Monthly Archives: July 2013

Language and Propaganda

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some time ago I read a novel by German writer Günter Grass called (in translation) Crabwalk. Without going into any more detail than the present point requires, it is concerned with historical resentments still present beneath the surface of German society decades after World War II. Part of Grass’s rhetorical point is that when we suppress such resentments they don’t just go away. And if the circumstances that feed the resentments aren’t openly discussed and dealt with, they do more than just not go away – as evident in the resurgence of racist and xenophobic ideology associated with Naziism.

At the risk of over-generalization, I think it fair to say that we have a similar problem in the United States with racial resentments stemming at least indirectly from the Civil War – perhaps more directly from the Civil Rights Era, whose great achievement in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is presently under assault by what I consider a highly regrettable Supreme Court decision and the subsequent frenzy of efforts by state legislatures to press forward in recent efforts (exhaustively well-documented in relation to at least the past two Presidential election cycles) to suppress the minority vote.

Now before I go further in this direction let me just point out, as seems appropriate enough in an essay (as my title suggests) on language and propaganda, that already I have revealed a propagandistic bent to today’s writing. In my defense, before the potentially antagonistic reader jumps ship, let me cite a couple of authorities on the subject of language and rhetoric.

First Richard Weaver, who argues that “language is intended to be sermonic. Because of its nature and its intimacy with our feelings, it is always preaching” (from his essay “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” in Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook, 1994, edited by Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown).

And then Kenneth Burke, who writing (in 1926 in The Southern Review) of the proletarian strand in early 20th-century American literature speaks favorably of the sort of propaganda that neither preaches to the choir nor cynically manipulates the reader but instead attempts – “with the more ambiguous talents of the diplomat” – to persuade the reader toward a broader perspective or attitude.

He makes this point in relation to Robert Cantwell’s short story “Hills Around Centralia,” which he offers as “a good example of a crucial propaganda situation embodied imaginatively.” The story, Burke writes, “is based upon the poignancy of the Crucifixion theme (the ‘benefactor’ persecuted as ‘malefactor’). Irony of clashing moralities. The author ‘weights’ his material propagandistically by showing us, first, the morality of the vigilantes in action, and then slowly widening our conception of the total scene by a sympathetic portrait of the strikers. Tactfully, he permits us to see how the interests of the vigilantes have led them to misinterpret the nature of a riot, while their grip upon the channels of education and publicity serves to shape ‘neutral’ opinions in their favor. The opposing worlds (of vigilantes and strikers) are eventually ‘synthetized’ by a bridge device, being brought together when some impressionable boys, who had been bewilderedly subjected to the vigilante view, come upon two strikers hiding in the woods (overtones of the ‘little child shall lead them’ theme). The author’s choice of sides is made atop the ironic, the relativistic – hence, ‘propaganda’ in the fullest sense, because [it is] profoundly humane. Strict ‘proletarian’ morality could not be so ‘shifty.’ It would be pitted squarely against the enemy. But the farthest-reaching propaganda (as a device for appealing to the enemy, and not merely organizing his opposition by the goads of absolute antithesis) requires the more ambiguous talents of the diplomant (who talks to an alien camp in behalf of his own camp.)” (from his review “Symbolic War,” in Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke, 2010, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber).

To return to my earlier point, the fact that I would “propagandize” about the issue of civil rights and the recent Supreme Court decision does not automatically suggest something ham-fisted or nefarious. We all propagandize, or “sermonize,” whenever we address matters of any emotional significance to us and to those we address.

Race in America

Race in America

I come to these thoughts, anyway, in the broader context of my recent comment on the Trayvon Martin verdict (and a subsequent exchange of emails with an old friend and reader). And more immediately in the context of an article from yesterday’s Evansville Courier & Press and an editorial from my local Perry County News – each one of which has some bearing on these particular issues.

The headline of the AP report in the Courier & Press reads: “4 out of 5 adults struggle in poverty”; and the subtitle: “Hardships soar in whites.” The editorial in the local paper addresses the “controversy” over a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family.

Within the AP report itself comes the clarification that these four-fifths of U.S. adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives” (italics mine), which still is evidence of increasing economic insecurity, the erosion of the American dream, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in this nation. But it also speaks, I think, to the relationship between economic insecurity and the incidence of racial animus and tensions. Because I can’t help but think that the two phenomena are to some degree connected.

It is a curious paradox that in this supposedly “post-racial” era of the Obama Presidency we have experienced such an upsurge in the incidence of white supremacist and other hate groups. And even among the vast majority of generally peaceable Americans there arises a sort of passively violent undercurrent to the emotionality of our response to someone’s pointing out the constant spector of racial profiling that people of color face, and which only exacerbates the perception of a judicial system that is weighted against them – even despite all the obvious gains that have been made since 1965 (though the Supreme Court decision reminds us of how easily even the most dramatic of those gains can be eroded).

