“The idea of American way of life still means one particular way in the US.”


Stuart Ewen, social historian
Interview by Blaž Kosovel


Stuart Ewen (1945) is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at Hunter College and in the Ph.D. programs of History, Sociology and American Studies at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY).

He is researching the history of media, consumerism, propaganda, PR and visual culture, many times leading the way in it. He is generally considered one of the originators of the field of Media Studies, and his writing continue to shape debates the field.
His book 
PR! – The Social History of Spin (1996) is the first book ever about the history of PR and was also the foundation for the popular four-part BBC series The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2002). Among other books, he is also author of Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (1976), Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (1982) and Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (2006), the latter two co-authored with Elizabeth Ewen.
He was a civil rights activist in his student years and one of the founding editors of an early underground newspaper
Connections in 1966. He still understands his work as a vocation instead of merely an academic service.

I was talking with professor Ewen in his home in New York City in November 2013. 


In your books, you are writing about American society as about something that was created in the beginning of the 20th century …

USA is a country that is at least from the late 19th century made from heterogeneous peoples from all around the world. So unlike European societies where there is an idea of culture or civilization as something that has evolved over time and that has a certain common tradition, one of the great problems that faced US powerful institutions from late 19th century onwards was the fact that you have a population that was largely non white, largely Catholic, Jewish, people that were not in the part of Anglo-American Protestant tradition of the Founding Fathers. The idea of Americanization was therefore a central idea running through the discussions among business people, social workers, among people who were trying to deal with often difficult and at times militant population that didn’t share a common heritage in any sense.


Can you say that American society was actually created in the beginning of 20th century?

I think that existed before, but it was a very exclusive concept based on an elite of Anglo-Saxon Americans going back to the 18th century (that were educated in the classical European cultural canon.)

As the population grew there was a desperate sense that the true American stock was in danger.

It all started after the Civil War, when you get a large free black population that became politically empowered. From the late 1890s onward there was the growth of the eugenics movement in USA. Before Germany, no country before embraced eugenics as much as USA because of this rush of otherness, of people not like us, of people who do not share the same values, people that are not coming from business background but from the laboring one.


Which measures did the eugenics movement of that time take?

Eugenic in USA was two things: it was about increasing and encouraging the fertility and the family size of the people who were deemed proper Americans. The terms Nordic and Arian were used very often. With that moment, USA starts to get an empire with overseas colonies and there is this “white man’s burden” sensibility in dealing with people in the Philippines and in the former Spanish empire. One the other hand, there is a anxiety, which is by the way also well founded, that the numerical population of the country is slipping away from whiteness, which was at that time defined very narrowly. This Anglo-American Protestant vision of whiteness included Scandinavians and Germans, which were many of the early settlers in the Midwest, but did not include Italians, Jews, Slavic people, not even Irish. They were all considered dark people, Jews were considered Orientals, Italians were considered North African. In this time of the great onrush of immigration from these countries from 1890 to 1920, the positive eugenics movement is promoting fertility to the better part of the stock of proper Americans. Simultaneously is to diminish the fertility and reproduction and the presence of people who were considered as inferior stock. So you start having use of all these sociological studies of families that inherited criminality. You have all these charts showing degeneration running through the bloodline.

What I want to say is that this idea of creating America is not the only thing happening at that time. It is also this very active and within a short time also a very successful attempt to take actions that were designed to legitimate the sterilization of the people who were defined as feeble minded. There were also forced sterilization laws that by 1925 are supported by Supreme Court, which means that sterilizing people that were deemed inferior was considered the law of the land and this remained true till 1950s in this country. You had a lot of institutions dealing with feeble minded. They were I.Q. tests being applied.


Therefore IQ test is a legacy of eugenics movement?

Yes. And they also invented a new technical term »moron« for people who were inferior but functional. That means that they could be literate able to work but this placed them on a position of a smaller possibility of work choices. On Ellis Island, where they were applying IQ tests on a large scale, 80% to 90% of the immigrants were considered morons. This was also a way of categorizing them, deporting many of them before they could come in.

And the same people that were involved in eugenics started to write anti-immigration legislation, which is put in the fact in 1920s, which cuts all the immigration from eastern and southern Europe and Japan; Chinese were already cut off in 19th century with the Chinese exclusion act. This was a way for purifying the bloodline of people that were allowed to come into the country.


But why they opened the border in the first place? Was not because of the needed of the workforce?

This is the same a contradiction as with slavery. You open the border to get workforce to run large scale agricultural capitalism and then you discover that these people can be a potential treat to the bloodline of the slaveholders. From the mid-19th century onwards when USA develops into a modern large scale capitalist economy, there is a tremendous resistance to the new business structure among Anglo-American artisans who had the tradition of controlling their own work circumstances. So you start to have major campaigns to bring in populations of people who will do menial work, work that has been broken down in small pieces and making it a work that requires no skills whatsoever. This whole movement is lead by development of scientific management by Frederick Taylor and its deskilling process, which allows to replace anyone that is causing trouble with anybody else, because the work has broken down to tasks that can be performed by a chimpanzee.


