The United States is immersed in a political St. Vitus’s dance typical of empires in convulsion. The confident colossus that watched its arch-rival disintegrate from 1989-1991 now has its highest office occupied by a malevolent clown enabled by supporters befitting a casting call for a Hieronymous Bosch panel. The liberal class gnashes its teeth and blames Trump, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party. But the shock is hardly credible. The current political trap befits a country that internalized its own Cold War propaganda campaign from 1945-1991. The unrelenting flow of messages aimed at keeping Americans fearful and accommodating debased our public discourse and political process. The campaign was so successful that the most persuasive and enduring lies came to be those we told ourselves.
Propaganda and American ideology
Totalitarian states use propaganda to crush spirits and minds, backed by the iron fist of secret police, informants, “re-education” campaigns, imprisonment, and torture. The United States, with legitimate traditions of freedom and debate (however compromised), took a different route. After World War II, a faction of wealthy, conservative leaders made a concerted effort to keep the nation on a war-footing by presenting the Soviet Union and “godless” Communism as the post-Nazi totalitarian threat to American freedom. Anything could be justified for the sake of the “free world”; this included relocating high-ranking Nazis to Latin America and using the Nazi intelligence service as the basis of our post-war European spy network, decisions with severe impact on U.S. foreign policy. The Soviet world-view was never acknowledged or explained. Yes, Stalin was a vicious brute, but he died in 1953 and his foreign policy was not aimed at destroying the United States. Nor did the U.S. differentiate between the socialism of small agricultural countries and Soviet Bolshevism. Peace and compromise were never on the table. The world was split into White and Red, Good and Evil, with god on our side and der roter teufel on theirs.
American Cold War propaganda was gentler than Soviet and Chinese, but forceful nonetheless. Oh, occasionally a dissenter with too strong a following – the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State, Salvador Allende, Orlando Letelier, civil rights workers, villagers all over Latin America – needed to be killed, or protesters beaten or Latin American death squads trained, but it’s not like millions of us were carted off to the gulag. Oh, maybe one or two million African-, Latino-, and Native Americans jailed at any given time on low-level or trumped-up crimes to serve as free labor on roads and plantations. Millions died from our imperial ventures, including tens of thousands of Americans, with many millions more wounded and traumatized. Trillions of dollars up in the smoke of war. A nation blissfully spraying fire on cities, forests, weddings and “militants” alike. A nation losing its soul even as it professed its own earnest innocence, its devotion to democracy, its self-anointed role as moral arbiter among nations, its protection of rapacious corporate interests.
This Cold War mindset drew from an already vibrant ideology that was distilled and honed into a rationale for our emerging imperial designs. By the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, America’s scientific and political leaders believed in: 1) the superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic race” and its mission to civilize the world; 2) militant evangelical Christianity and its mission to civilize the world; and 3) laissez-faire capitalism as the most progressive, wealth-producing system ever devised and its mission to civi-….right. America’s ruling class saw this ideology as validated by the success, in economic terms, of Euro-American colonial conquests (including the destruction of Native American “heathen” civilizations) and the progress of industrial technology. A Social Darwinist spin on the Protestant Ethic anointed the wealthy as elected by both God and nature to be stewards of the planet and its global civilization. Hence, resource extraction and wealth creation were synonymous with spreading civilization and God’s word. Offshoot ideas such as eugenics, the white man’s burden, “virile” masculinity, and extermination of resistant populations prevailed in this “muscular” America. Leading scientists and intellectuals accepted the innate inferiority of women; ranked races according to their primitive, brutish natures; viewed Jews with mistrust that bled over into disgust. They lectured on the shape of the “Negroid” skull and its similarities to those of criminals and apes. The racial, religious, and commercial rationale for colonial supremacy over Asia and Africa and across three oceans was ready-made and seemingly irrefutable, and this ethic and the robust imperialism that it justified directly influenced what later became Nazi ideology and South African apartheid.
During the 1930s Depression, conservative corporate leadership hated Franklin Roosevelt for his New Deal of a graduated income tax and guaranteed safety net for the poor and middle classes. Even today, 80 years later, the graduated tax and “welfare”, both already decimated from decades of rollbacks, are still number one on the Republican hit list. One might argue abortion and guns top the list but they‘re just red capes used to enrage and activate the faithful in service to their masters’ broader agenda, which is the transfer of trillions of dollars in wealth from the lower 90% to the upper .1% (with a 10-20% buffer in between to appease the managerial class). This also involves privatizing the federal treasury and pension funds.
