How Dictators Kiss Babies

My recent photo essay in Foreign Policy discussed the use of images of children from conflict zones in political communications and was based in large measure on my experience working at NATO.  But it was also informed by a close reading of totalitarian propaganda, mostly from the 20th century, and for anyone familiar with that horrifying legacy should explain much of my unease about using the images of children in political communications.

Understanding how dictators ruthlessly exploit children to sand their iron image should make us think twice before publishing pictures of cute kids, because history’s butchers did the same thing. Those who survived that history carry those images in their head.  Democracies are different, but that is all the more reason for us to be cautious and deliberate.  We must learn from history and avoid the tropes that despots past and present have left littered in their path.

That said, what strikes me most after surveying decades of propaganda is how rarely dictators were photographed with children.  This should give us heart.  As I note in my Foreign Policy article, this is very likely the modern-day equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes — children are not over-awed by trappings and power, and probably cannot even recognize such (for a contrasting opinion, see the photo of Kim Jong-Un below).  They are unimpressed and speak the truth. This would mortify those squat, Napoleonic rulers such as Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong-Il, standing no taller than five feet five inches in platform shoes. Real children are risky.

Vladimir PutinYou can see how easily this can work to a leader’s detriment.  Here is a picture of Vladimir Putin with some Russian kids in traditional dress (left), taken in 2006. His unease around children is manifest both in this photograph and elsewhere, which probably keeps this  from being a simply creepy photo opportunity. Strangely he appears more relaxed when engaged in judo competition with children a fifth his age, which says more about his character than he likely intends to communicate. (Or, according to Masha Gessen, perhaps he does.)

Putin has been remarkably visible but under extraordinarily controlled circumstances. So it’s probably no mistake that he doesn’t spend much public time with children.

Knowing that makes this photograph — by most accounts a genuine, unguarded moment — both unique and particularly chilling.  It was a rare moment when Stalin, at the height of his control over the Soviet Union, met this little girl from the Buryat-Mongol region at the Kremlin in 1936. The photo was widely circulated as “Friend of the Little Children,” turned into a lithograph as well as a sculpture and other propaganda means.

But the iconic photograph (right) is perhaps better known than the original, uncropped version (above), which included M.I. Erbanov, first secretary of the Buryat-Mongol ASSR. His cropping and airbrush from the original was not just aesthetic: it was political, as he was purged from the Party under Stalin’s orders.

More chilling indeed, the girl’s parents both met an untimely end. Her father was shot for “spying for Japan”  and her mother was also murdered under mysterious circumstances. Only their deaths took this icon out of wide circulation. The girl’s fate is not known.

Thank you, Comrade Stalin

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood.”

Otherwise Stalin, who paranoically feared assassination, stuck to doctoring old photographs, faking his own history, or simply propagandizing children’s love for him.

Mao Zedong, who was even more reclusive and paranoid than Stalin, perhaps perfected the art of cartoon propaganda.  There is simply no photographic evidence that I know showing Mao consorting with the Chinese public after he took control of the country. This ironically gave him entirely free license to mould his own image. The resulting repository of this unique art form is a rich vein of effluent, so I’ll only provide a single sample to emphasize its utter detachment from reality. Remember that this is simply a drawing. It has no basis in real life.  Its value is simply as a propaganda image, to communicate with and maintain support from the Chinese people.  It’s similarity to the Stalin image above, of course, is hard to ignore: it is entirely hero worship, the people (the children) idolizing their leader.

All these images, whether photograph or cartoon, extol the leader. They exalt a cult of personality, and one cult only surmounts the other. Stalin and Mao often seem to have reached the apogee of self-worship, but for sheer insanity North Korea under the Kims and Romania under Ceausescu can more than hold contention.

Nicolai Ceausescu controlled Romania for more than a quarter century and drove his country to ruin, madness and utter moral depravity. He cultivated an elaborate personality cult based on his admiration of Mao’s China and Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea. The propaganda involving children is particularly grotesque given the combination of policies he forced on the country. He extracted a ridiculously high family birthrate (five to ten children per woman under 40) by virtually abolishing abortion and birth control, and drove the economy backwards into the 19th century in order to pay off foreign debts. As a result, many Romanian families could not afford to support their families; illegal abortions soared, of which thousands of women died as a result; and tens of thousands of unwanted children were abandoned to horrific state orphanages that were discovered only after his overthrow in 1989.  An elaborate propaganda apparatus recorded his every move and recently served as the raw material for The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu. This “found film” documentary serves my contention that autocrats prefer to avoid real children whenever possible, as the only time he’s seen meeting some is at about the ten minute mark of this marathon three-hour film (which you can watch, of uncertain copyright provenance, here.)

