The title is a quote from former CIA Director William Casey. Since “fake news” is such a big topic in the news lately, let’s revisit old news: Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, which is almost 90 years old.
The first thing that struck me was near the beginning: he basically called Donald Trump.
This practice of creating circumstances and of creating pictures in the minds of millions of persons is very common. Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president. Sometimes the effect on the public is created by a professional propagandist, sometimes by an amateur deputed for the job. The important thing is that it is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.
So vast are the numbers of minds which can be regimented, and so tenacious are they when regimented, that a group at times offers an irresistable pressure before which legislators, editors,and teachers are helpless. The will cling to its stereotypes, as Walter Lippmann calls it, making of those supposedly powerful beings, the leaders of public opinion, mere bits of driftwood in the surf. When an Imperial Wizard, sensing what is perhaps the hunger for an ideal, offers a picture of a nation all Nordic and nationalistic, the common man of the older American stock, feeling hiself elbowed out of his rightful position and prosperity by the newer immigrant stocks, grasps the picture which fits in so neatly with his prejudices, and makes it his on. He buys the sheet and pillow-case costume, and bands with his fellows by the thousand into a huge group powerful enough to swing state elections and to throw a ponderous monkey wrench into a national convention.
Trump and the alt-right are only new if you were born yesterday.
Bernays understood why people are worse at reality than ever, despite unprecedented access to accurate information.
For the masses promised to become king.
Today, however, a reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.
Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine.
Again, this was 89 years ago. Rush Limbaugh fans have been called “dittoheads” since I don’t know when. Independent thinking is rare.
This is the real attitude of leaders to democracy:
No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.
Fortunately, the sincere and gifted politician is able, by the instrument of propaganda, to mold and form the will of the people.
Uncomfortable truth about people and the structure of American government:
The criticism is often made that propaganda tends to make the President of the United States so important that he becomes not the President but the embodiment of the idea of hero worship, not to say deity worship. I quite agree that this is so, but how are you going to stop a condition which very accurately reflects the desires of a certain part of the public? The American people rightly senses the enormous importance of the executive’s office. If the public tends to make of the President a heroic symbol of that power, that is not the fault of propaganda but lies in the very nature of the office and its relation to the people.
Officially we’re against kings, but not really.
Women’s suffrage was only 8 years old when he wrote this:
If I have seemed to concentrate on the accomplishments of women in politics, it is because they afford a particularly striking example of intelligent use of the new propaganda to secure attention and acceptance of minority ideas. It is perhaps curiously appropriate that the latest recruits to the political arena should recognize and make use of the newest weapons of persuasian to offset any lack of experience with what is somewhat euphemistically termed practical politics.
Interestingly, given the Trump-premonition quotes above, he also wrote about the successes of the NAACP against lynching:
A social service organization undertook to fight lynching, Jim Crowism, and the civil discriminations against the Negro below the Mason and Dixon line.
The National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People had the fight in hand. As a matter of technique they decided to dramatize the year’s campaign in an annual convention which would concentrate attention on the problem.
Should it be held in the North, South, West, or East? Since the purpose was to affect the entire country, the association was advised to hold it in the South. For, said the propagandist, a point of view on a southern question, emanating from a southern center, would have greater authority than the same point of view issuing from any other locality, particularly when that point of view was at odds with the traditional southern point of view. Atlanta was chosen.
The third step was to surround the conference with people who were stereotypes for ideas that carried weight all over the country. The support of leaders of diversified groups was sought. Telegrams and letters were dispatched to leaders of religious, political, social, and educational groups, asking for their point of view on the purpose of the conference. But in addition to these group leaders of national standing it was particularly important from the technical standpoint to secure the opinions of group leaders of the South, even from Atlanta itself, to emphasize the purposes of the conference to the entire public. There was one group in Atlanta which could be approached. A group of ministers had been bold enough to come out for a greater inter-racial amity. This group was approached and agreed to cooperate in the conference.
The event ran off as scheduled. The program itself followed the general scheme. Negroes and white men from the South, on the same platform, expressed the same point of view.
A dramatic element was spot-lighted here and there. A national leader from Massachusetts agreed in principle and in practice with a Baptist preacher from the South.
If the radio had been in effect, the whole country might have heard and been moved by the speeches and the principles expressed.
But the public read the words and ideas in the press of the country. For the event had been created of such important component parts as to awaken interest throughout the country and to gain support for its ideas even in the South.
The editorials in the southern press, reflecting the public opinion of their communities, showed that the subject had become one of interest to the editors because of the participation of southern leaders.
The event naturally gave the Association itself substantial weapons with which to appeal to an increasingly wider circle. Further publicity was attained by mailing reports, letters, and other propaganda to selected groups of the public.
As for the practical results, the immediate one was a change in the minds of many southern editors who realized that the question at issue was not only an emotional one, but also a discussable one; and this point of view was immediately reflected to their readers. Further results are hard to measure with a slide-rule. The conference had its definite effect in building up the racial consciousness and solidarity of the Negroes. The decline in lynching is very probably a result of this and other efforts of the Association.
This is the reason criticizing politically incorrect entertainment isn’t a trivial waste of time:
The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions.
The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation. Because pictures are made to meet market demands, they reflect, emphasize, and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies, rather than stimulate new ideas and opinions. The motion picture avails itself only of ideas and facts which are in vogue. As the newspaper seeks to purvey news, it seeks to purvey entertainment.
Good propaganda is like good cryptography. It works even when you can see its operations.
Undoubtedly the public is becoming aware of the methods which are being used to mold its opinions and habits. If the public is better informed about the processes of its own life, it will be so much the more receptive to reasonable appeals to its own interests. No matter how sophisticated, how cynical the public may become about publicity methods, it must respond to the basic appeals, because it will always need food, crave amusement, long for beauty, respond to leadership.
If the public becomes more intelligent in its commercial demands, commercial firms will meet the new standards. If it becomes weary of the old methods used to persuade it to accept a given idea or commodity, its leaders will present their appeals more intelligently.
Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.