The Anti-Empire Project Episode 46: Biden and Imperial Propaganda

Justin and Dan talk about Biden and Imperial Propaganda

Dan and Justin start with the hectoring of the Bernie movement by liberals to vote Biden – including their sudden discovery of Chomsky,  who has always endorsed voting “the lesser evil”. From there, we talk about early 20th century propaganda in both its British and American imperial incarnations.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 43: Two Chomskyites Trapped in 2020

Justin and Dan talk about Chomsky.

Justin and Dan (that’s Dan Freeman-Maloy, for new listeners) talk about Chomsky – and not just manufacturing consent, but Chomsky’s influence on their political thinking, where they might have tiny disagreements, and how they try to use Chomsky’s work to think through political problems in 2020.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does Bruce Lee wrong — and much else

Tarantino’s mastery seems to be in reading the mood and making a movie for it. His latest movie is perfect for the Trump era, based as it is in nostalgia for a racially homogeneous Hollywood.

The genre for Once Upon a Time… forces some choices on both the storyteller and the audience. The movie treats the day that actor Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, but it reverses that murder and ends with Sharon and friends having a nice drink in her house after the would-be murderers have been eaten by a dog, bashed in on various surfaces of a house, and incinerated by flamethrowers. But the whole hook of the movie is its ability to evoke the Hollywood of 1969, which Tarantino clearly wants us to think was a good time. So, which parts of it were real and which were changed? These were the decisions Tarantino made, the consequences of which moviegoers have to suffer.

Here’s one decision I was wondering about. Since all the protagonists were white, did they not use casual racial slurs in their conversations with one another back then? They certainly are vitriolic towards the “f#@in hippies”. But I didn’t hear them use the n-word even once. No anti-Semitism among these paragons either. At Manson’s ranch, one of the villains, “Squeaky”, or “the red-head” tells Brad Pitt’s character that she “doesn’t want to be gypped” of her time watching TV with George, the ranch’s mostly incapacitated owner. “Gypped” is a racist term that implies that gypsies, or Roma, are thieves. Like the Jews, the Roma were targeted for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust, and indeed, the term “gypped” is used interchangeably with “jewed” by racists. Tarantino inserted the word “gypped”, presumably to add some verisimilitude about the casual racism with which people talked back then. So why no casual anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which was also the coin of the realm at the time? Tarantino used to do that, with anti-Black racism at least: Reservoir Dogs is full of n-bombs dropped by the white cast, in all kinds of shameful ways, with deniability for the storyteller to say, hey, I’m not racist, my characters are.

Aside from the protagonists’ hatred of the “f#@in hippies”, the film is all about not showing you anything of the 1960s social movements against the Vietnam War, the effects of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers — or even the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 or the Watts riots of 1965. The only mention of that context is when one of the Manson-following villains (played by Margaret Qualley), trying to seduce Pitt’s character (a Vietnam veteran), says that “real people are dying in Vietnam”. One of the would-be killers, who gets incinerated by Leonardo Di Caprio, delivers a critique of media violence before her attempted murder and elaborate death. 1969 Hollywood was a better, cleaner place, Tarantino is saying, with the only encroachments on this purity coming via a death cult of “f#@in hippies” (not via any real Black people or people with genuinely held anti-racist values).

On the theme of purity, Tarantino’s camera worships Margot Robbie’s angelic character, Sharon Tate, lingering on her golden hair, her pristine white boots and her beautiful smile as she dances and enjoys the audience reaction to her acting (a significant amount of the movie’s runtime is of Sharon Tate watching her own movie — which means a significant amount of the audience’s time is actually spent watching someone watch a movie). The camera follows Robbie (and Qualley in a different way, since she’s a bad) the way you’d see in a Michael Bay movie or a James Bond film, with Robbie as the good Bond girl and Qualley as the bad one.

And on Bond films: if Once Upon a Time… were a Bond film, the superspy role would go to Brad Pitt’s character, Vietnam veteran and possible wife-murderer Cliff Booth. And the main way we know of Cliff’s superpowers is by way of an encounter with Bruce Lee — for me, the most insulting part of this insulting film.

Bruce Lee is portrayed as a fan of Muhammad Ali, which of course he was. Bruce’s philosophy was to learn about fighting from every possible source. At that time, Muhammad Ali was displaying attributes and skills to astound anyone, but even more so a student of martial arts like Bruce. A story known by every Bruce Lee fan:

Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.

Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”

Bruce was a keen teacher, and a great showman (see the videos of his martial arts demonstrations), but he was no braggart and he spent all his time picking apart and analyzing fighting methods, practicing them, and teaching them to others. So, of course, Tarantino portrays him exactly as a loudmouth braggart and a bully, who picks a fight with Brad Pitt’s strong, silent character on a set. The fight starts when this cartoon Bruce (in direct defiance of what the real Bruce believed and said) tells someone that he would turn Muhammad Ali “into a cripple” if they fought — this, Brad Pitt’s character cannot abide. So Bruce — who in real life reluctantly accepted challenges on-set from blowhards (ie., who was much more like Pitt’s character was portrayed) — fights Cliff, who gives the foreign braggart a good old-fashioned American beating.

In the real world, Bruce Lee faced a glass ceiling in the racist Hollywood of the time, despite his extraordinary gifts. Playing Kato in the Green Hornet, the story goes that Bruce refused the plan in a crossover episode to have his character defeated by Batman’s sidekick, Robin. No one would have believed it. Screenwriters changed the fight to a draw.

So, how would Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and Vietnam veteran, have approached a fight with Bruce? Presumably he would have been trained in the Army Combatives system at the time — a system Bruce knew and studied. Maybe Cliff also even knew American boxing and wrestling — which would have been no surprise to Bruce, who taught American students with these backgrounds. So, would Bruce have opened with a lot of fancy movement and kiai sounds and a flying sidekick, like he does in the movie? Would he have done that same kick after challenged by Cliff to do it again? What we know of how Bruce behaved in sparring situations says no (look at this YouTube MMA analyst’s breakdown of a sparring session). Nor would Bruce have reacted to Cliff’s attacks with stunned surprise: he was an experienced fighter who would have seen it all before.

It gets worse. Because in the fight choreography Tarantino chose for the scene, Pitt’s character actually uses wing-chun style close-quarters hand-fighting for a portion of the fight (this was the first style Bruce studied before developing his own). Pitt’s stance and movement incorporate moves that were introduced to North America by (the real) Bruce Lee, who did a lot to change and improve both real martial arts training and fight choreography. While disparaging the real Bruce, Tarantino freely uses his martial arts to make his movie look cool.

In the end, Bruce is just a stepping stone, a foreigner whose fancy moves are no match for the all-American hero, a foil to show the invincibility of the white protagonist. The very role the real Bruce chafed against his entire career.

There’s more to say about the class dynamics of the movie, the way in which Pitt’s working class character knows his place and is uncritically loyal and ever-grateful to Di Caprio’s upper class character. But I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ll just say that while this movie rewrites a gruesome murder and spares the actual victims, it is also an attempted murder on, among other historical realities, the real Bruce Lee.

The Ossington Circle Episode 32: The Wrong Story – Palestine, Israel, and the Media with Greg Shupak

The Ossington Circle Episode 32: The Wrong Story – Palestine, Israel, and the Media with Greg Shupak

I talk to Greg Shupak, author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media. We use the Israel/Palestine story as a launching point for a technical discussion about tropes, frames, narratives, and propaganda, and about why and how to argue against it all. 

The future of mind control: How social media is supercharging the propaganda system

In their book Manufacturing Consent, the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.

Media corporations have hacked your social brain

In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.

When Herman and Chomsky created the propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue, and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.

The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters

Ownership of media outlets is now supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine (Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of Apple).

Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).

Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.

Advertising Revenue: The tech giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”

Beyond the boost to the propaganda system provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet: advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it, is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly. Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery, they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.

Flak has become supercharged to the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:

“The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not based on the content of what I write.”

This affects not just Rashid, but her followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”

Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”

The New Media Filters

But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:

It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the authority. Most corporations could be described as internally totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is, internally, more totalitarian than most.

An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive. These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”

They Have Hacked Your Social Brain: When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had in “legacy media.”

One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

If that were not enough, social media platforms can hack your mood directly. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook researchers had done a study on users, manipulating their moods, to see if they could. That case was terrifying, and has long been forgotten. Repeated academic studies show that social media use is harmful to mood and body image. Reducing its use can help with mental health. That is why upper-level social media executives neither use, nor allow their children to use their own platforms.

In the face of the propaganda system, Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense” as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their “real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do the same.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Lessons from Ed Herman’s Lifelong War against Lies

The story goes that Einstein’s theory of relativity began with a simple question: What if a person could sit on a beam of light? A single inquiry led to an entire field of study, and perhaps the world’s most famous scientific breakthrough.

The late Ed Herman’s questions were less playful. They were about war and death, lies and power politics, but they too created entire areas of study. If properly considered, they can even guide us through the perilous age in which we’re living.

