Edward Bernays’ Red Pill
Writing this week for The Atlantic, a Johns Hopkins Russian scholar, Peter Pomerantsev, describes his recent visit to Ukraine where he interviewed a family near Kyiv, the Horbonoses, who had been compelled to share their cellar bomb shelter with five occupying Tatar and Siberian soldiers.
At first, the captain fervently repeated Kremlin propaganda: He and his compatriots were in Ukraine to rescue the Horbonoses, he said; the soldiers were fighting not Ukrainians but Americans; this wasn’t a war, but rather a “special operation.” Once it was over, they could all live happily under Putin’s rule, he said.
Irina would push back. She didn’t need rescuing, she would say. There were no American soldiers or bases in Lukashivka, or anywhere in Ukraine. She didn’t want to live under Putin. When the captain said that he had been told Ukrainians were barred from speaking Russian, she told him they could speak in any language they chose. (I spoke with the Horbonoses in Russian.)
Gradually, he was worn down, confronted not simply with Irina’s protestations but with the grim facts of the war. In the conflict’s early days, he was buoyant, believing conquest to be imminent. He would rush into the cellar, declaring, “Kyiv is surrounded! Chernihiv is about to fall!” But as the weeks went by, and neither Kyiv nor Chernihiv fell, his mood soured. At one point, Sergey told me, he had to show the captain where Kyiv was on a map, leaving the Russian surprised to learn that it was not anywhere nearby, as he had assumed, but nearly 100 miles away.
As the weeks progressed, the Horbonos family began to see that the Russian soldiers were beginning to understand how much unnecessary damage they had wrought.
The Horbonoses’ home, a house they had been building for 30 years, was completely destroyed; their library burned for two days before collapsing into rubble. When Irina couldn’t take it anymore, she would begin to cry and scream at the soldiers in the darkness of the cellar: “We had everything! What are you doing here?” The Russians would only sit in the dark, silent.
By the time the Russians left, a bond of sorts had built up between the family and the soldiers. “What are you doing here?” the Horbonoses would ask. “What’s the point of this war?” Despondently, the Russians would answer that they had come expecting not a fight but a celebration, “a victory march in Kyiv.” Now they were not wholly convinced by the Kremlin’s narrative. They apologized for all the destruction they had brought.
It would be so much better, one said, if they could someday visit as guests. Sergey was livid. “You’ve come here to kill me and destroy my home,” he said, “and we are meant to be friends? We can only be enemies.” The Russians again apologized, and soon all of them began to say that the war was senseless. They even began calling it a war.
If you think about the evolutionary timeline of any intelligent species, after it obtains the self-awareness to interrogate itself and reflect upon its strengths and failures, it can begin to build what might be called second order or “meta” tools to improve its qualities of intelligence, compassion, foresight, and so forth. These tools might include schooling its young, caring for its old, a spiritual practice like meditation or ritual observances, journaling, metaphysical dialog, or communing with other species or mind-altering plants. We don’t know how many of these activities our evolutionary cousin cetaceans or cephalopods may have engaged in. I like to imagine my Paleolithic ancestors passing the last Ice Age in earthen or subterranean habitats while expressing their deepest thoughts through images painted on walls, clay figurines, and eloquently spoken languages.
Our evolutionary mental augmentations were likely very gradual and are now deeply embedded in our genome and culture—in our likes and dislikes, our knee-jerk reactions, our loyalty to leaders and tribe.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, our tools and methods to become more self-aware are slower by orders of magnitude than our abilities to evolve and enhance our physical prowess as a species though instruments and technologies. Only recently have we probed our collective psyche enough to discover embedded programs like normalcy bias, confirmation bias and loss aversion—that gaining money in the stock market or a poker game doesn't doesn't feel as good as not losing money feels bad; or that saying nasty, insulting things about a member of a different tribe gives you an instant wave of gratification from the dopamine rushing to your brain.
A child learning magic tricks quickly discovers some of these hidden parts even before he or she has a name for them. Making a coin vanish from one’s closed hand entails misdirection, concealment and illusion, but it also requires a willingness from the audience to suspend disbelief and believe in magic—placing mind over reality.
