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Transforming Understanding

Transforming Understanding

Carolyn Kay

For years, I’ve been saying that the problem with progressives is that we don’t sell our message.  We think that all we have to do is tell the truth, and promote issues that 60 to 80% of Americans want implemented.  But we fail, time after time, to overcome the powerful message machine of the right.  This week, David Cay Johnston reviewed Farhad Manjoo’s first book, True Enough.  In the review, Johnston  tells us that “truth still matters, and in the long run, it will prevail so long as a decent number of people push for it.”

But that statement has to be wrong.  How many Americans still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and participated in the 9/11 attacks?  How many still believe John Kerry lied to get his combat medals?  How many still believe that Al Gore once said he invented the internet?

There is research showing that simply refuting sleaze not only doesn’t replace the lies with truth, it even helps cement the lies in the minds of those who heard them.  Sam Wang wrote  in the New York Times in early July, “A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength.”

Stating and re-stating the truth is actually detrimental, according to Dr. Wang.  And that means we will never learn to fight the right effectively until we find the right ways to exorcise, or replace, the lies.  But are we figuring out ways to do that? Nope, we’re still using the same ineffective tactics and institutions that have been unsuccessful in the past.

This week I ran across evidence that at least one economist understands what needs to be done about this problem better than the political strategists running the Democratic Party.  In a post on his website, Thomas Palley explained the “Social Origins of the American Corporate Predator State” (thanks to Economist’s View).  After explaining how the military-industrial complex has corrupted government and the political process, and has convinced Americans that American business is to be worshiped, rather than tamed to perform for the good of all, Palley tells us:

All of this reveals a deep deficit in America’s social and economic understanding (some deficits really do matter). And as long as this deficit remains, the predators will have a starting gate advantage in the game of political persuasion… In effect, there is a paradox to be solved. Lasting progressive political victory requires transforming understanding, but the immediate political incentives are aligned to discourage engagement with such a project. [Emphasis added.]


Isn’t that what I have been saying for eight years?  Go read Palley’s whole post to get a better grasp of how Americans’ minds have been warped over the last 60 years, at least.  Progressive issues will never have a day in the Congress, or even a day in the sun, until we make a concerted effort to fight the disinformation and to fight the “stupid,” as Paul Krugman recently described the non-thinking mode that so many Americans have been lulled into.

Remember The Road Less Traveled?  Anybody?  The first sentence of that book is, “Life is difficult.”  And it’s difficult because doing the right thing takes work.  It takes thought.  It takes paying attention.  It takes being willing to question your beliefs and motives, which hurts, at least for a while.  But it becomes easier the more we do it, as riding a bicycle or hitting a tennis ball becomes easier with practice.  The trouble is, as Paul Krugman said in the same column, Americans have been sweet talked with the lie that we don’t have to do all that thinking and bothering, and it’s easier to believe the lie than do the work necessary to evaluate proposals and issues, in order to build a just society.

We will never overcome the right-wing, hate-mongering, “it’s so easy” media machine if we don’t start attacking it from a position other than just trying to win elections.  Especially since even the leadership of the Democratic Party has fallen for the stupid.  Or at least fallen for promoting it.

It’s pretty clear that we are the only ones who will stand up for us.  So, when are we going to start doing it?


8/17/08 – Updated to clarify the source of the “truth still matters” quote in the first paragraph.

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Comments (1) left to “Transforming Understanding”

  1. davidcay wrote:

    Just to be clear, the quote at the end of the first paragraph above is not from Manjoo’s book, but are my words from my review in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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