Tools of Persuasion

I got a hold of Noam Chomsky’s Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. It’s a little booklet that touches on public relations, propaganda and democracy and builds a platform that Chomsky uses to criticize the Gulf War.

The most compelling part of the booklet was in the beginning where he talked about how democracy and public relations (or propaganda) come together to manufacture consent.

Walker Lippman [dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy] was involved in these propaganda commissions and recognized their achievements. He argued that what he called a “revolution in the art of democracy,” could be used to “manufacture consent,” that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn’t want by the new techniques of propaganda. He also though that this was a good idea, in fact, necessary. It was necessary because, as he put it, “the common interests elude public opinion entirely” and can only be understood and managed by a “specialized class” of “responsible men” who are smart enough to figure things out.

Chomsky’s jaded perspective on democracy reminded me of the time when I was involved in Asian American activism during college. The part that struck me the most was the part about manufacturing consent, not because we routinely had to fight the effects of it ourselves, but sometimes because it seemed necessary for us to manufacture some consent of our own to mobilize our community.

In my experience, the Asian American community can be pretty lame sometimes. Though I was an activist, I felt like an educator, because 99% of the work we did was centered on spreading awareness about our cause or the issues because it didn’t exist in their minds. Once they were aware, we had to convince them that it was urgent enough for them to act on it – whether it was to sign a petition or call Congress or participate in a rally. I can imagine that people fighting for other causes have to do pretty much the same thing.

Secondly, most (if not all) organizations have a structure that is very similar to the democracy model mentioned in the block quote. Maybe it’s for efficency’s sake, but all these grassroots aimed at taking down the Man feature a “specialized class” of people who are responsible for leading and setting the agenda for the rest of the members.

So in a way, we are creating our own little microcosms of spectator democracy, though I would argue that we are working towards a much more noble purpose. But at the center of all of this is the people. The fact that we have to treat the people the same way the Man treats them in order to get them to defend/save themselves means that in general, people are tools. That is, until they learn to manipulate their peers.

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