Wendy Hamblet – Harvesting the Human: Force and Persuasion in Human Societies
Concerned Philosophers for Peace Newsletter Online
Excerpt: Cultures are nothing but epistemic communities, sites where a people’s experiences are assigned collective meanings, evolving worldviews where truths, inherited from the past (“traditions”), are endlessly reinterpreted and reconstructed to articulate and explain new realities, new collective experiences of new generations that demand new explanatory schemata.
The opening pages of Plato’s Republic introduce the question of justice in human societies by staging a mock battle between force and persuasion enacted between Socrates and a group of his friends as the latter attempt to bend the old philosopher to their will that he stay on for the evening festivities of the Piraeus festival for the underworld goddess, Bendis. The friends press Socrates with a playful threat of force: “You must either prove yourselves the better men or stay here,” which inspires Socrates to ask, “Why, is there not left the alternative of our persuading you that you ought to let us go?” (emphasis mine). The question is met with the ominous (if jesting) response that foreshadows Socrates’ fate: “But could you persuade us if we refused to listen?” (Ē kai dunaisth’ an, ē d’ hos, peisai mē akouontas;).
The mock battle between persuasion and force, played out by Socrates and his friends in the opening lines of the Republic, ends by confirming what the mock battle demonstrated: that persuasion is impotent against sheer force. Despite the initial failure of persuasion to win the opening battle, the contest between force and persuasion continues to rage in the background of this seminal work, the philosopher (Socrates) tirelessly enduring in his effort to persuade his interlocutors that their best interests lie with the life well lived, the life attuned to justice, and not with the life of taking others by power.
In the allegory of the cave (7.514 ff.) Socrates depicts how force and persuasion meet when state education shapes citizen minds to meet the needs of the political environment and in conformity to the will of powerful puppeteers of reality. We see in the imagery of this allegory that both force and persuasion have roles in producing desirable citizen-subjects: in an underground cave — cut off from alternative worldview options — citizen-prisoners are forced, their bodies and necks chained, to adopt a view of reality that is narrowly restricted to an ordered display of shadow-realities cast on a wall in front of them, while they are subtly persuaded by honors and prizes to give credence to the truths they are being fed. The conclusion of the allegory resonates unmistakably with Socrates’ own unhappy fate: the prisoners refuse to be set free from their chains and are prepared to take the life of any would-be savior who tries to free them from their fetters, because their chains provide the solid and comfortable reality that gives meaning to their restricted existences.
The cave allegory is a rich portrayal of the subtle and complex process whereby people come to be held enthralled by the schema of truth that reigns in their society. Plato appreciates a number of subtleties often missed in philosophical accounts of worldview construction. First, he sees that powerful elites use both political methods (force and persuasion) to stimulate citizen enthusiasm for the local system of truth: education works through bodily force and mental persuasion to gain the people’s allegiance to the “common mental world” that functions to keep them (the elites) in power and the society productive and orderly. Plato appreciates that education, far from the means to citizen freedom, is a subtle tool of citizen tyranny, its curricula always already politically determined, and though elites may jockey among themselves for private causes and projects, they actually compose a unified force in constructing the mythology that organizes the citizen-body for ordered productivity. Finally, Plato’s allegory reveals the troubling fact that the powerless victims of education’s propaganda are complicit in their own oppression, embracing the chains and the shadow realities that keep them in their restricted places.
Plato shows us a single model of education in Book VII of the Republic, and yet in the next book of the work, Book XIII, he describes many different forms of politeia—from meritocracy through tyranny. This single educational model for a spectrum of political forms suggests an analogous continuum of conceptual coercion that stretches on the one hand from the persuasions that leave the body unmarked to the far extreme of brute force, whose signs are etched in the body. Indeed, in the previous six books (II through VII), as Socrates constructs the kallipolis, we witness not the slightest sign of brute force employed in the beautiful meritocracy but, rather, the citizens are subtly persuaded — disciplined — by music, gymnastics, singular occupations determined by birth, and restricted interaction among the various classes and occupations, to embrace their roles in the state and become productive citizens.
