Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pointing out what is and is not beautiful

When Edward Bernays wrote Propaganda in 1928, the word already had more negative than positive associations, but Bernays thought he could rescue the original, more neutral meaning: The art of propagating your ideas. Bernays's vision of propaganda was essentially what we today call public relations, a euphemism he himself popularized.

Bernays distanced himself from mere advertisers. He wanted to consider the whole relationship between a company and the public, thus enabling a deeper level of manipulation. Don't just tell them to buy. Change their worldview so that they arrive at the decision to buy seemingly out of their own free will.

Bernays is unexpectedly honest about his goals - noone in P.R. would be this frank today - but even so, this book is itself a work of propaganda. The foreword by Mark Crispin Miller points out Bernays's real agenda, which was to sell his own services to business and government clients. Bernays was a giant in his field. He convinced women to start smoking. He did it by associating it with women's liberation.

Bernays was a fan of Walter Lippmann. The influence shows in his vision of an elite of benevolent manipulators, kindly guiding their inferiors towards a better, more ordely future. But Propaganda has little of the depth of Lippmann's Public Opinion, which is one of the great and dangerous works of political philosophy. Lippmann did his harm with ideas, Bernays with actions.

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