A Culture of Propaganda

“Contrary to previous readings by historians of the 20th century, which typically described propaganda films as glaringly biased and crude, contemporary historians have argued that filmmakers in propaganda’s coming of age were already educated in the power of subtle suggestion.”
~Christopher Maiytt, A Just Estimate of a Lie

“During the Cold War, it was commonplace to draw the distinction between “totalitarian” and “free” societies by noting that only in the free ones could groups self-organize independently of the state. But many of the groups that made that argument — including the magazines on this left — were often covertly-sponsored instruments of state power, at least in part.”
~Patrick Iber, Literary Magazines for Socialists Funded by the CIA, Ranked

“[Bernd] Scherer said he found fault with the CIA’s cultural programme for the way in which it “functionalised and thus corrupted the term ‘freedom’”, pointing out the paradoxes of an intelligence agency funnelling money to anti-apartheid organisations abroad while helping to sabotage the Black Panther movement at home.”
~Philip Oltermann, Berlin exhibition questions CIA’s influence on global art scene

The subjects of the American Empire are among the most propagandized in the world. And there is a long history of it. Propaganda during World War II was brought back home to be used in the United States, as were counterinsurgency techniques from Southeast Asian wars and covert operations. But few recognize it for what it is, as it filters our entire sense of reality, seeping into every crack and crevice of culture. It’s not merely disinformation. It’s a master narrative that rules our mind as the structures of power rule our lives.

There is a basic truth. In order to maintain the appearance of democracy in a banana republic, it requires maintaining basic levels of comfort so that people don’t question the world around them. This is why a minimal welfare state is necessary, to keep the population barely treading water and so keeping them from outright revolution. It’s the first part of carrot and stick, bread and circus.

Propaganda, as a vast circus, is all the more important to smooth over the bumps and divides. In a democratic society, Jacques Ellul argues in Propaganda, “as the government cannot follow opinion, opinion must follow the government. One must convince this present, ponderous, impassioned mass that the government’s decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct.”

A more blatantly authoritarian society is less reliant on propaganda since violent force maintains control and order. For example, the North Korean regime has little use for extensive and sophisticated methods of mind control and public perception management, since anyone who doesn’t conform and follow orders is simply imprisoned, tortured, or killed. But even in a banana republic such as the United States, violence always is a real threat, the stick for when the carrot fails.

There is a reason the American Empire has the largest military and prison system in history, a reason that it is the only country that has dropped atomic bombs on a human population, a reason it regularly supports terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes while overthrowing democracies. The authoritarian threat is not theoretical but quite real and carried out in punishing vast numbers of people every day, making them into examples — comply or else. Ask the large numbers of Americans who are locked away or ask the populations targeted by the military-industrial complex.

The trick is to turn public attention away from the brutality of raw power. Propaganda offers a story, a pleasant form of indoctrination. All Americans, on some level, know we are ruled by violent authoritarians and homicidal psychopaths. A good story makes us feel better about why we don’t revolt, why we stand by in complicity as millions suffer and die at the hands of the ruling elite, why we allow the theft of hundreds of trillions of dollars and the poisoning of the earth, leaving a horrific inheritance to our children and grandchildren.

Propaganda comes in many forms such as the daily mindless experience of the propaganda model of news or the invasive nature of corporate astroturf. But it has often been implemented as straightforward political rhetoric, propaganda campaigns, and psyops — see COINTELPRO and Operation Mockingbird. And look at the involvement of the CIA and Pentagon in education, art, literature, movies, video games, music, magazines, journals, and much else; even or especially philosophy and literary criticism — see the CIA obsession with postmodernism (CIA and the Cultural Cold War). Not to mention the CIA and FBI infiltration of organized labor, student groups, church organizations, and much else.

Also, one has to wonder about scientific fields as well, the social sciences most of all. Take anthropology (David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence), such as with the career of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Or think of the less clear example of how the linguist Noam Chomsky criticized the military-industrial complex while essentially being on the payroll of the Pentagon (The Chomsky Problem); this is explored in Chris Knight’s book Decoding Chomsky. Be patient for a moment while we go off on a tangent.

* * *

One interesting detail is how consistent Chomsky has been in denying “conspiracy theories”, despite the fact that much of his own writing could only accurately be described as conspiracy theory, in that he analyzes the history of those who have conspired with various agendas and to various ends. Like many academics today, he seeks to be respectable. But how did alternative thinking become disreputable, even among alternative thinkers?

Although the term “conspiracy theorist” has been around since the 1800s, it was rarely used in the past. This changed following a 1967 CIA memo, in response to the Warren Commission Report, that conspired to control the narrative and manipulate public perception about the John F. Kennedy assassination: “The aim of this dispatch is to provide material for countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists” (declassified CIA memo# 1035-960, “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report“; for more detailed info, read the book Conspiracy Theory in America by Prof. Lance deHaven-Smith).

