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A crucial insight into how society functions
on 22 August 2013
This is one of those books that I've wanted to read for years, as a primary reference to understand how the world really operates. It's great to read books and to watch documentaries which talk about these things, but you can only truly appreciate what's going on around you when you go straight to the source. And Edward Bernays, the early 20th century propagandist who used the psychological insights of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to transform the propaganda industry into what we now call "public relations", is one of the most crucial primary sources. Interest on his life and work have been reinvigorated within recent years, due to activists such as Noam Chomsky citing him as a pivotal spearhead of the Big Brother society, and an award winning BBC documentary by Adam Curtis, `Century of the Self'.
This short book, `Propaganda', is essentially propaganda for propaganda. By the 1920s, the once neutral word "propaganda" had been tainted with the same connotations it still has until now. Bernays, a professional propagandist, tasked himself with the mission of giving acceptability back to what he considered a legitimate advertising technique. This was back before he would realise that the word would never become fashionable again, replacing it with "public relations", or P.R.(opaganda). And, so, this short book acts essentially as an advertisement for "educated Americans", to teach them of the value of propaganda. The first half of the book is basically an apology for propaganda, and the wise men behind the scenes that we have "consented" to employ it for "our own good", to sway our opinions into the right direction and to prevent chaos from ensuing as a result of having no wise guidance in our lives. The second half is more of a practical manual of how propaganda can be successfully utilised in areas of business, politics, education, and others. While I found the first half more interesting, the second half is surprisingly relevant to today's seemingly far removed world from the 1920s, when this book was written.
In many ways, Edward Bernays' `Propaganda' is not as sinister as I had expected it to be. Bernays seems convinced that propaganda is a natural and unavoidable part of life, and he makes many convincing arguments to back up this assertion (though he is a master propagandist, so it's no surprise that his outlook seems convincing). Furthermore, he continually reminds his readers of their ethical duty to tell the truth and to not mislead the people whose thoughts they wish to sway to their cause. Nor did Bernays, like the propagandists who would come after him, seem to believe that the masses are brainless idiots (or, if he did believe this to be so, he didn't even so much as allude to that opinion within these pages). Bernays, it seems, dreamed of a world in which an unseen group of benevolent wise men would guide mankind, through propaganda, into making rational choices for the good of society. However, the role of today's advertising and P.R. world, which Bernays breathed into existence, is (as Noam Chomsky explains) to hurl the masses into making irrational decisions, the complete opposite of what Bernays seemed to have stood for.
Edward Bernays' `Propaganda' offers a valuable insight into how our collective minds function, and the mentality of those who are really pulling the strings in society (the advertisers, big business leaders, as well as prominent politicians) think of us. To fully appreciate this book, read it in conjunction with some of Noam Chomsky's numerous works on media manipulation, and watch Adam Curtis's `Century of the Self'.