Bernard Lown, MD
If transformed into a Martian, I would be in utter awe of the power of the US media to shape global opinion. At no time was this more evident than during the Cold War, when the US, time and time again, bested the vast Soviet propaganda machine. The American media convinced the world that the Soviets were ahead in sophisticated nuclear weaponry, that they were outspending us, and that they were planning a first strike. In short, the Soviets were driving the nuclear arms race while Washington was doing all in its power to halt and reverse it.
As a close observer of the international political scene, with entry to a number of key Kremlin policymakers, I found the converse to be true. America’s overpowering drumbeat was the pacesetter in the cacophonous rhythm of the nuclear danse macabre. Had this been a pre-atomic-age arms race, no clever PR could have concealed the overwhelming asymmetry of the competition. With the colossal destructiveness of even a single hydrogen bomb, “superiority” and “inferiority” were irrelevant descriptors of military power. This reality was crisply captured by the prevailing acronym, MAD, for “mutually assured destruction,” to describe the strategic doomsday reality of those perilous days.
From the very outset of the atomic age, the US aimed to monopolize nuclear weapons in order to maintain its global dominance. To do so, the American public had to be sold a benign, even felicitous, view of the atom. First and foremost it required blocking the dissemination of the unspeakable genocidal horror inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, for seven years after the atomic bombings American occupation authorities in Japan prohibited survivors from circulating their stories; they withheld medical reports, news articles, poems, and even private letters depicting the gruesome effects. (1, 2) Over the next 40 years the United States engaged in the complete suppression of all films shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (3)
The irony was diabolical. Knowledge of how to make a hydrogen bomb was in the open literature. (4) At the same time, the public was denied information on the adverse medical consequences of radioactivity, with data on radiation exposure discouraged or classified. Much propaganda pervaded our media to lend the emerging nuclear industry a positive spin. In promoting “Atoms for Peace” the government told us that energy would become as cheap and free as the air we breathe, and some nuclear scientists even touted the beneficence of radiation in advancing evolution. (2) If not, who did the touting? Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” even proposed renaming the rad, the standard measure of radiation exposure, as the “sunshine unit.” (2)
Costly underground nuclear testing kept the competition racing for ever more sophisticated and deadly nuclear weapons in the hope of achieving an illusory technological dominance. Antinuclear movements focused on the cessation of testing as a first step on the long, arduous road toward achieving nuclear abolition. Whenever I told friends and patients about the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which together with the Soviet physician Eugene Chazov I helped found, the invariable question was whether we were getting our message through to ordinary Russians. The prevailing view was that the Soviet totalitarian government kept its people in abysmal ignorance of the nuclear arms race that Moscow was propelling, while we Americans were well informed. But the reality was quite the opposite. IPPNW views and publications were widely circulated in the USSR, though nearly totally blocked in the US. It was the American public that was insulated from our message.
This was brought home to me forcefully in 1982, when IPPNW was able to organize a spectacular TV broadcast in the Soviet Union while unable to show the same program in the US. The participants were three American and three Soviet physicians who engaged in an hour-long, unprecedented free-ranging discussion about the nuclear peril. We covered the whole gamut of the medical consequences without shielding the Soviet military from criticism. The session was taped in Moscow to be shown during a weekend prime time slot. This allowed us to courier the taped telecast to New York and offer it free of charge to American networks as an exclusive to be shown before it was broadcast in the USSR. Americans television channels strain at the opportunity for a scoop. Here was the chance for a great scoop, not against a rival, but against the archenemy of our country. We were summarily rejected by every network we approached.
In the USSR the program was telecast uncensored on all channels at prime time on a Saturday evening with the highest audience concentration, and repeated a week later. The telecast was watched by over 100 million Soviet viewers. (2)
Some months later PBS broadcast a truncated version of this program moderated by Hodding Carter III, a journalist and former State Department official under President Carter. While the Soviet broadcast permitted physicians to express their opinions fully and without criticism by party apparatchiki, this was not the case in the US. PBS had former Moscow correspondents provide a perspective so that callow American audiences were not misled by gullible physicians who had been ensnared by consummately clever Russian propagandists.
