The Evolution of Electronic Media, Propaganda, Consumerism, and the Counterculture of the 1960s

Reliable, trustworthy news and the free exchange of the most socially and ecologically useful information are extremely important tools that can increase our awareness about humanitarian and ecological issues and change our world accordingly. Unfortunately, these tools can be hard to find. The corporate, mass news media is more often used as a tool to deceive and manipulate us than help us because lies, manipulation, and selective reporting are more profitable to those in power than the whole truth. Meanwhile, services that freely disseminate copyright protected information and new sources that speak truth to power are often shut down.

Corporate and political officials control and disseminate information more broadly than any other individuals in the world, and independent voices are often drowned out as a result. Even when large media corporations broadcast progressive voices, it is often only because they know people will pay to hear these voices but they do not want these voices to actually change the zeitgeist. They want individuals to tune in, feel good about themselves for listening to what’s going on in the world, and then forget about it five minutes later, distracted by some advertisement for cheeseburgers or fast cars. Many major news conglomerates are also practically the only sources of information available in some countries. They have a monopoly on information because governments and corporate interests want to control what is broadcast and what is believed to be factual. Up until 2013, for example, Myanmar only had only one major newspaper and its essential function was to justify the current regime.

In 1992 just 23 corporations owned and controlled about 50% of all of the newspapers, movie studios, TV stations, radio stations, and publishers in America1. Today, the situation is even worse. Many of these corporations have conglomerated even further into the “big six” (GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS) mentioned in section 1.4 of this book, which control 90% of American media.

The news media has the capacity to be very lucrative because it can affect our emotions and opinions. It informs how we ‘should’ feel, act, and present ourselves, and corporations have taken advantage of these powers. The invention of the mass media has “flattened the world” and made propaganda even more invasive and far-reaching. The concentration of media outlets has made them more profitable and enabled them to better serve each others interests.

Electronic media was immediately monetized by governments and corporations when it was invented. Propaganda is as old as governments but it took on a new form with the invention of electronic media. Edward Bernays was responsible for much of the first, modern electronic US propaganda. He was referred to as “the father of public relations” in his obituary. Bernays worked for Woodrow Wilson during WWI on the Committee on Public Information, and he was tasked with justifying the war to the public and convincing them it was all for “democracy.” It’s worth noting here that Emma Goldman said of Wilson in her autobiography that “No American president had ever before succeeded in so humbugging the people as Woodrow Wilson, who wrote and talked democracy, acted despotically, privately and officially, and yet managed to keep up the myth that he was championing humanity and freedom.”2 Bernays was in large part responsible for this false image of Wilson. Bernays also helped convince the public the coup of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the democratically elected leader of Guatemala in 1954 was “justified”. His book Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923) influenced Josef Goebbels, infamous for his Nazi propaganda.

In the 1920s Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Corporation where he tried to make cigarette smoking in public less taboo for women to increase the company’s earnings. (He called cigarettes “torches of freedom.”) He also worked for Proctor & Gamble, the United Fruit Company, CBS, General Electric, and William Randolph Hearst to promote his magazines. Like most of the rich elite, Bernays believed that control of people’s minds (mainly by appealing to irrational emotional impulses and desires rather than people’s intellect or needs by presenting facts) was absolutely necessary in order to ensure “order” in society. He was in large part responsible for the massive rise of mindless consumerism in America (the engine of capitalism) by linking products to identity. In his book, Propaganda (1928), he wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society…In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Bernays was right that our minds are often molded by people we have never heard of or met due to powerful propaganda, but he was wrong about this being a necessary part of society. We are molded to serve the interests of the few in power, not to prevent chaos and conflict in society. A real democracy is completely autonomous and can achieve order and peace because most people want both. There just needs to be free information, shared ownership of our lands, no privatization of anything live-saving, cooperation, and the opportunity and the ability to pursue one’s interests and survive.

