What If Propaganda Were Cool?

A recent article in The New Republic about the motivational art by Hugh Macleod commissioned for tech start-ups demonstrates an almost-antidote to its more buttoned-down corporate counterparts that are so often and easily parodied. Macleod’s back-of-the-business-card doodles can be a bracing anti-boardroom aesthetic, like this one done for Microsoft.

But it’s hard not to look at Macleod’s drawings and sloganeering and wonder whether, the bold snark aside, his work is much different in outcome from the bland aphoristics he so effortlessly departs from. Indeed, there’s a kind of bullying to some of these, a hipper-than-thou aspect to the work ethic that makes the demand on workers in a startup environment all the more invidious.

I bring this up because of my familiarity with propaganda, particularly when it comes to motivating the labor force. In the absence of rational market motivators (that is, salaries and other negotiable, fungible or tangible aspects, especially in Communist states), the employer must rely on other factors.   

In North Korea, for example, citizens work five days a week and “volunteer” most of the other two days. Officially closed to the outside, the country is awash in motivational slogans common to autarkic economies, where the only means to drive the labor force are mass organization, the threat of punishment, and hortatory sloganeering (“Carrying on despite the hardships!”).Here is an example of a North Korean propaganda display as recreated by the French-Canadian artist Guy Delisle, who worked in the country during the mid part of the last decade. You can find it in his book Pyongyang.  It reads “Forging Ahead into the 21st Century!”:

To demonstrate my concern about Macleod’s illustrations, I’ve taken one of his drawings and slogans commissioned for the Texas-based cloud computing firm Rackspace and repurposed it. Originally this simply reads “Fanatical Support!” in English (probably for Rackspace’s tech support unit, an otherwise laudable trait to encourage, I admit). I ran the words through Google Translator into Korean and placed them in the same place next to the original drawing (my apologies to Korean readers for any inelegancies in the translation or layout). I think this demonstrates the peculiarity of the doodle:

Seen through this prism, Macleod’s drawings and slogans begin to take on a more sinister light.

Here again I have taken only minor liberties with another one of Macleod’s commissioned posters. Originally done for HP’s cybersecurity division, I cut away the reference to HP and repurposed it for a fictional Thought Police division in a modern Oceania from George Orwell’s 1984, complete with universal resource locator (don’t try to click on it, it won’t work). The drawing and the rest of the text are original:

I’ll link here some additional Macleod posters that follow in this disturbing vein. But now, all images and text are original, no changes have been made. Imagine this one with a Thought Police shield emblazoned on it:

Or this one from the Ministry of Plenty:

I found this last poster particularly disturbing. I could only recall the slogan greeting inmates at the Vorkuta labor camp in Siberia, which reads, “Labor in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, pride and heroism.” Nothing about a salary or a decent standard of living. (Of course, it was the gulag.) Macleod is trying to suggest that the reader is working towards some higher purpose, which is often the case in a start-up culture. But so was the entire socialist experiment. Nonetheless, Macleod’s line could easily have been put in the mouth of some bluntly honest zek 70 years ago. So could this, maybe:

What makes motivation posters in the standard vein so annoying is their unironic tone. For a lot of people, work is a chore, and only the paycheck makes up for it. That is, when you think about it, the genius of the market system. When you think about that a little deeper, asking anything more from people less than freely given is exploitative. The Soviets finally understood this when, after about a generation of exploiting their workers for the greater glory of Socialism, the workers realized a better life was not waiting for them and the entire economy more or less came to a halt. (“They pretend to pay us,” a common joke went at the time, “and we pretend to work.”)

In the end there really isn’t much difference between the various forms of motivational art, whether they’re for blunt propaganda purposes or the hipper profit motive. Unless, of course, they’re tied to something real, tangible, and achievable. (Lexus’ internal motto was “Beat Benz,” and they very nearly did.) Since that real thing is in the future, it’s not always clear whether you’re being hoodwinked or properly led.  It’s up to your judgment to determine whether forgoing something real in the here and now – like a paycheck – is worth the effort for a something greater at a later time – like fantastically lucrative stock options. At some basic level, that’s the nature of risk. But it’s an unnerving prospect nonetheless. Not all start-ups become Facebook. Many become Pets.com.

But my larger point here is about the uneasy relationship between politics and art. Motivation art, like propaganda, demands something from its viewers. It’s easy to forget that for a few decades, at least, socialism and its associated arts were considered the vanguard – purposefully forging new men and new societies – by both those in the Communist bloc and left-leaning intellectuals in the West.  Today we can smirk at the crude propaganda of North KoreaCuba or Iran. But what if they weren’t so crude? What if their propaganda were as winky and fun as a Super Bowl advertisement? Would we be able to tell the difference?

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How to Watch Propaganda

Certain parts of the blogosphere are atwitter about China’s announcement that it has commenced flight tests aboard its first commissioned aircraft carrier.  You can watch this five-minute newscast on the PLA Navy’s Liaoning from CCTV:

I’m personally less alarmed, and as this post will indicate far more skeptical of Chinese claims, than others by China’s growing military modernization. A single operational carrier of this type places China on par with other medium powers such as France, Great Britain, Brazil, Thailand, Spain, India and Italy, all of which deploy at least one carrier. Italy and Spain both have two. China wants two by 2015, four by 2020. That means one thing if China contributes to regional stability as it has off the coast of East Africa. It means something else if the country continues to squabble over rocks in the South China Sea.

Others are better suited to point out the strategic and operational significance of the new Chinese carrier.  Nonetheless, some background is required. China has long expressed a desire to develop an aircraft carrier and saw an opportunity when it bought the ex-Varyag, a former Soviet vessel built in the 1980s and transferred to Ukraine. Non-operational, essentially a hull, China bought it for $25 million in 1998 and hauled the hulk, harrowingly, from the Black Sea to China over the course of 2000 to 2002 for refitting during the next decade.

