Against the backdrop of illegitimate power's grasp exceeding its reach, foreign art has long represented that US global policy apparatus is one merely tolerated as necessary muscle, but rarely good
In Michael Moore’s 1995 comedy Canadian Bacon, agitating for a new Cold War with Russia, but finding the nation less-than-enthusiastic, Rip Torn, playing the president, jumps on an opportunity to escalate what began as a hockey brawl started by a sheriff played by John Candy into nuclear brinksmanship with Canada. It’s a fine metaphor for what fiction repeatedly tells us is the overall theme of US foreign policy. In The X-Files, there’s an episode “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”, that traces the main antagonist of the story (“The Cigarette Smoking Man”, CGB Spender) from his roots in the deep state as an anti-communist agitator after failing in the Bay of Pigs, to pulling the trigger in November 1963, then again in Memphis in 1968, and then in the present, neutralizing an alien refugee. The episode ends with his team around a conference table, they’re out of enemies, and then he’s told he has a phone call from Saddam Hussein— perhaps they’re not quite done.
These are two examples of an incredibly common media trope about the United States’ intentions and methods in exercising its power domestically, and abroad. Less talked about is what anyone would care to do about it, if they could. But to understand what that might look like, it has to be through the media criticism lens of the former question in evaluating what is sold to us in fiction and reality as objective truth in narratives of public justification:
The global hegemonic power of the United States has a history over the last half-century has been the single most influential indicator of what will likely be the behavior of client states, allies, and virtually anyone the US, situationally usually, declares an enemy.
Even the soft-propaganda of nominally left-of-center outlets like The New Yorker couldn’t resist participating in, not only the propping up of the Iraq War, but also who “our” allies were— if you wrote the sentence “American intelligence and State Department officials have told me that by early 2002 Syria had emerged as one of the C.I.A.’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, providing an outpouring of information that came to an end only with the invasion of Iraq.” in 2021, you’d probably assume the leadership of Syria had changed dramatically since then, but the reality is simply that the actions of the US and its allies had the effect of creating a foreign policy environment favorite to NATO, and unfavorable to those left bearing the brunt of the consequences of NATO action, amidst existing political instability that, again, NATO continues to exacerbate to its own ends.
In 1998, Labour MP Tony Benn addressed Parliament to discourage action in Iraq, with the implication being that participating in Iraq at the, then largely abstract, behest of the Americans was committing to what they knew, publicly, to be a series of falsehoods that would lead to greater falsehoods (the 2003 Invasion of Iraq):
Benn’s assertion here would bear out when Prime Minister Tony Blair, half a decade later, at the urging of George W. Bush, would push for the UK to join coalition forces for the War on Terror. The implication being that failure to participate in the coalition was to become an enemy.
This is a situation where this global hegemonic power can only be described one way: illegitimate. This is, and remains, the behavior of the mafia, and operates the same way; it’d be a shame if we began a two-decade long smear campaign about human rights abuses we enabled as long as it was politically expedient…
Even in the present day, the coup in Myanmar being a prime example, this is being done; the US, as did much of the West, only recognized the military government following the 1962 coup, despite the abuses of having deposed a democratically elected government being self-evident (something the Obama administration was openly embracing of as a double-standard), but now because the posturing of the Trump administration has given way to the actionable threat of the Biden administration’s posturing on the matter actually triggering a trade war with China, alliances must shift, and it’d be a shame if Joe Biden found out you’d historically traded with, now, the wrong people.
Like any good crime family, the US intelligence community helped break a coup in Russia in 1991, which gave way to the administration that would eventually be under the domination of Putin, and only now is that power considered untenable, when this was well-telegraphed from the change of power in favor of Boris Yeltsin, and his young protege. My point is that it reflects a capacity for recognizing where the allies are in a global shake-down operation, and now there’s a weird kayfabe happening amongst Western elites about what, and even if, disloyalty from Russia has occurred. But the real question is whether or not, like the US historically has not, the global community will tolerate this much further. It’s something explored in great detail in fictions, this idea of holding the United States accountable, as it does to others, for the histrionics of most perceived threats to the American way of life— the one that interests me most is the idea of the rest of North America rebelling against this social order.
So, back to our original question: What could Canada, for example, even do about this, if you were to ask its artists?
