Don’t worry, Emily Bazelon, you’re wrong

It’s hard to explain why Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine article, sarcastically titled “Free Speech Will Save Our Democracy,” bothers me, so let me start here: Hannah Arendt was not a political philosopher.  Hannah Arendt was a political theorist.  She made this clear in an interview with journalist Günter Gaus on West German television in 1964.  “I am afraid I have to protest,” Arendt says, not even answering his first question. “I do not belong to the circle of philosophers.  My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory.”  This exchange is reprinted on the first page of The Portable Hannah Arendt.

The impact of media censorship in China: 1984 or Brave New World? | VoxDev

This may seem a peculiar way to start a critique of an earnest article about the implications of public lying, deceit, misinformation, facts, alternative facts, and the truth.  But I mention it because Bazelon asserts as fact, not opinion, that Arendt was a political philosopher in order to use her writing to frame her disinformation jeremiad.  This is something Bazelon clearly believed and found important.  But her own subject disagreed with her and not secretly.

An author writing about the dangers of misinformation should show considerably more humility when talking about what constitutes fact.  Or, as she quotes John Stuart Mill, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

Bazelon begs this scrutiny by arguing, in effect, that something must be done about all these people saying things that aren’t true.  And also by quoting the children of George Orwell who write or say ear-ringing ouroboros like, “[U]se of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with,” and “Free speech threatens democracy as much as it also provides for its flourishing,” and “Campbell Soup Company can’t experience democratic legitimation,” and “The First Amendment value of individual autonomy means we should know who is speaking to us and why,” and “[T]he First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” and “[D]emocracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas,” and (Bazelon’s contribution to Newspeak), “[I]t’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free.”  Neither Hannah Arendt nor Donald Trump wrote or said any of these things.

Bazelon starts with an obscure viral phenomenon.  Earlier this year, comments made by think tank types wargaming a 2020 election scenario that included secessionist threats in the Pacific Northwest showed up in an obscure conservative intellectual journal before jumping from YouTube into the gutter of the right-wing infoverse and then vaulting to Fox News.  This is a strange place to start given the most obvious, and dangerous, consequences of misinformation surrounding COVID-19.  Bazelon makes two mistakes almost immediately, one trivial and one much more concerning.  She claims the original intellectual journal article titled “The Coming Coup?” wrote “without evidence” that Democrats were “laying the groundwork for revolution”.  The is easily disproven: the author cites publicly available comments about contingencies for a Trump loss transition made by Joe Biden, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton.  (And that sets aside the many presumably non-partisan military officers the author cites in opposition to the president.)  She clearly sees “coup fabrication” (her words) as a disingenuous distortion of the original intent of the wargame.  But that’s not what the conservative commentator was writing about and in any case, “coup” is broadly defined as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government,” which includes secession.

The second error is much more concerning.  Bazelon’s narrative unfolds as a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, an implied chain of cause and effect with words taken out of context weaponized by partisans and then spread through a network of right-wing online sites, private organizations, social media outlets, and traditional broadcasters.  “By the end of [September 2020],” Bazelon writes, “the fraction of Republicans who were not ‘confident’ that the ‘election will be conducted in a fair and equal way’ hit 65 percent”.  This suggests a direct relationship between the misinformation and evolving public opinion.  This is not true.  In fact, the number was stable at 65 percent from the same question asked in August, before this information water spout spiraled upwards and the second poll was taken.  Moreover, there are no other data points that I could find to suggest this number has been growing.  And without that comparison, these numbers are worthless, because a single poll is simply a coordinate: alone it tells you nothing about distance, speed and direction.  It is true that this number is higher for Democrats and Independents, but without more data determining that relationship, too, is impossible to define.

