Transcript

575:

Poetry of Propaganda
Transcript

Originally aired 12.18.2015

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, this just in. Sometimes things are not what they seem. Big news, I know. Here's an interesting example of it.

When Damien Cave moved to Mexico and started reporting there for The New York Times, a few months in, he noticed that when he would get onto an airplane and flip through the in-flight magazine, there would be these ads for tourists-- you know, those glossy, beautiful pictures of mountains, and river rafting, and nature, and "come visit" kinds of ads-- for places that he knew were centers of drug violence and gang violence.

Damien Cave

I mean, it basically became the standard operating procedure for state after state. As the violence moved, the ads popped up in new places.

Ira Glass

And at some point it occurred to him, maybe these ads could be a useful reporting tool.

Damien Cave

You know, Mexico is a place that there's just no transparency. And the government never gave us reliable statistics on deaths and murders. And over time, I started to just realize, OK, if there's a state or a location that's spending a lot of money in a magazine to tell me how beautiful it is, it must be pretty messed up.

And so I remember getting on a flight and there was a spread for Vera Cruz, which was a state that was a beach state. It seemed fine, at least as far as we knew at that time.

Ira Glass

Mm hm.

Damien Cave

Then I started to sort of dig in a little deeper. And it turns out it was about to explode with all these killings of local journalists, with this whole sort of drug war episode that turned it into this complete just hotbed of violence.

Ira Glass

And the ad actually sent you reporting on Vera Cruz?

Damien Cave

It did, and Michoacan, too. Like, Michoacan is this state that produces most of the limes we get in the United States, all kinds of avocados. It's this agricultural, beautiful place.

And the ad that I saw was emphasizing that. It was green. It was lush. It was this place that, you know, it looked gorgeous. It looked like the best parts of California that you would want to go visit. And I knew that it was a state that was a little bit troubled.

But that ad sort of said to me, OK, it must be even more troubled than you think. And sure enough, when I got there, this was a state that became this meth capital and this hotbed of vigilantism. But when I saw the ads, that's when I knew, OK, now it's time to go.

Ira Glass

That is, like, the least effective propaganda imaginable. You are getting exactly the opposite message from the ads than the thing they're trying to get across.

Damien Cave

True. I mean, it became a joke among some of us-- other reporters in the office too-- of, well, this is clearly a place where we should start looking.

Ira Glass

Damien never investigated why state after state would take out these ads. But he suspects they weren't really even targeted at tourists, these expensive photo spreads.

He assumes the ads were made by government officials who were trying to reassure business people and local people -- "OK, everything is fine. We got it under control. Nothing to see here." The ads were for them.

Damien Cave

And a little bit for their own government. I think it's a way for the politicians to signal to their bosses, "hey, look, I'm working on this. I'm making sure that people are saying what they should be saying about my state.

And it won't hurt you, Mr. President, or it won't hurt you, head of the party, because we're doing this for all of us together."

Ira Glass

Damien has spent a lot of time also in Cuba. And he says in Cuba, like in Mexico, there are subtle meanings contained inside government messages, but only if you understand the nuances.

Damien Cave

In some ways, propaganda is like poetry. You need to know how to read it. And some people read it and see it only on one level. And then lots of other people see it and read it at a secondary level that's deeper and that may speak to the exact opposite of what it says on that first reading.

The Cubans will read Granma, the main state organ, for all kinds of little things that they'll see in there that I won't see. And so the slightest mention of President Obama, and the degree to which the negativity is calibrated, they can see, oh, this is a sign that the government is warming up to the United States.

Even if it's negative, by the degree of negativity, they know how to interpret that. It's complicated. It may seem really simple. But I think that people inside these countries are the best interpreters of their own propaganda.

And the great irony, it seems to me, is the government, in an effort to tell its people what they think they need to hear, they often underestimate the people's ability to deconstruct it and understand it.

Ira Glass

Propaganda is like poetry. It is complexity in the form of simplicity, if you know how to read it. And today on our program, we have three stories that illustrate that principle-- one from China, one from South America, and one from right here in our own United States of America.

Two of these stories are about propaganda that was so ingenious and worked so well, it's kind of incredible, actually. It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us, comrades.

Act One. Guerrilla Marketing.

Ira Glass

Act One, "Guerrilla Marketing." Well, the nation of Colombia has been at war for more than 50 years. And if you've followed this even a little bit, you know that the main rebel group fighting the government is called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The Spanish acronym for that is FARC, spelled F-A-R-C.

The FARC are a leftist guerrilla contingent, sometimes funding their operations through ransoms from kidnappings, or through drug running. Though it should be said that there have been rightist paramilitary forces aligned with the government who have been involved in similar activities.

One byproduct of the war-- and I say this. I don't want to sound glib or insensitive. But really, the war has yielded a brand of propaganda that is so ambitious and ornate-- well, you'll hear. Producer Sean Cole explains.

Sean Cole

And this particular propaganda campaign began about 10 years ago, when an advertising executive in Colombia named Jose Miguel Sokoloff was offered what had to be the most demanding account of his career.

The client was the government of Colombia. The assignment, convince as many FARC guerrilla fighters as possible to demobilize, to quit the FARC. In short, please help us end this war.

A word about Jose-- he's deeply principled and earnest. And if you Google image him, you'll see a lot of v-neck sweaters. His ad agency-- Lowe SSP3 it's called-- has been around since the mid '90s. His clients are not usually the defense ministries of South American countries.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

We just finished a beautiful project for Lifebuoy, which is an antibacterial soap in India.

Sean Cole

They've done ads for dog food, bug repellent. But at the same time, he says, the fundamental mission, whether he's selling that stuff or trying to demobilize guerrillas, is still the same.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

I think about change, about how to change a behavior, how to change a perception. That's the business we're in. We're in the business of changing minds.

