The bad art of the non sequitur: Gibberish is the White House’s new normal

We’re expected to live in a universe which is not only post-truth but altogether post-language and post-meaning

The bad art of the non sequitur: Gibberish is the White House's new normal
(Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

Once upon a time, there were presidents for whom English seemed their native language. Barack Obama most recently. He deliberated. At a press conference or in an interview — just about whenever he wasn’t speaking from a text — his pauses were as common as other people’s “uh’s.” He was not pausing because his vocabulary was impoverished. He was pausing to put words into sequence. He was putting phrases together with care, word by word, trying out words before uttering them, checking to feel out what they would sound like once uttered. It was important to him because he did not want to be misunderstood. President Obama valued precision, in no small part because he knew he lived in a world where every last presidential word was a speech act, a declaration with consequence, so that the very statement that the sky was blue, say, would be scoured for evidence that the president was declaring a policy on the nature of nature.

That was then. Now we have a president who, when he speaks, spatters the air with unfinished chunks, many of which do not qualify as sentences, and which do not follow from previous chunks. He does not release words into a stream of consciousness but into a heap. He heaps words on top of words, to overwhelm meaning with vague gestures. He does not think, he lurches.

Here are some examples from TIME’s transcript of their cover story made out of their phone interview with the president of the United States. I have italicized the non sequiturs, incomplete propositions, indefinite pronouns and other obscurities that amount to verbal mud.

Scherer: So you don’t feel like Comey’s testimony in any way takes away from the credibility of the tweets you put out, even with the quotes?

Trump: No, I have, look. I have articles saying it happened. But you have to take a look at what they, they just went out at a news conference.

Scherer: Mitch McConnell has said he’d rather you stop tweeting, that he sees it as a distraction.

Trump: Mitch will speak for himself. Mitch is a wonderful man. Mitch should speak for himself.

Trump: Now the problem, the thing is, I’m not sure they are watching anything other than that, let’s see members of Donald Trump transition team, possibly, oh this just came out.

Trump: I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass. Don’t forget, Obama said that UK will go to the back of the line, and I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.

Trump: And then TIME magazine, which treats me horribly, but obviously I sell, I assume this is going to be a cover too, have I set the record? I guess, right? Covers, nobody’s had more covers.

Trump: But the real story here is, who released Gen. Flynn’s name? Who released, who released my conversations with Australia, and who released my conversation with Mexico? To me, Michael, that’s the story, these leakers, they are disgusting. These are horrible people.

Scherer: And apparently there is an investigation into that as well.

Trump: Well should be, because that’s where the whole, who would think that you are speaking to the head of Mexico, the head of Australia, or Gen. Flynn, who was, they are not supposed to release that. That is the most confidential stuff. Classified. That’s classified. You go to prison when you release stuff like that. And who would release that? The real story is, they have to work, intelligence has to work on finding out who are the leakers. Because you know what? When things get involved with North Korea and all the problems we have there, in the Middle East, I mean, that information cannot be leaked out, and it will be by this, this same, and these people were here in the Obama years, because he had plenty of leakers also.

Trump: I inherited a mess in the Middle East, and a mess with North Korea, I inherited a mess with jobs, despite the statistics, you know, my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics because you have millions of people that can’t get a job, OK. And I inherited a mess on trade. I mean we have many, you can go up and down the ladder. But that’s the story. Hey look, in the meantime, I guess, I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not. You know. Say hello to everybody, OK?

So it goes.

Now, TIME’s cover headline for this mishmash is pointed as well as clever: “Is Truth Dead?” — clever, at any rate, in the eyes of readers old enough to remember the 1966 prototype: “Is God Dead?” A still more pointed treatment is that of Ellie Shechet at Jezebel — a redaction, or what be called reporting by subtraction. In the words of headline, “We Redacted Everything That’s Not a Verifiably True Statement From Trump’s Time Interview About Truth.” Unsurprisingly, Jezebel ended up having to edit the transcript so that the passages blacked out were lengthier than the words left in.

