Barbara Kruger, "Untitled" (Questions), 66" by 93", photographic silkscreen/vinyl, 1991. © Barbara Kruger. Image source: Mary Boone Gallery.

“We know that the war against intelligence is always waged in the name of common sense.”
—Roland Barthes, Mythologies

“Here’s your sign.”
—Bill Engval, The Blue Collar Comedy Tour


How do you tell someone they’re reading a YouTube video wrong? How do you reveal, without offending or seeming pretentious, that they’re trapped in a myth constructed with ulterior—even malicious—motives?

That’s what kept me up one night after a comment war with a relative regarding a recent NRA recruitment video. The ad, called “The Violence of Lies,” drew criticism from people who claimed it incited violence, and support from those who perceived a counter narrative to the “Resistance.” But the argument left me rhetorically disarmed, unable to convince or concede. I wondered what good my education had been if I couldn’t negate propaganda, or expose such obvious media biases, with what I’d learned.

The ad seemed to operate on two levels simultaneously:

A woman, attractive, dark haired, strong jawline, stares into the camera. To me, she looks like a stern mother, wife, and authority figure. To NRA members, she’s Dana Loesch, talk-radio host, television host at TheBlaze, and author of two books: Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America and Flyover Nation: You Can’t Run a Country You’ve Never Been To. She’s the ideal woman, a spokesperson selected to arouse conservative US males seeking a partner who can defend herself, and a beautiful (white) woman under siege. She speaks directly to us, as a portentous string arrangement plays:

“They use their media to assassinate real news.” A shot of the New York Times building in Manhattan (framed so the logo isn’t seen), which from my perspective would symbolize the American free press, the fourth estate; but to the NRA’s ideal viewer, the view is inverted—the Old Gray Lady is a mouthpiece of the establishment.

Then a schoolyard, indistinguishable from any other, except for two skyscrapers in the background—One and Two Liberty Place—situating it in Philadelphia. If you hadn’t noticed them, you’d still presume the school was urban based on the mural, a diverse array of faces—hopeful children, influential icons of color. From one vantage point, an homage to multiculturalism. From another, an assault on American identity—a refusal of assimilation as a core tenet of the American dream.

“They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.” Scenes in Central Park, children playing on a sculpture. Beyond the canopy, 432 Park Avenue, the second-tallest building in the western hemisphere behind only One World Trade Center; a stick of a luxury high-rise known to New Yorkers as “The Pencil Tower.” Ironically, populists on the right and left perceive this tower as an excess of capitalism and elitism. It’s a pied-à-terre for Russian oligarchs and other wealthy individuals.

Then, briefly, the White House, the only one of Trump’s residences appearing in the ad, maintaining the White House as the seat of power, occupied by a populist insurgent, fighting, in the Oval Office, for the people, while Washington insiders, special interests, and violent protesters obstruct his agenda.

“They use their movie stars and singers and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.”

The transition, from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles, seems an obvious choice, but it’s also hard to ignore the anti-Semitic undertones historically associated with Hollywood. Like “The Rothschilds,” it seems another dog-whistle call against “the Jews,” and that soft, subtle anti-Semitism, to me, flows beneath the images of the LA Times building, downtown LA, the Disney Concert Hall. Of course, Dana Loesch, or the ideal NRA viewer, would consider this absurd. Meryl Streep’s academy award speech, and Obama’s cozy relationship to celebrities, justify calling out Hollywood as a locus of the resistance.

Shifting from media to politics, the subject of disdain also morphs. The Lincoln monument, the Capitol dome shelled in scaffolding, and the Chicago skyline all invoke one individual, without mentioning his name. We think of the president with whom Lincoln is most closely associated; we see the Capitol as it was, under construction, incomplete, throughout his tenure; and in Chicago, we recall the first black president’s political hometown, where he delivered his acceptance speech, his farewell address. He is the symbol of everything progressives lost, everything the alt-right has hoped to uproot.

Loesch plays skillfully into that duality: “And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance, all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ and ‘xenophobia’ and ‘homophobia’ and smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law abiding—until the only option left is for police to do their jobs and stop the madness.” A montage of protest: the Women’s March, Berkeley, riot police, demonstrators at JFK, hooded black men smashing windows, lighting fires, burning flags, all culminating in a white man in a Make America Great Again t-shirt, head bandaged, blood streaked across his face.

“And when that happens,” Loesch continues, as we see barricades and police blockades, “they’ll use it as an excuse for their ‘outrage.’” To both sides, the portrait is frightening, violent—American Carnage. It says, Beware.

