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Think About It

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Spectators on Nixon’s motorcade route in China, February 1972. The signal reads ‘Lengthy reside the nice, wonderful and proper Communist Get together of China!’ Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/Wiki Commons.

In 1963, Penguin revealed an arresting paperback, Strategies of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing by J.A.C. Brown. If the title wasn’t ample to draw potential readers, the jacket illustration invited additional scrutiny: an uncovered mind, gray matter with a peeled-back central panel revealing, in purple, the well-known poster of Kitchener wanting YOU to enlist. However regardless of the dramatic cowl, Brown’s message was sanguine. ‘Brainwashing’, in some form or type, had all the time existed. There was thus no want for alarm. ‘We might properly ask’, he wryly mused, ‘whether or not the Communists have devised any methodology which is half as environment friendly in “brainwashing” or with outcomes that are half as everlasting because the English public faculty.’

In his new historical past of brainwashing, Daniel Decide gives a nuanced revisitation of floor lined by Brown, in addition to developments in ‘thought management’ unexpected 60 years in the past. In each research, the Nineteen Fifties loom massive. It was in 1950 that the time period ‘brainwashing’ – derived from the Chinese language xinao (actually to clean the mind) – was first utilized in america. Journalist Edward Hunter reported on the mechanisms by way of which the newly established Folks’s Republic of China moulded residents into ideological conformism. Concern over how brains is likely to be radically repatterned, maybe irreversibly, mounted over the course of the Korean Battle. The targets of alleged communist brainwashing now included 1000’s of American prisoners of conflict, held by North Korean and Chinese language captors. When 23 of those POWs refused repatriation after the armistice, many People grew to become satisfied that solely insidious psychological coercion – whether or not effected by way of hypnosis, medication, solitary confinement or hours of rote indoctrination – might have compelled these males to reject the ‘free world’ in favour of enslavement behind the ‘bamboo curtain’.

Worry that minds may very well be wiped and reprogrammed by malign exterior brokers by no means disappeared. Decide’s historical past seems to be again in time, to preoccupations with mesmerising Svengali figures, and ahead to the age of algorithms that push us down ever darker digital rabbit holes. Though Decide situates concepts about ‘captive minds’ within the context of the Chilly Battle, his exploration sheds extra gentle on how psyches and imaginations are impinged upon in ostensibly free societies than within the totalitarian states that first provoked such anxious rumination. Decide explores the seductions and delusions of mass media, consumerism, ‘group suppose’, promoting, opinion analysis and conspiracy theories.

Decide’s delicate insights stem from his personal uncommon skilled background as each a professor of historical past and a practising psychoanalyst. Breaking from the straightjacket of educational conference, he locations himself firmly within the evaluation. His intention is neither to debunk brainwashing because the mere fever dream of paranoid chilly warriors, nor to supply reassurance in regards to the robustness of our psychological defences towards manipulation, if solely we stay alert to the myriad ‘hidden persuaders’ mendacity in wait to beguile us. Written in – and reflective of – ‘darkish instances’, Brainwashed asks us to think about our personal susceptibility to conformist pressures. Decide supplies no pat conclusions. The human thoughts stays the delicate and pliable organ it all the time was, simply swayed and immensely exhausting to fathom, whether or not from with out or inside.

Brainwashed: A New Historical past of Thought Management
Daniel Decide
Wellcome Assortment 368pp £20
Purchase from bookshop.org (affiliate hyperlink)


Susan L. Carruthers is Professor of US and Worldwide Historical past on the College of Warwick and creator of Pricey John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America (Cambridge College Press, 2022).

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