have a name for something you are more likely to notice it elsewhere.

Comparing and contrasting the various examples under a common heading will further defamiliarize them. And naming the pattern helps others to notice it. Instead of being stunned, confused, terrorized, demoralized, dehumanized, or otherwise deprived of their critical faculties and voices, your fellow believers in democracy will be able to name what is happening to them and organize a rational response. It's okay to make up your own names; nobody says that you have to use the names that have already been canonized by some kind of academic theory. You don't need academic theory to do this stuff, and if you are not an academic then I would positively discourage you from reading most of it.

The last important intuition about the close-reading of jargon is that you can learn an awful lot by studying a single passage very closely. Quantity is not important; what's important is sustained analysis of single examples. The intuition originates with Biblical scholarship and is called hermeneutics: that every text has layers of meaning, and that every layer of meaning that you recover through analysis also makes it possible to recover another layer of meaning through another round of analysis.

Of course, this intuition is normally applied to venerated texts such as the Bible. But it can also be applied to propaganda -- not because propaganda is comparable to the Bible in any moral or aesthetic sense, but because propaganda derives from a long and powerfully driven tradition. Many talented propagandists have worked very hard to twist language into the forms that get flung at you, and you can do the world a lot of good by untwisting it.

If you don't know where to start your own practice of propaganda close-reading, just follow your guts. Pick an example that feels twisted to you, write it down very precisely exactly as it appeared (summaries, paraphrases, and memories don't work) and work your way through it word-by-word, putting names on everything the text seems to be doing.

It's okay to speculate and hypothesize what the text might be up to, since you will have an opportunity to evaluate your ideas as you go along. It's important to do this in writing, since writing externalizes your thoughts and thereby furthers the process of defamiliarization that is the key to removing the venom from the rhetorical specimen as you study it.

Remember that it's not just about opinions you disagree with. It's not just about random flaming or bad manners. It's about emotionally abusive sophistry that feels cultivated, like it's part of a pattern. It's about the systematic ways that language is twisted to undermine reason for political ends.

Pay attention to ambiguous uses of words that blur together two distinct ideas, and to hidden changes of topic. Always dwell on anything that feels vaguely wrong to you, or anything that provokes strong emotions or makes you want to walk away or get mad, or that makes your stomach hurt or makes you feel like someone is yelling at you. Start to recognize how you respond to the really toxic stuff, and how you let it take your power. Then be precise in describing it: don't reach for broad generalizations and cliches, but instead formulate careful statements of what the text is doing, based on real evidence and not on what you'd like to think.

So much toxic jargon goes by every day: op-ed columns, radio programs, TV commentaries, Internet web discussions, even those little political notes that corporate deejays slip in between songs. It's important to capture the stuff, because if you try to recover it tomorrow it tends to be very hard to recover.

We should found a jargon zoo, for example by sampling usenet archives, taping radio programs and transcribing the most twisted bits, saving the editorial columns, and subscribing to the publications. Let them accumulate. The really powerful thing, which comes naturally once you start analyzing one example after another, is to identify several examples of the same rhetorical device and present them side-by-side. That really sucks the power from it.


Long-time readers of this list have probably noticed that I often write about my feelings, and not just in the context of hate mail and other extreme phenomena but also in the context of ordinary situations that arise in running the mailing list. For example, I once wrote about feeling mildly worried when the pace of useful submissions to the list begins to slack off, and then feeling mildly worried again when I get so much material that I have to worry about overflowing people's mailboxes.

These are obviously not strong emotions, but they are still the sorts of emotions that many people find embarrassing to hear about. Many non-Americans regard this soul-baring as an American vice, and it's certainly true that the United States has an emotional streak that manifests itself in things like Pentacostalism that would be entirely out of place in most parts of Europe or Asia. Likewise it is hard to imagine other countries giving rise to a psychotherapeutic popularizer like John Bradshaw.

But non-Americans can rest assured that public confessions of emotion, especially about wounds arising from traumatic events, repel a plurality of Americans as well, and in these more conservative times they are going out of fashion, or are at least being confined to their original forms in religious testimonies. And, of course, many public testimonies of emotion are perfectly gross, arising for example from exhibitionism, self-indulgence, manipulation, commerce, or other improper motives.

Nonetheless, I do think that there are legitimate purposes in public discourse for accounts of personal feelings. My own purpose, clearly and consciously, is empowerment. I want other people to be able to use the Internet in socially positive ways, but I am also aware that many people hold back from establishing a public voice for emotional reasons. Many people fear being attacked, or saying something stupid, or getting overwhelmed. The worst part of those feelings is feeling alone with them, as if they had never happened to anyone else.

That is how an authoritarian society works: everyone lives in a little box, atomized and isolated, playing out a role in the artificial public space of "ordered liberty", never saying what they think because it is too dangerous to even let themselves know what they feel. Knowing that other people feel the same way can thus be liberating: one is not alone, and the feelings are not only common but understandable. Of course, a story about feelings can become its own dogma, but that's just one of the transitional phases that people can go through as they try stepwise to emerge from the mental prisons of oppression. In the end, everyone has to recognize the emotions that can keep them from doing something useful in the world.

When I talk about my own feelings, therefore, I am not calling out for help. I am not seeking sympathy. Don't worry about that; I have perfectly good ways of getting the poison out of my system. And I am not talking about anything like the totality of my feelings, which you definitely don't want to know about. I'm only talking about the ones that are likely to be useful. And these are not necessarily the strong ones. I deliberately write about the small recurring patterns that arise in running the list because I strongly suspect that they are multiplied by thousands across the Internet, and that by writing about them I am helping others to become more fully aware of their own experience of the new medium.

When I talk about the emotions that arise from jargon hate mail, likewise, I am describing phenomena that I suspect are multiplied a million-fold or more across the society, as the epidemic of jargon pummels the great majority of decent people into a mental daze. You can see why the cult of jargon so harshly mocks all public talk about feelings, except of course when talking about their own "anger" at liberals: they want everyone to be trapped in a prison of emotional trauma where they can be controlled. That's authoritarian culture, and it's wrong.


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the ancient "good cop, bad cop" trap Guy Berliner Sunday, Dec. 31, 2000 at 7:06 AM
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