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.
If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!