“Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.” – Edward Bernays
In today’s so-called democratic society, propaganda is viewed as a tool used by ambivalent dictators to brainwash the masses and to exercise complete control over the population, turning the people into mindless automata, lightly wrenching them from their critical faculties and diverting their attention so that “stability” can be maintained indefinitely.
However, the above is much more a description of how propaganda is utilized in a democratic society than a totalitarian regime. Totalitarian governments have one tool at their disposal that democratic governments have to a far lesser extent: force.
Brutal dictatorships don’t need propaganda to coerce public opinion. They can break out the hammer if anyone gets any funny ideas.
But in more democratic societies, ingenious methods must be devised to shape public opinion. And, as technology becomes more and more sophisticated, so do the methods of propagandists, or what we call today the “mainstream media” and the “public relations industry.”
Aldous Huxley was far ahead of his time on this issue.
Quite troubled by the work of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, Huxley saw the tools being used to confuse and coerce as increasingly effective, and in his book Brave New World Revisited, he explored how propaganda and other forms of distraction are creating a mindless populous, one open to being manipulated by fear and base emotions rather than correct information and rational discourse.
The result is precisely what Edward Bernays desired: A society that focused on achieving contentment through consumption of material goods, a society of individuals who is happy so long as it gets the next must-have item from the market.
And, of course, those who are content with satisfaction through material goods will be docile and careless, not willing to bother themselves with what is going on in the world, and indeed what is going on in their own country.
“[The Founding Fathers] did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
It’s scary to think that Huxley was worried about overwhelming distractions during his time, a time when distractions were only in their infantile phase, nowhere close to the level which distractions have reached today.
In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this appetite…Christmas came once a year, feasts were ‘solemn and rare,’ there few readers and very little to read.
For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment – from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions.
But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema.
Add the internet and video games to the above, and the picture is complete. No one cares about what the U.S. is doing overseas when their day is filled with “gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment.”
At this moment I am resisting the temptation to open a new tap, check Facebook and Twitter, email, “maybe watch a Youtube video and just finish your work later?” my brain suggests every minute or so.
It may sound overly cynical and conspiratorial to claim that these forms of distraction are wittingly used by the government to subdue the population, but this, in my opinion, is irrelevant. Whether or not the government has a hand in the entertainment industry is beside the point: It is working in their favor, whether this was their intention or not.
People no longer care about the suffering of the world, the erosion of civil liberties, oppression, endless war; they care about getting their next fix.
For a truly democratic society to be plausible even in a theoretical sense, one must assume that the public has access to information (correct information) which will help them to make informed decisions.
However, in so-called democratic societies today, particularly in the United States and Britain, the media has become so inundated with information that is either incorrect or irrelevant, a combination of falsehood and distraction, that it is no longer serving its function.
Beyond presenting false information, so much newsworthy information is omitted, so much so that those who rely on major media outlets are not able to form an accurate and complete picture of the society in which they live.
In their propaganda today’s dictators rely for the most part on repetition, suppression and rationalization – the repetition of catchwords which they wish to be accepted as true, the suppression of facts which they wish to be ignored, the arousal and rationalization of passions which may be used in the interests of the Party or the State.
Today’s media has mastered the art of the soundbite.
Hours-long debates conversations, which are the bare minimum for getting even a cursory grasp on a given issue, are disregarded today: just listen to the 30 second-long, emotionally-charged monologue at the end of your favorite Fox News or CNN or MSNBC segment, which takes place between commercials, and you have all the information you need to be satisfied.
The news media is now a form of advertisement in and of itself.
They sell war, they sell opinions, and they sell political candidates. The media’s job, in the words of Walter Lippmann which were popularized by Noam Chomsky, is to manufacture the consent of the public.
The political merchandisers appeal only to the weaknesses of voters, never to their potential strength. They make no attempt to educate the masses into becoming fit for self-government; they are content merely to manipulate and exploit them.
Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance.
The personality of the candidate and the way he is projected by the advertising experts are the things that really matter.
All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy. The great issues of the day must be dealt with in five minutes at the most, and preferably (since the audience will be eager to pass on to something a little livelier than inflation or the H-bomb) in sixty seconds flat.
The methods now being used to merchandize the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.
The public, in the eyes of people like Lippmann, is a “bewildered herd” that must be controlled by a “specialized class,” a small class of intellectuals who know precisely what the people want, even if they don’t know it yet.
The masses are too stupid from the perspective of the elite class, so they must be rounded up and told what to believe, because they wouldn’t have the capacity to come to the correct conclusions on their own.
And anyone who falls outside this spectrum of “acceptable opinion” is not to be heard.
Not only should they be ignored, but they should be “attacked” or “shouted-down,” because “the masses are always convinced that ‘right is one the side of the active aggressor.'”
The demagogic propagandist must therefore be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white.
This was done particularly well during the build up to the Iraq War: those who opposed the war were accused of sympathizing with terrorists, or they were otherwise painted as anti-American, weak, soft, and not to be trusted.
The media has become supremely efficient at appealing to emotion over reason.
They, along with whichever administration in power, do their best to induce fear and anger in order to drum up their next international project, whether it is the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua or the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Propaganda in favor of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God and the most cynical kind of Realpolitik is treated as a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.
What to Do
Propaganda and various distractions have become “the opium of the people”: They make the public docile and obedient, and therefore less motivated to desire any kind of meaningful change.
So what did Huxley suggest that we do about this? How do we wade through the mountains of distractions and propaganda in order to see the world as it really is?
There aren’t any secret or particularly exciting answers. It really comes down to hard work and vigilance, a willingness to question everything and to find the right answers, even if they are uncomfortable or dissatisfying.
Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.
We can’t reasonably hope to be well-informed on all issues, but we can do our best to seek truth with the means available.