In May of this year, AIER contributor Barry Brownstein in “Big Brother Depends on Little Brother” introduced me to Joost Meerlo’s postwar classic The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1956). Brownstein masterfully weaves Meerlo’s insights into a compelling narrative describing how people, even twenty-first century Americans, can be brainwashed into believing, and repeating, all kinds of crazy cra … dismisinfoganda. Judge not the crazed Twitbook troll because he knows not what he does. Instead of training the troll to drool like Pavlov’s dog in response to the dinner bell, the master has trained the troll to make vicious ad hominem attacks in response to trigger words like the Founders, liberty, and Trump.
While Rape begins with vivid descriptions of physical torture techniques like those described in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Meerlo (1903-1976), a Dutch psychiatrist who fled Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, also discusses less costly or drastic ways to impregnate people’s minds with totalitarian lies, even about themselves. Brownstein touches on some in his excellent piece but others related to Covid lockdown policies and cancel culture became salient during my recent reading.
Together, they reveal a detailed playbook of mass psychological manipulation that looks all too familiar today:
Isolate. “The conditioned reflex,” Meerlo noted, “could be developed most easily in a quiet laboratory with a minimum of disturbing stimuli. … they know that they can condition their political victims most quickly if they are kept in isolation” (43). Bringing people into laboratories for reeducation would be so conspicuous that maybe even a few of the infamous AWOL libertarians would have protested. So instead, people were urged, or in some cases even forced, to isolate themselves from others even after it became clear, very early in the pandemic, that lockdowns did not work to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. “This is the reason,” Meerlo explained, “the civilian populations of the totalitarian countries are not permitted to travel freely and are kept away from mental and political contamination” (43). “Feelings … of being alone … must be instilled,” he noted, to prepare the mind for the “taming” process, for, in other words, unthinking submission to the master’s will (49). “Not enough attention,” he noted, “has been given to the psychology of loneliness, especially to the implications of enforced isolation. … Social intercourse … [is]daily nourishment for our senses and minds” (78). Without that nourishment, which humans need “even more than bread” (79), most people soon slip into neurosis or even psychosis.
Play the guilt card. Most people, Freudians like Meerlo believed, are imbued with a deep sense of guilt about wanting to kill or fornicate with their parents or others. Major religions tap humanity’s deep-seated sense of original sin and so, too, do authoritarians. “Continual purges and confessions” (81) turn the masters into parent- or even God-like figures, i.e., forces to be obeyed. In this view, cancel culture is not social media silliness but the weaponization of innate human guilt. Repent ye sinner or apostate, or else!
Reward and punish. People, like animals, Meerlo explained, learn their lessons more quickly if rewarded “by affection, by food, by stroking” after doing as the master commands, and punished for inaction or disobedience (43). Governments use(d) food, blame, and praise during the pandemic to punish the brash and reward the compliant. Recall Joe Biden’s ham-handed attempt to induce Americans to mask and vaccinate with the promise of allowing outdoor barbeques on Independence Day. Recall also that cities and states shuttered restaurants to punish residents for testing positive for Covid. Authorities indeed followed “the science,” the science of Pavlovian conditioning.
Mind rape the most vulnerable first. While Meerlo made clear that every human being can be forced to suffer their minds to be penetrated with totalitarian falsehoods, “there are people more amenable to brainwashing than others” (44). Some retain the training for the rest of their lives, while others unlearn the behaviors or thoughts quickly. Following Pavlov, Meerlo hypothesized that “innate” differences or “earlier conditioning to conformity” may be responsible for the variation (44).
Make the most of the messenger. While my conditioned response to seeing Dr. Fow Chi is violent vomiting, many Americans respond to him in a positive way. Meerlo noted that “there are some persons who can create such immediate rapport with others that the latter will soon give up many old habits and ways of life to conform with new demands” (44). Remarkable, but true!
Repeat, repeat, repeat. To insert his own message, the master must often erase previous conditioning. That is best done, Meerlo claimed, through boredom and repetition, which arouses “the need to give in and to yield to the provoking words” of the master (45). What better way to bore people into submission than lockdowns and a constant barrage of banal, patently false messages like “we’re all in this together”?
Engage in serious word play. Meerlo noted that words like “traitor” provoke negative conditioned feelings even when “applied dishonestly” (46). Everybody hates America now so that word had to be replaced with “armed insurrectionist” and “racist” in order to stimulate the desired effect in 2020-21. When objectively racist behaviors and armed insurrectionists cannot be found, they have to be concocted from mostly peaceful protests, ropes that sort of resemble nooses for Keebler elves, and slang words for home runs/mascots that end in the same syllable as the N-word. By raping language, Meerlo warned, a leader can become a “master of the mind” (47).
