This article was originally posted in April of 2006 but I thought in light of the upcoming Academy Awards show - and especially in light of the number of African American and Latino nominees - it might be nice to get the message out there again. My husband Vincent and I have also thought Forrest Whitaker's induction into Scientology and Will Smith's budding friendship with Tom Cruise were also an interesting turn of events. I want one of them there Academy Awards; I think I'll become a Scientologist! Hmmm. Anyway, the article that follows is just a reminder that when "art" and big money mix, it is not necessarily art anymore (hint: it's propaganda). Enjoy.
Some United States Congress members want to make a felon out of anyone who gives healthcare or shelter to an immigrant and, just in case you’ve been asleep the past few weeks, it has resulted in nationwide protests, the latest one taking place in New York on Saturday, April 1st. Pictures in the media imply that all the protesters are Mexican, but even the Associated Press has reported that the rallies have included people of Irish, Polish, Korean, Pakistani, Italian, and many other descents. Instead of taking the “stay out” attitude of some of our legislators, why not ask yourself this question: “Why do all these people come to the United States?” Whoa! Refrain from the usual programming and hesitate before you think that the U.S. is the greatest friggin’ nation on the planet, that’s why, damnit! Sure, it might be, but how does everyone else on the planet, people who live thousands of miles away on remote little islands or in out-of-the-way towns, get the notion that our streets are paved of gold? I’ll tell you how. We keep telling them!
When my cousin Dorcas came to the U.S. for a visit in 1998, she was very disappointed. She had been here a whole week before she saw a blonde person. It was also troubling for her to see that we didn’t have a gorgeous house with a courtyard, like her parents do, and that we didn’t have a maid, like she’s always had. Of course I thought, “Where the hell did she get her ideas?” It reminded me of the old flick, “Moscow on the Hudson,” where Robin Williams plays the famous Russian defector, Yakov Smirnoff, and he doesn’t understand where all the American people are because the friends he makes are Asian, African American and Latino. Well, I figured at least my cousin’s confusion was because of the lame Colombian theaters that only play films like “Bird on a Wire” and “You’ve Got Mail,” films that don’t necessarily represent the diverse U.S. population. I didn’t realize there is a reason for the lame choices until a few other pieces of information came into play.
Danny Hoch, the famous New York playwright and actor, wrote an interesting article for The Nation called, “Mr. Hoch Goes to Hollywood: Why ‘Whiteboys’ wasn’t at a theater near you.” In it he describes how his story about a white boy who acts black, and who engages in violence in an urban projects area, was buried by a studio. This was years ago, and since then other writers have produced similar projects, but at the time Danny found out that the studio didn’t want to promote a white person in such a situation nor did it want to show the real projects. I know that if my cousin and countless other people in foreign lands saw films that depicted housing projects and how some of our poor live in the United States, they might have a more realistic view of what goes on here and they might not be so keen on moving here. But films that show our mansions and supposedly glamorous lives are not the only way people are falsely lured to the U.S. We go deeper than that.
According to Nancy Snow, author of Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America’s Culture to the World, in 1917 the United States set up the Committee on Public Information, which later evolved into the United States Information Agency, or USIA. If you take a look at the online archives of the USIA there isn’t much, but there are a few things worth mentioning. The first is that one of their projects has been Radio Marti. This is a radio station that runs 24/7 and its sole purpose is to broadcast democracy to the island of Cuba. I’m not joking. Our tax dollars are spent promoting our way of life to a country that doesn’t want anything to do with us. The Cuban Government is usually successful in blocking out the transmissions, but we still keep sending them. I asked my mom about this and she mentioned that since the 50s up until the time the Communist Party lost its stronghold in Eastern Europe, the U.S. had radio programming in countless languages called “The Voice of the Americas.” It would send anti-communist programming along the airwaves to all communist nations. So, much like the annoying houseguest who doesn’t listen in monologue-oriented conversation, we send our opinions wherever we like, even if they are not wanted. Snow defines propaganda as communication that intends on changing the mind of its audience, communication that ends up being advantageous to its sender, and communication that is usually one-way. The USIA doesn’t even try to hide that it does this.
The website gets stranger. I noticed that part of its archives has a list of scheduled elections in practically any country you can think of. If we’re just providing information about who we are and how we function, why do we need to know about elections? Next, I saw that many “world organization” dates were listed, such as world meetings on AIDS, or world meetings on women’s issues. The types of organizations that attend or run these meetings are ones like Transparency International, an organization that claims to fight corruption in government and in global business. Interesting. I took a look at the Transparency International website and checked out its board members. They include: Chong San Lee, formerly of Exxon Mobil; Jermyn Brooks, formerly of Pricewaterhouse Coopers (he headed its fairly recent merger as the company’s “worldwide chair”); and Frank Vogel, of Vogel Communications and the Wisemen, a network of U.S. public relation industry leaders…oh, and he was also Chief Press Advisor to the World Bank.