But I hold no ambivalence about China’s triumphant unveiling of their achievement: the bold television debut of the Liaoning‘s seaborne fighter squadron is a put-up job and a farce, more video aspiration of what the country would like to be very soon rather than what it actually is today.

And herein lies a lesson in real propaganda. A close viewing demonstrates how much mileage Central China Television (CCTV, the state-run broadcaster) could get out of so little real footage; how little of their naval hand they showed for all that bluster. Only someone with experience in naval affairs or video editing (hopefully both) can parse what’s really being seen — or more specifically, what’s being allowed to be seen — on the Liaoning.

At first glance — and especially if you don’t speak or read Mandarin Chinese, as I admit I don’t (but this isn’t nearly as important, remember, as what the video shows) — the ship is a dynamo. It’s shown underway at sea, then as a hive of activity with sailors scouring the flight deck. Then the aircraft: a J-15 (a carrier version of the J-11, and a Chinese copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier aircraft), approaches for the landing. Following that, another aircraft takes off from the flight deck, and then there is a lot of pirouetting of aircraft and flight personnel waving arms before the segment ends.

Let’s be clear about exactly what the viewer really sees.  Most of the long views of the Liaoning are of an empty flattop. At no time are there more than two aircraft on the flight deck. I am willing to assert that this newscast documents no more than one landing of one aircraft (#552) and one launch of another aircraft (#553). Cutting together footage of three cameras shooting the landing of a single aircraft can make it look as though multiple landings occurred. One sequence (shot of aircraft #552 I believe) is made to look like a launch, but the carrier deck is nowhere to be seen, so I think this was a shot of a flyby. I believe that aircraft #553 was likely preloaded for launch from shore. At no time do we see more of the ship below decks, use of the elevator, the hangar deck, or the air traffic control center (“the island”). We have no sense of how far the ship is out to sea. It’s quite possible the carrier is within sight of shore.

This fairly and in practical terms defines what I mean by propaganda. CCTV is China’s state-run television – there is no other media allowed in the country without censorship – and it is directed entirely for the benefit of the state. Although appearing to be fairly straightforward reporting about an advance in China’s naval arms, a frame-by-frame analysis demonstrates this is an artful exercise in falsification, fabrication and obfuscation. Although I can’t understand the narration (which, nonetheless, includes no interviews), a reasonable guess would include veiled or direct references to rivals in the Pacific Rim. And with that my definition would be complete.

To get another sense of how state-run media propagandizes, you can watch the entire, exhausting CCTV documentary on the Chinese Shenzhou manned space program produced and released with dubbing and subtitling in English.  It’s a feat that something as legitimately exciting as manned space exploration can be as dull as this series. But again it’s at least as revealing about the nature of state media and propaganda in a country like China to see what they release for the Western public. Of course nothing goes wrong, everything goes perfectly well (except the weather, which of course the Chinese meteorologists predict).   The taikonauts are China’s strongest and the best, their positive feelings never waiver. But in the end, virtually the entire “documentary” relating to the mission itself – including the launch sequence, flight and recovery – is computer-animated. It’s not like the producers didn’t have the time – this documentary is dated a full year after Shenzhou 7’s maiden flight. There’s no explanation except for the regime’s paranoia and instinct for secrecy.

This isn’t to claim China didn’t fly, just that there is far more the country wants to hide than it wants to share. An historical analog for this is the first Soyuz launch, which was organized in secret and caught the world by surprise.  Virtually the entire flight profile was hidden from the public until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To maintain the people’s faith, and to show strength to the rest of the world, no cracks in the façade of regime competence must show.

By contrast, the Mercury program inaugurated the American civilian space program in full daylight – in Tom Wolfe’s words, “the greatest death-defying hell-driver stunt ever broadcast” – and Neil Armstrong landed Eagle on the moon with a billion people watching on Earth. Even the U.S. Navy’s greatest recruitment ad ever produced, Top Gun, showed more launch-and-recovery operations than CCTV revealed from the Liaoning. The 1986 film’s plot hinged on some throwaway melodrama — the squadron’s best aviator loses his nerve after being lit up by an adversary — a kind of weakness impossible to imagine on Chinese television.

You can watch much of this on at least two CCTV channels contracted by Verizon cable at least in my region in the United States. RT has two channels on Verizon as well, one in English, the other in Spanish. Their offerings are about the same as each other.  Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has cut broadcasts to China and Russia, so they can’t even get unfiltered, bias-free, US-funded news broadcasting in those countries anymore.

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The Problem of Propaganda

Hoang Nhat Thong (left) and Viet Khang (via http://www.nguoi-viet.com)

Last week, the Vietnamese government sentenced two musicians on the charge of “anti-state propaganda,” apparently the first case in recent memory that Hanoi imprisoned artists under the charge. But within the month the government put on trial three writers on the same charge of “anti-state propaganda,” so the accusation is clearly not a new one.  Vietnam is still a one-party state in the Chinese mold; while similarly opening up its economy, the government still maintains tight control over all communications and the arts.

The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.
This leads me to the particular charge of “anti-state propaganda,” an Orwellian construction which is common in Communist or post-Communist states such as Vietnam. It may seem peculiar to attack this particular epithet when the larger concern is for these artists’ and writers’ human rights. But when the charge for the “crime” involved includes the incendiary and imprecise word propaganda I think it is important to get involved in the semantics.The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.

Propaganda, like terrorism, is one of those post-modern words that has been used so often by so many to have lost any concrete popular meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t insist that it does have some real definition, especially when it is being abused to send people to prison by repressive governments.

We could begin by looking at its roots, which my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes dates to the 17th century, when Pope Gregory XV instituted a committee of Cardinals called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the congregation for the propagation of the faith. Commentators on propaganda often point to these origins and forget perhaps two critical aspects of the congregation. The first is the most obvious: the evangelical nature of the Church, which was dealing with the challenge of the Protestant Reformation at that time.

But most easily forgotten in our more secular age is the fact that even as late as the early 17th century the Catholic Church directly and indirectly ruled as a temporal power in Europe.  That is, the Church was a state.  This is important to my argument which will follow.

