nothin's scarier than a blank page

31 May 2011

The Battle

There's a blogger out there whose been studying some of the messages coming out of the Arab Spring.  He's identified some common themes.  (Well, actually, they're more tropes than themes.  Pretty much, that means word play that changes meaning.  Irony, for example, is a trope. )

Common Enemy.  Antithesis employs us/them strategies that unite a group.  We do this but They do that.  The enemy can begin as a small group or even just one person.  As it gains more strength, the group can grow to see everyone who is different as an enemy -- and be strongly united by this ideology.  A leader cannot simply declare "if you're not with us, you're against us".  It only works to unite the body if the groups members believe it as truth.  The Jews.

Projection Devices.  Use of a scapegoat to emotionally bring home the otherwise vague threat of the common enemy.  This is a simplification of all of life's problems being the results of the common enemy's actions.  The Jews.

Inborn dignity.  The majority group feels bonded by deeming themselves superior.  To be effective, this device does not attempt to create new enemies but instead makes use of existing prejudices rooted in race, religion, etc.

Symbolic Rebirth.  Once the common enemy is eradicated, life will become a utopia.  It can only happen once in a lifetime.  All immoral actions that lead to this goal are justified and washed clean when the new world order is established.

Cognitive mapping.  "All roads lead to Rome" is a prime example of this language strategy that identifies inspiring ideology and strong leadership with a specific location.  Jerusalem, ahem.

Commercial Use.  This does not refer to rhetoric that is used commercially; this refers to commerce.  If an enemy were removed or changed (for example, capitalist America or our ally Israel), there would be no more economic hardships.

I played a trick on you, and I apologize.  This was not "some blogger".  This comes from rhetorician Kenneth Burke, from an essay about Hitler's Mein Kampf.  It was published in the summer of 1939.  Mein Kampf was available in the U.S. in 1933 but renewed interest arose when it was republished with a new translator years later.

Also of interest in 1938 was the Munich Agreement.  Three million Germans lived in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia.  Hitler wanted them the land.  Czechoslovakia wanted to keep the 1919 borders.  Losing that land meant losing a strategically defensive border, as well as a few banks.  France and Britain wanted to avoid war and tried to both appease Hitler and act as mediator.  All sorts of crazy things went back and forth, eventually ending with an agreement being signed by Germany, France, Britain, and Italy -- but not Czechoslovakia.  The new Czecho-Slovakia lost it's greatest defenses against Germany.  General opinion (at the time) was that throwing Czechoslovakia under the bus was a successful attempt to preserve lasting peace.  (Whew, that was hard to smash into one paragraph.  I hope the summarization process didn't bastardize the facts too much.)

Back in America, many book reviewers did not take Mein Kampf -- and by extension, its author -- seriously.  They dismissed the text as vile, inflammatory, the words of a man man, delusional, insane.  Several dismissed it as the "Nazi Koran".  Silly boys.  You learn the most about people by listening to what they say.  Burke agreed, saying that Hitler had put "his cards on the table", adding, "Let us, then, for God's Sake, examine them.  This book is the well of Nazi magic; crude magic, but effective.  A people trained in pragmatism should want to inspect this magic."  He didn't want to lift up Mein Kampf, nor did he want to hide potential insights by focusing on venom.  He also critiqued those who cashed in on the text by showering it with insults to be part of popular opinion about Hitler.  People enjoyed making him into a caricature, and some reviewers complied with a caricature review.

Burke saw the most important part of Mein Kampf was that it displayed how Hitler was able to manipulate social consciousness for his purposes.  While some thought it was best studied to give indication of what Hitler would do next, Burke saw Hitler's inexplicable ability to unify the masses and sway public opinion as a study in masterminds that might, in discovering the how, one might see the signs to prevent a future Hitler nation from arising.

When one brings Hitler or Nazis into a conversation, it is common for the comparison itself to deligitimize the entire argument.  But Burke's notion does not fall flat here.  The parallel for which he is concerned is rhetoric, namely language usage.  Using a popular argument in my neck of the woods, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had been compared to Hitler because he, like Hitler, is attempting to weaken unions' power.  Taking a Burkean view, Walker is very unlike Hitler, because he has not used the persuasive and unifying language devices that Hitler did.  In other words, if you take a race car and a clunker and paint them both red, the ride is still going to be incredibly different.

