Unrigging the System

This will be my first post on a political topic, because of its importance. Like many other citizens – Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents – I believe that the political system is rigged, and is no longer “of, by and for the people.” Two weeks ago my wife Maria and I attended the second annual Unrig Summit, in Nashville. Last year we attended the first Unrig Summit, in New Orleans. The movement seems to be gaining momentum, and there have been legislative victories in several states since the first summit. The movement’s primary goals are to get Big Money and the corruption it enables out of politics, and to hold elections that are free and fair. (One presenter said that the country suffers from “electile dysfunction.”) Regardless of political affiliation, the attendees were united in their conviction that allegiance to country supersedes allegiance to political party. All of us who believe in democracy need to unite, to unrig the System.

In successive rulings, the Supreme Court has decided that (1) corporations should have the basic rights granted to actual persons under the Constitution, that (2) money, in the form of political contributions, is a kind of free speech, and that (3) there should be no limit to the amount of “free speech”  rich donors could contribute to political campaigns. The latter ruling is known as Citizens United, and can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment.

To me, the reasons for Citizens United are absurd, because it makes “free speech” quantifiable – a concept that had never occurred to me before. By law, rich people now have more free speech than the rest of us. This isn’t what our Founding Fathers intended in establishing the right of free speech. There are several national organizations dedicated to overturning Citizens United, including Stamp Stampede. I stamp all of my paper money with the message “Corporations aren’t people. Amend the Constitution.” Each bill I stamp will likely pass through dozens of hands, promoting the message that corporate personhood is a legal fiction that should be abolished. Corporations can’t serve time in jails and prisons, let alone be executed, if they break the law. Why should they have all of the constitutional rights that citizens enjoy? Why do giant corporations need to be protected from the rest of us? It makes no sense.

Another continuing threat to our democracy  is gerrymandering – as well as other voter manipulation/suppression schemes. Both Democrats and Republicans have used gerrymandering to allow politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. It’s necessary to  re-apportion voting districts every ten years, after the census, as populations change in many districts. The question is, who decides how districts are re-apportioned? Does the dominant party in each state get to re-draw the lines, in ways that benefit their candidates? Or do the people in each state get to decide, via bi-partisan citizen re-districting commissions?

True democracy depends on free and fair elections, and anyone who seeks to skew elections to benefit their party either doesn’t understand or doesn’t trust the democratic process. My fears that we’re already an oligarchy (ruled by an elite, as in Russia), rather than a true democracy, were stoked by the passage of Citizens United. We haven’t been a true democracy for very long. Women weren’t enfranchised nationally until 1920, and Jim Crow laws disenfranchised millions of African Americans until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Plutocracy is a form of oligarchy, and I believe that we’re already being ruled by the rich, and not by the electorate. The rich have an army of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington that far outnumbers our elected representatives.

Re-claiming (or establishing) true democracy in America isn’t a partisan issue. A solid core of citizens on both the Left and Right advocate unrigging a rigged System. So, how do we go about undoing decades of political corruption, financed by the rich? First, we have to overturn Citizens United, and to establish that corporations don’t have all the rights of actual people. Then we need to close the revolving door between serving as a legislator, and then becoming a high-paid lobbyist for special interest groups. These days, too many people enter  politics with the goal of enriching themselves. Private gain is antithetical to public service, and our national legislators need to stop depending on special interests and powerful individual donors to finance their re-elections, if our democracy is to survive.

All it takes for oligarchies to thrive is ignorance and/or indifference on the part of the electorate. Since the rich control the popular  media, the average citizen is influenced by “invisible” propaganda/PR campaigns that exist to promulgate ignorance on a mass scale. Orchestrated ignorance leads to public indifference, or to antipathy toward the targets of the propaganda campaigns. Back in 1920, Walter Lippman coined the term “manufactured consent” to describe how the electorate can be manipulated into political impotence.

We the people can establish/re-claim true democracy if we have the information and the will. We’re facing a daunting opposition from the plutocrats  who are currently calling the shots, but I believe that it’s not too late to unrig  the System. Check out the Unrig Summit website if you want to find out more about the movement. (Jennifer Lawrence moderates one of the panels.) You can watch all of the plenary sessions in their entirety, get inspired, and get an idea of what you can do to help restore democracy in the United States.  I especially recommend the Saturday morning plenary session, which starts with a stirring oration, and introduces some of the movers and shakers in the movement, who are getting things done in their home states.

