walter lippmann and the phantom public

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Walter Lippmann and the Phantom Publicby Stephen Benderby Stephen Bender

The astounding success enjoyed by the Wilson administration in swinging public opinion behind the United States' entry into the First World War in 1917 had revolutionary implications for the course and development of democracy in our country. It was the most dramatic shift in public opinion ever recorded in American history to that time and it was manufactured by propaganda. An isolationist and pacifist public was mobilized behind massive military intervention, an eventuality Wilson had pledged to avoid mere months earlier during his reelection campaign. In this effort, the Wilson administration established an official propaganda agency called the Committee on Public Information, headed up by the progressive journalist George Creel. It employed the leading social scientists of the day among them a young Edward Bernays, Freud's nephew, who would become the father of the American public relations industry a few years later. The previous decade had seen the rapid emergence and growth of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World their successful strike in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1912 really frightened respectable types. Then there was also the continuing agitation of Eugene V. Debs' Socialist Party they reached their high water mark in the amazing election of 1912 when Debs pulled nearly 7% of the national vote running against Taft, Roosevelt and Wilson the ultimate winner. In addition, there were also progressives like Senator Robert LaFollette working the inside, along with the suffragette movement and muckraking, melting-pot-stirring to boot. In the years following the war, state repression via the Sedition Act, and Palmer raids (named for Wilson's Attorney General) and deportations destroyed the more radical elements and intimidated many of the reformers. Nonetheless, leading lights in

the public square and private sector realized that repression alone wasn't necessarily the most effective, and hence desirable, course of action. Drawing on lessons learned from the extraordinary triumph of war propaganda, along with the early accomplishments of the advertising industry, social scientists embarked on the comprehensive application of these social psychology techniques to politics. They've never stopped since. This in turn caused a split to resurface among liberal thinkers of the day. One side held that the public could and should participate in democracy. The other scoffed, maintaining that the public was too ignorant to do any more than cast ballots once in a while. Needless to say, corporatist-conservatives didn't then and don't today even bother dithering with such sophistry. The two leading figures representing these opposing positions were, respectively, the Pragmatic philosopher John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, a leading pundit, later to be dubbed the "Dean of American Journalism" in mid-Century. Lippmann would decisively win the debate he and Dewey carried on during the 1920s, backed as he was by the inexorable growth of the public relations industry and a firmly ensconced elite consensus which alternatively held in contempt and feared the "intrusion of the public" into the affairs of the "responsible men." Lippmann was an insider's insider. A prominent Harvard graduate, he went from advocating socialism to serving on the Creel Commission and later advising President Wilson on his famous 14 Points at the Versailles conference. Later, he would write the most widely read column in the country for the New York Herald Tribune and thereafter for the Washington Post until his death in 1974. In a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1979, signed by New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and then Washington Post owner-in-waiting Katherine Graham, they exalted in the establishment of the "Walter Lippmann House" at Harvard. They were "happy to report" a "fitting and lasting memorial" to "one of the great Americans of the century." This is instructive. Some would say that Lippmann and the liberal elite of that day were "evil" men. Who knows? Dewey said Lippmann was a "disappointed idealist." I would agree; I would also commend him for his honesty the present

propagandists in power are liars through and through. His work remains helpful for those of us who wish to continue the fight against his legacy. What's all this got to do with anything? Well, a lot, actually. Ours is an era in which "spin" is not just an accepted part of public life's scenery, it is routinely praised for its effectiveness with no regard for its ultimate impact, as in "the Bush team is 'brilliant' at 'controlling the debate' or 'getting their message out.'" This sorry state of affairs has been abetted and much else bad along with it in the economic sphere due to corporate control of the means and hence content of socially relevant public information. Today, this domination has reached historically unprecedented degree of control. The origins of the presently stupefied state of public opinion lie partially in the counsel given back in the day by Lippmann. His case, addressing the "leaders" on how to deal with "the rank and file," was laid out in two hugely influential works, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925). According to the pieties that we have all been weaned on from the first flag pledge in kindergarten right through high school social studies class: this is the land of the freedom and liberty, the home of the rugged individual. Unfortunately, being bombarded with stories of the majesty and superiority of American democracy via the corporate media to say nothing of the self-serving "patriotism" parroted by public officialdom does not make it so. Lippmann's work debunks the fairy tale that Americans are spoon fed, giving the reader an unvarnished account of the elite's contempt for democracy. Propaganda 101: Leaders & Rank and File In the lengthy excerpts which follow from Public Opinion, note the imperious matter-of-fact tone which Lippmann maintains throughout. He speaks of God as if he were addressing a sock puppet. It is the voice of one secure in the knowledge of not only what he states, but the unassailability of his depictions. No one with any real power can contradict him. "Because of their transcendent practical importance, no successful leader has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his following. What privileges do within the

hierarchy, symbols do for the rank and file. They conserve unity. From the totem pole to the national flag, from the wooden idol to God the Invisible King, from the magic word to some diluted version of Adam Smith or Bentham, symbols have been cherished by leaders, many of whom were themselves unbelievers, because they were focal points where differences merged. "The detached observer may scorn the 'star-spangled' ritual which hedges the symbol, perhaps as much as the king who told himself that Paris was worth a few masses. But the leader knows by experience that only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out. No wonder he hates what he calls destructive criticism for poking about with clear definitions and candid statements serves all high purposes known to man except the easy conservation of a common will. Poking about, as every responsible leader suspects, tends to break the transference of emotion from the individual mind to the institutional symbol. And the first result of that is, as he rightly says, a chaos of individualism and warring sects" Here we see succinctly expressed the sheer utility of and cynicism with which such apparent trivialities as God, country and patriotism are treated by the "detached observer," the leader and his propagandists. We also notice the contempt with which "poking around," in other words questioning, the pronouncements of the "leader" are treated. Onward and downward then. "The great symbols possess by transference all the minute and detailed loyalties of an ancient and stereotyped society. They evoke the feeling that each individual has for the landscape, the furniture, the faces, the memories that are his first, and in a static society, his only reality. That core of images and devotions without which he is unthinkable to himself, is nationality "Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce

men into facing agony for objects they do not understand. [Is there are better description of what has happened to our country since 9/11? Propaganda in the hands of a liberal is distasteful and perhaps deadly; propaganda in the hands of a fascist always results in mass murderous lies.] "Many aspects of our subjection to symbols are not flattering if we choose to think of ourselves as realistic, self-sufficient, and self-governing personalities But in the world of action they may be beneficent, and are sometimes a necessity. The necessity is often imagined, the peril manufactured. But when quick results are imperative the manipulation of masses through symbols may be the only quick way of having a critical thing done. It is often more important to act than understand. It is sometimes true that the action would fail if everyone understood it. There are many affairs which cannot wait for a referendum or endure publicity, and there are times, during war for example, when a nation, an army and even its commanders must trust strategy to a very few minds" This selection is particularly relevant for us today. Lippmann points to the ex


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