The Modernization of "Traditional Society"
This is how the US used its propaganda and influence to spread its ideals during the Cold War to "modernize" (i.e Americanize) the Middle East.
At the height of the Cold War, print media, and more importantly, the radio, proved to be extremely important tools of influence. The Voice of America, Radio Free Liberty, and Radio Free Europe, were all, for example, very efficient tools of US propaganda, though they all adopted different forms of influence. The VOA, being the media machine of the Department of State, was constrained by bureaucracy and official policy.
The RFL and RFE, on the other hand, were founded as private enterprises by ex-intelligence and military operatives, and employed foreign nationals. The US didn’t just want to influence people from various countries as the USSR’s reach was growing, it sought to employ people from inside those communities in order to have Ukrainians speaking to Ukrainians, Poles to Poles. Why? Because if “reform” was to happen, it would happen from within, through voices sympathetic to the US and the “liberties” it espoused.
This is where Daniel Lerner’s chef-d'oeuvre comes into play. Lerner was tasked by the University of Columbia, which was in turn tasked by the Voice of America (as an extension of the State Department), to conduct a comprehensive study of media consumption in the "Middle East." The aim was to propagate Western ideals in the "Middle East" through media. Hollywood films, radio music broadcasts, news broadcasts, print media, were all heavily consumed tools of influence. On the receiving end, peoples in different "Middle Eastern" countries needed to be studied: their aspirations, thoughts, political leanings were to be discerned, to best learn how best to approach them. This resulted in what is now known as one of the “bibles” of modernization, Daniel Lerner's The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East.
Interviewing the "Middle East"
A total of 1600 interviews were conducted in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, and Syria by local anthropologists in 1950-1951. Through these interviews, three personality types were constructed, based on their degree of “empathy”, the gold standard for judging how modern a person is (according to the author), thereby informing Lerner how modern a society is. The more empathy one possesses, the more they are able to imagine themselves as other people. Lerner categorized people into 3 classes: the empathetic modern, the semi-empathetic “transitional”, and the unempathetic traditional.
For Lerner, the features of modernity lay in urbanization, literacy, and a participant lifestyle. The literate urban dweller, who is engaged in democracy and has opinions exceeding his immediate needs, is the modern. The modern is presented as being the polar opposite of the illiterate country dweller who only cares about his immediate needs, thus presenting a clear dichotomy that the “aspiring” transitional lies in between. This helped him classify societies in his "Middle East" along these lines.
Lerner’s model of modernization, that of communication, was in fact the dominant model throughout the golden age of modernization, so much so that it is in fact still in use by UN organizations and US NGOs (USAID being a major example). Its basic premise was that for modernization to take place, people must be influenced to adopt modern ideals, and let go of tradition, either through communication and media or through government (and non-government) influence. The interviews were not only meant to classify people, but to study them in a manner so detailed as to see what their wants and leanings are, and adjust propaganda efforts accordingly.
The message that needed to be delivered to receivers, was that the West’s “superiority” and their “inferiority” were largely thanks to the US’ ideals and way of life, the driving forces behind its progress. Tradition, and everything associated with it, is restrictive and constraining, it is outdated and backward, rather it is destructive and counter-progressive. If societies are to move forward and emulate the West, they need to adopt its ideals. Practically speaking, this would further propagate cultural and economic consumerism in these societies, increasing dependency on the West, instead of the independence they claim to propagate.
The Grocer and the Chief
The story of the book, to sum it up, lies in the author’s parable of the Grocer and the Chief. Lerner learned of the small village of Balgat as he was reading the interview conducted by one Tosun B., which he dispatched to the village.
Balgat was a small village, located some eight kilometers outside of Ankara, and the interview in question was conducted in 1950, long after Ataturk’s modernization policies began to take root. However, Balgat was still a village, its youth were still farmers, and they all followed the Chief (the Muhtar), who Lerner described as a traditional leader (despite his being an adamant supporter of Ataturk), who wears traditional clothing, and thinks along traditional (read, unempathetic) lines.
Though everyone followed the Muhtar’s word, as he was the leader, the village did have one “dissident”, the grocer.
The grocer is portrayed as the village’s most “modern” person: a tradesman who enjoys his trips to the city - where he wishes he can live later on - and loves the fact he can put on Western clothing there, who goes to the cinema and loves watching American flicks.
Four years later, in 1954, Balgat is revisited, but this time it's changed. The village has roads, transmission towers, power lines, and its youth live in the city where they went to lead an urban lifestyle and make more money. The Muhtar is portrayed as having lost his traditional power, with the grocer, the transitional, having ultimately won. The lesson to be learned is: if we can change the grocer, we can change the "Middle East."
The book’s ideological underpinnings
Lerner is a veteran of propaganda, serving as a “propaganda officer” in the US Psychological Warfare department during World War II. He is a seasoned propagandist who knows how best to target “the other” in influence campaigns.
Looking into Lerner’s other writings, one can clearly see how Lerner’s worldview and his ideological biases are present. This is a man who, citing other works, believes that a group of psychological conditions and cultural behaviors form an “oriental mentality”. This mentality, according to Lerner, acts as an impediment to “development”, and comprises religion, language, writing, tradition (culture), and fashion (how they dress).
One can clearly see his anti-Islam and anti-Arab bias when he describes them as impediments to change when discussing Ataturk’s approach to modernization:
Cultural rather than phonetic languages were what he [Attaturk] sought in the change. He knew that so long as Turkish was written from right to left it could never properly diffuse the ideals of European civilization. The picturesque involutions and intricacies of Arabic script afforded a psychological background to the Oriental mentality which stood as the real enemy of the republic; its mere difficulty acted as a barrier against the universal diffusion of reading and writing.
How does he conclude that religion is complicit in this backwardness? Quite simply because the more "modernized" or "developed" social groups in the "Middle East" were the "non-Muslim" ones, according to his understanding.
Christianity and Westernization grew together. Channels of communication with the West were ready-made for members of the Uniate,
Orthodox and Protestant sects [in the Middle East, specifically Lebanon].
They, in turn, relayed Western influence internally.
Quite simply, Lerner is another orientalist, who made use of the scientific method and academic know-how to justify the Americanization of the world at the height of the Cold War. He constructed an "other" and sought to show them as inferior, and in need of the helping hand of change that the US can offer.
Sure, this is yet another example of the West's mission civilisatrice at play, but that doesn't mean that the book isn't a valuable piece of work. It offers a very real and very important study into how "Middle East" was at the time, how people's political and media leanings were, and most importantly, a tangible example of how the US was able to employ media so effectively in the Cold War to gain such an important foothold in the "Middle East" and influence its people.
- Daniel Lerner (1964) The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East, First Free Press Paperback Edition.
- Hemant Shah (2011), The Production of Modernization: Daniel Lerner, Mass Media, and The Passing of Traditional Society, Temple University Press.
- Umaru Bah (2008), Rereading The Passing of Traditional Society, Cultural Studies, 22:6, 795-819.
- John Gulick (1959), Review: The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East by Daniel Lerner, American Anthropologist, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 135-138