‘Tankie’ & Other Popular Terms of Narrative Control

Caitlin Johnstone presents some of the most common pejoratives deployed by imperial-narrative managers to smear critical thinkers as untrustworthy. 

By Caitlin Johnstone

Bloomberg pundit Noah Smith had a revealing interaction on Twitter the other day.

It began with Smith sharing a screenshot of an article by journalist Yasha Levine which condemns U.S.  imperialist escalations against China and ties them to the sudden spike in anti-Asian hate crimes we’ve been seeing. Smith shared his screenshot with the caption, “I hold by my prediction that the American Left is going to split into A) social democrats and B) foreign-policy-obsessed pseudo-tankies.”

“How do we stop the B group from driving the narrative?” one of Smith’s followers asked him.

“Well, first we teach everyone the word ‘tankie’!” Smith replied, with a Substack article he authored explaining that any leftist who opposes Western imperialist agendas against China should be branded with that label and dismissed.

Which is just so refreshing in its honesty, really. It’s been obvious for ages that such pejoratives are being used by imperialists to control the narrative in a way that benefits ruling power structures, but it’s not often you’ll have a mainstream narrative manager come right out and say that this is exactly what they are trying to do.

Smith’s admission that he is training his audience to bleat the word “tankie” at any leftist who is “obsessed” with a tiny trivial matter like U.S.  foreign policy in order to control the dominant foreign policy narrative is borne out by the rest of his Twitter activity, which sees him repeating that word constantly and weaponizing it against anyone who expresses skepticism of the empire’s official foreign policy narratives.

“Tankie” used to be a term for British communists who supported the Soviet Union, but under the facilitation of narrative managers like Smith it’s enjoying a mainstream resurrection in which it is commonly weaponized against anyone to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders who opposes U.S.  imperialist agendas.

I wrote against imperialism for years without anyone ever applying that pejorative to me, but now it comes up on a near-daily basis. I haven’t changed the basics of my beliefs or my approach to anti-imperialism, but the widespread use of “tankie” as a pejorative against people like me most certainly has changed.

Joining the Upper Ranks 

It joins the ranks of famous weaponized pejoratives like “Russian bot,” “CCP propagandist,” “Assadist” and the one-size-fits-all perennial favorite “conspiracy theorist” in labels used to dismiss anyone who voices skepticism of narratives that are being promoted by known liars to facilitate the agendas of murderous psychopaths.

Another new crowd favorite is “genocide denier,” a label applied to anyone who points out the glaring plot holes in the imperial Uyghur narrative which narrative managers are overjoyed about being able to use because it lets them equate skepticism of a geostrategically significant U.S.  narrative with Nazism.

What these pejoratives accomplish, as Noah Smith is well aware, is the ability to inoculate the mainstream herd from the wrong think of anyone to whom that label has been applied. That way they never have to engage the argument or the evidence that gets laid out contradicting the official imperial line; as long as they can convince enough people to accept their pejorative as legitimate, they have a magical phrase they can utter to dispel any anti-imperialist argument which appears anywhere in the information ecosystem.

This is a major part of an imperial narrative manager’s job these days: smearing anti-imperialists and critical thinkers as untrustworthy. The debate is never to be engaged and counter-arguments are never to be made; why engage in a debate you will probably lose when you can simply explain to everyone why nobody should listen to the other side?

A perfect example of this would be the recent smear piece the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) put out on The Grayzone with the title “Strange bedfellows on Xinjiang: The CCP, fringe media and U.S.  social media platforms.

As explained in a thread by The Grayzone‘s Aaron Maté, the government-funded and arms industry-funded think tank ASPI makes no effort in its report to dispute or debunk any of the reporting that The Grayzone has been putting out on China or on anything else. Rather, they simply work to associate the outlet with the Chinese government by citing incidents in which Chinese officials shared Grayzone articles on social media. By fallaciously associating The Grayzone with the Chinese government, narrative managers now have a weapon which enables them to dismiss the outlet as “CCP propaganda.”

Common Tactic 

As anyone who has been active in anti-imperialist online discourse knows, this is an extremely common tactic, which narrative managers and their indoctrinated herd use to dismiss questions, criticisms and evidence that is inconvenient to the U.S.-centralized imperial war machine. Try countering their claims with a well-sourced article full of robust argumentation and solid evidence, and they’ll dismiss you with a “Ha ha, THAT outlet? That outlet is propaganda!” Because it came from an anti-imperialist outlet like The Grayzone or Consortium News instead of an outlet which never fails to support U.S.  military agendas like The New York Times.