The components of the message and the ends to which they are used... therein lies the meat.

The exact timing of when he wrote the article is unknown, but it is no later than March 1939, when he submitted it for publication.  It was published in July and by the end of the summer it was published in a book of critical essays.  He also prepared to present this paper at a peer conference, at which he urged people to apply critical thinking, asking people "to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent."

On an unrelated note, when I was in grad school, a faculty member told a story about Kenneth Burke visiting the faculty.  Burke took a big swig of water.  It was a clear glass of clear liquid set out on a table for him.  He immediately spit it out.  It was water.  He had assumed it was vodka.

Back on topic, Hitler's propaganda and persuasion are now well-known.  The word "Hitler" has become a symbol of the effectiveness of his persuasion and the ends it accomplished.  Using "Hitler" or "Nazi" as a comparison immediately defines the argument as hyperbole.  There is the collective belief that this could never happen again.  We know better now.  We could never let it happen again.  Right?  We believe this to be true, but it is more accurate to say that we collectively wish it into being perceived as true.

Do we keep our eyes open?  Are we listening?  When presented with disturbing rhetoric, do we fall into the traps of vandalizing it, caricaturizing it, or redefine it in a more publicly acceptable light rather than critically analyzing the words presented and the magician's crude magic?

Language is the most powerful weapon on earth.  It has the power to unite a people to incredibly destructive ends.  At the time, we had no idea how destructive those ends were.  We know better now.  Right?

I find the "Kill the Jews!" rhetoric coming out of the Middle East to be disturbing and alarming.  I was even more alarmed when I saw how well the Middle East's message aligns with Nazi Germany, as analyzed by Kenneth Burke.  In general, I am numb to Nazi comparisons, not to mention that Hitler is not the only one who has utilized rhetorical devices to evil ends.  I am also waking up to the many similarities between the Middle East and Nazi Germany.  I hope I'm wrong, but I don't like what I see.

After all, they haven't been screaming for "liberty" or "freedom".  "Democracy", yes, but also "Kill the Jew."

1 comment:

  1. I meant to also mention:
    What would have happened if, in 1938, the Brits and French had stood up to Hitler? They appeased him, in hopes that this would keep the peace. They did not know or did not understand that world domination was his ultimate goal, and therefore appeasement merely prolonged the inevitable.

    They did not know that Hitler during the months that the Munich Pact was being formulated, a few other things occurred, as a direct result of the players' actions.

    The talks made Hitler hate the Brits. The Brits were presumably doing everything possible to try and play nice with Hitler, but the only thing that Hitler needed was total submission. Simply put, I do not think there is anything that the Brits could do to change Hitler's mind about his plans, and there was nothing they could do to improve Hitler's impression of them. So, I must ask, why even bother preventing the inevitable?

    Well, maybe he'll change his mind? Well, maybe they didn't know? Well, maybe they needed more time to prepare?...

    Here's another thing they didn't know. During those Munich talks, Hitler's army was losing faith in him. Hitler was preparing for battles that they did not agree with. In retrospect, people say that if the Brits and French had refused to work with Hitler and had refused that pact, the chain result would have left Germany with a dictator abandoned by his army.

    Let me repeat that.

    The Brits and French sold out Czechoslovakia for the presumed greater good of preserving lasting peace. The Brits and French went against their moral courage, because the ends (peace) justified the means (working with Hitler, selling out the Czechs). If the Brits and French had acted with moral courage and stood up to Hitler, WE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD WORLD WAR II.

    I in no way mean to blame Britain or France for that war. They didn't know.

    I do want to point out that, in that situation, standing for what is noble and right rather than playing politics would have saved millions of lives.

    Perhaps it is a lesson our current leaders in D.C. should at least consider when pledging billions of dollars to countries that hate us, when announcing that a country must surrender a portion of its defensive border (just like what was done to the Czechs).

    President Obama, please CONSIDER these things.