Decline of the West (Propaganda Department)
above: The Pigeon Drop Con, Brain Games
below: Frederick Siebel, “SOMONE TALKED!”, 1942, poster
The recent news bombshell that Donald Trump had illegally taken government documents upon leaving office, including extremely classified Top Secret papers pertaining to national security, was just the latest and still-shocking evidence that our garrulous cynosure-in-chief has no ethical or moral boundaries. It reminded me of a life-imitates-art incident from twenty-odd years ago. David Mamet’s 1997 movie, “The Spanish Prisoner,” is a story of con men stealing an industrial secret through a variant of the pigeon drop con (also used in “The Sting”). Prominent in the film is Frederick Siebel’s 1942 public-service poster depicting a shipwrecked sailor with a huge, foreshortened hand reaching toward us beneath the legend, SOMEONE TALKED! A week after seeing the movie, I visited a new dentist and was thunderstruck to see the poster displayed in his waiting room; the dentist turned out to be the artist’s son and had not known about the movie. (You can download Siebel’s poster free from the Library of Congress; your taxes paid for it, after all.
Since the January 6 committee hearings, Trump’s treachery has become evident to many more Americans who had been lulled for decades to the country’s fascist drift by the universal socialization begun in grade school (and now zealously defended by Ron DeSantis and other mythomanes); the powerful corporate/evangelical “noise machine” epitomized by Fox News; and the intellectual laziness resulting from decades of neglect by the elites of both parties, now morphed into the manipulated rage of the MAGA minions. The effectiveness of GOPaganda is indisputable — as is the clever division of American society with the assistance of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, astutely using our character weaknesses against us. (You may remember that the intelligence operative Putin was a devotee of judo.) But it’s so low and so low rent. How can it keep working?
The society of spectacle that Guy Debord and Aldous Huxley predicted has come to pass bigly in the electronic age, with its endless distractions “flooding the zone” and overwhelming whatever critical apparatus we still have. The social critic William Deresiewicz wrote, in “The End of Solitude”:
What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge … the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known.
This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.
Our brave new world of docile hedonists, occasionally goaded into twenty-four-hour Orwellian two-minute hates, is a far cry from the national mythology of high-minded Puritans seeking religious freedom, of Virginia aristocrats protecting their time- honored and Bible-sanctioned way of life; or of WASP cowboys winning the west and civilizing the lesser breeds. Their descendants, risk-taking capitalist job creators, win the future by crushing rivals.
Right-wing propaganda is accordingly savage and crude, as well as stupid and repetitive:
• Trump’s video wrestling match against a CNN-logo blockhead
• Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert imitating the newly relevant Sarah Palin (“Drill, baby drill!”) in linking Christian nationalism with sex, guns and death
• John McNaughton’s patriotic-kitsch Trump paintings, worthy of admiration from Reader’s Digest light readers as well as naughty détournage by scoffing memelords
• Mehmet Oz’s comically out-of-touch ad presenting the multimillionaire as an Average Joe distraught over the high price of crudités (Shades of George Herbert Walker Bush marveling at supermarket scanners in 1992)
John McNaughton, “Crossing the Swamp,” 2018, oil on canvas
Our road back to autocratic serfdom, sold to the gullible and ignorant as a return to the eternal wisdom of the founding fathers, proceeds apace. Nonetheless, the uptick in recent polls — thanks to our completely justifiable concern over the future of American democracy, additionally prompted by the repeal of Roe, the January 6th committee’s revelations, and passage of Biden’s Build Back Better, Jr. agenda — provides some encouragement that the Seven Deadly Sins personified in Trump may not ultimately carry the day.
Harald Damsleth, "Kultur-Terror," 1944, poster
His torso is a birdcage housing a black couple dancing the jitterbug, sarcastically labeled, “The Triumph of Civilization.” From its marching-drum pelvis a shapely female leg and a welded-pipe leg ending in a bloodied bomb emerge. A banner emblazoned with a Jewish star serves as loincloth. Allegorical female figures — Miss America in an Indian headdress and Miss Victory in a drum majorette’s cap — celebrate the invasion. Nearly enveloped in the advancing dust cloud, a small, cartoonishly gnomish man awaits,“all ears,” holding a placard reading, in Norwegian, “The USA will save Europe’s culture from destruction.” European civilization is represented by nearby ornate architecture. Four tiny figures, resembling the phantoms in Tintoretto’s “The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark,” or various apparitional avatars as visualized by Giorgio de Chirico or Salvador Dalí, flee from the giant. Damleth, who served prison time after the war for his politics, asks bitterly, of this proposed rescue, “By what right?”
While the Damleth image remains memorably weird, its anti-American message takes on new meaning as America’s historical sins — against Native Americans and Blacks in particular — have become better known, to the frustration of conservative American exceptionalists. It is ironic, especially if we remember that European fascists admired our homegrown white supremacism, that a Norwegian fascist should have misused American democratic ideals, which we have foolishly taken for granted in recent decades, to attack the supposed barbarians at the gate.
Make no mistake, it is the demographic of White Christian Nationalism the autocrats of our day revere, or pretend to revere, amid the rising sea of real demographic and climate change.
Philip Guston, “Edge of Town,” 1969, oil on canvas, 77 1/8 x 110 1/2”. © 2022 The Estate of Philip Guston