Bazelon also entertains a hoary myth about the effect of Fox News on political behavior.  Known as the Fox News Effect, it hypothesizes that the new appearance of Fox News shifts voting patterns toward  Republicans.  Unfortunately, the initial study she appears to be referring to, The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting, published in 2005, dismisses this effect in its abstract:

We find no significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. We can rule out an effect of Fox News larger than 0.5 percentage points. The results are robust to town-level controls, state and county fixed effects, and alternative specifications. We also find no significant effect of Fox News on voter turnout. Our results imply that Fox News convinced between 0 and 2.1 percent of its viewers to vote Republican. The evidence is consistent with the view that voters are sophisticated and filter out media bias. Alternatively, voters may display a form of confirmatory bias.

Bazelon’s scatter-shot approach obscures her intent.  Much of the article feels like an expanded listicle of dumb things people have said that Bazelon doesn’t like.  (This is a tic presenting in writers of the era who seem to have to repeat the insane things we have all witnessed together simply to recognize them as insane.  I do the same thing so I am sympathetic.)  She interrupts her inventory with a comparative legal brief on censorship and freedom of expression in the U.S. and Europe before ending it with a series of anemic policy proposals.  She attacks, among others, big data companies, Donald Trump, Fox News, right-wing fringe web sites, the Supreme Court, and Joel Kaplan.  (Never heard of him?  Bazelon has only three data points: he participated in a protest against the Florida recount in 2000, serves as Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, and sat behind his friend Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation.)   The only throughline for these disparate rivals is bad information.  Which returns us to the initial question: what is going on here?   Is Bazelon trying to raise awareness?  I think we’ve reached saturation point about the toxic maw of digital culture.  Sound the alarm?  Same.  Find solutions?  In part, yes, but nothing too radical, maybe the low-cal censorship favored by Europeans.  All of these arguments have been made better by other authors in other fora.

Bazelon provides a précis of American jurisprudence and its protections of free speech from government interference.  These are invariably clear and eloquent defenses not just of political expression but also the right to err, even to lie.  “As a Nation we have chosen…to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote recently.  It is a shame Bazelon doesn’t take up the case of coal magnate Bob Murray against HBO targeting John Oliver of Last Week Tonight.  This slander and defamation suit was dismissed with prejudice.  After winning the case, Oliver and what looks like an entire Broadway musical chorus line then sang obscene and completely untrue accusations about the vanquished.

But that leads her to a strange Straw Man argument that dissolves itself without much scrutiny:

The First Amendment doesn’t have a formal role in these situations [decisions made by private companies like newspapers to publish or censor material] but the principle that it’s paramount to protect dissident speech makes them difficult to untangle.  If people have the right to peacefully protest against the police, don’t neo-Nazis have the same right to peacefully demonstrate?  Why is Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed beyond the pale but not an October by Regina Ip, a legislator in Hong Kong, who defended police officers’ filling the streets and arresting hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators?

This is not difficult to untangle at all. The answer is obvious: Yes. Yes, people have the right to protest peacefully regardless of what they say.  Yes, people have the right to express opinions about the rule of law.  Yes, the same goes for a Russian troll engaging in disinformation and a satirist sending up a public figure.  Because sometimes you can’t tell the two apart, as China routinely does with The Onion, or Bob Murray does with John Oliver and HBO.

Of course Bazelon would refer to the great bête noire of political speech, Citizens United v. FEC, in which the U.S. Supreme Court loosened restrictions on corporate money given to political causes. She quotes Harvard law professor John Coates that this, and a series of preceding cases, constituted a “radical break with the history and traditions of U.S. law”.  In Bazelon’s words, this falsely equates corporate political activity as “akin to the shouting of protesters”.

The shot is so easy to make you might miss it: Emily Bazelon is a paid staff writer of The New York Times Magazine, owned by The New York Times Company, a publicly traded S&P 400 corporation with nearly $1.8 billion in annual revenue. Published, her article reaches more than two million Americans. The New York Times itself engages in direct political advocacy by endorsing candidates for federal, state, and local office and taking editorial positions on a myriad of political issues. It does not act like a corporation giving money to a non-profit Political Action Committees because it doesn’t have to: its business model is built in part on political advocacy. The Campbell Soup Company can’t do that. (I will note here that I have published twice with The Times and was compensated for one of those opportunities.)

