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What Orwell Didn't Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, edited by András Szántó

Alan Miller
posted 18 April 2008

Taking inspiration from George Orwell’s seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), What Orwell Didn’t Know consists of 18 short articles by well known US journalists and experts from various fields. The book’s editor András Szántó, a journalist and director of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University explains:

The point of this book is to urge politicians on all sides to keep their words tethered to facts. It is an invitation to speak clearly and act honestly. And it is a reminder to the press, and to students of journalism, that keeping politics clean is a tough job. It is the daily task of reporters and editors to disenthrall public debate from bias, hyperbole, bombast and lies. (pxii)

This would seem like a sensible invitation: allowing the facts to shape any discussion is clearly of paramount importance. But it also betrays a belief that politics is inevitably ‘dirty’ and that it is up to journalists to do the cleaning up. Szántó goes on to say that Orwell, while understanding totalitarianism of the Fascist and Stalinist varieties, couldn’t have predicted contemporary methods of persuasion, which are ‘subtle, insidious, sugarcoated, focus-grouped, and market-tested – and comparable in their effectiveness to anything served up by despots and demagogues of the past.’ (pxiv)

Szántó believes that the power of PR and imaging ensures that citizens’ emotions and opinions are shaped without them being able to react. It is a kind of Soma, that we are not aware we are digesting. The goal, he concludes, is not control the public by political means, but rather to ‘seduce them’. Szántó grew up in Hungary and was well aware of the ultimate failure of supposedly ‘totalising’ ideologies genuinely to win hearts and minds, and yet he argues – like all the other contributors to the book – that we are defenceless prey of the sophisticated messages generated by oh-so smart behind-the-scenes spin doctors.

Orville Schell, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, at Berkeley and an expert on China, continues this theme in the book’s introduction:

In fact, what was in Orwell’s time already a frighteningly manipulative tool would over the next few decades take several more quantum leaps forward in its ability to subliminally deceive and influence. (pxx)

Schell argues there are several ‘evolutionary steps’ forward, the first being the successful strategy of ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ which imported Marxist-Leninist propaganda and infused it with deep rooted Confucian beliefs of self-criticism, whereby ultimately the individual, just like Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial, believes they are to blame for any ‘crimes’, even though they are imaginary. Next arrives the ascendancy of Freudian psychoanalytical thought and insights into how insecurity, weakness, yearning and guilt could be manipulated. Schell quotes Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, and an admirer of Gustav Le Bon’s theories of crowds, who has been labelled as the ‘father of public relations’. His book Propaganda (1928) argued it is possible to control and manipulate the masses without them realising. Schell concludes that a new ‘industrial-strength brew’ of mind control was born when strategies devised for selling products like detergent were seized upon by governments of both capitalist and socialist nations. Technology has compounded this, with television ensuring that the notion of open and dynamic discourse envisaged by Enlightenment thinkers and the Founding Fathers of the US was replaced by hypnotic messaging.

Nowhere do we once read anything about a battle of ideas of any kind, much less political struggle, through which the public can actually shape the world. Are citizens instead simply passive vessels to have these ideas ‘poured in to their heads’ by clever scheming bureaucrats? The collection makes interesting reading but continually seems to suffer from the recurring problem of believing we are all simple minded receptors to these big bad politicos.

Drew Westen argues that the Republican Party has become the grand psychological manipulator, and Michael Massing tells us that people just do not want to hear the truth about war, as they want to believe we are on a noble mission. Martin Kaplan takes aim at the think tanks and Big Media for reinforcing our credulity, and Massing even concludes that we have become our own ‘Ministry of Truth’, pliantly accepting what we are told. George Lakoff, Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, tells us that George Orwell’s political understanding of propaganda belongs to a bygone era now that breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown us how the mind works. Cognitive science, Lakoff says, demonstrates that 98 per cent of our reasoning is unconscious and therefore based on emotion. Lakoff humorously demonstrates how a seemingly straightforward and rational statement like ‘I am against the War on Terror’ actually reinforces the ‘War on Terror’ narrative on an unconscious level. By using our opponents’ language, we can unwittingly hand them a kind of victory.

Orwell’s belief that all political language ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’ was an unduly pessimistic response to particular circumstances. There are some refreshing and brighter moments in the book, such as when Francine Prose implores students (and us) to take to heart Orwell’s prescient warnings to doubt ‘ready-made phrases’. And Aryeh Neier rightly mocks the misuse of words like ‘rights’, particularly with ‘right to food, health care and housing or even healthy environment’, which is as wrong-headed as Bush’s use of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ to mean war and occupation. This at least recognises that we can take a critical attitude to political language – and perhaps even advertising – and retain our rational faculties.

The last word goes to George Soros (whose Open Society Institute sponsored the book). In wondering why the American public ‘seem so susceptible to manipulation’, he offers his own theory of how the mind words. Soros argues that Enlightenment philosophers were too wedded to the idea that reason worked ‘like a searchlight, illuminating a reality that lay passively, awaiting discovery’, and thus failed to recognise what he calles ‘reflexivity’, the interplay between the cognitive and manipulative functions of the mind. For Soros, this is the basis of the malaise described by the other contributors.

Under the influence of the Enlightenment fallacy, proponents of open society failed to recognize that in politics, gathering public support takes precedence over the pursuit of truth. (p196)

But, as long as we engage critically rather than passively, politics need not be at odds with the pursuit of truth. Immediately after attending the event that launched this book, I argued on the Huffington Post that rather than less propaganda, what we need today is more competing ideas and challenging views that put forward a case of how we can live in the world.

For that to happen, of course, what we require is a clear understanding of where we are now. While this collection of articles is interesting, and especially so where new ideas of the human mind and thinking are considered, it suffers from not being able to understand why we have reached this particular point in history. The obsession with Big Media, spin, focus groups and psychologically cunning advertising and PR-based strategies shows that many of those who consider themselves to be liberal, actually believe people are zombies-in-waiting ready to be manipulated by the nasty guys.

George Orwell was a brilliant journalist, but that does not make him right on all aspects of politics. We would do well to ridicule the language of obfuscation and demand high standards of clarity and communication – of ourselves as well as our political opponents. But then, we have to put forward clear arguments of our own, which, in the end, is what is so sorely missing today.

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon


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