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"Pop" Culture IS Propaganda, Baby
...according to WikiLeaks, American officials didn't like Canadian TV...and maybe that's a good thing!


So, apparently, among the revelations, gossip, and backroom name calling revealed by the WikiLeaks release of confidential U.S. government memos comes the news that U.S. officials grumbled about the portrayal of America in Canadian media, particularly in then-airing fictional series like The Border and Intelligence in which American government agents were often depicted as duplicitous and with little regard for Canadian interests. Now, of course, one might suspect that most Americans might not actually take much exception to this. American spies lie? And put American interests ahead of Canadian ones? Um (Americans might muse) isn’t that kind of their job?

But to American officials it was troubling -- and if it was enough to annoy American officials, particularly American Republicans (the administration from which the memos originated) then it’s enough to outrage Canadian conservatives, adding to their calls to shut down that supposed hot bed of seditious, anti-Americanism, the CBC (the fact that the U.S. memos referred, I believe, to Canadian media in general, merely “including” the CBC, hasn’t dissuaded those detractors from laying the entire blame for this affront on the CBC alone).

But really…what was at the heart of the issue? And I use “issue” rather loosely since I really don’t think it was a big deal even to the Americans who wrote the missives (I mean, if you’re assigned to a friendly nation, but expected to send reports back to Washington, you have to write about something, don’t ya?)

And what it all gets down to is: propaganda.

Media, more often than not, is propaganda, presenting ideas and stereotypes that serve one agenda or another. Ironically, there are those in Canada who brag they don’t watch the CBC news preferring U.S. news outlets like CNN and Fox News (so, by extension, they also don’t watch other Canadian media -- again, notice the irony that they use the CBC as the convenient whipping boy when they are, if only by omission, including CTV, CanWest-Global, etc. in the mix). Now here’s the thing, there are only really two reasons to watch the news: to learn about domestic issues, and to learn about international issues. And probably in that order. Yet American news covers Canadian stories hardly at all. And American news covers international stories…largely as they relate to American interests. So really, you watch American news…to keep informed on America. So the idea that Canadians (including Canadian conservative journalists) will brag they largely just watch American news is weird…even a little creepy. I mean, to spend all your time getting news about another country (if I were to get all my news from, say, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, would you say I was well informed on current affairs…or suffering from an Aussie-centric fetish?)

Now the reason these people prefer CNN to Canadian news sources is because they accuse the Canadians of bias, and prefer the straight truth from the American media machine. Yet the irony is often Americans who travel will remark how surprising it is to pick up a paper or turn on a TV in a foreign country and get a completely different spin on world events than they get at home. To them, they feel like they’ve been living in a cocoon of American media, with CNN, Fox and their like carefully massaging the message to suit American interests (and self perception) if not out right Bowdlerizing it.

So everyone accuses everyone else of propaganda, and cite their preferred source as the only unbiased, objective fount of wisdom. How bizarre -- or myopic -- this can be, can be seen in comments a few months back when Canada’s Sun Media began gearing up to launch a news network. Left leaning critics were quick to denounce the idea, saying Sun Media News would not be a “news” organization, but simply a right wing propaganda organ twisting and distorting the news to suit their agenda, much as Fox News is accused of doing in the U.S. Sun Media columnists were quick to express outrage at this (no conflict of interest there!) in turn accusing their critics of censorship and poor sportsmanship…even as they went on to argue Sun Media News would be a needed conservative voice on Canadian airwaves, promoting conservatives ideology. So -- even as they express outrage…they basically seem to confirm precisely what their critics feared! ‘Cause you can’t be an objective news service if you’ve settled on your point of view before you even know what the story is. Yet, to them, it’s the other guys who are spouting propaganda, and they who are the speakers of plain truth.

So it’s all propaganda, whichever side you’re on -- and truth is the last kid picked for the playground team.

And that brings us to fiction and storytelling -- topics more of relevance to this site, and relating to that U.S. government memo about The Border and other shows.

Because, after all, entertainment is kind of about propaganda, too. Every time a writer has a character act a certain way, or has a story resolve with a particular denouement, it is a reflection of a decision -- conscious or subconscious -- on the storyteller’s part, and with that decision they are trying to say something, to shape how we look at the world. Even when they say they’re not -- even that is trying to make a point (they are asking us to share their view of the meaninglessness of it all).