In overtly advocating for the government to conspire against the public, the memo’s anonymous author directs CIA operatives to, “employ propaganda assets to answer and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose.” Who were these propaganda assets? And why was there such confidence in their power to carry out this conspiracy? Let’s put this in context.

That same year, in 1967, a Ramparts article exposed the CIA funding of the National Student Association. The following decade would lead to the revelations, in the Congressional investigations and reports, that the CIA was working with journalists in the mainstream media, along with connections to civic groups. At around the same time, the CIA Family Jewels report was compiled and, upon its declassification in 2007, it was shown that the CIA had a propaganda program called Operation Mockingbird that involved the media with operations going at least back to the 1960s. This was an extensive covert operation (AKA conspiracy), linked to major news outlets and influential journalists and editors in both the foreign and domestic media — from the Wikipedia article on Operation Mockingbird:

In a 1977 Rolling Stone magazine article, “The CIA and the Media,” reporter Carl Bernstein wrote that by 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles oversaw the media network, which had major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies.[2] Its usual modus operandi was to place reports, developed from CIA-provided intelligence, with cooperating or unwitting reporters. Those reports would be repeated or cited by the recipient reporters and would then, in turn, be cited throughout the media wire services. These networks were run by people with well-known liberal but pro-American-big-business and anti-Soviet views, such as William S. Paley (CBS), Henry Luce (Time and Life), Arthur Hays Sulzberger (The New York Times), Alfred Friendly (managing editor of The Washington Post), Jerry O’Leary (The Washington Star), Hal Hendrix (Miami News), Barry Bingham, Sr. (Louisville Courier-Journal), James S. Copley (Copley News Services) and Joseph Harrison (The Christian Science Monitor).

This was admitted the year before, in 1976, by the Church Committee’s final report. About foreign media, it stated that, “The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets” (Church Committee Final Report, Vol 1: Foreign and Military Intelligence, p. 455).

In our cynicism and passive complicity, we Americans expect that the CIA would be tangled up in all kinds of foreign organizations and many of us support these covert operations, maybe even feeling some pride in the greatness of American imperialism. But the shocking part is that the CIA would do the same in the United States and, sadly, most Americans have been intentionally kept ignorant of this fact (i.e., not typically taught about it as part of American history classes nor often mentioned in the news media and political debates). Read the following and let it sink in.

“Approximately 50 of the [CIA] assets are individual American journalists or employees of U.S. media organizations. Of these, fewer than half are “accredited” by U.S. media organizations … The remaining individuals are non-accredited freelance contributors and media representatives abroad … More than a dozen United States news organizations and commercial publishing houses formerly provided cover for CIA agents abroad. A few of these organizations were unaware that they provided this cover.”

Let’s get back to the CIA pushing the slur of “conspiracy theorists” through these assets. Just because a conspiracy is proven beyond a mere theory, that doesn’t mean it was effective and successful. So, what were the measurable results that followed? Kevin R. Ryan lays out the facts in showing how pivotal was that CIA memo in shifting the media framing — from Do we need another 9/11 conspiracy theory?:

“In the 45 years before the CIA memo came out, the phrase “conspiracy theory” appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times only 50 times, or about once per year. In the 45 years after the CIA memo, the phrase appeared 2,630 times, or about once per week.

“Before the CIA memo came out, the Washington Post and New York Times had never used the phrase “conspiracy theorist.” After the CIA memo came out, these two newspapers have used that phrase 1,118 times. Of course, in these uses the phrase is always delivered in a context in which “conspiracy theorists” were made to seem less intelligent and less rationale than people who uncritically accept official explanations for major events.”

Here is the sad irony. The CIA was always talented at playing two sides against each other. So, as they were using propaganda to weaponize “conspiracy theory” as an attack on critics of authoritarian statism and military imperialism, they were also using propaganda elsewhere to actively push false conspiracy theories to muddy the water. Kathryn S. Olmstead, a history professor at UC Davis, concluded that (Real Enemies, pp. 239-240, 2011),

“Citizens of a democracy must be wary of official and alternative conspiracists alike, demanding proof for the theories. Yet Americans should be most skeptical of official theorists, because the most dangerous conspiracies and conspiracy theories flow from the center of American government, not from the margins of society.

“Since the First World War, officials of the U.S. government have encouraged conspiracy theories, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. They have engaged in conspiracies and used the cloak of national security to hide their actions from the American people. With cool calculation, they have promoted official conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes. They have assaulted civil liberties by spying on their domestic enemies. If antigovernment conspiracy theorists get the details wrong—and they often do—they get the basic issue right: it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy.”

