Journalist Immigrant American Hero

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By David Michael Newstead.

Superman mythology has a few key ingredients: Krypton, Kansas, Metropolis, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane. And while his adventures tend to change with the times, one thing is always consistent. The Man of Steel is a reporter at The Daily Planet. In fact, he’s so committed to journalism that he’s been working there for 80 years straight. If his catchphrase is any guide, Clark Kent fights for truth first and foremost. Justice and the American way? Those come later. Wearing the costume of a regular person, he gets up and goes to work: researching, writing, and investigating. For him, the action and adventure, however dramatic, are really the exception to his daily life. The less glamorous reality is that of a man living in a big city filled with villains. He has aging parents, a career-minded girlfriend, and a job at a newspaper. Created in the tumultuous world of the 1930s, maybe Superman’s chosen profession is no coincidence. Propaganda, prejudice, and villains of every description were abundant in 1938 and they couldn’t all be defeated in a fist fight. And in a time when democracy itself was on the line, the world needed heroes with or without capes. What they got was Clark Kent the immigrant, Superman the journalist, and Kal-El the American.

Dictators are Bad… at Writing

By David Michael Newstead.

Daniel Kalder’s latest book The Infernal Library is a deep dive into perhaps the strangest genre of literature in existence: dictator literature. It’s a look at history’s worst writing by history’s worst people from Lenin and Stalin to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Saddam Hussein’s romance novels. And while bad books are typically ignored or ridiculed in a democracy, books written by a totalitarian madman tend to have massive print runs, suspiciously positive reviews, and a legacy that would be comical if it wasn’t so horrific. Fortunately, author Daniel Kalder has read all these monstrosities so you don’t have to. He recently joined me to talk about dictators and The Infernal Library.

David Newstead: You emphasize how badly written many of these books are, but would you say any of them are worth reading nowadays? And if so, why?

Daniel Kalder: It depends on what you mean by worth reading. As guides to political or moral truth? Absolutely not. But as evidence of how quickly bad ideas can move to the center and derail entire civilizations, causing immense carnage and suffering for decades, and to see how very clever people can delude themselves into believing utter absurdities? Yes.

The Manichean ways of thinking that thrived in the 20th century persist and pose a danger to this day, although they are currently in less extreme forms. We should be able to recognize the signs, even if the specific details vary. There is no reason to believe that, given the right (or wrong) circumstances our species wouldn’t succumb to such terrible simplifications again.

That said, these books are truly awful and exceptionally difficult to plow through, and I understand why people who lived under dictatorial regimes would rather forget them.

David Newstead: It feels strange to phrase it like this, but do you have a favorite book from the ones you’ve read? Like were any of the books so bad they were good?

Daniel Kalder: In terms of “so bad it’s good”… mostly they’re so bad they’re just really bad. But Mussolini was a talented journalist and political provocateur before he was the Fascist dictator of Italy and he wins the prize for “least worst.” His diary of his experiences during the First World War even borders on being a good book. At first it contains the usual bombast you’d expect from “Il Duce” but as the war goes in, it breaks down his persona, and he writes powerfully and honestly about the boredom, horror and despair of life in the trenches. Ho Chi Minh also wrote a volume of poetry which is readable.

David Newstead: What was the absolute worst book in your opinion?

Daniel Kalder: Mein Kampf is every bit as vile as you’d expect it to be, and exceedingly badly written. But Gaddafi’s The Green Book is a concatenation of sheer gibberish that may be even less competent as a literary work. I go back and forth between those two.

David Newstead: Are there any notable dictators who just didn’t bother writing or pretending to write anything and are therefore not included in your book?

Daniel Kalder: The right wing military dictators of Latin America could not always be bothered to publish books. Many of them did not feel the need to pose as super theorists, and they certainly didn’t feel the need to translate their deep thoughts and disseminate them around the world like so many 20th century dictators. The irony, of course, is that they inspired so many good writers to take up the pen, with the result that the “dictator novel” is one of the genres most closely identified with Latin American literature.

David Newstead: Personally, I thought your book was very funny. And one thing that stuck out to me is that although dictator literature crosses a lot of genres from romance novels to Marxist theory, none of the authors seem to have a sense of humor even in their writing. From your readings, do you think that’s an accurate description? And if so, what’s behind that phenomenon?

