America’s Illusion of Free Will

The mainstream U.S. news media’s narrow parameters, especially on foreign policy issues, give the American people little opportunity to engage in meaningful debate or to influence outcomes. Typically, public perceptions are managed and consensus is manufactured, as Lawrence Davidson writes.

By Lawrence Davidson

Most Americans believe they have a range of choices in their daily lives and that they may choose among them freely. That is, they intuitively believe that their choices are made autonomously and without outside interference.

They would probably be surprised to learn that what they take for granted in this regard, the exercise of what is called free will, is a hotly debated topic among learned men and women in fields of study as widely separated as physics, philosophy and theology.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War.


For instance, many physicists are convinced that if one could know the position and momentum of all the atoms in the universe, one could accurately predict the future behavior of those atoms (including the ones that make up you and me). Of course, one cannot acquire that sort of total knowledge, but the proposition does call into question free will in principle.

Philosophers, in their turn, have debated whether free will is compatible with a natural world where cause and effect is the prevailing physical mechanism. And theologians have spent an equal amount of time trying to figure out how free will can coexist with their assumed omniscient and omnipotent God.

One doesn’t have to have a graduate degree in physics, philosophy or theology to question the notions that people have a wide range of choices and the unfettered will to choose among them. A close consideration of our social and cultural milieu reveals strong deterministic influences – particularly the mass media and its engines of advertising and selective news dissemination.

How many individual daily decisions are determined by some degree of media manipulation? Well, for many they can include what we eat, what we wear, how we entertain ourselves, how we groom ourselves, even whether we feel safe or unsafe (and buy or don’t buy that burglar alarm).

Those who use the media to try to sway our behavior declare that they are simply providing information that allows informed choices or, as one pro-advertising web site says, “advertising ensures that we don’t have to settle for second best. It helps us exercise our right to choose.”

However, this is problematic. Advertisers seek to restrict choice, not broaden it and ultimately they want to determine the choice for you. So, generally, what you see as a range of choices is really limited options within a predetermined context – the context of the marketplace. And your freedom of choice? Your choice may well be made on the basis of which product sponsor is most effective in manipulating your perceptions.

This is media determinism in action and it has proven very successful. U.S. businesses spend some $70 billion a year on TV advertising alone. And, as one ad executive comments, “companies would not invest [that much money] in something they thought didn’t work.”

This is discouraging news for those who believe in the everyday consumer’s freedom of choice, though indeed this sort of media persuasion leads to death and destruction only occasionally (think anorexia). There are, however, other categories of our lives where media determinism is much more likely to lead us right off the proverbial cliff, i.e., in politics and issues of war or peace.

Media Determinism: Political

Given the ubiquitous presence of the media and its influence, the use of persuasive advertising has long since found its way into the realms of politics and policy promotion. Once again, the object is to limit choices, in this case by shutting down debate that is outside an acceptable frame, and thereby sweep you along with enthusiasm or resignation to adopt one of the allowed choices.

You would think that when it comes to choosing political leaders and deciding between war or peace, the public would deserve information approaching objectivity. This is exactly what they never get.

For instance, political campaign promises and party platforms are almost never scrutinized by the media, nor does the media point out that they are only rarely translated into post-election blueprints for action. Instead the media present manipulated information, mostly in the form of expensive campaign ads, as data upon which to base voter choices.

Millions are swayed by these ads and millions more, recognizing the vacuous quality of the undertaking, opt out of the political process altogether. The former play inside a manipulated game with severely limited choices; often the latter unhappily acquiesce to the prevailing system because challenging it seems pointless. Yet such is the power of the myth of democracy that the process rolls on while the charade is glorified in the media and no one seems able to change it.

In times of emergency the practice of media determinism gets worse. What little critical inclination might exist among journalists is suppressed in the name of national unity. The press rallies around a government position or storyline. This can be seen in the follow-up to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. An investigation as to why these attacks were carried out was suppressed, i.e., what U.S. policies in the Middle East prompted al-Qaeda’s suicide hijackers to fly planes into buildings.

Thus, any possibility for the public to examine the ongoing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was also shut down. The official line was that such critiques were attempts to blame the victim. In the same way, any option for the prevention of future attacks was limited to a military one rather than seriously considering diplomatic or policy change alternatives. President George W. Bush’s approval rating at this time had reached 90 percent.

The alliance between government and media can be seen in what soon followed. President Bush’s determination to attack Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, led to an orchestrated campaign of misinformation. In March 2003, as the invasion took place, polls showed that between 72 percent and 76 percent of Americans supported the President’s war.

In doing so, did they exercise free choice? Most of them would probably have told you that they did. Yet a strong argument can be made that because of the misinformation given them in the run-up to the war – for instance, misinformation about the Iraqi people’s desire to be rescued from Saddam Hussein and the notorious issue of weapons of mass destruction – they were in fact victims of media determinism.

