Friday, August 12, 2005

The Enemies We Make

Atop a grieving Statue of Liberty, the demonic-looking U.S. president waves a banner reading "democracy," but in his other fist he clutches the club of "dictatorship." Around him, on the statue's crown points, a young woman hangs in fetters, "anti-war" soldiers carouse, U.S. workers protest, and a clown in a dunce cap emblazoned with the Star of David inflates a stars-and-stripes balloon.

The latest from Ted Rall, Ward Churchill, Steve Bell, or Michael Moore? Something from "Le Monde" or "Der Spiegel?"

No, the president caricatured is Roosevelt, and the image is by the great Japanese illustrator Ono Saseo, and it graced the pages of the January 1942 issue of the Japanese magazine "Manga."

Remember when it was our enemies, and not our friends and ourselves, who bent their natural talents to creating fanatical anti-American propaganda art?

Clive Davis writes today on the sad rise of anti-Americanism among the British. Not the effigy-burning radical kind of hatred, but the dark picture of Americans in the received wisdoms of the quiet, decent people of Britain. Really, after reading the media in Germany -- the native language for-home-use version, not the English language translations online -- it's a wonder everyone on the continent doesn't spit on us every time we set foot there.

It's no better in Britain, Davis writes.

There's no question that media bias plays a major part in skewing public perceptions. The BBC, which once brought us that epic TV series "Alistair Cooke's America", seldom misses an opportunity to portray the States as violent, dysfunctional and imperialist. A left-liberal mind-set is de rigueur at Broadcasting House, tarnishing what is still, in many ways, a great institution. In this closed world neocons, not Islamists, are regarded as the great threat to democracy. Unfortunately, even in these days of multi-channel broadcast, the Corporation's huge resources and its immense cultural reach mean that it still sets the agenda. While the national press is slightly less shrill, pro-American commentators are very much a minority. When the first bouts of hysteria erupted over Guantanamo Bay, it was the Mail on Sunday -- regarded as the voice of Middle England -- which published some of the shrillest commentary.

Perhaps as a consequence of all those hours spent sighing over Hugh Grant, Americans tend to assume that British are much more worldly and sophisticated than they really are. The truth is, when it comes to knowledge of American history and institutions, the Brits are woefully uninformed. What they are familiar with is American popular culture, which is -- as I don't need to remind you -- a different thing all together. The result of that false sense of familiarity is a toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance.

Davis pegs his piece on the World War II movie "Mrs. Miniver," America's romantic view of its British ally. But reading Davis made me think rather of another slice of wartime movie-making, Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" films. They're an object lesson in how to damn a nation with its own script.

Capra's propaganda films began as orientation pieces for U.S. troops. His depictions were meant to rally Americans to uphold the torch of freedom and overcome latent isolationism in the name of civilization. At Roosevelt's urging, they were released in public theaters as well. "Prelude to War" won the Academy Award for best documentary of 1942.

Capra's bright idea was to damn the enemy with his own work. Instead of shooting new film, he picked out snippets of existing footage and pasted them together in a way that presented a grotesque vision of the Axis.

Capra's raw material was millions of feet of confiscated or captured newsreels and propaganda films; he even used Japanese samurai movies and domestic dramas from the 1930s. With his legendary cutting-room skills and his eye for bold juxtapositions he made America and her allies shine (including the murderous Soviet Union), and showed off the Axis -- not just its leaders but the whole people of Italy, Germany, and Japan -- as demonic: regimented nations of ruthless killers, blindly devoted to their leaders. The enemies' menace contrasted with the freedoms and accomplishments of the Americans and their allies; the free world and the fascists; the Allied "way of life" vs. the Axis "way of death."

If this technique reminds you of Michael Moore, it ought to. He did the same thing, but with the morality and virtues in photo-negative.

Like Capra, Moore mostly used footage shot by others when he cobbled together "Fahrenheit 9/11." The IMDB "cast" list for the film names 40 public figures; of these, 37 are credited as from "archival footage." Even the common soldiers portrayed often weren't filmed by Moore. Some are from an Australian documentary, "Soundtrack to War," and were used despite the objection of film-maker George Gittoes, who said he had no idea his work was in "Fahrenheit 9/11" until it was screened at the Cannes film festival.

