I originally posted this elsewhere, but after a good night’s sleep on the subject and more supportive feedback, I realized I wanted to post it here as well. Long-time readers may recall that, occasionally, I would comparatively analyze French and English-language news articles to show how facts were spun in order to support prevailing stereotypes on both sides, and the political implications of it, whether up-front or, most often, hidden. I stopped doing that, paradoxically enough, when I became more interested in the historical background of stereotypes and their use, and the effects still felt in today’s world. If you have a creative bent, you’re probably familiar with the phenomenon: there comes a point where it’s more about “gestation” than “birth” (expression), and the best thing you can do is let it all divide and grow and define itself until that mysterious moment when creator and creation both say, “ready!”
One of my courses for the Masters degree in comparative literature that I’m doing, is on image studies, literature and ethnology. Our main assignment for the course is an exposé, the French term for “oral presentation”, on one of the course topics. (Those who don’t want to give an oral presentation can turn in a 25- to 30-page paper instead.) I chose to do a presentation on the topic “The political use of stereotypes in America”. There will be a topic on the same in France. Originally, I planned to do a comparison of the French image of Americans, and vice versa, but… the more I read about Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, and the more links I found with that faction of the right that’s taking the USA back 100 years to trusts and robber barons… the more my presentation became an exposé in the English sense of the term (it’s also a meaning of the word in French).
It was a 45-minute, 15-page presentation (in French), so I won’t rewrite it here, but suffice to say that I was surprised by my own findings. I did not set out to discover what I did. It literally fell into my lap, “merely” because I was looking at related things, by chance, at the right time. I put “merely” in quotes because, nonetheless, I did have to put my lap there, so to speak, and it also depended on others’ awareness.
So, in brief (there is a great deal of other detail that’s just as pertinent): After successfully selling World War I to the US people, Edward Bernays was one of the key minds behind the coup d’état in Guatemala, 1954. The democratically-elected Guatemalan president Arbenz wanted to give unused, corporate-owned lands to Guatemalan farmers, and was going to compensate the companies whose lands were taken, with the same monetary value as they had declared on their taxes. United Fruit Company had declared $3/acre. Where was the problem? Judging from UFC’s reaction, it would seem they hadn’t given an entirely truthful evaluation of the land’s value on their tax declarations. In retaliation against Arbenz’ offer, UFC declared that the true value was $75/acre. Twenty-five times more! Without explanation! And they lobbied Eisenhower’s government to overthrow Arbenz’s government. Together with the CIA, headed by Allen Dulles, whose brother John was a key shareholder in UFC, Edward Bernays created a propaganda program to turn Guatemalan public opinion against Arbenz, by painting Arbenz and his supporters as communists. A similar propaganda effort was undertaken in the US, to drum up American criticism of Arbenz by using staged “proofs” of communism. Stereotypes. It succeeded. Arbenz was overthrown; a military junta took over Guatemala in 1954. From 1960 to 1996, the country was in civil war.
What does that have to do with today’s corporate interests meddling in politics? Absolutely everything. More than I imagined. First, two important bits of information: United Fruit Company changed its name to Chiquita. Also, Karl Rove, head of Bush’s strategy, now on his own, is a student of Bernays.
Recent news: Billionaires give 91 percent of funds for Rove-tied group. Note the donations by the previous owner of Chiquita, 90-something Carl Lindner. His Wikipedia article does not mention Chiquita, but United Fruit Company‘s does mention his ownership. While he wasn’t owner during the worst of it, it’s no less striking: Chiquita under Lindner has quite a shady history. In 2007, “the 29th Specialized District Attorney’s Office in Medellín called the board members of Chiquita […] to make statements concerning charges for conspiracy to commit an aggravated crime and financing illegal armed groups.” Back to Rove and current US politics: Rove Groups, U.S. Chamber Build Winning Record in Elections. “The group backed the victor in 23 of the 36 House and Senate races where a winner was declared.” Then of course there are the numerous ties to the Koch brothers’ influence (purchasing/funding) of the Tea Party, and their cold-blooded utilisation of stereotypes to fan up support. It’s classic Bernays, and has Cold War ties, which are directly linked to Bernays as well — he and Walter Lippmann were colleagues in the creation of that very term, “Cold War”, as well as “manufacture of consent”.
The Century of the Self is a four-part BBC documentary that discusses Bernays and his legacy. It’s excellent and will change how you see the world. Also, for the Rove-Bernays connection, Karl Rove and the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew. Bernays was “double nephew” to Sigmund Freud: Bernays’ father was the brother of Freud’s wife, and Bernays’ mother was Freud’s sister. (Freud’s obsession with a certain type of impulse and his own blindness to his personal weaknesses would be yet another subject. He had excellent ideas about projection, transference, et cetera, but it’s both fascinating and terribly sad to see that Freud’s denial of, rather than dealing with, his darker side, which he projected as a very dark idea of “human” unconscious, led to tragic results in his personal circle, and in the way his work lent itself to use on a wider scale. Anyone interested would do well to read what Carl Jung had to say about Freud, namely in Symbols of Transformation.)
How to counteract the overwhelming manipulation by fear and stereotypes? I chose “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Fire Next Time” (by James Baldwin) as examples of literature describing stereotypes, psychological projection and their terrible effects… and the heartening, personal lesson each of us can use to counteract it: love. Agape, philia love. Love for humanity. We’re all human, we all have our faults. It’s hard enough to know ourselves; how can we possibly pretend to “know” what an entire group of people is like? Humility. Taking the time to get to know others as individuals. Stopping, when we hear a generalisation, and taking the time to question it — because of that fundamental love for humanity.