When I first saw the ads Russia Today is using in its American and UK ad campaign, I immediately had the reaction that most Americans and British probably had. Comparing Obama to Ahmadinejad? That’s like comparing Christ with the devil! Is RT crazy or just stupid!? Well, the last question is not a simple gut reaction since RT often runs stories that are both crazy and stupid.
But then I started to think about the ad, realizing my gut reaction is exactly what it was supposed to provoke. Welcome to the world of agitprop, or agitation-propaganda, the use of images and text to incite affective reactions and posit provocative intellectual points. “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” the ad reads. To most Westerners, their gut tells them it’s Ahmadinejed, though the man currently has no nuclear weapons at his finger tips. However, taking the Guardian‘s Luke Harding’s reaction as an example, the gut can reveal much more:
For many people the answer is clear – after all, Obama hasn’t so far called for Israel to “vanish from the page of time“. But for the Kremlin the Obama image is the latest step in an ambitious attempt to create a new post-Soviet global propaganda empire.
Two decades after the demise of Pravda, the Kremlin’s 24-hour English language TV channel, Russia Today (RT), is launching its first major advertising blitz across the UK. Dubbed North Korean TV by its detractors, the channel, available on satellite and cable TV, gives an unashamedly pro-Vladimir Putin view of the world, and says it seeks to correct the “biased” western view offered by the BBC and CNN.
And here is where RT‘s agitprop reveals the power of American/UK propaganda. Ahmadinejad’s often quoted call for Israel to vanish from the earth (despite more informed people’s assertion that it is a mistranslation) rears its powerful head followed by the claim that Russia is attempting to create a new Pravda. Forgotten, or rather hidden by these memes, is the fact that Obama presides over the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet and leads a country which is the only one in history to nuke another nation.
It also says how much the Hardings of the world just don’t get it. I would have never guessed that RT could intellectually fly over anyone’s head. First time for everything, I guess.
RT‘s agitprop was allowed to become even more brilliant with some rather ironic help from American airport officials. RT wanted to run the Obama-Ahmadinejad ad in airports in New York, Washington DC, Baltimore, and Newark. The airports refused, allowing RT to place this one instead:
“Our Ad. Politically Correct.” I love it.
Then RT gave this Fox-Newsish response:
RT advertisements juxtapose provocative images which show different sides of a story. We ask questions and encourage viewers to question more, since you can only reach a balanced judgment by being better informed. By challenging the accepted view, we reveal a side of the news that you wouldn’t normally see. After all, the more you question, the more you know.
Whatever your personal point of view is on any of these stories, we at RT believe it is valid to pose the questions.
Yeah, yeah. Fair and balanced, blah, blah blah. Personal point of view, blah, blah, blah. I sure wish state or corporate media would drop the objectivity and fair and balanced crap. Anyone with a brain knows it’s not. Plus, as I’m sure many Americans will retort, the fact that you can say and pose what you want doesn’t mean airports have to broadcast it for you. Okay, fair enough.
Nevertheless, the Obama-Ahmedinejad ad highlights a more crucial point. Often castigated as North Korean TV, a Kremlin propaganda machine, or simply there to broadcast the world according to Vladimir Putin, RT‘s ad reveals the limits of acceptable political discourse in America. Political discourse is not based on the binaries of black and white, but a range of the acceptable, the border of which is only revealed at the moment of its transgression. As George Bataille wrote, “The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.” Posing a simple question accompanied by juxtaposed images of one celebrated and another vilified political figure is one such transgression that posits the border of the acceptable. Allowing the ads to run in their original form would have pushed the boundary of the acceptable to a potentially dangerous political space. If travelers muddle over the question of “Who is the greater nuclear threat?” who knows what they will come up with. The power of real propaganda is not controlling one’s every thought, but administering the range of thoughts that can be considered rationally and empirically plausible. The fear is not that people will come up with the wrong answer. The hegemonic discourse can easily dismissed them as fanciful. The real fear is that people won’t come up with the right answer.
RT‘s propaganda is crude, too transparent and lacks the slick packaging of a CNN or a Fox News. It will never rise to the level of real, effective propaganda fit for the 21st century. That is to say, it will never become propaganda that isn’t labeled as such. But now I think I get it. RT‘s missives are supposed to be crude. They’re supposed to be transparent. RT‘s style, whether intended or not, is a parody of the propaganda of old. But in that parody, it can at times function as an even greater parody. A parody of American propaganda’s parody of real, informative news. When taken as agitprop, RT is resoundingly affective and effective.