[See my post Skepticism and Conspiracy.]

In respect to Chomsky, it was asked how alternative thinking became disreputable. This was not always the case. Chomsky is the most well-known left-winger in the world, but he often plays the role of guarding the boundaries of thought and shepherding loose sheep back into the fold, such as in recent elections repeatedly telling Americans to vote for corporatist Democrats. What in the hell is a supposed anarchist doing promoting corporatism? And why is he repeating a CIA talking point in dismissing conspiracy theories and acting condescending toward those he labels as conspiracy theorists?

One insightful answer is suggested by Chris Knight in Decoding Chomsky and it is highly recommended. The argument isn’t about claiming Chomsky is a CIA asset, but let’s remain focused on the point at hand. Left-wingers, earlier last century, were far less concerned about respectability, that is to say they were far more radical. “Around the time of the Second World War,” writes Ron Unz, “an important shift in political theory caused a huge decline in the respectability of any “conspiratorial” explanation of historical events” (American Pravda: How the CIA Invented “Conspiracy Theories”). He goes on to say that,

“For decades prior to that conflict, one of our most prominent scholars and public intellectuals had been historian Charles Beard, whose influential writings had heavily focused on the harmful role of various elite conspiracies in shaping American policy for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, with his examples ranging from the earliest history of the United States down to the nation’s entry into WWI. Obviously, researchers never claimed that all major historical events had hidden causes, but it was widely accepted that some of them did, and attempting to investigate those possibilities was deemed a perfectly acceptable academic enterprise.”

Following Charles Beard, a new generation of intellectuals and scholars felt the walls closing in. They either quickly learned to submit and conform to the hidden demands of power or else find themselves shut out from polite society or even out of a job. It was the beginning of the era of respectability politics. In controlling the terms of debate, the CIA and other covert interests controlled public debate and hence public perception. The American ruling elite won the Cold War culture war, not only against the Soviet commies but also against the American people.

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“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda

“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art

Pseudo-radicals were allowed to go through the motions of freedom, as long as they toed the line, as long as they demonstrated a properly indoctrinated mind. Then they could be successful and, more importantly, respectable. They simply had to make the Devil’s Bargain of never taking radical action.  Other than that, they could talk all they wanted while remaining safely within the system of the status quo, such as Chomsky regularly appearing on corporate media — he has admitted that the system maintains control of what he is allowed to communicate.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient,” Chomsky fully understood, “is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” This how a system of propaganda becomes internalized with barriers erected in the mind. “With the help of propaganda,” Jacques Ellul writes,

“one can do almost anything, but certainly not create the behavior of a free man or, to a lesser degree, a democratic man. A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself – of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas make the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a ‘totalitarian man with democratic convictions,’ but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely ‘the sacred formulas of democracy’ while acting like a storm trooper.”

So, there was a closing of the American mind and a silencing of radical thought during the early Cold War. That is no surprise, but what is surprising is how leading radicals were not eliminated so much as neutered and house-trained. The conspiracy theory is that this was an intentional outcome, what the CIA was hoping to achieve. So, was that 1967 CIA memo part of a propaganda campaign? It would be hard to absolutely prove in terms of what specific actions were taken, even as the memo itself seems to admit to it and even as we know the CIA was using every dirty trick in the book. We will never fully and exactly know what were all those CIA assets doing within the world of media and culture.

Besides, it’s not always clear what is or is not propaganda, as the deep state has its hands in almost every aspect of society with its influences being pervasive if often subtle. But what can’t be denied is that, both when intentional or as a side effect, this has a propagandastic-like effect in shaping thought in the public mind and among intellectuals, writers, and artists. We are talking about immense amounts of money (and other resources) sloshing about determining which research gets funding, which articles get into journals, which books get published, which movies get made.

This is subterfuge at the highest level. One has to wonder about entirely other areas. Consider plutocratic and corporatist philanthropy, often combined with greenwashing and control of food systems, overlapping with big ag, big oil, and, of course, big food. Think about why the government and corporations have been so interested in manipulating the American diet since the world war era, coinciding with agricultural subsidies to artificially create cheap agricultural products (refined flour, corn syrup, etc) to be used as ingredients in mass-produced and industrially-processed foods.

Then look to something recent like the propagandistic EAT-Lancet report that argues for the need of authoritarian measures to control the global diet for reasons of ‘environment’ and ‘health’; and when one looks to the backers of this agenda, one finds transnational corporations, not only big farm and big food but other industries as well. It is a corporate narratizing to co-opt the environmentalist left, but it is being done through a respectable and powerful scientific institution, The Lancet Journal, that informs government policies.

