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26 October 2007

Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

Free online edition of the seminal book by the father of the PR industry. Very important reading; hideous human being, Bernays.

The "postmodernism" tag on this post is both ironic and literal. Ironic because even though I'm not a fan of postmodernism -- except in fiction -- I have to say that the constant assault of complete lies (i.e., marketing-driven ads, PR -- what used to be called "propaganda" in a more honest age) has done far, far more to efface the distinction between true and false than a few French-inspired academics writing in impenetrable prose. Literal because despite the disproportionate effect, postmodernism shares epistemological claims with propaganda/PR/et al, no matter what its fans will tell you.

Anyway, PR, et al, is a very serious problem, as information is the key to democracy.

Interestingly, accurate information is exactly what is to be avoided in ad-driven capitalism (but not capitalism per se -- a truly free market would ban all ads beyond a stipulation of product details, which must be accurate). And the PR industry -- huge, btw, as you all know -- has been running our electoral process since before any of us were born...so, are we really a representative democracy? I don't think so.

For more on this, check out Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman. Here's the film, if you prefer. Here's a related book by Chomsky -- free and online -- Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989). While you're at it, to get more of a sense of what state-capitalist-supporting intelligentsia think of you, peruse Walter Lippman's Public Opinion from the '20s when the success of the WWI Creel Commission propaganda machine was being retooled for permanent use.

As Chomsky and others have pointed out, it's no coincidence that this "vanguard of the masses" ideology and set of techniques arose at the same time as fascism and Leninism elsewhere. Goebbels and Hitler looked to the US not only for eugenics programs but also for propaganda techniques. Interesting, no? How very exceptional of this shining city on a hill!

PS: Just saw this: Neuroscience and Moral Politics: Chomsky’s Intellectual Progeny

Here's my take on the article:

I’m not an expert in these areas, but I have some background in evolution and the history of biology. I tend to cringe a bit at any kind of biologically determinist argument, even if I like the conclusion. When all is said and done, this is what we know:

(1) Humans can act horribly.
(2) Humans can act wonderfully.
(3) And everything in between.

Now, teasing out or separating the biological from the psychological, sociological, economic, political, etc., reasons for (1), (2), and (3) above is basically impossible.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We all know that well-fed, secure people who interact in ways that encourage empathy, as Roy and Solomon point out, tend to act more in the (1) mode. Thus, who really cares about the provenance? I’m willing to believe that all aspects of human nature have a biological substrate at some point in the evolutionary past — in fact, there is no other rational alternative. I don’t see what that does for us, and sounds like “God made us good/bad” in new garb.

Specifically, if ideological beliefs can swamp supposedly biological impulses, then shouldn’t we concentrate on ideology, not on biology? If you accept the premise of the article, then the obvious conclusion is that ideological commitments at the reflective, deliberative level have swamped and do swamp our biological inheritance (even if you assume that inheritance to be lily-white). Then why talk about biology at all? Given we really don’t know much about these things — as Chomsky and Lewontin have convincingly argued in the case of the evolution of cognition and language; why does ethics get a free pass? — the natural and rational thing to do is to encourage good behavior by structuring society in such a way — all of us, together. I don’t see why we need a scientific “reason” to do so: simple survival requires it.

So, we don’t need biological sanction for more just societies. As far back as Confucius, the principle of universality has sufficed, potentially, to organize a just society (or “juster”). A little reciprocal altruism, a little enlightened self-interest, and — above all — a media and educational system that celebrates such values, is the locus of action. I realize that the author ultimately agrees; I disagree with the usefulness of reaching to the genome, especially for the above reasons.

In conclusion, I guess I have two main points: (1) I don’t really think we can possibly know in any rigorous sense what our “real” evolutionary inheritance is on questions of ethics. (2) I don’t think it much matters, as all we need is the phenomenological or “phenotypic” data to make the necessary changes, many of which are noted in this excellent article. It’s a matter of encouraging the better angels of our nature; no need to deny the obvious devils in that nature, too. Totting up which side — good or bad — predominates is not only impossible but pointless. Let’s assume human nature turns out to tilt toward the devils. So? The result is still the same: organize society to encourage good behavior. Assume, for example, that people are selfish rational profit-maximizers. OK, fine: the challenge is still to convince people of the obvious truths that they are in great danger from global warming and nuclear weapons — they don’t need to care about anyone else; convince them of that (overcome propaganda, that is), and they will act. Convince them that grabbing all you can for yourself and your family will ultimately doom your progeny, and possibly you yourself, to privation or death — and then there will be change. No need for empathy, which is a damn good thing, given that we really have no idea which side predominates, and in what percentage of the population of the species — another key issue. If ethics is a trait, then it varies in the population, even if you assume the author’s premise.

We should all remember that one undeniable evolutionary inheritance is a brain (or mind, if you like) that is amazingly flexible, especially when it comes to ethics, situational or otherwise. Sure, evolution throws down the frame, but we don’t know the dimensions of that frame, and likely never will — certainly not in time to save ourselves! — nor do we know what’s contained inside the frame in any detail, aside from behavior we can observe.

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