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Introduction: Bad Subjects, Bad Faith

Why talk about faith? Why propaganda? And why together? What possible connections do these notions evoke? At Bad Subjects, we feel the time has come for those on the Left to take another look at these two ideas and practices, one an ancient form of belief, the other a modern 20th century invention.
Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray

Issue #21, September 1995

Why talk about faith? Why propaganda? And why together? What possible connections do these notions evoke? At Bad Subjects, we feel the time has come for those on the Left to take another look at these two ideas and practices, one an ancient form of belief, the other a modern 20th century invention. Why now? There have been a number of large-scale political changes in the United States over the past several months that are likely to affect both this country and the world. With the Republican take-over in the House of Representatives, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has become a powerful leader, active in US policy-making and social engineering. Gingrich and the House Republicans have drafted a document they call "Contract with America," essentially a new manifesto for the right wing. The "Contract with America" recommends, among other widespread government policy changes, greater tax breaks for the rich, deeper cuts in welfare, a larger defense budget, de-regulation of the economy, and expanded crime laws including mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes and fewer restrictions on capital punishment.

In California, Republican Governor and presidential candidate Pete Wilson recently repealed Affirmative Action policies, stating that problems with racial and gender imbalance in the workplace had been solved. Any effort to encourage the hiring of minorities and women in equal or greater proportion to white men, he claimed, meant engaging in "reverse racism," "tribalism," and the "quota system." He is running for president on the basis of his anti-Affirmative Action stance.

We are witnessing a rise in the strength of right wing politics and social values. While this is not a new experience for citizens of the US, there are historically new factors at work in the mid-90s which affect both right wing ideology and our possible progressive responses to it. With this issue of Bad Subjects, we set out to explain current developments on the right and the left by examining connections between what at first glance may seem to be separate and unrelated categories and practices. We link faith, ritual and belief with propaganda, re-education, and the transformation of consciousness and society. Ultimately, we're trying to generate a strategy for understanding how people are changing the totality of social and political relationships at this point in history.

Faith and propaganda are two basic strategies by which we maintain existing human relationships within the contexts of economics, politics, culture, identity, etc. For example, we might understand social relations under capitalism to be inspired by faith. Perhaps we don't usually think of capitalism as a belief system, but it in many ways it is. Capitalism requires that we believe in money, in the social power that money represents, and that we act in accordance with the dictates of a market economy. If we fail to do this, we literally do not survive, or we are pushed to the margins to eke out our lives as best we can. Capitalism requires that we enact our faith through rituals of consumption — shopping becomes a sort of prayer, a way of communicating with our god. This is a seemingly capricious god, who smiles fortune upon some, but visits poverty and misery upon others, always moving in mysterious ways. And, like a god, capitalism requires that we sometimes sacrifice things that are precious to us in order to survive or succeed. We are taught to let go of community solidarity, friendship, and aid for the helpless or needy in favor of job security, which is often said to create the very human relations it asks us to sacrifice. It is by faith al one, you might say, that we are able to live with the contradictions of capitalist society.

Propaganda is one way faith gets advertised and disseminated, often becoming dogmatic and coercive in the process. Both the "Contract with America" and Affirmative Action are forms of dogmatic propaganda — one attempts to solicit our faith in deregulating economic relationships, and one attempts to solicit our faith in regulating them so that they will not favor certain groups over others. Americans — and citizens of many nations — tend to be wary of propaganda because it is most often associated with totalitarian socialist and fascist states such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. But propaganda is everywhere, and it is not always overt or necessarily destructive. Television commercials are a form of propaganda for various companies, just as presidential speeches are generally propaganda for national causes. Even Hollywood movies dish out propaganda: a movie like The Bridges of Madison County preaches traditional gender roles, while Outbreak suggests the U.S. Army can still save us in public emergencies. Both movies use images and narrative to convince their audiences that social relations in the US should remain as they are or as they once were.

However, there is another side to strategies of faith and propaganda. They can be used as powerful tools to change social relations, to suggest better and more equitable ways of organizing our lives. Yet many people fear new forms of faith, in part because faith as we know it is often disappointing or painful. Church leaders swindle their faithful for money; presidents lie about their actions; and progressive organizations turn out to be ineffective or corrupt. Propaganda for various causes is even more frightening for Americans on both the right and left, largely due to its air of proselytizing. For US conservatives, who value individualism highly, the idea that someone might try to change peoples minds using publicity, images, or stories feels lik e a civil rights violation. And for leftists, the idea of propaganda is far too much like cultural imperialism, in which the ideas of the dominant group are imposed on minorities and the powerless. Conservatives and progressives alike shy away from admitting that propagandistic materials are a part of everyday life, and indeed are a force behind making everyday life what it is. In this way, our various forms of political faith can be seen as forms of denial. This denial becomes a core aspect of our political and cultural lives, of our identities as subjects.

In this issue of Bad Subjects, we want to rescue the positive, transformative aspects of faith and propaganda in order to inspire people to believe in the possibility of a future where destructive social divisions and material scarcities can be overcome. We also want to address the various forms of denial upon which our faiths are often built. To do this, we view propaganda as one form of education, or reeducation, about the social world. Unlike conventional education such as one might get in state schools or universities, propaganda suggests that we put our knowledge to use and lead our lives in particular ways. When propaganda asks that we lead lives which are different from what we are used to, faith can help us make the leap from old pa tterns of behavior to new ones. What we advocating is a new form of faith, one that is hopeful, yet self reflexive, self-critical in a Bad Subject kind of way. For us, this strategy is one way of facing up to our denial of who we are, a recognition that w e need to embrace some form of faith and propaganda in order to eventually deny or negate the present status quo.

Toward this end, members of the Bad Subjects Production Team spent the summer reeducating ourselves about the politics and economics of multiculturalism at this point in history. In particular, we focused on trying to understand conservative ideas of identity put forth in Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, and radical responses to these ideas in two progressive anthologies called The Bell Curve Wars (ed. Steven Fraser) and The Bell Curve Debate (eds. Russell Jacoby and Naomi Glauberman). We had come to realize, collectively and individually, that it was time to reassess our critique of multiculturalism in light of new right wing work being done to prove the naturalness of class, race, and gender division and the natural intellectual superiority of the ruling classes. Now, more than ever, we need to launch a ruthless criticism of class division, coupled with a criticism of hierarchies with in gender, sexuality, and race. Any form of propaganda which relies upon our belief in the inferiority of particular social groups will not ensure a safe future for us as social beings.

Bad Subjects hopes to provide education which will serve as counter-propaganda to those on the left and the right who work to maintain a status quo in which social groups are viewed as fundamentally different and thus naturally combative. We have faith that by changing our minds and our actions now, we can influence the future. In other words, the future does not have to be as depressing and disappointing as the present; and certainly social authority and power can be reapportioned in just and democratic ways. This does not mean instituting a quota system, in which small numbers of oppressed groups get to occupy the same positions as white men once did — it means fundamentally altering how we conceive of power. Today, one joins the ruling classes by keeping almost everyone else in the lower classes. But power for some does not have to mean deprivation for the many. With this issue of Bad Subjects, we propose ways of transforming society by criticizing and reimagining the kinds of faith and propaganda we take for granted in our daily lives.

Copyright © 1995 by Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray. All rights reserved.