The Artist vs. the Propagandist

Issue 006

I believe in the power of art. I believe in the power of art in this moment. I believe in its power to ask the right questions and challenge us to defend our answers. Ellen DeGeneres was photographed in a luxury suite at a Dallas Cowboys home game laughing with George W. Bush. The image made the rounds on social media, where DeGeneres was taken to task. Iraq. That’s what had most commenters up in arms – the way the war and its monstrous consequences (which are still metastasizing) have been swept out of the media, and its architects are welcomed with open arms and smiling faces. People felt insulted by the image.

DeGeneres addressed the situation on her show and made matters much worse for herself. She began by explaining that she’s good friends with the owner of the Cowboys. Maybe that’s true, but “Trust me; I’m part of the club” wasn’t the right move, in my opinion. DeGeneres literally applauded herself as she explained that she’s friends with George W. Bush as well as other people who have different opinions than hers and that we should be kind to everyone. I’ve written before about weaponized civility and how it’s used to protect the powerful. The “kindness” DeGeneres was admonishing seemed to have more to do with class solidarity than anything else. She’d made it into the skybox with the team owner and a former President, and no one was going to make her feel bad about it. Unsurprisingly, other celebrities showered DeGeneres with praise. People believe George W. Bush is a war criminal, who should be in a dock in The Hague. People also have searing memories of the callousness of the response to Hurricane Katrina and other transgressions. Presenting this as a mere difference of opinion to be shrugged off and met with a friendly embrace is propaganda, and it should be identified as such and rejected as such.

Rafael Shimunov created a video that put atrocities from the Iraq war behind DeGeneres’s monologue, and it went viral. DeGeneres’s legal team sent notices citing copyright infringement to have the video taken down. Shimunov kept re-posting it, and more takedown notices were sent. Word of this got around, making people who hadn’t seen the video seek it out. (Celebrities really need to read up on the Streisand Effect.) While Shimunov was playing tag with DeGeneres’s lawyers, screengrabs began to circulate showing DeGeneres shrugging in front of the infamous photo of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi under a hood, connected to electrodes, and standing on a box, while being tortured at Abu Ghraib. That much more damning image has become a symbol and replaced the one of DeGeneres laughing with Bush. I don’t think DeGeneres understands how she got here. In her monologue, she dismissively said “they tweet” about people who get angry. Sometimes they create art that’s described as a “postmodern masterpiece” first, then they tweet. Social media isn’t as democratizing as people make it out to be, but everyone in media is on it. When things trend, they know. It allows pushback against the powerful to be magnified and heard in ways that were unimaginable several years ago.

Academy award-nominated director, Ava DuVernay, described Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest as art. I agree with that assessment. In an Instagram microblog, I wrote, “When Kaepernick took a knee, he held up a spotless mirror. It’s why so many people are determined to smash it – they don’t like their reflections. The simplicity of the action was stark. In an instant, everyone showed who they really were, how they really felt.” I think, in that moment, Kaepernick executed and accomplished the task of the artist. Kaepernick’s art was met with an orchestrated campaign of propaganda. It’s been reported that Russian trolls were actively exploiting Kaepernick’s protest well past the 2016 election and into 2018.

Kaepernick is so quiet that it’s hard to tell if he has the spirit of an artist. Even so, when he was a starting NFL quarterback, he seemed to be trying to express himself (with his clothes, tattoos, etc.) in a system that wanted to suppress that side of him. There was propaganda against him then too – nasty racial stereotypes. Then came his protest, and an even more powerful system mobilized itself against him. He’s a part of America’s story now. What’s been missing is Kaepernick’s side. So has the art.

I hope Kaepernick starts to tell his story. That’s a difficult task. People underestimate how much. I think that’s part of what may be stymying Kaepernick. What do you say? More importantly how do you say it? In response to some of the disinformation that’s been spread about Kaepernick, his representatives released a fact sheet debunking the claims. I believe that was important to do and the right move, but what they put out was information not a story. The difference is crucially important. Kaepernick’s enemies have stories about him: He’s a traitor. He hates America. He’s not really Black. A stat sheet can’t marshal the kind of emotion required to cut that down. Only a more powerful story can.

Kaepernick’s ad with Nike won an Emmy. When the announcement was made, it was revealed that Kaepernick participated in the creative process. He owns the trademark to the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” There’s a strong argument to be made that Wieden Kennedy (Nike’s ad agency) is the best in the world at what they do. Their creative work sets the bar. Kaepernick was able to make a substantial enough contribution to be mentioned and come out on the other end owning the most important part of the campaign. (I keep telling people: he’s a very clever man in some ways.) For his personal communications, Kaepernick hasn’t found collaborators who can help him tell a compelling story that resonates emotionally (if they could, it would have happened already). I think that needs to change. And soon.

Kaepernick is pushing hard to get signed this season. We’re already six weeks into the NFL season, though. He’s running out of time to create and present a story that does a heavy lift. There are signs that resistance to Kaepernick being signed has softened (Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, etc. have said he’s talented enough to play). Kaepernick has to convince the owners, though, and they have long memories, take personal attacks to heart, and have a history of spitefulness. They never forgave former Raiders owner, Al Davis, for suing the league. Bygones aren’t bygones for Kaepernick’s suit. I don’t think the Ravens were going to sign Kaepernick in 2017, but his girlfriend comparing the team’s owner, Steve Bisciotti, to the slave-owning villain from Django Unchained did real damage that still reverberates. People who were on Kaepernick’s side behind the scenes walked away from him, and I don’t think Bisciotti or the other owners have forgotten it. This part of the story has to be faced and addressed. Allies need to be brought back onside. Kaepernick is controversial; some even see him as dangerous. He has to tell a story that maintains his edge and the integrity of his protest and also provides some measure of reassurance. Most artists eventually find themselves in a similar place.

Thanks for reading!