The Kim Dynasty of North Korea has similarly raised propaganda to its own peculiar art form.  Again, rarely did Kim Il-Sung or his son Kim Jong-Il, take photographs with actual children, although they do exist.  A vast and strangely amusing collection of photographs of Kim Jong-Il looking at things can be found here, with not a child to be seen. (It’s probably important to note that in most of the propaganda cartoons I’ve found of the two Kims, Kim Il-Sung is seated at center holding children while Kim Jong-Il is standing looking on. I’m sure Kim the younger wasn’t sensitive at all about his height.)

EPA via The Daily Mail

Much speculation has surrounded the Great Successor, Kim Jong Un, particularly about his youth.  Nobody knows his age, but he is expected to be in his twenties. He appears more willing to be photographed with children (although these appearing with him on the left are probably young teenagers).  Keep in mind that life except for the chosen in North Korea is unbelievably grim, and children particularly suffer.  The average height difference, depending on gender, between North and South Korean children is between 1.2 and 1.6 inches. Obviously, they have nothing to envy in the world.

What’s interesting about Kim Jong-Un’s appearance is how much he appears to mimic his grandfather’s look when comparing some of his recent photographs to old propaganda pictures (again, entirely made up in cartoon form) of Kim Il-Sung published decades ago (see below – updated from a previous post). Gone is his father’s drab overcoat and unisex quasi-military uniform. It is replaced with a period costume seen in propaganda pictures of his grandfather depicting the pre-war era, evoking an earlier time (and a younger, handsomer Kim Il-Sung). This is likely an explicit means of connecting the youngest Kim to the state’s founder by allusion to a kind of collective cultural and propaganda memory.

These pictures are only a representative sampling of how the world’s most repressive regimes exploit children for propaganda purposes. (I deliberately avoided any use of Adolph Hitler, for example, whose image is simply too provocative to come to any productive application.  People may feel the same way about Stalin, Ceausescu and the Kims, and for that I apologize, but we need to display some horribles in order to understand them.)  I still remember, for example, how Fidel Castro took full advantage of the Elian Gonzalez affair and how Cuba continues to exploit that ugly episode to support its appalling regime.  You may recall the “baby milk factory” at Abu Ghraib which was targeted during the 1991 Gulf War, a facility that was part of Saddam Hussein’s then-active unconventional weapons production program, or Saddam’s creepy pawing of Stuart Lockwood, a five-year-old human pawn in that conflict. Anything considered to harm children, or the welfare of children, can be used to good propaganda effect.  Under repressive regimes, which control all means of communication, any information that benefits the state is good (even if it isn’t true) — and any information that harms the state (especially if it is true) is bad and must be suppressed.

The people who live under these regimes know and understand this. Which is why we must be all the more conscientious and diligent about how we communicate what we do, especially when what we are doing is helping children and their family.  The temptation to exploit them is simply too great.


Hemlines, Symphonies, and Nuclear Weapons

A female worker in the Pyongyang subway. (New York Times)

The New York Times’ recent article about rising North Korean hemlines and the speculation they raised about changes in the country’s leadership under Kim Jong-Un was a journalist’s device for exploring the opaque nature of a hermetic and paranoid country.  Unfortunately it also perpetuated the popular notion that there is a fundamental division between the aesthetic and the political in a nation so thoroughly permeated by the regime, and that a change in something as mundane as women’s style could be a sign that Pyongyang was on the verge of “opening up”.

We’ve seen such “signs” of North Korea on the verge of “opening up” for decades now, as the country engaged in fits of family visits, nuclear negotiations, tourism, and cultural exchanges. But nothing has really changed the essential nature of the regime: it remains the world’s last bastion of Stalinism, the planet’s only Communist dynasty. As a result of its backwards, chauvinistic policy of Juche, two million Koreans who might be alive today starved to death during the 1990s.

