REVIEW: “Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda”

In “Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda,” Noam Chomsky examines the development of propaganda in the United States.

He begins by asking his readers what kind of a democracy they want to live in (Chomsky 9).

His first definition of a democracy is one in which citizens can “participate in a meaningful way in the management of their own affairs and the means of information are open and free” (Chomsky 9).

But his second definition of a democracy is one in which the majority of the population are reduced to passivity and information is controlled in a narrow ideological framework (Chomsky 10). This latter definition is the result of a successful propaganda campaign, which has only strengthened in recent years.

Chomsky writes that the “first modern government propaganda operation” took place under the Woodrow Wilson Administration (11). Wilson was elected president on a platform of “Peace Without Victory.” During the First World War, the American population was mostly pacifistic and didn’t want to be involved in a European war. In response to this, the Wilson administration established the Creel Committee to turn a “pacifistic population into a hysterical, war-mongering population” (Chomsky 11–12).

During the Red Scare, similar techniques were used to take away the threat of the labor unions, while restricting freedom of the press and freedom of political thought (Chomsky 12). This was widely supported by the media and business community.

Intellectuals, rather than denouncing these methods as unethical, enthusiastically supported them. For political commentators such as Walter Lippmann, intellectuals had a specialized role to play in society. They were an elite group responsible for carrying out the “executive function” of “planning” and “understanding the common interests” of the population (Chomsky 15–17).

Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the fields of public relations and propaganda, writes in “Propaganda”:

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. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. (37)

Intellectuals themselves are indoctrinated (through the media, educational system, etc.) to represent those in power. While they may condemn the crimes of other states, they often ignore the crimes of their own. If they applied the same moral standards to themselves that they did to others, they would be held accountable. Many Intellectuals have been trained to submit to the status quo and not challenge the legitimacy of their institutions. They have internalized the values of corporate-state power to such an extent that they are often not aware of their biases.

In “How the Young are Indoctrinated Today,” Chomsky writes:

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way: limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.

In “Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky,” he says:

The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions. (Chomsky 111)

They reward discipline and obedience, and they punish independence of mind. If you happen to be a little innovative, or maybe you forgot to come to school one day because you were reading a book or something, that’s a tragedy, that’s a crime―because you’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to obey, and just proceed through the material in whatever way they require.

And in fact, most of the people who make it through the education system and get into the elite universities are able to do it because they’ve been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years―that’s the way I did it, for example. Like, you’re told by some stupid teacher, “Do this,” which you know makes no sense whatsoever, but you do it, and if you do it you get to the next rung, and then you obey the next order, and finally you work your way through and they give you your letters. An awful lot of education is like that from the very beginning. Some people go along with it because they figure, “Okay, I’ll do any stupid thing that asshole says because I want to get ahead”; others do it because they’ve just internalized the values―but after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you’re out: you ask too many questions and you’re going to get in trouble. (232)

That’s ultimately why public education was instituted in the United States in the first place: to meet the needs of newly-emerging industry. See, part of the process of trying to develop a degraded and obedient labor force was to make the workers stupid and passive — and mass education was one of the ways that was achieved (250)

Most of the population, according to influential figures such as Lippmann and Bernays, are not responsible enough to make decisions for themselves. They are only “spectators of action,” except when called upon, every few years, to vote for leaders who claim to represent their interests (Chomsky 17). They are not meant to be active participants in a democracy.

Therefore “the bewildered herd” are taught from a young age to believe what the state wants them to believe (Chomsky 18). They are instilled with “beliefs and doctrines” that serve the “interests of private power” and the “state-corporate nexus that represents it” (Chomsky 19).

In a totalitarian state, people are controlled by force and the threat of force. But in a democracy, people are controlled by propaganda. “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state” (Chomsky 20–21).

After the achievements of the Creel Committee, the PR industry expanded significantly (Chomsky 22). Around this time, a large part of the population was suffering from the Great Depression, which affected the role of labor organizing. (Chomsky 23). In 1935, after a number of strikes across the United States, labor activists won their first legislative victory with the Wagner Act, which gave employees the right to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike.

According to “The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration”:

After the National Industrial Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, organized labor was again looking for relief from employers who had been free to spy on, interrogate, discipline, discharge, and blacklist union members. In the 1930s, workers had begun to organize militantly, and in 1933 and 1934, a great wave of strikes occurred across the nation in the form of citywide general strikes and factory takeovers. Violent confrontations occurred between workers trying to form unions and the police and private security forces defending the interests of anti-union employers.

In a Congress sympathetic to labor unions, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in July of 1935. The broad intention of the act, commonly known as the Wagner Act after Senator Robert R. Wagner of New York, was to guarantee employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.”

