Months have now passed since the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the furor has largely died down. It has not dissipated entirely, though, and may yet reignite: The FBI and NSA have made their allegations, but have refused, on grounds of national security, to substantiate them. Some trust the government’s assertions, many in cybersecurity do not. Nevertheless, the debate over whether North Korea was behind the Sony hack has run out of much of its steam. Indeed, the Washington Post article on the resignation of Amy Pascal from Sony did not mention North Korea at all.
Whatever the future course of the Sony hack, the role of the U.S. state raises interesting questions, illustrates disquieting aspects of elite thinking, and leaves behind some mysteries. One is the way officials, and the military-industrial complex, were involved in the production of The Interview as a propaganda vehicle. Just how successful was the movie as subversive propaganda, helping to bring about the collapse so fondly anticipated by many, from President Obama downwards? The answer seems to be that it was a dismal failure.
PROPAGANDA AND SOFTWARE
Hollywood is the dream factory where the propaganda needs and desires of the American state meet with private cupidity to generate cultural artifacts which have global reach. Often there is considerable artistic talent involved, though perhaps that was not so much in evidence with The Interview, which tended to be unfavorably compared in cinematic terms with another propaganda film released at the same time, American Sniper. Hollywood is, and has been for some half century, the biggest and most effective weapon in America’s soft power arsenal. Just as the most successful murder, it is said, is one that is not recognized as murder, so too with propaganda. Joseph Nye Jr. has rightly pointed out that “the best propaganda is not propaganda.” Or in other words, propaganda that is not perceived as such is the most effective. Nye is arguing that whilst other countries (he was talking in China at the time) do propaganda, America does soft power, a projection of the admirable qualities of the United States, its constitution, politics and culture. There is some truth in that, but the message depends on the medium, and those who dominate the media get their message across. And there is no higher place in the media landscape than Hollywood. Moviemakers are in it for fame and fortune, but the state is interested in the message. How the two interact is complex and intriguing.
Unlike the Vatican, the U.S. does not have a Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, from which we derive the word “propaganda.” Actually, nowadays the Vatican does not either; the name, but not the function, was changed in 1982 because because “the word ‘propaganda’ had been given a bad name by Joseph Goebbels.” Goebbels, who headed Nazi Germany’s Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda professionalized, but certainly did not invent, propaganda. His counterparts in other countries, especially in Europe, were doing much the same sort of thing. In America they did things a bit differently. America had Hollywood, Maddison Avenue and the American Dream so state direction was less necessary and less overt.
Nevertheless, as McCarthyism for instance indicated, the authorities did take an interest in the political and moral messages that emanated from the cultural industry. The U.S. state does have a number of propaganda agencies, such as the United States Information Agency (USIA) which established Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. The USIA was disestablished in 1999 but the struggle continues, mainly under the rubric of “public diplomacy.” The Clinton administration established the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 1999. Two holders of the office are particularly relevant. One is Kathleen Stephens, who had been ambassador to Seoul. The other is Charlotte Beers, who was appointed by George W. Bush in October 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, and who oversaw the production of five videos under the Shared Values Initiative aimed at the Islamic world. The campaign was widely seen as a failure.
As one scholar pointed out about the videos, “Like most propaganda, they tell us a great deal about how the propagandists see themselves as well as how they want to be perceived by others.” But the program went further than that; it was complacent and self-referential, with self-image to the fore rather than communication with the target audience; rather like North Korean propaganda in that respect. The Shared Values Initiative was discontinued after less than a month, Charlotte Beers resigned, and the U.S. invaded Iraq. But propaganda never rests. The invasion of Iraq was, after all, propeled by propaganda.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT AND PROPAGANDA
Which brings us back to The Interview. The administration frequently asserted that it was not involved. When the White House spokesman was asked about the president’s opinion “about a movie that depicts the assassination of a sitting head of state,” he replied:
“The President and the administration stands squarely on the side of the artists and other private citizens who seek to freely express their views.”
The statements of non-involvement, merely concerns with “freedom of speech,” are quite disingenuous. After all, this was not a story about a CIA plot to assassinate Barack Obama, or Pope Francis, Angela Merkel or, heaven forbid, Bibi Netanyahu, but a designated enemy of America and one who, it was presumed, could no more than protest, thus demonstrating to James Clapper at least, that “North Koreans don’t have a sense of humor.” All movies are political and the American state, in various forms, was intimately connected with The Interview. There was not the overt government direction of the Shared Values Initiative but nonetheless, as one commentator pointed out, “co-director Seth Rogen confirmed that he made the film in collaboration with the military-intelligence apparatus.” Rogen discussed the movie with the CIA, a former Hillary Clinton aide and the State Department, even up to Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
And then there was Bruce Bennett of RAND. Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton sits on the board of RAND, the think tank established by the U.S. Air Force which is one of the cerebral nodes of the military-industrial complex. Lynton hired Bennett as a consultant for the movie. Bennett is best-known for his work on the force requirements for a U.S.-led, South Korean-manned ,occupation of North Korea. Bennett is quite a fan of assassination and appears to have been enthusiastic about The Interview. He was reported as saying “… the assassination of Kim Jong-Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government” and suggesting that the movie might inspire the North Koreans to kill Kim Jong Un.
THE WRONG KIND OF PROPAGANDA
And there things fall apart. Rich Klein, writing in the Washington Post, thought it a very subversive film which “if copies are pirated in to North Korea, (would be) a very real challenge to the ruling regime’s legitimacy.” He got it wrong. As subversive propaganda The Interview fell flat on its face. There are two sorts of propaganda movie; the subversive which is loyalty demolishing and the far more common, and easier sort, the nationalist/racialist type which is loyalty enhancing. They cater for different audiences and one movie can’t do both jobs.
Significantly Koreans, both South Korean citizens and North Korean defectors, tended to be annoyed by the movie, or dismissive of it. Despite all the help and advice the producers received it pressed so many predictably wrong buttons. South Korean “netizens” were reportedly up in arms because it “belittled Korea” – it mocked Koreans for eating dog meat, referred to the “Sea of Japan” and Randall Park, who had been born and raised in Los Angeles, spoke “dreadful Korean” in his role of Kim Jong Un. The right-wing JoongAng Ilbo compared it to “junk food” and concluded that:
Even if the movie is somehow smuggled into North Korea and North Koreans see it, there’s nothing for North Korean authorities to worry about.
Defectors seemed to dislike the film even more than they did Kim Jong Un and one wrote scathingly:
Are those who intend to send this film to the North in their senses?” ….This film is more likely to stimulate North Koreans’ anti-U.S. sentiment because most of them were portrayed and ridiculed as being stupid…I even thought that Kim Jong Un might want to screen it in North Korea. … I wonder if there could be any anti-U.S. textbook in North Korea as excellent as the film is.
Seth Rogen had no knowledge of North Korea, and no particular animus against it. Kim Jong Un was good for easy laughs, and was a soft target. But what of the “Korea experts” in the CIA, State and RAND? What does this propaganda debacle tells us about them, and their expertise?
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Featured Image: 50-50 31 by GabboT on 2011-09-12 20:12:46