A truly Burkean response in fiction to all the partisan feeling of those on the Zimmerman side of the Trayvon Martin debate – a response that is propagandistic in the fullest and most humane sense as Burke defines it – would have to somehow get beneath the layers of fact and (mis)perception to reveal the complexities and the humanity beneath the headlines of black-on-black violence and the much-touted decay of the black American family which are inevitably trotted out as at least partial justification for the reckless behavior that led to that tragic shooting.

As to what shape such a story might take, I can’t really say. Though I have, over the years, made some attempts of the sort. The closest to the present theme is a story called “Little White Sambo,” which after countless drafts and re-drafts ended up very obscurely published in an online venue called River Walk Journal. Though from a perspective necessarily outside that of the black community itself, and only tangentially related to the present circumstance, it does have something of the “little child shall lead them” theme that Burke mentioned. It is a not-too-loosely autobiographical account of my own fairly parochial experience of growing racial awareness.

In the opening sequence I play off an early childhood memory of fever dreams in which I am eternally chased by a tiger which I am certain is going to eat me. That experience is clearly enough connected, in real life as in fiction, to the parallel experiences of being read the Black Sambo story as a child and of eating (this being the early Sixties) at a restaurant called Sambo’s.

In the central sequence my fictional counterpart has moved on from kindergarten to fourth grade and spends a year in a Southern state. At his new school he makes a “best friend” of a black classmate and then naively invites him to spend the night at his house. But is is told that such things are not done there; and in the next scene, surrounded on the schoolbus by threatening white kids “who have been unfavorably noticing this unusual relationship,” he begins to understand why.

In the third and final sequence my only slightly less naive protagonist is in junior high and back in the North where he has been warned away – by a distinctly less friendly black boy – from daring show his face at the basketball game that evening (“Stay home, Little White Sambo, Melvin practically says to him, or I’ll eat you right up”). Stubbornly he goes anyway and the kid keeps his promise and beats him up. But vengeful thoughts are themselves beaten off – as befits my propagandistic need of the moment to transcend that very real violence – by a hallucinatory vision (of the absent boy’s face interposed on the antagonist’s) that descends on him just before and then during the actual beating:

“But it’s as if everything is happening far away from Joey. For this moment it seems that  the anger and fear is all slipping away from him as he has been starting to think it never would. He imagines a soothing presence. The touch of his mother’s hand against his face. His friend Clarence’s voice. He allows himself to believe that the throbbing he’s just now feeling is what’s really being dreamed. That in the morning, after they’re finally done with him, everything will be safe and fine. But of course he’ll have come back to himself long before then.”

By that final sentence, with its apparent negation of the happy vision of peace and harmony, I acknowledge the story’s (and life’s) hard physical reality without denying the idealized hope for transcendence.

imagesCAL06F4WPerhaps someone else can come up with an example more adequate than my poor effort to the present circumstance. But in any case the challenge remains of putting it in the hands of those of the “enemy” camp who might still be persuaded by our literary rhetorics. As polarized as our national dialogue has become, the conjuring of such a persuadable audience often seems more fantastic than Joey’s hallucination.

But try we must. Strive on …


By the way, anyone of my readers who might happen to be in the area of Tell City, Indiana between Wednesday, August 7 and Saturday, August 10 are invited to look for me at the Schweitzer Fest flea market on Town Hall square where I will have copies of my published books (my original historical novella – A Bride Called Freedom – and two works of literary translation) for purchase and signing. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new acquaintances.

On the Trayvon Martin verdict

While this blog on the convergence of rhetoric and literature generally attempts to lean most heavily toward what we call the literary, last night’s news would seem to demand a more strictly rhetorical response. Though in doing so I note that the strict distinction between the two is a false dualism. In any case, what follows is the text (lightly edited) of what I wrote this morning in my journal:

Last night I happened to be in the room when the TV was on and a special news report appeared with the jury just in with a verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I can only say that I was stunned when I heard the verdict of “Not Guilty.” Period. At first I was thinking: okay, not guilty on … second-degree murder? but what about the manslaughter? But nothing more came and soon the judge was thanking the jury for their service and advising them of their rights to refuse or to speak about their deliberations, as they please. George Zimmerman, the acquitted, had had time to stop looking somewhat stunned himself and, in his case, relieved, to smiling as his defense team and family members congratulated him. But I can’t help feel that justice was not done in this case – whether because the prosecution had not proved its case or the jury for whatever reason did not want to convict, I can’t say. But while I had anticipated the jury’s not finding sufficient evidence to prove the malicious intent necessary for a second-degree murder conviction, I remain stunned this following morning that they thought they could not find sufficient recklessness in his behavior to convict him for manslaughter – which would have carried a heavy penalty itself and felt much more like justice for this senseless killing of an unarmed black teen, walking at night between a family member’s house (in a mostly white neighborhhood) and the 7-Eleven, while wearing a hoodie.