However, if you forget or choose to ignore that the Church was a state, then the roots of propaganda in state-mandated ideological propagation starts you on an entirely unproductive semantic path leading to today, when anybody or anything can be engaged in — or, more precisely, be accused of — propaganda.

It is distressing that the otherwise wholly moral scholarship of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which held a massive and disturbing exhibit for several years (ending in 2011) on Nazi propaganda, could not be more precise when it came to defining what propaganda is. Here is what they have on their exhibit web site:

“Scholars, journalists, and politicians have long argued about how to properly define propaganda and distinguish it from other forms of mass communication. Propaganda is biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.”

(Bold in the original.)  In this definition there may be lost on the visitor to the exhibit or the site an insight made by Hannah Arendt during one of the war crimes trials after World War II: this definition fails to take into account the particularly warped reality of the Third Reich. The Nazis not only controlled every aspect of communications, but every aspect of those communications were used to serve the state. “Bias,” in that context, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how the Nazis approached propaganda.

But outside the Nazi context the definition could very easily be applied to any other form of “mass communication,” from legitimate advertising, to social marketing, to newspaper editorials, to political communications. “Bias” is the key word here. It is the essence of any practical choice we face, especially in politics.  More specifically, when we attempt to persuade the public on any important matter — childhood vaccination, for example — aren’t we engaged in an inherently biased activity? (Do we give opponents of vaccination equal time?)  Or to put this more precisely: I am sure those Vietnamese musicians and writers demonstrated ample bias in their attempt to shape domestic public opinion and behavior against the government. (If they didn’t before, I’m doubly sure they do now.) Does that justify their trial and imprisonment on charges of “anti-state propaganda”?

The Memorial isn’t alone in its imprecision. This site includes a standard list derived from a ground-breaking work from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis done in the 1930s.  It includes some of the usual suspects — bandwagoning, plain folks appeals, fear, testimonial — and provides some examples of propaganda that includes Enron, Newt Gingrich, the John Birch Society and the Office of Strategic Information.

All of this makes me extremely uneasy, mostly because you could apply most, if not all, of these critiques to a series of highly effective vaccination public service announcements that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a few years ago. (Unfortunately, my combination of key word searches failed to pull them up.) They featured a series (bandwagoning) of grandparents (plain folks) with their grandchildren on their knees, talking about (testimonial) what it was like when they were children, losing friends and family to the diseases that ravaged kids at that time (fear). But then there was hope (glittering generalities): vaccines were developed to protect children, vaccines that protect their own grandchildren.  Is this propaganda?

The other list includes only one government agency (the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Information), with the possible exception of the Maoist International Movement which may be funded by the Chinese government. This, too, is disturbing. We may not like what Newt Gingrich has to say or the way he says it, but how does that make what he says propaganda?

This is the core of my argument and why I mentioned the crucial distinction that propaganda had its root in the Church as state. If a musician can be imprisoned for engaging in “anti-state propaganda” — and a definition provided by the Holocaust Memorial seems to support the government’s case, then our understanding of this word is corrupted.  Let me define propaganda down.

Propaganda is defined as:

Communications by a state or its directly control agents.

That deliberately and substantially distorts, misleads or lies,

Against a material or corporeal enemy.

There may be concerns about what we do about the “communications” of terrorist or quasi-state entities, or the lies that are admitted by political enemies. As with my argument about terrorism, we have other words for them. They are terrorists, or liars, or engage in libel or defamation. (Some of these are legal causes of action in their own right; propaganda is not.) These words may not be as satisfactory as propaganda, but we need to hold propaganda in reserve against those states that maintain a monopoly over communications to real effect — and, as we have seen with Hoang Nhat Thong and Viet Khang, to direct detrimental effect over individuals.

It goes without saying that these musicians and their writer cousins are not propagandists. But many in their country may not know anything else because only their government tells them what to think. We can change the way we think about what governments tell us, and the way we think about propaganda, and this is a good place to start.

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Islam and the West, a Positive Approach

Today I published an article on the protests seen in  the Muslim world over the controversial anti-Islamic video that went live in August. My article follows a previous post but expands on my work in public diplomacy and public opinion to provide a much more complex, nuanced and optimistic (!) examination of the state of affairs that we in the West face with the Islamic world. I wrote it to challenge the self-limiting conventional wisdom that has hardened not just around this particular incident but regarding the West’s relationship to the vast, plural Islamic world as well.

My thanks go to the editors at Small Wars Journal for publishing my article.

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The Incompleat Public Diplomacy Reader

When it comes to public diplomacy I am aware of no condensed reading list outside those assigned to the few academic programs in this country that teach the discipline formally, and even then I don’t have access to those syllabi.  In any event, I find most strictly academic reading lists to be limiting, not liberating, and when I was working in public diplomacy I found books and essays on advertising, photography, filmmaking and narrative journalism – not to say excellent specific representations of those things themselves – particularly important to illuminating and inspiring the work that I did.

That said, I’ll list here a thematic series of books that have helped me think through the problems of public diplomacy.  I do not claim that this list is definitive or exhaustive and I certainly encourage others to mount their own lists.  I always felt I never found what I wanted to read relating to visual media, for example, so I’m still looking and may add to this list at a further date.

Thinking Culturally

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West – A book so massive in its cultural ambition and scope that it is bound to have more detractors than defenders.  But to take the book for what it is, an heroic attempt to understand an entire country in its socio-historical situation, is to comprehend West’s project and to recognize that you probably will never know another country, including your own, as well as she did Yugoslavia. To try, then, as she did, is an effort we can admire and model.  I never traveled in the former Yugoslavia without my copy of this book, and I never found that it didn’t have something remarkably relevant to say to me.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith – I have cited Zadie Smith’s excellent essay on language before which could be a coda to her exuberant first novel, and this book could easily be a backstop to Richard Rodriguez’s series of essays cited below. But it’s just foreign enough to the American immigrant narrative to provide an all-important subjective insight into other cultures that requires thought about how others view themselves in the world. It is deeply sympathetic and humane, sad but also very funny, which allows the bitter lessons to go down a little more easily.