When attending a conference in Washington DC some months after the broadcast, I accidentally encountered Hodding Carter. I was taken aback by his apologizing to me, since this was the first time we had ever met. He expressed shame that instead of presenting our important broadcast in full, PBS insisted on merely broadcasting a segment with “appropriate” commentary to make sure that the public didn’t conclude that the Soviet population had been adequately informed about the nuclear issue.
In about 30 visits to Moscow over two decades, I had extensive contact with members of the resident US press corps. Many of these correspondents were poorly informed about the Soviet Union and followed the party line laid down by the US Embassy. Few were fluent in Russian or had a grasp of the country’s troubled history. Few seemed concerned about the escalating nuclear arms race and the threat it presented for human survival. A number of them sounded as though their mission was to stoke the embers of the Cold War as avant-garde crusaders against the Communist evil empire.
One of the correspondents was John Burns, the New York Times Moscow bureau chief. I met him in 1982 when he covered the IPPNW’s press conference after the historic TV taping. While his questions were neither searching nor even-handed, compared with his colleagues he appeared open minded, if not quite liberal. Thereafter paying attention to his reporting from Moscow, I concluded that he did not distinguish himself from the rest of the American press corps. Like the others he demonized the Soviet Union without providing an in-depth context of the enormous tragedy inflicted by WWII. It left a decimated, fractured society, where no family emerged unscathed, no individual without a tragic memory. Nothing was reported of their dread of nuclear arms, nor of their eagerness to reach a nuclear accord with Americans.
Sometime in 1984 we met at a small dinner party in Moscow. By this time I had my fill of Burns and his Cold War rhetoric. During the social chit-chat I burst forth with something to this effect: “If relations between the superpowers further deteriorate and result in nuclear war, the remaining survivors would probably conduct a Nuremberg-like trial. Indubitably among the defendants would be members of the America’s press corps in Moscow. You, John Burns, would be tried, found guilty, convicted for inciting an unprecedented world catastrophe.” He was momentarily taken aback by this unseemly, unprovoked assault. “In the final analysis,” I continued, “you have contributed mightily to the international climate of distrust and enmity. You have inflamed America’s image of the ‘evil empire,’ which makes a nuclear confrontation not only possible but perhaps inevitable.” Reflecting his proper British upbringing, he did not become abusive, nor did he grow irate, nor was he even visibly ruffled. An intense but not overheated discussion ensued on the imminence of nuclear war and its consequences. I thought I would never hear from Burns again.
Astonishingly, the following day he telephoned proposing an interview. Burns said that our conversation gave him a sleepless night. When I suggested that there was little likelihood that the Times would print such an article, he laughed at naïveté commenting that I had become infected with the paranoia of my Soviet friends. The interview was in our suite in the Sovietskaya Hotel. Burns informed me that it was the very suite where he had interviewed the Reverend Billy Graham.
Burns spent several hours obtaining an exhaustive story, which he intended for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. At the end he insisted on photographing me posing at the Kremlin and at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Since I was returning to the States the next day, to expedite publication, he entrusted me with the roll of film to be mailed on arrival in New York. Though there is no reason to doubt that Burns wrote the intended article, it was never published.
While one can point to a dereliction of an individual reporter or to the censoring of a particular news event, such isolated circumstances hardly account for the problems I have encountered. The news cycle has become an unceasing deluge. How are important events tracked to provide the ordinary person with a clear perspective of unfolding history? How is endless trivia filtered to evolve a coherent story line from the chaos presented by the myriad of happenings? Who does the tracking and from whose perspective, and whose interest is thereby being served? Do the power elites control what is being reported in order to shape the opinions of the multitudes necessary for a political climate congruent with their interests?
Pondering these same questions, George Orwell had this to say:
“One of the most extraordinary things is that there is almost no official censorship, and yet actually nothing that is actually offensive to the England governing class gets into print, at least in any place where large numbers of people are likely to read it. The position is summed up in the lines by (I think) Hilaire Belloc:”
‘You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! The British journalist;
But seeing what the man will
There is no reason to.’*
My first encounter with New York Times foreign correspondents was in 1946; the place was Prague, then still a vibrant democracy. The occasion was the first congress of the just-founded International Union of Students (IUS). In the aftermath of WWII, the aim of the IUS was to give university students worldwide a voice in restoring democratic educational institutions. Its main objective was to prevent further wars and oppose racism, anti-Semitism, colonialism, and the grinding inequalities of the previous social order. The 25 US delegates were the best and the brightest selected from our leading universities and social student groups, both religious and secular. Optimism reigned that students from East and West could make a difference. I was proud to represent American medical students and young doctors in training.