Zimmerman, a white Hispanic community watchman, either self-appointed or operating far beyond the call of duty (I’m not sure of that detail), saw the kid returning from the 7-Eleven as he was seated in his car keeping vigil. Coincidentally, there had been some break-ins in the neighborhood by young black males, but the only suspicious activity he saw was the boy’s wearing a hoodie (like millions of youth nationwide, black, white, brown, you name it) and being black in a nice and mostly white middle-class neighborhood. Naturally the boy would feel threatened by the shouts of “some creepy cracker,” as he said to his girlfriend on his cellphone shortly before being shot to death. Especially when, against all community-watch guidelines and against the orders of the dispatcher he was speaking to while still in his car, he got out and gave chase. Of course, under those circumstances, the kid would try to defend himself, and in the ensuing struggle and on tape and in the first-person accounts of neighbors who witnessed parts of the conflict, it would be hard to tell who was on top when and whose voice would be heard crying for help. But in the end, one of them had the gun and, with barely a few scratches on his threatened person, fired the fatal shot (or shots – I dont remember).

To my mind, the very fact of his disregard to the rules of engagement and to the instructions of the dispatcher, and thus precipitating the very situation in which he felt so threatened as to fire his gun, is far and away sufficient to prove recklessness, and hence manslaughter. I suppose the water is muddied by Florida’s new self-defense law that makes practically any shooting permissible if someone can claim that he feels his life threatened. But think: the boy did not assault Zimmerman in his car. Zimmerman pursued him, thus giving ample cause for Trayvon himself to be afraid for his life. Under the same circumstances, if Trayvon had been packing a gun for his own defense as the new law encourages, and if he had shot and killed Zimmerman, would he too have been acquitted?

And with the new anti-voter’s rights Supreme Court decision, and in the brief time since then the spate of new activity to restrict or suppress the minority vote in Texas and other states, in this paradoxical age of a black President but increasing racial divide across the nation, how do you escape the impression of racial preference in the case of this trial and almost incomprehensible verdict? What will it take to turn the tide back in favor of real racial justice in this nation so increasingly addicted, in the name of security, to racial profiling? At the least, it would seem, a vast new Civil Rights revolution is going to have to take place. Non-violent, one hopes – far be it from me to advocate violence and riots – but the way that historically goes is non-violence by the oppressed met by acts of clear prejudice and violence by the oppressor, whether official or unofficial. What will white America have to see acted out on our television or computer screens before we rise up with those oppressed and demand, once and for all, universal freedom? this white man asks from the peace of his front porch in lily-white Perry County, Indiana.

Of course, nothing in this world is “once and for all” – as the recent Supreme Court decision shows, what was once gained must continually be re-argued and re-fought if it is to be kept. Or expanded.

In the wake of this verdict, in any case, I am depressed. And if I am, imagine the despair and the anger in the black community.

Pierre and the peasant Karatayev

equipment150[1]Today I was happy to receive a package containing several books that I purchased with the money my friends and colleagues at Perry Central gave me for my teacher retirement, which has just recently been made official. Among those is a volume of literary criticism: Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke. It is a thick and attractive volume, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber and published in West Lafayette, Indiana by the Parlor Press ( Nathaniel Rivers is known to me as the son of my professor of rhetoric Thomas M. Rivers, who is acknowledged in the prologue for his feedback regarding the book’s introduction.

I have mentioned Kenneth Burke previously in this blog. As a lead-in to the theme of today’s entry I will quote just a couple of sentences from Rivers’s and Weber’s introduction to these collected literary reviews: “One of the many nuances of the ‘equipment for living’ metaphor is that it applies as equally to the creation of literature as to its criticism. We seek strategies for life in literature, whether we are writing it or reading it.”

This, I recognize, has been true of my efforts since young adulthood when I began to keep the journal that since then has grown into more than thirty mostly hand-written volumes, and which I am in the early stages of transcribing / editing / annotating into electronic format. I guess you could say that I am doing this in hopes that those volumes might themselves become equipment for living for the children and grandchildren who inherit them. But in the meantime they are becoming that – again; through the new encounter – for me.