Thinking in Four Dimensions

The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig – When I write about thinking in four dimensions, I mean looking at physical places and understanding their evolution through time and history.  This provides both a deep and profoundly satisfying sense of place but also a humble sense of transience, recognizing that what is here or has come before us may not forever stand.  Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, published in 1943 by an unknown translator, is one of the most wonderful evocations of interwar Europe, its personalities and locations, that I have ever read.  It’s all the more redolent for knowing where Europe had been and where it (and Zweig) was going, but it’s no less beautiful for it. Zweig’s cultured ability to see deeply around him lends the book its magic.

Sketches from a Life, George F. Kennan – Diplomats of course read Kennan’s memoirs (and now his definitive biography), but this small collection of Kennan’s diaries collected over 70 years and nearly every continent is often overlooked.  Kennan was an obsessive diarist, but it is in these volumes that his ability to observe and recall detail is best displayed.  From his first attempts to describe post-war Hamburg as a junior officer to the desultory effects of a layover in Baghdad, he consistently demonstrates the importance of close and historical observation.  (I carried both of these books with me during a college hike through Europe.  They both survived and remain on my bookshelf.)

Thinking about America

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, John Steinbeck – Steinbeck’s essay America and Americans is justly famous and peculiarly rare in our attempts to understand who we are. Politicians like to do this often but do it well infrequently, and writers of Steinbeck’s stature (Orwell was another but did it for the British) usually don’t like to do it all for fear of being labeled a propagandist.  Nonetheless, Steinbeck’s usual humanity comes through and he captures an essential heroic American decency in this and other essays in this collection. To read his eulogy of Ed Ricketts, the model of Doc in Cannery Row, is to recognize the particular love for that special person known only in your community. To read his account of Ernie Pyle’s march to his death in the Pacific is to understand that to be a hero some men must do deadly, heroic things. And that in America we have these people, too.

Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez – I could easily recommend any other of Rodriguez’s books, but I include this specifically for capturing the complex, painful and sometimes comic reality of the modern American immigrant that I was familiar with growing up in California.  Our immigrant heritage is a common rhetorical trope understood around the world, but its stupendous diversity, dynamism and hard truths are often lost and even more importantly very difficult to communicate.  Rodriguez is one of the few essayists today identifying an emerging America that in its multifarious identity simply baffles most of the world.

Thinking about the Job

Russian Journal, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa – Steinbeck and Capa visited the Soviet Union soon after the end of World War II, with avowedly idealistic goals: both had covered the war (Capa had famously shot anti-fascist brigades in Spain and went ashore with the first wave on D-Day) and want to know more about our Allies.  It’s clear from their reporting that their Soviet minders did not see them the same way, viewing them variously as potential propagandists and threats as independent journalists.  There are lessons herein for the public diplomacy officer in how to treat professionals and also what that kind of professionalism reads and looks like (Capa’s wonderful photographs pervade throughout, providing some lessons in how to think visually).

Slightly Out of Focus, Robert Capa – This is Capa’s memoir primarily of World War II.  It is jaunty and slightly flippant given the subject matter, which may have been pro forma for the age (although his account of D-Day is terrifying, and it is a wonder he survived).  It provides little understanding of his approach to the visual medium.  But it does provide a whole lot of insight into working with handlers and minders and public affairs officers, what we might today call the embedding process. Capa had been exiled by the fascist government of Hungary prior to the war, but since he had not naturalized by the outbreak of hostilities he was treated as an enemy alien by most countries he traveled with and through as a combat correspondent. A lesson in how to treat the media. Capa, as an American citizen, was killed covering French forces in Indochina.

Thinking Visually

The Photographs, National Geographic – Public diplomacy isn’t nearly as visual as it could be, since usually that involves money (for advertising or other printed media), equipment (which you must know how to use) or PowerPoint (a horror), but in any case effective visual communication can make the media worth the effort and cost. National Geographic should be a mandatory subscription for every public diplomat, since the magazine has mastered the visual and narrative nexus of communicating complex socio-political and scientific issues. This book is a concise collection of the magazine’s photographs since virtually the technology was invented and is an astonishing inspiration for what can be conveyed with a camera.

The Definitive Collection, Robert Capa – Capa again. Others of course have their favorite portraitists – Annie Liebowitz, Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks come to mind – but I return to Capa for two reasons.  First, his humanity and compassion for his subjects, whom he invariably places with dignity in his frame. He once said “[i]f your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and I’ve come to understand that not just in terms of physical proximity but by emotional proximity. Second, he was a political photographer. He may not have admitted it, or even acknowledged it, but many of his images had a political intent and political effect.  It is important not only to be able to recognize that but to understand, acknowledge it, and recognize that it has its place.

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People – Rockwell was a serious scholar of art and was without peer as a narrative artist.  A close examination of his best work demonstrates just how much story you can pack between two vertical and two horizontal lines. This will give you some ambition (and humility) when documenting and recounting events.  Like Capa he was a political artist — and straight propagandist during the war — but in both cases he brought an extraordinary realism that is difficult to imagine and render. He’s also deeply respectful of his subjects, which makes him, I think, uniquely American in addition to strictly a popular artist.  Others again may have their favorites (Jacob Lawrence is another of mine), but he is an inimitable place to begin.

Thinking About Narrative

Advertisements have virtually replaced the short story or magazine serial as examples of popular narrative, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from them.  I have personally always loved the HSBC bank advertisements, produced by JWT, which often have an international cross-cultural focus that diplomats would find sympathetic. They can be quite funny or moving at times.