A few years ago CNN and the redoubtable correspondent Christiane Amanpour were granted extraordinary access to the country as North Korea prepared to host the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in what was a truly dramatic display of cultural public diplomacy. To its credit, the Philharmonic held its ground on a play list which included the North Korean national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and a folk tune common to both Koreas as an encore. It is clear from CNN’s footage that the concert was a big hit with the Philharmonic’s audience.  It was impossible not to feel that art had bridged something.

Amanpour could not help but speculate whether the Philharmonic’s visit and the concert signaled new political changes afoot in North Korea.  It was extraordinary, for example, that the concert was broadcast on North Korean television (at least in the homes where CNN could film) and abroad.  But even for her experience in the country, under close watch by North Korean minders, she may still have missed the complete control the state had over the arts and communications.  This was demonstrated in CNN’s interview with Kim Cheol-Woong, a North Korean piano prodigy who defected to South Korea after he was caught practicing jazz licks.  She assumes that he defected “for artistic reasons”.  What they both miss is that his desire for cultural expression was entirely political, at least according to the regime, and diametrically opposed the national ideology. In a nation like North Korea, nothing is inherently “creative”: everything is political.  This understanding was neatly summarized by Ji Hae Nam, sentenced to prison for three years for singing an “unsanctioned South Korean folk song” in her own home. “You can only sing songs about the party, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il,” she told Amanpour.  After she was released, she fled North Korea for China and eventually South Korea.

While it was dramatic that the Philharmonic concert was broadcast — all other music is normally banned in the country — the fact that the state allowed it to be broadcast is impossible to escape.  There is only one television channel in North Korea (two on Sundays), and only one radio station (on a dozen frequencies in Pyongyang).  North Koreans may be aware of other forms of expression, but the purpose of regime control and propaganda is not necessarily to convince the population of the truth, but to consistently demonstrate its authority and communicate acceptable modes of thought and expression.

The North Koreans tried, and failed, to launch an ICBM in April this year. (Getty Images via Heritage Foundation)

Amanpour’s visit coincided not just with the concert but with a fresh round of nuclear negotiations.  She was granted access to the decrepit reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, then about to be dismantled. Watching this now, it is hard not to feel taken.  Four years after this documentary was completed, the North Koreans claimed to detonate a nuclear device.  The North attacked the South.  Last year, Kim Jong-Il died, but was immediately replaced with his son. Earlier this year, the North test-fired another ballistic missile.  In other words, looking for signs of dramatic change after the concert and the visit to Yongbyon was like expecting actors in a play to continue living the characters they’ve inhabited on stage. We’ve confused tokens for effects.

The hemlines, the concert, the nuclear plant: each may have been a diversion, but internally they primarily have a political function.  In a state like North Korea, that function is control.  They communicate to a supine populace that the regime remains fully in charge; what norms of behavior and thinking are currently acceptable; and that anyone (and their entire family) who diverges from the norm will be dealt with harshly.


“Politic Need Cries”


Anser Dine forces destroy one of the shrines of a Sufi saint in Timbuktu, northern Mali, July 2, 2012 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via Al Jazeera)

The destruction and desecration of the ancient mausolea of Sufi saints in Timbuktu by Ansar Dine forces occupying northern Mali was a peculiar evocation of a song, but an apt one. Many observers have rightly compared the irreversible dismantling of these UNESCO World Heritage sites to the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which now seem to foreshadow al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States. The intolerant vein attacking  this diverse community of believers has claimed another part of its rich heritage and we are all poorer for it.

But for those living in Mali this represents something far more real and ominous. The country is gripped by a political crisis and Anser Dine, like its al Qaeda and Taliban kith, have taken advantage of the authority vacuum. A military coup in March overthrew the weak if democratically elected government in Bamako, which effectively limited the state’s writ across this vast country.  Touareg rebels, having agitated for independence for decades, seized the opportunity to seize autonomy in the north.  So did Anser Dine, which quickly overran the Touareg. Refugees have been flowing south from Timbuktu since.

