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California Literary Review

Imag(in)ing America


Imag(in)ing America

American Flag

In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns said, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us.” He wrote this after seeing, in church, a woman sporting a fine new hat with, nestled in its feathers, a louse. Not everyone wants to see the louse in the feathers—the truth may set you free, but can also set your teeth on edge.

That America’s popularity with other nations has sagged is no secret: we were popular with the wave of emotion after September 11, 2001, but in the past four years popularity has plummeted year after year to the point that two out of three queried by the Pew organization in 24 countries say that they have little sympathy with the U.S.

This being so, what is to be done? There are two possible ways to reshape a national image: either you address what you consider the actual defects in the system—those defects that shock and disappoint others—or you address outsiders’ impressions of your policies and practices—those emotions. Curiously, in either case, the nation’s propagandists will first have to determine what they believe about themselves before deciding what they want others to see.

Fascist Italy offers a case study in an extraordinarily successful analysis of national image, its skillful manipulation and its not always predictable consequences. A former professional journalist and gifted orator, a brilliant propagandist—he practically invented the concept—Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922, in the wake of World War One, with perhaps 10% of Parliament behind him. No less than any other politician anywhere, Mussolini knew that, if he hoped to remain in power, that 10% would not keep him in power long, so he would have to achieve a degree of consensus. His successful solution was to mold a new image for Italy and then make that image his own.

Italy in the early years of Fascism was reeling from a series of stinging disasters. Between 1870, when six or so mini-states were fused into a single nation for the first time, and the out break of war in 1914, a total of five million émigrés—fully one-third of the Italian population—were driven by famine from their homeland to seek new lives in the slums of the United States, Canada, Australia and South America.

The national sense of humiliation and shame this engendered was aggravated by two harrowing defeats on the battlefield. Other European powers were busily carving up Africa, and so in 1896 the Italians, wanting a piece of the action, invaded Ethiopia. Instead of victory, the Italians were routed at Adwa by the Ethiopians, who slaughtered 7,000 Italians in a single day. That bitter memory was still fresh a generation later, when another rout took place at the Battle of Caporetto—so graphically described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A FAREWELL TO ARMS—fought in 1917. There 30,000 Italian lives were lost, four times more than at Adwa. The word Caporetto itself became a universal synonym for quintessential debacle.

In synthesis, five million émigrés had left Italy, and tens of thousands of those who had remained died in battle. As seen both at home and abroad, Italy was too poor to feed its people, a loser as a colonial power and on the battlefield, and economically feeble.

Setting out on the grand scale to rebuild his country’s image, Mussolini encouraged an improved diet for all Italians, he imposed sports education in schools (including for girls), and he created summer camps at the seashore for underprivileged children. He built modern buildings in Rome and in architecturally interesting new towns, and a sports center in central Rome, still a showplace. Promoting modernization, he glorified speed in airplanes and automobiles, whose delighted manufacturers enthusiastically supported the regime.

Then he superimposed himself upon the desired healthier, tougher, dynamic image. He posed in tennis whites carrying a racket, in jodhpurs on horseback, and in a pilot’s uniform at the joystick of a plane. To look as strong as he wanted his nation to appear, he adopted a square-jawed, aggressively strutting stance in photos, speeches and newsreels.

To further reconstruction of a national identity, for a nation barely fifty years old, he launched a campaign called “la Romanità,” or the pride in being Roman because the Italians were the heirs to the glories of ancient Rome. This ancestral halo notion—his appropriation of the glory of the ancients—had been first exploited in the 1870’s by the early patriots of national unity, but Mussolini expanded upon it. Then, in case anyone missed the point, Mussolini had his state-sponsored artists produce Caesar-style bronze busts of him. These faux emperors with the distinctively jutting Mussolini jaw were placed conveniently in public offices throughout Italy. Regime slogans in mock-Latin letters were carved onto walls of monumental new buildings. The culmination was a huge exhibition in Rome in 1942 celebrating the glories of Caesar Augustus, which is to say of the Dux, or Duce.

So that no one could overlook what was going on, he set up what was later called Hollywood on the Tiber, Rome’s still important Cinecittà, whose production included Mussolini’s puffery newsreels. For the perhaps 40% of Italians who were illiterate in pre-WWII Italy and living in villages too poor for the movie houses showing the newsreels, he installed huge microphones in the piazzas for radio broadcasts of his doings. His subsidized artists promulgated all these ideas in comic books, in pamphlets for schools and in wall posters.

After national pride, he addressed the lack of empire. After all, why everyone else and not Italy, with its self-proclaimed “civilizing mission” to the world? Once again Ethiopia was elected for Italianization. This time, his airplanes strafed the sword-bearing warriors on horseback. Not surprisingly, Italy won. His triumphant troops brought home a victory souvenir—a tall stone marker, like an Egyptian obelisk, especially important because one of the earliest bearing a Christian message. It was proudly installed in Rome, in front of the Duce’s sprawling colonial affairs building (today’s United Nations FAO building) abutting the old Roman fora.

Sinister concepts accompanied the elaborate image-making, however. Hitler, who came to power in Germany eleven years after Mussolini, admired the propaganda elements of Mussolinian image control and adapted some of the ideas. If being the heirs of ancient Rome was terrific, being the heirs of the Aryans would be even better. Just as Mussolini’s movie houses promoted him, Hitler’s state-subsidized movies, like those made by Leni Riefenstahl, promoted Nazi ideas of race and grandeur. Gradually the student became the master, and when Hitler turned on the Jews, Mussolini found himself in the position of having to follow suit by passing racist laws that were not altogether popular, in part because some of his Fascist party hierarchs were Jewish. And among the Italian Jews was his own former lover Margarita Sarfatti, a brilliant journalist who had helped launch the early Mussolini in Milan, by honing those journalistic skills that helped put him in power, keep him in power and would help destroy him and his own country.

At the end of Mussolini’s two decades, fully half of Italian industry lay in ruins, the country had suffered foreign occupation and a civil war, and was more despised and humiliated than when he had begun. And today, when we think of Mussolini, the first image that comes to mind is the photograph of his cadaver hanged upside down in Piazzale della Rovereta in Milan alongside that of his lover Claretta Petacci. The media change, but strong images survive, and that hanging can now be seen on YouTube.

As in Italy, Hitler’s notions of Aryan superiority, which fed into his mad racism, had been supinely accepted by a nation that had considered itself humiliated. Here too boomerang propaganda played a role: during World War I the German national film institute UFA lied to the German people by making phony documentaries that showed, instead of the real defeat of German troops on the battlefield, German victories, achieved by having German citizens dress as enemy soldiers shown surrendering. Small wonder that at the end of World War One the German citizens who had been misled by a lying propaganda news campaign sincerely believed that they had been cheated of victory, and that their humiliation at the peace table was undeserved.

These historical extremes remind us that unquestioned images which replace reality can boomerang by creating their own reality. Today, it all happens faster because image-making moves with the speed of light.

And yet certain images remain even more solidly fixed in the collective world memory than before. Whatever propaganda Zimbabwe might mount, we know what is happening there, we know of the woman whose arms, legs and breasts were cut off in front of her family, known to be political opponents of Robert Mugabe. In addition to Zimbabwe, according to the press association PEN, freedom of expression, or rather freedom from state propaganda machines, is currently endangered, and worse, in Myanmar (Burma), Afghanistan, Congo, and Turkey (though to lesser extent). Little in the way of reshaping image can alter the realities in any of these countries.

PEN also singles out China. The investment in the Olympics has forced that country to be more alert to image than in the past. When the recent earthquakes struck, killing more than 80,000, the Chinese authorities, knowing that the disaster was prime time TV material worldwide, arrived on the scene immediately and quickly reacted. This was in sharp contrast to Russian leader Putin, who, despite his assault on the free press, was criticized for continuing his beach vacation during the first few days after the explosion aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk in July 2000.

The Chinese authorities’ speedy reaction was a short-term media response, but they are also thinking for the longer term by creating a worldwide network of cultural centers. These will not be known as “Mao Culture Centers,” but, in a case of la Romanità revisited, Confucius Centers, for the philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago.

Despite all the efforts for manipulation, images have an existence of their own. The image of the student who stood in front of the tanks in Tienenman Square in Beijing in 1989 is akin to the cadaver of Mussolini hanged in a piazza in Milan. It is burned into our consciences, and no amount of spinning will erase it. It reminds us that China crudely ignored the demands for recognition of Tibetan Buddhists’ claims and killed Buddhists in case anyone missed the point. It reminds us also that 40-some prisoners who were arrested at Tienenman Square nineteen years ago are still in prison. Nor does anyone overlook that Chinese use of the Internet—two-thirds of which runs on a Chinese server—is state controlled. A Google official has reported that one day their service, which provides the other third, was inexplicably shut down altogether, in what appeared to be a warning shot.

If a policy is bad enough, therefore, it will trump image.

Returning to the U.S. image, an NBC poll of June 2008 indicated that 75% of Americans are dissatisfied with President Bush’s performance, but, interestingly, European opinions about the U.S. are improving, as the BBC poll among others showed. The cover of the June 7 Economist portrayed Barack Obama side by side with John McCain above the headline: “The America We Like,” meaning the America of a clash of fresh ideas.