But the problem is not just that Trump lies, or that he lies about having lied. The problem is not just that he distracts — for example, changing the subject from his entanglements with Russians to the leakers who leak stories about his entanglements with Russians. The problem is that he insinuates more than he argues. He disdains not only evidence but logic. He asserts by indirection. This is bubble-think. It makes a sort of sense only if you’re trapped in the bubble with him.

What explains this? Is Donald Trump the heir of generations of avant-garde poetry?

Probably not. What’s more likely is that he is deranged. It is a peculiar sort of derangement. It is the derangement of a man who is used to getting what he wants, and arranging his mental universe so as to convince himself that what he has gotten is what he wanted. His operating theory is that he makes things so because he is powerful. His power is such that he is not subject to laws of ordinary grammar.

These bursts of speech are like the announcements that shriek “TRUMP” from the walls of many of his hotels. They do not signify ownership. They signify…something. Whatever. They add up to a haze of indefinite implication. They constitute, in our contemporary discourse, a brand. They signify that Trump has something to do with this building. Something. If you’re privy to the code, you know that there’s a licensing arrangement. Trump has been paid to grant the use of his name. If you think it’s a good thing to be associated with his name, then he has some water, some steaks, some vodka — even a “university” — to offer you.

Trump has moved the sign system of modern capitalism toward a whole new capitalist art form — the free-floating name that describes nothing. Trump has peeled language away from meaning.

He has brought to fruition the title of the 1984 Talking Heads album: “Stop Making Sense.” His regime is a nonstop exercise of “Let’s Pretend.”

His con game requires the bending of millions of knees. Americans are invited to willingly suspend disbelief, play dumb and collude in his cynicism. We agree not to notice the nonstop gibberish that spreads from the Oval Office outward. We agree to brag about our democracy when the president of the United States is responsible neither to logic, nor to evidence, nor to the American people, nor to the English language. We are expected to live in an alternative universe which is not only post-truth but altogether post-language and post-meaning. Any journalist, any talking head, any pundit, any commentator, any politician who pretends that Donald Trump makes sense has volunteered to go to work in the tailor shop where his invisible clothes are weaved.

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for BillMoyers.com and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

Kochs Bankroll Movement to Rewrite the Constitution

NEWS & POLITICs
Austerity advocates claim that they need only to convince five of seven targeted states to get on board.

Photo Credit: GongTo / Shutterstock

A constitutional convention, something thought impossible not long ago, is looking increasingly likely. Under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, if 34 state legislatures “issue a call” for a constitutional convention, Congress must convene one. By some counts, the right-wing only needs six more states. Once called, delegates can propose and vote on changes and new amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which, if approved, are currently required to be ratified by 38 states.

There are two major legislative pushes for a convention at the state level. One would attempt to engineer a convention for a balanced budget amendment only, and the other tries to secure an open convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. But once a convention is underway, all bets are off. The convention can write its own rules, resulting in a wide-open or “runaway” convention that can make major changes to the constitution and even change the number of states required to ratify those changes.

If America gets saddled with a runaway convention, the Koch coterie of funders will be to blame. Most of the groups pushing the convention idea are being underwritten by one or more institutions tied to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Attempts to Limit Topic of the Convention Likely to Fail

On Feb. 24, Wyoming became the 29th state to pass a resolution requesting a convention specifically to add a single balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Many of these legislative resolutions also attempt to set the rules for the convention and limit who can attend it to a select list of largely GOP state leaders.

Austerity advocates claim that they need only to convince five of seven targeted states—Arizona, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—to get on board, and they will have enough states to convene a convention. As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, three linked measures were just introduced in Wisconsin and were placed on a fast track to approval.

Another faction representing a broader “Convention of States” initiative is advocating an open constitutional convention to limit “the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” Because this open convention format would be called on a particular subject rather than a particular amendment, representatives would likely vote on any number of measures.

Legislatures in nine states—Arizona, Georgia, Alaska, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Louisiana—have signed on to the Convention of States resolution,. Texas appears likely to join in, as the state Senate approved a Convention of States bill in February. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is fiercely campaigning for a convention and has deemed it an “emergency issue.” In 2016, he published a 70-page plan that includes nine proposed amendments aimed at severely limiting federal authority, even allowing a two-thirds majority of the states to override a Supreme Court ruling or a federal law.

Groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Common Cause, and the Center for Media and Democracy have raised the alarm about these efforts. No convention has been called since 1787 in Philadelphia where George Washington presided.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why any convention call, no matter how narrowly written, is likely to result in a “runaway” convention. A convention is empowered to write its own rules, including how delegates are chosen, how many delegates attend and whether a supermajority is required to approve amendments.

Nothing in the Constitution prevents a convention, once convened, from setting its own agenda, influenced by powerful special interests like the Koch groups. A convention could even choose an entirely new ratification process. “The 1787 convention ignored the ratification process under which it was established and created a new one, reducing the number of states needed to approve the new Constitution and removing Congress from the approval process,” writes CBPP.

Legal uncertainly surrounds the entire effort, which is sure to be litigated if successful. For instance, are states bound by resolutions passed many years ago? Will states withdraw their approval? Some states, like Delaware and New Mexico, have already moved to do so.

The Koch Connection to the Push for a Constitutional Convention

Libertarian billionaires Charles and Dav id Koch have long opposed federal power and federal spending. Koch Industries is one of the nation’s biggest polluters and has been sanctioned and fined over and over again by both federal and state authorities. In response, the Kochs have launched a host of “limited government” advocacy organizations and have created a massive $400 million campaign finance network, fueled by their fortunes and those of their wealthy, right-wing allies, that rivals the two major political parties.

The Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity says it favors a balanced budget convention. Such an austerity amendment would drastically cut the size of the federal government, threatening critical programs like Social Security and Medicare and eviscerating the government’s ability to respond to economic downturns, major disasters and the climate crisis.

AFP has opposed an open convention, calling it “problematic.” But whatever qualms the Kochs might have, they continue to be a bedrock funder of the entire convention “movement.”

Running the “Convention of States initiative” is an Austin, Texas-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Citizens for Self-Governance (CSG). CSG reported revenue of $5.7 million in 2015, more than double its haul from two years earlier, when it launched its Convention of States Project, according to Dallas News. It now boasts 115,000 “volunteers,” although that figure may represent the number of addresses on its email list.

The group is not required to disclose its donors, but research into other organizations’ tax records by the Center for Media and Democracy, Conservative Transparency and this author show a web of Koch-linked groups having provided nearly $5.4 million to CSG from the group’s founding in 2011 through 2015:

  • Donors Trust, a preferred secret money conduit for individuals and foundations in the Koch network of funders, has given CSG at least $790,000 since 2011.
  • The Greater Houston Community Foundation, which is funded by Donors Capital Fund (linked to Donors Trust) and the Kochs’ Knowledge and Progress Fund, has donated over $2 million since 2011.
  • The Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Donors Capital Fund, gave $2.5 million from 2012-2013.

Citizens for Self-Governance also has two Koch-connected board members. Eric O’Keefe is a director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a group which has taken in considerable funding from Koch-linked groups like the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and was at the center of the long-running “John Doe” criminal investigation of Scott Walker’s campaign coordination with dark money groups.

O’Keefe was thenational field coordinator for the Libertarian Party when David Koch ran for Vice President in 1979 on the Libertarian Party ticket. The party’s platform called for the end of campaign finance law, the minimum wage, “oppressive Social Security,” Medicaid, Medicare and federal deficit spending.

The Koch agenda has not changed much since.

Another board member is Tim Dunn, an oilman from Midland, Texas who is vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a right-wing think tank that’s raked in over $1 million from Koch family foundations, $160,000 from Koch Industries in 2012 alone and at least $1.8 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

Dunn runs another political group, Empower Texans, which supports Republican candidates and has taken in funds from Donors Trust and “Americans for Job Security,” a Koch-tied dark money group that was slapped with a severe fine by the FEC for its involvement in a dark money shell game intended to disguise the origin of its funds.

Both TPPF and Empower Texans back the constitutional convention idea.

What’s more, a 501(c)4 nonprofit connected to CSG, the Alliance for Self-Governance (which does business as Convention of States Action), received $270,000 in 2012 from Americans for Limited Government, which has received funding not only by Donors Capital Fund but by two Koch-funded political groups, the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Job Security.

