Monday, May 29, 2006

"Explaining it better"

An Internet friend, an American, lives in Norway. There he continues to write his well-researched nonfiction books. Fluent in several languages, he also tracks the local media. According to his report the Scandinavian media lean strongly to the left. In large measure, this tendency is responsible for diffusing the political correctness that has led to the neglect of the growing Islamist problem in those countries.

Having lived in Europe myself, I do not doubt that this analysis is generally correct, though I would note that there is greater variety of opinion in Britain and France, where a few conservative newspapers still exist.

My friend and I differ on the current Iraq war. He was (and, I think, still is) in favor of it. I have always been against it. So we have agreed to differ. The friend points out that pro-war coverage has been very thin on the ground where he sits. Again, just so.

Still, how much “balance,” how much pro-war coverage, would be needed to bring European public opinion around to supporting the launch of the Iraq war? I doubt that any amount would have sufficed. One can debate the reasons for this resistance, but it would certainly have continued no matter how much exposure to the other point of view had been on offer. In this instance, then, my friend’s point is academic.

This brings me to a larger issue, and that is the current popularity of a meme that goes like this: “Our policies are sound. We just didn’t explain them properly.”

We saw a version of this technique the other day in the joint press conference given by president Bush and his British sidekick Tony Blair. When asked about errors with regard to Iraq, the most that Bush would concede was to acknowledge some mistakes of tone. The war itself is still just fine—-we must stay the course, and so forth.

A moment’s reflection suggests that this ploy has limits. Was the Holocaust simply “not explained properly”?!!! Of course, those who hold to the “we didn’t explain it right” meme believe that their causes are different. Perhaps so, up to a point. All the same, this claim has become a self-serving mantra that operates to rationalize the obstinate pursuit of bad policies. To judge by the flurry of his speeches on Social Security reform a few months ago, Bush seemed to think that a barrage of talk would do the trick. It did not, and could not, because most people do not want the Social Security system tampered with. End of story.

Of course there is plenty of this kind of delusion among the stalwarts of the Democratic Party, as seen in the current popularity of "framing”(a theory advanced by a pop linguist). According to this view the voters will come around if only the right language is used—-if things are put in the right frame.

That outcome is not likely. Some years ago my apartment was burglarized. I will not be reconciled to this invasion by being told that the perps were “property-relocation specialists.” In Washington it is not reassuring to learn that lobbyists are merely “helping our Congresspeople better to formulate their legislation.” Opponents of “affirmative action” are not assuaged by the magical utterance of that bit of weasel wording, though supporters think they are.

This notion that “all we need to do to get the policy accepted is to say it right” seems to be peculiarly American-—though of course it forms part of the overarching category of propaganda.

It was in the United States that the field of Public Relations arose. The invention is usually ascribed to Edward Bernays (1891-1995—can these dates really be correct?). Some hold that that title properly belongs to some other early PR practitioner, such as Ivy Lee. However, Bernays’ importance is undeniable. Born in Vienna, Edward Bernays was both a biological nephew and a nephew-in-law to Sigmund Freud. Bernays' public relations efforts helped popularize his uncle’s psychoanalytic theories in the United States. The PR guru also drew on psychology and other social sciences to design his public persuasion campaigns. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." Bernays termed this technique of opinion molding the "engineering of consent."

In Propaganda, his most influential book, Bernays maintained that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society:

"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. ... We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ... 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."

Not everyone was deceived. In a letter to President Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter characterized Bernays and Ivy Lee as "professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest." Ironically, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, was a close student of Bernays’ methods.

Today, of course, defending the indefensible continues. Through their flunkies, third-world dictators use the United Nations as a major sounding board for their odious policies. And the “new” UN Commission on Human Rights has almost as many offenders as the old one had.

It is understandable that dictators should think that such methods would be effective. After all they seem to work in their own countries, where the media are strictly controlled. At first sight, it is more surprising to see such propaganda methods deployed in the United States. For that, it seems, the discipline of Public Relations is responsible.


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