Sean Cole

A word about the FARC guerrillas-- they're a heavily-armed fighting force of, at this moment, more than 7,000 rebel soldiers. They wear fatigues, live mainly in jungle encampments.

They're what you think of when you think organized revolutionary militia. I should say, Jose and his company had done a little bit of political work before this. And Jose himself almost takes the conflict personally.

It's been going on as long as he's been alive. He always says he hasn't lived one day of peace in his country. Still, getting guerrillas to demobilize isn't exactly selling beer to soccer fans. They're either true believers in the cause or, more frequently, captives themselves.

If you try to escape the FARC and they catch you, they'll kill you, which is why the government has set up a reentry program to support and protect former guerrillas-- and, of course, to get information out of them.

Jose and company figured their first step was to gather some intell themselves. And so they interviewed a bunch of guerrillas who had just demobilized to find out what makes someone quit the FARC.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

We heard a story of a man who left the guerrilla because he was ordered to kill a couple that had been accused of something. And he thought they were innocent.

And they were very, very young. And he remembered hearing the girl saying, "kill me first so that I don't have to see my boyfriend die."

Sean Cole

It's important to note the government forces have been just as brutal.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

A lot of women get out of the guerrilla because they want to have a family. And in the guerrilla, you're not allowed to have a family. So you have to abort any pregnancy.

And that's a forced thing. So we heard stories of women who had been through the procedure two or three times. And they said, that's it.

Sean Cole

Oh, my god.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Yeah, these are not beautiful stories. I could go on. And your reaction would be "oh my god, oh my god, oh my god."

Sean Cole

And after gathering all of those stories, they picked three of them and made each one into a 30-second TV ad. Apparently a lot of guerrilla camps are outfitted with satellite dishes so they can watch the football matches. The ads were professional and polished, just like the work the company's always done.

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Sean Cole

He's is saying, "One day I was ordered to execute a couple that was unjustly accused of treason. It was hard. They were just children. She asked to die first, to not see her boyfriend dead."

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

But we made a mistake. We did not actually use the guerrillas' voices. We used actors. And they immediately saw through that. And they said, this is not real. This is not how we speak.

Sean Cole

They're not dumb.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Right. It's somebody else telling this stupid story.

Sean Cole

Right.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

So when we heard that, we went back to the archives of all the stories we had recorded. And we asked permission of the guerrillas who had told us these stories to use their voices and put them on the air, slightly modified. And then that started being much more effective.

Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Sean Cole

She says, "They were going to force me to get an abortion, but I didn't let them. So they punished me by making me clear paths with a machete for six months."

Woman

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Sean Cole

They made about 100 of these radio ads in the first year, just former guerrillas talking to current guerrillas about why they should quit. The ads were mainly targeting the foot soldiers, the foundation of the FARC.

And Jose says it's safe to estimate 2,000 of those lower ranking guerrillas have demobilized since his company started with the radio spots. But it wasn't enough, he says, in part because the FARC leaders were telling their soldiers that the government was forcing the ex-guerrillas to say those things in the ads.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

The reason these people are sending you these messages is because they have a gun to their head. And if they don't send these messages, they're going to get killed. So don't believe these messages. These messages are worthless.

Sean Cole

So they're working a kind of anti-propaganda on the guerrillas on that side.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

As they should. As they should. Because I think it's their obligation to do so.

Sean Cole

And this is one of the interesting things about Jose as a propagandist. He's clear-eyed about the fact that this is a war and that both sides are supposed to try and win it. He does have his own personal beliefs.

He told me he thinks leftist experiments in Latin America haven't worked. But he says all he wants is for Colombia to be the kind of country where people on the left and people on the right just argue all the time, without killing each other.

And then, in 2010, Jose's team learned something that would totally radicalize the way they did this work. One of his young colleagues noticed it first. Looking at the data, demobilization numbers always went up around Christmas. They peaked actually.

Guerrillas wanted to be home for Christmas. In war terminology, December was a window of vulnerability for the FARC. Now Jose and his team could have whipped up a Christmas campaign and put it on TV, or on the radio. But they didn't do that.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

"We decided to try something completely lateral and different."

Sean Cole

This recording is from a TED Talk Jose gave last year.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

"Christmas lights. So Christmas lights. And you're saying what the hell is this guy going to talk about? OK, I am going to talk about gigantic trees that we put in nine strategic pathways in the jungle, covered with Christmas lights.

These trees were lit up at night. And they had a sign beside them."

Sean Cole

A sign that only lit up when the guerrillas happened to walk by and trigger a motion sensor. It said--

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

"If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. It's Christmas. Everything is possible."

Sean Cole

By gigantic trees, Jose means maybe 75 feet high, all wrapped in whitish blue lights, from top to bottom. It was really impressive. They called it "Operation Christmas," which might make it sound like Linus and Lucy and Charlie Brown marching into the jungles of Colombia to decorate a spruce.

And it kind of was like that, except replace Linus and Lucy and Charlie Brown with the army of Colombia descending in Black Hawk helicopters.

But as spectacular as the trees were, they were just meant to be a tease. Jose says it was just a little taste of Christmas.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

But that's it. There's no friends. There's no party. There's no aguardiente, which is a drink that we have here.

Sean Cole

Mm hm.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

There is nothing. There's no fun. You're just walking by and hoping that the army doesn't see you and doesn't shoot you. And that was incredibly powerful. That effort alone demobilized 331 guerrillas.

Sean Cole

Really?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Which at the time was roughly 5% of the whole guerrilla army.

Sean Cole

And that wasn't even necessarily the result of seeing the trees, Jose says. Sometimes the guerrillas just heard about them and decided to demobilize. His company sent us a few quotes they'd transcribed from guerrillas who demobilized during "Operation Christmas."

