Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Excerpted from the Alternative Press Review, Fall 1993
...Let me begin by counter-posing two different conceptions of democracy. One conception of democracy has it that a democratic society is one in which the public has the means to participate in some meaningful way in the management of their own affairs and the means of information are open and free....
An alternative conception of democracy is that the public must be barred from managing of their own affairs and the means of information must be kept narrowly and rigidly controlled. That may sound like an odd conception of democracy, but it's important to understand that it is the prevailing conception....
That was a major achievement, and it led to a further achievement. Right at that time and after the war the same techniques were used to whip up a hysterical Red Scare, as it was called, which succeeded pretty much in destroying unions and eliminating such dangerous problems as freedom of the press and freedom of political thought. There was very strong support from the media, from the business establishment, which in fact organized, pushed much of this work, and it was in general a great success.
Among those who participated actively and enthusiastically were the
progressive intellectuals, people of the John Dewey circle, who took great
pride, as you can see from their own writings at the time, in having shown that
what they called the "more intelligent members of the community,"
namely themselves, were able to drive a reluctant population into a war by
terrifying them and eliciting jingoist fanaticism. The means that were used
were extensive. For example, there was a good deal of fabrication of atrocities
by the Huns, Belgian babies with their arms torn off, all
sorts of awful things that you still read in history books. They were all
invented by the British propaganda ministry, whose own committment
at the time, as they put it in their secret deliberations, was "to control
the thought of the world." But more crucially they wanted to control the
thought of the more intelligent members of the community in the
...Walter Lippman, who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy...argued that what he called a "revolution in the art of democracy," could be used to "manufacture consent," that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn't want by the new techniques of propaganda....
...He argued that in a properly-functioning democracy there are classes of citizens. There is first of all the class of citizens who have to take some active role in running general affairs. That's the specialized class. They are the people who analyze, execute, make decisions, and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems. That's a small percentage of the population... Those others, who are out of the small group, the big majority of the population, they are what Lippman called "the bewildered herd." We have to protect ourselves from the trampling and rage of the bewildered herd...
...So we need something to tame the bewildered herd, and that something is this new revolution in the art of democracy: the "manufacture of consent." The media, the schools, and popular culture have to be divided. For the political class and the decision makers have to give them some tolerable sense of reality, although they also have to instill the proper beliefs. Just remember, there is an unstated premise here. The unstated premise -- and even the responsible men have to disguise this from themselves -- has to do with the question of how they get into the position where they have the authority to make decisions. The way they do that, of course, is by serving people with real power. The people with real power are the ones who own the society, which is a pretty narrow group. If the specialized class can come along and say, I can serve your interests, then they'll be part of the executive group. You've got to keep that quiet. That means they have to have instilled in them the beliefs and doctrines that will serve the interests of private power. Unless they can master that skill, they're not part of the specialized class. They have to be deeply indoctrinated in the values and interests of private power and the state-corporate nexus that represents it. If they can get through that, then they can be part of the specialized class. The rest of the bewildered herd just have to be basically distracted. Turn their attention to something else....
...In what is nowadays called a totalitarian state, then a military state, it's easy. You just hold a bludgeon over their heads, and if they get out of line you smash them over the head. But as society has become more free and democratic, you lose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda. The logic is clear. Propaganda is to democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state....
Public relations is a huge industry. They're spending by now something on the order of a billion dollars a year. All along its committment was to controlling the public mind....
...The corporate executive and the guy who cleans the floor all have the
same interests. We can all work together and work for Americanism in harmony,
liking each other. That was essentially the message. A huge amount of effort
was put into presenting it. This is, after all, the business community, so they
control the media and have massive resources... Mobilizing
community opinion in favor of vapid, empty concepts
like Americanism. Who can be against that? Or, to bring it up to date,
"Support our troops." Who can be against that? Or yellow ribbons. Who
can be against that?... The point of public relations
slogans like "Support our troops" is that they don't mean anything.
