Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

When Orwell is read like a how-to guide

The Think Progress Wonk Room blog posted yesterday about the advocacy activities of the orgnaization “Americans for Prosperity,” and in particular, its president, Tim Phillips. To give you a sense:

The rate at which the Koch Industries funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) churns out front groups to promote its right-wing corporate agenda sets the organization out among similar conservative “think tanks.” This week, AFP created their latest front group called “Patients United Now,” an entity set up to defeat health care reform. Patients United follows a familiar pattern AFP has used for their other front groups: create a new stand alone website, fill it with lines like “We are people just like you” to give the site a grassroots feel, and then use the new group to recruit supporters and run deceptive advertisements attacking reform. This “astroturfing” model has been used by AFP to launch groups pushing smears against other progressive priorities:

– The “Hot Air Tour” promoting global warming skepticism and attacking environmental regulations.
– “Free Our Energy,” a group promoting increased domestic drilling.
– The “Save My Ballot Tour,” a group that pays Joe the Plumber to travel around the country smearing the Employee Free Choice Act.
– “No Climate Tax,” a group dedicated to the defeat of Clean Energy Economy legislation.
– “No Stimulus,” a group launched to try to stop the passage of the Recovery Act.

There’s a definite line between finding common interests and bald-facedly manipulating people. It’s playing on an assumption of what Orwell might call the anesthetized brain. Through perverting the meaning of phrases that we don’t even think critically about anymore–that we allow to induce pavlovian positive or negative reactions–such efforts conspire against our very ability to reason.

See the AFP’s about page for a case in point:

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP Foundation) are committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process. AFP is an organization of grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets on the local, state and federal levels. The grassroots members of AFP advocate for public policies that champion the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint.

As I mentioned way back in my second post, I’m taking as an elective an airy course on “campaigns” at the public policy school. These methods are spoken of in awed tones, though in talking about their own side’s use of them they make a big fuss about their motives being pure. But even if I agree with the cause, (and I agree with most of the aims of most of the campaigns they’ve told us about working on), I find deeply problematic the position one has to put oneself in to justify this persuasion-as-manipulation. I also think that with the democratized fact-checking power that people are becoming aware is now available, one is, by glossing, playing with fire. People can be manipulated, but people hate finding out they’ve been manipulated.

If an idea is worth accepting, which my professors seem genuinely to think was the case with those campaigns they’ve worked on, let it speak for itself. Give it a loudspeaker, but let it speak for itself. This position was articulated very persuasively by Mark Halperin in his book “The Way to Win“, which we were assigned, but which our professors steared clear of discussing explicitly in class. That kind of publically evident critical reflection is the difference between the well-intentioned and the hacks.


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