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January 16, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

In this post yesterday, Merovign expressed a desire to have a book thread dedicated to countering leftist propaganda. It struck me as a good idea, though perhaps not for the reasons Merovign intended.

I've always thought that the most effective tool against propagandization is simply being clear-headed. If you know what your own opinions are, and reached them through thought and consideration, then propaganda probably won't have much effect on you anyway, regardless of your political bent. Propaganda works best on people who come to their worldview by osmosis: they soak up their thoughts and feelings as a sponge soaks up water, and with about as much consideration.

I blame our school system for the lack of critical-thinking skills in our population. If you teach children to think critically, to weigh evidence, to value experiment and empirical outcomes, then you build citizens who are not only not prone to hysteria and delusions, but are naturally resistant to propaganda. To be skeptical is a vital survival skill that all too many people (on both the political right and left) lack.


I think the first book I would recommend -- above all others -- is George Orwell's novel 1984. There was never a more clear-headed and devastating illustration of the effects of propaganda -- Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, all the rest. Orwell's Animal Farm is a worthy companion volume.

Another excellent book to aid in critical thinking is Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. Shermer's book may offend some religious folk (though I didn't find it objectionable), but it really is an invaluable aid in recognizing why so many people are so easily duped by propaganda.

There is an old saying that you can't argue someone out of a position they were never argued into. In other words, many people hold opinions based not on facts and evidence, but on emotional grounds that have nothing to do with evidence. It is so similar to religious belief that it really makes no sense to separate the two. Pick a leftist "ism" today, and it bears most of the hallmarks of religious belief (without the saving grace of obedience to a higher power). Another old saying goes something like, "It's not so much that the Left knows so much; it's that they know so much that isn't so." Liberals love to change and recontextualize history to fit their own purposes (see 1984), and the best way to counter this is to have the facts on your side. If you argue on emotion rather than facts, all you're doing is adding noise rather than information.

One of the reasons I read so much history, particularly American history, is that liberals are terribly ignorant about their own country's past. What they know is the warped version purveyed by such charlatans as Howard Zinn, and even then they only know it in the most shallow possible way. So the best thing to do here is read. Read everything. Read with an open mind, but a picky little editor always sitting at the forefront of your brain -- remember that every writer has a point to make, that every history book is simply one facet of what really happened. No non-fiction book is ever truly objective, and this is a good thing; from this mass of viewpoints and opinions all the different facets of the past come to light. But it is up to you to form a considered opinon.

Filtering is difficult for a reader. We live in an age awash with books, pamphlets, websites, magazines, and newspapers stuffed with opinions and "facts" -- how is the reader to separate the wheat from the chaff? The answer is: use your own knowledge of the past along with a good dollop of common sense. As my uncle used to say, "If it looks like shit and smells like shit, it's probably shit."

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posted by Monty at 08:14 AM

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