At this congress I met Albion Ross, the New York Times bureau chief in central Europe, stationed in Vienna. He was covering the opening of the IUS Congress. To paraphrase Ross’s words at our first encounter, he came not to report, but merely to observe an assemblage of “dangerously romantic Western youths about to be Pied Pipered by experienced Communist apparatchiki masquerading as students.” Cloaked in a loose-fitting epauletted trench coat, he conveyed an impression of being on a mission other than journalism. Supremely cynical, seemingly contemptuous of human beings, palpably anti-Semitic, world weary, this jaded middle-aged man was shaping American postwar understanding of a turbulent Europe after one of its greatest killing sprees. He was not interested in anything ongoing at the Congress. He thought it a tragic joke that we impressionable youth permitted ourselves to be manipulated by the Soviets.
Many decades have passed since the encounter with Ross. While fading memory shadows with uncertainty what we talked about, I clearly remember my visceral disgust of that encounter. He maintained that the leftist American media misinformed a gullible public that the Germans were the enemies of mankind, when in fact it was the raping, looting, unstoppable Communist hordes from the East. The Red Army constituted the overwhelming threat to Western civilization. Not ashamed of his black marketeering in democratic Czechoslovakia, he proudly bragged how much he had obtained for a carton of American cigarettes, a treasure to be bartered for cameras, costly jewelry, and precious art. He disdainfully referred to the Masaryk-Benes democratic government of Czechoslovakia as “Communist Front patsies.” Needless to say, he did not report much if anything of the remarkable assemblage of world student leaders in Prague.
My next encounter with the works of Albion Ross was in Yugoslavia. After the IUS Congress, a friend and I visited Belgrade, where we encountered a number of enraged correspondents from the US and Britain. They were dousing their anger in slivovice, the native equivalent of vodka, and their fury was targeted against that “wop LaGuardia.” Fiorello LaGuardia was the great populist mayor of New York City and one of my heroes. Eventually I fathomed the reason for their rage; it related to Albion Ross.
Apparently Ross had visited Belgrade to write a series for the Times on Tito’s Communist regime. At the time Yugoslavia was part of the Soviet bloc. After the first article, he received a cable from Edwin Leland James, managing editor of the New York Times, urging an emphasis on Communist abuses of human rights and misuse of UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) goods for Communist Party recruitment. UNRRA at the time had an unblemished reputation for providing humanitarian assistance to war-torn countries. According to these Belgrade correspondents, the practical-minded Ross felt that if he had to invent, why not do so from the more comfortable and urbane Vienna, rather than from the war-impoverished, God-forsaken village that was then Belgrade.
Ross wrote a damning series of flagrant concoctions about how the Communists used UNRRA goods to improve their image, at the same time ascribing the UNRRA bonanza to the USSR. Presumably Tito claimed the goods had come from war-ravaged Russia, then unable to feed its own starving population.
In fact, we witnessed the contrary of what the New York Times was reporting. In the windows of UNRRA centers in Belgrade, American flags were consistently displayed with portraits of Roosevelt. In a country like Yugoslavia pretending to atheism, FDR was revered as a godlike figure. People we encountered knew that UNRRA goods came from the capitalist USA. On many occasions we were stopped by admiring Yugoslavs, who showed us their UNRRA garments, saying, “USA good.”
Ross’s reportage was too much to swallow even for jaded and cynical Western journalists in Belgrade. They wrote a confidential memo to Fiorello LaGuardia, then the director of UNRRA, detailing Ross’s inventions. To their astonishment, LaGuardia let go with a blast at the Times, citing their allegations and divulging their names. The angry missives availed not a whit. After printing Albion Ross’s series, the New York Times pitched in with a scathing editorial condemning UNRRA. The correspondents were censured by their media employers, and one lost his job. UNRRA was mortally wounded and shortly thereafter unraveled.
