Down with slogans!

As a former purveyor of catchy advertising lines, I’ve learned two things about slogans: confidence in their efficacy and cynicism about those who make them effective.

Advertising is usually aimed at eliciting a low-level buying decision: which brand to choose at a supermarket or a department store. Since most brands are much of a muchness, no choice will affect the buyer’s life too much one way or another. And society at large won’t be affected at all.

Not so with political slogans. These are encapsulations of political philosophies, and if the philosophies are wrong, the slogans – specifically because they are effective – can cause much harm.

And even if the underlying philosophies are good… I was about to write “…slogans can still do damage”, but checked myself in the nick of time. My contention is that no good political philosophy lends itself to sloganeering.

That’s one reason, for example, that political conservatism can’t compete with the mass appeal of its leftist opponents. Ideologies are easily reducible to memorable slogans, whereas serious political thought suffers from what the biochemist Michael Behe called ‘irreducible complexity’.

Just take the founding slogan of modernity, liberté, egalité, fraternité. One can see why it worked so well.

In the early stages of the revolution, this triple lie of a motto didn’t run unopposed: other desiderata, such as unity and justice, were occasionally proposed as replacements for the brotherhood element. The ultimate winner was probably determined by its Christian overtones purloined from the original owner for PR purposes.

To start with, let’s consider its tripartite form. You’ll notice that many revolutionary slogans of post-Christian modernity are constructed of three elements, either words or phrases.

Apart from the French one, we could cite the American ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’, the Russian ‘vsia vlast sovetam’ (all power to the Soviets) or the German ‘ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ (one people, one nation, one leader). And even a somewhat less significant revolution had to chip in with a vapid ‘Work harder, produce more, build Grenada!’

What we are witnessing here is the first stage of shoplifting larceny: the revolutionaries sensed that the world around them was alive with Trinitarian music. Since people’s ears were attuned to it, they were predisposed to respond to similar sounds even if they conveyed a different meaning. In this instance, however, it wasn’t just the music.

Also hidden in the French slogan was another mock-Christian allusion. For, according to the Enlighteners, ‘fraternity’ flowed out of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’. Philosophers of the time argued that no brotherhood was possible without liberty and equality, which is to say that the third part of the triad proceeded from the first two.

One doesn’t have to be a theologian to see how the deep and subtle Christian doctrine of the Trinity was vulgarised for a very un-Christian purpose by adding the faked echoes of the Creeds.

Each element of the French triad was stolen property. To the original owner, freedom came from – and led to – the truth, which is to say God; equality was a natural consequence of jointly loving, and being loved by, a supreme being, which is to say God; brotherhood implied a spiritual kinship bestowed by a common father, which is to say God.

The intellectual cardsharps of the Enlightenment deftly pulled the ace of God out of the pack, leaving people with a hand of cards that were not only low but also marked. For even on a purely secular level, the middle element of the triad, equality, negates the other two.

But no conservative thinker, even one with my 30 years’ experience in advertising, will be able to counter with a slogan of his own. It would take at least a lengthy article, better still a book, to explain that, say, the state can only ever level down, not up, and this can only ever be achieved by coercive means.

Since, contrary to another revolutionary falsehood, people really aren’t created – and certainly don’t end up – equal, they can only be equalised by government fiat aimed at truncating the social and economic pyramid at the top. In other words, equality presupposes ever-greater and bossier centralism, which will in turn lead to tyranny.

There you have it: I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the issue, but I’ve already lost the masses by appealing to their understated, not to say non-existent, thinking capacity. Instead of causing a kneejerk response, I’ve caused consternation.

Or look at the communist slogan, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. This sounds wonderful to the unthinking masses, and they won’t listen to an egghead arguing that, for the slogan to mean anything at all, there has to exist an omnipotent authority empowered to decide what an individual is capable of and what his needs are.

Such an authority would have to be not only tyrannical but murderously oppressive, which has to be instantly clear to any thinking person. However, I wish I had a tenner for each time I’ve heard someone insist that the communist idea is lovely but regrettably unachievable, or else perverted by the Bolsheviks. In fact, it’s unachievable precisely because it’s monstrous, which the Bolsheviks demonstrated so persuasively.

The problem with slogans is that they are simplistic and hence vulgar. That makes them as appealing to the simplistic and vulgar multitudes as they are repugnant to the few people who try to think about serious matters seriously.

No slogan can ever stand up to intelligent enquiry, never mind scrutiny. This goes for slogans associated not only with the subversive Left but also with the benign Right, such as ‘make America great again’ – even though the people who swear by it are nicer than those who talk about liberty and equality.

I could almost live with that entreaty if ‘great’ were replaced with ‘good’. That wouldn’t make the slogan any less vulgar, but at least ‘good’ is easier to define than ‘great’. The standards of goodness were laid down in Exodus and Matthew, and they can perhaps be somehow extrapolated to a country. But what makes a country great?

Different things to different men, I’d suggest. Some will talk about prosperity, some about military strength, some about international influence and prestige, some about anything else they can think of.

I once asked a promulgator of that slogan what it actually meant. The word ‘again’ suggests that America used to be great in the past, but isn’t any longer. This seems to call for a return to a specific period in the country’s history. Which one?

His first response was “before the war”. What, the thirties? The Great Depression, dustbowl countryside, FDR’s socialism America is still reeling from, an alphabet soup of new government agencies, giant publicly funded projects like the Hoover Dam with workers paid a dollar a day?

In the end we agreed that perhaps the fifties was a better candidate for greatness, up until the Vietnam War, the student riots and the precursors of today’s BLM and Me-Too. But did we mean isolationist or proselytising greatness? America providing a shining example for the world or trying to lead it?

So decorticated, the slogan lost its substantive meaning. Only populist demagoguery at its most soaring remained and, provided the people are vulnerable to it, that weapon can be wielded by rather questionable politicians.

I suppose populist politics is like advertising in that neither can survive without rabble-rousing sloganeering. That’s my problem with populist politics, sloganeering and – come to think of it – advertising. Yes, I know this is biting the hand that continues to feed me 20-odd years after I left the trade. But a hand close to one’s mouth is much easier to bite.

5 thoughts on “Down with slogans!”

  1. The left quickly subverted ‘make America great again’, claiming anyone who used the phrase was referring to the time of slavery. I would settle for a time when the people were more God-fearing, government was smaller, and the welfare state nonexistent.

    Whatever else one may think of Ayn Rand, her refutation of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ via the story of the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged is quite convincing. The obvious (or what should be obvious) problem of determining need and ability is made crystal clear. Divorcing income from production is shown to be enslaving. Such a system rewards a man based on the number and severity of misfortunes that he and his family experience and turns his productive ability into a curse, condemning him to work harder and harder to satisfy his neighbor’s unending desires (oh sorry, needs). It punishes ability and rewards misery. It turns the citizens into groveling, begging masses.

    1. I witnessed that sort of thing firsthand, in my youth. But as far as slogans are concerned, you prove my point by expressing your ideal in a cogent, intelligent, but not sloganeering manner. Try selling to the public the slogan of “Let’s go back to a time when the people were more God-fearing, government was smaller, and the welfare state nonexistent” and see how far you’ll get.

      1. I meant to include something about that, but lost my train of thought while writing. However, after reading your comment I realized that our slogan might just catch on. Take another look at the first four words: the acronym for our candidate or cause would start with LGBT! Who wants an LGBT ATWTPWMGFGWSATWSN hat?

        1. You need a “+” at the end of your slogan. After all, you, Mr Boot and I are likely to agree about some additional acronyms. How about starting with “ACSORMARLIAS” – “and compulsory study of real music and real literature in all schools”?

  2. I was thinking of you recently, while re-reading Dorothy L Sayers’ Unpopular Opinions (Gollancz, 1946), because you and she were both advertising copywriters who abandoned trickery for truth. If you haven’t read it (and not many people have), I recommend it – which is not to say that I don’t disagree violently with some of it. But when I disagree violently, I’m aware that I’m disagreeing violently with a “PLU”.

    As for slogans, it’s significant that there aren’t any in the Bible. At least, I can’t think of any. Can you? (Our Lord’s aphorisms aren’t slogans, of course.)

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