Propaganda (75 Books – XIX)

So, take a look at this passage:

Who are the men who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put in them, what menus we should serve at our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in,what plays we should see, what charities we should support, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?

If we set out to make a list of the men and women who, because of their position in public life, might fairly be called the molders of public opinion, we could quickly arrive at an extended list of persons mentioned in “Who’s Who.” […]

Such a list would comprise several thousand persons. But it is well known that many of these leaders are themselves led, sometimes by persons whose names are known to few. Many a congressman, in framing his platform, follows the suggestions of a district boss whom few persons outside the political machines have ever heard of. Eloquent divines may have great influence in their communities, but often take their doctrines from a higher ecclesiastical authority. The presidents of chambers of commerce mold the thought of local business men concerning public issues, but the opinions which they promulgate are usually derived from some national authority. A presidential candidate may be “drafted” in response to “overwhelming popular demand,” but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.

In its insistence that Americans’ opinions are largely controlled by only “several thousand persons,” it sounds like something from the patriot movement. It’s not quite conspiratorial, though, so perhaps it was written by some other part of the Right, or even certain parts of the Left? However, the tone is not at all polemical, or even critical of what it describes. Indeed, elsewhere the author considers this propaganda to be a positive thing.

The passage comes from Propaganda, written in 1928 by Edward Bernays, a public relations counsel who worked for a number of corporations, as well as for the U.S. Committee on Public Information during the First World War (he was also a nephew of Sigmund Freud; make of that what you will). Throughout the book, Bernays details what propaganda is, how it works, who uses it, and who creates it. Now, in 1928 the term “propaganda” had only relatively recently acquired its negative connotation, and Bernays uses it in a neutral sense throughout; at one point he explains “propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.” At a glance, this definition seems reasonable, and this is certainly Bernays’s idea of what propaganda ought to be, but despite the author’s attempt to portray the practice in a neutral light, the actual content of the book clearly describes subtly manipulating public opinions, often in ways that appear rather insidious.

For example, in the fourth chapter, “The Psychology of Public Relations,” he describes how an old-fashioned propagandist wishing to sell pianos would simply urge potential customers in a direct manner to “buy our pianos,” and advertise the various advantages of his brand. However, the “new propaganda” takes a more subtle approach. The advertiser will work to make it fashionable to have a music room in one’s home; if a man has a music room, he will naturally think to have an instrument in there and thus look for a piano. Bernays says, “It will come to him as his own idea.” The older style of advertising may annoy, but it is at least honest; however Bernays wishes to paint the new propaganda, though, there is clearly some deception at work. At the end of the third chapter, Bernays briefly discusses some of the ethics of propaganda. “It must be repeated that [the public relations counsel’s] business is not to fool or hoodwink the public. If he were to get such a reputation, his usefulness in his profession would be at an end.” Maybe so, but this relies on an optimistic view of human nature. Advertisers have great incentive to, if not outright lie, at least exaggerate the positive qualities their products while downplaying the negative. Bernays claims that public relations counsels exist to inform the public so every man does not have to become an expert in every product category he may conceivably want, yet the probability of dishonest advertisers puts the consumer right back in just that position.

Bernays’s work becomes especially odd in relation to democracy. He appears to take for granted that democracy is good, yet he also claims that propaganda is required for a democratic society to function. He says at the very beginning of the book:

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 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.

If the masses must be controlled by a relatively small number of invisible governors, what is the point of democracy? Wouldn’t it be just the same, only more honest, to formalise this arrangement into an explicit aristocracy, giving the vote only to, say, university faculty, editors of major newspapers, corporate CEOs, etc.? The author never even raises the question, much less answers it.

These quirks aside, though, I’d highly recommend Propaganda to anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

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