While in Belgrade I also met Art Brandel, the New York Times correspondent in Italy, also covering the Balkans. He was a different kettle of fish from Ross, far more gracious and urbane, professing a progressive world outlook and evincing a cynicism condimented with much good humor. As I continued to fret over the Ross fiasco, he counseled me to stop behaving like a Boy Scout. Paraphrasing the paper’s motto at its masthead, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” he asserted that the New York Times printed all the news that fit in.
Brandel was about to get married and was planning his wedding in Italy, to be financed by 120 cartons of cigarettes, equivalent to a substantial fortune. The cigarettes, he confessed, were a “reward for good deeds” from the American Embassy. He would not divulge the good deeds deserving such a sumptuous reward. I got an inkling when he received a telephone call, in my presence, from the American Embassy. The tenor of the conversation made evident that he was being guided in formulating his news report.
Two years later, in 1948, my wife and I were in Warsaw when we encountered Sidney Gruson, the Times’ foreign correspondent, later its foreign editor and executive vice president. He was debonair, polished, and worldly. He indicated that in the postwar world there was no room for a genuine socialist like himself. He despised brutal Stalinism, which was the underpinning of Communism. At the same time he had no stomach for rapacious, consumer-driven capitalism. He expounded on his philosophic dilemma, ultimately relating it to the human condition. He was not certain that humanity deserved to be saved, an emotion engendered in any civilized human being who was compelled to live in present-day Warsaw. He continued that the theory of evolution was convincingly confirmed in Poland, “the ultimate example of stunted Darwinian development.” The Poles were the embodiment of the “ape man.”
I have focused on the New York Times as it is America’s newspaper of record, widely regarded as the embodiment of journalistic excellence. In the English-speaking world its prestige is unequaled and its credibility unmatched. For many of its readers, daily events have not occurred until reported in the Times. For upper-class and intellectual elites the NYT conveys sacred verities equivalent to what religious Christians or Jews derive from perusing the Bible or Muslims from the Koran. It is widely believed that the NYT has enabled a large public to exert informed heft on political decisions and raised the Fourth Estate as a veritable branch of government.
My 50-year experience in the antinuclear movement has provided a very opposite view of the role of the New York Times and the media. It is more consonant with the view of Bill Moyers, who stated that “the Fourth Estate is the fifth column of democracy.” I am convinced that the prime role of the media is to serve the bipartisan policies of a two-party system that has grown to be a single party with two right wings. The media are far more important in controlling the public than the power exercised by the myriad of services working to preserve the established order. The effectiveness of the media derives from welding a tacit complicity between victims and their victimizers. A widely accepted belief is that the US government serves the will of the people and that the media are stalwart guardians of the people’s right to know. Some left-wing progressives underestimate the information apparat by referring to the “lobotomized media.” Since mindlessness of the public is the very intent of the media, theirs is no small achievement, hardly deserving the pejorative of “brainless.”
To censor without censors requires a consummate magician’s legerdemain. It involves six dominant practices, namely:
1. Controlling the language of discourse.
2. Erasing the past.
3. Selectively covering only certain events and exercising the art of
4. Highlighting a culture of violence.
5. Presenting information as entertainment (infotainment).
6. Playing on people’s emotions.
I shall merely highlight these issues, each encyclopedic in scope. Mark Twain once commented, “Let me make the superstitions of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws and songs either.” Language is intended to promote interacting, communicating, and bonding with fellow human beings. Instead it is used to obfuscate, to distract, to confuse, and to promote indifference to the public commons. Widely entertained superstitions are shaped through the manipulation of language. None has been more adept at this than the military. During WWII the War Department was renamed the Defense Department. I doubt whether it could have garnered 25 trillion dollars in public funds since 1945 without having altered its image from war making to defending democratic values. The war in Afghanistan is designated with the cheerleading phrase “Operation Enduring Freedom.” During the Cold War the so-called defense intellectuals bandied about such terms as “nuclear exchange” as though we and the Russians were about to present each other gifts rather than inflicting horrific death on multitudes. The most deadly weapon ever developed, the MX missile, was named the Peacekeeper. The slaughter of millions of civilians was neutered by terms such as “collateral damage.” This phrase is now frequently used in reports of the victims of our robotic drones raining death on women and children in Afghanistan. “Humanitarian intervention” is the designation for the presumed defense of human rights in countries with rich oil reserves.
