“The path to happiness was self-sacrifice and suppression of the individual for the good of the collective.”— Barbara Demick in her book, Nothing to Envy, speaking to the propaganda of North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il
A few years ago I read a book called Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a journalist who chronicled in minute detail the day-to-day lives of six North Korean citizens who eventually escaped communism and defected to find freedom in South Korea. It wasn’t so much the challenging lives these characters led that caught my eye — although they did — but rather the never-ending state-led propaganda (i.e. Marketing) that accosted North Korean citizens on a daily basis.
North Koreans have no access to outside media. They enjoy only state-run media, state-run entertainment and state-run news. Subjects in this book commented about how controlled was the narrative on any given subject, and through any given medium. North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il, believed that movies, for example, were critical for instilling loyalty to his regime. He believed that “revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution.” Under his direction, film was used to that end. Demick explains that movie themes always ran along the following lines: “The path to happiness was self-sacrifice and suppression of the individual for the good of the collective.” In communist North Korea, pretty much every message from every outlet served to promote this message. Whatever the medium, the regime sought always to increase love for Kim and allegiance to whatever the state determined was in the interest of “the common good.”
Enter the United States, 2020-2021.
What we’ve been watching in the United States over the past year can be likened to tactics used in North Korea. Those in the marketing business call it Guerrilla Marketing. Yes, the term is derived from Guerrilla Warfare. When you think Guerrilla Marketing, think ambush, attack, sabotage, only think in terms of ad campaigns. Often guerrilla marketing campaigns use a variety of techniques to attract attention and action, “attacking” the would-be consumer from all angles, and employing most often an attempt to connect emotionally with clients, a tactic which exponentially increases the likelihood of buy-in or acceptance. When marketing shuts down debate and is completely one-sided, at times even misleading, it is called propaganda. When you combine guerrilla marketing with propaganda, you have a dangerous, if effective, combination.
If you paid any attention to the promotion of masks, you noticed guerrilla marketing style tactics used again and again. Mask mania was everywhere (and it continues). It seemed all of Hollywood joined the bandwagon to encourage the wearing of masks, from Wonder Woman to Harry Potter, from Kathryn Bigelow to Morgan Freeman and Paul Rudd. Matthew McConaughey even made a PSA about how to make your own mask in a pinch. In addition to PSAs, there were signs everywhere. Posters in stores, ads on social media, billboards — even digital billboards — shouting boldly above our nation’s highways. With the cooperation of virtually every available outlet as well as industry and government, this was guerrilla marketing at its finest.
Please note that not one of these ads provided “science” to help educate the public. They may have used the words, “Listen to the Science,” but not one of them provided any data for us to examine. There was nothing for us to consider, to evaluate. No reason to engage our “reason.” Instead, each and every one of these ads sought an emotional response. Each pointed to a “responsibility” toward our fellow man. Some were inspirational, some were guilt-ridden, and some even employed bullying techniques intended to isolate those who may have been tempted to opt out.
One of the most blatant bullying offenders was CNNs, This is a Mask PSA. While showing dozens of masks in all shapes, sizes and colors, the ad had only one line:
“ A mask can say a lot about the person who wears it; but even more about the person who doesn’t.”– CNN’s PSA: This is a Mask
The last mask featured in the ad, just before the narrator ends this sentence, says “Greater Good.”
Not surprisingly, the pressure worked. According to a National Geographic survey, by October 2020, 92% of people surveyed said they wore a mask when leaving home. Never mind that cases went up shortly after that survey. Never mind that states that did not mandate masks appear to have lower transmission rates than those who went all-out on mandates. Never mind that until last year, every study ever done regarding masks and respiratory spread found no evidence that masks actually stopped transmission. Never mind a recent study in China that followed 300 people who were Covid-positive but asymptomatic and found that of the more than 1100 people they contact-traced through these cases, not one of them ended up testing positive though that contact. The bottom line is that the science is not final regarding masks. In fact, if actual studies (as opposed to anecdotal stories) lean in any direction at all, it is against their effectiveness.
But no matter. The marketing was never about facts. It was all about emotion. It was about self-sacrifice. It was about social responsibility.
In case you haven’t noticed, the same type of campaign is now in full swing for the Covid-19 vaccine. Again. No science. No facts. Just emotion. And this time, they’ve added incentives.