 

Why I’m a socialist

Not that kind of socialist! I don’t believe in the abolition of private property or in state ownership of the means of production. Like most American socialists (or social democrats, or democratic socialists) that I know, I believe in democracy, and believe that the people should have some say in how wealth is distributed in our society. Economic democracy means fair compensation for work: a living wage for all. The growing income gap between the rich and the poor can be brought under democratic control simply by establishing a fairer system of progressive taxation. (The more money you make, the higher your tax bracket.) In the fifties – a time of thriving prosperity for our economy – the top tax bracket for the very wealthy was over 90%. Now it’s 37%, but many of our richest citizens complain that even that is an unfair tax burden.

Like most European nations, the U.S. is already semi-socialist, and that’s the way most Americans seem to like it. If it weren’t for American socialists and labor unions, we wouldn’t have many things we take for granted these days: the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, paid vacations and sick leave, overtime pay and the minimum wage, as well as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have universal health care. Every attempt to establish a system of affordable health care, from Franklin D. Roosevelt on, has been attacked by those who profit from the current system as “socialized medicine.” The great majority of family bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical emergencies. It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody should have to go broke in order to keep a family member alive.

I grew up knowing what it’s like to live in a socialist society, because I was an Army brat, and later a soldier. Being in the American military means guaranteed employment and salary. It means that you and your dependents get free medical care. (I was treated for kidney disease, my brother had an appendectomy, and my mother was treated for breast cancer, at no cost to our family.) Your military branch either provides housing or a housing allowance. It either provides you with food or gives you a food allowance. Occupational training (and graduate school, if you’re a qualified officer) is free, and if you serve for twenty years or more you get a pension, whether or not you ever serve in a combat zone. When you serve in the military, all of your basic needs are met by the State.

I’ve seen socialism demonized by rich conservatives all of my life. I doubt that the average American could tell you the difference between socialism and communism; but we’ve all been told, over and over, that they’re both BAD, and that they inevitably lead to tyranny. Tell that to the members of the European Union. Right-wing pundits and propagandists have pushed the notion that “liberal” is actually code for “progressive,” progressive is code for “socialist,” and socialist is code for “closet Commie.”

I’ve lived in other semi-socialist democracies for a total of nine years. Austria (where I lived for four years) has multiple political parties, one of the most popular being the Social Democratic Party. One of the most popular parties in Germany (where I lived for three years) is also a Social Democratic Party. Jamaica (where I lived for two years)  doesn’t have a Social Democratic Party; but one of the two parties, the Jamaican Labour Party, is socialistic. The citizens of all these countries have the same basic freedoms that we enjoy.

Austria and Germany both have progressive taxation. The highest tax bracket in Austria is 50%, in Germany 45%. Some citizens of these countries might pay higher taxes than American counterparts, but most find this acceptable because of the benefits, which include affordable health care and housing, fair wages, and free college and university education for students who get passing grades.

Despite decades of smear campaigns by capitalist propagandists, more Americans are coming to realize that socialism is nothing to fear, compared to unregulated laissez faire capitalism. Given the popularity of the Affordable Care Act, it appears that more and more people are realizing that “socialized medicine” isn’t so bad, after all. Recent polls indicate that a growing number of millennials favor democratic socialism over the current dominant model of capitalistic rule. Those who try to conflate socialism with tyranny and economic ruin are blowing smoke. Most socialistic nations are democracies, and tyrants are as likely to come from the Right as from the Left.

It seems to me that democratic socialism is a marriage of the best parts of laissez faire capitalism, with its incentives for innovation and productivity, and socialism, which gives the people a say in what each person’s labor is worth. Most rich capitalists hate progressive taxation and government regulation. Under-regulated corporations often care more about short-term profitability than about people. Under democratic socialism the people have more control over the excesses of greedy plutocrats.

Most (all?) democracies hold that certain things belong, not to any individual or corporate entity, but to all citizens. In the U.S. “the Commons” include public schools, libraries, roads and other infrastructure, public lands and national parks, as well as the air we breathe and the water we need to sustain life. Unlike the other democracies, the Commons in this country does not include medical care or higher education. It’s time to de-stigmatize “the S-word” and educate the electorate about the benefits of democratic socialism.

 

The invisible profession

Although there are a lot of people who make big bucks as professional propagandists, using the identifiable tools of the trade, I’ve never heard anyone identify him/herself  as a propagandist. I’ve never seen a job listing or classified ad saying “Wanted — skilled propagandist.” It’s a profession that hides in plain sight and relies on secrecy to be effective.

Propagandists have job titles such as ad designer, ad copy writer, public relations consultant/agent, media relations professional, political consultant, talk show host and political pundit. Unlike journalists, they have no obligation to be objective. Indeed, their function isn’t to accurately inform, but to influence or persuade. Propaganda can only be effective to the degree that it’s invisible to its target audience, because nobody likes to know  that they’re being manipulated. I think it’s highly probable that the average American couldn’t identify even one propaganda technique, and that’s the way the influence industries want it.

