Saturday, August 13, 2005

Creative smearing 101

David Horowitz's increasingly sad cyber-rag has recently produced an article that towers above the usual dreary FPM fare: it would make a superbly useful handout, indeed, in a university class on the art of propaganda. Were it not for the source one might suspect a kind of subtle satire, given the glaringly crude tricks of language and assertion deployed. It's well worth reading as a classic of its kind.

Let's start with the title, "Exploiting the Dead." What could Ben Johnson, Managing Editor no less of the e-zine in question, be referring to? Is this a reference to 9/11, shamefully misused by the Bush Administration to rally the nation to war in Iraq? Or could it mean honking about the noble sacrifices of soldiers sent overseas on false pretences, as in: "But [Casey Sheehan’s] death was an act of patriotism and human compassion, one which should tinge her understandable maternal grief with deep pride"?

Well, no: we're talking Casey's Mom here, Cindy Sheehan, anti-war and mad as hell about the loss of her son. The woman presently camped out near the Bush ranch.

Here's how the piece begins: "Antiwar extremist Cindy Sheehan...." "Extremist?" Well, it's code, setting a benchmark: Johnson considers opposition to the war by a bereaved mother to be "extreme." Indeed, one might be forgiven for suggesting that, in context, the phrase "antiwar extremist" is probably tautological. Anything other than somnambulistic assent to Bush's foreign adventures has to be "extreme" to the FrontPage crowd: everything's relative, after all.

But moving on a little, we come to this: the mainstream media, we are informed, have failed to recognize Sheehan's "long history of extremist rhetoric, her close association with far-Left and anti-Semitic figures, or the way she has seemingly rewritten her own history." Now, "seemingly" is stock ass-covering stuff, referring in this case, no doubt, to the false impression deliberately created by Matt Drudge in his selective editing of Sheehan earlier. But such weasel-words, including "apparently," and "possibly," sometimes in combination, are slipped in here and there throughout the text when Johnson has no facts to back him up.

That's a side-issue, though: one's appetite is thoroughly whetted by the references to "extremist rhetoric" (that e-word again), and her "close association" with sinister figures--including antisemitic ones. Reading on with anticipation, this is what we get.

Not buying the exhortation to be "proud" of her son’s death, Sheehan has involved herself in "shrill, anti-Bush and anti-American activism." Note the gender codeword "shrill," invariably applied to women who insist on speaking out in protest. She presently "spouts extremist rhetoric alongside many of the Hate America Left's most potent bomb-throwers." "Bomb-throwers?" Surely Johnson is being figurative. Most likely in this case it's a calculated use of connotative language, suggestively linking anti-war activists to terrorism, although the expression occasionally refers to the very type of over-the-top writing that Johnson himself is eagerly deploying.

Sheehan, Johnson assures us, manifests nothing less than a "hatred of President George W. Bush." How is that "hatred" expressed? Well, she had the temerity to suggest that Bush stole the election in 2000. Yup, that's about it. Hatred exemplified. Johnson maybe senses that he doesn't have much here, so he hurries on, referring to Sheehan's "antiwar animus." Why can't people simply be opposed to the war? No, they have to have an animus, by which I take it Johnson is not referring to the Roman notion of the rational soul, but rather to "a feeling of ill will arousing active hostility." She's obviously aroused it in him.

Further on we have this: Sheehan "has taken advantage of her status as an aggrieved mother to spread her poisonous brand of far-Left politics." It couldn't be, of course, that losing her son to the Bush war machine might have enhanced her anti-war beliefs just a tad? No, she's cynically putting the death of her own son to use. Leftists don't have feelings; they have agendas. It all comes down to a character issue, as we've seen throughout the right half of the blogosphere over the past few days: since no one can genuinely believe leftist ideas, there's something morally suspect about anyone who utters them. So, later on, we are told that Sheehan uses "her son’s coffin as a political soapbox" (nice metaphoric image, there, Ben). Her grief can’t possibly be genuine: she’s clearly not interested in Casey except as a prop for her own "extremist" views.

