Semiotics in national dialogue: an observation

One thing the Notes on Liberty community may not know about me is that I worked for a while as a research (and writing) extern for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Because of my academic background in history and the arts, most of my work focused on historical communism, especially as related to propagandist representations from inside communist countries. The experience provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in the documentation and wording of communism.

Most people know how the Soviet and Maoist propagandists portrayed their own people: the moral, brave underdogs who are hated and despised by rich, corrupt weaklings. Any of the sufferings connected to communism – famines, shortages, economic instability – these were all the fault of external forces. Except in the case of the Chinese, to whom Mao refused to offer explanation and simply told the people that their sufferings were glorious and were sacrifices to the revolution. Hua Yu in his memoir China in Ten Words conveys quite poetically exactly how “glorious” everyone’s sufferings were. Even today, we are still treated to a modern iteration in the form of Nicolás Maduro and his wild accusations regarding the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. Most of the time, the perpetrators are the White House and CIA, though in August 2018 he blamed Colombia and some unidentified Floridians and in December 2018 he threw in Brazil, along with the traditional “White House did it” trope.

What is less commonly known – outside of film and literature aficionados – about Cold War era portrayals is their representation of those who live on the other side of the divide, i.e. in capitalism. Across the board, the portrayals were fairly simplistic – the rich were evil, the poor were good. The premise was always that the former were useless and the latter were meritorious, belonging in a socialist workers’ paradise, instead of in a system that metaphorically chewed them up and spat them out. The propagandists were masters of imposing this interpretive paradigm universally, from traditional Western literature (or even their own traditional literature in the case of China) to news items. For example, the failed yachtsman and minor-league conman Donald Crowhurst became a proletariat hero in the Soviet film Race of the Century in which he is driven to his death by a greedy, capitalist sponsor (in real life, Crowhurst’s angel investor). The propaganda point being that in capitalism human life is expendable. One has only to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to see under which system an indifference to human life was, and still is, ingrained.

There is a reason that Marxist and post-structuralist theory and criticism focus on the concept of “the other.” It is because communism can only arise from chaos and conflict. In order to justify its existence and explain its ills and failures, there must be an “other” which opposes it. The other can be the White House, foreign intelligence services, or foreign bankers. “Othering” can be imposed on practically any person or group of people, and the dynamic can be read into any relationship. If one wants to find an “other” in Solzhenitsyn, a very good candidate is Fetyukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For a literary criticism standpoint, Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s contempt for Fetyukov is a case of the former “othering” the latter. “Othering,” while a development of Marxist thought, is not a domain exclusive to communist writing. Ian Fleming used the paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, in his James Bond series, with their black-and-white portrayals of who was the good and who was the bad party.

Study of the language and structures of Marxist thought and propaganda is both lacking and overwhelming today. Yes, on the one hand, our universities have been overtaken with grievance studies and criticism classes. But on the other, the tropes and thought processes of Marxism have subtly appeared in contemporary American dialogue. More insidiously, they are not coming necessarily from the overt socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but from figures that identify as center and right. Ocasio-Cortez and her idol Bernie Sanders might be pardoned for regurgitating Marxist tropes, given that at least these politicians have had the decency to acknowledge their ideological leanings, but for “Conservative” [note the big “C”] intellectuals to do so is indicative of either ignorance or manipulation, both of which are unforgivable.

Consider what Michael Lind, a prominent neo-conservative, wrote in an article titled “Classless utopia versus class compromise,”published in American Affairs in summer 2018,

Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.

Lind has had a decades-old, well-publicized bugbear with libertarian thought, and to some extent his language reflects this. What is concerning about his words is the justification of localized socialism (history shows that this would not remain local for long) using the language of agency. The entire argument is built upon the fundamental Marxist assumption that the proletariat has no agency, wants it, and must collectivize to have it. In Marxist speak, Lind’s acceptance of the laborer-has-only-his-labor paradigm effectively “others” everyone on the other side of an indeterminate class line – upper-middle-class professionals (progressive or not), college students, free-marketeers, oh, and rich libertarians (one wonders where poor student classical liberals and middle-class libertarians fall in this equation).