Promote other-directedness. Meerlo also warned about masters conditioning people to ask “What do other people think?” instead of “What is right?” As I pointed out last year in “The Desperate Loneliness of Social Media,” other-directed personalities “seek approval and applause rather than respect” and hence readily abuse social media in order to feel well-liked because their “likes” or “followers” or “friends” appear to be legion, though they are cheap, trite, ephemeral signals at best. Other-directed personalities undermine democracy by backing the most popular candidates for office rather than the best ones. They also undermine rationality, allowing the creation of a “common delusion” (47). Interestingly, while Meerlo was critical of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, he often calls out “Red China” for trying to catch people, like rabbits, “by the ears” (48).
Use every available communication medium. Meerlo also noted that successful masters, like the CCP, used every means of communication possible to get their mind-numbing messaging into the consciousness of their victims. The Nazis “even went so far as to paint their slogans on the stoops of the houses and in the streets” (48), much as BLM backers did in 2020. The Dutch were able to resist seduction by “Nazi oversimplifications and slogans,” Meerlo suggested, because they could hear saner voices from London via radio (48).
Eliminate logic and open discussion. Perhaps the most powerful tool of the totalitarian is to destroy or deny logic so as to induce a “state of confusion … the state in which nothing had any validity” (49). That is why 2 plus 2 equals 4 has suddenly become “racist” and why our putative masters repeat ad nauseum that we must wear masks even though they hurt more than they help. It is also why censorship, even of medical doctors, has grown so quickly since 2020.
Leverage the urge to conform. Meerlo did not quite call humans “sheeple” or “sheople” but he came close. “In the whole animal kingdom,” Meerlo pointed out, humans are “one of the most helpless and naked beings. He remains like a monkey fetus, he never grows into the mature, hairy, fully covered state” (53). In other words, people remain in a “persistent fetal state … dependent on maternal care and paternal teaching and conditioning” so they remain in a “retarded state and never-ending social dependency” (53), i.e., easy pickings for masters like Mussolini, Himmler, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Castro, Jong-un, Jinping, and …
Push drugs whenever necessary. Despite all that, humans love freedom and a simple dose of laughter or love can break totalitarian mind f’ery, which explains why many formerly funny comedians are now so banal and boring. A good way to keep people focused on totalitarian messaging and distracted from love and laughter is to encourage them to get high. Or low. Any altered mental state, Meerlo wrote, will help the master to hypnotize victims. “The alcoholic,” he noted, “has no mental backbone any more when you give him his drink. The same is true for the chronic user of sedatives or other pills” (55). And “other pills” abound: acid, black tar, bliss, booze, buttons, cactus, candy, chill pills, cody, coke, crank, crack, downers, fungus, goop, happy pills, jackpot, juice, molly, monkey, poppers, qat, roofies, scoop, smack, sot-weed, tranks, uppers, vitamin R, vitamin X, weed, whippets, zombie, whatever, it’s all good, good for controlling people’s minds, a la Aldous Huxley’s brave new soma. If you think that supply constraints or decreased demand decreased drug addiction during the lockdowns, think again.
Induce fear. In the darkest days of the Depression, President Roosevelt famously told the American people that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. That was a lie. They should also fear the government, and its corporate cronies, trying to manipulate them with fear. Perhaps the most interesting of Meerlo’s claims, which build on Erich Fromm’s 1941/1942 book Escape from Freedom/Fear of Freedom, is that people no longer fear death so much as they fear living a real life. “Stepping out of a relatively safe childish dependence into freedom and responsibility,” he noted, “is both hazardous and dangerous,” thus making individuals vulnerable to paternalistic policies and politicians purporting to protect them from life’s many challenges (163). Although fear sometimes leads to anxiety and panic, it also can induce “indifference and apathy” (165). All reactions suggest a “need” for a “strong” leader who can protect people from the enemy, be it a virus, global climate change, terrorists, or commies.
Things could be worse, though, as our putative masters have not yet systematically tried to deny people sleep or employed other forms of physical torture, perhaps because such techniques would be too obvious and/or costly to employ. America is not yet what Meerlo called Totalitaria — his hypothetical dystopia where “political ideas degenerate into senseless formulations made only for propaganda purposes. It is any country in which a single group — left or right — acquires absolute power … any country in which disagreement and differences of opinion are crimes, in which utter conformity is the price of life” (106) — but it is much closer today than it was in February 2020.
In sum, Meerlo’s Rape cannot innoculate readers from totalitarian mind control but it does expose the grooming techniques employed by those who would be their masters and reminds all Americans of the crucial importance of the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional checks and balances. One would think that the leaders of an actual democracy would not only maintain the secrecy of ballots but also do everything in their power to prevent anyone or anything, foreign or domestic, from turning its citizens into mindless automatons, insectlike followers, or childish adults fragile enough to be frightened into illness by cable news tickers. Having clearly failed to maintain the basic prerequisites of self-governance, their only job really, all of America’s political leaders ought to join Andrew Cuomo in stepping aside to make room for more intelligent and learned and less power-mad policymakers.