Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Nephew from Hell: Edward Bernays and the science of American bullshit

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A couple of summers ago I read a lovely book called "The Metaphysical Club - A Story of  Ideas in America", a Pulitzer Prize winner, by Louis Menand.  The book is about a group of philosophers: William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, thinkers who grew out of the yeast culture of Emerson and Thoreau's Boston. The period in which these men worked, was the aftermath of the American Civil War, a time marked by an explosion of sordid robber barons and hucksters of every stripe whose patron saint might be P. T. Barnum, certainly not Saint Dismas, the "good thief".

At that time two America's coexisted, one dark and sleazy: the America of Jay Gould and Boss Tweed and another pure and bright: the America of James and Holmes. As different as they were, both of them, each in their way, were as real, as clearly drawn, as mordant and as "what you see is what you get" as the writings of Mark Twain and Herman Melville. 

While I was reading the book I kept getting the feeling that the sense of reality that permeated that era of America's past, has been almost entirely lost. I have experienced some of that reality myself in the person of my grandmother, who was born and raised in 19th century America, and the men and women she grew up with in the tiny Midwestern village, where I spent many of my summers as a small boy. I wondered, while reading, "The Metaphysical Club" when and how America had become such a sinkhole of spin and mendacious euphemism, storytelling and bullshit. I had no answer, only the feeling of a better, nobler, America that had been lost. An America I am much proud of, hardly recognizable in the bloated, deluded, self-indulgent America of today.  Who was responsible for wrecking it, when, how? I had no answer.

Then, the other day, a good friend sent me the link to the video that I have posted at the top of this piece and I suddenly was getting an idea when bullshit became America's native dialect. When I saw it, I thought it might have been some historical fiction dreamed up by Doctorow.

Here is the summary of the video.
BBC resume of "The Century of Self":

The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn't need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticising the motorcar.

His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world.
I am going to say some pretty strong and uncomplimentary things about Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, so before going any farther, I wish to make clear, that I consider Sigmund Freud himself as one of the noblest and most creative minds in western history, a man who dedicated his life to fearlessly exploring the darkest recesses of the human mind with an intent solely to heal and ameliorate the human condition. As a tiny, but revealing sample of Freud's nobility and humanity, this sample, his account of his meeting with William James, will have to suffice.
Another event of this time which made a lasting impression on me was a meeting with William James the philosopher. I shall never forget one little scene that occurred as we were on a walk together. He stopped suddenly, handed me a bag he was carrying and asked me to walk on, saying that he would catch me up as soon as he had got through an attack of angina pectoris which was just coming on. He died of that disease a year later; and I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.
The video shows that it was Bernays' public relations skills that made a scientist like Freud and his very complex and esoteric theories a household word in middle class America on the order of Picasso and Charley Chaplin and led to today's enervating psychobabble and of course led to the insidious and Orwellian monster of American marketing. 

Where Freud saw knowledge for healing Bernays just saw money and he showed America's corporations how to mine humanity's dark side for profit. Pimping is an honest dollar compared to Bernays' game.

One of the great ironies of this video is to learn that Eddy Bernays, the man who taught American women to smoke, was also a major influence on an admirer of his, Joseph Goebbels, who used "Uncle Siggy's" insights into the levers and pulleys of human emotions to whip up a bestial  frenzy in the highly civilized German people, a frenzy that ultimately killed and "smoked" six million European Jews. Sigmund Freud fortunately died in the first months of the war and so never really learned what use his ideas had finally been put to. 

If you stop and think about it Bernays may be one of the most poisonous and evil men in history, certainly in America's history, nobody, not even Ayn Rand, can touch him.

It is an hour long with three more to follow, but it is a true treasure. Please watch this video. DS


Mike Doyle said...

If you've not seen it you'll be interested in the article on the Koch Bros propaganda efforts in MotherJones
and a link there to the invitation/program for their secret annual lovefest in Aspen (pdf file). You see how they're always pumping the same talking points re what we must do to preserve "our economic freedoms". gov spending, unions etc.

I was astonished to see in the NYTimes same bad press undermining our 'USA #1' self image.

bailey said...

yes, David i watched.

I now understand why you wanted us to watch.

Mike Doyle said...

By chance I came across a quote from Bernays heading the Chapter "Persuation and Power" of JK Galbraith's 1973 book "Economics and the Public Purpose."

Mr. Hill wanted more women to smoke Lucky Strikes; research showed that sales to them were down because the green packaged cigarettes clashed with their costumes. “Change the color of the package,” I suggested. Mr. Hill was outraged. I then suggested we try to make green the dominant color of women’s fashions … For a year we worked … Green became fashion’s color. Edward Bernays, The Business History Review, Autumn, 1971

Galbraith contrasts the reality of the modern consumer's exercise of 'choice' to the "admirable vision" of the 'free market' model.

In another of Bernays PR stunts to get women to smoke more, cigarettes were called "freedom torches". That magic word - freedom.

Phil Freyder said...

I finally saw the film. Leave it to the BBC! The spirit of Eddie Bernays is still very much alive in the persons of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, sociopathic Wall Street investment bankers. I've long since stopped trusting mainstream media to deliver anything resembling real news and non-manipulative comment.

Is installment two of this series now available on YouTube?

EyeLean5280 said...

Nice piece, though I can't agree about Sigmund. He was just as capable of bullshit as his nephew & didn't hesitate to deploy it to save his career.

If you look into the real origins of The Oedipal Complex hypothesis, you will find that he simply made it up after a poor reception to his findings on the causes of Hysterical Paralysis.

What Freud found, of course, was that women suffering from the condition often reported under hypnosis incidents of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of male relatives. When Freud presented his findings to his Victorian colleagues, the reaction was savage and it looked as if he would be drummed out of polite society forever.

So, without a shred of empirical evidence to back it up, he came up with the OC as a way to shift culpability to the female victims.

And he knew it was BS. He said so in his journals and that smoking gun was finally unearthed at the end of the 1970s.

(One of the unfortunate side effects of this was the mental health community's reactive and overzealous search for child molesters in every nook & cranny of American society, resulting in a witch hunt that sent many innocent adults to prison in the 80s & 90s.)

kiran said...

"esoteric theories a household word in middle class America on the order of Picasso and Charley Chaplin "
Can you elaborate on Picasso & Chaplin's role in appreciating Freud?
Picasso made the statement that people are fascinated by horrible! did he get a lot of ideas for painting from Freud's theory?
Thank you.

tom rose said...

"May be one of the most evil men in history"

He was certainly amoral. Whether he was personally evil or not, there is no doubt that the results of his work are evil ... whether we are talking about what Goebbels did with his ideas, or the continuing problem of rampant commercialism in pursuit of corporate profits