On Propaganda, Brainwashing and Other Forms of Manipulation

BNWR combo

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

Who Will Rule the Busiest Sea Lane of the World?

Robert S. Kaplan: Asia’s Cauldron. The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-0-8129-9906-8 China is creating facts in the South China Sea by building airstrips on disputed islands like the Spratley’s, adding aerial defence systems and dredging natural harbours to make them accessible for larger warships. At the same time China’s navy is expanding and modernizing: submarines, cruise-missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth fighters and space-based command and control assets make China a formidable foe that not even the US aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific wish to confront. Beijing asserts what it calls a historical right to dominate the South China Sea and builds up the military power to defend it.

Robert Kaplan has visited the region and interviewed many officials in the countries having a stake in the question of who should rule the South China Sea: The United States Navy as the guardian of free sea lines of communication in the busiest shipping area of the world? Or China in its effort to exploit a situation where the military and diplomatic influence of the US has passed its climax, in its endeavour to replace an international system dominated by the US by a multi-polar system with Beijing as a major player? The fact that huge deposits of oil and natural gas may lie hidden below the sea floor doesn’t make the answer any easier.

The sustained economic growth has given China the possibility to catch up in terms of military modernization: less numerous but smarter armed forces. This in turn has fueled a spectacular arms race in the region. Singapore eyes the prohibitively expensive US made Joint Strike Fighter as its next generation war plane. Kaplan and the officials he talked to in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan portray China as a growing threat that has to be kept in check. Even Vietnam, once an enemy of the United States, feels more at ease with the status quo – the American hegemony – than with a future dictated by China and makes the case for a long term US naval presence in the South China Sea.

While Kaplan’s book has its merits in explaining the different countries’ twisted relationship with China – he is looking back several hundred years in some cases – and their immediate geostrategic priorities, it fails to explain in more detail the Chinese point of view. We learn little about China’s objectives and its long term vision for the region. The possibility that China’s neighbours might succumb to “Finlandization” – submission through Chinese economic pressure – is mentioned, but Kaplan does not elaborate on it. China’s use of soft power to seduce other countries goes unnoticed. The author also fails to explore in an unbiased way the possibility of China exerting a benign regional hegemony similar to the European Union’s regional dominance over the Mediterranean Sea. China is hostile, full stop – that’s the credo.

Kaplan belongs to the Realist School of political science, established by Hans J. Morgenthau in the 1950s, seeing international relations primary as a struggle for supremacy and analyzing shifts in power balances in terms of strategic interests and the military, political and economic means to reach these goals. This school of thought has however severe limits when it has to explain a globalized world with multiple interdependencies, and Kaplan’s book was already at its publication in 2014 partly out of date in its insistence on conventional military power and its understanding of modern military strategy.

The author advances the argument of “the stopping power of water” to explain why invading a disputed territory is far easier than occupying it, especially when the territory is inhabited by a hostile population. This weakens his own case meant to illustrate China’s dangerous designs. At the same time he fails to see that China has developed, just like Russia, concepts for hybrid warfare: fostering low-intensity internal conflicts by exploiting economic, ethnic or cultural fault lines, disinformation and propaganda spread over social networks, clandestine sabotage acts, subversion of enemy forces and civil servants. This type of warfare is far more subtle and dangerous as it targets the social cohesion of the opponent’s civil society. Its study requires a much more encompassing view of international relations than the Realist School ever has developped.

In 2014 the Ukraine crisis was in full swing, it was and still is a blue-print for the partial success of Russia hybrid warfare, creating “frozen conflicts” that bind the enemy’s political and military resources, situations where the opponent cannot capitulate for political reasons on the one hand and on the other hand is not powerful enough to triumph over his aggressor. A low-intensity war of attrition, waged in the diplomatic and political arena, coupled with an occasional military show of force and the exploitation of ethnical tensions in countries like Malaysia or the Philippines are much more likely to be part of China’s foreign policy than brazen military interventions. The recent dispute over airline codes refering to “Taipei, Taiwan” instead of “Taipei, China” illustrate such an approach. The occupation of this or that reef, the blockade of an Asian competitor or the conquest of Taiwan may simply not be necessary for China to assert its dominance.

