Friday, November 11, 2016

Words ... Weapons of War … for the Heart and the Mind

The book was simply titled. "Propaganda and the American Revolution." Published by UNC Chapel Hill Press, it was, I think, a student's doctoral dissertation on the topic, researched and written in the 1940s. My mom bought it for me from a used book bin at a library book sale. It was paperback and about 400 pages.

I read and re-read that book. It stayed with me through the end of our anti-abortion picketing days here in Jacksonville, through my law school years, through my years as Staff Counsel with @FreeSpeechAdvocates, Litigation Counsel with @ChristianAdvocatesServingEvangelism, Senior Counsel with @ACLJ, and through the eight years that I directed the Washington DC Semester Program of the Regent University School of Law.

It was not a rip-roaring spy thriller.

Rather, it was a fairly interesting, academic examination of how propaganda was used by both Loyalists and Revolutionaries in the period leading to America’s independence from Great Britain. Unless and until you dig below the surface of what is taught in public school history classes, you will miss a singular fact, namely, what a rabble America’s founding generation was. “Propaganda and the American Revolution” serves well as a scuba tank for a dive into a deeper examination of one topic, propaganda, in the context of the revolution.

Surface examinations of subjects like the conditions animating revolution are the best that can be expected in typical classroom studies. That approach may suffice for passing achievement tests, but it won’t necessarily provide an adequate basis, of either information or evaluation, to put contemporary protests in a historical framework.

For example, if you are offended by flag burning by Black Lives Matters protesters or anti-war activists, if the street marches (setting aside those that involve destroying property and visiting violence on others) that have followed America’s selection of Donald Trump as the 45th President represent a deeply anti-American endeavor, then you probably don't know about, or don’t fully comprehend, the particular pains taken to convince the great middle of colonial America to treat themselves as having suffered horrendous abuses at the hands of the Crown and the Parliament, driving them, if they would, to rise up and throw off the colonial yoke.

In the realm of the imaginative and nonviolent, colonial officials watched as colonists hung their images in effigy in town squares, from "Liberty Trees" and the like. In the world of the painful and violent, colonial officials were, on a few known occasions, painted with tar, dusted with feathers, and literally "ridden out of town on a rail."

(In case you miss the meaning of it, there were no trains in the late mid-18th century. A rail then was a single, extended, member of a rail and picket fence. In other words, being ridden out of town on a rail meant being set, legs splayed and wood rising, on a fence rail, and being carried out of town, with the rail constantly rising in that tenderest location on the human body.)

Sure, we heard about, perhaps studied, the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, the Townsend Acts, the quartering of troops in colonists’ homes, and King George’s decision to hire Hessian mercenaries to suppress revolutionary sentiment in the colonies by show of brute force. But the fact remains: colonists who lived in those times, experienced those exactions, those impositions, and those threats were apparently content to live under the rough and weighting hand of England.

And that is where the work of propagandists came in. And that is the topic of the book mentioned at the beginning of this post.

So, when you take the closer in look that someone's labors in the colonial historical collections and libraries of New England, the Atlantic seaboard, and the colonial South allows, you begin to understand how the revolution was stood up from the midst of a sleepy young people.

While comparisons to Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter, or the current round of anti-Trump protests would overstate the case, there was a role in the propaganda campaign for very public demonstrations and protests. Moreover, there are, in today’s blogging, social networking, and tweeting, historical antecedents that were part of the foment for revolution and independence.


In September 2012, I traveled to New York City on the Acela Express.

I went to the Big Apple to argue before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. My argument would defend a victory I (and the team I supervised) obtained in a federal trial court in New York. This argument would be my last as Senior Counsel with the ACLJ.

The case involved a New York City ordinance coercing Pregnancy Resource Centers to communicate a set of messages chosen for them by the Democratic Party-controlled City Council. The targeting of Pregnancy Resource Centers was a coordinated effort that came to light as select, Democratic Party controlled jurisdictions began devoting precious government resources to the investigation of proposed ordinances and the subsequent enactment of them, and the inevitable expenses of defending them in courts. Jurisdictions that participated in the effort included the Montgomery County, Maryland County Commission, the New York City Council, the Baltimore City Council, and, subsequently, the Austin, Texas, City Council and, most recently, the State of California.

The targeting began in the aftermath of an investigative series by James O’Keefe and Lila Rose in which the willingness of Planned Parenthood facilities around the Nation to ignore evidence of statutory rape of minor females became broadly exposed. That expose led to calls to defund Planned Parenthood – a call that preceded the more recent round resulting from revelations about Planned Parenthood’s ghoulery of infant body parts sales.

In any event, with Planned Parenthood under the hot lamps and Congress being pressed to act, Planned Parenthood’s guardian angels began a counter offensive against what, apparently, Planned Parenthood considers its opposite number, volunteer run, not for profit, often religiously affiliated, pregnancy resource centers. The upshot of those efforts, in New York City, was the regressive, First Amendment contrary, compulsory speech ordinance imposed there. We obtained an injunction against the enforcement of the ordinance, and sustained that victory on appeal.

