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Tag: Propaganda

Disney in China

NYT sheds light on the backroom deals behind Shanghai Disneyland, which had already hosted a million people before officially opening three days ago:

The Shanghai park… has become mission critical for Disney as it faces business pressures in other areas like cable. It is designed to be a machine in China for the Disney brand, with a manicured Magic Kingdom-style park, “Toy Story”-themed hotel and Mickey Avenue shopping arcade. More than 330 million people live within a three-hour drive or train ride, and Disney is bent on turning them into lifelong consumers.

Shanghai Disneyland (via SCMP)

The article tracks Disney’s history of doing business in China, from post-Reform “Sunday evening placement for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons on the country’s biggest state-run broadcaster”, to mounting success at the cinema in the ’90s (The Lion King killed here), to a blanket ban after the 1997 Disney release of Scorsese’s Kundun. Then-CEO Michael Eisner hired a stone-cold mercenary to smooth out negotiations after that gaffe:

Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr. Eisner said during the meeting. (“Kundun” bombed, taking in just $5.7 million against a production budget of about $30 million.)

Ouch. The article then goes on to itemize the unprecedented lengths to which current Disney CEO Robert A. Iger has gone to make Shanghai Disneyland a reality, including courting a personal relationship with Xi Jinping:

After Mr. Iger learned that Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary leader, had visited Disneyland in 1980, he pressed his staff to find a photograph. A color photograph shows the president’s father, who died in 2002, wearing a Mao suit, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Mr. Iger presented it to the Chinese leader as a gift and a symbol of their partnership.

More interesting are the rights and profits that Disney has ceded to China in hammering out the deal. In short, this really is Disneyland with Chinese characteristics, or, in the motto coined by Iger, “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”: no rides or attractions are repeated from previous parks, and the grounds are adorned with “indigenous trees from all around China, including a 59-foot chestnut oak from Zhejiang province”. The park itself will be surrounded by the “distinctly Chinese” feature of dense, redundant high-end shopping malls and luxury hotels, since the adjoining land is controlled by Shendi Group, a consortium of four State-owned enterprises including a property developer.

In other locales, Disney has typically maintained a firm grip on the immediately adjacent real estate. Shendi wants to use such land for hotels, spas and retail, like its new Shanghai Village, a 590,000-square-foot outlet mall, with luxury shops selling Armani, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture and other brands.

Disney against Commies

The NYT article does not mention, because it’s obvious or irrelevant or both, that Walt Disney, probably America’s greatest 20th century propagandist, considered Communism a dire ideological threat. From his wiki:

In 1946 he was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization who stated they “believ[ed] in, and like, the American Way of Life … we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of Communism, Fascism and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. In 1947, during the Second Red Scare, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators; Disney stated that the 1941 strike led by them was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.

Communism’s certainly traveled a long way, from ideological arch-enemy to “sharing the keys to the Magic Kingdom” in a short 70 years.

The NYT article does say that “Shanghai Disneyland is triggering concerns about American cultural imperialism”. Curious to see how that works out. To me it seems more like the latest spike in a long-term trend of cultural imperialism in reverse, as China continues to buy the Hollywood machine piecemeal and subtly tailor its content from within (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). But that’s a topic worth more thought than I want to give it right now.

Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, 1985 (photo: Thomas Buehler)

I had a few private laughs when reading this article, comparing it with an anecdote that came out of a recent interview I did with Chinese artist Li Xinjian. Li worked closely with Robert Rauschenberg when the American artist visited China for exhibits in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985, as part of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project. I interviewed Li for an article (forthcoming in the July issue of Time Out Beijing) about Rauschenberg in China, which opened at UCCA in Beijing last weekend. He describes this incident after the December 1985 opening of ROCI Tibet:

He had over 60 works in the exhibition, plus five or six installations and 10 video works. There were not many TVs in Tibet back then. Local people were really delighted to see TVs. The video works had some Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck footage, the Tibetans thought it was fun. So they stared at the TV. How could they ever understand those installations and silk-screen paintings? If we understand Rauschenberg as trying to sell American culture, then maybe he really wanted normal people, ordinary people to understand his work, his art concept. But when he saw the Tibetans turning the scripture wheel, then happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not willing to leave, he got angry. He told us to turn off all of the TVs except for the two playing his documentaries.

Seems Mickey and Donald work like capitalism itself, coldly indifferent to the intentions of maker and critic alike.

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Mike Judge

An interesting article on the relationship between Silicon Valley the HBO show and Silicon Valley the ecosystem recently went up on the New Yorker‘s “culture desk”. It probes the fine line dividing the satirist and the satirized, at a time when internet callout culture demands strict attention to minute detail:

When you’re writing a show about nothing, or a movie about cubicle culture, it’s easy to collect realistic details. But if you want to know how a non-compete clause would be structured, or what kind of car a typical brogrammer would drive, or whether Richard’s firing would trigger an afternoon of malaise or a personal crisis, then you need to do your homework. TV writers have long consulted experts — a doctor to demonstrate how to hold a defibrillator, a military officer to make sure the uniforms are the right color. In the past, these consultants were often akin to fact-checkers, brought in near the end of the writing process to make sure that nothing looked glaringly wrong. These days, TV is taken more seriously, and everyone’s a critic with access to Twitter and Wikipedia. “You can’t fool audiences with unrealistic schlock anymore,” Jay Carson told me. Carson was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008; he then served as the Chief Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. In 2011, his friend Beau Willimon hired him as a political consultant on “House of Cards.” “I helped us pass a smell test, both with D.C. insiders and the general audience,” he said. “Even during the five years I was there, the audience got more sophisticated every season.”

Bold emphasis mine. One hears enough about the revolving door shared by DC staffers and lobbyists. Moving from a PR job in Washington to one in Hollywood is a less discussed phenomenon, equally noteworthy as it filters backdoor Beltway propaganda into American popular culture, which is then beamed across the world. Consider House of Cards, a big hit here in China, or even a show like Veep, whose last episode centered around a meeting between the Presidents of the US and the PRC. The actor portraying the latter is a dead ringer for Xi Jinping, incidentally.

I digress, but it’s relevant as Veep airs immediately after Silicon Valley in HBO’s Sunday primetime block (following Game of Thrones), and a similar kind of insider-informed workplace farce is going on in each. Here’s the money quote from the New Yorker article:

Roger McNamee, who has been a successful tech investor since the late eighties, told me, “When I first met Mike [Judge], I asked him, ‘What’s the gestalt you’re going for with this?’ His answer was, ‘I think Silicon Valley is immersed in a titanic battle between the hippie value system of the Steve Jobs generation and the Ayn Randian libertarian values of the Peter Thiel generation.’ I had never articulated it that well myself, and I lived it!” McNamee recently wound down his most recent venture fund, which he co-founded with Bono; he now spends most of his time touring the country with his two jam bands, Moonalice and Doobie Decibel System. He continued, “Some of us actually, as naïve as it sounds, came here to make the world a better place. And we did not succeed. We made some things better, we made some things worse, and in the meantime the libertarians took over, and they do not give a damn about right or wrong. They are here to make money.”

(Pause to absorb the name “Doobie Decibel System”.) The whole thing’s worth a read if you’re interested in the libertarian separatism being preached in SV these days by Thiel and his acolytes, including more than a few sitting on the alt-right.

me pretty much

My takeaway from this article has been awe at Mike Judge’s powers of cultural prediction and influence. On a personal level, as someone born and raised in Texas and sucked into metal and punk scenes from an early age, Judge basically defined 90% of my teen pop culture between his animated series Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. His 1999 cult hit Office Space probably psychologically inoculated me against ever getting a cubicle job, and his 2006 film Idiocracy, which I’ve not yet seen, seems to be the reality in many parts of America today.

So I read this New Yorker article and started to re-watch Office Space before bed last night, and I had a deja vu moment during the scene where the main character is trying to dodge his boss, Lumbergh, to avoid getting weekend overtime. I realized that it reminded me of that scene in The Matrix where Neo’s trying to dodge the agents. As usual, the internet was way ahead of me with this mashup: “Neo Hides from Lumbergh”

After a quick IMDb I discovered that Office Space and The Matrix were released about a month apart, in February and March 1999, respectively. The theme of radical escape from cubicle life would be recapitulated in October of that year in Fight Club. No wonder so many of my generation (I turned 13 in 1999) refuse to get real jobs, spend most of our time and money fitting into sub-cultural fringes, and secretly believe all of reality is a rigged computer game!

New Yorker again:

The show’s signature gag, from the first season, was a minute-long montage of startup founders pledging to “make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols,” or to “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.” […] [Silicon Valley writer/producer Chris] Tarver said, “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the P.R. departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly. So I guess, at the very least, we’re making the world a better place by making these people stop saying they’re making the world a better place.”

Hats off to Mike Judge, whose cultural radar is so finely tuned that today he programs his subject matter instead of simply predicting what it’ll do next.

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More Horror

The 2016 US presidential election in two tweets:

Clinton’s first reaction is to send thoughts and wait for facts. Trump’s is a stream of factoids, breathlessly repeated keywords (tough, smart & vigilant) and appeals to Islamophobia. His tirade reads more like ‘sending thoughts’ than Clinton’s studied response, and of course got him yet another wave of free media. It also sounds a lot more like how people talk.

The former Secretary of State followed up with an official statement, saying that:

we need to redouble our efforts to defend our country from threats at home and abroad. That means defeating international terror groups, working with allies and partners to go after them wherever they are, countering their attempts to recruit people here and everywhere, and hardening our defenses at home.

On the one hand, a callous absorption of tragedy for short-term political gain, which is exactly how Trump responded after Paris. On the other, a vaguely worded commitment to more global drone war, domestic surveillance, etc etc.

Trump’s diction is simple to the point of idiocy (“be smart!”), which explains why it’s so popular. Clinton sounds exactly like a politician. (Where else do people speak of “redoubling efforts” these days, besides DC?)

It seems likely that there will be another mass shooting in America before November, possibly even one attributed to ISIS. With more horror looming, each presidential candidate will need to talk about it before they get a chance to actually do anything about it.

Obama has given this speech about 15 times now. He must be incredibly weary. The next President has already begun dress rehearsal, and the words each candidate uses now will decide who wins. Clinton’s speech is presidential; Trump’s is a seismic shock aimed at fissures in American society, toward those who would make him king.

For now, in our own words and prayers, we’re all sending our thoughts to Orlando.

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