Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Political activism vs. common sense

I am always amazed how highly intelligent people can lose all of their common sense once they start to think about politics, religion, or something along these lines.

A trivial non-event happened and three T-shirts are the main heroes in this non-event. Three anti-Bush female teachers were able to acquire the tickets for a Bush rally in Southern Oregon - which was otherwise a rally for Bush supporters.

They obviously did not just want to watch; they wanted to influence the rally (as they later admitted). So all of them were wearing almost identical T-shirts saying "Protect Our Civil Liberties". If these T-shirts were ever printed in large amounts, my guess is that they were anti-Patriot-Act T-shirts. One of the T-shirts also had a picture of the Statue of Liberty above this sentence.

OK, now imagine that you're an organizer of the Bush rally (well, I am sure that many readers won't be even able to imagine this thing, and I encourage these readers to finish at this point because the rest of the article will be too complex for them).

You have a plenty of people who have come to have a pleasant afternoon, and your responsibility is to protect the rally against disruptive elements. Suddenly you see three women with nearly identical T-shirts saying "Protect Our Civil Liberties". The very pattern - three similar T-shirts - is the first thing you notice. The second question you ask yourself is whether these women have something to say - and whether they really belong to the rally. It's your job to ask such questions.

It requires nothing more than elementary knowledge of the political situation in the USA to realize that this is not a slogan meant to support the GOP. You would choose "Protect Our Safety" or something else. Everyone who knows the sort of spin that the Democratic Party is using to criticize the GOP simply knows that these T-shirts, in the current situation, are simply not pro-Bush T-shirts. It has absolutely nothing to do with the real question whether Bush et al. are protecting civil liberties. No doubt, they are even trying to protect them outside the US borders. ;-) The reasoning that tells an informed person whether the women were left-wing or right-wing is based on the language that the two sides now like to use.

The organizers were not stupid, and they obviously got the correct answer. Moreover, even if they did not identify the women themselves, there were certainly other guests at the Bush rally who were able to say what the women were like - and who would lead to a clear expectation that a controversy could start. The women were not supposed to be among the guests at the rally. And perhaps, other guests did not like them. OK, the organizers had several options how to deal with this situation. Either you can "protect the civil liberties" of the three provocateurs - which is nice, is not it - but in this case you run the risk that the women will change your rally into mess, and you will be remembered as the failed organizer. Clearly, most organizers choose this option. The Oregon people however decided that they want to feel safe, and they tried to get rid of the three provocateurs. It's definitely their right.

This is such a non-event that I feel painful to add another article about this non-event. If you're a provocateur attending a closed rally of the other party, you should expect that they will try to get rid of you. This is true regardless of the political orientation of the rally and of the provocateurs. And the organizers just did their homework right, and they identified the women properly.

No doubt, some propaganda machines in the Democratic Party (and not only in the Democratic Party) try to use anything for their goals, and this non-event is material that some of them may choose. On the other hand, obviously, every article in the newspapers that reveals this "shocking intolerance" of the GOP will damage GOP a little bit, and therefore you will find people in the GOP who will try to claim that the "real GOP" would never expel the provocateurs (unless there were a very serious reason), and so on. I think it's nothing more than crystal clear hypocritical responses.

This whole thing is just about spin. There is absolutely no interesting, non-trivial, surprising event backing these exchanges. There's absolutely nothing strange about people trying to disrupt the meeting of the other party - I am sure that millions of Americans would like to do something like that. There is nothing shocking if someone succeeds and gets to the other meeting. There is nothing surprising if the organizers try to get rid of the potential sources of problems, and only completely hypocritical people could disagree. And there is nothing shocking about the ability to identify the political orientation of three women according to the T-shirts that use a very well-known propagandistic cliché.

I understand that thousands of killed US soldiers or Iraqi citizens may influence the result of the elections, but what I can't imagine is that this trivial non-event could influence the political opinion of a reasonable person. And I also don't understand why exactly this non-event became the content of Sean Carroll's (and my) article.

But what I find most disturbing is that some people - including the intelligent ones mentioned at the beginning - seem totally incapable to distinguish propaganda and spin from reality. More precisely, they are unable to distinguish the following two things:
  • T-shirts with a text involving civil liberties
  • Civil liberties

Come on, guys. These are two very different things! After the Czech president Václav Klaus watched Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11", he said:

"Those of us who have lived through the film propaganda of the Communist era are a bit overly sensitive to the tricks of the director."