They mean as much as whether you support the people in
That's all very effective. It runs right up to today. And of course it is carefully thought out. The people in the public relations industry aren't there for the fun of it. They're doing work. They're trying to instill the right values. In fact, they have a conception of what democracy ought to be: It ought to be a system in which the specialized class is trained to work in the service of the masters, the people who own the society. The rest of the population ought to be deprived of any form of organization, because organization just causes trouble. They ought to be sitting alone in front of the TV and having drilled into their heads the message, which says, the only value in life is to have more commodities or live like that rich middle class family you're watching and to have nice values like harmony and Americanism. That's all there is in life. You may think in your own head that there's got to be something more in life than this, but since you're watching the tube alone you assume, I must be crazy, because that's all that's going on over there....
So that's the ideal. Great efforts are made in trying to achieve that ideal. Obviously, there is a certain conception behind it. The conception of democracy is the one that I mentioned. The bewildered herd is a problem. We've got to prevent their rage and trampling. We've got to distract them. They should be watching the Superbowl or sitcoms or violent movies. Every once in a while you call on them to chant meaningless slogans like "Support our troops." You've got to keep them pretty scared, because unless they're properly scared and frightened of all kinds of devils that are going to destroy them from outside or inside or somewhere, they may start to think, which is very dangerous, because they're not competent to think. Therefore it's important to distract them and marginalize them.
It is also necessary to whip up the population in support of foreign adventures. Usually the population is pacifist, just like they were during the First World War. The public sees no reason to get involved in foreign adventures, killing, and torture. So you have to whip them up. And to whip them up you have to frighten them....
To a certain extent then, that ideal was achieved, but never completely.
There are institutions which it has as yet been impossible to destroy. The
churches, for example, still exist. A large part of the dissident activity in
The bewildered herd never gets properly tamed, so this is a constant battle.
In the 1930s they arose again and were put down. In the 1960s there was another
wave of dissidence. There was a name for that. It was called by the specialized
class "the crisis of democracy." Democracy was regarded as entering
into a crisis in the 1960s. The crisis was that large segments of the
population were becoming organized and active and trying to participate in the
political arena. Here we come back to these two conceptions of democracy. By
the dictionary definition, that's an advance in democracy. By the
prevailing conception that's a problem, a crisis that has to be
overcome. The population has to be driven back to the apathy, obedience and
passivity that is their proper state. We therefore
have to do something to overcome the crisis. Efforts were made to achieve that.
It hasn't worked. The crisis of democracy is still alive and well, fortunately,
but not very effective in changing policy. But it is effective in changing
opinion, contrary to what a lot of people believe. Great efforts were made
after the 1960s to try to reverse and overcome this malady. It was called the
"Vietnam Syndrome." The Vietnam Syndrome, a term that began to come
up around 1970, has actually been defined on occasion. The Reaganite
intellectual Norman Podhoretz defined it as "the
sickly inhibitions against the use of military force." There were these
sickly inhibitions against violence on the part of a large part of the public.
People just didn't understand why we should go around torturing people and
killing people and carpet bombing them. It's very dangerous for a population to
be overcome by these sickly inhibitions, as Goebbels
understood, because then there's a limit on foreign adventures. It's necessary,
as the Washington Post put it the other day, rather proudly, to
"instill in people respect for the martial
virtues." That's important. If you want to have a violent society that
uses force around the world to achieve the ends of its own domestic elite, it's
necessary to have a proper appreciation of the martial virtues and none of
these sickly inhibitions about using violence. So that's the
It's also necessary to completely falsify history... There has been a huge
effort since the Vietnam war to reconstruct the
history of that. Too many people began to understand what was really going on. Including plenty of soldiers and a lot of young people who were
involved with the peace movement and others. That was bad. It was
necessary to rearrange those bad thoughts and to restore some form of sanity,
namely, a recognition that whatever we do is noble and
right. If we're bombing
Despite all of this, the dissident culture survived. It's grown quite a lot
since the 1960s. In the 1960s the dissident culture first of all was extremely
slow in developing. There was no protest against the
These are all signs of the civilizing effect, despite all the propaganda, despite all the efforts to control thought and manufacture consent. Nevertheless, people are acquiring an ability and a willingness to think things through. Skepticism about power has grown, and attitudes have changed on many, many issues. It's kind of slow, maybe even glacial, but perceptible and important. Whether it's fast enough to make a significant difference in what happens in the world is another question... Organization has its effects. It means that you discover that you're not alone. Others have the same thoughts that you do. You can reinforce your thoughts and learn more about what you think and believe. These are very informal movements, not like membership organizations, just a mood that involves interactions among people. It has a very noticeable effect. That's the danger of democracy: If organizations can develop, if people are no longer just glued to the tube, you may have all these funny thoughts arising in their heads, sickly inhibitions against the use of military force. That has to be overcome, but it hasn't been overcome.
...There is a very characteristic development going on in the
...[In May of 1987,] the surviving members of the Human Rights Group of El Salvador -- the leaders had been killed -- were arrested and tortured, including Herbert Anaya, who was the director. They were sent to a prison -- La Esperanza (hope) Prison. While they were in prison they continued their human rights work. They were lawyers, they continued taking affidavits. There were 432 prisoners in that prison. They got signed affidavits from 430 of them in which they described, under oath, the torture that they had received: Electrical torture and other atrocities, including, in one case, torture by a North American U.S. major in uniform, who is described in some detail. This is an unusually explicit and comprehensive testimony, probably unique in its detail about what's going on in a torture chamber. This 160-page report of the prisoners' sworn testimony was sneaked out of prison, along with a videotape which was taken showing people testifying in prison about their torture. It was distributed by the Marin County Interfaith Task Force. The national press refused to cover it. The TV stations refused to run it. There was an article in the local Marin County Newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, and I think that's all. No one else would touch it. This was a time when there were more than a few "light-headed and cold-blooded Western intellectuals" who were singing the praises of Jose Napoleon Duarte and of Ronald Reagan. Anaya was not the subject of any tributes. He didn't get on Human Rights Day. He wasn't appointed to anything. He was released in a prisoner exchange and then assassinated, apparently by the U.S.-backed security forces. Very little information about that ever appeared. The media never asked whether exposure of the atrocities -- instead of sitting on them and silencing them -- might have saved his life.
...In February, right in the middle of the bombing campaign, the government
That tells you how a well-functioning propaganda system works. People can
believe that when we use force against
Let's take the question of the reasons for the war. Reasons were offered for
the war. The reasons are: Aggressors cannot be rewarded and aggression must be
reversed by the quick resort to violence. That was the reason for the war.
There was basically no other reason advanced. Can that possibly be the reason
for the war? Does the
...The fact of the matter is, this [
Notice that this is not all that different from what the Creel Commission did in 1916--1917, when within six months it had turned a pacifistic population into raving hysterics who wanted to destroy everything German to save ourselves from Huns who were tearing the arms off Belgian babes. The techniques are maybe more sophisticated, with television and lots of money going into it, but it's pretty traditional. I think the issue, to come back to my original comment, is not simply disinformation and the Gulf crisis. The issue is much broader. It's whether we want to live in a free society or whether we want to live under what amounts to a form of self-imposed totalitarianism, with the bewildered herd marginalized, directed elsewhere, terrified, screaming patriotic slogans, fearing for their lives and admiring with awe the leader who saved them from destruction while the educated masses goose-step on command, repeat the slogans they're supposed to repeat, the society deteriorates at home, we end up serving as a mercenary enforcer state, hoping that others are going to pay us to smash up the world. Those are the choices. That's the choice that you have to face. The answer to those questions is very much in the hands of people exactly like you and me.
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