Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Book Read Fifty Years Too Late by Anthony McCarthy

My thanks to the anonymous e-mailer who recommended that I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave new World Revisited. Having admired the novel, which I think is a lot more impressive than 1984 in its vision of domestic social and political trends, I’m ashamed to admit to never having read Aldous Huxley’s essays. There are points on which we differ, some sharply, but he said a lot of the things I’ve been harping on about fifty years earlier. And a lot better.

Here’s a link to the book online. The Art of Selling is the chapter that was pointed out to me as being very similar to some of the things I’ve written. .

- The survival of democracy depends on the ability of large numbers of people to make realistic choices in the light of adequate information.

- Effective rational propaganda becomes possible only when there is a clear understanding, on the part of all concerned, of the nature of symbols and of their relations to the things and events symbolized. Irrational propaganda depends for its effectiveness on a general failure to understand the nature of symbols.

- But unfortunately propaganda in the Western democracies, above all in America, has two faces and a divided personality. In charge of the editorial department there is often a democratic Dr. Jekyll -- a propagandist who would be very happy to prove that John Dewey had been right about the ability of human nature to respond to truth and reason. But this worthy man controls only a part of the machinery of mass communication. In charge of advertising we find an anti-democratic, because anti-rational, Mr. Hyde -- or rather a Dr. Hyde, for Hyde is now a Ph.D. in psychology and has a master's degree as well in the social sciences. This Dr. Hyde would be very unhappy indeed if everybody always lived up to John Dewey's faith in human nature. Truth and reason are Jekyll's affair, not his. Hyde is a motivation analyst, and his business is to study human weaknesses and failings, to investigate those unconscious desires and fears by which so much of men's conscious thinking and overt doing is determined. And he does this, not in the spirit of the moralist who would like to make people better, or of the physician who would like to improve their health, but simply in order to find out the best way to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality for the pecuniary benefit of his employers.

And from the previous chapter:

- Human beings act in a great variety of irrational ways, but all of them seem to be capable, if given a fair chance, of making a reasonable choice in the light of available evidence. Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world's most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.

I was afraid that Huxley wouldn’t go as far as I’m afraid we’ll have to in order to save democracy but as he states the obvious truth that the prerequisites for The People to govern themselves by a representative democracy are not optional but are, in fact, absolutely mandatory, democracy won’t survive without legislation preventing mass marketed lies. From the last chapter, What Can Be Done?

- No, I repeat, there can never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentem. But there can be preventive legislation -- an outlawing of the psychological slave trade, a statute for the protection of minds against the unscrupulous purveyors of poisonous propaganda, modeled on the statutes for the protection of bodies against the unscrupulous purveyors of adulterated food and dangerous drugs. For example, there could and, I think, there should be legislation limiting the right of public officials, civil or military, to subject the captive audiences under their command or in their custody to sleep-teaching. There could and, I think, there should be legislation prohibiting the use of subliminal projection in public places or on television screens. There could and, I think, there should be legislation to prevent political candidates not merely from spending more than a certain amount of money on their election campaigns, but also to prevent them from resorting to the kind of anti-rational propaganda that makes nonsense of the whole democratic process.

Such preventive legislation might do some good; but if the great impersonal forces now menacing freedom continue to gather momentum, they cannot do much good for very long. The best of constitutions and preventive laws will be powerless against the steadily increasing pressures of over-population and of the over-organization imposed by growing numbers and advancing technology. The constitutions will not be abrogated and the good laws will remain on the statute book; but these liberal forms will merely serve to mask and adorn a profoundly illiberal substance. Given unchecked over-population and over-organization, we may expect to see in the democratic countries a reversal of the process which transformed England into a democracy, while retaining all the outward forms of a monarchy. Under the relentless thrust of accelerating overpopulation and increasing over-organization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms -- elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest -- will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial -- but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.

The fifty years since the book was published prove that we are living out what Huxley saw with such impressive insight. Maybe, due to his family heritage, he realized that the mass media had fundamentally changed the political environment to the extent that the old guarantees which would have provided the possibility of an informed vote no longer hold. We can only look back at the developments in politics and the media and see the reality of what Huxley saw made true.

Last year the possibility of democracy was saved, for a time, by the disgust of the public over the Bush regime or, less optimistically, by the results of his economic pillage catching up with his party. It wasn’t the “free press” that saved us from four more years, it was reality going over the heads of the press. As the biological environment won’t survive delay in facing up to the ruinous environmental results of corporate libertarianism, democracy won’t survive with the media we’ve got today. I don’t think the new media will prove to be the savior many are confident it will be. If anything lies are more easily spread online than before. We risk too much if their hunch is wrong. The dangers of requiring the press to serve the essential needs of a democratic society are real, abuses of any kind of regulation will arise. But those dangers are prospective, uncertain and remedial. The dangers of the media we have now are a clear danger to the life of a democracy and the free people it serves.