Those two groups exchanged millions of dollars in 2010 and 2012, illegally hiding the source of funding for political expenditures, lying to the Internal Revenue Service and making unlawful contributions to pass-through groups, prompting investigations and historic fines by the both the State of California and the Federal Elections Commission. Eric O’Keefe’s Wisconsin Club for Growth also funneled $450,000 to Alliance for Self-Governance in 2012, at a time when WCFG was battling the Walker recall.

Any time any organization is named “self-governance” or “limited government” you can be sure that Wisconsin’s Eric O’Keefe is either a founder or on the board, and indeed O’Keefe is tied to all three organizations: CSG, the Alliance for Self-Governance and Americans for Limited Government.

If the Kochs and their friends don’t want an open constitutional convention, they’ve sure done a lot to aid the effort.

American Legislative Exchange Council

CSG also has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill that unites conservative politicians with big-business lobbyists who develop cookie-cutter “model” legislation behind closed doors at ALEC meetings.

ALEC has long been funded by Koch Industries and a representative of Koch Industries sits on its executive board, while representatives from the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity groups fund and sit on various committees. ALEC has also received funding from Koch family foundations. CMD estimates this funding to be over $1 million, though the actual total could be much higher. In addition, ALEC gets funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

According to Common Cause, “no group has been more influential” in promoting an Article V convention than ALEC. In 2011, ALEC commissioned a handbook for state legislators on how to push for a constitutional convention. The group has produced at least three model balanced budget amendment bills and has endorsed several model bills calling for a convention to vote on constitutional amendments, such as requiring Congress to get approval by two-thirds of the states before imposing new taxes or increasing the federal debt or federal spending.

CSG has sponsored ALEC conferences and led sessions focused on a constitutional convention. In 2015, ALEC’s board of directors officially endorsed CSG’s open convention plan as a “model” bill. The group had previously endorsed a balanced-budget-only plan. ALEC’s Jeffersonian Project, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit formed in 2013, has been lobbying state legislators to propose such a convention, CMD reports.

More Koch Money Pushing Austerity Amendment

Another group, the Florida-based Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, is backing a balanced budget convention bill that 29 states have approved. In its effort, the group has lobbied for the bill and attended ALEC conferences and other similar events. On its website, the task force lists ALEC and the Heartland Institute as partner organizations.

“ALEC has been instrumental in providing us a forum within which to present our campaign, recruit sponsors, and approve model legislation that legislators can be confident in,” claims the site.

Another big backer of the balanced budget amendment approach is the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which is also tied to the Koch brothers. A member of ALEC, it has received $5.6 million from the Donors Capital Fund since 2011 and tens of thousands of dollars each from the Charles Koch Foundation and the Claude R. Lambe Foundation. Heartland publishes posts praising or defending the Kochs and even put out an annual environmental report from Koch Industries.

“The Heartland Institute has put the full weight of its influence behind the BBA Task Force as well as other campaigns in order to encourage the states to use their power to amend the U.S. Constitution,” reads the site.

Compact for America, formed by a former counsel with the conservative Goldwater Institute and staffed by more Goldwater alumni, has its own balanced budget convention proposal, which only four states have signed on to. The institute, which promotes many of ALEC’s model bills, has taken in big donations from Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund and the Charles Koch Foundation.

If America faces the madness of a runaway convention, voters of both parties will know whom to blame.

Mary Bottari contributed to this article.

Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkotch.

America’s Health Illiteracy: How Easy It Is to Buy into Health Myths

PERSONAL HEALTH
Survey shows some of the medical facts that are far from true.

Photo Credit: Spot Us / Flickr

Ask any American for some medical advice and you’re sure to get an earful. Everybody, it seems, has a surefire cure for the common cold, hangover or sore throat. But how much can you trust that advice? Maybe not so much. In a world where, according to one survey by the Pew Health Group, almost half of the respondents thought antibiotics were effective against the common cold or flu (the answer to that is a big fat no, in case you were wondering), one should be exceedingly careful about the source of one’s medical information.

