Propaganda: Brainwashing in Communism and in Democracy

by Frank Li and Derryl Hermanutz, Guest Authors from Global Economic Intersection

This is the fifth article of the series: “Towards An Ideal Form of Government”.

In my 1/20/2012 post (Democracy and Communism: Are They Really the Same?), I stated:

Democracy,   as we know it today, is akin to communism in one critical aspect:  destroying capitalism! Here is the subtle difference between them:  communism violently destroyed capitalism over night, while democracy has   been peacefully destroying capitalism over time.”

In my 2/3/2012 post (Freedom of the Press in America and in China), I stated:

brainwashing is yet another similarity between democracy and communism, which I will discuss in-depth in a future article.”

Here is that article!  I am teaming up with Derryl Hermanutz, an enthusiastic observer of media and democracy, on this one!

1. What is brainwashing?

Brainwashing, or “mind control,” refers   to a process in which a group or individual systematically uses  unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the  wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being   manipulated.

2. Brainwashing in communism

Brainwashing   and communism are almost synonymous, because communism would have died   long ago without brainwashing; brainwashing developed to its peak under  communism.

The   two biggest communist countries were the Soviet Union and China  (1949-1976). In communism, the euphemism for brainwashing is  “propaganda”. For an overview of how it worked in the Soviet Union,  click here: Propaganda in the Soviet Union. For a highlight of how it worked in Communist China, click here: Propaganda in Communist China.

I   grew up in Communist China. So I know firsthand how brainwashing worked  over there. Let me give you my personal perspective with two key   points:

(1) There are two departments with highest priority in the CPC (Communist Party of China): Propaganda Department (or PR in the West) and Organization Department (or HR in the West). The former had complete control of the media.  Because everything belonged to the public, it then belonged to the CPC, giving these two departments complete control of virtually everything in  China.

(2) Because communism was de facto feudalism in mask in China, everything was built on falsehoods, from  the notion of leaders “serving the people” (vs. self-serving) to the  practice of calling the people at the bottom (i.e. the workers,  peasants, and the soldiers) the “masters”.

How   was it possible to perpetuate such massive falsehoods necessary for  communism to survive? Propaganda! Here is a big example: in 1958, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign. It was a total disaster! As a result, tens of millions of  people starved to death from 1960 to 1962. But the communist propaganda machine spun it as a “3-year natural disaster”.

“Tell a lie 1,000 times and it will become the truth.”   Unfortunately, you can fool some people all of the time, or all the  people some of the time. But fortunately, you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Today, there exist only two communist countries: Cuba and North Korea. They are the worst on earth! All others have painfully failed and changed.

China   is no longer a communist country! China embraced capitalism big time  after Mao died in 1976 and found her own way of success, such as without   blindly embracing democracy as Russia did.  As a result, China is now well on her way to becoming the largest economy on earth by 2030, while   Russia lags far behind. For more, read: Emerging Economies: An Overview from 30,000 feet.

3. Brainwashing in democracy

Brainwashing in democracy is not as obvious as in communism. So it’s time to have a serious discussion about it.

3.1 “Crystallizing public opinion”

In 1922, Walter Lippmann published his book “Public Opinion”, which offered an incisive  psychological and sociological examination of the emotional, irrational,   herd-conformity factors that contribute to people’s opinions.

bernaysIn 1923, Edward Bernays (pictured left) published his book “Crystallizing Public   Opinion”, in which he argues that “crystallizing public opinion” is  essential to a democratic government of large-scale nations: to “govern”   a vastly disparate people, you have to unify their minds. Bernays  criticized Lippmann for knowing the public mind so well, but failing to use that knowledge to manipulate the mind. Bernays spent a long career creating the opinion-making machinery, which would provide the “news”  that would become the “history” of the 20th century. The engineered  perceptions, not reality, provide the carefully crafted contents of  people’s “public opinions”.

“Creating   a media event,” Bernays counsels his clients, “is something that  disrupts the normal flow of public attention. I will show you how to  craft that event to direct public opinion along the channels that serve your purposes.”

America’s   media reports on a stage-managed theater, which they believe to be  “events”. The events are carefully crafted by PR counsels, like Bernays,   to generate exactly the media “take” that results. The media buys the illusion, and then does the work of selling it to the public. When  interviewed in 1990, Bernays, then nearly 100 years old, told Stuart Ewen (who wrote the introduction to a recent reprinting of “Crystallizing  Public Opinion”), “We, PR counsels, have had no direct contact with the mass media for about 50 years. The job of a PR counsel is to instruct a   client on how to take actions that just interrupt the continuity of life  in some way to bring about the desired media response.”

It   is the media whose opinions are manipulated in the first place. They  believe they are reporting and editorializing on “news”. But “news” is  the creation of media events that induce the desired public opinions,  first in the media, then in the masses.

To the delight of the reigning power structure, most people assume the Enlightenment ideal that people form their opinions from evidence and hold those  opinions “rationally”, subject to alteration when contrary evidence  comes to light. In fact, almost all people are selectively fed their  opinions by “authorities”, or the media, and they cling to their  “opinions” with blind devotion rather than base them tentatively on  rational evidence. Ask them to justify their opinions and you will get a   defensive rant, simply regurgitating the “opinion” that has been fed to  them; they will often act not unlike an angry monkey jumping around threateningly. You’ll likely not get a cool rational explanation of the   evidence and logic that supports belief in one conclusion and weakens belief in alternate conclusions.

Beliefs   are held as “opinions”, not “hard knowledge”, though people usually  believe that they “know” things rather than recognizing that they merely   “believe” them. Most individual’s opinions, and all public herd  opinions, are held emotionally, not intellectually or analytically, so  public opinion is created by manipulating people’s emotions and  instincts, not their rational minds. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays writes of Lippmann’s predecessors Wilfred Trotter and Gustave Le Bon:

Trotter   and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thought it has impulses, habits and  emotions. In making up its mind, its first impulse is to follow the  example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles of mass psychology.”

As Ewen writes, Bernays correctly gathered from Le Bon, Trotter, Lippmann etc. that,

Without   a thorough comprehension of the unconscious and instinctual triggers  that stimulate human behavior, the work of the PR counsel would be  impossible.”

Insofar   as the masses have “reasons” for believing what they believe, they  arrive at those reasons after the fact, to justify their beliefs; often they don’t think up the reasons! Talk radio and other professional  partisans think up and sell prepackaged “reasons”. The masses’ beliefs  are not built up deductively from careful examination and coherent  compilation of evidence. Often, the reasons they give have nothing to do   with the real reason they have the beliefs they have. They were told  what to believe, showed what to believe, and they form their “opinions” in that way.

3.2 Public opinion creation in America

Three examples: (1) Iraq, (2) Libya, and (3) Iran & Syria.

3.2.1 Iraq

Iraq’s WMD (“weapons of mass destruction”) was uniformly presented, by the media-political complex, as the “reason” behind the Iraq War. How about Alan Greenspan’s claim that it was “largely about oil”? How about the assertion that President George W. Bush launched the Iraq war for the sake of his re-election?

WMD   was the media event. The subsequent media coverage and public opinion on the Iraq war universally focused on this engineered diversion of WMD.  Did any American mass media outlet do in-depth investigative reporting  of alternate American motives for the Iraq war? No! They all fell for  the bait, and sold it to the American public.

3.2.2 Libya


Why   did NATO wage war on Libya? The sales job for the media-political  complex was that NATO was supporting the Arab Spring against Gaddafi’s  “brutal” regime. By all credible accounts, Libyans’ support for  Gaddafi’s regime was far higher than Americans’ support for “Obama’s  regime” (e.g. Congress disapproval rating at 87%).   Therefore, should NATO support an Occupy Wall Street military takedown   of the “massively unpopular” Obama regime in the protection of the 99%?

tea-party-no-more-debtOr, if you like, should NATO support a Tea Party military takedown of the “tyrannically oppressive” Obama regime in the defense of America’s  Constitution and founding principals?

Is there any logic behind NATO’s thinking, and action, at all?

3.2.3 Iran and Syria

Is   Iran’s nuclear program, not weapons, really such a big threat to  anybody, more so than the nuclear weapons extant in Pakistan or in  India?

Many   Americans have swallowed whole the media event, the illusion, that  America’s current preparations to invade and engineer regime change in  Iran and Syria is about nuclear threats and democratic revolution. Some manipulative students of Bernays dreamed up these plausible but unproven  scenarios; some political mouthpiece announced them in a “media event”;  and these fabrications become the subject of American media attention  and then morph the “opinions” of many Americans. “Should America permit a  nuclear Iran?” “Should America support the freedom fighters in Syria?”  The other possible motives for American action against these nations  never see the light of media coverage or American herd opinion. It’s all  about “patriotism” and “making the world safe for democracy.”

In short, it looks like Iraq, all over again!

3.3 Brainwashing in America

Any   time a credible but politically unpalatable explanation for real world   events is expressed in the American public sphere, it is often denounced  as “conspiracy theory”, then dismissed and studiously ignored by the  mass media. Public opinion, the public herd mind, obediently follows  suit and closes itself to any such crazy conspiracy talk.

Today,   many of the American “news and opinion leaders” start with a basic  proposition and then report on what they can find in the events of the  day, which can spin to support their thesis. Examples are people like Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz, and Bill O’Reilly.   These people are not looking to expand their minds but simply to  confirm what they have locked firmly in their beliefs. Unfortunately,  some of their viewers may feel they are learning something about the  news but most are simply engaging in the same belief confirmations.

Now, let’s get to the basics: What is news? North, East, West, and South!   It simply means news comes from all directions, especially for the  international news! Why, then, can’t the American mainstream media match   with the Chinese to show both sides of the stories on Iran and Syria? Why, then, can’t the American mainstream media match with Al Jazeera for ”real news”? They can, but they won’t! Why? Because the American media is not truly “free”, either spiritually (“free” as in freedom) or monetarily (“free” as in free food)!

Welcome to the Internet age! Today, we all can publish, instantly and worldwide. Real freedom, at last!

3.4 Back to Edward Bernays

Bernays   died in 1995, before the Internet and the blogosphere really got going.  But he surely would have recognized the free flow of unmanaged  information as an existential threat to his profession of molding public   opinion to serve powerful moneyed interests. While we thoughtfully observe that the American mass media misinforms Americans, Bernays explains  that the media itself is being systematically misled, and merely passing   along the illusions as “news”.

Change the political system and stop listening to Edward Bernays!

4. To whom should we listen?

Here are two pertinent quotes:

(1)  “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto. Money,   not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nations. Peace,  commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances  with none.” Who said it? Thomas Jefferson!

(2)  “Allow   the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it  necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he  may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose – and you   allow him to make war at pleasure.” Who said it? Abraham Lincoln!

Apparently, the Chinese have been listening to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham listening-time-child-bookLincoln a lot more than we Americans have!    For example, the Chinese trade with everybody; the Chinese promote  peace, without a single war over the past few decades; and the Chinese  value capitalism dearly, after a near-death experience with communistic socialism.

Still   wondering why China has been rising so rapidly while America has been declining so steeply over the past decade? Wonder not! It’s the political system, stupid!

5. Closing

Has the case been sufficiently made that brainwashing is yet another similarity between democracy and communism, in addition to “destroying capitalism”? You be the judge!

Unfortunately,   while we debate these things, more wars are likely in the Middle East and more deeply America digs itself into a troubled hole, not only  economically, but also politically and morally …


Related Articles

Previous articles by Frank Li

Previous articles by Derryl Hermanutz (see links in bio, below)

About the Authors

Frank LiFrank Li is   the Founder and President of W.E.I. (West-East International), a  Chicago-based import & export company. Frank received his B.E. from Zhejiang University (China) in 1982, M.E. from the University of Tokyo in 1985, and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1988, all in Electrical  Engineering. He worked for several companies until 2004, when he  founded his own company W.E.I. Today, W.E.I. is a leader in the weighing  industry not only in products & services, but also in thought and  action.

Dr. Li writes extensively and uniquely on politics, for which he has been called “a modern-day Thomas Jefferson”(see page 31).

Derryl Hermanutz has contributed (opinion and analysis) previously on topics related to theory of money and relationships between current events and economic history and philosophy.

  1. falk burger says

    while providing some interesting historical background on the practice of brainwashing, the authors fall prey to some of the same biases corrupting the media. To put Keith Olbermann in the same category as Rush Limbaugh is an extreme example of “fairness bias” – the belief that one must find examples on “both” sides of the “aisle” when denouncing undesirable qualities of some individual. The practice of “fairness bias” is a product of the two-party, “all issues can be reduced to two opposites” habit of thinking which is at the heart of the fossilization of political, and even philosophical culture today.
    Real change has become impossible within the “system”, which is why the “occupy” and “endciv” movements reject efforts of the system to categorize them.

  2. PORTA PORTA says

    You NEED to READ this BOOK !!



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