Herman is best known for co-authoring Noam Chomsky’s iconic Manufacturing Consent, which explores how U.S. corporate media operates as a system of disinformation. Written during the Cold War, the book challenged readers who understood propaganda to be a tool of the Soviet Union. How could a diverse industry without official censors to monitor what it published or aired, that was neither owned nor controlled by the state, be used for social control? Quite easily, as it turns out.

The world offers an almost infinite array of events that can be covered, and media insitutions must decide what’s most relevant to their audiences. In other words, they operate as an information filter. But how do they provide their viewers, listeners and readers with the best possible understanding of the world? Ideally, these institutions produce the kind of coverage necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. In reality, Chomsky and Herman discovered, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

In their propaganda model, the pair identified five distinct filters: Media ownership, which is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy corporations; ideology, specifically anti-communism, which “helps mobilize the populace against… anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism”; advertising, or the selling of audiences to advertisers, which can lead to any number of distortions and misconceptions; official sourcing, which often leads to self-censorship as media outlets become dependent on their access to members of the government; and finally organized flak, which allows lobbies to lean on journalists and outlets who deviate from the status quo.

Manufacturing Consent remains as vital today as it was when it first published in 1988. Anti-communism continues to dominate our discourse, even in the absence of a Soviet Union or communist China, while several prominent media personalities have made their careers decrying “leftist ideologues.” Media ownership has become even more exclusive, and the advertising model has overtaken the whole of society by way of Google and social media. Twitter mobs can be manufactured and mobilized; organized flak is now a matter of life and death.

Not only did Herman ask the kinds of questions that produced one of social science’s most compelling theories, but he served as a model of rigor for media critics across the political spectrum. The 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent ran 330 pages (including appendices), 63 pages of which were endnotes. Its voluminously documented cases were always supplemented by quantitative analysis: the amount of coverage devoted to so-called enemies of the state was inversely proportional to that of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies. This method can be applied to virtually any line of journalistic inquiry, be it war, economic crisis or a political dispute on campus.

Herman’s priorities were radical, aimed at stopping or preventing the most heinous forms of violence by exposing the media biases that facilitated them. Herman and Chomsky revealed as much in the preface to Manufacturing Consent: “It would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. It would have been impossible to wage a brutal war against South Vietnam and the rest of indochina… if the media had not rallied to the cause, potraying murderous aggression as a defense of freedom.”

Finally, Herman was relentless in his pursuit of a cause he deemed just. “Trolling” has many definitions, but when it comes to politics, it can most aptly be described as the use of bad-faith tactics to demoralize one’s opponent. Having devoted his life to exposing the consequences of media manipulation, Herman was immune to this mode of communication. He threw himself into intellectual debates with little regard for social taboos, and he gave it as well as he took it. (I learned this firsthand when he published a withering rebuttal to my review of the BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story.”)

In The Politics of Genocide, which he co-authored with David Peterson, Herman argued that Western media used the term “genocide” to quash debate about foreign policy, specifically NATO’s efforts to dismantle Yugoslavia, and the joint support of the United States and Britain for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame. He was immediately labeled a “genocide denier.” More recently, in its obituary for Herman, the New York Times accused Manufacturing Consent of “having soft-pedaled evidence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica.” FAIR and other outlets were quick to point out that the book was published years before two of the conflicts, and the obit was corrected.

The zeal with which these outlets tried to smear Herman’s name could have made a case study for Herman himself. Knowing Herman, the study would have been carefully modeled, meticulously conducted, and revealing in its conclusions about the mainstream media. American readers would have gained a fresh understanding of their country’s propaganda system, not only how it works but how they can subvert it.

Published Feb 15/18 on AlterNet as: What Can Noam Chomsky’s Co-Author Teach Us in the Age of Trump?

The Ossington Circle Episode 29: Media and Empire with… Justin Podur

Dan Freeman-Maloy interviews Justin Podur

In this episode Justin Podur is the guest and guest interviewer Dan Freeman-Maloy asks the questions. We talk about media, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, activism in a time of social media monopolies, and empires. The first of a series.

The Ossington Circle Episode 16: The Destruction of Syria and Solidarity with Max Ajl

The Ossington Circle Episode 16: The Destruction of Syria and Solidarity with Max Ajl

In this episode of The Ossington Circle, academic, activist, and editor at Jadaliyya Max Ajl discusses the destruction of Syria and the vitriol directed at leftists and Palestine activists who have opposed intervention in Syria.