From the idea of scientific management we do not need to go to far to meet PR and advertising.

Taylorism or scientific management, which is firstly applied to the factory, becomes a general principle of society. Basically the idea of the world as laboratory and that virtually all forms of human life are subject to managerial techniques is one of the great discoveries and one of the things that is quite unique about what you called American sensibility, which is quite different from European groups of intellectuals from the humanities. We can call them pragmatic intellectuals, people whose job was to understand the society in order to control it better. I think why social sciences flourish in USA is because of their definition as applied social sciences. This is not Max Weber, this is not Durkheim, is not Georg Simmel who is studying the philosophy of money and metropolis and mental life and therefore the experience of life in modernity. Very early on you have an emergence of people that are engaged in social sciences with an idea that you have an idea of a dangerous society that should be controlled.

In 1920, half of the population of USA are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. You have to add also the black population, which is not immigrant population any longer and which was not a voluntary immigrant population.

However, the official power structure, people that were in the position of power and control, remained still the same. Apart from Kennedy and Obama, all the presidents have been white protestant, members of the masons etc.

But there is an urgency that you have a major shift in America that requires social engineering in a lot of different arenas. For example, from 1900s onward, you have the emergence of the whole field of social work, which is an applied social science to a large extent; it is designed to teach immigrant kids how to become Americans.


How to behave as Americans?

Yes, but it is content related. If you want to deal with it as a control model, than yes, but control models only work when people become to internalize systems of control.

From me propaganda and democracy are much closer than propaganda and dictatorship. From the perspective of post-war USA, where I was growing up, we have been continually told about the Soviet propaganda. I’ve seen it and it didn’t work. Propaganda works when people begin to internalize it and identify with its own aspirations, became interwoven with it like with the consumerist vision of life. Propaganda got a bad name only with Nazis, because Nazi propaganda was quite effective because of the ability to instill in people the sense of connectedness which was defined as love of each other and hatred of everybody else.


Was not Nazi propaganda techniques were firstly elaborated in USA?

Much of the German apparatus was built in laboratories of USA. Eugenics laws that were passed in Germany were based on eugenics laws that were already passed in USA. Leading doctors of the American eugenics movement got their honorary doctorates in University of Heidelberg in 1938.

In addition to that there was the Committee of Public Information, which was first completely integrated institution for propaganda in the history. Basically you had an understanding that if you look on society just as a collection of people you can’t understand it, but if you look it as networks of persuasion and impulses, you can control it if you coordinate it into one machine. CPI included advertising people, publicists, illustrators, journalist that promoted war efforts, academics etc.


Therefore CPI was the first agency that actually advertised America.

There was also a book called »How we advertised America« (1920, by George Creel the head of CPI). However, it was a sophisticated program beyond advertising. Advertising is generally defined as something that you pay money to purchase for space or time and people perceive it as that. If it is a good advertisement it adjoins you in the middle but you still know that is an advertisement. What CPI did was that took the principles of advertisement and viewed every interaction between people as a potential moment of advertisement. There is an understanding of how world of mouth-to-mouth works. For example, teachers in elementary schools are giving materials to students to write essays about war and war bonds and this is viewed as very important, particularly between immigrant children because they would go home and propagandize to their immigrant parents who were less likely to be susceptible to that stuff. During the early propaganda thinking before the war there was this idea that children would be vehicles for bringing the parents around and from their Old World sensibilities. There is this idea of overturning the love of the parent and changing it into the love of the child. This is the beginning of the power of youth, the youth culture.


What about the consumerist idea to connect all immigrants to Americans through American products? Also women became liberated through buying clothes and going to the movies.

Movies are crucial. The movies started in USA as an immigrant entertainment and dealt a lot with social issues. The first movie studios were in Astoria, Queens. The streets of New York were usually used as a natural location for movies.

When movie industry starts to relocate to Hollywood, movies became more middle class entertainment with less social questions and more costume dramas, they become more a dreamy world, where necessities of life are not an issue anymore. It is a shift from filmmakers that are dealing with society to filmmakers that are dealing with high society. And this is also the beginning of promoting the lives of movie stars and their lifestyles.


Is this the beginning of the notion of lifestyle?

Yes, but lifestyle defined as landed consumer. Movie stars become in certain ways decoys for power: they don’t have any power – the harder they come the harder they fall – but they become illustrations of power, they become aspirational models for people. There is an explosion of magazines about movie stars in the 20s.

