Dumbing down, American-style, by Herbert Schiller
Source Dave Anderson
Date 01/03/17/21:12

The projection of United States' power abroad has much to do with the way
in which its internal consensus is formed. Ever-present advertising,
ideological bombardment by institutions that challenge the very idea of
public policies for the common good, isolation and cultural
protectionism: this is the heavy price Americans pay as their tribute to
the god of business.

(from Le Monde Diplomatique)
Dumbing Down, American-style

For at least half a century, the global theatre has had one dominating
actor - the United States of America. Less in total direction of the stage
now than 25 years ago, the American presence in the world economy and
culture remains commanding: a gross national product of $7,690 billion in
1998, the home base of the majority of the transnational corporations that
scour the world for markets and profits, the overseer of the many facades
of international decision-making, the United Nations Organisation, the
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the
World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and others, the
cultural-electronic Goliath of the universe. Its supremacy is recognised
universally and with increasing resentment, to judge by the comments of a
British diplomat reported by the American academic, Samuel P
Huntington: "One reads about the world's desire for American leadership
only in the United States. Everywhere else one reads about American
arrogance and unilateralism" (1).

Yet how the world sees us may not be as revealing as how we see
ourselves. How do those who live in this globally pre-eminent territory
understand their own and their country's situation? Is it, in fact, so
obvious to everyone, as they go about their daily routines, that they are
part of a dominating global order? When, if at all, do people in this
ruling core society express indignation at, or resistance to, the burdens
their order imposes on others - and frequently on themselves as well?

This is not an awareness that can be taken for granted or that inevitably
surfaces. Indeed, the far-reaching enterprise of being the global overlord
requires not indignation but support, or at least acquiescence, from the
people who inhabit the home territory - some 270 million of them. Up to
the present time this has been achieved in a complex way, one that
combines heavy indoctrination that begins in the cradle with a system of
selection and/or omission of information that reinforces the enterprise's
maintenance and growth. Along with intense, though often veiled, efforts
of persuasion, and equally extensive exclusion of potential discordancies,
there is a well-graded arsenal of coercions that begin with admonition and
end with incarceration. There are almost 1.8 million people in prison in
the USA, a world record per head of population.

Together, to date, these instruments of social control have been
remarkably successful in producing, if not enthusiastic believers, at
least general acceptance at home of the US control apparatus and its
procedures for running the world. In justification of this endeavour,
there are continual reminders by the governing class of how blessed
everyone is, at home and abroad, with the present arrangements. The
refrain of America's greatness has echoed throughout the land in the
post-second world war years. One president after another tells Americans
how wonderful they are. Not only at the present time but apparently since
Neanderthal days, the country is without peer. Madeleine Albright has even
described it as "the indispensable nation" (2). How can anyone not
recognise the bliss of living in the US at this time? Yet many do
not. Assertion, apparently, is not enough. More comprehensive methods of
securing popular adherence, never absent in the past, are being refined
and calibrated for the millennium ahead.

One of the most tested and effective means of keeping order in the ranks
comes from definitional control - the ability to explain and circulate the
governors' view of reality, local or global. Its practice is dependent on
a reliable national instructional system. Schools, entertainment, the
media and the political process are enlisted. The basis of definitional
control is the informational infrastructure that produces meaning and
awareness. When the infrastructure is in place and performing routinely,
it needs no prompting from the top of the social pyramid. Americans absorb
the images and messages of the prevailing social order. These make up
their frame of reference and perception. With few exceptions, it is this
framework which insulates most from ever imagining an alternative social

Let us take an example, the use of the term "terrorism". In the US the
issue of terrorism - at home and abroad - has become a high governmental
concern and the justification for enormous military and police
expenditures. And well it might be. It is no surprise, indeed it is to be
expected, that resistance to oppressive conditions will erupt from time to
time in one part of the world or another. How are these outbreaks - which
may be bloody and violent - to be explained to the US
population? Simple. They are presented - particularly when the oppressors
are friends or clients of Washington - as acts of "terrorism". In the
1990s, the label was attached to the Iranians, the Libyans, the
Palestinians, the Kurds (3) and numerous others. In an earlier time, it
was the Malaysians, the Kenyans, the Angolans, the Argentinians, and, no
less, the Jews resisting the British Mandate in Palestine. In the last
half century, US forces and their accomplices have been burning and
slaughtering "terrorists" in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq and

Definitional control can also work by omission. The annual special issue
of Time magazine that features "the most influential people in America
1997" is richly illustrative. Time's roster of most influential Americans
begins with a new golfing star and includes, among others, Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright, US Senator John McCain, a radio talk show host,
a black scholar, a film producer, an economist, a product designer, a pop
musician, a television talk show host, a mutual funds manager and the
editor of the National Enquirer. To complete the list, there are two
individuals with significant ties to real power: Richard Mellon Scaife,
the heir to part of the Mellon money and financial angel to many
ultra-conservative organisations and causes; and Robert Rubin, Secretary
of the Treasury and former co-manager of the powerful Wall Street firm
Goldman, Sachs. Yet these two exceptions are individuals now separated
from the power clusters that gave them their personal wealth.