My studies of writing

Everybody writes. I started studying writing in the high school writer’s craft course. I don’t remember many craft lessons from that class but I do remember writing a lot of stories, which is what was important – to get writing. Since 2010 but intensifying in 2015 and 2016, I have spent a lot of time reading about writing, taking courses about writing, and trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned. Here’s some of what I’ve read and thought.


I started around 2010 because in that year I tried to submit my writing to a bunch of magazines that I had never submitted to before. I thought my writing was pretty good. I’d been in Znet and Z Magazine with the best of them, so why not try some other publications? I got a raft of decisive rejections and very little feedback. What feedback I did get, suggested that they didn’t like my style. Style, and voice, are elusive terms. I started on a quest to figure out first what they meant, and then, whether we would have to agree to disagree (which I have mainly concluded) or whether I could improve my style (which maybe I have done).

I had already read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is mainly about writing concise and clear prose. Followed that with Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which didn’t stick with me very much but which I remember liking. I had also read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, very important stuff about avoiding bureaucratic, deliberately muddled language and cliched images.

Recently picked up Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which had some interesting stuff in it – what I took from it mainly was his prescription to use classical style, in which you describe exactly what you mean using visual metaphors and talking across to your reader (as opposed to talking down to your reader). Very recently I read Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, in which he talks about a “ladder of abstraction”, of using higher and lower levels of abstraction, and the placement of nouns and verbs in the sentence (at the beginning and at the end). Along the same lines, I was recommended Sol Stein On Writing, and Theodore A. Rees’s Getting the Words Right – 39 ways to improve your writing.

After all that, I still didn’t have a completely solid idea of style. Until this past summer, when I took a class on creative nonfiction for academics. One day was devoted to reading your writing out loud and listening for how the writing sounds. The patterns of consonants and vowels, the beats, basically thinking of writing as a piece of music. And then the images the writing brings up – what kinds of metaphors and similes the writer uses. That, I concluded, is style. And once I thought about it that way, I realized that Ursula K. LeGuin’s great little book, Steering the Craft, spends a lot of time on the way sentences sound.


Voice remains a bit elusive to me. I guess the idea is that someone should be able to tell it’s you writing just from reading a few sentences. There are many writers that I can identify instantly – because of their choices of style (see above). So, my definition of voice is the elements of your style that are unique to your writing. If you work on style, you’re working on voice. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about voice as distinct from style.

Story telling

Beyond the fact that they didn’t like my style, I was also getting criticisms that I needed to improve my story telling. Again, that was elusive to me, because I heard things like, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. Hardly enough guidance to actually improve one’s story telling.

But Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery! Was a life changer for me – Roerden shows twenty-plus rookie mistakes that get groans from editors everywhere. It turned out that in the early 2000s I was racking up nearly double digits in the rookie mistakes category. After editing for Roerden’s mistakes, I had much cleaner writing.

Trying to figure this out, I had a story critiqued by a professional writer. She relied on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and the book that adapts it for writers, The Writer’s Journey, to criticize my story. The idea was that a story has a protagonist that undergoes an internal change as they take action out in the world to attain their goal through obstacles. A mythic structure that has come down through the ages. These ideas on storytelling came up again and again. I recently read a book called Story Genius that makes this point, and another called Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.

A great book on non-fiction story telling was Jack Hart’s Storycraft. He takes you through stories that he worked on with writers at the Oregonian newspaper, many of which, he mentions casually, won the Pulitzer. There are lots of style guides that tell you to use active instead of passive verbs, but it took Jack Hart to tell me to use not just active but transitive verbs – in which someone does something to someone or something else. Beyond that, listening to This American Life, and the Serial podcast, have been my best examples of nonfiction storytelling in action.

Screenwriters have a lot of good stuff to say about storytelling. The best book I found was Robert McKee’s Story, which was very recently recommended to me. In that vein, there’s John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, and a very nice and fun book called Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder. I also liked Film Crit Hulk’s Screenwriting 101, which I picked up because I really liked his reviews of George RR Martin’s books.

Getting the work done

A colleague recommended Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, which is mainly about having a writing schedule. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, had the same message. Same with books like Odd Type Writers or Daily Rituals – all these people wrote around the same time every day, whether late at night or early in the morning. Write every day, at the same time every day, and you’ll produce enough words that you can have something to work with. Don’t have a schedule? Then you won’t be able to get your writing done. Schedule your time, and do your writing.

And now the worst part: promises of how to get published!