Václav Klaus is obviously not the only one who is surprised how Moore's movie could be so popular. You know, the propaganda in the Nazi and communist regimes was a whole industry. Sometimes it was primitive, sometimes it had to be sophisticated. In the latter case, it was probably much more sophisticated than the work of Michael Moore, but certainly more sophisticated than the T-shirts.

Some people (not only) in the States - especially on the academic left wing - just seem to be totally incapable to subtract the spin from the partisan descriptions of various events and non-events, and reach a realistic understanding. If someone has a T-shirt with "Civil Liberties", they immediately think that the person is a big ally of civil liberties. And I guess, if they knew that Saddam Hussein declared the last elections (in which he got 100 percent of votes) to be a "unique manifestation of democracy in Iraq", they would probably conclude that there was unique democracy in Iraq.

All these things are just dumb. No event worth noticing has happened in South Oregon. Even if the organizers mis-identified the women (and they did not - the analysis of the organizers was right), but just imagine the more interesting case in which the women actually were conservative, it would remain a non-story about the decision of some irrelevant local organizers in an obviously complicated situation.

To use this non-story about three obviously provoking T-shirts as an argument to choose the president, it would seem a little bit over the edge to me.


  1. "No doubt, they are even trying to protect them outside the US borders"

    Two words

    Mahar Arar"On a stopover in New York as he was returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia in September 2002, U.S. officials detained Arar, claiming he has links to al-Qaeda, and deported him to Syria, even though he was carrying a Canadian passport."

    To date, not one single shred of evidence has been advanced that even suggests Arar had any connection to terrorism. Further, he was deported to Syria, where he was tortured, rather than Canada.

    To suggest that the Bush administration is advancing civil liberties for anybody, much less non-Americans is a sick joke.

  2. Irony appears to be a property totally outside the reference frame of those with certain political leanings.

  3. Grudgingly, I have to completely agree with you on the Oregan matter: much ado about nothing! (I had to write it because your simple observation was being mangled by some into something you never meant to fit pre-existing notions about you, which is grossly unfair.) There are other things to be worried about, not this.

    Speaking generally about propaganda, it is interesting to note that what is viewed as a source of 'news' by some is viewed as mouthpiece of 'propaganda' in a different part of the world. And I am not talking Pravda here! Hey, sometimes even within a country people might disagree if there is a media bias or not :) Our 'blind spots' often influence what we think is right.

    But you might say, there is one objective reality/truth. I agree. I just don't know how one can ever know it, except perhaps by listening to the different 'versions' and trying to weed out the cultural and personal prejudices. In my experience, I think this is nearly impossible unless one lives among the people, listened and understood them 'unfiltered'. One cannot appreciate the differences reading from books, or newspapers (and definitely not TV). (I found this personally to be the case after having lived in a few countries and having talked to people from several countries about their view of the world.)

    But no one has the time/energy and (maybe even the wisdom?) to do that.

    Thus, even though the world is 'connected', people are still less appreciative of other's viewpoint.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same :(

  4. This is such a common non-event too! When President Bush visited a school, a school student was escorted out for wearing a T-shirt with an objectionable slogan! Why do people make such a big deal about it?

  5. I really do find myself a somewhat naturally left leaning, or perhaps libertarian thinker.

    However, the academic content of the academic left (pun) is beginning to really irratate me.

    I think a lot of our dissatisfaction (as scientists) for some of these people began sometime around the start of the science wars.

    Here we had full proffessors in sociology, womens studies, psychology, history etc advocating complete jibberish. Obviously it goes counter to the fundamental dogma of what we are about as intellectuals.

    However, that trend has continued, and perhaps worsened.
    With the rise of the PC movement, we are now in an age of conspiracy theories and propaganda. And frankly, I see most of that coming from the left.

    Now one would think the academic left would abandon such notions, as being precisely opposite to everything they have historically been against. At least, that was always what I felt we were supposed to be about. We were the ones who were supposed to be unblemished by faith, and instead cater to logic and reason. I fear that was just a pipe dream now.

    I think a lot of people need to stop taking these matters so seriously, sit back and try to analyze things from the oppositions standpoint. I can nearly always convince myself that in any political debate, the other side often does indeed have somewhat of a valid point, even if its lurking in the background. For this reason, I respect the majority of our public servants, I can often see their point of view, even if I disagree with them.

  6. 1. What is a provocateur?