The 2005 Propagandhi album Potemkin City Limits is a fine example of this: the opening track covers a scenario where, in a speculative future, Canada closes the borders to Americans, diplomats are expelled, and the US is left to seethe on their side of a “new Iron Curtain”. The track goes on to excorciate all manner of US influence on Canadians, from exposure to the defiant reactionary politics of the NRA to corporate media culture obstruction of cultural iconography for the benefit of consumerism at the expense of the form being commoditized. The conflict is, then couched in terms of the War of 1812, where the British loss (and that of the Canada colonies) signalled the end to limits on expansion— the American empire considered this license to floor it. Both, American and Canadian, colonists had much to gain from the conflict, but an American victory was particularly striking in this regard to the First Nations people, recognizing the violence and imperialist terror had really only just begun. But ultimately, the track concludes that such a conflict would be meaningless in securing freedom or increasing the world’s safety as the next hegemon would simply adopt the anodyne but routine, propagandistic sloganeering that carries water for the gross excesses of imperial violence.
The value of a story like this is to highlight one very important thing: Draping imperialist violence and coercive foreign policy agendas is deeply cruel and violent, but that, in a sufficiently motivated propaganda media state, sanctions and embargos and horse-trading allies can be repackaged as civilized compared to violent resistance, which will lose the PR battle to audiences at home, before a single boot is on the ground for the impending invasion.
What, I believe, art like this calls for is pretty simple: What if the discourse reflected reality, the blatantly obvious, rather than the impassioned media criticism one does when all they do is consume newsmedia produced by one of two media conglomerates that will, eventually, subsume everything; why is a state-sponsored media, by definition, less trustworthy than allowing, for example, Amazon or Disney, to report on itself and on the politicians they have a larger hand in electing than the actual voting electorate? Historically speaking, if this were any other place on the planet, there would have been a US-backed coup by 1980, so it may go without saying that there’s something fundamentally uncriticial about how the west chooses to perceive world events and view the distance between themselves and the victims of empire.
That this double-standard exists in every manner in which the US purports to be the victim of foreign actors in justifying doing the same elsewhere (election tampering, corporatism, corruption) is really no surprise to anyone, and there’s only so much to be done by litigating it endlessly, and instead suggesting that the logical course of action is, indeed, leveling the playing field, and frankly, as can be demonstrated, coalition attempts to refuse participation bear out a failing optics war for the US: In the initial stages of the “War on Terror”, while Russia and China, of the members of the UN Security Council opposed an invasion of any kind, only France’s opposition undermind the ability of the US and Britain (or, at least, Blair, who indicated to Bush after Afghanistan that selling Parliament on Iraq would be nearly impossible) to sell this war as foundational to the perpetuation of the western way of life. The response? Well, historically, the US has had a certain amount of deference to the “old” powers that ruled Europe, and lent its present day demeanor legitimacy, and launched the most tellingly embarrassing response to French intransigence imaginable.
“Freedom Fries” were the propagandists’ response (sourced from a neoconservative business owner in North Carolina) response, and even the White House adopted this parlance, only for the phrase to die a quiet death in 2006, when it was removed from official menus.
The point here is that there is honor even among the corrupt— they respect that which gives them power; everything the US does has global impact, and ultimately, while it’s not nationalism, but patriotism (this is a distinction I’ve written about before) that informs organizing, resistance, any kind of state rejection of foreign influence, in this case, the pressure of the US to act and behave in their interest rather than one’s own (as France did, as Russia and China tried to do, as the UK tried to do, with Iraq). I say this because the arts have long been a vector for political change: One extreme example was the Bavarian SSR, where the modernist and expressionist arts, the work of Ernst Toller especially, became a flashpoint for the cultural war to be fought by the Nazis almost until the very end of the Second World War.
The reactionary response to this sort of politics by the West is best exemplified by the fiction of Mad Men: Don Draper, roundly and correctly identified as a piece of shit, is no more vile or even particularly evil or harmful than the rest of the cast, but our cultural framing is such that the material conditions of his upbringing, his standing in society, makes his position tenuous, so when he is successful, he’s not who this system is engineered to prop up as a titan of anything, let alone the machinery of consumerism— that belongs to the old money, someone like Pete Campbell in the show, not to a guy who faked his death in Korea to clean the slate upon his return. He’s not a good guy, but he’s a victim of capitalism in that this is what was required to succeed, and one the material satisfaction was there, his conditioning did not, but it was no longer necessary, so rather than lift others up (something he does to some extent with the people from his past like Anna Draper, or people dig deep into his past emotionally like Peggy, and to a certain extent Lane Pryce, those to whom he feels affinity, not in danger of being exposed) is exercises in a number of characteristically toxic and increasingly (not only self-)destructive ways.
