Suspicion and Distrust

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

“You carry,” says the stranger, “this jealousy and distrust into every transaction of public life. By repelling worthy men from your legislative assemblies, it has bred up a class of candidates for the suffrage, who, in their very act, disgrace your Institutions and your people’s choice. It has rendered you so fickle, and so given to change that your inconstancy has passed into a proverb; for you no sooner set up an idol firmly, than you are sure to pull it down, and dash it into fragments; and this, because directly you reward a benefactor, or a public servant, you distrust him, merely because he is rewarded; and immediately apply yourself to find out, either that you have been too bountiful in your acknowledgements, or he remiss in his deserts. Any man who attains a high place among you, from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that moment; for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed. You will strain at a gnat in the way of trustfulness and confidence, however fairly won and well deserved; but you will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and mean suspicions. Is this well, think you, or likely to elevate the character of the governors, or the governed, among you?”

The answer is invariably the same: “There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.”

Another prominent feature is the love of “smart” dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without a retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not guaged by its or his observance of the golden rule, “Do as you would be done by,” but are considered with reference to their smartness.

I recollect, on both occasions of our passing that ill-fated Cairo on the Mississippi, remarking on the bad effects such gross deceits must have when they exploded, in generating a want of confidence abroad, and discouraging foreign investment: but I was given to understand that this was a very smart scheme by which a deal of money had been made: and that its smartest feature was, that they forgot these things abroad, in a very short time, and speculated again, as freely as ever.

The following dialogue I have held a hundred times: “Is it not a very disgaceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and not withstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty, should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?”
“Yes, sir.”
“A convicted liar?”
“Yes, sir.”
“He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And he is utterly dishonourable, debased, and profligate?”
“Yes, sir.”
“In the name of wonder, then, what is his merit?”
“Well, sir, he is a smart man.”
American Notes, Charles Dickens, 1842.

No such thing as bad publicity

“The first essential in propaganda is repetition. In the short memory of the public lies the propagandist’s greatest asset and his greatest handicap. It helps him to turn on his tracks without fear of exposure; but it imposes the imperative duty of ceaseless reiteration. Journalists, perhaps, more than any other people, realise how quickly the public will forget. An event flashes up from the darkness into the glare of the headlines, then as quickly fades. New incidents crowd so quickly upon one another that often before their true significance can be appraised they are forgotten. This inexorable rule applies in every cross-section of human interests. At the peak of a murder trial, the life-story of an illiterate farm labourer is familiar to millions who, a few months later, would be unable even to recall his name. Or, to go to the other extreme, a statesman makes a speech that is flashed almost instantaneously across the world, to be eagerly scrutinised in the chancelleries, excitedly discussed in the press, and debated by the man-in-the-street. Yet, here again, the curtain of oblivion falls…..

Behind this confused, uncertain panorama of day-to-day events the propagandist must be ceaselessly at work. If he has merely to telephone his orders to various State-controlled publicity men his task is comparatively simple.

But when he is working with no official backing, perhaps in opposition to the ruling Government or social system itself, he must reckon with all kinds of complications. He must play countless variations on the main theme. This repetition, if obvious, carries with it the danger that his public may be bored, and lose interest in his arguments. But if he persists and secures a sufficient number of new ‘slants’ to his appeal, he is bound to impress some section of the public. And, in time, what he preaches becomes woven into the warp and woof of their minds. It is something to be accepted without argument as part of that deep core of loyalties every human being must possess.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Make certain that somewhere all the time, someone is considering, discussing or criticising the propaganda subject. The deadliest enemy of any cause is indifference, and violent attacks are infinitely preferable to being ignored. When Sir Oswald Mosley was injured by stone-throwers at a public meeting, papers in opposition to him insistently appealed that he should be ‘left alone’. They realised that one foolish impulse had made Fascism front page news in every paper in the country. Its leader had purchased the publicity at heavy personal cost, but there is no doubt the incident was valuable propaganda.”
Propaganda Boom. A. J. Mackenzie. The Right Book Club, London. 1938.

This book could have been subtitled The Powers of Persuasion. The word propaganda, today, is used in a negative sense (the enemy produces propaganda, we “release information”) but in 1938 Mackenzie insisted that propaganda was “ethically neutral” – it could be used for good or bad – and gave it a fairly wide definition.

“Propaganda is an attempt, either unconsciously or as part of a systematic campaign by an individual or group holding certain beliefs or desiring certain ends, to influence others to adopt identical attitudes.”

Which covers what we would call P.R. “spin”, not to mention the output of the entire advertising industry! In other words, we are bombarded with it all the time. So here’s a thought that should encourage us to keep our guard up –

“Where the object of propaganda is to convince the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time, it is not, as a rule, rational in its appeal. The fundamental point in this type of propaganda is that reflection is a slower process than instinct. Since few people have the necessary strength of will to choose the harder road, an approach which arouses instinctive reactions is much more likely to succeed than one which imposes a tax, however slight, on the mental processes.”

The Glory Hole

In January 1935, Australian journalists Noel Monks and John Hetherington signed on to the passenger/cargo ship Largs Bay to work their way to England, where they hoped to find a job on a Fleet Street newspaper. Monks remembered the crew quarters in his book Eyewitness, published in 1955.

“It was twelve years since I had been to sea, when British merchant ships were notorious for their shocking crew accommodation. Time seemed to have stood still, for it was the same old slum that John and I were bundled into…. In our section of the Glory Hole, the hell where all British merchant stewards live, twenty men were accommodated in tiered bunks. There wasn’t enough air, good or foul, to interest a canary, and the stench nearly lifted you off your feet. So far below the waterline that port-holes were out of the question, the Glory Hole was ventilated by shafts bringing wind down from the upper deck. If there was no wind, then there was no ventilation. On the Australian run, that is a condition that exists for days on end. There was some sort of forced draft contraption that either blew you out of your bunk, or scorched you. It certainly never helped you to breathe. There was nowhere to put your belongings, and a conscientious shore sanitary inspector would have had a seizure at the toilet arrangements for a hundred men.”

This accommodation, remember, was for stewards – men who handle food!

Compare this description of life below decks to the company’s advertising brochure for passengers, and here is a more detailed history of the ship.

These conditions in the Glory Hole were not so far removed from those on some ships three decades later when the long steel corridor linking, admitedly smaller, cabins was commonly known as the Burma Road.