The Agonist Journal

We live in a world of spin, hype, and propaganda, and there’s no escaping it at this point. But we were warned about its advent. Prescient persons foresaw what was in store for us, and tried to delineate its basic structure, and show why the coming of managed public relations was ordained.

"Prescient persons foresaw what was in store for us, and tried to delineate its basic structure, and show why the coming of managed public relations was ordained."

Let’s begin at the beginning. The earliest glimmers were in Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), and in Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528). These two books conjured up a world where appearance and perception trump reality, and where what others think of you is definitive of your identity and influence. Both the prince and the courtier attain their ends by manipulating what others perceive, establishing for themselves a carefully contrived public mask either through ruthless force or self-conscious display. What people saw was what you were. Nevertheless, Machiavelli and Castiglione inhabited a highly cultured milieu, where Realpolitik and courtly manners still supported a world worth saving. Things have changed drastically since then, to put it mildly.

It’s one thing to cultivate what the Italians call “la bella figura,” and insofar as this was behind these early aspirations to good Public Relations (PR), we can tolerate it. But in a modern context of mass industrialization, rampant consumerism, universal suffrage, and widespread cultural decay, PR was bound to become something hideous and evil. Today, the cult of public relations has spawned two of the most soul-destroying and anti-intellectual forces that the human race has ever confronted: mass advertising and political propaganda, both of which have metastasized into world-encircling cancers. The idea that perception trumps reality is now held to be a self-evident truth by millions of persons, and our politics and our commerce take it for granted. And the idea is supported by the indisputable fact that the great mass of humanity is governed not by reason but by visceral promptings.

As I said, all this was predicted. The prime prophet was Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), a French thinker whose books The Crowd and The Psychology of Revolution were seminal works in the understanding of how irrational impulse governs most aspects of human thought at the expense of cool reasoning. Le Bon’s books were groundbreaking studies in collective motivation. They showed how groupthink and propaganda could bring about horrendous social calamities like the French Revolution and other political upheavals.

A close follower of Le Bon was the distinguished English physician Wilfred Trotter (1872-1939). His book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War extended and amplified Le Bon’s work by going into greater and more specific detail about the human tendency to think and act as a herd. Trotter was especially good on the manifestations of war hysteria, and how herd instinct was ramped up by any perceived threat to one’s group, and its accepted ideology.

If Le Bon and Trotter were right, it followed that spin, hype, and propaganda were valuable tools, even though potentially dangerous ones. Or as the Greeks would have put it, rhetoric always has more motivational force than dialectic, since the spirited element (thumos) in a man is usually fiercer and more energetic than his intellectual capacity (logos).

After the First World War, you actually had people who wrote in praise of propaganda and public relations, since they had decided that human intelligence was hopelessly inadequate to the complexities of modern life, which now required the guidance of an elite of manipulators to avoid catastrophe. The most prominent was the disappointed socialist Walter Lippmann, who had come to the melancholy conclusion that superior types like himself would have to “manufacture consent” in a herd-like populace via PR manipulations. Lippmann’s chief book Public Opinion (1922) is a defense of such a policy. Its sheer Olympian arrogance staggers belief. Predictably, Lippmann went on to become a pompous liberal newspaper columnist.

A coarser and more businesslike type was the improbably named Earnest Elmo Calkins, generally recognized as the father of modern advertising techniques. Calkins came up with the “soft sell,” planned obsolescence, subliminal suggestion, and the artificial inflation of consumer demand for unneeded products—morally indefensible concepts that are now thoughtlessly accepted as proper, wise, and necessary. Calkins was the Messiah of Madison Avenue, paving the way for its triumphs in the commercial field. But by far the most effective and articulate defender of propaganda and public relations was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Bernays was the high priest and guru of propaganda and PR manipulation. The works of Le Bon and Trotter were diagnostic—that is, they described the symptoms of mass thinking, and the distortions that could easily arise from it. But Bernays actually celebrated mass thinking, and formulated the various ways in which it could be harnessed to sell products or engineer political change. While Le Bon and Trotter were serious scholars trying to analyze a dangerous human failing, Bernays was a sickening opportunist who promoted hype and publicity as useful tools for enrichment and manipulation. His 1928 book Propaganda (a guidebook for hype, spin, string-pulling, and corporate lying) is as cynical as Casanova’s memoirs, despite being tarted up with the Smiley-Face boosterism of a Chamber of Commerce pamphlet. You can’t read it without puking.

Bernays made his living as a shill for big corporations, showing them how they could gull consumers into purchasing what they didn’t need or wouldn’t normally want. He also helped the CIA to orchestrate negative publicity against the Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954, thus setting the stage for the U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew that government. (As a result he has earned the undying enmity of the political left, but that’s another story).

The larger point is that we have reached a state of unprecedented intellectual degradation in our unquestioning acceptance of two sick ideas: first, that perception, no matter how distorted, is the only meaningful reality; and second, that governments and corporations are within their rights to manipulate the population via managed news, spin control, and contrived hype. It also goes without saying that governmental and corporate toadies, hacks, and whores-on-retainer in academia and mainstream media all sing in chorus that this is “for the greater public good.” In short, it has become an unexamined Baconian Idol of the Tribe to think that spin and hype are OK because, well… that’s the way the modern world works.

This intellectual degradation would not be so deep and far-reaching if moral relativism and epistemological uncertainty hadn’t infected millions of persons in every social stratum. Look at the sniggering crackerbarrel skeptics who infest every on-line chatroom, showing off their misunderstanding of philosophy by spouting fortune-cookie pronouncements such as these: There’s no such thing as certainty! We can’t really know anything! Every story is a Rashomon story! All so-called facts are subject to contestation! Context is everything! All of which translates to the same sick conclusion: Perception is reality, and therefore we in the elite must make sure that the masses perceive things properly.

Actually, if you emit any of the italicized effusions given above, you have no grounds for objecting when manipulative PR and propaganda are blared at you. If nothing is intrinsically or substantively true, then no one can be denied the right to orchestrate public relations to suit his ends. It’s the old argument of the Greek Sophists: if nothing is absolutely ascertainable, only rhetoric rules.

Liberals have always been absolute hypocrites on this issue. On the one hand they like the corrosive effect that adversarial criticism has on the received wisdom of conservatism, and they encourage a certain insolent questioning of inherited beliefs and social customs. They favor programmatic skepticism concerning any received tradition. On the other hand, these same liberals don’t want the force of spin, hype, and propaganda (i.e., rhetoric) to be directed against their cherished notions of equality, brotherhood, democracy, socialism, affirmative action, feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, secularism, and other pet causes. These things for liberals are metaphysically grounded givens, and cannot possibly be questioned. In fact, they are not even subject to discussion. Liberals are fundamentalist True Believers wearing the sheep’s clothing of skeptical inquiry, and this fundamentalism affects their attitude towards all human discourse, including poetry.

Some persons (my late friend Leo Yankevich, for example) have argued that all poetry is propagandistic, in that the mere fact of poetry’s artifice and intricacy proves that it has definite designs on the reader. That’s a defensible position, since all worthwhile poetry does involve the manipulation of rhetoric for some aesthetic end. Indeed, Hart Crane once said that all of his poetry was “nothing but rhetoric.” But one big difference between propaganda and poetry is that the poet is free to choose whatever rhetorical means he likes to achieve that end, and in so doing he need not please anyone except himself. In other words, poetry is the most liberated and least shackled rhetoric of all. It doesn’t answer to a moral code, or a political purpose, or a commercial end. It is not compelled to fulfill any agenda other than its own verbal perfection. It’s advertisement without concern for market share. That sort of freedom would be incomprehensible to types like Calkins and Bernays, just as it is incomprehensible to certain leftish politically engagé scribblers in the contemporary poetic scene.

How can the rhetoric of poetry have designs on the reader, while remaining unconcerned with audience approval and consent? To answer this objection, we need to distinguish between two types of rhetoric. Forensic rhetoric, as employed in the law courts and public forums, is naturally geared to persuasion, and in fact that was rhetoric’s original and sole purpose. But aesthetic rhetoric, as employed by the poet, is geared to more complicated, self-contained ends. Those ends are display and demonstration, attack and denial, affirmation and denigration. In other words, the rhetoric proper to poetry is used to establish a position and proclaim one’s joyous adherence to it. This is a special celebratory rhetoric that is best compared to waving one’s flag, or singing one’s national anthem. It isn’t meant to convince the opposition, but to show one’s colors in spite of the opposition. Such a purpose sets the rhetoric of poetry far off from the spin, hype, and propaganda of political or commercial persuasion.

This is the supreme irony of the entire matter. In poetry perception is indeed reality, because the poet works in a self-contained universe of fictive creation where he can say whatever he imagines or fancies. He has total carte blanche. And yet here is where a great many people all of a sudden rediscover unquestioned truth and metaphysically grounded certainty. They rapturously shout, “Yes! Yes! That poem has hit upon the truth exactly!” And conversely, they become indignant if the poet creates a poetic reality that upsets the applecart of their cherished convictions. Faced with a rhetoric that undermines their viewpoints, they start blathering on about what is True and Good and Moral, and how such-and-such a poet has violated these holy icons.

Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you accept spin, hype, propaganda, and rhetoric as acceptable modes of communication in the world at large; if you tolerate their use by big business and mass media and government; and if you say that these things are part and parcel of modern life, you can’t then honestly condemn their employment in the one realm of human discourse where they find their supreme value: literature. Poets and other manipulators of fictive expression have just as much right to create whatever spin, hype, propaganda, and rhetoric they please. If you are comfortable with the idea that perception trumps reality, don’t start grumbling about morals and truth and epistemological certainty when you read a poem that goes against the grain of your personal convictions. It only proves, as Sartre would have said, that you are in bad faith.