I’m not saying that everybody in advertising and public relations is a propagandist, but the propaganda industries have developed expertise in using  behavioral science to manipulate behavior on a mass scale, without their machinations being apparent to the public at large. As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of mass behavior in the service of commerce.

Edward Bernays, who is generally recognized as the “father of public relations,” wrote a 1928 book titled Propaganda, in which he wrote about “regimenting the public mind.” He asked “Is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” and answered in the affirmative. His teachings were a blueprint for the influence industries, which have gradually made the techniques of unconscious influence (as detailed in my last post) so commonplace that they’re invisible to the average citizen/consumer. Although Bernays name isn’t widely known outside of the advertising, public relations and political consultancy industries, he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century.” Talk about invisibility. . . .

Many people in the influence industries are specialists in the social sciences and use polling, interviews, focus groups, statistical analysis, and other proven techniques to constantly refine their ability to influence behavior on a mass scale. In aggregate they are social engineers, working to enable corporate agendas. Not only do influence peddlers utilize the classic techniques of propaganda, but they also use rhetorical devices (i.e. metaphor, euphemism, hyperbole) strategically to hammer home their persuasive messages. They craft presentations that combine propaganda techniques such as transfer with combinations of verbal and visual metaphors that effectively influence mass behavior. Propaganda wouldn’t be a highly profitable enterprise if it didn’t work.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts we all use to make decisions. Professional persuaders exploit them to sell goods and services. Examples are stereotyping (if this is the case, then that should follow), social consensus (everybody’s doing it), scarcity (“this offer is limited”), and the price-value heuristic (if it costs more, it must be better).

Edward Bernays was the nephew and confidante of Sigmund Freud, and his uncle’s teachings about unconscious influence had a great influence on the profession he founded. After his academic career ended, Dr. J.B. Watson – known as the “father of Behaviorism” – worked for a Madison Avenue advertising firm. Influence peddlers use behavior modification techniques along with propaganda and other psychotechnologies of influence.

The propaganda technique of transfer relies on classical – or Pavlovian – conditioning, where a conditioning stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. a bell is rung whenever food is presented), creating a conditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiments, dogs were conditioned to salivate when a bell was rung. Professional persuaders also use operant conditioning, where reinforcers (rewards) are systematically given or withheld in order  to shape behavior. An example is “call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.” I’ve written about behavior modification in more detail in previous posts.

We’re bombarded daily with messages from propagandists and other professional persuaders. We’ve been systematically conditioned by experts to confuse manipulative messages with factual information. The key to removing infotoxins from your mental environment is education. As Bob Marley put it, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds.”

 

 

 

Information v. Propaganda

There’s a war going on in the media between information and propaganda. Propaganda has become so commonplace in our society that most people don’t seem to know it when they see it. The result of a successful propaganda campaign is  orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale.

Whether a message is information or propaganda isn’t just a matter of opinion or viewpoint. Information is based on facts, evidence and logic, and aims for the intellect. Propaganda relies on specific deceptive and manipulative techniques, and aims at the gut. Its purpose isn’t to inform, but to influence or persuade – often in the guise of information. Providers of information deal in facts and evidence; propagandists  care more about perception than facts. Here are some of the manipulative techniques used by propagandists:

Assertion is stating an opinion – or an outright lie – as if it were a proven fact. It’s not propaganda if you use a qualifier such as “in my opinion” or “I think/believe that ____.” Sometimes propagandists mix lies and opinions with half-truths, and even with selected facts that appear to support their message. Assertion is widely used in advertising, public relations, and political campaigns. Transfer is a term for creating an association. positive or negative, between two unrelated things. Using a giant American flag as a backdrop for a message is an example of positive transfer, whether you’re selling cars or candidates. A blown-up visual of hundred-dollar bills going up in flames, as a backdrop in a political attack ad, is an example of negative transfer. Transfer can be aural or visual, and is a staple of perception management.

Ad nauseam is the technique of incessant repetition. The phrase “A lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth” has been attributed to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Political slogans are designed to be endlessly repeated, and to lodge themselves in your mind.  Three related propaganda techniques are lies of omission, card stacking and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message, and any contrary facts are omitted or misrepresented. Glittering generalities involves the use of emotionally-loaded phrases that have no objective basis for definition: freedom fighter, perfect union, best country in the world, master race.

