Populist framing, left & right
Dec 10, 2013 – Down with the elites! Here’s my Hello! magazine* article on:-
♦ Populist ideological tendencies
◊ Evidence/proof & “corporate media”
♦ Noam Chomsky (and/or Russell Brand)
◊ Populist moral frames
♦ Right-Left political scale
◊ Nietzsche’s “master” & “slave” moralities
♦ Populist intolerance
Political “populism” seems insidious when it tends towards the ideological – specifically, ideology which blames a single group or class for social and economic disasters. It’s easy to see on the right, with the rise of UKIP, etc. It also seems noticeable in “radical” left populism.
Of course, we need to understand why it’s more “ideological” than “rational” to assign blame in a generalised way. (“It’s the immigrants”; “it’s the welfare layabouts“; “No, it’s the elites; it’s the Liberal Establishment; it’s the corporate media…”).
David Hume wrote that a wise person “proportions his belief to the evidence”, and critics of conspiracy theories like to quote something similar (from Marcello Truzzi): “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof”. We should, of course, demand the same strict standard of evidence/proof for populist political claims as we do for conspiracy theories. While the latter may seem “extraordinary” in the sense of outlandish, the former seem just as extraordinary in the sense of oversimplistic, over-generalising, reductive.
Populists of both left and right do, of course, cite specific proof – eg of corporate corruption or “benefits fraud”, etc – to make their broad diagnoses sound credible. But, the wider the populist net of blame, the more dubious the belief that the generalisations are supported by the individual cases. These populist claims then seem more like panchrestons than “rational” inferences.
Language structure may further distort perceptions. Robert Anton Wilson cited the phrase, “White men own all the corporations” (which he heard from a Hispanic radical on TV**) – a simple over-generalisation, which also invites “logical” misinterpretation, since our brains may easily compute it as: “All white men own the corporations”. There may be evidence to support a quantified statement with a more precise wording (eg: “95% of US corporations are owned by a tiny minority of white men”), but populist language is characterised more by dramatic and emotive over-generalisation than by accurate quantification and precision. Thus, “X caused Y” is routinely “understood” to mean “All X caused Y”, including cases where X refers to “immigrants”, “people on benefits”, “liberals”, “corporations”, “the media”, “feminists”, “white men”, “Jews”, etc.
“The media” represents a special case of this logical confusion. A lot of spurious, toxic nonsense comes from “the media” – false arguments for war, whitewashing of Our Glorious Leaders, demonisation of the poor, etc. So, assigning generalised blame to the “corporate media” – eg: “the [generalised] media is to blame for all this toxicity” – seems justified at first glance. But the logic doesn’t work the other way around: “All people in the media are responsible for the [generalised] toxicity”.
No amount of material condemning “the media” (and there is a lot of it) justifies this logical reversal, whether directly stated or implied by imprecise language. Noam Chomsky, who has cited a large amount of evidence to back his own claims about western states, corporations and their media, warned against using such material for populist/ideological claims. In his academic work, Chomsky has railed against what he sees as “ideology” inherent in the social sciences, as contrasted with his own approach (“For Chomsky, the only channels of communication that are free from such ideological contamination are those of genuine natural science”, writes radical anthropologist, Chris Knight).
But those who have followed in Chomsky’s political footsteps often make highly generalised claims about “western” states and “corporate media”, and it’s easy to see how such generalisations have become “contaminated” by a reductive ideology that’s far from Chomsky’s scientific ideal. For example, I’ve witnessed some Chomskyite media critics repeatedly denounce George Monbiot (and other “liberal media” columnists) as “corporate” – as if by attaching that word to him they somehow attribute a generalised essence of corporate “pathology”, infecting everything he writes. This, to me, typifies the ideological mode of “criticism” favoured in sections of the populist “radical” left.
A lot of what I consider populist criticism of “the media” or “corporate media” seems interchangeable between “left” and “right” – and between “credible” and “crackpot”. I recently saw a media critic’s tweet referring to media tributes for Nelson Mandela, which said: “When a deeply corrupt, violent, greed-driven media system is applauding as one, it’s vital to question what they’re doing and why”. On the face of it, the notion of a monolithic, acting-as-one media system could come from right or left. Logically, it could even come from the KKK. It’s only the “corrupt, violent, greed-driven” wording that marks it as a “radical left” variant.
(I note that in football matches across the country there was a literal “applauding as one” in tribute for Mandela – by hundreds of thousands of non-corporate individuals with diverse backgrounds/beliefs. But I’ve no idea what that signifies. Perhaps no more than a general awareness of a human being who endured 27 years in prison and who then became symbolic of positive change, etc).
Incidentally, I found the above “Corporate Media Stooges” image on a web-page titled ‘Corporate Media’, which explains that six corporations “control the flow of most of the information in the United States of America”, and that “The Corporate Media is the main conduit for government disinformation, propaganda and distractions”. This is from a website called ‘End Times Prophecy Report’ – which doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.
Right-left political scale
I’ve written at length about the “authoritarian” moral frames of the right which shape the contents of conservative tabloid newspapers. These rely on fearmongering and the reassuring rhetoric of “strong leaders”, presented as “uncompromising” and “tough”. Simplistic either-or narratives apparently have a big appeal in times of anxiety and disorientation caused by economic, technological and social shifts.