The framing of the show is important: Rather than ending on a historically significant event of the 60’s that would bookend the series (The Moon Landing, etc.) it ended at some ambiguous time in 1969— you see nothing of this bookending, only that Don’s purpose as an ad man propels him as an innovator in this one thing forward. Multiple times in the series, he flirts with returning to auto repair, and multiple times Beat culture, but only to have it made clear he can’t relate to anything but the facade of being a late, but thriving entrant into bourgeois capitalist ranks— he’s not a rich kid living in the village on his dad’s money, he’s no longer working class either, and enjoys the solidarity, but is ultimately drawn back into his role of preying on the latter, while alienating the former. I think it’s for this reason that the show could have ended on one historical event if it wanted to make its point that Don’s purpose was not only self-harming, but ultimately not a happy ending at all: It should have ended on August 19, 1991.
In my ideal ending, they might choose to articulate the point made by the charcter himself. Muscovites turn on their TV for morning news to find scheduled programmes replaced by the ballet Swan Lake— no commercials, no news flashes, but in the US, an aged Don Draper wakes up to a coup attempt in progress on TV, he sees commercials take prominence alongside news items, nothing interrupted. He fought in the first of many wars that escalatingly had no real purpose outside of global hegemonic power, but were articulated to the public as increasingly crucial for their way of life, he spends much of the series wary of progressive politics (the Draper household, notably, in Season 1 was for Nixon in 1960, and Betty Draper would become ensconced in Republican politics for the rest of the series. The incongruity of the characters’ political perspective and the fall of the USSR, the defeat of communism, which was ostensibly the whole purpose of the show’s central premise, that capitalism could produce art that fulfilled its creators as a myth, and one that Don exemplifies, could have no better bookend to this finale. He would die a fraud for a war that was never the Soviets against him, but the capitalist superstructure scaffolding of the advertising business insinuitating itself into every element of public discourse being was what ultimately picked his bones clean.
The problem is that this show, like so many, make insinuations that are deeply and actionably political, but take the copout, walk it back, and close you off to the real world analogue— Mr. Robot does this as well, this wouldn’t ever happen to you, even if it actively was. As media, the show provides much to discuss, but without that actionable component being articulated, it’s just a fiction, nothing speculative, no cause for alarm, and it’s treated as such by consumer. There’s only so much mileage one can get out of it and apply as a cultural influence in a way that matters (why, I suspect, the aesthetic of the show was promoted so heavily, rather than its content). Don’s disgust, for example, during a pitch where a banking product idea is pitched, only for the bank executive to say customers were already doing it, now they’ll be able to charge them fro it, is visible, but rather than use the narrative to drive this digust into the influence of his character history as a beseechment to a broader working class, the show plays exclusively on his individual (but societally shared, evidently common) traumas, and his responses for the narrative are unbelievable; it makes the trauma responsible for his toxicity, not the event that traumatized him— the military-industrial complex, and his role in expanding not only it as an ad man, but forever securing its place in a world where the US will never run out of enemes. He played a material role in perpetuating a fraud about what actually made America formidible, and it wasn’t our superior way of life, it was that advertising had become a functionary of perpetuating propaganda as a lifestyle.
There’s always a problem to solve. So, what must the response be? Propagandists are telling you on one side that there is no problem that isn’t foreign in nature, your senses and perception demonstrate this is not true, whether or not you’re choosing to believe it, and I guess, if you want to apply some theory on the matter and you’re a foreign government, if you can’t neutralize this behavior through diplomacy into rational or simply ineffectual coexistence, you’ve been given permission to behave as they do, inhumanely— sanctions, expulsions, etc. which is what these other pieces of art, viewing the imperial core from the outside (or at least tangential adjacency, if not directly under its thumb), because there’s only so much an ineffectual performative counter-culture is capable of without the reality that, conceptually, as Mao teaches us, fascists have given you permission to treat them as a fascist might.
This isn’t me being prescriptive about solutions, this is how the US government is being depicted in foreign (even just north of the border) resistance art. In 2005 when the Propagandhi record had been released, just like when Tony Benn addressed parliament in 1998 in Iraq, everyone except the ordinary American citizen seemed to be openly aware that the Iraq War was based on not only a lie, but by one re-told so many times the words basically had no meaning by time it was voted on in 2003. However, by this point, US defense interests had too much riding on war becoming an everlasting backdrop, concepts of hot and cold war were immaterial because it was all perpetual and consistently handing off from one conflict to the next. So, I think it’s important to note that leftist art in other places feels the fantasy outcome is to punish the US as it punishes others it considers it peers and its clients, with economic sanction, cutting diplomatic ties, declaring an enemy once and for all that it will no longer tolerate. But like kicking the mafia out of your neighborhood a century ago, it remains risky business you’re free to discuss at length, but the arc of history bends against you if you try— even abject, repeated, and decades-long failure won’t deter.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: