Privatized statist propaganda

July 23, 2010

There is a movement that has been growing in this country for the past ten years, that I can see, where Leftists, or progressives, peddle propaganda in a coordinated way in an attempt to sway public opinion away from traditional notions of the relationship between the individual and the state in this country, and towards a more statist or socialist framework. The wrinkle is it appears to all be privately coordinated and financed. This is the sort of thing that, from my understanding of things ten years ago, had traditionally been sponsored by governments to promote a statist regime, or to support a war.

This first became apparent to me when Michael Moore released his so-called documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004. I could not bring myself to go see it, but the descriptions of it from those who had suggested to me that it was nothing more than a professional propaganda piece. The only difference being that people were paying money to see it, and from what I remember it made a good amount of money! At the time I could not reconcile how this could happen. How had propaganda been privatized? I thought that was something only states did. The movie contained a Marxist message of capitalist exploitation of the proletariat (working classes) as so much cannon fodder. Moore uses the expectation of many people that we should be a perfect nation where no one gets hurt, in order to validate a dystopian myth about America, all the while leaving himself smelling like a rose.

Why was it so successful? The best way I can rationalize it is that there were a lot of people on the Left who were disturbed by actions the U.S. was taking in the world, and they sought to find some reason(s) to justify their feelings of distress–a narrative. It’s been my experience that when people feel powerless against events that are out of their control we tend to generate our own myths (ie. conspiracy theories) about those events. Michael Moore perhaps said to himself, “If people are going to make up their own myths anyway, why shouldn’t I make one up for them?” Perhaps it was more thoughtless than that. Maybe it was a “fact-ion” essay (melting fact and fiction together) using real footage, and some doctored images and presentations. We could perhaps understand this in a McLuhanesque way–“the medium is the message”: It’s an opinion he believed in so strongly, he didn’t care if it was based in reality or not. He did not want to have an argument. He wanted his opinion accepted as reality, so he presented it as fact. Through this he could set himself up as the hero of the Left, “exposing the truth,” providing the salve, the validation for their feelings.

What other documentarians showed, after the release of his film, was that Moore had exploited the very people he seemed to sympathize with in his movies. This wasn’t revealed by clever selective editing, but by interviewing the “common people” who were profiled in Moore’s films. He was at least as dishonest towards these people as he accused the evil corporate captains of industry of being.

I should admit that there was a time when I really liked Michael Moore, and what he produced. Even when I became more conservative in my beliefs, I liked that he appeared to stand up to corporate and government corruption, and stuck it to the corporations for moving jobs out of the country, and to the government for promoting the same. That was before I became much more educated (through experience) about what goes on in the political world, and I became more educated (though I still have more to learn, I’m sure) about which government policies worked to promote the health of this country and its people, and which didn’t. I was once a liberal when I was young, until, as the saying goes, “I got mugged by reality.” The old saying goes, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you get older, you have no brain.” Pretty well sums it up.

I’ve read a summary of Marxist philosophy, and a few things stand out (quoting from the article in the bullet points (Update 12-23-2012: The link to the article broke.)):

  • “…according to Marx, reality is governed by economic needs (historical materialism). Economic reality develops according to Hegel’s dialectical principles; that is, reality must deny itself in order to reach a higher degree of being.”
  • “From the notion that all contents of our consciousness are determined by our economic needs it follows equally that each social class has its own science and its own philosophy. An independent, nonparty science is impossible; the truth is whatever leads to success, and practice alone constitutes the criterion of truth.”

The implications of this seem to explain what Michael Moore has done with his movies (though only to benefit himself–“the truth is whatever leads to success”), and what we’ve been seeing the Democrats do, to benefit themselves and their friends, though including the populace in a patronage framework.

During the election cycle of 2007 and 2008 the more observant could see that the press was becoming extreme. I had long known that the press was biased. I experienced it 18 years ago when I was supporting Ross Perot. Regardless of whether he would’ve been a good president or not (I have my doubts, in hindsight), the press still distorted his image and positions. It had long been known in conservative circles that the press preferred Democrats. That’s been true for as long as many people in politics can remember. In the most recent presidential election, though, they were practically swooning. I’ve heard some older newsmen compare it to the way the press treated John F. Kennedy, only they said it was worse.

SNL lampoons CNN’s Democratic Debate (follow link to view)

It was rare if Obama was seriously challenged by the press, and there’s a reason for that. For one thing, Obama didn’t have much of a record to run on. This was part of the strategy from the beginning. Obama was advised by Democrats to run for president as soon as he could, because if he waited, he could be called on the carpet for his legislative record. The other part of it, as has recently been revealed, is that there were many members of the press who were rooting for Obama, some overtly.

