“Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated
and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong,
tough measures and hard-line postures . . . they may accept and
even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.”
--- George Gerbner
(Former Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania)
It is the merest truism that thought-control is unnecessary in totalitarian societies. A one-party rule and the repression of freedoms render irrelevant what people think. But in a would-be free and open society——and especially in a society that aspires to be a democracy——propaganda and thought-control are crucial to the formation of public attitudes. In a nominal democracy, such as exists today in the United States, shaping the opinions of the masses is crucial to the appearance of legitimacy for the ruling elite. The public must be guided and persuaded to ratify the policies favored by the wealthy and well connected, while insuring that the general public does not actually interfere with the policies and profits of the corporate rulers.
As Robert Dahl has shown in his book How Democratic is the American Constitution?, our Constitution provides several mechanisms for insuring rule by a minority. One is the great disparity in the value of the suffrage. Voters in sparsely populated states, such as Wyoming, elect two senators that represent about 500,000 people. In California, the two senators represent some 35,000,000 people. This means that the weight of one’s vote in Wyoming is far greater (by 70 times!) than the weight of one’s vote in California. And in a Senate vote, the two Senators from Wyoming can negate the votes of California’s two Senators. Another such mechanism is the electoral college, which is another way in which losers can still win. The electoral college came into play most recently and most decisively in the 2000 presidential election. A third mechanism is the “first past the post”, or “winner take all” systems that afford no proportional share of votes to the second, third, or fourth place finisher in an election.
Notwithstanding these three mechanisms, the appearance of popular democracy must be preserved. So the rich and well connected must also still find ways to maintain the appearance of real democracy, even while they are greatly outnumbered by a factor of 50-60 to 1. Therefore, the ruling elite must find other ways of making up for being vastly outnumbered at the polls. This is why it is so important for such elites to shape the public mind. A recent example of this phenomenon occurred when the wealthiest Americans succeeded in repealing an “estate” or “inheritance” tax—levied only on several thousand of the richest families in America—by dubbing it a “death tax,” whose repeal generated popular support, in the wake of millions of dollars spent to shape public opinion. (This amazing feat is largely a result of the belief that every American has a chance to become rich, despite all the evidence to the contrary. As Bill Moyers said recently, the surest way to become rich is “to choose your parents well”. So even poor people supported the repeal in the fanciful belief that they might one day need this “tax relief”.)
Huge public opinion and marketing machines, along with the advertising industry provide commercial forms of propaganda. Their success flows from their ability to keep people self-indulgent, to keep people consuming, to keep them on the debt treadmill, and to keep them complacent, self-absorbed, and hedonistic.
If you haven’t read George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for awhile, now is a good time to pick them up and re-read them. I submit that American society today seamlessly blends the self-satisfaction of Huxley’s Soma with Orwell’s ubiquitous telescreens and the thought-control they engender. When people are afraid, they need the Soma all the more: fear produces anxiety and hysteria; Soma provides the escapism. It is a powerful 1-2 punch. In the remainder of this essay, I shall attempt to offer some antidotes to what is ailing American society today.
Here are a few steps people might take to liberate themselves from fear and propaganda:
1. Turn off the television!
Never forget this simple principle: The more television one watches, the more dangerous the world will seem to be. The author of the quote at the top of this article taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications for more than 30 years, and he believed that fearful people may even be lured to television precisely on account of their fear. Frightening images of house break-ins, car-jackings, murders, rapes, terrorists, viruses, natural disasters, and all manner of hysteria-producing hobgoblins have a seductive power to keep people watching and to keep people afraid, even paranoid.
I remember when Fox launched its network with programs with titles like “When Good Dogs Go Bad” and “When Animals Attack”. Now they’ve refined their “fair and balanced” programs to feature human animals attacking, from Bill O’Reilly, to Chris Matthews to the steady stream of screamers who do not really engage in discussion or debate, but simply shout at one another and call each other names. Turn it off. There are other ways of keeping informed and the medium, to quote Marshall McLuhan, really is the message. In contrast to television, which McLuhan termed a “hot” medium, reading engages a different part of oneself, allowing critical thinking and analytic reasoning. We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that is exactly why images are able to continue to scare us, long after the initial impression has been made. Turn off the television and pick up a book, such as Gavin de Becker’s Fear Less or Ropeik and Gray’s book Risk: A Practical Guide for Determining What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You. Radio, too, supplies news and analysis without the frightening images. Listen to National Public Radio, Pacifica (especially “Democracy Now”) and the BBC and the CBC online or on the radio.
2. Once one has taken this giant step, one may want to continue reading by digging into American history. I do not have in mind here the typical, sanitized history of the indoctrinating textbooks that present America as the shining city on a hill and its people as perpetually honorable innocents. I recommend instead some alternative histories that examine the underbelly of both our remote and recent past. I would recommend beginning with three books: WWII pilot and longtime Boston University professor, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; then go on to William S. Greider’s Who Will Tell the People?; and finally, read M.I.T. professor Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival?. It may be interesting to explore a particular question, such as: How does a country’s rulers mobilize people (over and over again) to lay down their lives for some cause or other, while the rich and powerful are asked to make little or no sacrifice at all. Heck, George W. Bush started a war in Iraq and then pushed through not one but two sets of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Such tax cuts when “the country is at war” (as he loves to say) is unprecedented in U.S. history. Indeed, one may come to learn that this same rich and powerful elite are making huge profits while poor, “average” people are dying in droves. Think for a moment about the corporate mission of a Lockheed-Martin or any other manufacturer of weapons and weapons systems: Is it not clear that they make money on other people’s deaths? And is it not such powerful lobbies for the largest arms sellers in the world (the United States) who promote policies that would keep the country in perpetual war precisely because it is so good for their business?
3. Take a course in self-defense.
I’m not talking about physical self-defense; I’m talking about intellectual self-defense, a self-defense course for the mind! Intellectual self-defense involves learning to think critically, to keep your eyes and ears open, and to flush those eyes and ears with a healthy dose of skepticism. If 100% or nearly 100% of media outlets are parroting the same line, saying the same thing about any issue, it is well to remember that even a small group of friends is likely to experience some disagreement on just about any issue, so why are all the pundits saying the same thing? Chances are, what you’re hearing is propaganda and spin.
4. Look beneath the surface.
Try to evaluate claims that people make. Learn to distinguish an assertion from an argument, a claim from proof, and learn to identify logical fallacies in what people say; then ask, Who benefits and who may be harmed? Dig into the matter and look for a reason, a warrant, a justification, and if you can’t find a convincing one, be skeptical. Don’t believe everything you hear. It will take much longer to be worn down by the constant repetition of the spin-meisters’ half-truths and outright falsehoods once one has turned off the television and cultivated a healthy skepticism. Most people are simply too trusting, and this stems from two main deficiencies: not knowing history (as Howard Zinn has recently argued) and failing to think critically or to be doggedly skeptical. (I note with great disappointment that neither of these qualities are possessed by the mainstream media in the U.S. today, as Tom Engelhardt has shown convincingly.) Let me offer a prime example to illustrate the point.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the American people were told over and over again (both explicitly and obliquely) that Iraq possessed chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons. It was asserted that Saddam Hussein possessed not only the chemical weapons with which the U.S. supplied him during the 1980’s Iran-Iraq War (the same ones he used on the Kurds in 1991), but that he had also developed a nuclear program under ten years of sanctions and under a rigorous inspection regime that had found no evidence of such weapons. The American people were told that such a nuclear weapons program was “not an assertion” but a fact. The water was carried here principally by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell. Rice speculated about a “mushroom cloud”, a statement George W. Bush repeated publicly. Colin Powell helped out by putting on a dog-and-pony show at the U.N. Based on this hype, Iraq was deemed an “imminent threat” to U.S. security.
Now, if one were skeptical, one might have pulled out a map and noticed that Iraq shares a border with six countries. One might then have deferred judgment to the people closest to this dangerous and imminent threat. So now one might have done a little digging on the Internet and found polls that showed that none of the populations of these six neighboring countries (who would be the closest targets if the allegations of WMD possession had been true) were in favor of the U.S. starting a war with Iraq. Nor were the European countries in favor of the U.S. attack, even though they were all much closer to Iraq than is the U.S. In fact, most countries (including Mexico and Canada) believed that the U.S. presented a greater threat to world security than either al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. Only America and the United Kingdom were able to thoroughly dupe their citizenry.
That’s quite a feat, and it is an embarrassing testament to our collective irrationality and, therefore, our gullibility. But this is the way propaganda works. It relies upon simple slogans, however illogical they may be (such as, “We are fighting the terrorists in Iraq so that we don’t have to fight them at home.” Obviously, these two alternatives are not mutually exclusive! One may in fact have noticed that there seem now to be a whole lot more “terrorists” than there were before the invasion of Iraq! Propaganda also relies on hatred and racism to promote its group-think. And there is little doubt that propaganda is a largely stealth weapon; it flies under the radar of reason and is usually not even identified as propaganda. Above all, it plays on our fears, because the more frightened people are, the more illogical their reasoning becomes.
Dr. Gary Alan Scott is an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola College in Maryland and he is currently the Director of Loyola’s International Study Abroad Program in Leuven, Belgium. He welcomes your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.