Saturday, February 3, 2007

Bernays--Not Just a Sauce

Fathercrow has an interesting post at Words of Fire, Ink of Blood:

Across space and earlier in time, a man named Edward Bernays's parents had emigraged from Austria and traversed the Atlantic to settle in America. Bernays himself, though born in Vienna, was brought up in the American capitalistic environment. Bernays was Sigmud Freuds nephew. During the First World War, the war that stripped his uncle of the last vestiges of his faith in humanity, Bernays worked with the US government within the propaganda division of the US forces. It was at the Paris Peace Conference where Bernays first noticed the hysterical reaction of the crowds to President Wilsons visit. Wilson had been portrayed as an emissary of the individual in addition to that of freedom. The French viewed him as an almost messianic character after the regimented march of death that was the First World War. Bernays watched this adulation from afar, with the Presidents entourage and wondered, he wondered if the crowds in peacetime could be controlled as effectively as those that were controlled by Propagandistic manipulation during wartime. Bernays considered the word "Propaganda" to be tainted by it's use by the Germans, and so on returning to the United States, after some thought, he adopted the phrase "Public Relations" in its place. Bernays set up an office in New York and set to work. During this time, Bernays, still on friendly terms with his Uncle Siggy, sent him a box of Havana Cigars, Freud in response sent him a copies of some of his works. This gift was a revelation to Bernays, who then decided to use his Uncle's theories in furthering first his personal fortunes and secondly his thirst for power. Bernays himself would always maintain that he was at heart a democrat and that the use of his Uncle's theories were for the benefit of humanity at large....
Bernays, always the tireless self publicist began to write books promoting his ideas. He did this as many prominent political thinkers in America, had been terrified at the implications of the first world war. And as the popularity of Freud soared these political thinkers began to look at the masses much as he did. The masses were animalistic and the ruling elite needed a method to control them in order to prevent a second suicide attempt by humanity at large. Bernays wrote books like “Propaganda” in order to argue that he had developed the techniques that would prevent such a thing from ever happening again. His theory was to actively encourage the association of products that constantly changed and updated themselves with emotions like love and happiness, comfort and contentment so that the worker, would in effect become the consumer, and the newly created “consumer” would be so busy pursuing products that they thought would sate them and grant their emotional desires that they would, in effect, avoid their bestial nature in the illusionary chase of happiness through products. The populous would also be so distracted that they would let the elite, who knew what was best for them, get on with the business of ruling. His policies were adopted, at home and abroad. Bernays was a self described democrat who was in fact, entirely undemocratic. Joseph Goebbels rated Bernays’s “Propaganda” as one of the most important and influential books he had ever read.

Bernays does have a lot to answer for--unfortunately, I think he'd just really be proud of himself if he could see the United States today. Fathercrow also references Adam Curtis' excellent documentary Century of the Self, which is a fantastic film about, among other things, public relations and the American psyche.

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