Aaaand then there’s my least favourite topic. Publishing. To me, publishing is more or less synonymous with rejection. And also, with getting marketed to. Everybody writes. And everybody who writes thinks thinks getting published means becoming JK Rowling. But publishing is a superstar system. You are as likely to win the lottery as to become a superstar writer.

And like the lottery, your role as a consumer or buyer of tickets is very important. A lot of marketing goes towards prospective writers: how-to books, MFAs, courses, seminars, workshops – all on how to get published. A lot of these experiences can be valuable. I’ve taken two online courses at the University of Iowa’s free massive open online courses (MOOC), and a series of coursera courses from Wesleyan university on creative writing, and gotten a lot out of them – including meeting other writers and forming critique groups. But it’s also easy to lose perspective and get sucked into this market, in which you, as a would-be-writer, are being lured along as a consumer by the promise of becoming a published writer – when what writing is really about is a connection between a writer and a reader. That is an ongoing struggle for me – how much am I learning, how much am I succumbing to being marketed to, how much am I getting shaken by constant rejection into trying to mold myself into something or someone I am not.

On writing queries, I read Lane Shefter Bishop’s Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence and The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters. I bought the Guide to Literary Agents for 2016. I used Thinking Like Your Editor and The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (many of these recommendations I got from Liza Dawson’s website resources section –

My own notes

My own observations from writing mainly political analysis for left online publications aren’t profound. My 2010 run of rejections were by publications I don’t read very much. The publications that I like a lot and read every day are also the ones that I found most open to publishing my work. What is this strange mystery? Could it be that I write like the material I spend most of my time reading? As I’ve branched out in my reading a bit, spending more time enjoying long-form narrative non-fiction and reading novels as fanatically as ever, I’ve had ideas for writing in these genres and pursued them. It takes a long time to learn a new way of writing (or working on anything), it has taken me a long time, and I am still learning. I like to think the real reason I want to be published in these new areas is because I want to contribute to the communities whose work I have enjoyed as a reader. Keeping that as far forward in mind as possible, I think will help anyone weather the inevitable rejections that are part of writing.

Why leftists should read John Ralston Saul — critically

John Ralston Saul — author, president of the writers’ organization PEN International, and former vice-regal consort to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — has had considerable influence in Canada and elsewhere. His unique style of writing can be recognized after just a few lines. He is hyper-educated, filling his work with references from the West in the 1600s to the present day, with the occasional leap back to the ancient Greeks or Romans. He takes a much broader historical sweep than almost any other writer who touches contemporary topics. [1]

Read any of his books, and you will come away with new stories: about a French resistance fighter during WWII named Jean Moulin, about a female contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi named Elizabeth of Hungary, about the 18th-century Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli. You can read about how ancient Greece’s civilization began to flower because of the cancellation of debts by Athenian statesman Solon, or how the current period of globalization looks from New Zealand and Malaysia.

In a series of books about Canada, he has resurrected the history of responsible government and the political leaders Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, arguing they showed the world that you could “talk your way out of the Empire,” a method that was adopted by dozens of other countries after Canada showed the way.

JRS brings fascinating characters to life, as well as tragic statistics. From one of his books I found out that in some years Alberta brought in more money from gambling revenues than from tar sands royalties, so low were the royalty rates and so high was the stealth tax set up through promotion of gambling among society’s elderly and vulnerable. Elsewhere he describes how Canada entered a health care crisis not because single-tier public health care is unaffordable but because of a decision in the 1990s to lower the number of doctors available to the population.

A central point he returns to in all his work about Canada is the need for Canadians, especially elites, to shed their inferiority complex relative to the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Canada is an interesting place, with a basis to build a better relationship between Indigenous people and those who have immigrated here than exists in most other places. The betrayal of that relationship, and the possibilities for repairing it, the responsibility for which lies on the non-Indigenous population, is the theme of his latest book, The Comeback.

In two major critical tomes, Voltaire’s Bastards and The Collapse of Globalism, JRS criticizes Western society for being out of equilibrium. Balanced humanism, he argues, requires the exercise of six human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. Our society has held reason above all else, leading to pathologies in every part of life, from politics to economics, from war to the arms trade, from NGO activism to academia.

Part of why it’s so valuable for leftists to read JRS is that he starts from a different place and uses different referents, yet comes to many of the same conclusions. He advocates democracy, inclusion, the public good, and egalitarianism, but eschews what he calls ideology with a phrase he constantly invokes: “whether of the left or the right.” Thinking about these values and ideas and how they relate to leftist values of equality and solidarity, about how his stories relate to the ones we constantly return to, is a valuable part of the kind of dialogue and debate that JRS advocates.
Stories untold

While the absence of almost anything leftist means there is usually a lot in JRS’s work that leftists don’t know about, it also means that he paints an incomplete picture.