The truth is that Americans are not so smart about medicine, which makes us exceedingly vulnerable to hucksters peddling remedies. We don’t know much about heart disease despite the fact that it kills 1 out of 4 of us. We don’t even know the appropriate place to go for medical help. Only 18% of Americans are proficient in health literacy. An equal number of us have below basic health literacy and the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Women fare a bit better than men, with 22% being proficient, while youth aged 18 to 24 fare the worst, with a third of them below basic health literacy.

Not every medical belief amounts to a life-or-death scenario (although our ignorance does add to the nation’s rising medical costs), but it is interesting to take a snapshot of some medical myths and dissect them to see who believes them, and why. That is exactly what the online insurance quote company, Insurancequotes.com, did, surveying over 2,000 people to see where they stand on a few widespread medical myths.

Below are seven of the most commonly believed medical myths.

1. Probiotics improve digestion for everyone who takes them.

In the survey, heading the list, over 83% of respondents thought that probiotics improve digestion for everyone who takes them.

While probiotics can help alleviate certain conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, childhood diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, most healthy people won’t experience any digestive benefits from consuming them.

People of all ethnicities buy into the probiotic hype. In the survey, Caucasians and Asian Americans tied at 84%, and African Americans and Hispanics tied at 80%.

2. Creativity is controlled on the right half of the brain, logic on the left.

Almost 68% of respondents bought into this myth, but it isn’t true. It originated in the 1960s, when epileptic patients had surgical procedures on their brains that effectively walled off one side of the brain from the other. Researchers then found which sides of the brain were involved with language, math, drawing, and other functions. Pop gurus extrapolated from this information that one side of the brain was creative and one logical.

Studies since then debunk that notion. In fact, one recent study from the University of Utah of over 1,000 brains found no evidence that people are left-brained or right-brained.

3. Carrots give you better eyesight.

Nope, although over 68% believe otherwise.

Unless you have a severe shortage of vitamin A, eating a lot of carrots might turn you a bit orange (maybe our president likes carrots), but it won’t do anything for your eyesight.

4. When women live together, their periods become synchronized.

The myth that women in close proximity to one another for long periods of time begin experiencing their periods at the same time had its origin in an early 1970s study. Although subsequent studies seemed to bear this out, more recent studies say it is not true.

Still, more than 62% buy into the myth. Here’s a surprise: more men (44.6%) than women (29.8%) knew this myth was false.

5. Sitting close to the television set will cause poor eyesight.

Almost 61% of the respondents believed this to be true, but it is not. Although it could cause eyestrain, sitting close to the TV won’t cause any permanent damage to your eyes.

6. Myth: Women who are menstruating can’t get pregnant.

Women knew this one was false by a large margin, 72.7% to 57.6% for wishful thinking men.

Interestingly, Asian Americans believed this myth more than any other racial group, at 38%, followed closely by African Americans at 36% and Caucasians at 35%. Hispanics aren’t buying it, though, with only 30% believing this.

7. Myth: Vaccines are not effective at helping the body ward off disease.

Belief in the efficacy of vaccines (they are overwhelmingly safe and effective) has taken a hit in the past few years thanks to the misguided anti-vaxxer movement, which claims vaccines can cause autism (they don’t).

A sizable chunk of people (though, thankfully, still a minority) believe that vaccines are not effective, with 33% of African Americans believing this dangerous myth, followed by 22% of Hispanics, 20% of Asian Americans, and 13% of Caucasians.

Sources of health information

Based on the survey, it is clear where medical information is coming from. By far, the source of health information (or misinformation) is the internet. Seventy-one percent of Asian Americans report they get their health information online, followed by 59% for Caucasians, and 58% for both African Americans and Hispanics.

Given the fact that almost anyone can create a “health” website, including those with a business or political agenda, this may be a cause for concern.

Other health info sources include family and friends, and doctors. Asian Americans are least likely to get their information from a physician (18%), while Hispanics are most likely (35%). African Americans are most likely to follow the medical advice of family or friends (14%), while Hispanics are least likely (7%).

Health knowledge by profession and education level

Some professions, it would seem, are more easily taken in by myths than others. People in the marketing and advertising industry are the least likely to correctly identify medical myths, with only 52% accurately calling them out. They were tied with broadcasting and journalism, which should give us pause (FAKE NEWS!).

