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Propaganda in a Democracy

February 20, 2009

PropagandaWhen Edward Bernays, proclaimed by many as the father of public relations, published his book Propaganda in 1928, few people realized the far reaching influence that the new discipline of public relations would have on society. Propaganda, Bernays claims, is not something pernicious that one government or group inflicts on another, but is rather an integral part of democracy itself.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” said Bernays, who, perhaps appropriately, is the great grandson of Freud. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Living in a so-called free market democracy, we are besieged with choices of all kinds in our daily lives—from the products and services we buy for home and business, to the activities that we undertake for entertainment and relaxation, to the politicians and government amendments we vote for, to the ideas that bring us motivation and meaning. Bernays points out that as citizens we have “voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high‑spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.”

If this was true in in Bernays’ time, it is even truer today. The ever-growing influence of the mass media, combined with the ability of inexpensive powerful computer technology to manipulate huge databases of information and images and to communicate this data almost instantaneously worldwide, has spurred the move from a industrial society to an information society. There is simply no way that any one of us can keep up with and interpret all the information that is required for sound decisions in the many arenas of our lives. Whether we like it or not, we depend on the “special pleading,” the “propaganda,” the “public relations” of communications experts, mostly invisible, to bring to our attention the products, services, people, facts, and ideas that fit in best with our own specific social, psychological, political, and economic situations. These invisible experts, who include advertising and public relations professionals, newspaper editors, book publishers, movie producers, government officials, TV editors and anchormen, and so on thus have a tremendous influence in our lives.

Though most of us would agree—at least intellectually—that this is all obvious and true, we live our lives as though it were not. We assume, for the most part, that we are the masters of ourselves and that in issues of real importance we are able to discriminate between these outside influences and our real needs and beliefs—between hype and reality. Such an assumption is questionable, however, when we realize that from early childhood on, almost everything we eat, buy, use, or read has been shaped or packaged for us by a member of this invisible government.

The fact is, Bernays takes his ideas much further than many of us would like. He states that “We are governed, our minds our molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” And he then proceeds in this and other books to lay out the formal mechanism by which propaganda can be used to meet the needs of a democratic society.

Propaganda, along with the special pleading it depends on, has been around since the beginning of time. But in the past—before the advent of the mass media—it was clear who was doing the pleading and for what purpose. Radio, television, newspapers, motion pictures, and lately computers have changed all that. Propaganda of one sort or another has become so much a part of our lives that we don’t even recognize it as such. As Lao Tzu said, “the best knots are tied without rope.”knot

Of course, one could easily say that we in the west are better off than people living in communist countries or under dictatorships, because their propaganda is far more rigid and insidious than our own. This argument is a misleading one, however, for the simple reason that their propaganda is more visible and easier to perceive than our own. By its very nature, a democratic society offers so many choices to its citizens that we would have neither the time nor the energy to narrow them down without a whole industry of communications professionals dedicated to just that. Our propagandists do not use rope, barbed wire, mental hospitals, and the militia to make their point; no—they use the latest communication techniques disseminated through the print and electronic media in the guise of “giving us what we really want.”

What is truly pernicious about much of the propaganda that surrounds us in the west is the very “reasonableness” of it—the way in which we are taught to believe that it somehow represents our real needs. For the goal of a propagandist—no matter what his or her stripe—is to make a sale of some kind by seeking to convince us that they understand our inner or outer needs and goals and are responding to them. In this regard, a newspaper editor or TV anchorman trying to tell the news in a way that will attract readers or watchers is no better or worse than a public relations professional attempting to improve the public’s perception of a company or product.

What is important in either case is that we, the public, begin to understand this process better so that we begin to differentiate between what we really want and what we’ve been conditioned to want by the invisible government competing for our share of mind and money. Such a differentiation is an important step on the path of  self-knowledge and in the struggle for inner freedom.

