Writing with an Ax to Grind

A reader with the pastoral name of Pastor writes to ask:


Do you think that propaganda (using your definition from above as “that which is designed to manipulate readers into an ideology”) and ordinary stories are different in kind or in degree? I understand, from your last, that you think they are different in some essential way. Is that right?

Excellent question. The answer is a qualified yes.

The topic is a difficult one because it does not lend itself to simple answers. We must proceed carefully, like explorers in a mire, since too bold a step, much less leaping to any conclusions, might suck the conversation into the swamp of mutual incomprehension.

Let us also distinguish several cases:

(1) a story which gives honest, nonstrawmanlike, portrayal of both sides of the question is not propaganda. This is a difference of kind.

(2) the more logic and less sophistry and rhetoric is involved makes the propaganda more tolerable. This is a difference of degree.

(3) a story that persuades the reader on a point that is not related to an ideology is not propaganda. This rule is difficult to apply, because modern ideologies attempt to be as all embracing as religion, so that opinions about woman or the weather become political statements. This could be a difference of kind when the story is not related to an ideology; or a difference in degree is the relationship is tentative or indirect.

(4) A story where the message is skillfully woven into the tale may or may not be propaganda depending on its intent and point, but how obvious and obnoxious the message-preaching becomes is a difference of degree.

(5) All stories portray an author’s assumed worldview. Not all worldviews are primarily political. Not all stories aim at persuading the reader to adopt the author’s world view for longer than the duration of the story.

(6) All stories have a moral that can be read into it. Not all stories are written to moralize.

Let us see if we can explore these six point, and perhaps we can be excused if this is a rambling exploration filled with digressions. The subject matter is mazelike; we may need to turn and return at several points.

Let us therefore, with due caution, use the definition I give above for propaganda. This definition refers to the purpose or ‘final cause’ for which the story is meant: namely, to manipulate readers into an ideology.

This definition does not explicitly say that it is the intention in the writer’s mind, as opposed to the reader’s mind or even the muse’s. The definition tacitly assumes that stories have an innate final cause independent of the conscious intention of the writer. The definition also tacitly assumes that the innate final cause of any given story, at least in theory, can be discovered by an onlooker. Neither of these assumptions, at the moment, have been given any support. For the moment, let us accept for the sake of argument that they are so: I can perhaps, if anyone is interested, give support for these assumptions in another column.

Yet another unspoken assumption behind the definition is that propaganda is one-sided. Some writers have an ax 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.

The definition confines itself to ‘ideologies’ — a term we have not defined. Again, this is another unspoken assumption. This would seem to imply that there is some real difference between an ideology versus, say, a philosophy, a religion, a worldview, a vision, a belief or merely an opinion.

For the purpose of this argument, an ‘ideology’ is defined as a system of abstract ideas integral to an model of ideal (or at least improved) human life that either explains or dismisses all of life’s basic questions, but only where the model emphasizes social, political, economic, or ethical abstractions. By this definition, Libertarianism would be an ideology, but Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative advantage would not. Communism would be an ideology but Christianity would not. Existentialism would be an ideology, but generic exhortations to courage would not.

A good rule of thumb is that any word ending in an -ism refers to an ideology. Conservatives sometimes claim their worldview is not an ideology because it restricts itself to concrete and pragmatic approaches to political and ethical questions: be that as it may, by this definition, Conservatism is an ideology.

So, let me now face your question, first arming ourselves with examples.

I can think of three science fiction books off the top of my head which clearly fall into the propaganda category and are propaganda throughout: STARSHIP TROOPERS By Heinlein, which promoted civic militarism; ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand which promoted a philosophical variant of Libertarianism called (at least by its founder) Objectivism; THE AMBER SPYGLASS by Philip Pullman which promoted a particularly vile variant of death-obsessed anticlerical atheism.

(If some mavin of the Linnean society wants to argue that ATLAS SHRUGGED is not science fiction, I will defer that for another day. For our purposes, anything in the same genre as NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR or BRAVE NEW WORLD is science fiction).

