Roderic Day

“Brainwashing” (2021)

17 minutes | English Italiano | The Crew “Brainwashing”

What can we make of the tendency of Westerners to flippantly regurgitate the accusation of “brainwashing” against another country and its people, but then display indignation when that same allegation is made about their own?

A common exchange may play out like this:

American: You can’t imagine the scope of Chinese propaganda, everyone’s brainwashed.

Non-American: Almost every single Western news network and print publication is part of a US-run propaganda program. Any exceptions are ruthlessly harassed and shut down.

American: That’s absolutely ridiculous! We’re free!

We could, of course, substitute American for Canadian, British, Australian, French, etc. The conversation would not change.

Ascertaining that “Western media” is unquestionably mass propaganda isn’t a matter of arduous research. Innumerable books have been written about the subject, and some are even fantastic reads, but one can understand the entire history and economics of the US-run “Free Press” by way of just three key facts.

1) The famed “Pulitzer Prize” is named after Joseph Pulitzer, a war-propaganda peddler who helped the US acquire its first overseas territories in the 1890s:

The Spanish-American War, what boosters called a “splendid little war,” began in 1898. … President McKinley sent a warship to Cuba as a precaution, but in February 1898 that ship, the USS Maine, blew up in Havana, killing 250 U.S. sailors. The cause of the explosion was unknown — and it would later be revealed to have been an accident — but both Hearst and Pulitzer published a cable from the captain of the battleship to the assistant secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, informing him that the disaster was no accident. (The cable was later revealed to be a fake.) [1]

2) State funds are spent directly on coordinating this massive propaganda operation by disbursing “financial incentives” to private subcontractors. For example, throughout the Biden presidency $1.2 billion dollars will be allocated to the “Countering Chinese Influence Fund”:

There is authorized to be appropriated $300,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for the Countering Chinese Influence Fund to counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally. [2]

3) The trend is distributed, and so it is not always easy to detect in each individual article. However, the net result of the operation becomes clear upon aggregation. Here’s a sampling of 10 amusing China-related headlines from a wide variety of mainstream publications:

Reporting about Korea is even worse:

We could go on. Entire media cycles in the West, consisting of nothing but contempt for the intelligence of Korean people, ironically end up being based on nothing but a single anonymous testimonial from the US propaganda outlet Radio Free Asia. Stories that actually shed some light onto the reality of information warfare against DPRK, such as “Restaurant manager reveals he tricked North Korean waitresses into defecting” and “Why do North Korean defector testimonies so often fall apart?” get virtually no traction. [3] [4]

The American liberal, faced with this reality, tends to concede that truth is in fact drowned out by a relentless tide of spin and propaganda. Their next move is always predictable, however. It’s another lesson dutifully drilled into them in their youth: “At least we can dissent, however unpopular and ineffectual!” The reality, of course, is that such dissent is tolerated to the extent that it is unpopular.

Big-shot TV host Phil Donahue demonstrated that challenging imperial marching orders in the context of the invasion of Iraq was career suicide, when a leaked memo clearly explained he was fired in 2003 because he’d be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” [5] The fate of journalists unprotected by such wealth or celebrity is darker and sadder. Ramsey Orta, whose footage of Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breathe!” to NYPD cops choking him to death went viral, was rewarded for his impactful citizen journalism by having his family targeted by the cops, fast-tracked to prison for unrelated crimes, and fed rat poison while in there. [6] The only casualty of the spectacular “Panama Papers” leak was Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist who led the investigation, who was assassinated with a car-bomb near her home in Malta. [7] Then there’s the well-publicized cases of Assange, Snowden, Manning, etc. That said, I tend think to such lists are somewhat unnecessary since, ultimately, most honest people confess that they self-censor on social media for fear of consequences. (Do you?)

In other words, the status quo in the West is basically as follows: you can say whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t actually have any effect.

Any attempt to uphold this system as better than rival ones, on account of others being more honest about the exigencies of national security in light of imperial siege, is pure jingoistic sophistry. (“I will never sacrifice freedom for security!” the pink man tells himself, as he walks through the theatrical airport scanner.) There simply is no higher ground from which Westerners get to look down on the information-warfare self-defense mechanisms of the Cuban or Chinese state.