This one in particular, though, I’d like to highlight because it captures an entire Hero’s Journey — from leaving home, struggle, and failure to redemption, discovery and worldly success — in just a minute, entirely without language.  It could work probably in any linguistic or cultural context:


Similarly, anybody who has seen Pixar’s “WALL-E” knows what can be done entirely without words. The animated short “Lifted,” a similarly wordless narrative, demonstrates that an entire story can be told completely visually.  If you think I’m kidding, just mute this video:

The point of placing these two videos here — about as far removed as you might imagine from a list of books ostensibly about public diplomacy — is to demonstrate how to communicate effectively with visual and narrative elements. Think about your next PowerPoint presentation entirely visually, for example — PowerPoint is, at its base, simply a visual projection device — or your next memorandum purely as a story. These videos show you how compressed, complex, and compelling they can be.

Thinking About Language

Politics and the English Language, George Orwell – Routinely assigned to hapless undergraduates, this essay by Orwell is underestimated as an earnest, straightforward guide to good English prose. But more profoundly, it is part of Orwell’s larger critique of and reaction to political language following his experience during World War II that led, with a series of other essays, directly to Animal Farm and 1984. But it is the fundamental examination of political language that should concern us here, because that is what we are engaged in primarily with public diplomacy. His lessons are just as relevant to us now as they were to Britain then.

In Our Own Words, Sen. Robert Torricelli with Andrew Carroll – Nobody much remembers Robert Torricelli, who served a single term in the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, but he edited (with historian Andrew Carroll) probably the best single volume of American 20th century political rhetoric. From William Jennings Bryan’s well-known  “Cross of Gold” speech to the unheard words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared to take responsibility for failure at D-Day it is an astonishing and well-annotated collection of the American public word — a great and growing nation articulating itself to the world.

Thinking about Propaganda

The Commissar Vanishes, David King – This book appears only mildly and subtly disturbing at first, revealing itself mostly as a collection of original and doctored photographs documenting the years of Josef Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union.  But King’s extraordinary personal collection mounts to a massive indictment of historical obliteration executed by the paranoid megalomaniac who tried to erase all evidence of his rivals, temporal and metaphysical. King has heroically resurrected the ashheap of the memory hole: the eerily airbrushed or crudely blotted photographs, the rank propaganda, the “vaporized” leaders and bureaucrats who once enjoyed Stalin’s favor but crossed him and were erased from the historical record just as they were from life.  (The “commissar” of the title refers to the most famous non-person of all, Leon Trotsky.)  I list this extraordinary book, now out of print (you can see some of the King collection online here), to warn of how others may interpret what you produce and also to cast a skeptical eye on the work of other governments. (Today, they have Photoshop.)

State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda, Holocaust Memorial Museum – I saw this exhibit at the Memorial and found its blanket definition of propaganda too broad, but as an historical record it has few rivals. Again it is important to understand how regimes such as  Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Russia, China and Iran issue propaganda so that we do not recycle their tropes or techniques. This may not seem to be a danger, but we often do not recognize what others see until we see what they have seen. (The memorial exhibit closed in December 2011, but you can view the online exhibit here.)

Thinking about Organization

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, John A. Nagl – This book may appear at first glance to be about counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Malaya, but it is in reality about organizational culture: specifically, how large organizations (such as the Army or State Department) learn, hence the title borrowed from T.E. Lawrence’s famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For those unacquainted with bureaucratic theory or military structures, Nagl’s book is a good introduction to both and a welcome eye-opener for those working inside a large organization. (The short lesson: learn how to learn, or be prepared to lose again.)

Bill Mauldin, Up Front

Up Front, Bill Mauldin – If Nagl’s book is a thesis, this is the Dilbert equivalent.  But don’t let the visual medium fool you.  Mauldin was a profoundly intelligent, humane, and darkly funny artist, and his cartoons and commentary dating from World War II stand time’s test. Underneath these smart illustrations of the fighting man’s common lot runs an anarchist streak recognizable in any organization: commentary on hierarchy, abuse of power, powerlessness, absurdity, ignorance, fear and anxiety.  You’ll understand a lot more about military culture but also much more about organizational culture, too, from this book.

Thinking Historically

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Slavenka Draculic – This may be the only book that describes how the systematic deprivation enabled by communist central planning fundamentally degraded the status of women during the 20th century.  An enduring example of the “banality of evil,” Draculic documents the punishing effects of how communism’s inhumanity deprived millions their essential dignity in ways we in the West could not possibly imagine. This book helps us comprehend both that particular historical experience but also the importance of subjective understanding in approaching others who live in places you have never known.

The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz – If Draculic places you in the bread line or at the kitchen table during a particular historical moment, the Nobel laureate Milosz places you inside its head.  This is a hard book, but it goes far in trying to explain why thinking people, when faced with the monstrousness of the state, behave the way they do. Again it is important to understand not just as an historical document but as a matter of conscience.

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A Good Story

“Telling Their Story,” from Discover the Journey

A friend in New York forwarded me this MediaStorm Blog post about ethical guidelines for reporting on children in crisis.  It’s a valuable resource and worth reading for anyone who has read my Foreign Policy article “Children of War,” which was a critique of how public affairs professionals use imagery involving children to promote and illustrate the causes we are involved in.

There is clearly overlap between these two disciplines, particularly as it relates to ethics, but there are important distinctions as well.  My approach related primarily to public affairs and how these images are used in political communications.  This is distinct from journalism.  My secondary concern was how combat camera crews — military photographers, who are not journalists per se but function very similarly to them in a military environment — fit into this.

MediaStorm cites the “Telling Their Story” manifesto (pictured above) produced by Discover the Journey, a group of journalists dedicated (in their words) to “speak up for children in crisis” and “insure justice for children in crisis by advocating for intervention across cultures in Love”.

The manifesto is important and valuable, citing UNICEF’s guidelines for reporting on children.  I don’t like to quibble with those who are clearly doing difficult and important work in challenging places, but I take issue with the fact that the clear priority in the manifesto is the “story,” placed first before all other considerations for the child’s welfare. Since Discover the Journey as an organization obviously blurs the distinction between objective journalism and advocacy, the importance of the story — in practical effect, the “sell” — is a concerning aspect of the manifesto. It suggests that the totality of the child’s life narrative — “the story of one to represent the stories of many,” in the words of the manifesto — and over which he has no control, possesses the greater weight than the dictates of his individual dignity and privacy.  Good journalists always want the perfect story, and moralizing it as a “good” as the manifesto does only makes it more likely that it will be told at the expense of other considerations.

