Left wing punditry: Doing and presenting political analysis

Justin Podur
October 23, 2008

Talk given at rabble.ca media democracy day. University of Toronto.

For years now I have done a fairly standard 'media analysis' talk for activist and media audiences in different parts of Ontario, often as part of a team. When I do that talk I rely heavily on Herman and Chomsky's analysis presented in 'Manufacturing Consent': the idea that the mainstream media can be viewed as a propaganda system, with a series of 'filters'. They looked at newspapers, the 'agenda-setting' media of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and at wire services like the Associated Press. Others have extended their analysis to television and other forms, and the basic idea is this. Journalists rely on official sources and privilege them over sources. If they challenge officials, they lose access to them. Ownership is concentrated. The media are a business that sell not information, but audiences to advertisers. Journalists and editors share the assumptions and ideology of elites and are trained and rewarded to do so. Those assumptions restrict analysis and controversy to a narrow range of issues. Those who step out of line face career-ruining 'flak' from organized lobbies. As a result, especially on foreign policy and economic issues, the spectrum is extremely narrow. Propaganda messages are repeated, dissenting messages mentioned once then allowed to be drowned out.

The idea of doing those talks was to say, we should fight the mainstream media, have an analysis of it, and challenge the system. We should also build alternative media and build our own audience. That's the two pronged media democracy project.

Fair enough. I think a lot of that holds today. But if you look at newspapers, television, all of the media industries, they are feeling in trouble. They are feeling like they can't compete for attention with all of the amateurs and hobbyists (a word they use with great disdain) that are just churning material out on the internet. And it's not just writing, but audio and video. The mainstream media has never been weaker. My own analysis of this juncture is that activist efforts would be better served using all of the space that we have, that is under-utilized. We can fight to open more spaces too, but we should fill the ones we have. My goal in this talk is to give you more confidence to fill those spaces. There are parts of the web that are open debates, actual contests of ideas. We should be able to win those easily.

Anybody can start a blog. Anybody can post videos to the web. Anybody can start a mailing list. There are people to help with the simple technical aspects of these. As a result, we can build audiences by producing steady streams of credible, quality material.

(Aside: I would advise caution with using Blogger, YouTube, Facebook, and other 'centralized' solutions that belong to companies. These are corporations that would 're-centralize' the web. For YouTube there isn't an alternative that I know of yet – for blogs, mailing lists, and sites, there are.)

What I don't think we have enough of is content to fill this space. We need more people thinking, writing, producing, and filling this space with good stuff.

So there is doing political analysis, and presenting it. In an hour, I can only make fairly general points about both and can't actually 'workshop' your content (but we can continue this online) – but then, part of what I want to say is that you should be able to make your point in one sentence, and in a paragraph, and in 10 minutes, and in 40 minutes. So we'll do the 40 minute version.

For doing political analysis, I can't do better than one of my 5 favourite political analysts, Eqbal Ahmad's, two suggestions. His two suggestions: Read critically and intervene.

If you read critically, you don't need to worry too much about sources. Because anything can be a potential source. There are no 'dangerous' ideas, no sources that are so tainted that nothing can be learned from them. Of course, time is finite and if you have people you trust you can use them to help you figure out what is worth your time and what is not. But you are an activist because of your principles. Have enough faith in them to engage with other ideas fully.

When he says intervene, he means: 'say something'. If you decide to intervene, you will force yourself to know what you're talking about, and you will investigate what you need to know to say what you want to say. As you intervene, you'll read more and more critically. You'll find people wanting to hear what you have to say, so you'll intervene more. And so the virtuous cycle will go.

Two things to add to Eqbal. First, because this is what I did: find people whose analysis you like and trust and then emulate them. Don't be afraid to emulate them a lot, especially if you have more than one. Most of us aren't great mimics. The result is that most people won't know who you're imitating, even though you do. I do it all the time – I am an amalgamated and poor copy of a group of people that I admire. If these people are alive, get to know them. Ask them questions about their work. They like that. People who write have no ability to resist curious, interested, and informed questions by people who want to do what they do. Political analysts believe what they are doing is important, so if they get the sense you want to do it, they will want to help you.

Second, and it might be premature to people starting out, but it's something I have seen. There is a lot of space, but this work isn't really a market in the sense that there are few resources to be had for doing it. That means there is no sense competing with others to do it. The more others there are doing it, the better it is for all of us. So if you have colleagues who need information, or contacts, just give them up. Don't hold them. The bigger our network, the better, by far.

That is all I have to say about doing political analysis.

Now, to presenting it.

Again, I have to speak in generalities. But the first thing is this. Don't have any false humility. You are writing because you know something that your audience does not. If you don't know something your audience does not, then you don't need to write, you can go to the beach or play video games. If you do know something your audience does not, you should write it. But you must keep the audience in mind. You know something they don't, but to tell them that thing, you have to use things they DO know. Writing is explaining what the reader doesn't know, in terms that the reader DOES know.

I used the word 'explain', but there are really two reasons to write. You want to inform, but as an activist you also want to persuade. So with every single piece you write or thing you say, you should think of WHO your audience is, WHAT they DO know, what they DON'T know that you DO know, and what you want them to DO once they know.

And here there are some different models. I'll give you a few examples, from my experience.

I am writing for websites and my blog, but the idea is to produce pieces that people will forward around. My intuition is that is how a lot of people read what they read: by credible people forwarding it to their email on the one hand, and search engines on the other. Consider both of these uses when you are writing.

Summer Rains
Audience: those looking for alternative analysis of Israeli actions in 2006 - potentially large in times of crisis.
What do I know: history and context of Israel's behavior leading up to the actions.
What do I want them to do: ultimately to join the Palestine movement, but in the short term to reject the mainstream explanations for what is happening.

