February 2021
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Like Little Whiteboards: Propaganda and Contemporary Minds, Introduction

It’s a bad joke if it has to be explained. A similar rule might apply to propaganda.

So, here’s the joke, or the propaganda:

In case this NBC video later disappears down the memory hole, that was an excerpt from Cameron Kasky’s speech at the so-called March for Our Lives. He says:

My generation, having spent our entire lives seeing mass shooting after mass shooting, has learned that our voices are powerful and our votes matter. We must educate ourselves and start conversations that keep our country moving forward — and we will. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and create a better world for the generations to come. Don’t worry; we’ve got this! … The people demand a law banning the sale of assault weapons! The people demand we prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines! The people demand universal background checks! Stand for us, or beware: the voters are coming!

That seems clear enough on its own, but The Washington Post felt it would need some prefatory remarks:

The school gates were locked. But that didn’t keep hundreds of students from crawling up and over the fences, defying their parents, teachers and school principals to march against segregation.

It was May 1963 in Alabama, and Birmingham’s brutal public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was waiting. His police moved in, herding the children into squad cars, paddy wagons and school buses for the trip to jail.

When the students kept coming, Connor turned fire hoses on them, knocking the children to the ground and spinning them down the street. To fight the high-powered blasts, some children joined hands trying to keep their balance in a human chain. But the torrents were too fierce; hit by the rocket-bursts of water the kids whirled one way, then the other, dragging down their comrades.

The 1963 children’s crusade changed history. Now 55 years later, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., are rising up — staging protests and walkouts in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 slaughter of 17 people at their school.

Even as they’ve been attacked as “crisis actors” and disparaged on social media, the students have put elected officials on notice: They want America’s gun laws changed.

Steven Levingston, writing for the Post, wants to make sure Americans don’t miss the parallel: the Parkland kids are like the kids of the 1963 Children’s Crusade. The kids of the Children’s Crusade were righteous. The Parkland kids are righteous. The kids of the Children’s Crusade were brave. The Parkland kids are brave. And, most importantly: The kids of the Children’s Crusade were on “the right side of history.” And so goes the implication: The Parkland kids are on “the right side of history.”

Contemporary propaganda enthusiasts use the term, “optics” to mean “the way something looks at first glance.” For example, if a politician receives significant money from the NRA, the “optics” suggest the NRA is buying his loyalty on gun-control policy. Some situations have “good optics” for those involved. Some situations have “bad optics.” And the “optics” of a situation can also be good or bad for a given cause. The “optics” of the March for Our Lives movement are good for the cause of gun control. The movement looks, at first glance, like an authentic, spontaneous uprising of student-led activism. It looks as though thoughtful, well-spoken, heart-warmingly diverse, and remarkably precocious young people are standing up against the NRA and other backward-looking interests, advocating for common-sense measures, measures needed in order to keep kids from getting torn to bloody ribbons by bullets. On the surface, by its “optics,” their platform is so sensible, so reasonable, and so right-feeling that only a monster could reject it. And that’s the whole point. That’s the axis around which the March’s propaganda spins.

The optics already suggest it, so it shouldn’t need to be explained that, like the heroic black kid-crusaders of 1963, these kids deserve our empathy and our political support. It shouldn’t need to be explained that questioning or analyzing their platform is mean-spirited. It shouldn’t need to be explained that whatever these noble youth feel is right must be right, just because they feel it. It shouldn’t need to be explained that it is our duty to feel along with them, not train our critical thoughts on them, like a school shooter trains the iron sights of his AR-15 on helpless victims.

Levingston continues:

History shows that kids, with their innocence, honesty and moral urgency, can shame adults into discovering their conscience. It worked in Birmingham. During the children’s crusade, young people swarmed in to redirect the arc of history.

In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had targeted the Alabama city as the key to ending the segregation throughout the South. As his close aide, Wyatt Tee Walker, put it, “We knew that as Birmingham went, so would go the South.”

But the Birmingham movement was flagging. In need of a radical shift in strategy, James Bevel, an adviser to King, recommended turning young blacks into foot soldiers for equal rights. King was hesitant, fearing for the children’s safety. He prayed and reflected and finally accepted that putting children in danger could help determine their future.

If Levingston’s historical analysis is correct, and I have no doubt it is, leaders of the civil rights movement consciously chose to put children in harm’s way because they knew that the “optics” of that harm would be bad for the racists responsible. Frankly, it’s hard to disagree. King and Bevel made the right decision: manipulating Americans’ natural empathy for children to advance their cause was, in fact, in the children’s long-term interests, in their parents’ long-term interests, and in everyone’s long-term interests.

The Children’s Crusade was effective propaganda. It was righteous propaganda. But it was propaganda.

[Y]oung protesters hit the streets en masse, confronting police armed with snarling German shepherds in addition to the water cannon blasts.

To supercharge the water jets, firefighters had funneled the flow of two hoses into one nozzle, packing it with such ballistic fury it dislodged bricks from buildings. These jets were driven across the kids’ bodies, lacerating their flesh, tearing clothing off their backs; hitting the elm trees in nearby Kelly Ingram Park, the blasts ripped off the bark. The children, knocked to the pavement, crawled away; some struggled to their feet with bloody noses and gashes on their faces.

The morning newspapers that landed on Kennedy’s breakfast table showed students braving the assaults on the front lines. In one shot, a uniformed officer in round shades and a narrow tie yanked on high school sophomore Walter Gadsden’s sweater while a German shepherd lunged toward the student’s stomach with mouth open, fangs bared.

Gazing at the images of water cannons and police dogs, [President John F.] Kennedy was disgusted. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy later noted the students’ impact: “What Bull Connor did down there, and the dogs and the hoses and the pictures with the Negroes, is what created a feeling in the United States that more needed to be done.”

Levingston, it seems to me, wanted to make sure his readers were primed and optimally ready to receive the message of the March for Our Lives. He wanted to amplify the propaganda, by tying it to a historical precedent that still evokes strong emotions. He did not trust his readers to have made this association on their own.

In future posts on this topic, I would like to consider why this distrustful move was a prudent one for Levingston. Because it was very prudent indeed. It’s a bad joke if it has to be explained. And a similar rule does apply to propaganda, since the best propaganda speaks for itself. But sometimes, when propaganda seeks to incite action on an urgent matter, the prudent propagandist sets subtlety aside, and just tells you what to think. Like Levingston has told you what to think about the March for Our Lives.

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