On Propaganda, Brainwashing and Other Forms of Manipulation

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Aldous Huxley: Brave new World/Brave New World Revisited ISBN 978-009951847-1/ 978-009945823-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ “Propaganda in favour of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest, offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign and domestic scapegoats, and by the cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that […] the most cynical kind of realpolitik becomes a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.” Does this sound familiar to you?

It was written in 1956 under the impression of Stalin and Hitler’s success in rallying and manipulating the masses on the one hand, and the excessive consumerism of the US society on the other hand. The author was Aldous Huxley, the mind and hand behind the dystopian novel “Brave new World” and a collection of related essays under the title “Brave New World Revisited.” In “Brave New World revisited”, Huxley devotes two chapters to propaganda, the good and the bad propaganda, and furthermore offers interesting ideas about the over-population of the world, brainwashing, chemical alterations of the mind and other forms of willful manipulation.

“Brave New World” itself needs no recommendation. The novel, published in 1932, features on the curriculum of most English classes and has lost none of its attraction. It portrays a society with custom made humans, genetically pre-determined to do certain tasks, and the liberty to think individually replaced by the liberty to consume without limits and to drop out of reality by taking drugs. I read the novel in high school with fascination, although I didn’t fully understand it, and I reread it a few months ago. This time I devoured it with a sense of exhilaration, rediscovering many angles I had forgotten about. I was overwhelmed by Huxley’s tremendous foresight and his talent as a writer.

I was even more surprised by the depth of his reflexions in “Brave New World Revisited”. As with Karl Marx, it is funny to identify the points where Huxley was wrong in his predictions (cf. the chapter on over-population). It is much less funny to find out, that he was right in many instances and anticipated the effects of propaganda when disseminated  through social networks, of changes in behaviour through indoctrination and a reward policy for compliant behaviour. Every page is fascinating in a frightening way.

“Brave New World Revisited” furthermore exposes how modern science – sociology and psychology mainly – can quickly become useful tools of dictators to brainwash the individual. Extended periods of stress make men succeptible to believe in values opposed to those he used to believe – Pavlov’s theories at work. Huxley explains here the scientific background of the conditioning of the human race as it happens both in “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s 1984. It’s brutal.

The lines quoted at the beginning of these posts obviously lead to reflect President Trump’s election campaign and the strategy of the Brexiteers to manipulate the UK referendum to leave the European Union. Or the genocide in Rwanda, greatly favoured by the insidious hate-speech broadcasted by “Radio Milles Collines”. Or the videos shared by Daech. Or the TV station “Russia Today”, mxing facts and fiction to confuse the audience.

Huxley’s yardstick of efficient “bad” propaganda is Joseph Goebbels for under him, the Nazis perfected this black art like no one else. Today, our societies are under threat again. Not by some foreign countries, terrorists or immigrants, no, they are being threatened by our own politicians, by complying social networks and by millions of users tagging along. Passivity is no option, for the numbers are against us who defend truth, equality, the rule of law, plurality and democracy. It is time to stand up.

The fascination of horror – that was one of the ideas that flicked up when I read “Brave New World” and “Brave New World Revisited”. At the time I often listened to a piece written by Bela Bartok, written during World War I, the Piano Quartet No. 2:

A Piano Quartet Ressurected from the Archives

Rescueing America’s Middle Class – A Woman’s Mission

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Antonia Felix: Elizabeth Warren. Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. ISBN 978-1-4926-6528-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I had no idea how much I would love this book. It was fun to read, and it gave me an excellent insight into the plight of the American middle class, a fundamental factor in understanding how somebody like Donald Trump could become president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s story, told by Antonia Felix, reminded me of Karl Marx’ description of how factory owners exploited factory workers in the 19th century and how the proletariat got caught in the trap of low-income, no education and no chance to rise from misery. An informed account of social injustice and the economic mechanism behind it.

Don’t get me wrong. Warren is not a Communist, not even what the Americans call a “Socialist”. She is labeled sometimes a “dangerous liberal”, and her Republican opponents mean it as an insult. But this only adds to her credibility. She is dangerous for selfish, arrogant politicians and bank CEOs, not for common mortals. Actually Warren is very much in favor of the market economy. She is also a staunch defender of the level playing field that should give all Americans a realistic and equal chance to live the “American Dream”. And there you have it: The playing field is not level. As a scholar she studied the income situation of the middle class for decades. She initiated the first large field study to find out why households file for bankruptcy. Investigating what circumstances pushed households over the cliff became her academic mission.

