Artifacts from the Start of the Afghan War

When the US invaded Afghanistan, a decade of conflict with the Soviet Union had left the country littered with more unexploded landmines than any other place on Earth. When the US began its invasion, we littered the countryside with unexploded cluster bombs, which were the same size and color as the food packets being airdropped.

Newspaper clipping about unexploded cluster bombs in Afghanistan.
Newspaper clipping from late 2001, in which General Richard Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked: “It is unfortunate that the cluster bombs — the unexploded ones — are the same color as the food packets.”

At home, the enduring legacy of the rhetoric and hubris that led to the longest and most expensive conflict in US history should litter the airwaves and school text books as an edifice. Instead, the role of the media’s complicity in Afghanistan is sidestepped by the same few corporations that remain in control of the media landscape today.

As we appear to be running headlong into armed conflict in the Ukraine — negotiating arms transfers, coordinating economic sanctions, attempting to trap a desperate enemy in a cornerthe lack of dissenting voices is quite disconcerting. After all, the Ukrainian conflict isn’t America’s war — yet.

Cover of Time Magazine, the week of September 11, 2001, showing the Twin Towers on fire.
Cover of Time Magazine, week of September 11, 2001. The issue was filled with full-page color photos of rubble and carnage, followed by an editorial on the last page calling for vengeance.

While commercial reporting outlets like Time Magazine can hardly be blamed for profiting from the events of September 11, 2001, many commercial media outlets instantly switched into pro-war propagandists.

Time was among many outlets that not only reported on developments, but also used their power and influence to steer America into the far greater disaster of the War in Afghanistan.

Magazine clipping from Time Magazine, September 11, 2001.  Scan of an editorial by Lance Morrow titled "The Case for Rage and Retribution."  The pull quote in the center of the page reads: "What's needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury -- a ruthless indignation that doesn't leak away in a week or two."
Editorial by Lance Morrow, published by Time Magazine the week of September 11, 2001, titled “The Case for Rage and Retribution.”

After an entire issue of Time Magazine filled with images of people terrified, rubble littering the streets, and tiny bodies leaping from the upper floors of the Twin Towers, on the very last page, Time published an editorial by Lance Morrow, titled “The Case for Rage and Retribution.”

In his editorial, Morrow argues:

“A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury — a ruthless indignation that doesn’t leak away in a week or two, wandering off into Prozac-induced forgetfulness or into the next media sensation … Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa. A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness — and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon … called hatred.”

From Lance Morrow, “The Case for Rage and Retribution,” Time Magazine, September 12, 2001.

With Morrow’s help, the United States certainly got “a ruthless indignation that doesn’t leak away in a week or two.” That indignation, however, required constant re-invigoration: even as Morrow is steering the US into a war that will be fought by Americans for an entire generation, he is almost scornful of the “Prozac-induced forgetfulness” of the “self-indulgent … nation with a short attention span.”

As a result of this contempt and manipulation, over 20 years, nearly 7,000 American service members and contractors died, over 66,000 uniformed Afghans died, nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians died, and over 30,000 maimed, traumatized, and brain-damaged US troops have killed themselves.

The contemptuous hubris blanket the US media landscape like unexploded cluster bombs disguised as food packets: journalists and media outlets ceased to be the lifeblood of democracy, and became deadly wolves in disguise, out for blood. In the war zone they were cheerleaders.

Journalists didn’t talk much about how Afghanistan had more child soldiers than any other conflict region on the planet at the time of our invasion. Journalists didn’t talk about how they had glorified Osama bin Laden and his anti-Soviet militia just a few years earlier. Journalists didn’t talk much about how Osama bin Laden wasn’t actually wanted in connection to 911, but rather, bombings in Africa. Journalists didn’t really talk about how the actual mastermind of 911 — Pakistani named Khalid Sheikh Mohammad — was captured and waterboarded almost 200 times at Guantanamo Bay. To prolong his torture — in violation of the Geneva Conventions and, likely, Nuremberg — interrogators used a special saline solution to prevent fungus from growing in Mohammad’s sinus.

Scan of syndicated column by Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel, titled "Terrorists Thrive on Pacifists."
Syndicated column by Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel, published shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, titled “Terrorists Thrive on Pacifists.”

Shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan — at a time when all we knew of the conflict was “at least one American lies dead in Afghanistan” — Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker penned an editorial titled “Terrorists Thrive on Pacifists.”

