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.

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