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Issue #1746      August 31, 2016

Culture & Life

Perverting culture for propaganda

Everything is political. Culture, sport, you name it, it has a political edge. Look at the way the Olympics were consistently used for provocations against the countries of the Socialist camp, including a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games (and now anti-Russian provocations and slurs). When the Soviet Union sought to buy American films for its cinemas the US authorities would only permit them to buy carefully vetted titles that presented life in the West in a favourable (ie rosy, uncritical) light.

From the TV series The FBI – Efrem Zimblast as Inspector Lewis Erskine.

Before Gorbachev facilitated the takeover of the German Democratic Republic by its capitalist neighbour the FRG, East German citizens used to be able to enjoy their own television programs but also to tune in to all the channels emanating from West Germany. Conscious of the political capital to be made from this, West German TV – like the films the US allowed to be exported to the USSR – was almost exclusively made up of programs and commercials featuring flash cars, posh houses, luxury living in general.

The living conditions of the poor were studiously and deliberately avoided. The image of the West to be fostered in the minds of East Germans who might be susceptible to defecting was of a land where unemployment simply did not exist, neither did poverty, bosses were benign and everyone lived well.

American audiences knew this image to be false from first-hand experience, but the all-pervasive TV and movies nevertheless emphasised a fantasy world of big houses, where money-worries were unknown, jobs were plentiful and, once again, bosses were benign. The only time American movies or TV shows found time for poor people (or working people in general) was in crime shows, or sometimes in shows set in swanky office buildings, newspapers or TV stations, or the glamorous world of show business. Factory workers rarely got a look in.

Only in comedies did people sometimes hold down ordinary jobs. Even then, they were usually miraculously and most unnaturally freed from the constraints of poverty, employer hostility or corporate greed. In American movies and TV shows, taking industrial action is almost a taboo subject (with a few – a very few – notable exceptions, usually, significantly, set in the past like Matewan).

Other taboo subjects that are rarely (if ever) touched on include racial prejudice, police corruption, environmental pollution, corporate power and US aggression. Writers on the prime-time TV series The FBI had to have all their scripts vetted by that august institution. Any dealing with racial hate crimes (despite the prevalence of such crimes in real life) were rejected unless the script was altered to make the perpetrator motivated by greed not racism!

That series was really a PR exercise for the FBI. A similar situation now exists with regard to the USA’s bloated intelligence industry. With growing public concern in the US at the prevalence of spying by innumerable government agencies on institutions, unions, activists, organisations and people just going about their everyday lives, the outfits involved in domestic spying need all the beneficial PR spin they can foster.

At the same time, the ramped up Cold War – and the frequency of US military adventures and assaults on other smaller countries – render it advisable to also ramp up the USA’s prevailing paranoia while trying to polish the image of US diplomacy, leadership and supposed commitment to peace.

And what better way to do that under capitalism than by flooding TV screens with series extolling the exploits of US intelligence agencies? Series like 2014’s The Americans, a Cold War saga about typically devious deep-cover Soviet spies living in Virginia in the 1980s, written by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg. As with the earlier FBI, every script for The Americans had to be vetted by the CIA prior to production.

Or there’s State of Affairs with Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst who briefs the President. The executive producers of that series, Rodney Faraon and Henry Crumpton, are both former senior CIA officials who happily agreed to show the CIA’s Publications Review Board detailed outlines of not just that series but every dramatic project they are developing for television.

Other Intelligence Agency-themed series and movies include Covert Affairs, which ran for five seasons, the more recent series Allegiance, and the movie Fair Game, based on CIA operative Valerie Plame’s covert activities. She later served as a consultant on both Covert Affairs and the series Persons of Interest.

Another series extolling the fictitious exploits of the CIA is the Claire Danes/Mandy Patinkin starrer Homeland which, like the others, has creative involvement of former CIA staffers. To ensure the right message gets put to air, former CIA operatives and people engaged in writing the spy-themed series have all-day “consulting” sessions in which the writers are briefed on such typical CIA activities as “espionage, disinformation, counterintelligence and cyber-terrorism”, in the words of former CIA deputy spymaster John MacGaffin, who is a “consultant” on the series.

There is genuine drama to be had from the real exploits of intelligence officers, but not divorced from what they are fighting for. CIA officers’ activities are concerned with preparing for or actually facilitating wars, carrying out assassinations, overthrowing elected governments, promoting and funding terrorism and reducing populous cities to rubble.

Truly the stuff of drama! But whether the resulting program is a powerful indictment of the abuse of democratic rights for power and profit or a paean of praise for those who would destroy democracy is a question of how the program presents its point of view.

And they all have a point of view, even the ones that pretend not to. Nothing is “non political”.

As Lenin observed, “no politics” means bourgeois politics.

The use of culture – whether a literary tome or a pop-culture TV show – to aid and abet the ruling class assault on our democratic rights and to make that assault socially acceptable is frankly odious. Something else we can chalk up to capitalism.

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