James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda)” (February 2008)
It might be a bit dated, what with social media platforms like Facebook now dominating people’s time (and perhaps moulding their thoughts, opinions and behaviours), and selling their personal details to corporate advertising sponsors and election campaign staff, but this episode of “The Corbett Report” on Edward Bernays and the poisonous legacy he left still has the power to shock viewers. Bernays is famous as the founder of public relations and modern methods of propaganda, based on discovering what motivates people and what they fear and desire, and using those fears and desires to manipulate people’s thoughts, views and behaviours, all to achieve certain ends. These methods are based on the assumption, derived from psychoanalytic theory (founded by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the uncle of Edward Bernays), that human beings are essential irrational creatures ruled by fears, feelings and instincts they are unaware of or which they cannot articulate in words.
Using various sources, of which the most prominent are two documentaries, Alix Spiegel’s “Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations”, made for National Public Radio in 2005, and Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self”, made for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2002, James Corbett demonstrates how Bernays was able to change public perceptions and behaviour, usually to the detriment of people’s long-term health and security, for the benefit of his private corporate clients – and ultimately himself, since he would have reaped quite an income along with a reputation for dramatic results which would have brought him more clients. The examples used are superb if gob-smacking: Bernays was able to change the US public’s perception of what a hearty, home-cooked breakfast should involve (bacon and eggs) for his client who wanted to increase its bacon sales; he created a strategy to promote cigarette smoking among women, which involved hiring a group of young women posing as feminists and suffragettes to light up cigarettes during an Easter Day parade in New York City, for his client The American Tobacco Company; and he orchestrated a media campaign using the American Dental Association promoting the fluoridation of public water supplies so that the Aluminum Company of America and other special interest lobbyists could legally dump aluminium fluoride waste into water repositories. Through such campaigns, Bernays and his clients may have contributed considerably to harming the long-term health of generations of Americans and others abroad. Furthermore, this harm may have also had an impact on Western societies and cultures as there are studies suggesting that fluoridation of water can damage children’s neurological development. Corbett mentions that Nazi German concentration camps and Soviet gulags put sodium fluoride into their water supplies to induce passive behaviour in prisoners; whether this is true, I do not know as considerable controversy still surrounds this matter.
The most worrying aspect of Bernays’s career as a spin doctor is the work he did for the US government and the CIA in convincing the US public in the 1950s that the somewhat social-democratic Arbenz government of the small Central American nation Guatemala was Communist and therefore a major threat to American security. The success of Bernays’s campaigns led to US public support for the eventual overthrow of the government and its replacement by an authoritarian military government. The ultimate beneficiary of this destabilisation of an entire country (which entrenched it further in a culture of political instability, poverty and violence) was the American corporation The United Fruit Company which resented the nationalisation of several of its properties by the Arbenz government.
Bernays’s influence spread far outside American public relations and political propaganda: his book “Propaganda”, published in 1927, his ideas and campaigns were studied by the Nazi German and Soviet governments who put their new-found knowledge to use in their own public propaganda campaigns. That Bernays was surprised that enemies of the US were using his book and propaganda methods to promote their ideologies and change their populations suggests a lack of insight and reflection on his part. Certainly such news did not stop him from eagerly offering his services (for money of course) to the US government and its agencies to get rid of governments that encroached on the interests of US private corporations. Eventually Bernays seems to have become cynical about human nature as suggested by his daughter Ann in the episode’s last scene; but the quality of thinking, believing and acting by the American public as it developed during the 20th century generally must be seen as a reflection of the predatory and anti-intellectual capitalist society that helped to shape it, and in this Bernays must bear a great deal of the blame for his role in demonstrating the potential of propaganda campaigns in manipulating human emotions, fears and instincts for short-term profit.
The episode is easy to follow but listeners may have to hear it a few times to absorb the information – the presentation is very dense and far-ranging. It ends with recent examples of US propaganda aimed at deceiving the public into believing outright lies about US government policies and actions. A situation has now developed in which the American public has become increasingly estranged from the US government and the elites who dominate it and determine its policies: this strained relationship extends also to the mainstream news media industry which peddles lies and stereotypes, and manufactures or misrepresents propaganda stunts designed and timed to sway public opinion to favour US government actions that promote the interests of global finance, the arms industry and giant energy and other corporations. Were Sigmund Freud alive today, he would be horrified at how his psychoanalytic theories have been used and abused to bring about a dysfunctional world.