The Empire of the Humanities: An interview with Dr Robert Merrill, Professor of Humanities emeritus Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore
by T.P. Wilkinson / December 6th, 2022
Perhaps one of the most amazing phenomena of the 20th and now 21st century is not Anglo-American empire, understood as military and economic power. Far more remarkable is the fact that in the scope of some two hundred years the English-speaking world; i.e., the British Empire and the American Empire, have produced a cultural and propaganda machine which has completely overwhelmed and occluded two of the oldest extant cultures in the world that of Russia and China. Andre Gunder Frank argued in ReOrient that, in fact, until the middle of the 19th century the de facto centre of the world economy was still East Asia, that is to say China. While historians have offered a variety of explanations for how the Western peninsula dominated by Great Britain overtook China in economic terms, today’s revitalised and powerful Chinese economy verified Gunder Frank’s prediction that the shift back to the East was underway. Yet the power of Anglo-American language and culture throughout the world show no signs of dissipating.
Meanwhile the Anglo-American Empire and its suzerains are undergoing yet another “cultural revolution” in which the imperial language and culture appear even more aggressive than they were in the age of anti-communism from 1917 until 1989.
Robert Merrill taught humanities and intellectual history for the better part of his career at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
T.P.Wilkinson: You began as a literary scholar with a dissertation on Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Artur, essentially a subject for Medievalists. When you arrived at the Maryland Institute, essentially an art school, you developed their humanities program and courses in intellectual history. At the same time you have always been politically active, working with a variety of groups to support criticism of the regime in Washington but also publishing the work of people engaged in active opposition. Clearly your interest in language is not merely academic. Could you talk about how you got from Malory to Maryland and Medievalism to contemporary intellectual history?
Robert Merrill: I was propelled to write about the phenomenon of Arthurian Romance in the 14th and 15th centuries after reading Johan Huizinga’s book, The Waning of the Middle Ages. He noted certain characteristics in collapsing of forms in a culture going through the final stages of one historical epoch and before anything new emerged to replace it. This was always my insight about the romances of Arthur. They were never much about the rise of a constellation of cultural dominants but rather about their incoherence and eventual ripping apart. Studying the 14th and 15th centuries was about as good a grounding for the study of the 20th century as one could get, since in a strong way the 20th century was the “waning of the modern age.”
Some of the post-modernists were very good but much of the movement was pretty much vapid. But that’s how the 15th century was, as well. We are living through the end of the Enlightenment and the concept of the rational human being as well as all the social and political implications of that core belief. This is therefore also the end of science, as was so clearly and buffoonishly shown in the Covid pandemic by the authorized “scientists” at the NIH, CDC, WHO and other agencies. This is also the end of the age of democracy and nation states founded on the human rights and inherent powers of people.
The arts at the highest level are always the struggle over forms. I was asked to teach a class at the Maryland Institute College of Art because a faculty member left abruptly, and I was intrigued by the opportunity. What I found there just amazed me. This was an art college which made it clear that art was about ideas, ways of seeing, and ways of thinking rather than about materials, techniques, and forms. Artists are intellectuals and knowledge creators/disseminators. I could see immediately that I could contribute. I was soon selected to head a new Division of Humanities, which I built on the model of intellectual history, a way of studying the humanities which asserts that knowledge is unavoidably historical and grows out of the real experiences of the people who create that knowledge. There are no universals or permanent truths. But there is the relationship between formal systems of thought or representation and the worlds those systems emerge from. Intellectual history attempts to study the structure and dynamics of intellect communities and the evolution of the methods, techniques and hermeneutical practices used by scientists, philosophers, men and women of letters, and artists.
After many years, I developed the Office of Research in order to align art production with the research in the sciences and humanities. On a more practical level, it was also a move to help with grant funding. There was very little money for “the arts,” but lots of grant money for “research.” The National Science Foundation at the time even added a provision that a team of investigators would be considered improved if it included an artist.
TPW: Much of what has happened in American culture seems like it appears spontaneously. The US is a business centre for fashion in film, music, clothing, and all sorts of consumption. It also seems to be the best country in the world at producing and marketing its culture—even to people who have every reason to oppose the US in every other way. What do you believe is the source of the power of the American culture industry? Why does it seem irresistible? How does this relate to the power of the English language in the world?
RM: Really, there isn’t anything about the US that is much different from preceding empires. The US has a culture industry, which it sells to every nation on earth as a way to promote the empire and create a class of people who will be quite open to ever greater penetration by the US of their economy and society. Here’s a typical example. My wife grew up in China in the 1950s and 60s. As a kid she watched classic Hollywood movies and listened to US music about as much as any American. She loved them and they created in her a fascination for the culture which could create such dreamy productions. Later as an adult she moved to America.
