Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 January 2018

The New York Times Doubles Fox


[For an update comparing the US to Europe in political name-calling, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

I hate to keep picking on the New York Times (see 1, 2, and 3), which still employs some of America’s best journalists. But all signs point to an inflection point in its brand of “journalism,” perhaps due to the latest Sulzberger’s advent as publisher.

The Times is teetering on a knife-edge of a decision that will be fateful for it and for our nation. Will what has long been our greatest newspaper continue to reflect the views of the most progressive city in one of our most progressive states? Or will it follow the lead of Wall Street and Fox and remake our once-great newspapers in the image of the right-wing businessmen who now govern us?

These questions are vital to the health of what remains of our American Fourth Estate. Steven Spielberg’s brilliant movie “The Post” has put them front and center in our national consciousness, reminding us how two great newspapers together (the Times and the Post) once helped terminate our history’s most disastrous blunder (Vietnam), brought down a rogue president, and so restored American democracy.

These questions are especially timely now, after the Times’ and the Post’s successful subscription models have slain the Internet dragon and put their newsrooms awash in money. There is no longer any business excuse for listing to the right—only the entrenched ideology of management.

The Times’ signs of growing bias are as clear as the English language: the use of words. In an earlier essay, I called it “applied philology.” It’s a variant of an age-old staple of politics—name-calling—but performed with subtlety, sophistication, relentlessness and effectiveness never before achieved.

Over two generations, Fox and the right-wing media have managed to confuse socialists with Communists, both with the Soviets and Chinese, and mild progressives with the threats that “Reds” posed to America at the height of the Cold War. By clever use of language, they have managed to make the negative connotation, even the fear, associated with these groups carry over to progressives as mild as President Obama.

The progression of name-calling has been both steady and brilliantly artful. But at base it’s very simple. It started with “Communists” and the very real threat of nuclear conflict with the Soviets during the Cold War. Then it morphed through the following permutations, in roughly the following order: socialists, leftists, “left-wingers” and today’s “hard left.” In the process it left a once-clear and positive descriptor (“liberal”) hopelessly soiled and abandoned in favor of the hardier and less twistable label “progressive.”

As I explained in my first essay on this applied philology, the strategy is both insidious and effective because it falls under intellectuals’ radar. Well-educated people don’t rely on labels; they look beyond the labels to see what’s inside the box. So most of them have no idea how powerfully and durably Fox and the other right-wing media have tarnished the names, reputations and even the histories of good progressive pols among voters who are not well-educated and do rely on labels. Those voters, by and large, have become Donald Trump’s irreducible “base.”

The chief victim so far has been Barack Obama as President. Racism of course played a big part. But for most voters targeted by this strategy, racism was just an unconscious motivation. There are not that many conscious and avid racists or white supremacists in America. Millions of Americans would be shocked to find that they are voting as if they were.

Yet by relentlessly calling Obama “socialist,” “liberal,” “leftist,” “left-wing” and “hard left,” Fox and its fellow travelers completely confused a vast swath of Americans on his signature issue, health insurance. Medicare is not “socialism” because its beneficiaries pay for it. And anyway, in his defining pre-election address on health insurance in May 2007, Obama (ever the political realist) rejected, as politically impossible, even trying to achieve single-payer or Medicare for All.

So the result he did achieve—so-called “Obamacare”—was about as far from “socialism” as you could possibly imagine while still getting 15 million more Americans insured. Yet as his unique presidency faded into history, vast swaths of rural and small-town America were utterly convinced that Obama’s mildly progressive new law had achieved a dangerous “left wing” or “hard left” coup. So convinced were they that they supported repealing Obamacare without having the slightest idea what, if anything, would replace it and what the practical effect of repeal on them would be. It was enough for them to vote and shout out to keep our nation from turning “hard left.”

The mainstream GOP and Trump as president jumped on this bandwagon and have achieved large parts of repeal, also with minimal thought as to consequences. Many of them may find themselves seeking new work late this year, as the practical consequences of this effective name-calling become clear to suffering voters.

Not only has this applied philology managed to convert a mild and centrist progressive like Obama into a dangerous extremist in the minds of many voters. It has also moved the goal posts, indeed the entire field, of American politics inexorably rightward.

