The Chains of Seduction

The following is an adapted excerpt from a new book by David Cromwell. ‘Why Are We The Good Guys? Reclaiming Your Mind From The Delusions Of Propaganda’ has just been published by Zero Books. http://www.zero-books.net/books/why-are-we-the-good-guys


If the mass will be free of chains of iron, it must accept chains of silver. If it will not love, honour and obey, it must not expect to escape seduction.

– Harold Lasswell, US political scientist and communications theorist


We like to believe that we are free; that we are not manipulated unduly by external forces. The notion that our destiny might not be in our own hands, or that we cannot at least determine to a large extent how we act and how we think, is surely abhorrent to each one of us. Yes, many people are sadly downtrodden by circumstances: by poverty, poor health or drudge work just to earn a pittance to survive. But for those of us fortunate enough to be somewhat comfortable in the relatively affluent West, surely we enjoy great freedom? Of course, it seems at times as if we live in a surveillance state with oppressive, even brutal, police intimidation should we take to the streets to protest.

But we are not living in a dictatorship and there is – as yet – no Big Brother-style monitoring of all social interactions, with the consequent need to fearfully watch our every move, every spoken word, every thought. Yes, we can and do still enjoy considerable freedom. But the US political writer and activist Michael Parenti cautions:

‘We might remember that the most repressive forms of social control are not always those we consciously rail against, but those that so insinuate themselves into the fabric of our consciousness as to remain unchallenged, having been embraced as part of the nature of things.’

It is ‘part of the nature of things’ that we do not routinely scrutinise state and corporate power to the extent that would make them vulnerable to public intervention. This is no accident. As Dan Hind notes astutely in The Threat To Reason: ‘Our guardians expend a great deal of effort insulating their descriptions of the world from reasoned inquiry, since it is through their control of the public’s understanding in this respect that they secure our obedience and maintain their position.’

And the strategy has largely been successful. Opinion polls, particularly in the US and the UK, consistently show that public opinion is well to the left of the pro-corporate policies offered by the main political parties. In 2011, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that two-thirds of the public said that wealth should be distributed more evenly in the US. Similar numbers objected to tax cuts for corporations and supported increasing income taxes on millionaires. Not only did 74 per cent say that ‘the country is on the wrong track’, but a massive 89 per cent of Americans said they distrusted government ‘to do the right thing’. And almost half of the public said that the Occupy movement generally reflects the views of most Americans.

In US opinion polls, large majorities have said that the US should equalise aid to Israel and the Palestinians under a negotiated settlement in terms of the international consensus: a two-state solution, proposed in 2002 and accepted by the Arab League, which offers full recognition and integration of Israel into the region in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Aid should be cut to either party that refuses to negotiate in good faith. Given that Israel, along with its primary backer, the United States, has relentlessly opposed the international consensus, that would, in fact, have meant cutting aid to Israel; a fact little commented upon or publicised in the media.

In a detailed analysis of the sources of US foreign policy, Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page found that the major influence is ‘internationally oriented business corporations’. By contrast, public opinion has ‘little or no significant effect on government officials’.

The pattern is well-established. In eighteenth century Britain, the economist Adam Smith observed that the ‘merchants and manufacturers’ were ‘the principal architects’ of state policy, and made sure that their own interests ‘were most peculiarly attended to,’ however ‘grievous’ the effects on others, whether at home or abroad. Historian Thomas Brady points out that the West’s drive to colonise whole swathes of the globe was a form of class war within the imperial nations themselves: ‘European societies were also colonized and plundered, less catastrophically than the Americas but more so than most of Asia.’ In other words, the profits of empire were privatised, but the costs were borne by the weaker and poorer sectors of society.

How can those who govern keep those who are governed away from the levers of power? In ‘free’ societies, by definition, ruling elites lack the option of ‘chains of iron’ to bound the public rabble. Instead, a devotion to mass consumerism, and an unthinking – or at least grudging – acceptance of the inequitable distribution of power, must be inculcated and maintained by a constant stream of state-corporate propaganda. This propaganda is based on appeals to universal values: freedom, democracy, justice and human rights.

The Australian social critic Alex Carey, author of the seminal book Taking The Risk Out of Democracy, put it well: ‘Consider for a moment the symbols by which Americans defined their dream and pictured social reality: the Statue of Liberty with its Christlike promise of succour and compassion to the poor and wretched of the earth; the Declaration of Independence with its noble proclamation of respect for the equal and inalienable rights of all men and women; the unending public litany of adulation for American freedom, American individualism and American democracy; a near-religious commitment to the American form of free-enterprise economic system, with its supposed almost immaculate joining of private interest to public well-being.’

Or consider the July 2003 speech that Tony Blair, then British prime minister, gave to a fawning US Congress:

‘Members of Congress, ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, any time ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police. The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defence and our first line of attack…

‘Tell the world why you're proud of America. Tell them when the Star-Spangled Banner starts, Americans get to their feet, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Central Europeans, East Europeans, Jews, Muslims, white, Asian, black, those who go back to the early settlers and those whose English is the same as some New York cab drivers I’ve dealt with, but whose sons and daughters could run for this Congress. Tell them why Americans, one and all, stand upright and respectful. Not because some state official told them to, but because whatever race, colour, class or creed they are, being American means being free. That’s why they're proud.’

This is the kind of incessant propaganda that is intended to reinforce one of the cardinal principles of Western elites. Namely, that ‘we’ are, by definition, ‘the good guys’ and anyone ‘we’ attack are ‘the bad guys’. You could say that the golden rule of Western state violence is: terrorism is what they do; counterterrorism is what we do.

It is, of course, fine for journalists in the West to point to the crimes of official enemies, and to mock them for their transparent propaganda efforts. Thus, the BBC’s Emily Maitlis was able to introduce the flagship television programme Newsnight with a touch of sardonic wit: ‘Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it a “peace enforcement operation”. It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’

Maitlis was referring to the invasion of Russian forces into the Georgian province of South Ossetia in August 2008. By contrast, imagine a BBC presenter referring sceptically to the government’s claim of a ‘peace enforcement operation’ for the West’s invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya and describing such language as ‘the kind of newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’ It just would not happen. 

David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens, a UK-based media analysis website at www.medialens.org. His new book, ‘Why Are We The Good Guys? Reclaiming Your Mind From The Delusions Of Propaganda’, has just been published by Zero Books. Further details: http://www.zero-books.net/books/why-are-we-the-good-guys  

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