Time's listing confers authority mostly on service providers, not on the
sources and wielders of genuine power in the country. From this list,
readers can feel informed while actually remaining ignorant of the
realities of power in the US. Far more useful for getting a sense of this
reality, for example, was a table published a month later in the back
business pages of the New York Times, listing the ten largest US goods-
and service-producing corporations, by market capitalisation. Heading the
list was General Electric, followed by Coca Cola, Exxon and Microsoft. How
much more enlightened Time's readers might have been if these corporations
headed its list of influentials. The briefest descriptions of what these
companies do, where they are located, what decisions they make about
investment and labour, and how these decisions affect people in and
outside the US, would offer a critical dimension for assessing the real
distribution of power in America and overseas.

But such information in context is precisely what definitional control is
employed to prevent. Besides, there has emerged in recent decades a new
galaxy of information producers and analysts whose task is to obscure and
shield the wielders of power from public attention. These are the very
conservative institutes, research organisations and think tanks (4) that
prepare studies on legal, social and economic issues from a propertied and
corporate perspective. This is to be expected because the corporate sector
is the source of their funds. These organisations turn out a sizeable
quantity of studies and reports which are given full credibility in the
national and local informational circuits. Right-wing think-tankers enjoy
wide and hospitable access to local radio as well as national television,
and they lobby quietly with local, state and national officials.

The Manhattan Institute in New York City is such an outfit. Its mission,
as described by its president, is "to develop ideas and get them into
mainstream circulation - with the help of the 'media food
chain'". Accordingly, the institute hosts "discreetly lavish public-policy
lunches ... to which it invites hundreds of journalists, politicians,
bureaucrats, business people and foundation staff members to hear a
speaker on a subject the institute likes". This kind of cosy forum,
reports the New York Times, has "nudged New York to the right" (5). The
institute has had plenty of backup and reinforcement from other
like-minded organisations. But the essential point about this and dozens
of similar organisations - the top four cited in the media were the
Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise
Institute and the Cato Institute - is that they provide public conduits
for the corporate voice. As a result, the public's information well
becomes polluted at the source.

Yet these are visible structures of ideology creation and
dissemination. Far more effective, and not nearly as visible, in achieving
definitional control are the dynamics of the market system itself,
especially as they relate to the consciousness-creating cultural
industries. These industries have provided incalculable support to US
corporate influence domestically and its expansion globally. Here, the
focus is not on their external impact, but how their economic strength,
political authority and cultural power, utilising market rules and values,
have affected the American public. And it is a grotesque irony that the
nation whose leaders pronounce it "the greatest", and who regard other
countries as pathetic examples of information and cultural deprivation, is
prevented from sampling the world's diverse creative output - not by fiat,
but by "market forces".

Ninety six per cent of the films Canadians see and 80% of the magazines
they read are foreign, in the vast majority of cases American - a fact
that has not passed without comment in Ottawa (6) - whereas foreign films
and videos account for only 1-2% of American "consumption". No single
explanation is sufficient but the sweeping expansion of "free trade" is
the central factor. Foreign film production is at terrific disadvantage to
US film producers who enjoy a large, unified and relatively rich domestic
market. The consequences have been calamitous for foreign film industries,
reduced and marginalised in the global market. Foreign offerings, if they
make it at all into the US market, are increasingly made to satisfy
audiences already shaped by their long-standing film experience with the
Hollywood product. In both situations, domestic and foreign, the filmgoer

The familiarity of American readers with current world literature is no
less abysmal. In any given year, the PEN list of published translations,
from all the languages of the world, has not exceeded more than 200 to 250
titles. The situation is hardly different as far as news is concerned,
where foreign television coverage puts the emphasis on breaking
crises. Most of the messages and images of the world come from still
greater concentrated private channels - with the temporary exception of
the Internet. Given these arrangements, it is hardly surprising that most
Americans' knowledge of the world and its problems is less than
microscopic. "Weapons of Mass Distraction" is how film-maker Larry Gelbart
has described the functioning of the media system, television in
particular, in the US today. Gelbart, who earlier wrote about the
depredations of the tobacco industry in Barbarians at the Gate, explained
his new film: "Tobacco executives are only dangerous to smokers but we all
smoke the news. We all inhale television. We all subscribe to what these
men are putting out. They're much more dangerous" (7).