This legislative success disrupted the control of the business establishment, so a lot of resources were used to break up strikes and demonize the labor movement. Plans such as the “Mohawk Valley Formula” were regularly carried out to intimidate strikers (Chomsky 25).

Some tactics of the “Mohawk Valley Formula,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor,

… included discrediting union leaders by calling them “agitators,” threatening to move the plant, raising the banner of “law and order” to mobilize the community against the union, and actively engaging police in strike-breaking activity, then organizing a back-to-work movement of pro-company employees. While the National Association of Manufacturers enthusiastically published the plan, the National Labor Relations Board called it a battle plan for industrial war.

Due to widespread propaganda, the public began to turn against strikers while supporting “vapid, empty concepts like Americanism” (Chomsky 25). This tactic is still used today with slogans such as “Support our troops.” These types of phrases are so vague that nobody wants to go against them. They are used to divert attention away from more serious issues. Rather than talking about policies, people are forced to argue about whether they are patriotic enough. If they are critical of the state, especially in times of war, they are portrayed as anti-American. They are vilified for not “supporting their country” while their alternatives are ignored.

The public relations industry continues to disseminate information to the public while making billions of dollars every year (Chomsky 22). In “The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival” Chomsky writes that the goal of the PR industry is to…

…undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices and the business world spends huge efforts on that. The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices.

The items lining the shelves are marketed just like the presidential elections on TV. Voters are conditioned to focus on the superficial characteristics of politicians rather than on their policies.

In the United States, the two main political parties “amass sufficient support from concentrated private capital to enter the electoral arena.” They try to dominate each other with propaganda through the media so they can get more votes (Chomsky). Those with more funding are often elected over those with less funding (Ferguson).

Thomas Ferguson writes in “The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems” that “the real market for political parties is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state… Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate.” (206)

Citizens select politicians to represent them. Despite their empty promises of hope and change, politicians are beholden to financial pressures more than to their constituents. Corporate power largely influences what policies will be enacted.

The United States is the only “state capitalist industrial society” that doesn’t have “national healthcare” while the rich have received billions of dollars in tax relief (Chomsky 28). Problems are growing domestically but “nobody in power has any intention of doing anything about them” (Chomsky 43). There are no serious proposals put forth to deal with homelessness, crime, unemployment, incarceration, gun violence, and so on. (Chomsky 43).

As Howard Zinn writes in “Let’s Come to Our Senses About the Election”:

[Politicians] offer no radical change from the status quo.

They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.

They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.

We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box… will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.

The media have become a “corporate monopoly” with tremendous influence on the state (Chomsky 29). Those elected into power (Democrats and Republicans) are two factions of the business party. They take millions in campaign donations from corporations, which influences their policy decisions. And the majority of the population, instead of being able to engage meaningfully within the democratic system, are “marginalized and properly distracted” (Chomsky 29).

Despite the power of the propaganda system, a “dissident culture” has survived (Chomsky 38). Although it was slow to grow in the 1960s, by the 1970s, many popular movements developed such as the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement, etc. (Chomsky 38). This had a great civilizing effect on mainstream America. People began to organize, and in doing so, learned that they were not alone.

Chomsky says in an interview, “On the Repression of Democratic Movements, US Elections, and Future Prospects”:

There have been very significant improvements; many things are way better than they were 30 or 40 years ago… Feminist issues were barely on the agenda 30 or 40 years ago. Environmental issues didn’t exist. There was almost no opposition to aggression. When Kennedy started bombing South Vietnam–as he did–there was virtually no protest. It went on for years without protest. Native American rights were an object of ridicule. Interpersonal relations have changed, much for the better, in fact. The civil rights situation has improved. There’s been regression too, but overall there’s been significant improvement, and it didn’t come from elections. It came from extensive popular struggle–every one of those cases.

There has been a concerted effort since then to alienate people from each other. If the masses are convinced that their ideas do not matter, they will not look for others like them. Every week, the media will tell them what to fear. They will be distracted by consumption and entertainment.

Even though there is a massive amount of media propaganda, U.S. citizens still have a great deal of privilege. They have opportunities that many do not have in other countries. They can think critically about the information they receive, get involved in the democratic process, and support vulnerable communities.

In “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress,” Howard Zinn puts it like this:

The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson–that everything we do matters–is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back. (16)


Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda : With an Introduction by Mark Crispin Miller. 1928. New York, Ig publishing, 2005.

Chomsky, Noam. How the Young Are Indoctrinated to Obey. Alternet, December 1, 2014.

Chomsky, Noam. Media Control : The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2010.

Chomsky, Noam. On the Repression of Democratic Movements, US Elections, and Future Prospects. Noam Chomsky interviewed by Nancy Nangeroni & Gordene O. MacKenzie. GenderTalk, October 30, 2000.

Chomsky, Noam. The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival. April, 2011.