    A provocateur is "a secret agent who incites suspected persons to commit illegal acts". People wearing T-shirts with slogans "Protect civil liberties" are inciting which people to commit what illegal acts? In which alternate universe?

    2. What is funny talking about propaganda machines trying to use anything for those goals, Vaclav Klaus saying Fahrenheit 9/11 is propaganda, etc.?

    Well, I went to find the newspaper to whom Vaclav Klaus made that comment. I found this . And it linked to a Slate article. The following is from the Slate article:

    Fahrenheit 9/11 must be viewed in the context of the Iraq occupation and the torrent of misleading claims that got us there. It must be viewed in the context of Rush Limbaugh repeating the charge that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered in Fort Marcy Park, or laughing off the exposure of Valerie Plame when, had this been a Democratic administration, he'd be calling every day for the traitor's head. It must be viewed in the context of Ann Coulter calling for the execution of people who disagree with her. It must be viewed in the context of another new documentary, the superb The Hunting of the President, that documents—irrefutably—the lengths to which the right went to destroy Bill Clinton. Moore might be a demagogue, but never—not even during Watergate—has a U.S. administration left itself so open to this kind of savaging.
    Michael Moore asked questions that needed to be asked, but were not. He did not ask all that he could have.

    For instance, Carmen bin Laden, a former sister-in-law of Osama bin Laden, and one with inside knowledge of the bin Laden family has a book, that only recently was published in English and only recently has come to American consciousness. But she says that the bin Laden brothers have always supported each other, financially and socially. When Osama dies, he'll certainly be replaced.

    For instance, Yousuf Deedat is a South African Islamist activist. Deedat is supported financially by the bin Laden family. Deedat is a vociferous supporter of Osama bin Laden. There are other numerous such Islamic organizations that are, on the one hand, funded by prominent Saudis such as the bin Laden family, and that, on the other hand, support Osama bin Laden.

    Can one say with any confidence that the bin Laden family has really no ties with Osama bin Laden?

    For instance, in Bob Woodward's book, it is narrated that Bandar "Bush", the Saudi ambassador, was briefed on US war plans in Iraq even before the Secretary of State, Collin Powell.

    It is only prudent and natural to ask how compromised is the President? Can he make decisions that are in America's best interests, without bowing to Saudi pressure? It is unseemly if he keeps his ties with the bin Laden family, and is a conflict of interest. Saying these things is not unpatriotic, not subversive, not propaganda, and not left-wing.

    -Arun Gupta

  7. Come on, Arun. ;-) If you really don't know what a provocateur is, look at


    An agent provocateur (plural: agents provocateurs) is a person assigned to provoke unrest, violence, debate, or argument by or within a group while acting as a member of the group but covertly representing the interests of another. In general, agents provocateurs seek to secretly disrupt a group's activities from within the group. ...

    No doubt, these women are *textbook examples* of what the word "provocateur" means.

    I am a bit confused by your defense of Michael Moore's movie. It lists a lot of very unrelated events that must be considered simultaneously in the same context. Well, I am not really getting it. Michael Moore's movie is an exceptional propagandistic movie, and I am not aware of anyone comparable who is doing the opposite type of film propaganda in the world today.

    Well, if you talk about Ann Coulter's books, there are other books that they can be compared with - like those written by the stupid big fat white man. There are many politically biased books, but there are not too many politically biased movies.

  8. Lubos, I thought you and your right-wing friends might enjoy this, from
    a Michael Moore rally:

    "A quick note on tonight’s show in Fairmont, West Virginia: Plenty of protesters were there, which made for some unpredictable but entertaining moments with Mike’s off-the-cuff responses as sharp as ever. As Mike like’s to say “unlike Bush rallies, you don’t need to sign a loyalty oath to get in to our rallies. Everyone is welcome.”

    These protesters were pretty loud -- and insensitive (they booed families of soldiers in Iraq, including two small children). As usual, Mike had a good back-and-forth with them, with the Republicans usually the butt of his jokes. These Bush supporters got up, marched around the arena with a Bush/Cheney sign and refused to leave. That is, until the million-dollar question was asked. Mike pulled out recruitment forms and suggested that since they felt so strongly about the War in Iraq, they might be willing to sign up for the military and go fight it themselves. The crowed erupted. “C’mon!” “Sign up!” “Have fun in Fallujah!” Their enthusiasm was dampened, to say the least. Defeated, they quietly made their way to the nearest exit to chants of "na na na na... na na na na... hey heyyy... Goodbye!" And that was the last we saw of our Republican friends."