He Who Controls the Narrative Controls the People
Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. — Geo. Orwell, 1984
When future historians write about the 20th Century, it would not surprise me to find it had been nicknamed The Century of Spin. Today more than ever we see that the battle for the minds of the people revolves around the manner in which events get interpreted, not necessarily the events themselves.
Social observers have long noted this trafficking in interpretations. Who decides what is good and what is bad? Who decides who the good guys and bad guys are in this battle for control of the narrative?
We live in a mediated world. Before entering World War One, very few Americans knew much about Germany, its history and its aims. But as the drums of war began to sound, there were plenty of messages being piped into our brains through the news media, striving to form a national will to take up arms against Kaiser Bill and those German brutes.
But who were these brutes, really? Stories of German aggression were circulated as if Otto Bismarck and later Kaiser Wilhelm were out to take over the world. In point of fact, history didn’t bear this out at all. It was the British Empire that had had a 300 year hold on the world, famously declaring with pride, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”
If one were to look at the century previous to that first Great War to see what countries were the most aggressive, one might be surprised at what the facts revealed. Great Britain had been in 10 wars, Russia 7, France 5. Among the least warlike of the European powers had been Austria 3 and Germany only 3. What’s more, under Bismarck and the Kaiser Germany never engaged in a single armed conflict.
When a German U-Boat blew up the Lusitania, it was not a surprise attack on innocent victims. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica the ship was carrying, in addition to passengers, a cargo of 173 tons of rifle ammunition and shells. For this reason “the Germans, who had circulated warnings that the ship would be sunk, felt themselves fully justified in attacking a vessel that was furthering the war aims of their enemy.”
The spin was in, and America had the justification it was looking for to enter the war.
Thus was born the Committee on Public Information (CPI), whose aim was to influence U.S. public opinion to support the war effort. Wilson’s Executive Order 2594 set in motion an ever broadening series of events.
This anti-German sentiment had serious consequences. Hatred was aroused toward German-American citizens and “being anti-German became a way of showing patriotism for the American war effort.”(1) Even though there were more immigrants from Germany than from any other country, many libraries pulled books off the shelves that might be considered pro -German. Laws were passed specifically hostile to German-Americans.
The climate became so hostile that by 1918, South Dakota prohibited the use of German over the telephone, and in public assemblies of three or more persons. “By the early 1920s, 34 states had passed English-only requirements in their schools. These laws were argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Meyer v. Nebraska.” (2)
Years ago I remember reading about German Americans having their dachshunds murdered by hostile neighbors. These actions were generated by the propaganda machinery of our government, hand-in-glove with the powerful newspaper media network. This anti-German sentiment came directly from the Wilson White House. (He’d formerly been president of Princeton, an idealist and educated fool, which he’d soon have ample opportunity to prove before the end of his second term.)
In the late 1920s Edward Bernays wrote a book about the essential role that propaganda plays in helping shape the attitudes of the body politic. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits 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.” — Propaganda, c. 1928
Propaganda was considered a good thing, when the good guys were using it. When Bernays’ book was written, the liberal elite liked the idea of controlling the masses without having to resort to guns. Public education was utilized for the same purpose. (At that time social engineering was having a field day with other techniques for re-shaping the masses, including forced sterilizations. Lobbyists for the eugenics movement succeeded in legalizing forced sterilizations in more than 30 states.(3))
Bernays went on to say, “We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”
Walter Lippman, in his book Public Opinion, which deals with these same matters, wrote, “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”
It was the propaganda machinery of Goebbels and the Nazis that gave propaganda a bad name. As Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda who famously asserted, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
After the war, a kinder gentler term would be adopted: Public Relations.
Every politician has a PR team actively shaping their message and feeding their sound bytes to the media directly and through thinly veiled “independently” written letters to the editor.
Edward Bernays used his book as a stepping stone to advance his own career as a publicist. He ultimately achieved the stature he desired, becoming a mouthpiece for Big Tobacco for a spell, as well as for General Electric in what amounted to helping it achieve a “stranglehold on America’s electric power” in “the largest peacetime propaganda drive in peacetime history.” (M.C.Miller)
His crowning achievement was the work he did in Latin America during the 1950s on behalf of the United Fruit Company (UFC) whereby he paved the way for the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. To our shame as a nation, we did not dig into the motivations of UFC or the underlying truths behind what was really going on there in Guatemala, or Costa Rica. The resulting damage to U.S. credibility in the region lingered for decades.
In 1962 French thinker/theologian and social critic Jacques Ellul wrote a book titled, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. In it he writes, “Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.”
Ellul’s books addressed the issues of modern life. Our relationship to the State was one of his recurring themes, which is why it became important for him to write a book about propaganda. It is a central feature of contemporary life.
In 1973, Italian novelist/philosopher Umberto Eco wrote, “Not long ago, if you wanted to seize political power in a country you had merely to control the army and the police. Today it is only in the most backward countries that fascist generals, in carrying out a coup d’état, still use tanks. If a country has reached a high degree of industrialization the whole scene changes. The day after the fall of Krushchev, the editors of Pravda, Izvestiia, the heads of the radio and television were replaced; the army wasn’t called out. Today a country belongs to the person who controls communications.”
On this topic much more can be said. The aim here is not to say all, but to open the door a crack that we might see how our current national malaise fits into the broader history that preceded it. All around us we have warring cultural forces at odds with one another. If one day there comes a time to choose sides, it’s better to have worked at becoming informed than to later make excuses for having buried our heads in the sand.
(1) See: Anti-German Sentiment
(2) See: The Anti-German Sentiment of World War I
Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes
(3) Eugenics related:
Bad Ideas: The Eugenics Movement In America