After FDR’s death and the end of World War II, John Foster Dulles, soon to be President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, toured the United States to galvanize business leaders into adopting a stance of open enmity towards our recent ally, the Soviet Union. His brother Allen, head of the new CIA, promoted an aggressive (and disastrous) campaign of violent covert operations behind the “Iron Curtain” and set the CIA on a course of covert ops, black budgets, and criminal activities that has utterly compromised its legitimate mission. This feverish anti-Communism went arm-in-arm with the anti-New Deal politics of the wealthy. Whereas President Truman and his advisors at first discussed sharing our atomic secrets with the USSR to help assure peace, a faction of powerful Americans urged us to nuke the Soviets. When the Soviets got the bomb and Mao won China, mistrust was whipped into McCarthyist hysteria whose centerpiece was the show-trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The agreed-upon narrative took shape. We are America, hero of WW II and the Marshall Plan, the benevolent, democratic, free-market wonder-child of the West, leader of the free world. All who renounce Communism receive our benediction however brutal your regime. Our corporations will come to you and receive your huddled masses yearning to work for next to nothing, and in return we shall arm you to the teeth so you can smite your enemies (who happen to be your own people but what the hell). We’ll even train your government death squads. We should have been confident and secure. Instead, we were bombarded with lurid fantasies of Communist infiltration, of being outgunned and outfoxed, and a national paranoia was cultivated that has never abated.
In this missile-bristling world to be “soft” on Communism was to seem a child next to the hard-core realists and men of action who understood the real world and saw the threat first-hand, up-close, etc. That too was part of the propaganda campaign: the military and intelligence organizations’ referencing their heroic defense of the homeland. This psychologically potent theme has a timeless, magnetic appeal, but in an era of extreme asymmetric, highly technological warfare, it becomes just another propaganda meme. That war has been glorified throughout history is old news, but it is also obvious that there is a difference between appreciating those engaged in a war brought about by necessity and fetishistic a military machine that functions as an extension of a government that serves the interests of a particular self-aggrandizing group. A soldier’s personal sacrifice alone does not justify the moral or strategic case for a war. Framing peacemakers as “pussies” is a playground gambit intended to belittle any analysis of moral issues and the complexities of situational realities. (Bumper sticker: a peace sign with the words “Footprint of the American chicken”). The attraction of the tough-guy mode, and the fear of being rejected by the tough guys, is uncannily effective as a call to arms. This theme is blasted via countless TV shows, movies, and video games. It goes well beyond a healthy appreciation for the soldier’s task. The comradeship of the battlefield is now treated with the tenderness and schmaltzy background music once reserved for love scenes. Every NFL game contains about half a dozen odes to the military (which the military pays the “patriotic” teams to host!). Their mission is to “keep us safe”, a strange overlay of the maternal and the military that infantile the civilian population.
Still, we might forgive such excesses because the nation-state is a fragile thing, a mutant adolescent on the historical stage whose instabilities often provoke it to a berserk violent rampage. Maintaining allegiance to this basically abstract nationalist ideal takes constant effort, as nations contain powerful internal forces that always threaten to tear them apart. The nation-state was born out of a centuries-long percolation in the unique environment of central and western Europe, nurtured by a technological revolution begun with the proliferation of gear-and-drive-train based water- and windmills. In Europe by about 1000 C.E., the amount of work done by machines, for the first time in known human history, exceeded that done by human labor. This led, over the centuries, to previously unfathomable leaps in productivity and wealth. Coalescing around a centralized monarchy, the nation emerged as the political instrument for seizing, and justifying the seizure of, this new wealth across a relatively vast land area. These newly concentrated riches, in turn, allowed the state to invest in achieving a competitive military advantage over other states or proto-states. Victory led to annexations of wealth-producing regions, resource appropriation, trade route domination, colonial seizures, and indemnities, i.e., even more wealth (after the bankruptcies and losses of war faded against the unrelenting momentum of demographics, politics, and technology). This open feedback loop led to a rapid progression of political, technological, economic, and military innovation.
Nation-states differ from the vast, sprawling, loosely bound empires of yesteryear. They are tighter constructs, demanding from their citizens a fealty the old empires never required. Empires were conglomerates of distinct tribal and regional groups; there was no pretense that these groups shared a history, values, or destiny. If they did not rebel against the imperial program – taxes, military service, state rituals – they maintained their cultures. For complex reasons, the nation state, upon becoming the new modern game in town, required a stronger sense of central identity. Unlike most empires, nations have shown themselves murderously intolerant of indigenous cultures within their borders (the British Empire loosely followed both patterns, using classic imperial strategies overseas and brutally repressing the Irish and Scottish within Great Britain’s borders). As a few nations grew to immense, imperial size and power – the U.S., China, Russia – the comparison to empires became more germane, especially as these super-powers behave less and less like nations based on an intrinsic social contract and more like empires ruled by an emperor’s or oligarchy’s fiat.
