The Truth Alone Will Not Set You Free

The ability of the corporate state to
pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured
goods to the masses is gone. The pernicious idea that democracy lies in
the choice between competing brands and the freedom to accumulate vast
sums of personal wealth at the expense of others has collapsed. The
conflation of freedom with the free market has been exposed as a sham.
The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the
middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out and people
get a taste of Bill Clinton's draconian welfare reform. And class
warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to
enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning
with a vengeance.

Our economic crisis-despite the corporate
media circus around the death of Michael Jackson or Gov. Mark Sanford's
marital infidelity or the outfits of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest
incarnation, Bruno-barrels forward. And this crisis will lead to a
period of profound political turmoil and change. Those who care about
the plight of the working class and the poor must begin to mobilize
quickly or we will lose our last opportunity to save our embattled
democracy. The most important struggle will be to wrest the organs of
communication from corporations that use mass media to demonize
movements of social change and empower proto-fascist movements such as
the Christian right.

American culture-or cultures, for we once
had distinct regional cultures-was systematically destroyed in the 20th
century by corporations. These corporations used mass communication, as
well as an understanding of the human subconscious, to turn consumption
into an inner compulsion. Old values of thrift, regional identity that
had its own iconography, aesthetic expression and history, diverse
immigrant traditions, self-sufficiency, a press that was decentralized
to provide citizens with a voice in their communities were all
destroyed to create mass, corporate culture. New desires and habits
were implanted by corporate advertisers to replace the old. Individual
frustrations and discontents could be solved, corporate culture assured
us, through the wonders of consumerism and cultural homogenization.
American culture, or cultures, was replaced with junk culture and junk
politics. And now, standing on the ash heap, we survey the ruins. The
very slogans of advertising and mass culture have become the idiom of
common expression, robbing us of the language to make sense of the
destruction. We confuse the manufactured commodity culture with
American culture.

How do we recover what was lost? How do we
reclaim the culture that was destroyed by corporations? How do we fight
back now that the consumer culture has fallen into a state of decay?
What can we do to reverse the cannibalization of government and the
national economy by the corporations?

All periods of profound change occur in a
crisis. It was a crisis that brought us the New Deal, now largely
dismantled by the corporate state. It was also a crisis that gave the
world Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic.
We can go in either direction. Events move at the speed of light when
societies and cultural assumptions break down. There are powerful
forces, which have no commitment to the open society, ready to seize
the moment to snuff out the last vestiges of democratic egalitarianism.
Our bankrupt liberalism, which naively believes that Barack Obama is
the antidote to our permanent war economy and Wall Street fraud, will
either rise from its coma or be rolled over by an organized corporate
elite and their right-wing lap dogs. The corporate domination of the
airwaves, of most print publications and an increasing number of
Internet sites means we will have to search, and search quickly, for
alternative forms of communication to thwart the rise of totalitarian

Stuart Ewen, whose books
"Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the
Consumer Culture" and "PR: A Social History of Spin" chronicle how
corporate propaganda deformed American culture and pushed populism to
the margins of American society, argues that we have a fleeting chance
to save the country. I fervently hope he is right. He attacks the
ideology of "objectivity and balance" that has corrupted news, saying
that it falsely evokes the scales of justice. He describes the
curriculum at most journalism schools as "poison."

" 'Balance and objectivity' creates an
idea where both sides are balanced," he said when I spoke to him by
phone. "In certain ways it mirrors the two-party system, the notion
that if you are going to have a Democrat speak you need to have a
Republican speak. It offers the phantom of objectivity. It creates the
notion that the universe of discourse is limited to two positions.
Issues become black or white. They are not seen as complex with a
multitude of factors."

Ewen argues that the forces for social
change-look at any lengthy and turgid human rights report-have
forgotten that rhetoric is as important as fact. Corporate and
government propaganda, aimed to sway emotions, rarely uses facts to
sell its positions. And because progressives have lost the gift of
rhetoric, which was once a staple of a university education, because
they naively believe in the Enlightenment ideal that facts alone can
move people toward justice, they are largely helpless.

