Bandung, Identity and Media Perceptions

Delegates at the Bandung Conference 1955

A couple of weeks ago, journalist Howard French brought attention to an ongoing problem in American journalism regarding coverage – or lack thereof – of Africa and indirectly about the developing world in general.  In his open letter to the American TV news magazine 60 Minutes, which was co-signed by dozens of other journalists and academics, French states that voices from the African continent are muted and reduced to racial stereotypes.  He pointed to recent segments from the program that only interviewed “white saviors” and featured jungle animals.  He also took issue with the fact that no actual Africans were interviewed for a 60 Minutes piece on Ebola.

When I was in journalism school, this reporting phenomenon was called coup and earthquake syndrome, where the developing world is only covered by the Western media when there is a war, natural disaster or some other atrocity in a biased manner.  International news coverage is already bad in America, but when you add in the constant negative news from the developing world, it does a disservice to both the people who are covered and Western news readers.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference, an international meeting of 29 African and Asian countries in Indonesia.  While this conference is today considered a minor bookmark in Cold War history, Bandung was significant in not only jump-starting the Non-Aligned Movement, but also it was the first time the developing world had the opportunity to discuss a variety of social, economic and political concerns in their own countries and have a voice on an international platform.  While it might seem significant to see and hear from emerging African and Asian leaders, the Western media for the most part ignored the conference.

In 1955 most of the countries in attendance had recently become independent from their colonial rulers and were just starting to understand their role in a world divide by the capitalist United States and communist Russia.

Photo of Richard WrightFamed American writer Richard Wright was intrigued by this mass gathering representing over one billion people of color.  As a black man who lived in the Jim Crow South and wrote about his experiences in Black Boy and Native Son, Wright believed that Black Americans, Africans and Asians shared the same common suffering of racism, colonialism and mental slavery.

Wright once said in a 1947 interview that a black person in America “is intrinsically a colonial subject, but one who lives not in China, India, or Africa, but next door to his conquerors, attending their schools, fighting their wars, and laboring in their factories.  The American Negro problem, therefore, is but a facet of the global problem that splits the world into two: handicraft vs. mass production; family vs. the individual; tradition vs. progress; personality vs. collectivity; the East (the colonial people) vs. the West (exploiters of the world).”

With a growing interest in global affairs with regards to race and identity politics, Wright decided to attend Bandung as a credentialed journalist representing the anti-communist Congress of Cultural Freedom.  He wrote a series of essays about his trip, which were subsequently turned into his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference.

I recently reread this book and found Wright to be an amazing journalist and storyteller.  The Color Curtain is possibly the most comprehensive media coverage about Bandung simply because Wright actually interviewed conference attendees and, thus, was able to capture the true essence and nature of the gathering. I highly recommend reading it!

Throughout his writings, Wright talks to Indonesians and other Asians from a wide variety of life experiences about what the conference meant to them in the post-colonial context.  He talked to them about their views on family, religion, education and politics in Indonesia and their former colonial rulers in the Netherlands.  What you learn from the interviews is that racial and class identity mean different things to differnt interviewees and the idea of a particular race and identity is not confined to specific countries or regions.

Wright also talked about other interesting people he met in Bandung.  One story from his book that stood out to me was when he talked to a white American woman who was scared of her black American female roommate.  The white woman thought the black woman got up in the middle of the night to practice voodoo using a “blue light” wand and spent an hour in the bathroom and came out lighter-skinned.  When Wright probed the scared woman further, he realized that the black woman was most likely straightening her kinky hair with a hot comb and applying skin lightening cream, and didn’t want the white woman to see her real black self.  Wright found it amazing that at a conference that was designed to address racism, that the white woman reduced the black woman to a racial stereotype, and the black woman felt she had to change her natural appearance to fit the standard of Western beauty because of her own mental colonialism.

Wright found in his interviews that all the attendees had high hopes and dreams for their new future.  Bandung had a full agenda, with discussions about racism in South Africa, colonial tensions between France and North Africa, the Palestine question, and if China, India and Egypt were forming an alliance.  However, if you only read the limited coverage from the Western media at the time about the conference, you would have had a different impression.