The authoritative Italian commentator, Bernardo Valli, agrees, but explains that Italians view America in a contradictory way. On the one hand, their first reaction is suspicion and hostility because they see the U.S. as a country that has abandoned its Wilsonian internationalist tradition and the principles of legitimacy on which that tradition was founded, in order to pursue instead policies “that resemble a vendetta.” On the other hand, Italians’ second reaction to America is exactly the opposite: it is passionate admiration for the vitality of the current election campaign, which shows a functioning, democratically committed society, makes the Italians feel old, obsolete and stagnating. The confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was to the Italians the “political, intellectual, and moral equivalent of the first U.S. moon landing; and as a European I am stuck down here on earth watching the Yankee space ship make its landing way up there,” Valli wrote.

Many other European writers are saying that they hope the U.S. will reassume its proper leadership role in the world, which I take to mean they hope that the U.S. will be more multilateral than it has been since 2001. No one can doubt that America, as distinct from individual administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, commands deep respect and admiration.

Abu Grhaib 57 by Fernando Botero

Abu Grhaib 57 by Fernando Botero

And yet, as with China, some damaging images are permanently burned into the world brain, and will not be erased by any amount of image-shaping or new images. Indeed, they expand on their own, creating images reflected in an endless mirror. As an example, the photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison, which can be Googled in an instant, inspired a series of recent paintings by the famous artist Fernando Botero of Colombia. In a real turn-around for an artist best known for his opulent women, his new series of paintings inspired by the Abu Ghraib photographs are even more horrendous than the originals. The Abu Ghraib series by Botero was exhibited last year in Milan at the Royal Palace, the building the flanks the Duomo (the cathedral). A big color photo showing Botero standing in front of one of these paintings also appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Another example comes from The New York Times, which obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act showing Pentagon manipulation of news. In these documents Pentagon media manipulators called journalists with the insulting term “message force multipliers” and “surrogates,” who could be relied upon to pass on the “themes and messages…in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.” The privileged access and information given to a certain number of “surrogate” defense analysts was broadcast, even when the occasional analyst now admits suspecting the information was not quite true. Some of the information later was shown to have been demonstrably “false or inflated.”

A number of these analysts doubled as consultants for firms with Pentagon contracts. Those protesting after the fact included Kenneth Allard, former NBC military analyst who taught “information warfare” at the U.S. National Defense University. Speaking about briefings he had received on Iraq, he said later, “I felt we’d been hosed.”

One can hardly blame the Pentagon, however. If American democracy is not to misread its own image, the line against hiring “analysts” with a double agenda should be drawn first of all by the media owners and directors. They failed in many cases, but despite it all—despite ownership issues, that is—the American press obtained the records that showed what had happened, and named names. This can happen in few countries, and is part of our un-constructed, un-spun, honest image—the image of America that sophisticated commentators like Bernardo Valli see and envy.

Another sensitive error involving the short- and long-term image of America abroad came when the U.S. State Department withdrew in May 2008 Fulbright scholarships from eight Palestinian students who had won study grants to U.S. universities. The scholarships were scuppered because Israel was denying the students exit visas. Again because this made headlines worldwide, the scholarships were reinstated within three days, thanks to a giant press brouhaha; I do not know how the Israeli exit visa problem was resolved, but the U.S., at least, reacted. We did the right thing.

My personal hope is that an ever greater flow of bright young foreign students will receive government and private help allowing them to attend U.S. universities, where they will see American democracy at work and where, no less importantly, American students will have an opportunity to know them.

By the same token as many American students as possible should study abroad, and scholarships for master’s degrees in language, comparative literature and political science and history should be available for promising students, in a program incorporating at least one overseas year. Commendably, Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of two American universities which require a year abroad for graduation. The Arcadia program of overseas study is also important and functioning, including in Italy.

No less than business, education must be globalized for survival, for only a global education will keep the lice out of our feathers.

With these two requirements–realize that images have their own life and can be manipulated only to a certain point, and that the U.S. needs to address the globalized world through students—comes a third: construction of a capable, respected and decently paid professional corps of diplomats able to analyze and to serve American interests abroad. Few can speak better on this than former Ambassador Charles W. Freeman, who headed our diplomatic corps in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm and later served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security. Among other things, Freeman warns against the “supremely unequal” funding of the U.S. military and our diplomatic services.

“Americans are now without peer in the military arts. To prevail against our current enemies, we must attain equal excellence in diplomacy: you get what you pay for. [We have] a superbly professional and supremely lethal military, and an anemically staffed and under-trained diplomatic service, led by inexperienced political appointees on sabbatical from high incomes…Skilled work requires skilled workmen.”

To the future President and to the American people he offers this advice: “We cannot hope to appeal to the conscience of humankind if we do not continue to embody its aspirations. If we do not restore our country’s good name, others will not follow when we lead or share the burdens we take up.

“To regain the cooperation of allies and friends, we must rediscover how to listen, how to persuade, how to be a team player, and how to follow the rules we demand others follow… A return to diplomacy, not threats and the use of force, is the surest path to the reassertion of American leadership. It is time to rediscover and explore that path.”

Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the "Cleveland Press" of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to "ARTnews" of New York and to "Current World Archaeology" of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey.

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