The remarkable story of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez includes the exercise of many of JRS’s six human qualities. Chavez worked as an instructor in a military school, attempted a coup against a corrupt neoliberal regime, took personal and public responsibility for it and went to jail, came out and explicitly rejected the armed path to power, and helped lead a movement that has, by any definition, advanced the public good in Venezuela and in Latin America. But JRS dismisses Chavez as a “nationalist populist.”

Cuba, with its extraordinary health care system and genuine south-south solidarity in countries such as Haiti, a place where thousands and thousands of Canadians travel to as tourists every year in defiance of the U.S. blockade, is never mentioned.

Haiti, whose elected government was overthrown in 2004 in one of the most disgraceful operations Canada (and the United States and France) has been involved in recently, is also never mentioned. Nowhere in JRS’s remarkable array of stories appears the astounding history of the indemnity extracted by France from Haiti for the crime of leading the first successful slave revolt and liberating itself. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haiti’s fight for freedom, does not get to be one of the characters JRS brings to light. Neither does Charlemagne Peralte or Bolivar. Too bad for us, because I bet JRS could have made connections that the rest of us missed.

The Zapatistas explicitly used “their word as their weapon,” and their uprising was one of the first and most original and powerful indigenous uprisings to repudiate globalization. The solidarity movement included thousands of Canadians, including many Indigenous people. Yet in his book The Collapse of Globalism, JRS dismisses the Zapatistas as having launched “an old fashioned bloody uprising in Chiapas.” Couldn’t we expect more respect for an uprising that was all about the power of words and the dignity of Indigenous people from the president of PEN, someone who is trying to argue to Canadians that Canada needs to change its relationship with First Nations?

Can a discussion of the collapse of globalism proceed in an informed way without any of these reference points? It evidently does. But there is a great deal lost in the process, and the result, one might say, is unbalanced.
A calculated monstrosity

The ethical imbalance shows up in JRS’s discussion of military issues, which runs through several of his books and was put together in his famous 2004 lecture at Canada’s military college, “A new era of irregular warfare?” Insurgency and counterinsurgency are the mainstream form of conflict in today’s world, he argues, because of the vast superiority of Western armies and the consequent inability of those who face Western armies to meet them head-on. Western armies continue to ignore this and prepare for WWIII, not thinking about how to deal with insurgencies, including addressing root causes and looking at political solutions. (These latter points are more implied than directly made by JRS).

And sure, it is certainly possible that the West’s bloody campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s wars against the Palestinians and Lebanese, proceeded without careful thought about insurgencies, without much thought at all about the political and human costs of Western actions in those countries.

But it might also be possible that Western counterinsurgents have thought about this a lot and act with indifference to civilian lives, in order to secure their interests in those parts of the world. Reading Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, or Breaking the Silence’s recent report about how the Israeli army fought in Gaza in August 2014, you don’t get a sense of people who haven’t thought about counterinsurgency.

You get the sense of people who have thought a lot about how to be aggressive against defenceless populations. You get a sense of people who have applied their minds and their vast resources to precisely that problem, with precisely the monstrous results that we see.

Of course, JRS barely ever touches Israel or Palestine, as to do so would be to drive himself straight out of the mainstream. (He did, in 2013, add his name to an open letter signed by Canadian writers opposed to Israeli evictions of South Hebron Palestinians and Negev Bedouin.) It’s too bad, because his writing on the subject would be interesting.

Applying his values and arguments to the Israel-Palestine conflict might have him arguing for a bi-national state, or an inclusive solution that treats everyone like human beings. He might find obscure stories in Jewish or Arab histories of hope, or examples from other parts of the world of a “positive nationalism” that could override the “negative nationalism” currently deployed to devastating effect against Palestinians.

None of this would help him against the organized pro-Israel forces that would go after him, forces that include most of the Canadian political class including its prime minister and challengers. But as the president of PEN, which advocates for freedom of expression, and as an author who has repeatedly talked about the importance of courage for writers, he could be expected to take a stand, at the very least, against Israel’s very detailed and constant war against Palestinian writers and culture.

JRS, or at least readers who rely on him, ignore Israel and Palestine at their peril. In The Comeback, JRS argues that the inevitability of history is on the side of Canada’s Indigenous people. They are making a demographic, civilizational, and political comeback, and non-Indigenous people can accept it gracefully or disgracefully, but they are going to have to accept it. (This position on the inevitability of history is one JRS made fun of in The Doubter’s Companion, specifically making fun of Marxists, lumping them in with neoconservatives).

