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On the narrative arc

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a recent Wapo example of how history gets bent (ever so slightly) out of shape to serve narrative ]
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Riley Rainbow in Curved Air
One of the universal arcs, and a personal favorite

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Story-telling shapes awareness.

Yesterday’s Washington Post has an article titled Patriots at the gate: The Americans preparing for battle against their own government. It’s an interesting overview, but I’m not interested in discussing the merits or demerits of the Patriot Movement, Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keepers, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, the Bundy Ranch, or Malheur — what interests me is the way the story is told.

Here’s the section dealing with one participant:

Across the family-style table, Alex ­McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country.

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm. “But if I’m denied my rights, what else can I do? Am I just going to stand there and take it, or am I going to do something?”

In the Constitutional Guard, McNeely said: “I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”

They have passed out more than 2,000 pocket-size copies of the Constitution that Soper said he bought for $500, sent food and clothes to victims of forest fires in Washington state and Oregon and given Christmas presents to more than three dozen children in need.

McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”

“I don’t like that he wants to fundamentally change America,” McNeely said.

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The writer is Kevin Sullivan, a WaPo Senior correspondent, and I think we can safely assume he knows his trade. My interest focus on the sentence:

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm.

Sullivan has already given his opening identification of McNeely —

Across the family-style table, Alex ­McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country

— that’s fair enough, and the bit about the “AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm” could have gone in there, or been added to the graph:

McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”

where the topic is his consideration of “the military” — but no, Sullivan posts it neither where he’s introducing McNeely nor where he’s talking about his thoughts about the military, but in the graph discussing the Patriot Mov ement ideals as McNeely describes them — see, once again:

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm.

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Sullivan wants the irony. He’s making a juxtaposition-with-purpose — long-time readers here will know that juxtaposition as a rhetorical device is a keen interest of mine — he’s linking the movement’s ideals with the AK-47 tattoo to add an inflection of irony.

It’s a tiny point — no more than an inflection — but it’s one that I note in the same way I noted the non-appearance of bin Laden‘s Qur’anic epigraph in media versions of a significant speech, in my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns. I don’t happen to share McNeely’s worldview, nor that of bin Laden, but I am deeply interested in the ways the media portray matters of substance and nuance. I am interested in “narrative”.

We’ve all heard MLK’s quote, “somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The arc of narrative has another aim: it bends towards “good reading” — and if the curve bends fast enough it will spiral ever more lightly and less helpfully in, and we wind up with “click bait”. I know this, because I practice my own version of the dark (and sometimes, brilliantly illuminating) art of writing.

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There’s a lot more to say about narrative, and the various meanings it now has.

One of my own interests is the way in which we think a narrative can be spun out of words and images (aka “propaganda”), when facts, grounded realities, history may, as they say, tell a different tale — and facts may speak louder than words. In that sense, if we need a new narrative, we may need a new behavior, a new policy, a new strategy implemented, to speak it.

What interests me here though, getting back to the WaPo piece and McNeely, is how telling a story in a way that makes it a “good read” influences a narrative arc that is, significantly, also the arc of “the first draft of history”.

Of Blood and Bride

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — concerning the tidal pull of two words on the emotions, in considering Hamzah bin Laden’s recent message ]
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quote-blood-sin-and-desecration-of-the-race-are-the-original-sin hitler

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In the Jewish book of Leviticus [17.11], we find:

For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul.

For Christians, the early Church father Tertullian has the appropriate quotation:

Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis? semen est sanguis Christianorum.

This translates to “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you? the blood of Christians is seed” and is often quoted in the form “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The American equivalent comes from Thomas Jefferson‘s Letter to William Stephens Smith of November 13, 1787, and is no doubt familiar to ZP readers:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

The terrible significance of “blood” to the Nazis is illustrated by the Hitler quote at the top of this post.

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In the beginnings of the jihad fought by the Al-Qaida and its secessionist successors in the Islamic State, Abdullah Azzam‘s words are foundational. In a document which has been titled Martyrs: The Building Blocks of Nations — shades of Tertullian and Jefferson — Azzam writes of both blood and ink:

The life of the Muslim Ummah is solely dependent on the ink of its scholars and the blood of its martyrs. What is more beautiful than the writing of the Ummah’s history with both the ink of a scholar and his blood, such that the map of Islamic history becomes coloured with two lines: one of them black, and that is what the scholar wrote with the ink of his pen; and the other one red, and that is what the martyr wrote with his blood. And something more beautiful than this is when the blood is one and the pen is one, so that the hand of the scholar which expends the ink and moves the pen, is the same as the hand which expends its blood and moves the Ummah. The extent to which the number of martyred scholars increases is the extent to which nations are delivered from their slumber, rescued from their decline and awoken from their sleep.

Again — though I cannot say for certain who gave that title to this compilation of Azzam’s words — we see the importance of blood as the prime sacrificial element on which a world is built.

Indeed, one commonly cited hadith found in the collection of Bukhari states:

Anyone who is wounded in the path of Allah comes on the Day of Resurrection when [his] color is the color of blood, [but] his scent is the scent of musk.