The journalist Katherine Boo, who has written seriously about poverty, specifically dismisses the manifesto’s notion of an individual standing in for the whole.  “[N]obody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense,” she recently told Guernica magazine. “People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” It’s something to think about, especially when we’re talking about children.

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IKEA Pussies Out in Russia

Calling itself apolitical and nonreligious, Ikea removed this photo from a contest for its next catalog cover.The Moscow Times recently reported that IKEA, the world’s most recognizable home furnishings brand, recently pulled this image (left) from an online competition to produce the cover image for their products 2013 catalog in Russia.

In place of this image, which was produced and submitted by fans (apparently) of both IKEA and the recently prosecuted band Pussy Riot, the company issued this statement:

“Ikea is a commercial organization that operates independently of politics and religion. We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a means of propaganda.”

(English translation provided by The Times. I don’t know if the original was published in Russian or Swedish.)

At the risk of killing an issue that should be very much alive inside Russia, which has seen even more state-ordered constraints on civil society in the wake of the Pussy Riot sentences, it’s important to parse IKEA’s statement to understand just exactly how cowardly, stupid and hypocritical it is. IKEA has no grounds to pull this image and to replace it with this utterly misleading and disingenuous statement.

This issue returns to what I have consistently written about here on this site: the fundamental definition of the political.  The political can be defined by moral norms that we choose for others.  And in this case, IKEA is unwilling to allow others — that is, Russians — to express those particular norms in their own, free way, using IKEA as a platform.  IKEA doesn’t have to choose this particular image for its catalogue cover, but since the company opened up the site to all comers they are obligated to allow anything that is not obscene or shocking to remain.

IKEA advertisement from Italy, 2011

Moreover, IKEA is acting hypocritically by removing a user image given its own advertising history. In 2011, the company ran an advertisement (right) in Italy featuring a gay couple with the tagline, “We are open to all families”.  Italy is, in part, a deeply Catholic country and culturally deeply conservative.  It is difficult not to see this advertisement — issued from the company itself — as a political statement given the social context, whether or not you support the idea of same-sex couples and families.

I am much less tolerant of IKEA willing to make a political statement — specifically, stating in public that gay couples are or should be the social norm — and then denying its own customers the same ability to use the brand to express support for their political idols.

I should add here that I utterly reject the assertion (barring any error in translation) that the photo’s authors are engaged in propaganda.  Propaganda is one of those terms that has been abused of any intrinsic popular meaning, but I am willing to assert that only states can engage in propaganda.  Besides, the image itself is benign enough to be stripped of the provocation normally associated with propaganda — perhaps a subtle commentary on the “punk prayer” that got Pussy Riot arrested in the first place.  (Decontextualization can be a keen means of understanding art and political commentary.)  And it further demonstrates IKEA’s complete incomprehension of political expression at a time when its compatriots across Scandinavia are supporting democratic movements among their eastern neighbors.

IKEA owes not just the creators of this image but its customers and the Russian people the respect and understanding of political expression.  It should repost the image and apologize.

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Riot Girls

Pussy Riot band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Maria Alyokhina (right) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (center), during their trial July 23. Photo Credit: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images via Foreign Policy magazine.

Almost everything that needs to be said about the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian all-female punk rock band now awaiting a verdict in a “hooliganism” trial in Moscow, has been said.  Nobody seriously doubts this is a political show trial in the old Soviet sense and that the Putin regime isn’t punishing this punk band as a warning to other would-be opponents of the state.

But some points can still be made.  First, the prosecutors insist this is not a “political” prosecution.  This is progress, sort of.  I think they protest too much. (I’ll sidestep my usual baliwick of trying to parse what they mean by political or the political aesthetic because I don’t know the Russian etymology.) It assumes the legitimacy of political expression in Russia despite the state propaganda barrage against the band. With tens of thousands of Russians still on the streets protesting the regime, it assumes there is still a political space to occupy that hasn’t been completely co-opted by the regime.  That space can still be enlarged and separated from the thugocratic “government” running the country from the Kremlin.

For a taste of what the band members (three of the five are on trial:  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. The band name is in English, not Russian.) — have faced (in English) enjoy the bluntly sophisticated attacks of RT.com.  Their story is buried on the site, even though when you search the site you’ll find highly misleading text stories (“‘Let Pussy Riot Go!’ Veteran Russian HR group speaks out”) pegged to the actual broadcast segments that have nothing to do with the headlines (in this case, a story about how the trial would be broadcast live over the Internet — which is probably not true).  The lead article on the Pussy Riot when I visited RT — an “op-ed,” incidentally — essentially questioned the hype after all the broadcast segments had touted the worldwide focus on the trial.

Second, the band has been favorably compared to protest acts of the past, including Fela Kuti of Nigeria and the Plastic People of the Universe, both personal favorites.  (Not incidentally, the Plastics have given a benefit concert for Pussy Riot.) I am particularly inclined to find parallels with the Plastics but it is not because the Plastics were a political act because they were avowedly apolitical, which is what made them such a transformative act. Their stories also share the show trial aspect, with Pussy Riot facing the absurd charges of “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” and the Plastics charged under “organized disturbance of the peace”.

But perhaps most importantly, they share in common something very special and important at this moment, which is a certain vulnerability. Unlike the megalithic oligarchs whom Putin targeted during the last decade — the Khodorkovskys, Berezovskys and Gusinskys, who were so rich and powerful as to evoke very little sympathy when they were prosecuted — the Pussy Riot unmasked of their provocative balaclavas turn out to be very young women.  Indeed, two of them are recent mothers and not one of them is over 30. To see them is to see not your mother but your daughter, wife or sister.

