“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element of 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’.”
In 1928, a young man named Edward Bernays wrote these words in a short book which many consider to be the advent of describing modern public relations. The book is modestly entitled Propaganda. His stated mission was to salvage the term which had only recently become repugnant, as the post-War generation was mortified by the misleadings of all governments involved in the European bloodbath. Of course, Bernays, whose Uncle was an Austrian neurologist named Freud, was a good enough propagandist himself to use the book to highlight case studies (all his own work) and position himself as the thought leader of this burgeoning industry in a brilliant attempt to procure more clients.
And that he did.
Not a few months after publishing, he helped the Cuyamel Fruit Company successfully finance the overthrow of the Honduran government (which had recently and justly decided to begin charging the company export taxes) by crafting an insidious public relations campaign aimed at convincing the public that the President (who stated FDR as his personal hero) was a communist. He wasn’t. But that didn’t stop the Honduran public from rising against him shortly after ushering him into office by a landslide.
Bernays makes the case that Propaganda is indeed neither malicious nor insidious, but a fundamental component of a well functioning society.
That to have compliant masses quietly leading lives prescribed to them by those who know best is preferable to the anarchy that would ensue if each individual possessed the cerebral authority to chart their very own destiny. When asked many years later how he felt that Joseph Goebbels had used his work as inspiration for his own, Bernays had no comment.
Many years ago when I was an unremarkably average finance executive in New York, I was convinced that a “normal” life included buying a McMansion in upstate and a summer home in the Hampton’s, going on one exorbitant beach-filled vacation each year and financing all this average-ness by working a job that I, on my best days, tolerated and on my worst days, despised. It’s what every successful person that I knew did. It’s just what you do, for God’s sake! Heh. I wonder what the 2006 version of myself would think if I went back with Marty McFly and told him I was living and working and launching projects and running a company and writing to thousands of people each week from a vegetable-oil powered municipal bus I renovated. That I, in a very literally sense, live in a van down by the river.
That today I’d be on Day 155 of a grand adventure with my beautiful wife to travel around the entire world in 1,080 days while writing and creating art and running a business and leaving the world a little better than I found it. When I was in business school, they never laid this out as an option.
In some ways, I agree with Bernays. Society does indeed demand compliance. In fact, maybe it necessitates it. Maybe if there weren’t submissive and conciliatory masses, filing one by one, to tastes and ideas and careers they don’t question, then maybe the planet itself would stop turning.
But no one ever changed the world by conforming to the ideologues that run it.
So, what do we do?
Sojourn beyond the boundaries.
Recognize that every minute of every day someone, somewhere is using their money or influence to try and convince you of what you should think and buy and eat and dream and do with your life.
And recognize that while at times this System takes on the form of television producers and politicians, most often it takes the form of well-intentioned teachers and friends and parents innocently luring you into a complacency and conformity and compliance that they acquiesced to long ago.
Your Fellow Misfit,
Ps – Here is an interview I did with the lovely Australian blogger Christine McDougall. I spoke with her while sitting in The Pegasus in the parking lot of the mechanic, directly after replacing the transmission. In it, I elaborate much more about my past, Fear and Resistance, my definition of success, religion and the impact Shakespeare has had on my life. And here’s another with the inimitable Peter Sterlacci about crafting identity and “personal brand”.
One last thing, if you would like to see more from my trip around the world, and to know where I may be stopping off next, come on over to the POE Facebook page, I’d love to connect with you over there.
Written from: The Pegasus in Everglades National Park