Man is essentially more rational than irrational when he has access to adequate knowledge. When issues are clearly understood, a generally sound judgment is in evidence. The tragic fact remains, however, that he still lives in a world which seldom allows him the full information he needs to display consistently rational behavior. . . . The American man in the street is, as Childs contends, the most propagandized person of any nation . . . (Meier 1950:162)
Nor do other nations that have come increasingly under the influence of the United States have room for complacency and future posts will look at instances where American propaganda techniques have become established in other countries.
Propaganda in a democracy has been most commonly channeled through commercial advertising and public relations.
In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that ‘advertising is peculiarly American’, but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that ‘Hitler … employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilising advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost’ (Dudley 1947:106, 108, cited in Carey 1997:14).
Traditional media deployed: film, radio, TV, even comic strips, and now, of course, our new communication technologies daily vying for our attention.
Recall Jacques Ellul’s definition from the previous post to keep in mind what is at work through these media:
Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.
There are certain characteristics of American society that has made it particularly fertile ground for the creation of durable emotional symbols charged with power to manipulate public attitudes.
This is a world-view dominated by the powerful symbols of the Satanic and the Sacred (darkness and light). A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic. (Carey 1997:15)
Another quality is the pragmatic orientation of US society.
This is a preference for action over reflection. If the truth of a belief is to be sought in the consequences of acting on the belief, rather than through a preliminary examination of the grounds for holding it, there will be a tendency to act first and question later (if at all — for once a belief is acted upon the actor becomes involved in responsibility for the consequences and will be disposed to interpret the consequences so that they justify his belief and hence his action). If it is that American culture, compared with most others, values action above reflection, one may expect that condition to favour a Manichean world-view. For acknowledgement of ambiguity, that is, a non-Manichean world where agencies or events may comprise or express any complex amalgam of Good and Evil — demands continual reflection, continual questioning of premises. Reflection inhibits action, while a Manichean world-view facilitates action. On that account action and a Manichean world-view are likely to be more congenial to and to resonate with the cultural preference found in the United States. (Carey 1997:15)
And all too obvious is evangelical religious belief that seems to hold so much of America hostage. This kind of religiously inspired mindset is ideal soil for nourishing the Manichean world-view. I once discussed a book examining the historical origins and contemporary impact of this form of religious thought in Millenarians and Nationalists, a post prompted by my reading of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism by Anatol Lieven. We all know of statistics showing that belief in God, the Devil and Heaven is far higher in the United States than in other highly developed industrial and democratic societies. In recent years belief in God has declined a little but its extent still exceeds comparable countries.
It is not hard to see how this religious framework manifests itself in public views of domestic and foreign policy, not directly through talk of God and the Devil, but through their secular equivalents:
Thus on the one hand an extravagant idealization of the Spirit of America, the Purpose of America, the Meaning of America, the American Way of Life — the transcendent values by which the United States is represented to the world as the Manifest Destiny of the world in Piety and Virtue (see Morgenthau 1960). On the other hand the extravagant negative idealization of Evil secularized in communism/socialism as sui generis, in all places and at all times, malevolent, evil, oppressive, deceitful and destructive of all civilized and humane values. (Carey 1997:16)
None of this is new. Historians and social scientists have long understood these processes. Carey’s work was written well prior the publication date of 1997, certainly no later than the 1970s. But the message is as relevant today as then. The Cold War has come and gone, yet as Professor of Russian and European politics Richard Sakwa points out in his analysis of one of the most serious crisis points today, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, the US acts as if it is Russia’s place to dutifully toe the line and submit to the will of the victor of the Cold War. Regional demographics, history, cultural frictions, independent national interests and so forth are irrelevant. All actions and intents continue to be interpreted through the Manichean prism of good and evil.
The most cursory acquaintance with American political propaganda will suggest that the psychological power of almost all such propaganda derives from a calculated exacerbation of American national sentiments. Notions like the American Way of Life, the Meaning of America, the Spirit of America, become symbols with the irrational power of the Sacred, and from an equally calculated exacerbation of American apprehension about the ‘alien ideology’ of communism and all its allegedly un-American characteristics, communism/socialism, etc., become symbols of the Satanic. So long as these symbol-identifications can be maintained in popular sentiment it is a simple matter to curb popular demand and support for significant reform of the institutions and conditions of American society. By associating welfare provisions and other (selected) government interventions with Socialism/Communism and conversely the Free Enterprise System with Loyalty, Patriotism, Freedom, the American Dream, the American Way of Life, propagandists are doing no more than manipulating appropriate Satanic and Sacred symbols.
Does one recognize echoes of Orwell’s 1984, or echoes of “crimes” “against the Soviet” or “the people” in totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia?
The manipulation of patriotic and nationalist sentiments has, above all else, given American anti-communism its remarkable psychological force as a means of social control. Peacetime ‘patriotic’ hysteria such as characterized the McCarthy period is a phenomenon largely peculiar to the United States among Western countries which have any extended experience with democratic forms of government. Fear of communism as Satanic is largely derived from hypersensitive nationalism. In popular consciousness it comes largely from the representation of communism as threatening the cherished, the secular-sacred idealized ‘American Way’: threatening, in a word, ‘national security’ — a term conceived of as broadly as the Middle Ages conceived of defence of the faith against threats and seductions from heretical ideas and agencies.