“The only way we stop this. The only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”

Loesch never says her name. But she’s not there as herself.

“I’m the National Rifle Association, and I’m freedom’s safest place.”

In left and even some right-leaning venues, most media outlets were critical of the ad. In Newsweek, ex-CIA intelligence analyst Cynthia Storer said, “Extremism sparks extremism. It’s a vicious cycle and the world burns.” The Washington Post quoted one Facebook user, who wrote, “I’m an old white guy and a life member, but this BS is disgusting. When you spew crap like this, you don’t speak for me anymore.” The Post also quoted journalist Jeff Sharlet, who tweeted that the ad “is barely a whisper shy of a call for full civil war.”

Meanwhile Dana Loesch tweeted, “Lie. No one called for guns. You owe me an apology for trying to personally incite with such impugnation.” She then posted a fist over the word “Resist” to defend “the clenched fist of truth” as an echo of the left’s language. One person replied, “Where is the gun in that image? Your org is the one that promotes shooting peaceful protesters.”

Loesch could’ve said that the NRA hasn’t overtly promoted shooting protesters. She could’ve debated what constitutes violent speech. But instead, she hit back, “Nope. But your side shoots congressmen.”

The ad was meticulously crafted to foster outrage. I reposted it, commenting that it was “the most disgusting ad I’ve ever seen,” disregarding the inevitable: that my conservative friends might repost it.

Which is what happened. The end-result of my anger was a retweet for the NRA, an inconsequential increase in impressions and earned media—the sole purpose of the video: propagation. Whoever message-tested that ad probably received a bonus for the amount of “liberal media” coverage. They probably focus-grouped it to calibrate the exact tenor of liberal outrage, knowing that if they infuriated the left, the right would become emotionally engaged. This video would be as good a fundraiser for Mike Bloomberg’s Every Town for Gun Safety as it would for the NRA. My indignation fed the machine designed to outrage me. Social media’s ability to disrupt society had dovetailed with a corporate mastery of those tactics. I’d been sucked into the “us vs them” message I despised.

What bothered me about the experience wasn’t the momentary glimpse of the ouroboros of phones, computers, and TVs that systematically spew viral indignation in perpetuity. It was a relative’s comment:

“Isn’t that what the anti-Trump movement has been doing?”

To him, the video told it how it was. He didn’t read the implicit suggestion of vigilante justice, or the justification of lethal action by the police (or armed citizens). He didn’t read “us,” “we,” and “our” as “white Americans.” And “they,” “their,” and “them” didn’t mean “blacks,” “immigrants,” or “Muslims.”

No, “they” were the losers of 2016, obstructing democracy. His comment encapsulated the ad’s narrative: protest was anarchy, resistance was un-American. It was the same message Loesch used to defend the ad as nonviolent—a counterpunch to the resistance. Since there was no call-to-arms, you couldn’t accuse it of inciting violence. My relative took the message at face value while absorbing the subliminal message. The other subtext—the way I interpreted the ad—was a conspiracy propagated by the left to expedite our nation’s descent.

I couldn’t counter that narrative. I couldn’t write, “You’d realize you were being conned if you read Roland Barthes.”

That’s a painful truth about a liberal-arts education. For those who achieved it for the sake of upward mobility, we often find that people back home are proud of us, but disregard much of our education as pretentious—irrelevant in the real world. My education was Fake Knowledge.

Which seems unfair, because so much post-2016 analysis, party soul-searching, and personal introspection, revolves around comprehending the Trump Voter. How did Trump slither out of his privilege, misogyny, paradoxes, and become a working-class hero? Reflecting on this, I remembered a moment from a family reunion I went to when I was eleven.

San Miguel is a fading agricultural town, a part of California that still fondly recalls anointing Reagan as the Republican standard-bearer. My father’s family reunion is held there every few years. And it was there that I committed what my uncle considered a cardinal sin. I called a pickup truck a truck.

“That ain’t a truck,” he snapped. “That’s a pickup.” A truck, he said, was a tool; and a pickup was a mode of personal transportation.

My uncle doesn’t care about semiotics. I don’t blame him. But that moment was my first unintentional lessons in semiotics. I had signaled to my uncle, as his long lecture made clear, that I hadn’t been raised among the same signs and signifiers as my father’s family.

