Regarding counter-propaganda

Posted by – December 2, 2015

There is a category of books that I’ve really gotten something out of, but have a dubious reputation. They are books that make an explicit point, repeat the point, underline it, underline the underlining, make the same point again, add some exclamation marks, boldface the point, write it in red – you get the idea. The Point is some kind of extremist position, out of odds with generally accepted truths. These books have failed to convince the world, and not without reason: they try to prove too much, are easily critiqued and discredit themselves. I have sometimes been embarrassed to talk about them positively, lest I discredit myself too.

Some examples:

  • Anything written by Ayn Rand. The joke goes “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” People who aren’t fans of Rand, especially on the left, tend to not just dislike Rand, but consider being influenced by her an indication of being childish, non-serious, selfish to the point of autism & fanatical.
  • Thomas Szasz’s writings on psychology. The titles tell the story: “The Myth of Mental Illness”, “The Medicalization of Everyday Life”, “Cruel Compassion: Psychiatric Control of Society’s Unwanted”. Szasz was a trained psychiatrist himself, but turned on the profession, critiquing the use of psychiatry and state control of medical drugs as control mechanisms; the unexamined tendency to medicalise and smother with false compassion; and the concept of mental illness itself. These positions strike most people as incautious and cruel to the mentally ill (“If you say mental illness isn’t real, you’re denying the reality of people’s suffering.”)
  • Noam Chomsky’s writings on world politics. Chomsky is a respected intellectual, but his actual positions putting the US on par with the worst ever human rights and war crime offenders are not usually taken seriously. For an excellent examination, see Scott Alexander’s review

I think it’s a mistake to completely dismiss any of these, even though I’m not a “true believer” in any of them. My view of them is that they constitute effective and useful counter-propaganda against a much larger body of propaganda I hadn’t previously been properly aware of.

I acknowledge that Ayn Rand’s books are one-sided and uncomplicated fantasies without serious literary merit, but something like that is what is needed to get the message through to many people. Ayn Rand’s intended message is that the only ethical mode of life is complete selfishness, that human relationships must contain no obligations or duty, that co-operation in art is impossible etc., all of which is too much. But consider, firstly, the huge historical backdrop of praising selflessness; the purpose of life as fulfilling duty to God, country and family; and the recent rejection of the idea of artist as creator. Consider secondly the powerful leftist tendency in schools and universities, ie. in places where bookish people spend a lot of time. Ayn Rand may be absurd, but so are many simplistic Marxist and “anti-imperialist” ideas that go unridiculed and are quite popular in those places.

I was personally a leftist in my youth, and though that had already passed when I read Rand, it probably did contribute to salting the earth, so to speak, on an emotional level. It undid some of the brainwashing I had in favour of collectivism and showed me the falseness often implicit in compassion. So Rand is something I keep in mind and might suggest to someone who seems to me to need the same cure.

Thomas Szasz I was first introduced to by one of my favourite living economists, Bryan Caplan, who wrote a really great essay called The Economics of Szasz (you can read a pdf here). Reading Szasz was a really surprising experience to me, because it flipped my preconception of “if you declare mentally ill people to be ‘really, truly sick’, you’re being kind to them” 180 degrees. Whether personality disorders and substance addiction should really be treated as part of life rather than as part of medicine is not yet completely clear to me, but Szasz sure opened my eyes about these important aspects of the philosophy of mind and power structures & their mechanisms.

Chomsky has written many books, articles and essays on the topic of US foreign policy and the distorted view of it pushed by the media. In many cases he goes through absolute mountains of evidence, making beyond any reasonable doubt the case that the misdeeds of powerful nations on “our” side are again and again covered up and justified, and those of the losers are emphasised and demonised. On the other hand, he has made serious mistakes himself, like downplaying or outright denying the genocide in Cambodia for essentially political, leftist reasons (you really should read that Slate Star Codex link). Would any reasonable person take Chomsky’s body of work as a guide to geopolitics and the history of the 20th century? No. But the vast majority of people in the west believe comforting lies about the moral superiority of the US, Europe, Israel, Japan etc. on the geopolitical scene, and should be counter-indoctrinated by Chomsky.

In a world ruled by PR and propaganda (which are the same thing, propaganda being the historically earlier term for public relations), I cannot see this type of extremism in the pursuit of truth as a vice. Whenever I encounter something extreme or absurd, I try to entertain the possibility that I am being offered another opportunity to defeat my own unexamined absurdities.

Of course, not everyone needs counter-propaganda for every topic, being of a naturally sceptical or moderate persuasion; in fact, probably the most educated are in most need of this type of deprogramming, being the most brainwashed in the first place.

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