In a sense, one could argue that the American diplomat(s) who took umbrage with how the U.S. was being portrayed in a handful of Canadian programs was reacting less to what that portrayal was, and more to what it wasn’t. And what it wasn’t was the usual portrayal -- the propagandistic portrayal -- of America that is put out by Hollywood, that Hollywood spends billions of dollars every year to promote. After all, the portrayal of American characters in a few Canadian programs is pretty mild compared to the way many other nationalities are regularly stereotyped in Hollywood productions -- from Mexican drug lords, to Russian mobsters, to Middle Eastern terrorists. Heck, in series like The Border and Intelligence, there were American good guys thrown into the mix, so it was hardly a one note stereotype.

But as I say, we are so used to Hollywood defining our perception of America -- and everywhere else -- that to see an American portrayed negatively in a Canadian (or British, or whatever) TV show or movie shakes our world view…because it’s not the propaganda we’re used to.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when I caught a few minutes of the quirky US spy series, “Chuck” -- a scene where one of the protagonists has captured a foreign villain. The villain taunts the character, saying he is not afraid of her, because he knows Americans have scruples (that we can infer he, as a non-American, doesn’t) and so she won’t torture him. At which point…she tortures him, and gets the info that she wants (albeit, she feels a bit bad about it).

And that, baby, is propaganda.

After all, after eight years of President George W. Bush, of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, water boarding, rendering, and more -- do we really think that someone, captured by American spies, would cockily assume they’d be safe from torture?

Yet in that one scene, the film makers both soothingly reassure their audience that America is universally viewed as a global Boy Scout, the lone white hat in a global saloon of black hat, amoral foreigners -- and paradoxically, assure their audience that torture is a useful tool of the righteous.

So…America is good. America is regarded as more noble and pure than other nations. And torture is good, too.

Inundated with that kind of propaganda every day of every week, it’s no wonder seeing counter propaganda where Americans aren’t necessarily the heroes and aren’t always acting in everyone’s best interests, might seem strange, uncomfortable…wrong.

And such pro-Americanism is fostered, not just by Hollywood, but even by Canadians working in conjunction with Hollywood. One can flip on the TV almost randomly and find various examples -- something that U.S. diplomat apparently failed to mention (or, more likely, failed to notice because pro-American propaganda was simply “normal” to him). Take as a random example the TV movie, “The Man Who Saved Christmas”, aired annually as Christmas movies are. A mixture of Christmas sentiment and historical bio-pic about American toy manufacturer, A.C. Gilbert, it’s an enjoyable little movie. Gilbert invented the Erector Set, and throughout the movie are peppered lines and speeches about American pluck and American ingenuity as epitomized by that particular toy, as if it is a symbol of America’s uniqueness -- and superiority -- in the world…yet nowhere in the movie is it mentioned that the Erector set bore more than a passing similarity to a British toy, the Meccano set, that had been in production some ten years before the Erector set (at the end, the movie acknowledges Erector sets are known as Meccano sets outside the US…but doesn’t explain why). I don’t begrudge the filmmakers for not delving into that -- after all, that wasn’t what the movie was about. Nor am I suggesting Gilbert’s invention of the Erector set was anything more than like minds arriving at similar ideas independently. But when the filmmakers extol the virtues of the Erector set as something unique to the American character when it clearly wasn’t, then we get something else.


Then there was the recent Riverworld mini-series, about a planet where humans from all centuries and countries find themselves resurrected. In one scene, Spanish conqueror Pizarro confronts the program’s American hero and sneers that he has met many Americans since appearing on this planet…and they are all “noble in their hearts” (in contrast to his sinister f’reigner) -- so: what? He’s never met a slave owner? A Klansman? A mobster? The fact that Riverworld was filmed in Canada, and the actors in the scene were really Canadians, just accentuates the irony. As does the fact that a main protagonist of the source novels, which were written by American author Philip Jose Farmer, was British explorer Sir Richard Burton -- but in the TV show the British Burton was recast as a more sinister figure in contrast to the show’s invented American heroes. (An earlier Riverworld mini-series -- also partly Canadian -- dropped Burton entirely in favour of a fabricated American hero).


And that gets back to an old point -- precisely why there should be a Canadian entertainment industry, telling stories by and for Canadians. Because maybe counter propaganda is good. Maybe it’s good to get another perspective. Not because it’s necessarily the right perspective -- but it ain’t necessarily wrong, either. If series like “Chuck”, “Riverworld” -- and a zillion others -- flood our airwaves, virtually brainwashing us (to eschew a less incendiary word), assuring us that Americans are always the heroes, and America always act in the right, and Americans are regarded as the noble white hats by all the good and right thinking people in the world -- maybe it’s good if occasionally some little dog pulls the curtain aside to reveal the stage magician behind the wizard, maybe it’s good if someone decides to ask God a question (ala Captain Kirk).

