Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Border Patrol's Greatest Hits

When I read that the U.S. Border Patrol had hired a Washington D.C.-based Hispanic ad agency Elevación to come up with some mournful ballads about the dangers of illegal crossings, ballads that would be released in Mexico as music and not public service announcements or advertising, I was stunned.

This is worse than being paid to incorporate Bulgari watches into your latest novel! This is worse than treating iPhone commercials as a viable way to get your music heard, rather than old-time radio! It's even worse than releasing a gum jingle as a pop song!

The ad man, Pablo Izquierdo, compounded it with his statement to the Washington Post:
"When we approached the Mexican media, we approach it as a humanitarian campaign. We didn't tell them who was behind it because consumer research indicated that it wasn't going to be as well-received.

"There is no commercial message. It's all heartfelt, and it's all from the point of view of the people."
No, there may not be a commercial message, but there certainly is a political one.

It made me think of two things. First, I thought of the late David Foster Wallace’s hilarious and rambling essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about his voyage on a Celebrity cruise ship. Second, it reminded me of the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, a post-WWII anti-communist project.

During his Celebrity cruise, Wallace was haunted by an “essay” that appeared in the Celebrity brochure—an essay by Frank Conroy, the chair of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that glorified cruising and (in Wallace’s words) “the palliative powers of pro pampering.”

The problem with the essay, wrote Wallace, was that it was that “Celebrity Cruises is presenting Conroy’s review of his 7NC [7-night cruise] as an essay and not a commercial.” But what’s wrong with that, you ask?

“Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisment’s primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too—that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated—and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.”
This is why I can never listen to new music I first hear in an iPhone ad; it will always be associated with the product—not my own memories and emotions—and I simply cannot get over the insult of its attempt to manipulate me into positive associations with that product.

Wallace adds this key judgment in a footnote:

“This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.”
Obviously, Wallace had been reading Lewis Hyde’s 1983 book The Gift, which argues exactly that and more at great length.

However benign or noble the U.S. Border Patrol’s intentions—discouraging Mexicans from making extremely dangerous (oh, and illegal!) journeys into America—the songs are ads posing as art. They are made, distributed and played in very dishonest ways. Which brings us to the CIA.

After the Second World War, Western Europe had a lot more Communists in the mainstream than America did. The Cold War was fought under cover and without great physical battles. Espionage and politics were used as weapons, but so were art and literature. (We now know, for instance, that the CIA engineered “Doctor Zhivago” author Boris Pasternak’s 1958 Nobel Prize win to embarrass the Soviets.)

But one of the largest anti-Communist art and literature projects the U.S. funded in Europe was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, in the words of the CIA, “helped to negate Communism's appeal to artists and intellectuals, undermining at the same time the Communist pose of moral superiority.”

It started in West Berlin in 1950 with a conference of intellectuals organized by the CIA. No one knew that, of course—the CIA’s hand in it wasn’t revealed publicly until 1967.

The CCF helped organize and fund a number of magazines: Encounter in the U.K., Tempo Presente in Italy, Preuves in France and Der Monat in Germany. Each magazine, as David Engerman wrote in his 2001 foreword to The God That Failed (itself an anti-Communist CIA project), “printed criticism of everything from Soviet politics to European intellectual life to American popular culture—of everything, it seems, but American foreign policy.”

Ironically, notes Engerman, the U.S. Congress and Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attacked even the non-Communist American left, were unaware that the non-Communist left in America and abroad was being used by anti-Communist government forces to gently persuade Communist artists and thinkers to reform. People like Richard Wright, the African-American author of "Native Son," and Arthur Koestler, neither of whom were completely aware (at least at first) that their conversion stories were being funded and distributed by the CIA.

It's funny, even while I condemn this sort of thing, I can't help wondering why the U.S. government hasn't been doing it in the Middle East. Maybe it has. But I have to believe that supporting non-extremist and anti-extremist Islamic voices either openly or clandestinely would be a stronger weapon in the War on Terror than whatever we're using in the debacle in Iraq.

But what is the right way to do this sort of thing? How can the U.S. Border Patrol creatively discourage dangerous border crossings without so much deception? When is deception okay?

And when we criticize the CIA's methods, are we actually condemning the whole enterprise of espionage? The Agency's job is deception, covert manipulation, and information trade.

The classic liberal argument in the Border Patrol case would be this: it's not enough to treat symptoms of problems, and it's wrong to be secretive about it. Instead of discouraging border crossings through popular music, why not get at the heart of the matter and address whatever it is that makes those crossings so tempting? But if you're the Border Patrol, and you want to cut down on crossings and crossing deaths, the music campaign makes perfect sense.

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