“Good” Propaganda is Dead!

rundown-banner.jpgI thought I’d rant a bit about the absence of “good” propaganda in today’s movie. Why is it that whenever a politician or some faction of pop culture tells a lie, the lie seems to be told for the sole purpose of empowering all-powerful institutions such as the government or the major corporations that subsidize it. Such propaganda is abundantly observable in our society, but this form of lying is only deemed newsworthy if some audacious individual speaks out against it (at which point he is demonized and dubbed unpatriotic.

If lies are told to empower “the people,” on the other hand, every rich guy and his brother temporarily morphs into an ideological warrior battling against the immorality of dishonesty. The mainstream media outlets become outraged, and the ensuing campaign to publicly humiliate the good liar follows a pattern oddly familiar to the smear campaigns launched against bad liars. The same corporations who profit from lies are quick to plug honesty in serendipitous moments when the truth actually benefits their agenda.

As a result, all sides of the culture wars must concede that one side has monopolized the right to lie. For all Sean Hannity’s incessant braying about the so-called “liberal elites in Hollywood,” most big-time movie producers stay far away from political topics altogether. Those who dare to deal with politcally charged issues find more success doing so through metaphors than attacking them directly. Thus we see a lot of movies depicting fictitious future governments (”warning: we might end up like this some day”), or our own government in the recent past (”look how shady we used to be before we became such swell guys”).

The best example of using metaphor to make a political point can be observed in George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” which subsequently was adapted into several movies over the years. Orwell understood as well as anyone that you have to go back door to challenge the status quo and the moneyed powers that be, but today’s Hollywood climate is even frowning upon that. Your best bet is to show dissent in such a way that the only way to get the point is to extrapolate. Take “V for Vendetta,” for example.

Though the film disguises itself as a fictional/futuristic thriller, V for Vendetta is probably the harshest condemnation this century of American governmental policies. Still, they had to “go back door” in order to launch this critique–that is, they could only criticize the policies American government by contriving an imaginary future in which some other country’s government (England’s) has become dishonest and corrupt. Most viewers probably are appalled at how the government in the movie used fear and dishonesty to keep its citizens in check. But, disappointingly, a low percentage of Americans can connect the dots to see the parallels between the fictitious government in “V for Vendetta” and the one we know intimately in the here and now. I’d be stunned, actually, if our own government knew or care that “V” was calling them out! Even they wouldn’t get it.

Gone are the days when you could make a movie in this country that was blunt about its politically dissenting agenda.

Is there such a thing as good propaganda? Until recently my answer to this question would have been a resounding No. That’s because in my adult life the only propaganda I’ve experienced has been used for detrimental purposes–to further catapult the already omnipotent “powers that be”–rather than for good ones.

But things weren’t always this bleak; only recently have our thoughts been captured and held hostage in a jar. I now know that even during the Cold War, when people were sent to jail for even sympathizing with communism, there were movies that had the audacity to question things.

Last night I watched “The Day After,” a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in 1983. The film depicts a hypothetical nuclear war between the U. S. and U.S.S.R. and shows its effects on the residents of small town Kansas. Despite its limitations (it sacrificed quality acting in order to splurge on special effects), “The Day After” made a crucial contribution to world peace by introducing accountability into an equation that had previously presumed our government’s actions were done in the best interest of humanity. Now suddenly “The Day After” radically insinuates that the question of “who fired first” should absolutely matter, and that it is unacceptable for American leadership to give the order for havoc and destruction of regular people as they hide in their cozy bunkers.

The film’s most powerful scene occurs when the U.S. fires its missiles. We watch through the eyes of regular Americans–a Kansas farmer and his family; a heart surgeon from the heartland; college students at a KU football game–most of whom are self-consciously oblivious to the nuclear targets in their neighborhoods. As the missiles take thirty minutes to reach their destination, the Kansans know they can expect one of two scenarios: (1) the enemy already fired their missiles and we’re firing back, in which case we have about 25 minutes to live, or (2) we’re attacking them and soon they will fire back, in which case we have about 35 minutes to live. Either way, if we’re still close enough to a nuclear base that we can actually see the missiles taking off, chances are we’re pretty much screwed.

I was captivated by the realness, how calm and normal everything appears as the missiles fire. The weapons seem like space shuttles; and watching them fly away is peaceful, inspiring, almost beautiful.

It makes sense that this movie quickly faded into obscurity. It failed play the “good versus evil” game, neither the U.S. nor our enemies are cast as “good guys” or “bad guys,” and in fact, it appears the U.S. fired first.

Movies like that don’t exist today. If they do, their foreign and subtitled and denied advertising revenue. You won’t see them in theaters or on prime time TV.


~ by Matthew Frederick on February 18, 2008.

17 Responses to ““Good” Propaganda is Dead!”

  1. I see your point. “Good Night and Good Luck” looked back at the early days of television with Edward Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt. But it carried an important message about the nationalist zealotry of the present day.

  2. I didn’t see “V For Vendetta” but I did see “The Day After” and am in complete accord with you on that one.

    I agree with your assessment of Hollywood in general. One of the best movies I saw in 2006 was HALF-NELSON. It reminded me of a lot of the Hollywood movies of the 1970s and much of European cinema in general in that there were no pat answers. The movie touches every hot-button issue under the sun and was very political and somehow makes it all seem very routine, which life is, even if you’re an addict or a dealer or a potential supersrar scholarship student.

    And the only way that movie got made and distributed was because of backing from the PATRICOF family of investment funds. Not a hint of Hollywood in it whatsover.

