(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)
“What we remember from childhood we remember forever—permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.” Cynthia Ozick
The propaganda of my childhood said that Santa Claus rewards children for being good by giving them what they want. And long after I figured out that my parents were Santa Claus, I continued to believe that the reason I never got what I wanted was because I was not good. Every year I was given clothing I did not want, books I did not want, and things my father wanted, so that as I unwrapped those gifts he would chortle, “What a coincidence. Just what I needed.”
However, when I was ten-years-old, my parents gave me a real bow and arrows with steel tips, something I had been asking for since I was old enough to ask for something. And when I went outside to shoot that bow and arrows, and found that my father had also bought a bale of hay to which he had affixed a beautiful target, I was more than happy; I was filled to bursting with the sense of being good.
“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” Shirley Temple
In response to the depressing fact that the latest tax bill signed into law by President Obama actually increases taxes on the poorest 150 million Americans while allowing the super wealthy to pay no taxes at all, a friend remarked, “That doesn’t fit with the propaganda of our childhood.” And her comment struck me as a cogent explanation for why my peers and I continue to be so deeply disappointed by the machinations of the corporate overlords as carried out by their trusty puppets. And her comment also explained why we, the people, gorge on documentaries and articles recounting sordid truths about our government and our history yet remain powerless to effectively respond to these revelations. Why? Because we are programmed from the cradle through high school to believe the opposite of the truth.
For instance, nowhere in the propaganda of our childhood does it say the President of the United States is a puppet manipulated by corporate overlords. Indeed, according to the propaganda of our childhood there are no such things as corporate overlords. According to the textbooks and teachings of my childhood, the President of the United States and the senators and representatives in Congress and the governors of the states are men (and a few women) who love the poor and downtrodden and are dedicated to helping them. Our rulers are special people, war heroes and people from humble beginnings who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and want to help other people do the same.
But what was impressed on us even more persistently and deeply than the special goodness of our leaders was the unimpeachable truth that these special people cannot lie. The president tried to lie when he was a child (all the presidents tried at one time or another in their childhoods to lie) but he felt so bad about lying that he confessed his lie to his father or mother or grandfather or teacher, and rather than (or along with) spanking him, they showered him with love for admitting his mistake; and their love empowered him to overcome a thousand hardships and to marry a lovely, intelligent, essentially submissive woman who was his rock from which he rose to the position of commander-in-chief. Amen.
“Childhood is a promise that is never kept.” Ken Hill
In the California public schools of my youth, circa 1955-1967, American History was the main Social Studies event in Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade, Third Grade, Fifth Grade, Eighth Grade, and Eleventh Grade. The fundamental operating principle of that system was: The Salient Information shall be foisted on their malleable brains over and over again, year after year, and they will be compelled to memorize and regurgitate this information dozens of times as their brains develop so that whether they can remember a single date or historical tidbit at the end of their indoctrination, the underlying ideology of subservience to an imaginary system run by good and wise white people is deeply and permanently ingrained.
This is not conspiracy theory. Public education as it exists in America today was designed and implemented in the early twentieth century by industrialists working directly with their national, state, and local proxies to transform a largely agrarian population of people recently arrived from myriad foreign societies into a homogeneous population of factory workers. That is actual history, not propaganda. If you have ever wondered why public school classes are exactly one hour in duration and begin and end with the ringing of a bell, it is to simulate the experience of working in a factory, and to condition the nervous systems of the students for that eventuality.
“Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.” Larry King
Luck? According to the propaganda of our childhood there is only one way to succeed and that is through hard work and perseverance. Luck has nothing to do with success. You start in the mailroom or the equivalent of the mailroom in your chosen profession and if you work hard and loyally at delivering mail without questioning the value of what you’re doing you will eventually be noticed by someone further up the chain of command who will say, “Wow, that person is really working hard and persevering so I’m going to give him a better job and more money.” Eventually, if you never stop working hard and never question authority, by golly, you’ll rise to the top and become president of the company or discover a cure for some dread disease or win an Academy Award or something like that.
Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Well, long after my childhood I moderated a panel of successful movie and television writers speaking to an audience of aspiring young writers. Before the public show, the panelists asked me what questions I was going to ask them. Since the panelists all knew each other, they had a good and raunchy time answering my questions by recounting their family connections, sexual connections, drug connections, and nauseating (to me) cronyism that launched their various careers near the top of the heap. But in front of that crowd of eager young writers, each of these famous people spouted phony nonsense about working his or her way up from some mythical bottom, with two of them actually referencing the mailroom!
In contrast to such propaganda, Henry Miller recounts in his memoirs that it was not the quality of his writing that first got him published, but a sexy girlfriend who traded sexual favors with a few editors to grease the wheels, as it were; and he followed this plan of action by having his lover’s wealthy and well-connected husband publish and promote the novels that made Henry famous. Yet we recoil from such truth because it was impressed upon us ten thousand times in our youth that if we created an original and valuable thing, we would be rewarded with wealth and fame, when in truth such valuable creations were more likely to be stolen from us than to bring us any kind of reward.
“Memory itself is an internal rumor.” George Santayana
In the propaganda of our childhood, Thomas Edison was a great guy who invented the light bulb. Henry Ford was a great guy, too, and he invented the assembly line and the Mustang. Can you imagine your child coming home from school troubled by the news that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and hosts of other American icons were not, in fact, great guys, and that they perpetrated all sorts of dastardly deeds along the way to owning the patents on light bulbs and automobiles and just about everything else defining modern life? Imagine all those famous white guys, the Founding Fathers and Founding Inventors and Founding Explorers and Founding Paragons of Virtue and Pluck revealed to our children in the light of truth. What kind of people would we Americans be in the absence of all that bogus information hardwired into our psyches?
I posed this question to someone of my father’s generation, a middle-class liberal, and before he could invent a more judicious reply, he blurted, “Oh, but if we taught them the truth there might be rebellion.”
I wonder. Who knows what might happen in the absence of the ongoing barrage of propaganda, now that this bogus morality and bogus history is so deeply entrenched in us? It seems that no matter how loud our conscious minds yell “Beware!” our more powerful subconscious programming commands us to believe (name any American president, senator, celebrity, industrialist) is telling the truth.
“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” Mark Twain
According to the propaganda of our childhood, America was solely responsible for the good guys winning World War II. When I was eighteen and finally read a detailed history of World War II, I was shocked to learn that for each of the many armed divisions (approximately 15,000 men in a division) deployed by the Germans on their western front against the British, French, and American troops, five divisions were deployed against the Russians. Even so, we were taught that if America hadn’t entered World War II, the Germans and Japanese would have conquered the world and made everyone on earth their slaves. And we were certainly never taught the terrible truth that the bankers who funded the German war effort funded the American and British side of the conflict, too; yet that is the case.
We were taught that our leaders didn’t want to drop those atomic bombs on two cities filled with women and children and civilians, but it was the only way to defeat the Japanese who were irrational and evil, as were the Germans. Americans, and to a lesser degree people from England, were rational and good. Cigarettes were good, too, according to the propaganda of my childhood. Indeed, if you were in a hot steamy hell you could come all the way up into a mentholated paradise by sucking on burning Kools.
“The living moment is everything.” D.H. Lawrence
So. Is the propaganda of today’s childhood qualitatively different than that of my childhood? I would say Yes, for sheer volume alone, but also for the use of special visual and sonic effects that make it virtually impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. That is to say, the foundational lies are much the same, but the spectacular presentation of those lies makes the lies appear more real than reality, certainly bigger and more colorful, with all the rough edges of truth airbrushed away.
Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com