This is what their trial shared with the Plastics: the unmistakable recognition that in prosecuting these women the state had at last overreached, that in its paranoia and pursuit of control it finally achieved an essential injustice.  What was historically important about the Plastics’ arrest, of course, was that the trial united the disparate strands of the disunited opposition. Perhaps the same will happen — is happening — in Russia today.

Of course it’s impossible to know if this is the Russian public’s understanding of the trial, in a state that dominates virtually all media. Only the Internet is partially free in Russia, and I am inclined to be pessimistic about the triumphant and righteous tone the Western media has taken regarding the rights of Pussy Riot.

Because the issue is not about the freedoms we take for granted here.  It is about three women who are about to go to prison for the freedoms they don’t have. It is very easy to talk about these freedoms from behind the protection of an American passport to those who don’t have them.  Of course all those who support these women do it to give them heart, to let them know we know what is at stake and that what they are doing is important beyond their own personal ordeal.

But let us understand how much, much harder it is to demand those freedoms — to perform for them, to go to jail for them, to risk your life for them — before an armed state hostile to you and willing to imprison or kill you for your beliefs.

Thank the Mother of God that punk is not dead.  May she watch and protect her daughters on earth.

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How Dictators Kiss Babies

My recent photo essay in Foreign Policy discussed the use of images of children from conflict zones in political communications and was based in large measure on my experience working at NATO.  But it was also informed by a close reading of totalitarian propaganda, mostly from the 20th century, and for anyone familiar with that horrifying legacy should explain much of my unease about using the images of children in political communications.

Understanding how dictators ruthlessly exploit children to sand their iron image should make us think twice before publishing pictures of cute kids, because history’s butchers did the same thing. Those who survived that history carry those images in their head.  Democracies are different, but that is all the more reason for us to be cautious and deliberate.  We must learn from history and avoid the tropes that despots past and present have left littered in their path.

That said, what strikes me most after surveying decades of propaganda is how rarely dictators were photographed with children.  This should give us heart.  As I note in my Foreign Policy article, this is very likely the modern-day equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes — children are not over-awed by trappings and power, and probably cannot even recognize such (for a contrasting opinion, see the photo of Kim Jong-Un below).  They are unimpressed and speak the truth. This would mortify those squat, Napoleonic rulers such as Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong-Il, standing no taller than five feet five inches in platform shoes. Real children are risky.

Vladimir PutinYou can see how easily this can work to a leader’s detriment.  Here is a picture of Vladimir Putin with some Russian kids in traditional dress (left), taken in 2006. His unease around children is manifest both in this photograph and elsewhere, which probably keeps this  from being a simply creepy photo opportunity. Strangely he appears more relaxed when engaged in judo competition with children a fifth his age, which says more about his character than he likely intends to communicate. (Or, according to Masha Gessen, perhaps he does.)

Putin has been remarkably visible but under extraordinarily controlled circumstances. So it’s probably no mistake that he doesn’t spend much public time with children.

Knowing that makes this photograph — by most accounts a genuine, unguarded moment — both unique and particularly chilling.  It was a rare moment when Stalin, at the height of his control over the Soviet Union, met this little girl from the Buryat-Mongol region at the Kremlin in 1936. The photo was widely circulated as “Friend of the Little Children,” turned into a lithograph as well as a sculpture and other propaganda means.

But the iconic photograph (right) is perhaps better known than the original, uncropped version (above), which included M.I. Erbanov, first secretary of the Buryat-Mongol ASSR. His cropping and airbrush from the original was not just aesthetic: it was political, as he was purged from the Party under Stalin’s orders.

More chilling indeed, the girl’s parents both met an untimely end. Her father was shot for “spying for Japan”  and her mother was also murdered under mysterious circumstances. Only their deaths took this icon out of wide circulation. The girl’s fate is not known.

Thank you, Comrade Stalin

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood.”

Otherwise Stalin, who paranoically feared assassination, stuck to doctoring old photographs, faking his own history, or simply propagandizing children’s love for him.

Mao Zedong, who was even more reclusive and paranoid than Stalin, perhaps perfected the art of cartoon propaganda.  There is simply no photographic evidence that I know showing Mao consorting with the Chinese public after he took control of the country. This ironically gave him entirely free license to mould his own image. The resulting repository of this unique art form is a rich vein of effluent, so I’ll only provide a single sample to emphasize its utter detachment from reality. Remember that this is simply a drawing. It has no basis in real life.  Its value is simply as a propaganda image, to communicate with and maintain support from the Chinese people.  It’s similarity to the Stalin image above, of course, is hard to ignore: it is entirely hero worship, the people (the children) idolizing their leader.

All these images, whether photograph or cartoon, extol the leader. They exalt a cult of personality, and one cult only surmounts the other. Stalin and Mao often seem to have reached the apogee of self-worship, but for sheer insanity North Korea under the Kims and Romania under Ceausescu can more than hold contention.

Nicolai Ceausescu controlled Romania for more than a quarter century and drove his country to ruin, madness and utter moral depravity. He cultivated an elaborate personality cult based on his admiration of Mao’s China and Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea. The propaganda involving children is particularly grotesque given the combination of policies he forced on the country. He extracted a ridiculously high family birthrate (five to ten children per woman under 40) by virtually abolishing abortion and birth control, and drove the economy backwards into the 19th century in order to pay off foreign debts. As a result, many Romanian families could not afford to support their families; illegal abortions soared, of which thousands of women died as a result; and tens of thousands of unwanted children were abandoned to horrific state orphanages that were discovered only after his overthrow in 1989.  An elaborate propaganda apparatus recorded his every move and recently served as the raw material for The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu. This “found film” documentary serves my contention that autocrats prefer to avoid real children whenever possible, as the only time he’s seen meeting some is at about the ten minute mark of this marathon three-hour film (which you can watch, of uncertain copyright provenance, here.)