The United States refused to officially recognize the conference, citing that it was a gathering to recruit more countries into adopting communism.  U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said this in a radio interview in March 1955: “Three of the Asian parties to the Pacific Charter, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand, may shortly be meeting with other Asian countries at a so-called Afro-Asian conference.”  The U.S. government then began a larger propaganda campaign in the media against the conference.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with Zhou Enlai (left), Bandung conference, 1955. He didn't think China would attack us. (Photograph by Getty Images)

Much was said at the time about “Red” China’s presence at Bandung and it’s communist “intentions.”  But if you read The Color Curtain, you find out the intentions were far from the political Left.  A couple of Wright’s interviewees said bluntly that a communism infusion in Indonesia would be somewhat impossible since 90 percent of the country is Muslim.  Most of the other countries represented at the conference were also deeply religious – Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Shintoist and Christian and their religions conflicted with atheist communism.  Even China recognized that it had to address the conference differently mainly because of the religious and cultural differences throughout Asia and Africa.

The Western media also focused on the “problem” of excluding white delegates at the conference, which is interesting since non-whites were always excluded from such discussions about their own countries during colonialism.  Wright wrote about how the world’s media covered Bandung, including quoting British journalist and government propagandist Sefton Delmar who said that the conference was a “political jamboree” that was “very exclusive and colour conscious.”

From the Examiner of Tasmania (Australia), December 1954: “Their invitation to twenty-five nations, including Communist China, but excluding all Western countries, to a conference in April, could be the beginning of an upsurge of racial hatred against the West.”  Newsweek compared Bandung to the impending “Yellow Peril,” as it foresaw the formation of a global African-Asian menace.

But not all the media coverage was bad.  The Christian Science Monitor said this: “… The West is excluded.  Emphasis is on the colored nations of the world.  And for Asia it means that at last the destiny of Asia is being determined in Asia, and not in Geneva, or Paris, or London or Washington.  Colonialism is out.  Hands off is the word.  Asia is free.  This is perhaps the great historic event of our century.”

At the end of the conference, a communique was created, with the attendees addressing their grievances to the Western world.  While the communique had the best of intentions and sounded great on paper, even Wright admits that some of grievances would be harder to address because of their complexity.  Wright interviewed an MIT social scientist who believed that tangibles like economic development and international trade would be easier to help build bridges between the Western world and the former colonial world.  However, intangibles like attitudes and perceptions will be harder to break for both worlds.  This is possibly why there is still this awkwardness and bias about how the Western media covers the developing world today.  Perceptions, stereotypes and attitudes are hard to break.

Wright said this about the media in 1955, which is still relevant in 2015:

“It was strange, but, in this age of swift communication, one had to travel thousands of miles to get a set of straight, simple facts.  One of the greatest ironies of the twentieth century is that when communication has reached its zenith, when the human voice can encircle the globe in a matter of seconds, when man can project the image of his face thousands of miles, it is almost impossible to know with any degree of accuracy the truth of a political situation only a hundred miles distant! Propaganda jams the media of communication.”

What WWI Posters Say About Early 20th Century War Marketing

Side by side posters of James Montgomery Flagg's poster "I Want You For U.S. Army" (left) and Alfred Leete's "Britons, Lord Kitchener Wants You To Join Your Country's Army. God Save The King" (right)

This year marks the 100 anniversary of the start of World War I.  A good way of judging a society is the way it communicated it values and instincts during a particular time.  Long before modern communication tools like the Internet and television, graphic designers were given the important task of creating propaganda posters to inspire nations and boost morale during the Great War with aesthetically pleasing imagery.

Just like terrorists, the military needs to have a marketing department too.

On 13 April 1917 – seven days after the United States declared war on Germany – President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information.  In order to reach out to Americans who didn’t read newspapers, go to the movie theater or attend community meetings, the Division of Pictorial Publicity was created to design visual communications.  This comprised of a group of artists and designers who would meet once a week in New York City to discuss poster requests from the government.

The most well known poster from that period was James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam “We Want You For U.S. Army” (Above).  Few people know that Flagg’s poster is actually an imitation of British graphic artist Alfred Leete’s “Britons, Lord Kitchener Wants You” poster.

Developed by the Office of Public Sector Information (or His Majesty’s Stationery Office at the time), British poster designers had a way of using images and words to bring the message home, inciting a sense of guilt for not doing your part in the war effort, as evidence in the next two posters.

Side by side posters of "Daddy, what did you do during the Great War?" and "It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb"

Flagg also designed posters that appealed to America’s worst fear of the war coming stateside, like these poster of Columbia (a personification of America) sleeping while flames are raging behind her and encouraging recruitment.

Side by side posters of "Wake Up America" and "Columbia Calls"

Posters encouraged everyone to fulfil their duty in the Great War, and not just men fighting on the battlefield, but also women. Before the war, most women were housewives. But as men departed to fight on the Front, some women went with them as military nurses. In the United States, women also started doing the jobs men would do, such as machine operators and railroad conductors. There was also a greater demand in the U.S. government for more stenographers, typists and clerks.

While women were doing the work of men, this didn’t mean they received the same rights. Some employers were hostile to women working and didn’t pay them a fair wage or allowed them to unionize. Many employers didn’t provide childcare or even proper bathrooms for women. However, World War I was a major turning point for women, as this was the first time women showed that they could be more than just housewives and, thus, kickstarting the modern women’s rights movement.

Side by side posters of "Do the job he left behind" and "For every fighter a woman worker"

The Committee on Public Information also put out posters encouraging recruitment from African-Americans. Approximately 400,000 African-Americans served in the war, and about 42,000 actually saw action in the European theatre. The posters evoked a sense of heroism, self sacrifice and even the memory of Abraham Lincoln to frame the war effort as a struggle for freedom. Nonetheless, U.S. military units were still heavily segregated and black men still faced the same level of discrimination when they came home after the war.

Side by side WW1 posters of African American soliders

These are some other great posters from the time, encouraging some kind of involvement, whether it was telling men who weren’t enlisted that their labor was just as important, rationing or buying war bonds. World War I propaganda will go down in history as one of the most influential war marketing campaigns.

Posters of "Food Don't Waste It" and "Together We Can"

Posters saying "Little Americans Do Your Part" and "Come On Join Now"

Posters of "Help Them" and "Books Wanted"

Posters of "The Greatest Mother" and "Rivets are Bayonets"

Check out more World War I propaganda posters here.

Racism, Colonialism and the Communist Vision

Viktor Koretsky, "Africa Fights, Africa Will Win" 1968

Viktor Koretsky, “Africa Fights, Africa Will Win” 1968

For many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us.  They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and stake in society.  Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.

–  Nelson Mandela

Over the last few months the relationship between the United States and Russia has grown tense.  Between the ongoing NSA/Ed Snowden saga, strongly enforced anti-gay and anti civil liberties laws by President Vladimir Putin, and concerns about terrorism at the Sochi Winter Olympics, one would get the impression that the Cold War didn’t really end in 1991.

Of course we all know the tension between the two countries goes back to the original start of the Cold War in 1947.  At that same time the Non-Aligned Movement in the colonial world and the American civil rights movement were both in their infancy.  The Soviet Union was looking for a way to communicate the message that the racial struggles of people of color worldwide were connected with the evils of capitalism and imperialism.  This would become one of the most enduring propaganda projects in Soviet history.

Ukrainian graphic designer Viktor Koretsky (1909–1998) created passionate political posters during this era that communicated the idea that communism and multiracial cooperation can work together against the global threat of greed and aggression.

Take for instance the poster above.  It signifies a black man “breaking” the chain, denoting the colonial struggles in Africa, as well as battling against Jim Crow in the United States.  Also, the man is looking towards his left, symbolizing a new direction towards communism.

Here are some of Koretsky’s most memorable posters, which also use symbols of breaking away from a struggle.

Viktor Koretsky, "You will not strangle the freedom of the Arab peoples" 1958

Viktor Koretsky, “You will not strangle the freedom of the Arab peoples” 1958

The struggle Koretsky is referring to here is the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Egypt decided to nationalize the Suez Canal and started building stronger ties with the Soviet Union and China.  The poster shows an Arab man trying to keep the hands of Britain and America from joining together (and taking back control of the Suez Canal).  The handcuffs symbolizing both American dollars and British pounds and the man looking sternly at the American hand.  This was a nod to Nasserism and Pan-Arabism.

Viktor Koretsky, "A Solid Peace for the World" 1965

Viktor Koretsky, “A Solid Peace for the World” 1965

This poster symbolizes a multiracial coalition looking right, or looking towards the West.  The Soviets wanted to stressed that all men were equal and to fight the “struggle” against capitalism together.  (The Soviets were way ahead of “United Colors” of Benetton!)

Viktor Koretsky and Evgeny Abezgus , "Equality" 1963

Viktor Koretsky and Evgeny Abezgus , “Equality” 1963

This is another symbol of racial equality and mutual respect in fighting against capitalism together.

