A Very American Tradition

Perhaps the oldest and most time-honored American political tradition is the laying on of propaganda, a very catholic (spreading truth, as it were) endeavor (Harper) for a democratic republic with a “wall”. The term “propaganda”  was not employed to describe the practices of 18th century America, which saw the broad use (or more appropriately, abuse) of the  pamphlet and the newspaper (Parkinson), which between them likely moved more manure than any hundred colonial farmers.

While it is seen as “good fun” on the “Left” to ridicule the “Right”‘s delusional love affair with a past that never existed (from Washington’s fledgling theocratic state to the libertarian utopia captured by Norman Rockwell), those doing the fiercest poking seem also to hearken back to an halcyon era of gentle discourse, where rational discussion charted the future of a free people. But, such daydreams are as fatuous as the revisionist histories of America’s culture warriors.

Our very own “Declaration” of independence is little more than a propagandistic screed (Hansen; Armitage; Jefferson) while the great art of “Common Sense” (Paine) is the rhetoric that so skillfully manipulates the reader.  The truth is that nothing was too low for the political strategists of our past. At the turn of the 18th century dueling over reputation was still to be seen (though largely illegal) while, based on the perceived reception of English common law, truth was no defense in suit for libel or slander (Kluft). Tar the man and kill the policy was the order of the day. Weinberg, in reviewing Burns’ “Infamous Scribblers”, gives us pause to ponder the fact that modern media warfare is not far removed from the rough and tumble of our brutal beginnings.

The U.S. has always been the very embodiment of the Hobbesian dilemma: affluence and stability come with moderation of individual freedoms. Yet our media has been telling us we can have our cake and eat it too for so long that the very idea has percolated into our poor excuse for beer: “Tastes great, less filling” (Miller). The predominant science of the 20th century is not physics, medicine, chemistry, or economics; it’s social psychology, the key to effective “advertising”, advertising being the methods by which attitudes of any population can be manipulated.

Our most staid organic political repartee, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, were composed anonymously. But this was not your kid’s Anonymous. By employing the allusion that was inherent in the use of a pseudonym (taken, itself, from an almost universal educational canon) the propounding pops  placed the discourse about our second attempt at sovereignty in a larger context (Richard 39), offering a sense of gravitas, or not (Klarman).

It may have been this sense of erudition that eventually gave rise to the extension of the Jeffersonian educational ideal to the unwashed (Notes on the State of Virginia 268-275); train the hoi polloi in “the canon”, and they too could be responsible participants in the republic! Et voilá, the great divide between those capable of ruling and those in need of rule is closed.

Many, like myself, are still enamored of the prospects of “education”. Even the kid with his finger in the dyke made some contribution, after all. But it is a losing battle where, the lower the socio-economic class the greater the spawning, and teachers (nominally, let alone good teachers) can’t compete with family and media when it comes to drama, comedy, time allotted, impact, etc. Indeed, we have moved rather aggressively to the point where the academy has been purchased by ideologues (Mayer 172).

The other two great divides are: a) the epistemological application of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (there is either truth or process), and, b) the Gordian Knot of Sophism (Rhetoric and Dialectic deconstructed). The first, shorthand for the grand battle of the absolute versus the relative, Plato versus Aristotle, is what plays out all over our country between the religious right and everyone else (once the “truth” is grasped, very little persuasion is necessary). The latter is the essence of the interactions between the “inner chimp” and the Homo sapiens forebrain and likely should have been the real focus of this essay.

It belongs to Rhetoric to discover the real and apparent means of persuasion, just as it belongs to Dialectic to discover the real and apparent syllogism. For what makes the sophist is not the faculty but the moral purpose. But there is a difference: in Rhetoric, one who acts in accordance with sound argument, and one who acts in accordance with moral purpose, are both called rhetoricians; but in Dialectic it is the moral purpose that makes the sophist, the dialectician being one whose arguments rest, not on moral purpose but on the faculty (Aristotle). Your English teacher would have started off this essay with Aristotle’s remarks, but then, you didn’t listen to your English teacher back then either, did you?

Of course, any time one begins considering social upheaval (as in an attempted change in social structure via the rise of a lower caste or class) historically it is cotemporal with mob violence. Whether you wish to talk about Spartacus or Luther, the attack on authority results in general conflagration. We have moved, in an era of truthiness (Colbert) and alternative facts (Todd), to a place where all authority is “equal”, so all versions of “reality” are legitimate.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, nor a common sense of what is authoritative.

We are, in a  real sense, faced with the thr”E” alternatives to the Existing Quandary Underlying Angst Tortured Existentialists: Education (Where do you want to go today), Exclusion (Just Us), or Exhortation (MadAve).  We have seen that Education is not up to the challenge…   Exclusion (the tribal primal directive) works just fine until all the oligarchs become bombastic bullies (it’s what happens when the elite defining “philosopher kings” are disparu, as can be seen in the current Administration).  What we are left with, and what many on “the left” are now arguing, is the adoption of the sound bite magical libertarian mystery show; time to sell the “progressive” brand using the same kind of MadAve tools that the Scaifs and Kochs successfully used in the past, and were employed most recently to make the Maroon Tide believe that Donald Trump is Their Savior.