But it’s a completely ridiculous tactic if you think about it. All they’re really saying is “You can’t use that anti-imperialist outlet to substantiate your anti-imperialist position! You can only use the pro-U.S. outlets, which have helped deceive westerners into backing every U.S.  war!” It’s also logically fallacious; attacking the source instead of the argument is what people do when they can’t attack the argument.

Citing an empire-targeted government sharing an anti-imperialist article as evidence that that government is tied to that outlet in some way is an equally absurd argument; obviously governments are going to cite evidence and arguments which favor them, and the imperialist Western media isn’t going to be publishing such evidence or arguments.

The fact that Western anti-imperialists and nations like Russia and China both oppose Western imperialism doesn’t mean Western anti-imperialists work for Russia or China. It means those groups all oppose western imperialism for their own reasons. Since Western imperialism is the most murderous and oppressive force on this planet, it’s to be expected that multiple different groups will oppose it.

Pay attention to the way imperial narrative managers try to use smears and pejoratives to file away anti-imperialists into a “don’t listen to the things this person says” box, and help others pay attention to it too. This is no more legitimate an argument than the Wizard of Oz yelling “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and it should be treated with no more respect than that.

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet, and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium.  Her work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, liking her on Facebook, following her antics on Twitter, checking out her podcast on either YoutubesoundcloudApple podcasts or Spotify, following her on Steemit, throwing some money into her tip jar on Patreon or Paypal, purchasing some of her sweet merchandise, buying her books Rogue Nation: Psychonautical Adventures With Caitlin Johnstone and Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers.

This article was re-published with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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17 comments for “‘Tankie’ & Other Popular Terms of Narrative Control

  1. DARYL
    April 7, 2021 at 18:07

    Why have i yet to see a meme of that “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” moment in the Wizard of Oz? A screenshot of the old dude scrambling to redraw the curtains hiding his wiz control center would make for the perfect “‘nothing to see here” meme.

  2. DH Fabian
    April 7, 2021 at 09:48

    Just a side issue, but in the US, those who aren’t on the right wing have been split for the past quarter-century, primarily by (ironically) class. The general split is between liberals and the left. Liberals support the Democrat Party, believing it can be reformed. They sometimes refer to themselves as “the left.” The political left see the Democrats as just the other branch of the ruling duopoly, and point to the record to show why trying to reform the party is a lost cause. There is the “labor left” who want a capitalist sort of “socialism” that increases the advantages of the currently employed, within the capitalist system, and the democratic socialists who also want ensured basic incomes for those who can’t work or are left jobless. There were times over the last century when liberals and left largely agreed, and this is not one of those times.

  3. Gene Poole
    April 7, 2021 at 07:42

    Caitlin, I hope you don’t mind, but I just outed you to that “Smith” guy. I posted a quote from your piece that links back here and tried to play with their (strangely consensual) heads by saying that the most dangerous tankie is the one who defends the US.


  4. Yuliy
    April 7, 2021 at 04:24

    Thank you, Caitlin. Brilliant writing, as usual. Always wait for your next article. Keep pouring your sand into the gears of this well oiled propaganda machine!

  5. April 7, 2021 at 01:29

    Thank you Caitlin Johnstone for this extremely important look at how we are being outsmarted every day by cold-blooded imperialists.
    Whoever controls the story… wins.

  6. S.P. Korolev
    April 7, 2021 at 00:37

    Thanks for clarifying the meaning and history of ‘Tankie’. i will wear the term with pride from now on.

    I think it is time for ‘B)’ to begin to develop its own political institutions, whether as an organized faction of a larger group or as an independent organization. The contemporary Left can be a rather inhospitable place for anti-imperialists and those who gravitate toward an old-Left focus on class, and abandoning such people to the Right or consigning them to the political wilderness is a terrible strategy.

    Mild typo in the last paragraph of the first section perhaps? “I wrote against anti-imperialism for years…” sounds like an unintentional double negative.

  7. jeff montanye
    April 6, 2021 at 23:19

    imo you, johnstone, did not write “against anti-imperialism,” you wrote against imperialism.

  8. Tobin Sterritt
    April 6, 2021 at 23:13

    Good article. I only became familiar with the term a few years ago. When I saw how and where it was being employed and by whom, I knew that a tankie was what I was. I embrace it. Doing so will show that its power is ultimately pyrrhic and its absence open up some room for honest discussion.

  9. April 6, 2021 at 19:58

    I’ll try to make this the last comment.

    There was a typo above. I meant to say every country needs a defense of their Homeland.