Bandwagon suggests that we should follow the crowd, join the Winners, and avoid being left behind with the Losers. “Everyone knows” and “anyone with common sense knows _____” can be used to prop up just about any political opinion. Name calling attempts to arouse prejudice or antipathy, sometimes in the form of an unverified assertion (i.e. Joe Smith is a secret communist), or in the form of sarcasm and ridicule. A related propaganda technique is ad hominem, in which the messenger is attacked, in order to discredit or distract attention from the message. Propagandists are professional perception managers, and name calling and ad hominem are among their favorite tools for molding public perceptions.

Simplification and pinpointing the enemy offer simple explanations for complex issues. and target a culprit for an identified problem. Both techniques were used to devastating effect by the Nazis, to justify the mass murder of Jews. Slogans are usually simplifications. (BUILD A WALL! comes to mind.) A related technique is the black-and-white fallacy, which says that if you’re not for us, you’re against us – no middle ground or room for compromise. Appeal to fear/prejudice relies on stereotypes to fire-up emotions – notably fear and anger. Appeal to authority attempts to link its message with people viewed favorably by the target audience. That’s why you often see white lab coats on actors who endorse medical products and services, so they resemble doctors or scientists. It also explains why you hear that “nine out of ten dentists recommend _____.” Celebrity endorsements are a variant of appeal to authority. Even though we all know that they’re staged and scripted, we nevertheless tend to form a positive association between the product and the admired celebrity. If he uses that product, it must be pretty good.

In my book Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything, I write about how we became a Propaganda Society over the course of the twentieth century, and how propaganda is most effective when it’s invisible to the people most influenced by it. I also write about other “psychotechnologies of influence,” including rhetorical devices, heuristics and behavior modification. I’ll write about those in a future post.

 

Mental pollution, Part 2

In my book Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything I wrote, “As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of behavior in the service of commerce.” Propaganda, which I wrote about in my last post, is only one psychotechnology  of influence used by the propaganda industries – advertising, public relations and political consultancy. Behavior modification is another. According to psychological learning theory (behaviorism) there are two means of systematically conditioning behavior: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is exemplified by Pavlov’s experiments with dogs and is a passive mode of conditioning. Knowing that dogs reflexively salivate when presented with food, Pavlov conditioned his dogs to have the same reaction to the ringing of a bell, ringing it whenever food was presented. Over time, the dogs came to associate the two previously unrelated stimuli, learning to salivate whenever the bell was rung. This kind of associative learning is routinely used by advertisers and marketers to get consumers to associate their product or brand with something they already like or want.

Operant conditioning is an active mode of conditioning, in which a targeted behavior is systematically reinforced. If you expect from experience to be rewarded for what you do, it increases the odds that you’ll do it. This is the method used to teach rats to press a lever in their cage to get food, and to train dolphins to jump through hoops. An example of this in TV advertising is, “Call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.”

As promised in my last post, here are some of the techniques used by propagandists to influence and persuade. Probably the most frequently used techniques in the media is assertion – either an outright lie, or stating an opinion as if it were a fact, without first saying “I think” or “in my opinion.” Any ad that says “We’re the best/least expensive” without providing factual evidence falls in this category. I think that the second most frequently used propaganda technique is ad nauseam. A lie repeated and repeated and repeated can come to be perceived as the truth. Three other, related, techniques are lies of omission, card stacking and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message and any contrary facts are left out or misrepresented. Sometimes the message mixes facts and lies or half-truths; sometimes facts are blended with unsubstantiated opinions (assertions) in a manner designed to obscure the objective truth.

With transfer, a classical conditioning technique, an attempt is made to create an association (positive or negative) between two unrelated things. Using an American flag as a backdrop for a political message is an example of positive transfer. Showing a picture of the opposition candidate with a Hitler mustache superimposed is an example of negative transfer. Bandwagon suggests that we should follow the in-crowd, join the winning side, avoid being left behind with the losers. (Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?) Glittering generalities involves the use of emotionally loaded generalities that have no objective basis for definition, such as “freedom lover,” “perfect gift for all occasions,” or “best country in the world.”

Name calling can take the form of sarcasm and ridicule, or can employ the assertion technique, such as calling a political candidate a closet Communist, or a secret ISIS supporter, or “weak on crime.” With ad hominem, instead of dealing with the message, the messenger is attacked: “Don’t believe anything he says,” or “fake news.” Simplification offers simple solutions for complex problems, and is often seen in the form of slogans. Pinpointing the enemy and  stereotyping were used by the Nazi propaganda machine to stoke the fires of anti-Semitism and to justify Hitler’s genocidal “final solution.”

Appeal to authority attempts to create a positive association. Examples are celebrity endorsements, a politician invoking the name of an icon such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or an actor in a commercial wearing a white lab coat to suggest that she’s a doctor or a scientific expert. “Nine-out-of-ten dentists recommend _______” is another example.

There are other propaganda techniques that you can read about in my book, but these are some of the most commonly used by professional persuaders. Some commercials and political messages use several, to disguise the fact that what they deliver is not information. These classic propaganda techniques were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA), a non-partisan educational organization that, unfortunately, only existed from 1937-42. The IPA distributed information about propaganda analysis to schools and civic organizations. One reason we’ve become a Propaganda Society is that we don’t have anything like the IPA to educate the public at large, and propaganda analysis isn’t taught in our public schools.

In my next post I’ll return to my usual subject matter and look into the pathological condition commonly known as “multiple personalities.”

Mental pollution, Part 1

This post is one of my occasional departures from my usual subject matter. Instead of writing about human growth and psychotherapy, I’ll be sharing some thoughts and information about the polluting of our mental environment. My second published book (my  first was a Peace Corps memoir) is Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything (iUniverse, 2015). I received the iUniverse “Editor’s Choice” designation, and Kirkus Reviews wrote: “An illumination and critique of a commercial culture that distorts reality for gain…. In this brief but smoldering tract, a psychologist deconstructs contemporary advertising…. (a) competently written, highly readable primer on how the culture came to this awful point.”

I think that most Americans, asked if their behavior was influenced by propaganda, would deny it. If you think you aren’t influenced by it, you are either adept at recognizing propaganda techniques and other psychotechnologies of influence when you see them, or chances are you are influenced to some degree without knowing it. The most effective propaganda is invisible to most people; that’s how it works. Whether or not something is propaganda isn’t a matter of opinion. Propaganda seeks to influence and persuade people in the guise of informing them. The intention to persuade doesn’t make something propaganda, if the means of persuasion are logic and facts. It’s the use of identifiable deceptive techniques that distinguishes propaganda from information. The propagandist’s art is to make you think you know something to be true or accurate, even if it’s not. Propaganda techniques are important tools – along with rhetorical devices, heuristics and behavior modification techniques – of the propaganda industries: advertising, public relations, and political consultancy. I’m not saying that all advertising and public relations campaigns use these tools, but they’re so pervasive in the popular media that they’re invisible to most of us.

A few years ago, I set out to discover the relationship between public relations and propaganda, only to find that they’re practically identical. The “father of public relations” was a man named Edward Bernays. Although he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century,” his name isn’t well known outside of the propaganda industries. A government propagandist who worked to persuade the public that the U.S should fight in World War I, after the war he reasoned that propaganda would also successfully influence mass behavior in peacetime. But because propaganda  had gotten a negative reputation, for his purposes he re-named it public relations, and founded a new profession: the public relations counsel (as in legal counsel). In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote about an “invisible government” of social engineers, which he called “the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” When I discovered Edward Bernays, I knew I had a book.

It’s been estimated that the average American will be exposed to over seven million commercial messages over the course of her lifetime. Who is immune to this daily barrage of persuasive messages, crafted by experts in the molding of mass behavior? Mass persuasion has become an applied social science, with its research, polling and focus group activities. Advertising, public relations and political consultancy wouldn’t be multi-billion-dollar industries if they couldn’t deliver results. Perceptions are often more important than facts in media campaigns designed to persuade consumers and voters.

Effective advertising works, whether you’re selling vitamins or cigarettes. A major reason obesity has become a major public health problem in America is that we’re constantly bombarded with ads for unhealthy food. Children are especially susceptible to this form of persuasion. Public relations firms refer to massive stinking pits of excrement on hog farms as “lagoons” and there’s such a thing, we’re told, as “clean coal.” Attack ads and slogans have largely replaced issue ads in political campaigns, because they’re effective in influencing  voters. I believe that we’ve become a Propaganda Society, and that our democracy can’t survive on a steady diet of propaganda. The result of a successful propaganda campaign is orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale. As I suggest in my book’s subtitle, advertising and public relations have changed everything: diet, medicine, law, education, sports, popular culture – you name it!

The antidote to the infotoxins in our mental environment is education. I’ll present some of the propaganda techniques and other psychotechnologies of influence in a future post. They need to be taught in public school, to immunize young people from the social engineering of the corporate state. If you want to learn more about our Propaganda Society and what we can do about it, check out Ad Nauseam, available online in print and e-book editions. You can read my basic thesis in the sample on my Amazon book page.

I’ll close with words from one of my favorite Bob Marley songs, “Redemption Song”: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.”