Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, introduced me to the phrase, masters of the universe. Wolfe’s novel opened my eyes to the immensity of corruption and greed within our financial and political systems. That same year, Michael Douglas uttered the oft-quoted line, “Greed is good,” in his role as another master of the universe. I thought that folks might actually begin to examine corporate manipulation in our society, and put the greed-mongers out of business. The film was Wall Street, and the year was 1987.
Between 1987 and 2009, the masters got stronger and greedier, facilitated by our elected leaders. It turns out that people actually do think that greed is good. How else explain our failure to correct the ills that allowed financial institutions, insurance companies, and corporations to engorge themselves like bedbugs on hapless travelers?
And now, another ridiculous notion seems to be filtering through society: ignorance is good too. Anti-intellectualism abounds, advanced by the pronouncements of men made famous by lying on TV and radio, and in the newspapers. Need I say the names? Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich come to mind. But this notion of anti-intellectualism has been perpetrated on the public since we crept out of the cave. It works because everyone loves a scapegoat, and because most of us just aren’t that smart. (Otherwise, we wouldn’t believe these ludicrous lies, would we?) That intellectuals came to be seen as worse than the demagogues who bully them boggles the mind.
When I taught English, between 1997 and 2009, I showed my students how easily readers may be swayed and misled using simple techniques identified back in 1937, between the world wars, by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The stated purpose of the Institute was: “…to spark rational thinking and provide a guide to help the public have well-informed discussions on current issues. To teach people how to think rather than what to think.” As I read about this effort, which was taken into high schools, colleges and adult civic groups, I thought how we could use such an education today.
The seven types of propaganda as identified by the Institute were: Name calling, Glittering generalities, Transfer, Testimonial, Plain Folks, Card Stacking and Bandwagon. These techniques are easy to identify. The speeches of the three figures identified above are replete with them, but propaganda is ubiquitous in almost all-political discourse today, and we don’t seem to be able to identify the lie used for the sole purpose of discrediting, and repeated ad infinitum.
Some would have an unthinking populace, sheep, fed at a trough of lies. I would have a thinking populace, a populace that considers the term anti-intellectual pejorative. A populace that knows that ignorance is not good.