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A Most Curious Journey: The 100 Year Long Transmutation of Americans from Good Citizens into Good Consumers

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his view’s of how and why Americans have been socially engineered over the past 100 years to become good consumers rather than good citizens.

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THE CRITICS EXPLODE! “Sunstone needs to get laid.  Politics to him is what sex is to the most naive nun on earth — whoever she may be.  It is no more than a world of sins, venial sins, and deadly sins.  It is a world that his delusional mind fearfully attempts to grasp with all the misconceptions of a pure virgin.  But what fool would lay Paul Sunstone?  Not I!  And not you either!  Sunstone merely needs to get laid, but he absolutely must be guillotined.”  — Aloyse Leblanc, Le Critique Passionné de Blog, “La Tribune Linville”, Linville, France.

(About an 11 minute read)

Scratch an American man or woman with your nails on the subject of liberty and they will bleed platitudes about living in the greatest country on earth for personal freedoms.

Use a needle to draw a bit more blood now, and their vision for a perfect society is extracted in the form of a legendary American Dream.

But now cut to the heart of it — cut to Living the Good Life. So very many of us Americans will now speak enthusiastically of shopping for new cars, games, and electronics.

It wasn’t always like that.  But it is like that today.

The first time I heard the popular radio and TV political pundit Sean Hannity tell his audience of millions that it was a sacred right of Americans to visit Disney World with their families was in the same month as the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  I thought he was making some kind of tasteless, inappropriate joke in a time of national mourning.

Within five days, I heard him repeat himself two more times.

Perhaps only in America could a man say such a thing, at such a moment, to millions of people and not be immediately fired from his job.  Perhaps only in America would it make sense to millions of people to square off against terrorism by going to an amusement park.

“Psst! Any terrorists here today, Micky?  The kid’s brought his Nerf Gun.  Wants some action.”

But Sean Hannity was merely channeling the President of the United States.  On September 27, 2001, George Bush gave a speech at O’Hara International Airport in Chicago in which he offered his suggestions for dealing with terrorism:

“Get on board.  Do your business around the country.  Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Bush’s message was quickly picked up and amplified by more than merely Sean Hannity.  The President’s brother, Jeb Bush — then governor of Florida — soon stated on CNN:

“We need to respond quickly so people regain confidence and consider it their patriotic duty to go shopping, go to a restaurant, take a cruise, travel with their family.  Frankly, the terrorists win if Americans don’t go back to normalcy.”

In fact, the President, his brother, Sean Hannity, and the myriad others who joined in to urge Americans to respond to the terrorist attacks by “shopping” were right, honestly right.

Any economist can tell you the American economy is overwhelmingly driven by consumer spending.  Any master strategist can tell you that the might of a nation is founded on its economy.  And any competent politician knows what could have happened to American political unity and the nation’s will to defend itself following 9/11 had the US economy tanked.  Keeping the economy going was a legitimate and necesary goal of the administration.

But urging Americans to shop wasn’t the curious thing.  The curious thing was that was all the President and his chorus urged Americans to do.

As Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich wrote that October in The Washington Post, “Bush seems to have calculated — cynically but correctly — that prolonging the credit-fueled consumer binge could help keep complaints about his performance as Commander in Chief from becoming more than a nuisance.”

Moreover, Bush was far from the author of his cynical strategy of encouraging Americans to respond to a political, social, or other serious problem by consuming goods and services — while avoiding encouraging people to take on a more politically and socially activist role.  The strategy at that time dated back 80 years in American history.  Today, it dates back 100 years.

The strategy’s original author was Edward Louis Bernays, a man who has been called at various times, “The Father of the Public Relations Industry in America”, “The Father of Spin”, “a braggart”, and “One of the top 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century”.

According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, co-editors of PR Watch, an influential publication of the Center for Media and Democracy: 

“It is impossible to fundamentally grasp the social, political, economic and cultural developments of the past 100 years without some understanding of Bernays….”

To Bernays, democracies were always tottering on the edge of turning into lynch mobs.  He was Jewish, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and he knew about how European Christian mobs had historically treated their Jewish neighbors.  Yet, despite his fear of democracy,  Bernays never sought to wholly destroy it.

He wanted to keep alive and intact, the facades of democracy.

Bernays sought to turn democracy upside down.  He wanted an educated, humane elite to run things from the top down — instead of the great unwashed masses to run things from the bottom up.

Perhaps the least of his genius was to see that the relatively new science of psychology, while still primitive and largely ineffective, could be spun into technologies for “crowd control”.  But lots of folks could have figured that one out.

Of far greater genius than Bernays the Technician, was Bernays the Alchemist.

He saw with a clarity impossible to most folks of his time that good citizens could be transmuted into good consumers.  Moreover, he saw how much easier it would be to “manage” consumers than citizens.

Here is the very core of his realization:  The deceptively simple fact that, above all else, most people just want to be happy.

Until Bernays, people expected — and often enough demanded — that their social, political, and economic systems be shaped to create the conditions necessary for them to be happy.  You don’t like living in a hovel and wearing rags?  Grab your pitch fork, peasant!  Unite and guillotine the King — replace him with a Republic.

During the 1000 years of the European Middle Ages, there had been on average one serious peasant revolt per year.  The human tradition of actively revolting in hope of achieving a better life is an ancient one.

Bernays had the insight to see that happiness — for most people — could be obtained without any necessity — or any mob-rule threat — of political, social, or economic revolt and revolution.

In essence, Bernays set himself with an enduring passion to the task of ‘teaching’ Americans to pursue happiness — not through improving the systems they lived under — but through ravenously consuming material comforts and luxuries.

You don’t like living in a hovel and wearing rags?  Get a much nicer hovel and brand new rags.  No need to rise up, unite, and guillotine the King after all.  And who really cares if you live in a monarchy or a republic? The important thing is to  have the good things in life.

Certainly, Bernays wanted to sell houses, cars, clothing, and other material items. But make no mistake about it, he liked to sell them by appealing to more “spiritual” values.

Until the late 1920s, American women had largely shunned cigarettes and smoking.  Then, the American Tobacco Company fatefully hired Bernays to correct the sorrowful and morally offensive problem of a huge potential market for cigarettes going unexploited.

At first Bernays blindly tried several approaches.  That is, he proceeded by trial and error. “Smokers are thin, thin women are beautiful women.”   “Doctor’s recommend smoking over eating sweets.”   “The good hostess always has a pack on hand for her guests.”

Sales stumbled upward — a bit.

But then Bernays decided to go all-out scientific on the problem, making him the first man in American history to “science” the manipulation of the American public.

His first step was to consult a Freudian psychoanalyst who explained to Bernays that modern women were fed up with being submissive creations of men.  The psychoanalyst, Abraham Brill, then suggested calling cigarettes, “Torches of Freedom”.

Then came another stroke of sheer, novel from Edward Bernays.

To launch his public relations campaign, Bernays brilliantly invented a technique that is still to this day key to public relations.   Instead of launching with a massive and obvious advertising campaign — as perhaps anyone else would have done — Bernays quietly  arranged for the newspapers, magazines, and radio news programs to report that cigarettes were now being called “Torches of Freedom” — just as if the new slang for cigarettes had come about naturally, organically, from the people themselves.

American women began lighting up in droves.  The bountiful heavens opened up to rain profits upon the formally drought-stricken American Tobacco Company, its righteous executives and devote investors.

Today — whether you know it or not — you are routinely subjected to advertising disguised as news.  For disguising advertising as news is like swapping out firecrackers for dynamite.

Many people — even well educated people — are still today more or less clueless of the overwhelming power of today’s PR firms to manipulate and shape public opinions and even behaviors.  Relatively few people see on a day to day basis the massive efforts made to manipulate them.  Almost everyone knows they are being pitched.  But merely knowing you are being pitched is no more meaningful of an insight than knowing your car has some vaguely understood thingie in it called an “engine”.

To give Bernays credit, the US has seen relatively little actual bloodshed and/or profound political and social instability since the 1920s when he began his rise to influence.

Generations have come and gone with nothing like the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 during which the Colorado National Guard fired machine guns at 1,200 striking coal miners, their wives, and children.  Machine gunned people merely for the sin of striking one of John D. Rockerfeller’s mines.

(Today most of us no longer join unions, let alone strike.  Unions are corrupt, you know, and worthless anyway. … But where did we get that idea, do you suppose?)

To give Bernays credit, he — more than anyone else — is responsible for the fact American elites were able to replace bullets with propaganda as the primary means of  controlling the American people — and thus genuinely save lives and provide Americans with the thousand benefits of political and social stability.

Why kill a man’s or woman’s body when you can constrain and channel his or her mind?

Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence McConnell — all pretend in one way or another to oppose “the system”.  But all in one way or another support the system.  Almost seamlessly, the major media in America today — regardless whether of the nominal right or the nominal left — is not even the remotest true threat to the power and the position of America’s elites.

Yet, perhaps lost in the transformation of America from a representative democracy to a consumer utopia has been the dignity of adults to have a genuine say over their own lives and fates.  Perhaps lost has been some measure of the ability of most Americans to fully realize their human potential — as they see fit to best realize it.

What, if anything, have been the consequences of all this enlightened social engineering, of all this saving Americans from themselves, of all these parental controls, of all this reduction of adults to children?