In the American Empire, this has been a shared project of business and government. Ever since the early modern revolutionary era, the reactionaries — not only right-wing authoritarians and conservatives but also right-wing bourgeois liberals — have incessantly co-opted left-wing rhetoric, tactics, and cultural image (The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind; & Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter). They simultaneously co-opt the left as they attack the left, essentially playing both sides and determining the field of play so as to control the game; and hence controlling the outcome, choosing the winners.

This has particularly been true of reactionaries in power. For an obvious example, think of president Donald Trump speaking the progressive language of the New Deal and so co-opting the public outrage of economic populism. Or worse still, look back to Joseph Stalin who, as a right-wing ultra-nationalist, co-opted the communist movement in Russia and used it to rebuild the Russian Empire; and in the process silenced radical leftists (unionsts, syndicalists, Trotskyists, Marxists, feminists, etc) by imprisonment, banishment, and death.

The American Imperialists didn’t necessarily oppose Stalin because of ideology, as they opposed those same radical leftists, but because the Soviet Union was seen as a competing global superpower. As for Stalin, he had no aspirations to attack the West and, instead, hoped to become trading partners with his wartime allies (Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies). The problem is, with the Nazis gone, the American Imperialists needed a new boogeyman for purposes of domestic social control, as authoritarian oppression at home always needs an externalized rationalization, a group to be scapegoated or an enemy to be fought — then again, many American oligarchs were pro-Nazi before the war and remained so afterwards. The Cold War right from the start was a propaganda campaign, albeit one that got out of control and nearly turned into a nuclear holocaust.

As one person put it, “It took a lot of mental gymnastics to transform the Soviet Union from an anti-fascist ally into an enemy, and CIA was created in part to do a lot of the heavy lifting” (comment by rararoadrunner). To create and maintain political power and social control requires narrative dominance combined with mass spectacle. The Cold War was better than a real war, in that it could be drawn out for decades. It helped to politically justify the immense money going into the deep state. The first purpose of propaganda is to persuade the public that the propagandists are necessary.

Most propaganda, though, has been so successful because it remains hidden in plain sight, influencing us without our awareness — framing and precluding what we think, and so not overtly appearing to tell us what to think. Sure, there was plenty of silencing going on during the Cold War witch hunts, from McCarthyism to corporate blackballing, but the CIA played the long game of instead making certain voices louder, to drown out all else. Controlling and co-opting the political left has turned out to be a much more effective strategy in castrating opposition and replacing it with a controlled opposition. It was ideological warfare as cannibalism, taking on the power of one’s enemies by consuming them.

The radical became tainted by this masquerade of con men manipulating and posing as what they are not. Combined with outright infiltration and sabotage on American soil (e.g., COINTELPRO), not to mention assassinations (e.g., Fred Hampton), this multi-pronged approach to social control and perception management has had a devastating effect. Reactionary forces and mindsets successfully infiltrated the political left and have maintained their hold, creating conflict and division with the left turned against itself. This took the punch out of leftist critique and organizing — the demoralization has lingered ever since. From The CIA Reads French Theory, Gabriel Rockhill writes:

“Even theoreticians who were not as opposed to Marxism as these intellectual reactionaries have made a significant contribution to an environment of disillusionment with transformative egalitarianism, detachment from social mobilization and “critical inquiry” devoid of radical politics. This is extremely important for understanding the CIA’s overall strategy in its broad and profound attempts to dismantle the cultural left in Europe and elsewhere. In recognizing it was unlikely that it could abolish it entirely, the world’s most powerful spy organization has sought to move leftist culture away from resolute anti-capitalist and transformative politics toward center-left reformist positions that are less overtly critical of US foreign and domestic policies. In fact, as Saunders has demonstrated in detail, the Agency went behind the back of the McCarthy-driven Congress in the postwar era in order to directly support and promote leftist projects that steered cultural producers and consumers away from the resolutely egalitarian left. In severing and discrediting the latter, it also aspired to fragment the left in general, leaving what remained of the center left with only minimal power and public support (as well as being potentially discredited due to its complicity with right-wing power politics, an issue that continues to plague contemporary institutionalized parties on the left).”

Then again, this is a positive sign of potential power. The OSS before and the CIA later on would not have spent so many resources for something that was not of an ultimate threat. The ideals and principles of leftist radicalism is inherently anti-authoritarian and the the intelligence agencies are inherently authoritarian; those are the terms of the fight. Even as the political left appears weak and has lost confidence, it remains a potent danger to authoritarian regimes like the American Empire. The culture war continues, the war over hearts and minds.