In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud proposed that personality was made up of three key elements—the id, the ego, and the superego—and that there is a reservoir of thoughts, memories, and emotions that lie just outside the awareness of the conscious mind. Freud called it the subconscious or superego.
"The father of public relations" Edward Bernays took that theory of mind and monetized it with the publication of two books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928). Bernays evangelized that by understanding the subconscious mind and how that influences the behavior of group, it would be possible to manipulate both individual and group without anyone even realizing it. To test his hypothesis, Bernays launched public relations campaigns convincing women to smoke ("Torches of Freedom") and to get USAnians to start their day with a hearty, cholesterol-rich breakfast centered around bacon and eggs. He quickly found himself in demand by the US intelligence community for crafting propaganda, which Bernays soon learned to call “psychological warfare” (because good nations don’t engage in propaganda). After WWI he found a calling in the business community, who were eager to hypnotize the subconscious group mind of consumers into buying their junk. Cheap commodities had created a problem because a surfeit of fossil energy and automation allowed them to be churned out far beyond actual demand. Bernays discovered that he could manufacture demand as rapidly as the growth of supply. By convincing people that, for instance, only disposable cups were sanitary, or that automobiles should always be the latest model to retain your social status or attract potential mates, Bernays and his acolytes birthed a throwaway culture of spendthrift consumerism. You can add to this any number of addictive consumables—alcohol and tobacco products, Big Pharma anti-depressants and mood-enhancers, sugary soft drinks and snacks for children—and the economy soars while public health craters.
In 1924 Bernays set up a vaudeville "pancake breakfast" for Calvin Coolidge to change his stuffy image to that of someone with a sense of humor. In the 1932 presidential election. Bernays advised Herbert Hoover to sew disunity within the opposition and to present an image of himself as an invincible strongman, a strategy used by office seekers ever since, leading to logjammed governance and bloated military budgets. In 1954, paid $100,000 per year by United Fruit Company, Bernays convinced the CIA to overthrow the Guatemalan democracy and become the scripted supplier of information following to the coup. Cambridge Analytica, for all its sophisticated tools by which to alter election outcomes in the country of your choice, has not invented anything new.
In the Minority Rules (1927), Bernays wrote:
But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given [the common man] a rubber stamp, a rubber stamp inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of tabloids and the profundities of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man's rubber stamp is the twin of millions of others, so that when these millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. [...] The amazing readiness with which large masses accept this process is probably accounted for by the fact that no attempt is made to convince them that black is white. Instead, their preconceived hazy ideas that a certain gray is almost black or almost white are brought into sharper focus. Their prejudices, notions, and convictions are used as a starting point, with the result that they are drawn by a thread into passionate adherence to a given mental picture.
Bernays had latched onto the powerful concept of segmentation. Through polling, he could locate those who agreed with the proposition he was being paid to promulgate, those who disagreed, and those who were in the middle. He didn’t need to spend much time with those who agreed or disagreed. The former were in his creel and the latter were unlikely to be snared. His target was the mass in the middle—the undecided—and once identified, the shape of their reality could be custom fit.
Bernays ideas were foundational for pollsters and pundits like Frank Luntz, who crafted the art of election manipulation by confining discourse to one-minute soundbytes, talking points and subliminal, dog-whistle messaging. Luntz hit his stride with Newt Gingrich's fraudulent and divisive Contract with America and its do-nothing governance strategy, as well as knee-jerk support for pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian brutality; misdirecting the gaze away from Saudi Arabia; always voting for more military, NSA and CIA funding; and word crafting such as death tax instead of estate tax, and climate change instead of global warming. Bernays and Luntz were kids who had figured out how magic works. It is about clever deception, such that even if revealed it delights rather than antagonizes.
They developed a trade, and a whole new school of thought, of how to turn the creativity and free will of human beings into monetized, predictable commodities of human behavior. It is that engineered behavior that has moved from mindless bacon and egg breakfasts and Coca Cola to destroying climate, biodiversity, civilization and our common future. This is the school that built the fortunes of Facebook, Amazon, Google and TikTok. It is the foundation for Web 3.0, the metaverse, and whatever follows.
I will continue to explore this, and a possible responses, in the essays that follow.
Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project "The Green Road."
The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses.
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As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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