Propaganda and Philosophy, both old and new.

Two good pieces on Slate today; one about sociologist/philosopher William Graham Sumner and one about apocalyptic campaign ads. I’ll tackle the latter first.

It’s a good list, but I disagree with the claim that “when candidates get desperate, they try to scare you.” Was Nixon really desperate in 1968, or Johnson in 1964? Scaring people is always an effective tactic, whether they’re desperate or not. All attack ads either try to frighten or ridicule, and those that ridicule usually carry an undercurrent of frightening, as the idea of such a buffoon as the target of the ad taking office is scary by implication.

By the way, it didn’t make the list, but in my opinion the best political attack ad ever is this one, from Nixon’s 1968 campaign against Hubert Humphrey:

That ad is purely visceral. There’s not even any language in it until the very end, which is as it should be. The effective advertisement must appeal to instincts and base, gut feelings, not sophisticated reasoning. Trippy and weird as it is, this ad is psychologically effective.

On to the second piece, about William Sumner. His anti-socialist, “leave the rich people alone” philosophy sounds to me pretty similar to the ideas of his contemporary, Herbert Spencer. And it seems that Sumner was who coined the phrase “the Forgotten Man”, which, as my readers will know, has formed the theme of many a ham-fisted Jon McNaughton painting.

So, I skimmed some of the Sumner essay “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” that the Slate article talks about. I confess, I could only skim because it was quite dull; most of the ideas in it are old hat by now, but it’s important to remember that they must have seemed novel at the time.

Sumner begins the essay by complaining:

We constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact. “The poor,” “the weak,” “the laborers,” are expressions which are used as if they had exact and well-understood definition. Discussions are made to bear upon the assumed rights, wrongs, and misfortunes of certain social classes…

He does not like the phrase “the poor man” one bit:

There is no possible definition of “a poor man.”.. The “poor man” is an elastic term, under which any number of social fallacies may be hidden.

And then:

There is an old ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich.  In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism. The prejudices are not yet dead, but they survive in our society as ludicrous contradictions and inconsistencies. One thing must be granted to the rich: they are good-natured. Perhaps they do not recognize themselves, for a rich man is even harder to define than a poor one. It is not uncommon to hear a clergyman utter from the pulpit all the old prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich, while asking the rich to do something for the poor; and the rich comply, without apparently having their feelings hurt at all by the invidious comparison.

Well, if I were rich, people could denounce me as much and as viciously as they damn well-pleased and I wouldn’t complain.

But beyond that, it’s like Paul Graham wrote:

Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by “free.” Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by “exist.

Same problem here. Sumner gets bogged down trying to define things, or show that they can’t be defined, in order to make some point; and it all becomes nearly meaningless.

I’ll try to read more of this essay, but right now my eyes are glazed over. Sumner’s writing is like Ayn Rand’s without any of the animating passion.

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