Your question is whether all other stories differ in kind or merely in degree from these nakedly propagandist efforts. A thing differs in degree if it is the same in essence, differing only in quantity, a long river as opposed to a short river; whereas a difference in kind means it is of a different species, a river of blood as opposed to a river of water. The added confusion is that there are cases where the differences in degree are so great that it becomes a difference in kind. A river that is so short that it only flows a few feet would not be a river. A river that is dry in summer is still a river; a river dry year round is a canyon.

I must add a word of caveat. In the first two cases (Heinlein and Rand) the propaganda was undisguised and consequently so honest that we could, if we wished, call these philosophical or rhetorical novels rather than propaganda novels.

No propaganda was being sneaked in past the unwary eyes of the reader: it was propaganda, but it was not sneaky at all! A speech from a school instructor or radio program would periodically interrupt the plot and using rhetoric and argument to promote an ideology. It was a subtle as a blow on the bridge of the nose by a ball peen hammer.

Philip Pullman’s work, by contrast, differs in degree (it is less skillful and also less honest) but not in kind. It is likewise propaganda, but not open enough merely to have speeches by sockpuppets uttering the author’s opinions. It was also as subtle as a ball peen hammer, but in this case, that was not by design, but by the clumsiness of Pullman.

Pullman also gave no arguments, that is, no reasoned discourse. He merely used emotional examples and rhetoric. He does not, for example, utter the Problem of Pain or dwell on the epistemological difficulties of knowing whether an infinite being exists: he just makes God a foolish cripple and Lamech a foolish rapist.

The Chronicles of Narnia, on the other hand, contain so much that is solid story telling, and worthy of appreciation by nonchristians, and its propaganda on behalf of Christianity is so well woven into this storytelling, all this makes it unclear whether Narnia differs in kind as well as in degree from these more obviously propagandist books. It is in the twilight zone.

And, beside, if we cling too literally to the definition I gave, Narnia could not be propaganda by definition, since Christianity is not an ideology. We need another word to refer to stories that try to persuade the reader to adopt a viewpoint or vision or worldview aside from an ideological one, and so I propose the term ‘morality tale.’

All of Aesop’s fables, by this definition, are morality tales. They propose what, if you examine it closely, can be seen as a rather cynical and hard-headed world view, such as what one might have heard preached by Diogenes or practiced by Alcibiades.

THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS by Bunyon is pure morality tale, so much so that it is paramount in the genre of the allegory. Allegories are the peculiar genre where all other elements of story telling, character, plot, verisimilitude and so on, are thrown aside to make room for unambiguous symbolism. An allegory is pure morality tale undisguised.

The Narnia books are blatant attempt to teach specific Christian moral principles or elements of Christian faith, and are morality tales, but also contain a great deal of pure story telling that seems to be story telling for its own sake, art for art’s sake.

By contrast, Lord of the Rings takes place in a Christian moral atmosphere, but is not a morality tale. It may indeed persuade some reader to take Christianity seriously (albeit in my experience Lord of the Rings persuades the reader I know to take Wicca and Neopaganism seriously) but evangelization is not its final cause.

Likewise, A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA takes place in a  Taoist moral atmosphere  and the moral of the story, the moving climax where Sparrowhawk understands and overcomes the nature of the deadly shadow that is his enemy, is so clear a lesson of Taoism that Lao Tzu himself could have used the example of Sparrowhawk as a parable.

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.  When you reel from the blow, you dare not voice any objection, lest you be accused of being overly sensitive or hysterical “Why look! You complain about one joke out of Ninety-Nine! Only Batwoman is a Lesbian  out of countless comic book heroines! All the other wizards of Hogwarts are heterosexual! You are oddly obsessed with what is a trivial bit of character development!”

