I’m not quite sure what age I was when I decided that a great deal of what I was told in life was untrue, but I know I was pretty young—perhaps seven or eight.
I’d had my suspicions way before that, but I didn’t consciously reach that conclusion initially. I wanted to believe that conventional wisdom was correct, if only because it was clear that life would be much easier if one went with the flow. Besides, questioning and analyzing everyone and everything—thinking, if you will—was, and remains, hard work. It was much easier to accept things whether they made sense of not—whether they seemed right or not.
If you did that, you were accepted. If you didn’t, you were “not one of us.” And you made people uncomfortable. Accordingly, the sensible thing to do—surely, the only thing to do—was to conform.
Most were clearly happy to do so. A very few of us were not.
It was not in our nature.
What were some of the things I was brought up to believe? Let me give you a taste.
- That the British Empire was the natural order of things—and beneficial to mankind.
- That British boarding-schools offered the best all round education.
- That people of color were, by definition, inferior to whites.
- That the villainous Germans had started the war for no reason at all.
- That Ireland should have remained inside the British Empire.
- That the Irish were inferior to the British.
- That women should know their place and leave the leadership role to men.
- That homosexuality was a vice, was rightly illegal, and should be condemned at every opportunity.
- That practically everything to do with sex was a sin.
- That only Catholics could get into heaven.
- That it was a sin to eat fish on Fridays.
And so it went—it was a long list--and when you are in boarding school, you are a captive audience. You can’t escape such propaganda.
The word ‘propaganda’ loomed large in my consciousness from an early age. I had been born in 1944, had heard endless stories about the war, and my grandmother was heavily involved with helping refugees. That gave me plenty of people to question—and that I certainly did.
Few would talk about combat—it wasn’t the done thing in those days—but virtually all would discuss other matters like the Blitz, rationing, shortages, what they had thought about at various stages, and the Germans—and why they had done what they did. Again, and so soon after WW I (And it is worth recalling that the Germans had invaded France in 1870 as well—and in 1815. One way or another, they seemed to be a bloody-minded bunch despite all their kultur).
One matter which obsessed me was how Hitler had come to power. How could ordinary decent people elect such a monster—or were ordinary people that decent?
It’s a matter I still ponder.
It seemed to me, exposed to his image again and again through newsreels (televisions were rare in those days) that he was a singularly unattractive figure, so I was puzzled by his appeal. I also thought he was a terrible speaker though whether I was fit to judge when still only a young child—who did not speak German—is a good question. That said, even at that age, I found Churchill compelling.
In contrast, Hitler came across like a raucous buffoon. However, he was a buffoon who was elected into office. Hitler didn’t have to seize power. It was handed to him. We tend to forget that fact—and we shouldn’t. It’s pivotal.
I saw as many newsreels as I did—often many times in a single session—because my mother liked to dump me in a newsreel cinema while going about other business. Since the newsreels were packaged with cartoons, she knew I would stay glued to my seat even if I had to watch the same program repeatedly—and in those days there were usherettes to keep an eye on things.
What is an usherette? These were women with dimmed flashlights who showed you to your seat and tried to keep the most dubious behavior of the audience in check. I’ll leave the details to your imagination. At the ages we are talking about, I was entirely screen focused.
I loved the movies and newsreels in particular. They were a window on an exciting world. I enjoyed some cartoons and tolerated others. I loved Bugs Bunny, but thought Mickey Mouse was a wimp. Popeye converted me completely to spinach. I remain addicted.
The answers I was given again and again seemed to coalesce around the word ‘propaganda’—but I was led to believe that propaganda was particularly evil and unique to the Nazis and people like Goebbels, their Minister of Propaganda. I envisaged it as a sort of malevolent ray, near impossible to resist—and Goebbels looked like a movie villain. Most of that crew did.
When I had my epiphany that I was adrift in a world where lies outnumbered the truth by a fair margin, I didn’t immediately appreciate that propaganda was practiced by all sides, and at all levels, but instead contented myself with being skeptical of the world around me, but no more.
Such an attitude still made me a difficult child to handle, and certainly limited my popularity amongst my peers—though I made some very good friends—but it helped me academically. Good teachers tend to warm to the intellectually curious, and I was blessed with some exceptionally fine teachers. True, I loathed boarding-school—I regarded it as prison—but there were trade-offs. I had access to some some sterling minds and there were the libraries.
After I became an adult—less a date than a process—I became increasingly dubious of much of what passed for a successful lifestyle and mentally rejected much of it. I learned that it was wiser to keep many of my opinions to myself—because they would be considered outright heresy—but I remember being completely appalled by the notion that one should blithely spend one’s life doing something you didn’t enjoy for money.
Good grief, your time was short and not something you could purchase.
I was unconvinced of the merits of living one’s life being dependent on the automobile, regarded commuting as a dubious practice, and increasingly began to believe that corporate power was shaping up to be as potentially dangerous as fascism and communism.
