A video and some thoughts on propaganda

Whenever anyone starts discussing the accomplishments of communist governments, someone is likely to pop up to point out that those governments are authoritarian. The example I see most often is that someone on the left will point to Cuba’s high literacy rate, and the rebuttal is to say that that was just part of their efforts to propagandize the population. Now, I’m far from an expert on Cuba, but this is one of those subjects where I actually have at least a little relevant experience.

In 2001, I was invited to be a travelling companion for a friend who felt called to visit the Cuban Quaker community. New England Yearly Meeting, to which we belonged, has a sister relationship with Cuba Yearly Meeting, and exchanging visitors is fairly common, though the ability to do it has varied depending on the whims of politicians. At that time, I spoke effectively no Spanish, and didn’t really have the time or inclination to learn. That was, in hindsight, rather bad manners, but I was going there to keep my friend company, and she had actually been studying the language.

It was an interesting trip, but the thing I want to focus on here is Cuban propaganda. There absolutely was a lot of it. Some took the form of murals and slogans, but the primary medium was the Cubavision channel. It had content 24/7 (as did the other channel, which carried pirated movies and soap operas), including speeches by Fidel, cartoons about Cuba being a thorn in the foot of the U.S. (The U.N. were portrayed as cowardly worms, subservient worms, if memory serves), and other patriotic events. At that point in time, I saw Cuba as pretty unambiguously Authoritarian™, with little clear idea of the island’s history. I did want the embargo to end, and saw it as a big problem for the Cuban people, but I think considered Castro to be as much of a problem. I’m still a bit uncertain on the subject, but it’s less clear-cut to me these days.

I also noticed, as I paid more attention to U.S. affairs, how much our own political pageantry paralleled that which was condemned as authoritarian when communists did it. That could be the patriotic displays at sporting events, the ubiquity of heroizing military recruitment ads, the requirement that all politicians always remember to say that “America is the greatest country in the world”, or political rallies with jingoistic rhetoric and political songs and musical numbers. Fidel had six-year-olds singing about The Revolution, and Bush had six-year-olds singing about him and American greatness. Ditto Obama and Trump, and it was gross in both of those cases too. The enraging reality is that to live in the United States is to move through a miasma of propaganda.

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions.

Again, this is not unique to the United States, but it’s necessary to point this out and discuss it because USians, as a rule, tend not to believe they’re subject to propaganda, or when they do believe it, they tend to see it as “that which supports the opposing side” more than anything. I think part of the problem there is the way the development of capitalism has worked to hide who holds power, by separating economic and political power (at least in terms of rhetoric), and reshaping the law so that the greatest power tends to be held outside the government. That power is wielded through campaign donations, direct advocacy and messaging, lobbying, and the other forms of corruption with which we’ve become so familiar.

It is also wielded through the media – not just the more obvious news and political commentary, but also through entertainment media. I’ve shared some material on “Copaganda” here, but while this is part of Skip Intro‘s Copaganda series, this video is about the Top Gun movies, and the Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood. This isn’t a comprehensive dive into that subject, but it’s a dive worth taking regardless.

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  1. Katydid says

    Anyone who was alive and aware during the Cold War era is well aware of the propaganda in the USA.

    BTW, were you aware that people leaving Cuba for the USA are not considered “illegal immigrants”, and if they set foot on USA soil, they’re welcomed in? I thought about that today when a rickety boat full of fleeing Haitian children was captured and the children sent right back to Haiti. (Haiti is about 400 miles from Cuba; they’re Caribbean neighbors). Why are Cubans the only undocumented immigrants welcome? It’s an artifact from an immature game the USA was playing by punishing Cuba for existing.

  2. Allison says

    I visited Poland in the mid 1980’s, while it was under martial law.
    One of the things that really struck me was how little
    propaganda there was. It was quite restful. When I got back to
    West Berlin, the flood of messages — commercial, political,
    “public service” — was overwhelming.

    We tend to associate “propaganda” with explicitly political
    messages, as opposed to commercial advertising and
    so-called public service announcements, but I think that
    is an artificial distinction. All of them (well almost all)
    are ultimately about propping up the capitalist system
    we labor under and persuading us to believe that it
    is all really, truly for our benefit. Thus, ultimately,
    they are all political.

    I think the suppression of information and messages
    that would tend to undermine the perspectives that
    those in power (political or economic) want us to
    absorb are part of the system of indoctrination that
    also includes propaganda.

    And just as there are those of us who do our best to
    reject the commercial/political/social messages we
    are forced to see, so there have always been people in
    “socialist” societies and dictatorships who have rejected
    and devalued the BS that they are bombarded with.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    @Allison: I spent a couple of weeks in Warsaw in 1986. I remember actually seeing the church where the Lech Walesa and the Solidarnosc party were holed up for a while. There were political banners around the church… on the inside of the church’s fencing so they couldn’t easily be ripped down unless inside, and facing inwards so you had to look closely or be inside to read what they said. Everybody knew what they said, but nobody was going to break into a church to do anything about them.

    I suppose it’s utterly unsurprising when you think of the long history between Poland and Russia (there are reasons Polish scientist Marie Sklodowska-Curie moved to France, after all), but yeah, there wasn’t a lot of explicitly pro-Soviet propaganda that I saw in Poland; the Polish attitude seemed rather passive-aggressive about it. I suspect any new recruit sent in from Moscow to enforce the rules would have had half of his underlings deliberately ‘forgetting’ to do things.

    (If I thought that any of the anti-Union arguments in the U.S. were based on actual rational thought, I’d point out that in Poland it was literally the trade unions that were among the best organized fighters against the Soviet ‘communist’ government. Union != Communist. But trying to get that through the skull of your average mis-educated right-wing American seems to be a waste of effort.)

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