The object of the Fourth Estate’s truth-revealing in “The Post” was Richard Nixon. Although a racist and authoritarian himself, he would be considered an unelectable “left-winger” today. With his presidential signature or his action he: (1) created the Environmental Protection Agency that Trump’s minions are now trying to destroy; (2) fortified protection for workers’ health and safety that is now under attack; and (3) with his famous trip to Beijing with Henry Kissinger, opened the bilateral relationship with China that Trump now says has amounted to “rape.”

If someone like Nixon would be unelectable for being branded a “hard-left liberal” today, how far right have our national politics shifted? We have neither the language nor the metric to quantify the shift. But we do know that economic inequality is at an all-time high and that we no longer have a functioning democracy, but an oligarchy.

Against this background, how the New York Times uses language is immensely important. Given the Times’ prestige and reach, it could be a decisive factor in our national evolution.

In writing that the Times now “doubles Fox,” I am reaching for a musical analogy. Just as the “oboes double the clarinets and flutes” in some symphonies, the New York Times is now playing the same tune as Fox, insisting that anyone outside the business oligarchy is “hard left” and therefore dangerous.

Evidence is as near as today’s front page (Thursday, January 18, 2018). In the print version, the lead headline, on the upper left, reads as follows: “Hard Left Turn In Warming Up for 2020 Race.” The story that follows tars every single likely Democratic candidate for president in 2020 with the latest Fox epithet: “hard left.” Variants of this epithet appear not just in the headline; they salt the story like seasoning on a bloody steak.

In this context, the piece names six possible or likely Democratic candidates for 2020. They are: Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

There is no way that this could have happened by accident. The author of this story, one Sheryl Gay Stolberg, got a full, large-type byline. As a rule, reporters don’t write their own headlines, so the headline writer, the front-page editor, the copy editor (if any), and probably the news editor all had to know and approve. As my previous critiques of the Times (see 1, 2 and 3) suggest, it has perhaps the greatest pretensions to literary style and proper use of language of any of our four major national newspapers (Times, Post, WSJ and Bloomberg.com).

So a vital question hangs in the air, just as movie-goers learn how leaders at the Post and the Times once put their businesses and their lives on the line, risking imprisonment to save our democracy from an earlier imperial presidency. Has the Times joined Rupert Murdoch and Fox in declaring philological and political war on Democrats? Is what used to be our greatest newspaper now a tool of the oligarchy, although supporting a few well-meaning reporters who still ken the Fourth Estate’s proper role?

Only time will tell. But this applied philology and advanced name-calling are powerful techniques of propaganda. They are the newspaper equivalent of the 50 Megaton bomb.

At a Christmas party late last year, I found myself introduced to a well-dressed transplant from the Midwest to Santa Fe. His “Fargo” accent identified him as coming from the parts of our upper Midwest once settled by Scandinavians. Once this region of our nation was the heart of our native progressive movement. So I turned our conversation to politics, and he asked me whom I would support for President in 2020. I forthrightly replied, “Elizabeth Warren,” whom I have supported on this blog.

When my companion in conversation tarred her as “too left wing,” I was pathetically unprepared. I replied that after an abjectly failing right-wing government, a turn to the left would not be out of line. What I should have done was ask a few pointed questions, as follows:
“Left wing? Really? Is working hard to keep big banks from deluding, cheating and swindling their customers now ‘left wing’? I thought that was just requiring honesty in business.”
I despise the word “conversation” as applied to politics. It’s not a “conversation,” it’s a struggle that continues 24/7/365. In that struggle, words are weapons, used as much to confuse, delude and distract as to inform and enlighten.

Words like “left wing,” let alone “hard left,” are name-calling, designed to dissuade by invoking subconscious fear and loathing. In failing to correct the name-calling that had so deeply embedded itself in the nation’s consciousness as to infect even me, I had failed in my own personal political struggle.

If the Times also fails, American voters will have only the Post and Jeff Bezos’ deep pockets to fall back on. That’s why I’m withholding judgment on the Times’ direction, along with my subscription money. There is no way in Hell I will consciously give money to any person or institution that doubles Fox, which I devoutly believe has deliberately destroyed, for profit, the great nation I was born into.

Why Fox’ Propaganda is so Effective in the US

The foregoing essay got more hits more quickly than any essay of mine in several weeks. A majority of them came from outside the United States.

No doubt many foreign readers have trouble understanding how Americans can be so “gullible” as to fall for what sounds like childish name-calling. This essay attempts to elucidate the phenomenon inside the US and to look for analogues in Europe.

Language is a big reason why foreigners may have trouble understanding what is going on here. In Europe and other foreign lands, “socialism” and the “left” are accepted and common political positions. The words are not epithets, as they are here, but simple descriptive nouns. Pols and voters who describe their views with those words are proud to use them.

In many Europeans countries “socialist” and even “Communist” parties are legitimate, duly registered entities. Voters there can join and support them without fear of legal or moral condemnation or social ostracism. A prime example is the last President of France, Socialist François Hollande.

Not so in the US. We Americans have never had a socialist president, nor a socialist leader of either House of Congress, far less a “Communist.” We did have a “perennial” and marginal socialist candidate for President (Normal Thomas) in the last century, but he got nowhere and was a frequent object of humor.

As for Communism, the United States’ business ruling class purged it from our politics during the last century. Among the many methods it used were social ostracism, formal and informal blacklisting for employment (especially in the entertainment industry), the “hearings” of the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”) led by the notorious demagogue Joe McCarthy, mandatory loyalty oaths (especially for teachers), and outright banning of the party by state and federal laws.

The result of these various measures was a complete purge of Communism from America. It was not primarily a lethal purge. No one was executed but the Rosenbergs, who were convicted of selling the secrets of our atomic-bomb triggers to the Soviets. A few dozen workers were killed in clashes with private or public police, or army troops, while trying to organize unions or hold illegal strikes. But tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of Americans were jailed, detained, blackballed from employment, removed from positions, disgraced and ostracized, destroyed as political actors, or simply intimidated from exercising their supposed First-Amendment rights of free association and political activity.

Let’s be clear. Communism as an economic system, including forced collectivization of agriculture and the complete abolition of private industry, has been a complete failure. It failed in China after a fair trial of three decades. It failed in the Soviet Union after a fair trial of seven decades. Today no major power has anything like a Communist economic system.

China still uses the name, but only for the sake of tradition. China’s actual system of government is authoritarian state capitalism. Its single ruling Party echoes nothing so much as the world’s very first technocracy: China’s ancient, highly educated Mandarin class.

So let’s not revive the old, dead debate over whether Communism is a viable, let alone superior, economic system. What we are discussing here is something quite different, and something quite odd. The United States boasts of being the freest nation on Earth. We Americans have a written Constitution that, we think, makes us so.

Yet here in our home country Communism didn’t die in free and open debate, far less after a fair trial as in China or the Soviet Union. It died in a deliberate and highly orchestrated purge by government and the ruling class—the starkest and most extreme purge in America since the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s.

Our purge of Communists was authoritarian, oppressive and highly undemocratic. But it was also highly successful. To my knowledge, today’s United States has no one in a single important public office, nor a candidate for any, who calls himself “Communist.” The politics and the party have been wiped completely off our electoral map by the most successful political purge in American history.

This purge taught America’s business ruling class three things. First, it taught the practical benefits of pushing America’s legal system to its limits. The HUAC hearings stopped, and the purge largely relented, just as lawsuits wending their slow way up our legal system would have slapped them down vigorously. Second, our ruling class learned that even outrageous demagogues like Joe McCarthy can be “useful idiots.” When necessary, they can be abandoned and discarded without causing permanent damage to the cause of government by and for the wealthy and powerful.

Finally, and most of all, our business class learned that fear is an effective tool of politics. The nationwide purge of Communists succeeded so well because the ruling class managed to make ordinary workers and the general public fear the very pols and intellectuals who thought they were trying to help the working stiff. That’s worth stating again, in another way: the business ruling class found a way to get ordinary workers to fear and despise their natural friends.

It’s not hard to manipulate people who are poorly educated and unaccustomed to abstract thought. How many US college graduates can recite the chief distinctions between Communism and socialism: the forced collectivization of agriculture and the abolition of all private industry? How many know that the textbook definition of “socialism” entails government or collective ownership and control of basic industry? How many know that no serious pol in either American party has recently advocated government ownership of any big industry, including banks, aside from temporary control, as the price of bailouts, imposed after the Crash of 2008? How many know that no serious pol from either major party has ever advocated nationalizing health care (as in Britain’s National Health Service) or even nationalizing health insurance, but only authorizing a single government insurer, something like Medicare, as an alternative or supplement to the private market?

