Friday, February 24, 2017


A couple of decades back, in conversation with an Italian architect friend and colleague, he insisted to me that in the absence of exploitable resources Italians had mastered the art of selling smoke. I was skeptical about the concept that Italy lacked resources, given its long coastline, extensive mountains, abundant supply of artists, artisans and skilled workers, as well as having, according to a UN report, something like 45% of the world’s acknowledged treasures of art and architecture. Nevertheless, he cited concepts such as “Italian Design” and “Made in Italy” in evidence of his theory. Had “Slow Food “ been invented then, he might have added it to the list of concepts which boost sales and add value to products, despite having the consistency of smoke or incense. While Italy does have forests, some geothermal facilities, abundant sunshine and wind, it does not have a large supply of traditional fossil fuels such as petroleum or coal.

My friend was right. Italy is the land of smoke sellers. The art of convincing people that the superfluous is the necessary is widely diffused throughout the population, from shoe sellers to butchers, waiters to seamstresses. It’s only the politicians whose smoke nobody wants to buy anymore.

Just as Italy’s 1987 ascent to being the world’s fifth largest economy ended abruptly in 1997, its status as a leading seller of smoke has succumbed to American leadership. Apparently Italy is not selling enough smoke or anything else, since its GNP has fallen behind those of the UK, India, France and Brazil. While the US population at large does not have the Italian gift for selling smoke, at the top of the heap there are major masters at work.

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and Albert Lasker were two
pioneers in advertising, who are credited with convincing women to smoke in the post-WWII years, thus enabling them to attain equality with men in levels of lung cancer mortality. Bernays took Uncle Sigmund’s theories of psychoanalysis and applied them for commercial gain. Besides cigarettes, he promoted Ivory soap, disposable cups, books, ballet, and Dodge cars. He developed the use of third party advocates when he recruited doctors to testify that Americans would benefit from heartier breakfasts, which would also benefit Bernays’ client, the bacon industry.

He argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy. His civic advocacy showed up in the promotion of the fear of communism and the successful overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company.

Lasker was no slouch either in the molding of public opinion. Besides promoting Palmolive, Pepsodent, Kotex, Sunkist oranges and Lucky Strike cigarettes, he helped engineer the 1920 landslide election of Warren Harding. At the time of his Sunkist campaign, orange groves in California were being uprooted due to lagging sales, a process he succeeded in halting.

While Bernays and Lasker were pioneers, they have had legions of effective disciples in both commercial and political realms. Bernays had a big influence in promoting the Cold War to assure the health of the military industrial complex, but he did have help from the Soviet Union, which flaunted its militarism.

Just who is the architect of the current Cold War revival is harder to determine. After all, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia stumbled into a period of rapid demographic decline, Mafia-style oligarchy and internal violence. NATO, i.e. the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aggressively expanded its membership to Turkey and several former Soviet states, moving troops to within a few hundred miles of Moscow, despite assurances to the contrary by the first President Bush. Putin rescued Russia from its downward spiral and restored a degree of nationalistic pride, but the country remains a superpower only in that it retains a sizable nuclear arsenal, along with a lot of gas and petroleum. How then the current red scare, or better, the red white and blue scare, given Russia’s current flag, and why? Militaristic regimes, such as the USA, need enemies to justify their arms budgets and while Islamic terrorists may instill hatred and fear, they hardly constitute a credible military threat.

Cold War II is not the only currently successful propaganda campaign. Bernays and Lasker operated in the mid-twentieth century. In 1980 Ronald Reagan came to power and he unleashed some campaigns which are still going strong. He famously declared that the “government is not the answer to our problem, government IS the problem”. Think about that! This sentiment might be appropriate in much of the world. Kings have first of all looked after themselves and their courts. Dictators have always looked out for themselves, keeping Swiss banks flush with cash in the process.  But the USA? American flag-waving patriotism is almost without precedent, unless you count Germany in the 30’s, or today’s North Korea, but there has always been an element of compulsion in those other places. The US has vast pride in its democracy, the oldest surviving (?) democracy in the world. If our democracy is a source of pride and this is the government of the people, by the people and for the people, how does one explain President Reagan’s proclamation that it is THE problem? If the democratic government is the problem, what is the suggested alternative? Sadly, we’re beginning to get a look at the option.

Going hand in hand with the rejection of democracy, has been the religious embrace of privatization and the deification of “the market”. Many sophisticated people are skeptical about an omnipotent God, not to mention the infallibility of the Pope, but a surprising number of them are susceptible to a blind and absolute faith in the infallibility of “the market”. Who sold this bill of goods? More important, will it have the same disastrous consequences as the Lucky Strike campaign? Once all public resources are sold off to cronies of the people in power, what will become of the public? We can see some clues in the Russia of Yeltsin and now in the American rust belt. It has taken a dictator (strong man is the currently preferred term) Putin, to bring back Russia from terminal decline. Will that be the fate of the US? Many now fear Trump is that figure, but what brought us to this point?

After Flint, how many other cities will be fed poisoned water to increase profits? Many of the past and present propaganda campaigns have been the work of Republicans. Remember that 1920 campaign which gave us Harding and the Teapot Dome scandals! Guatemala was not the only country run by United Fruit. Arguably, ALEC is the most subversive organization in the US, and while some turncoat Democrats show up there, it is a largely Republican enterprise.

However, Democrats have played a major role in our current travails. Selling the inevitability of globalization with its attendant race to the bottom, was a bi-partisan effort. Democrats bear the brunt of the blame for the predominance of identity politics, hawking the idea that soon the assembled minorities would constitute a majority. Of course, if you include women in the list of minorities, they already do, even if some of the people involved don’t see themselves as part of a minority.

Concerns for the rights of homosexuals were reasonable enough, but then homosexual became gay and lesbian, the coalition kept gaining letters and turned into LBGTQ, leading an unsuspecting reader to figure that all these combined groups were just short of forming a majority. Add another B for bigamists, a P for pederasts and an I for the incestuously inclined and we’re practically there. Perversely, this is being informally proposed, in a nod to furthering the anti-regulation agenda, by Milo Yiannopoulos, formerly of Breitbart News, President Trump’s favorite news source.

In a time of infrastructure collapse and a growing neo-feudal gap between rich and poor, the principle concern of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party has seemed to be the the toilet access rights of transgendered children. I’m too old to be up to date on this but I tended to think of pre-pubescent children as being essentially neuter. I’m not sure what a transgendered child even is, much less what’s to be done about it. Is this really affecting more people than the lack of healthcare, homelessness, climate change, the obesity epidemic, gun violence, student loan debt, poisoned water, decreasing life expectancy, racial violence or herbicide laced food?

Democrats are electing a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee this week. The main contenders are, in the populist corner, the only Muslim in the US Congress, while in the establishment corner is a Wall Street, big Agro and bank friendly, TPP boosting, Latino former Secretary of Labor in the Obama Administration. The dark horse, in case the two main factions can’t compromise, is the gay mayor of South Bend who was a Harvard educated, highly regarded officer in the US military. He advises a love-in with all factions setting aside their differences. The other five in the race have little chance of being considered. Democrats may have been nurtured on identity politics but Trump has played every sort of dark, minority vilifying card in his deck to get to his unlikely election. Whatever the outcome of the DNC election, we can count on him and his GOP cohort to twist the knife of identity politics back into the Democrats’ innards.

Many of us are eager to see a radical change of course charted by the 2020 congressional elections but if the Democratic establishment, which gave us Republican control of the presidency, both Houses of Congress and full legislative control of twenty-five of the fifty states, is not removed from power in the party, our hopes for 2020 are just fatuous dreams. Things can get worse and there are plenty of clever GOP smoke sellers who will see to it that they will. Depending on the outcome of this election, we may bear witness to the birth a new major political party.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Wow! Lots to think about in your comments, Robert. Thank you. Steve RHS '54