March 19, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Michael McGehee:
The New York Times ran a very interesting article last week on a study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The article, “Study: Young People Not So ‘Green’ After All,” notes:
Based on two longstanding national surveys of high school seniors and college freshmen, Twenge [one of the authors of the study] and her colleagues found a decline, over the last four decades, in young people’s trust in others, their interest in government and the time they said they spent thinking about social problems.
Steepest of all was a steady decline in concern about the environment, and taking personal action to save it.
The Times article attempts to explain the decline. It positions itself to explain it in terms of culture, but quickly moves to the idea that today’s youth are being desensitized by knowledge.
Kelly Benoit, a 20-year-old political science student at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, went as far as calling her peers “lazy.”
“I think it can be due to our upbringing. We want what we want when we want it,” said Benoit, who has worked with lawmakers in her state to try to ban the use of plastic bags in stores.
She thinks members of her generation, like a lot of people, simply don’t want to give up conveniences.
Or are they just overwhelmed?
Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has noticed an increase in skepticism — or confusion — about climate change among his students as the national debate has heightened. That leads to fatigue, he said.
“It’s not so much that they don’t think it’s important. They’re just worn out,” Potosnak said. “It’s like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it.”
It’s rather disappointing that the Times was so quick to dismiss culture, or “uprbringing.” The idea that we “simply don’t want to give up conveniences” has some validity to it, and could lead us to looking deeper at what produces this sentiment: corporate propaganda.
By the end of the article when the story returns to Professor Twenge, the lead author of the study, we read the professor as saying, “This is a change in overall culture,” and that, ”young people reflect the changes in culture.” However, there was no look at how this culture has been changed, or by what. It is briefly touched upon as if it materialized on its own and is not driven by any conscious effort to produce these kinds of results.
Through product placement in entertainment and advertising we are continually bombarded by corporate propaganda that is carefully constructed in order to get us to be mindless consumers. Our consumerist lifestyle has grown enormously over the last four decades. We are tied to our cell phones and computers. We are internet junkies constantly checking emails and Facebook. We are, as the linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky put it,
an extremely atomized society. People are alone. It’s a very business-run society. The very explicit goal of the business world is to create a social order in which the basic social unit is you and your television set, in which you’re watching ads and going out to purchase commodities. There are tremendous efforts made, that have been going on for a century and a half, to try to induce this kind of consciousness and social order.
In fact if you go back say 150 years, in the early days of the industrial revolution, right here in Massachusetts, where it started, there was a very lively press at the time, probably the period of the greatest free press in the United States. All kinds of press – ethnic, labor, etc. And the labor press, which was extremely interesting, lively and participatory, had a great many harsh criticisms of the industrial system that was being imposed and to which people were being driven. One of the core criticisms was what 150 years ago they called the “New Spirit of the Age”: “Gain wealth, forgetting all but self,” which they considered savage and inhuman and was being driven into their heads. Well, 150 years later they are still trying to drive into people’s heads, “Gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” Now it’s considered kind of an ideal, but it’s also intolerable to human beings.
This campaign was articulated by another academic pioneer in corporate propaganda. Writing in his book Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty, Alex Cary noted that,
The key political problems confronting the United States have neither changed nor ameliorated since Professor Robert Dahl defined them in 1959. ‘How much,’ he asked, ‘of the generally, favorable attitudes of American towards business [and the consequent] absence of any well-defined alternative can be attributed toward deliberate efforts to manipulate attitudes?’
If government of the people by the people for the people has any meaningful sense and if the American Dream is not to end in a business-appointed, more adroitly managed version of Orwell’s 1984, then it is of cardinal importance that the problems described by Dahl are brought to light. That light would subvert those pragmatic processes for manufacturing consent and would lead to the development of a more critical cultural consciousness.
And it’s not just about “attitudes.” It’s habits as well. Writing in his 1928 bookPropaganda, Edward Bernays—”the father of public relations”—said the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” and that, ”Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” [emphasis added]
Though Cary is absolutely right that shedding light on the role of corporate propaganda (and how tactics like planned obsolescence are consciously built-in to the products we consume in order to keep us buying and subsequently wasting the environment) “would subvert those pragmatic processes for manufacturing consent and would lead to the development of a more critical cultural consciousness.” One problem is how after forty years of continued (and improved) social engineering by corporations we are moving backwards, not forwards. Another problem is the Times’ own place in the propaganda system makes it virtually incapable of pointing out the “unseen mechanism of society” which Cary calls “an invisible government.” Rather than expose corporate propaganda, “the paper of record” goes with the absurd claim that we simply know too much and that our culture has changed.