[The following is from Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth, originally entitled, ‘Breaking Up With Grandma: Anger, Grief, Identity, and Breaking Saruman’s Spell’]
You can thank my girlfriend, Patience, for this chapter.
When I began the binge-reading period of research to write Be a Hobbit, she caught the tsunami of angst, fear, anger, frustration, depression, and grief that I set into motion by plunging into the ocean of negativity that threatens to overwhelm our world.
As I tell people, I was thoroughly depressed by the process. And so was Patience. Yet there was one thing in the process that didn’t affect me to the same degree that it did her and so it never occurred to me to discuss it in the book. But thankfully, Patience hit me with it one day while she was reading through the book, proofreading and marking through my commas—you can thank her for that, too.
We were both sitting in the office one afternoon when she just blurted out, “You need to write a chapter about the emotions that arise when people discover that the food they eat is full of poisons and isn’t really good for them like they always thought!”
“Hmmm,” I said, “I guess you’re right. I never thought about it that much.”
“Yeahhh! You totally need to write about that!” she said. “When you first started all of this, I remember just being, pissed off! I was like, ‘what do you mean Betty Crocker isn’t good for me!? My mom fed us Betty Crocker! My grandma used it! How can this be right? They’ve been lying to us all this time? All these companies that my grandmother, my mom, and I put our faith in? I trusted them!’”
“Wow, I guess it never really dawned on me that people would have such a powerful reaction.” I said.
“Well, I was pissed off! Then depressed, and sad! It was like someone in the family had died. It was actual grief! Over the break up with a brand! You need to talk about that, and about how we’re all taken in by the psychology of advertising and how that’s been going on for decades, almost a hundred years, and how it’s like Saruman and his silver tongue spewing silken lies to lull us into a spell!”
“Damn. That’s a great idea!” I said.
So you can thank Patience for what I’m about to say.
The Pain of Truth
All of those emotions that Patience brought up are natural and to be expected. If you’ve already read the first part of Be a Hobbit, ‘Mordor is at the Door,’ then you’re probably experienced this. I’m sorry for that. The reason I never thought about writing this chapter is that I guess I experienced those feelings so long ago that I barely remember it anymore. I’ve been looking at the world and its problems most of my adult life so I’ve become somewhat anesthetized to the angst and pain, especially the grief that it causes in others when they discover the negative things going on around them. It is painful, however. I do remember it even if it is a distant memory.
Pain, Anger, and Trust: the Loss of Identity
In some ways this realization is a shattering of reality itself. The things you once trusted are now suspect.
We’ve been lied to. Trust has been broken. We feel ignorant, even stupid. “How did we not know!?” We feed our children these brands! Our mother fed us with them! Our grandmothers fed our moms with them! If we can’t trust Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Betty Crocker, Hershey’s, Nestlés, and Jimmy Dean— who can we trust? In fact, who are we?
And that is where the rubber meets the road, and at the heart of the matter. We identify with the brands we use, especially the brands we eat! Our very sense of self is tied up in the products we purchase and feed our families every day. They are part of us in a very real way.
Patience told me that the feeling you have when you first find out is not unlike the feeling an abused spouse goes through. “But he still loves me. He said he was sorry. He won’t do it again.” To walk away from that relationship is a very difficult thing to do. It’s painful because we’ve believed the lies for so long.
Our attachment to our grandmother’s brands is ‘spell’ like. It is as if we are all under the thrall of some evil wizard, like Saruman, who, in the Lord of the Rings, is a very smooth talker. While feigning friendship with Rohan, he’s chopping down Fangorn, burning villages, slaughtering the inhabitants, and poisoning rivers.
Why are we so emotionally attached to the brands we use?
If you stand back for a moment and think about it, it doesn’t seem logical. But we are attached; there’s no denying that. There’s a reason, and the story of how that came to be takes us back to the period between the two world wars, almost 100 years ago.
The Voice of Saruman: the Birth of Advertising and the Power of Brands
We have all been put under a spell, a spell not unlike that cast by Saruman on those who came to parley with him on the stairs of Orthanc—his dark, stone tower. As they approached, Gandalf warned them to be wary:
“What’s the danger?” asked Pippin. “Will he shoot at us, and pour fire out of the windows; or can he put a spell on us from a distance?”
“The last is more likely, if you ride to his door with a light heart,” said Gandalf. “But there is no knowing what he can do, or may choose to try. A wild beast cornered is not safe to approach. And Saruman has powers you do not guess. Beware of his voice!” [italics/bold, mine] —LOTR: II, The Voice of Saruman
Beware of his voice, indeed! The power of words to deceive is a danger far exceeding any we might encounter from physical weapons. Sticks and stones can break bones! But words can lead worlds into ruin! Nowhere in our world is this more true than in the words of the Mad Men, the marketing wizards of the corporate sector.
A Saruman is Born
Following the close of the First World War, Edward Bernays moved to New York City.
Well, he had spent the latter period of his twenties working for the Committee of Public Information, an independent government agency in charge of writing and designing propaganda for the war effort. The agency was responsible for galvanizing public opinion behind the war by plastering the country with posters demonizing the Huns—otherwise known as the Germans—and glorifying American democracy.
Edward had a singular talent for the job. He is credited with coining the phrase, “Making the world safe for Democracy!” which became President Woodrow Wilson’s go to line.
When Bernays arrived in New York after the war he set up a new firm as a Public Relations consultant. He invented this new term as a substitute for propaganda which had negative connotations thanks to its use by the Huns during the war. He quickly became the new rising star in the up and coming field of advertising. He decided that the talents he had employed to “Stop the Hun” during the war could also be employed to sell products and make money doing it. He was very successful. He made lots of money and sold lots of products.
A Gift from Uncle Siggy
Then one day not long after setting up shop in the Big Apple, he got a letter from his uncle living in Germany. His uncle—a neurologist from Austria working on a book about group mentality—had fallen on financial hard times and asked if his nephew might consider extending him a loan.
Edward promptly sent his uncle a check and a box of Cuban cigars—his uncle’s favorite. Some time later Edward received a package from Germany which included a thank-you letter and a copy of the book his uncle had written. The book was Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Edward’s uncle was none other than Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology.
Bernays now had the proof that what he long suspected was in fact, true: the human mind could be manipulated by playing on the latent fears and desires that reside in everyone’s psyche.
It was this moment in history, when two new ideas came together—advertising and the emerging field of psychology—that the idea of branding really came into being. Think of this as a Reese’s, “Hey! You got your chocolate in my peanut-butter! You got your peanut-butter on my chocolate!” moment.
And Edward ran with it! He consumed his uncle’s ideas, combined them with his natural talent for propaganda and revolutionized the field of marketing, issuing in the Age of Consumerism that threatens to consume the planet.
Of Bernays’ many claims to fame, he helped the American Tobacco Company to convince American women that smoking Lucky Strikes cigarettes was a liberating and defiant thing to do, calling them “torches of freedom.” Thanks Ed. My grandmother and grandfather—on my mom’s side—both smoked themselves to death. May your bones be exhumed and ground into dust.
Edward Bernays was the first true Saruman of advertising, and he has many descendants. Bernays went on to write his own book, Propaganda. Here’s an excerpt in which you can see the birth of modern advertising, and it’s twisted goal:
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. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. — Propaganda, 9-10 [excerpt from Wikipedia]
This Saruman also helped the aluminum industry to push for the fluoridation of our water supply as a way to increase their profits and dispose of a nasty orcish byproduct at the same time. Fluoride is a neurotoxin, and has no benefits whatsoever when consumed in drinking water; it’s simply a poison. In the 1930s he ran a campaign for Dixie Cup to convince Americans that only disposable cups were sanitary. Thanks to Bernays we now drink poisoned water from cups made from trees that once provided us with oxygen, coated in plastic which will sit in our landfills for millennia or be washed into our oceans to poison our shrimp dinner. Thanks asshole.
This, my fellow Hobbits, is why we are fearful, angry, and depressed about breaking up with our favorite brands. We have been manipulated for at least a century by elite Sarumans with silver tongues. There’s nothing democratic about what Bernays is describing in the above passage! It is a facade of democracy, overlaying a reality of elitist, Oligarchism and this was written almost 90 years ago!
Thanks to the marriage of modern psychology and propaganda we have been manipulated into consuming poisons, polluting our environment, and smoking ourselves into oblivion.
Down deep, most of us sense this though we don’t think about it that much. I’ve been thinking about it for so long that advertising isn’t that effective on me anymore; it just pisses me off because I know what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’re doing it. You will become the same way.
It’s time for us to wake up from this dream, like those present at Saruman’s speech. Let’s stop being lulled into the lies. Turn it off! Do we really need someone to tell us what’s good for us? What to buy? How to live? What’s important?
The answer is “HELL NO!” I don’t.
Neither do you, or anyone who wishes to live free! The first step to freedom is to realize that the world and all of its resources don’t belong to us. The second step is to tell Saruman to “shut the fuck up!” We don’t need brands to live. Not if they wish to deceive us. Make it a new rule to clean out your pantries, closets, and garages of the products of Saruman.
If that means breaking up with Grandmother, and boycotting brands that she loved? So be it.
Take your time if you need to. You can’t do it all in one day, anyway. But do it. Find new brands, Hobbit brands, that are working to clean up the Shire and care about the health of your family and the Earth. Load up the shopping cart with them! Pack them into your cloth shopping bags, bring them home, store them in your glass jars, and then get to cookin’! It’s time for second breakfast, already!