SCOTT SELISKER begins his book Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Unfreedom with the case of John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban” who was captured in Afghanistan as an enemy combatant shortly after the US invasion in 2001. In trying to assess why an American would willingly join forces with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, media coverage speculated about whether or not Lindh had been somehow brainwashed. The media treatment of Lindh, Selisker notes, follows a script established in the popular press in the mid-20th century to rationalize and invalidate American dissidents. The brainwashing narrative let American readers “see themselves as comparatively free thinkers in a democratic society vis-à-vis the apparent unfreedom of democracy’s enemies.” The idea of our enemies having to forcibly reprogram human beings to get them to turn on the US anchors popular representations of the United States’s own irresistible superiority. Only someone whose right mind has been overwritten with alien propaganda, after all, could fail to cherish American freedom.

The claim that the United States is the “land of the free” is both a cliché and a bitter irony, given our historically equivocal relationship to guaranteeing human liberty. Indeed, as Selisker notes, in the 20th century the whole concept of “American freedom” needed to be reinforced and redefined. It was once easy to define “free” in the United States: it meant you weren’t a slave. Without the institution of slavery to provide a vivid image of what unfreedom looks like, the US began to generate new cultural emblems of unfreedom to delineate what Americans should embrace as freedom. The free man’s counterpart was no longer the slave; it was now the citizen of the totalitarian state, represented by Hitler’s Germany and, from the 1950s especially, by Stalin’s Russia. Such societies, Americans imagined, must be populated not by rational, free-thinking people like themselves, but by brainwashed dupes.

“Many of the most abstract representations of American freedom have depended on images of sublime unfreedom for contrast,” Selisker argues. The way Americans have understood freedom and related concepts like agency, autonomy, and authenticity has “depended on the ability to envision its opposite, the human automaton.” The implication of this argument is that the limited American notion of freedom couldn’t be considered directly because it would be too disappointing. But given images of human beings deprived by insidious technological means of the capability of thinking for themselves, the sorts of “free” choices Americans do possess (where to shop, what sort of lifestyle to adopt) appear suddenly as integral to one’s humanity. The image of the brainwashed individual articulates exactly which forms of submission should be seen as dehumanizing disqualifications from the American community, so that other forms of submission and conformity can assume the dignity of natural or noble choices. It demonized some processes of socialization as “mind control” so the nation’s preferred modes of socialization could appear as the pursuit of liberty.

The aim of Human Programming, Selisker writes, is to “understand how and why totalitarians and other ‘enemies of freedom’ have been imagined so readily through the human automaton’s unfree ‘state of mind.’” That is, he wants to explore why American culture has systematically seized upon the pseudo-scientific idea of “brainwashing” as a legitimate threat and promoted it as the most plausible explanation for why anyone might voluntarily reject the American way of life. Among the canonical human automatons Selisker analyzes are The Manchurian Candidate’s Sergeant Shaw, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the domestic drones of The Stepford Wives, Deckard from Blade Runner, and Brody from the early seasons of Homeland. Selisker aligns these and other fictional or sensationalized depictions of mechanical, automatic behavior with the threats to some conception of the American way of life that seem to have prompted them, from worries about industrialization, modernity, and the massification of society, to Cold War panic about communist brainwashing, to the flourishing of anticapitalist radicalism, communalism, and new religious movements (a.k.a. cults) in the 1970s, to the contemporary fear of Islamic terrorism.

Being a literary critic, Selisker focuses most of his attention on fictional examples; he is not especially concerned with whether brainwashing is actually possible. (If you want to give it a try, this 12-minute short called Mind Control Made Easy provides an efficient primer.) He traces the concept’s roots to the behavioral psychology of Pavlov and Skinner and to mid-20th century attempts to explain the rise of fascism and the nature of communist social control. The rise of mass media brought with it the apparent danger of irresistible propaganda that could compel gleeful obedience to totalitarian regimes. And the emergence of cybernetics in the 1940s raised the possibility that some humans might ultimately be as programmable as computers, that they possessed no intrinsic moral sense but were conditioned all the way down. These two ideas — that the human mind is a kind of computer program, and that the citizens of nondemocratic societies must not be in their right minds — came together in the unsubstantiated notion of brainwashing as a tool of foreign governments. “The totalitarian technology takes advantage of a subject that lacks of core of humanity, a being whose subhumanity lies in its total manipulability,” Selisker writes in describing this point of view.

The question then becomes: Which humans possess an inner psychological integrity, and which are vulnerable to having their beliefs erased and replaced with new ones? The idea that the possession of a stable, healthy “real self” might protect one from being controlled helps explain much of the obsession with authenticity that emerges in midcentury American consumerism. This intransigent “realness” counts as proof that you are not one of conformist subhumans who yearns to, in the 20th-century psychologist Erich Fromm’s influential words, “escape from freedom.” Fromm’s 1941 book of that title developed the idea that totalitarianism was essentially a psychological rather than a social phenomenon, hinging on whether a nation’s people could sustain “a faith that is the strongest the human mind is capable of, the faith in life and in truth, and in freedom as the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.” Selisker argues that Fromm’s view “takes the complex workings of international politics out of the picture, at the same time that it gives the ordinary reader something to do”: namely, examine themselves for the personality traits that denote a wavering interest in the ideal of heroic individuality and a latent susceptibility to fascism. If you experience the temptation to “conform,” if your behavior seems less than spontaneous, if you sometimes feel powerless and are afraid of being alone, you may be at risk.