Bazelon does not help her case by referring to the Seth Rich case, a conspiracy theory that was broadcast as a news story on Fox News and then spread from there.  Fox News retracted the story but other segments on the network did not.  Again, this feels like too easy a shot:  Emily Bazelon is writing this in The New York Times, which famously spread the baseless conspiracy theory that Iraq was actively developing unconventional weapons in 2002.  The same New York Times that is reviewing, but not caveating, its flagship podcast “Caliphate” after Canada arrested the primary source for fraud in connection with The Times’ reporting.  The same New York Times that apologized for assigning Bazelon to a news story about Brett Kavanaugh after she had published opinions critical of him.

Nonetheless, Bazelon argues we are in a clear crisis without precedent.  So what to do?  Bazelon turns first to Europe.  She expresses admiration for a kind of censorship lite, a latter-day reincarnation of the paternal benevolence used by old monarchs to quash class conflict.  But she cites only two examples of prohibited speech: incitement to racial violence and Holocaust denial.  (She somehow misses the notoriously loose libel laws in many commonwealth countries.)  I can’t believe I’m checking a Yale-educated lawyer, but incitement and hate crimes are illegal in the United States.  They are not protected speech.

We can continue our petty exposure of further error as we examine Europe’s enlightened censorship model.  Bazelon quotes Miguel Poaires Maduro, a disinformation observer based in Italy.  “Much of the recent authoritarian experience in Europe arose out of democracy itself,” he says.  “The Nazis and others were originally elected.” 

Let’s stop here.  It is not exactly clear which epoque he’s referring to, but since he mentions the Nazis, let’s start there: Nazis were not popularly elected in Germany and neither were the fascist or communist governments that came to power in Spain, Austria, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Poland or Romania during the first half of the 20th century.

Boaires Maduro continues to channel Orwell:  “In Europe, there is basically an understanding that democracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas,” he says.  “It’s because of the different democratic ethos of Europe that Europe has accepted more restrictions on speech.”  That is plainly absurd.   Speech is democratic when it is free and anyone can use it for any reason.  When speech is restricted, it is no longer democratic, because the national authority chooses who gets to say what, when, why, where, and how.

Bazelon’s primary evidence for Europe’s enlightened view of censorship is a comparison between the media reaction to the email hacks of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and that of Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche! in France in 2017.  She approvingly notes the French law imposing a blackout on political news 24 hours before polls open—we’ll leave aside Bazelon’s astonishing endorsement of a government ban on political reporting a day before a national election—meant when the emails were dumped, hours before the deadline, the French media simply ignored them.  

This argument falls apart before we can finish the story.  French law had nothing to do with this outcome: no good news organization would publish unsubstantiated and uncorroborated information with just hours available and in any event 36 hours later the information was effectively irrelevant to the election outcome.  The 2016 dump in the United States, by contrast, occurred months before the November election, giving news organizations much more time to report it.

Again it’s important to note something that could easily be missed: in both the French and U.S. cases there were no substantial allegations that the information released by the hacks was false.  Here, Bazelon has precipitously overreached: She approves of both French law and media practice restricting political reporting even when the facts are not in dispute.  That should disturb everyone.  It also demonstrates the slippery slope falling away from our decision to censor things that are not strictly true to a point far below where we can simply dispose of information we don’t like.

As for solutions, beyond an endorsement of vague European restrictions, outright censorship clearly makes Bazelon uneasy.  After railing about the right-wing media universe, public lies, viral disinformation, and all the rest, the best solution she can come up with is…more information.  She proposes public investment in local news outlets and online sources.  She argues for more financial transparency in political ad microtargeting.  She doesn’t argue for more “citizen journalists,” a recent phenomenon encouraged by nonprofit news organizations like WNYC, perhaps because she can’t stomach amateurs not getting paid for what The Times pays her to do.