"We knew all of the strategies the government had done," one of them said. "But we never expected something like this." Another said that, surprisingly, his commander wasn't even angry about the Christmas trees. Quote, "It was different to the other propaganda we had seen. He was touched."

So Jose and his crew knew they were on to something. And after winning that first Christmas, they were able to perfect and hone the formula even more sharply, because now they had these newly demobilized guerrillas to talk to.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Eventually, when we talked to the guerrillas that had left, at the time, they said the trees are all good. They were amazing. We love them. Thank you very much. And they were very effective, but the thing is that we are not walking as much as you think. We move in the rivers.

Sean Cole

The rivers are the highways of the jungle, in Colombia. And Jose's company could have done what you do on a highway and put up billboards. But why do that when you can do something far more insane?

The 2011 Christmas demobilization campaign was called "Operation Rivers of Light." Jose and company went to towns and villages and gathered little toys and trinkets, notes. They mostly had people write notes to the guerrilla fighters. And they put all of those things into plastic, glowing, purple balls, a little bit bigger than a softball.

They floated almost 7,000 of those balls onto the rivers of Colombia, and all of which lit up at night, like a terrestrial galaxy. The tops of the balls were transparent so the FARC soldiers would see what was inside of them when they pulled them out the water.

And the Christmas after that, they decided they weren't just going to bring lights to the jungle. They were going to use lights to try to lead guerrillas out of the jungle. They shone huge spotlights up into the sky, the way they did in Manhattan after 9/11 to symbolize the missing towers.

Except in this case, the message was, "Guerrilla, this Christmas follow the light that will guide you to your family and your freedom." They called it "Operation Bethlehem."

Sean Cole

God, there's a huge amount of staging and production involved in all of this.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Yes, there is. There is because I frankly believe that everything you do needs to be beautiful. The only element that cannot lack is beauty, making sure you like what you're seeing. You cannot do ugly stuff.

When you see all these lights floating down the river, slowly floating down towards you, you can't escape the thought of, this is a beautiful thing. Regardless of what it is, how beautiful is it?

Because had it been a thing that is not beautiful, I probably wouldn't have looked at it. I would have said, this is trash floating down the river. But if it's a beautiful thing that's coming down, it's coming down in numbers, then I'm drawn to it. I'm interested.

Sean Cole

But along with beauty, Jose says one of the other key ingredients is surprise, and has to be something they've never done before. So after three Christmases in a row, he and his fellow guerrilla marketers all looked at each other and said--

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Enough of the lights. We're not going to keep throwing lights at the jungle. Let's think of something different. And it came across because the circumstances changed.

Sean Cole

That is, in 2012, the two sides began peace talks in Cuba. There had been peace negotiations between the revolutionaries and the government before. But this time they seemed more promising.

So to Jose's thinking, the concerns of the FARC were different now. It wasn't so much is this a winnable war anymore, or is this life worth living. It was more, this war's probably going to end anyway. We're all going to end up disbanding. And will they take me in again back home? Will my family still accept me?

And that's when they dropped probably their biggest emotional bomb to date, a campaign they called simply "Mothers' Voices." They found 37 mothers of guerrilla fighters who were willing to give them pictures of those fighters as children.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

And it was important that they gave us pictures of the kids when they were small, because in order to protect them, we needed to make sure that only the person in the picture would be able to recognize himself.

And the message was, "Before you were a guerrilla, you were my child."

Sean Cole

That's what it said on the poster.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

That's what it said on the poster. "Before you were a guerrilla, you were my child. Come back this Christmas. I'm waiting for you."

Sean Cole

They printed up thousands of these posters and hung them in towns that the guerrillas moved through and nailed them to trees as well. The mothers campaign was really moving-- simple, no lights attached-- proving you don't have to do something huge and carnivalistic to win someone over, to change their behavior.

I mean, the goal of propaganda is usually to appeal to emotions. But this was on another level. It was so personal-- in a couple of cases, so specific to the person receiving the message.

There's this one story Jose always tells as he goes around talking about this work, and it's my favorite one. It doesn't have to do with the Christmas trees or the floating balls or the mothers campaign. And it takes place way back, when all they were doing were the radio ads.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

There was a guerrilla guy whose combat name was Giovanni Andres. And a few years into his service they recruited a girl into the guerrilla.

Sean Cole

Into his unit. I've been meaning to say-- women make up 30% of the FARC forces. And they fight right alongside the men, dressed in fatigues, brandishing rifles. Anyway, this boy and this girl--

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

They fell in love. And they had this beautiful relationship. And they spent most of their time, when they were alone, talking about what their life would be like and what their family would be like, and the kind of things young lovers talk about.

Sean Cole

Except for they're in the jungle and they're--

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Carrying guns. And they're patrolling. And they're going into combat, right. I remember him telling me that they always tried to go out when there was fighting, when there was a combat, that they always tried to go out together, so that they could protect each other. They could watch each other's back.

Sean Cole

But love is forbidden in the lower ranks of the guerrilla. So the couple was separated. One of them was sent to a camp far away. And so now, without her boyfriend, life in the FARC completely lost its hold on the girl. So she escaped, demobilized to the military reentry program, where she was interviewed by Jose's company.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

And she said, "I got out of the guerrilla because I had found the love of my life. And the love of my life could not be with me. And if I'm not going to be able to have the family and the love I want, I'm going to get out. And so I did."

And the thing is that, by chance, her boyfriend heard her voice. And he said "oh, my god. She got out. And I'm still here. What am I doing here?" So he got out. And his obsession was trying to find her, which eventually he did. He did.