The military professions were most able to identify myths, at 62%. Somewhat shockingly, they beat out the scientific professions, who came in at 59%, barely ahead of homemakers at 58%, who disconcertingly in turn beat out the medical profession at 57% (apparently working in the field does not assure protection from incorrect medical information).

People with professional degrees led the pack in being able to accurately identify medical myths, at 61%. Overall, college degrees beat out those with only a high school degree or GED equivalent (who came in at 54%). The surprise here was that PhDs just barely beat out the high school crowd at 55%.

See the entire survey results.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 

Depeche Mode’s “Spirit” is a reminder of how political the band can be

“Grabbing hands, grab all they can”:

The group’s latest studio LP is a byproduct of and commentary on today’s global political upheaval

"Grabbing hands, grab all they can": Depeche Mode's "Spirit" is a reminder of how political the band can be
Depeche Mode (Credit: Sony Music)

The members of Depeche Mode spent the weeks leading up to the release of their 14th studio album, “Spirit,” fending off an association with the far-right movement. In late February, white nationalist Richard Spencer — a self-avowed “life-long Depeche Mode fan” — facetiously called the influential synthpop group the “official band of the Alt-Right.” The act swiftly issued a crisp statement through a rep: “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the Alt-Right and does not support the Alt-Right movement.”

The exchange was a reminder that Depeche Mode was actually tangling with politics more than it had in recent years. The Martin Gore-penned “Where’s the Revolution,” the first single from “Spirit,” encourages people to engage in mutiny against oppression. Although not explicitly liberal, a sampling of chorus lyrics (“They manipulate and threaten/ With terror as a weapon,” “Who’s making your decisions?/ You or your religion/ Your government, your countries/ You patriotic junkies”) points to a left-leaning perspective.

As many reviews have noted, the rest of “Spirit” also has an overt political bent. However, it’s more precise to say that the album features commentary on (and is a reaction to) the societal and cultural elements that led to 2017’s global political upheaval.

“Going Backwards” juxtaposes technological progress with decaying morals and devolution to “a caveman mentality,” while “Worst Crime” calls for people to own up to corrupt behavior: “We are all charged with treason/ There is no one left to hiss.” The electro-dirge “Poorman” is specific about its stance: “Corporations get the breaks/ Keeping almost everything they make/ Tell us just how long it’s going to take/ For it to trickle down.” And “Scum” pulls no punches in how it portrays a faceless person presumably abusing their position: “Hey scum, hey scum/ What are you going to do when karma comes?”

Speaking to Rolling Stone about the album, Gahan didn’t necessarily reveal inspiration specifics. “We called the album ‘Spirit,’ because it’s like, ‘Where’s the spirit gone?’ or ‘Where’s the spirit in humanity?’” he said. Earlier in the article, he admitted he “wouldn’t call this a political album, because I don’t listen to music in a political way. But it’s definitely about humanity, and our place in that.”

One could argue that the latter idea — someone deeply considering where they fit in the world among their fellow citizens — is inherently political. However, Gahan has a good reason for demurring on specifics. In a recent Billboard interview, he discussed not just the Spencer incident, but also how his band’s music has been misunderstood. “I think over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted — either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.

“If anything, there’s a way more sort of socialist — working class, if you like — industrial-sounding aesthetic to what we do,” Gahan continues. “That’s where we come from. We come from the council estates of Essex, which is a really s—-y place, just 30 minutes east of London, where they stuck everybody when London was getting too overpopulated in the late ’60s.”

From a sonic perspective, Depeche Mode’s early music captures the cloistered existence Gahan describes. The fogged-up-window synths of 1981’s debut, “Speak and Spell,” give way to sharply modern keyboards on 1982’s “A Broken Frame.” That record’s programming conjures textures that are simultaneously drab and chirpy: dripping faucets, a dull church service or a melodramatic sitcom theme.

On subsequent records, Depeche Mode employs clanking production and scraping sound effects, as well as midnight-hued keyboards and generous slathers of reverb, to convey increasingly hollowed-out angst. The sounds of industry remain an aesthetic influence on a song such as “Black Celebration,” which resembles a bustling, belching factory, and on the “electronic metal” the band embraced as the ’80s progressed. But although modern technology and different production techniques changed the band’s sound — giving it a sleeker, dystopian and minimalist vibe — Depeche Mode has never lost its utilitarian, greyscale synthpop essence.