Daniel Kalder: It’s accurate. Dictator books are aggressively humorless; although Mussolini, in his early days as a provocateur-journalist, could produce some entertaining invective. Laughter undermines authority and so dictators do not encourage it, and certainly not when it comes to their own words and personality cults. They prefer the “solemn joy” of the sort that can be cast into the face of a bronze monument.

David Newstead: There aren’t a lot of female dictators in your book or in general. Any thoughts on that?

Daniel Kalder: There have been female autocrats in history, though no there were no female dictators in the 20th century. As far as Nazis, Fascists and sundry right wing nationalist dictators go, it’s fairly simple: they believed women should be mothers and home makers, and that was that. On the communist side, there was a lot of talk about equality, and it wasn’t all bogus: women’s access to education did improve, and women became engineers and even bricklayers in the USSR. But the party elites were largely male and remained that way to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The most prominent and influential female revolutionary of the early 20th century was Rosa Luxemburg, and she was murdered after a failed attempt at staging an uprising in Germany in 1919.

More recently, Grace Mugabe in Zimbabwe looked like she was getting all her ducks in a row to succeed her husband, but then the army staged a coup. The Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara was at one point tipped as a possible successor to her father, but then she fell out with her family and was detained. Kim Jong Un’s sister is said to be a powerful force behind the scenes, as was (I believe) his aunt, though they do not wield power directly, of course.

David Newstead: Speaking of the ghostwritten texts of male heads of state, what’s your opinion of The Art of the Deal?

Daniel Kalder: I own a copy (got it for a buck on the clearance shelves of my local bookstore), but so far have only had time to dip in and out of the riches it no doubt contains. There was a passage where he describes a trip to Moscow to discuss “deals”, though that was during the Soviet period, so no smoking gun. Mainly I was struck by the consistency of voice between Trump then and now; short sentences, limited vocabulary, that sort of thing. His ghostwriter did a good job.

David Newstead: You touch on the relative decline of dictator literature today. And while that feels like a good thing, I can’t help wondering if it’s a symptom of something else like people reading less or the overall decline of print media or all the modern dictatorships without any real ideology to write about. I guess my question is, do you think this signifies the decline of dictatorships in general or the adaptation of tyranny from one form to another?

Daniel Kalder: Literacy levels are much higher now than they were when the dictators of the 20th century started cranking out their collected works. I suspect their inaccessibility gave them extra numinous power to believers and careerists. But the very idea of “the book” as something high and noble (which is a holdover from religion) has lost some of its aura, and the decline of ideology also plays a part. Dictator texts served as substitute sacred texts, as evidence that the dictators were super theorists, more qualified than any other to wield power. But the ideas were so thoroughly exhausted and/or discredited by the end of the 20th century that they had lost their force, and perhaps more importantly the regimes lost the will to enforce even the appearance of belief. Today’s authoritarians are more modest than their predecessors. They set their sights lower. They don’t proclaim millenarian fantasies, or claim to be guiding humanity/the tribe to some earthly utopia. They manage “democracies”, manipulate elections and talk about raising living standards.

David Newstead: Related to that, what do you think will come next? For example, Chechnya’s ruler used to be pretty active on Instagram. Between photos of dictators riding shirtless on horseback and insane tweets, is this what we have to look forward to?

Daniel Kalder: I think we can expect dictators to use every channel they have open to them. The Ayatollah Khamenei is on Twitter. I remember he tweeted about his favorite Russian authors once. They were all writing about the Bolshevik revolution. But the books will continue to appear: Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are all authors, as are the less well known authoritarian leaders of Central Asia.

David Newstead: For this book, you had to read some of the worst garbage ever mass produced. What’s your next project going to be? And are you going to continue to subject yourself to this kind of torment?

Daniel Kalder: The Infernal Library took almost a decade to research and write so my instinct is to say I’d never subject myself to anything like this again… but I am attracted to difficult or seemingly impossible projects, so who knows? For now, however, I am still in recovery. For the last six months I haven’t been able to read anything more complicated than a 1970s Conan comic.

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Graphic Design & Internet Propaganda with Aaron Wood

By David Michael Newstead.

As warfare moves online, perhaps it’s only natural that propaganda posters do the same. And at the forefront of this, you’ll find graphic designer Aaron Wood. A few years ago, Wood’s satirical posters turned social media into World War Two style propaganda. Now, it seems his satire is our reality. But Aaron’s work is far from the common meme on Facebook and today Aaron Wood joins me to discuss his career and propaganda.