But, as I said, I traveled to New York City to argue in defense of our trial court win.

When I arrived in Penn Station, I witnessed a beautiful and rising chorus of singing. It was a flash mob that had been drawn to the Station by messages on social media, texts, etc. They slowly gathered, one voice, joined by one, and then two, three, five, twelve. By the time their performance ended, I suppose there were about 30 singing.

Such flash mobs might seem a creature of the 21st century, but the American colonists knew their revolutionary antecedent:

One of the more common events in the pre-Revolutionary Period was a "funeral for liberty." "Liberty" was carried on a bier, decked with solemn and funereal colors. The crowds mourned as dead dear Liberty passed. The procession would end in the town square or other central location. At the last second, before the pretended interment of expired Liberty, she would rise from the bier, revived, reinvigorated, and rousing the crowd against depredations by Crown and Parliament.
In addition to funerals for Liberty, more than a few protests involved the display of colonial governors or other representatives of the Crown being hung in effigy.


You are, perhaps to your great pain, reading a post on my blog.

As you do, literally billions of additional words are being poured onto the World Wide Web as blog posts. The topics are nearly innumerable, from whether Kirk or Piccard was the better captain, to whether cats or dogs are the better pet, to whether Bush or Obama were the cause of the rise of ISIS and the decline of the American economy.

These postings, and the sites and services that make them available to us, I call the “internet of words.”

(I would have claimed credit here for that phrase. Unfortunately for me, before I claim a neologism or a neophraseologism, I usually perform a Bing search. In this case, I learned that a book review in the Chronicle of Higher Education, back in 2014, bore the title, “The Internet of Words.” Here, however, I will kidnap the phrase and put it to work for me to identify a subset of internet communications: those that communicate the intended meanings of the creator through writing, rather than images (accompanying images permitted but not as a substitute in the communication of essential ideas)).

Of course, the principal means of communication – aside from the spoken word – at the time of the revolution in America was the printed word. Pamphlets, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense are well known down to this day, and even studied in civics classes. Another widely spread and effective tool of communication, to which I've at least alluded here before, was the kind of printed publication called a “broadside.” These were printed single sided and were as large as posters popular in the bedrooms of teenagers today.

Broadsides proved effective tools for stirring the slightest embers of discontent into the raging flame of revolution. Such broadsides were numerous. Broadsides included news stories, calls to arms, and warnings of doom. The Continental Congress that issued the Declaration of Independence had it printed in broadside format to distribute widely in the colonies.


Vine is gone. Snapchat is a young American’s medium. YouTube, however, cuts across generations. Sure, it carries videos from the latest contemporary musical artists and trailers for coming attractions. But YouTube also carries wonderful products, shorter and longer, of thought and imagination, as well as lessons in history and economics, mathematics, science, and technology. It is on YouTube that we hear the many voices of Anonymous, wearing the mysterious mask from the movie, V for Vendetta. We also hear careful and thorough messages illuminating broadly scattered subject matter.

Muhlenberg's decloaking in the pulpit
In the revolutionary era, the closest things to YouTube were pulpit addresses by ministers and public addresses by speakers. One chapter of “Propaganda and The American Revolution” explored the role of the black-robed brigade. These were pastors and preachers, pounding pulpits, for revolution or for fidelity to the crown.  Probably the most emblematic and readily recognized pulpit revolutionary was the German Lutheran, Peter Muhlenberg.

Whether the Muhlenberg story is apocryphal or true, it is said that Reverend Muhlenberg, after preaching a solemn sermon on the cause of the Revolution, stripped off his clerical garb, revealing a colonial uniform. What is known to be true is that he preached the sermon, delivered men and arms to the cause of revolution, and acquitted himself well in the War for Independence.

But Muhlenberg’s preaching for separation from the Crown was not singular even if it has become iconic. In fact, “Political Sermons of the Founding Era,” evidences the role of the black-robed brigade in fomenting support or opposition to revolution through expository preaching. Edited by Ellis Sandoz, “Political Sermons” gathers hundreds of such sermons, as well as so-called “Election Day” sermons, which were messages delivered prior to the taking of the vote on Election Day. From those sermons, and from the many of them subsequently published as pamphlets that survive in colonial and historical libraries, we can see the profound role of the pulpit in the revolutionary era.


“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The saying is a truism and a truth.

A significant portion of the American electorate did not get its way in the 2016 presidential election, just as many of us did not get our way in 2012, 2008, 1996, 1992, and 1976. The resort of the disaffected to public protests, and obloquy directed at the victor is entirely American. Violence as a form of protest, however, is neither peculiar to America, nor tolerable nor lawful.

Our colonial experience with despotism still needed a febrile brew to bring us to revolution. Many today, and on all sides, sense the need for revolutionary changes. For some, the revolution leads to localism and downscaled government. For others, the nanny plantation will not be large enough until everyone is on it and everyone agrees with it. I hope that as we face the protests – not lawful, nonviolent ones – we will remember that, however silly or unwarranted we might think their cause, they are exercising a right that we are bound to maintain and respect, if we want it respected in our turn.