Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Years of Lightning"? Really?

Last night we watched the USIA-commissioned John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums as a part of the PD class. Impressive. Kind of slow... but powerful. Very good use of music, well-placed symbolism, and, of course, Kennedy's own impeccable charisma. Pathos were in full swing, and the message wasn't bad either. Of course, many issues were conveniently left out and many were spun or distorted. But that's just how propaganda goes, anyway.

But the movie did better than that - at certain points - by showing some of the controversies and political debates existing within the US. In that sense, it would not really fit into Ellul's vision of propaganda, which does not allow any room for alternative perspectives or voices in the message. A good point in and of itself.

Here are some of the features in the movie that struck me - as a PD student in 2010 - as being especially interesting:

- The strong reference to high culture. (Yes, I still do take an issue with this, and I do believe that the US needs to do more on the matter, if it wants to successfully compete for appeal and approval with other nations that put out more "non-commercial" and "moral" cultures out there... Pop culture is great - especially at our time - but there needs to be more on the menu, if a greater audience is to be captured.) The movie shows how the Kennedy's brought Grieg and Lizst to Washington, and makes a passing inconspicuous remark about their superiority over Broadway and Hollywood. (That moment I couldn't help but imagine Bush waltzing to Strauss in the White House Blue Room...)

- Kennedy actually made a reference to Smart Power! He didn't use the term, of course, but referred to the need of making simultaneous use of "force and talk". Certainly, he did not invent the approach, but for his time and the circumstances, even the fact that he spells it out is significant. And then, how long did it take the scholars to actually name the concept? Yeah, the guy was smart, indeed...

- In the last minutes of the film there is a scene with a group of Muslim men performing the Islamic prayer in Kennedy's memory (the footage is, most probably, from the day of his funeral). Truly global appreciation! I wonder whether it would still be the case - particularly in the Muslim world - had Kennedy been assassinated four years later (after the Arab-Israeli Six Day's War of 1967), or especially after 9/11 and the "Global War on Terror"? Or, alternatively, how differently such a scene would have been portrayed AND peceived, had the movie come out after these events?

- An issue that came up during the ensuing class discussion was who would a public diplomatist show this to in 1966, and where? Some of us in the group got carried away, identifying segments and scenes that we would censor, so that an unfriendly host government allows us to show it to its public. Yet, a classmate noted that we "should certainly keep in mind that there are images and messages that are not suitable for children and that could offend some in the audience." A good reminder to get back to the 2010 America!

And, just by the way, as I was watching the movie and as we had the discussion later, a Soviet cartoon - from around the same time (1963) - kept creeping in to my mind. It gives an "alternative view" of the elite life in the domain of capitalism.



  1. Yelena, you shame me with your high culture focus. My latest posts have had a distinctly pop culture bent. So if you were in charge of the VOA and wanted to capture a wider audience, would you intersperce your programs with classical or pop music?

  2. No need to be shamed, as it was not my point :)

    First of all, as far as I'm familiar with the VOA programming (or RFE/RL, for that matter), they are not providing 24/7 service anymore. With RFE/RL it's one - or in the best case, a few - hours of news coverage from an "alternative point of view," mostly on local matters. VOA doesn't even have a radio service in many of our countries anymore, since they've switched to TV - again, a couple of hours of news/analysis AT MOST. And, if we limit our view of public diplomacy to radio/tv programming ONLY - which is directed at the mass audience anyway - pop music would indeed sound more reasonable and efficient (but here, again, please note that these programs are not the only sources of "Western" music anymore, especially since most of these countries have their own equivalent industries booming, and since there are many local stations transmitting the very same music, videos, movies... you name it!)
    My actual point is that there is a need to take a more long-term focus on DEVELOPING a kind of a high culture in the first place. If there are quality AMERICAN opera/theatrical performances, orchestras, composers, artists touring the world - don't you think the impression they make, EVEN at a mass audience used to pop consumption, would be VASTLY different? Wouldn't you agree that the so-called terrorists claim that the US has no morality at all simply based on what they see from Hollywood or Britney videos? Yes, they lack the perceptual complexity in the first place; however, I think that high culture would be the best way to actually illustrate the high values ingrained in the American culture... I think the commercial drive has done a lot of damage to the American culture in the first place, which, in its turn, has damaged the American image in many other societies (particularly among the elites - the decision-makers - who have grown up being surrounded by the high culture of their own respective societies, be it ballet, Chopin, or Sufism). So whose responsibility is it, then, to ensure that profiteering doesn't take over national morality, or, at least, the perceived image of it? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that foreign elites see Americans (leaders AND people alike) as what they would call "cultured people", and not just running on Family Guy or celebrity gossip?
    After all, the US has so much more to offer... and it IS a real shame that all this is obscured by those making the big bucks.