Public relations can be practiced in a biblical, honest way. The key is transparency: Don't twist and shout. Lay out the facts. Truly subscribe to John Milton's faith from the 1640s that truth and falsehood should be allowed to grapple, for truth would not lose "in a free and open encounter."
But when PR tries to snuff out that "open encounter," it's trouble. That became clear to me 22 years ago when I interviewed a remarkable fellow, Edward Bernays (1891-1995), nephew of Sigmund Freud and founder as a young man of modern public relations.
Bernays was 93 when we talked, and full of memories of famous clients ranging from tobacco industry poobahs (he convinced women to embrace smoking as an expression of their liberation) to Eleanor Roosevelt. Their photos decorated the walls of his house near Harvard.
Bernays said he had no belief in God but a strong faith in what he had declared openly six decades before: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."
He proudly considered himself one of "the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses." He was proud to "pull the wires which control the public mind" so that "vast numbers of human beings . . . live together as a smoothly functioning society."
The politically liberal Bernays considered himself, even as he tried to make millions of people his puppets, a facilitator of democracy: If he didn't act as he did, the dark night of fascism would descend on America. In the 1930s, with Hitler and Mussolini in power across the ocean, and Depression-driven fears animating many domestically, Bernays' concerns were not irrational.
But what about now? The Bush administration's attempts to intercept terrorist communications and financial transfers don't bother me. That seems like the minimum of due diligence required when the bin Ladens of the world are taking us to and beyond the eve of destruction.
Still, even if BushCheneyRumsfeldGonzales endangers our liberty, is there also a vast Bush-led conspiracy to take away the opportunity for children to become proficient in science?
That's what the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon) would have us believe. WORLD on March 25 covered one DefCon campaign, but we haven't commented on its well-funded attempt over the past year to (in DefCon's words) "highlight the threat the religious right poses to our children's education and . . . prevent the erosion of science."
Here's the problem, according to DefCon: Five states-Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Kansas-have curriculum standards that (I'm quoting from Kansas') "call for students to learn about the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory."
Is that a crime? Maybe. With primary elections for the Kansas Board of Education coming up next Tuesday, Aug. 1, the PR attack on any who question Darwin is escalating. DefCon's website shows Kansas as third on its hit list, after Dover, Pa. (mission accomplished), and Cobb County, Ga.
Another group with a euphonious name, Kansas Citizens for Science, also vehemently opposes the Kansas board's moderate step of letting schools "teach the debate" about evolution. It's strange: Science is all about asking questions, so how is a group "for science" when it wants to cut off even the tiniest amount of question-asking?
The attempt to scare voters into purging the Kansas Board of Education only makes sense in Bernaysian terms. "We have no being in the air to watch over us," he told me, so we need "human gods" to preserve us from "chaos." Bernays saw religious appeals as potent among people not as smart as himself, so it was vital for liberal PR folks to counter conservatives "by making the public believe that human gods are watching over us."
Today, those "human gods" are the scientific establishment. Questions about Darwinism suggest the possibility that some "being in the air" might be involved-and if we fall for such a myth, according to Bernays, we end up in chaos.