In 1991, in the context of the destruction of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s largest trading partner), with neighbors salivating at the prospect of capitalist restoration, a Mexican journalist asked Fidel Castro, “why do you not allow the organization of people who think differently, or open up space for political freedom?” He answers frankly:

We’ve endured over thirty years of hostility, over thirty years of war in all its forms — among them the brutal economic blockade that stops us from purchasing a single aspirin in the United States. It’s incredible that when there’s talk of human rights, not a single word is said about the brutal violation this constitutes for the human rights of an entire people, the economic blockade of the United States to impede Cuba’s development. The revolution polarized forces: those who were for it and those who, along with the United States, were against it. And really, I say this with the utmost sincerity, and I believe it’s consistent with the facts on the ground, but while such realities persist, we cannot give the enemy any quarter for them to carry out their historical task of destroying the revolution.

(This implies, for example, that political dissidence will not have a space in Cuba?)

If it’s a pro-Yankee dissidence, it will have no space. But there are many people who think differently in Cuba and are respected. Now, the creation of all the conditions for a party of imperialism? That does not exist, and we will never allow it. [8]

As far as I can tell, on this score, there’s only two main differences between Fidel Castro and Western leadership. The first is that he stands for anti-imperialism and socialism, and they for imperialism and capitalism. And the other is that he’s honest about what Cuba does and why, whereas capitalist states brutally crush communist organization with mass-murder and imprisonment — COINTELPRO, Operation Cóndor, Operation Gladio, etc. — then simply lie about embracing plurality. Just think here about the notion of white North Americans celebrating “Thanksgiving.”

And I tend to think that this is, in the final analysis, the crux of the matter. The question of “free press” and “free speech” is not separable from the question of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie versus the dictatorship of the proletariat. The idea of “political plurality” as such turns out to be the negation of the possibility of achieving any kind of truth in the realm of politics, it reduces all historical and value claims to the rank of mere opinion. And of course, so long as someone’s political convictions are mere opinion, they won’t rise to defend them. And so the liberal state remains the dictatorial organ of the bourgeoisie, with roads being built or legislation being passed only as commanded by the interests of capital, completely disregarding the interests of workers. Under regimes where political plurality is falsely upheld as a supreme virtue, the very notion of asserting oneself as possessing a truth appears aggressive and “authoritarian.”

As far as we can observe from out here in the West, what is the empirical reality of life in a so-called “One Party State”? Well, the government is either doing well for citizens in their day-to-day life (their children’s education, their job prospects, their disposable income, air quality), or it isn’t. If things are bad, explanations are sought out. Either the government is committing errors and crimes, or they have some kind of extenuating explanation for circumstances (e.g. blockade, sanctions) and something to offer in spite of them, or are banking on past achievements (Westerners always compare socialist states to an ideal, never to the material reality they replaced). If they fail to appease the population or defend from siege, the state experiences convulsions and failure (e.g. Libya, Myanmar). If things are good, on the other hand, the government is complimented for a work well done. This was seen very clearly in opinion polls which contrast the performance of regional Chinese governments versus the performance of Beijing. [9]

On the other hand, “liberal democracies” stage eternal duels, and offer voting as a pacifying ritual every four years or so: Democrats vs. Republicans, Liberals vs. Conservatives, Labour vs. Tories, etc. Every election is the most important election. Figureheads and partisan pundits are always “tearing each other apart” publicly, in elaborate and spectacular kayfabe full of scandalous barbs that make their way to the front pages. And then, in the evening, those same rivals go on to have drinks together, send their kids to the same private schools, and “put aside their differences” for important transcendental matters such as war (for) and the environment (against). [10]

The result of this grim state of affairs is that the oppressed classes understandably become deeply cynical about the entire notion of “politics.” Or, to put it in terms of political tendency, regardless of who they vote for at the booth, they begin to become dyed-in-the-wool Libertarians; “incompetence of government” becomes their main transcendental political truth. This becomes especially apparent when they discuss the choking and overthrow of the government of other peoples, in Venezuela and Syria and Korea. Normally, disillusionment with one’s government would lead to demands for better government, or different government, but Westerners are so ingrained with the idea that theirs is the best government, that instead they reject the very idea of good governance altogether. And so the masses learn to passively embrace the encroachment of private corporations over all aspects of the economy and indeed life in general. We can hear the hypothetical American from earlier chime in again: “Privatize! At least the market is efficient. At least they don’t make me feel bad about my vote!”