Chomsky, Noam, et al. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. 2002.

Ferguson, Thomas. Golden Rule. University of Chicago Press, 15 Aug. 2011.

“Glossary | U.S. Department of Labor.”,

National Archives. “National Labor Relations Act (1935).” National Archives, 21 Sept. 2021,

Zinn, Howard. A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. San Francisco, Calif., City Lights, 2007.

Zinn, Howard. Let’s Come to Our Senses About the Election. The Progressive. March 5, 2008.


Review: “The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism”

The term “Liberalism” comes from “Liber,” the Latin root for “Liberty” and “Freedom” (Smith 9). It later became associated with qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and open-mindedness.

Classical liberalism was a humanistic outlook rather than merely a political doctrine. Classical liberals emphasized the need for freedom. Freedom was their “polar star” (Smith 2). They believed that they had the right to “use their bodies, freedom, labor, and justly acquired property” as they desired. In turn, they had to respect the same freedom for others (Smith 2).

George H. Smith wrote that classical liberals believed:

One is truly free when one can act on one’s own judgment in pursuit of one’s own goals, enter into voluntary relationships with other people, and dispose of one’s person and property as one sees fit, so long as one respects the equal freedom of other people to do the same. (7)

Classical liberals, while being guided by the idea of freedom, were not without their biases as well. To some modern critics, these biases have continued to fester within the tradition. Earlier proponents of classical liberalism narrowly defined “freedom” as being exclusive to only white male property owners. Some of these men were even slaveholders who argued for the freedom of every “person.” In later centuries these prejudices were exposed more, sometimes by other liberals, for being racist and sexist (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1–3.3.3).

As classical liberalism developed, its defenders fought for the freedom of individuals in areas such as “commerce, religion, speech, and the press” (Smith 7). Moreover, classical liberals were often opposed to “slavery, military conscription, victimless crime laws, [and] imperialism” (Smith 7) Later on, many activists defending the equal rights of women and children were inspired by classical liberal ideas (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

But in comparison “to the complicated networks of inherited legal ranks and privileges that tended to mark pre-liberal Europe,” classical liberalism was a bold stance to take (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1). It was a challenge to the “principle of absolute sovereignty,” regardless of whether it resided in “the king, the parliament, or the people” (Smith 10).

Some critics, such as the liberal utilitarians, argued that natural rights weren’t absolute. Sometimes it was necessary for the state to override the liberty of individuals for the public good. This justification was often invoked in times of war. Utilitarians believed in the “greatest good for the greatest number.” For philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, the state was potentially a benevolent power, capable of promoting the greatest happiness through its laws (Smith 162).

But if liberty could be overridden in exceptional cases, why was the state justified in overriding it? What rulers were wise enough, or virtuous enough, to decide what rights should be sacrificed for the public good? (Smith 34)

Furthermore, if rights could easily be taken away in favor of some poorly defined ideal of “goodness” or “happiness,” then those in power could use that as a convenient pretext for any policy they wanted. At the same time, legislation based on the “greatest good” could end with unforeseen consequences.

How were the people to decide if their rulers were just or not? Rulers have historically professed their noble intentions. They have claimed to be for the good of the people, even while instituting chattel slavery, destroying indigenous populations, and invading other countries for natural resources.

Rulers have been corrupted by power before. Even those acting from the noblest intentions have made mistakes. And if the system itself was considered to be unjust, then the ruler was the byproduct of the system rather than its primary cause. If the ruler were removed, the same systemic issues would perpetuate themselves.

For many classical liberals, there was no reason to believe the professed intentions of those in power. The people had to judge them based on the pattern of their actions. Over time, rulers revealed their true intentions through the consequences that followed.

Joseph Priestly considered a government to be tyrannical when it had extensive control over the lives of individuals and individuals had little control over their lives. He wrote that people should be free to follow their own judgments as long as they did not violate the rights of others (Smith 39–40).

Lockean liberals believed in the value of social utility, but not at the expense of their inalienable rights. They had to guard themselves against injustice.

The state itself was seen as a “coercive institution” that used force and the threat of force to achieve its goals (Smith 71). From the perspective of the state, it not only had the moral justification to use force, but it could decide on what force was acceptable.

Furthermore, the state was considered the “legal sovereign of a territory” (Smith 81). According to George H. Smith, “‘Legal’ refers to the realm of legitimate coercion. ‘Sovereign’ refers to the ultimate judge or arbiter. ‘Territory’ refers to a geographical area” (81).

If those in power were the only ones to judge the rightness of their actions, if they determined their own legitimacy, they could potentially act in an unjust and arbitrary manner. They could avoid responsibility for their actions based on their powerful position in society.

