Excerpts From: Media Control by Noam Chomsky
Media Control -- The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda
SECOND EDITION by NOAM CHOMSKY
Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform "Peace
Without Victory." That was right in the middle of the World War I. The
population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved
in a European war. The Wilson administration was actually committed to war
and had to do something about it. They established a government propaganda
commission, called the Creel Commission which succeeded, within six
months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering
population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans
limb from limb, go to war and save the world.
Among those who participated actively and enthusiastically in Wilson's war
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. Much
of it was invented by the British propaganda ministry, whose own
commitment at the time, as they put it in their secret deliberations, was
"to direct the thought of most of the world." But more crucially they
wanted to control the thought of the more intelligent members of the
community in the United States, who would then disseminate the propaganda
that they were concocting and convert the pacifistic country to wartime
hysteria. That worked. It worked very well. And it taught a lesson: State
propaganda, when supported by the educated classes and when no deviation
is permitted from it, can have a big effect. It was a lesson learned by
Hitler and many others, and it has been pursued to this day.
Another group that was impressed by these successes was liberal democratic
theorists and leading media figures, like, for example, Walter Lippmann,
who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic
policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy. If you take
a look at his collected essays, you'll see that they're subtitled
something like "A Progressive Theory of Liberal Democratic Thought."
Lippmann was involved in these propaganda commissions and recognized their
achievements. He 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 also thought that this was a good
idea, in fact, necessary. It was necessary because, as he put it, "the
common interests elude public opinion entirely" and can only be understood
and managed by a "specialized class "of "responsible men" who are smart
enough to figure things out.
Lippmann… 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. Naturally, anyone
who puts these ideas forth is always part of that small group, and they're
talking about what to do about those others. Those others, who are out of
the small group, the big majority of the population, they are what
Lippmann called "the bewildered herd." We have to protect ourselves from
"the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd".
The media, the schools, and popular culture have to be divided. For the
political class and the decision makers they have to provide 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.
So we have one kind of educational system directed to the responsible men,
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 achieve that, then they can be part of the
specialized class. The rest of the bewildered herd basically just have to
be distracted. Turn their attention to something else. Keep them out of
trouble. Make sure that they remain at most spectators of action…
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Harold Lasswell, the founder of the modern
field of communications and one of the leading American political
scientists, explained that we
should not succumb to "democratic dogmatisms about men being the best
judges of their own interests." Because they're not. We're the best judges
of the public interests. Therefore, just out of ordinary morality, we have
to make sure that they don't have an opportunity to act on the basis of
their misjudgments. In what is nowadays called a totalitarian state, or 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 a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.
That's wise and good because, again, the common interests elude the
bewildered herd. They can't figure them out.
The United States pioneered the public relations industry. Its commitment
was "to control the public mind/' as its leaders put it.
Public relations is a huge industry. They're spending by now something on
the order of a billion dollars a year. All along its commitment was to
controlling the public mind. In the 1930s, big problems arose again, as
they had during the First World War. There was a huge depression and
substantial labor organizing. In fact, in 1935 labor won its first major
legislative victory, namely, the right to organize, with the Wagner Act.
That raised two serious problems. For one thing, democracy was
misfunctioning. The bewildered herd was actually winning legislative
victories, and it's not supposed to work that way. The other problem was
that it was becoming possible for people to organize. People have to be
atomized and segregated and alone. They're not supposed to organize,
because then they might be something beyond spectators of action. They
might actually be participants if many people with limited resources could
get together to enter the political arena. That's really threatening, A
major response was taken on the part of business to ensure that this would
be the last legislative victory for labor and that it would be the
beginning of the end of this democratic deviation of popular organization.
It worked. That was the last legislative victory for labor.
You want to create a slogan that nobody's going to be against, and
everybody's going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it
doesn't mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention
from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy?
That's the one you're not allowed to talk about. So you have people
arguing about support for the troops? "Of course I don't not support
them." Then you've won. That's like Americanism and harmony. We're all
together, empty slogans, let's join in, let's make sure we don't have
these bad people around to disrupt our harmony with their talk about class
struggle, rights and that sort of business.
