This American Life | Podcast Review | December 28, 2015 | By

This American Life #575: “Poetry of Propaganda”

You might be a “covert” propagandist, This American Life warns.


This week’s This American Life invites us to think about propaganda. Ira Glass & co. spin stories about propaganda efforts launched in three countries: Colombia, China, and the United States. And in a segment about an elementary school musical that takes gentrification and rent increases in San Francisco as its unlikely source material, we are encouraged, in a lighthearted way, to reflect on the distinction between art that is propagandistic and art that is merely politically conscious.

Act one, “Guerilla Marketing”, tracks a propaganda campaign funded by the Colombian government about ten years ago. The Colombian state hired advertising executive Jose Miguel Solokoff to craft a campaign designed to persuade guerilla fighters to quit the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Could an advertiser induce guerillas to disband? Making antibacterial soap appear attractive—the assignment Solokoff finished just before accepting the Colombian government as a client—requires persuasive wiles of a different order than those needed to convince revolutionaries to acquiesce to a governmental regime. Solokoff and his team interviewed ex-guerilla fighters to learn what made them quit. They then created radio spots featuring those stories.

These advertisements, with former guerillas talking to current guerillas about why they should quit, had a powerful impact. Solokoff estimates that some 2,000 lower-ranking rebels have demobilized since he began airing his spots. FARC’s forces currently amount to around 7,000 rebel soldiers. The propaganda campaign made a sizable dent.

This segment features a canny Christmas tie-in: Solokoff engineered a Christmas campaign enticing disenchanted rebels to come home for the holidays.

Hearing about how Solokoff created his anti-guerilla advertisements is fascinating, and the advertiser is wonderfully candid. The section on Solokoff, however, has one major weakness. Despite the good efforts of This American Life producer Sean Cole, the segment presents a rather one-sided view of the Colombian conflict. Through Solokoff, we hear of the brutalities endemic to life among the lower ranks of guerilla fighters. Women are required to abort their pregnancies; guerilla fighters are sometimes forced to kill people they think are innocent; and because “love is forbidden”, couples are separated. Cole does not elaborate on the nature of prohibitions against love that characterize guerilla life. He notes that government forces “have been just as brutal” as guerilla units, but provides no examples of such brutality. I found myself wishing the segment provided more background information about the rebellion in Colombia. As charmed as I was by the aesthete-advertiser Solokoff, his account of the conflict is inevitably partial. His talk of beauty and light can lead the listener to forget that he is a propagandist, albeit an evidently humane one.

The second act, reported by the writer Jon Mooallem, recounts the story of an unusual elementary school play (in which Mooallem’s daughter, then in kindergarten, played a small role). The musical is a satirical excoriation of San Francisco’s tech-entrepreneur class. The plot turns on the city’s widening socioeconomic divide and increasing nightmarish rental market, and even includes an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, declaimed by an adorable-sounding elementary school kid.

Many of the parents in attendance with Mooallem that night worked in the tech sector. Here they were, Mooallem says, “watching their own children spear them as cartoon villains, literally cackling and throwing money over flutes of champagne, as they plotted the eviction of all those nice people.”

A nonprofit devoted to afterschool arts education—staffed in part by artsy young people who “seemed to be scraping by in the city”— staged the play. Mooallem highlights their work, which sounds hilarious, while remaining somewhat skeptical of it. Should these writers and artists be putting their anxieties about tech-driven gentrification into the mouths of babes? The musical provides an unexpected forum for a creative effort of an undeniable political bent. But by working in art, not advertising, the nonprofit evades accusations of propagandizing. In an email to parents, the play’s director wrote: “we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.” The story raises some intriguing questions about the line between art and propaganda; Mooallem for the most part does not broach these questions directly, but instead takes the story in other (perhaps more amusing) directions. Audio excerpts of children singing about eviction are among the segment’s most delightful bits.

Act three alerts us to “covert” propaganda lurking on social media. In September, the EPA attempted to drum up vocal public support for its proposed clean-water rule. The agency encouraged Twitter users to send out a pre-written tweet that expressed support for the rule. The messages that people sent to friends and followers didn’t make clear that the EPA had created the wording. This campaign, the Government Accountability Office ruled, counted as an act of covert propaganda.

In addition to providing a stimulating dose of legal wonkery, the segment deserves attention for the out-of-this-world Philadelphia accent of one of the women interviewed. I could listen to her say “wuh-tir” for hours.

The final act features New Yorker writer Evan Osnos discussing transformations in Chinese propaganda following the protests at Tiananmen in 1989. After the demonstrations, the Chinese government doubled down on a narrative of “national humiliation”. By focusing on how foreign countries had invaded, attacked, and wronged China, the Party was able to direct attention away from its own errors.

In this episode, This American Life provides something unusual: a globally comparative account of a phenomenon. Analyzing a concept or activity, such as propaganda, in multiple national contexts provides a solid organizing structure for an episode. For a show titled This American Life, devoting airtime to international stories presents obvious risks. Such stories do not fall easily within the show’s stated mission (Colombia might count semantically within “American” life, but not colloquially), and producers cannot rely on listeners to know much about the countries and cultures they’re reporting—Colombia a case in point. But comparison can help us, as Americans, better understand the distinctiveness of our strange culture; an international focus might be just what This American Life needs.

About the Author

Charlie Tyson is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he covers This American LifeYou can find him on twitter @charlietyson1, or by email at charlie@audiologue.xyz.

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