Above all, I craved time to read, think, and write—to explore intellectually. It seemed to me that the answers to many of the issues that confronted us were out there, but somehow we weren’t taking the time to look. In fact, society seemed to be structured rather like boarding school where the whole idea was to keep you either working or distracted (normally through sports), when you weren’t asleep—because otherwise you might start thinking for yourself.
Distraction is a major component of the conditioning process—as is the constant repetition of the Big Lie combined with a constant undercurrent of fear, financial insecurity, and the threat—and use—of violence.
As I have said: remarkably like boarding school.
I still hold to the view that the answers to many societal issues are at hand. We are faced with some ‘wicked problems’ (a philosophical term, by the way) but the solutions to most of the issues which prevent a good quality of life in the U.S. lie within easy reach—and are eminently affordable. It’s just that we choose not to avail of them, largely because of ideology and its close friend, greed. Another factor that comes into play, all too often, is an attitude of superiority and self-righteousness whereby we deny the less fortunate because they are the less fortunate—and, therefore, deserve their fate. It thrives in the South. It is rampant there.
Ideology and rational thinking have a hard time coexisting. In fact rigid adherence to a set of opinions in the absence of proof, and in defiance of the facts—though common (perhaps even normal)—is the very antithesis of rationality.
And here is the kicker. Ideology is propaganda based, and governments do not have a monopoly of propaganda.
In fact, one of the greatest propaganda victories achieved in the U.S. has been for major corporations to demonize government while at the same time:
- Denying U.S. workers the rights enjoyed by virtually all workers in the rest of the developed world.
- Abolishing defined pensions.
- Shifting an increasing proportion of healthcare costs onto the workforce.
- Both neutralizing and demonizing the unions.
- Largely eliminating job security.
- Diminishing the availability of well-paid jobs.
- Exporting millions of manufacturing jobs.
- Causing the earnings of most workers to decline.
- Suborning Congress and government at all levels.
- Switching the tax burden from the rich to the less well off.
It adds up to deception and hypocrisy on a scale that would have had Goebbels reeling in admiration—and it’s an ongoing program. It is in active use.
In the U.S., the evidence would seem to indicate that propaganda both works and rules. On just about every level, this is a manipulated nation. From the time you are born to the time you die, you are conditioned to follow a certain pattern of behavior by a stream of propaganda unprecedented in world history—as are the means of delivery. The message is delivered by any and all means, and we first encounter it in the womb. In a word, it is relentless, much of it advocates a consumer culture—and its factual content is untrue.
Quite how we can consider ourselves independent thinkers in the face of such a fire-hose of misrepresentation defies rational thought in itself. We hold such thoughts because we are conditioned to hold just such thoughts (regardless of evidence to the contrary). In fact, conditioning forms the basis of much of what constitutes ‘The American Way of Life.’
The current consensus is that ‘Big Government’ is the villain of the piece despite the fact that any Americans love individual programs—such as Social Security—and depend on them. This is decidedly not rational, but it’s a pervasive view nonetheless.
We would be better served if we examined who really pulls the levers of power. There, the answer is clear.
Corporate power controls the U.S. and virtually controls the government. So who controls corporate power? A relatively small number of very rich people plus their henchmen.
In a way, the structure is positively feudal with the barons standing in for the rich, the management and professional classes equating to the barons’ armed followers, and the oppressed middle class and the poor being broadly similar to the long-suffering peasantry.
But feudal society was headed by a king?
Very true. Our modern equivalent is the presidency. In both cases, executive power—whatever be the theory—was (and is) heavily constrained by the barons (whether they be feudal or corporate).
The most disturbing manifestation of corporate power is the degree to which it controls our minds, and, thus, our behavior. It conditions how we think to a much greater extent than we are prepared to admit. We like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers in the finest American tradition.
In practice, few of us are—and all of us are influenced. In reality, most of us are socially controlled to a degree which is truly alarming. Tragically, most of us are either unaware of that fact—or just don’t care. But even if we are aware and determined to resist, we are influenced, Some might not not be persuaded, but—I am truly ashamed to admit—we are all influenced. Propaganda works.
We are conditioned not to care==and to respond to our national mythology—even if it has scant basis in fact.
America remains the finest country in the world, is the richest country in the world, offers the greatest economic opportunity in the world, is the most socially mobile, boasts the most prosperous Middle Class, is the most innovative, has the best healthcare system in the world and—above all—is free, and the world’s greatest democracy.
Americans are self-reliant rugged individualists who neither want nor need more than a minimum of government in their lives. And they certainly don’t need unions.
Conditioning works. It is particularly effective at conditioning us to believe we are not conditioned—and it is positively brilliant at persuading us to vote against our own interests. We are a propagandist's dream.
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
― Adolf Hitler
The fates are not without a profound sense of irony. They are presiding over a tragedy,
This is a great country—which has lost its way—which (mostly) doesn’t seem to know it..