The word “torture” is censored by US media when practiced by our military or our secret services. Substituted are soporifics such as “enhanced interrogation.” Numerous other anodynes are used, such as “stress positions” for being hung by the wrists or forced to stand for hours on end; “sleep and dietary management programs” for sleep deprivation and starvation; “waterboarding” for near drowning. The outsourcing of torture by the CIA to brutal regimes is designated with the incomprehensible castrato term “extraordinary rendition.” The victims of torture are labeled “high-value targets.” The word “terrorist” is reserved for Muslims. The recent slaughter of mostly young people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik was reported by the media to have been masterminded by a jihadist terrorist until he was identified as a right-wing ideologue. The media then changed the descriptor from “terrorist” to “madman.”
But Orwellian verbiage is the least of it. Convincing Americans that we live in a classless society is far more noxious. Trade unions and corporations are invariably portrayed by the media as exerting equal economic heft in buying political favor. The public is persuaded that a majority of social advances stem from innovations promoted by the private sector. Left out from that reckoning are the transcontinental railroad, the Interstate Highway System, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Institutes of Health, the moon landing, space exploration, radar, GPS, the Internet, vaccinations that have eradicated the scourge of polio, childhood immunizations that have eliminated numerous deadly disease, and on and on: All these are products of government largesse. In my lifetime the singular factor that most advanced the public health resulted from the enactment of Medicare. Social Security was key in facilitating the emergence of a powerful middle class. The Clean Air Act reduced bronchial disease and asthma. I have barely scraped the surface. What about the Clean Water Act or the FDA, and what about the glory of our national parks? Government interventions have improved the quality and the life expectancy of every American. Yet what prevails among a large segment of the public is the idiotic mantra of President Ronald Reagan: that the government is not the solution but the problem.
This of course intertwines with the second key principle of media manipulation: namely, selective erasures of our past. Otherwise how is one to explain the ignoring of all of the above and the readiness of the public to buy in to the absurd banalities of Reagan, the General Electric pointman? It is far worse than having forgotten our past: Most have never learned it. The media have a strong assist from a failed educational system. Orwell captured the essence in his formulation that “those who control the past, control the future; and those who control the present control the past.” No better way to control something deemed noxious by those in power than its utter erasure.
A current deplorable example of forgetting the past is the self-immolation inflicted by Obama on his presidency by constantly declaiming the need to look forward, not backward. He thereby assumed responsibility for Bush’s destructive legacies such as the economic crisis, the mounting deficit, the infringement of the civil rights of citizens, the fiscal burden of endless wars, the hurtling climate catastrophe, the degradation of the environment, and so on. By erasing this sordid, even criminal, past, Obama positioned himself as the main culprit for the economic meltdown he inherited. Completely forgotten from the collective memory are the numerous past examples demonstrating that without government-imposed regulation, capitalism rampages like a mating elephant, destroying all in its wake.
Among the tools used to control the flow of information, none is more effective than selective reporting. Black holes, non-persons, and non-events do exist in democratic societies without a need to imprison dissidents in psychiatric hospitals or in Siberia-like gulags. It is a powerful device. In Chomsky’s words, “People don’ t know what is happening, and they don’t even know that they don’t know.” People then don’t feel deceived, they don’t question what they don’t know, and they are most easily led and misled.
From personal experience with the doctors’ antinuclear movement, I learned that we could not gain public visibility however hard we tried. We believed that if we went on Soviet TV, helped free Russian dissidents, met with their leaders, persuaded them to change their nuclear course, we would grab headlines. We did all these without generating a minuscule blurb.
In 1983 I received a letter from Yuri Andropov, then head of the Soviet government, indicating a willingness to yield on contentious nuclear differences with Washington. (2) The foreign editor of the Washington Post expressed a readiness to publish if I would divulge the state of Andropov’s health. Needless to say, this important overture from Moscow was not communicated to the American people. The following year, 1984, when Konstantin Chernenko presented the very same proposal, it was splashed on the front pages of newspapers and highlighted on TV. Why the difference? 1984 was a presidential election year. The powers in Washington wished to reassure an electorate frightened about a possible nuclear confrontation with the Russians.