What’s more intriguing is how the thematic bent of “Spirit” revisits and amplifies aspects of the band’s past. Notable parallels can be made to 1983’s “Construction Time Again,” the record containing the greed-demonizing “Everything Counts.” That LP’s cover image features a chiseled, real-life ex-Royal Marine hoisting a sledgehammer. From an iconography perspective, it was a striking statement — even if its intent had many layers.

In a documentary about the record, Martyn Atkins, a longtime Depeche Mode-associated designer who worked on “Construction Time Again,” said “The kind of political look of the things was more fashion than a specific statement. If you look back, you’ll see a lot of those kind of elements creeping in, of both fascist and communistic kind of iconography. It was exciting looking stuff. And I think that nobody had really plundered it to market an everyday product like a record.”

Yet in an interview with NME journalist X. Moore, the members of Depeche Mode were firm about their political awakening and how the concept of “The Worker” dominated the record.

“The general tendency of the album is very socialized and The Worker sums it up — it’s the obvious image to get across socialism,” said keyboardist Alan Wilder. “It’s like, the first thing you think seeing the cover is that the hammer is smashing down the mountain, but not to destroy. Because he’s a worker, it’s to rebuild it, it’s positive. That was the overall idea of the album, to be positive — that’s why it’s construction time, not destruction time.”

Later in the article, Gore was more explicit about the ways his lyrics dealt with greed and money, and the disproportionate way wealth is distributed. “The thing is, the people in power don’t care about someone with a low wage, they only care about their own power. But I think people should care about other people, y’know, ’cause from the moment we’re born we’re put into competition with everybody else.”

Going forward, that kind of direct commentary emanated from Depeche Mode’s catalog only occasionally, although these moments resonated. “People Are People” somewhat clumsily (but sincerely) addresses bigotry: “It’s obvious you hate me, though I’ve done nothing wrong/ I’ve never even met you, so what could I have done?” The murky “New Dress” criticizes tabloid frippery (“Princess Di is wearing a new dress”) that is focused on to the detriment of more important matters: “If you change points of view/ You may change a vote/ And when you change a vote/ You may change the world.” And uproar over the sexual overtones of “Master and Servant” obscured the song’s coded societal commentary: “Domination’s the name of the game/ In bed or in life/ They’re both just the same/ Except in one you’re fulfilled.”

Still, it’s not like the group was an apolitical entity the rest of the time. Mat Smith’s excellent essay about the band’s political nature points out how ’80s Depeche Mode reverberated “in places like East Germany or Russia that were divided and separate from the West by ideology. Depeche Mode’s music spoke to a generation of young people that felt betrayed by Communism, capturing the hearts and minds of a youth who heard something in this music that we’ll probably never fully appreciate unless we were living through it with them.” And Gore’s lyrics very much politicize personal matters: His vignettes about spiritual struggles, romantic turmoil and internal battles with the self are charged with divisive emotions.

Depeche Mode might have been seen as comparatively lighter, because ’80s synthpop tended to deal with surprisingly weighty issues. Industry’s “State of the Nation” condemns needless (and deadly) wars, as does Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes.” The Human League’s monstrous “Dare” LP features “Seconds,” a song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy from the perspective of the shooter. Bronski Beat’s sociopolitical statement “Smalltown Boy” is about someone leaving home after being bullied about his sexuality. And nuclear war or nuclear apocalypse were popular thematic jumping-off points; Ultravox’s “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” OMD’s “Enola Gay” and even Modern English’s “I Melt With You” all fit into this category.

These topics might seem quaint or retrograde now, but as Depeche Mode cautions on “Spirit,” political backsliding is lurking around every corner. Speaking about new song “The Worst Crime” to NPR, Gahan says “The way we divide each other — you know, racial divides. [It’s] kind of calling out to really question that, to kind of check yourself — me included, everyone else included.

“Like, where do you really stand, what are the choices you’re really making? Do you really love thy neighbor, and are you willing to accept the differences? We just seem to be slipping backwards.”

 

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.