On literary propaganda and sucker punches

John C. Wright considers the questions of literature as propaganda in “Writing with an Axe to Grind”:

A propagandist, like an attorney loyal only to his client, will argue his client’s case, and does not bring up any points helpful to the opposition. An artist, if he is honestly presenting an image of the world as it is or as it should be, will give both sides of the argument, because in nature there are two sides to each question, if not more. An artist may be indeed quite loyal to his burning vision of the world, but an attorney is a partisan loyal to a cause, not to a vision.

The attorney is trying to get a result, that is, to persuade a jury; whereas the poet is trying capture a in a web of words a reality somehow more real than reality itself, as strange as Norse gods catching Fenrir in a gossamer strand make of nine impossible things.

A propagandist is even less honest: he does not actually argue the case nor even tell the jurors that there are two sides to the case. He uses rhetoric rather than logic, uses appeals to emotion and uses other fundamentally indirect and dishonest tactics. The perfect propagandist changes his victim’s mind without the victim even being aware of the operation.

Contrariwise, philosophy confronts a judge with two opposite view points and calls on his to use his dispassionate reasoning to render a verdict.  Propaganda is the mere opposite of this. Propaganda lulls rather than awakens the judgment….

There are two dimensions of propaganda to keep in mind. One is the depth of the message being preached, and the other is the frequency.

To measure the depth, use the following rule of thumb: if the message were removed, would the rest of the story still stand? For example, in STARSHIP TROOPERS the answer is clearly a resounding No. It is not a war story. The fighting scenes are few and far between and sketchy to the point of zenlike reductionism. It is a story about the pragmatic morality of fighting, the patriotic duty to fight. Remove the speeches and everything in the tale uses to buttress or exemplify the points made in the speeches, and the entire story is gone.

Again, try to imagine ATLAS SHRUGGED without the struggle between the productive and archrational supermen and the vampiric irrational socialists, and there is no story. I suppose there is sort of a harsh and angular love story between Dagny and Reardon, but since the ultimate resolution of that plotline is forced by the author’s peculiar theories of the metaphysical foundations of love and romance, even that would have to be dropped.

Likewise again, while parts of THE GOLDEN COMPASS or THE SUBTLE KNIFE might be preserved without the anticlerical message, there is no story in AMBER SPYGLASS aside from the struggle between the good freethinking atheists and the Evil Church of Evil and their clownlike god who evaporates upon exposure to air.

Frequency is another thing. It is common enough in movies and books to hide a Leftwing ‘sucker punch’ beneath what otherwise seems and innocent story, or whip out an anti-Bush joke in the third act that has nothing to do with the story, or suddenly make an old wizard or a comedy relief viking a sodomite, in order to make the homosexual disorder seems harmless and unremarkable. These are called sucker punches because they are the opposite of deep propaganda: their whole effect comes from them being unexpected to the point of being extraneous.

So imagine listening to a comedian telling ninety nine jokes about his mother in law, and one remark that is not a joke at all to the effect that everyone who regards homosexual acts as sinful, or even imprudent, is a hateful bigot with no right to a polite hearing: and Christ was evil for preaching sexual purity, and the Antichrist is Our Master.

In this case, the ninety nine jokes was nothing more than the patter of a confidence trickster, a con job to get you to lower your guard, to lull your suspicions, so he could punch you while you were nodding, you sucker.

This is an interesting perspective and it further demonstrates the difference between Pink and Blue SF. While there is, without question, propaganda being written on both sides, one of the hallmarks of Pink SF/F is the observable fact that in most cases, the personal is the political and the propaganda is the story.

Remove the Christian propaganda from Narnia and you still have an astonishingly compelling set of fantasy stories. Remove the feminist propaganda from the average Pink SF/F novel and you’ve got nothing but a bog standard romance novel.

Wright’s latest work, CITY BEYOND TIME, could technically be labeled a brief, except for the fact that it is so masterfully presented, so deeply philosophical, and so perfectly woven into the story that very few will be aware of the book on that level. It is not, however, propaganda.

Stross’s THE RHESUS CHART, on the other hand, is neither a brief nor propaganda by Wright’s definition, as the expected anti-Christian asides fall squarely into Exception (1): “a part of the author’s world view integral to him”. By a happy coincidence (or was it prescience), I bookmarked a few passages last week that nicely demonstrate this.

  1. “As non sequiturs go Pete has heard worse. In parish work you periodically have to deal with young, slightly alienated gay teens whose overly concerned parents drag them in for a talking-to by the vicar—there’s something strange about Harry. Part of Pete’s job (as he sees it) is to talk them down from the ramparts of militant anti-Christianism, explain that no, the entire Church does not hate them, and then point them at the nearest LGBT youth counseling service. With luck, in a few years’ time they’ll be happy and stable, and remember you when the last of the reactionary ’phobes have finally flounced out of the General Synod.”
  2.  “Oh good god.” Mo doesn’t believe in any gods other than the ones I believe in, but the expostulation comes instinctively.
  3.  “Oh, that’s easy!” He looks up. “Would you believe that, of forty-six parishioners informally polled, thirty-six of them believe in the existence of evil incarnate, in the person of the Devil?” He sighs. “Well, their average age was somewhere north of sixty, and they’re self-selected for being frequent attendees at religious services, so there was bound to be an element of literal-mindedness to them. But, taking the Devil as a baseline, the really interesting thing is that forty of them believe in vampires. Over 85 percent! Vampires are out-polling Satan in the bogeyman charts this decade.” He takes a mouthful of fizz. “Mind you, I added a couple of control questions. I said they were a self-selected sample? 52 percent of them think gays are going to hell, and 39 percent think the Earth was created late one Saturday night in October of 4004 BC.” He looks pained. “I can see I have some sermons to write on the subject of metaphor and creation myths. And tolerance.”

In fairness, these little jabs can’t really be described as sucker punches when they are telegraphed so obviously. But however ineptly they are administered, their intent is clearly to inform (unnecessarily as it happens) the reader of Mr. Stross’s worldview (to the extent it can be described as a coherent and singular entity as opposed to a dynamic collection of externally imposed politically correct opinions) rather than “manipulate the reader into adherence to an ideology”.

One of the interesting things THE RHESUS CHART caused me to reflect upon was the way atheists writing vampire novels resolutely stick to certain conventional aspects of the vampire myth, such as being undead, blood-drinking, superhuman strength, quasi-immortality, and a vulnerability to silver, stakes, and beheading, while just happening to remove the power of the Cross over vampires. I think this may reflect an element of anti-Christian propaganda, as well as a certain moral confusion about the intrinsically evil nature of the monsters.

And it shows how these biases can structurally weaken a story. Because, quite often, the very writer who has removed the power of the Cross (to say nothing of the Name of Jesus Christ) over the monsters subsequently decides that it would be very useful if there was a centuries-old organization that either knows about the monsters or hunts them, and then promptly attempts to introduce some element of the Catholic Church despite the fact that the Church has no more ability to deal with them than any Fortune 500 corporation.