Kaplan’s mantra-like emphasis on China’s expanding navy as a proof of its aggressive goals is besides the point, and ironically the author delivers himself the key by quoting the Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tsu: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. China can wait until the dominance of the South China Sea falls into its lap like a ripe fruit as the role of the US in world affairs is declining. Its modernized navy will not allow China to establish dominance, but to preserve it. Time is on China’s side and it has a notion of time different from ours. It is thinking in decades and centuries, not in legislative periods. Sun Tsu would be pleased to see that his teachings are still a guideline for Chinese policy makers.

Now this book is hard-nosed political science, no-nonsense stuff, a troubling look into the crystal ball. To this I would like to oppose the delightful and delicate music of a Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu:

Floating like dust – the sound of transcendence

Truth against Falsehood – Why Shakespeare Matters

William Shakespeare: Hamlet. ISBN 978-0-19-953581 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” I have read Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” for the first time as a teenager ahead of seeing the piece in Stratford-upon-Avon and re-read it recently while brooding over Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s incidental music inspired by the play. Through the piece, the current US president came to my mind. What wretched creatures mighty men often are!

Claudius, King of Denmark, murderer of his brother, Prince Hamlet’s father, and usurper of the throne – his pitiful existence, based on a self-perpetuating lie, is exposed first by the ghost of the murdered king, than by a band of theatre actors and finally by Hamlet himself. But it is through his own words that the King of the Great Lie gives evidence of his moral mediocrity. “Madness in great ones” are Claudius’ words to characterize Hamlet. But Hamlet, Bearer of the Truth, only feigns his madness to execute his revenge on Claudius. Claudius turns reality upside down just as Donald Trump does: Anything contradicting the present US president’s mindset is labeled by him as “fake news” and considered a threat.

In reality, Trump’s presidency is “fake politics” right from the start. He didn’t win the popular vote and the crowd at his inauguration wasn’t exactly impressive. Trump’s ascendance does not reflect the will of the majority of the US electorate, it is the result of an outdated election system. Trump’s political achievements so far are ridiculous compared to his declared ambitions, and this is hardly surprising since Trump never had any real political agenda. He is exclusively interested in promoting himself. He is a salesman selling himself as a brand through Twitter. To succeed in this endeavour he hijacked politics and pretended to stand for certain political ideas that were popular among those who were most prone not to elect his rival Hillary Clinton. Or, as Hamlet puts it to his friend Horatio: Let candied tongue lick absurd pomp!

Donald Trump is no president and his political project is an empty shell. Much talk, little substance. Shakespeare had a keen awareness for the trappings of political power in the 17th century which are essentially the same 400 years later: Vanity, without which you cannot run for office, slyness to seduce the masses, falsehood to discredit any rivals and deflect any criticism, ruthlessness to stay in power, arrogance as you get used to be in power. Sounds familiar? It should.

Shakespeare’s play pitches truth against falsehood, Hamlet against Claudius. Both die in this moral struggle, but Hamlet is the moral victor since he saves his friend Horatio from certain death. Truth, deceny, loyalty and friendship – these are the virtues to guide us through difficult times. What was true in the 17th century is of utmost relevance today. People should spend less time on social networks and read Shakespeare instead. Present writer included.

As I already mentioned Tchaikovsky’s incidental music renewed my interest in “Hamlet” and stimulated my writing:

Murder, madness and stirring melodies

When art becomes a political tool

Volker Reinhardt: Die Medici. Florenz im Zeitalter im Zeitalter der Renaissance. ISBN 978-3-406-44028-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Composing music during the Renaissance and later during the Baroque era was unthinkable without a reliable network of patrons. Kings and queens, princes, the Vatican and its wealthy representatives – those were the people composers were looking for. However, in northern Italy the political situation favoured the rising of wealthy banker and merchant families, the Medici being one of the most famous examples. Reinhardt traces a fascinating portrait of the three generations that built the wealth and fame of that Florentine family and highlights how the Medicis’ patronage of arts became one of their political tools to expand and stabilize their influence. The book is well researched, at times a little cumbersome to read – German syntax can become a weapon of mass confusion if in the wrong hands. My overall experience however was a joyful one. I learned a lot – my greatest compliment to any author.

Emilio di Cavalieri, a Renaissance composer, wrote a wonderful piece narrating the eternal conflict of the human soul: virtue or pleasure? Duty or fun? Ascetism or opulence? In the light of the ascendance of a non-aristocratic family the Medici to unprecedented wealth and might, Cavalieri’s “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo” is the appropriate critical judgment of the spirit of the Renaissance:

Searching for the salvation of the soul