Weekly Recap #12

A Man I’m Learning AboutEdward Burnays, the 20th Century Machiavelli. Edward Burnays is the man who invented modern public relations. Few people have had a larger impact on society in their lifetimes, but I bet you’ve never heard of him. In fact, Burnays and his PR firm had a hand in everything from popularizing cigarettes for women, all the way to convincing Americans that Central America was a Communist breeding ground. 

Edward Burnays

Edward Burnays literally wrote the how to book on Propaganda, and that book would become Joseph Goebbels’ handbook while he helped orchestrate the Holocaust and the Nazi rise in Germany. As mentioned above, Burnays was himself a master of Propaganda, and he sold his talents to the highest bidder throughout his life.  Most significant of all his actions, he wrote books that would serve as how-to handbooks for furthering the agendas of the greediest corporations and most bloodthirsty regimes the world over. But Burnays is not a simple subject. He by no means invented propaganda, he merely put it into words, and he was appalled at the knowledge that his book had been used in the Holocaust. It wouldn’t be fair to call Burnays an evil man, but he was certain dangerous. Burnays is a man who changed the world with a dangerous idea. 

Writers propose two guiding principles to summarize the Burnays philosophy. First, modern society is ungovernable. Vast as it is, it is a force too strong for any entity to guide or coerce. The public must, and can only be controlled through manipulation. Burnays said: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” (Burnays, Propaganda) In other words, if you control the people who set the agenda, you control the world. Burnays is simultaneously suggesting that it is better to exert control indirectly and from the shadows.

Second, the people can be made to behave as you want them to behave by manipulating the subconscious of the public mind. This can be done with symbols and signs. ”If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.” (Burnays, Propaganda) This ties back into the first principle; influence the trend setters and influencers, and through them infect the zeitgeist, which consequently allows you to tap into, and influence social trends. I know very little about propaganda, so I will not spend much more time describing it. For more I suggest you consult Burnay’s short book titled “Crystallizing Public Opinion.”

It seems to me that today, we take a lot of Burnays’ ideas as a given. We’re all rather suspicious of our governments and of big corporations. Most of us understand that there is no Illuminati pulling strings bellow the surface, but we know that all large corporate, social and government entities are always conspiring to influence the way you think. More than ever, we are bombarded with information and opinion. Every entity int the world is competing for your attention; competing to influence you, and we’re largely aware of this. But, when Burnays was trying to make a name for himself, his ideas were fringe. He was not initially taken seriously, and it’s easy to see why. People who speak this way, like he does in the quotes I listed above, do not seem to live by the same ethics as you or I, and he would have sounded quite strange to most in his own time. We’re used to finding reference to these propaganda ideas while reading Orwell, where they are presented as morally ambiguous. Burnays, on the other hand, was happy to provide you with a cheatsheet to manipulate entire populations.

For more on Burnays, his achievements, and the ambiguity of his life, click here.

“Many people who have progressively lowered their personal standards in an attempt to win social acceptance and life’s comforts bitterly resent those of philosophical bent who refuse to compromise their spiritual ideals and who seek to better themselves”

Epictetus

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