The only sucker punch book I can bring to mind is TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney. This is what I like to call a mainstream science fiction book, that is, a book that uses a science fiction premise to get the action started, but does not call on the reader to make any science fiction leaps of the imagination. After some two hundred pages of love story and mystery, suddenly the main character decides that, in order to prevent time travelers from changing the past, and making pre-Castro Cuba  into a territory of the United States a la Puerto Rico, he erases his boss at the CIA from the timestream via preventing his parents from meeting; in effect, killing him before he is born. Now, the author apparently thought that it was so obvious that Cuba should be communist that, aside from one aside, he does not regard it as necessary to argue the point, or even mention it.

This was a total Leftwing sucker punch, because nothing in the book leading up to that moment (and it happens on page 389!!) gives even the slightest clue that the character or the author was a pro-Communist. He merely treats it as a given, as if he is pretending the folly and evil of the United States is beyond question, beyond discussion, and the goodness of Castro does not need to be mentioned. It is pro-pinko agitprop, pure and simple, and it comes out of left field (so to speak) to blindside any reader.

A book like ATLAS SHRUGGED hammers its one point relentlessly in every sentence of every paragraph of every page in an awe inspiring display auctorial monomania, or, if you prefer, purity of devotion.

But a Sucker Punching book like TIME AND AGAIN is not the opposite of ATLAS SHRUGGED, it is merely surprise blitz rather than trench warfare, concentrated propaganda rather than diffused. The difference is not one of kind nor one of degree but only one of tactic.

Let us make the matter even more complicated by mentioning how well or how poorly the propaganda is woven into the books. While I personally have far less distaste for propaganda skillfully executed, as in the movie ALEXANDER NEVSKY, the skillfulness might make the story easier to sell, but it would still be propaganda.

Remember, our definition assumes that the final cause of the story can be discovered by an attentive reader, without being concerned with the author’s intent, in much the same way as one can tell a wing’s purpose is to fly, even the wings of Ostriches and Penguins, without consulting the creator of the wing (blind Darwin’s natural selection or some angel with a sense of humor, take your pick).

This means that a skillful story whose structure and meaning makes it clear that the point is to change the mind of the reader and convince him to adopt your ideology, that is a propaganda story — that the story is well done enough to be read and enjoyed by people outside your ideological circle is indifferent to this definition. This would be a difference of degree (intrusive versus less intrusive propaganda) but not of kind.

Let us make the matter more complicated again by looking at other messages which can be carried in a story.

In the Lensman series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith,  the author makes a point about slave societies being unable to cooperate; this point is central to the resolution of at least one major plotline and two minor battle scenes.  At the time when he wrote, in the 1930s, the idea that centrally controlled fascist or socialist societies were superior to democracies because they were better organized was universally acclaimed among the intelligentsia. This idea clearly was political, as it was in defense of democracy, and it is argued, that is, a reason is given in the mouth of a character to show why this is so, and the author clearly meant it to refer to the real world. It was not an argument about whether gold dragons have hotter fire than black. Does this count as propaganda?

In Isaac Asimov’s most famous short story, ‘Nightfall’, a certain view of human kind, namely that we are plastic and passive receptacles of our upbringing and conditioning, is inherent in the story and is its only point and moral. This grim and dismal view of man is the center of the story, in fact, which is deliberately meant as a rebuke to Emmerson’s conceit that if the stars were seen only once a thousand years, men would adore the Creator. Asimov smirks and says, no, men would go mad. Does this count as propaganda?

In STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Heinlein, Jubal Hershaw gives a long speech about sculpture and art that has nothing to do with anything before or after, is not integral to the character, and seems to be the author’s opinion that he wanted to talk about, putting his sprawling plot on hold to do so. It is one of Heinlein’s typical sockpuppet moments. Does this count as propaganda?

Here we have to make a very narrow distinction which falls across the intent of the story. If the point of the additional message is to manipulate the reader into adherence to an ideology, the answer is yes, it is propaganda; but if the point of the additional message is that it is either (1) a part of the author’s world view integral to him (2)  a part of the story integral to it or (3) an aside of interest to the author then it is not propaganda.

This is true even if the same point or same idea (as the steadiness of democracy, the plastic nature of man, the edifying nature of art) in another context would be propaganda. If I get into a fistfight to impress a girl, this is different than if I get into a fistfight because I am belligerent and an onlooker who is a girl happens to be impressed. The difference is the purpose of the addition.

