Tuesday, 28 January 2014

All the bigotry you love, but without all the Jews

In The Spanish Holocaust, Paul Preston's harrowing account of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and the ideologies that spawned them, there's an interesting account of how, in the run-up to the Civil War, the right-wing Spanish press fabricated a "Jewish problem" in Spain, based on dodgy anecdotes from far-right groups and made-up stuff from The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. The contemporary Jewish population of Spain was tiny, as it had been ever since Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Spain's Jews in 1492. However, as, Preston comments, 'Spanish "anti-Semitism without Jews" was not about real Jews but was an abstract construction of a perceived international threat'.

This stuff happened a lifetime ago, but the abstract construction of threats sounds disturbingly contemporary. The lunatic fringe's attempts to rehabilitate specifically anti-Semitic tropes, (like Jewish conspiracy theories and the Fascist salute or "quenelle" as the post-makeover variant's called), are obvious, but uninteresting examples.

A far more interesting parallel is the the continued existence of mainstream, well-funded Public Relations machines within respectable political parties, the media and think tanks, routinely tasked with re-framing the political agenda by the selective deployment of resentful bigotry. First, identify a small, unpopular and powerless group of people. Next, dig for every speck of dirt you can find about the scapegoat du jour, inflate your molehill of dirt into a perceived mountain and shamelessly make stuff up. Point to the smear you've concocted, than shout "look over here!" very loudly over and over and over again.

The tactical aim is to engage news consumers' insecurities and resentments into a virtually fact-free, but emotionally tasty narrative, crafted to push the people's rational-thought-suppressing hot buttons, whilst uniting the faithful against a common enemy. Delivery is achieved by giving your simple message the same level of exposure and repetition you'd give to an ad campaign for fat-free yogurt, only repurposed to shift the news agenda towards exaggerated and made-up panics about immigrants, terrorists, or a "scrounging" underclass.

The strateigic aim is, presumably, to direct attention and blame away from a ruthless, corrupt establishment, busy rolling back past progress towards a more just and equitable society, grabbing power, and stuffing money from the poor back into the already-bulging pockets of the very rich, whilst giving angry fellow-travellers a safe outlet for their seething resentment.

In proper Marxist style, this process happened the first time as tragedy and and it's coming back again as something approaching farce. The scale of the brutal, starvation-level poverty and the large-scale extreme violence involved in the Spanish conflict is almost unimaginable in even the most austerity-blitzed parts of Europe today. But the broad pattern of reaction is being repeated in subtler ways - a power grab by a ruthless overclass, recovering lost ground (this time, by using sheer economic clout and lawfare rather than exemplary violence), with cover provided by the soft power of agenda-setting PR.

In the 1930s, it was virtually fact-free anti-Semitic rants derived from conspiracy-minded White Russian exile groups, priests obsessed with the imaginary influence of secret societies and journals like Acción Española feeding the zeal of the conspirators and the hysteria of the right-wing press. Today, the farcical version is delivered by policy wonks and think tanks like Migration Watch, churning out a relentless diet of half-truths and downright lies, calibrated to appeal to people's worst instincts, parroted (with added inaccuracies and exaggerations) by churnalists on rags like the Daily Mail.  The propagandists' job of "starting a conversation" is complete once the manufactured "debate" is dutifully reported by the BBC and other relatively unbiased media sources.

To give the Devil his due, the disinformers were and are reasonably clever in selecting their targets. First you've got to find some genuine resentment and prejudice, the irritating grain of sand needed to seed your pearl of prejudice. As any bully will tell you, it helps to pick a victim who's weaker than you are, preferably one without too many friends, especially beefy ones who might thump you back. The clever PR trick is to attack a mouse, but convince the public you're fighting a rogue elephant. Slander a victim who can't fight back then you can pick and choose how the fight progresses - you can present your scapegoat as a scary existential threat when you want to use fear to keep the public on side, or give it a good kicking to demonstrate your own "toughness", should you need an achievement to trumpet.

It reminds me of the old story about the woman who boards a train, and finds herself sitting opposite a man reading a newspaper. Every time he finishes a page, he tears it from the paper, rolls it into a ball and throws it out of the train window. Puzzled, the woman asks the reason for this odd behaviour.

‘To keep the elephants away,’ the man replies.

‘But there are no elephants here,’ the woman says.

‘See!’ says the guy, ‘It works.’

It's funny* when it's just some oddball on a train doing it, rather less so when half the news agenda seems to consist of an endless, farcical debate about the best way to repel imaginary elephants.

*for a given value of "funny"