Living in a “post-truth,” “fake news” world might seem unique to the political halitosis of the Trumpian downturn in American civil discourse. But it’s not. Right from the start of our republic and going well into the 19th century and continuing to this day, a proliferation of printed news outlets proffered their opinions as facts, disguising their biases and associations with sanctimonious claims of journalistic objectivity. The primary challenge for an engaged American citizen has always been to develop intellectual standards with which to judge the believability of those claiming to speak the truth and nothing but truth, even if they are claiming to cure dry skin with moon dust or to whip inflation by pouring gold into the watch pockets of the wealthy.
We have been inundated with claims of miraculous veracity since well before corn flakes were pitched as health food and white supremacy was preached from the pulpits of pseudo academia during the racist “eugenics movement” in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s not hyperbole to say that much of our entire culture is driven by elites of all kinds who want to get the “masses” to think they need to buy what the 1 percent makes and to believe that the policies the 1 percent propose will enrich everyone, even the “herd.”
We live in a culture of fraud. It seems that everyone’s out to take us. This is especially true for women. Everyone who values equal justice under law knows the patriarchy, for instance, has rigged our culture from top to bottom to undervalue and underpay the work of women. Fraud and exploitation go hand in hand.
Yes, social media, the internet, the blogosphere, cell phones and all the modern gadgetry of “connection” have made it seem as if both commercial marketing and the manipulation of “public opinion” have ramped up to hysterical speeds and potencies in the last ten years. The worry of parents and teachers is that America’s manipulative culture has groomed a new audience of the very young and the very impressionable, a worry which is deeply grounded in a growingly common family experience around the country.
President Trump has mastered the modern media of manipulation, tweeting incessantly the fake news about “fake news,” that the “fake news media has NEVER been more Dishonest and Corrupt than it is now.” In one week, his tweets covered everything from soup to nuts. He claimed victory over ISIS, signed an executive order “to protect free speech on college campuses” by ordering a faux balance of views and threatening to pull federal funding if conservatives couldn’t find an audience among the educated. He went so far as to claim that Democrats colluded with Russia to rig the 2016 election (so they’d lose?). Trump is the master of employing one of the most effective “logical fallacies” in the arsenal of brainwashers and propagandists, the “appeal to emotion.” His entire strategy of building “the wall” is built upon the illusion that brown hordes of rapists and drug pushers and gang lords are storming the southern border of our nation. How do we weed out the poop from the palaver? Trump is the master of hoodwinkery. Do we just discount everything he tweets? Do we have to decrypt his pop-offs as a code to a monstrous future? Trump has come to embody our whole culture of political gimcracks, sloganeering gimmickry and policy fraud.
And it’s not just politics. Consumers of “news” these days are feeling whipsawed by what we’re told is “real.” Our information seesaw speeds up and down when we read that a “new study” concludes that eating eggs, for example, is bad after all. This comes on the heels of being told half a year ago that we can eat a dozen or more eggs a week because they are so good for us. Even the mainstream media presents “new studies” as definitive truths without doing the due diligence on their own to put the new study into an old and ongoing context of controversy and conflicting findings.
Modern readers in our polarized and over-advertised day and age find themselves spending much of their mental life judging the veracity of product claims, news stories, and political utterances. It’s a never ending process. And we get hornswoggled all the time because our political culture and economy is all about dirty tricks and sales pitches. Watch a couple of hours of lowbrow TV and you’ll see ad after ad touting the miracle cures of this or that prescription drug (which also has death as a side effect we’re told in the small print voice of a very fast talker). And we’re told with authoritative sweetness to badger our doctors into prescribing these crazy-named drugs for us, as if we knew better than they do. And why? Because a super-slick ad told us to. How pathetic is that?
The trickery of our culture is seen clearly in how plastics manufacturers talked us into an all but useless passion for recycling their products so we’d be preoccupied with our own false guilt while the manufacturers themselves keep churning out millions of tons of whale-killing plastic bags and thingamabobs. As Matt Wilkins wrote in the July issue of Scientific American, “the greatest success of Keep America Beautiful (an industry scam) has been to shift the onus of environmental responsibility onto the public while simultaneously becoming a trusted name in the environmental movement. This psychological misdirect has built public support for a legal framework that punishes individual litterers with hefty fines or jail time, while imposing almost no responsibility on plastic manufacturers for numerous environmental, economic and health hazards imposed by their products.”
Before we panic into draconian measures to purify the internet of incendiary fakery and malignant foolery, we need to contemplate the context out of which such monsters have emerged — an American political and commercial culture aimed at herding the masses into consuming dubious and often dangerous products while distracted by the dissembling of political propagandists herding them with equal efficiency into frenzies of hate and fear.
How did we get into this sorry state? It has a great deal to do with the ubiquity of “PR” and its step child advertising. It’s always instructive to reflect on the achievements of the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, who died at 103 in 1995, and whose progeny have proliferated to dominate the entire spectrum of politics and commerce in our country.
Like social media, which universally claims to be made up of neutral platforms on which we can exchange information, Bernays and his descendants work for anyone. Berneys, himself, was not only employed by the tobacco industry, and the United Fruit Company when it took part in the genocidal overthrow of a Guatemalan government in the 1940s, he also advised the NAACP, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, to name a few.
He doubled the sales of Lucky Strike when he helped frame cigarettes as “torches of freedom,” and hired women posing as suffragettes to march in Easter Parades in New York City smoking and puffing, happily leading the way. He worked it so he could suggest that doctors thought smoking was healthier than eating sweets, or eating at all if you’re on a crash diet. He was hired by pork packers to sell the idea that bacon and eggs was the ideal American breakfast. His success was counted up in dollars and cents. He created the image of toss away paper Dixie Cups as being a sanitary way to avoid venereal disease, using subliminal images of diseased genitalia to drive the point home.
Bernays wrote in his book “Propaganda” that, “instead of a mind, universal literacy has given [the common man] a rubber stamp, a rubber stamp inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of tabloids and the profundities of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamp is the twin of millions of others, so that when these millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints….”
Bernays is most famous, or infamous perhaps, for writing, again in “Propaganda,” that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country….In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
If there’s anything we can do for our children, it is to instill in them an awareness that in politics and business — the core of our public lives — all of us are being gamed all of the time. And the only defense is to develop a wary and self-informed sense of skepticism, a profound aversion to being scammed and a set of personal standards by which we can start to unravel the web of political and commercial “manipulation” in which all of us are ensnared.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it