But Johnson excels even more when it comes to making associations, an essential element in the propagandist's repertoire. It seems that Sheehan once endorsed a left-wing initiative to keep military recruiters away from high school student directories in San Francisco. There is apparently some law against denying such access, but this, says Johnson, did not deter her or her "ideological comrades." Hmm, "comrades." Isn't that what Commies used to call each other? Why, yes! And then there's Medea Benjamin, "mastermind behind the violent anti-World Trade Center riots in Seattle," who "enjoys a close working relationship with Cindy Sheehan as part of the professional antiwar fringe." Ah, those masterminds on the fringes. In the shadows. Skulking. Then this:

Benjamin's anti-American foreign policy views are seemingly shared by Kathy Kelly, with whom Cindy shared the stage during antiwar protests.

Let's situate Sheehan here: she appears on the same stage as a person who "seemingly" has the same views as the mastermind. She (Kelly, not Sheehan) has "spoken at numerous campuses, often with radical Islamists, and has supported the Nicaraguan Sandanistas [sic]." So this means that Sheehan is now connected to radical Islamists, admittedly through a degree or two of separation. Then we have her close ties to the notorious anti-war radical David Fenton. Sheehan once appeared in an anti-Bush commercial--which was distributed by Fenton Communications (gasp). And some of her statements are distributed by an organization called the Institute for Public Accuracy, which is a member of the United for Peace and Justice organization, which was founded by--a Communist! A few more degrees of separation there, but no matter. Johnson’s on a roll.

He gets more creative as he goes along. Sheehan "appears" to be "possibly" advocating that soldiers in the field disobey their officers. How so? By saying, "Refuse to kill innocent people." This must be encouraging mutiny, because "no U.S. officer can legitimately order" innocent people killed. That speaks for itself, and no further commentary is needed. But where Johnson rises brilliantly to his occasion is in his accusation of antisemitism.

Beginning with the sub-head "Blame the 'Murderous Thugs' (Jews)," he refers to a comment that Sheehan made, as follows:

[M]y first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC [Project for the New American Century] Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel.

This, Johnson suggests, links pretty well to "the line taken by David Duke and his ilk." May I suggest another source, Ha'aretz? Perhaps not even Johnson would be so intrepid as to accuse a prominent Israeli newspaper of antisemitism--although, with him, you can't really be sure. In any case, this is followed by Sheehan's quoted comments about Paul Wolfowitz ("[I]s there yet any sane adult in this country whose skin does not crawl when this murderous liar opens his mouth and speaks?") and the US administration generally: "Our country has been overtaken by murderous thugs....gangsters who lust after fortunes and power." Johnson’s simply stellar conclusion:

It is possible her target is "merely" capitalism. But her vicious rhetoric leaves open the possibility that she makes room at her altar of hatred for Jews, as well.

That one leaves me speechless.

But he doesn't stop there. Sheehan, in a press scrum, apparently "took a question" from a genuinely shadowy far-right journalist, Greg Szymanski. Well, cheer up, Cindy: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used to take questions from Dan Rather.

Interspersed with a dossier of damning evidence like that, Johnson finds time to indulge in that all-too-common right-wing substitute for argument, gratuitous insult. Even her voice is mocked ("Cindy, like, totally sounds like she's from Vacaville"), while reference is made to her "venomous vacuity," and that obligatory rightist recognition code "moonbat" is inserted into the text as well.

Then the crowning chutzpah on Johnson's part: with a flourish, he brings up the Cherie Quarterolo email, the one allegedly from a pack of grandparents, aunts, uncles and (my favourite) "numerous cousins," reminding me, for no good reason, of Rabbit's innumerable friends and relations, mostly unnamed as well.

But here's the good bit: the email states, in part, "The rest of the Sheehan Family supports the troops, our country, and our President, silently, with prayer and respect." "Thank goodness," Johnson says, with the straightest of faces, "someone in the Sheehan family puts family, country, and dignity above political motivation." Support for Bush, in other words, is part of the natural order of things, not political in the least. Only the Left has politics. Are we seeing here the first glimmer of a new piece of code? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there is this to Ben Johnson's credit, and it deserves in fairness to be highlighted: he seems to have little time for the arguments that allege diminished capacity on Sheehan’s part. Bravo, and I mean it: he doesn't call her "insane," or paint her as a helpless tool in the hands of sinister others, but instead does her the honour of treating her as a fully-fledged moral agent.

Only that, of course, could be the foundation for his lengthy McCarthyist smear, complete with emotive language, weasel-wording and guilt by association. But perhaps he might be urged to exercise a little caution, at least in the latter respect. No one, including himself, can avoid being found guilty with such a broad-brush technique. Remember, we're all six handshakes away from Osama bin Laden.

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