Losers and winners

Globalization divided the United States into losers and winners, it turned Main Street against Wall Street. The unbridled capitalism, marked by a deregulated banking sector and highly fragile financial constructions, proved to be one of the traps in which the middle class got caught. Lay-offs and the lack of adequate social security were part of the problem. Another element was the easy money that flooded US consumer pockets. You have bills to pay? Use the credit card? You default on your credit card? Take another credit card! Never mind that the bank will charge you outrageous fees later. And African-Americans and Latinx become more easily a prey for ruthless lenders as they are more often targeted by such lenders and often lack the education to see the trap closing.

Then there is the housing issue. A house in a good neighbourhood – one with a good school and other public infrastructure – is an expensive investment. Mortgage financing seems to be the quick and easy solution. But many are not aware of the dangers and the expertise needed to work through the paperwork. Add the risk that many take in refinancing their consumer credits through their mortgage. A grim picture. “Americans are drowning in debt”, Felix writes. “One in four families say they are worried about how they will pay their credit card bills this month […] Last year [2017], 1.2 millions families lost their homes in foreclosure.”

On the brink of poverty

A situation all too familiar to Senator Warren. She grew up in a poor family in Oklahoma. Both parents had to work, and at some moment, their home was at risk. Young Elizabeth was expected to marry a good man and not to start expensive studies to become a teacher as she wished. Gender roles were an issue, but already as a young girl, Elizabeth Warren knew how to persist. Persist – it became one of her winning formulas and quite a few members of Congress and staffers at the White House have experienced Warren’s tenacity. She became an outstanding researcher and teacher wining multiple awards.

Warren’s desire to learn and to teach brought her to the pinnacle of law studies in America: Harvard. However Warren’s career did not stop there. Having situational awareness is one thing. Finding ways and means to remedy the situation is another. But is it the job of a Harvard scholar? Warren’s expertise, her savvy use of TV shows and her publications made her a well-known person all over the United States. And soon after the financial crisis, Democrats from Washington started to reach out to her. In her youth she had been a Republican, her study of the consequences of “laissez-faire” capitalism have converted her.

A scholar turned politician

In October 2008, Congress authorized 700 billion US dollars to stabilize the economy through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It targeted the failing banking sector, and Warren joined the Bankruptcy Review Commission to supervise the implementation of TARP. She got a first taste of Washington politics and was appalled. It was all about saving the banks, and still no one cared about those who had their savings and pensions wiped out. She wrote a brilliant article with the title “Unsafe at Any Rate” and requested safety standards for credit card contracts and mortgages similar to those in force for electrical appliances, toasters for example. At the end of a long political battle stood the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Partisan infighting prevented Warren to become the agency’s first director as Republicans had vowed to take the agency down, no matter what the political costs were. And a retired senator, Barbara Mikulski, gave Warren a piece of advice: “Don’t get mad; get elected.” What she did. After some hesitations, she resigned from her post in Harvard and went on an election campaign targeting the people who were the subject of her studies: the impoverished and weakened middle class that did not seem to have a champion in Washington.

Serving the people

Warren’s desire to serve the average American has become her hallmark. She appears genuine in championing this cause, and it’s a worthy, noble cause. She knows as much about the issues at hand as anyone in the United States. As a senator she forged bipartisan bills by reaching out to other female senators with common sense. She has a strong sense of community, visible to anyone who cares to watch, and being elected twice to the Senate proves that she stands a chance to accomplish even more. A “Washington Post” writer has her in the first slot of the Democrat’s candidates for the presidential elections in 2020. People like Elizabeth Warren do not claim to make America great again. People like Elizabeth Warren actually make America a better place.

Female heroes are not exactly abundant in classical music, but this does not mean that they do not exist at all. Judith, who gave her name to a chapter of the Old Testament, is such a hero, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed at the age of 15 “La Betulia Liberata”, an oratorio about Judith’s deeds:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

Anti-intellectualism and the Burning of Books


Sven Hanuschek: “Keiner blickt dir hinter das Gesicht” – Das Leben Erich Kästners ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-423-30871-7 Erich Kästner: Über das Verbrennen von Büchern ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-85535-389-7 Erich Kästner was besides Enid Blyton one of the writers that marked my childhood reading. I have read “Emil and the Detectives” and “Emil and the Three Twins” countless times and admired the author for his ability to “sell” a moral lesson or two wrapped in attractive gift paper. The easy-going language, the slightly old-fashioned touch – both books were written before World War II – made reading an adventure and a wonderful pastime.

A legend in shatters

I held Kästner in unreserved esteem until I was about 15. By chance I borrowed Kästner’s own attempt at a biography “Als ich ein kleiner Junge war” (When I was a young boy) from the school library, and I was struck by the the way how Kästner sanctified and adulated his mother. His overly nostalgic look back upon his childhood in Dresden, his exclusive relationship to his mother, the total absence of his father and any friends from his peer group disconcerted me. I was for the first time confronted with the Kästner’s exceptional gift to showcase himself.

Sven Hanuschek paints a highly critical picture of the young boy’s family and Kästner’s fixation on his mother for several decades, he destroys the legends that Kästner and his later girl friend Luiselotte Enderle built around the writer’s person – hence the title of Hanuschek’s book: Nobody looks behind your face. Kästner was an enigmatic and complex person and the polished surface of his literary works may be misleading. “All is not well. I doubt some foul play”,  Hamlet would say.

Witnessing the Nazis’ rise

Kästner’s world-wide success as a childbook author obscures his political thinking, reflected in innumerable cabaret pieces, poems and his adult novel “Fabian – The Story of a Moralist”. Kästner was a keen observer of his time, abhorred the  militarism firmly rooted in German society and feared for the survival of the Weimar Republic. “Fabian” served its purpose – from its publication on, Kästner was branded as an enemy by the conservative political parties and foremost by the National Socialists.

In 1933, Kästner’s books and those of many others were burned in public by university students that had succumbed to Joseph Goebbels anti-intellectual propaganda. While many German writers, researchers, actors and musicians fled Germany after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Kästner decided to stay on and continue to observe the rise and fall of the “Third Reich”.

Moral choices

Hanuschek’s biography recounts in a detailed way the personal evolution of Kästner as a writer, as a womanizer, as a colleague eager to help whenever he could. He also sheds a light on Kästner’s difficult moral choices during the Nazi time. He was an eye-witness of the burning of his books, but he did not speak out. Hanuschek has analysed Kästner’s letters and diaries and says that Kästner did not see any purpose of speaking out at the time. It was already too late. The Nazis had grabbed the power and a single opposing voice would have led him into a concentration camp and changed nothing.

Ethical questions of another nature – linked to the women he had attracted into his orbit and the son he would not officially recognize as such – troubled Kästner after World War II. Germany’s enthusiastic moralist was confronted with moral choices he was afraid to make. This slowed his literary production and encourage him to drink. Kästner died in 1974 from a combination of alcoholism, cancer and desperation. No happy end here.

Productive – undercover

As Kästner stayed in Germany during World War II, he witnessed the catastrophic consequences of Hitler’s politics. He did not write anything political. However he wrote movie scenarios, inoffensive poems often under an assumed name as the Nazis’ cultural bureaucracy had forbidden him to publish anything in the German Reich or Switzerland. Kästner’s earlier works continued to be printed abroad and circulated inside Germany despite the official ban. But Kästner didn’t engage in any rebellious act. He waited until the end of the war and then he told his story: What he had seen, what he had experienced – the abyss of human depravation.

And a few years after World War II, his books were again burned – this time by overzealous Christian students who saw some of his works as opposed to Christian morality. The book “Über das Verbrennen von Büchern” is a collection of speeches Kästner gave in 1947, 1953, 1958 and 1965 about what the burning of books stands for – the negation of culture, of rationalism, of human intelligence.

Diatribes and autocratic rule

Kästner’s biography and his idea about the burning of books – you cannot destroy the influence of a book as long as someone is willing to read it – is a highly fascinating read in a time when in democratic societies  a growing part of the population is cheering at populist politicians and rejecting the deemed elites, in a time when violent emotions and foul language in public triumph over rationalism and civility. I found striking parallels between the climate in Germany in the 20s and 30s and today’s voices in social networks and the diatribes of the US president. Erich Kästner has seen how such a climate may encourage violence and lead to the destruction of societies. He has also seen that it might be too late to act once populist leaders with autocratic tendencies are at the helm of governments. Will we learn from him?

Kästner’s favourite piece of music was a march composed for the movie adaption of Richard Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier”, but György Kurtag’s set of 19 movements called “Signs, Games and Messages” seems much more appropriate to illustrate this book review – a meditation and a warning:

On terror, fear, symbols and music

Changing Shape in Order to Shape Change

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John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge: The Fourth Revolution – The Global Race to Reinvent the State. ISBN 978-1-846-14733-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Changing the shape of government and shaping the change of government – that’s the challenge for any Western public service. Good governance, a solid financial base, lean decision-making structures and satisfied customer-citizens – who wouldn’t like to subscribe to such a model, be it in Europe, Brazil, the United States or Japan? Micklethwait and Wooldridge provide a useful recapitulation of the past: Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb and Milton Friedman are the names of the thinkers whose ideas contributed to the creation of the modern welfare state.

