It has been a trying couple of weeks for Saudi Arabia. First, a tweet from an account associated with the Saudi government appeared to threaten Canada with a 9/11-style attack if they continued to “stick their nose where it doesn’t belong.” . . . . .
And then, not long afterwards, the Saudi government beheaded and crucified on a public pole a Burmese man found guilty of murder. . . . . .
Then, on August 9, a Saudi jet targeted and destroyed a school bus full of children in Yemen. . . . . .
How does one manage the “optics” for a country that behaves this way? First, you need to recruit as many public relations men and lobbyists as possible. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia has done . . . . . hiring some of the best PR and government relations firms in Washington and London.
These firms know how to mold public opinion. They are heirs to the father of the dark art of “public relations,” Edward Bernays . . . . .
(Michael Horton in The American Conservative, Aug 14, 2018.)
Which brings us to how the United States in particular became the world’s leading practitioner of propaganda.
Contrary to common assumptions, propaganda plays an important role — and certainly a more covert and sophisticated role — in technologically advanced democratic societies, where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion.
In contrast, under authoritarian regimes power and privilege are not open and vulnerable to dissenting public opinion.
— Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (p.12)
A more anodyne term for propaganda is “business and corporate public relations”.
In the fifty years 1890 to 1940:
|Least experience of democratic institutions
|Limited experience of democratic institutions
|Longest experience of liberal, democratic institutions
|Italy & Japan
|England & USA
|Least competent propaganda
|Nationalist Socialist propaganda better organised, more vociferous, more versatile
|Public relations propaganda is the most highly coloured and ambidextrous, more-so in USA than England
Compare the Soviet Union:
One area of social science that is ordinarily assumed to be useful to a totalitarian regime is research on social and political attitudes … Ironically, psychology and the other social sciences have been employed least in the Soviet Union for precisely those purposes for which Americans popularly think psychology would be used in a totalitarian state political propaganda and the control of human behaviour.
Democracy must be seen to be done, but the will of the elite powers-that-be must be protected and advanced. Hence, after Edward Bernays another early propaganda theorist, Harry Lasswell, as early as 1938 wrote that in the modern world more could be done by illusion than coercion and that a professional class had emerged for that purpose:
The modern world is busy developing a corps of men who do nothing but study the ways and means of changing minds or binding minds to their convictions. Propaganda … is developing its practitioners, its teachers and its theories. It is to be expected that governments will rely increasingly upon the professional propagandists for advice and aid.
An early illustration of “democratic propaganda”
In 1928-29 the Federal Trade Commission conducted investigations into the multi-million dollar propaganda activities of the private utilities. Mr B. J. Mullaney, director of the utility interests’ Illinois ‘information committee’, produced in testimony a statement that Robert Dahl has described as the ‘classic formulation of the importance of indirect techniques’ of political influence. Mullaney observed:
When a destructive bill is pending in the legislature it has to be dealt with in a way to get results. I am not debating that. But to depend year after year on the usual political expedients for stopping hostile legislation is short-sightedness. In the long run isn’t it better and surer to lay a groundwork with people back home who have the votes, so that proposals of this character are not popular with them, rather than depend upon stopping such proposals when they get up to the legislature or commission. (Dahl 1959:30)
We could agree with Professor Harwood Childs when he contends that ‘Americans are the most propagandised people of any nation’ (Meier 1950:162).
Alex Carey thus set out the evidence for those who have the desire to propagandize the American public. He next pointed out that these same elites also have the necessary skills at their disposal:
Commercial advertising and public relations are the forms of propaganda activity common to a democracy. 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).
Not only the will, the skills, but also the means:
United States pre-eminence in the means of communication through which to disseminate propaganda — the scale and reach of the mass media from TV, radio and films to comic strips, nationally and internationally — has long been beyond serious challenge.
The secret ingredient – the symbols
However, it is the fourth condition, the creation and maintenance of emotionally ‘significant symbols’, that has given propaganda its extraordinary power and particular role in American culture.
American history has produced a society whose general world view has regularly been described as “Manichean”. It is widely understood, I believe, that one identifying attribute of American culture is its dualistic thinking, its propensity to divide the world into good and evil, the sacred and satanic, and the tools of this thought are the symbols associated with each side. Another widely recognized characteristic of American culture is pragmatism, the preference for action over reflection. Manicheanism and pragmatism go hand in glove. The former facilitates the latter. No pausing to debate the ambiguities, the mix of both good and evil in events or others.
A predisposition to symbols and visions of good and evil is fertile soil for propagandists. To put it crudely, playing with simplistic symbols and visions makes it easy to manipulate such a population.
The surprising religiosity of Americans likewise plays into the propagandists’ hands, although I would see that as an adjunct to Manichean perspectives.
The Manichean dichotomy that has been most powerful — as a means of social control — in respect of both domestic issues and foreign policy issues is not God/Heaven versus Devil/Hell but the secular equivalent of these. 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.
Of course since Carey wrote we have seen Islam replace communism as the great bête noir. (But Russia itself still carries the whiff of the old ideological evil it once represented.)
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.
It is interesting, instructive even, to compare what Alex Carey wrote about the “medieval” character of America’s erstwhile fear of communism with today’s fear of Islam, and what else… immigrants? refugees? Russia? Arabs?
Certainly the following paragraph reminds me of how many today believe Islam works:
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).
Or from the Koran.
Carey, Alex. 1997. “The Origins of American Propaganda.” In Taking the Risk out of Democracy : Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty, 11–17. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.
Horton, Michael. 2018. “Saudis Spinning the Optics of Dead Schoolchildren.” The American Conservative. August 14, 2018. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/our-really-huge-and-really-deep-complicity-with-saudis/.
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