Sean Cole

A reporter for the British paper The Independent wrote that he met the guy, Giovanni Andres, in 2010, and confirmed the story. I asked Jose if there was any way we could talk to him, or his girlfriend.

But so many years after leaving the reentry program, which is kind of like a witness protection program, former guerrillas get harder and harder to find. They fade back into society, which is what's supposed to happen. Anyway, it's very possible that they're still together, making good on all those plans they hatched in the jungle.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Just beautiful. It's very poetic, if you think about it.

Sean Cole

It is beautiful. It's really moving. I've also just never heard of propaganda playing such an integral role in a love story like that.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Yeah, well, war is a human endeavor. And it's fought by human beings. And when humanity is removed from the equation, by one side or the other, I think the reinsertion of the human aspect gives you an edge.

Sean Cole

Jose says this work has been unusual in a lot of ways. The client, of course, is an anomaly. And the audience he's trying to appeal to is unlike any he's had before. And normally in advertising, he says, you want the same clients to come back year after year and do more business with you.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

And this is the only advertising campaign I've ever worked on where, if I'm successful, I will never need to do advertising like this again. I want my client to disappear.

Sean Cole

To disappear.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

Yeah.

Sean Cole

This year, Jose's already getting a small taste of what that would be like. As part of the peace negotiations, the FARC has asked the government not to launch any big demobilizing campaigns this Christmas. For the first time in years, Jose and his team have Christmas off.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our program.

Act Two. Not Our Town.

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Not Our Town." Well, we just heard how jarring an experience it can be to happen upon a piece of propaganda-- a full blown, all out, no holds barred piece propaganda-- when you're not expecting anything like that at all.

That happened to a writer named Jon Mooallem recently, in a very different setting than a South American jungle.

Jon Mooallem

This past spring, we went to see the end of the year musical for my daughter's after school program at a public school in San Francisco. It was an original work. And she had a tiny part, her first play.

I don't know what I expected. But it wasn't this. Act one, scene one, opened on a sinister tech executive meeting with a corrupt mayor and San Francisco's board of supervisors.

He's pitching them a new branding campaign for the city. It's meant to distract citizens from San Francisco's widening socioeconomic inequality and simmering strife. My daughter was finishing kindergarten. She was six.

One elected official, played by a fifth grader, explains that everyone knows the city is struggling. A wave of tech money is driving up real estate prices and pushing people out. She describes it as a kind of civic identity crisis.

Child Actor 1

A town that was once known as bastion of freedom, inclusion, individuality, is now known as a sterile playground for the rich.

Jon Mooallem

People are frustrated. They don't want to live in this sterile playground for the rich. That's why the city's called in this branding guy, a tech marketing guru named Ron Scraper, a master of his craft who could "sell water to an ocean," one kid says.

Scraper can't fix the city's gentrification problem. But he has cooked up a creative way to reframe it. "Sure," he says, "pitching his idea to the city government. No one can afford San Francisco's rental market anymore, or the $100 Uber rides." But-- and here's his new slogan--

Child Actor 2

San Francisco, where you can afford to dream.

Child Actor 1

The question is, can we afford this ad campaign? What's the damage?

[LAUGHING]

Child Actor 2

I'm sure we can afford it, right, Ron?

Jon Mooallem

That's the mayor, a chuckling, feathery kid in an oversized suit. He loves the idea and suggests paying Ron Scraper's consulting fee by redirecting funds from city public schools and affordable housing. Suddenly music starts.

Lines of dancing third graders flood the stage. They're holding iPads made out of cardboard and glitter. And they sing about looking down on the less fortunate people from expensive homes they just bought in a formerly working class neighborhood.

[SINGING]

"I bought a sleek condo for about $5 mil, right on top of Potrero Hill."

[SINGING]

At one point, the band slows down. And this angelically round faced child steps into a spotlight for his solo. You can see his face, straining to find his note.

Child Actor 3

[SINGING] We need a ray of light to clear the foggy sky.

Child Actor 4

This place was perfect with sunny weather.

Child Actor 5

They're taking our city from behind our back.

Children

[SINGING] They're taking the souls of the wild and free. They're taking over, but they can't take me. Me! Me! Me! Me!

Child Actor 6

It's a San Francisco dream!

Jon Mooallem

So there they were, these blameless children, up there performing a kind of kiddie grotesque of the same exasperated conversation that all us parents were constantly having behind their backs, the conversation that more and more seemed to hang over every conversation in San Francisco, then inevitably spiraled into panicked Zillow searches for homes in Oakland, or Petaluma, or Portland.

The after school program that staged the play is a nonprofit called CASA, Children's After School Arts. It was staffed in part by young artsy people, many of whom only worked there part time and seemed to be scraping by in the city, tossed around by the same turbulence.

I'd gotten to know a few of them during the year. They were cool, kind-hearted people. And my daughter loved them. But now it felt like they were indoctrinating my little girl. I was kind of angry at them, even if I was basically sympathetic to their cause.

The cost of living in San Francisco had become the greatest source of anxiety for my family in the last couple of years. We constantly wrestled with whether it was worth trying to live here anymore.

But my instinct had been to shield my kids from all that stress and instability, not conscript them. I mean, the only school play I could remember being in as a kid was called Care Bears Class Show. I played a green one.

The play went on. There was a scene about Google buses, a song about FOMO, and a time travel sequence with the ghosts of San Francisco past, present, and future, through the gold rush and the Summer of Love.

My daughter's kindergarten class twirled with flowers in their hair. And there was an impressive cameo by a miniature Allen Ginsberg.

Child Actor 7

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, dragging themselves to the streets at dawn, angel-headed hipsters boning for the ancient heavenly connection, the starry dynamo and the machinery of night."

Jon Mooallem

Here's the plot, though-- spoiler alert, I guess. Ron Scraper's real client turns out to be a shadowy tech corporation, plotting to build something called the Dock.

Ostensibly the Dock is a big, cool cafe with what the kids on stage keep calling top notch, organic, hand-picked, single-sourced, locally-roasted, individually-dripped coffee. But actually, it's a trap. In a later scene, the executives meet to discuss their real plot in private. When San Franciscans come to the Dock and plug in their laptops or phones, the company will install malware on their devices and steal their personal data.

Child Actor 8

Soon this beautiful city will belong to Scraper advertising and ICU Technologies.

[EVIL LAUGHTER]

Jon Mooallem

See, that's the name of their privacy-breaching, data-scraping tech company, ICU Technologies. As the plot unspools, of course the company has to evict someone.

And it's a close-knit group of multicultural tenants from an old Victorian at 1906 Babylon Lane. The tenants line up in front of their stoop like a row of glum Rockettes and seeing the eviction blues.

Children

[SINGING] They're taking the floor from under our feet. Yes, they're taking the floor from right here under our feet. We want to keep fighting, but we're already beat.

Jon Mooallem

It was here, during this number, that I suddenly realized why my daughter had turned to me out of nowhere on the way home from school a couple of weeks earlier and asked whether our landlords planned to evict us. It surprised me she even knew that word.

Children

[SINGING] The broken heart. I've got to move. I don't know what I'm gonna do. Eviction blues.

Jon Mooallem

The eviction song killed. Everything killed, which was strange, given something I haven't mentioned til now. Maybe half the parents in the auditorium actually worked in tech.

And now they were watching their own children spear them as cartoon villains, literally cackling and throwing money over flutes of champagne, as they plotted the eviction of all those nice people. No one in the audience booed, of course, or huffed or stamped out. We were watching our kids perform.

But I can't imagine what it must have been like to keep smiling along as you suddenly realized that for weeks after school your own son or daughter had been rehearsing songs that mocked both you and the job you were off busy working, which is why you'd been forced to entrust your kids to the after school program in the first place.

I later heard that one father in the tech industry had gotten wind of the play's plot and actually written to the director, expressing concern. This led to a long, explanatory email to all us parents with the subject line, "Is the CASA musical anti-tech?"

The short answer is no, the director wrote. The characters are fictional exaggerations and no one group can be blamed for San Francisco's struggles. That said, she insisted, we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

Children

[SINGING] Eviction blues. [HUMMING]

Jon Mooallem

After the "Eviction Blues," the curtain fell on act one-- intermission. And we all filtered into the courtyard for paella and juice boxes. A neighbor of mine who works in tech walked over.

And I noticed he felt compelled to lead with a good humored joke about how he hoped I didn't mind chatting with the enemy. I took it as his way, subconsciously at least, to show he was brushing it off. There were no hard feelings. We weren't the caricatures we'd been watching on stage.

The real truth was in this interaction, him and me. And he was right. His family was wonderful. We'd spent Halloween at their place. And one night, when I sliced my finger open cooking, I'd run over. And his wife, an ER doctor, cleaned me up and assured me I wouldn't need stitches while I bled all over their kitchen sink.

All that familiarity colored our conversation at intermission. And yet, I'd be lying if I said that in that moment I wasn't also conscious of something else, that my growing family couldn't afford to rent a bigger apartment in our neighborhood, that our days were numbered. And that he, meanwhile, had recently bid up their house across the street to 25% over asking. I hated that I was thinking about that, but I was. And I hated to think that he might be thinking about it too.

But at the same time-- and I'm definitely not proud of this-- I also hated that maybe he wasn't thinking about it, that he had the luxury not to, that, as we stood there laughing off the play together, his laughter might have been unencumbered, casual laughter, and not uncomfortable laughter, not even slightly uncomfortable.

I was embarrassed to recognize all those high pitched voices in the play, stammering their shakily memorized platitudes. They were the voices in my head.

Child Actor 1

It's all the techies' fault. Everything was just fine before they moved in. Hey, does anyone have a phone with power? I really need to get online.

[LAUGHTER]

Child Actor 2

The techies are not the enemies. We are also dependent on the technological advances that they have brought.

Child Actor 3

Yeah, some of my best friends are techies.

Child Actor 2

The real enemies are selfishness and greed.

Child Actor 4

What's wrong with selfishness and greed? We all have to look out for ourselves, right?

Jon Mooallem

That was last May. We don't live in San Francisco anymore. We moved a couple of months later. We still loved living in the city. But life there had started to feel impossible for us in the long term, for reasons which were apparently close enough to what was unfolding on that stage that at some point in act two my wife started to cry.

We were lucky to have options. We went somewhere small, semi-rural, and far away, a place where we could afford to buy a pretty cool house and work a little less, and where the children's theater program in town is satisfied doing "Mary Poppins."

Sometimes, up here, I think about that class play. And I can measure how long we've been gone from the Bay Area by how impossible that performance, how impossible the very idea of an elementary school musical about eviction, has started to feel.

When I think about it now I don't feel the same discomfort, like I'm watching all my own agonizing worries performed in song. What I mostly feel is pride-- pride that my kid got to be a part of it, and pride that she got to live in a place where people cared so deeply about what their city should be that even children's musical theater seemed like a way to hash that question out.

And they loved their city so much that inevitably they felt compelled to give their musical a happy ending, even if it meant lacing the last act with a series of preposterous plot twists.

The mayor suddenly realizes he's been duped by Scraper Advertising and ICU Technologies.

Child Actor 1

I had no idea! I would never approve such a horrible plan! The tenants of 1906 Babylon Lane will not be evicted from their home.

[CHEERING]

Jon Mooallem

Even Ron Scraper comes around.