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In this concluding section, let’s look further into the (socio-)cultural aspect of the propagandistic culture wars. We’ll start with a personal or rather familial example and an interesting historical note.

Our father grew up in Alexandria, Indiana. It’s a small farm community that once was a small bustling factory town. There used to be many towns like it. That is why it was chosen to be designated, “Small Town USA“. This was part of a propaganda program set up by the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. Pamphlets were made of life in Alexandria as the utopian ideal of American-style capitalism. During the Second World War, these pamphlets were distributed throughout Europe. So, the so-called Cultural Cold War had begun before the Cold War itself.

By the way, Alexandria has remained true to being representative of the United States. It has declined into poverty and unemployment, having gone from a labor union town that was a Democratic stronghold to more recently supporting Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential victory. The sense of pride once elicited by that propaganda campaign became a point of shame that Trump was then able to take advantage of with his own rhetoric, Make American Great Again. The myth of the American Dream, even if a fantasy and often a nightmare, remains powerful capitalist propaganda in how it echoes across the generations. The Cold War lives on.

Much of the Cold War propaganda was about branding. And it’s interesting to note that the rhetoric used by the United States and the Soviet Union were often so similar, in both presenting an image of freedom. The Soviets loved to point out that the poor and minorities in America experienced very much the opposite of freedom, especially in the early Cold War when there were still lynchings, sundown towns, redlining, and Jim Crow. And much of that prejudice targeted not only blacks but also Jews, Catholics, and ethnic Americans (e.g., along with Japanese-Americans, innocent Italian-Americans and German-Americans were likewise rounded up into internment camps).

Think about what propaganda is in terms of branding. Sure, the American ruling elite were attempting to gain cultural influence, especially in Western Europe. That was important, but more important was creating a new American identity and to uphold an ideal of American culture. That was the problem since prior to the world war era the United States was not seen as having its own distinct culture. This is why American Studies was created in colleges involving professors who worked for the CIA, sometimes as spymasters (Early Cold War Liberalism), largely to indoctrinate American students, if also to spy on foreign students and to do other work such as textual analysis.

We tend to think of branding, in the corporate world, as targeting customers and prospective customers. But Nick Westergaard, in Brand Now, argues that only represents the outer layer of targeted influence. First and foremost, branding needs to become an identity that employees internalize, from entry-level workers to upper management. Our father worked in factory management and later became a professor in the same. He did some consulting work in later years, as did an associate of his. This associate told him that this was the primary purpose of the 1980s Ford advertising campaign, “Quality is Job #1” in that it was primarily intended to inculcate an image of employee identity. It’s about corporate culture, essentially no different than the patriotism of nationalistic culture that is promoted by government propaganda. The point is to make people into true believers who will defend and embody the official dogma, whether to be good workers or good citizens.

It’s only after creating a culture as a self-contained and self-reinforcing worldview that those in power can then extend their influence beyond it. But here is the thing. Those in power are the greatest targets of propaganda, as they are the influencers of society (Hillsdale’s Imprimis: Neocon Propaganda). If you can get them to truly believe the ruling ideology or else to mindlessly repeat the talking points for personal gain, those propaganda messages and memes will spread like a contagious disease. And they get others to believe them by acting as if they believe — the con man first has to con himself, as Jack Black (the early 20th century author, not the actor) observed in his memoir You Can’t Win. C. J. Hopkins writes (Why Ridiculous Official Propaganda Still Works):

“Chief among the common misconceptions about the way official propaganda works is the notion that its goal is to deceive the public into believing things that are not “the truth” (that Trump is a Russian agent, for example, or that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, et cetera). However, while official propagandists are definitely pleased if anyone actually believes whatever lies they are selling, deception is not their primary aim.

“The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an “official narrative” that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative.”

It’s a similar methodology for why corporations spend so much money on astroturf and lobbying, especially in influencing doctors, health experts, government officials, academic researchers, etc (Sharyl Attkisson, Astroturf and manipulation of media messages). A lot of corporate funding goes to scientific journals, scientific conventions, and further education for professionals. Even more money gets thrown around to pay for fake news articles, fake positive reviews, fake social media accounts, etc. All of this to create an image and then to discredit anyone who challenges this image. Between the private and public sectors, this is an all-out propaganda onslaught from hundreds, if not thousands, of government agencies, corporations, lobbyist organizations, special interest groups, think tanks, and on and on.

“I am an intellectual thug who has slowly been accumulating a private arsenal with every intention of using it. In a mindless age, every insight takes on the character of a lethal weapon.”‬

‪Marshall McLuhan to Ezra Pound,‬ ‪letter, June 22, 1951‬.

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Let me give an example of private censorship by powerful corporations, as a type of negative propaganda where public perception is shaped not only by what Americans were allowed to see but by what was omitted and eliminated from view. It’s often forgotten that most of the oppressive actions during the Cold War were taken by big biz, not big gov, including but not limited to blackballing. In the documentary Red Hollywood, there is discussion of the 1954 independent film Salt of the Earth. It was written, directed, and produced by three men on the Hollywood blacklist in being alleged Communists. The narrator of the documentary described its groundbreaking significance:

“But only after the blacklist had forced them outside the studio system could Hollywood Communists make a film in which working-class women stood up and demanded equality. No Hollywood film had ever shown a strike from the workers’ point of view. No Hollywood film had ever portrayed a strike as just and rational. No Hollywood film had ever given Chicanos the leading parts and put Anglos in subordinate roles. No Hollywood film had ever shown women courageously and effectively taking over the work of men. Salt of the Earth broke all these taboos, but it never reached its intended public.”

Then the documentary cuts to an interview with Paul Jarrico, the producer of Salt of the Earth. He explained that,

“After the opening in New York where the picture was well-received, not only by an audience who packed the theater for nine weeks, I think, or 10, but by good reviews in the New York Times, and Time magazine, and other journals. And a number of exhibitors said they wanted to play the picture, and then one by one they were pressured by the majors: ‘You play that picture and you’ll never get another RKO picture.’ ‘You play that picture, you’ll never get another MGM picture.’ And one by one, they backed out. The original intent when we formed the company was to make a number of films using the talents of blacklisted people. But we lost our shirts on Salt of the Earth and that was the end of that noble experiment. In a way, it’s the grandfather of independent filmmaking in the United States. I mean, there’ve been a lot of independent films since, but we didn’t make them.”

This is how alternative voices were silenced, again and again. In their place, films that toed the line were promoted. Through control of the film industry and backing by government, the major film companies were able to have near total control of the indoctrination of American citizens. That is but one example among many.

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Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
by David Kaplan

A Lost Opportunity to Learn Lessons from the Cultural Cold War
by Steve Slick

How the CIA Really Won Hearts and Minds Naïve
by J.P. O’Malley

The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited
by James Petras

The CIA and the Media
by Carl Bernstein

A Propaganda Model
by Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky

The CIA and the Press: When the Washington Post Ran the CIA’s Propaganda Network
by Jeffrey St. Clair

Murdoch, Scaife and CIA Propaganda
by Robert Parry

Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’
by Frances Stonor Saunders

The CIA as Art Patron
by Lenni Brenner

Washington DC’s role behind the scenes in Hollywood goes deeper than you think
by Matthew Alford

Hollywood and the Pentagon
by Jacobin Editors

EXCLUSIVE: Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA
by Tom Secker

ROI: Does the Pentagon Fund Movies?
from Spy Culture

How Many Movies has the Pentagon Prevented from Being Made?
from Spy Culture

CIA helped shape ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’ series into bigoted Venezuela regime change fantasy
by Max Blumenthal

How the Pentagon and CIA push Venezuela regime-change propaganda in video games
by Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton

“Invading Your Hearts and Minds”: Call of Duty® and the (Re)Writing of Militarism in U.S. Digital Games and Popular Culture
Frédérick Gagnon

Arts Armament: How the CIA Secretly Shaped The Arts in America
by Theodore Carter

The CIA-Soviet Culture Wars That Shaped American Art
by Juliana Spahr

Was modern art a weapon of the CIA?
by Alastair Sooke

Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’
by Frances Stonor Saunders

Modern art is a sham
by Arthur B. Alexi

The Occult War of Art
from Cult Of Frogs

The battle for Picasso’s mind
by Matthew Holman

Picasso and the CIA
by Susan Adler

How Jackson Pollock and the CIA Teamed Up to Win The Cold War
by Michael R. McBride

Postmodern philosopher Judith Butler repeatedly donated to ‘top cop’ Kamala Harris
by Ben Norton

The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985
by Josh Jones

Why the CIA Cares About Marxism
by Michael Barker

Why the CIA Loved French New Left Philosophy, and Why They Were Wrong
from Spy Culture

Is Literature ‘the Most Important Weapon of Propaganda’?
by Nick Romeo

Literary Magazines for Socialists Funded by the CIA, Ranked
by Patrick Iber

The CIA Helped Build the Content Farm That Churns Out American Literature
by Brian Merchant

How Iowa Flattened Literature
by Eric Bennett

Hijack: The CIA and Literary Culture
by Antony Loewenstein

How the CIA Infiltrated the World’s Literature
by Mary von Aue

How the CIA Helped Shape the Creative Writing Scene in America
by Josh Jones

‘Workshops of Empire,’ by Eric Bennett
by Timothy Aubry

Silent Coup: How the CIA is Welcoming Itself Back Onto American University Campuses
by David Price