It turns out, however, that it is difficult for the media to sustain a campaign of misinformation in the face of gross contradiction. Thus, when U.S. troops were not welcomed with flowers as they invaded Iraq, and the weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found, the administration’s approval ratings took a dive. But by the time the events revealed the misleading nature of government-media information, the damage had been done.

Despite having been shown to be misleading, the role and style of media news presentation has not changed much. Today, external issues vital to the nation’s future — such as the dangerous alliance with Israel, deadly drone campaigns, the catastrophic potential of global warming and the deteriorating relations with Russia, as well as internal ones, such as the need for more aggressive economic regulatory enforcement, the expansion of health care reform and increased taxation of the wealthy — are little discussed in the media or, when mentioned, come to us in suspiciously biased form.

Truly, objective information and fair-minded analysis are hard to come by and the encouragement of meaningful debate about substantive topics is absent from the major media.

So what is real, free choice and what is media determinism? The picture sketched above suggests that the former is significantly limited by the latter. This appears to be the case when it comes to mundane things as well as matters of life or death.

How many of us understand this to be the case? It has to be very few, for if very many realized the situation, they would surely demand that the media break its alliance with the powerful. Without honest information, there can be no meaningful pathway to free choices.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

12 comments for “America’s Illusion of Free Will

  1. Rob
    December 15, 2014 at 22:19

    It’s hard to envision the media breaking their alliance with the powerful given that they are owned by the powerful.

  2. Peter Loeb
    December 12, 2014 at 05:54

    The late historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko referred to this as “our
    alleged pluralistic democracy.”(THE LIMITS OF DPLOMACY). Others have
    used other phrases. You are on target with this analysis, LD. Even sports
    events–or particularly such events— are prime announcements of the
    inerrancy of the armed state and the traitorous tendency to do anything
    more than support those “defending our way of life” (we are told
    again and again). I still root for the home town team of millionaires
    but go to the bathroom during such manipulative jingoism.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

  3. jim solomon
    December 12, 2014 at 03:16

    “This [media determinism] can be seen in the follow-up to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. An investigation as to why these attacks were carried out was suppressed … ”

    But there was no hanky panky on the day of 9/11?

    Man, you were reading this truther’s mind until you hit this line and then you blew it. How can you believe that the official media narrative of 9/11 is true when there are so many anomalies and so much evidence in books, online and in videos that says otherwise. At least make some room for doubt. Because to you, somehow there are media lies prior to and immediately after 9/11 but miraculously on 9/11 itself the media narrative is suddenly true like a one-day cancer remission? Sorry my friend but the media has done manipulated your perceptions too.

    • Joe Tedesky
      December 12, 2014 at 08:58

      Jim, I love how you proudly call yourself a ‘truther’. We need more people like you. Isn’t it interesting how it has become fashionable to make fun of anyone who questions the official 9/11 Report? Your comment here makes sense, and says it all. So, have a nice day. I must go now and put on my tinfoil hat. Sincerely agree with you.
      Joe Tedesky

    • Gregory Kruse
      December 12, 2014 at 09:25

      He said an investigation was suppressed, thereby strongly implying that there was “hanky-panky”. What I find is that any theory about the truth of what happened is just as hard to believe as the cover story. A nuclear power plant in the basement? Ehh.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    December 11, 2014 at 23:07

    During the run up to invading Iraq, Scott Ritter was portrayed as the devil. You may recall how Ritter was a voice screaming into the wind. How about how MSNBC’s shut down of Phil Donahue, and Ashley Bandfield? Today when people talk about Ukraine almost no one knows who Victoria Nuland is…well here on this site yes, but America not so much.

    When it comes to elections, we vote on personality. Yet, between hanging chads, and Diebold voting machines no stone is left unturned to guaranteeing a win for the chosen one. All promises made by a candidate are scrapped once he or she gets in office. No wonder many have given up on the system. This past years midterm elections were proof that the public isn’t as stupid as they appear, as much as turned off by the results. I believe the American voter is just plain flat ass tired.

    • Hillary
      December 12, 2014 at 10:17

      Excellent comment ..
      Except perhaps the ” American voter ” is just NOT informed as well as “just plain flat ass tired “.

    • Joe Tedesky
      December 13, 2014 at 00:15

      Hillary, I think it goes hand in hand. Lack of interest leads to both, if you think about it. Hope all is well, haven’t heard from you for a while. Joe Tedesky

  5. Paul Grenier
    December 11, 2014 at 22:35

    Precisely. Nicely done. In the spirit of the argument you have just made, I recently urged all of my acquaintances to make an effort to financially support one or two media sources that actually do make an effort to provide honest information. This seems to me a much more important political act than voting.