This is not to say that conspiracy theories are acceptable forms of political discourse.  But in the end, speech is speech is speech is speech.  It is the only thing we have to change minds and thus alter the course of human events.  Bazelon’s promoted alternative is the opposite of speech: it is coercion.  Even a civil action resulting in mere monetary damages for defamation is reinforced by the police powers of the state.  It is extremely disturbing to argue that an untrue thing is worse than the violence required to enforce the truth.  Too many people believe that those they disagree with should lose their livelihood for something said, written or thought.  That they should be exiled because of words.

In the end, Bazelon is clearly and sincerely worried about the rapid spread of things that are not true. She should reconsider her concern given the glaring untruths evident in her own argument for combating misinformation. Because, thankfully, the American tradition protects her right to err, too. “Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more” than speech, she writes. That is true but for the exact opposite conclusion Bazelon draws from exposing the workings of totalitarianism: that the destruction of free speech enables all the destruction that follows.

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“A Means of State Control” (Part Two)

In the first part of this post I dismantled the consensus definition of propaganda, arguing that in part and in total “propaganda” is indistinguishable from any other form of political expression.  The only obvious distinguishing aspect between the two definitions is the essential subjectivity of favoring political expression I agree with and opposing propaganda I do not agree with.

This being the case, propaganda needs to be redefined.  I propose that propaganda be defined not as the product of a state’s political agenda but the control of the means of that agenda itself.  In effect, propaganda is not what you see, but how you see it.  States engage in propaganda as they seek to control and dominate communications between the government and the people as well as nations abroad as a tool to secure and extend their political power.

Joseph Goebbels, never a man anyone wishes to acknowledge, bluntly stated in a 1928 speech the true purpose of propaganda.  The key phrase is variously translated as “the forerunner,” or “means,” of state control, but it is easy to see how the various uses of propaganda can be caught up in this definition: it helps parties achieve government control, maintains authoritarian political control, and aids those governments’ needs to control both the population and foreign adversaries.  This was written before Hitler came to power but Goebbels’ emphasis on “seizing” and holding government power anticipates the totalitarian control they eventually exerted over all of Germany.

I recognize this is a departure from the conventional and academic definition of propaganda.  That is entirely the point.  In order both to recognize propaganda for what it truly is, and to protect legitimate political expression from repression, I must make the argument here that propaganda and legitimate political expression are opposites.

  1. All Political Speech Is Equal

This is a difficult point to argue primarily because the subjectivity of political expression is so deeply ingrained in most people.  It is impossible to argue that the speech of, say, Donald Trump, and that of Bernie Sanders, are effectively equal.  For all practical matters nobody would agree to this proposition.  So in order to make this argument, I need to break political expression down to its essence, that of thesis and antithesis.

As an example I will use an extraordinary piece of artwork I saw once more than 15 years ago.  During the Cold War a former Western European ambassador to the Soviet Union quietly collected the art made by prisoners of the Gulag.  One older artist had made his living restoring Russian Orthodox Church icons several hundreds of years old.  In his spare time he painted his own icons.  One of those this ambassador purchased:  at the center of a series of portraits of the saints of the orthodox church he painted Ronald Reagan.

The political meaning of this portrait could not be mistaken.  The artist canonized the American president with the holiest figures in the history of the church.  He risked his freedom or life to do so in a state that would treat this expression as a double heresy: an expression of faith in a power other than the Communist Party and the reification of the enemy of the Soviet Union.  The thesis would be “Ronald Reagan is a saint.”  The antithesis would be “Ronald Reagan is not a saint.”  As political propositions both require the other, in which case they are essentially equal.  It is impossible to argue the proposition without stating the fundamental basis of the argument and its opposite.

It can be argued that what separates this individual act of political expression from propaganda is the state in terms of both scale and legitimacy.  Yet if we acknowledge the right or duty of the state to express, exert, or defend its authority or principles – in the event of war, disease, or national emergency – then there is no fundamental difference between the two.  Even if we acknowledge state expression in the absence of a national emergency, we fall back on the thesis/antithesis dichotomy: the argument and its counterargument cannot exist in the public domain without each other.

2. Propaganda Is the Control of the Means of Political Expression

But it is within that dichotomy we find the essence of true propaganda: the elimination of the antithesis, an artificial state of affairs where no contradiction of a state-endorsed political statement may be contradicted.  The only way to accomplish this, in practice, is for the state to control the means of political expression and enforce compliance with that expression.  True propaganda cannot exist without both of these elements.

In this case we have multiple examples.  Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are defined as totalitarian because they controlled all aspects of individual life.  Both exerted a “party line” that was brutally enforced by the police state.  And yet, as the Holocaust Memorial’s catalogue of Nazi propaganda demonstrates, we are often distracted more by the product of that propaganda outlet than we are by the sheer ubiquity of it.

This control limits, in a concrete way, the public space for debate that Hannah Arendt outlines.  Politics and political freedom are healthy when the town commons is open to all to debate, argue, find consensus, form alliances.  The control of the means of political expression closes the commons, leaving behind only the state’s position with no method of counterargument.  This is why I argue that propaganda and political expression are opposites: a closed commons against an open one, censorship countering creativity, conformism versus diversity.

3)  Propaganda Is Coercive

As I noted in Part One, Nazi Germany’s control of the means of political expression was indeed totalitarianism: all church, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artistic and literary guilds, medicine, and sports were dominated by the government.  The Soviet Union also controlled all these means while destroying the church, suppressing minority languages and religious faiths, limiting travel both domestically and internationally, turning family and community members into informants, exiling or executing dissidents, and blocking foreign communications into the Soviet Union.

This is not mere censorship.  It is the active harnessing of the means of communication to broadcast a single political agenda.  But the pervasiveness of this propaganda is only one part of the apparatus for complete political control.  Both states combined total control with violent enforcement through a mammoth and powerful secret police.  In practice, these states told the people what to think and brutally punished anyone who did not think as they were told.  This is the essence of totalitarianism: they have more in common with the Thought Police than with the Office of Censorship.

The practice of total political control is often and mistakenly considered a fundamentally modern concept.  It is argued that totalitarianism and the mass organization and violence required for it to survive would not be possible without the tools available only in the 20th century.  This is not true: the aspect of totalitarian control of political expression has existed for hundreds of years.  As in many cases, we strangely miss this fact hiding in plain sight.  Most scholars of propaganda date the term to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, established by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 16th century.  The church established this office primarily to spread the Gospel among the newly discovered territories of the Americas but it was useful in the Counter-Reformation as well to oppose the spread of Lutheranism and other heretical ideas.

But what is regularly omitted from propaganda’s origin story is the Holy Inquisition.  The inquisition was developed in the late medieval period but made notorious during the Spanish and Roman periods of the 16th century.  The Spanish Inquisition imposed conversions on the Muslim and Jewish populations of the territories formerly ruled by the Andalus caliphate.  The Roman Inquisition attacked political heretics like Galileo Galilei.  The inquisition, then, acted as the enforcement mechanism of the church’s propaganda of the faith.  Hitler and Stalin would have immediately recognized the control and enforcement of political expression as the essence of their rule.  That essence is fundamentally coercive.  The Inquisition and the Congregation together are the origin for totalitarian propaganda as we know it.

This is the “means of state control” discussed earlier.  Totalitarian countries control the means of political expression primarily to maintain control the state itself and to achieve its political goals.   The ramifications of this understanding are obvious: it is difficult if impossible to communicate opposition within a regime when all the means to communicate are controlled by the state.  Today, authoritarian regimes use this kind of control, while short of being absolute, to dominate, distort, or close the political commons.  This may feel like a very contemporary tool, but hey are building on a tradition that has dates back hundreds of years to the earliest modern states.

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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.

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