Faintly gloomy but riveting ... Dimsdale takes readers through it all, animating the journey with a clear, energetic writing style that shows how the art of dark persuasion a generation ago led almost inevitably to today’s misinformation, cyberbullying and cultlike behavior on the Internet. The only disappointment is that Dimsdale takes us to the brink of this argument without fully developing it. He devotes only about a half a dozen pages to social media and the way it has come to coerce us all. I would have liked a chapter or two.
We live in a time of mass persuasion, where disinformation flourishes on social media and vaccine skepticism jeopardizes America’s recovery from Covid-19. Lunatic conspiracy theories and fringe ideologies foster very real violence on the reactionary right, while marketers practice the art of convincing people to buy things at scales too vast to visualize. Dark Persuasion suggests that the language of brainwashing is incommensurate with the problems of our time, and a hangover from the era of America’s most paranoid wars … All these experiments proved was that it’s quite easy to destroy a mind with fear and lack of sleep; it is, however, impossible to then restore a person’s mind in a controlled way. No matter the extremes psychopharmacologists, behavioral scientists, and neuroscientists went to, the effects of trauma on the mind are simply too unpredictable to turn into a system. The idea, then, of ‘brainwashing’ was always a fantasy, born out of a paranoid and violent era in American history, and it blossomed in parts of the counterculture of the 1970s … Throughout Dark Persuasion, Dimsdale shows how the idea of brainwashing has been used to justify something much cruder: not the intricate manipulation of another person’s thoughts but simple abuse, whether conducted by the government or by the leaders of a cult. The term always had more political explanatory power than actual psychological basis. If it does have any real meaning, it is as a way of indicating a broader anxiety—about the threat of a hazily understood ideological foe.
Dimsdale is a brilliantly concise and insightful guide...and this book is as energetic and enjoyable as his previous one. But since every single 21st century individual, reading the above paragraph, is thinking of one example and one example only, Dark Persuasion feels like one unbearably protracted prequel to the main event. Readers wait nearly 300 pages for the shoe to drop. The baleful red eye on the book’s US dust jacket is looking in one direction, at one person - and that person doesn’t even merit an inclusion in the book’s index ... Of course the single greatest, most widespread, and most damaging example of brainwashing in the 21st century is the hold disgraced, twice-impeached one-term US President Donald Trump has over his 150 million American followers ... Aside from a few desultory and parting references to Trump, his book never examines the single greatest example of his subject in modern times—an example that was already old and well-established while he was writing his book ... Doubtless Dark Persuasion was intended as a historical overview of the development of brainwashing. It achieves that goal wonderfully. Nevertheless, many readers will finish it saying 'But what about …?'