David Newstead: So, how long have you been a graphic designer?

Aaron Wood: About 15 years. I’ve held design positions in a print shop, gift wrap company, and a copy shop. I also was a freelancer for a couple years, when it was my primary source of income.

David Newstead: What made you want to get into the field?

Aaron Wood: I’ve always loved art. I’ve got a background in drawing/illustration. When I was at the Art Institute of Boston in the mid-1990s, I picked up a real love of fonts and layout.

David Newstead: How would you describe a typical day?

Aaron Wood: Usually I’ll do research for a couple hours coming up with inspiration and ideas. Then I’ll spend an hour or so doing some rough sketching on paper. Then I just dive in and start creating until I’m satisfied. After that, it’s time to promote my work online, and list things in my Etsy shop.

David Newstead: What inspired the propaganda poster series? And what has the response been like?

Aaron Wood: This is a long answer. I wound up joining Google+ when it was in the beta. I quickly found that most people on there pretty much hated anything that wasn’t Google related. Facebook and Apple specifically. So I thought, “This is like an online war.” And then I remembered some of the classic WW2 propaganda. I didn’t want to just change out the type on some of the classics, so I went ahead and made some original posters. Twitter “Be Brief“, Facebook “Farms,” and Google+ “All Must Be Shared.”

The response was highly overwhelming. Some key people shared my work, including the Pete Cashmore from Mashable, and also Jaime Derringer from Design Milk. On a whim I listed them in my newly opened Etsy shop and couldn’t keep the posters in stock.

David Newstead: You’ve made a good number of propaganda posters for social media platforms and other things. Spotify, etc. Do you feel like your work was foreshadowing actual social media propaganda?

Aaron Wood: In some ways, yes. Privacy does play a huge part in people’s online dealings, and that aspect definitely comes into play in my posters. Also, how companies vie for how long people stay on their sites, and how often they’re used.

David Newstead: Out of curiosity, do you have any favorite posters from the Second World War?

Aaron Wood: Two of my favs are Loose Lips Might Sink Ships and We Can Do It (Rosie the Riveter).

David Newstead: What are some of your artistic influences? And do you have a favorite piece you’ve done?

Aaron Wood: I really love anything Art Deco, Pulp/Noir, and a lot of Allied WW2 propaganda, so that plays heavily into my more recent pieces. I’d have to say my Retro Planet posters, and also my Twitter Fail Whale and Apple War Bonds pieces.

David Newstead: What are you working on now and what’s your next big project?

Aaron Wood: I just wrapped up working on the art/design/layout for a card game. Robot Rise! Embrace Your Inner Mad Scientist is on Kickstarter and we hit our goal recently. About a week left on the campaign. View here. Not sure what’s next up!

Check out more of Aaron’s work on Etsy and Behance.

The Cult of Masculinity

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By David Michael Newstead. 

Dictators often build a cult of personality around themselves to emphasize how “great” they are through government propaganda. Notable examples of this include Stalin, Mao, and Hitler along with people like Francisco Franco, the Kim family in North Korea, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and others. In practice, this might consist of songs glorifying the leader or statues and art in their likeness. But typically, the one thing these personality cults have in common is unending praise heaped onto the leader’s supposed exploits no matter how ridiculous. For instance, North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il once claimed to have shot 11 hole-in-ones in a single round of golf.

The most modern incarnation of a cult of personality though has to be the cult of masculinity. This is when propaganda highlights the leader’s “manliness” at every available opportunity, while simultaneously trying to disparage and emasculate his opponents. For some time now, this trend has been epitomized by Russian President Vladimir Putin who plays at being a shirtless action hero and pseudo-father figure to the nation. Over the years, however, cults of masculinity have arguably popped up in Egypt, the Philippines, and maybe even the United States. This then creates a disturbing social dynamic where the leader’s masculinity equals national strength and national strength equals their masculinity often at the expense of anyone else: women, political opposition groups, LGBTQ citizens.

At best, this represents the last gasp of traditional gender norms in a world that is no longer that traditional. The risk, however, is that some men’s resentment will cause this to intensify precisely because things have changed.

Social Media Propaganda

By David Michael Newstead.

Aldous Huxley once said that technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards. With that in mind, it occurred to me that these satirical propaganda posters about social media from a few years ago are surprisingly (and disturbingly) realistic depictions of life in 2017. Take a look and judge for yourself.