But that isn’t true. Canada could treat Indigenous people as a military threat (read Douglas Bland’s novel Uprising for a fictionalized scenario along these lines) and try to contain them, denying their rights while stealing ever more of their land and resources. There was a time when Canada, Israel, and South Africa shared information and ideas of how to suppress indigenous populations. South Africa has exited the club, but it didn’t disband it — and Israel and Canada are closer today than they ever were.

Even if Canada’s approach to Indigenous people does not worsen, JRS’s ideas may be insufficient to make it better. Radical critics of The Comeback, Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak argued in the Literary Review of Canada that while “to a large extent” JRS “gets it,” his proposed remedies at the ballot box and in the courts have so far led mostly nowhere and will continue to lead nowhere for Indigenous peoples unless there is a “Canadian comeback” that allows society to move away from “the mythologies of liberal capitalism.” They contrasted JRS’s ideas with those of Indigenous scholars Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, and Leanne Simpson, whose recent books offer a deeper re-envisioning of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in this country. [2]

When JRS discusses the Rwandan genocide and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he does so in a fairly schematic way, taking the perspective of Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. He concludes that the West’s slowness to act was the problem. But Alan Kuperman, in his book The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention, argued that a small intervention could have saved lives, but not prevented the genocide. Meanwhile the West’s unconditional support for Rwanda’s ruler, Paul Kagame, since before the genocide was a contributing factor in what happened and the decisive factor in the mass deaths in the DR Congo from 1996 on.

Adding Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Rene Lemarchand, Mahmood Mamdani, and Fillip Reyntjens to his reading list would round it out enough for JRS to see that the problem was not speed, but an intervention into Rwanda’s civil war and then Rwanda’s proxy wars that was guaranteed to produce mass deaths but which, because it did no harm to Western interests, was, for the West, free of consequence.

JRS’s military analyses have two problems. First, as discussions of whether the counterinsurgency strategies and interventions work or don’t work, they ignore the illegitimacy, the criminal nature, of these interventions and their unavoidable devastation of civilian populations. Second, they lead to some pretty weird political places. Instead of a straightforward anti-war or anti-imperialist view, JRS’s readers might end up demanding of their elected officials improved counterinsurgency doctrine and practice.

Such demands would be to the benefit of no one, the public good least of all.
A fictional view of capitalism

Another imbalance in JRS’s writing is in his discussion of economic matters. Unlike most writers, he is able to discuss taxes with minimal rationality, without the kinds of crazy taboos that surround most discussion of taxes. I think that his persistence in discussing taxes this way over the decades (along with others such as Linda McQuaig) has played a role in the fact that politicians can finally start to make arguments about taxes in public.

JRS criticizes the West for letting the Third World debt continue, despite how simple it would be to write off. He criticizes the West for creating an arms industry for export, creating an economic incentive to feed violence all over the world. He criticizes narrow views of society, what he calls the “economic prism” approach, which see people as essentially self-interested.

In Canada, he criticizes the elite for stealing the wealth of indigenous lands and denying Indigenous people the benefits of that wealth. These failings he attributes mainly to a narrow form of reason and to what he calls managerialism. The economy is run by managers, he says, not by real owners or capitalists.

Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”

When JRS quotes such “real owners,” he quotes people like Peter Munk, whose Barrick Gold is currently making fortunes despoiling indigenous territories in various parts of the world, and whose board has a revolving door for Canadian politicians. At one point JRS quotes Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who analyze the behaviour and strategies of real capitalists, who are, as theories from two centuries ago predicted, primarily interested in accumulating fortunes at society’s expense, not making useful products, creating wealth, or exposing themselves to competition.

Nitzan and Bichler also analyze what they call the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition, an economic bloc involving flows of weapons from the West, oil from the Persian Gulf, and dollars back and forth, which JRS also has written about in different ways since the 1990s. His criticism of countries including Burma has been stronger and more direct than anything directed at Saudi Arabia. A friend recently pointed out that JRS seems to avoid criticism of Saudi Arabia despite its competitiveness with ISIS for beheadings, its misogyny, its suppression of free expression, and its recent bombing of civilians in Yemen. [3]

This leads to one of JRS’s fundamental points about elites. They can be responsible or not, but in his view, they are always present. But this, too, puts apples in with oranges for comparison.