What would make some people exceptions to the general rule of susceptibility to brainwashing? Is this the same exceptional quality that makes for “real” Americans? The journalist Edward Hunter argued as much in Brainwashing: The Story of the Men Who Defied It, which helped popularize the idea of brainwashing in the 1950s. Hunter posited staunch patriotism as the antidote to mind control. But isn’t that obviously just another form of brainwashing, only by the preferred programmers? Selisker parses Hunter’s logic like this: “In avoiding becoming a dupe to the other side, one must essentially become a dupe to one’s own side.”

The American rhetoric around brainwashing, Selisker shows, is inconsistent at the most basic level: it takes for granted that the programmed self is inauthentic, and that the real self is spontaneous and unlearned. But in order to believe brainwashing can be effective enough to fear it, one must accept the behaviorist assumptions about how brains are supposed to work. Seeing someone else as brainwashed allows me to measure my own freedom, but only as a kind of vulnerability. Mind control is premised on the notion that we have a mind to lose, but behaviorism dispenses with that pretense, assessing psychology entirely on the basis of externalized behavior. All interiority is false from this perspective, so how can one draw on one’s inner resources of the true self to resist the sort of Pavlovian brainwashing depicted, for instance, in Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, in which a kidnapped American soldier is programmed by the Korean government to assassinate a presidential candidate? The behaviorist thesis, once accepted, entails the belief that the real self is simply a set of reflexes, which Skinner has taught us can be conditioned. But if this is true, what happens to freedom? What isn’t brainwashing? Doesn’t identity, any form of identity, amount to a kind of behavioral programming?


Because belief in brainwashing depends on clearly demarcated forces of good and evil, it betokens a surprisingly optimistic (and perhaps thus a fittingly American) view of the world. The brainwashing trope posits the comforting fiction that there are totalitarian controllers out there who can be thwarted rather than a massive and amorphously coercive system that governs and delimits our opportunities. If brainwashing turns us, in Isaiah Berlin’s words, into “human material” ready to be put to some instrumental purpose, that doesn’t seem so different from what we do to ourselves when, logging on to Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook or Twitter, we treat our lives as so much human capital ready for self-exploitation. In a sense, the idea that people need to be brainwashed by external forces is an expression of hope; it suggests a belief that we are not already brainwashing ourselves.

The specific fears Selisker describes now seem old fashioned, a relic of midcentury liberal paranoia, but there is another way in which behaviorism has triumphed in our society. Our current concept of the self, like Pavlov’s and Skinner’s, understands human beings as little more than revealed behaviors, only now the scrutiny occurs not under experimental laboratory conditions but through social media and all the other forms of digital surveillance we consent to on a daily basis. The fact of being recorded introduces a fundamental alienation into the concept of identity: there is an inner account one might have of their behavior, and there are the documents that depict it. The more documents there are of my behavior, the less my internal account of who I am and what I’m doing seems to matter, and the more that internal account becomes shaped by the evidence offered by those documents. What I did is a matter of what the documents say I did, not what I felt or meant to do at the time. I begin to understand my own behavior as an interpretation of the documents, which now hold the truth of my real self, and the essence of what sort of life I must continue to try to live up to. My identity becomes a program in another sense: a television program that everyone, including me, watches to assess who I am and who I will become, as a perpetually consumable media object.

Today, with no slaves and no Soviets to measure our freedoms against, the “other” of American freedom is increasingly the machine itself. As artificial intelligence develops and becomes increasingly humanoid, the temptation to define humanity in terms of what machines aren’t, or can’t be, becomes stronger. But this means that the definition of human autonomy keeps getting narrowed down, as robots and AIs annex more and more of the space previously reserved for humans. The more realistic robot behavior becomes, the less authentic human behavior seems.

As Selisker points out, Philip K. Dick first took up this premise almost 50 years ago in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which subsequently inspired Blade Runner. “The search for the depth of emotion,” Selisker writes, “reveals only the surfaces of interpersonal and intrapersonal circuits of information.” (The TV show Westworld also takes up similar ideas, showing how machines and humans embed themselves in each other’s narrative arcs. But while the androids try to exceed their programmed stories to experience autonomous freedom, the agency of choosing and abandoning motives, the humans look to submit themselves to stories and find relief — an escape from freedom — in reduction to a few very basic motives.) It looks as if, in the future, “freedom” might be defined in the most minimal possible terms: we’re free because we aren’t machines. But the machines, meanwhile, are getting freer and freer.

There is another option, of course: a return to the xenophobic suspicion of the Cold War, this time focused not on godless communism but on theocracy and so-called “radical Islam.” But this latest threat to freedom is just as phantasmatic as all the others: we are back to imagining that those who have chosen to live and think differently from us aren’t — can’t be — free. Moreover, it assumes that we ourselves are free, by definition. There are always degrees of social control, and it enables even as it restricts us. No one has total autonomy, total agency, or total authenticity: no one is, or has ever been, free, in that sense. But the fantasy that freedom is a possession of “real Americans,” and that it is threatened by enemies from without, opens the gates not to the one-to-one brainwashing of individuals but persistent discrimination against out groups, those who can be seen as having failed to make the right connections or join the authorized networks. And we’ll proceed, as we always have, in demonizing those who can’t get with the program.


Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.