We have shown in previous Media Alerts how facts, ideas and voices in our culture are filtered by a propaganda system promoting the goals of powerful interests. This is not achieved through any kind of conspiracy but through the operation of market forces allied with “man’s capacity of not observing what he does not want to observe”, such that “he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it”, in the words of psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan.
But how far do the effects of this system of filtering extend into our ideas about ourselves and the world?
Consider, for example, that the same filtering influences the literature we read. Noam Chomsky argues that George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 (both standard school texts) are as highly-regarded as they are, not because they provide particularly astute insights into modern systems of tyranny, but because they constituted suitable satirical attacks against our long-time enemy the Soviet Union. Chomsky comments:
“Fame, Fortune and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies; those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment. George Orwell is famous for Animal Farm and 1984, which focus on the official enemy. Had he addressed the more interesting and significant question of thought control in relatively free and democratic societies, it would not have been appreciated, and instead of wide acclaim, he would have faced silent dismissal or obloquy.”
(Noam Chomsky – Deterring Democracy, Hill And Wang, 1992, p.372)
Historian Howard Zinn explains Plato’s standing as one of the “untouchables” of modern culture by the fact that he advocated blind obedience to government, and thus has long been in favour with governments and educational systems working to instil the ‘right’ attitudes in the young. In the Crito, for example, Plato has Socrates refuse to escape from prison on the following grounds, here paraphrased by Zinn:
“‘No, I must obey the law. True, Athens has committed an injustice against me by ordering me to die for speaking my mind. But if I complained about this injustice, Athens could rightly say: ‘We brought you into this world, we raised you, we educated you, we gave you and every other citizen a share of all the good things we could’. Socrates accepts this, saying: ‘By not leaving Athens, I agreed to obey its laws. And so I will go to my death’.”
(Howard Zinn, Failure To Quit, Common Courage Press, 1993, p.154)
It is important to be aware of the anti-democratic nature of these arguments and of the high regard in which they are held in modern ‘democratic’ states, Zinn argues, because they are a way of thinking which every nation-state drums into the heads of its citizens from the earliest possible age.
In their book Political Shakespeare, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield even dare to suggest that one reason why Shakespeare has been so popular for so long is because his writing promotes an essentially right-wing view of the world, one suitable to the long-standing requirements of the ruling elite. They quote academic Rachel Sharp, who writes:
“The power relations which are peculiar to market society are seen as how things have always been and ought to be. They acquire a timelessness which is powerfully legitimised by a theory of human nature… Political struggles to alter present-day social arrangements are seen as futile for ‘things are as they are’ because of man’s basic attributes and nothing could ever be very different.”
(Quoted Dollimore and Sinfield, Political Shakespeare, Manchester University Press, 1985, p.138)
This was certainly the view of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who wrote that Shakespeare’s plays have continued to be admired for so long because they “correspond to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours”.
(Quoted, George Orwell, Inside The Whale And Other Essays, Penguin, 1962, p.104)
Our ideas about the world are distorted in any number of ways: North Koreans are targeted as the ‘bad guys’ in the latest James Bond movie, while video games encourage children to track and kill Saddam Hussein. During the Cold War, endless articles and books promoted fears of a Soviet conspiracy plotting to weaken Western defences to the point where a surprise attack could be launched. Between 1948 and 1954, Hollywood made more than forty anti-communist films with titles like “I Married A Communist” and “I Was A Communist For The FBI”. Large-circulation magazines were titled, “How Communists Get That Way” and “Communists Are After Your Child”. Capitalists were after children, too, promoting comic strip heroes like Captain America, who declared:
“Beware, commies, spies, traitors, and foreign agents! Captain America, with all loyal, free men behind him, is looking for you.”
(Quoted Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Colophon, 1990, p.428)
Around this time, US librarians refused to stock Frank L. Baum’s Wizard Of Oz series of books because Baum wrote of how, in his imagined society, “there were no poor people… because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. The people were her children and she cared for them. Each person was given freely by his neighbours whatever he required for his use, which is as much as anyone may reasonably desire”.