The science of spying: how the CIA secretly recruits academics
by Daniel Golden

Propaganda and Disinformation: How the CIA Manufactures History
by Victor Marchetti

The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America – Part 1 & Part 2
by Nancy Hanover

These are the propaganda ad campaigns that made socialism seem un-American
by Oana Godeanu-Kenworth

FBI Uses “Cute” Propaganda Campaign to Justify Civil Asset Forfeiture
by Jose Nino

13 thoughts on “A Culture of Propaganda

  1. Oi! What a topic!

    My epic The Tragic Bordello post was about this – mostly focused on Europe and the PoMo gang but another book to add to your great list is: The Mighty wurlitzer.

    It covers the same territory as the others you mentioned.

    Essentially US “art” from the 50s on is either suspect or directly stinky.

    Peggy Guggenheim would have spent her fortune all the same but she was in bed with the machine, hired clement Greenberg and scouted for and invented people like Jackson Pollock who – whatever his artistic merits – was a tool of the anti-left “liberal” movement of the 50s.

    The goal was to isolate and invalidate Paris and Picasso as centers of Left-intellectual resistance to Stalin by substituting Pollock/Abstract Expressionism and New York. And in many regards it worked.

    To this day there is no widespread discussion of the issue despite an increasingly lengthy list of good books and research.

    People like Saul Bellow and by extension a vast cadre of people in publishing and “media” and universities are all as compromised as any Soviet apparatchik.

    • There wasn’t much to my above post. It was mostly a friendly reminder of the kind of society we’re in, a reminder to look up and look around at what is happening and has been for a long time.

      I’ve written about propaganda before, but maybe some newer readers have never read my previous work. I don’t think I’ve ever written in great depth on propaganda, as it is so depressing and overwhelming. To my mind, the reality of propaganda almost goes without saying. Yet I realize it needs to be pointed to, again and again.

      With this piece, I had a simple purpose. I wanted to offer some links, just in case someone was unfamiliar with the history and wanted to learn about it. I remember what it was like when I first heard about this kind of thing. Our society makes a lot more sense when you have this key info. It makes one feel less insane.

      In the back of mind, I did remember some of your writings. You’ve written with greater insight than I offer here. I was just quickly throwing something together before work. Besides, as you say, there are already some books out there on the topic. It’s not as if there is a lack of info, but sadly it’s never part of a larger debate in our society.

      By the way, if you could throw some links to any good pieces on the postmodern angle, please do share. Maybe I’ll do some web searches later. Too bad your blog isn’t operational at the moment. I’d include your The Tragic Bordello in this post — it would make a great addition.

      • The post may have been thin-ish but the topic is vast.

        I’ll try and make a short list worth checking out.

        The TB post clocks in at 100+ pages with notes so it’s unlikely to be read by blog readers but i appreciate the thought.

        As to feeling less insane making you feel insane is a tell-tale aspect of the reactionary system.

        I always keep in mind the Joseph Heller line: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you;-)

    • The basic point was simple. Propaganda is pervasive and systemic. We are inundated by it, to such an extent it has become so normalized as to be effectively invisible. It’s a strange thing to live in such a society. Even the denial of the propaganda, in proclaiming we are free, is part of the propaganda.

      I see this as another symptom of the extremes of Jaynesian consciousness. Maybe propaganda, under these conditions, is as inevitable as ia the reactionary, the psychopathic, and the addictive. It is necessary to maintain this tenuous mentality. There is more to propaganda than mere propaganda. I sense that we’re touching upon something much more vast. That is why we don’t want to think about it, talk about it. It cuts to the core and so touches many raw nerves. And I’d add that this would have everything to do with symbolic conflation and linguistic relativity, metaphor and metonymy.

      It’s another expression of the repressed bicameral mind. It’s not only that propagandist create the voices that we internalize. The con man, to be effective, has to first con himself. That goes to my earlier post (one of the links above) about why propaganda so often targets the influencers in the upper classes, rather than going directly to the masses. A central purpose of ivy league schools, think tanks and such is to maintain groupthink among the ruling elite and the capitalist class. All else follows from that.

      • Group think is both nebulous and concrete. It’s a strange aspect of human consciousness.

        Your comment meshes with something I saw on the news last night; a clip of AOC leading a crowd in group think by saying that when accused of using “purity tests” the response should be: It’s called having values.

        The crowd cheered.

        The problem of course is that when one’s “values” preclude empathy and sympathy and shades of grey, the difference between purity tests and values is a distinction without a difference.