The irony about shows like The Border and Intelligence is that it wasn’t the depiction of sinister Americans that was laughably implausible -- it was the depiction of valiant Canadian bureaucrats and spies who were prepared to stand up to them in the name of Canadian principals that seems far removed from anything we know as reality. In fact, if one were to peak under the rock of U.S. umbrage and conservative Canadian outrage one might find an unexpected slug. After all, even Hollywood productions occasionally indulge in villainous Americans -- the rogue CIA spooks in the Bourne films were as bad as anyone that appeared in The Border. But in Hollywood films, such American villains are always bearded by American heroes. Maybe it was the presentation of Canadian heroes as much as the portrayal of American villains that incensed the U.S. diplomats and their Canadian allies.

Something to ponder, eh?

The point is, even if you aren’t a Canadian who determinedly watches CNN to make sure that you and your family only get the American perspective on events, much of Canadian media is still overwhelmingly dominated by American views, American attitudes, American…well…propaganda. From Canadian news programs or newspapers which will fill up their time with human interest pieces about lost dogs in New Jersey to sitcoms and dramas on Canadian TV that are almost entirely of American origin (and even many of those that are ostensibly “Canadian” are still made with an eye to, if not already pre-sold to, the U.S. market which will influence the kind of stories, and the kind of perspectives, they are willing to present). Heck, my local paper (owned by the earlier referenced conservative Sun Media) has recently fired its Canadian advice columnist in favour of one syndicated from the U.S., and even the crossword puzzle is American in origin -- so if the clue is: “the country to the south”, the answer will be “Mexico” and not the country that’s really to our south (in other words, you must supply a false answer to give the correct response).

A few months back I was watching a music special aired on MuchMusic about “one hit wonders of the ‘80s”. It was an American special that MuchMusic had picked up. It was a fine show, and despite the title, was quite respectful of the artists (albeit sometimes in a playful, cheeky way) and frequently did point out that a lot of these “one hit wonders” in fact had long, successful careers, and had many top 40 hits…but only outside of the U.S. You see, their criteria for a “one hit” wonder was how many top 40 hits did the acts score on the U.S. pop charts. So that was fine, for its American audience…but broadcast on Canadian TV, it seemed kind of weird that it was labelling as “one hit” wonders people like Canadians Tom Cochrane and Jeff Healey (not to mention Irish acts like The Boomtown Rats and Chris DeBurgh, Australian groups like Midnight Oil). As I say, the special freely acknowledged that some of these guys scored multiple top 40 hits in other countries, so I’m not knocking the makers of the special one bit -- but it did seem a bit odd in the context of being aired on Canada’s MuchMusic. Partly it struck me because around the same time that I saw this, the CBC -- yes, the bad ol’ anti-American CBC -- aired a two-part documentary about Canadian rock music from the same decade, and I did get a big rush of nostalgia hearing all the old familiar songs. So the CBC airs a documentary that couldn’t help but remind us how vital and alive Canadian rock music was…and Much Music -- self proclaimed as Canada’s music station! -- airs a U.S. documentary that, however unintentionally, tries to convince us that gold and platinum selling artists were just one hit wonders.

Propaganda, baby.

Now some of these decisions are purely budgetary -- it’s cheaper to broadcast a U.S. program, or to publish a syndicated U.S. crossword puzzle, than it is to commission your own. And some of it, well, probably is part of a political agenda, to erase any distinction Canadians see between themselves and America, and to convince Canadians that anything the American government does is good, and better than anyone else (so yes, Virginia, there were WMDs in Iraq…they’re just invisible or something!)

America, as a nation, has its vices as well as its virtues. But when most of the TV shows on a Canadian network are American, presenting an American perspective, when even the crossword puzzles in your Canadian newspaper insist that the nation south of the border is Mexico…well maybe a few sinister American characters on the occasional TV show isn’t such a bad thing -- even if it does cause American diplomats to fire off grumpy memos home, and cause right wing Canadian columnists to scream for the dismantling of the CBC.

Maybe in a world flooded with propaganda, the best you can hope for is a little counter propaganda.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

January 6, 2011

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