“Closed?” I said incredulously. “But the schedule said ten —“
My friend shrugged. “Apparently it doesn’t open until noon.”
“Wait, are you telling me they gave out misinformation? That we didn’t get the straight skinny from these people?” I shook my head in admiration. How subtle! Well played, Museum of International Propaganda. Well played.
Arriving back later we found the museum’s doors open and the co-founder, Lilka Areton, in a room filled with dramatic, romanticized images of some of history’s scariest villains. Here were Stalin, Hitler, Kim Il-Sung, and Mao as you’ve never seen them before, surrounded by flowers and sunbeams, holding babies, gazing confidently into a glorious future that somehow failed to materialize.
“What inspired you to collect all this?” I asked.
“My father was a Marxist,” Lilka told me. “A true believer. He sent me to the Soviet Union in 1960, when I was twenty. I went with a friend, and we toured all around, camping along the way.” She shook her head ruefully. “It wasn’t the paradise my father imagined. I spent the whole time arguing politics with people.”
Several years later in New York, she met a young Czechoslovakian named Tom Areton, whose mother survived the Nazi era and time in Auschwitz, then raised her family under the Socialist regime that followed. One of the museum’s exhibits, “On the Porch,” is a painting that hung in the school Tom attended as a boy. It shows a smiling Soviet Red Army colonel surrounded by happy villagers his troops have just liberated from the Germans. What could be more heartwarming than that?
After Tom and Lilka married, they moved to Marin County, California and in 1980 launched a non-profit student-exchange program, Cultural Homestay International. It became one of the largest such programs in the world, bringing 12,000 foreign kids to the USA each year. In the course of their work with CHI, the Aretons traveled to 80 countries, collecting political propaganda pieces wherever they went.
This year they gathered their best twentieth-century political art and opened the Museum of International Propaganda in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. The Aretons define propaganda as “the calculated manipulation of information designed to shape public opinion and behavior to predetermined ends . . . Subjectivity, disinformation, exaggeration, and the outright falsification of facts are the hallmarks of propaganda practitioners.”
The exhibits are nicely organized and labeled with clarity and flair. For instance, the caption for "Mao Tse-Tung Surrounded by Four Adoring Red Guards" reads, "Just like the statues of the most venerated Saints, Mao is not connecting with his admirers but looks over their heads, other-worldly, into the Communist future.” Of course, while Mao was envisioning a heaven on earth, his policies created an unholy mess that resulted in famine that killed tens of millions of his people. But hey, that’s reality for you.
It’s easy to appreciate that kind of irony after the fact and from afar. When Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at New York’s Syracuse University, visited the museum, he pointed out, “If another country does it, it’s propaganda. If our country does it, it’s patriotism.” He added that these forms of propaganda “are all tapping into the deep emotions that are part of the soul. We still have propaganda that’s operating under the same principles. One can argue that every TV commercial is propaganda.” I don’t think we have to search too far for examples of that during these final days of the run-up to the US presidential election.
If being inundated with propaganda teaches us anything, it’s that the key to manipulating people is getting them to abandon rationality in favor of symbolic thinking. When we see a smiling man holding a baby with flowers, our brains are hardwired to assume he’s a decent guy — until we realize that the kindly Uncle Joe in the picture is Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator who unleashed the Great Terror that took millions of lives. In a world that continues to be awash with carefully crafted deception, how can we ever hope to know the truth?
There’s no easy answer, but here are seven warning signs, drawn from the museum’s exhibit categories, that should spark a ping from our internal falsehood-seeking radar:
And now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to admit that I was wrong. I checked the museum’s visiting hours in the final days of October and arrived there on November 2, just after the new winter schedule shifted the opening time to noon. This revelation may not be earth-shattering or worthy of a painting with flowers and sunbeams, but whew! I feel better having removed one tiny untruth from the world.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
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