Leftists, especially anarchists, and indeed any real democrats, seek a society where the only elite is one of esteem, people who might be admired for the exercise of their talents for, well, the public good. Such an elite would be completely different from today’s 1%, with their net worths equal to small countries, pay scales hundreds of times those of the average worker, elaborate webs of deceit to avoid taxes, backhanded benevolence through charity (which JRS rightly criticizes), and ability to influence politics through corruption and patronage.

Calling both of these groups “elites” is confusing and narrows what we might imagine to be possible. JRS would surely not want to limit our ability to use our imagination, to imagine a better, more equal world?
The Supreme Court and Indigenous rights

JRS makes several rebukes against leftists, some of which are well taken. In his discussion of NGOs, he argues that by remaining outside of electoral and democratic contests, NGOs are implicitly arguing that they don’t believe in democratic legitimacy and don’t seek it. He makes an interesting comparison with pre-WWI union-based reformers, who had incredible influence but did not translate it into institutionalized power.

Chavistas in Venezuela, Lavalas in Haiti, Palestinians running for national elections and inside the Israeli Knesset, and the Zapatistas in Mexico have all struggled with this issue intellectually in life-or-death situations. What are the limits of staying outside? What happens when you try to get inside? What is the price of one or the other? Can you keep your integrity?

Another rebuke to the Canadian left and the activist community is the failure to realize the significance of decades of recent Supreme Court decisions that have the potential to change the relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. If JRS is right, more of us should be thinking about how to use these judicial decisions as tools to expand indigenous sovereignty. His historical criticisms of 19th-century Canadian leftists Papineau and Mackenzie and their errors are also well worth considering.

An implicit critique comes from JRS’s basic philosophy. Because society is imbalanced, he argues, we have become obsessed with structure instead of content. By content, he means ideas. Most leftists, whether consciously or not, believe in some variation of Marx’s idea that ideas flow from one’s material situation and material interests, and they consequently look for structural problems and solutions.

JRS rejects this view. His books are full of structural critique and, in later books, policy suggestions. But he views bad structures as flowing from bad ideas, while most of us believe the reverse. The difference may not matter very much, since we have to battle with both ideas and structures all the time, but it is there.

JRS has much to offer leftists. The ability to see historical examples in today’s events, to revisit history for both inspirational and cautionary tales, and to weave them into “positive myths” could enrich our thinking. The idea of a balance of human qualities, of egalitarian societies that can bring out the best in all of their citizens — these are as much leftist ideals as anyone’s.

To the extent that his readers can find historical context, or common sense, or surprising facts or stories that help them to resist the mind-numbing propaganda we are all subjected to daily — whether about the latest terror threat or the need for poor people to suffer more to enrich those already wealthy — there is an opening for left values of equality and solidarity to take hold.

So, yes, leftists can learn a lot from JRS. But one of the effects of people like him is to make us look even crazier than we already do. If someone who is willing to criticize everything from the arms trade to the Third World debt to managerialism to our society’s irrational views on taxes, who criticizes the West for its failures in the former Yugoslavia and Burma and Nigeria, who argues for a transformation of Canada into a reciprocal relationship between indigenous and immigrants (and implicitly for an abolition of the settler category), if such a person still won’t criticize Israel, capitalism, Canada’s role in Haiti, or Rwanda’s role in the DR Congo, if such a person can’t see anything interesting in Venezuela, Chiapas, or Cuba, then those of us who do must really be crazy.

Too bad for us? Maybe. But maybe too bad for the elusive public good, too, if leftists and genuine public intellectuals like JRS can’t meet somewhere.

[First published at Ricochet:]


[1] Noam Chomsky is an exception. So was Eqbal Ahmad.

[2] King and Pasternak titled their article “Don’t Call It a Comeback,” and in his response JRS didn’t seem to catch the LL Cool J reference. It seems that his encyclopedic knowledge did not encompass Mama Said Knock You Out, an album that came out two years before Voltaire’s Bastards.

[3] There is some indirect criticism though. In a discussion about Ottawa (on pg. 248) in A Fair Country, JRS points out that “Two ugly embassies of dictatorships and one ugly condo… now stand side by side on Sussex Drive with Rideau Hall, 24 Sussex, the National Gallery, Foreign Affairs and the embassies of our closest democratic allies… One of the dictatorships is a particularly fine model of repression when it comes to free speech and women’s rights.” The Ottawa Citizen, reviewing the book, listed Sussex Drive embassies: France, South Africa, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The dictatorships on that list are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the “fine model of repression” is almost certainly, by process of elimination, the Saudi Kingdom.