2+2=5

By David Michael Newstead.

Made famous by George Orwell’s novel 1984, the slogan 2+2=5 is used to represent the absurdity of political falsehoods and lying propaganda. But it wasn’t a figment of Orwell’s imagination. In fact, the author was referencing an actual propaganda campaign from Stalin’s Russia, which Orwell was highly critical of.

For Stalin, 2+2=5 was a rallying cry, boasting that the goals of the first five-year plan had been achieved ahead of schedule in only four years. Meant to rapidly modernize the Soviet economy between 1928 and 1932, the first five-plan had indeed collectivized farmland and created heavy industry throughout the country. But like most things Stalin related, there was a sizable body count. The collectivization of agriculture, for example, triggered a famine in which millions died, while industrial workers were harshly punished for failing to reach an ever-increasing set of quotas associated with the plan. Still, propaganda posters were churned out just the same, proclaiming success regardless of the numbers.

Today, circumstances may have changed, but political falsehoods live on. Orwell’s work is being re-read like never before and Stalin is once again admired by the Russian state. As for 2+2=5, it feels like the slogan is only one press conference, one tweet, or TV interview away from resurfacing – from being proudly shouted at anyone within earshot. It’s something George Orwell understood very well and a phenomenon that we’ll have plenty of time to think about.

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Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

By David Michael Newstead.

In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev discusses his nine years working in reality TV in Moscow. It’s a place where beautiful gold diggers who never knew their fathers dream of meeting a rich husband, ex-gangsters become local heroes who direct action movies, and religious cults try to warp the minds of their followers to an absurd degree. But as he looked deeper, the British producer finds the scripted reality of television merging with the scripted reality of authoritarian politics into something new and frightening.

The book opens with Pomerantsev reflecting on his time in Moscow.

“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just on glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the President’s vizier would call “the heights of creation.” It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”

The author discovers how control of the media, particularly of television, allows for Orwellian levels of manipulation over the truth, creating phantom threats to the country and phantom supermen to defend it. And on TV channels like RT, journalism and propaganda go hand in hand, while every political voice seems to just be playing a part in some stage production mimicking a democracy. In particular, Pomerantsev focuses on key Kremlin spin doctor, Vladislav Surkov, as he churns out post-apocalyptic novels and discusses art ad nauseam, while simultaneously orchestrating the elaborate political theatre in Russia as well as the wave of propaganda that engulfed neighboring Ukraine. Of other politicians like Surkov, Pomerantsev writes:

Glance through the careers of these new religious patriots, and you find they were recently committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernization, innovation, and commitment to Russia’s European course, before which they were all good Communists. And though on the one hand their latest incarnations are just new acts in the Moscow political cabaret, something about their delivery is different from the common Russian political performer who gives his rants with a knowing wink and nod. Now the delivery is somewhat deadpan. Flat and hollowed-eyed, as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical.

He continues:

The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.

But behind that curtain of misinformation, Pomerantsev details a system that robs owners of their businesses, proliferates corruption at all levels, and embezzles massive wealth right out of the country into the welcoming arms of Swiss and British banks. Eventually, the author returns to London only to find it inhabited by many of the Russian oligarchs and supermodels he thought he left behind in Moscow. Dismayed, Pomerantsev learns of a young tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky who died horribly in a Russian prison for exposing a corruption scheme: money that eventually made its way to safe havens in the West. And in an excruciatingly relevant interview, he quotes Magnitsky’s former boss, Jamison Firestone, on the changes already in progress.

London shocked me. The whole system is built around wanting that money to come here. We want their money. We want their trade. And now you’ve got former German chancellor Schroeder and Lord Mandelson and Lord So-and-So working for these Russian state companies, and you know I think they should just be honest and say ‘some Kremlin company offered me 500,000 to sit on their board and I don’t do anything and I don’t know anything about how the company is run but sometimes they ask me to open some doors.’ And the argument I hear from everyone is ‘well if the money doesn’t go here it will go somewhere else’: well here ain’t going to be here if you take that attitude, here is going to be there. We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself. This,” and here Jamison takes a breath and waves his hand around to denote Maida Vale, London, the whole of Western civilization, “this is fragile.”

Timely and ominous, the book is a must-read and perhaps a warning of things to come.

Read Nothing is True and Everything is Possible