TheDailyCaller.com has posted a series of articles about disclosures from a list server called “Journolist,” which was subscribed to by liberal journalists. The first of these articles has set the stage. Others have followed from this same source. What the first article revealed is that these list members were practically coordinating a unified “theme” message with each other, for public consumption, which supported Obama and disparaged his opposition, and independently carrying out political advocacy and strategy for the Obama campaign through their news and opinion coverage. Astute members of the media, who were not part of this cabal, figured this out in 2008 just from looking at press behavior, but here for the first time is evidence of this coordination. Some messages from Journolist reveal a proclivity on the part of a few journalists to just outright lie, acting as independent political hacks.

A few commentators on Fox News declared that 2008 was “the year the news died.” I would have to agree with that assessment. We can look at the above quotes about Marxist philosophy to get an idea of what happened as well. In effect, journalists had become their own self-styled state propagandists. What’s odd is they did this totally without state control. They chose to engage in it, exalting statist or socialist philosophy, and rejecting other points of view. I was confused. Why would they do this? Why would they advocate for a belief system that could someday put them out of business, costing them their careers in journalism, or put them under the thumb of an autocrat? TheDailyCaller has also revealed that some journalists and academics on Journolist have discussed in all seriousness why and how Fox News should be shut down. Fortunately a couple people on the list tried to make everyone aware of the serious implications this would have for the journalistic profession. Will these people look upon their advocacy years from now and wonder if it all was a mistake, because they will have lost their power to speak their minds, regardless of what the First Amendment says? I wonder.

I saw a BBC mini-series on the internet a few years ago, called “The Century of the Self,” which talked about the history of the field of public relations, and the profound impact it’s had on our society. It was produced in 2002. It provides, I think, a good background on how we got to this point, though it does not tell the whole story. It’s more about the techniques that have been employed, and some about the motivation to use them. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to put this in my blog, but I’ve lacked the context. I think it also provides a good background into how Obama got elected, though it of course does not talk about him.

Edward Bernays was the inventor of privatized propaganda, called “public relations” or “PR.” The practice of public relations is used regularly in our society. Corporations use it. The media uses it, typically to burnish its image of legitimacy. Politicians use it. Political action groups and interests groups definitely use it. Celebrities and “common people” who are thrust into the spotlight definitely use it (if they don’t, their public reputation may be ruined, or the message they want to convey may lose legitimacy among the media, and in public opinion). The press is definitely influenced by the practice of public relations. I’ve seen again and again how they don’t consider people or events relevant without some sort of public relations treatment of them.

Bernays was inspired by the propaganda operation that President Woodrow Wilson had developed and used to pump up allied support at home and abroad for World War I. Bernays had the idea, “If propaganda works in times of war, maybe it will work in peacetime as well.” Bernays was a nephew of the famed Sigmund Freud. He used Freud’s theories of the psyche, and the practices of the developing field of psychoanalysis, to create the field of public relations. He became a consultant who developed PR programs for both business and government. Public relations and psychoanalysis seem to have evolved together. The idea of the focus group, used by marketers and political consultants alike, was developed out of the practice of group psychotherapy, though the goals were changed somewhat to suit the purposes of these fields (marketers and political consultants)–It wasn’t directed at healing the psyche, but at selling products and candidates, making people feel like they need them, even if they don’t. Sometimes these practices worked as expected by their practitioners. Other times they failed disastrously.

Public relations, employed by industry and government, has single-handedly transformed our country from a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers, which does not think much, but instead feels, and makes decisions based on how we feel about things. That was the goal, and it’s accomplished it. Along with that comes certain expectations that are destructive to a civil society in the world, a legitimate point that this documentary makes. It’s one I hope people will pay special attention to, because it has implications for our future. The public’s decisions about our society are heavily influenced by the mass-emotion-altering techniques of public relations.

I found this series to be very revealing and informative about the history of the U.S. during the 20th century, and beyond. Keep in mind, though, as you watch it that it has a social democratic bias.

The Century of the Self:

Part 1 – Happiness Machines

Part 2 – The Engineering of Consent

Part 3 – There Is A Policeman Inside Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed

Part 4 – Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering

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The road to serfdom

June 19, 2010

This is one of Glenn Beck’s best shows (from June 8). The conversation he has with Thomas Woods, Jr. of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Yuri Maltsev of Carthage College is amazing. Listen very carefully to what Woods says. What he reveals is that in the 20th century, over and over and over again, and possibly in recent years as well, we the people have been fooled by a combination of market failures and supposed leaders who come along and confidently tell us that under their plan we will never experience this failure again. All that their plans do is set the stage for the next failure which inevitably occurs. The point is not that their plans cause the next failure (even though they do). The point is, as Beck points out, that this is what market economies DO! They rise and fall. It’s in their nature. Our supposed leaders never solve the problem, yet they assure us each time that “this time” will do the trick. By the time the next market failure happens we either conclude that we were lied to, or we forget that some past leader had put a supposed “solution” in place. The problem is not that their plans fail, it’s that their plans often have an ulterior purpose. They tell you that the plan is a salve for the problem we all want solved (which is a false hope), when all it really does is satisfy the desires of an interest group. The idea that the plan was for you was just marketing. It wasn’t for you. It was for someone else.