The persuasions of the beautiful city are not accomplished with moral arguments. Socrates has already demonstrated in the opening mock battle that moral arguments are futile as persuasions. The kallipolis calls upon unabashed deception to win over citizen compliance; “noble lies” achieve the polis’ productive goals. A myth of origins (the myth of metals) explains the city’s rigid social organization and its vocational traditions (flexible borders notwithstanding), and the myth of a prophesied alien invasion maintains the status quo of power relations, keeping the philosophers in power, the guardians in the gymnasia, and the workers in their fields and workshops.
However, among all these lies, Plato does not deceive on the matter of the goal of the kallipolis: individual “goodness” (compliance to their productive roles) brings the general “happiness” of the state. Plato is clear: the objective of the polis is not individual happiness, an admission that haunts the reader with questions about what general happiness might mean, if it is unrelated to individual happiness. The answer may be found by filtering the paradox through the reigning values of the Greek world: the kallipolis sets aside individual happiness for the sake of the state’s ordered constancy, modeled by the heavenly bodies. The best city turns out to be precisely like the worst tyranny in this one single respect: its dedication to the ordered, stable endurance and productivity of the system.
The persuasive mythology of noble lies and the ordered, productive role-separation among the citizens are the keys to achieving ordered stability in the best politeia, the meritocracy. At the far opposite pole of the political spectrum (tyranny), the gently persuasive educational model gives way to the more force-driven educational methods, such as chains, tortures, whips, and an occasional execution. But what is rarely noticed is that the objective of the two models is identical: citizen “goodness” (compliance to their productive roles) for the sake of the general “happiness” of the system (its ordered longevity).
One glaring discrepancy comes into view in comparing the social control methods of the meritocracy with those of the tyranny — the degree of effectiveness of the methods. Ironically, persuasion is infinitely more efficacious than force in maintaining citizen “goodness.” The forceful methods that scar the skin and break the bone may alter the behavior of citizen-subjects, but the persuasions of political mythology and daily, disciplined practices seep down to the soul of the citizen-subjects. Physical submission to the will of the ruler is the order in the tyranny, but in the gentler state citizens do not simply concede to the wishes of their social masters; they embrace with their hearts the worldview of their masters; they cling ferociously to the policies and procedures that oppress them. Persuasion engages the will of the citizen to make her an active accomplice in her own degradation. In his essay, “Freedom and Command,” Emmanuel Levinas captures succinctly the subtle intercourse between the will of the powerful and the freedom of the victim, along the force/persuasion spectrum:
Free thought is not simply the consciousness of a tyranny exercised over our animality; it is not a mere spectator of this animality agitated by fear and love . . . [Tyranny] has unlimited resources at its disposal, those of love and wealth, torture and hunger, silence and rhetoric. It can exterminate in the tyrannized soul even the very capacity to be struck, that is, even the ability to obey on command. True heteronomy begins when obedience ceases to be obedient consciousness and becomes an inclination. The supreme violence is in that supreme gentleness. To have a servile soul is to be incapable of being jarred, incapable of being ordered. The love for the master fills the soul to such an extent that the soul no longer takes its distances. Fear fills the soul to such an extent that one no longer sees it, but sees from its perspective.
Levinas makes no distinction between persuasive and forceful methods of tyranny, though he does maintain the distinction between victims oppressed in body or in soul. He hollows out that distinction in terms of the subject‘s conceptual freedom: the victim of physical force remains conceptually free, her autonomy intact even when corporeally shackled, because she retains the capacity to recognize her own oppression. Up to the very moment that the tyrant’s brute force extinguishes the subject’s life, the tortured body is a dais which stages the sovereignty of the victim, whose very flesh, recoiling from the whip and chafing at the chains, protests the injustice of the blows it suffers. But the gentle persuasions that seduce the mind negate the very will of the victim, extinguishing her freedom at the inner core of her being. Persuasion, far more insidious and powerful a resource for educating, elicits compliance prior to thought, prior to awareness, colonizing the victim’s heart.