Amadou and Mariam

Malian duo Amadou and Mariam

The country’s plight brought to mind a song written by the Malian group Amadou and Mariam , who sing mostly  in Bambara and French, with occasional English and Spanish.  Today based in France, the blind duo have a global following, singing subtle and occasionally socially conservative songs about life in Mali. But “Politic Amagni,” (“Politics is not good”) released on Dimanche a Bamako (Sunday in Bamako) in 2005, has particular resonance for Mali today.  The song lyrics could just as easily express the apprehensions of everyday people to the realities, machinations, and chaos of political change now wracking the country:

Politics requires blood, tears
Ignorance, lies
Lives and votes
This is why, my friend, it is evidence
Politics is violence
Politics is not good
Politics is not good
Politicians, listen to us
Politicians, when doing politics
Remove from it theft and corruption
Remove from it lies and hollow words
Remove from it conflicts and crimes
Politicians, listen to us
We do not want demagogy
We do not want corruption
We do not want exactions
We want honest men
We want upright men
We want happiness for everybody
We want peace for everybody
Politicians, listen to us …

(Original lyrics are in Bambara, French and English. English translation provided by Nonesuch Records.  Hear the original song and read the complete original lyrics here.)

When I originally heard this song (I was turned on to Amadou and Mariam by a friend who served with the Peace Corps in Mali), my initial feeling was dismay.  I don’t want anyone to believe that “politic needs blood” or that “politic is violence”. But for those caught between forces beyond their control, that’s very often their daily reality.  To watch refugees fleeing the advance of M23 rebels in eastern Congo, seeking the protection of UN peacekeepers and government troops in Goma, is to know what that means. Politics means political violence in places like Sudan,, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Politic need cries, indeed.

This is another understanding of politics, a political heuristic for much of the planet where institutional, democratic political changes are unknown and people fear a politics that  upends the known world and leaves chaos in its wake.

It doesn’t appear that Amadou and Mariam, as individuals, have taken a dramatic political position on the dismantlement of their country, encouraging instead support of the World Food Program for refugees fleeing fighting in the north.  (Neither, apparently, has Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who did much to publicize the extraordinary Islamic literary and religious heritage resident in Timbuktu.) I’m sympathetic to the complexity of their situation.  But part of politics is taking a stand, particularly if you are influential, to change the situation.

An example of this is the courageous stand recently taken by women in Afghanistan, who publicly protested the execution by the Taliban of a 22-year-old woman accused (erroneously, as if that should make any difference) of adultery.  Instead of the usual Western denunciations we are used to, this was a public, political demonstration of local women against a horrible and unaccountable crime.  And it is part of the coalescing of political power against their former rulers and bodes well for the future of their country.

“Politicians, listen to us…”


The Physicality of Politics

President Barack Obama, on the stump in Maumee, Ohio, July 5. (AP via KATU)

Watching President Obama sweating out on campaign stops across Ohio last week, where temperatures hit the 90s, is a welcome reminder that politics is above all a physical endurance contest. It’s a hot early summer, we haven’t had the party nominating conventions and we haven’t hit Labor Day yet, the traditional beginning of the general campaign season.  But off they go to the hustings.

Politics is often called a “contact sport,” usually as a strained, overused metaphor for the battering politicians’ reputations take. Most commentators who use that old cliche have no idea ofthe sheer physicality of the campaign trail. It is not for nothing that John F. Kennedy holds the world record for handshakes.  “The handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics,” writes Anonymous (Joe Klein) in Primary Colors, the roman a clef of the 1992 presidential campaign. And no matter the concern about the “air war” and campaign organization, television advertisements and the Internet’s impact on fundraising, SuperPACS and voter turnout, candidates still need to get out into the country and meet the voters. The primary contests — this was most dramatically demonstrated during the 2008 race — particularly demand it.  In the early primary states especially, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, voters expect to meet all the candidates before casting their ballot.  This is democracy writ small and in the largest sense of the word.

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, enjoy an ice cream to cool off during a break from the campaign trail. (AP via ABC News)

But it places incredible physical, intellectual and psychic demands on the candidates.  Bill Clinton famously gained weight during his 1992 race and completely lost his voice in his dash to the finish.  I remember meeting him with a friend on the campaign trail during the summer of 1992.  At one o’clock in the morning at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, he still stopped to meet every single person in the lobby. Obama, it is perhaps less well-known, lost weight on his spare physique in 2008.  Clinton’s propensity to eat on the campaign trail, and Obama’s commensurate ability to burn calories reminded me of a Senate colleague who, while running for the State Senate in Maryland, lost 40 pounds: politics plays havoc with the human frame.  Obama’s voice in Ohio already sounds raspy.  Even on vacation, you could see Romney’s magnificent coiffeur begin to wilt.  Just wait until he hits North Carolina in August.