"Effective communication requires not
simply an understanding of the facts, but how those facts will take
place in the public mind," Ewen said. "When Gustave Le Bon
says it is not the facts in and of themselves which make a point but
the way in which the facts take place, the way in which they come to
attention, he is right."

The emergence of corporate and government
public relations, which drew on the studies of mass psychology by
Sigmund Freud and others after World War I, found its bible in Walter Lippmann's book "Public Opinion,"
a manual for the power elite's shaping of popular sentiments. Lippmann
argued that the key to leadership in the modern age would depend on the
ability to manipulate "symbols which assemble emotions after they have
been detached from their ideas." The public mind could be mastered, he
wrote, through an "intensification of feeling and a degradation of

These corporate forces, schooled by Woodrow Wilson's vast Committee for Public Information,
which sold World War I to the public, learned how to skillfully
mobilize and manipulate the emotional responses of the public. The
control of the airwaves and domination through corporate advertising of
most publications restricted news to reporting facts, to "objectivity
and balance," while the real power to persuade and dominate a public
remained under corporate and governmental control.

Ewen argues that pamphleteering, which
played a major role in the 17th and 18th centuries in shaping the
public mind, recognized that "the human mind is not left brain or right
brain, that it is not divided by reason which is good and emotion which
is bad."

He argues that the forces of social
reform, those organs that support a search for truth and
self-criticism, have mistakenly shunned emotion and rhetoric because
they have been used so powerfully within modern society to disseminate
lies and manipulate public opinion. But this refusal to appeal to
emotion means "we gave up the ghost and accepted the idea that human
beings are these divided selves, binary systems between emotion and
reason, and that emotion gets you into trouble and reason is what leads
you forward. This is not true."

The public is bombarded with carefully
crafted images meant to confuse propaganda with ideology and knowledge
with how we feel. Human rights and labor groups, investigative
journalists, consumer watchdog organizations and advocacy agencies
have, in the face of this manipulation, inundated the public sphere
with reports and facts. But facts alone, Ewen says, make little
difference. And as we search for alternative ways to communicate in a
time of crisis we must also communicate in new forms. We must appeal to
emotion as well as to reason. The power of this appeal to emotion is
evidenced in the photographs of Jacob Riis,
a New York journalist, who with a team of assistants at the end of the
19th century initiated urban-reform photography. His stark portraits of
the filth and squalor of urban slums awakened the conscience of a
nation. The photographer Lewis Hine, at the turn of the 20th century, and Walker Evans
during the Great Depression did the same thing for the working class,
along with writers such as Upton Sinclair and James Agee. It is a
recovery of this style, one that turns the abstraction of fact into a
human flesh and one that is not afraid of emotion and passion, which
will permit us to counter the force of corporate propaganda.

We may know that fossil fuels are
destroying our ecosystem. We may be able to cite the statistics. But
the oil and natural gas industry continues its flagrant rape of the
planet. It is able to do this because of the money it uses to control
legislation and a massive advertising campaign that paints the oil and
natural gas industry as part of the solution. A group called, for example, has been running a series of television ads.
One ad features an attractive, middle-aged woman in a black pantsuit-an
actor named Brooke Alexander who once worked as the host of "WorldBeat"
on CNN and for Fox News. Alexander walks around a blue screen studio
that becomes digital renditions of American life. She argues, before
each image, that oil and natural gas are critical to providing not only
energy needs but health care and jobs.

"It is almost like they are taking the
most optimistic visions of what the stimulus package could do and
saying this is what the development of oil and natural gas will bring
about," Ewen said. "If you go to the Web site there is a lot of
sophisticated stuff you can play around with. As each ad closes you see
in the lower right-hand corner in very small letters API, the American
Petroleum Institute, the lobbying group for ExxonMobil and all the
other big oil companies. For the average viewer there is nothing in the
ad to indicate this is being produced by the oil industry."