Each “plan” along the way compounds the previous problem. As years pass we forget the past “solutions”. We think they’ve always been with us, and just become a part of the “established order”. We feel secure knowing that they’re there, or we’re not even conscious of them anymore.

Each “solution” increases the power of the state, and takes away a little of your freedom. In this context I’m talking about, it’s not necessarily a legal restriction on your freedom. It could be the fact that the federal government has the ability to inflate the currency you use to conduct transactions and save for your retirement. It could be that it allows the government to mismanage its fiscal situation, raising interest rates that impact your ability to do what you need to do, both vices making everything you depend on cost more, sapping your wealth, your future. This has political implications as Friedrich Hayek says in his book, “The Road to Serfdom”, leading to a country that is less and less free, and eventually turns into a dictatorship, where the common people are all serfs of the state. This could happen because we the people are ignorant and do not understand the nature of our own systems. Instead we’re always trying to change it to make it “better”, screwing it up further, and always in a state of denial.

The road to serfdom is not inevitable. We can change course if we learn to recognize what it means to live in liberty: socially, politically, legally, and economically, and understand that this is the best system yet devised–warts and all. Any attempt to improve on it should be taken in small steps with great care, and always, always, always in most cases err on the side of individual liberty, as Woods said. Any attempt to do otherwise will likely lead to disaster.

Edit 6-21-10: The focus of this article is the economic means by which we happen to restrict our freedom. However, I did mention a legal component. To be clear, there’s a caveat I would apply to the above paragraph in the case of state security. I still believe as I have long believed, taking a lesson from 9/11, that if there is a conflict between protecting individual liberty and protecting that state which protects our liberty, I would err on the side of protecting the state over our liberty. Otherwise we could end up in a paradoxical situation that’s analogous to a saying I’ve heard about in the Far East: “One man, one vote, one time.” In other words, by erring on the side of individual liberty, even to the point of risking the security of the state, we could end up losing our freedom that way as well.

Below is a video I found a while back done by Econstories.tv. It’s an entertaining “rap” contest between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. It focuses in on their economic theories.

What I like about this video is it shows the intuitive notion that Keynes presents, something that seems to make sense to most people. Hayek presents a non-intuitive point of view, that it’s the boom, caused by artificially low interest rates (created by the Federal Reserve Bank), which you need to be wary of, not the bust, because it’s the boom that potentially leads to a horrendous financial collapse. It all depends on what created the boom.

Keynesian economic theory dominated the 20th century since the 1930s. It got its “big break” during the Great Depression. There was a brief period in the 1980s where it was rejected in favor of Hayek’s and Milton Friedman’s theories. But Keynesian theory has since come back to life in the political world. It’s a sad tale. Some in the political class in the developed world realized that Keynesian economics doesn’t work, at least not anymore, and managed to gain power in the 1980s, but the universities never made that realization. They’ve been teaching Keynesian economics as THE established economic theory ever since the middle of the 20th century. They’ve been blithely unaware of what the political class discovered, for a brief time, 30 years ago. This isn’t surprising. Since Keynes’s theory was so dominant, the only university that would hire Hayek as a professor of economics in the U.S. was the University of Chicago. Hayek eventually went back to Austria to continue his work. This is where he lived out his remaining days.

From what I remember, listening to some von Mises Institute lectures, is Hayek advocated that interest rates need to be allowed to “float” (find their own level in the marketplace). This will coordinate times of investment for future production, and times of consumption when the new production can be put to use by the economy. Allowing for this requires delaying gratification in our society. It means that consumers need to become more thrifty sometimes. What we’ve had for the last 20 years, perhaps longer, is government policy, coordinated with Fed policy, that always tries to drive consumption, spending, and gratification. It interrupts the investment cycle, thereby leaving little room for development of new forms of production.

My own theory from experience is that in this environment the investment is only in optimizing old forms of production, which is cheaper, and is compatible with low capital reserves (low savings rate). This leads to more automation, possibly joblessness and flat wages, because bold new ideas, which tend to be more capital-intensive, labor-intensive, and require creativity, are discouraged in the economy.

A good documentary mini-series on Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman was produced by PBS in 2002 called “Commanding Heights: The battle for the world economy”. When I saw this it was the first time I had heard of Hayek.