Everyday, in every way, I am becoming a better and better CIA asset
In our (as in the global community, common amongst all sovereign states) societal and governmental systems exist behaviors all predicated as an effect of some other event as cause, and it’s accepted that, socially, this is a function of government, to be expected, usually intended to malign some ideologies while lionizing others using the same tactics (or methodologies, depending on which version of this you’re hearing). This cuts both ways; the perception of other societies that share these common features are often expected, usually unfairly, to be shared as well. This is the core conflict of Whit Stillman’s 1994 film Barcelona. The narrative centers cousins Ted and Fred Boynton— a salesman and a Naval officer, respectively- and their time in Barcelona in the 1980’s, they clash with a local journalist who, ultimately, plays a small role in an attack on Fred under suspicion that he is with the CIA; a theme that reoccurs throughout the film, paranoia about if Spain will be next for a US coup, while Ted and Fred are aghast that these people, who they consider their equals, would mistrust them. As Fred reminds Ted repeatedly, “men in this uniform fought and died ridding Europe of Fascism”, something which is basically true, but not really, and it’s a fine commentary on the nature of US imperialism, colonialism at large, and the American lens of how they’d like to be perceived, both, in business and militarily, as the standardbearer in building global economies and world policing, not (arguably, more correctly) thugs.
At the start of the film Fred is incensed when a man casually refers to him as a fascist (while wearing his uniform), Ted dismisses this as a commentary on formal culture (“if you wear a suit and tie you’re facha.”); this is the dichotomy in their view of the culture. Ted prefers to think of himself as an observer, or at best passively interacting in their society; a somewhat paternalistic notion because you also never see himself characterize himself as anything other than American and behaves as a diplomat for the US, despite being an auto industry-adjacent salesman. Fred, by contrast, takes great offense to the lack of acceptance for the presence of the American fleet; he participates as well, begrudgingly, however, unlike Ted, has no desire to be diplomatic in the face of what he perceives as Europeans being ungrateful, overly paranoid about the influence of American military and intelligence, and bizarrely enough, American labor unions (at one point, Ramon, the journalist, advances a conspiracy that the AFL-CIO— which he calls the “AFL-CIA”- is an intelligence op, for example).
Probably the most distilled version of this dispute happens about halfway into the film during a picnic at Ramon’s; Ted fails to articulate what he finds to compellingly innocuous about US foreign policy after Ramon broaches the subject of the American propensity for false flags to justify military incursion (the Maine, for example) and world coups in Latin America run by the CIA, and spots an ant hill— he says that if they were to reduce the entire world down to ant-scale, the US stated foreign policy is to aid the black ant majority against an insurgency of red ants in the minority that have staged a coup. Ramon expresses disgust, and while Ted scrambles to clarify that he doesn’t consider the rest of the world ants (“it’s all ant-scale”; an ant Pentagon, an ant White House, an ant CIA), Fred crushes the ant hill next to where they are sitting.
Ramon’s concerns is framed as irrational, as even Ted refuses to concede there’s anything less-than-innocuous about the presence of Americans abroad; that’s the function of corporations, however, and their representatives, to inculpate the functions of the state that they begin to increasingly act on behalf of, or functionally operate the government of, to become nationalistic in this manner, as they approach this point of becoming evangelists for American corporate capitalism as an almost religious ideal, as Ted does when he considers the literature of self-help and sales on level with the literal New Testament. Fred represents this old, no longer convincing form of the same type of insurgency of the American elite; they both represent individuals who have been propagandized, perhaps even consciously have a class interest rooted in American imperialism, but Fred represents an ideal that, post-WWII, became a harder sell, especially in Europe, that the US was a benevolent super-power. There’s an element here of the paranoia of those like Ramon seeming irrational, and in his case it runs away with him, but having its roots in factually indisputable events, while having guys like Ted marketing for the US making it seem insane; when individuals do this, it is merely gaslighting, but the meta-narrative is that this is propaganda that is produced by an occupying force insisting it’s actually good for you— this becomes state violence.
