Life & Culture

Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control book review - We have ways of making you believe what we want

A fascinating and chilling history of mind manipulation


Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control
By Daniel Pick
Wellcome Collection £20

My wife and I have made two return journeys to Israel this year, both times flying with El Al.

Every time I have gone online since, up have popped advertisements by the airline on a variety of websites, urging me to book cheap tickets to Tel Aviv. Now that it has my online data, it won’t let go in a hurry. (It’s OK, guys, I’ll probably book with you next time too, even if you did lose one of our suitcases the other week.)

El Al’s marketing whizz kids would no doubt be surprised to find themselves accused of thought control when they are merely trying to influence my purchasing decisions, but where do you draw the line these days?

Daniel Pick is in no doubt that this sort of insidious online persuasion belongs in the same category, however remotely, as the intense form of mental torture that came to be known as “brainwashing” in the post-war years, initially when practised by the Chinese communist regime on American prisoners of war, and by the Soviets on political detainees. Pick also points to the Nazis’ mass-propaganda techniques.

Pick is well-placed to write a history of thought control, being both an historian — professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and an associate of its Institute for the Study of Antisemitism — and a psychoanalyst.

He has produced a superbly researched and highly readable book, which could not be timelier when Russia has invaded Ukraine with the aim of “denazifying” it. In a hastily inserted prefacing note, Pick writes that these “dire and potentially apocalyptic military events provide a new context in which to revisit the Cold War era.”

He is surely right. The term “brainwashing” was coined in 1950 by an American journalist, Edward Hunter, describing Maoist China’s attempts to force people to join the Communist Party, and rapidly took root, particularly with reference to American GIs captured by China during the Korean War.

When some declined to be repatriated, most Americans refused to believe that anybody could prefer the privations of Mao’s China to the delights of US capitalism of their own free will. The evidence, however, was inconclusive. Pick got to know one of these men, David Hawkins, in later life.

Hawkins stayed in China for four years before tiring of its lack of freedom and returning to the US, but not to a hero’s welcome: he was accused (like others who followed the same path) of being a traitor and a turncoat. But he retained a cool sense of humour.

Asked by famous TV interviewer Mike Wallace if he had been brainwashed, he replied, “You wouldn’t know” — as good an answer as any.

At that stage, he wasn’t to know that the US in the 1950s was also keenly researching brainwashing, especially with drugs such as LSD.

Pick ranges over the whole spectrum of thought control, with fascinating sections on groupthink and the “hidden persuaders” of the advertising industry and its many offshoots. He pays tribute to the poet Czesław Miłosz, author of the seminal non-fiction work The Captive Mind, and Hannah Arendt, both of whom along with George Orwell were perhaps the three authors who did most to define twentieth-century totalitarianism, with whose baleful legacy we are still living (ask the Ukrainians and the Uighurs).

Apart from the powerful thought control efforts of today’s totalitarian states like Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia, there is worrying evidence that young people are increasingly vulnerable to online conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, many of which peddle antisemitic hate, or anti-vaccine campaigns. But one area that Pick does not investigate is that of “woke” culture, where groupthink is positively encouraged, as in the hate campaign against J.K. Rowling. Perhaps it will feature in the paperback edition.

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