    A problem, though, remains, which I would be interested in seeing you address in another essay. What do you do about the problem of self-censorship? Given the managed and pre-determined frame of ‘appropriate’ public debate, it is very difficult to get too far away from that frame without beginning to sound like, and indeed becoming, an outcast. The propaganda interests are well aware of this, and use it to very good effect. In my related post from Dec. 9, which focused more on the US – Russia ‘managed debate,’ I raise this question as well, but only find at most the initial rudiments of a response. Feel free to respond off line if more convenient.

  6. paganus
    December 11, 2014 at 20:49

    I’ve always wondered how theologians who invented “free will” to explain the existence of “evil” can allow that an all-good god could possibly be able to design a creature with the capacity to do evil, since evil is beyond the experience of anything marked “all good.” Or that defining god as “all good” deprives him of possessing the characteristic of “not good” and thus immediately imposes human limitations on something said to be infinite.

    Theodicy is the branch of Christian theology devoted to resolving “the problem of evil.” Its explanations are a vast outpouring of senseless verbiage, lovely phrases and ideas that appear satisfying but which have no meaning in real experience. That is the unique province of theology, twisting words until meaning itself is lost. This is inevitable when you start with your conclusion and reason backwards, contriving ways to dismiss the evidence that invalidates your premise while making up new “proofs” out of the thin air.

    Incidentally, the idea of our world as a chessboard in a war between good and evil is the idea of the
    Persian religious leader Zoroaster. It passed into Judaism during the period of the “Persian captivity”, and from there into Christianity.

    • toby
      December 12, 2014 at 18:52

      Good thing we don’t worship a bunch of pagan Gods or think one is better than the next.

  7. Zachary Smith
    December 11, 2014 at 19:01

    I don’t suppose there are any substantial errors in Mr. Davidson’s essay, but I have a problem with it nevertheless.

    The piece is too darned vague – he provided no examples at all to the reader. Somebody though – perhaps Mr. Robert Parry – added the photograph of the Codpiece Commander, and that’s going to be MY starting point. My first link:

    As this author says, GWB’s handlers had a problem.

    Look at the face cartoonists have given Bush: The ears are outsized while the nose is modest. Big ears are not exactly phallic signifiers; if anything, they connote a state of permanent childhood, à la Mickey Mouse. In caricature Bush looks like a perplexed piker. There’s a reason he once drew the ultimate Texas dis: “All hat and no beef.” This sissifying contempt still lingers under the hoopla about Bush’s prowess.

    The former cheerleader, the spoiled rich punk who’d failed at virtually everything he’d tried, who’d gone AWOL from military service during wartime; this fellow had to be turned into a macho hero. So his handlers decided they had show his balls.

    It was an outrageous stunt, and that’s why is was such a success. People just can’t admit that they’re seeing what they seem to be seeing. It was handled well enough – the right-wing press had their stories ready. One of the worst/best was in the freaking WSJ!!!


    There were others.

    LIDDY: Well, I – in the first place, I think it’s envy. I mean, after all, Al Gore had to go get some woman to tell him how to be a man [Official Naomi Wolf Spin-Point]. And here comes George Bush. You know, he’s in his flight suit, he’s striding across the deck, and he’s wearing his parachute harness, you know – and I’ve worn those because I parachute – and it makes the best of his manly characteristic. You go run those, run that stuff again of him walking across there with the parachute. He has just won every woman’s vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn’t count – they’re all liars.

    Yes, the right wing press was ready, for it was a planned and well-coordinated operation. There were many more right-media references to Bush’s huge “bulge”, but enough of that for now.

    Anybody recall the tobacco company’s Joe Camel? Selling cigarettes is more than just having a product which is incredibly addictive – you’ve got to get the attention of the potential customers – the kids. Polls showed that more young children recognized Phallic Joe than did Mickey Mouse! Those images were everywhere, but the public display of male genitalia was so blatant it became invisible. Not that the advertisers didn’t push it anyhow – I have an outdoor magazine where one section opens to a huge stiff paper foldout of “Joe”. Balls & All rise up as you open that page.

    The media manipulation has been going on for a very long time. And it still continues.

    Yep – swastika wrapping paper for Hanukkah. Why did they do it? No idea, but then I don’t know why whiskey print ads are chock-full of death scenes, either. Nor why a huge F**K scrawled on a Montgomery Wards catalog page was expected to sell the product there.

    Once upon a time certain foods were bottom-of-the-barrel. Pig tails, feet, intestines and chicken wings, necks, gizzards – these were the leftovers suitable only for slaves. But a concentrated media campaign turned the crappy chicken wings into Buffalo Wings – a premium and pricey food!!!

    Rapeseed oil >>> healthy and tasty Canola Oil.

    People are as susceptible as hell to the activities of the psychologists, and don’t have a clue they’re being manipulated.

    Once again, Mr. Davidson’s essay wasn’t wrong; it was just seriously incomplete.

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