To put that in blunter terms, the question is put, “Shall we murder to stem the flow of murderers?” Perhaps the first and maybe least fortunate response to such a poser would be that in as much as 997 of any 1000 people likely would not be worth saving one way or the other,  if you are not going to put them down at birth, don’t waste the money to feed them. But let’s delicately back away from that moment of honesty and search for an historical example of a successful upstart taking on hegemony without becoming same. Stickier and stickier…

Nor is, “They will seize what’s yours”, a real barn-burner because the truth is, nothing I have is really mine. Yeah, we do a great deal of pretending about PROPERTY in this country, but is there really anyone who does not realize that it is largely a delusion (well, THEY are included in that 997). Thank you, for thinking of US, but no thanks. Yes, let the Maroon Tide dissolve my bones on the wretched strand, but playing the Devil’s fiddle, as Faust well knew, comes at a price I am not interested in paying.

No, without a common frame of reference, the task is to simply make noise, as no real communication will take place…  The message, as it were, is the rumble… and rumble we must for a better world, because until the fundie right decamps their separate universe, or education turns a corner it has yet to even espy, the best we can do is let people know we are alive and well.


Armitage, David. “The Declaration of Independence and International Law.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 2002, pp. 39–64. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3491637.

Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. PublicAffairs, 2007.

Colbert, Stephen. The Word – Truthiness. 2005. www.cc.com, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word—truthiness.

Hansen, Ali. “The Declaration as Propaganda.” Digication, 12 Mar. 2017, https://bu.digication.com/ahansen/The_Declaration_as_Propaganda.

Harper, Douglas. “Propaganda.” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=propaganda. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. University of Virginia Library, Virgo, 710304, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:710304. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.

—. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. 1776.

Klarman, Michael J. The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kluft, David. “The Death Of Alexander Hamilton And The Birth Of The American Free Press.” Trademark and Copyright Law, 1 July 2016, http://www.trademarkandcopyrightlawblog.com/2016/07/the-death-of-alexander-hamilton-and-the-birth-of-the-american-free-press/.

Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017.

Miller, Carl. “Beer and Television: Perfectly Tuned In.” Beer History, 2002, http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/beer_commercials.shtml.

Nizkor. “Fallacy: Appeal to Authority.” Nizkor Project, 2012, http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html.

Paine, Thomas. “Common Sense.” Project Gutenberg, 14 Feb. 1776, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm.

Parkinson, Robert G. Print, the Press, and the American Revolution. Aug. 2015. americanhistory.oxfordre.com, http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-9.

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Todd, Chuck. “Conway: Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts.’” Meet The Press, NBC News, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/conway-press-secretary-gave-alternative-facts-860142147643.

Weinberg, Steve. “Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns.” Houston Chronicle, 19 Mar. 2006, http://www.chron.com/entertainment/books/article/Infamous-Scribblers-by-Eric-Burns-1870445.php.

 

2 comments on “A Very American Tradition

  1. Owing to the fact that the Republic’s Constitution was a rushed document and a flawed one at that, perhaps a new one is needed but constructed with the same lack of reference to popular sovereignty as the first one. Arguably the American Revolution was three way fight between those who were in favour, those opposed and those who simply didn’t care. Bearing in mind that thirty percent of Americans are functionally illiterate, why not marshal the sixty percent of varying IQs and build something better? It sure as hell couldn’t be much worse than the last one!

  2. Marc Grober says:

    Rushed? Just because Ben was present, lol? Certainly you don’t mean create in undue haste? The Constitution, such as it was, was the result of not only years of stewing, but hours of critical debate and dozens of hard “won” compromises.

    Flawed? If you arguing that it is less than it could be then I think you are pissing in the wind, for it is was never intended to resemble anything like a Platonic form; it is a kludge, a hodge podge of horse trades by which most of those in attendance thought everyone could live with (more fools they as those not in agreement with the final result opposed the ratification vociferously. If you are arguing that there is some perfect constitution, then you, like the philospher king, are illusory (and I would hate to see you, my friend, go up in smoke). It is not so much the word of the law that is of issue, but the spirit therein.

    While I think Balkin’s thoughts about redemption through the Constitution are illuminating, his reverence for the text and his sense that a convention would not be disastrous are, well, wishful. ‘Mirkans abide by a credo that is composed, as Ray Raphael argues, of Constitutional Myth both as to what is law, and what is not, rofl. They live in a place where they can create and maintain concentration camps, but others can’t. Why? Because they are ‘Mirkans, of course, and exceptional!

    But you leap over the sticking point, in any case, which is how is the convention to be peopled?

    Nevertheless, I think you are simply wrong about a new constitution being better than the present one, with all its “flaws”, fissures, and fistulas from the fulminating fractious folk…

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