To make this clear, let me use a negative example from my own career. In COUNT TO A TRILLION, I propose a future where the English speaking nations have collapsed, and India and South America are the centers of economic and military power. Anglo-American values, such as the equality of the castes of man, have been replaced by Hindu values, such as the inequality of the castes of man. The Hindoos and Spaniards launch the world’s first multi-decade interstellar expedition: the crew is all male. However, upon its return, the expedition has aboard a sixteen year old superhuman girl allegedly the dead Captain’s daughter. This is something the author intended as a mystery to puzzle the reader and the main character: how could anyone be born during an all-male expedition?

One reviewer barfed scorn and scathing all over my book, on the grounds that it is racist (because I portrayed non-White Asians and South Americans as being in economic ascendency over North American non-Whites, I suppose) and sexist (because I was able to imagine a future where an expedition would include no females aboard ship).  I was aghast that a science fiction reviewer would display such ignorance and folly in public.  But, to him, because he suffers from a brain disease known as Liberalism or Progressivism or Leftism, any mention of sex which fails to portray women as equal if not superior to men is sexism. Even though my female main character is a superhuman being. And it is racism to portray non-Whites as superior to Whites because, um, that shows Whites are superior to non-Whites.  (Okay, I am not clear on how anyone can look at a story which assumes each race as history turns will have its place in the sun, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Franks, Spaniards, English, ergo assumes no race is superior to any other … and cry racism. Maybe Mr Braindead thought I meant to write a horror story, where portraying Hindus as being good at math and science scared me and my racist readers, sort of like PLANET OF THE APES?)

In other words, Progressives are required by their political brain disease to regard EVERYTHING as propaganda. It is one of their dogmas that everything which is not pro-Progressive propaganda is reactionary and pro-evil propaganda. The braindead reviewer in this case was not able to see nor to imagine that I was writing a story which made no statement and took no position on the question of the equality of the races or the equality of the sexes. The idea that I the author might think the idea of an all male expedition is a bad idea, or that the loss of Anglo-American values praising equality might be a bad idea, or that there is no racial differences between Portuguese and Spaniards, or whatever, simply never occurred to him. Again, the idea that I put something into my plot because the plot required it simply never occurred to him. The whole point of Progressivism is to train the brain to die in certain areas so that certain ideas simply cannot occur to you.

I call this a negative example because a reviewer saw a propagandist intent where none existed. The example shows that propaganda can always be seen when it is looked for, since all one need do it imagine something promotes a certain worldview (whether it does or not) and imagine that the worldview in question is an ideology (whether it is or not).

Here is the central problem with the question: all stories whether they like it or not have a moral. The moral of any story is always the winning behavior that leads to success in that story. In action-adventure stories, the moral is straightforward: courage and loyalty are good. In James Bond stories, the moral is that fast cars and hot women are good, and cool is good.

But if art is like life, and humans can glean morals from life, it is the moral -seeking behavior of the reader, not the moral preaching urge of the writer, that makes this part of story telling universal.

At this point, I must hasten to say that the all this discussion applies only to the social and political Right. We are able to read and write books that are not propaganda, because we can imagine a world outside the sphere of politics, because we can imagine our fellow human beings as equals rather than as the passive patients of our social engineering efforts.