A very opposite exercise is to keep a news item blaring throughout a 24/7 news cycle. The art of repetition is the underpinning of PR, the essence of education, the key to keeping a population misinformed, distracted, and ready to act against its own self-interest. This principle accounts for the constant self-satisfied bleating by media moguls about their being guardians of freedom of the press and for the pretense that they provide Americans with a clear and unvarnished view of the world. In fact they do publish everything. Thereby they have mastered the art of lying by telling the truth only once. If a truth is not repeated, it hasn’t happened. Thus they have their principled cake while having already consumed it.
Violence, wars, and natural and manmade disasters are the grist of what flows through the news cycle. While humane deeds overwhelm brutal misdeeds, the latter are emphasized and the former ignored. Attention to the news would promptly convince the visiting Martian of having entered a primitive jungle.[[OK to add? At first “jungle” brought up images of green trees]] This accent on violence serves a political purpose. A frightened populace is less questioning and more submissive. When one fears other human beings, one cannot cooperate for a common good. This is the road to ever-growing alienation, resulting in a sense of individual powerlessness that leads to community paralysis.
Increasingly the mainstream media aim to entertain, to divert and dumb down news for the public. This practice is hardly new. Panem et circenses (bread and circuses) were used to placate and stultify the impoverished masses of ancient Rome. Now we have infotainment. The endless flow of trivia infantilizes conversation, resulting in what a New Yorker cartoon (5) aptly characterized as the “Small Talk Limbo” of a typical interchange:
“Is it going to rain?”
“Yesterday was sunny.”
“Could rain today, though.”
“It’s cloudy enough.”
This sludge of human detritus flows endlessly. Diversion, growing stupefaction, and irrelevance displace solidarity-building conversations for achieving common ends. In the words of Ralph Nader, “Media is a weapon of mass distraction.”
The sixth practice I have listed is by far the most effective and by far the most diabolical. It mobilizes deep psychological cravings. The new thinking emerged during WWI. Two intense crises confronted American capitalism: the Bolshevik Revolution and the inadequacy of consumer demand for the enormously expanded productive capacity that modern capitalism unleashed.
An army of 12 million could not protect a seemingly almighty czar from frenzied, discontented hordes. The new social order of Communism sent a frisson of terror through ruling elites worldwide. It raised the dreaded possibility that capitalism was not forever. Urgently on the agenda was how mass democracy could cope with the potential chaos and destructiveness embedded in the angry masses.
Rather than looking at economic inequality and class oppression as sources of social instability, elites ascribed those to uncontrollable forces and human nature. Sigmund Freud’s theories provided substantial stimulus to such thinking. Deeply buried in all human beings are powerful instincts, he asserted. These are aggressive and destructive impulses propelled by suppressed erotic drives that reflect our hidden animal past. (6) New social institutions were required to manage the perverse thoughts of the masses.
In World War I, the first coordinated propaganda ministry, called the Ministry of Information, was established by the British. A primary aim was to persuade America to enter the war. Shortly thereafter the Woodrow Wilson administration responded by setting up its own propaganda agency, designated the Committee on Public Information. In a remarkably successful campaign in which intellectuals played a key role, the public was goaded to support entry into the destructive and purposeless European charnel factory. A relatively pacifist nation was transformed, seemingly overnight, into raving hysteria against anything German. It reached a point where the Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play the music of Bach. (7) Public opinion could be readily shaped even before the advent of radio, television, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, and the like.
The theories of Freud, gaining currency after WWI, provided a powerful psychological underpinning for the climate of unease about the raging masses. Perhaps even more influential than Freud in shaping America’s 20th-century cultural landscape was his nephew, Edward Bernays. He was among the first to recognize the use of his uncle’s theories of human nature to control the mind of the masses. Bernays realized that the hidden irrational psychological forces could be manipulated through advertising and the media to serve the needs of big business. Bernays showed American corporations the vast potential market of the lower classes. The fundamental paradigm of their unconscious desires needed to be changed Working people could begin to crave things they did not need if mass-produced goods were linked to their unconscious desires. In fact, by transforming their mental outlook into that of the very rich, who acquired what they wanted, not what they needed, consumption could be multiplied a thousandfold or more.
Where would the poor get the wealth to live like the wealthy? The answer was straightforward: by mortgaging their future through debt, with banks as the facilitator providing ready credit. But wouldn’t such a system periodically crash? Yes, indeed. The great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter characterized “creative destruction” as the very essence of capitalism. But that is the virtue of capitalism; futurity is not in its genome. It does not worry about tomorrow. The NOW like the greedy I, is multiplied exponentially. Immediate and maximized return on investment is all that matters.
