Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Why Are We In Iraq?

Why are We in Vietnam?, by Norman Mailer, was published in 1967. His protagonist is a Texas teenager on a hunting trip in Alaska before he is sent to fight on the other side of the world. The Dallas Times described it as “[a] shattering social commentary…The book is a tour de force, a treatise on human nature, society, and war in flip disguise.”

No such book has yet been written about Iraq, so the task has fallen to me. My protagonist, D, is the son of illegal aliens, brought to the United States in the early 1920s and educated in Indiana. A gifted student with an interest in medicine, he becomes a prominent psychologist just as the ideas of Sigmund Freud are taking hold in the United States. In the aftermath of World War II, D is recruited by the U.S. Army to assist in a massive study of returning veterans. D corresponds with Anna Freud and takes a job with Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. In 1951, when Bernays is hired by United Fruit to build public support for a coup in Guatemala, D advises C.I.A. officer Everette Howard Hunt, Jr. on propaganda operations in the target nation.

D becomes wealthy with his own public relations firm. He also works for the C.I.A. occasionally, assisting in domestic operations. Meanwhile, the idea of controlling society by countering destructive subconscious impulses is replaced by another concept: Docility produced by manufacturing and then sating consumer desires, giving the population a sense of choice and self-worth. D sees no contradiction in this paradigm shift; he has long since internalized the belief that the ruling elite, although comprised of individuals, is somehow free of the primitive emotions that motivate everyone else. When the paradigm changes again with the rise of the human potential movement, D unhesitatingly finds a way to turn that into an ad campaign. In the course of his career, D never encounters a theory of human behavior that he can’t use for the benefit of his clients.

At the age of 75, he is consulted on ways to sell the first invasion of Iraq to the American public. He comes up with the pitch that Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait had dumped premature babies out of incubators and sent those incubators to Iraq. It works like a charm. Seven months before the second invasion, he succumbs to pneumonia. He dies believing that democracy is dangerous because ordinary people cannot be trusted to make informed, responsible decisions. For their own good, people must be given the illusion of choice without the prospect of choice.

I have no intention of writing the book I’ve described. But I did grow up in America during the ascension of Freudian thought. My stepfather was a clinical psychologist and my mother was a psychiatric nurse. For a time, my family lived in an apartment building for hospital staff on the grounds of Longcliff State Hospital, the largest state hospital in Indiana. I also grew up in the late stages of the Red Scare propaganda campaign that led to the invasion of Vietnam.

And unfortunately, Edward Bernays and Everette Howard Hunt, Jr. are not figments of my imagination. Nor is Anna Freud. More distressing, people like D certainly exist. Throughout the ages, business and government have sought techniques to manage public perceptions.

True or false or a bit of both, all models of motivation accepted by a significant faction of any society wield influence, if only because they have a Pygmalion effect. Even so, some general principles have been understood for centuries. Fear and secrecy, for example, have long been known to influence behavior.

Baseball season approaches, so I will close with a baseball analogy. Wrigley Field in Chicago is the home of the Chicago Cubs. It’s an old stadium with regularly spaced columns to support the upper decks. If you end up sitting behind one of those columns, you have an obstructed view. You may have to lean left or right to follow a play; you may miss a key play completely.

Mass media consolidation is building a Media Wrigley Field with much wider columns so all but prime ticket holders will have an obstructed view of the field.

If you can’t wait for my non-existent book, you can still watch a remarkable four-part series by the B.B.C. titled “The Century of the Self,” about the advent and success of modern public relations — or perception management or whatever spin is called these days. The series is available through Google video at the following addresses.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Our founding fathers thought that a successful democracy required an informed public. Suppose they were right. How, then, are we to judge our democracy today?


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