Child Actor 2

Oh, fine. Scraper Advertising and ICU Technologies will be working together to provide affordable housing to the people of San Francisco.

[CHEERING]

San Francisco, where you can afford to live!

[CHEERING]

Jon Mooallem

That's a lead in to the plays big final number, a huge demonstration in front of San Francisco's City Hall, with the entire K through 5 ensemble marching down the aisles and out of the wings. They're activists now, pouring onstage, holding signs, and singing about how they've had enough.

Children

[SINGING] We've gotta shake, shake, shake things up. We got mad enough. We've got to scream and yell and shout and wail. The city's not for sale. The city's not for sale. The city's not for sale.

Jon Mooallem

My daughter is barely four feet tall, a sometimes bashful little girl who has trouble pronouncing gentrifier correctly. And onstage, just then, she was absolutely dwarfed by an older, louder kid behind her, who was waving a massive placard that read "resistance equals love of community."

Still, I'm glad to have the memory of her up there, on the fringes of the resistance, mouthing the words.

Children

[SINGING] The city's not for sale. The city's not for sale.

Ira Glass

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.

Coming up, a two-word slogan that changed the direction of an entire nation. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. The Spy Who Didn't Know She Was A Spy.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program- "The Poetry of Propaganda," stories of how propaganda can contain complicated and subtle messages, even propaganda that does not seem so subtle when you first encounter it. We've arrived at act three of our program.

Act Three, "The Spy Who Did Not Know She Was a Spy." OK, so here's something that rarely ever happens in this country. Just this week a US government agency was found guilty of disseminating covert propaganda, perpetrating covert propaganda on the American public.

And this was not the CIA. It was not the NSA. These were the tree huggers over at the Environmental Protection Agency who did this. The ruling this week by the Government Accountability Office said that the EPA had used everyday citizens in this nefarious scheme.

[PHONE RINGING]

Marion Leary

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hey, is this Marion?

Marion Leary

This is.

Ira Glass

I reached one of those everyday citizens, Marion Leary. She's a medical researcher in Philadelphia.

Ira Glass

Did you know that you have been perpetrating covert propaganda on behalf of the United States government?

Marion Leary

I did not know I was perpetrating covert information. What are you referring to?

Ira Glass

I'm referring to a tweet you made on the 29th of September where you said, "Clean water is important to me. I support EPA's efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community."

Marion Leary

OK.

Ira Glass

Do you recognize that tweet at all?

Marion Leary

I'd have to go back. It sounds like something I would tweet, though. I support clean water.

Ira Glass

OK, here's what this is about. The Government Accountability Office says in its ruling that because of social media, there is a whole new way that federal agencies can mess up when they communicate with the public.

And the EPA messed up with a campaign where they went out on social media and they told the world, OK, we're proposing a new rule to keep pollution out of drinking water. That part of it was actually totally fine.

Where the EPA got into trouble was when they said to the public, if you like our new proposed rule, send out a tweet with this wording. And the wording they suggested was exactly what Marion and hundreds of other people used.

And the problem with was that while the EPA's original message was clearly labeled as coming from a federal agency-- it had the EPA log, it had EPA's-- the message Marion sent out, and all these other people sent out to their friends and followers, those messages didn't make clear that the EPA was behind the whole thing.

Edda Emmanuelli Perez is the GAO lawyer who oversaw the drafting of this ruling for the GAO.

Edda Emmanuelli Perez

So even though EPA had written the message, it was written in such a way-- it said, "I support efforts," for example, "for clean water," or "I support EPA's efforts."

The public, in that sense, would not be able to tell that EPA wrote this message. And so that's a problem. Because the whole purpose of the covert propaganda prohibition is to make sure that when the government is providing information, it needs to clearly identify itself as the source.

Ira Glass

She says it's as if a government agency hired a spokesman to go on TV and talk up its programs, but the spokesman never revealed to anybody that he was being paid by the agency. He just acted like everything he was saying, praising the policies, were just beliefs that he had come to, on his own, just his personal opinion.

Which of course, make sense. But what complicates it is that for Marion, the woman who I talked to from Philly, and probably for lots of people who repeated the EPA's message verbatim, they agreed with the message. It was their personal opinion. Nobody paid them. Nobody made them tweet.

Marion Leary

If it was something that I didn't agree with, then I probably would be very upset about that. But I chose to retweet that. I agree with the importance of clean water. I'm an EPA supporter.

Ira Glass

What I'm getting from this conversation is you don't care that you were covert propaganda. You don't give a damn.

Marion Leary

Not really. Propaganda does sound ugly. But it is a person who promotes or publicizes a particular cause. And I think social media, in general, but Twitter especially-- gives a platform to anybody to be able to be a propaganda-ist.

So then I guess I would call myself a propagandist. I don't know if I'd call myself a covert one.

Ira Glass

Well, I think the covert refers to the fact that you're hiding your very close association with the federal government of the United States of America. You're hiding the fact that you are just their puppet, doing their bidding.

Marion Leary

I'm definitely not the government's puppet doing their bidding. So on that claim, I would dispute that. But definitely, I could see myself putting out some good propaganda around issues that I think are important for everyone.

Ira Glass

I like how over the course of this phone call, you've gone from having no idea about the propaganda to being a little horrified by it. And now you're embracing it.

Marion Leary

Well, it took me a while to catch up.

Ira Glass

Let me just ask you, have your feelings about Joseph Stalin changed over the course of this brief phone conversation?

[LAUGHING]

Marion Leary

They have not.

Ira Glass

In case you're wondering, the head of the EPA not be doing prison time for breaking this federal rule, nor will President Obama, nor will Marion. The likely penalty is that the EPA will have to return the money they spent on this social media campaign to the United States Treasury.

