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Christopher Holshek Headshot

Beware the Confidence Man

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Herman Melville is best known for Moby Dick, but perhaps one of his most insightful writings was The Confidence Man, the term in the mid-19th century for what we now more familiarly refer to as con men. Americans are pretty gullible -- you only need to sit up and watch the late-night infomercials that would make us believe that we can lose weight by sitting on the couch with a vibrating contraption around the waist, while eating potato chips. Or get-rich-quick schemes, free money from the government, or "male enhancement" products. Despite how well-informed we should be, we are still suckers for snake oil salesmen.

As far as political polemics go, you would think we're now on safer ground with fact-checkers, perhaps with Mark Twain in mind: "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." The problem is, just getting the facts doesn't necessary do it -- it's still the distortions that follow the facts. In a day and age of information overload, we are even better advised to heed Thomas Jefferson's admonition that "an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."

Back in April, I recalled one of the most useful courses I ever took -- and that in a public high school, of all places: Mr. Itzkowitz's Persuasion and Propaganda, where I learned that (m)ad men and spin doctors have drawn from techniques identified when "propaganda" was earning its now-sinister reputation in the 1930s.

Now that the elections are a real horse race (courtesy, in great part, of the fourth estate), it's worth re-posting this list of named techniques:

Name-calling: Propagandists employ this tactic to create fear and arouse prejudice by using negative words (like "liberal," "socialist," "trickle down," or "government takeover") to create an unfavorable opinion or hatred against a group, beliefs, ideas or institutions. Like many techniques, it calls for a conclusion without examining the evidence. Name-calling is a way to cover not having anything good to say about yourself by focusing greater attention on how bad the other guy is. It is often employed using sarcasm and ridicule -- a favorite among attack ads and negative campaigners. When confronted with name-calling, ask yourself: What does the name really mean? Is there a real connection between the idea and the name being used? What are the merits of the proposed idea if I leave the name out?

Glittering Generalities: These are vague, sweeping statements (often slogans or simple catchphrases) using language associated with deeply held values and beliefs without providing supporting information or reason. They appeal to such notions as honor, glory, love of country, desire for peace, freedom, and family values. This is a favorite of ideologues, notes It cannot be proved true or false because it really says little or nothing at all. Questions to ask include: What does the virtue phrase really mean? Does the real idea being peddled have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the word? Am I being "sold" an idea I really don't like through a name that I do like?

Transfer: Transfer is a technique used to carry over the authority and approval of something we respect and revere to something the propagandist would have us accept something which otherwise we might reject (or reject something we might otherwise accept, such as with the the health care law -- polls show Americans are against it as a whole while approving most of its provisions). Transfer often employs symbols or use of glittering generalities or name-calling (e.g., waving the flag, religious rights, "In God we trust," etc.) to stir our emotions and win approval. Questions to ask include: What is the speaker trying to pitch? Is there a legitimate connection between the pitch being made and the person or product? Is there merit in the product by itself?

Testimonial: This tactic associates a well-known or respected person or organization or someone with experience to endorse a product or cause by giving it their stamp of approval hoping that the intended audience will follow their example. Americans in particular fall for celebrities championing causes (think George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Bono, or Sean Penn) or the appeal to "experts" (the plethora of pundits and talking heads) in political discussions. They are also suckers for: "according to an independent study by..." Questions to ask include: Why regard this person as an expert or trust their testimony? What are the credentials of the organization behind the study, or what does the study actually say? What's the merit of the idea, position or product without the testimony?

Plain Folks: This approach tries to convince the audience that the spokesperson is from humble origins, therefore someone they can trust and who has their interests at heart. This is why someone folksy like Sarah Palin appeals to so many Americans -- who are inherently anti-intellectual -- rather than many liberals. Look for ordinary language and mannerisms to form a connection. The battle over who feels more for the middle class is a classic appeal to plain-folks. Some questions include: Why is this person saying it this way? If the person is trying to cover up something or close a gap, then why?

Bandwagon: This technique simply tries to persuade you to follow the crowd by creating the impression of widespread support, reinforcing the human desire to be on the winning side (which explains, in part, the swings in the pols). It also plays on feelings of loneliness and isolation, encouraging us to join in a mass movement while simultaneously reassuring those on (or partially on) should stay on-board. Bandwagoning can also take on a negative twist in trying to convince you to join or be left out. Questions to ask include: What is the real program here? What is the evidence for and against it? Even if others are supporting it, why should I?

Card Stacking: This is one not mentioned at, but is a current favorite. It tries to make the best case possible for one side and the worst for the other by carefully using only those facts that support one side of the argument while attempting to lead the audience into accepting the facts as representative of the whole truth. In other words, the propagandist stacks the deck of cards against the truth. Quoting out of context is rife in this year's political ads. Romney's listing of talking points as if to convey a plan for one issue or the other in the first debate was a very effective display of card-stacking. This selective use of facts is the most difficult tactic to detect because it leaves out all of the information necessary to make an informed decision. You have to decide what's missing, first asking yourself: Are facts being distorted or omitted here? What other arguments exist to support these assertions?

As you heard me say before: If we want responsible governance, we need to provide responsible citizenship. So if you're waiting for someone else -- or a fact blog -- to defend you against all this madness, then you're waiting in vain.

Beyond fact-checking, we could see which of these techniques are put into play while watching the next political ad or debate -- even make a game of it with the kids by asking them to identify which techniques are at work, award them points and see who comes out on top by bedtime. In a fun way, we can teach ourselves and our kids to become better political consumers than we have been, because our world now demands it and we can no longer afford our ignorance.

Jefferson's warning makes even more sense at a time when "over there matters over here" and community and country are connected as never before. Now, as then: Beware the confidence man.