Hey Rain, What Kind of American Are You?

I’ve read a lot of American history over the years, and I marvel at (and sometimes lament) how our people at various times have interpreted the promise of the American Dream. I myself have always gravitated toward Jefferson and Madison, though I’m also a great admirer of Benjamin Franklin. What a mind! In temperament I lean toward Jefferson’s group, mainly because they worked with a truly radical idea—that a human being could actually be free—but they were thoughtful and moderate in imagining (and then designing) how this might be played out. Jefferson’s critics called him a Jacobin—one of those nasty French radicals—when in fact he was actually conservative. Reasonable, honorable, deliberate, tolerant: these are not considered the typical qualities of a radical, yet were some of his attributes—and ones through which he felt free people might best express themselves.

Many think that the Revolution was fought for political and economic freedom; maybe most people in 1776 also felt that way. But Jefferson had a more expansive freedom in his sights: to free the human mind. He considered one of his greatest achievements to be the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Imagine going against the tide of the times and proclaiming that one might believe what one wanted, regardless of the beliefs of others! Even today it boggles the mind. Moreover, along these same lines, he had a long and intimate relationship with a slave woman after his wife died, breaking a taboo few others—if anyone—had dared violate. Sure, many plantation owners slept with their slaves, but how many did it out of a sense of love and sharing, took the woman into the house, educated her children, and provided for their eventual release?

Read Faith Brodie’s biography of Jefferson to see just how free his mind was in this regard (in spite of recent books more critical of him). And yet he was conservative, as I said. He was well aware that you can’t just free everyone to think and say and do what they want—that’s a prescription for chaos. A society, to be stable (and therefore lasting), must temper that freedom with responsibility. Moderation is the key here, as Franklin said, reiterating the old Buddhist dictum. Excess, extremism—these things are symptoms of license. So you might say Jefferson was a radical conservative.

Most of the early years of the Republic were directly or indirectly under his influence. Of the first five presidents, three were Jeffersonian (including Jefferson himself, obviously). John Adams was not but he was turned out after one brief term, and Washington—about whose mind Jefferson said was great but “not of the first order”—most certainly found himself influenced by him. You might conclude, then, based on these facts alone, that the country was set on a course built on Jeffersonian ideals, ideals treasured until this day. Not so!

Interested in a brief history? Let’s take a little stroll, then. Even a cursory reading of the American past will show that as the country grew stronger and the economy flourished, the Eastern banks exerted ever more influence on virtually every aspect of life—agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, trade, and of course, politics. Established businesses thrived and “the little guy” (yeoman farmer, mechanic, artisan, etc) was squeezed out. By the 1830’s the public outcry against this brought Andrew Jackson to the White House with an implicit mandate to take on the banks, which he did—starting with the Second Bank of the United States. And for all practical purposes, he won.

Soon the economy was considerably freed up and increasing numbers of entrepreneurs were able to get in on the action. The Civil War delayed the full flowering of this but when the war was concluded, the entrepreneurial spirit flourished. Jeffersonian ideals seemed to be put aside and “getting rich” was now deemed by many to be a more desirable and attainable goal. And around that time, Darwin’s new theory of “the survival of the fittest” (popularized as “social Darwinism” by Herbert Spenser) seemed to legitimize the acquisition of ever increasing wealth, leading to the excesses of the era of the robber barons, the so-called Gilded Age. Where had “moderation” gone?

Another war (WWI) slowed the momentum—though there had been periodic recessions before then—and after that war, this growing materialism really took off. This has usually been ascribed to the burgeoning urban population (throwing off traditional ways) and the hedonistic backlash to the war (“The Roaring Twenties”). But it can also be attributed to the discovery by a member of Woodrow Wilson’s WWI peace delegation that people could be influenced through advertising to buy and continue to buy, whether they needed something or not. I think few people understand the significance of this last point.

You don’t know who I’m talking about? The person in question is Edward Bernays (who was, significantly, a nephew and admirer of Sigmund Freud). He discovered in Wilson’s lionization by the masses of Europe that people can be moved to great passion if the message touches subconscious desires. (Bernays was a member of Wilson’s “propaganda team,” as it was called, which helped to orchestrate that lionization.)

Impressed by what he’d seen, Bernays returned to New York in 1919 and opened an advertising agency! By applying this Freudian idea (that people are not, in fact, rational beings but are driven by countless irrational desires), he devised ad campaigns to connect products to those desires. He was wildly successful (today he’s considered “the father of American advertising”) and soon other agencies, rather than simply talking about the good points of the product, as was the custom, copied Bernays’ methods. Soon the American psychic landscape became a veritable beehive of fanned desires and the era of “conspicuous consumption” truly began—and continues to this day.

If you’ll permit me one brief example, I think I can demonstrate the workings of Bernays’ method and what we’re up against when we talk about living in a “free country.” His most famous client in those early days was the American Tobacco Company. He was asked to find a way to get women to smoke, since they made up an untapped half of the market. At that time, men generally forbade it—they considered it “unladylike.” Bernays consulted a prominent New York psychoanalyst about it, who agreed with him that the cigarette represented the penis—symbol of male power—and that’s why men guarded it so jealously. Don’t make a face! This story’s true, every word of it. So this was the social fabric Bernays would have to rip apart if he was to fashion a new garment for women that would pour big bucks into American Tobacco.

He decided on a deceptive little publicity stunt. He gathered a bevy of models and debutantes for the annual Easter Parade. They would march along Fifth Avenue with everyone else in the parade but, on his signal, were to light up cigarettes and smoke them! And he’d already tipped off journalists and photographers, claiming there’d be a newsworthy demonstration by attractive suffragettes! And on cue the babes lit up—the shock of the event guaranteeing not only nationwide coverage, but a story that traveled around the world.

According to “unnamed sources” quoted in the news articles—think Bernays here—these bold women had ignited their torches of freedom!  Seeing such a “brave” display, women everywhere were emboldened to do the same, as “an assertion of independence.” This, of course, also tapped right into the pioneer consciousness—escape from oppression—and the ball started rolling! Sales skyrocketed. It was an advertisement that didn’t have any factual information about the product—that could be a little touchy with cigarettes—but instead connected the product to a subconscious desire unrelated to the product but attached to it in their minds by the skill of the advertiser—Bernays!

Even more insidious, if one can bear facing it, is that over time (especially since the 50s) people have come to believe that they actually need these various things we now call consumer goods—not only to feel somehow satisfied, but to feel like complete, full-fledged members of society. Why? Because Bernays’ technique was so effective over the years—soon used by everyone in business—that it engendered an entirely new social ethic. You don’t have a cell phone? A hairstylist? A microwave? A late-model car? An iPod? Some designer clothes? That’s dereliction of duty! You’ve failed as an American!

This is how the culture of “stuff” began and took on a life of its own. We’re immersed in it like goldfish in a bowl and many don’t even know we’re swimming in it—because it’s nearly all subconscious. It seems normal, even natural.

Let me return to the title of this entry: Hey Rain, what kind of American are you? Well, I hope it’s a little clearer now that I do care about America. Just because I live abroad and castigate much of our modern culture in my writing, this doesn’t mean I’m not committed to my country. On the contrary—I think that America still offers the best hope for liberating the human mind, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to describe how that might best be done. If I didn’t have faith in my country, why would I even bother? But as it’s no doubt clear, today’s America is far from the land hospitable to the mind that Jefferson envisioned more than two centuries ago. We’re still waiting for that America to emerge. I think it can, and that’s why I write about it. Far from turning my back on my country, I believe I’m working to bring it to its fuller glory. There, take it or leave it. I’ve said my piece.

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