Viktor Koretsky, "American Policy (Domestic/Foreign)" 1970

Viktor Koretsky, “American Policy (Domestic/Foreign)” 1970

Aggression and race rears its ugly head in this poster, demonstrating the communist vision of both domestic and foreign policy in the United States.  On the left a black man is beaten by the police during a civil rights protest.  On the right,  American soldiers looking over a dead body presumably during the Vietnam War.

Viktor Koretsky, "Justice American Style" 1970s

Viktor Koretsky, “Justice American Style” 1960

Here is another symbol of racial struggle, this time a black man about to be lynched with a rope resembling an American dollar sign.  The man is looking to his left (communism) for help.  It also imposes a larger conversation about how racism has supported capitalism during slavery.

Victor Koretsky, Untitled, c. 1960s.

Victor Koretsky, Untitled, c. 1960s.

A terrifying image of racism through the eyes of a young black person, who sees a Klansman and tears streaming down the face.

Viktor Koretsky, "Twins in Spirit and Blood" c.1960s

Viktor Koretsky, “Twins in Spirit and Blood” c.1960s

Koretsky equates American racism (Klansman) with the nuclear arms race (atom bomb).

Viktor Koretsky, "Freedom In America" c.1960

Viktor Koretsky, “Freedom In America” c.1970

A group of African-Americans chained in front of police with the backdrop of the New York City skyline and the home of Wall Street.  It is also symbolizes the hostile relationship between blacks and the police.  NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy comes to mind here.

Back to the Future of Public Diplomacy

Back to the Future of Public Diplomacy

In preparation for my “busy season” – UN Week – I do my usual research on the latest trends in public diplomacy, media development and strategic communication.  As you may recall from last year, I did some interviews with those working in those fields and wrote an article on how technology is redefining diplomatic relations.  New media has created some opportunities, as well as new challenges, for public diplomacy officers worldwide.  However, in order to understand the future of this ever changing field, you have to also understand the history of strategic global communications, especially with regards to the United States.

The latest book I was given to review is also relevant to my research.  Justin Hart’s new book, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy, covers the origins of the “America Century, a period between 1936 and 1953 first introduced by media mogul Henry Luce, when foreign policymakers began to think about America’s image in the world and how to shape it.

Public diplomacy is a very broad term, and means different things in different countries.  For the purposes of this article, I will use definitions used by the U.S. State Department over the years.

According to the Planning Group for Integration of USIA into the State Department (June 20, 1997), “Public Diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences.”

The United States Information Agency (USIA), the U.S. government’s public diplomacy arm and, from 1953 to 1999, the largest full service public relation organization in the world said this about their mission: “Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.”

Also, “Public Diplomacy refers to government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries; its chief instruments are publications, motion pictures, cultural exchanges, radio and television,” according to the 1987 edition of the Dictionary of International Relations Terms.

big stick diplomacy

According to Empire of Ideas, the United States unofficially started doing public diplomacy with China in 1900 through educational exchanges in accordance to the Open Door Policy of 1899.  However, American public diplomacy began in earnest following the Buenos Aires Conference in 1936, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America.  The policy was an effort to project the United States as a promoter of goodwill instead of the commonly held view at the time that it was the “Big Stick” interventionist to the North.

It was interesting to read that there were many discussions at the time about what that goodwill should look like.  Should the United States promote high culture (poetry readings, art exhibits) or popular culture (jazz music)?  Vice President Henry Wallace championed the need for more technical assistance over educational exchanges, as most of the Latin American populace worked in the agrarian sector.  Coincidentally, Wallace, a former Security of Agriculture and a farming business owner, introduced the Honeydew melon to China in the 1940s where it is still referred to today as the Wallace melon.  Wallace’s technical assistance proposals made an impact in how U.S. development aid is orchestrated today.

Since the beginning of the “America Century,” public diplomats have had to straddle the fine line between information sharing and propaganda.  There was always this dilemma of at what point does information become disinformation and a loss of credibility.  Should unfavorable information about America be countered with favorable information, avoid any appearance of justification, or should it simply be ignored?  Should American public diplomats distribute unfavorable information about America if domestic and/or foreign media is or isn’t reporting about it first?