However, that model is about to break down because of over-extension, as the authors rightly observe. Demographics are at work here. We are getting older and become an expensive liability for the younger generations, far less numerous than our generation. Public service has grown into a seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable monster, pervading and regulating every aspect of our lives with great inefficiency.

The authors describe in a fascinating way the challenges ahead, and relish in enumerating the many failings of present governments in almost all the fields where it should succeed: health, transport, assistance to the weak, affordable housing, security. The list of what went wrong is endless, despite the efforts of many courageous public servants to reverse the trend. However when it comes to sketch possible solutions, the ideas the authors advance are at best naive, at worst misleading. I will just list a few, significant shortcomings in Micklethwait’s and Wooldridge’s arguments.

Efficient governments as in Singapore – the Asian model – come at the price of unacceptable restrictions on human rights and high risk of corruption among the elites-in-charge. I understand the authors fascination by the fast transformation from backward, inert to avant-garde, fast-paced policy-making, but the simple fact that China’s president Xi Jinping has suggested to lift the constitutional provision restricting the number of presidential terms indicates how tempting it is for a self-declared elite of “wise men” – women do not figure anywhere in the part of this book dealing with the future – to extend their power in the name of the people’s will.

This leads me to the next point: the absence of women. They are not part of the equation. More women are better educated, more women want to work, more women want to take over responsibilities in the private sector as much as in the public sector – this totally escapes Micklethwait and Wooldridge despite the fact that it changes any model of social mobility they may use in explaining part of the evolution of the public sector. Women adopt a different management style – different as in relying more on cooperation and creativity in finding solutions – and may well be the key to change the way governmental agencies operate, but the book doesn’t say an iota about it. Boooooh!

Much admired public health systems as they have been put in place in Sweden may be cost-saving, but quick discharges from hospitals are not the only scale to measure their performance since the aspect of the quality of the treatment and the well-being of the patient is neglected. Customer satisfaction does not seem to weigh heavy in the minds of the authors since their emphasis lies on budget efficiency exclusively. The same could be said about the much less admired UK railway systems. After privatization it is still running late, the seats have not become more comfortable, the cost-per-mile-track has remained about the same and the blame-game about what went wrong isn’t even funny anymore.

My personal experience in the public service is that the information age does not automatically lead to a lean and more efficient government. The authors put exaggerated hope into technology. Quite often incompatible IT-solutions are put in place and prioritization of who buys what becomes a drama in multiple acts. In-house software development addressing specific public service issues is hampered by a lack of available IT engineers, willing to leave the private sector, and supervisors prefer to decide small issues since they quite often do not understand the bigger picture – an issue shared with the private sector where thousands of badly trained managers fail when the time has come to assume responsibility. The human factor cannot be emphasized enough and will always neutralize efficiency gains through technology. This is less ironic than it may appear.

Making government agencies more responsive is always a lovely idea. Giving citizen the option to share with government agencies pictures of problems (pot holes, graffiti, missing road signs etc.) along with GPS data through mobile phones sounds like a cheap and democracy-friendly idea but it will lead government to fund additional posts. It will feed the monster, not put it on a diet. Someone will have to process and prioritize the data, generate specific orders for work crews and provide a feedback to senders. And write reports about efficiency gains neutralized.

Finally raising pension age is not a solution per se as burn-outs are a common issue in the higher echelons of public service, partly because leaner structures – smart government is the key word here – have increased the workload for decision makers. Posts have been cut, but the work has remained the same. The resulting costs – increasing hours of sick-leave – do not show up on the authors’ balance sheet. Sure we can work longer. But will we work better at age 70 than at age 65? I have my doubts. The solution will rather lie in a reduction and a better distribution of essential tasks among public servants.

It is a pity that these two respected journalists have not managed to really understand some of the inherent problems of “big government” that make changing its shape and shaping its change so difficult. Their idea – streamline everything and cost-efficiency is our new God – is far too shortsighted as an approach. Micklethwait and Wooldridge should know better. They worked for “The Economist”.

Now, one thing the two authors got right is a fact from the world of music. While musing over labour-intensive services provided by government, Micklethwait and Wooldridge correctly state that it took four players to perform a Beethoven quartet in the 19th century and that today it still takes four players to play a piece like Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 in C minor by which Beethoven provided an early proof of his revolutionary mind:

Radically innovative – now and then