For natural rights liberals, if a state claimed to have legitimate authority over others, it had to justify itself. Tyrannical governments were institutions that “systematically violated [the] inalienable rights” of the people (Smith 162). For liberals, these rights were the fundamental characteristics of human nature. They gave rise to the conditions required for social cooperation.

Inalienable rights existed separately from the state, not because of it. They weren’t artificially created out of its laws (Smith 162). They couldn’t be given over to anyone, not even by consent. To some liberals, the entire purpose of the state was to protect these rights (Smith 120).

For philosophers in the Lockean tradition, if the state couldn’t justify its moral legitimacy, it had to be resisted. And if it continued to enforce unjust laws, then it needed to be overthrown (Smith 124). Unjust governments stopped being respectable if they undermined their own moral authority. Then they were as good as criminal gangs or pirates. Challenging these governments at every level made them more accountable.

George H. Smith wrote:

Those in government are especially susceptible to the corruption of power, because government is an institutionalized coercion. Ultimately, the only way to check the abuse of power is through active resistance… If the abuse of power is allowed to grow unchecked until it becomes tyrannical, then no remedy will be available except a complete revolution… By resisting unjust laws before the onset of total tyranny, we may be able to reverse the growth of power, thereby avoiding tyranny–and the need for revolution. (126)

For classical liberals, the existence of the state was the “physical embodiment” of the moral argument. If the state couldn’t meet its own standards, then it was immorally exercising its power (Smith 146).

Critics have argued that no state could reasonably meet all these standards. By calling the legitimacy of the state into question, radical liberals were undermining the traditions of their institutions. Rather than adhering to the government, their attacks were leading to the abolishment of it.

The implications of these arguments were dangerous for those in power. If the state was exposed as being illegitimate, then its entire existence was threatened. For critics who claimed that even a flawed state was better than anarchy, these ideas broke down the foundation of their institutions.

Classical liberals argued that the principle behind the government was more important than its form. They believed that any government, regardless of its structure as a monarchy, democracy, and so on, should always “preserve the rights and freedom of individuals” (Smith 176).

At the same time, individuals who chose to live in voluntary association with others were responsible for their actions. Most people were not isolated from the society around them. They, in turn, affected society through their attitudes and behaviors.

For methodological individualists like Georg Simmel, society was “the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction” (Smith 204). It was not a noun, but rather, a dynamic process that was “renewed and realized” through ongoing interactions. Older relationships were established while newer relationships emerged. These social interactions were significant for the people who engaged in them. They were “essential to [the development of] his or her identity” (Smith 206).

By the end of the 19th century, classical liberalism was declining. A new form of liberalism was coming about that justified more state intervention (Smith 213). New liberals shifted their concerns over to the social utility of their reforms. Natural rights were seen as secondary issues or dismissed entirely (Smith 214).

Noam Chomsky said in an interview with Bryan Magee that liberals, such as Homboldt and Mill, lived in a different period than those in the 21st century. They were dealing with a “post-feudal, pre-[modern] capitalist society,” unaware of the immense “divergence [in power]” that would develop later on.

Classical liberals were aware of the disparity in power between the state and the individual. And it was their task to abolish the power of the state when that state threatened their human rights.

But in later centuries, liberalism began to involve the intervention of the state in a capitalist economy. Classical liberals were influenced by figures such as Adam Smith, who argued for the free market system with the assumption that human beings were naturally sympathetic and cooperative. He wanted an “equality of outcome, not opportunity” (Chomsky). Although Smith was skeptical of the government, he did support intervention when it came to “national security, law enforcement, and infrastructure” (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

Reform liberals were in favor of the freedom to be left alone just like classical liberals, except they believed individuals should have the capacity for freedom or the “equal opportunity” to prosper just like those who were wealthy (Millard, Vézina 3.3.2). They wanted the government to take a more active role, such as redistributing wealth through taxation and developing more social programs for the poor (Millard, Vézina 3.3.2).

Classical liberalism coalesced in Britain and from there penetrated into America and Europe, over the 17th and 18th centuries” but it “grew [to the height of its] influence as capitalism and the effects of the Industrial Revolution spread throughout much of Europe and North America and, eventually, beyond. These forces came together to provide colossal technological innovation, urbanization, and the creation of huge amounts of private wealth (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1)

During the 19th century, however,

laissez-faire capitalism and industrialization created immense wealth and technological innovation, but also appalling poverty. Labourers often worked in miserable conditions for long hours and for minimal pay. They were frequently children. Urban slums abounded and were rife with prostitution, disease, and violence. Economic slumps brought little assistance from the state and could leave even hard-working and capable people in desperate straits. (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

These conditions led to social reforms and the strengthening of labor unions. The popularity of alternative philosophies such as socialism and anarchism arose as well. (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

Classical liberals were against the concentration of power, but in earlier centuries, they were focused more on the “church and state and feudal system” (Chomsky).