Imperial propaganda was rather crude but impressive, mainly there to let everyone know that some distant stone giant, who tramples on his enemies and builds temples, tombs, and palaces, possesses an army that could level their city or village and burn their farms. It was also aimed at spreading the ruler’s glory, a primary motivation in the ancient world that transmuted itself into national glory in the modern era.
National propaganda, however, has another objective. Fealty to a lord was the core principle that knit together medieval society. In the early nation-state period (14th-17th centuries), national identity was used to transfer loyalty from a local or ducal authority to the central authority represented by an often more distant monarch. We see this in the countless struggles between monarchs – Philip the Fair and Louis XIV of France, Ivan the Terrible in Russia, the war of the Roses in England – and the nobility. Once the British Parliamentary Revolution (a gradual but often violent affair) and American and French Revolutions ushered in the era of citizenship, personal attachment to the nation became a state of mind central to individual identity. In return, the citizens expected the state to secure a better life for them. Our current a historical, jaded mind-set can lose sight of the exhilaration unleashed throughout the world by this new promise of freedom and individual rights. It is today still the “better part of our natures”: freedom and the idea of “rights” the touchstone for movements seeking to improve the lives of the dis-empowered and oppressed.
The nation is supposed to feel as intimate a part of one’s life as one’s home, that little green valley or small town where neighbors smiled and waved, or the urban neighborhood where everybody knows your name. But it often does not feel like home. Governments and other institutions exploit people ruthlessly. Business and courts are rigged for the wealthy or, in the U.S., for the white. The nation often does not measure up to its pitch. What to do?
Like empires but on a far more rigorous basis, the solution was an unrelenting stream of messages extolling the glory of the national undertaking. To understand the power of this type of campaign, let us first examine the basic character of propaganda.
Propaganda is the unrelenting transmission of a group of thematically related, simplistic and emotional linguistic and visual messages aimed at a specific target audience. The messages are not intended to encourage thought or debate but to condition the mind like a dart and to condition the mind to respond in an emotionally consistent way that suits the objectives of the originating group. A sporadic outflow of propagandist messages is not propaganda per se but merely occasional outbursts. Propaganda consists of rapid-fire, repetitive signals that aim to hammer the target population into a state of malleable submissiveness. The ultimate goal is to convince the targets that: there is one source of truth; truth is defined by the institutions broadcasting the propaganda; resistance is hopeless; and the propaganda itself defines the parameters of acceptable public discourse.
There is a long-standing debate over whether propaganda can serve democratic ends, for instance, by promoting democratic instead of authoritarian values. Certainly one can imagine the form such an effort might take, but the core assumptions of democracy and propaganda are in absolute conflict. Democracy requires an aware, tolerant society of informed citizenry capable of debating and considering, and ultimately compromising over, a broad range of often entangled issues each with its nuances and numerous stakeholders. Propaganda is generated by a group with narrow, selfish goals; it seeks to override political process and reflective discourse; and its aim is total victory for its animating ideas. Propaganda’s ultimate triumph occurs when the target population internalizes propaganda’s messages to where it becomes the common language of everyday life. At that point the targets become the transmitters and proliferates of propaganda.
Every message is a product of the cognitive environment, the mental structures and content, of the person or persons who constructed it. The cognitive environment embedded in propaganda reproduces itself in its targets, remaining their sense of reality to reflect the aims, simplicity, emotionally, and exclusivity of the propaganda itself, as if the propaganda were a virus injecting itself into the target’s cognitive map. The degree to which a democratic society’s political processes are governed by propaganda is the degree to which it has abdicated its democratic character and democratic charter.
Brainwashing as popularly understood refers to the takeover of the target’s mind by an intensive program of isolation, bombardment with propaganda and behaviorally suggestive statements, physical abuse ranging from discomfort to torture, and the instilling of a mind-set in utter accord with the brain washers’ views and purposes. At its extreme, as in The Manchurian Candidate, the idea is that a person can be triggered by a per-programmed cue to carry out actions they would not otherwise perform. The success of these “old-school” brainwashing programs has generally been discredited, although the sheer duress endured can certainly compel someone to temporarily renounce their loyalties. Nonetheless, governments, including that of the United States, have not given up seeing ways to exert control over the minds of enemies, the public, or their own operatives. Brainwashing is carried out on an individual in isolation rather than an in situ population.
Brainwashing aside, propaganda does have a powerful effect on the brain – not just the mind but the brain itself. That is not to raise the specter of masses of “Manchurian candidates” ready to be triggered by a simple cue such as a playing card. Rather, over time, as the propaganda is internalize, the brain is trained to function according to the certainties and emotional release provided by a long-term propaganda campaign.
The American moment
American culture is an historical singularity, not simply unique as all societies are, but a strange, spoiled, tormented behemoth whose inconceivable wealth, size, complexity, and world-destroying military power, have imposed a burdensome responsibility upon its population. In an era of inconceivable technological wizardry once anticipated as utopian in its impact, many Americans are afflicted with a fevered medieval religiosity, obsession with firearms, and historical levels of substance abuse. The population is increasingly sub-literate while our natural environment and societal infrastructure are at the threshold of implosion. And our government is now in the hands of a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, militaristic, theocratic, and socially repressive cabal whose main concern is maximizing the transfer of wealth from the middle and poorer classes to a thin sliver of the very wealthiest.
This virtual coup is momentous because this behemoth carries far more destructive potential than other similarly inclined nations. In addition, America’s historic role in framing humanity’s dreams of a just, tolerant, benevolent society, for all its betrayals, contradictions, and myths, is still “the better part of our nature” and provides the moral authority, world-wide, for campaigns against abuses of power. Its loss is a tragedy for the entire globe. Whether we are headed for a terrifying, tragic crash or restore a measure of viability to our system, depends upon our ability to formulate effective strategies for reversing current trends.
History exhibits many successful campaigns waged by the dis-empowered and disenfranchised, and it is extraordinary how many were met with the most brutal violence and how many failed. It’s a risky undertaking. Despite many revolts and catastrophes, the European nobility held sway over almost all the continent from Rome’s fall (ca. 500 C.E.) until the 19th and 20th century, depending on the nation. Everything wrung from the American system – emancipation of slaves; the New Deal safety net; decent wages, working conditions, shorter work days and weeks, and retirement packages; black America’s civil rights revolution; feminism, gay liberation, Native American legal victories to preserve autonomy over their own land; access to education and medical care; the countless human service workers who are funded to alleviate the hardships of this society – none were simply achieved by peaceful mutual agreement. All were won by struggle and protest.
But now we are working against the clock. It is ironic that visions of apocalypse – via environmental destruction; weapons of mutual mass destruction; climate change; technological vulnerability; and potential pandemics – are no longer the quaint purview of medieval pulpits. Rather, they now appear as the sober assessments of scientific journals, with thousands and thousands of data points to support each forecast. Time is running out.
A propaganda of our own
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was so far ahead of his time that he’s still ahead of his time. McLuhan’s great insight was that the medium of communication shapes our lives more profoundly than message content. His was a specialized statement of a theme advanced by William Blake, Karl Marx, Lewis Mumford, Herbert Marcuse, Jane Jacobs, John Berger, and Jacques Ellul, among others – that technology and market relations stamp their own rhythms, demands, and character upon society. For example, clocks acclimated late medieval people to a new, abstract, precise sense of time suitable to an emerging complex commercial society. More recent examples include the dehumanizing effect of assembly lines; the disquiet of parents and psychologists over video games’ impact on children’s personalities; and social media’s impact on human relations.
But McLuhan recognized a more radical alchemy: that the changes occasioned by electronic media go beyond improvements in speed, data volume, and cost provided by electronic hardware; it is the nature of electricity itself, the medium, that will have the greatest impact on human life. Electricity pervades our lives, merging our identities with the ghostly, networked, decentralized, replicate, instantaneous qualities of a quantum-based medium. Worsening schools; dumbing down of mass media; corporate interference in cultural life; under-funding of science and the arts, are all on the content, “message” side of the equation. From the medium standpoint, the brilliant colors, pixillated photons, hypnotically beamed marketing and political harangues, sensory chaos of movies and video games, instant gratification, illusion of empowerment—of course the new medium prevailed over its boring, abstract, textual, reflective, interpretive, audited, papery predecessor! As the medium’s currents flood our lives, they dictate the rhythms and textures of our lives—relationships, jobs, conversations, politics, and thoughts.
