The Bogey of Bernays


Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995) has been called by his admirers the father of public relations and, by his many detractors, the man who invented our current regimes of state fraudulence. The British journalist John Pilger has written, “Control and dominance…are exercised by political, economic, and military design, of which mass surveillance is an essential part, but also by insinuating propaganda into the public consciousness. This was Edward Bernays’s point. His two most successful PR campaigns convinced Americans that they should go to war in 1917 and persuaded women to smoke in public…”

For Pilger and many others, Bernays personifies a cherished conceit: the brainwashing of society by a military-industrial elite, which has for decades carefully steered mass opinion to support a capitalist warmongering agenda (Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, which incriminates him as an expert psychological manipulator). According to Pilger and the millions who share his views, the Cold War, the War on Terror, the US government, and our entire socio-economic system, are all triumphs of Bernays-esque trickery. The general public has never truly endorsed any of those, but we have been fooled into believing that we do.

Over many years a wide variety of critics have anticipated or echoed Pilger’s thesis. There was Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), who coined the term “false consciousness” to describe workers’ apparent satisfaction with the status quo; there was antiwar activist Helen Caldicott, who wrote in If You Love This Planet (1992), “From the beginning of [the Twentieth] century, large-scale professional propaganda campaigns have been waged by American business in order to shape public attitudes…”; there are commentators like Naomi Klein and Oliver Stone; and there are probably most of the participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement. For a supposedly secret scam, Bernays’s scheme has had its cover pretty widely blown.

The problem with the Bernays-as-brainwasher explanation is that it completely discounts the complexity of thought surrounding any major issue in order to score a partisan point. “Propaganda,” in this perspective, is always what the other guy falls for; the correct position (yours) is only ever arrived at through logic and love of truth. Yet to demonize a mere ad man like Bernays as some sort of American Joseph Goebbels is to dismiss entire fields of discourse, with all their internal disputes, as orchestrated programs of indoctrination. Most ideas, in reality, are endlessly debatable, and when one or another side temporarily gains popular support, it only means that it’s deployed a more effective argument. Insisting that those you disagree with have merely been duped, Bernays-style, isn’t much of a rejoinder. Persuasive rhetoric is not the same as calculated deception.

Sure, there’s a lot of crap information out there which a lot of people accept without question. But if “public relations” was guaranteed to change everyone’s mind every time, then every advertised product would be a commercial success (instead of only a few of them); every candidate would win office (instead of just one per election); and every hyped starlet would become a big celebrity (instead of a tiny handful). The Big-Brother-Bernays premise implies that politicians who kiss babies are craftily exploiting the pro-baby vote, that Beatle fans have been exploited by Capitol Records, and that the cheesiest spiel of a used-car dealer is a conspiratorial corporate exploitation. Common sense, as well as Mad magazine, has long taught us not to believe everything we hear – Bernays-bashers pretend that’s their revolutionary insight.

In 2003 the US reporter Michael Kelly made a deadpan rebuttal to novelist John LeCarréʼs charge of suppressed dissent in the prelude to the US invasion of Iraq. “I know that this complaint of a stifled debate and Bush-lackeyish media is not Le Carré’s alone,” Kelly wrote, “because I come across it frequently, from the stifled, in the opinion pages of major American and British papers such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, the Guardian, and The Independent; on the programs of National Public Radio and its 680 member stations…[etc.,etc.]” That’s the real legacy of Edward Bernays: his latter-day reputation demonstrates that mass skepticism is as ubiquitous, and as unthinking, as mass gullibility.

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