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US as Global Overlord

Dumbing Down, American-style

Herbert I. Schiller

(Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of California, San Diego)
Le Monde Diplomatique / The Guardian Weekly, August 1999, pp. 5-7.

For at least half a century the global theatre has had one dominating actor -- the United States. Less in total charge of the stage now than 25 years ago, the American presence in the world economy and culture still remains commanding: a gross national product of $7,690bn in 1998; the home base of most 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, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. It is the cultural-electronic Goliath of the world.

Its supremacy is recognised universally and with increasing resentment, to judge by the comment 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 Americans, 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 often on themselves?

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 re quires not indignation but support, or at least acquiescence, from the 270m people who inhabit the home territory. Until now this has been achieved in a complex way that uses heavy indoctrination. It 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 graded arsenal of coercions that begin with admonition and end with incarceration. There are almost 1.8m people in prison in the US, a world record per head of population.

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 years since the second world war. One president after another tells Americans how wonderful they are. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has even described the US 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 are being refined and calibrated.

One of the most effective means of keeping order in the ranks is definitional control -- the ability to explain and circulate the governors' view of reality, local or global. Its practice depends on a reliable national instructional system. Schools, entertainment, the media and the political process are enlisted. The basis of definitional control is the information infrastructure that produces meaning and awareness. When the infrastructure is 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, this framework insulates most people from ever imagining an alternative social reality.

Take the use of the term "terrorism". Terrorism at home and abroad has become a paramount concern of the US government, and the justification for enormous expenditure on the military and the police. And well it might be. It is no surprise 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 violent, to be explained to the American public? Simple. They are presented -particularly when the oppressors are friends of Washington -- as acts of "terrorism". In the 1990s the label has been attached to the Iranians, the Libyans, the Palestinians, the Kurds (3) and many others. In an earlier time it was the Malaysians, the Kenyans, the Angolans, the Argentines and the Jews resisting the British Mandate in Palestine. In the past half-century US forces and their accomplices have been burning and slaughtering "terrorists" in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq and elsewhere.

Definitional control can also work by omission. The annual issue of Time that features "the most influential people in America" is richly illustrative. The magazine's latest roster of most influential Americans begins with a new golf star and includes Madeleine Albright, 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, heir to part of the Mellon oil and banking fortune 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. 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 was a table published a month later in the back business pages of the New York Times, listing the 10 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 had 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.

Such information in context, however, is precisely what definitional control is employed to prevent. Besides, there has emerged in recent decades a galaxy of information producers and analysts whose task is to shield the wielders of power from public attention. These are the same 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 studies and reports that are given credibility in the national and local informational circuits. Rightwing think-tankers enjoy wide access to local radio and national television, and they quietly lobby 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, it 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 back-up and reinforcement from 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 on how their economic strength, political authority and cultural power, utilising market rules and values, have affected the American public. 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 by "market forces" from sampling the world's diverse creative output.

Ninety-six per cent of the films Canadians see and 80% of the magazines they read are foreign (in most 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 tremendous disadvantage compared with US film producers, who enjoy a large, unified and rich domestic market. The consequences have been calamitous for overseas film industries, reduced and marginalised in the global market. Foreign offerings, if they make it into the US market, are increasingly made to satisfy audiences already shaped by their long-standing experience with the Hollywood product. In both situations, domestic and foreign, the filmgoer suffers.

American readers' familiarity with current world literature is no less abysmal. The international writers organisation PEN puts out an annual list of published book translations, from all the languages of the world. In any given year, the number of titles has not exceeded 200 to 250.

The situation is hardly different as, far as news, is concerned. Television coverage of foreign affairs 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 scriptwriter Larry Gelbart described the functioning of the media system, television in particular, in the US today. Having previously written about the depredations of the tobacco industry in Barbarians at the Gate, Gelbart says: "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 chooses most of its content for its entertainment value, in its quest for the large audience. This situation is by no means confined to the US (8), although it has probably reached more critical dimensions there than in any other developed country. So much so that the Norwegian political scientist Johan Galtung has described it as the "television idiotisation" of Americans.

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, 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 most of the media's financial support, and it is their messages, $40bn worth annually in television alone, that create the all-embracing commercial atmosphere in the US. No other people are subjected to as heavy a barrage of commercial imagery and messages as Americans. Few have attempted to measure the impact of this incessant flow of commercials. No studies have been made, or at least none has been published.

The commercial pummelling of the American mind begins at an early age. The situation is so gross that Business Week, a magazine not known for its hostility to the market economy, published a cover story chronicling the targeting of the country's infants: "At 1.58pm 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 databases of marketers" (9).

The cumulative effects of unbridled commercialism, however difficult to assess, are one key to explaining the impact of growing up, in the core of the world's marketing system. At the very least, it suggests unpreparedness for, and lack of concern 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 been pursued in the interests of the governing, corporate class, but the 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; these are thinly veiled apologetics for private, corporate direction of the country. In dealing with these sentiments, in hundreds of channels every day, the public cannot possibly begin to understand, much less deal with, the urgent issues of local, national or international existence.

In international affairs the public is exposed to ceaseless tirades from large sections of complicit media against the very idea of the UN. The invective penetrates the mainstream media as well. The result has been a decades-long campaign against the UN and related international bodies such as Unesco and the World Health Organisation. It is not that these bodies are above criticism, but that their functions are attacked as threatening and unnecessary, that the principles of international solidarity are condemned. And it is not only the UN and the international community that suffer. Americans 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 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 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 its pernicious authority.

Herbert I. Schiller

(Original text in English)


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

(2) Quoted by Huntington, op.cit.

(3) In particular by 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) Serge Halimi, "Les 'boîtes à idées' de la droite américaine", Le Monde diplomatique, May 1995.

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

(6) Anthony DePalma, "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, Galilée, Paris, l999.

(9) Business Week, 30 June 1997.