The same thing was done by the European empires with the Great Britain and France leading the way. Colonial subjects were taught in school French or British history, geography, literature and it was always asserted that these were superior to the indigenous counterparts. There’s a lot that has been written about this by “post-colonial” authors; those who were educated under the colonial system but are now living in independent nations with the watershed of formal colonialism. They seem to have a leg in two different cultures.
The US, however, does have a signal advantage and that is it created the science of modern public relations, propaganda, and scientific brainwashing. It is no longer just assigning kids in Ghana the works of Tennyson or Shakespeare; now it is applying science to re-make human consciousness by means of structuring a person’s experiences. In this it was heavily influenced by the work of B. F. Skinner and his concept of “operant conditioning.” The techniques of conditioning behaviour and consciousness is applied by agencies of the US government but more importantly by US corporations both domestically and internationally. The “consciousness industry” emerged early in the 20th century as a necessity following the development of mass production and mass consumption. This is where the US really excelled in creating a culture of consumption of goods. A good and useful history of this is Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture. It traces the ways in which marketing transformed consumption from a “need” based action to a “desire” based avocation. Consumer culture is about creating one’s identity by means of the products or brands one buys (or consumes) in order to externalize an identity. A person can be what he or she desires to be by consuming products with the right image. Image is everything, and so it is paramount to always present the products and accessories that comprise the “true you.”
Your question asks about the source of the global power of the culture industry. I would say the power resides in the combination of corporate money and depth psychology. Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was the founder of this practice of scientific marketing. But the real quantum development came in the 1950s and 60s when the CIA hired legions of psychologists and medical doctors to apply the experimental method to the construction of consciousness and thought control. Skinner was among these psychologists. His book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity presents a total rejection of the Enlightenment assumption of the rationality of human beings and therefore of the political conditions which such rational people would create, such as freedom and the quest for dignity in one’s life. Instead of those, Skinner proposes cultural and social engineering. Cognition or thought is not some mysterious and inherently individual process but rather is conditioned, as it is learned from conditioned behaviours in specifically engineered environments.
This is where we are today with engineered environments like the Covid pandemic, the climate catastrophe environment, and the global shortages of food, energy, and other things.
TPW: The US was considered a model of Enlightenment revolution after 1776. The French 1789 revolution was certainly inspired by it as have been many subsequent struggles. Yet those who are old enough to remember Ronald Reagan may recall that he called the CIA-sponsored terrorists attacking Nicaragua “the moral equivalent of the founding fathers”. Repeatedly what is called at the same time “regime change” is defended with the canonical language of the American independence war. Today we find people in the West like Gerald Horne saying the independence war was an act to preserve slavery and others saying that everything in US history (or British history) can be reduced to “white supremacy”. At the same time there has also been a strong criticism of the revolutions in the 19th century—the Romantic revolutions, including those of the 20th century—as betrayals of Enlightenment ideals. You also spent many years studying Romanticism as a Euro-American cultural phenomenon. Can you suggest a coherent way of understanding the legacy of 1776 and the so-called Romantic revolutions? Are the 20th century revolutions; e.g., in Russia, China, and Cuba, “betrayals” of Enlightenment ideals? Can these terms Enlightenment and Romanticism be used to explain anything about the development of political culture in the West?
RM: The Age of Revolutions or the Age of Democracy is long over. It ended with the Chinese victory over the western supported Kuomintang in 1948. The Age of Revolutions did not end because there was no more need for revolution but rather because the forces for reaction mobilized and ended democratic revolutions once and for all. If you think of the revolutions that have occurred after 1948, the successful ones are still frozen in time in a permanent reactionary war of EuroAmerica against them. Think of North Korea, Cuba, Iran, all of the Nations of Latin America, and most of the nations of Africa.
I think most presidents have called their terrorist bands something like the equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Reagan also said this about the Mujahedeen who changed into al-Qaeda. In truth, they were always a reactionary proxy militia fighting against the true revolutionaries in Afghanistan. People have totally forgotten that the socialist party negotiated a deal with the current king in Afghanistan for a new constitution and a democratic government beginning in 1964.
The important point is that revolution, enlightenment, humanism, and democracy are all components of the same way of conceiving of a society in which political powers are derived from the inherent powers and rights of people. The purpose of politics is the happiness of all people and the successfulness of their lives. This is the essence of Marx’s work just as it is of the Romantic poets like Shelley, Schiller, Goethe, and many philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Political structures are quite susceptible to corruption because they are vested with more than ordinary powers and public moneys needed to carry out public projects. That means they also will probably need to be overthrown from time to time in order to restore true power to people. Jefferson, who had read carefully Rousseau’s Social Contract, wrote in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
You could not write this or attempt to put these words in action today. If you did, the FBI would have your marked as a domestic terrorist. Jefferson said on several occasions that the check people have on the abuses of power by government is revolution.
