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Subverted Propaganda

A new book of 'remixed' war posters is one of the most creative efforts to come out of the opposition to the Iraq war.
 
 
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In every antiwar meeting that I have ever attended, during the discussion of organizing strategies someone always says, "We have to go beyond preaching to the choir."

Although the choir also needs a lot of preaching (to keep up attendance at rehearsals and facilitate discussion about the selection of songs), it's true that one of the central tasks of antiwar organizing right now is outreach -- bringing into the movement those not yet persuaded by a critique of the U.S. empire's war machine.

That project requires not only identifying potential allies but finding new and creative ways to reach them with antiwar arguments. A new book of "remixed" war posters, " You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want!" by Micah Ian Wright ( Seven Stories Press ) is one of the most creative of those new methods to come out of the opposition to the Iraq war.

book coverWright's method is ingeniously simple: He took old propaganda posters, mostly from the World War II era, that were designed to motivate people to support the war effort ("Buy war bonds!") and replaced the original text with new words that call into question the nobility of our Great Leader, the wisdom of the so-called "war on terrorism," and the larger costs of Americans' energy-intensive high-consumption lifestyle.

The result is posters that force a double take: Images that we are used to associating with old-style patriotism become a vehicle for messages that are ironic, edgy, critical -- and consistently engaging. That's why, months before the book was published, I tacked on my office door several of the posters (printed off the internet) so that students waiting to talk to me could ponder just what Wright might have meant by his designs. Based on students' comments, the posters work; they spark discussion.

A typical example has the words "Attack, Attack, Iraq" over a drawing of soldiers charging forward, with the tagline, "Another war will surely pull us out of recession. A message from the Ministry of Homeland Security."

Several students asked me if I believed the claim of that poster. I told them, no, I didn't think the war was being planned specifically to pull us out of a recession, but that the motivations behind the war were largely economic -- policymakers want to establish military dominance in part to guarantee economic dominance. Then I pointed out that it isn't obvious the artist is really suggesting that the administration wanted a war simply to end a recession. Maybe there's more to it, I suggested.

That's one of the strengths of Wright's "subverted propaganda," as he calls his posters; they don't provide a detailed analysis so much as they raise questions and force viewers to come up with their own answers. One of my favorites is a drawing of a woman who is saluting while sitting at a typewriter, under the headline "You write what you're told!" The bottom of the poster reads, "Thanks, corporate news! We couldn't control the people without you." Of course we don't live in a totalitarian state in which journalists write exactly what they are told by government officials, but sometimes in wartime the media world seems frighteningly close to that. How is it that a free press ends up fulfilling that kind of propaganda function? The poster invites people to think about that paradox.

To help readers sort through the issues, the posters are accompanied by text written by staff members from the Center for Constitutional Rights, who fill in crucial facts and offers analysis of the issues raised by the posters. The succinct commentaries make the book especially useful as an organizing tool -- it's a good introduction to key questions about war and civil liberties.

Although the posters are the heart of the book, in some ways my favorite part was Wright's short introduction, "Moment of Clarity." The ironic sense of humor evident in the posters also energizes Wright's account of how he went from being a gung-ho U.S. Army Airborne Ranger to a political dissident. It turns out that one of Wright's posters (a drawing of a soldier throwing a grenade, with the text "What the fuck am I doing here? I only joined up for the college money") is a description of how he came to join the military and find himself in December 1989 parachuting into the U.S. invasion of Panama with his fellow Rangers. It was on that mission that Wright witnessed the U.S. bombing of El Chorrillo, a poor section of Panama City, which changed his life. As he puts it in the book:

"I never shot anyone who didn't shoot at me first -- I didn't bury anyone in mass graves or burn their houses down -- and yet I share the guilt of those who did these things, because I was there. And guess what? So do you. Because it was your government that did it."

After the Army, Wright did make it to college and then a career as a writer in a variety of genres -- television, film, graphic novels and comic books, as well as the political posters that he keeps producing. The book contains 40, but about 175 are available on the Propaganda Remix Project website ( www.antiwarposters.com), from which they can be downloaded. Wright has made it easy to print them out and slap them up on a bulletin board or office door. I recommend doing just that. It's an effective way to start political conversations with folks who have not yet put on the choir robes.

Robert Jensen is a founding member of the Nowar Collective, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of "Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream" (Peter Lang, 2001).