Directly addressing the pleas of that dead serviceman’s widow — who implored that “I do not want anyone to use my husband’s death to perpetuate violence” — Parker concludes her editorial, reminding us that “America does hear this mother’s pain and mourns her husband’s death. And no one wishes to judge her political beliefs during such an emotional time. But we should be clear: Pacifism in the face of terrorism is strictly an emotional response. Fighting back in this case is an act of purest logic.”

All of which served as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq — which had nothing to do with 911, but which has had a de-stabilizing effect on the region. Russia’s acts of war in Ukraine are couched in the most dire forms of moral condemnation — as if the US had not done the same sorts of things across Iraq. Beyond the shelling of residential areas with depleted uranium munitions, or the use of thermobaric bombs in Tora Bora, or the use of white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon in Fallujah, bodies were found with clear signs of torture — like holes drilled into the head — which hear the hallmark signs of the sorts of atrocities the CIA had pioneered in Latin America with the help of Nazi emigres.

If the US is pulled into a conflict in Europe, we may face a different sort of accountability than we faced in our recent Middle Eastern adventure. Were we held accountable in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Putin would not be so bold now.

The United States is good at creating its own mortal enemies: Saddam Hussein ran a secular regime that recognized Western-style rights for women, and was once supported by the US. The Russian oligarchs now demonized by the US were largely created by former US officials at the World Bank and IMF like Lawrence Summers and Jeffrey Sachs The US once supported the militia it fought in Afghanistan.

Before we blunder into a military conflagration in Europe — where the rules of engagement and the consequences thereof will be different than in the Middle East — we might take stock of the moral failings of our recent foreign policy, lest we repeat our blunders less than a year after the official end of our failure and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Trump is Beef

Before his Twitter account was deleted for the incitement of violence, President Trump posted a narcissistic video culminating in his hugging an American flag, to the musical accompaniment of composer Aaron Copland’sHoedown,” and which concludes with a caption stating Trump is “what’s for America.”

Video taken from President Trump’s Twitter feed (which has now been deleted) in late December, 2020. The video’s final caption, “He’s what’s for America” — alongside the Aaron Copland musical selection — invokes a series of 1990’s beef industry advertisements.

The tagline and the music invoke a series of well-known American agricultural PR advertisements from the early 1990’s, and their slogan: “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.”

In the early 1990’s, the National Livestock and Meat Board launched a US advertising campaign “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” featuring the Aaron Copland score “Hoedown.”

As President, Trump was known to prefer his steaks well-done with a side of ketchup. Presumably it was on some other basis Trump was able to persuade those with less taste than his own to purchase his over-priced televised home shopping steaks:

Trump sold branded steaks on TV for 3 months in 2007.

The M.O. of the radical right is to appropriate the norms of civil society in order to dismantle it. Given that fascism requires a mass society in order to take root, perhaps it should not be surprising that the radical right should also appropriate the messaging style of the commercial mass media.

Without further adieu, here’s the beef:

For those too young to remember, this ain’t your grandma’s beef, it’s mom and dad’s mind control Trump appeals to.

The End of the “Afghan Permanent War.”

Just before the start of the Afghan war — launched by George Bush II’s America — Scientific American published an article about major conflict regions that included a chart, detailing which areas involved the greatest number of child soldiers.

At the time we were fudging numbers on civilian casualties in Afghanistan (and later, Iraq), Afghanistan accounted for the greatest number of child soldiers anywhere on the planet — more than the next several conflict regions combined:

Chart from Scientific American, June 2000, Showing Afghanistan with the Most Child Soldiers from any Conflict Region on the Planet
Chart from Scientific American, June 2000, Showing Afghanistan with the Most Child Soldiers from any Conflict Region on the Planet

In the wake of the US withdraw from Afghanistan, it is clear that — had the US withdrawn 15 years ago — things could only have gone better.

America’s social Darwinist voters — who reject basic social services, public health, the science behind evolution and vaccines — have just handed the SURVIVING members of the Taliban millions of dollars worth of military equipment, first-hand experience fighting a first-world military, and an unconquerable PR message.

All that America learned was “support the troops.”

The Day Donald Trump Went Gray

After years in office, US Presidents go gray. Whether the stress gets to them, or it’s their age, or they choose to stop dyeing their hair, or some combination of the above, it happens.