Philosophers such as Humboldt “had no conception of the forms that industrial capitalism would take” (Chomsky). Enlightenment figures were not around to see the concentration of corporate power and its tremendous influence on the state (Millard, Vézina 3.3.2).

According to Nicki Lisa Cole:

Capitalism today is a much different economic system than it was when it debuted in Europe in the 14th century. In fact, the system of capitalism has gone through three distinct epochs, beginning with mercantile, moving on to classical (or competitive), and then evolving into Keynesianism or state capitalism in the 20th century before it would morph once more into the global capitalism we know today.

Nevertheless, classical liberals “stressed the importance of diversity and free creation” among individuals (Chomsky). They believed that liberty was central to their lives and they resisted any institution that violated their inalienable rights.

Work Cited:

Chomsky, Noam. Magee, Bryan. Men of Ideas. The Ideas of Chomsky. BBC Television. 1978.

Chomsky, Noam. Government in the Future. Published at February 16, 1970.

Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. The Three Historic Phases of Capitalism and How They Differ. ThoughtCo. Apr. 5, 2023.

Millard, Gregory. Vézina, Valérie. Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction.

Smith, George. The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. Cambridge University Press. 2013.

Breakfast of Champions

I’m a book reviewing machine.

I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.

Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.

But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.

You are an unwavering band of light.


Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.

Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.

Many are still not.

Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.

In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.

Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.

People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.

Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.

If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.

Understanding Our Biases

Calvin and Hobbes

“We see things not as they are but as we are.”

—Anais Nin

“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”


“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

—Isaac Newton


We like to think that we are rational. Yet we are often unaware of our cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way we think about information. They are distorted patterns in our sensations, perceptions, and interpretations, influencing our beliefs, values, judgments, and decisions.

These biases occur as a result of our biological limitations. Our brains can only take in a fraction of information out of the total amount of possible information in the universe. We wouldn’t be able to function if we had to process every millisecond of every detail in our environments. So our brains simplify what we perceive to be more efficient organs, but as a consequence of this neural simplification, we unconsciously make errors.

Our nervous systems make sense of the signals in our environments. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive. We select some information as relevant while rejecting other information. But what we perceive and recall, what we integrate into our nervous systems, is never equal to all of reality.

We continuously make internal models of what we experience, mostly below the level of our conscious awareness. As we engage with our environments, our environments are represented inside of us. Our nervous systems are constantly changing with the conditions of the universe.

Our existence is intertwined with the cosmos. We are interdependent with other organisms on our planet. The chemical elements that we are made up of once came from the stars. Without the sea and air, without the sun and moon, without the flora and fauna, we would not exist.

Yet we cannot consciously choose to circulate our blood or beat our hearts or grow our teeth or fire off an exact number of neurotransmitters in our frontal lobes. We cannot smell like a hound or sense infrared like a pit viper or sprint like a cheetah. We cannot perceive the same realities as a forest of redwood trees, a cluster of honey mushrooms, a pack of wolves, or a bacterium inside a zebra’s stomach.

Our realities are not only relative to our nervous systems, but to the tools that we use to extend our biological capacities, such as microscopes and telescopes, thermometers and computers. Through our nervous systems and tools, we can glimpse into infinity. We can communicate with each other about these “glimpses” using linear symbol-systems made up of words and numbers and images and sounds.

Bucky Fuller, an inventor and architect of the twentieth century, once wrote, “The universe consists of non-simultaneously apprehended events.”

We will never be able to fully comprehend all the events happening from the microscopic to the macroscopic, events from the past and present and future, events from hundreds of billions to trillions of different galaxies. There are so many events that are too unfathomable for our primate minds to consider.

The events that we consider are not always considered in the same way either. We interpret the information we take in through our biological, sociological, and psychological lenses. These lenses are interrelated rather than separate. They change over the span of our development. Because we all have such unique ways of interpretation, there is a lot of miscommunication between members of our species.

Robert Anton Wilson, guerilla ontologist and author, said in his Maybe Logic documentary:

Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.



We tend to favor information that conforms to our beliefs and values. We resist information that goes against our beliefs and values.

Sometimes we have trouble accepting evidence that challenges us, contradicts our beliefs, and causes us to question our assumptions. We may even avoid what upsets our precious delusions, isolating ourselves in a bubble of ignorance.

When our beliefs harden into dogmatism, then we turn into one of the blind men touching the elephant, claiming that the elephant is a tree or a snake or a fan, while never seeing its true nature.

The more that we attach ourselves to abstract notions of absolute truth, while being unable to respect the perspectives of others or correct the flaws in our own views, the more rigid we will become.

Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching: “A man living is yielding and receptive. / Dying, he is rigid and inflexible. ” (translated by R.L. Wing)

Robert Anton Wilson, in Prometheus Rising, wrote:

Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies, etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission. (276)


We are usually conditioned to think of a hammer in a limited way. We may see it, for example, as a tool that drives in nails. While a hammer can drive in nails, it has other possibilities that we may not be aware of.

A hammer, for instance, can pull nails out of boards, shape metal, smash rocks, measure, chop, bang, and demolish the walls of a house. It can be made out of steel, bone, wood, plastic, and rubber.

At a much smaller scale, a hammer is a complex of interactions between subatomic particles. At a much larger scale, it is an insignificant point, a hint of light, in the vastness of outer space.

From inside the courtroom, a hammer (gavel) can act as a demonstration of justice. In world history, when a hammer joined together with a sickle, it showed the solidarity of the proletariat. In Norse mythology, it represented blessings, protection, fertility, and power.

From a practical perspective, a veteran will have much more skill with a hammer than a novice. A sculptor will use it for different aesthetic reasons than a laborer. An infant may put a squeaky toy hammer in his mouth, tasting plastic for the first time, while a carpenter will raise a barn for her community.

In American folklore, John Henry once outpaced a steel-powered rock drilling machine. He died after winning his grueling race, a sledgehammer still clutched in his hand.

While the tale of his endurance became a legend, an inspiration for the workers he strived with, he was still only a man.

John Henry succumbed not only to the stress of his heart, but to the future power of technology. Machinery would soon replace many of his fellow workers, removing them from their purpose and livelihoods. Those who were still employed would eventually resemble the same machines that they depended upon: cold, lifeless, and efficient at production.

Through their dependency on machinery, some of the skills that were previously passed down from generation to generation were not only weakened, but forgotten.

Even though immigrants, ex-slaves, convicts, among many other poor workers, had struggled together to build America’s railroads, they were often alienated from the fruits of their labor. They earned low wages under deadly conditions. Then they were rejected when they were no longer seen as useful to their employers anymore.

John Henry was an ex-slave on the rails. In some versions of the tale, he built his hammer out of the chains that once restricted his freedom. His prowess with a hammer was not merely a gift, but a stance against his oppressors. He vowed through his grit to never let another man own him again. He may have been forced to work under deplorable conditions after the Civil War, which was common for many African Americans in the Reconstruction Era, but he used his power against the institutions that had dehumanized him.

Whether he won or lost, John Henry was a hero. He stood tall, not only for himself, but for all the underdogs of humanity. He spoke for those who didn’t have a voice. He sweated until his death for workers who were persecuted, exploited, and displaced under the brutal pace of “progress.” His hammer was not just an instrument of his worth. It symbolized an integral part of American identity.

The hammer was groundbreaking when it was invented. It has since evolved in design and purpose, meaning and material.

The hammer is simple, yet complex. It says more about our human nature than we may realize. But it depends on our perspective to look at its depth, just as with everything else in existence.

Throughout our lives, we often cling to what we are used to while ignoring what could be. We may think that a problem has only one solution, an individual has only one identity, or a thing can only be used in one way, while we don’t look for more possibilities than we are comfortable with.

Our old knowledge can prevent us from knowing more. We may even refuse to acknowledge a given reality because we are so fixated on what we think we know. How can we adapt to what is new, or correct our prejudices, or imagine the unimaginable, when we are trapped by our narrow conceptions?

We must empty our teacup if we are to learn. We cannot let our teacup overflow with opinions and conceit. Sometimes we need to unlearn what we once believed, letting go of our attachments to certain stories.

Everything can be our teacher.

When we view ourselves as beginners, we can ask the questions that aren’t regularly asked. We can approach familiarities as if they were new again. When we no longer drag around our prejudices and outdated notions about how life should be, we can open ourselves to more possibilities.


We often overestimate our level of knowledge, expertise, and competence. Yet we are limited creatures, ignorant about not only what we don’t know, but what we don’t know we don’t know.

Sometimes we think that what we think is all there is to think. But after we have been beaten down by the wisdom of hard experience, we may come to realize how foolish we once were.

Our simplified understanding of a complex subject does not mean that the subject is simple. Maybe there are other views that we have not examined or comprehended. There may be subtleties to fields that only specialists can grasp after decades of education, experience, and diligent practice. We may never have all the answers to the questions we seek.

When we aren’t humble enough to accept our limitations, when we refuse to ask for help, when we don’t reflect anymore on the mysterious and the unknown, we can become proud of our illusion of knowledge. Our ignorance can make us feel that we are superior, when in actuality, we don’t have the humility, or the honesty, to seek the truth of our conditions.


Just because somebody that we know, trust, admire, and respect believes in a particular idea, that doesn’t mean that idea is necessarily true. Even if most of the population believes in X or Y, including sixty biologists, our grandmother, the cranky neighbor down the street, the former leader of Norway, the quarterback on our favorite football team, and our elementary school teacher, that still does not make X or Y (or any other answer that we can imagine) necessarily true either. At the same time, even a notorious liar can speak the truth.

Our ignorance about the truth of an idea, and our failure to come up with a valid answer, does not mean that we should accept any alternative out there.

Our lack of knowledge means only that: a lack of knowledge.

As far as we know, we don’t know. And when we don’t know, we can try to figure out what the most reasonable answers are, but we shouldn’t believe in ideas that aren’t supported by sufficient evidence. We can always suspend our judgment while remaining open to future possibilities instead.

Even when we do accept certain ideas as valid, we should accept them tentatively, because what we believe today may be wrong tomorrow. It is better to have a degree of certainty with room enough to doubt that certainty.


We are often persuaded by compelling personal stories. Some people are eloquent speakers, born with the gift of the gab. What they tell us may even be partially true. At the same time, we have to consider whether their stories are exaggerated, made up, delusional, prejudiced, misinformed, improbable, and so on.

Can their beliefs be tested? Can their stories be verified by credible witnesses? When they speak, are they being logically sound? Do they talk about events that seem too unlikely to be true?

Sometimes people use premises that make sense, but then they jump to grand conclusions based on those premises.

Sometimes they assume too much when they argue their points because they want their conclusions to be true. Then they selectively look for information that fits their conclusions. They are eager to persuade, to convince, but they may not have logically arrived at their conclusions beforehand.

They may even take their assumptions as givens and then proceed further on in their argument. Despite their ready acceptance of their own points, some of us wouldn’t be so ready to agree with their assumptions.


We tend to more easily feel compassion for people who are closer to us than for people who are not as close to us.

When the number of those who are suffering increases to be on a massive scale, when human beings are judged more as abstractions than as vulnerable individuals, our compassion fades.

We must not be indifferent. We have to listen to the stories of those who most need our help, who are traumatized, who have gone through crises, so we can care for them, so we can be there for them, so we can see their humanity.

It is far too easy for us to ignore others when they are presented as numbers. We have to learn their perspectives.

We’re interconnected, dependent on each other in this world, while dependent on this world to be. We all want to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to belong to harmonious communities, not ones that are divided out of hatred and fear.

As Martin Luther King Jr., a minister and civil rights leader, once said in St. Louis in 1964:

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.


We are more likely to act in a similar manner to how those around us act. We may feel more comfortable conforming to social pressures rather than thinking critically for ourselves, especially when we are uncertain, alienated, and persecuted.

We normally take cues on how to behave based on the behavior of those around us, but when we do so, we may neglect our intuition, reason, and ethical judgment, sacrificing our values for the values of the herd.

What we do matters to those around us. What others do matters to us. We are highly influential in our interactions with each other. Our actions can have significant consequences for other beings. Our social environments profoundly affect not only how we feel, but how we treat the people around us, and how they treat us.


We often underestimate the severity of threats and warnings. We act as if dangerous events could never impact our personal lives. Natural disasters, market crashes, motor vehicle accidents, viruses, and so on, are often ignored, disbelieved, minimized, and underestimated.

We feel uncomfortable when certain ideas contradict our values, beliefs, and attitudes, even when those ideas are valid, even when those ideas can better prepare us to deal with future crises.

We are resistant toward information that challenges our sense of normalcy and comfort and security. Rather than plan for catastrophes, we downplay them. Rather than confront potential emergencies, we deliberately ignore them.


We have a tendency to overestimate our abilities, talents, and intelligence. We may even believe that we have more control over a situation than we do. When we feel superior and overconfident, we aren’t being that accurate in our assessment of ourselves.

Sometimes those of us who understand the least about a given subject are the most confident. We may fail to recognize our incompetence because we are not aware enough of ourselves or of the given subject. We are ignorant of our ignorance, believing that we are wise. Our hubris distorts what we see as reality.

The more that we learn, the more we will come to realize how much we don’t know. We will never know all there is to know, but as our knowledge expands, we can become more aware of who we are and where we are going. We can reflect back on the patterns of our personal history.

When we are conscious of our humanity, of our ignorance, of our potential for growth and destruction, we can humbly explore the universe. We can invite mystery into our lives. We can become curious again.


We tend to believe in ideas that: (1.) we remember, (2.) we hear frequently, and (3.) emotionally affect us.

Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.

Media outlets repeat sensationalist stories while censoring more critical narratives from being presented to the public. They manipulate their viewers into feeling sympathetic, outraged, fearful, hopeful, and disgusted, while not offending their advertisers and corporate owners.