John Clarke interview
Audience: sympathetic to OCAP, activist readers of ZNet
What do I know: what OCAP is doing and trying to do
What do I want them to do: give money - this was when OCAP was in dire financial straits and seeking sustainers.

US/Israel misconceptions
Audience: Pakistanis and Muslims, through Pakistan news (mainstream media)
What do I know: US foreign policy isn't a Jewish conspiracy but has institutional roots
What do I want them to do: direct their anger at the US system and elites who support it, not at an imaginary Jewish conspiracy

Para-Uribe regime, Extraditions, and Justice in Colombia
Audience: The ICC. I'm hoping it gets forwarded around to them.
What do I know: all the gathered evidence against Uribe's regime.
What do I want them to do: prosecute Uribe.

Financial economy and real economy
Audience: those looking for an explanation of the basic economics of meltdown
What do I know: critical reading of a gem of a mainstream book
What do I want them to do: think of left sources as credible and knowledgeable on these matters

Okay, what about explaining the unknown in terms of the known?

Chomsky's analogies are a perfect example. Everybody knows how awful the USSR is in Afghanistan, but they don't know the US did worse in Vietnam. So he compares the US to the USSR. People believe Adam Smith was the classic capitalist, so he finds quotes from Adam Smith denouncing the greed and rapaciousness of elites. Or imagine we're getting attacked like Cuba does.

Eqbal was also fast on his feet. A Pakistani citizen, he was active against the Vietnam war in the US in the 1960s. After an event, he got a visit from the FBI:

'Two men came. They showed their cards. They first asked me if I was a citizen of the United States. I said, “No”. They said, “Don't you feel that as a guest in this country you should not be going about criticizing the host country's government?” I said, “I hear your point, but I do want you to know that while I am not a citizen, I am a taxpayer. And I thought it was a fundamental principle of American democracy that there is no taxation without representation. I have not been represented about this war. And my people, Asian people, are being bombed right now.” Surprisingly, the FBI agents looked deeply moved and blushed at my throwing this argument at them. They were speechless. Then I understood something about the importance of having some congruence between American liberal traditions... and our rhetoric and tactics.' (Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, pg. 31).

Congruence with values is what it is all about in speaking to people who are not already on side. One problem leftists have is that we give off the vibe that if you're not a leftist you don't have values. The vibe we need to give off is that you do have values, they are good values, and to be consistent with them you need to be a leftist. Obvious and clear.

Another problem in the opposite direction that we have is that we like to position ourselves rhetorically at an extreme. But rhetorically it is always better to be in the middle. Your position is always the most reasonable one! You are the moderate! The other side are extremists! The Palestinian right to return is an example. How is allowing people the right to go back to their homes and not live in desolate camps under bombing and siege anything but reasonable and moderate? There is no reason to allow racists to present themselves as moderate.

This has nothing to do with diluting politics or the message. This has to do with how to communicate an uncompromised message to someone who doesn't already agree. That is the skill to learn.

The system works through normalizing certain assumptions (that this is the only way to organize an economy, that some people are 'legal' and others aren't, and so on). They normalize these assumptions by disconnecting events from history and memory, and by repeating them over and over. We want to rescue memory. But we shouldn't have any fear of repetition. Academics fall over themselves to say things that are new and original. We don't need to be original.

We do, however, need to have all our facts and research right and not exaggerate. Alternative ideas are always under far greater scrutiny than mainstream ones. Check facts, make minimalist claims, err on the side of caution, make concessions where the issue is at all questionable. If a leftist and a mainstreamer said the same thing, quote the mainstreamer (unless you want to raise the visibility and credibility of the leftist). Read your writing like a liberal or conservative would. See what sticks out.

On the matter of assumptions. We have to make some assumptions to communicate anything at all. For different audiences, you have to make different assumptions. Explaining that the Afghan occupation is wrong in an article for soldiers or recruits is different from what you would say at an antiwar rally. It's not more radical to speak only to people who agree. Your audience might not agree with you at the start – your objective is to find them where they are and lead them to your point. This is easier if you don't make assertions, but use facts that make the assertions for you. It's also easier if you don't use left jargon.

Here's a list of left buzzwords.

Police state
We need
Stand in solidarity
Imperialism (without a definition)
Capitalism (without a definition)
is important

These are insider language (or they tell, when you're supposed to show and not tell). They suggest you are talking to someone who already agrees. If you are writing for a left audience, fine. But then consider they might already know what you are telling them, in which case you might not need to write. If you are not writing for a left audience, don't use language that only leftists understand.

Metaphors, analogies, and images are all very good and useful. Analogies are so powerful that if you are arguing with someone who is using one you should also use one – even an inferior analogy is a better answer than no analogy. If you are going to use them, make sure you can picture them. I'm not very good with them – this is unfortunately an area where talent matters, but I have improved with practice and so can you.

Let me conclude with a different take on hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is our friend. Power structures have to pretend to hold values in order to win the loyalty of at least some of society. We can use the gap between those professed values and reality to move people to try to change the reality towards the values.

The reason that is worth doing has to do with the overall project of left punditry. Each of your analyses might correspond to specific political situations and moments – indeed, I think they should, because people go looking for ideas and analysis that fits such moments. But the overall effect of all of this activity, if there is a lot of it, is to move the whole spectrum to the left. To move the spectrum involves mobilizing and activating friends that we have now, making new friends from people who might be sympathetic, and demobilizing enemies who might be wavering. These are three different audiences and projects, but there is space to do all three today and we should use it.