(Quoted, Gore Vidal, United States, Random House, 1993, p.1103)
Though not exactly communism, Gore Vidal notes, it was close enough to offend the powers that be:
“Essentially our educators are Puritans who want to uphold the Puritan work ethic. This is done by bringing up American children in such a way that they will take their place in society as diligent workers and unprotesting consumers. Any sort of literature that encourages a child to contemplate alternative worlds might incite him, later in life, to make changes in the iron Puritan order that has brought us, along with missiles and atomic submarines, the assembly line at Detroit where workers are systematically dehumanised.”
In our time, the economic correctness of corporate Puritanism is everywhere to be found. David Reidnauer at the National Centre for Public Policy Research, a conservative US flak machine, has argued that “Environmental education is engaging children in politics in primary school and, frankly, is indoctrination.”
As a result of this kind of pressure, teachers are warned not to discuss subjects such as wilderness preservation, cattle grazing or the reintroduction of the wolf into national park land. In Meridian, Idaho, school board guidelines state: “Discussion should not reflect negative attitudes against business or industry.” Teachers are ordered not to promote activism; planting trees, raising money to save whales, writing letters, protesting against polluting industries or rainforest destruction, are all out.
By contrast, children are remorselessly targeted by big business advertising campaigns with little protest from the media. The US Consumers Union estimates that 30,000 commercial messages are targeted at American children each year. The operative mindset is indicated by a senior vice-president of Grey Advertising:
“It isn’t enough to just advertise on television… You’ve got to reach kids throughout their day – in school, as they’re shopping at the mall… or at the movies. You’ve got to become part of the fabric of their lives.”
(Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.163)
The Chief Executive of Prism Communications puts the years of innocence in their proper perspective:
“They aren’t children so much as what I like to call ‘evolving consumers’.”
Psychologist Erich Fromm described how, not just literature, politics and the mass media, but our deepest personal, ethical and spiritual beliefs are subject to the influence of what he called “social filters”, which work to promote the status quo.
Because corporate capitalist society depends on a workforce engaged in machine-like production and relentless consumption, Fromm argued, it ceaselessly promotes the idea that these are the inevitable aspirations of humankind. Thus, mainstream society tries to persuade us, for example, that economic ‘success’ through high status material consumption, and the de-repression of blocked sexual impulses (said to be at the root of all neurosis) are paths to happiness rooted in human nature. These claims, Fromm believed, are entirely fraudulent:
“Both the ‘economic’ man and the ‘sexual’ man are convenient fabrications whose alleged nature – isolated, social, greedy and competitive – makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism.”
(Fromm, The Sane Society, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, p.77)
Fromm even explained how his own profession of psychotherapy had been selected and promoted to support the status quo:
“The aim of therapy is often that of helping the person to be better adjusted to existing circumstances, to ‘reality’ as it is frequently called; mental health is often considered to be nothing but this adjustment… [Thus] the psychologists, using the ‘right’ words from Socrates to Freud, become the priests of industrial society, helping to fulfil its aims by helping the individual to become the perfectly adjusted organisation man.”
(Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, pp.131-132)
Fromm’s theory of “social filters” predicts that the theory itself is unlikely to pass through the filters, but will instead be marginalised and ignored by the mainstream. So did the theory accurately predict its own fate? In his biography of Fromm, Daniel Burston notes, intriguingly:
“American psychiatrists of the Freudian persuasion simply ignored Fromm, as the paucity of references and lack of a single substantive analysis in the orthodox American psychoanalytic literature demonstrates… Indeed, the grotesque distortions by Fromm’s critics and would-be expositors attest to the validity of Fromm’s theory of social filters.”
(Burston, The Legacy Of Erich Fromm, Harvard University Press, 1991, p.185)
Evidence for Fromm’s theory is all around us. Historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf notes that the growth in workers’ expectations and power during the 1940s and 1950s was a major factor in shaping elite policy, leading to a fierce business backlash intended to mould US public opinion. The response was immense in scale, involving all the leading business organisations, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Committee for Economic Development, the National Association of Manufacturers, and industry-specific bodies:
“Manufacturers orchestrated multimillion dollar public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines, radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in the principles and benefits of the American economic system… employers sought to undermine unionism and address shop-floor conflict by building a separate company identity or company consciousness among their employees. This involved convincing workers to identify their social, economic, and political well-being with that of their specific employer and more broadly with the free enterprise system.”
(Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.6)
In 1950 the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) distributed almost four and a half million pamphlets to students. By 1954, over 3.5 million students watched sixty thousand showings of NAM films. That year school superintendents estimated the investment in free corporate material at $50 million, about half the amount public schools spent on standard textbooks annually.
The corporate manipulation of culture is by now so widespread that it is often accepted as natural – the impact is such that young people have been persuaded to wear corporate logos as symbols of rebellious ‘cool’! Retailing analyst Victor Lebow explains:
“Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… We need things, consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”
(Quoted Sharon Beder, op., cit, p.161)
These deeper implications of the propaganda model are initially depressing and bewildering, but ultimately, we believe, extremely positive. Depressing, because the reality is that our society has a vested interest in promoting obedience, selfishness, fear and hatred of official enemies, passivity, dissatisfaction and even despair. Elite interests are happy for us to feel powerless and hopeless: ‘Nobody cares about anything any more, nothing will ever change.’ Rather than focusing on helping others, we need to be permanently focused on ourselves, permanently dissatisfied, and permanently seeking – but, crucially, never finding – satisfaction through profitable consumption.
The natural result of this endless promotion of profitable dissatisfaction – ‘If you only looked/ dressed/lived/married/drove/shopped/holidayed like this you would be happy’ – is deep dissatisfaction with our lives.
In 2002, the Observer reported that around one third of British people suffer from serious depression at any one time. A 25-year-old today is between three and ten times more likely to suffer a major depression than one in 1950. Young people with the highest living standards since records began are deeply miserable during the ‘best years of their lives’. Two-thirds of Britons aged between 15 and 35 feel depressed or unhappy. In July 2001, the Boston Globe reported that more than one quarter of US teenagers were highly dissatisfied with their lives. Researchers said this unhappiness put them at increased risk of violent and aggressive behaviour.
Accounting for the epidemic levels of depression in modern society, psychologist Oliver James, author of Britain On The Couch, says of the depressed:
“They were led to believe that anything was possible. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, they still end up working very hard to make somebody else rich. And the advertisements which encouraged them to believe consumption was the root of all happiness have been strongly instrumental in creating discontent with their bodies and personalities… They were soaked in the values of the winner-loser culture and brought up to believe that the pursuit of status and wealth was the root to fulfilment. This has turned out to be manifestly not true.”
(Quoted, Ben Summerskill, ‘Retail therapy makes you depressed’, The Observer, May 6, 2001)
To give only one more example of this manufacturing of discontent, between 1968 and 1972, the number of diet-related articles in women’s magazines rose by 70%. The escalation continued exponentially there as elsewhere. By 1979 the number of diet-related articles in the US popular press per year had reached sixty. By January 1980, there were 66 in just one month. The profits reaped were enormous – by 1990, the global dieting industry had become worth $32 billion; the cosmetics industry $20 billion and the cosmetic surgery industry $300 million.
Between 1966 and 1969, in exact correspondence to the new media emphasis on thinness, two US studies showed that the percentage of teenage girls who thought they were fat rose from 50% to 80%. By 1985, 90% of women said they thought they weighed too much. This reflects the corporate campaign as, according to Dr C. Wayne of George Washington University, the average model used by advertisers is thinner than 95% of the population. By 1995, fully 10% of all US women (and as many as 20% of all US women students) suffered from serious eating disorders. Of these, 150,000 were dying each year. American writer Naomi Woolf commented in 1991:
“Magazines, consciously or half-consciously, must project the attitude that looking one’s age is bad because $650 million of their ad revenue comes from people who would go out of business if visible age looked good. They need, consciously or not, to promote women’s hating their bodies enough to go profitably hungry, since the advertising budget for one third of the nation’s food bill depends on their doing so by dieting.”
(Woolf, The Beauty Myth, Vintage, 1991, p.84)
A crucial reason for modern levels of unhappiness, malaise and depression, then, we believe, can be identified in the impact of a filtering system distorting even our most fundamental ideas about ourselves and the world around us. Corporate interests need us to pursue a version of human happiness that serves profits but not people. The results include individual depression, global environmental collapse, and wars for control of natural resources in countries like Iraq.
In Part 2 we will discuss the possibility that there are more rational approaches to achieving human and social well-being, and that these, too, have been filtered out by the propaganda system.