State and local governments are pushing, military is promoting, news outlets are advocating. Health care workers have produced entertaining PSAs, celebrities like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton have written songs they hope will sway us. Other celebrities have been posing for pictures as they receive their vaccines – and then posting them all over social media. All four living ex-presidents participated in a PSA promoting the vaccine. There is also a giant collaborative campaign between corporations, media companies and faith communities to “educate” people about the vaccine. (Note their campaign is called “It’s up to You,” clearly implying that the future hangs in the balance unless we get the vaccine.) Priests and preachers from coast to coast are “preaching the gospel of the Covid-19 vaccine.” Even Pope Francis has suggested that people have a “moral obligation” to take it. In an interview, he stated, “It’s a moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”
And if all the ads and the social pressure don’t work, there are other campaigns to reward us with perks, if only we’ll be “good” citizens. And on the flip-side, they’re willing to punish us if we won’t (think China’s appalling, ‘social credit score”).
Again – science? There’s no need for science when you have the government, every media outlet and the entertainment industry all promoting your product. Unlike those of other vaccines, this promotion has dispensed with the idea of a rational, thought-provoking discussion between me and my doctor about pros and cons of the vaccine and risk vs. reward for my family. This is more akin to Nike’s Just Do It campaign.
Everywhere we look, they are playing on our emotions. And now, we have — as we did with the masks — a PR campaign telling us that our getting the vaccine is a sacrifice that we should be willing to make for the common good. Don’t ask how a medication that is injected into MY body is going to help you. Don’t ask why my getting the vaccine should matter if you have it and are protected.
Just don’t ask questions. It’s not about facts. It’s about emotion. It’s about our being willing to sacrifice for “the common good.”
The Cross Without Christ – Recipe for Disaster
All this pressure to self-sacrifice? It sounds great. Really it does. Especially if you don’t listen too closely. If you don’t analyze. But in fact, these campaigns are very deceptive.
This obligation to our fellow man is very similar to what they promote in North Korea (and China, and Cuba and Venezuela, etc.). But sadly, when Christianity becomes all about humanitarianism, it ceases to be about the salvation of souls. There is grave danger in that idea. It is a danger that seeks to separate God from the equation by dispensing with the spiritual in favor of the material. This is what Archbishop Fulton Sheen called A Cross Without Christ.
A pursuit of the “common good” is something the Catholic Church has always promoted. But these words have become twisted in the public square. They have been used as a tool for manipulation, so much so that the words have become a lie that serves to distract Christians from what is most important. This lie feeds on our compassionate nature, our ordained call to serve, to love our neighbor, and to ensure that justice is accomplished for those most in need. But in fact, to the extent that this pressure to comply is forcefully applied, it can undermine our compassion, inhibit our service, remove the natural relationship we have with our neighbor and destroy the very outcome of justice it professes to serve.
Christ gave us two great Commandments. The First is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind…and a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Our love for neighbor stems directly from our love for God. It should speak always to the dignity of every human person. Love of neighbor should recognize that each soul is made in the image and likeness of God, equipped with both reason and free will. These are two characteristics that separate us from animals. And yet we are being asked to set both aside, to pay homage to the Gospel of Covid-19.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might, of his own accord, seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him. (GS 17; Sir 15:14).” (CCC 1730)
In Life of Christ, Archbishop Sheen addresses the danger inherent in any approach that neglects those important truths:
Communism has chosen the Cross in the sense that it has brought back to an egotistic world a sense of discipline, self-abnegation, surrender, hard work, study, and dedication to supra-individual goals. But the Cross without Christ is a sacrifice without love. Hence, Communism has produced a society that is authoritarian, cruel, oppressive of human freedom, filled with concentration camps, firing squads, and brain-washings. — Life of Christ, p. xxv.
Cleaving to God is the path whereby we can obtain the grace that allows us to love enough to sacrifice our own wants, our own needs, our own desires for the good of another.
There is no love without sacrifice. But in a political system, sacrifice without love becomes a distorted perversion of the sacred, used by the few to control the many. As Christians, we may not promote the common good to the detriment of human dignity.
This flagrant and no-holds-barred use of guerrilla marketing and manipulation to pressure us to act is an affront to our dignity as human persons. The social pressure to conform is akin to campaigns history has shown to cause the most dangerous form of division and isolation. This kind of pressure should be intolerable to all. If vaccines and masks are for the betterment of society, open the gates to allow a fruitful and meaningful discussion. One that celebrates actual science, bans propaganda and respects the need for each and every one of us to resort to both our God-given ability to reason and to our own free will in order to make appropriate decisions regarding our health and the health of our families.
(Thanks for reading my post! If you liked it, please check out my new book, The Lost Art of Sacrifice, published by Sophia Institute Press!)