The digital revolution greatly increased the global circulation of currency and wealth set in motion by the Reagan deregulation “Revolution”. Deregulation prepared the way for a derivative-based economy in which, no longer satisfied merely to dis-empower labor and monopolize resources and production, global financiers manage national currencies and societal debt as a wealth-cloning mechanism. The financial system makes its greatest profits when money bypasses the messy realities of production and reproduces itself via an intricate global shell game. Traditional economic activities and assets provide a game-board for the much more lucrative derivative wealth-extraction schemes that led to the crash of 2008-09 and that are in full swing again today.
This accelerated movement of huge blocs of wealth is one of several forces undermining the centuries-old primacy of the nation-state in public affairs. The nation, of course, is still the defining category upon which the global system stands, so much so that we forget it arose in response to the need to re-organize the administration of new levels of collective wealth. Of course it did not come out of a vacuum but retained many of the guiding principles and assumptions of the previous systems that it over-rode or replaced. The larger the system that is in the process of being superseded, the more social disruption is likely to occur, as we see in the movement towards the nation-state and earlier, for example, in the demise of the western Roman Empire which devastated European civilization for centuries. Currently the nation-state is proving itself obsolete in an era where instantly mobile wealth dwarfs the assets of most of the world’s nations; where the movement and reach of highly destructive weapons has become almost liquid in its fluidity; and in which supra-national organizations such as linked-up cartels and terrorist groups; mega-corporations that control much of the media and hundreds of brands each; huge financial institutions that operate beyond, behind, and unbeknownst to the public and their national governments; intelligence agencies that are only nominally attached to their government and its stated policies; and private military and police forces indicate. The Internet by its very nature, and for better as well as worse, has blurred national boundaries for the sake of online communities. Hence, in reaction, we have seen a desperate clutching at certitude: literal, fundamentalist religious movements; hyper-nationalistic movements that draw upon racial antagonisms towards immigrants; and a shrill patriotism that can never compensate for a loss of faith in the concept of the nation itself. In the U.S. it is odd that the same people who present themselves as “true patriots” often identify with the Confederacy which tried to break away from the country and almost always believe that government, especially the federal government, is evil and an impingement on their freedoms and contrary to everything the “founding fathers” stood far. In this they are profoundly ignorant of the exacting debate and consideration on the critical role of government that the framers of the Constitution were wholly committed to. At the time, the anti-Federalist position raised valid concerns about maintaining the power of the states over the Federal government, but their arguments have never been separated from a defense first of slavery and later of Jim Crow apartheid.
A structure as powerful and integral as the nation-state does not yield its hold on us because of merely abstract reasons, such as those noted above might appear to be. The movement and manipulation of currency, etc., does not necessarily mean that nations will become obsolete. It is rather than such factors literally render the nation impotent to sustain their citizens interests in large part because the power has shifted from national governments to financiers, shadow governments, cartels, and the like. This loss of power to help their citizens is the ultimate wound in the gut for national feeling. Once the population stops believing, central authority comes more and more to rely on force, and the splintered interests groups that fill the power vacuum act with more and more license and, in general, rapacity.
The extreme right’s financial moguls have used their new profit margins to fund evermore far-reaching and extreme propaganda with evermore ambitious goals, filling the national vacuum rather efficiently. For decades, radio show hosts have spewed vitriol that infused bland terms such as “liberal” and “government” with all the loathing once reserved for “Bolsheviks” and “outside agitators”. Right wing hacks produce screeds that corporate-owned media promote as thoughtful reflection and whose public relations campaigns propel onto best-seller lists. The “birther” movement, Michelle Obama really being a man and Hillary (a literal) demon, and the myth of a secret Democratic pedophile ring run out of a Washington D.C. pizzeria, are elements of a weirdly perverse narrative intended to inflame the ignorant and superimpose garish fantasy over reality. Right-wing lobbyists and propagandists such as ALEC write bills for specific clients that state legislatures and Congress shepherd into law. As Nancy MacLean’s America in Chains documents, the far right has for decades planned and carried out a focused campaign of deception and propaganda on behalf of an agenda that has nothing to do with traditional Republicanism and openly expresses contempt for the Constitution and the interests and lives of the vast majority of Americans. Hundreds of political campaigns at the state and federal levels have been turned rightward by overwhelming infusions of cash. The propaganda machine keeps spitting out the same crazy message for their followers: “Liberals and big government want to take your guns away. They won’t let you pray in school or say Merry Christmas. They’re taxing you to death so they can give hand-outs to urban thugs and welfare queens and illegal immigrants (i.e., “non-whites”). They plan to herd you into prison camps in remote desert locations. The secret Muslim black president put death-committees into his Stalinist health plan. Our government has made baby-murder a mass industry and denies the word of god with the heresy of fake-science’s evolution.” Since the first warnings against labor “agitators” in late 19th century America, propaganda against “reds”, whether internal or in the form of the USSR or China, has always been instantaneously transferred to domestic issues such as unions, guns, race, and freedom of expression and protest. And the mainstream media, hog-tied by its corporate ownership and an emphasis on marketing and audience satisfaction, fails to address the agendas that lie below the surface and repeats the formulations of the extreme right as if they are serious political ideas, in effect broadcasting propaganda designed not to enlighten but to confuse and manipulate.