A Bunny Tale
The spectrum of politeia with their diverse educational methods for eliciting citizen “goodness” (compliance to their productive roles in the system) comes to fable in Richard Adams’ children’s story, Watership Down. The models of community presented in this tale clarify the methodological distinctions between political models. Watership Down tracks the epic journey of a group of rabbits on their way to a promised land, Watership Down, where legend has it they may live in freedom and peaceful security. When their warrens are poisoned by underground gassing, the survivors make their way through a variety of rabbit communities, the two extremes of which are Cowslip Warren and Efrafa. These two warrens have differing organizational structures, differing methodologies for managing their citizens, but they seek the common objective of eliciting the “goodness” of the individuals. In each case, a unique life experience is lived, passed down from peculiar histories, and in each, mythologies are called upon to explain inherited behaviors, to justify power relations, and to hold the community intact and productive over time. Each too has its private pains and sufferings, which mark the precise site where the social control methods take hold.
The gentlest community discovered along the journey is Cowslip’s Warren or Shining Wire Warren, a rabbit dwelling built by humans for the harvesting of rabbit meat, though humans rarely appear in the community and their influence is not readily apparent. From the rabbits’ perspective, this is an ideal community, because everything necessary to blissful existence magically appears as needed, giving this warren the ostensible atmosphere of a society dedicated to rabbit welfare. Thus no one thinks of running away and no chains or fences are needed. The rabbits of Shining Wire Warren are, in Levinas’ terms, servile souls, who no longer take their distance. They do not have an obedient consciousness; they simply live the truth of the master, assuming that the community serves their interests. The only telltale mark of their oppression is the general atmosphere of eerie melancholy, which hangs over this rabbit paradise, a melancholy that lingers in the background and colors the smallest detail of daily existence, though it only emerges into consciousness when one of the fold goes missing (caught in a snare), revealing the limits of their freedom and the deadly price they ultimately pay for their ready comforts.
Cowslip Warren is the polar opposite of the highly organized Efrafa Warren encountered later in the rabbit trek. Here life is tightly structured, much like a military fort, rigidly controlled by its government under the iron grip of General Woundwort, the dictatorial Chief Rabbit. The least detail of every day’s activities is monitored, rationalized, and controlled, right down to the organization of tribal units, by divisions or “marks” determined by scars etched into the rabbits’ bodies (i.e., “The Right Hind Mark”). The rules governing permissible behaviors are elaborate and pervasive, even to the number of allowable births per class. A council of hench-rabbits helps General Woundwort keep the rabbits under the strictest control. Persuasion is used to support the system. Legends of mythical enemies beyond the borders support the necessity of strictly military-style organization and fearsome leaders. Fear, physical pain, and threat of execution are the primary weapons of social control in this community.
Watership Down thus depicts, in these two radically different political models, how sheer force alone seldom staves off the revolution of the oppressed as effectively as well-devised functional mythologies, which engage the propagandees’ complicity in their own enthrallment. Cowslip Warren’s reigning mythology that the society is organized for the good of the rabbits is very different from Efrafa’s realpolitik mythology that blames external enemies for the unfortunate brutalities of the system; yet both worldviews function to an identical end — to quell dissent among an oppressed population that exists for the benefit of those who harvest them and their labor. Efrafa is the more openly oppressive, but the open brutality against resisters illuminates the greater effectiveness of the mythology of the free welfare state for keeping the consecrated order. There is no rebellion in Cowslip. The pains of Efrafa are readily visible in the scars etched across the citizen bodies that sort the population into its tribal divisions or “marks.” Cowslip’s pains are invisible, much deeper, etched into the souls of the rabbits, evidenced only in the profound melancholy that pervades the entire community.
Harvesting the Human
No state on earth is a true meritocracy; Plato unequivocally asserts this politeia’s impossibility at the close of Book IX of the Republic. But all the other regimes in Plato’s catalogue of devolving political forms detailed in Book XIII did exist in the ancient world and continue to hold sway in the modern era. All political forms lie somewhere along the spectrum from pure meritocracy to pure tyranny, but the farthest extremes are unlikely to be found in their pure forms in the real world. All politeia serve some societal members more and others less or not at all. All leaders serve their own desires and interests to greater or lesser degrees. No system overtly admits to the exploitation of its lower classes; each has its dominant ideology that explains the differences in freedoms and benefits in terms of the general “happiness” of the state; each reinterprets and justifies the injustices of the system as unfortunate collateral effects necessitated by a threatening world or serving the objective of the general happiness of the group.
