You have him to thank for empowering women to smoke cigarettes. And for helping Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover win the presidency. And for helping the CIA overthrow the Guatemalan government. And for making bacon and eggs the all-American breakfast.
However innocent they may have seemed when they were orchestrated, these campaigns of pioneering propagandist Edward Bernays today stand guilty for what they were: sneaky, even sinister initiatives that led directly or indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Not to mention a destabilized Latin America and destabilized digestive systems.
You can read all about these examples of Bernays' handiwork in The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations (Crown, 1998). Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye's book is the first to chronicle the life's work of the man who once said: "It is impossible to overestimate the importance of engineering consent. The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process—the freedom to persuade and suggest."
What you can't read in Tye's book, however, is that Bernays helped organize the campaign to supplement most of the nation's drinking water supply with fluoride—a nasty carcinogen generated as waste by aluminum smelters, nuclear-bomb factories, and fertilizer plants. Though his other major PR coups have been exposed, Bernays went to his grave (in 1995 at age 103) satisfied in the knowledge that fluoridation—a popular communist-plot delusion among right-wing screwballs—lived on as perhaps the most ingenious capitalist ploy of the 20th century.
In 1931, a US Public Health Service dentist named H. Trendley Dean visited several western towns that possessed two unusual characteristics: high concentrations of natural fluoride in the water and low rates of cavities among the locals. Around the same time, the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) —whose major stockholder, Andrew Mellon, had jurisdiction over the Public Health Service as treasury secretary— was searching for an answer to its worsening fluoride waste problem. The solution to the pollution, so the saying goes, was dilution.
Having just authored a book in which he wrote, "Our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of," Bernays (a nephew of Freud) seemed a natural choice to engineer the fluoridation campaign. Luckily, former ALCOA chief counsel Oscar Ewing—like Mellon before him—ran the agency that oversaw the Public Health Service. With the government already sold on the plan, Bernays could concentrate on making the American public believe that the same stuff widely sold as rat and insect poison was actually so good for them that it should be in everyone's water. And he could focus on making sure certain secrets stayed secrets—the fact, for example, that many of those cavity-free kids in those western towns also had discolored and eroded teeth. And that federal scientists had concluded fluoride caused "chronic intoxication." And that fluoride had been responsible for killing crops, livestock, and, on a few occasions, people.
By 1950, fluoride was being pumped into the drinking-water supplies of 94 US cities. Experiments—including those conducted on developmentally disabled youths at the Wrentham State School for Feebleminded Children in Massachusetts—were started but rarely completed, rendering the job of assessing fluoride's potential danger impossible (perhaps intentionally so).
A half-century after the scheme was born, fluoridation—now reaching two-thirds of the population—is undergoing long-overdue scientific study. Turns out that rates of bone and joint cancer in several Washington and Iowa counties with fluoridated water increased 47 percent from 1973 to 1987. For men under 20, the bone cancer rate shot up 70 percent. Meanwhile, rates of these cancers in non-fluoridated areas fell 34 percent. Other studies have yielded similarly grim findings: genetic damage, neurological impairment, brittle bones, and lower IQ in children.
Warning labels now urge people who swallow too much fluoridated toothpaste to call a poison control center. But thanks to Bernays, you likely will never see such a label on your kitchen tap.
(For more information on fluoridation, contact Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, 1-800-728-3833.)
KCTS 9 gets involved with democracy with two upcoming specials: A debate over Initiative 200 airs Sunday, November 1 at 1pm (repeating the following morning at 4am); and the next Front Porch Forum takes on Western Washington's growth-management pains, Sunday, November 15 at 1pm (repeating Monday, November 23 at 8pm).
I'm happy that the last time I saw Irv Pollack was at a party. Even at 77, with several attacks of congestive heart failure and a stroke behind him (which hampered his violin playing), Irv could get in your face like no one else. But whether he was voicing concurrence or disagreement, Irv always seemed to be smiling—because Irv never said any more or less than what he believed. Irwin Pollack died on October 16. So long, Young Man.
Research assistance for this column was provided by Jeff Pearson of the Seattle Independent Media Coalition.