White Supremacy and Propaganda: Fracturing Truth
The rally held by white supremacists, fascists, and Nazis in Charlottesville stunned and enraged people the world over. The egregious display of violent bigotry elicited non-partisan condemnation by citizens and governments, with the glaring exception of a president who instead chose to equivocate genocidal white-supremacists with leftist counter-protesters. But why have the events of the “Unite the Right” rally created such profound shock waves? The cold-blooded slaying of IWW member Heather Heyes undoubtedly plays a major role. However, the collective horror expressed runs much deeper than an abhorrence of racism and bloodshed. Racial bigotry and murder is historically omnipresent in Western civilization, and the majority of us have either accepted it as inescapable or chosen to ignore it altogether. Thus we have, for the most part, become a cynically apathetic people for whom progress is a lost cause. We leave the protesting and the civil rights to the select few who devote themselves entirely to activism, and every once in a while we make a politically-charged Facebook status. Charlottesville, however, seemed to shake us from our indifference and push many back into the political sphere. A week after the Unite the Right rallies, a small right-wing protest in Boston was met by a whopping 30 000 counter-protestors. So what changed? Why is it that the face of the enemy, a screaming white supremacist carrying a Tiki torch and sporting a swastika on his shirt shakes us much more deeply than unjust police shootings and imperialist wars? Arguably it is because a Neo-Nazi is a clearer, simpler enemy than institutionalized racism. To dismantle the latter we must ask innumberable complex questions, we must shake off the comforts of tradition, and we must examine what part we play in oppressive systems. When we confront Neo-Nazis, a simple, fundamental question arises:
“How in the hell can these people still exist?”
Indeed, it is a puzzling question with many offshoots. In the face of so much evidence across virtually every scientific and philosophical discipline, how can a group of people proclaim racial supremacy? How can these people insist that every societal woe can be chalked up to a shadowy ring of Jewish “cultural Marxists”? How can these people be prepared to kill and die in the streets of the United States of America in the name of such egregiously false concepts? These questions frustrate us beyond belief because they are without a logical answer. Nazis don’t require logic to justify their assumptions: they need only anecdotal experiences and blind anger. And when they are inevitably presented with contradictory evidence, they respond by invoking notions of propaganda.
What Is Propaganda?
The term comes from the latin propagare, meaning to spread or propagate. The modern usage of the term is derived from the Congregation For Propagating the Faith, a wing of the Catholic church founded in 1622 with the express purpose of spreading Catholicism to foreign countries. Gradually, it became a term which denoted any information that is used to influence individuals and explicitly further an ideological agenda. This information could be disseminated through any medium and by any actors, making “propaganda” an extremely wide category. It was not until the 20th century that the definition of propaganda began took on another dimension, becoming a pejorative term where it was once politically neutral. Where propaganda had once been considered bias information that could be true or false, the term has come to mean any information that spreads untruth for a political purpose. The problem with the latter definition is that, while it seems to be more specific, it actually widens the concept of propaganda to such a degree that it may refer to anything an individual believes to be untrue. In today’s postmodern political atmosphere — one which privilege’s subjective views of truth and the “entitlement” to one’s opinion — this definition has profound ramifications that greatly undermine our societal conception of truth.
All information is political. Bias is unavoidable; its effects can only be minimized. None of our discourses can be untethered completely from our fundamental conceptions of right and wrong, which in turn form the foundations of political life. What is politics other than a swirling, endless debate over what is right and what is wrong? That is not to say that we don’t agree or reach conclusions. The vast majority of us would agree that murder is morally wrong. We may then extend that to argue that abortion is wrong because it might be considered murder. However, we might invoke biological science to debate whether a fetus constitutes a life, and thus whether abortion may be considered murder. Here we see the way in which scientific knowledge, usually considered apolitical, becomes inherently politically charged. So when we rightly recognize information as political and inevitably biased in some way, and when we disagree with that information, the easiest way to reply is to label the information propaganda. In doing so we accuse the methods by which the information was gathered as being purposefully myopic and impure, and thus casting doubt upon the legitimacy of the claim. Though labelling information ‘propaganda’ doesn’t logically refute an argument, the current definition of propaganda as “untruth” essentially allows one to condemn opposing evidence as manufactured, conspiratorial lies. Invoking propaganda allows one to claim that any information, regardless of the source or methods, has been entirely invented by opposing political actors seeking to push an agenda. The propaganda argument represents the epitome of post-truth society.
White Supremacy, Propaganda, and Opposition
Although the tired slogan “facts not feelings” is usually meant to criticize left-leaning activists, the cliché rings especially true when applied to far-right white-supremacists. Declarations of propaganda are usually supported by an appeal to allegory. When presented with evidence of racial equality for example, a racist individual might reply: “I’ve lived in Southside Chicago, I saw blacks killing each other all the time, so clearly they are more violent than whites.” The holes in this argument are obvious and easily refuted — one could discuss a whole host of socioeconomic issues that might account for this individual’s experience, but one needs only show their adversary a biology textbook in order to demonstrate that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever linking behavioral traits to race. But what does one do when every statistic, every study, and every scholar is referred to as “propaganda”? How does one reply to the assertion that any information opposing the beliefs of a white-supremacist is immediately dismissed as a grand charade invented by a shadowy ring of communist Jewish bankers to further their Zionist conquest?
At this point, any conversation is essentially over. White supremacists who refer to the well-established scientific facts contradicting their views as propaganda effectively discard notions of truth, and with it they discard rationality. It then follows that to become a white-supremacist, one must necessarily renounce truth and rationality in favor of the propaganda argument. If the Neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville accepted fact, they’d be forced to accept that their beliefs stem solely from hatred rather than their racial and intellectual superiority. This is why debating fascists and white supremacists is often an exhausting if not impossible task. They will relentlessly cling to their version of reality whilst accusing their adversaries of ignorance and dogmatism. It is also one of the many reasons why the tactic of ‘ignoring’ white supremacists fails. Those who constantly invoke notions of propaganda to refute their opponents do not require a clear and present enemy; they have already invented one. Should a KKK rally go unopposed, the white-supremacists will not come to the realization that their enemies are in fact their equals. Today’s discourses are flooded with widely-recognized information that already proves this to be the case! They will not denounce hatred and burn their robes simply because an enemy does not arrive with clattering shields and spears! The enemy of a 21st century white-supremacist is a shadowy one: an evil that at once lurks in the shadows and controls the light. When all is quiet on the Western front, the fascists and white-supremacists are not anxious or embarrassed, because for those that drape themselves in swastikas and Confederate flags, the absence of opposition is evidence of opposition. When the enemy is truth, everything is propaganda.