Adams’ children’s tale, like Plato’s political treatise, illuminates the fact that the gentler, less openly autocratic system is far more effective for gaining citizen compliance to the roles assigned them in the society. These works evidence that the form of citizen education that leaves the body intact and unscarred but disciplines the mind to accept as desirable certain ways of being-in-the-world “turns the soul” of the citizen, co-opting her very will. The victim so reoriented no longer freely sees the powerful forces that control her but sees through the will of the powerful. Thus the persuasive educational approach is the far more effective technique of social control, because it engages the complicity of victims in their own exploitation.
By not speaking about the disappearance of members of their fold, by refusing to dialogue their pain, by accepting their melancholy as the necessary price for their full bellies, the rabbits of Cowslip Warren become complicit in an industrial conspiracy that will ultimately harvest them all. These rabbits, far more than the cruelly oppressed rabbits of Efrafa, have willingly embraced the political terms of their oppression, clutched their social roles with their hearts so they can see no alternatives. Without fences or chains, they live the false freedom that Jacques Ellul ascribes to “mass society” in his seminal work, Propaganda: “all are tied together and constitute a kind of society in which all individuals are accomplices and influence each other without knowing it.” Citizens in mass society, like the rabbits in Cowslip warren, have ceased to be true individuals, thinking for themselves, and critically weighing up the merits and flaws in their life and their society, but have become “part of a current flowing in a certain direction.”
Western capitalist democracies place themselves on the spectrum of political forms at the gentle end of the spectrum; their citizens for the most part share the conformist features of mass society and they believe they are free and their societies exist to serve their interests. These contented citizens form a “current,” quickly mounting to a vast global tide, flowing to MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart to unthinkingly support a system that exploits them physically, fiscally, and psychologically. Citizens of modern capitalist societies, as the rabbits in Cowslip Warren, assume their productive and consumptive roles in their societies, mindlessly, without fences or chains. They have been “educated” to their consumptive/productive habits at a far deeper level than reason or will. Citizen compliance to system goals is no longer willingly offered, because will has been coopted by the omnipresent mythology that their societies are organized around their best interests, that their laws and internal policing practices, as much as their foreign policies, are dedicated to their well-being. People move about as they will, pursuing this or that vocation, having as many offspring as they wish, and speaking freely and openly with their neighbors.
The dictatorships of the Middle East and Asia, where well-armed regimes with powerful armies openly restrict citizen movement and break up communities of discourse that threaten revolution, perform an important service to Western mass societies, acting as extreme counter-examples to their “free and egalitarian” systems. However, if Plato and Adams, Ellul and Levinas, have their theories right, Western democratic systems are far less free than any dictatorship. Their social control methodology, which leaves the bodies unmarked, coopts the will of the citizen-subjects and enslaves them as “servile souls.” The only evidence of their pain is the epidemic levels of melancholia, as pervasive among the citizens of the “free” West as in the Shining Wire Warren.
Plato is correct: even the best state is organized for the general happiness of the state (its productive endurance) and is unconcerned with individual happiness. This explains why, in Western politeia, there exists a virtual epidemic of mental diseases, from depression to anxiety to drug and alcohol dependency. One in ten people in the United States, including millions of children, load up on antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs to make it through their day. Moreover, since drug and alcohol dependency is deemed a crime in the USA, the epidemic of depressive disorders coincides with another social disease, simultaneously spiraling out of control. The burgeoning prison population renders the tax-supported prison-industrial complex one of the most profitable big businesses of the modern world, if a travesty in terms of recidivism and human suffering.