The problem with Bernays’ assertions is that they rely on the assumption that human beings are not rational individuals capable of understanding and collaboration, which can lead to meaningful benefits for whole communities and ecosystems. In order to prevent needless conflict, the world does need leaders, prominent voices, and intellectuals who can give guidance and educate. But this is not what Bernays was speaking of.

In an ideal world, the only reason one person’s voice would be amplified over another’s would be if there was more value in the voice. The value of a person’s voice and work could be determined though many different means, such as public demand for it, (though this alone is often a bad indicator of usefulness given the fact that most people are so indoctrinated) the extent of its pier support, and its demonstrable social and ecological impacts. But this is not often the case. Instead, the loudest voices are those with the money and power to afford this amplification. The main reason most of us do need guidance right now is because we are already mislead by the power structures that exist.

Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the so-called “father of psychiatry.” Freud felt superior to those with mental health issues, and he came up with wild theories about them. He felt he had a right to control people’s emotions and identities for “their own benefit.” He often failed to consider patients’ needs or wants, and it makes sense that this intellectual elitism and sense of entitlement would rub off on his nephew. Freud’s influence on Bernays was also apparent in other ways. For example, Bernays employed various psychotherapists to endorse the products made by corporations he represented and presented their endorsements as “independent,” exploiting the public’s trust in psychotherapists.

Like Bernays Wall street banker, Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers, understood that in order to drive capitalism, corporations must appeal to the public’s wants instead of their needs, and they must attack the very idea of a community organized by human and ecological needs. In 1927 Mazur wrote in the Harvard Business Review “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” American corporations were successful in shifting America to a ‘desires culture’ much to the delectation of the government, and this culture remains with us today to the detriment of the natural world.

 

4.2 Telecommunications, their Impact on American Culture, and the Development of the Counterculture in America

 

The invention of electronic media and telecommunications presented corporations and governments with an even greater opportunity to gain control over the public mind because these new inventions have the potential to be more invasive and engrossing than newspapers, books, and public speeches, which were previously the only ways to spread propaganda,

Silent, black-and-white films made in the late 19th century preceded television broadcasts, and televisions only became commercially available in the 1930s in most developed nations, such as America, most of Europe, and large parts of Russia. But by the 1940s, TV commercials and other types of advertisements had already become an accepted and even expected part of life. Most white, middle-income Americans in the 1940s believed what authority figures told them in person, on the radio, on television, and in newspapers. Many had their faith in their Church, the system, the government, and the propaganda disseminated by them.

In the late 1940s and ‘50s, America’s economy was driven largely by an obsession with consumption and monetary and material gain imbued in the public by various types of media and the government’s ruthless capitalism. Many Americans wanted the next “best thing.” Little was private on the surface, but the reality of many people’s lives was often kept concealed. Average families in America and similar nations had difficulty being honest with each other, and many had trouble articulating and sharing their problems in particular. Many people began changing everything about themselves just to comply with social norms perpetuated by novel forms of media.

Most US Presidents have encouraged these kinds of trends. For example, Hoover called consumerism the “central motor of American life,” but there have been a few exceptions. Jimmy Carter made a speech condemning consumerism in 1979. He warned Americans about the dangers of spending for the sake of spending and linking material and monetary wealth to identity:

“…Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no” longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” – Former US President, Jimmy Carter.

In this address, Carter seemed to care more about affecting the identities of Americans in a positive way than the money to be made from them, which is incredibly rare in a president.

Television, film, and radio were impressive inventions. Radio signals and emergency broadcasts and their responses have saved many lives. Many of us have also become more aware of each other’s habits and lifestyles and our own because of good programs. Books, music, newspapers and similar forms of art and expression existed before TV and radio, of course, but TV and radio are unique in that they are hard to avoid in highly industrialized regions and can be received anywhere the signal goes. They are more pervasive yet they also limited to those who can afford them and they are more costly than other forms of traditional media like books. Most stations that are not publicly funded are tied to enormous corporations run by executives who could not care less about art, expression, or social or environmental responsibility and media today reflects that.