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I trust I don’t have to belabor the reasons why the word “bride” — particularly in combination with the word “blood” — is also fraught with enormous archaic, archetypal pulling-power. If we are in any doubt, we should consider the ravishing bridal poetry of the Tanakh’s Song of Songs which is Solomon’s:

Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, With one bead of thy necklace. [Song of Solomon, 4.9]

— not to mention the eucharistic “bridal supper of the lamb” in that most poetic, visionary, and well-nigh inscrutable book of the New Testament, the Revelation of John of Patmos:

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God. [Revelation 19. 7-9]

and in the fullest and final revelation of that revelatory book:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. [Revelation 21.1-4]

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Bear this double call of “blood” and “bride” on the emotions in mind, utilizing whichever of the above examples strikes the deepest chord in you to confirm their trance-like appeal, as you consider this message from Bin Laden‘s son, Hamzah, issued just a day or two ago:


Thomas Joscelyn posted a breakdown of the message content at Long Wars Journal yesterday:

  • Osama bin Laden’s son says jihad in Syria key to ‘liberate Palestine’
  • I trust this post of mine will add to our understanding of the emotional force on which Bin Laden’s son is appealing.

    A stunning reversal

    Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Dabiq vs the Qur’an — again, it’s the formal precision of the reversal that inrerests me ]
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    SPEC DQ one vs all

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    It is not the fact that the Islamic State delights in killing infidels that surprises me, it’s the utter reversal of the Qur’an’s own emphasis on the value of a single life that catches my eye.

    For the Qur’an, a single human life is worth the world, unless that life is subject to the death penalty for murder or mayhem; for IS, the lives of a world of infidels are worth less than a single Muslim life.

    The one and the many, an individual and the whole world — how differently they are regarded in these two texts.

    DoubleQuoting Trumps and Cruzes

    Saturday, March 26th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — various angles on graphical thinking in two Republican presidential campaigns ]
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    To start with, here is presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeting a humorous, tasteless and wildly unfair DoubleQuote in the Wild against his rival for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz — evidence for the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of this mode of thinking & linking, if any such were needed:

    The tweet comes from Trump’s verified Twitter account, and might as well feature the words, “I’m Donald Trump, and I approve this message”. Ugly, and thus sad.

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    Once you get me started DoubleQuoting Trump and Cruz, though, it’ll be hard to rein me in.

    The Trump logo below was, I believe created for a graphic design contest unaffiliated with the Trump Campaign, but has since been tweeted at least once by the verified “Real Donald Trump” account, while the cruz logo is undoubtedoy official.

    trump cruz logos

    Both, you’ll note, feature the American flag and a lone star, though Trump is triumphantly New Yorkan, while Cruz is junior senator for the Lone Star State.

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    While some have compared the Cruz logo with such secular analogs as the Al Jazeera logo and the Onion‘s onion, the Washington Post comes closer to the point, trumping them with a variety of pentacostal-themed logos

    cruz logos secular sacred

    — a matter of some significance given Ted Cruz’s anointing to a kingship role within his father’s “Seven Mountains” pentecostal faith tradition.

    And Donald Trump? Here the hair is significant, and Trump himself seems to have a good-humored attitude, as evidenced by the upper panel below. If this seems superficial, however, the lower panel demonstrates beyond question that Trump follows the Golden Mean —

    trump toupee golden

    — though whether the emphasis is placed on “golden” or “mean” would seem to be a matter of personal and political preference.

    A misappropriated image?

    Thursday, February 25th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — minor correction to a USG CVE tweet ]
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    I don’t think there’s any room for doubt about the Islamic State enslaving captured women and selling them. The IS magazine Dabiq, issue 4, under the heading The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour, recounts:

    After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shar?’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums.

    This large-scale enslavement of mushrik families is probably the first since the abandonment of this Shar?’ah law. The only other known case – albeit much smaller – is that of the enslavement of Christian women and children in the Philippines and Nigeria by the mujahidin there. The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrik?n were sold by the Companions (radiyallahu ‘anhum) before them. Many well-known rulings are observed, including the prohibition of separating a mother from her young children.

    There’s even a theological justification offered – the avoidance of sin. Discussing the long period in which slavery was no longer practiced in Islam, the writer says:

    Finally, a number of contemporary scholars have mentioned that the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in fahishah (adultery, fornication, etc.), because the shar’i alternative to marriage is not available, so a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin.

    Furthermore, Dabiq issue 9 contains an article titled Slave Girls or Prostitutes by one Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah in which the writer, poresumably a woman, writes:

    I and those with me at home prostrated to Allah in gratitude on the day the first slave-girl entered our home. Yes, we thanked our Lord for having let us live to the day we saw kufr humiliated and its banner destroyed. Here we are today, and after centuries, reviving a prophetic Sunnah, which both the Arab and non-Arab enemies of Allah had buried. By Allah, we brought it back by the edge of the sword, and we did not do so through pacifism, negotiations, democracy, or elections. We established it according to the prophetic way, with blood-red swords, not with fingers for voting or tweeting.

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    However, the image used by USG in the tweet above appears to be a photo taken for Reuters by photographer Ali Hashisho, with the legend:

    Shiite Muslim women chained to one another march During a reenactment of the Battle of Karbala During a mourning process, two days before the day of Ashura, in Saksakieh village, southern Lebanon. December 4, 2011

    As I say, this doesn’t in any way disprove the Islamic State’s use of slavery as a religiously sanctioned practice.

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    I’m not the first to notice this misattribution — but I do think it’s worth getting these things right, and this is not the first time an Ashura photograph has been misattributed in this way. For an earlier mistaken use of an image from an Ashura procession to illustrate IS treatment of captured women, see this piece.


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