How does the mythology that “the American way of life” is the paradigm of societal excellence maintain in the face of this overwhelming evidence of the general suffering of its people? The propaganda of the “American Dream” posits that anyone can be successful if one works hard. That allows the (socially and materially) unsuccessful to be blamed for their sorry condition. The myth of the American Dream, as pervasive as melancholia in the least socially mobile state of the free world, conceals the inequality in opportunity that plagues the lower classes and keeps them chained in their lowly condition of poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness.
Traditions in every society enlist members in certain behaviors; people do the things they habitually do because their forbears did those things before them. Behavioral customs are deeply implicated in the conceptual arrangements of any given society. Members embrace traditions before thought, before critical awareness, because they see their life choices through their traditions, rather than seeing traditions as a choice. But even where choice remains open, those most exploited by a system often willingly take up their roles in the system, embracing their own exploitation and assuming their degraded ranking, because accepting the system’s traditions purchases their sense of belonging to the group. And who, more than the system’s most alienated victims, so desperately craves belonging? Circumcisions, hazings, and other painful rites of passage, as much as religious confirmations, sacraments, Thanksgiving dinners, bar/bat mitzvahs, and secret handshakes and salutes commit members of an organization to a level of allegiance far more profound than rational arguments can persuade.
The importance of engagement in ritual acts is underscored by Ellul. This is why he names action the first critical task in securing commitment to propaganda. An action elicited from the propagandee is a concrete enactment of commitment, he argues, because an action compels the actor to adopt the desired worldview to justify the action after the fact. Confirming the futility of mere persuasion, Ellul asserts that one does not get to a “readily mobilizable human being,” engaged at a profound level of commitment, by engaging a person on the level of intelligence or by activating her critical thinking. Rather, the propagandee must be “penetrated” in a general climate of “sociological propaganda” that renders certain acts sheer common sense within the given context. Overwhelmed by “repetitions, explanations and proofs,” the propagandee is compelled by “common sense” to act in accord with the logic of the setting and in so doing, she becomes one with it, penetrated by it. Penetration begins with the body, with disciplines and fleshy commitments, rituals and traditions. Penetration begins with an act.
People conceptually embrace the master narratives of their societies because these help them to make sense of what they already do, what their people have always done. Anthropologists agree: rituals come first; then myths arise to articulate and explain those otherwise incomprehensible acts and give meaning to people’s lives and their worlds. Stories reinterpret a people’s collective sufferings and celebrate their collective triumphs. Cultures are nothing but epistemic communities, sites where a people’s experiences are assigned collective meanings, evolving worldviews where truths, inherited from the past (“traditions”), are endlessly reinterpreted and reconstructed to articulate and explain new realities, new collective experiences of new generations that demand new explanatory schemata.
Despite the vast levels of melancholia evident in modern mass societies, these politeia are generally deemed overwhelming successes, triumphs of freedom and egalitarianism. This is because mass societies are especially vulnerable to the spread of propaganda. Master narratives construct a discursive cage around the deviants — neurotics, hysterics, addicts, perverts, felons, delinquents, insurgents — a cage which contains their symptoms as aspects of their “natures,” while masking the causes of their disease in the environments that “nurture” their pain.
The causes of social disease are self-evident and pervasive in modern mass societies. These are dis-spiriting times. The destructive and dehumanizing values of industrial capitalism have been expounded at length by experts. According to Jacques Rancière, an all-encompassing consumer “sociality” enthralls the dwindling middle classes and blinds them to the spiraling disenfranchisement of the poor worker, which class they will shortly join. Technological society, ruled by experts and their carefully constructed edifices of knowledge, grants only the illusion of freedom and equality, while destining us for loneliness and isolation, Richard Stivers warns. Michel Foucault reveals, through his many genealogies, how modern systems painlessly “discipline” people into docile, productive, efficient workers, shaping their souls to the needs of the system. Yes, these are fatiguing, soul-gripping, spirit-stripping times, but few can see the reality, for the dancing shadows on the cave walls. The discursive cages constructed around the victims of mass societies blame the victims for their illnesses.