The Kim Dynasty of North Korea has similarly raised propaganda to its own peculiar art form.  Again, rarely did Kim Il-Sung or his son Kim Jong-Il, take photographs with actual children, although they do exist.  A vast and strangely amusing collection of photographs of Kim Jong-Il looking at things can be found here, with not a child to be seen. (It’s probably important to note that in most of the propaganda cartoons I’ve found of the two Kims, Kim Il-Sung is seated at center holding children while Kim Jong-Il is standing looking on. I’m sure Kim the younger wasn’t sensitive at all about his height.)

EPA via The Daily Mail

Much speculation has surrounded the Great Successor, Kim Jong Un, particularly about his youth.  Nobody knows his age, but he is expected to be in his twenties. He appears more willing to be photographed with children (although these appearing with him on the left are probably young teenagers).  Keep in mind that life except for the chosen in North Korea is unbelievably grim, and children particularly suffer.  The average height difference, depending on gender, between North and South Korean children is between 1.2 and 1.6 inches. Obviously, they have nothing to envy in the world.

What’s interesting about Kim Jong-Un’s appearance is how much he appears to mimic his grandfather’s look when comparing some of his recent photographs to old propaganda pictures (again, entirely made up in cartoon form) of Kim Il-Sung published decades ago (see below – updated from a previous post). Gone is his father’s drab overcoat and unisex quasi-military uniform. It is replaced with a period costume seen in propaganda pictures of his grandfather depicting the pre-war era, evoking an earlier time (and a younger, handsomer Kim Il-Sung). This is likely an explicit means of connecting the youngest Kim to the state’s founder by allusion to a kind of collective cultural and propaganda memory.

These pictures are only a representative sampling of how the world’s most repressive regimes exploit children for propaganda purposes. (I deliberately avoided any use of Adolph Hitler, for example, whose image is simply too provocative to come to any productive application.  People may feel the same way about Stalin, Ceausescu and the Kims, and for that I apologize, but we need to display some horribles in order to understand them.)  I still remember, for example, how Fidel Castro took full advantage of the Elian Gonzalez affair and how Cuba continues to exploit that ugly episode to support its appalling regime.  You may recall the “baby milk factory” at Abu Ghraib which was targeted during the 1991 Gulf War, a facility that was part of Saddam Hussein’s then-active unconventional weapons production program, or Saddam’s creepy pawing of Stuart Lockwood, a five-year-old human pawn in that conflict. Anything considered to harm children, or the welfare of children, can be used to good propaganda effect.  Under repressive regimes, which control all means of communication, any information that benefits the state is good (even if it isn’t true) — and any information that harms the state (especially if it is true) is bad and must be suppressed.

The people who live under these regimes know and understand this. Which is why we must be all the more conscientious and diligent about how we communicate what we do, especially when what we are doing is helping children and their family.  The temptation to exploit them is simply too great.

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George Orwell, Down the Rabbit Hole

George Orwell, BBC writer and broadcaster, and world-class word-wrestler. (BBC)

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of those classics of letters that bears repeated reading throughout life. It remains a hectoring challenge to anyone who tries to write, as Orwell did, always wrestling with a deceptively simple language to articulate what we want it to say.

I first read his essay, as nearly everyone who has did, in undergraduate school and promptly forgot it amid a flood of impressions.  I returned to it much later later to find his blunt advice and weird prophesy calling out like one of those burned-out stars that still shines like a beacon across the eons.

And of course, like any thoughtful piece of writing that gives back over the course of a life (The Gettysburg Address and The Great Gatsby come to mind), I came back to this article after working in public diplomacy during wartime and found it to be a nuanced source of interest and inspiration.

Orwell is often quoted from this article that “[p]olitical language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The ellipsis is critical (it’s always quoted with the ellipsis) — he attacks across the spectrum, from Conservatives and Anarchists.  The edit takes quite a bit of the sting out of the quote. And the quote itself hurts much more when removed from the context of the essay, which is his most practical manual for good, clear, political writing.

This is interesting because for a few years Orwell was what might be pejoratively called a propagandist — he wrote (and wrote well by all accounts) for the BBC during World War II, when the broadcasting arm of the British empire had a specifically political purpose in mobilizing and energizing the colonies to protect the crown from fascism. Orwell did not particularly dislike this mission (although he did hate phrases like “not particularly dislike”), but he was utterly dispirited by the waste, bureaucracy, and the “trash” and “bile” broadcast each day.

In other words, he thought the BBC could propagandize better, and this essay was in part an attempt to understand why political language was so imbecilic, dull, flat and dim. “Politics and the English Language” was one of his first comprehensive examinations of and remedies for this problem.

In fact “Politics” was part of a less-known series of articles Orwell wrote following the war, all on a theme: the nexus of language, politics, democracy and freedom.  “Propaganda and Demotic Speech” (1944) is perhaps the best known after “Politics,” but then come “Politics vs. Literature” (1946), “The Prevention of Literature” (1946), and “Writers and Leviathan” (1948). These all lead, in most scholars’ understanding, to Animal Farm and 1984, and particularly Orwell’s extraordinary development of Newspeak. But taken together, they also are an expansive exploration of the relationship between politics and language and, more specifically, how we use language (specifically English), to communicate political ideas.

Orwell thought we used English badly. (“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he wrote.) After some thought and reading, I decided to take issue with his conclusion.  I believe that the language itself is the problem regarding its carrying capacity for political ideas. Due to theoretical constructs built up for too long in the past we lack the vocabulary to express basic political concepts. Those ideas that we can express invariably come out in the cliches that Orwell despised.

The only remedy is what I have been doing on this site: to develop and substitute a new conceptual vocabulary to describe political ideas, experiences and realities.  The following essay, “Democracy and Political Language,” is an homage to Orwell and another effort to expand that vocabulary.

I will attack one cliche at a time, but it feels at time as though I am brandishing a sword (or pen) at a waterfall.  Fortunately we also have a mighty shield — Orwell’s own words. He struggled himself with the cliches he hated, wrestled the words to say what he thought. And that in turn shaped how he thought:  “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”  Surely, I’m on to something.

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