Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

22 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Communist Threat: A Trip Through America’s Ideological Wayback Machine

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From Walt Disney to Stalin, or how 1952 America interpreted the Soviet regime.

During World War II, some of the West’s greatest filmmakers — including Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock — put their Hollywood films on hiatus and started producing propaganda films on behalf of the U.S. government. Even Walt Disney did his part. Eventually, when the war drew to a close, these iconic filmmakers went back to making commercial films. But propaganda films kept right on going. The Cold War was getting underway, and because the danger was more potential than actual, the U.S. government felt an extra need to paint a picture for its citizens.

Just what was the existential threat coming out of the Soviet Union? A series of films made it clear. Some , like Communism (1952), offered a brief overview of the historical and ideological foundations of Communism and its point men — Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the rest. Others, like the famous Duck and Cover educational video, gave young Americans and their parents every reason to fear the atomic bomb. And others still talked about the superiority of capitalism and the American way of life.

The fact that the Soviet regime (which produced its own Cold War propaganda) was repressive, no one doubts. But whether the regime truly posed an existential threat to the U.S. has remained somewhat open to debate. Just watch Noam Chomsky speaking on the matter in 1985.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Tales for Little Rebels: Radical Politics in Famous Children’s Books

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What Dr. Seuss has to do with gender politics, or how Carl Sandburg carried out anti-war propaganda.

I have a soft spot for beautiful and thoughtful children’s books, especially children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature explores how the political beliefs of famous mid-century American authors shaped their cherished stories, teaching children to question rather than obey authority, to stand up and out rather than conform, to develop critical thinking skills rather than seek redemption through prayer.

Featuring 43 mostly out-of-print stories, comic strips, poems, primers, and other illustrated literary ephemera for pre-teen readers, the collection spans work by such icons as Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Norma Klein, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, as well as lesser-know authors, many of whom blacklisted at the time. The stories cover everything from civil rights to gender politics to environmental responsibility to dignity of labor, and each piece is prefaced by an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.

Editor Julia Mickenberg offers an instantly sensible explanation for the project’s proposition:

People interested in changing the world have to be looking towards the future and are therefore interested in children.”

Jack Zipes writes in the book’s introduction:

The very idea of ‘radical children’s literature’ may be surprising, because we do not commonly think about the connections between children’s literature and politics. But children’s literature has always been ideological. Consider an ABC from the 1680s: ‘A. In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all.’ And, next to a picture of a Bible, ‘B. Thy Life to Mend / This Book Attend.’ The New England Primer teaches more than just literacy.”

Zipes points out the perplexing paradox in how we tend to think about what the appropriate and inappropriate subjects of children’s literature are, arguing that morality and politics are both embedded in

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ [...] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.”

Tales for Little Rebels made me think of the subtle ideological messages in some of my favorite recent children’s books — in Blexbolex’s People, a meditation on human duality challenging commonly held stereotypes; in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, a reflection on our search for belonging in an ever-confusing world; in Fani Marceau’s Panorama, a passionate case for biodiversity conservation; in Christoph Niemann’s That’s How!, a playful prompt to question the accepted explanations we’re given about how the world works.

via Meta Filter; images courtesy of NYU Press

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Parastou Forouhar: Art, Life and Death in Iran

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Turning tragedy into a source of creativity, or why art doesn’t have to be street art to be politically subversive.

One November evening in 1998, Iranian intellectuals and activists Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, supporters of the democratically elected Prime Minister, were savagely murdered in their home in Tehran. Their devastated daughter, Berlin-based artist Parastou Forouhar, channeled her grief in the language she spoke most fluently: art — powerful, poignant, subversive art that pulls you into its uncomfortable beauty with equal parts urgency and mesmerism. In, Parastou Forouhar: Art, Life and Death in Iran, London-based writer and curator Rose Issa has gathered some of Forouhar’s most provocative yet poetic work from the artist’s exhibitions in Germany, exploring everything from democracy to women’s rights to her parents’ brutal murder.

In a way, Forouhar’s work is the polar opposite of the loud, conspicuous, explicit messaging of Iran’s street art. Her soft colors and fluid shapes might lull you into their surface beauty…until you realize they depict scenes of torture and tragedy — living proof that art doesn’t have to be “street art” in order to be subversive and make compelling cultural commentary on even the most uncomfortable of subjects.

When I arrived in Germany, I was Parastou Forouhar. Somehow, over the years, I’ve become ‘Iranian.’ This enforced ethnic identification took a new turn with the assassination of my parents in their home in Tehran. My efforts to investigate this crime had a great impact on my personal and artistic sensibilities. Political correctness and democratic coexistence lost their meaning in my daily life. As a result, I have tried to distill this conflict of displacement and transfer of meaning, turning it into a source of creativity.” ~ Parastou Forouhar

Images copyright Parastou Forouhar courtesy of Saqi Books

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