Much of what I have written has been about the writing process itself and my thoughts about whatever I happened to be reading. The first volume contains my re-copied high-school creative-writing-course journal, with accompanying dialogue with my teacher Margaret Meadors. The volume I have just now been transcribing – the writer / reader from age 22 to 24 – contains a great deal about what I was writing at the time and about how I was using it to make sense of recently lived experience. But there is also a pretty fair record of what I was reading, though I am often frustrated by the little to nothing that I wrote about a good deal of it. But when the impact was really strong, the writing showed it.

images[2] In May and June of 1981 I read War and Peace. In the portion of an entry that I am going to share, dated June 27, I wrote about it in the real-life context of whatever disappointment (it hardly matters which) I was facing at the time. What follows is the substance of how I turned Tolstoy into equipment for living:

“I quote Karatayev, the wise and kindly peasant who teaches our hero Pierre: ‘Well, dear man, we thought it was a misfortune, but it turned out to be a blessing! If it had not been for my sin, my brother would have had to go. And he, my younger brother, has five little ones, while I, don’t you see, left only a wife behind … Father, he says: “All my children are the same to me, no matter which finger gets nipped it still hurts. If they hadn’t shaved Platon (Karatayev) for a soldier, then Mikhailo would have had to go” … That’s how it is, my dear friend. Fate has its reasons. But we are always judging: “That’s not right, this is wrong …” Our happiness, my friend, is like water in a dragnet: pull – it expands, take it out – it’s empty. That’s how it is.’ (War and Peace, Anna Dunnigan’s translation, pp. 1159-60)

“Later as Tolstoy narrates: ‘… Pierre was very close to experiencing the utmost privation that a man can endure, but thanks to his good health and strong constitution, of which he had hardly been aware till then, and still more to the fact that these privations came upon him so gradually that it was impossible to say when they began, he bore his position not only lightly but joyfully. And just at this time he attained the serenity and content for which he had long striven in vain. In the course of his life, he had sought in various ways for that peace of mind, that inner harmony, which so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning – and all these quests and endeavors had failed him. And now, without thinking about it, he had found that peace and inner harmony only through what he perceived in Karatayev. Those terrible moments that he had lived through at the executions had, as it were, washed forever from imagination and memory the disquieting thoughts and feelings that had formerly seemed of paramount importance. It did not now occur to him to think about Russia, or the war, or politics, or Napoleon. It was clear to him that all this did not concern him, that he was not called upon to judge these matters and therefore could not do so. “Russia and summer – like oil and water,” he thought, repeating Karatayev’s words, which were singularly comforting …” (pp. 1207-08)

“And further: ‘That feeing of readiness for anything, of moral alertness, was reinforced in Pierre by the high opinion his fellow prisoners formed of him soon after his arrival at the shed. With his knowledge of languages, the respect shown him by the French, the simplicity and alacrity with which he gave away anything that was asked of him (he received the allowance of three rubles a week made to officers), his gentleness to his companions and his great physical strength, which he demonstrated to the soldiers by pressing nails into the walls of the shed, to say nothing of his capacity incomprehensible to them – for sitting still and thinking without doing anything, he appeared to the soldiers a somewhat mysterious and superior being. The very qualities that had been a source of embarrassment if not actually disadvantageous to him in the world in which he lived – his strength, his disdain for the comforts of life, his absentmindedness and simplicity – among these people gave him almost the status of a hero. And Pierre felt that their regard imposed responsibilities on him.’ (pp. 1209-10)

“Note the lessons that are taught here. We are too quick to judge what is good or bad for us and thus our happiness is shallow, for we do not find strength in trials. Pierre searched everywhere but finally found peace and happiness in the most unlikely circumstances. And note at the end that the very same qualities that society shuns and mocks are the same qualities that really make him a man, that bring him true honor and respect, the respect of other men that imposes on him the responsibility of being a positive influence and example for others.

“As Prince Andrei learns in his experience with death, Christ-like love is a healing balm that puts all our trials in proper perspective. With that love, with that peace that Pierre has begun to taste, our problems and preoccupations are trivial, even laughable. Our worldly concerns vanish into nothingness as the doors of eternity open up to us and we are transformed into different beings, much happier and more satisfied, incomprehensible to those who are enslaved by society and worldly forces but free from accountability to them. This is true beauty. This is what I believe.”

Tolstoy writing

Leo Tolstoy

It is a different man who reads this passage 32 years later. I am not as naively religious as I was then, for one thing, and am more skeptical of Tolstoy the moralist, whose peasant virtues would cause him to flee society completely and disavow his greatest works – including the present one. But today as I sit down to read the great Pevear / Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina I realize how deeply I still value what Pierre and Karatayev and Tolstoy himself once taught me about how to face adversity with dignity. It has even come in handy during the course of my latest travails. Though admittedly I have never completely mastered it.