        But neither the right wing goons nor the cult of AOC goons (and insert groups of your choosing – left, right, center, yada yada yada) think deeply – hardly anyone does.

        That creates a feedback loop of reactionary and group think action and propaganda replaces thought. Dogma takes the place of contemplation.

        What you call the repression of the bicamerqal mind fits perfectly.

        • You know my thoughts on the bicameral mind. I’ve been pondering for a while the link between authoritarianism and hyper-individualism. Maybe we need to think of propaganda more broadly, as any of the ‘voices’ of authority or voice-like authorizations that are used for social control.

          The ideology of capitalist ‘freedom’ is something we must be indoctrinated to believe, as indicated by the quote I began the post with: “During the Cold War, it was commonplace to draw the distinction between “totalitarian” and “free” societies by noting that only in the free ones could groups self-organize independently of the state. But many of the groups that made that argument — including the magazines on this left — were often covertly-sponsored instruments of state power, at least in part.”

          Looking into Jaynesian consciousness, I’ve come to realize how shallow is our identity as free agents. Consciousness itself occupies such a small part of our minds and our behaviors. The deeper meaning of freedom in its etymology with friendship, with it grounded in the sense of being part of a community of free people — all of that has been neutered and made into an abstraction. Now all it means is you’re allowed to pick between some near identical products or candidates, same difference.

          Bullshit has become so deep that, as Harry Frankfurt concludes, sincerity itself is bullshit. That sounds like a clever statement, but it expresses a deep truth.

          • “Now all it means is you’re allowed to pick between some near identical products or candidates, same difference.”

            “Choosing” between Micky d and Burger King is the illusion of freedom. GOP/DNC etc.

            The heavy hand of the binary marketing weasels is everywhere.

            Of course it’s possible that the rise of the binary marketing tyranny is a reflection of the origin of the bicameral mind.

            Almost everything circles back to bicameralism which is what we should expect.

            Then one might say that the rise of bullshit as “truth” is a manifestation of the long shadow of the bicameral mind – in a sense it returns us to the parable of the cave.

            an old as dirt Blues tune from the Athenian crooners;-)

    • Unsurprisingly, I learned nothing about propaganda in my formal education — certainly not in any public school class but also not in any college level class. In my two semesters of college, I took a course on logic and another course on philosophy. One might think that propaganda might come up as a topic to interest students. I don’t even recall rhetoric being discussed.

      So, I had to learn of it on my own. Of course, I read about Chomsky on the propaganda model. Also, many years ago I read David Sirota’s book Back to Our Future where he discussed the Pentagon involvement in the movie industry. More interesting, I read about the CIA funding to so many things, including the local writers’ workshop here in town at the University of Iowa (see one of the links above). I picked up bits of knowedge as I read histories and whatnot.

      My mind was primed for this way of seeing the world with reading Robert Anton Wilson and listening to Art Bell in the years after high school. Not to mention the influence of the likes of William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick. I knew we were heavily manipulated, but maybe more than anything it was Derrick Jensen that got me thinking about how systems of control operate in lived experience, in the human mind and relationships, although he doesn’t focus on propaganda per se.

      There was something that really drove it home for me. It was from the last presidentialcampaign season in 2015-16. I was following the news closely, especially alternative media. There is a family friend I’ve known since my late teens. He is in journalism and operates his own small news website where he publishes articles by himself and others. He even invited me to write for him at one point.

      This guy is extremely well learned and well read. He would know much of this same kind of info. He isn’t a profoundly deep thinker, but he offered a decent alternative perspective on events. Then the DNC began it’s heavy-handed fear-mongering about Trump and Sanders, in promoting Clinton as the moderate centrist who would save us from the crisis of extremists. This guy suddenly began repeating DNC talking points that were blatant bullshit — Bernie Bros and all that,

      I was genuinely shocked. I expected it from the mainstream media talking heads whose sole purpose is as propagandists. But to see those in alternative media be willing to bargain with the Devil in pushing propaganda without the CIA or whatever even giving them money to do so… now, that was heart-breaking. What little faith I had in humanity was lost. It felt like a stab in the back. There were no allies to be trusted within the broader culture.

      Something in me finally snapped. After that election, I stopped following the news. I admitted defeat to the power of propaganda. Confronting propaganda was impotent. I decided the only course of action was to explore what makes that mindset possible. So, I’ve been obsessing over the bicameral mind, addiction, etc ever since.

      • Back in the dark ages of the 80s i knew someone who repeated a slogan from a commercial – “It’s a bad case of the 80s and everyone i know has it.”

        Advertising as brainwashing/propaganda/indoctrination/group think.

        It’s a disaster because of course it’s ultimately totalitarian and such systems are always a catastrophe.

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