10 February 2011

Thomas Frank, Glenn Beck and the limits of partisan perspective

Who said the following? A hint first; the subject is Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations.

This guy changed everything, everywhere. The reason why our kids just want more and more and more and more and more is because of the system that Bernays built. He's the guy who after World War I ... realized our industry needs to just keep making stuff....Bernays spoke to the industrial groups, and they realized we can make more money if we just keep making people buy stuff. And he said, "I can make them do it!" His cousin [sic] was Sigmund Freud. They have been playing and manipulating us for a very long time....Do you know why we all smoke? Do you know why we have this problem with so many smokers and why it was so cool for a while? It was Edward Bernays.

The tag for tonight gives you two choices. So is it Thomas Frank, the lefty critic of commodified rebellion, or Glenn Beck, the righty espouser of conservative reaction? It was, in fact, Beck, who is quoted by Frank from a November broadcast in Frank's latest lead article for Harper's.

Next question: who wrote the following?
Take a manufactured takeover, like Guatemala. We engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected president, and this guy was popular, he was going to take their land back from United Fruit and return it to the people. So he had to be demonized before he could be taken down.

Again: Beck, quoted by Frank from his novel The Overton Window. To clarify, the character speaking is a hero of the novel. Frank finds these surprising statements from a so-called conservative, and his article for this month attempts to explain the anomaly. Beck's concern with public relations, Frank observes, is more typically a concern of the left, and one that the left tends to overstate, having fallen for the PR industry's own PR about its limitless potential for influence. Conservatives, Frank claims, don't usually regard public relations as a malign force in American life. Why does Beck think differently? Why does Beck mention the COINTELPRO program so often, and not favorably?

Frank finds it strange that Beck, his presumed ideological opposite, seems to abhor some of the same things Frank himself abhors. It seems strange, I suppose, because the two men, apparently agreeing on some things, arrive at apparently opposed ideological positions. To explain these contradictions, Frank accuses Beck of ignoring his side's complicity in the power of PR. According to the columnist, the PR industry is to blame, in large part, for the reactionary assault on the New Deal order; it strove to turn people against the regulatory welfare state by "link[ing] free enterprise in the public consciousness with free speech, free press and free religion as integral parts of democracy." If Beck does the same thing, Frank suggests, he is either a conscious manipulator of PR or a mindless dupe of it.

Beck cited liberal journalist Michelle Goldberg as an authority on police surveillance in an afterword to his novel. Frank invites Goldberg to wax indignant on such appropriation of her work. "It's really common for the right to adopt paranoid visions of the legitimate complaints of the left," she tells Frank, "Beck is a master of this sort of projection." Thus inspired, Frank sums up The Overton Window as an unconscious act of projection, with Beck making his villain a thinly disguised version of himself. On this reading, the novel is a "dark and muddled" confession of "an opportunist and a predatory deceiver of the most vulnerable sectors of the public."

It's almost as if Frank and Goldberg think that Beck isn't entitled to note certain facts or raise certain questions if he doesn't arrive at the same ideological conclusions that they do. Beck and Frank can't be in agreement on anything even when they appear literally to be in agreement, because a conservative can't be in agreement with a progressive. If they see the same things but draw different conclusions, they can't be seeing the same things. All this proves that ideology of any kind messes with perceptions. It's obvious enough that Beck has only a partial understanding of the conditions he perceives. For whatever reason, he's come to identify a menacing power whose roots in the private sector he readily acknowledges with the public sector, with the political order as a cabal of power-mad people dedicated to mind controlling the masses. But doesn't Frank have his own blind spots? Despite the evidence agreed upon by him and Beck of American state subversion of foreign sovereigns and internal dissent, Frank appears to reject out of hand any suggestion from Beck that the state is a rightful object of suspicion at this time. Like many a conventional liberal, Frank most likely considers America most threatened by greed rather than lust for power, as conservatives believe. Democrats and Republicans, most liberals and most conservatives, seem to insist that this is an either-or proposition. Either those who crave wealth or those who crave power are the enemy. Bipolarchy reduces wealth and power to uselessly isolated abstractions, willfully ignoring how they intertwine in reality. Wealth seeks power. Power seeks wealth. Neither Thomas Frank nor Glenn Beck seems capable of holding those two thoughts at the same time. Instead, people like them prefer to regard each other as the real enemy, when reality itself may be staring both sides in the face.


d.eris said...

"It seems strange, I suppose, because the two men, apparently agreeing on some things, arrive at apparently opposed ideological positions."

I haven't read the article, but I wonder whether the situation here isn't the other way around, namely, that Beck and Frank arrive at the same conclusions (in this case on the insidious nature of PR) even though they begin from apparently opposed ideological positions. Similar to the way in which Greens and Libertarians can often be found in agreement, maybe?

Samuel Wilson said...

The difference is that, unlike Greens and Libertarians, Frank seems to refuse to acknowledge any common ground with Beck. He can't help but assume that there's something dishonest or self-deluding about someone who can admit what Beck does yet remain on the "right." He's probably right about that, but it could be just as true of someone who persists on a "left" defined by opposition to the "right" rather than any other reference point.

Anonymous said...

I can see your point...If Beck - through the protagonist of his story - is denouncing PR for the way it uses psychology to get inside the head's of consumers, then why does Beck - as a radio talk host - sink to using the same tricks to maximize his audience, thereby maximizing his profit?

After all, if it is a bad thing for one group to do it against another group, then it is bad for anyone to do it to anyone.

But how do you keep PR/Marketing people from using what amounts to psychological warfare against the citizens of the United States without stepping on someone's idea of "freedom of speech"? It would seem that the first step would be to define exactly what "speech" is to be "free". Then, using the jurisdiction of the FCC to crack down on those who resort to this mass psychological warfare to sell their product.

Samuel Wilson said...

Depending on your perspective, Thomas Frank can be said to do the same thing to sell his books or, now, make money for Harper's. It all seems to depend on what you consider the essence of PR, or if you think it has an essence. Beck seems troubled by the "manipulation" aspect of PR, which he apparently identifies with power, while he presumes himself to be merely telling the truth. Frank more likely sees PR as a money-making device that's been appropriated by unsavory political actors, while he presumes himself to be merely telling the truth. Both men probably imagine an ideal politics purged of PR, but neither man may have a real idea of what that'd look and sound like.