It happened with Presidents Clinton and Bush II. It even happened to Reagan, the former movie star with a suave demeanor and witty sense of humor.

Among other things, now that the 2020 campaigns are over, President Trump’s unique hairdo appears poised to grant him the curious distinction of being the first non-assassinated President since color photography to leave office without showing any gray hair.

At the time of this writing, the color of President Trump’s hair indeed appears to have changed somewhat during his presidency, although it is decidedly non-gray.

Trump’s hair is less intensely yellow than than in the recent past, though it appears just now to be picking up some of the autumnal, oranger hues from Trump’s complexion, resulting in a faded-blond-pinkish-whispy-something-or-other attached to a psychotic 74-year-old with dementia.

As the 2020 US Presidential Campaigns fade into the distance, and as the celebrations of Biden supporters in cities subside, this may be a fitting moment to remember the day Trump did go gray.

In late March of 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump appeared in his daily press conference suddenly gray-haired, projecting an image of calm, poise, dignity, respect, and seasoned wisdom in the face of an emerging public heath threat.

Strangely, it happened again for a day in July 2020, after the US failed to control the novel coronavirus.

The first report of a gray President comes from Vogue; the second comes from the New York Post, a one-time mouthpiece for long-time Trump associate Roy Cohn, and media property of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (along with Fox News).

Thus, despite keeping his “natural” hair color throughout the final days of his presidency, Trump may turn out to be the only president to have gone gray twice in office.

Whether his brief tenure with gray hair was an advisor’s suggestion for projecting the image of a wise elder during the COVID pandemic, or whether it was something more like a focus group survey for his intended second term can’t be determined, but if the second possibility has any validity, we may still have an opportunity to find out.

The election results have been available for a week now, and Trump is refusing to concede the election. We don’t know what happens if two men show up to be sworn in as President on January 20, 2021.

Is Trump delusional, or is this reality television for his fans? Do his lawsuits and recounts and allegations of election fraud have any chance of changing the election result? Maybe, but not in the way one might expect at first glance.

The 2020 Presidential campaigns are over, but the States don’t send delegates to the Electoral College until the December 8, 2020 “safe harbor” deadline, and the Electoral College doesn’t vote until December 14. If the Electoral College cannot convene, cannot decide, or if the State Governors disagree with the Delegates nominated by the State Legislatures, the election may be resolved in the House of Representatives by a Contingent Election.

If a Contingent Election in the House determines the next President, the votes will cast by States, not by individual Representatives. And although the Democrats backing Biden have more individual Representatives in the House, the House represents a greater number of Republican States. This is because Republicans control a greater number of less-populous States.

Although Trump has promised to demand a number of recounts in closely-contested states like Georgia and Wisconsin, it seems unlikely his team will be able to invalidate enough ballots to secure the election. Litigating the vote count, however, may not be the ultimate objective of these lawsuits.

Trump has a history of protracted litigation. If the Trump strategy is to angle for a Contingent Election in the House, all the State recounts might really be about dragging out litigation, buying time to propagandize to his base about the “stolen” vote, sowing disagreement between how the State Governors and Legislatures think Electoral College delegates should be picked, and pressuring the Supreme Court to intervene as the “safe harbor” deadline approaches.

After the contested Bush v. Gore election in 2000, the Supreme Court intervened in the Florida recount precisely because the “safe harbor” deadline was imminent. Should Trump face such a scenario at the end of the month, he will have the advantage of having chosen three new Supreme Court nominees on the bench, all three of whom worked for Bush’s legal team in the Bush v. Gore lawsuit.

His actions of late certainly don’t resemble those of a man planning to leave the executive residence: in July 2020, Trump took down the official portraits of Presidents Bush and Clinton, having never unveiled President Obama’s official portrait; in late August, First Lady Melania Trump unveiled a renovated White House Rose Garden; his executive branch is refusing to formally acknowledge the election results and his staff has been instructed not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team.

Another possible endgame we might be witnessing stems not from Trump’s grandiosity, but from his pettiness: if America can’t be his, then nobody gets it. Maybe he knows his days in office are numbered, and he’s just planning to burn everything to the ground on his way out and poison the water.

This could be a clue as to why — after the election — Trump replaced Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who publicly disagreed with Trump on the use of force and the Insurrection Act to subdue the BLM protests breaking out during the summer of 2020.

