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Bookcase: "Propaganda" by Edward Bernays

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Propagandais a little volume, written nearly 90 years ago by Edward Bernays, who happened to be the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Both he and Walter Lippmann –who authored Public Opinion– wrote about the “manufacture of consent.” Or how to manipulate and control public opinion.

I have three observations to share today about this work: 1) Its general theme about manipulation of the “mass mind” is more important than ever; 2) Much of it is outdated because the mechanics of propaganda today have grown ever more toxic; 3) It seems as though the folks most interested in manipulating the mass mind are the same people who control the study of propaganda in academia. I see virtually no discussion in the public square about how propaganda works.

The general theme of Bernays’ book can be condensed in this assertion:

“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way our democratic society is organized.  Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

So does this mean we all accept our ideas from these "men we have never heard of" for the common good, like obeying traffic laws?  Or does it mean we cooperate in building a mechanized society that attempts to squash civil inquiry in order to promote a monolithic agenda of central control?  Here’s another nugget from Bernays:

“We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.”

In totalitarian fashion, Bernays sees this as a good thing, that controlling people’s behavior is necessary to avoid chaos and confusion in society. Bernays also stated that “Business today is taking the public into partnership.”  That may have seemed true in 1928, but it's now outdated. I'd say it’s actually the other way around.  The government is absorbing and amassing corporations at breakneck speed today. Whereas the propaganda of yesterday was more focused on the manufacture of consent, today the main efforts of propagandists seem to be the squashing of dissent in order to protect its monolithic machine. Most eerie to me is that those who would promote independent thought do not seem to be in the forefront of the study of social psychology and propaganda methods.   Instead, the study of propaganda and communications seems to be controlled by folks in our universities who have an affinity for central planning. For example, the author of the introduction to this 2005 edition of Propaganda is Mark Crispin Miller who seems cozy enough with politicians who seek to build a centrally-controlled society built on PC-controlled group think. In fact, the entire field of behavioral insight appears to be dominated by people who want to regulate our minds to the nth degree.  Many come out of the University of Chicago, including Cass Sunstein, Obama’s former regulatory czar, and co-author of Nudge. The extreme left linguist Noam Chomsky is another master of explaining propaganda and yet he is fine with the dictates of political correctness and seems intent on squashing independent thought in order to build a centralized state.  It doesn't take much reading between his lines to see this.  This is exactly the sort of hoarding of information about self-awareness that Doris Lessing warned against, and which I discussed in a previous post. I think the best antidote to living under a tyranny of extremist thinking is to cultivate truly independent thinking.  And independent thinking does not come about through adherence to political correctness. It happens through real relationships built on real trust with real people in real communities.

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