can’t see the forest

Propaganda and You

Posted in government, mass media, media, philosophy, Politics, Propaganda, sociology, USA by Curtis on 9/22/07

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Do you know who invented the electric light bulb?

Did you know it wasn’t Thomas Edison?

It was an Englishman named Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914), a physicist who received a British patent for a working lamp and publicly demonstrated it several months before Edison’s bulb first glowed.

Edison had been working with copies of Swan’s patent to make them more efficient, but Swan had already achieved this in some of his early prototypes and had begun installing lamps in private homes by 1881. If, like me, you never had an inkling that the light bulb was as thoroughly British an export as the Beatles, you’ve one man to thank—Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays

Bernays, widely considered the father of modern public relations, was the Viennese-born nephew of Sigmund Freud. He opened for business in New York City in 1919, and became widely known—and lauded—for his innovative use of aspects of his famous uncle’s theories of the subconscious to manipulate mass opinion through the media. It was Bernays, more than any other individual, who defined the playing field and rules of propaganda in mass media culture. The book Propaganda (1928) is a straightforward instruction manual for selling everything from deodorant to political candidates, and goes so far as to elucidate the necessity of such manipulation in a democratic society:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society . . .

. . .In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases . . .invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice . . .

. . .In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.

So, then, according to the sensible and kindly-hearted Mr. Bernays—whom, Noam Chomsky has pointed out, was considered a perfectly fine Rooseveltian liberal—it would have been too demoralizing and confusing for Americans to have had to consider that the light bulb was not an American invention. Thomas Edison, as it so happened, agreed. A beautiful partnership was born. Later, Bernays was to express “shock” that his writings on the manipulation and distortion of information were found to be cornerstones of the library of Dr. Josef Goebbels.

We can point to any number of Bernays’ specific shenanigans—his diplomatically disastrous campaign with the United Fruit Company, or his show-biz drive to turn smoking into a feminist issue—and recognize the marks of both genius and sociopathy. Some of the techniques he pioneered, such as the multi-advertisement tie-in and bringing celebrities in to promote products, have clearly persisted into the present.

But the most significant aspect of Bernays’ work and legacy is his given raison d’être, this rancid idea that propagandizing a population into submission is somehow necessary to the fundamental order of society. It is all very well to say that propaganda is an “important element of a democratic society,” but let’s not attempt to claim that it is necessary to democracy. It is only necessary to the subjugation of democracy to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, but not to a “smoothly functioning” society as a sine qua non, which is Bernays’ express sentiment. In the United States of America, and elsewhere as well, propaganda is the tool of a smoothly functioning plutarchist aristocracy.

The Last Supper Revisited

Quite naïve are they who still would cling to the belief that centralized mass media outlets are not as much tools of oppression and coercion as of information; and it is upon this belief that any remiss insistence that the ballot box is adequate as the true venue of democracy must be predicated.

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One Response

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  1. razi said, on 5/13/08 at 11:38 pm

    hi
    please give me some information about above picture.for example artist & etc.thanks alot


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