Noise in a Dying Republic

Why we should all listen for it when discussing policy design

Throughout this collection of essays, you’ll hear me route the source of most all poor design choices to this issue: misinformation. Any area of law enforcement’s structure you find questionable can likely be tied to a tactical use of misinformation. But how can the mechanism create a condition that confuses voters, and dictates policy? It might be easier than you think.

Whether you know it or not, the form of American history we’ve all grown up with is misleading, represents a westernized, and, if I may be so bold, colonized canon of thinking. Alternate histories glorifying involved parties are not strangers to us. But the campaign-specific action of misinformation had to have been exemplified by someone. It has to have been so efficiently modeled for writers, politicians, business owners, and yes, even artists, to a point that it became our new normal. Trying to pinpoint a deliberate history of this design choice can be fruitless, especially considering misinformation and lying are commonly mistaken for one another. Some consider them to be the same thing. It’s important we differentiate, because misinformation is far more dangerous, and sits deep beneath the surface. Though back to history, many historians would attribute the suite of American misinformation to one powerful man: William Randolf Hearst.

What on earth do the yellow journalistic practices of Hearst have to do with law enforcement? Though most know of him for his contributions to the Spanish-American war, Hearst spent over twenty-five years pedaling American Value pieces as fact. He was responsible for promoting the “travesties” and “yellow-peril” of Asian Immigration. He promoted the patriotic nature of political assassination, and was more or less to blame for the murder of William McKinley.1 However, his most destructive contributions regarding “American Values” pertained to the “dangers” of black youth, jazz music, and marijuana. Unbeknownst to many, Hearst is actually credited as one of the creators of the improper (and racist) name; “Marijuana.”2 The commonly accepted Latin root for the plant was cannabis. A new name, Marijuana, was theoretically branded to sound more “foreign” and “Hispanic.”3 This was only the beginning of what would later be a transparent public dissuasion campaign. Was there an ulterior motive behind his move on this issue? Yes and no. On one hand, Hearst was a rich and powerful racist. What was published in his papers was no doubt a reflection of how he felt towards people of color. On the other hand, his paper production was endangered by the hemp industry. Hearst’s conclusions were decided before the content of his writings were even considered. They changed minds and played as sympathetic to the causes of Irish & English immigrants, as well as labor unions.

Hearst made clear that the tightrope walk between fiction and fact is a profitable route to follow. His stories from the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros to the escalation of the Cuban War for Independence were printed on yellow paper and sold like nothing else. Hearst opened up a tabloid called the New York Daily Mirror to parallel Pulitzer’s Daily News, Pulitzer being an eager industry competitor. The commodity was not information, it was stories, or narrative gossip. Hearst’s end goals went beyond editorial fame and fortune. In 1904, Hearst unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic party’s nomination for president. He then won himself two elections to Congress, then lost two bids for New York City Mayor, and one bid for Governor of New York. His third loss marked the end of his life in the public arena, but he spent four years representing NY’s 11th district as a Jeffersonian Democrat, missing 87.9% of his floor votes due to the continued ownership of his enterprise. Though a failure of a public servant, his true goal and gain was political power. I could go on with the dramatic fouls of William R Hearst and his colleagues for an entire essay. But, the importance of this story being embedded within this chapter is illustrating the beginning of misinformation as a political tactic in law enforcement and other pertinent measures. His motivations were simply corrupt. 7 8

Misinformation could be assimilated with the concept of pivoting or spin. When any matter of debate becomes inconvenient or hostile towards your positions, one might shift to information hardly relevant to the conversation at hand. However, beginning in the 1950s, misinformation evolved from simply protecting one’s interests to a weaponized tactic. The virtue of voter manipulation became all too obvious, and was abused in an effort to empower leaders that were unmistakably dangerous. I would dub this weaponized misinformation, “noise.” Noise became a common political tool, closely resembling the treatment of voters and journalists as directionless cattle. Noise is the dividing force behind nearly all law enforcement policy lockjam. Law enforcement is not the only victim of this motionless defection, the invention of issues to mask relevant debate affects the public in almost all areas of policy. We should be listening for noise, and call it out every day.

To put this in some modern context, I’ll call into consideration a semi-current leader in this political tactic: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was Speaker from 95–99, and is recalled as a victorious Republican leader. He is responsible for what has been colloquially referenced as the Republican Revolution or the Gingrich Revolution, attached to his infamously polarizing “Contract with America.” McCay Coppins summarized his leadership the best I’ve seen, stating “he pioneered a style of partisan combat — replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism — that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction.” Utilizing a contemporary form of Hearst’s misinformation tactics, he made a massive contribution to the noise present in today’s politics. It feels funny wielding this exercise with political leaders, but it reminds me of when you hear an artist’s name and ask “what do I know by them?” Gingrich brought front and center demarcating conversations cultivated by invention. Flag burning, late-term abortion (invented phrasing), boy scout protections, charter school passes, fetishization of freedom, I could go on. These issues were designed to quickly divide, and make clearer who’s an ally and who’s an enemy. The discourse was extensive and exhausting. All the while, “American Values” were in need of protection. Federal judges were rapidly confirmed, and the Republican party once coined as the “permanent minority” post-Watergate, earned back fifty-four seats in the house. Much like Hearst, Gingrich had exemplified the successful nature of noise.4 5 6

Today, the Kremlin advances Twitter and Reddit bots to participate in polarizing conversations in an effort to corrode American Democracy. President Trump strays not far off the noisy path of his predecessors. As voters are encouraged to take more agency in their civic responsibility, idealogues are commodifying our vulnerabilities. With regard to brevity, ten-word statements can stand to suspend any progression. The provision of a republic places the charge of political clairvoyance on hired representatives. In the communication age, our world is more interconnected and autonomous. We must learn from the mistakes of the Brexit referendum. There’s no mistaking noise tactics are the majority influencer of said election. Our republic is dying, we are more democratic than ever, and that has its advantages. But it requires an added motivation for vigilance. It requires that we more commonly call discourse into question and crisis.

The Cold War is over, Hearst is dead, Gingrich is out of office, but the tactic of noise has yet to really experience a loss. Until it does, it will remain at large in political war chests. Why do I introduce this aspect first? Much like I’m calling on the American electorate to question through discourse, rather than proclaim. I’m proposing the reader join me in critiquing design choices past. Listen for the use of noise, and identify it. The theme is all too prevalent in the issues we proceed to explore.

Designer, critical writer, image-maker, seltzer enthusiast. All things design history and critique. Lone author behind; “Greater Fool.”

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