But the sickened human beings of mass societies are a predictable product of their environments. Their social diseases are predictable outgrowths of their modes of being-in-the-world, the lifestyles and modes of interaction to which their environments educate them. Being follows after doing, as surely it motivates future articulations of the entrenched behaviors. We become what our environments shape us to be. That is precisely why the most effective propaganda programs aim primarily at action. “The action-reflex,” Ellul asserts, is but “a beginning, a point of departure” that serves explicit ends. Action changes who the actor is; its ends are ontological: propaganda transforms the propagandee into a different sort of being. He becomes a “religious man,” a proselyte, under the thrall of an organization’s propaganda.
Belief on the order of religious faith follows swift on the heels of action, as the actor scurries to justify and give meaning to what he has done. An act undertaken under the spell of propaganda is more than a mere act; it represents a self-sacrifice, a self-crucifixion, a martyrdom of individuality to a sacred ideal. This is because an act, undertaken under the thrall of propaganda, is more than an individual’s act; it becomes infused with a sacred ideal, a transcendental signifier, that reigns across the community.
Transcendental signifiers short-circuit critical awareness and critical thinking because one does not, cannot, question the god. Action undertaken under the rubric of the shared ideal compels the proselyte to a level of commitment from which she can never rationally retreat. Ideals call forth acts of faith, and faith, by definition, can never be trumped by a rational challenge. Action creates faith, and faith compels further actions. This is why the proselyte hardly ever turns back once she has enacted the initiatory deed. “Action makes propaganda’s effect irreversible,” confirms Ellul. Mass societies, such as our Western capitalist democracies, are environments on the order of the melancholic Cowslip Warren, perfect organizational environments for the spread and maintenance of propaganda. For one reason: we are off our guard.
We imagine ourselves to be well-educated but we fail to understand the connection between education and propaganda, exposed in Plato’s cave allegory. Moreover, we imagine ourselves well-informed, with a steady stream of ready information from a plethora of media always at our fingertips. But that information is strictly limited to a very few sources, the media, plentiful as its forms are, carefully filter what reaches our minds. This permits simultaneous communications of a single vision of truth from a variety of sources, repeating, confirming, explaining and endlessly proving the excellence of the status quo, so that resistance can only ever be sporadic and fragmentary. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, citizens are subjected interminably to “continuous propaganda [that] exceeds the individual’s capacities for attention or adaptation and thus his capabilities for resistance.”
The media’s constant bombardment with an endless deluge of facts, too dense to be processed critically, breaks down people’s psychic defenses and freezes their critical abilities. Ellul brilliantly describes the dilemma:
A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them. They are caught in a web of facts and must remain at the level of facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information.
The “field that has been laid out” by propaganda breaks down individuality and erodes alternative communities of truth, sources of alternative values, alternative ideals. This is all the more the case the more that mass societies are driven toward the economic extremes of the late capitalist era. The stark atmosphere of cut-throat competition for jobs and the latest techno-products increasingly fragments small sites of belonging that might serve as alternative centers of truth, alternative identity hubs and sources of healthier values.
“Mass society requires mass consumption [and] there cannot be mass consumption without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are,” Ellul states. Widespread conformity of viewpoint and action — mythology and ritual — combine to serve a common end—confirmation of the ideal. According to Ellul, the United States is a prime example of a thoroughly propagandized society, because here the psychological soil is well-tilled to a common self-consciousness. Its citizens, however individually diverse, share a fundamental psychological unity, a general “conscious, explicit, theoretical” understanding of who they are together — beneficiaries of a supreme excellence, the “American way of life.”
The myth of the ideal state appeals to the subject’s sense of the sacred by providing “an all-encompassing activating image [that] pushes man to action precisely because it includes all that he feels is good, just and true.” Like “fish in water,” Americans are perfectly adapted to their environments, embracing it as ideal, and it predisposes them to certain faith-driven actions: they are easily provoked to reject anything that fails to dissolve into the “melting pot.” Whatever is different and stands out on its own runs the risk of provoking patriotic rage. “[A]nti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-Negro, and xenophobic currents of opinion” are easily aroused to lethal levels of fanatical outrage, though provocateurs, according to Ellul, are not necessarily attached to any certain political party, but only to certain, often unidentifiable, interest groups heavily invested in the status quo.