The modern world, as Kafka predicted, has
become a world where the irrational has become rational, where lies
become true. And facts alone will be powerless to thwart the mendacity
spun out through billions of dollars in corporate advertising, lobbying
and control of traditional sources of information. We will have to
descend into the world of the forgotten, to write, photograph, paint,
sing, act, blog, video and film with anger and honesty that have been
blunted by the parameters of traditional journalism. The lines between
artists, social activists and journalists have to be erased. These
lines diminish the power of reform, justice and an understanding of the
truth. And it is for this purpose that these lines are there.

"As a writer part of what you are aiming
for is to present things in ways that will resonate with people, which
will give voice to feelings and concerns, feelings that may not be
fully verbalized," Ewen said. "You can't do that simply by providing
them with data. One of the major problems of the present is that those
structures designed to promote a progressive agenda are antediluvian."

Corporate ideology, embodied in
neoconservatism, has seeped into the attitudes of most self-described
liberals. It champions unfettered capitalism and globalization as
eternal. This is the classic tactic that power elites use to maintain
themselves. The loss of historical memory, which "balanced and
objective" journalism promotes, has only contributed to this fantasy.
But the fantasy, despite the desperate raiding of taxpayer funds to
keep the corporate system alive, is now coming undone. The lie is being
exposed. And the corporate state is running scared.

"It is very important for people like us
to think about ways to present the issues, whether we are talking about
the banking crisis, health care or housing and homelessness," Ewen
said. "We have to think about presenting these issues in ways that are
two steps ahead of the media rather than two steps behind. That is not
something we should view as an impossible task. It is a very possible
task. There is evidence of how possible that task is, especially if you
look at the development of the underground press in the 1960s. The
underground press, which started cropping up all over the country, was
not a marginal phenomenon. It leeched into the society. It developed an
approach to news and communication that was 10 steps ahead of the
mainstream media. The proof is that even as it declined, so many
structures that were innovated by the underground press, things like
The Whole Earth Catalogue, began to affect and inform the stylistic
presentation of mainstream media."

"I am not a prophet," Ewen said. "All I
can do is look at historical precedence and figure out the extent we
can learn from it. This is not about looking backwards. If you can't
see the past you can't see the future. If you can't see the
relationship between the present and the past you can't understand
where the present might go. Who controls the past controls the present,
who controls the present controls the future, as George Orwell said.
This is a succinct explanation of the ways in which power functions."

"Read 'The Gettysburg Address,' " Ewen
said. "Read Frederick Douglass' autobiography or his newspaper. Read
'The Communist Manifesto.' Read Darwin's 'Descent of Man.' All of these
things are filled with an understanding that communicating ideas and
producing forms of public communication that empower people, rather
than disempowering people, relies on an integrated understanding of who
the public is and what it might be. We have a lot to learn from the
history of rhetoric. We need to think about where we are going. We need
to think about what 21st century pamphleteering might be. We need to
think about the ways in which the rediscovery of rhetoric-not lying,
but rhetoric in its more conventional sense-can affect what we do. We
need to look at those historical antecedents where interventions
happened that stepped ahead of the news. And to some extent this is
happening. We have the freest and most open public sphere since the
village square."

The battle ahead will be fought outside
the journalistic mainstream, he said. The old forms of journalism are
dying or have sold their soul to corporate manipulation and celebrity
culture. We must now wed fact to rhetoric. We must appeal to reason and
emotion. We must not be afraid to openly take sides, to speak,
photograph or write on behalf of the disempowered. And, Ewen believes,
we have a chance in the coming crisis to succeed.

"Pessimism is never useful," he said. "Realism is useful, understanding the forces that are at play. To quote Antonio Gramsci, 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.' "

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 TruthDig