Now, as with all things the modern socialists antinomian Left touches, story tellers are poisoned and ruined by Political Correctness, and so are story readers. The Leftist story teller has no role in life except to tell propaganda, because the Leftist worldview holds all topics to be political, and all politics to be nothing but a Darwinian struggle for survival without honor, rules, let or quarter. The Leftist story reader is likewise ruined by Political Correctness, since it ruins his ability to see things. Instead of seeing things as they are, the Leftist sees things only as symbols for the Darwinian power struggle: hence, a story of self sacrifice, such as when a hobbit suffers terribly to bring a magic ring to Mount Doom, is a symbol for Christianity which is a symbol for the oppression of women and therefore an enemy ; a hobbit is a symbol of the bourgeoisie and therefore an enemy; the friendship between Frodo and Sam is a symbol for an unexpressed desire for sodomy and therefore an enemy;  orc are symbols for Negros and therefore represent racism and therefore are an enemy. Frodo is not a women, therefore this is a symbol displaying the hatred of women, and therefore everything is an enemy. Symbols that are actually in the story, such as Sauron the Dark Lord being a type of Satan, or Smaug the dragon being an emblem of greed and hording, those symbols the Political Correctoid cannot see. Where you or I or any sane person might see and read a charming children’s tale about the self sacrifice of an inhabitant of Elfland trying to destroy a magic ring which otherwise will doom all the free peoples of Middle Earth, the Leftist sees nothing but enemies, vicious and demonic enemies, hellbent on the denigration and destruction of women, Negroes, and sodomites, and other weak, silly, mewling and helpless creatures the heroic Leftist must leap to defend … from the children’s story.

For the Left, all stories are propaganda for two reasons: (1) all stories read by Leftists can be deconstructed to be political tracts, including Mary had a little lamb because they have a brain disease which prevents them from seeing things as anything other than political symbols; (2) all the stories written by a self-consistent Leftist would be propaganda, since this is what their philosophy demands. Their philosophy demands that all things be political, because nothing exists but power relations. Fortunately, no self-consistent Leftist can actually exist in reality because self-consistency is inversely proportional to one’s loyalty to Leftism, and so many people who worship at the shrines of Leftism on their Sabbath return to ordinary reality the other six days of the week, and some can do their jobs in an ordinary craftsmanlike fashion, including the job of story-telling.

Let me return to the point above about one-sidedness. If I have an ax to grind, I portray my bad guys as having no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, as with an Ayn Rand villain.

However, I also portray my bad guys as lacking any redeeming characteristics if I am telling an action story or a space opera, because I want the readers to cheer when the Death Star blows up, or when John Carter conquers the Martians, and not suffer sudden moral qualms about the widows and orphans created among the orcs or the Stormtroopers.

An aside: Some reviewers dismiss Tolkien because he is seen as one-sided, that is, there are no orcs who sing songs and no elves that kick bunnies. But this is not true: the elves are as prone to pride and suspicion as anyone (see, for example, the scene where the Fellowship is captured and brought into Lothlorian) and even the orcs are portrayed as miserable under their slavery, and at least one yearns for the old days when he and his band could roam the hills and commit brigandage without overseers.

If I have an ax to grind, I do not give both sides of the story. And, in life, in every aspect of life except the highest (no one argues that good is bad, except progressives) there is always a second side to consider (everyone argues about the priority or implementation of abstract goods into concrete policy, except progressives).

If I have an ax to grind, I talk about the issues of the day, and not about eternal things. Dante is read today because of this talk about hell and heaven, which are still here, not his talk about Guelph and Ghibelline, which have passed away. Putting you ax to the grindstone pulls your eyes down from heaven and up from hell and places them firmly on matters that no one will care about in a generation.

For all this, some propaganda is unintentional. Repeating the ideals and ideas of better and more original writers, if you repeat their intent as well, make you carry on propaganda without deliberately doing propaganda. Whenever a conservative commenter or Christian preacher says ‘he or she’ when the grammar rules call for ‘he’ he tacitly aids the cause of an ideology (called feminism) hellbent on destroying him, because he acts as if he agrees that grammar is innately a tool of oppression.

The best way to avoid propaganda in a story is for your art to impersonate life. Life is complex at times and simple at times. Some morals are clear (heroes should be brave) and some are debatable (governments should return to the gold standard). Some lend themselves easily to fiction, and some do not.

But propaganda, using the story to make a political point, cheats all readers outside the writer’s narrow circle of fellow partisans. It puts the writer onstage in front of the puppetshow, rather than (where he should be) in back, hidden, and pulling the strings, so that the children can applaud and cheer and scream when the little wooden dolls, to them, by magic are changed into heroes and princesses and monsters.

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