It’s generally assumed that the hard right and radical left are at “opposite ends” of a linear scale (with “moderates” in the middle) – ie that their thinking couldn’t be more different. But this seems mistaken in the case of populism. The populist frames of the supposed “extremes” of right and left share many striking similarities, including some of the language used (the “liberal establishment”, for example, being a fungible bad group for both).
The Euclidean right-left scale, with political extremes at opposing “ends”, is a misleading metaphor, according to George Lakoff. Even the most “progressive” minds can, at times, shift into “authoritarian” or “reactionary” modes of thinking. And populist moral framing, with its either-or logic and double binds, may bring about such shifts.
Populist moral frames
“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
— Oscar Wilde
Some frames are issue-specific; others work at a “higher” level, across different issues. Rightwing Conservative examples of the latter include “moral strength“, “toughness”, “self-reliance”, “discipline” (eg “strong military”, “tough on crime”, “get the scroungers back to work”). Uncompromising either-or values – no “soft” grey in-between. (This is part of what George Lakoff has written about under the heading “Strict Father framing“, and which I’ve written about in more detail here).
The populist “radical” left has its own uncompromising moral framing – with the focus on “Moral Truth”, purity (and “straightforward” “simplicity”), largely as a reaction to oppression by the powerful. The same Aristotelian either-or logic applies: No grey areas; “Tell the simple Truth”. The straight facts versus the corruption, deceit and greed. Either the decency, wisdom and truth-telling of “ordinary people” or the lies of the elites. (The millions of “ordinary people” who choose to buy The Sun and Daily Mail every day don’t fit comfortably into this binary scheme, it seems).
The “Truth”, for the populist “radical” left, belongs exclusively to the ordinary, struggling people – particularly those who have been told the True Facts™ about their situation. By definition, the Truth cannot be found in the corporate/establishment system.
To summarise and (over-)simplify: morality (for the populist right) belongs to those in power who maintain order. Morality (for the populist left) belongs to those who are oppressed by that power/order.
Nietzsche’s moral frames
Those who have read Nietzsche’s writings on “master” and “slave” moralities may recognise a roughly similar dichotomy to the above. Nietzsche wrote of the Christian slaves under the Roman empire – his psychological take was that in their state of powerlessness, the only way the slaves could assert any superiority was in a “moral” (eg spiritual) sense. This they did by inverting the existing social value system – making strength/power bad/evil, and compassion/pity good.
Nietzsche argued that the slaves’ “moral” values arose from resentment and fear – that they used moral conduct as a sort of passive-aggressive weapon of revenge, since they weren’t in a position to express their hostility directly. Their “Moral Truth” consisted of redefining the actions of others (against them) as Evil – ie morality as reaction.
The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values – a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge.
(Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Dover editions, p19)
In this Nietzschean psychology/framing, the slave morality succeeds when the master starts to see himself from the slave’s perspective – as morally reprehensible. To avoid guilt, he then feels obliged to “do good” from the slave’s perspective – ie adopt the slave morality. You can see it as a kind of “moral” contagion, operating through disguised resentment and intolerance. In modern terminology, you might call it a ‘successful’ meme or virus.
Incidentally, Nietzsche didn’t despise kindness or trivialise suffering (which his own life was filled with). Rather, he makes a psychological point about values such as compassion used as a prop or mind-fuck. His wrath is directed mainly at the priests, who, from a position of relative power, promote the slave, or “herd”, morality. My point about over-generalisation also applies here.
“To ascribe predicates to a people is always dangerous.”
— Nietzsche, 1873 note, published in Kaufmann’s The Portable Nietzsche, p41
“Once one leaves pure mathematics, the ascription of
predicates to groups always introduces fallacy.”
— Robert Anton Wilson, No Governor #8, Nov 1985
Populist intolerance seems obvious on the right (against “scroungers”, “skivers”, immigrants, etc), and some surveys show a “hardening” in social attitudes along these lines. My digressions on Nietzschean psychology and “Moral Truth” point to the less obvious forms of intolerance that I see in the populist “radical” left.
The function of “evidence” for populist ideology is to illustrate what’s already known to be The Truth. This is a simple matter when you confuse abstract groups and either-or logic with messy reality. Evidence which doesn’t support the approved “truth-telling” is to be seen as “clearly not credible”. And the people who cite such evidence must be regarded as “suspect” in some way – eg dupes or agents (“trolls”) of the other side.
Thus, many influential media editors, TV presenters, etc, dismiss certain views/facts as “leftwing campaigning”, and many populists of the “radical” left dismiss nearly everything appearing in the “corporate” media (the items which aren’t dismissed are classed as “fig leaves”). New ideas and original ways of thinking tend not to arise in this mental environment. Why would they, when The Truth is already known, and when genuinely radical conceptions tend not to fit within old abstract groupings and binary classifications?
It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. (David Foster Wallace, interview)
* This is not a Hello! magazine article.
** Language, Logic & Lunacy, from Email to the Universe, p66
◊ The two cartoons are from Prometheus Rising, by Robert Anton Wilson, and Nietzsche Beginner’s Guide, by Roy Jackson, respectively. (I recommend both books).