One hundred years after Bernays’ start, I think it is time to be asking some questions.

I will not offer anything even approaching a comprehensive answer to all the questions one could legitimately ask about the New Great American Experiment.  But I will mention Bonnie Ware.   Ware was an end-of-life-nurse who made a point of interviewing each of her patients and recording their answers.  Ware discovered that the dying men and women she attended to had one chief regret above all others.

They had not lived authentically enough.  They had not lived true enough to themselves.  They had spent too much of their lives following the lead of others.


I am grateful to Bojana for her comment on this blog that has largely inspired this post as a response to it.

Those readers curious to learn more — much more — about this topic can do no better than to begin with the four-part documentary, Century of the Self, by the British filmmaker, Adam Curtis.

Last, a few years ago,  Tony Blair, after leaving his office as Prime Minister of the UK,  decided to become a consultant to the world’s governments, specializing in the modern techniques of “crowd control” that began with Edward Bernays.  He quickly landed a gig with a middle Asian dictator.  Anyone under the illusion these techniques and technologies are still confined to America should take note of Tony Blair.

13 thoughts on “A Most Curious Journey: The 100 Year Long Transmutation of Americans from Good Citizens into Good Consumers”

  1. Known this since I was a teenager and discovered over the following 50 years that those who understand this process are a minuscule minority; those who want to know this is going are the micro of that minuscule minority.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hope you’re right that I’m speaking the truth here, Sha’Tara. All I myself know for certain is that it’s the truth as I honestly see it. I can’t much say other than I did say without being false to myself.

      Like

  2. Ah liberty and the good old pursuit of…things, or is it new?

    July 4, and similar holidays, is a good example. It seems to be just another day off work, that is time for a backyard barbecue for most Americans. The event is f course commercialized through advertising patriotic red, white and blue T-shirts, fireworks and mini flags, specially made to ignite American pride and promote consumer optimism. Marketers are smart, if you ask me, people are stupid.
    Or, they are just satisfied with their lives, right?

    I have some buddies who I love to discuss politics with. I’ll make sure I introduce you to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a portion of people are satisfied with their lives, and a portion are not. Of those that are not, most have got their minds firmly made up about what will satisfy them. So only a minority of dissatisfied people are genuinely looking around for something.

      To me consumerism is about material things, for sure. Cars and electronics and other goods and services. But I also rightly or wrongly lump in with those things a lot of stuff that some folks might think of as “spiritual”. For instance, I think a lot of the religious beliefs people pursue to be consumerism. To seek happiness as something that can be purchased is to me consumerism. To seek happiness in consumption is consumerism to me.

      I would be grateful to meet your buddies! But I don’t want to give the false impression that I am especially enthusiastic about political discussions. It’s more like I now and then go through a phase during which I’m more keen on discussing politics than at most times. I always pay politics some degree of attention, but I don’t always feel up to the task of discussing the revolting subject. If that makes any sense?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow! Thanks so much for sending the links! Gods, that was nice of you.

        You know what has happened? One word. Trump. He’s sapped the fun from political discussions. Most of them, at least. Whenever his name, ideas, positions, etc come up, I feel as grim as I hear soldiers feel after 20 days of combat.

        I stay fairly well informed of current events, but the fun’s gone out of discussing them.

        Like

  3. I think there is a distinction to be made between to have “lived authentically” and to have lived true to oneself. A case could be made that Donald Trump is living true to himself….but is he living authentically? One could claim that it’s a distinction without a difference, but such a claim would make the meaning of “authentic” too malleable to be truly authentic, it seems to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting point. I believe i get what you’re talking about. But I myself would pick other words to describe him besides “true to himself”. Perhaps, “uninhibited”, “out of control”, “a lose cannon”. To me, “true to oneself” goes much deeper than simple lack of self-discipline.

      Of course, I’m not saying you should use the terms the same way I do. That would infringe upon your right to use words as you see fit and necessary to express your understanding of things. It would be Orwellian of me to insist on my own definitions.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It seems to me they (mainstream media/news) bother to hide that they’re in the advertising business. Some are slow to realize it and some don’t realize it at all. I’m one of the slow ones. I didn’t catch on until the Bush II (W) years when I’d read the paper or watch the news and realize that nobody was actually investigating anything. They were just reading off the speaking points.

    This might interest you: https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/meet-the-economist-behind-the-one-percents-stealth-takeover-of-america

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As it happens, I read that article a while back, but on a different website. Thankfully, it was getting picked up and widely reposted. Quite informative. I might reread it this morning.

      I was pretty slow to catch on too, Robin. You are by no means alone. And, yes, it was during the Bush years for me too.

      Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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