Did you happen to catch a glimpse of Fidel Castro, Taylor Swift or Pope Francis on The New School campus last week? On Thursday, October 29, these personas all convened in SGPIA Professor Nina Khrushcheva’s Media and Politics of Propaganda class to address one another on a topic of their choice. Of course these weren’t the real public figures themselves (they were busy attending to their own affairs), but Professor Khrushcheva (who hosted the forum in a “Cheerful Cheney” mask) and students put on a performance that would have impressed even the staunchest political pundit.
In a guest entry below, SGPIA student Gabrielle Belli provides a thought-provoking and comical account of her experience playing the part of former Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi.
Content is important but what carries more weight is how the message is conveyed. Strategizing language in a systematic and targeted manner to convince our audience to think a certain way is a calculated process we all grinded through. It was not enough to analyze the text of speeches to formulate something convincing. Clothing, body language, hand gestures and audience reception all had to be considered. There is no other way to get in the mind of the speaker. The goal was not to simply recite a speech, but to produce propaganda, something that goes light-years beyond words and content.
The figure I chose was former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, who I framed as a generous humanitarian through a series of integration projects aimed at refugees, in the form of beauty contests and soccer matches (two cornerstones of Italian pop culture). Winners were awarded with citizenship, fame and a life of Italian luxury according to Berlusconi. Playing with power and producing propaganda isn’t as hard as you might think.
Being an audience member was even more fun. Taylor Swift played one of her moving piano instrumental pieces in a dim-lit room while announcing a corporate sponsored “Rebuild Swiftly” project to rebuild schools in Syria. Carly Fiorina made an argument for her superior feminism against Hillary Clinton, and attacked Planned Parenthood for selling baby brains to China in the same swoop. Osama bin Laden shared his secret of deception—wearing a cowboy hat hides him from American drones.
It was impossible to keep a straight face with Pope Francis adorned in a white tablecloth to my left and Fidel Castro sitting across from me with a beard so long that it wrapped around his chin. Meanwhile I had so much hair gel in that I’m pretty sure Dick Cheney could smell it through his mask.
This was our chance to be serious satirists. Yet, we couldn’t avoid a newfound understanding of our speakers and their supporters—regardless of how ridiculous we may actually think they are.