Assault on the brain
The primary ground of contention in American politics and society is neither political nor even psychological: it is neurological. Brains change under the impact of constant electronic over-stimulation, intellectual under-stimulation, and immersion in a state of rage. The right-wing media moguls and their ranting hirelings; the rise of a strongly politicized fundamentalist Christianity that preaches a puerile biblical literalness; the erosion of education; and a society-wide degeneration in the quality of public discourse have all reshaped not only the American mind, but millions of brains as well.
For the first time in American history, our government is controlled by a cabal whose program is to monopolize wealth; impose theocratic values; intimidate the population by militarizing the police; privatize the military so it can bypass Congress and public scrutiny in conducting overseas adventures; plunder national resources while slashing any government program – medical, educational, nutritional, environmental, worker safety, etc. – that serves the public good; destroy our civil liberties; and ultimately eradicate the notion of the United States as a constitutional republic governed through a give-and-take of diverse points of view. That a large portion of Americans voted for this demonstrates a collective neuropathy as surely as did German Nazism, the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution, and other fascistic movements. And despite the many Americans who reject racism and the idea of imperium, we all participate in the system’s distortions. Those of us horrified at our current circumstances are nonetheless inevitably prey to its influence, transfixed by the awful momentum driving it to its logical conclusion.
This all affects the brain itself, as distinct from mind. In this golden age of brain research, scientists continually demonstrate how virtually every experience affects brain morphology and function. Pursuits as diverse as chess, writing in cursive, exercise, meditation, juggling, music, pleasurable physical contact, good nutrition, owning a pet, and learning a language stimulate the growth of neurons, integrate left and right brain function, generate new neurological patterns and pathways, and even reverse brain atrophy. Stress, mindless repetition, isolation, substance abuse, poor nutrition, constant anger and fear, loud noise, and lack of sleep all inhibit brain function. The brain behaves more like a coral reef than an organ of the body. Not surprisingly, whatever affects the brain often has a parallel impact on the body’s other systems.
A sustained propaganda campaign maximizes anger, helplessness, and fear in order to produce a primitive, closed Pavlovian loop within the brain’s circuitry. This happens at a cellular level. When the brain receives powerful repetitive signals over time, it responds by speeding up the neurological pathways that carry those signals by building up the myelin sheathe that coats a neuron’s axons and dendrites, a sort of violation of “brain neutrality”. The most insistent signals not only are delivered more efficiently, but their pathways actually attract traffic away from alternative routes and destinations. Evidence, logic, and even appeals to self-interest are processed by the brain’s circuitry into a reinforcement of its dominant bias. The brain, and with it the mind and emotions, responds as predictably and unthinkingly as Pavlov’s salivating dogs. In addition, simplistic, “loud”, repetitive signals limit neuronal activity and growth and disturb the brain’s chemical balance. The result is a form of cognitive dissonance in which the frame of reference that governs one’s responses has little relationship to reality. Indeed, propaganda’s aim is to convince us that there is no reality other than the matrix of simplistic ideas and emotional impulses it is designed to advance, haunting the victim’s perceptions with spectres and shadows.
A population experiencing widespread dysfunctional brain activity can be convinced, by the application of the right stimuli, to vote against its own interests. It learns to scapegoat others for all the evils their imaginations, or others’ imaginations, can provide. Their anger and propensity towards violence can be stoked and stroked to target whomever their brainwashing has prepared them to despise. So how does one devise a political framework and language to shift the positions of people who are, in a thorough but less spectacular sense, brainwashed?
The ineluctable modality of American racism
This question cannot be answered without considering the role racism plays both in U.S. propaganda campaigns and in so many Americans’ vulnerability to its influence. The unholy union of racism, resource exploitation, violence, and religious fundamentalism was shaped by Euro-Americans’ immediate and unremitting hostility to Native Americans. Concurrent with the assault on Native American life, slavery bred a white ideology of contempt and a political system based on violent oppression. And although the North won the Civil War (1861-1865), massacres of former slaves and assassinations of southern black leaders began before the Civil War ended and intensified during Reconstruction (ca. 1865-1877), when the Northern victors insisted on political and civil rights for blacks. The massacres and intimidation of black Americans led to reinstatement of severe apartheid and slave-like exploitation. The poison is strong today because a sufficient antidote was never applied; perhaps there is none.
Our education system ignores the fact that the racism of slavery remained as virulent as ever after the Civil War while adopting an aggrieved, piteous tone that blamed Reconstruction for a century of murder and violently enforced segregation (an argument of the so-called “Dunning School” of post-Civil War history). We forget that the men and women photographed celebrating the lynchings of black people, the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, were raised on a gospel of unreconstructed racism. There was no break between slavery and later American racism. Many people have abandoned the racism of their forebears, but attitudes among millions of others seem to have hardened and the “race card” has played a role in every Republican presidential victory since Nixon’s. Nor does this history absolve the northern states of their racist tradition, especially in that tier across the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic states that so strongly supported the 20th century “reborn” Ku Klux Klan.
As so many school textbooks have it, the U.S. was once racist but then Martin Luther King, Jr., came along and oh my, what progress we have made! Of course, no sooner was the blood on that Memphis balcony dry than Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign adopted a “southern strategy” to break the Democratic Party’s hold over southern politics. The “Dixiecrats” were the party of reconstituted Confederation that rolled back Reconstruction’s (1865-1877) post-Civil War reforms in the 1870s and violently enforced racial apartheid. After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed 1964’s Civil Rights and 1965’s Voting Rights Acts ushered through Congress by LBJ in partnership with black Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Republicans won over the Dixiecrats by replacing traditional racist language (no longer acceptable in the mainstream) with a coded racist vocabulary. The “code” was a form of covert propaganda that could be safely broadcast in public media and from church pulpits. It won over not only the overtly racist, but those harboring more general resentments at hippies, blacks, anti-war protesters, and others whose vision of America they could not understand. By then, the shotgun marriage of militant Christianity and militant Capitalism had matured into an ideology whose anger, simplicity, and profit-based lure inspired a devout following. God was not just on our side, he also had his own tax, anti-labor, and free trade policies and his own private schools for whites wanting to avoid racial integration.
The 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars and the billionaire-funded Tea Party’s takeover of the Republican Party brought to the fore such themes as national security, religious fundamentalism, racism, and paranoia that were fertile with propagandist potential. The malevolent animus directed at Muslims easily bled over into anti-immigration rhetoric and infused new energy into the long-standing racist scapegoating of American blacks and Native Americans. Donald Trump has played all the race cards available, not even bothering to encode some of his remarks. Neo-Nazi groups openly support Trump who just as openly avoids disavowing them. Hate crimes have risen dramatically in the wake of his election. Voting regulations only recently put in place throughout the old Confederacy, combined with an aggressive gerrymandering effort, have thrown millions of blacks and urban poor off the voting lists or made their votes redundant, making it virtually impossible for moderate and liberal voices to win election in many districts and guaranteeing that those states go Republican in presidential elections. In place of a Constitution- and rights-based, trans-actional government, the party in control of all three branches of government is fully committed to a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, militaristic, theocratic, and socially repressive agenda.
Racism and other forms of collective hatred are not weird intruders into otherwise healthy individuals and communities. They are a dominant, defining feature of any cognitive, political, and social terrain. The language of bigotry is actually a form of propaganda injected into the everyday thoughts and conversations of a community. Bigotry create allusions, epithets, and coded terminology that infect an entire mental framework. Language and public discourse suffer a sort of trauma when the rhetoric of hatred is normalized, tilting towards the simplistic, reactive, impulsive, and angry, and dismissive of any contrary evidence. Encoded racist language cloaks blatantly racist policy in a veneer of rationality and legality. (For example, via the mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos; Congress’s current assault on the Voting Rights Act; gerrymandering of election districts; cutting medical, educational, counseling, and nutritional programs; voter intimidation; police violence against people of color). Yet one of the central prevailing national narratives on race holds that the civil rights movement solved the problem; whites have been counter-discriminated against by welfare and Affirmative Action; some blacks hate whites, some whites hate blacks and it all evens out in the end; and other such glib denials of reality. A mantra of white supremacy, “we’re tired of white people being pushed around”, is the aggrieved lament of those who cannot accept that their own leaders betrayed them. Better to blame a scapegoat than one’s own gullibility and beliefs.