My grandmother was born in late 19th century in Riga and she was young in the early time of the movies. She worked in a sweatshop, came from a socialist background but was completely enamored with Hollywood. She could give you all the details of movie star lives, who is going out with whom, etc. She learned how to become American through the movies as many other people. The movies were then extended in the consumer market.


As product placement?

Product placement becomes much more invasive than it used to be. What happened was that a movie star had a certain dress and later this dress became available in stores on different levels of price. You have movie stars that are driving certain types of cars that than became aspirations for many people. General Motors, the first car oligopoly, creates cars on different levels according to demographics. They have high-end and low-end cars, but all of them are imitating each other.


Consumer culture is therefore born in the 20s?

This is the beginning of the idea of an Americanism that can be defined by consumption but you have to keep in mind that in that time the consumerist sensibility doesn’t reach everybody, because the economy still needs poverty whether is on the farm or in the factory.

The whole rise of advertising coincides with this illusionary problem among the business people which they called under-hconsumption.


Actually creating consumer society meant going through a major shift from the protestant thrift logic of 19th century America. However, this change resulted really fast in the Great Crash.

This is because in order to maintain consumption you needed to give to people the money that they didn’t have. Consumerism is based on building sand castles. If they don’t crumble, who will build a new castle?

Here, I want to mention a quote from the book »The new basis of civilization« (1907, by Simon N. Patten 1907): »In the future the standard of life will not be measured for the basic of life but on how fast the people will get tired of things.«


Which kind of person demands consumer society?

What happened was the shift from the idea of citizenship to the idea of a consumer. Being a citizen is technically not defined with the amount of money that you have. You can be unemployed and you still can vote. Once you shift the idea of citizenship, which is about political rights, to the idea of consumption, then being a person becomes a benefit, not a right. It is something that depends on your disposable income or nowadays on your ability to get credit.


It seems that credit became the main category of American consumerism …

That’s correct. If you want to rent an apartment and you have million dollars in cash but a bad credit score, they won’t let you rent it. They would sell you, but not rent it. Who is still using cash? Poor people and criminals. There has been a lot of journalism recently that reports that when people start dating, they often check each other’s credit score. You don’t want to pick up somebody that is in big debt. That means that people are aware of this particular part of their consumerist identity. They are calling me all the time if I want that they fix my credit score. All this means that we moved away from the concept of unalienable rights to a situation where your worth as a person is to some extent measured on your ability to borrow money, to go into debt.


If consumerism is formed in the 20s, what happens in the 60s, which are usually considered as its beginning?

In the Sixties democracy gives way to demography. There is an increased awareness of an ability to analyze and interpret human psyche and behavior in much more sophisticated ways than in the 20s, where income was considered as the only difference between people. Basically they built diversity according to what people can buy. It is the same product with an added value that people would like to pay more. There is no question that the ability to turn diversity of people into great American lifestyles was a marketing strategy.

However, the 60s politics was actually a critique of this advertising approach and consumer culture. In that time I was editing Connections, one of the first underground newspapers in Madison, Wisconsin, and half of it was filled with parodies of advertisement. For example we were doing satirical ads for napalm.

Moreover, the 60s were not just about becoming a more diverse consumer, it was about challenging some basic structures of society as well. This was a time of major challenges to military-industrial complex, to the monochromatic vision of America, to sex relations.

The explosion of the 60s was brewing in the midst of one the most officially controlled periods of time in 20th century history. It also coincided with these systematic periods of repression in which the control of which voices got heard was extremely well exercised. Red scare in the earlier period of the Cold War did not mean to go after communists – they didn’t care about communists. They went after people in the movie industry, journalists, educators, broadcasting, which is brand new. They went after those places, where people can be influencers, opinion leaders. They didn’t go after people sitting at home and having dangerous ideas, they went after these that could disseminate what they determined to be “dangerous” ideas through screenplays, books, articles, classrooms, etc.


Therefore, there were not American ways, only one American way, and there were not American dreams as well, just one American dream?

Yes. For many people, America was always a place to escape to. Even of need, because of depression or economic deprivation in the land they come from. This is why she was always a place for outsiders. However, America is not a country that is, particularly in its most conservative moments, friendly to the outsiders. And so during Reaganism. when I was traveling to speak at many universities around USA (and also around the world), when I entered a small town, I directly felt the power of that political moment, the conservatism in the values of the students. I was usually brought there to shake people up. Some professors thought that this would be a good idea. But it was sometimes hard to do the shaking.

In America, there is this tendency, which is certainly not correct, that when you are talking about America, you are talking about one thing. The idea of American way of life means that if you think about America, you think in this one particular way. You are also coming from a society where the diversity of political ideas is much greater than here. Whether that’s good or bad, it is not assumed that everybody thinks the same about everything.


Illustration: Katja Pahor

The article was originally published in Razpotja issue 15 (spring 2014)

Slovenian translation

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