If most college graduates don’t know or understand these fine distinctions, how can we expect workers without college educations to do so? How hard can it be, let alone with endless repetition on Fox, to get them to confuse those who want to rationalize (not nationalize!) health insurance and enlarge our national insurance pool with “Commies,” “socialists” and extremists on the “hard left”? How hard can it be to transfer the fear and hatred of “outsiders,” “Europeans,” “Jewish agitators,” and foreign minorities that motivated the last century’s nationwide purge of Communists to pols like Obama, who are just trying to get more workers covered?

That’s what Fox does so brilliantly, making piles of money all the while. How does it do it? It makes its propaganda entertaining by aiming it directly at the educational level, prejudices and political “personality” of less-educated American workers.

There are few close analogues in Europe to this cultured and instilled political fear that has emasculated and truncated American politics. But the case of fascism is instructive. This “ism” nearly destroyed Europe in the last century, not just culturally and socially, but physically as well.

As a result, no European party today dares call itself “fascist.” Every single one with fascist leanings goes to great lengths to disguise itself, avoiding words like “fascist” or “Nazi” and covering its tracks with neutral-sounding words like “alternative” (as in the case of Breitbart’s “alt-right” here.). The difference, of course, is that fascism failed spectacularly in Europe, causing tens of millions of premature deaths and the devastation of vast swaths of civilization. In contrast, neither Communism nor socialism has ever even been tried honestly here, although both have been the subjects of what may be the most thorough and effective campaign of mass-media propaganda in American history.

Another flashpoint of word usage in Europe is Islam and “Sharia Law.” Europe has greater problems than we Americans do in assimilating Muslim immigrants because it has far more of them, and because it has more numerous and widespread cultural differences inside and among nations to begin with.

But one thing is clear. The federal-legal structure of Europe—although in some places less clear and less well established than that of the United States—has no room for the legalization of “honor killings” or the suppression of girls’ right to an education or women’s right to work. If a banlieue or small ville tried to take such measures or enact corresponding laws, the result would be a resounding slapdown at higher levels of the legal system, whether national or in the EU. The chance of some small town in Europe legalizing stoning of adulterers, murders of “straying” women by family members, or keeping females at home from school or voluntary work, is minuscule.

Yet propagandists on the right in Europe (and some here, too) regularly invoke the paranoid fantasy of Sharia Law at home as reasons to reject, oppress or hound Muslim immigrants. Europe will succeed, as we Americans have largely done, by being permissive on the small things, such as headgear and dress, while standing firm on the big ones—honor killings, punishment for crimes and women’s right to an education and work. You do not attract people to assimilate into your society by rubbing their noses in inconsequential differences.

Yet as this brief summary shows, there is nothing precisely similar in Europe to the general American fear of “socialism” and the “hard left” that arose out of the last century’s oppressive and successful purge of Communists and that has been perpetuated by the right-wing’s incessant disinformation and propaganda. The most threatening part of this propaganda is its possible adoption by the New York Times, as outlined in the main essay above. Foreigners should therefore be vigilant and thoughtful before adopting the Times as the “default” or “authoritative” source of news about America.

In a way, our American situation is counterintuitive. Fascism nearly destroyed Europe utterly, yet Europe permits proto-and crypto-fascist parties as long as they tone down their rhetoric and keep their fascist origins and connections veiled. We Americans won’t tolerate even a whiff of “socialism” or “hard left” politics, although neither Communism nor socialism ever gained a foothold here, let alone substantial influence. Maybe fear of a phantom is worse than well-justified fear of reality.

To some extent, this is all a bit of a word game. Bernie Sanders, not Donald Trump, might be in the White House today if he had understood how much business-elite propaganda had made the word “socialism” anathema here, and how much bashing corporations or capitalism is the kiss of death in American politics.

Perhaps the Democratic Party and its future candidates will be more careful to avoid these linguistic minefields and the pitfalls of our unique American history. “Medicare for All, with all the private supplemental or alternative insurance you can afford,” sounds so much less threatening than “nationalized insurance” or “socialized medicine,” doesn’t it?

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