Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Brainwashing of America

I think Wikipedia sums it up the best.

Mind control (also known as brainwashing
refers to a process in which a group or individual "systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated"

The “unethically manipulative methods” is important here.  There is certainly nothing wrong in itself with trying to persuade others to agree with us which is a part of our normal interactions with others.

And furthermore, there is nothing wrong with a corporation trying to persuade us to say, buy its product or even agree with its positions on political issues – as long as they are up front about who is delivering the message!  And there’s the rub!

If for example, the health insurance industry openly identified themselves as part of an ad campaign about how Obamacare was bad for America, the viewer could not only consider the content of the message but who was delivering it.  Do they have a commercial axe to grind?  If so, then there is some reason for healthy skepticism and questioning before deciding whether to believe what we are hearing.

But what if the same anti-Obamacare message came from an ordinary sounding group called Americans for Prosperity.  That sounds a lot less commercial.  These are probably ordinary people just like you and me.  And then there are those “grass roots” street rallies against health insurance reform.  Hey, if ordinary people out in the street feel this way, maybe I should too!  And to clinch it all, there are all of those experts who appear on TV who work in those ”think tanks”.  You have to be smart to work in a think tank, so whatever they are saying, I’m buying it!

Of course, things are not always as they appear.  Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy group founded and heavily funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers who are relentlessly opposed to anything they feel is “big government” which has also led to their support of the Tea Party (more on that below).

And while many of the street protesters are indeed ordinary people who believe in their cause, AFP and other groups have resorted to busing people from elsewhere and furnishing them with picket signs to add more visual impact to their rallies when they are covered by the media.  So instead of these rallies being truly grass roots, they are often labeled with the derisive term Astroturfing.
Astroturfing refers to political, advertising or public relations campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source's financial connection. 
Those who are not familiar with it would find the breadth and depth of this misinformation campaign to be astounding.  I invite the reader to check out the 55 minute documentary, The Billionaires' Tea Party which you can watch in its entirety in this link.

One of the most interesting parts of the movie occurs at the 43:00 minute mark where the maker of the documentary goes undercover and attends an AFP workshop where attendees are taught and encouraged to manipulate the social media outlets with practices like finding as many conservative books and movies as possible and give them 5 star reviews while giving 1 star reviews to their liberal counterparts.  Taking the time to read or see any of them was said to be completely optional!

And what about all those pundits and think tank experts?  Many of them are financed behind the scenes by the Koch Brothers as you will see in this interesting video link from the Robert Greenwald documentary Koch Brothers Exposed.  In addition to the Social Security misinformation campaign in the video link, the Kochs who own a giant fossil fuel energy company have waged a similar behind the scenes campaign to debunk the scientific findings that climate change is real and man made.  And to make sure that young people are indoctrinated with their ideology, they are also providing major funding to universities across the country in exchange for control over their faculties and curriculum.

When talking about the TV part of the brainwashing campaign, it is impossible not to point a finger at Fox News which for many on the political right is the only source of information they trust. That Fox has a Republican/conservative agenda is not a problem in itself.  The problem is that they offer themselves as “News” along with “Fair and Balanced” which implies that they are journalists instead of propagandists.  The argument has been made that the evening opinion shows with Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are different than the straight news shows offered at other times of the day.  The interested reader is invited to check out another Robert Greenwald documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism which can be seen in its entirety in this link or in an interesting collection of clips in this link.  It shows the extreme top down control exerted on all of Fox’s content.

But as unfavorable to Fox as this documentary may be, it was released back in July, 2004 when George W. Bush, a Republican was president.  So it doesn’t even include the later emergence of Barack Obama who has been a target of vicious attacks on Fox along with the Tea Party whom Fox not only covered but actively promoted.  So much for journalistic credentials!

And while those like Newt Gingrich complain about the “liberal media”, more concentrated ownership of media outlets including radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, home of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck along with TV stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group which have engaged in controversial programming practices to promote a conservative agenda, have made it hard to find liberal outlets especially on the radio to provide some sort of balance.

But while big business, money and media certainly deserve their criticism, organized religion may indeed be the biggest offender when it comes to the political brainwashing of its supporters. While those in the more liberal and urban Blue States tend to be more secular, the more conservative and rural Red States are home to more deeply religious people who have been repeatedly lectured by their churches to never even consider voting for someone unless they are pro-life and anti-gay.  But liberal critics like Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? makes what I believe is a convincing argument that these people are being duped into voting against their own economic self-interest. Or going back to our original definition of brainwashing, “to the detriment of the person being manipulated.”

So what’s the big difference between people who are persuaded and those who have been brainwashed?  Unlike others, those who have been brainwashed can find it nearly impossible to even find legitimacy in opposing viewpoints or the people who hold them.  Indeed, many of those on the far right who strongly oppose President Obama portray him as un-American and perhaps not even born here. 

And worse yet, not accepting a person and/or his views as being legitimate makes compromise difficult if not impossible.  Indeed, many of those in the Tea Party Caucus of the House of Representatives are proud of their total refusal to compromise with anybody – including those in their own party!  While this is something that may win elections, it makes it almost impossible to effectively govern in a democracy – as the Congressional gridlocks over the Debt Ceiling and Fiscal Cliff have demonstrated.

Normally in a democratic system, there is a mechanism to keep such extremist behavior in check.  When a legislator becomes too extreme like those in the Tea Party who vow to bring government to a halt instead of governing, enough people get fed up with that behavior and the person is voted out.  But because of a dubious political practice called gerrymandering, many of the Tea Party obstructionists in the House have had their districts redrawn so that most of their constituents are also like-minded obstructionists.  So for those in these districts who dare think about compromise with the ‘socialists’, there may be hell to pay in the form of a primary challenger who will promise to be even more intransigent!

But there is an antidote to brainwashing and that is critical thinking!  For the interested reader, I offer a previous posting The Importance of Critical Thinking where like in this posting, I take the Tea Party to task for its lack of critical thinking.

In the interest of critical thinking, it is right for the reader to question why my wrath on this subject is aimed at conservatives.  Honesty requires me to admit that I do have a liberal viewpoint of the world.  But in my defense, my beliefs are a product of being inquisitive and trying to unearth the truth as best as I can.  And while nobody is right all the time, my viewpoints are at least well thought out and without a hidden agenda.

Conservatives by their nature are more likely to adhere to authoritarian thinking.  If say, their preacher or even their favorite commentators say it’s so, it must be true!  And if a viewpoint comes from someone on the liberal side, it is automatically rejected as false – no need to even listen to what they have say!  And while I enjoy talking to conservatives to try and understand why they see the world differently from me, all too often I run into the frustration of talking to those who not only have their own opinions but their own facts.  When someone bases many of their strongly held opinions on what can be objectively proven as false, that is a pretty sure sign of  brainwashing.

So what can be done to help a polarized US whose government has largely become dysfunctional?  One effective political fix would be to have districts redrawn by nonpartisan committees so candidates from both sides of the political spectrum will have a fair chance to prevail in all of our election races.  While this would help in the House, the Senate needs to modify its filibuster rules to keep blindly partisan minorities from continuously bringing its proceedings to a screeching halt.

But ultimately, it is up to us citizens to place a value on critical thinking so we don’t succumb to those who wish to alter our minds.  While it may be too late to help many of our adults, we need to promote critical thinking in our children as parents and as educators.  They need to be taught to question and understand what they hear so when they adopt a viewpoint, it will truly be their own and not just something they have been told to believe.  Indeed, it is an educated and informed electorate that makes democracy work!