In old fairy tales, a common theme is a beloved plant, usually a tree, that begins to wither away. The tree is externally healthy, and no one can discern a logical reason for it to be dying. After a long search, consulting of necromancers, and other typical fairy tale activities, the hero digs around the tree’s roots and discovers that there is a repulsive, venomous animal, usually a snake or a toad, living there, and it is the cause of the plant’s slow decline. Marxist thought and paradigms, not Marxism as an ideology, have become that snake for American Conservatism and center-right politics. Its poison is exacerbated by the fact that its acolytes and proselytizers appear to be unconscious of its presence as they argue that their only desire is to preserve the American Republic through preventing class conflict. But if they are doing is to hurl us faster and faster, more inexorably toward this very breakdown, as their ideas begin to overlap with those of the acknowledged far-left.

Nightcap

  1. The nonconformist in society Gerald Russello, Modern Age
  2. Francis Fukuyama’s master concept Patrick Lee Miller, Quillette
  3. Are we all big-government conservatives now? William Voegeli, Claremont Review of Books
  4. America is deporting Cambodian refugees convicted of crimes Charles Dunst, the Atlantic

The childishness of the left

Jair Bolsonaro took office as president of Brazil this last January 1. The government has barely begun, but I think we can already observe a little of what the next four years will look like. During the campaign, Bolsonaro made it clear that his government would be “liberal in the economy and conservative in customs.” Here an explanation is necessary for English speakers: in Brazil “liberal” almost always means “classic liberal,” that is, defender of the free market economy. Conservative, at least in the context of Bolsonaro’s speech, is not so different from the sense of the English language: conservatism as an appreciation of the customs and traditions of Judeo-Christian society.

The speeches of the Bolsonaro himself and his ministers already in office follow exactly this tone. Paulo Guedes, chosen to be the “super-minister” of the economy, made it clear in a speech of almost an hour that Brazil’s problem is excess of state. During the last 40 years or more Brazil has treated symptoms, not the causes of its economic backwardness. The speech of Paulo Guedes was a class of economic history of Brazil.

However, what dominated the Brazilian media in recent days was not a speech, but rather a remark by a minister. Damares Alves, the human rights minister, the one who was harshly criticized for saying she saw Jesus when she was in a guava tree, said at an informal moment that “boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” The speech fell on the media and provoked the reaction of Brazilian celebrities. Many “artists” appeared changing colors, men wearing pink and women, blue. What draws attention in this case, besides the difficulty of understanding figures of speech, is the infantilization of the left activists. Damares said that “boys wear blue and girls wear pink,” not that men wear blue and women wear pink.

The minister’s speech fits into a moment Brazil is living. The cultural wing of the left wants to teach that gender is only a social construction, with no connection to biology, and therefore children should be treated as neutral, awaiting their decision as to what gender they want to adopt. Damare’s remark, therefore, refers to the education of children in public schools, not adult men and women. Brazil is a country free enough for adult men and women to wear the colors they want. The identification of many celebrities with the minister’s speech shows that leftist activists have the mental age of kindergarten children.

Nightcap

  1. Who is Joe Epstein? Jonathan Leaf, Modern Age
  2. “Company-style” paintings from 19th century Burma Jonathan Saha, Colonizing Animals
  3. Nazis: A Modern Field Guide Jonathan Kay, Quillette
  4. The Dangers of Letting Someone Else Decide Jonathan Klick, Cato Unbound

Nightcap

  1. As economic freedom goes global, American conservatives turn inward John Tamny, RealClearMarkets
  2. Machiavelli was no Machiavellian Catherine Zuckert, Aeon
  3. Florentine liberty and Machiavelli’s The Prince Barry Stocker, NOL
  4. Scaling Up: a history of dragons! Tom Shippey, Literary Review

Main Street in Gopher Prairie (and elsewhere)

…but there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men, who are not at all content. The more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for holidays. The most protesting patriots of the towns leave them in old age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or the cities.