And they'll have to issue a report basically admitting that they were wrong, which is unclear if that's going to happen. The EPA says that it does not agree with the GAO ruling. They declined to be interviewed. But a spokesperson told us this is not over.

Of course, the federal government uses everyday citizens to disseminate its messages all the time. And it doesn't get called propaganda. When a fourth grade teacher explains the food pyramid and does not tell the class that it comes from the USDA and HHS, that is not against the law. When your doctor suggests a flu shot and doesn't mention that she's just parroting the official line on flu shots from the CDC, she is not a covert propagandist.

And the difference between those things and what the EPA did is actually one very specific detail. The GAO lawyer, Edda Emmanuelli Perez, says that detail-- the EPA suggested the exact words that it wanted people to tweet. And it was misleading.

Edda Emmanuelli Perez

When you look at that message, it says I support EPA's efforts you know, to protect my health, et cetera. The I in that sentence sounds like it's that person, from whose account the messages is being generated.

But that sentence was written by EPA. And they crafted the message and got someone else to say it for them.

Ira Glass

Are there federal rules against overt propaganda?

Edda Emmanuelli Perez

I'm not aware of any.

Ira Glass

You heard that right. It may be illegal for the EPA to do what it did. But overt propaganda-- spin, obfuscation, lying, overstating evidence-- when it's done by the president, when it's done by members of Congress, they would actually have to defraud the United States government, or like, an official would need to commit a high crime worthy of constitutional action, to get in trouble. Overt propaganda-- that's just politics.

Act Four. Party On!

Ira Glass

Act Four, "Party On." So to end our show today we have the story of a very effective, and perhaps counter-intuitive, propaganda campaign that started in China, right in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.

Of course, Tiananmen Square was 1989. The government killed an unknown number of people-- at least hundreds, possibly 2,000, many of them students, who'd been calling for democracy and other changes.

Nancy Updike talked to Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who spent seven years reporting in China about how the Chinese leadership adapted in the aftermath.

Nancy Updike

The country's leaders were shocked by the demonstrations at Tiananmen. Because until then, for 40 years, they had been deploying a package of propaganda that worked.

Its message was the Communist Party brought a glorious transformation to China. The country was the envy of the world because of that transformation. It had the best political system possible.

And the party had made everyone's lives better. And the government thought most people accepted that, until Tiananmen filled up with students and others who had clearly been seduced by foreign notions.

Evan Osnos

That was, by any definition, a failure of Chinese education and propaganda. That's how the party viewed it.

Nancy Updike

That's Evan Osnos.

Evan Osnos

In fact, for a while they talked about getting rid of the propaganda department. They said it's been such a failure. But instead of getting rid of it, they, in fact, doubled down on it.

Nancy Updike

They doubled down, but not in the way you'd expect, not by getting even more shrill about the greatness of the nation and the happiness of the people. The party could see that people weren't buying it anymore.

And they weren't buying it because the truth was too stark. After four decades of communist rule, people were not as poor as they'd been, though they were still poor. But the thing that was really getting to them was the blatant corruption.

They couldn't help noticing that party members and their families kept getting richer and richer. For some in China, a dangerous idea had taken root, that maybe people elsewhere had it better.

What the government needed at this point was not some upbeat slogan, but a radical new approach to explaining why foreign notions were a trap and why communism was still the best path for China.

This new idea had to be something big. It couldn't admit mistakes or failures of any kind by communist leaders. And it would be great if this new idea had some truth in it, because truth is the magic ingredient in strong propaganda. What the party decided on was--

Evan Osnos

Guochi, national humiliation. The term itself is wuwang guochi, never forget national humiliation.

Nancy Updike

Humiliation, in this context, has a precise meaning.

Evan Osnos

It means defeat at the hands of foreign armies. It means invasion.

Nancy Updike

It's hard to overestimate how shrewd this move by the party was, to build nationalism by focusing on the country's defeats. I think to Americans this idea makes no sense.

In the United States we occasionally talk about moments when we were underdogs-- the American Revolution, for instance. But that's only because we came out on top. In general, we see ourselves as a nation of righteous ass kickers. But we're a very young country.

And unlike China, we've never had the terrifying, humiliating experience of being invaded and occupied. China, in the 19th and 20th centuries, had been invaded multiple times, plundered by foreigners year after year after year.

National humiliation was not a new idea for China when the party reintroduced it in the 1990s. It was an old idea that had fallen out of fashion.

Evan Osnos

They dusted off this old idea from Chinese history that went all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. And they said here it is, humiliation. Humiliation has been marketed in China, in a way. Quite literally, it's been marketing.

At one point, in the '20s, there was a Chinese newspaper that was selling national humiliation towels so that people could wash their face every day and remember national humiliation. Because they're towel would remind them of that.

And in the '90s, in the years after Tienanmen Square, the whole apparatus of government was basically enlisted in service of making sure that young people were thinking about the ways in which the country had been harmed by foreigners over the course of their history.

Nancy Updike

National humiliation became a central concept in China after 1991-- in educational materials, in films, in textbooks, including a brand new textbook called--

Evan Osnos

The Practical Dictionary of Patriotic Education. And it included 355 pages on the subject of China's humiliations. So that included battles that China had lost, and places in which foreign soldiers had killed civilians, for instance.

And there were these terms that became very important. So for instance, one of the things that they taught, over and over again, was called the bainian guochi, or the century of national humiliation.

Nancy Updike

The century of national humiliation was a name for the 100 years starting from the first Opium War, when Britain forced China to cede Hong Kong, up through the brutal Japanese occupation of parts of China before and during the Second World War.

To commemorate the century national humiliation, the Chinese government built museums and designated dozens of sites all over the country in the '90s, including many places of defeat and invasion.

