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October 17, 2013

How The Permanent Activism/Advertising Mentality Is Killing Honesty, Accountability, and Thoughtfulness

Let me begin with something light and delicious, a little bon-bon of Hate, before moving on to something chewier.


Nailed it!

Now, let's all laugh at Matt Yglesias. But below the fold, I'm going to discuss how and why this happened, and how this sort of thing is also infecting the right -- in fact, how it's infecting everything, virally, and I think the Internet is the main reason.


I've mentioned before my growing weariness with what I'll dub the Viral Mentality of the Internet.

The Viral Mentality is one in which people are over-excited to push certain memes and facts (or pseudofacts) in an effort to shape the national conversation. Blogging really indulged in this mentality -- as I've said, my flaming skull is my version of Drudge's siren, an effort to advertise certain memes and stories -- but it's the ADD format of Twitter that has really supercharged the mindset.

My real problem is that if you scratch the surface of most online writers, you'll find that, without quite admitting it to themselves, they've largely defined success and failure in online writing according to the standards of success and failure in Advertising.

Ask anyone, and he will tell you that of all forms of communication, advertising is the least reputable and the least meritorious. And yet so many of us -- and I do definitely include myself here -- have, even knowing that Advertising is an inherently shoddy form of expression, nonetheless aspire to be really good at advertising.

To be really good at "Pushing Memes." To be really good at "getting stories to go viral."

To be really good at branding.

I joked a while ago that we will all know this syndrome has reached its lethal phase when your grandmother tells you, "I wanted to mention your new Son on my FaceBook page, but I was afraid it would undermine the Branding image I was going for."

We all know this is beneath us -- well, most of us know this; some idiots might actually aspire to be Kings of Online Advertising -- and yet nevertheless it has become the default model of online communication.

This has pernicious effects on human thought and communication. As you well know -- because I scream like a baby about it every time I see it happening -- I think the only test of whether a statement should or should not be said is whether or not it is True.

Not whether or not it "helps the brand," as in, the political brand, the movement brand.

To speak about ideas in terms of anything other than their truthfulness is a tremendous corruption of both expression and thought.

I hate the idea, often implied, sometimes said outright, that whether or not a statement is true or not, or whether or not the speaker truly believes the statement or not, he must not say it, due to the paramount goal of only speaking statements which are helpful to the Brand.

I find this both corrupt and debased. If a man cannot speak honestly about things that are true (or, at least, truth often being a hazy thing, things he believes to be true), but must always counterfeit his thoughts in order to align them with an external Permanent Advertising Campaign, he might as well just not speak at all.

People usually hate viewing or hearing advertising. It is far, far worse when it is insisted that each and every free man and free woman become a permanent advertising agency for whichever Brand they are allied with.

To hear nothing but advertising would be awful; to speak in nothing but advertising would be abominable.

Now, online, both the right and the left have accepted the notion that activism is the highest ideal of online communication -- if not the highest ideal to aspire to, at least one of the top two, competing successfully most of the time versus the other criterion, Speaking the Truth (or one's murky vision of the truth, at least).

This is what causes Matt Yglesias to say stupid things and lay down laughable markers. Because he has accepted the definition of himself as primarily a shill for the left.

As primarily a Junior Creative Manager at an Advertising Agency called "Slate Magazine" working primarily for the Obama Administration with a special emphasis on ridiculous economic claims that can be made on behalf of his client.

As is the rule in advertising, it's often the most outlandishly silly campaigns that cut through the clatter and get attention. Like this.

Now, every political writer is, ultimately, an activist. People do not write about politics disinterestedly. Everyone has his own take on what the Social Good looks like, and his writing will always, always be informed by this.

Every writer, every blogger, every Tweeter, every commenter writing about politics has his own conception of The Good and will write in support of this.

There is no avoiding that.

There will always be Political Advertising encoded into any political essay.

It's a question of the degree to which we permit ourselves to be captive to the lowest form of communication, Advertising.

It's a question of whether we elevate the Advertising Imperative above the Truth-Telling Imperative, and by what margin.

The problem is that as regards online writing -- or online Political Advertising, as Matt Yglesias writes -- is that laughable shills are not punished, they are rewarded.

None of Yglesias' fans will hold it against him that he got this completely wrong. In fact, they will praise him, because while he got this completely wrong, he got it completely wrong to the benefit of the right Advertising Account, Obama-Brand Health Care Solutions.

He will not be called out as a gullible jackass; he will be lauded as a "fighter" who "tried to help the cause."

And that's the problem, isn't it? Because writers are paid to write what people want to read.