Today, theories of government have returned to theories of monarchy; that is, the powers and rights of governments are inherent or given by God or some supernatural force and may never be overthrown. Individual leaders come and go but the State is permanent and operates in its own rights and powers – not those give to it by people. This is the political philosophy of monarchy but our more current terms are fascism and Nazism.
This is where we are today. The future does not look good. Orwell’s glimpse into the future at the end of 1984 is dramatic and scary, but it is not far from the truth: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” How many lives have been stamped out in the Bush/Cheney campaign to bring “freedom” to every human on earth (otherwise knows as the Global War on Terror). The best guess would be somewhere near 20 million. And it has not nearly stopped. The Obama/Clinton/Biden “Pivot to Asia” is now promising to bring “freedom” to Russia and China. This form of this will be World War III and that may just mean the end of the human race as we have known it.
TPW: During the US war against Vietnam there was often talk about “the American inside every Vietnamese” trying to get out. In fact, this idea seems to be the strongest one shared by Americans everywhere. A country barely two centuries old believes fervently that everyone else wants explicitly or implicitly to be just like them. This implies either gross ignorance or wanton disregard for the languages and cultures of the vast majority of the world’s population. Yet if one travels to China, South America, Africa, Western Europe, Russia, you see American stuff everywhere. In fact, in many places I know people consider their own culture and products inferior to anything from the US. That makes what is now called “Woke” seem even more absurd—virtue signalling by formally rejecting American cultural product while consuming it at the same time. Is this mass schizophrenia?
RM: The US has a rather simplistic conception of human nature. It was the theory of the 18th and 19th century philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Jean Baptiste Say, and others who defined “rational man” in a mechanistic or numerical way. Sometimes this was called “Utilitarianism” or “enlightened self-interest.” It holds that human beings always behave rationally and that means they always choose to maximize their self-interest or advantage over competitors.
This has always been only the theory of “economic man.” The economic man simply proposes that buying/selling and self-interest (greed) are at the root of everything any human ever does. Freedom is also just economics or the desire to pursue self-interest with little or no restrictions. This is exactly what G. W. Bush meant when after 9-11 in proclaiming the Global War on Terror he said that freedom was god’s gift to all people and the US would bring freedom to all people of the earth. He really only meant economic freedom.
So the Vietnamese with an American inside trying to get out is just the economic man who wants to be able to buy and display American commodities and thereby fulfill his nature. But this is such a shallow and ethno-centric way of looking at people. Of course, everyone has some greed, but in most people it is not very important.
I think not enough recognition is made of the fact that in WW II, pretty much all of the world was utterly destroyed. Russia lost 29 million people and 80% of the buildings in the European side of Russia were destroyed. China lost 25 million people and though it was not industrialized at the time of WW II, its agricultural production was destroyed. Only the US was untouched by the devastation of WW II. So in the years between 1945 and 1980, the US was the manufacturer of the world. US products dominated because they were often the only products available. People worldwide looked to the US for what modernization meant and they wanted to be like the US. Many revolutionary leaders such as Ho Chi Minh greatly admired the US until its war against Viet Nam taught him better.
It was World War II that made the US the centre of the world. But that phase is now over and we are fully now in a multi-polar world. It is interesting that in the recent proxy war between the US and Russia, President Putin has made it clear that Russia no longer wants to belong to a world order dominated by the US. The US response to the independence of Russia and also China and India is to impose sanctions. That means Russian products cannot be sold in the West and Western products can’t be sold in Russia. This only enhances the separation of East and West, as Russia now has to become self-sufficient in everything from food to technology to consumer goods. Russia also has to develop economic relations with Asia, instead of the West. This is how the post-WW II American hegemony is dying.
TPW: Since 2020 there has been – perhaps for the first time—a general recognition that censorship and propaganda are explicit practices of the US regime, not only by the government but also by Business. Throughout the anti-communist era censorship and propaganda were supposedly only practiced by “communist dictatorships”. Strangely at the same time that this censorship and propaganda by the US – openly contradicting a supposed fundamental virtue—is actually supported by enormous numbers of people. This can be seen on the street but even in academia. How did this develop and what is its significance in education and in the use of language overall?