The primary and general election campaign you see on television (whether you follow it intently or whether it forces itself on your consciousness occasionally) is mirrored all across the country in towns and cities and villages and counties, in congressional and state legislative districts, in cantons and parishes and townships, as thousands of people stand for office for mayor, city council, school board, county supervisor, state assembly, and dogcatcher. This is the real stuff of republicanism, far from the attention of national media and big money, and it is as physical and grueling and demanding as any national race for the candidates and families involved. For months, they will be running, their own names in contention against others, out in public, meeting people, asking for votes.

This can be great fun.  Local political campaigns are rooted in community, and running for office means working and knowing where you live better than probably any other time in your life.  My mother ran three times for local school board in my hometown in California (she won by expanding margins each time); the year before her first race she ran the campaign for a local referendum. Each race was different, of course, but at the local level they were always the same.  We gathered the same group of friends for the same activities: silk-screening campaign posters, folding and staple-gunning them to stakes which we then drove around the city to  pound with great mallets into willing families’ front yards to advertise the candidate.  We stuffed and licked envelopes for direct mail appeals (no computers necessary, my mother hand-addressed each one).  Sometimes I accompanied my mother to the print shop where she would submit, approve, and pick up her mailers.

Using a huge blueprint map of the city tacked up on our dining room wall, we “walked precincts,” literally and physically meeting people at their homes in neighborhoods all across the city, highlighting each block that we finished.  I watched my mother practice speeches in her bedroom mirror before going out to meet civic groups to win their endorsement and member support.  She attended public events (Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day), meeting people day after day.  My grandfather, a famously successful cookie salesman, donned a campaign hat and went door to door meeting people to ask them to vote for my mother.

All of this is to say, to reach voters, candidates have to be out and meeting people constantly.  My mother did advertise in the local newspaper, but just to raise the money to buy an advertisement she needed to meet and win over people and that meant getting out to where people are. That activity is tremendously physical and requires a hearty, friendly, outgoing, and generous constitution.

There is very little mention or literature about this aspect of politics.  The physical nature of it, the rootedness in family and community, the sheer fun.  Practically our entire family helped my mother, and an entire legion of my mother’s friends helped her too.  Often journalists on the campaign bus or plane will complain about the unrelenting pace of the trail, but they are only capturing a small aspect of the experience (they have deadlines; in politics the only deadline is election day and for the winner usually even that day restarts the clock).  I admired Primary Colors for its intimate look at the often-ignored aspects of small-time political organizations in the back-of-the-beyond before people are really paying attention, and the latter “West Wing” episodes captured some of this is-anybody-paying-attention feel to the race for the White House in chilly Iowa and New Hampshire.

Because politics is a contact sport. Americans have the right to meet their representatives, to look them in the eye, size them up, ask them questions, hear what they answer.  That’s a fundamental aspect of our representative democracy, and quite unlike many parliamentary systems, where there is very often no direct connection between that meeting and their vote. In America, you get to meet the man and woman in the arena. In fact, we insist on it.


Walt Whitman, American

Walt Whitman, source and date unknown

For American Independence Day, selections from Walt Whitman:

America (1888)

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

The United States to Old World Critics 

Here first the duties of to-day, the lessons of the concrete,
Wealth, order, travel, shelter, products, plenty;
As of the building of some varied, vast, perpetual edifice,
Whence to arise inevitable in time, the towering roofs, the lamps,
The solid-planted spires tall shooting to the stars.

One Song, America, Before I Go

One song, America, before I go
I’d sing, o’er all the rest, with trumpet sound,
For thee — the Future.

I’d sow a seed for thee of endless Nationality;
I’d fashion thy Ensemble, including Body and Soul;
I’d show, away ahead, thy real Union, and how it may be accomplish’d
(The paths to the House I seek to make,
But leave to those to come, the House itself.)

Belief I sing — and Preparation;
As Life and Nature are not great with reference to the Present only,
But greater still from what is yet to come,
Out of that formula for Thee I sing.