Art, of course, doesn’t exist because of major corporations and advertisers. It exists because of artists. But art and information are distributed, manipulated, and censored mostly by major corporations and governments because they own the infrastructure to broadcast them most widely. In so doing they often diminish the social and environmental value of progressive works. However, books, shows, music, and radio and all forms of media can be community-driven, shared, and uncensored if the middle-men are avoided, corporate propaganda stations and rags are attacked, and control is given back to artists and their supporters. Setting up community run, non-hierarchical, nonprofit radio towers, film studios, and television networks organized from the bottom up or horizontally would also help meet these ends.

 

 

4.3 The Counterculture, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement of the 1960s

 

The American government and corporations have not only imposed an obsession with consumerism, linked identity to products and wealth, and created a “desires culture,” they have also demonized worker’s control, socialism, unions, communism, and other cultures organized according to the needs of humans and our ecosystems. This reached a tipping point in the 1950s. While there was relative financial security for wider portions of the population than ever before (except perhaps in the roaring 20s), many Americans were unsatisfied with their relationships and lives. There were distinct male and female roles, which limited the “acceptable” behaviors of both genders. These roles were perpetuated by different forms of media. Many TV shows perpetuated a cold, toxic, statist masculinity and they limited the female role to household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and raising children. But the counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s aimed to redefine these roles.

The counterculture’s countenance of free love, gender equality, LGBT rights, an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, and an end to all wars had large, positive ripple effects in society. However, their ideas were not adopted by the majority because there was too much opposition to them from the ruling class. The majority of the country had become too sectarian, statist, biased, resistant, and close-minded. The counterculture aimed to show others that life could be radically different and they did that by living radically different lives than most. Many also actively engaged in protest, writing, canvassing, collaboration, and freely exchanged information and entertainment. Their efforts helped bring some significant changes to American politics and society, but by the 1980s it was essentially back to “business as usual.” The counterculture was tired and shrinking, and big businesses and their aptitude for manipulation were too strong to allow for sustained change. The election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of financialization also greatly contributed.

Many in the counterculture were beaten, harassed, humiliated, slandered, and emotionally and physically tortured and the suppression of nonviolent protest was too much handle for some. The murders of some protesters, counterculture revolutionaries’, and civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Black Panther leaders like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, NAACP leaders Vernon Dahmer, Wharlest Jackson, George W. Lee, and Hebert Lee added to their troubles.

The drug use associated with the counterculture also made many take them less seriously. But the reasons why many in the counterculture used them were significant. Exploration, experimentation, and disinhibiting experiences can be very helpful. Some in the counterculture just took these ideas to an extreme in order escape the reality of the circumstances they were presented with.

Most Americans were unhappy because they were constantly searching for something better: a higher paying job, a bigger house, better products, and anything the television or radio claimed was necessary. Many Americans were also being drafted to fight in Vietnam by 1955, so it makes sense a counterculture rose and responded in the way that they did.

The Occupy Movement that rose in 2008 was one of the very few large, nationally recognized groups formed since the 1960s that resembled the ’60s counterculture and their ideologies. This movement (as well as UK uncut and Anonymous), however, died out much like the counterculture, in large part, because it was too pacifist. Occupy didn’t die with nothing to show for its existence though. StrikeDebt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street consisting of a decentralized network of debt resisters, which created Rolling Jubillee, a project that aims to eliminate debt raised $701,317 as of 11/21/17 and used the money to buy debt from common people for pennies on the dollar, abolishing almost 32 million dollars of debt. While Strike Debt New York is inactive, Strike Debt Bay Area and Strike Debt Portland are still working. These efforts were built out of community collaboration and should be multiplied. They can be examples for the rest of us who want to do the same. Since Occupy was a loosely organized network with no real criteria for entry, some have taken it in the opposite direction that it was originally intended to go. The group “Occupy Democrats,” for example, seems to have forgotten about these anarchic roots of Occupy and sold out to support democrats in office, touting government as a solution to problems within government. This has to be combated.

