Propaganda and the Phantom Nanny of Empire

Empire requires not only the means of conquest but also a high degree of civic disengagement and an irrational faith in the state’s intent and everyday practices. In the US the latter has been overwhelmingly cultivated by almost a century of commercial mass media and promotional culture that have to a significant degree eclipsed human reason.

Very few of the world’s inhabitants have been fortunate enough to garner the care of a nanny. Yet most members of Western industrialized societies, particularly the United States, rely heavily on what may be termed our “phantom nanny” to direct them through the day’s affairs. This has nothing to do with the welfare state per se but rather involves an irrational faith in the regulatory apparatus upon which citizens depend and to which they often defer to guide them in almost every conscious decision, from political perspectives to everyday consumptive and lifestyle choices.

The phantom nanny manifests herself as a sense of assurance toward the safety of a service or product beheld in advertising and on the supermarket or pharmacy shelf; a faith that the complex and manifold corporate-governmental nexus acts affirmatively and uniformly to protect its subjects in terms of the water they drink, the air they breathe, the food and drugs they ingest, even the acts of aggression the nation state chooses to partake in. In other words, the phantom nanny is an irrational belief and trust in a set of unexamined processes and relationships far removed from one’s immediate breadth of comprehension and understanding.

Thus when the artificially sweetened diet soda or food containing one or more genetically modified organisms beckons from the supermarket shelf the phantom nanny assures us it would not be there if it were harmful. Along these lines, when the doctor recommends a particular prescription drug we rest assured they would not do so if such nostrums were harmful. Overall, the phantom nanny assures us all is well and all will be well under the guise of officialdom and bureaucratic expertise.

Intertwined with the perception of regulatory safeguards is a faith in the alleged progressive advancements of science and technology, seen at once in advertising and other mass culture as far removed from yet prepared to proactively intervene in human affairs. In reality, harmful and debilitating substances–what physician and medical researcher Russell Blayloch terms “excitotoxins” such as aspartame and MSG–are embedded in a wide variety of processed foods, while pharmaceutical drugs carry side effects leading to one hundred thousand deaths annually in the US alone. Indeed, while Food and Drug Administration officials are well aware of effective herbal and nutritional treatments for illnesses that are often more effective and less dangerous than patented synthetic compounds, the latter figure centrally in the profit-generating component of the corporate-government nexus and are accordingly given free reign in popular consciousness.

Giving oneself over to the phantom nanny is a phenomenon that arose with the advent of consumer culture in the early to mid-twentieth century and endures amidst the ubiquity of coordinated chatter constituting modern mediated environments. Advertising and propaganda now animate the life of the mind and consequent action through often imperceptible yet highly developed and effective means. Several decades ago public relations researchers pointed to “the predisposition of the audience” as being at least as significant to the persuasion process as messages themselves. “Indirect suggestion”, Pierre Martineau observed in his work Motivation in Advertising, “avoids clashing with the other individual’s system of beliefs, which is his self.”

Taking up this mantle in his book Managing the Human Climate, public relations advocate Philip Lesly advised on how opinion should be strategically positioned in “discretionary media exposure” (print, broadcast and motion pictures one willfully subjects themselves to) where the targeted subject “can feel that the idea came from his own thinking.” From this self-possessed worldview comes an abiding faith in the prevailing political rationality that looks to officially sanctioned expertise for continued legitimation of the status quo.

In this way human beings have moved full circle, from an emergence out of their “self-imposed immaturity” and “alien guidance” of monarchical and ecclesiastical authority of the feudal era to a state of emerging literacy and at least partial awareness typifying the mid-1800s through the early-to-mid 1900s. Writing in 1784, Immanuel Kant famously pointed to an over-reliance on uncalled-for authority as the main cause of mental and spiritual naiveté. Kant challenged his readers to utilize the innate human capacity to reason and “the courage to use your own understanding” in everyday affairs and larger political concerns. Calling to mind the government/corporate communicative and ideological matrix that has such a powerful hold on Western society today, he wrote,

The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have seen to it that the far greatest part of them regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone.

Breaking free of the phantom nanny today is arguably a far more arduous a task than two centuries ago, requiring a transformed political worldview and the attendant risk of estranged family, friends, and colleagues. Yet any life worth living must be one where judgments and ideals are continually reevaluated in the light of newly realized information and in terms of their meaningfulness to the broader human condition. In this regard the subtle and more overt forces arrayed against such an examined life, as immense as they are, are dwarfed upon the full realization of one’s true role as a self-aware social and historical being.

© James F. Tracy 2012 Some Rights Reserved.