Ellul, a French philosopher of the last century, targets the United States as the primary example of a mass society under the thrall of propaganda. He paints Americans as uniformly committed to their ideal, “the American way of life.” I reject this monolithic view of Americans. I believe that such hyperbole undermine the credibility of Elul’s argument. In short, his theory of propaganda, taken to this extreme, begins to sound like so much propaganda — all-embracing, lacking nuance, and denying the relentless spontaneity of life and the resiliency of this rich tapestry of uncommon people.
A more accurate description of this, and indeed of any, mass society would recognize that any cultural site has its singularity in the unique ways that its infinitely diverse and constellated parts come together and pull apart from the norm, how the parts contest with the whole. Societies are fluid orders of forces, competing tensions of belonging and non-belonging. Though America may generally applaud the ideal of an “American way of life,” its diverse constituents hold infinite articulations of what that “way of life” comprises. Even as devotees continually surrender their individuality to the ideal, alternative voices from every sector raise new resistances and contestations to the entrenched traditions and shared cultural meanings that bombard them on all sides.
Histories grow bodies in explicit ways, the fleshy bodies of human beings, the cultural bodies of dominant myths and rituals, and the institutional bodies that encode those myths and rituals in state policies and procedures. Hundreds of years of the propaganda of “manifest destiny” have oriented many American propagandees to uncritically perform certain kinds of actions in the name of their ideal—the American way of life. Actions evidence the deep effects of propaganda and the religious fervor with which it is embraced, while cruel punishments suppress opponents of the ideal. America acts mercilessly against its internal defectors (criminals, civil disobedients, and assorted whistleblowers), just as against its opponents in the international community (“rogue states” and their “insurgent” populations that stand in the way of American big business interests).
Alternative lifestyles and values cannot help but come into view, not only as mistaken, but as corrupt and perverse — as “evil.” Thus deviance and opposition, at home or abroad, is bound to trigger in devotees a wild-eyed patriotism, which guarantees that deviants, wherever they are found, will be met with “shock and awe” retribution by armies of self-righteous defenders—extremes of sentencing for minor crimes and death for more despicable villains. However, the very acts that evidence the ideological fervor of the propagandee also evidence the irrepressible difference that exceeds propaganda’s reach. The zeal of the faithful is equally matched by the courage of the broad chorus of counter-voices that refuse to prostrate themselves before the god.
A host of American individuals (Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and many others) form alternative communities of truth (public media, fair trade NGOs, minority support groups, environmental activists, the “99%”) that daily witness their resistance to the pervasive propaganda. They stand in brave defiance of the ideal, despite the threat of brute force (police brutality and broad institutional suspensions of due process) and the ubiquitous bombardments of persuasion (corporate media monopolies and blockades of public media). These brave beacons of change form the ranks of a strong tradition of political and moral rebellion that, within the belly of the capitalist beast, challenges the wars of aggression, the internal oppressions, and the myth of the ideal state.
In every state, educational methods are applied to citizen bodies and souls to compel compliance and foster productivity. Of the two methodologies, persuasion or brute force, the gentle persuasions of propaganda are most effective. A servile body gives its labor until it expires or until the revolution arrives, but the servile soul gives her heart to the homeland and sends off her children to its wars. But neither method functions without remainder. An excess lingers to witness the violence of destructive ideas and dehumanizing lifestyles, as surely as scars mark the bodies of the physically tortured in tyrannical regimes.
The unhappiness of individual citizens, the pains induced by their alienated productivity, increases in direct proportion with the “happy” longevity of the system that serves the very few. But no system, however effective its educational techniques, remains forever constant and invulnerable to alternative truth. The irrepressible resilience of the human species against both force and persuasion is witnessed most purely in the fresh young faces of the peaceful demonstrators on college campuses and in city parks across the American continent, as they weather the elements, the night-stick blows and the painful tear-gassings to bring about a different ideal of justice than that which their system reveres.