Day 40: Feeling Like A Complete Ideograph

originally published February 9, 2012

Today’s article will dance down the hallways of rhetoric, spin beneath the sparkling chandelier of discourse and pose in a graceful dip against the backdrop of propaganda.

We open on the ideograph. Master debater and social critic Michael Calvin McGee coined the term in 1980, referring to certain words and phrases often used by politicians in order to capture or reinforce their position. We’ve heard these words a billion times – they mean everything and nothing all at once.

The collective vocabulary of ideographs is small. It has to be; their simplicity is what carries their power. And their power is not to move, but to strike familiarity in the public. It’s like following up a root note with a happy third and fifth interval to create a pleasing major chord. These words are predictable, but in the verbal toolset of a campaigning politician, essential.

The word “progress” can mean whatever you want it to mean.

The concept of the ideograph links with that of the virtue word. A virtue word can apply to politics, marketing and propaganda: they are abstract tuggers of the emotional church bell rope. Their meaning is vague but internally personalized by the listener. When an aspiring senator mentions ‘family’, ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’, the words hit home like a warm piece of meandering fluff. Sure, his perception of ‘family’ may be “no gay marriage”, his idea of ‘liberty’ might be “let’s bomb another Middle Eastern country”, and his idea of ‘progress’ might be “let’s deregulate everything, including the police force.” These may or may not jive with your definitions of these words, but that doesn’t matter. He has delivered you warm fluff, and you define it however you want.

Ideographs are ridiculously important, in fact they tend to define our political process more than actual ideas. It could be that nobody really knows what needs to be done, or more likely that to get into detail would bore the average listener and provide for zero soundbites. Using an ideograph is like taking the Fastpass line at Disneyland. A politician who has a solution that would placate the Occupy movement without alienating the wealthy elite would have a harder time selling it than implementing it. Words like ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ would supply the right amount of window dressing for a campaign speech, but every opponent with a podium to stand behind is going to use the same words, whether or not they have any clue how to solve the problem. Ideographs sell.

Where does this leave us, the dupe-happy public? The answer isn’t pretty. The majority of us get seduced by these words, even when we try not to be.

Freedom? Liberty? America? Come on, baby, you know you want it. You want it bad.

The most common ideographs to entice voters are the ‘glittering generalities’. These are always tied to highly-valued ideas, they are always suggesting something positive, and most importantly they are always vague.

We have heard these words a lot in the last decade, most notably in the 2004 presidential election. The Republicans campaigned successfully on a platform of fear and strength, filling us with glittering generalities like ‘Patriotism’, ‘Courage’, and above anything else: ‘Freedom’. People bought into these terms and sewed them on their metaphorical flags, blasting those who disagreed with their politics as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘anti-American’, even when that was often not the case.

The term ‘glittering generalities’ dates back to a pre-Civil War discourse between Abe Lincoln and Henry L. Pierce, but it really gained popularity in the 1930s, thanks to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis.

As depicted in this delightful cartoon image.

The IPA, formed in 1937, was a collective filled with historians, educators, journalists and social scientists. They were concerned that the increased amount of propaganda was decreasing the public’s ability to think critically for themselves. Keep in mind, this was an American group – they weren’t only concerning themselves with the propaganda being fed down from the Reich into German eyes and ears. They saw this happening at home also, in pre-internet, pre-TV, pre-Fox-News America.

They established the seven most common propaganda devices – kind of like Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television, except these are seven things every politician ever will say on television all the damn time. They are:

  1. Name-calling (“My opponent is a fiscally irresponsible liberal. Also he’s a smelly poop-face.”)
  2. Glittering generalities (“I want to focus on the common good, the hopes and dreams of my countrymen. I stand for strength and First Amendment and Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”)
  3. Transfer (“Hello voters! Notice this billowing flag that just happens to be behind me? Perhaps you observed the harsh red X over my opponent’s face in my campaign ad? Think about it.”)
  4. Testimonial (“Have you met my close and personal celebrity friend, Crispin Glover? That’s right, we hang out.”)
  5. Plain folks (“I’m not one of those Washington millionaires, sipping baby seal blood from a chalice carved from the skull of an illegal immigrant. I’m just like you. Look! I’m wearing jeans in this ad! Actual jeans!”)
  6. Card stacking (“We simply must invade Palookastan. They hate freedom, scorn their women, burn Beatles records, they can’t dance, even to those songs that describe exactly what to do in the lyrics of the song, and they have no desire to catch a single Pokemon. There is absolutely nothing likeable about these people.”)
  7. Bandwagon (“I’m going to win anyway. You may as well vote for me.”)
I know Crispin Glover, and he approves this message.

The IPA was a huge hit. By 1939 they had over 5900 subscriptions to their bulletin, and they had sparked in-depth discussion about propaganda and its impact on society and culture in universities across the western world. They tried to build a reputation, to raise public support and awareness. It didn’t last.

Some suggested that the IPA promoted more of an automatic skepticism rather than critical thinking. Also, with the approaching World War, the IPA was forced to examine American war propaganda; such examination was not really in people’s hearts after Pearl Harbor. Due to internal conflicts, many members of the IPA board resigned, and its teachers were over-run with concerns and disagreements. The IPA shut down in 1942 – they claimed it was a lack of funding and not the war itself that caused their termination. In the end, it may have been propaganda itself that took the IPA down.

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