As pointed out above, today we have the aftermath of the Cold War where Russia is still viewed as the enemy, only the defeated enemy who must be kept in her place. Additionally we now have, of course, the “fear of terrorism” that is currently enabling the same sorts of social and even legislative controls, not to mention support for or at least quiet acceptance of some bloody foreign ventures. Along with the fear of terrorism has come fear of Islam itself. Even the sight of Arabic script on an airline passenger’s smartphone can cause panic enough to have the passenger removed from the plane.
It is no new notion, of course, that American anti-communism during the postwar decade took on a medieval temper (see Miller 1964; Parenti 1970; Trevor-Roper 1967:53, 93). Nonetheless some illustration in passing may be useful to remind us just how regression toward a superstitious, magical world-view may be induced under the influence of aggravated nationalist faith. In the nineteenth century those who refused to accept the diabolism of old women were pilloried as ‘patrons of witches’ (Trevor-Roper 1967:48). In the decades after 1946 anyone who argued against the diabolical view of communism was likely to be pilloried as ‘soft on communism’ or as a ‘communist fellow-traveller’.
In the sixteenth century witches were regarded as possessed by (that is, as obedient to remote and magical control by) the Devil. In 1955 a reputable American journal that catered to intellectuals editorialized:
‘that [Ho Chi Minh] is our enemy is obvious. He belongs to that particularly dangerous species of men whose nervous system has been rewired to make it obedient to remote control from Moscow’ (‘Who-What-Why’ 1955:8).
We are seeing the same irrational fears and widespread fear of Islam and its relationship with terrorism. Islam itself is seen as a palpable evil with power to possess believers and manoeuvre them to commit mass murder. Recall the fear of Jews in medieval days. To contradict this Manichean view, even with on-the-ground research by professionals, is to invite charges of “making excuses for Islam” or “justifying Islam”, as if saying any contradiction of the black and white belief system is to side with terrorism and threaten the security and even identity of our civilization. This is the kind of irrational totalitarian mentality that we deplored in Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, with the difference that we have not needed it to be imposed on us from above.
I have rambled off the intended theme of propaganda and dwelt more on contemporary manifestations of a particular character of American society that provides such fertile ground for propaganda and manipulation of people for unhealthy ends.
I should at least return to an example of propaganda in action, the manipulation of symbols, before closing this post. The Manichean perspective divides the world into Good and Evil; we wear the white hats and (despite occasional unintended failures) seek to rescue the distressed; they wear the black hats and would hijack the entire world to their evil designs if it were not for our courage. Images of suffering stand at the centre of this battle like the pity-arousing damsel chained to the dragon’s lair. The image of the suffering child takes the place of the damsel in distress and arouses us to righteous action.
To keep it short I’ll quote part of a comment left by Michael here:
The suffering of the people in the terrorist occupied areas of Syria has practically been fetishized by the Western media, while the death toll from terrorist attacks in the government controlled areas of Syria are completely ignored. The names of those killed are not mentioned. Their deaths mean nothing to the Western media, even when they are children. Omran Daqueesh is a household name while the name of Abdullah Issa is unknown. It is sickening.
Notice how Western outrage over the horrific suffering in Syria today is coupled with seething anger directed at Assad (and his current ally Russia). Don’t misunderstand. Assad is a monster. That surely goes without saying. The point is that, as we well know, to show comparable faces of suffering in the West Bank and Gaza, however, and as consistently, would be to stir up passions and accusations of hating America’s ideological and cultural ally, Israel. We would demand equal time for displaying the tormented faces of Israelis. See how even real horrors that we must address at the same time become symbols of our ideological commitments. We manipulate them; we demand one be set against another to tell the other side of the story that gets our ideological and nationalistic message across. In fact that’s what happened in the last Gaza war, wasn’t it. So many close-up images of Palestinian suffering did indeed coincide with a slight increase in American doubts about unquestioned support for Israel.
What is lost behind this miasma of propaganda — because that’s what those images of suffering inevitably become, symbols of manipulation — is the fact that what is happening across Syria is far messier, far more complicated, far more murky grey, with suffering far more widespread and unknown than we can understand through the images that are placed before us. We lose sight of the different cultural and religious groups, the history of the dynamics among them, the real intentions and goals of each, the many steps that have brought Syria to this point. To understand Syria and the suffering people are experiencing there requires some effort to go beyond the mainstream media. It especially requires the effort of taking off our Manichean glasses and seeing beyond the Devil named Assad.
Until then, however, Americans are being manipulated through such images to support any action by their government that aims to push back Assad and clip Russia’s wings. That’s because the symbols are moving us to act and we remain unaware of the on-the-ground reality that is Syria. Imagine if media only had access to the victims of terrorists in Assad controlled territory? Dare we think it possible that in that case we would at least silently be turning our backs as Assad carried out his retaliations?
I have rambled from my original topic, and I have recent discussions in other posts to blame. Sure I have talked about manipulation, but not with the focus I had intended or with which Alex Carey addressed it in his opening chapter. Will try to make up for this lack in future.
Carey, A. (1997). Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Dudley, D. (1947). “Molding Public Opinion Through Advertising.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 250, 105–112.
Meier, N. C. (1950). [Review of Review of The Man in the Street, by T. A. Bailey]. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 14(1), 160–163.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!