American Propaganda Capitalizes on our Fatigue

Full-time working Americans spend, on average, 41 hours on the clock per week. A third of them work over 45 hours, and one-in-eight over 55.

In the industrial age, the idea of working between 40–55 hours per week sounded like pure delusion. We all learned about the backbreaking, dangerous, alienating working conditions of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Don’t be fooled. We still exist to serve someone else, and our very livelihoods are under threat each minute we take our being in the world for granted.

We are always tired. There is always something, whether in the back of our minds or out in front of us, that keeps us from attaining a true sense of freedom. You wake up early for work, clock in, clock out, turn on the TV, and get ready for bed because there’s work tomorrow. Even our vacations are soured at the end; on the ride home, you know you’ll be back to your normal life tomorrow, as the pendulum of the next week returns to swing between pain and boredom. Sundays are the same case.

Yet, we seem to feel pretty comfortable with everything. We still feel like we’re living, sort of. We’re doing what everyone else does. We get into political debates with coworkers and friends, watch movies, treat ourselves to Taco Bell at 10 at night because we feel like it. You and I are in a school of fish all moving in the same direction, complacent and innocent, all with unique talents and secrets and hobbies but nonetheless the same. In other words, despite the atrocities levied under our noses, assaulting our essence, we’re happy. A great part of that has to do with the fact that we’re unaware of the incredible influence of mass media on our daily lives.

Mass media is a system served to communicate messages to the public on a daily basis. In America, the way we’ve consumed media has changed from newspapers to Twitter, although we still watch an incredible 4+ hours on average every day in front of the television. But whether we prefer to blankly sit in front of a television, phone, or computer, media companies have insistently adapted and controlled our perception of political matters, limiting the possibility of independent thought before we can even begin. “It is their [mass media] function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society,” Noam Chomsky says in Manufacturing Consent. “In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

Even if you don’t watch CNN, I’m sure you’ve probably at least seen the Presidential or Democratic debates this year. I’d like you to go back to them, take note of who the moderators and post-game commentators are, and see if you can find a common denominator between them all. One thing you might notice: the spectrum of political opinion hardly sways. The furthest-left commentator might be a Centrist who concedes that Bernie Sanders indeed “energizes the youth”, but that’s as hot of a take you’ll get to hear. This goes for all major media companies on all shows, articles, Tweets, and whatnot. You may argue that a company like CNN tends to be “liberal-leaning”, and that’s sort-of true, if “liberal-leaning” means “leaning from conservatism to centrism”. Fox News, of course, blatantly exploits far-right rhetoric. But you would be hard-pressed to find a major media outlet that goes against the grain, because the grain is capitalism, and major media is a powerful Soma machine made by and for the capitalist system.

The media, as you’ve probably noticed, paints itself as some sort of underdog, particularly under Donald Trump’s reign, where he insistently attacks the media for their liberal agenda. Despite Trump, they are not an underdog, nor are they independent or courageous. Six companies own 90% of the nation’s media, and the same company (News Corp) that owns Fox owns Wall Street Journal. Being oligopolized by a handful of capitalists with one common goal, the notion that the media serves to inform by the people, for the people, and as a check that keeps political powers from corruption, rather than a well-oiled system that deliberately limits our information and contributes to our complacency, is absurd. We can easily take publicly-owned media with a grain of salt, but it’s much harder to visualize media companies as propaganda machines when they’re privately owned, and they promptly consider themselves objective and for the common good. All media must pass through a set of filters before it can be published, each filter designed in some way to benefit the bourgeoisie. Noam Chomsky considered these five filters in 1988 to determine what passes as news: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and fear ideology.

Since mass media is primarily overtaken by conglomerates, it presents news with respect to whatever supports the conglomerate. This becomes quite obvious when you notice how severely the political spectrum is limited in mass media; it’s nearly unthinkable to imagine the New York Times’s editorial board supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race (they picked Warren and Klobuchar), let alone a Marxist commentator getting a daily show on CNN.

These media companies also have to be funded through advertisements. Obviously, advertisers would take their commercials off of CNN immediately upon learning a Marxist had a show on there, since associating yourself with communism would not only be a PR nightmare, but completely antithetical to your entire goal (making money). Thus, media companies pander to two different things to generate funding: you (as the product being sold to advertisers) and advertisers (the product being sold to you).

Companies are bound to spend only insofar as they can extend their profit margins. Mass media companies are quick to take advantage of the PR departments of other companies, governments, etc. rather than discovering much for themselves. Interviews are set up between the reporter and a company’s “expert” (usually a lobbyist with a fancy degree) whose only job is to advance their company’s interests. Take a look at the EPA, for example. The current director, Andrew Wheeler, has a Master’s degree in Business and worked as an assistant in the EPA’s Pollution Prevention office. Sounds fantastic, no? He’s also one of the most highly-paid coal lobbyists of the past decade, and has a criminal history of denying climate science. Given he’s the director of the environmental department for the richest nation in the world, you’d think the media would be a bit more critical of him. But I’m willing to bet most Americans have never heard of Andrew Wheeler in their lives. Really, most investigative reports don’t do a whole lot of investigating at all.

Controlling the media is pretty hard. Sometimes, an article may slip through the cracks that you never wanted out. A writer, TV host, or politician might say something that truly goes against the grain. If you’re one of those people, you’re going to catch a hell of a lot of flak from the corporate elite. The corporate elite has a handful of tools to dissuade the masses from perceiving unwanted stories as truth. The Trump administration used those tools to the nth degree, but they’re an outlier for doing it so blatantly. Discrediting stories as false or biased under a certain political agenda is a common tool. Lawsuits can also follow if the story reaches a certain level of substantiality. Outright denial also seems to work, as we’ve seen from the Trump administration repeatedly, even if the facts are laid out clearly — our willingness to listen to authority cannot be undermined.

The same “flak” goes for us, too. We are told to watch what we post on social media in fear of dissuading employers, for example. We must not talk poorly about our work conditions or boss, since our boss could very well pick up on it and restrict any possibility for upward mobility.

Fear Ideology
Mass media always find a handful of supervillains who they can exploit to keep us glued to the news. When Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent during the Cold War, that supervillain was communism. They’ve changed it over the years; in the Bush/Obama eras, it often varied between certain Middle Eastern dictators and American drug abusers (often people in low-income communities). Now, it’s rioters hoping for social justice, North Korea, and brooding socialists, among a few more.

Why is it that something that, when broken down, seems so obvious, but we continue to go on without noticing?

Because we’re tired. Our lives under capitalism are soul-depleting, as we go day-to-day slaving away at something that we might have wanted to do at first but have quickly become tired of. All forms of media are meant to hold our attention; otherwise, it wouldn’t be media. After work, all we’d like to do is rest, and we do so by turning on the TV or scrolling through our phones. The news we consume is consumed during that short period of downtime, between coming home from work and preparing for work the following day. Propaganda is thus successful because we don’t have to work for it. It’s easy to take in the uplifting 30-second soundbites from Pete Buttigieg, or listen to what Tucker Carlson has to say about Black Lives Matter, because they break down concepts in simplistic terms that attract, yet misinform us. They take advantage of our unwillingness to expand our views outside of the socially-accepted range of debate. That complacency stems from our being misinformed and overworked our entire lives. As Chomsky says in Manufacturing Consent, “…Very few people are going to have the time, or the energy, or the commitment, to carry out the constant battle that’s required to get outside of MacNeil/Lehrer, or Dan Rather, or somebody like that. The easy thing to do is come home from work, you’re tired, just had a busy day, you’re not gonna spend the evening carrying on a research project, so you turn on the tube, say it’s probably right, look at the headlines of the paper, then you watch sports or something. That’s basically how the system of indoctrination works. Sure, the other stuff is there, but you’re gonna have to work to find it.”

We’re quick to criticize states such as China or North Korea for their blatant statewide censorship and propaganda; the mistake we’re making is that the United States has, does, and will continue to do the same things before our very eyes, and we are laughably ignorant for falling into the same trap as them. I’m afraid that we’ll never be as angry as is justified. And I’m also afraid that it’s not our fault.

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