Evan Osnos

Places that, really, previously nobody had cared about, the sites of old battle and things. And they started turning these into sacred sites. And that was some of the language they used. They used this really religious language.

These became part of normal education. You would go there on field trips. For instance, students were expected to go to a certain number of field trips by the time they graduated from middle school to patriotic education sites.

You would go to places in China and you would see references to this subject of guochi, national humiliation. You'd see it inscribed, for instance, on the wall, at the front of a museum.

Nancy Updike

Inside the Communist Party, it became a frenzy to see who could support the idea of national humiliation most vehemently, most perfectly.

Evan Osnos

The National People's Congress approved a holiday called National Humiliation Day. But then there was too much enthusiasm. There were so many proposals in the Congress for which day that should be. And some people wanted it to be September 18.

Nancy Updike

September 18, the beginning of Japan's occupation of Manchuria.

Evan Osnos

And some people wanted it to be September 7.

Nancy Updike

The day of defeat for a Chinese uprising against the British and others.

Evan Osnos

And some people said no, no. It should be in June.

Nancy Updike

In June there had been a massacre in the 1920s.

Evan Osnos

They couldn't agree on one. And so they didn't end up instituting it.

Shu Cao Mo

Are we recording? Yes, we are.

Nancy Updike

Great.

I called a young Chinese woman named Shu Cao Mo. She's part of that first generation of Chinese students who were taught this new, post-Tienanmen curriculum.

Shu Cao left China for college. She came to the US, to Duke University. She still lives here. She remembers, as a kid, learning the key phrases, national humiliation, century of humiliation, how foreigners had invaded and abused China, until the Communist Party came to power in a great revolution.

Details of the revolution were omitted-- mass starvation, torture, ideological conformity at all costs.

Shu Cao Mo

It was really this sense of this humiliation, this century of humiliation, legitimizes revolution. And in the textbooks, what I kept learning was how we had those revolutionary heroes who are supposed to be our role models.

Nancy Updike

These stories about revolutionary heroes appeared throughout the curriculum, often without using the words "national humiliation" at all. The phrase was only the most blunt, noticeable part of the campaign.

Shu Cao says the concept was embedded all over, especially in stories. In college, she got a scholarship to look at how nationalism is taught in children's books, including textbooks, in three places-- the US, Germany, and China.

For her project, she went back to China and looked at the books she had studied growing up. And she also fact checked some of the stories she remembered learning as a kid.

And it was a strange experience. One of these hero stories, she found out, had been modified dramatically in textbooks in order to amp up the humiliation. It was the story about the five martyrs.

Shu Cao Mo

Who jumped off the cliff in order to save the larger Chinese Army from the Japanese. In Chinese, we call it [CHINESE]. You sacrifice your small self in order to complete the larger whole.

Nancy Updike

That's what that phrase means, mm hm?

Shu Cao Mo

Yeah. And I had always thought that they were dead, because they had sacrificed their lives. And it was only two years ago, when I was doing that research, that I found out that half of them were still alive.

Nancy Updike

It's definitely a better national humiliation story if all the martyrs died, not just some. Shu Cao remembered another story about a Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, who as a teenager had seen a Chinese woman being bullied by foreign occupiers. And right then, witnessing that humiliation, he realized what he needed to do.

Shu Cao Mo

Study for the rise of China. And that phrase was being repeated over and over again in that story. So if you ask any Chinese student, they would know the story and how that became his goal for his life, resurrecting China.

Nancy Updike

Shu Cao hadn't gone to college with the intent of combing through her childhood education. But once she started, she realized how many questions she had built up over the years.

Shu Cao Mo

Growing up in a well-educated family, I had always questioned what's written in my textbooks. I have always questioned what the authority tells me. So it's this slow process of always wondering what's not being said.

Nancy Updike

What's not said is, of course, what's so ingenious about the whole campaign to revive national humiliation. By focusing the country's attention on foreign attacks, the party was diverting attention from its own errors and abuses.

It's a classic misdirect. And both Shu Cao and reporter Evan Osnos say it's worked pretty well, especially with the event that the government has wanted to obscure more than just about any other, Tiananmen.

Evan Osnos

Yeah. A lot of Chinese young people today, to the degree that they know about it-- and the truth is that a lot of Chinese young people know very little about what happened-- what they'll say is that the young people at Tiananmen were naive. And they were tempted by these Western ideas.

But those Western ideas aren't suitable for China, and that, had we gone down that path, we wouldn't be where we are today. We wouldn't be this rising superpower.

Nancy Updike

So it was a humiliation averted, then, Tiananmen.

Evan Osnos

It was. They look at it and they really do say we chose the right path. And it would have been a disaster. So in that sense, the education system has done exactly what it was designed to do.

Nancy Updike

In 2008, when the Olympics were coming to Beijing, there were demonstrations in China again-- lots of young people, like there were a lot of young people at Tiananmen.

But in 2008, what the demonstrators were outraged about was foreigners-- foreigners criticizing China in the run up to the Olympics. These protests were in support of the government.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is a producer for our program. Evan Osnos's book about China, Age of Ambition, won the National Book Award for 2014. It's out in paperback.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sean Cole and our senior producer, Brian Reed, Zoe Chace, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Our editor is Joel Lovell. Julie Snyder's our editorial consultant. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Lilly Sullivan. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager.

Elise Bergerson's our business operations manager. Elma Baker scouts new stories for our show. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator. Research help from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

The musical, "The City is Not For Sale," in act two of our program today, was written, directed, and produced by Leslie Einhorn, Jeremy Rourke, and Sharon Boggs.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, ever since he returned from his South American vacation he has been moping. He'd been complaining how life here seems so dull.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff

There's no friends. There's no party. There's no aguardiente. There's nothing. There's no fun.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.