Propaganda 101 (and remaining nauseously optimistic for the midterms)

The aim of propaganda is the same today as it was when, hundreds of years ago, a Pope first came up with the idea of telling a compelling story, in all the languages of the known world, to propagate the One True Faith.  Motivated by true faith in the absolute truth, armies are capable of waging endless holy war. 

Propaganda is the same as ever, except that the techniques have greatly improved and the means of spreading and receiving it are now in everybody’s pocket, charging next to our beds to be seen as soon as we open our eyes.  Plus, we in the West are primed for propaganda and the non-critical thinking it produces.  We live in a culture where, since our earliest memories, we are bombarded by countless ads targeted directly to people our age, as we grow up.  We learn to mostly tune out ubiquitous ads (at great cost to our attention spans and ability to think critically), but ad-makers learn to influence us anyway.

A short history of American propaganda/advertising was laid out in season three of a great podcast called Drilled [1].  The skinny version is that Edward Bernays (see episode 6 summary [2]), the brilliant nephew of Sigmund Freud, arrived in the US prior to World War One and worked for Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, the propaganda department tasked with making American men enlist to gloriously fight the enemy in a ridiculous war. They whipped up enthusiasm for The War to End War, The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy (and the war to ensure that American bankers did not lose a shit load of money if Britian and France lost the war).  Bernays distinguished himself with his astute psychological understanding of what motivates humans to fight to the death. Hitler was a great admirer of their ruthlessly effective propaganda and modeled his own propaganda on their zero-sum approach.

After the war Bernays brilliantly applied these same psychological techniques to commercial advertising, which he styled Public Relations.  He is regarded as the Father of Modern Advertising and became wealthy and very well-respected as an American thought leader.   One of his great coups was immensely increasing the market for cigarettes by making it a matter of asserting liberty, freedom and equality for women to smoke.   He also made a tidy sum helping the Oil Industry clean up their filthy image and advance their profit-driven interests.  

Why do millions of people believe plain, easily disproved lies?  They are exposed to nothing but propaganda, 24/7, personalized to tickle and outrage their prejudices.  We all want to be right and we respond best to what makes us feel justified, confirms our biases.  If the actual facts don’t support our views, fuck the facts!  Millions will never hear another side of the story, or the “facts” of the case.   That is by design.  Who decides what people will hear?  Billionaires who buy the public forum and reap vast profits from angry traffic on that forum.  Fair is fair.  Get the government out of our bedrooms!

If the 82 year-old husband of a top Democrat, second in line for the presidency, is assaulted with a hammer by a MAGA maniac looking to cripple the man’s powerful wife, right before a crucial election,… here’s an idea!  The 82 year-old is a randy old adulterous homo (and who does Christ despise more than one of those?) who got into a fight with a gay prostitute!!! Take that, libtards!  Click to retweet!  Click!!!  If you love Jesus, and hate homos, for the love of God, click!  I OWN Twitter, bitches!

This is the power of propaganda, boys and girls.  Where there is no dispute as to the facts — SF police witnessed the “alleged” hammer attack by a MAGA man who smashed a glass door to break into the house of his gay “client” — we can create one by sowing a distracting narrative millions will embrace.   Virtually no election fraud ever found in the US?   THAT DOESN’T MEAN THERE IS NOT A TON OF ELECTION FRAUD, YOU LYING FUCKS!   World burning up, wildfires, droughts, floods, apocalyptic killer storms every season?  BURNING FOSSIL FUELS IS GOOD FOR THE EARTH, YOU FUCKING COMMIE RATS!

And so forth.

I am nauseously optimistic about the 2022 midterm election.  I think, however the propagandists spin it, that a vast majority of Americans are sickened by the openly defiant MAGA march toward fascism.  I think triumphant American fascists (who represent at best 39% of us)  did an in-your-fucking-face victory dance a few months too soon after a zealot like Ginni Thomas (likeliest culprit) leaked Alito’s insane Christian Dominionist/medivalist draft to lock in a nakedly partisan, patriarchal, theocratic opinion clawing back 50 years of hard fought constitutional protection for half of the population.  Women, and men who care about women (most men, believe it or not), should be fucking outraged.   

There are two ways to vent outrage in today’s USA — one is by rioting to prove your lies are TRUE, the other is by voting and getting others to vote, in numbers too big to rig.  I’m hopeful that millions of first time voters, and formerly indifferent voters, are going to turn out to say HELL, NO! to American autocracy.  This is my hope in spite of knowing the diabolical power of propaganda/advertising and endless, lying attack ads.

53 or 54 actual democracy-focused Democrats in the Senate, maintaining even a slim majority in the House, and we have a decent shot to head off the criminals who openly defy all norms and all laws in the name of a higher calling: absolute power for the already obscenely privileged.  As one of their right-wing forebears famously put it (I paraphrase slightly)  “extremism in the cause of owning the fucking blood-drinking, child-molesting, godless commie, fascist Left is no vice.”   Nah, not in our democracy, assholes.

[1]  Here’s the link:

[2] from Drilled:

Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, coined the term “public relations” when propaganda started to become a negative term. His specialty was using psychological know-how to manipulate the masses and orchestrate cultural shifts in his clients’ favor (clients like Standard Oil, the American Tobacco Company, and General Motors). A few decades later, W. Howard Chase built onto that foundation with the idea of issues management—predicting an industry’s potential issues, and manipulating political, social, and cultural forces to neutralize them. Chase is responsible for one of the best-known examples of greenwashing, the so-called “crying Indian ad,” which introduced the idea of “litter bugs” and individual responsibility for pollution. Transcript

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