Politicians know how to appeal to their voters, delivering passionate rhetoric on some issues, while never giving straight answers on more pressing concerns. They show off a carefully cultivated persona—smiling, shaking hands, dressing in expensive clothing, kissing babies, attending lucrative events, pretending to care about the same issues as their base—while covertly serving their own class interests.

When we don’t critically think about the quality of the information we consume, we will be seduced by misinformation. We will gobble up emotionally engaging stories. Propaganda will overtake our recollections of historical events.

Available information is not always credible information.


When we aren’t aware of our biases, we can easily be fooled. Sometimes even when we are aware, we can be fooled. While our ignorance works against us, it can be profitable for those who wish to take advantage of us.

Rather than only believing what makes us feel good, or what other groups believe, we have to examine the information we receive. We can reflect on our moral choices, on our values and beliefs, seeking to know more than what we have been indoctrinated to think.

When we refuse to accept what is true for a long enough time, we will eventually settle into the false comfort of delusion. Through our self-deception, we may hurt ourselves or those around us. We have to critically think about our lives so that we don’t make poor choices with even worse consequences.

We can open our minds to future possibilities, to hidden meanings. We can help those who are suffering, who are ignored, hearing their stories, tending to them the best we can.

When we can examine our existence, question what we are taught, and abandon our prejudices, we will mature as human beings.


  1. Bauscher, Lance. Maybe Logic: The Lives & Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson (2003)., Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
  2. Cherry, Kendra. How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act. Verywell Mind, 19 July 2020,
  3. Dixon, Thomas W. Jr. Chesapeake & Ohio Alleghany Subdivision. Alderson: C&O Historical Society, 1985.
  4. King, Martin Luther. Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. 1963. London, Penguin Classics, 2018.
  5. Korteling, Johan E., et al. A Neural Network Framework for Cognitive Bias. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 3 Sept. 2018,, 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01561.
  6. Maynard, Jake. John Henry and the Divinity of Labor. Current Affairs, 6 July 2021, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
  7. McCormick, Brandon. The True, Tall Tale of a Freed Slave Who Worked on a Railroad. | John Henry and the Railroad., Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
  8. Ruhl, Charlotte. What Is Cognitive Bias? | Simply Psychology. What Is Cognitive Bias?, 4 May 2021,
  9. Turner, Charles W., et al. Chessie’s Road. Alderson: C&O Historical Society, 1986.
  10. Tzu, Lao. Wing, R.L. Tao Te Ching. 1986.
  11. Wilson, Robert Anton, and Israel Regardie. Prometheus Rising. New Falcon Publications, 2016.
  12. Wilson, Robert Anton, and Brown, David Jay. Quantum Psychology : How Brain Software Programs You and Your World. Grand Junction, Colorado, Hilaritas Press, Llc, 2016.

A Man Without A Country (Kurt Vonnegut review)

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Whenever I read a Kurt Vonnegut book, I imagine a fun uncle sitting next to me at a family reunion, telling me a story of his life.

He sips from a glass of beer and foam drips down his mustache. Then he sighs and pats his belly and wanders through old stories, stories I have heard before, but never tire of.

I tell him a joke I overheard on the radio.

Uncle Kurt smiles and wrinkles crease on his forehead. His cheeks flush from hours of drinking and joking and chitchatting and meeting cousins.

In his watery eyes, I sense something else, however. Sadness maybe. Disappointment in us as a species. We could have been so much more.

I’ve read this book about thirty times. Once I pulled it off a shelf at a house party, once I read it on a road trip to Indiana, once I flipped through it in a school library.

Why do I keep returning to it?

Maybe because it’s funny. Not so much in a slap-my-knee, wheeze with shocks of laughter, kind of funny. His books are funny in a raw and naked way. In an absurd, endearingly hopeless way.

He reminds us that we’re all humans and we’re all silly. And sometimes we do cruel things to each other when we should’ve been loving and kind.

Life would be so much simpler if we weren’t complicating it all the time.

Laughter can be a healthy defense mechanism to fear and anxiety and trauma.

Vonnegut used humor to deal with the tragedies of his life. He understood the shadow-side of humanity so well that he revered ordinary people who were saints. He wanted a world where humans treated each other with kindness, a world of love for the simple joys of each day.

In our short, fleeting existences, where we often feel so confused and lost and alone, we can respond to tragedies with dignity. We can decide to be humane as we are pulled along by circumstances we can’t control.

We take ourselves so seriously. We blind ourselves in our greed lust, in our desire for more (resources, power, money, and status), that we forget our interwoven humanity.

We forget to care for our communities, for ourselves, for the plants and animals and water and air.

We ignore our planet, our beautiful planet, because we are addicts to fossil fuel. We drop devastating bombs instead of being compassionate toward each other. We murder each other for resources and poison our environment.

One day, we will lose everything because we were too power hungry and stupid and greedy, when we should have been kind.