The denial of racial and political realities reinforces the denial of reality. Whether denying climate change and science or sinking into the narcissism and celebrity worship pumping through all media, or the truly delusional devotion of Trump supporters in the face of all evidence of corruption, ineptitude, and political betray, too many people have been taught not just to drink, but to crave, the Kool-Aid. The viral “fake news” meme allows Trump and his minions to deny anything and promote “alternative facts” whether they concern evolution, racism, global warming, Trump’s debt to Russian gangsters, or the size of Trump’s inaugural crowds or his groping hands.
The electronic, digital medium, the world of currents and currency, is Exhibit A in this tilt towards universal deniability. Anything digitized can be hacked, morphed, photo-shopped, and overwhelmed with a blizzard of false data and manufactured “memes”, undermining our faith in the very same mediated reality we depend on for work and social connection. Disinformation is now a growth industry, with cadres of hackers, trolls, and hack writers churning out fake facts and political attacks. As reality crumbles, we become disoriented, desperate, and destructive.
We are a brainwashed nation and the political energy of “resisters” is expended in outrage or, at best, fending off the latest assault on immigrants, the poor, civil liberties. We have lost the ability to mobilize an effective resistance. The five million-strong women’s march of January 21, 2017, was magnificent and did have a palpable impact on the media and the Democratic party. But such marches offer diminishing returns with each iteration. We have been lulled: we are too comfortable, we have too much to lose.
Particularized local action is not enough to reverse brainwashing’s effects. Only a cultural wave driven by an alternative vision of power and outcomes is strong enough to challenge ingrained mental and neurological patterns, much as 20th century social activism transformed America. The Democrats offer little hope of such change. Democratic control of at least one house of Congress after the 2018 elections would pull us back from the brink of fascism, but the Democratic Party is still controlled by Wall Street and still beholden to the military-industrial complex—its triumph would leave us as vulnerable to a proto-fascist electoral coup 4 or 6 years down the road as we were in 2016.
The Occupy movement left behind a vision of social activism that is transforming, challenging to both political parties, and capable of uniting young activists with the unemployed, the poor, and the sinking middle class. The current movement among women to call out their abusers, even allowing for the unfortunate flavor of witch-hunting that it manifests at times, has caught fire and is disrupting norms in place, literally, for millennia. And the parade of gun massacres, unique in the world and perhaps history, may yet provoke a similarly powerful response in favor of gun control; certainly the impotence of speeches, outcry, and bills has been amply displayed in regard to this issue.
The distortions and outrage marshaled against “Black Lives Matter” demonstrates anti-black racism’s enduring ability to mobilize the American right. Yet one has to expect challenges to racism to be met by the most debased tactics, as they always have been. We might have predicted the whining “What about white lives?”, “What about police lives?”, “Blue matters” reaction which did blunt the power of Black Lives Matter. Of course no one even implied that whites and officers’ lives don’t matter: the real message was that society as a whole already broadcasts the message that they matter, while black deaths are often ignored, or the victim smeared, or excuses made for trigger-happy cops (“he went for his cellphone; he kept running; she became hysterical; he had a knife”, etc.). But that was too subtle a distinction to catch hold and thus these glib, empy sound bytes took a toll on Black Lives Matter.
The battle for hearts and minds, when one side is fundamentally authoritarian, is always littered with the spent shells of a vigorous propaganda campaign. Brainwashed brains cannot respond to reasoned argument or appeals to a better nature because propaganda contains a built-in assurance that it represents reason and the moral high ground. It is a deviously designed virus.
The challenge by Americans capable of seeing the profound threat represented by our current regime is how to generate a transforming political movement. The present situation should not blind us to the success of the civil rights and liberation movements of the past 60 years or the #MeToo, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter campaigns. While deriving energy from reactions against oppression and injustice, they all received their true inspiration from a positive vision of a (relatively) liberated life. Ironically, the rise of the extreme right was also animated with by inspiring visions: an America ruled by fine upstanding white men backed by the guns dangling from their belts, free to bulldoze the earth while driving without speed limits on highways maintained by…um, the federal government? Inspiration rains alike on the just and unjust, which goes to the core of the problem: what differentiates such opposite visions which so often are compared with the media’s false equivalencies, their incoherent notion of objectivity. Are there moral and pragmatic standards that can be applied to political action and policies? How do we persuade people whose brains have been trained to respond to the instant gratification that propaganda accustoms them to that their vision is a dead-end? To some extent, we need to fight fire with fire with themes and language that tap a deeper emotional well than that provided by propaganda. Without these deeper level strategies and tactics, we will continue to find ourselves facing the intractable commitment of fanatics armed only with the same sad, tired pablum of dismay and confusion that the Democrats offered in the last election.