As Trump has stoked racial tensions while courting white nationalist groups, militia, and violent insurrectionists, he could be planning to go out with more of a bang than a whimper, popular caricatures notwithstanding.

Aunt Jemima Retires, Colonel Sanders Soldiers On

Aunt Jemima is gone with the wind. In the wake of the civil unrest following coronavirus restrictions and the police killing of George Floyd, the Quaker Oats Company decided to retire the Aunt Jemima brand.

old and new versions of aunt jemima

The popular brand of high fructose corn syrup has come under criticism recently for its use of a “mammy” racial stereotype. Whether this announcement is shrewd PR meant to capitalize on popular sentiment, an example of Millennial “cancel culture,” or a corporate person exercising some anomalous type of corporate conscience, the forced retirement decision is remarkable in a number of ways.

For one thing, there is the fact that PepsiCo — which owns Quaker Oats, which owns Aunt Jemima — is so enormously profitable that their executives found it easier to just let the mature brand go than to grapple with ways to substantively address their history of profiting from racism. In so doing, they “used up” all the profit they could gain from this form of racism, and discarded it in the name of good citizenship. This helps sweep a whole history under the rug.

It is also remarkable that at no point between the Civil Rights Era and today, did anybody in a position of corporate responsibility take cognizance of what their brand name represented — or how it was represented. Nobody at Aunt Jemima, at Quaker Oats, or at Pepsi. That’s a very slow rate of social progress.

In response to a low-fat health craze in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to KFC to avoid the word “fried.” A quick, shrewd turnaround by the executives at KFC, which, at the time was run by PepsiCo (and which now has an exclusive business relationship with PepsiCo).

The KFC spokesman, Colonel Sanders, recently appeared in televised ads with another syrup person of color, Mrs. Butterworth.

Colonel Sanders is a “Kentucky Colonel,” not a military colonel. It is an honorary title bestowed by several Southern US states, evoking images of the time when the Southern economy was largely organized around slave labor on plantations run by a landed aristocracy. In Gone with the Wind, real-life Colonel Clark Gable typifies this image in the character of Confederate Captain Rhett Butler — along with the sentimentality for a bygone era that the image evokes.

Colonel Sanders appeared in a recent advertisement aired during the NFL season, cross-marketing the KFC brand with the Mrs. Butterworth brand.

In the ad, the Southern Gentleman is shown sneaking up behind his “mammy” at work in the kitchen. He embraces her. Presumably they have intercourse. In the historical context in which we are to understand this liaison occurring, one can reasonably conclude we are witnessing a rape, which was common in those days as a means of population control.

In tone, the television spot is very lighthearted and playful, yet it also illustrates ways in which the media uses images from a racist history without addressing that history. And the ways in which these images function are both visible and invisible, the product of massive organizations and many people making decisions that are somehow never looked at.

March Madness Pandemic

Most of them were smitten with terror as with a plague. Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm. A thunder-storm sent them all upon their knees in mid-march. It was the opinion that thunder was the voice of God, announcing the day of judgment.

— Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852)

Realistic or foolish, the global reaction to the novel coronavirus can best be described as panic. What the panic means is less clear.

Subsequent to the World Health Organization’s March 2020 declaration of a pandemic, anxious shoppers began hoarding essential household items, schools and Universities closed, officials banned public gatherings, the stock market went into conniptions, and whole populations have been sent into mandatory self-imposed isolation.

If Barack Obama was still President when this pandemic lockdown began, the American political right would be hopping up and down in their cages right now and throwing feces on the poor undergraduate research assistants who are just trying to feed them. Thank God we have a Republican in office, at least, so we don’t have to panic about martial law.

Every day, we in the industrialized world get gentle reminders not to panic while experts of all stripes take to the news, prognosticating apocalypse. And so everybody who listens to experts has begun to panic.

The panic, of course, could be predicted — especially with so many aspects of daily life quickly rendered uncertain: healthcare costs, income, rent … and, of course,we need to think about what happens to organized industry’s bottom line when individuals are forced to choose between the imperative to stay at home and the imperative to go to work.

Is there a hidden purpose behind the panic? Or, at least, an organized opportunism at play?

