Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control by Daniel Pick review | History books


At the end of the Korean war in 1953, 21 American former prisoners of war chose to settle in the People’s Republic of China rather than return to the Land of the Free. The US government reacted with astonished horror at the way that these unfortunate dupes had been “brainwashed” – a term adapted by western journalists just three years earlier from the original Chinese – by their jailers. It had entirely missed the point that each man had arrived at a considered, individual, decision about why his life might be nicer under Mao than Eisenhower.

Take Clarence Adams, an African-American soldier who had experienced vicious racism growing up in Tennessee and was in no hurry to return for an encore. Adams chose to settle in Bejing instead, worked as a publisher, married a university professor and enjoyed being called “comrade”. Only after 12 years did he start to feel that the time was right to return with his new family to the country of his birth. Far from being welcomed home as a man who had gone looking for opportunities in the approved American way, the FBI regarded him as somewhere between a psychiatric patient and a political traitor. Yet if anyone had shown evidence of being able to think for himself it was surely Adams.

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In this frankly brilliant book, Daniel Pick sets out to explore why the idea of mind control became such a contested topic during the second half of the 20th century. His skills as a historian and a practising psychoanalyst allow Pick to move beyond a methodology in which human subjects are either reduced to data points or inflated into grand actors. In other words, he shows us Adams as neither a powerless pawn nor a figure of heroic resistance, but rather someone who muddled through the bewildering world as best he could, changing his mind certainly but never giving it away.

One of the reasons the US government was so quick to accuse the communist bloc of brainwashing was a sneaking awareness that it was doing something similar to its own population. By the early 1960s a template of the “American dream” had emerged, consisting of a corporate job for him, a kitchen bristling with mod cons for her, and a college education for their sporty children. Even the dog appeared to have been picked from a mail-order catalogue. In a certain light it’s hard to see how this vacuum-sealed system was any different from life on a collective farm or state-run assembly line.

That is not to suggest that no one dared speak out. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique alerted middle-class women to the fact that they had been duped into a life that was not of their own choosing. Nine years later, Ira Levin satirised the whole domestic-drone trope in his novel The Stepford Wives. In Europe the discourse tended to be pitched higher, with intellectuals including Foucault, Adorno and Marcuse all publishing books that revealed how the west achieved its cultural hegemony by eliminating dissent in ways that could have been taken from Mao’s playbook.

One of those ways, ironically, was the harvesting of insights from psychoanalysis and its associated discipline of psychology. The pioneer here was Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who had emigrated with his family to the US at the end of the 19th century and virtually invented the public relations industry between the wars. Using his knowledge of how the human mind worked, Bernays hired himself out to corporate America to help it sell everything from cigarettes to disposable paper cups. Yet before we write him off as brainwasher-in-chief, Daniel Pick wants us to understand what had driven Bernays into the persuading business in the first place.

As a Jew whose extended European family suffered dreadfully under the Nazis, Bernays was painfully aware how cruelty and madness lurk in even the most civilised minds. All it took was for a gifted PR man such as Joseph Goebbels to give a shape and form to these inchoate feelings, and horror could result. Even well-established liberal democracies were clearly not immune to brainwashing, and Bernays worked hard in books such as Propaganda to alert Americans to how their minds could be perverted, poisoned, confused or invaded by bad actors in sharp suits.

It is a warning that Pick believes is as urgent now as it was more than half a century ago. We are all susceptible, he says, to being washers of our own brains, building booming echo chambers in which we hear only voices with whom we already agree. We start mistaking opinion for fact, finding it impossible to imagine that there might be a reality beyond the one we have curated for ourselves. In a passionate concluding section, Pick urges us to make a point of exploring difference and difficulty wherever we encounter it. Only then, depending on what we discover, may we choose either to change our minds or stand our ground.

Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control by Daniel Pick is published by Profile (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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