The overarching unfavorable information the United States had to deal with internationally over the years is its dark racial history.  During World War II public diplomats had to grapple with the hypocrisy of promoting the United States as a beacon of democracy and equality to the world while at the same time treating African-Americans poorly under Jim Crow.  American public diplomats were the first U.S. policymakers to address the negative effect of American racism on the country’s image because they were the first to methodically look at image as a foreign policy issue.

The Office of War Information (OWI) created films like “The Negro Soldier” and “Negroes and the War,” as well as a 70-page pamphlet to go with the latter film, to present better images of African-Americans and boost morale.  “Negroes and the War” was intended to show white Americans the important role black soldiers played in World War II, while getting African-Americans to support the fight and this idea of “democracy.”  The OWI spent more money on “Negroes and the War” than on any other wartime material at the time. However, it back-fired as African-Americans found it patronizing and white Southerners thought it was promoting “racial equality.”  Meanwhile, “The Negro Soldier” is now considered a breakthrough film that not only rallied civilians of all races to enlist at the time, but it also changed the way African-Americans were portrayed in films going forward.

Likewise, OWI had to deal with how people of color around the world viewed the United States.  Japanese public diplomats advertised their country as the “champion of the darker races” and were fighting to expel Western colonialism to audiences in other Asian nations and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans.

Not only were American public diplomats not able to defeat Japan’s “empire of ideas,” but they were never able to effectively deal with the racial and colonial politics in the postwar era and the emerging Cold War.

When Mao Zedong’s Chinese Revolution happened in 1949, American public diplomats didn’t know how to deal with it and, in a really bad move, treated the rise of China and its concerns as if they were the same concerns as other poor countries.  Also, America’s Euro-centric approach to foreign policy didn’t help things either. When the United States developed the Marshall Plan for Europe, the colonial world viewed the project as an effort to strengthen Western colonial powers and embolden American interests.  Soviet public diplomats were able to seize on this opportunity to undermine America’s credibility by promoting the idea that the United States didn’t care about advancing the economic and development interests of the Third World.

American public diplomats also struggled with the hypocritical idea of “democracy” during the McCarthy era, when books written by suspected Communists were censored or banned altogether in USIA overseas libraries, and Congressional hearings investigated alleged Communists working for Voice of America. Public diplomats also attempted to censor Hollywood films that portrayed America in a negative light.

Today with all the new technologies available, it is easier for the U.S. government to strategically reach previously untapped populations worldwide.  From President Obama’s Cairo speech to Arab audiences, to Twitter and Facebook chats hosted by U.S. ambassadors, the Obama administration has run the most tech-savvy public diplomacy campaign in American history.

While the communication tools may have changed, the message remains the same.  Nonetheless, American public diplomats today still have to deal with going around the same unfavorable information.  Despite having an African-American president, the Trayvon Martin case and New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy convey to the world that America still has a race problem.  The United States promotes this idea of “democracy” and human rights, but many people around the world still believe the United States is a neo-colonial “big stick” interventionist.  The United States government promotes the idea of protecting the civil liberties of its citizens, while it allows its National Security Agency to spy on the emails and phone calls of ordinary Americans.

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa is a perfect example of modern American public diplomacy.  The main goal of the trip was to promote better economic and development ties with the continent; however, there were a few teachable moments.  The first one happened in Senegal when Obama held a very awkward joint press conference with the country’s president, Macky Sall.  A day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA); Obama took the opportunity to say that Africa should also embrace gay marriage and human rights for LGBT individuals.  To the contrary, President Sall said that the Muslim country is tolerant, but doesn’t condone homosexuality.  Furthermore, Sall pointed out that Senegal has eliminated the death penalty and that the United States hasn’t, and that both countries should respect their differences.  Many Senegalese applauded Sall standing his ground.

Obama’s faux pas can be viewed in two ways: one, by Obama imposing his own values onto another country and not understanding the full cultural context of that country; and two, Obama’s assumption that gay marriage is a universally accepted human right.  Interestingly, it is hard to find any online video of the Obama/Sall exchange.  And it is also not surprising to find very little video footage – and American media coverage – of the anti-Obama protests in South Africa.  Finally, Obama’s US$7 billion energy plan for the continent can be viewed as a goodwill contribution, or a desperate effort to catch up with the growing Chinese dominance in Africa.

So what does this all say about the future of American public diplomacy?  In order to create an effective public diplomacy campaign, the United States might need to seriously re-evaluate its own domestic and foreign policies that create unfavorable information.  As the old saying from Winston Churchill goes: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”