“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”—Carl Sagan
I haven’t eaten fast food chicken since 2001, or a fast food burger since 1995. Giving these things up was part of an ongoing process of cleaning up my diet in terms of both health and ethics, and I haven’t missed either of them. Yet regularly, when I catch a whiff of KFC or McDonalds, I’ll experience a momentary pang of desire, even though I’m sure I’d get sick if I actually consumed any of that crap at this point. The reason for this is simple: many aromas released by fast food restaurants are scientifically developed in laboratories for the purpose of triggering physiological responses.
My craving is not a sign of missing fried chicken (I don’t) or reflective of an inherent bodily need for beef (there’s no such thing) or even an instinctual response to the smell of cooking meat (that claim lacks scientific consensus). Rather, it ironically points out that my senses function normally (as in, within the range of the average or conventional) because they are responding as they are supposed to. Obviously, as with everything else, different people will react more or less strongly to such stimuli, with some percentage instead experiencing the opposite of the intended reaction (distaste). Despite such exceptions, the rule stands. These companies wouldn’t be using these methods if they weren’t more effective than not. A tremendous amount of money and time goes into developing these things, and it’s not wasted.
Propaganda is analogous.
Under the heading of “propaganda” I am including public relations, political grandstanding, corporate news, and a lot of “entertainment.” Both the messaging and delivery mechanisms are carefully honed using polling, focus groups, psychological research, and much more. It’s all very scientific. In this essay, I am focusing on news media, because that’s what I’m most familiar with, but much of what I discuss here applies across the board.
The sophisticated nature of propaganda means that merely being “smart” is not enough to escape its effects. Indeed, the propaganda served up to educated people is merely another set of flavors, and is otherwise no less successfully manipulative. NPR appeals to its listeners by assuring them they are intelligent (and more intelligent than Fox viewers). But while NPR listeners might, by and large, have received higher levels of schooling, that’s merely a signifier of class and not proof of independent thinking.
As early as 1982, it was already obvious that TV news was becoming insipid. Don Henley, formerly of the Eagles, took a searing view of the news with his hit song, “Dirty Laundry“:
We got the bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at five
She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry
Since then, things have only gotten worse—much worse. The internet has expanded propaganda’s reach from people’s living rooms to handheld devices that they take everywhere they go. I have a friend who aptly calls smart phones “Personal Propaganda Devices.”
I’m a vociferous critic of the corporate news media, but I don’t consider myself immune from its pernicious effects. I find that it takes constant vigilance to stave off its mental and emotional assaults. Even though I barely ever consume corporate media directly, I still have to be wary of its influence, which seeps out into other media, and—worst of all—is carried and spread by countless individuals as if they are stating their own thoughts and opinions. “Viral” indeed.
I am reminded of a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers,” in which the author describes the voice of the wizard, Saruman, who was a turncoat and a con:
“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.”
Tolkien wrote these words in the mid 20th Century but they ring with relevance today. Scholar Tom Shippey hit the mark when he described Saruman’s language as that of a politician, and one could also consider it the language of media propaganda.
Propaganda is not merely about what is being reported and what is not—though the omissions are certainly damaging enough; it’s about setting the limits of what is acceptable to discuss. Says Chomsky: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
This is exactly what we see, everyday, in virtually everything printed by the NYT and WaPo: the defining of conventional constraints and the shrill rhetoric admitted within them. Freud referred to this kind of kind of thing as the “narcissism of small differences.”
Politics is reduced to electoral politics (through the expulsion of community organizing, direct action, etc.), and electoral politics is reduced to a battle between Republicans and Democrats.
Writer Kristine Mattis captured the superficiality of this hyper partisan politics in her essay, “Democracy is Not a Team Sport“:
“Team alliances in such trivial matters as sports and pop culture may be of little significance, save for the time, effort, and money spent on these trivialities which could be better spent on matters of consequence. However, strict team alliances in politics serve to manipulate the masses and obfuscate the issues. What results is a highly polarized, divisive society in which the suffering of the people and the crumbling of our ecological life support system go on almost unabated. Those at the top of Team D and Team R forge forward, reaping the rewards of our toils on the bottom.”
In reality, the two teams have far, far more in common than not, starting with their ardent devotion to capitalism. Conversely, we are strongly discouraged from bringing up third parties or non-Capitalist alternatives, even though the beneficial influence of both (and more) is readily apparent with even a cursory glance around the rest of the world.
I will emphasize that I do not ascribe the propaganda environment in its entirety to a grand conspiracy, though it would be naïve to deny that many discrete details and methods have indeed been carefully planned and tested. But that’s only at the practical level. At a deeper level, the kidders are themselves being kidded. A NYT reporter doesn’t need to be given orders; they believe their own hype.
Chris Hedges hits this topic in “Empire of Illusion.” He explains how the elite of the US, including members of the mainstream media, attend the same upper crust institutions, where they are molded to conform to what are no more than high class forms of narrow-mindedness. Gone are the days where the beat reporter shared beers with the factory worker at the local bar. Too many reporters were elevated from such humble strata, and came to associate—both in person and in their own heads—with the managers and owners they should be calling to account. At the same time, the economic status of factory workers fell as manufacturing jobs were outsourced and unions beaten down. On top of all that, 40% of newsroom jobs have been cut since the year 2000. The tethers that once grounded media in the lives of everyday people were cut.
So what do we do with this information?
Admittedly, the only way I’ll ever be able to drive down a suburban shopping strip and not be lured by the aroma of fast food is if I lose my sense of smell or if all those joints shut down. I’m afraid the same is probably true of propaganda. Short of a lobotomy or a media collapse, we will all remain vulnerable to its powerful draw.
I believe the best choice is to shut it out the best we can. Just as it doesn’t make sense for me to get a burger and fries at the drive-thru just for the point of seeing whether or not it’s still bad for me, there’s no point for me to imbibe in corporate media “just to keep track” of it or to “know the enemy” or whatever, unless I am specifically engaged in media criticism, with my senses on full alert. Propaganda works by being insidious, not obvious, and it’s far too easy to get pulled in.
As Malcolm X said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
We should also support alternative media, which has is always under assault from the mainstream, but especially in these days of algorithm-driven censorship.
I also strongly recommend that people follow the work of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, Media Matters, Project Censored and other media watchdog groups. They do an excellent and admirable job of slogging into the propaganda trenches and revealing the muck they find. I get FAIR’s daily emails and they help keep my eyes and my mind open.
And finally, we should remember that Mark Twain’s words apply to all of us in one moment or another: “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.”