RM: I don’t think the deep hypocrisy in the US proclaimed values of free speech, openness, freedom of thought and conscience as opposed to the reality of propaganda, secrecy, and rigid conformity in thought and consciousness has yet been realized in any significant way. The hypocrisy is celebrated as the value. Take, for example, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. It is based on the principles of Soros’ teacher, Karl Popper, whose book The Open Society and its Enemies gave Soros both the name and the concept. Popper contrasted open societies of the West (US, UK) against the “closed societies” of Russian communism, Nazi Germany, and totalitarianism in general. It may have been possible in the 1940s and 50s to see some truth in Popper’s claims but now that we have the predatory philanthropy of Soros and the false agenda of social democracy promoted by not just the US empire but also by billionaire oligarchs of the World Economic Forum, we can see clearly that “opening societies” is just a tactic for looting them of all their wealth. It has always been that way. The West sent missionaries to Africa and the entire “new world” in order to “open them up” to Western exploitation, genocide, and theft.
It is often said that the censorship practiced in the Soviet Union was well known by all Soviet citizens. Official government pronouncements were always received with a certain amount of scepticism. This was actually a hold over from Czarist Russia where the ruling class and the Czars were just as distrusted as the Bolsheviks. Because of this, Russian society as a whole developed a healthy critical consciousness about what they were being told. Part of this resulted in an underground information system or Samizdat. This was not a new feature in communist Russia but existed under the Czars back as far as the 17th century, when private ownership of printing presses was outlawed. Back then, Russians just published their underground work in Western Europe and brought it back into Russia.
In contrast, in the West (EuroAmerica) there is almost no critical consciousness with regard to public information. People are as vulnerable to government lying and manipulation as a herd of sheep. In the US, democrats believe with absolute fidelity the spokespersons for Democratic Party. And republican do the same for their spokespersons. No democrat would accept for a minute my comment about Soros’ predatory philanthropy or about Gates’ philanthrocapitalism. But they would be happy to hear the same comment if it were said about the Koch Brothers.
There really is in the West almost no desire to understand their own information systems. News organizations like the New York Times or the Washington Post can have open relations with the CIA and very few people seem to care about it. They just believe what the “paper of record” tells them, even when this “paper of record” is proven wrong over and over again. The CIA’s Operation Mockingbird was virtually run out of the offices of the Washington Post by ex-CIA Post owner, Philip Graham, and his long time OSS colleague Frank Wisner. It managed to gain control by cash payments, blackmail, or simple association of most prominent journalists in the US. The operation was exposed and supposedly shut down in the 1970s, but its effectiveness continues to this day. Objectively, there is no free and independent press in the US, but most Americans still believe that there is. They believe there is because they are told by their media and politicians every day that the US has the best free and independent media in the world.
At the current moment, the major tactic of propaganda is for powerful people to “establish the official narrative” for any event in the world. Let’s take the war in Ukraine for example. The “official narrative” is that Russia invaded Ukraine in order to restore the Russian empire. When Ukraine falls, Russia will move on to Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. After that, all of Europe will be in the Russian cross-hairs. This is the old narrative of Soviet Communism which was hell-bent to conquer the world. The truth is that Russia has always been very reluctant to go to war in Ukraine. The 2014 US installed Nazi government in Kiev has carried out genocide against ethnic Russians in the eastern provinces of Ukraine since 2014. Russia was instrumental in developing the Minsk Agreements which would keep the Donbass provinces in Ukraine in exchange for some cultural autonomy and security. While Kiev and Washington signed the agreements, they never honoured or implemented them. They kept shelling the cities of the Donbass. Finally Russia invaded in order to stop the killing of ethnic Russians.
The nature and role of violent Nazi groups in the Ukrainian government and military has been entirely written out of the official narrative. This leaves open the reason why Russia invaded Ukraine.
The hegemony of false narratives is accompanied by “cancel culture.” If you say anything outside of the official narrative, you will be banned from the most popular websites, you may lose your job or profession, and you might also be labelled by the Merrick Garland Department of Justice as a “domestic terrorist.” Garland has been promulgating the theory that “disinformation” is the seedbed for domestic terrorism since violent acts originate in false information. Garland has declared a war on disinformation. The Biden administration through the Department of Homeland Security created something they called “The Disinformation Board of Governors” – a parallel to the Broadcasting Board of Governors which runs external propaganda for the State Department. The “Disinformation Governors” would regulate all information in the US in order to keep the nation secure from the dreaded “disinformation.”
When one considers the Covid pandemic in the light of disinformation, the whole situation becomes absurd in the worst ways. It was the government and its official scientists at the NIH, CDC, FDA who were promoting disinformation in their easily-proven-wrong in their narratives about zoonotic origin for the virus, the death rate, and treatments. Social distancing and masks did no good at all, and yet they were an essential part of the narrative. Really good doctors who offered truthful information about the virus were banned, fired from their jobs, and had their medical licenses cancelled.
We are now at the moment of outright and violent suppression of thought and speech in the US. If you think or say something against the government narratives and you publish your thoughts in a way that alerts enough people, you will be crushed by the force of the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, or their adjuncts in the media owners.
• Read Part 1 here