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. And since there is no organization permitted— that's
absolutely crucial—you never have a way of finding out whether you are
crazy, and you just assume it, because it's the natural thing to assume.
The media are a corporate monopoly. They have the same point of view. The
two parties are two factions of the business party. Most of the population
doesn't even bother voting
because it looks meaningless. They're marginalized and properly
distracted. At least that's the goal. The leading figure in the public
relations industry, Edward Bernays, actually came out of the Creel
Commission. He was part of it, learned his lessons there and went on to
develop what he called the "engineering of consent," which he described as
"the essence of democracy." The people who are able to engineer consent
are the ones who have the resources and the power to do it—the business
community—and that's who you work for.
…as long as people are marginalized and distracted and have no way to
organize or articulate their sentiments, or even know that others have
these sentiments, people who said that they prefer social spending to
military spending, who gave that answer on polls, as people overwhelmingly
did, assumed that they were the only people with that crazy idea in their
heads. They never heard it from anywhere else. Nobody's supposed to think
that. Therefore, if you do think it and you answer it in a poll, you just
assume that you're sort of weird. Since there's no way to get together
with other people who share or reinforce that view and help you articulate
it, you feel like an oddity, an oddball. So you just stay on the side and
you don't pay any attention to what's going on. You look at something
else, like the Superbowl.
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.
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 rather
proudly during the Gulf War hysteria, to instill in people respect for
"martial value." 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.
It's also necessary to completely falsify history. That's another way to
overcome these sickly inhibitions, to make it look as if when we attack
and destroy somebody we're really protecting and defending ourselves
against major aggressors and monsters and so on.
Pick the topic you like: the Middle East, international terrorism, Central
America, whatever it is—the picture of the world that's presented to the
public has only the remotest relation to reality. The truth of the matter
is buried under edifice after edifice of lies upon lies. It's all been a
marvelous success from the point of view in deterring the threat of
democracy, achieved under conditions of freedom, which is extremely
interesting. It's not like a totalitarian state, where it's done by force.
These achievements are under conditions of freedom. If we want to
understand our own society, we'll have to think about these facts. They
are important facts, important for those who care about what kind of
society they live in.
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 a 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, like sickly inhibitions against the use
of military force. That has to be overcome, but it hasn't been overcome.
Just in the two years that George Bush has been in office three million
more children crossed the poverty line, the debt is zooming, educational
standards are declining, real wages are now back to the level of about the
late 1950s for much of the population, and nobody's doing anything about
it. In such circumstances you've got to divert the bewildered herd,
because if they start noticing this they may not like it, since they're
the ones suffering from it. Just having them watch the Superbowl and the
sitcoms may not be enough. You have to whip them up into fear of enemies.
In the 1930s Hitler whipped them into fear of the Jews and gypsies. You
had to crush them to defend yourselves. We have our ways, too. Over the
last ten years, every year or two, some major monster is constructed that
we have to defend ourselves against. There used to be one that was always
readily available: The Russians. You could always defend yourself against
the Russians. But they're losing their attractiveness as an enemy, and
it's getting harder and harder to use that one, so some new ones have to
be conjured up.
So it was international terrorists and narco-traffickers and crazed Arabs
and Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler, was going to conquer the world.
They've got to keep coming up one after another.
The issue is… 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
goosestep on command and repeat the slogans they're supposed to repeat and
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 like you and
AN OPEN MEDIA BOOK -- SEVEN STORIES / NEW YORK
Contains material that originally appeared in Media Control:
The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (1997).
ISBN: 1-58322-536-6 / ISBN-13: 978-1-58322-536-3
14 13 12 11 10
Cover design and photo by Greg Ruggiero.
About the Author:
NOAM CHOMSKY is a world renowned political activist, writer, and professor
of linguistics as Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he has
taught since 1995. Chomsky has written and lectured widely on linguistics,
philosophy, and politics. His most recent book is Hegemony or Survival.
Among his other works are Powers and Prospects: World Orders, Old and New;
Deterring Democracy; Manufacturing Consent (with E. S. Herman); Year 501:
The Conquest Continues; Profit Over People; The New Military Humanism;
Rogue States; A New Generation Draws the Line, and the international