Copyright 1996-2009 by Dennis Lewis

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2009 4:04 pm

    Dennis, I remember reading Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. The so-called Madison Avenue crowd employs these methods to create needs within us that we never ever might have thought, until say, the maker’s of Listerine mouth wash, made it so. These black ops into what makes us tick and that manipulate our wants and needs is one and the same as the propaganda machine. I’ve noticed that ads are changing to coupons as the economy spirals downward and sellers become more desperate to win over our hearts and minds.
    It is hard to turn off the tv. The cable news broadcasters are somewhat addicting. The only news worth watching these days is the McNeil Lehrer report and Charlie Rose interviews which at least, try, to be objective.
    It is all part of Leila (sp)…the dance of the shadows in our world, that seem so real.
    “The world’s a stage” ala Shakespere. What’s important is to retain one’s connection with, you might say, one’s breath…or center while the dance goes on around us. Partaking, but not necessarily ‘buying’ into the judgments which tempt us further and further away from our center.
    Reading a good book now called “Things Hidden” by Rohr. He was a Franciscan monk turned writer and presenter. Since I am not a Bible scholar, I am enjoying his insightful peeks into the allegories in the Bible which point to seeking our God-self within. I think, if you haven’t read this book, yet…you would enjoy it.
    I loved your blog on propaganda! And I feel a book somewhere in there!

  2. February 22, 2009 9:51 am

    I grew up with Communist propaganda till I was 18 and only now in my early forties and after living in the US, am I able to sort out truth and reality from the lies and illusions–not always clear (almost all information in the main stream media is corrupted and is presented as ‘entertainment’). Czechoslovakia, the place where I grew up was filled with propaganda (the citizens were fed political propaganda in the daily news, but it was so obvious that an average intelligent citizen saw through it–sort of like an American with a discerning intellect could hear lies coming from Bush and his political team).

    But we the citizens of the ‘evil eastern Europe’ had our freedoms too. One of the freedoms was no public pharmaceutical commercials or other commercials on TV. I used to cheer for the US as a teenager and wanted to live in the “free country,” but when I escaped from Czechoslovakia and settled in the US, I started to see all the fallacies, lies, and manipulations in the US and abroad as well–it was as if my lenses were cleaned off little by little every year of my stay in the US.

    Living with Dennis opened me more to studying myself and the human nature and the automatic behaviors and beliefs that form us. I have been conditioned since childhood to choose, categorize, and analyze. I discovered that there is a type of personal propaganda which is created by my automatic mind and my reactive emotions, and all the different ‘realities’ are constructed by the many different sides of myself.

  3. February 26, 2009 4:59 pm

    Dasha, very interesting comments. It seems it matters little where we grew up. We have all been vulnerable to some form of propaganda. My parents were my first source of propaganda…
    Perhaps, where we go wrong, is in not trusting our own inner guides, our inner compass, if you will, in the first place.
    The media, politicians, Madison Avenue all vie for our sympathies.
    In Freud’s book “civilization and it’s discontents” which I read so long ago, I can’t remember most of it…I do recall that he believed it was the role of civilized society (if one could call anything ‘civilized’) to tamp down our wild side. If it were not for civilization, we would have no boundaries…and if we had no boundaries for good behavior, ethical behavior, etc…we could all be savages. Thus…laws…rules…etc…and the manipulations and use of propaganda to win over our hearts and minds?
    I wonder if his premise is correct?
    Is there anywhere on earth a person can go, to be free of mass manipulation?
    Or must one finally come to the realization that there is no one we can completely trust to map out our path, but our inner compass?
    By the way, Dasha, I find the censor on pharmaceutal commercials to be quite interesting. More damage has been caused by them here, I’m quite sure, than perhaps, religion!
    Yes, you are absolutely speaking my language when you speak of looking at one’s automatic judgments. We do propagandize ourselves…and we do judge ourselves and others…good/bad…etc.
    I have been doing this for years, so I know it very, very well!

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