And if all the public demands is perpetual advertising on behalf of the Brands the public favors, that is what writers -- never accused of being an especially honorable, moral, or courageous bunch -- will churn out.

American politics isn't getting nastier. Oh, it is nasty, but it has always been fairly nasty.

What it is getting is downright stupid, because being right -- speaking the truth -- is no longer rewarded, and being wrong, and writing fictions, is no longer punished.

What is rewarded is Branding, and Advertising, and Catchy Headlines, and Grabby Takes, and Getting Things to Go Viral, and SEOs, and Clicks, and Outrage Trolling, and Stupidity Trolling.

And Carnival Barking.

And Carnival Barking.

And Carnival Barking.

And Carnival Barking.

And on and on and on and on, until our brains are filled with nothing but slogans and jingles and catchphrases and Memes.

And we can never speak honestly without first double-checking to make sure our utterances are synergistic with the Messaging Demands of whatever collective(s) we belong to.

Now, we are in the age of the Permanent Campaign. Time was, there was a Campaign Season, say, two months before a mid-term, four months before a general. In Campaign Season, you were required, as a political writer, to Put Your Game Faces On.

The time to question the team's playbook is Monday before the Sunday game, not Saturday night, as everyone's just trying to get a good night's sleep and gin up their confidence for game-day.

And so during Campaign Season, there is a certain expectation -- and requirement -- that people not attack the team just as they're heading down the hallway to take the field. (This remains one of the grassroots' complaints about Karl Rove, vis-a-vis Christine O'Donnell, and I have to confess, they're right about the timing issue.)

And now we have Permanent Campaigns. Obama has not gone out of Campaign mode a single day of his presidency, except to play golf.

But while politicians and the paid political class -- the paid shills, the paid flacks, the actually-paid advertising experts -- are now on the 365-days-a-year of the Permanent Campaign schedule, we everyday citizens, writers, commenters, lurkers and thinkers cannot permit ourselves to go into Permanent Campaign mode.

It is one thing to not be quite so generous with the truth three months every two years before an elections.

But is is a horrible idea -- that must be resisted by every thinking man and woman who values free expression and free thought -- to say that we must counterfeit our true beliefs literally every single day of every single year, due to the sad fact that there is in fact a Permanent Campaign being led from the White House.

Some might say "If that's the situation we find ourselves in, that's the situation we find ourselves in. We must adapt to this reality, and simply lie every single day, in order to maximize our Brand's chances in the new reality of the Permanent Campaign."

And I say No. Even if it's true that this would maximize our chances -- and I strongly doubt that; I am a cynic about many things, but I do believe the Truth beats the Lie nine times out of ten -- it is not possible for a person of intellectual integrity and a basic preference for honesty to lie every single day of his life.

What Good can come of Evil?

Very little. And one should certainly not want to organize one's life around the proposition that by doing evil -- speaking falsely -- every hour of every day, one will achieve a greater good.

One would much prefer to believe that the best ends will flow from the best beginnings, rather than from the worst.

Even if that is itself untrue, even if that is just the comforting fiction of Boyscout Who Doesn't Understand What It Takes to Win, no one can or will counterfeit what he believes to be the truth.

Not unless he's being paid quite a bit of money -- partly for work, partly to send his conscience on an extended vacation -- explicitly to write false and quasi-true advertising copy all day long.

Matt Yglesias considers himself a Mighty Thinker. Don't take my word for it; ask him. He'll tell you.

So why is the Mighty Thinker reduced to acting as a cut-rate accounts executive at a shabby advertising agency?

His readers may reward him for this, but he himself is to blame for taking the deal.

Ultimately that's his choice. No one forced him into saying ridiculous things for Fun and for Profit.

And that's the choice all of us make every day, too.

So when you see me balk at the idea of permanently subordinating my belief in what the truth is for the purpose of advancing the Brand, this is why.

It's because I don't want to be Matt Yglesias.

I may be ridiculous inadvertently, but I refuse to make myself ridiculous.

No matter how much some buffoonery and dishonesty might Help the Brand.

Matt Yglesias believes:

Humans are hierarchical primates by nature and have a kind of fascination with power and dignity.

And by "dignity," he means the trappings of power-- that which "dignified" the nobleman.

That may be true -- that may be true of man at his base animal level -- but man is not limited to his base animal level. He can aspire to more.

He can aspire to more than being a monkey who begins repeating the squawks of the higher-ranking Alpha Monkey, in order to get the monkeys around him to begin squawking in the same fashion.

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posted by Ace at 05:25 PM

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