    Think Switzerland. That’s a good formula as far as defense goes. Foreign Adventures, not only fail to protect the Homeland they weaken and ultimately destroy the Homeland. I’m laughing to myself you’re using that word homeland which is come to have a sort of meaning which I hope I’m not implying. I’m not a trump voter duh. But there’s only so many words in the English language. I think y’all got my point

  10. April 6, 2021 at 19:55

    I was using speech recognition on that last comment so there are few typos there.

    but I think the point was made.

    The neocon imperialist agenda, has nothing to do with protecting the US Mainland or its citizens either directly or indirectly.

    In fact the energy that is wasted in that endeavor undermines the very safety that they claim to be working towards.

    The neocon imperialist agenda is about violence aggression, domination and control.

    It serves the interests of the 1%, the super rich and of international corporations. Intimidation via military means has been a method of getting rich for many centuries.

    We need to stop being on the defensive and get into these people’s faces! Ask him who the hell are you to sell out the country that you live in this way! How dare you call me anyting you are a traitor.

    Every Nation including the United States doesneed a defense of their homeland of course. Complete complete pacifism with no military isn’t going to work. However a strong appropriate military that is designed to defend the country is one thing, imperialism designed with the aims that I talked about above is another. That kind of imperialism is wrong it is immoral it is disgusting it can bankrupt or will bankrupt the country oh, and those who peddle it need to be identified for what they are:


  11. Paul
    April 6, 2021 at 19:53

    Interesting but how is this any different than other groups including liberals and the Cancel Culture they tend to favor today?

    • firstpersoninfinite
      April 7, 2021 at 15:08

      Read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and you’ll know.

  12. Litchfield
    April 6, 2021 at 19:51

    What the heck is a “utopia prepper”? Sounds kind of like “tankie” to me.
    Mightn’t there be a reasonable term for whatever “utopia prepper” is supposed to mean?

  13. April 6, 2021 at 19:46

    I think it’s time for progressives to go on the attack and stop being on the defensive.

    I have a word that we can throw at them right here. A word that describes what they are. A word that describes a person who betrays the interests of his country and his countrymen. Who betrays their interests, their needs for instance for healthcare for infrastructure, and even their need for defense of their own country. A person who betrays that for anything else is called a traitor.

    Most of these neocons and imperialists are traitors. We need to start using that term because that is what they are.

    The American public properly informed would never in a million years go along with their program. Their program is the violent subjugation and domination of various groups around the world to serve the interests of rich people and corporations.

    The word for people who push that agenda is traitor.

    If we want to discuss a defense of the US mainland, fine Bring it on I’m actually a defense policy nerd in my spare time. Imperialism has nothing to do with defending you or me. Nothing to do with it zero NADA zip. It has to do with violent subjugation of people all over the world who will be fodder to make rich people and American corporations even richer.

    Those who push this agenda or Traitors. Those who lie about phony weapons of mass destruction are traitors. Those who lie about sarin gas in Syria are traitors. Go in the dictionary and look up the definition of traitor.

    So let’s stop being on the defensive and go right after them! Their agenda could ruin the United States of America, could get a lot more people killed, and it has nothing to do with protecting you or me.

    I would love to debate Max boot. I consider him another traitor. They talk as if their agenda is protecting the United States. Crap absolutely not. They are traitors and Liars who is interests are violence, domination and the prestige that people get by perpetrating those things against weaker people.

    Note that I am proudly identifying who I am!

    Many of the neocon imperialist are cowards.

    My message to Max boot: I will debate you anytime.

  14. Meremark
    April 6, 2021 at 16:27

    Adding from observation, another tell of “imperial [imperious] narrative manager,” when seen, or, suspected, is they were born in 1984-98, (by your estimation). Also, ‘narrative’ being ‘managed’ is written (lit. or sym.) in indelible tatts. Same group, (generation).

    Tankies were ‘peaceniks’ in hippie days.

    It seemed logical to me that life opposes war imperium. And there’s a word for that: Peace. Life likes peace. And peaceniks. It didn’t seem to be an insult. Peacenik — sign me up.

    Tankies? ‘Thankee, Mother Nature, for rainbow of us.’ Amen.

    • Gene Poole
      April 7, 2021 at 07:43

      Peaceniks…. On my campus we got called “peace creeps.”

  15. firstpersoninfinite
    April 6, 2021 at 13:47

    Any somnambulist like Noah Smith, mouthing the words of a fake empire in their dreams, never seem to remember simple facts: like the Clinton administration pushing through the trade deals which opened China to our markets with little restraint in the first place. They weren’t complaining then and they’re not complaining now, which totally negates any argument they may make on the subject of China. Meanwhile, Caitlin Johnstone’s catalog of words used to push the nihilistic standards of American Empire ring entirely true. Great article and worth remembering going forward.

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