From the first time my eyes landed on the propaganda art posters on display outside the Museum of International Propaganda in downtown San Rafael, I felt a jolt of excitement. Of danger.
Now inside for my first visit, I start to understand the sting of that electric buzz. Although the art on display is drawn from 20th-century examples, the power of propaganda lives on in our time.
“Our purpose is educational, not political,” says museum owner Thomas Areton. “We want to teach young people what propaganda is, how to spot it, how to analyze it, how to decide if you want to subscribe to it or not.”
Areton raises a powerful point. By definition, propaganda misinformation is forced on a population to support a particular social or political objective, but it is also accepted and promoted by some of its target audience. Often victims of misinformation become its greatest proponents.
That is why the museum exists, as a place for young people to learn from the past to cope more successfully with the present. So much of the art is from other countries that I ask if propaganda keeps us from reflection by always pointing outward. “That’s exactly what it is,” Areton says. “[It’s] one way you never look at yourself.”
A critical eye toward information is key to democracy, and right now propaganda may be more present than ever. “It’s all around us,” says Areton, who was born in Czechoslovakia. “My mother used to say, ‘Always look at who is warming up his soup.’” Presumably that is Slovak for, see who benefits.
Processing the misinformation may be more difficult than ever. “There are so many issues around us … there’s not enough time for us to go and to look and study all the issues and arrive at our own conclusions,” Areton says.
This is where the skill and deceit—indeed, the art—of propaganda comes in. Issues get broken down into Yes / No propositions. It is so easy to answer a yes or no question “without knowing enough to give an intelligent answer,” Areton says.
The trap is that a simple “yes” or “no” is not based on an informed opinion, but on feelings, and feelings are easy to manipulate.
Art fueling feelings is on display everywhere in this space. Mao Tse Tung guiding the vision of a schoolboy in bold national colors perfectly set by Chinese masters of layout. A photo of Main Street America over rousing text proclaiming that “free enterprise … carved a great nation out of a wilderness.”
Two of the most striking posters provide a stark contrast in messaging that counters the official American narrative. Strong woman warriors feature on several posters from communist Vietnam. In Vietnamese one reads, “It would be unwise for the national empires to touch this country,” while a soldier holds her hand up in a stop gesture, an AK-47 slung ready over her shoulder. A post-war image meant to convey true equality at a time when the U.S. failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Contrast this with a U.S. Naval poster warning Japan away from U.S. soil. A slant-eyed, buck-toothed rat wearing a Rising Sun hat nibbles at the map of Alaska. The text reads, “Alaska, Death trap for the Jap.”
Feelings rise up inside me at each of the two posters, but only one of those brings feelings of disgust—just as its makers intended.