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  4. I saw V for Vendetta, and I had to wipe away tears at the end. I’m not a crier, but I guess I’m a sucker for a happy ending. And yes, the film is set in the UK (as is the graphic novel, which was written during Thatcher’s reign), but it was quite clear that the director/screen writer was looking over our way. Loved it.

  5. One of the most infuriating conversations I’ve ever had was with a man who spent his whole career designing nuclear bombs. He assured me that the human race would survive a nuclear war. There’s your expert opinion. bleh.

  6. “And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease….”

    Seems like a very, very thin disguise to me.

  7. we see your point about propaganda mostly coming from one side. But would it really solve anything for the other side to be spreading their lies too? Propaganda is a manipulative tool, no matter what point of view it’s from. Even if it’s for a “good” cause, it only offers one side of the issue. It’s not fair to say it’s “for the people” if the people aren’t able to make their own decisions about it. Besides, if positions were reversed and the “good propaganda people took over, then we would be inundated with that and the other side wouldn’t have a fair chance. The only ideal situation would be for all news to be completely objective.

  8. That was sort of a “syndicated” post from last summer, before I’d heard much about the slew of antiwar movies Hollywood put out in late 2007–i.e., Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, and Badlands. I haven’t watched any of them yet, but I suspect I’ll be eating my words when I do.

  9. Hi Adriana and Rosa-

    I do agree with your “ideal solution,” but the problem with “objective” news is that whoever produces it must be “disinterested.” Unfortunately, the media gods (NewsCorp, Disney, TimeWarner, etc.) are more interested in shaping current events than reporting on them.

    As for your suggestion that, “if positions were reversed and the good propaganda people took over, then we would be inundated with that and the other side wouldn’t have a fair chance,” I’m afraid I can’t share those concerns. Propaganda is a tool for the powerful, and rarely turns against them on behalf of the people. For the right price, every populist voice can be silenced (Mike Gravel/Dennis Kucinich), ridiculed into oblivion (Ron Paul/Ralph Nader) or in severe cases eliminated (John Lennon/MLK/Ghandi). So it’s hard for me to imagine a world where “good propaganda” out-muscled the kind we’re used to. If such a world did exist, I’d hardly lose sleep over the rich and powerful not getting their “fair chance.” Something tells me they’d manage.

  10. I think that allegory will always be more interesting to the Public Audience than straight reality because of the entertainment factor. Hence the “back door” you mention. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, except often the underlying message gets watered down and becomes secondary to the entertainment.

    Also, I agree with Scarlett – VERY thinly veiled. But I’m sure a lot of people only saw what they wanted to and failed to make the connection.

  11. Suzi and Scarlett, I must have dumber friends than you–mine all needed to be spoon fed. Or maybe you give the average moviegoer too much credit. I certainly didn’t see any hillbillies waving flags outside the cinemas, protesting V’s anti-Americanism. Nor do I recall any Bill-O tantrums.

  12. i agree that v for vendetta was designed to communicated truth about American politics, well stated

  13. What I meant was that I completely agree with you. While I think that the movie was purposefully obvious in the connection to the Bush Administration, I concur with you that not many people made the connection themselves. As I said, people only saw what the wanted to.

  14. I swear I have left a comment here twice. SO then I won’t leave one now.

  15. Hi M Frederick Voorhees,
    We agree that our “ideal solution” would be pretty impracticable. All media/news comes from a source, and every source is biased in one way or another. The best way is probably to surround oneself with opinions from all sides of an issue–as you said, to have a balance of “good” and ” bad” propaganda.

    In regards to “good propaganda” never outmuscling the bad, we think it’s important to keep in mind that propaganda is a manipulative tool, whatever side it’s from, and that the ideals it promotes can change over time. In the original post you referenced George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the pigs began by urging the animals to rebel against the totalitarian humans. Once the pigs took power, their own message gradually became one of totalitarianism, urging blind faith in and obedience to their “beloved leader, Comrade Napoleon.” However, we understand your point about speaking out, and we completely agree with you there.

    We’re a little unclear about what you mean by good propaganda. If “good” and bad propaganda take the same shape, aren’t they essentially the same thing? Both have the same purpose of persuasion, and if they don’t leave room for people to think for themselves, then depending on what you think, the two are interchangable. While it is important to make people aware of what they should be thinking about, and it makes sense to argue your belief, it is unfair to force a subjective opinion on others. Though we see potential benefits of “good” propaganda, like waking people up to other ideas around them, you cannot forget the manipulative side propaganda can take, and we wonder: what exactly is your vision of this “good” propaganda.

  16. “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”
    – Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda And Persuasion

    “Good” propaganda would be any “attempt to shape public perceptions and direct behavior” toward ends that benefited mankind as a whole (where more people benefited than suffered). Currently, “bad” propaganda benefits special interests, such as private capitalist war profiteers, Haliburton, Blackwater, Parsons, among others. But more people suffer than benefit.

    Good propaganda would achieve the opposite. For example, if a futuristic movie like “The Day After” or “V for Vendetta” triggers wariness of nuclear holocaust or totalitarian governments, respectively, I would consider that good propaganda insofar as it inspires critical thinking among the public and compels the average person to speak out against those negative ends. But of course any movement that begins with benevolent intentions can devolve and quickly turn corrupt. As soon as any sort of Comrade Napoleon complex set in, I would cease to classify the propaganda as “good.”

    Propaganda only remains good as long as long as a majority of people benefit from it.

  17. thanks for the clarification. In our opinion the positive or negative quality of propaganda would also depend greatly on the degree to which it did “direct behavior.” raising awareness is good; teaching people to live in fear would not be. that’s probably basically what you said before. anyway we’d like to add that it’s great that people are talking about this. no one can get brainwashed if everyone thinks. thank you for opening a discussion.

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