During the 1960s in America, a larger portion of the population than ever before in the country began recognizing women as equal to men. All US states allowed women to vote by 1920 and this resulted in gradual changes in people’s perspectives. (Many countries in the world took longer to give women the right to vote. Some still have not.) When more women became independent and began doing jobs that many men believed only they were capable of doing, there was a larger attitude shift. The women of the counterculture were especially tough and fearless and many fought tirelessly for human rights. The 19th and 20th century as a whole saw some of the most influential women to exist. Wangari Mathai, a Kenyan woman who started the Green Belt movement in 1970 is one example. This movement has planted 51 million trees since its inception. Another example is Rachel Carson whose famous Silent Spring inspired the Clean Water Act of 1970, perhaps the most effective piece of legislation on clean water standards in America to be written. Peace and education activists like Dorothy Day, Barbara Deming, and more recently heroic women like Malala Yousafzai are further examples. The suffragettes who fought for the right to vote for women like Susan B Anthony, Helen Keller, and Sojourner Truth (a former slave who escaped and helped enlist blacks for the Union army) are further inspiring examples. Women of the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks and Assata Shakur and of the socialist movement like Rosa Luxembourg are more. Brilliant, female anarchist revolutionaries like Emma Goldman, Maria Spiridonov, Catherine Breshkovsky (Babushka), Fanya Baron, Maria Nikiforova, Vera Figner (who joined the successful conspiracy to assassinate the despotic Czar Alexander II and was highly critical of the Bolshevik pseudo “Revolution”) and Voltairine De Cleyre were trailblazers whose voices and actions are still a source of wisdom and inspiration today. The fight for women’s rights in Western countries like America has come a very long way, but many Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone have a very long way to go. Many battles have been won for women in the 20th century, but as with all human rights struggles there is much still to be done.

Racism was still highly prevalent in the 1950s in America (and in many countries) and minorities, particularly blacks were very much made to be feared. (Americans had owned black slaves just 90 years before this time.) The Black Panthers rose to combat this rampant racism in America in various ways and they contrasted sharply with the more pacifist, passive, and less effective sectors of the counterculture. Some Black Panthers created armed patrols to watch police and prevent police terror, which were very effective. However, the racist FBI classified the Panthers as a “terrorist organization,” J. Edgar Hoover called them “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and Hoover attempted to have them all killed or incarcerated under the FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program). One Black Panther, Albert Woodfox, was forced into solitary confinement for 43 years. It is tragically ironic and extremely telling that the KKK (an actual terrorist organization) is allowed to march in the streets and is protected by the police and yet the Black Panthers is designated as a terrorist organization by the FBI. Black people make up 13.2% of the population and the Black Panthers, an organization for their upliftment is seen as a “terrorist” threat, meanwhile an organization that openly and unapologetically calls for ethnic cleansing and the killing of pretty much anyone who isn’t white, Christian, and straight is seen as a “legitimate” organization.

Another counterculture organization that was more forceful, combative, and proactive in its resistance than the pacifist elements was the Weather Underground, a radical, left-wing group allied with the Black Panthers that sought to overthrow the US government and bring an end to the war in Vietnam. They broke Dr. Timothy Leary out of jail and bombed several government buildings (including the Pentagon “in retaliation for the U.S. bombing raid in Hanoi”) and banks with clear messages about their meaning. On January 29, 1975 they bombed the United States Department of State building, which they stated was “in response to the escalation in Vietnam”. The war ended just a few months later in April and it’s certainly possible their bombing influenced Nixon’s decision to end the war. Many of the members of the Weather Underground were captured but most of the charges against them were dropped in 1973 due to the fact that the evidence against them was obtained illegally without a warrant and therefore inadmissible in court. Sadly, the combative resistance from groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground is nearly absent today as dogmatic pacifism and statism have all but entirely overtaken the entire political landscape.

 

1 Chomsky, Noam: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Zeitgeist Films. 1992.

2 (Goldman, Emma: Living My Life, page 338)

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