Pandemics happen. The word evokes great anxiety. The anxiety is almost mythological, and the present pandemic is routinely described in terms of the “Spanish flu” pandemic. Other pandemics — like the one in 1958, or 1968 — do not represent cultural scars the way the Plague, World War II, Vietnam or Iraq do. Putting a large portion of the industrialized world on some form of house arrest — while forcing a large portion of social interaction through a commercialized, digitally-friendly, behavior science lens — will have an effect down the road.

In 2009, the World Health Organization declared the “swine flu” pandemic. WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan made the “swine flu” pandemic announcement on the PBS NewsHour, seated in front of a giant statue of the Hindu god Shiva — the destroyer — dancing through the flames of the world:

After the “swine flu” pandemic was all said and done, the WHO came under criticism for its handling of the situation. Concerns that a WHO pandemic announcement “could cause worldwide panic and confusion” led to investigations by the European Council.

European policy makers held deep-seated “concerns about the possible influence of the pharmaceutical industry on some of the major decisions relating to the pandemic” because “the tentacles of drug company influence are in all levels in the decision-making process.”

But Shiva is not only the destroyer god: Shiva is also a creator god, able to display multiple aspects. As motivational speakers and influential think tanks like to say: disaster is an opportunity.

When the WHO declared the 2009 pandemic, governments and the bureaucrats that make them run were put on notice. As responsible parties stockpiled the antiviral drug Tamiflu, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally profited somewhere between $5-15 million through his interest in Gilead Sciences. So don’t go into quarantine when opportunity knocks!

The administration of the “swine flu” pandemic sheds some light on the current pandemic, with respect to the politics of social control.

Economist Milton Friedman — known both as an economic adviser to President Reagan and for his work with the Chilean dictatorship — considered crisis a vital tool for policy makers. In Capitalism and Freedom, he wrote:

Only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable

Following the 2009 swine flu pandemic, at least one medical researcher had taken cognizance of Friedman’s advice. Although media-induced panic was found to be a useful way to get one’s message disseminated, panic subsides and, should be followed up with a more comprehensive approach to policy implementation. In August 2010, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine ran an article titled “Swine flu: is panic the key to successful modern health policy?” The article argues:

For any individual, one’s own body is a resolute ground of control, and care of the body allows one to maintain stability despite any risks associated with the outside world. It is no surprise that in light of mass media, government and health sector attention to the new H1N1/09 outbreak that individuals started to engage in more health protective behaviours such as hand-washing and avoidance of travel to affected areas.

On this evidence, it seems easy to argue that panic could play a pivotal role in successful modern health policy. However, the main difficulty is to instill a high level of anxiety and panic for a sustained period of time, as demonstrated by the finding that the time-length exposure of risk is linked to anxiety. Indeed, risk perception research has shown that people are more afraid of risks when they are brand new than after they have lived with it for some time…

In the New World Order, now that the Evil Empire is history and we have peace with the Taliban, we vote according to ideology, but big decisions are made according to the demands of crises. Crisis can be an effective way to frighten citizens into accepting policy changes they would never have thought to advocate.

After the events of 911, the US government imposed changes to air travel, new surveillance measures, invented the Department of Homeland Security, and fabricated a meaningless, unnecessary war in Iraq — all things that seemed unimaginable just a few weeks earlier. And all things that — combined with the threat of terrorism — maintained a consistent level of anxiety long enough for major policy changes to be enacted.

Our current crisis, for the most part, omits important discussions about risk. We know the magnitude of the pandemic, but what risks do we face as individuals? Is there a social or political “we” if everyone is to “go it alone” and quarantine with a cache of self-interested panic-buys? Come together by staying apart?

This past March, 3,580 Americans died with coronavirus particles in their blood, and 180,000 Americans were sickened by the pathogen.

This March, 3,166 Americans died in automobile accidents, and 366,000 Americans were seriously injured in accidents. We never discuss the automobile epidemic.

This march, 3,314 Americans died by firearm. We rarely discuss the firearm epidemic. When we do, it is in the context of lunatics and mass shootings; yet by far most firearm deaths are from suicide, domestic incidents, gang activity, and incidentally related to crimes compelled by poverty and misery.

We talk about the risks of coronavirus very differently than we talk about the risks of automobiles or firearms. And yet, when crisis can be invoked, politicians can exploit a spectacular month of automobile deaths on 911 (2,996 deaths) to justify lasting changes to our society and how we view civil liberties.

Coronavirus will pass, even though we are reorganizing our society around this new crisis. Some features of this crisis will stay with us. Americans are just starting to get ill, and corporations are already getting trillions of dollars in a massive feeding frenzy.

Just like the post-911 changes to air travel security are still here even though we don’t hear much about terrorists anymore, our current source of anxiety — germs — will put measures in place that will not be undone. The Federal Reserve’s response to this crisis relies on new policies enacted during the last one.

As much as coronavirus is a public health problem, it is also a wealth transfer which, between the $2 trillion authorized by Congress so far and the $4 trillion in new debt announced by the Federal Reserve, is already dwarfing the size of the bailouts from the 2008 financial crisis.

In other countries, the opportunism surrounding the coronavirus have ranged from sweeping emergency powers granted to the president of Hungary to an increase in nationalist sentiments in Italy, or grave uncertainty in countries like Greece, which harbor a large and disorganized refugee population.

As much as coronavirus is a public health emergency, it is also a transfer of wealth, a power grab, and, at its core, a massive social psychology experiment aimed at the prediction and control of human behavior.

From Science Came Mystification

The Western scientific program promises to reveal all the secrets of nature through systematic, rational inquiry.  In so doing, it promises certainty beyond what superstition can muster and promises technological control over Nature superior to that of magic.  As the technological products of science increase in complexity however, their intelligibility decreases.  Technology is increasingly apprehended in terms of its “magical” effects, while the rational underpinnings become increasingly obscure.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke opined that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Expressing a similar sentiment, psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “Magic happens to be everything that eludes comprehension… It is difficult to exist without reason… and that is exactly how difficult magic is.”  In its current marketing campaign, Apple Computer offers products that are “practically magic,” enabling glossy photography without knowledge of exposure, and other like “miracles.”

Early signs of trouble in the European Enlightenment Rationalist tradition emerged around World War I.  The Dada movement was not nihilistic, as is often charged, but a reaction against the moral vacuity of the modern scientific outlook, and a criticism of the notion that empirical science is an inherently a-moral enterprise.  While modern science takes its philosophical starting point from Plato’s equating of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the advent of mechanized warfare and chemical weapons in the First World War caused a profound disturbance in the Western psyche.


With the nuclear arms race after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engineered a stalemate policy of mutual deterrence that continues to imperil all life on the planet, as satirized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove.  Part of what sociologist C. Write Mills referred to as “organized irresponsibility,” the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was devised by computer scientist John von Neumann, and modeled on the principles of game theory.  For decades since, policy makers have essentially engaged in a hyper-rational planning regime for a technological apocalypse, where the flawed judgement of a single person can have catastrophic consequences globally.

Observing these developments in their infancy, Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1956:

“To speak of the ‘lacking sense of reality’ in modern man is contrary to the widely held idea that we are distinguished from most periods of history by our greater realism.”

“But to speak of our realism is almost like a paranoid distortion. What realists, who are playing with weapons which may lead to the destruction of all modern civilization, if not of our earth itself!”

“If an individual were found doing just that, he would be locked up immediately, and if he prided himself on his realism, the psychiatrists would consider this an additional and rather serious symptom of a diseased mind.”

Western science has largely delivered on many of the promises of magic, from practical control over matter at the subatomic level to the mastery of flight and tele-vision.  Yet where sorcery is regarded as evil and dangerous, the rational products of science — which pollute, surveil, exploit and kill around the globe — are widely praised as the crowning achievements of our civilization.

Beginning in the occult tradition at the interface of alchemy, Hermeticism, and the kabbalistic mathematics of religious thinkers like Abraham Abulafia and Ramon Llull, the return of science to “magic” suggests the failure of the Rationalist tradition is complete, and should serve as a warning that we are rapidly entering a new era of superstition and barbarism, as we gleefully destroy ourselves with a new “magic” few of us understand.


Advertising to the Authoritarian Mindset

The sporting goods company Under Armour recently launched a new PR campaign, “Rule Yourself.”  In a television spot featuring Tom Brady, NFL quarterback for the New England Patriots, the cinematography depicts multiple clones of the quarterback “in training.”

As a literal, visual depiction of the social individual who is both unique and at once a product of mass society, the commercial is straightforward enough.  Behind the glare of the advertisement’s celebrity individual, however, the depiction of the individual as merely one instance of a uniform, mass type reveals some telling information about what appeals to the intended audience: the producers of this advertisement espouse a view of individuality as a function of commodity fetishism.  Consumers define their identity though the products they purchase; people satisfy a need for group membership by association with branding (i.e., Apple products are for creative types).

In this view, the individual in mass society is mass produced for mass consumption; the individual cherishes mass produced goods as if they were distinctive, special, unique, and intrinsically valuable.  Individual subjectivity is a function of mass-produced desires.  This is the situation Guy Debord was commenting on in The Society of the Spectacle:

“Each new product is ceremoniously acclaimed as a unique creation offering a dramatic shortcut to the promised land of total consummation. But … the objects that promise uniqueness can be offered up for mass consumption only if they have been mass-produced. The prestigiousness of mediocre objects of this kind is solely due to the fact that they have been placed, however briefly, at the center of social life and hailed as a revelation of the unfathomable purposes of production…”

Undergirding this message, the advertisement’s producers appropriated a number of motifs from NAZI propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary, “The Triumph of the Will.”  This “triumph of the will” whereby the mass media encourages the “individual” to “rule” his or her self replaces Hitler’s religion of the state with a contemporary religion of mass production.  By the end of the commercial, there are enough clones of Tom Brady fill up an entire Nuremberg Rally.


Beyond the striking similarities in form and theme existing between Riefenstahl’s propaganda and the Under Armour advertisement, there is an additional, overarching unity: something about the demographics research performed by Under Armour’s PR firm suggested that today’s American audiences would be receptive to the same types of images that inspired NAZI followers during Weimar Germany‘s economic distress.

This existence of an authoritarian mindset in the American psyche — and specifically, a desire for submission to authority — it at once at the core of most modern marketing, and something that psychologist Erich Fromm viewed as a defining problem for modern civilization itself.  In Fromm’s view, modern civilization’s mastery over nature has cut humanity off from its most basic ties to psychic life: that is, with freedom comes the threat of isolation.

Fromm identifies totalitarianism as an answer to the threats of isolation associated with individual freedom: the aggressive authoritarian attempts to destroy the world and the threats it contains, whereas the submissive authoritarian seeks meaning by identifying with the goals of a group.  In both cases, the impulse is a feeling of powerlessness.


This sense of powerlessness associated with modern civilization — in spite of our technology, which truth be told, is becoming increasingly inscrutable and even “magical” — is something many observers have called attention to.   A member of a mass — as opposed to an individual, or a member of a public — is by definition in no position to influence the mass.  A member of a mass is carried by herd mentality.  The key distinctions between mass society and a public sphere comprised by individuals was summarized by C. Wright Mills in 1956:

“In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against—if necessary—the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations. When these conditions prevail, we have the working model of a community of publics, and this model fits closely the several assumptions of classic democratic theory.

“At the opposite extreme, in a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.

“The public and the mass may be most readily distinguished by their dominant modes of communication: in a community of publics, discussion is the ascendant means of communication, and the mass media, if they exist, simply enlarge and animate discussion, linking one primary public with the discussions of another. In a mass society, the dominant type of communication is the formal media, and the publics become mere media markets: all those exposed to the contents of given mass media.”

The image of authoritarian submission offered by Under Armour is more insidious than that offered by Hitler because it is cast not in the guise of some cult of personality, but of individualism.  In this advertisement, Tom Brady is not issuing commands to the television audience.  H hides is the vast network of market research, economic analysis, psychology research, PR, and production that constructs the modern self, which mass produces all the commercial products which the individual uses to “advertise” his or her own individuality.  All the hair coloring, clothing, food, media — all of it.

This hidden aspect of American authoritarianism was alluded to in Fromm’s 1941 book, Escape from Freedom.  Fromm wrote:

“Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow.  In external authority, it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop.  But … in anonymous authority, both command and commander have become invisible.”

It is worth pointing out in this connection, that most modern advertising is really just propaganda: a distortion of truth (Tom Brady cannot actually clone himself) that appeals to emotion (Tom Brady signifies strength and discipline even for couch potatoes) in order to induce some behavior or belief in the audience (parting with cash).

These images come with heavy baggage: the science of behaviorism combined with empirical psychological research revealed a new concept of the human being as part of a deterministic, mechanistic cosmos.  This is an image of the human that can be controlled as well as any part of nature.  Marketing, PR, and advertising all rely on this notion of the human being as a machine susceptible to external influences in definite ways.  Through the Human Ecology Fund the CIA funded an extensive list of research projects aimed at uncovering just these psychological mechanisms.  The Department of Defense made extensive use of psychology researchers to manipulate the psychology of Guantanamo detainees — probably in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

The idea that the human body and human mind are essentially a machine has proven powerful — and profitable.  Near the dawn of modern behavioral science, already scientists recognized the threats this posed to individuality.  In his 1968 book, General System Theory, cognitive scientist Ludwig von Bertalanffy lamented:

“The concept of man as mass robot was both an expression of and a powerful motive force in industrialized mass society. It was the basis for behavioural engineering in commercial, economic, political and other advertising and propaganda; the expanding economy of the ‘affluent society‘ could not subsist without such manipulation. Only by manipulating humans ever more into Skinnerian rats, robots buying automata, homeostatically adjusted conformers and opportunists (or, bluntly speaking, into morons and zombies) can this great society follow its progress toward ever increasing gross national product.”

Your Tax Dollars at Work

In recent years the NFL has increasingly embedded nationalistic overtones in their televised spectacles, including F16 flyovers, football-field-sized American flags, and veterans displayed prominently on the field.

This past season, Pepsi got in on the action, plastering their logo all over a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier to defend the homeland from Coca-Cola while cross-promoting their product with the SuperBowl Halftime show.

As though the US troops weren’t already exploited enough — a volunteer force sent to Iraq on a fool’s errand, saddled with multiple-deployments under the stop-loss policy, unqualified soldiers enlisted as fodder through morality waivers and other  watered-down enlistment requirements, and, at the height of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, about a quarter of the combat troops serving overseas came from the US National Guard — the military is now lending out its equipment and veterans to private industry to sell soft drinks for America.

In terms of the content of the Pepsi commercial, the spectacle is reminiscent of the scene in Apocalypse Now where a USO show involving Playboy Bunnies in the Vietnam jungle degenerates into an orgy of male aggression.

The relationship between military might and commerce is an old one: the Navy, specifically, is provided for under Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution.  While the Founders were wary of standing armies, a navy was viewed as essential for protecting trade routes.  Today, this function would seem to extend to protecting corporate brand-name identity.

Marketing and Manipulation

The Miller Brewing Company is running a TV advertisement in which they take credit for inventing subliminal advertising.  Perhaps the claim is in jest, yet there is a dark undercurrent where a large corporation brags about how effectively they can manipulate their customers.

The purpose of advertising is to manipulate the perceptions of consumers.  Advertising creates desires where previously none existed in order to create demand for the output of industry.  Discussions of economics generally assume that supply follows demand: if this were the case, however, advertising would not be necessary.  In many cases, supply creates demand — and advertising is an instrumental part of this process.

That advertising alters perceptions is not a trivial fact: it is central to advertising’s effectiveness.  Nissan is running an advertisement boasting about the safety features they incorporate into their automobile design.  After detailing the automobile’s safety features, the advertisement concludes: “the only thing left to fear is your imagination.”

An advertisement that instills the perception that driving is safe can have tragic consequences: driving is just about the most dangerous thing the typical American does on a daily basis.  In the last 13 years, 2,977 Americans have died from terrorism.  Since 2001, some 468,743 Americans have died in automobile accidents.  On average, automobiles kill more Americans every month than terrorists killed on 9/11.  Yet the policy implications of these two figures could not be more different.

Were Americans to perceive the true dangers inherent in driving, perhaps Federal highway subsidies and automobile manufacturer bailouts would arouse more indignation than they have, while the time and expense and social changes ushered in by the War on Terror might be redirected towards changing social values to discourage driving — by creating walkable neighborhoods and funding mass transit effectively, for example.  This would certainly save more lives than military adventures abroad.  Advertising and marketing exert a subtle though profound effect on the perceptions of Americans, influencing what policies are permissible.

Advertising creates reality.  Advertising creates mass psychology.  This influence is not benign, nor like the fabled boasts of snake oil salesman, but orchestrated perception management campaigns by organized industry meant to benefit organized industry.  To the extent that advertising is ubiquitous, and to the extent that everybody assumes that advertising involves exaggerations or lies, the outcome is in many ways affected subliminally — without being noticed.