Propaganda Part II: Opaque Symbols

by Gene Callahan

The political theorist and philosopher Eric Voegelin, who was an attendee at the Mises Kreis in Vienna and a lifelong friend of Hayek and Schutz, coined (as far as I know) the term “opaque symbols.” What this means is that the symbol user’s connection to the experiential source of the opaque symbol is missing, so the symbol is no longer “seen through” to what it symbolizes, but instead has become a substitute for the experience itself.

Opaque symbols are a major component of ideological propaganda. For instance, “freedom” and “liberty” are now tossed around in American political discourse with little more meaning than “Good stuff you should like!” I saw another interesting example recently on TV.

Keith Olbermann, on his “Worst Person in the World” bit, first showed a clip of Arizona State Senator Silvia Allen, in a legislative session defending a local uranium mine, saying, “The Earth has been here 6,000 years, long before anyone had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.”

For Rep. Allen, Genesis has become an opaque symbol: it no longer points to an experiential reality, but instead is a historian’s account of some long-ago events. As Voegelin writes, “[s]uch an account is not a body of propositions concerning events witnessed by a historian or, for that matter, by anybody. The stories of Creation, of Noah and the Flood, of the Tower of Babel, and so on, are myths; and their ‘subject matter’ is not the content of the stories but the experiences symbolized by means of the stories” (Order and History, Vol. I, p. 218).

So Olbermann has a case for mocking her. (Still, “worst person in the world”?!) But look at how Olbermann responds to her: “The way we can know the Earth is billions of years old is because of the decay of Olbermann uranium. Carbon dating!” (All said in a sneering tone, of course.)

Olbermann thinks that carbon dating involves uranium! Olbermann has no more idea of what the symbols he is invoking mean then Rep. Allen does.

This discussion is being held at the level of one opponent yelling “religious mumbo-jumbo!” while the other yells “Scientific mumbo-jumbo!” Ideology substituting for thought.

8 thoughts on “Propaganda Part II: Opaque Symbols

  1. I hate to defend Olbermann, but I looked up on the web about how the earth is dated to be 4.55 billion years old. Apparently, the decaying of uranium isotopes to lead isotopes is used to determine the age of the earth. While you are right that Olbermann has got the carbon dating part wrong, isn’t this process of dating the earth with uranium similar to carbon dating? For the novice like me, with little schooling in chemistry, dating the age of the earth is a complicated subject that Olbermann was trying to make easier to understand by relating carbon dating (which most people has heard of, yet, probably don’t understand scientifically) to dating the earth with uranium.

  2. Yes, Tom, uranium dating is used. But to call it “carbon dating” is a gross error. Where is your evidence that Olbermann understands the distinction and “was trying to make easier to understand” the concept? (And how, exactly, would grossly misnaming what’s going on make it easier to understand?)

  3. Gene,

    I don’t think Olbermann does understand nor do most people. He was wrong to call it carbon dating. But with the division of labor most people are only knowledgeable in specialized fields and ignorant in most everything else. Maybe the division of labor excuse is a cop-out and a poor excuse for not knowing more about each subject, but I think it is probably true for most people.

    I don’t really understand the “opaque symbols” concept, but (I will comment on something I know little about anyway) are “opaque symbols” necessary because people specialize in narrow fields of knowledge and are ignorant in most other fields?

  4. Computer programmers such as I may have an advantage in grasping this concept of opaque symbols. We routinely deal with pointers, which are addresses to storage locations. When we need something from a computer’s storage location, first we have to get hold of the pointer (the address). Then, once we have the pointer, fetching the thing from the storage location is so routine as to be thoughtless, usually. So we fall into the habit of thinking we have the thing pointed to, when in fact we only have the pointer. But, because this habit can trip us up, at least a few times each year, we’ve learned to remind ourselves, to focus again upon the separate: pointer or pointee.

    Another, easier example. I may think of the house in which I grew up as “11 Center St.” But of course “11 Center St.” is an address, not a house.

    So I am not inclined to get riled up about other peoples’ opaque symbols. Unless of course those people are my ideological opposites, in which case I might grasp any objection I can find.

  5. Gene,

    Your blog post was a bit opaque in the middle. How does Voegelin know that no one ever witnessed the great flood (if there were one)? Supposing the Genesis account were true, and Adam and Eve knew they were the first people, wouldn’t somebody be able to write that down?

    Does “opaque symbol” really have to do with the difference in our confidence in the historical story? E.g. if Stephen Hawking tells me about stuff that happened 10 billion years ago that no one witnessed, I assume Voegelin is OK with that?

  6. Maybe Olbermann was referring to the decay of uranium and carbon dating as two separate things and assumed his viewers would pick up the implied “and also”.

  7. I don’t have cogent response or comment, but this is food for thought for the rest of the day as I go to the studio class. I am taking.I do know Keith Olbermann is not the most intellectually honest person I’ve ever heard.

  8. The word “coup” also seems to be an opaque symbol.

    From the Friedrich Naumann Foundation

    and from Cato via Forbes.

    You seem to be crying “propaganda” in instances when you’re disagreeing with people over facts. Allen mistakenly thinks Genesis is a factual account of creation. Olbermann mistakenly believes that all radiometric dating is carbon dating. You mistakenly believe Zelaya was a victim of a coup in Honduras.

    These are all mistakes of fact; none have anything to do with propaganda, with ideology substituting for thought.

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