Who is doing what social engineering?

Melvyn Magree

Every too often somebody writes a letter to the editor complaining that public transit is “social engineering” and “taking our cars away”.  Have they considered that building all the freeways is social engineering?

How many people lost their houses to make way for the freeways?  How many neighborhoods were separated by freeways?  How many farmers had their land taken by imminent domain?  I know, I know!  It’s eminent domain but when your land is taken it is also imminent.  Aren’t these changes to city and country social engineering?

When the freeways are first built, it becomes much quicker for many people to drive than to take public transit.  More people drive instead of taking the bus, the bus service becomes less frequent for those who don’t drive.  So to save time, more people have to buy cars.  Isn’t this social engineering?

Remember “Field of Dreams” where Robert Redford was told, “Build it and they will come.”  Well, we build freeways and they come.  Soon a four-lane freeway has to become a six-lane freeway.  Soon the six-lane is clogged and has to become an eight-lane freeway.  Where are all the people going to live as the freeways get wider and wider?  Isn’t this social engineering?

For some reason those who complain about their cars “being taken away” don’t seem to realize that the more other people take public transit the more room there is for them on the freeways.

And actually, public transit should have dedicated lines or lanes right down the middle of every freeway.  I remember driving out of Chicago on I-90 on a Sunday afternoon.  It was stop and go in three lanes in my direction.  We would move a bit and a train would catch up to us.  Then we would move forward ahead of the train.  This went on for fifteen minutes or so and the pattern was reversed.  The train would pull ahead and we would catch up.  Eventually the train was long gone and we started and stopped, started and stopped.

When I grew up in Cleveland, we walked to neighborhood stores or took the streetcar downtown.  Now most neighborhood stores and downtown stores have been closed in favor of sprawling malls in the middle of nowhere.  Sometimes the lots are so big that it takes twice as long to walk from one’s car as it did to walk to the corner store.  Isn’t this social engineering?  And it was done without a public vote!

The irony is that most social engineering is done by corporations, not governments.  When a government does “social engineering” we might have an open debate about it.  When a corporation does “social engineering”, it is done behind closed doors and often by deceit.

In the Twentieth Century we as a nation were socially engineered by a man many of us never heard of – Edward Bernays.  A nephew of Sigmund Freud, he applied many of his uncle’s ideas to manipulation of public opinion.  Supposedly he believed that “public’s democratic judgment  was ‘not to be relied upon’…’so they had to be guided from above.”

He worked in the Committee on Public Information during World War I.  One task was publicizing the idea that the U.S. involvement was “bringing democracy to all of Europe.”  We had a repeat of this use of “democracy” in our own times.  “The ill that men do lives after them…”  The success of “bringing democracy” surprised Bernays, and he wondered if similar propaganda could be used in peacetime.  Rather than call it propaganda, he labelled it “public relations”.

One of his first achievements was helping the tobacco industry break the taboo of women smoking in public.  He staged a big event in New York City in which models lit up Lucky Strike cigarettes or “Torches of Freedom”.  This promotion was not done as advertising but as news!  Smoking was giving women “freedom” and “liberty”.  Two more echoes in our time: “freedom” and “liberty” are smoke screens for doing what one damn well pleases without concern for the consequences for others.

Many Americans ate a light breakfast of coffee and maybe a roll or orange juice.  He arranged for letters being sent to 5,000 doctors asking if they thought Americans should have a bigger breakfast.  About ninety percent answered saying Americans should have bigger breakfasts.  This he had published as news in papers across the country.  In parallel, he had other articles published that bacon and eggs should be part of a larger breakfast.

He believed that we would have a utopia if the inner energies of individuals “could be harnessed and channeled by a corporate elite for economic benefit.”  This idea seems to be alive and well with all the corporate claims that they will create jobs and that environmental protection and safety rules will only take away jobs.

He wrote a paper called “Engineering of Consent”:  “Any person or organization depends ultimately on public approval, and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent to a program or goal.”  Isn’t this a description of “social engineering”?

In many ways, Bernays was value-neutral.  He protected a play in 1913 that supported sex education.  He promoted fluoridation of water to help the aluminum industry sell a by-product of aluminum production.  He hosted the first NAACP convention in Atlanta, and there was no violence.  On the other hand, he inflated the threat of communism and was instrumental in the overthrow of the elected president of Guatemala.

For lots more on Bernays see Wikipedia and “Century of Self”, a four-part BBC series.  I hope these will help you be more skeptical of what anybody says for or against any idea.  Or as in “All the President’s Men”, “Follow the Money”.  Oh, and be skeptical of the attribution of this quote.  If you do so, you might inoculate yourself against “social engineering”.

Mel considers himself a gullible skeptic.