The concept of “brainwashing” was invented — by a CIA agent posing as a journalist — precisely because Westerners needed a way to reflexively dismiss the phenomenon whereby their own troops were being persuaded of communist ideas during communist captivity:

The idea of “brain-washing” can be credited to Edward Hunter, a CIA-funded writer and editor, who in 1950 started writing articles and books on the subject. His thesis was that Red China and the Soviet Union could control the minds of their respective citizenry — which explained how susceptible Americans captured on foreign soil would be. [11]

This new category, supposedly qualitatively different from normal ideology acquisition, itself turns out to be simply an ideological distinction without a difference.

Evo Morales, a man accused of “dictatorship” for repeatedly winning popular elections, summarized it well in 2019, after his party was temporarily ousted from power in a US-backed coup:

As far as I can tell, American democracy deceives its people into voting, but neither the government nor the people actually govern. It’s the transnational corporations who govern. [12]

V. I. Lenin agrees, in 1912:

Since the emancipation of the Negroes, the distinction between the two parties has been diminishing. The fight between these two parties has been mainly over the height of customs duties. Their fight has not had any serious importance for the mass of the people. The people have been deceived and diverted from their vital interests by means of spectacular and meaningless duels between the two bourgeois parties. [13]

Also in agreement, from the opposite side of class struggle, is Grover Norquist, a powerful Bush-era republican known for his “Americans for Tax Reform” project, in 2001:

I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub. [14]

Though he is a sworn reactionary, Norquist rejects the notion of abolishment. He simply wants to ensure that elections have no ability whatsoever to impose any restrictions on his bourgeois dictatorship. German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, advocate of austerity policy in Europe, was less crass yet no less succint in 2015:

Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy. [15]

Shielding capitalist interests from “tyrannical majorities” has always been a core value of liberalism, finding full apogee in the bourgeois revolutions in France and America. [16] The only exception to this overt expression of power occurred, partly, during the post-war international class struggle known as the “Cold War.” The rise of the Soviet Union led to some tactical concessions on part of the Western bourgeoisie, which infused the working classes with illusions about the welfare state, which made them particularly vulnerable to endless propaganda denigrating all socialist revolutions as “degenerated” or “authoritarian.” The fall of the Soviet Union naturally led to the clawback of those original welfarist concessions. By this time, however, having absorbed all of that propaganda so unquestioningly, Western workers simply couldn’t entertain the idea of socialist statehood (with all of its trade-offs and complexities), which inevitably led to total historical nihilism and a complete inability to organize towards socialism.

It’s clear that the main targets of US propaganda are its workers and those of its vassal states, all of whom continue to wallow in the darkness of despair, the light at the end of the tunnel fully blotted out. Therefore, undoing this “brainwashing” is a principal task of the revolution.

[1] Jill Lepore, September 2018. These Truths: A History of the United States. 

[2] Passed Senate on June 2021. S.1260 — United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021. [web] 

[3] May 2018. Restaurant manager reveals he tricked North Korean waitresses into defecting. CNN. [web] 

[4] October 2015, Why do North Korean defector testimonies so often fall apart? The Guardian. [web] 

[5] James Poniewozik, January 2009. In the Obama Era, Will the Media Change Too? Time Magazine. [web] 

[6] Chloé Cooper Jones, March 2019. Fearing For His Life. The Verge. [web] 

[7] Juliette Garside, October 2017. Malta car bomb kills Panama Papers journalist. The Guardian. [web] 

[8] Fidel Castro, 1991. Interview in Guadalajara, Mexico. [web] 

[9] Edward Cunningham, Tony Saich, and Jessie Turiel, July 2020. Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time. Harvard University. [web] 

[10] Luke Savage, January 2018. The Curse of Bipartisanship. Current Affairs. [web] 

[11] Matthew Willis, October 2015. Brainwashing, Mind Control, and American Paranoia. JSTOR Daily. [web] 

[12] Evo Morales, December 2019. Interview with Glenn Greenwald. [web] 

[13] V. I. Lenin, 1912. The Results and Significance of the U.S. Presidential Elections. [web] 

[14] Grover Norquist, May 2001. NPR. [web] 

[15] Wolfgang Schäuble quoted in Yanis Varoufakis, 2017. Adults In The Room. Part 2, Section 8, Elections versus economic policy. 

[16] Domenico Losurdo, 2005. Liberalism: A Counter-History.