And what they are putting out is so commoditised that it chooses most of
its content for its entertainment value, in quest of the large
audience. This situation is by no means confined to the US (8), though it
has probably reached more critical dimensions there than in any other
developed country. So much so that the Norwegian political scientist
Johann Galtung has described it as the "television idiotisation" of

Yet national ignorance cannot be accounted for solely by the
trivialisation and withholding of news. It has much deeper roots. The
structural foundation of the media system, financed exclusively by those
who can afford to buy time and messages, assures a continuing cultural
impoverishment of the audience - this despite the best efforts of a few
talented people who have been trying for decades to promote a
non-commercial culture. The giant corporations account for the bulk of all
the media's financial support and it is their messages, $40 billion worth
annually in television alone, that create the all-embracing commercial
atmosphere in the country. No other people in the world are subject to as
heavy a barrage of commercial imagery and messages as are Americans. Few
have attempted to measure the impact of this incessant flow of
commercials. No studies have been made, or at least none have been

The commercial pummelling of the American mind begins at a very early age
and no-one is really concerned with the consequences. The situation is so
gross that Business Week, a publication not known for its hostility to the
market economy, was prompted to publish a cover story chronicling the
depredations imposed on the country's infants: "At 1.58 pm on Wednesday 5
May, a consumer was born ... by the time she went home three days later,
some of America's biggest marketers were pursuing her with samples,
coupons and assorted freebies ... Like no generation before, hers enters a
consumer culture surrounded by logos, labels, and ads almost from the
moment of birth ... By the time she's 20 months-old, she will start to
recognise some of the thousands of brands flashed in front of her each
day. At the age of seven, if she's anything like the typical kid, she will
see some 20,000 TV commercials a year. By the time she's 12, she will have
her own entry in the massive data bases of marketers" (9).

The cumulative effects of unbridled commercialism, however difficult to
assess, constitute one key to answering what is the impact of growing up
in the core of the world's marketing system. Minimally, it suggests
unpreparedness for and unconcern with the world that exists outside the
shopping mall. Now radio, and to an increasing extent television, have
been taken over to express the views of a hard-line conservative element,
supported by numerous foundations, that is against any form of social
organisation, national or international.

One of the primary targets of these extremist groups is government. The
interventionist policies of the US government have in fact been pursued in
the interests of the governing corporate class but the currently
vociferous opponents of government do not mention these
activities. Instead they claim that government as a form of political
organisation is intolerable. This is not the principled position of
anarchism but thinly veiled apologetics for private, corporate direction
of the country. In expressing these sentiments in hundreds of channels
daily, the public cannot possibly begin to understand, much less deal
with, the urgent issues of either local, national or international

In international affairs, the public is exposed to ceaseless tirades from
large sections of complicit media against the very idea of the United
Nations. The invective penetrates the mainstream media as well. The result
has been a decades-long campaign against the UN and related international
bodies, for instance, UNESCO and the World Health Organisation. It is not
that the UN and its related bodies are above criticism. But it is that
their functions are attacked as threatening and unnecessary, it is that
the principles of international solidarity are condemned. And it is not
only the UN and the international community that suffer. Americans too
turn away from their own weak and poor and adopt the rationales of those
who see no need for social protective networks.

The acceptance - though there are some points of resistance - of the
American consumerist, privatised model abroad strengthens the prevailing
mind-set in the US. Only the most profound shocks in the global and
domestic economies will be sufficient to shake the beliefs and values that
now prevail in the minds and consciousness of most Americans. This is not
a comforting thought. But the machinery of mind management is so
entrenched and pervasive that nothing less than seismic movements can be
expected to loosen or weaken its pernicious authority.

* Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of California, San

(1) Samuel P Huntington, "The lonely superpower", Foreign Affairs,
March-April 1999.

(2) Quoted by Huntington, op.cit.

(3) In particular by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a speech
given at the National Press Club, Washington, on 6 August 1997 and quoted
in the New York Times on 8 August 1997.

(4) See Serge Halimi, "Les "botes ides" de la droite amricaine", Le Monde
diplomatique, May 1995.

(5) See Janny Scott, "Promoting its ideas, the Manhattan Institute has
nudged New York rightwards", New York Times, 12 May 1997.

(6) See Anthony De Palma, "US gets cold shoulder at a Culture Conference",
International Herald Tribune, 2 July 1998.

(7) Quoted in the New York Times, 8 May 1997.

(8) See Ignacio Ramonet, La tyrannie de la communication, Galile, Paris

(9) Business Week, 30 June 1997.

Original text in English


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 1997-2001 Le Monde diplomatique

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho