Escaping the Cult of Consumerism

Shopping for Freedom: Escaping the Cult of Consumerism

United Natures Media (2019)

Film Review

Shopping for Freedom is best described as an illustrated podcast about the legacy of Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry. It’s intended to remind us of the subtle way public relations and propaganda influence our culture to the point we only imagine we have free choice in the items we purchase.

The film has no background narrative. The sound track is a casual conversation between the hosts of Ashes Ashes, a podcast about the “end of the world.” Meanwhile we are bombarded with priceless archival footage of early TV ads and the propaganda news reels shown in schools and movie theaters in the fifties and sixties.

The footage begins with the propaganda films Bernays produced in the early fifties to win popular support for the CIA-backed coup to overthrow Guatemala’s elected government – at the behest of United Fruit Company (to protect its monopoly control of the banana industry)

The film goes on to describe Bernays’ work under Woodrow Wilson promoting US entry into World War I, and the new science of psychological persuasion as described in the former’s 1928 book Propaganda.

The hosts go on to give illustrated examples of Bernays’ successful campaigns – to increase smoking among women and consumption of nutritionless breakfast cereals and to shame working class women who got married without diamond engagement rings or wore the same dress more than once a week.*

Intriguingly the filmmakers also insert several one second “subliminal” messages inserted into the video, which the hosts never comment on. I saw “You are enough” flashed twice, three one-second Coke ads, and “eco-capitalism” flashed once.

The film concludes by recommending viewers question all their choices. Most people claim not to be influenced by advertising. In most cases, however, many of us are unaware of habits (such as buying diamond engagement rings) the PR industry has elevated into cultural norms. In all their decisions, people need to ask themselves, “Is someone trying to sell me something?”


*Bernays was also hired by ALCOA in the mid-forties to run a campaign to dispose of toxic fluoride waste by persuading municipalities to add it to their public water systems. See Edward Bernays: Father of Water Fluoridation

 

 

History as Fiction: How the Ruling Elite Rewrites History

The Living Dead

Directed by Adam Curtis

Part 1 – “On the Desperate Edge of Now”

Film Review

The Living Dead is an early Adam Curtis documentary regarding collective perception control techniques ruling elites use to retain power. It specifically addresses the technique of re-creating national history to ensure that populations selectively recall positive historical eras while suppressing all memory of negative events. Only Parts 1 and 3 are available in full on YouTube (Part 2 “You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough” is available but the audio is too distorted to be intelligible). Tomorrow I’ll post Part 3, about Margaret Thatcher channeling Winston Churchill’s messianic vision.

In Part 1, Curtis focuses on the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1945-46. He maintains these trials were the first major propaganda assault against any historical memory of atrocities and war crimes the US and Britain committed during World War II (see British and American War Crimes During World War II).

In the US, the official determination to re-frame World War II as the “just war” would prove very troubling for individual veterans who had witnessed American atrocities (Kurt Vonnegut writes about it in Slaughterhouse Five and Joseph Heller in Catch 22).

The resulting disconnect between official accounts and their lived experiences often resulted in intense feelings of apprehension, hopelessness, isolation and fear of impending disaster. (It sure did in my father.)

The film features an excerpt from a secret film the US army made about a program designed to help veterans “forget” their troubling memories.

A Film About Dismantling Corporate Rule

Owned and Operated

Relic (2012)

Film Review

Owned and Operated is a documentary about dismantling corporate rule. This non-ideological film features dissidents across the political spectrum, among them John Oliver, George Carlin, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Rifkin, Rob Hopkins, Ron Paul, Ray McGovern, James Corbett, Alex Jones and Brian Wilson. In addition to the film’s touchy-feely ending, I was also disappointed in the filmmakers heavy promotion of technology as the solution to the world’s urgent political and ecological crises.

In my view, the best part of the film is Part 1, The Freak Show. This is a humorous but surprisingly accurate depiction of modern corporate culture and the dangerous and bizarre effect of systematic corporate indoctrination on human behavior.

Part 2, Class War and Organized Greed, concerns the obscene greed of the 1% and their systematic takeover of our supposedly democratic political systems.

Part 3, Freedom vs Security concerns the systematic loss of civil liberties that has accompanied the War on Terror.

Part 4, The Awakening, concerns recent mass movements triggered by the 2008 global economic meltdown, including Occupy, the Arab Spring, Anonymous and the Zeitgeist, Transition and Open Source Ecology movements.

Part 5, the Future, heavily promotes Jeremy Rifkin’s views on the role of the Internet and mass connectivity in solving mankind’s most pressing problems. I tend to agree with Ronald Wright’s analysis (in A Short History of Progress) that humanity’s eagerness to rush into new technologies has tended to create more problems than it solves.

That being said the film ends on an extremely positive note by scrolling the web addresses of scores of social change movements for viewers to explore.

Deja Vu All Over Again

With the US, Britain, France and Russia rapidly escalating military aggression against Syria, I thought it would be useful to look back at this Al Jazeera documentary from 2004. Al Jazeera analysts were the first to predict (2003) that the US and their allies would lose the war in Iraq.

The Control Room – Propaganda of the Iraq War

Directed by Jehane Noujaim (2004)

Film Review

The Control Room is about the Qatar TV network Al Jazeera and their coverage of the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq. It alternates between footage of the Doha control room and the US Central Command media center. Highlights include vignettes of US officials condemning Al Jazeera for showing footage of civilian casualties and dead and captured Americans.

Because of the Pentagon’s tight control over US media, Al Jazeera was the only mainstream outlet to address the issue of civilian or GI deaths.

Al Jazeera was first launched in 1996 and several Arab countries banned it for criticizing their regimes. In 2003, they would broadcast coverage of the US invasion to 40 million Arab viewers, eventually becoming the most popular Arab TV station.

Their analysts would also be the first to predict (in 2003) that the US had “miscalculated” by invading Iraq – that the Iraqi resistance would eventually defeat the occupation.

The commentary by Al Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader is definitely the high point of the film, especially his discussion of the importance of propaganda in war. I was really surprised by his strenuous efforts to balance pro-US and pro-Iraqi propaganda.

I was astounded by his comment that he would take a job at Fox News if they offered it to him – to “trade the Arab nightmare for the American dream.” He speaks openly about his plans to send his children to the US to study.

The most heart-wrenching part of the film involves the deliberate assassination (via a US missile) of Al Jazeera reporter Tarek Ayyoub as he was broadcasting from the roof of the Al Jazeera building in Baghdad. His death would result the first of many anti-occupation protest marches.

A Classic Kiwi Mocumentary About Propaganda

Propaganda

Slavko Martinov 2012

Korean with English subtitles

Film Review

The video below by Slavko Martinov is a sterling example of New Zealand satire. This is utterly classic Kiwi humor, deliberately biting, edgy and over-the-top. In fact, they may have pushed the envelope a bit too far in this one.

The premise of the satire is that the film is a “leaked” propaganda film by The Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea).

Reminiscent of the Yes Men and their impersonation of corporate criminals, this satiric depiction of pro-corporate propaganda in western society is so uncanny that New Zealand’s South Korean community still believe the filmmakers are North Korean spies.

Here Slavko Martinov discusses his motivation for producing this mockumentary and the unexpected reaction it has received:

Marketing Politicians Through Social Engineering

Social-engineering-attack-scdor-hack

The Century of the Self is a four part BBC documentary that delves deeply into the work of Edward Bernays, commonly known as the father of public relations. Parts 3 and 4 explore the glorification of selfish consumption after World War II and how Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton and Blair perfected the “politics of self” to win and hold power.

The Century of the Self

BBC Documentary (2005)

Film Review

Part 3 (There’s a Policeman Inside All Our Heads) and Part 4 (Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering)

Link to Part 1 and 2

The Politics of Self

Following World War II, the CIA hired Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays to advise them on controlling the “irrational aggression” of the masses. They were concerned that 49% of US soldiers evacuated from combat had to leave the battlefield for “emotional problems.” Today their condition would be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In the mid-forties, the psychoanalysts who interviewed them diagnosed that they had unresolved conflicts related to their unconscious aggressive and sexual drives.

Convinced these problems were widespread among the greater population, in 1946 the Truman administration championed the passage of the Mental Health Act. The Act funded new guidance centers throughout the US to assist Americans to control and suppress their dangerous unconscious drives.

Meanwhile the public relations industry hired psychoanalysts to set up focus groups to use advertising more effectively to improve consumer demand for corporate products. These early focus groups employed psychoanalytic techniques to help advertisers improve sales by secretly appealing to unconscious needs and insecurities.

Students Opt for Self-Liberation

The anti-Vietnam War movement of the late sixties quickly morphed into a broader anti-capitalist movement that attacked corporations for corrupting government and brainwashing the public. This movement was strongly influenced by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, who had split with Sigmund and Anna Freud over their belief that unconscious aggressive and sexual drives had to be suppressed and controlled. Reich and Marcuse taught that it was repression itself that distorted unconscious aggressive and sexual drives and made them dangerous.

In 1970 the National Guard massacre of unarmed Kent State students in 1970 split in this anti-capitalist movement. For the most part middle class student supporters shifted their focus to “liberating” themselves rather than organizing for political change.

In addition to widespread experimentation with illicit drugs, this shift led to a surge of self-improvement initiatives and therapies, collectively called the Human Potential Movement.

Values and Lifestyle Marketing

Employing computer technology and psychologists trained in self-improvement techniques, the public relations industry adapted to this new individualism and preoccupation with self-expression with “values and lifestyle marketing.”

One of their main strategies was to blur the line between advertising and journalism by incorporating three key messages into news reporting: selfishness is good, the needs of individuals are more important than the needs of society and that only business can properly satisfy individual needs.

The Politics of Self

This deliberate promotion of selfishness and individualism cut across social classes and was a key factor in persuading blue collar voters to vote for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and programs that significantly hurt their own economic interests.

Ultimately it was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who perfected this new “politics of self” by incorporating focus groups and lifestyle marketing into their political campaigns. Their advisers convinced them that voters had to be regarded as consumers and that the secret to getting elected was by catering (i.e. pandering) to voters’ unconscious primitive selfish desires. It was a hell of a way to run government and would cause the Democrats to get the boot in 2000 and the Labour Party in 2010.

The Propaganda Function of Torture

language of empire

The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media

by Lila Rajiva (2005 Monthly Review Press

Book Review

The Language of Empire is an examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal, from the perspective that the US military’s use of torture was primarily an instrument of terror (i.e. a military tactic intended to cause intimidation). In addition to outlining what actually happened at Abu Ghraib, Rajiva also chronicles the Senate Armed Services Committee investigation triggered when the scandal first broke in April 2004. However the book mainly focuses on the media coverage of Abu Ghraib and what it tells us about the highly sophisticated psychological strategies employed by Pentagon and Wall Street propagandists.

The Language of Empire begins with a detailed catalog of the different forms of torture employed against prisoners (who were for the most part civilian non-combatants) at Abu Ghraib, with particular emphasis on the rape of female prisoners (only reported by the Christian Science Monitor) and the sodomizing of Iraqi teenagers, both largely ignored by the mainstream media.

The third chapter is devoted to the Senate investigation. The investigation, in Rajiva’s view, was a whitewash allowing the Republican majority to scapegoat a few “bad apples.”  There should have been a thorough investigation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had clearly mandated the use of torture in interrogations. Rajiva is also critical of Senate Democrats, who focused entirely on the legal paper trail and the Pentagon’s failure to keep Congress informed, rather than a diseased Pentagon culture that enabled the US to adopt torture as official policy.

Rumsfeld’s Corporatization of the Pentagon

Rajiva is extremely critical of Rumsfeld’s wholesale “corporatization” of defense and his consolidation of all Middle East intelligence and propaganda functions under the Pentagon. Of most significance, obviously, was contracting with private companies to provide military and intelligence functions. In addition to introducing the secrecy (and deniability) of the corporate boardroom into military operations, it simultaneously transferred major policy decisions from military professionals to civilians.

Torture as Psyops*

Although she deals briefly with the cultural use of forced nakedness, sexuality and homosexual role play, compounded by the global distribution of photos of Muslim men humiliated in this way, most of the book deals with the intended psyops function of Abu Ghraib coverage on the American public.

Rajiva explores two broad themes here. The first relates to deliberately orchestrating fear and confusion in the American public to increase their susceptibility to ideological propaganda. The second relates to the deliberate use of fragmented, highly emotive images and scenarios in the absence of historical or logical context.

According to Rajiva, in most Americans normal social interaction has been replaced with incoherent economic and biological drives reinforced by continual advertising messages to consume. Layered on top of this (in white males) are Invented “culture wars,” consisting of imagined threats from liberals, women, minorities and Islam.

All this is very effective in distracting the public from the real conflict, which is between corporate interests and the real needs of people and their communities. In addition to making them exquisitely vulnerable to manipulation by the Pentagon and corporate media, it deliberately encourages Americans to project their inner anxieties on frightening outsiders (i.e. Muslims).

Rajiva gives numerous examples in which the US media deliberately misrepresents Arab society as inherently violent, tribal and uncivilized. At the same time Islamic insurgents are made to appear as monstrous as possible by 1) exaggerating their alleged religious fundamentalism and negating their rational motivation (poverty and US occupation and atrocities) for their terrorist activities and 2) defining them as evil by nature, with subhuman descriptors (animals, insects, slime, etc).

She also describes a trick of logic played by government/media propagandists, whereby the US killing of thousands of civilians is “rational” because it’s (supposedly) accidental. In contrast acts of violence by militants are portrayed as “irrational” because they occur in response to genuine grievances.

*Psyops are tactics intended to manipulate one’s opponents or enemies, such as the dissemination of propaganda or the use of psychological warfare.

Lila Rajiva is a journalist and author residing in Baltimore. She has degrees in economics and English from India, as well as a Master’s degree from JohnsHopkinsUniversity, where she did doctoral work in international relations and political philosophy. She has taught at the University of Maryland, BaltimoreCounty. She blogs at http://mindbodypolitic.com/