My uncle’s lesson—and Roland Barthes’s—both seem relevant in 2017. Every Facebook feud and Twitter fight concerns the language, and the visuals, of protest, resistance, patriotism, and identity. Navigating this environment means parsing different interpretations of the same content to find the chaotic truth. Even the seemingly hard line between trucks and pickups dissolves upon closer examination. You’re just as likely to find a Nissan Frontier on a construction site as a dump truck. But that didn’t matter to my uncle. His was a rigid and calcified world.

Donald Trump knows instinctively what the NRA determined through rigid analysis: how to speak to people who distinguish between trucks and pickups. Trump and La Pierre knew they had to identify, define, and defend my uncle’s calcified universe. They weren’t susceptible to the problems that their constituents faced. In fact, they benefited from what harms those constituents. But if they could preserve those working-class mythologies, they could exploit them.

Trump, despite an aversion to reading, is a natural semiologist.

Recall when Trump hosted the American Truckers’ Association at the White House. A semitruck rolled up the driveway. Donald climbed into the cabin, twisting the wheel back and forth, honking the horn. Later, in the Oval Office, he pinned an “I heart TRUCKS” button to his lapel. The left skewered the scene, which only endeared Trump to the right. Just one more instance in which Trump cloaked himself in the signs of the working class.

All politicians commit this crime, whenever they roll up their sleeves, hit the shooting range, or cluck about how their daddies worked the coal mines. It’s the definition of politics. But that’s exactly why we should see through it—why we should be adept at identifying billionaires in hick clothing, arms dealers posing as minutemen.

That’s what makes me want to avoid home, family, and the conflict. It’s that gaslit feeling. To return to Barthes: “To see someone who does not see is to be intensely aware of what he does not see.” You want to reveal that invisible thing, except it’s not invisible. It exists in a haze of alternative realities. And while it’s important to know you are not always right, better, or smarter than anyone, you still must insist that what you’re are seeing is there staring back at you.

So how do you make that Trump sympathizer look critically at him or herself? How do you convince them to question these toxic messages?

David Foster Wallace wrote in his “This is Water” commencement address that “the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” If a liberal-arts education does anything, it teaches you to beware “living in your own skull-sized kingdom.” It expands the mind’s toolkit for understanding ourselves and others. There’s nothing special about this. It’s like learning how to repair a carburetor. You learn how to examine a phrase like “the clenched fist of truth” and say, “OK, what does this mean? How is it working?”

The solution to everything (or anything) is not a BA in English. Even the humanities have been weaponized, historically. The literary canon was (and is) a colonial tool, justifying imperialism, slavery, and segregation. Art, thought, and language are not inherently good.

But they’re tools, like trucks and Twitter. And the most important kernel one could glean from the humanities is the inclination to distrust and examine everything, including one’s government, education, and self, to get closer to that chaotic truth.

This is usually a personal victory, achieved in rare moments when we deploy this skill. Like meditation, our analyses are valuable but fleeting—and, sadly, fairly nontransferable. You can’t accuse a person of viewing the world wrong just because you went to college and read a few books. It’d be like training a mechanic by beating them with a rolled-up Auto Trader.

But it’s not hopeless. If it were, the US economy would still be driven by chattel slavery. The arc of history bends toward justice, but not on its own. It requires agitation and protest, but also the patient and careful, often excruciating, work of dismantling language—whether it’s news, blatant propaganda, or anything else—to figure out what it’s doing, how it’s acting on us.  And in most cases, leaving it dismantled, so others can see it for what it is, even if, much of the time, it leaves you looking cynical, unpatriotic, subversive. But subversion is, after all, the duty of the patriot under the threat of tyranny. It’s our most effective tool.

And still, at a certain point, ignorance will not be a viable excuse for people who don’t read the subtext of oppression. At a certain point, those who support or appease injustice and authoritarianism will have to be held accountable, at least in their own hearts. That’s why German citizens were marched through concentration camps after the liberation, so that no one could question the meaning of the myths that rebuilt and then destroyed their nation. Here, at home in the United States, we have not gone that far, or devolved to such horrors, yet. The hope is that Trumpism’s signs and symbols can be defused before they destroy the entire system.

Stewart L. Sinclair

Stewart Sinclair is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has been featured in Avidly, The New Orleans Review, The Morning News, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn. Find him on twitter: @stewsinclair.

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3 Comments on “Semiotic Weapons

  1. Thanks Sinclair, very well done. I parlayed a BA in Philosophy from SUNY into a career in Finance and through good fortune and constant effort managed to my keep my soul. When the people are desperate, bored and angry enough and the right Con Man comes along…
    I just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here”, yes it can, and we are flirting dangerously close.

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