Bernays promoted a revolution that, even now more than in his day, shapes what we think and do. He named his agency public relations, eschewing the word “propaganda,” with its malodorous suggestion of manipulation. He showed his genius in one of his earliest campaigns. The aim was to hook women on smoking, at the time socially abhorrent. Bernays turned to Dr. A.A. Brill, doyen of psychoanalysis in the US, for an insight into the meaning of cigarettes for women. The explanation Brill offered was that the cigarette was symbolic of a penis and thus of male sexual power. Bernays then set in motion a campaign to characterize women’s smoking as a challenge to masculine power.
At the May 1918 Easter suffragist parade in New York City, Bernays employed a large number of young women to carry hidden cigarettes. At a precise moment they were to light up in unison what he labeled their “Torches of Freedom.” He thereby connected them to the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch. The media, previously informed by Bernays of the unprecedented event, were out in droves. The next day newspapers in America and beyond widely covered the break with tradition. This singular event facilitated the social acceptance of smoking. Sale of cigarettes among women skyrocketed. Twenty-five years later as a medical student I witnessed the tragic consequences. For the first time women were catching up with men in dying from lung cancer.
Bernays brought to the corporate table a new culture of understanding how the human mind operates. The lesson was clear: People could be persuaded to behave irrationally. Products could be promoted to generate an emotional response that compelled their possession. In the new mass culture a person was to be defined by what he acquired. The inner sense of self and social status were to be judged by a wardrobe, the dimensions of a television screen, the size of a home, the make of an automobile, etc. The result was a colossal shift from buying items essential for living to accumulating largely purposeless possessions. In order to maintain the system of mass consumption, obsolescence was incorporated into products so that replacing them was no longer an option. In short, the masses, through constant advertising, internalized the mentality of being rich without having wealth.
The implication of the new culture of accumulation went far beyond consumption of goods and services. The cultural sleight of hand skewed politics to the right. If one thinks like the rich, one is likely to support the agenda of the rich. One dissociates from solidarity with working people and evinces a distaste for the welfare state. One opposes big government that becomes big by regulating the powerful and helping the powerless. This new mentality of consumer culture magically abolishes classes. Has anyone heard an American politician refer to the working class? It in part also accounts for why the two dominant parties have grown largely indistinguishable.
In the 1920s, when the above was being hatched, Walter Lippmann, the leading pundit of his day, argued that if human beings were driven by unconscious irrational forces, it was essential to rethink the very justification of democratic institutions. A new elite was required, involving the better educated members of the community, to manage the unconscious feelings of the masses. In the words of Bernays, elites needed to utilize modern PR to “engineer consent.” Sating the masses with consumer goods was one aspect of control. The media shaping the public agenda was another element of engineered consent. Within such a social arrangement, news is what is censored; everything else is advertising.
There is extraordinary stability to such a system. The government appears above the fray in feeding the public information. It is the surrogate corporate media that provide the deluge of “fair and balanced” information. Indeed America has a far better propaganda apparat than ever achieved by totalitarian regimes. In dictatorial governments the public doesn’t trust the news. Not so in the USA. I have always marveled that a Harvard professor and a Boston taxi driver will share similar views on the major foreign policies of our day. Most impressive is the power of the media to persuade the masses to support causes against their own well-being and deepest interests.
In the words of William Yeats:
“We had fed the heart on fantasies
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
1.Del Tredici R. <em>At Work in the Field of the Bomb.</em> New York: Harper and Row, 1987 Preface.
2. Lown B. Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.
3. Mitchell Gregg. “The Great Hiroshima Cover-Up,” The Nation, August 3, 2011.
4. Morland H. “The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It and Why We’re Telling It,” The Progressive, November 1979.
5. New Yorker cartoon drawing by Jack Ziegler, May 30, 2011.
6. The Century of the Self, a documentary film by Adam Curtis, BBC Four, 2002.
7. Chomsky N. Collateral Language. Z Magazine, 2003, 48
* Actually the quote preceded Belloc and was coined by Hubert Wolfe (1886-1940), cited in The Oxford Minidictionary of Quotations.