This is from Main Street, the 1920 classic by American Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. Lewis won his Nobel Prize for his 1925 work, Arrowsmith, and was so upset about not winning the Prize for Main Street that he refused his award for Arrowsmith and publicly complained that he should have won the award for Main Street rather than Arrowsmith (he eventually accepted his prize, years later).

Main Street is a mean book about small town life (Gopher Prairie, Minnesota) in the United States of America. It’s mean because it’s true. It’s amazing and worth reading and blogging about nearly 100 years later because it still resonates powerfully with today’s reader. The more things change, technologically, the more they stay the same, sociologically.

Lewis was a dissatisfied left-liberal who never quite could make the transition over to socialist, though he was sympathetic to their views and aims. In Main Street, in fact, he lambastes the dissatisfied rural gentry (left-liberals, all) for their condescending dismissal of socialist arguments without ever actually considering them fully. Lewis grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where the majority of the plot of Main Street takes place, and was the son of a country doctor. His privileged, rural upbringing no doubt weighed heavy on his mind when he attacked the American small-town way of life.

He (Lewis) wasn’t an America hater, and neither are most left-liberals. Their conservatism betrays their progressive senses. They don’t want or desire revolution, they want change, and they believe the founders, most of whom were slaveholders, instituted a government that could be run by the people. Left-liberals often come across as bitter and hate-filled, and this essence can seem especially true when contrasted with the thoughts of a conservative-liberal. Lewis was certainly a bitter man (he died of alcoholism in Rome in the 1951), but his mean-spirited attacks on American society were, to him and his fans, the work of a patriot (that most conservative of citizen).

If you haven’t read Main Street yet, I recommend doing so. It’s nearly 100 years old now, a fact that made me smile to myself as I realized I was reading a 98-year old novel. (Sinclair Lewis is somewhat fashionable again due to the popular quote “if fascism comes to America…” being misattributed to his name. The freshness of seeing his name on a bumper sticker just makes the reality of how old his works are that much more interesting.) If you don’t, at some point in your life, read one of Lewis’ major works (Babbitt, Main Street, or Arrowsmith), you will die a philistine.

I finally read Main Street after years of it taunting me on the bookshelf. It was worth it, all the more so because I am dissatisfied with where I am at in life. I don’t quite live in a small town, but I do live in a college town after spending the last 7-8 years or so of my life in major American cities that also happen to be sexy American cities, and the culture shock has been hard to confront. Contrary to popular belief, college towns don’t have all that much “culture” in them. Instead, you have a small population of seasonal migrants and a larger (but still small) population of “locals” who live off of the migrants and off of the few industries that have manged to take root in the community. In order to have any sort of leisure in the American college town you must be either a professional or a shopkeeper. Otherwise, you’re shit out of luck.

Main Street reminded me of the streak of dissatisfaction that runs deep in American society. There’s a plan in motion, here in Waco, that involves professionalizing my wife, so I cannot be bitter, but I am dissatisfied. The large Baptist university here is too practical. Its students (Rand Paul is an alum) are dull, and most are philistines, replete with all the usual stories about traveling “abroad” (to western Europe, where the drinking age is 18…) and not knowing a lick of the region’s rich history. There are no Jews, no Koreans, no South Asian Muslims, and few homosexuals. There is a relatively large black population here, but it is, alas, just as conservative as the white one.

Naturally, Californians are reviled. As are college graduates. As are liberals of any kind.

One bright spot here is, of course, the food. Bar. Bee. Q. Even this, though, the one lone bright spot so far, is brought down despairingly by the fact that pants in my size are rare, if you get my drift. My inner celebration of the stereotype of the parochial and bumbling Southerner, now reinforced by real life, coupled with Main Street‘s piercing insights, have provided me solace in an otherwise empty period of intellectual stimulation in my life.

Nightcap

  1. How did history abdicate its role of inspiring the longer view? Jo Guldi, Aeon
  2. Third World Burkeans Rod Dreher, American Conservative
  3. Enemy of The People Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
  4. Why wasn’t there a Marshall Plan for China? Roderick MacFarquhar, ChinaFile