2021年7月17日 星期六

The thing about propaganda and disinformation is that it works

A lesson from the aftermath of the Civil War.
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By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

Hey there! For the last two and a half months I have been on parental leave, spending lots of time with our new daughter, who you'll have a chance to meet in this weekend's "Photo of the Week" section. But I'm back to work now (and mostly refreshed).

For my Tuesday column, I wrote about the Jan. 6 insurrection and the reasons Donald Trump has escaped any sanction or consequences. Part of the argument was a look at the fates of the leaders of the Confederacy, most of whom died free men. I gave a paragraph each to the postwar lives of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and its vice president, Alexander Stephens, and in particular, I cited their books, which were key texts for what would become the "Lost Cause."

There is absolutely no reason to read these books — the historian David Blight described Davis's book as "perhaps the longest, most turgid, and most self-righteous defense of a failed political cause ever written by an American" — but I think they are interesting as artifacts and oddities. Stephens's book is a remarkable attempt to wave away the historical record, an early instance of what we might call "disinformation."

Remember, Stephens did not just serve as the Confederacy's vice president; he delivered the most infamous speech in defense of the Confederacy, given two weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter. Called the "Cornerstone Speech," it takes its name from this passage:


[The Confederacy's] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

There is no doubt or ambiguity here. Stephens was as explicit as you can get and then some. Which raises an obvious question: How exactly does he backpedal from something as clear as his declaration, later in the address, that "the negro by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system"?

Well, he does it by just pretending he never said it. Here is Stephens in the introduction to "A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States":

That the war had its origins in opposing principles, which, in their action upon the conduct of men, produced the ultimate collision of arms, may be assumed as an unquestionable fact. But the opposing principles which produced these results in physical action were of a very different character from those assumed in the postulate. They lay in the organic Structure of the Government of the States. The conflict in principle arose from different and opposing ideas as to the nature of what is known as the General Government. The contest was between those who held it to be strictly Federal in its character, and those who maintained that it was thoroughly National. It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other.

As for slavery? It was now not the central issue of the war but only "the question on which these antagonist principles, which had been in conflict, from the beginning, on divers other questions, were finally brought into actual and active collision with each on the field of battle."

This is obvious nonsense to many readers now, and I have to imagine it was obvious nonsense to many readers then. But just because something is nonsense doesn't mean it can't be influential, and Stephens's attempt to distance the Confederate cause from slavery per se would have the intended effect. For decades, white Americans North and South would downplay slavery as the cause of the war, pointing instead to other, supposedly higher issues like "states' rights" and competing economic systems.


In other words, the thing about propaganda and disinformation is that they work, and even if the truth eventually wins out, "eventually" can be a very, very long time.

What I Wrote

While on break I thought a lot about punishment and accountability or the lack thereof when it comes to certain kinds of revolt or rebellion. My Tuesday column touched on the subject:

We are not the only democracy to have had a corrupt, would-be authoritarian in high office. But we have had a hard time holding that person minimally accountable, much less keeping him out of contention for future office, which would have been accomplished had he been removed from the White House.

My Friday column stuck to the same time period but covered a different topic: the backlash to universal suffrage in the wake of emancipation in the South and demographic change in the North:

For as much as Jim Crow dominates our collective memory of voting restrictions, it is the attack on suffrage in the North in those last decades of the 19th century that might actually be more relevant to our present situation.

Now Reading

Arundhati Roy on the Covid catastrophe in India in The Guardian.

Ashton Pittman on racism and denial in the Mississippi Free Press.

Theo Whitcomb on rural Oregon's war on the homeless in The Baffler.

Adam Harris on the Republican Party's obsession with critical race theory in The Atlantic.

Jerusalem Demsas on the broken American housing market in Vox.

Allison P. Davis on the end of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's relationship in New York magazine.


Feedback. If you're enjoying what you're reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week's newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at jamelle-newsletter@nytimes.com. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.

Photo of the Week

Introducing Julia Anne Bouie, born April 22. She is named for Anna Julia Cooper, an African-American scholar and public intellectual who counted Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson as contemporaries. Born in 1858, Cooper lived to see the 1963 March on Washington. Julia is also named for her great-grandmother Anne.

Now Eating: Spicy Quinoa Salad With Broccoli, Cilantro and Lime

The big change to my diet while I've been on break has been much more fish. Some of that is fresh, but most of it is tinned — high-quality "conservas" from producers in Spain and Portugal. At first, I ate them with toast and a few accouterments. But lately I've been adding them to grain salads as an additional bit of protein. I made this salad earlier in the week for lunch and ate it with some smoked herring I picked up from Wildfish Cannery. Sardines and mackerel would work too. I encourage you to try whatever fits your palate! Recipe comes slightly adapted from the Cooking section of The New York Times.


  • 2½ cups cooked quinoa
  • 1½ cups steamed broccoli florets (about ⅓ of a crown), steamed for 4 to 5 minutes, then separated into smaller florets
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds (to taste)
  • 1½ to 2 teaspoons minced serrano or jalapeño chile (to taste)
  • 1 ounce crumbled feta cheese (¼ cup)
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or puréed
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 avocado, sliced


In a large bowl, combine quinoa, broccoli, cilantro, pumpkin seeds, minced chile, feta and freshly ground pepper. Toss together.

In a small bowl or measuring cup whisk together lime juice, salt and garlic. Add olive oil and whisk until amalgamated. Add to salad and toss together well. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve in a bowl with a tinned fish of your choice. Garnish each serving with a few slices of avocado.


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