Moore's archival footage of Baghdad before the invasion shows the kind of happy glow Capra might have given to the American hearth. And where Capra showed the devastated cities of China strewn with civilian corpses, Moore gives us a U.S. military campaign in Iraq that seems to have killed only women and children.

Capra didn't want to be a propagandist at first. When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall approached him with the idea, he demurred, saying he'd never made a documentary before. Marshall told him, "Capra, I have never been Chief of Staff before. Thousands of young Americans have never had their legs shot off before. Boys are commanding ships today who a year ago had never seen the ocean before." Capra apologized and signed on to make "the best damned documentary films ever made." After he began the project he said that all he had to do was let the enemy be himself on film, "and our fighting men will know why they are in uniform."

How ironic is it that the most significant piece of Hollywood propaganda produced in this current war is lauded by the people who would burn Hollywood to ash and sow its soil with salt if they had the chance? The religious authorities in Iran scrapped the scheduled program at the Farabi Cinema complex in Tehran to put Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" on display. "This film unmasks the Great Satan America," a spokesman said. "It tells Muslim people why they are right in hating America. It is the duty of every believer to see [this film] and learn the truth."

You can see a reproduction of Ono Saseo's Statue of Liberty art in John W. Dower's "War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War." The book mainly deals with the furious war between Japan and America. The war the U.S. and Japan waged in the Pacific in 1941-45 was incalculably more intense in brutality, mutual racist loathing, and sheer killing power than that waged by the U.S. against Germany and Italy in North Africa and Europe. It was felt to be so at the time, and this was borne out by statistics accumulated later.

And Dower gives great emphasis to the role of propaganda. In Japan, the image of the hated West was stunningly similar to that put forth by Bin Laden: decadent, materialistic, racist, bent on world domination. The Japanese felt they were a divine race, with a destiny to lead the world. Yet they felt pressed and weakened by the West, which they perceived as bent on world domination and direct economic strangulation of the Japanese civilization. The Japanese chafed under the disrespect shown in the West toward their civilization's power and glorious history; this situation was an inversion of the divine order. They also held specific and general grievances against the West, some of them more or less legitimate.

Japan told itself it had lashed out in the name of survival against an enemy bent on hegemony and economic control of crucial resources (oil, rubber, and tin in East Asia). What Americans saw as the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor was, in Japan, "the counteroffensive of the Oriental races against Occidental aggression."

And Dower writes that each combatant wove out of the other's reality, and of the other's self image, the grotesque parodies of propaganda:

"In everyday words, this first kind of stereotyping could be summed up in the statement: you are the opposite of what you say you are and the opposite of us, not peaceful but warlike, not good but bad. ... In the second form of stereotyping, the formula ran more like this: you are what you say you are, but that is itself reprehensible. On the part of the Japanese, this involved singling out the emphasis placed on individualism and profit making in the Western tradition, and presenting this as proof positive that Westerners were fundamentally selfish and greedy, devoted to self-aggrandizement at the expense of the community and the nation as a whole. Westerners, in turn, accepted Japanese emphasis on the primacy of the group or collectivity at face value, and used this as prima facie evidence that the Japanese were closer to cattle or robots than to themselves. One side's idealized virtues easily fed the other side's racial prejudices."

Two-thirds of Americans today say the use of atomic bombs on Japan was unavoidable. But when Congressman Tom Tancredo casually opened the door to bombing Mecca -- in retaliation for an Islamist nuclear attack on America that would dwarf Pearl Harbor -- even advocates of aggressive war on Islamism backed away from him.

The care taken by our people to avoid crude caricatures of the enemy's culture is worthy of praise. It sets this war apart from World War II -- ironically, the "Good War" -- when even Dr. Seuss got into the Jap-bashing act. But how sad that we've turned instead to making crude caricatures bashing ourselves.