The disconnect for Ted, it seems, is that why can’t they see what he sees? For Fred, why aren’t they buying the line that I have? When you consider that even Chile—where scientific socialism wasn’t only provable, it was working- had its leadership toppled by a US-backed coup, you can understand why leftists in 1980’s Barcelona might be concerned that an extremely developed nation, considered very much a part of the globalized west, with its own history of authoritarian extremism, could be next, with the uninvented presence of a naval fleet “awaiting such a pretext [a false flag operation]” as Ramon would hypothesize. Tellingly, throughout the film, basic errors of fact are made while also communicating very real, plausible fears— the “AFL-CIA” line is an example of this; the theory, Fred’s girlfriend Marta explains, is that they are here to bribe government officials in Europe to crush progressive unionism at the behest of the US’ anti-communism (she cites “Joey McCarthy” as spearheading this movement) efforts through the intelligence community.
”Anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence,” explains Fred, “at least in Europe”; this is to say he believes there is a real need, despite the lack of desire, for the presence of American military globally— if not them, then the Red Army would be everywhere, and yet, it ignores that they sacrificed much, much more in the service of ridding Europe of fascism. That Fred ignores this is, again, emblematic of the problems of American global military presence; if he chooses to selectively enforce the facts, the narrative makes sense that they’re needed, but with the provided context, it makes absolute sense why they’re not wanted. This is, again, with the result of propaganda, both of Fred as an agent of the state—”totally buy[ing it]” that the US belongs here, and shocked that no one seems to agree- and of the European public who knows the narrative is incomplete, at best, and selectively malicious, at worst, and thus are resentful of this paternalism.
Common in conspiratorial thinking is a good premise, and given a lack of transparency, arrive at completely irrational conclusions, but based on real fears and resentments; this is what produces extremists, and this is what the film makes clear in the assassination attempt on Fred. The European readers of Ramon’s work, for example, have an official US Navy narrative that doesn’t sit right with them, Ramon correctly identifies Iran as one possibly foreign bogeyman for “the US President” with failing approval numbers to justify engaging the fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, but with private-citizen Ted backing up the notion that it’s innocuous, and Fred indifferent to their concerns, it absolutely creates a culture of mistrust, even if they fully believe in these convictions. A dialogue becomes impossible without Ted or Fred conceding well-understood histories that don’t square with the narrative, and thus, Ramon is left to fill in the gaps, albeit as a very unsympathetic actor on behalf of the media, in reporting these unverified theories. Ted concedes that his worldview is simplistic, and thus so is US foreign policy; back in his ant metaphor, with the ant Pentagon, ant Congress, etc. Ramon’s response “ant secret landing strips on foreign soil” speaks, directly, to the heart of the matter, even if his interpretation of Fred’s presence is off-base— they have reason to be resentful, and so does the rest of the world, he might argue.
Throughout the film, Ted cites sales literature, things he has internalized from his career that only seem to agitate him, but he believes is centering; his mentor’s theory, revealed to him at the end of the film, is that Ted will always succeed if he always thinks he’s about to fail. At one point, Ted (who doesn’t “believe high pressure sales is sales at all” and considers himself friends with his clients, lol) cites something called Maneuver X; basically, the premise that every decision everyone makes involves “a mini-identity crisis” for the buyer, “am I really a ‘green carpet’ person?” At this point, the salesman eases off, disappears, essentially ghosting the customer; “removing all pressure” which means essentially “playing hard to get” to incentivize, in this case Ted’s romantic relationship, making an affirmative decision one way or another when there’s a high level of conflict.
His “modified X” approach is the opposite of the impulsivity of Fred’s to relationships, his job, Barcelona, etc. throughout the whole film; Ted doesn’t feel as untouchable as Fred turns out not to be. This is a metaphor for the condition of living under the looming fear of American occupation; the frustration, the resentment, the gaslighting, and the insistence that this is, ultimately, good for you while the US tries to court goodwill while conceding nothing, seemingly. Ultimately, neither Ted, nor Fred is portrayed as a victim, but naive pawns of this much larger framework neither seems to understands; Fred takes the attempt on his life as a personal attack, not a politically motivated one, and remains in Barcelona with the Navy, while Ted ultimately returns to America to pursue advancement in his company, both having coupled with women from the trade fair in Barcelona, his work abroad completed.
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