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OPINION | CORALIE KOONCE: Canceling culture

Propaganda is the problem by CORALIE KOONCE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | June 11, 2021 at 3:08 a.m.

Culture: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation or group. For 50 years now we've fought over who owns it. Culture has become just an excuse for culture wars, with even anthropomorphized plastic potatoes serving as grounds or casus belli.

Canceling culture? We may be looking in the wrong direction.

Kevin Young says we've developed our 19th century love of humbug into a "full-time hoax world" of euphemism, newspeak, plagiarism, misinformation, disinformation, delusions, mass hysteria, and alternative facts ("Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News," 2017).

Culture took a big hit in the Jazz Age when Edward Bernays helped invent modern advertising and the public relations industry. (Advertising sells products, PR helps form public opinion.) This nephew of Sigmund Freud saw the moneymaking potential of his uncle's deep insights into the human psyche. Bernays helped sell World War I to a war-averse public, and is noted for his campaign to persuade women to take up cigarette smoking, thus doubling the potential market. He appealed to women's desires for independence and equality.

Advertisers mined psychology. Famed psychiatrist Alfred Adler emphasized human insecurities and invented the term inferiority complex. An era of Adlerian advertising focused on fears about bad breath and body odor, 90-pound weaklings, dandruff, acne, and ring around the collar.

Animal behavior research described supernormal stimuli that cause animals to follow their instincts blindly--for instance, a bird takes better care of the large egg deposited in her nest by a cuckoo than of her own smaller progeny. Advertising uses a parade of superlatives: bigger, better, faster, newer, longer-lasting. A 1957 best-seller, "The Hidden Persuaders" by Vance Packard, exposed public manipulation by depth psychology and motivational research.

Today, advertising pulls in about $242 billion a year. The neon wonderland of the Las Vegas Strip is visible from the space station. Our planet's creative minds, spectacular scenery, and its most sublime music are put to work to sell cars and corn chips.

Meanwhile, we the citizens endure robo-calls, spam, junk mail, pop-ups, sound trucks, bots, billboards, "magazines" composed almost entirely of advertising, skywriting, infomercials, and attack ads.

In "The Space Merchants," a science-fiction satire from 1952, Frederic Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth envisioned a future dominated by advertising. The story takes place in an overpopulated world where water is scarce, businesses have replaced governments, and advertising deludes the public into thinking that products make their lives just great. The main character is a topnotch copywriter assigned the ad campaign to attract colonists to Venus, despite its inhospitable surface temperature.

Cousin to advertising, PR operates the rumor mill, forming our attitudes about industries or political policies or the ideas we live by. If you're in the public eye, you hire a public relations firm to guide what people say about you. Donald Trump's 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort once led a firm representing brutal dictators (something like the cartoon character Duke in "Doonesbury"). According to a May 16 story in Perspective by Kathy Kiely, Washington PR firms are still at it, whitewashing the likes of Saudi Arabia's crown prince and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

Propaganda is amoral. It supports a cause, any cause, using loaded language to produce an emotional response. Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels greatly admired Bernays and his methods. Bernays wrote, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society ... an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country" ("Propaganda," 1928).

Yet in 1933, Bernays was horrified to learn the Nazis were basing their destructive campaigns on his books.

Propaganda is so ubiquitous we don't even recognize it anymore. It's what the other guy says, never our guys. We're now way beyond political spin into reality-bending lies. P.T. Barnum ("Every crowd has a silver lining") reincarnates in D.J. Trump.

Frustrated with bias and omissions, manipulated by advertising, PR, and propaganda, many Americans go the full route instead: blatant lies and conspiracy theories. Constant repetition and the Big Lie still work.

So, is anybody teaching media literacy and critical thinking? We needed their help before social media, before the Internet, before television--and boy, do we ever need them now!

A manufactured culture threatens the homegrown kind. Its purposes are to make money or promote somebody's power or to give us something to fight about. But if something doesn't further the truth, or human welfare, or the nature on which we are entirely dependent, then what good is it?

Instead, let's focus on rebuilding real culture (and a healthy planet to put it on).


Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville. Her latest book is "Twelve Dispositions: A Field Guide to Humans."

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