Okay, now how does this all connect to the USIA and promoting U.S. culture? And so what? Shouldn’t we be promoting our culture out there? Perhaps, but who should be promoting it? When Bush went into office in 2000, the USIA was absorbed by the U.S. Department of State. That is the department that decides all our foreign policy. We could actually say that the USIA was always a part of the Department of State and that the way we promote our culture IS foreign policy. At the USIA website, the Dept. of State link informs us of where we have troops stationed (practically everywhere, even if we aren’t at war with the country), our love for the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and how they play in foreign policy, and how we plan to help developing economies so that they can eventually provide U.S. markets (this is symbolized lovingly by our white hand shaking a brown hand). This is the entity that is promoting who and what we are abroad, and it has been doing it for nearly 100 years. Why do they list elections? Because they want to promote our “culture” during election time in other countries so that our intended foreign policy can be carried out. Why do they list world organization meetings? Because they want to show up at the meetings and influence organizations to carry out policy that will be favorable to us. But who is “us?”
Not me. It is people like the guys at Transparency International, the anti-corruption group. Let me take a minute to further describe how its members are connected to public relations and public policy. I don’t need to write much about Frank Vogel. He is both a member of TI, an anti-corruption group, and has worked in PR for the World Bank, arguably one of the most corrupt entities on the planet today. The World Bank has placed countless “developing” countries in incomprehensible debt. A good example of how this happens is explained in the film "Life and Debt." The member of TI that really interested me, however, is Jermyn Brooks, who once headed the worldwide endeavors of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, an organization that is called an auditing firm but if you look on its website it has connections to EVERYTHING. There are connections to any industry you can think of – lumber, publishing, telecommunications, entertainment…. Pricewaterhouse Cooper has chapters in 764 cities in 148 countries, according to its website, and some of its clients include DuPont, Exxon Mobil, GlaxoSmith-Klein, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Nokia and Walt Disney. PwC, according to the Center for Public Integrity, spent over $60 million lobbying in Washington on behalf of its clients between 1998 and 2004. Given that it is an accounting firm, it is understandable that it lobbied for tax reform, but other industries that it wanted to influence, to the effect of at least one mil per, were the electric, defense, oil and gas, and bank industries. The CPI placed it at #15 out of the top 250 highest spending lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Jermyn Brooks headed PwC, a major lobbying force, and now he works for TI, an anti-corruption group, that has met with United States Information Agency, a group that has promoted U.S. democratic culture throughout the world, and has now been absorbed into the U.S. State Department.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed, Pricewaterhouse Coopers is, indeed, the company that safeguards under lock and key those deciding ballots at the Academy Awards, the little coveted ballots that decide who is going to become the next, high-paid actor that just might have his/her film voiced-over and exported to Colombia, or Thailand, or any other “developing” country. Well, except maybe Burma. According to www.burmacampaign.org.uk, in the article “PwC pulls out of Burma,” PwC had to leave in 2003 when it was discovered that its chapter there was supporting a facist leader in the Burmese elections. Oh, come on…you didn’t think we spent so much on movie-making to entertain you, did ya? It’s to keep the cheap help coming, and then to have someone to blame everything on! If you think the glamorous movies are lures, I’m not even gonna go into exported soap operas.
According to Snow, President Jimmy Carter had attempted to change the USIA’s policies when he was in office. He put in writing that it could not take part in any “covert, manipulative or propagandistic” activities, and he wanted to instill a new vision that would allow for information about other countries to come into the U.S. so that our citizens would be informed about the great policies and cultural attributes of the other countries. This change was squashed when Reagan was elected. The old Smith-Mundt prohibition was inappropriately used to claim that U.S. citizens receiving information about other countries would be like the U.S. using propaganda against its own citizens. The USIA’s budget was raised to $1 billion, where it stayed until the institution was absorbed into the Dept. of State. Now, who knows its budget? Under Bush, its practices have been obscured, but don’t let that keep you from seeing the fact that we go around telling everyone, systematically, how great we are and then when they get here we treat them like dirt, systematically. This process is ingrained in our government and our entertainment. And the winner is….
The United States Information Agency: http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/usia/
Transparency International Board Members:
(this website is extensive; I suggest you look at the site map and check out one or two industries they cover - the entertainment one is enlightening, especially in terms of the $1000 publication they have about their research on global entertainment)
The Burma article: