"Soft propaganda is considered entertainment" - Television Delivers People (1973)
"I spent way too much time on this" - Me, 2021
Space Pawdessy is an ongoing webcomic about Misfits in Space (TM), by Greg Grondin, a White Canadian, Liberal Activist, open homosexual, and (may Allah forgive me for saying this) Twitter user. Why are these qualities important? If you pay attention, the comic has many subtle (and not-so-subtle) political statements that reflect Mr Grondin's liberal views. The subtle ways in which it degrades his opponents makes it an excellent case study in propaganda.
I am by no means an expert in this subject, so I suggest you read books about someone who is, like Edward Bernays.
(To get straight to the examples, skip to "Greg's Mentality".)
"How can this funny animal comic be propaganda?" you may ask. You see, propaganda, or media designed to advance a viewpoint, comes in many forms. What changes are the position of the ideas on the overton window (how acceptable they are to mainstream society), and the percieved bias of the message (are we being lied to so we'll take the author's side?). While there's the classic "Huge Fuckin' Billboard that tells you to support XYZ", social signals are propaganda, too, and humans are constantly making them. Social signals transmit many subtle messages that people repeating without realizing, like fish swimming in water.
How did you first learn that the earth was round? Did you do the math yourself and come to a logical conclusion based on data? No. You were told by an authority figure (your teacher) that it was round, and that other authority figures (scientists) believed the same. Anybody who disagreed would be quickly shut down (because it's a primary schooler debating an adult), and nobody else you see later on seems to disagree. And so, you subconsciously conclude it must be true. The world could be an inside-out torus for all you know, and you would be none the wiser. Despite what Classical Liberals may think, we're not the creatures of pure reason we're made out to be.
This is why things like "microaggressions" are such a big deal to liberal activists. If you're trying to forcibly impose XYZ on a society that will naturally reject XYZ, you need to clamp down on even the smallest social signals you can, so that as few people as possible will get the message to reject XYZ. "Will of the people" be damned!
Say you were to walk down the street in a ridiculous outfit. Some people will stare, point, take pictures, or give you a confused look. These all tell you very clearly that what you're doing is wrong, without saying a word. People who don't have a strong reaction will also pick up on these signals and conclude that they shouldn't wear ridiculous outfits in public, either. As a self-demonstrating example, pointing out Mr. Grondin's homosexuality subtly implies that it's an abnormal quality worth pointing out, or at least not an assumed default.
Do I think Mr. Grondin considered any of this while writing Space Pawdessy? No. Occam's Razor says the propagandistic elements of his work are simply products of his worldview. Space Pawdyssey's characters are supposed to be reflections of Mr. Grondin, so it's no surprise that his worldview is reflected in them as well.
And before you say "it's just fiction": People separate fiction from reality in the same way that people "agree" to the mile-long TOS that comes with the newest i-Whizzbang. They "know" fiction's not real, but they still pick up tons of subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages that inform their IRL worldview.
If I call something "liberal" or "leftist", there's going to be confusion and "ackshully"-ing about what "leftist" really means and yadda yadda, so I'm going to define it as best I can for the purposes of this article.
What do I mean by "liberal"? Think "the kind of people who support Black Lives Matter, LGBT promotion, Socialism", etc. If that's enough for you, skip the rest of this section.
Some people use the term "neoliberal" for this (seperating it from classical liberalism), but the official definitions are completely economic (tl;dr- free markets to the max). Some draw a connection between the ecnomic and social definitions by saying that neoliberal social causes are perpetuated by the ruling class for their own ends: Diverse workplaces are less likely to unionize, immigration means cheap labor, no religion means there's nothing to get in the way of hedonistic consumption, etc. Proving or disproving this is beyond the scope of this essay.
Liberal beliefs are hard to concretely define, because it's not attached to a singular ideology or book, nor a particular motivation. Uncle Ted has a good analysis in paragraphs 213-230: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/unabom-manifesto-4.html.
TL;DR - It's a coalition of beliefs and causes. To the rank-and-file, they are of an emotional, moral nature. The marginalized do it to gain power, the outsider activists promote them to fill a God-shaped hole in their heart, the masses play along because "everyone's doing it", and the System (corporations and government actors) support them to engineer society in ways that benefit whatever agenda they have.
(Life imitates art)
Space Pawdessy's characters are reflective of Liberal archetypes, setting up the chessboard for Liberal narratives. They are also canonically self-inserts of varying degrees, and though I can't find the goddamn link to confirm this, they share enough of Mr. Grondin's opinions and personality for one to make that conclusion anyway. (For example: Mr. Grondin is a massive pop-culture geek with a soy face to boot. Toby and Felix, the two biggest characters, are both manchildren who watch cartoons and play with action figures. You do the math.)
Even at a 50,000 foot view, it's apparent the characters set the chessboard for postwar Liberal narratives.
In the lore, Felines got their home planet blown up in a war with Canines, decimating their numbers and making them a minority.
This makes Toby the Cat, the first character we meet, the purr-secuted minority archetype, feature-complete with slurs and generic "we don't like yer kind" and "evil racist" bad guys to fight. He's also later revealed to be a homosexual, making him a twofer in the "oppressed minority" department and upping his "self-insert" ratio. (The subtlety with this one is as doomed as the chances of Toby continuing his lineage.)
Rowan is a Canine whose father perpetrated the Cat-astrophe, and she feels conflicted because she loves her father in spite of what he's done. Her journey in grappling with the Sins of the Father ends with writing her father off as irredemably evil. She is the personification of Canine (white) guilt. Mr. Grondin is a White Canadian, and Canada participated in the conquest of the Americas. While he may love Canada for it's Liberal politics, he no doubt condemns the conquest of the Americas. Thus, Rowan is the vehicle for his White guilt.
But Mr. Grondin is not passive in his politics. He's an activist, fighting what he sees as the good fight. Thus, Captain Connor, the hero who saved felines from The Big Cat-asrophe.
Felix is the Passive Ally, the rank-and-file Liberal. He isn't a thought leader or activist, he just acts passive-aggressive to people he disagrees with, and helps beat the bad guys when they show up.
Canines represent the guilty, oppressive majority who need to be kept in line so they don't massacre somebody again.
In a way, Mr. Grondin splitting his self-insertion into different characters reflects his split identity on the Progressive Stack (the measure of who is more oppressed than who). In Felix, he sees himself as a good rank-and-file Liberal fighting the good fight, in Rowan and the canines, he views himself as part of the Guilty Majority, and in Toby, he sees himself as an oppressed minority.
The Liberal meta-narrative becomes all the more obvious when you realize that all the story's conflicts stem from Toby's oppressed minority status.
In Summary (I might miss a few details because the entire thing is 400+ issues long and I ain't gettin' paid to write this shit):
- Toby gets into a barfight with a Bull Terrier who hates Cats, and beats him to a pulp.
- Bull has connections, so this leads to Toby's friend, Lex, being sent on a sabotage mission as a method of repaying the Bull.
- The sabotage mission is part of an evil plot to keep Avians out of the Space UN because they're sick of canine man's burden
- After this plot is foiled, one of the main characters gets kidnapped by Bull, aided by a Steve Jobs lookalike.
- After the plan turns sour, Steve Jobs bails on the Dog. It turns out Steve Jobs is an evil mastermind that breaks Rowan's Dad, Murphy, aka Space Hitler, out of prison.
- This leads to Space Hitler hijacking a plane. To cover up his tracks, Space Hitler plans to blow up the plane and only let the Canines evacuate, because only Canine lives matter.
- The heroes foil Space Hitler, but he manages to escape with Steve Jobs. Afterwards, Felix goes home to act passive-aggressive towards his Grandma for saying Right-Wing talking points.
You see, the overarching narrative of Space Pawdyssey is "Liberals vs. Space Nazis and other Right-Wing Strawmen". Doesn't quite roll off the tongue.
Now that we see Mr. Grondin's strategy, let's see his tactics.
Castle of Allusion
Allusion (indirectly referencing an event) and subtext (hidden message of a work) are favored tools of the stealthy propagandist. Allusion makes it so that you can make a connection or opinion of a real-world event in the audience's mind, programming them to have a certain response when they see the event referenced elsewhere. You may ask "If you're so concerned, why not reference it directly?" Fiction-based propaganda is all about sneaking the poison/medicine in with the sugar to an unsuspecting victim- I mean audience. Fiction attracts people who aren't politically motivated (and will be less aware of politcal messaging), and encourages the audience to let their mental guard down to get invested in the story.
Once the audience's guard is down, they will accept messaging without the kind of resistance and skepticism an explicitly political work would create, so long as you maintain the suspension of disbelief. Plus, a lot more people are interested in seeing guns, explosions, and titties than a philosophical deep dive into the relationship between- zzzzzzzzzz... What was I talking about again?
Just make sure to not make it too obvious, in the off chance the audience decides to do their own research. If someone does their own research, they might find views that contradict yours. Breadtubers (Leftist Political Youtubers) avoid directly mentioning their opponents by name or quoting them for this exact reason. See: "The Alt-Right Playbook: Never Play Defense" on YouTube, 10:45
Let's get in to the examples:
Remember the 9 Billion
Felines are a minority because their home planet got Death-starred by canines, and 9 billion people died.
When we Felix's Grandma at a family get-together, she makes a comment that the planet Nexus used to be much nicer before the Feline refugees came in, because Feline terrorists started blowing up the joint. She adds that she doesn't like the Government paying for the new Feline colonies because canines should focus on helping their own people first.
(I WONDER WHAT THIS COULD BE ABOUT? IT'S AN ABSOLUTE MYSTERY, I TELL YA!)
This dialogue is an allusion to the real world Syrian Refugee Crisis, in which many Europeans expressed the same sentiment after a string of mass immigration, Islamic terror attacks, and establishment media enacting double standards in favor of Muslim refugees over Native Europeans. It's a complex issue with many moral questions and angles to consider. By referencing this event via allusion, you can plant a message about it in the audience's head, while sidestepping the scrutiny of an overt reference and the inconvenient truths of the actual event. Mr. Grondin tells us how we should feel about this alluded event by making Felix, a main protagonist, very upset with his Grandma's opinion. More on that later.
What exactly caused the cat-astrophe? At first, it's said that there was a war. Then, it's because the Felines wanted to join the Space UN, and people who were "afraid of losing their identity" and not wanting to pour resources into dead weight "took their ideas too far", resulting in genocide. These are obvious allusions to right-wing politics, with the implied message that right-wing beliefs are dangerous and need to be kept in control to prevent genocide.
Where does Space Hitler come in?
(Whatever could this could be referencing?)
(I had to draw this one from memory, it was taking me way too long to find. You'll find it eventually.)
Besides the political bent, this bothered me for another reason: it doesn't make sense. If the Felines were on their own planet, minding their own business, where would the anti-cat sentiment come from? How would going through the trouble of taking out a planet be more efficient than simply not giving them resources? Were there other reasons for this conflict?
The great thing about fiction is that you don't need a logical explanation. You can make anyone do whatever you want, for whatever reason. The only limit is your audience's suspension of disbeleif, and "Comic Book Reader" was an insult for a reason.
The subtext is that right-wing politics will lead to genocide, which is presented as an implicitly logical, factual conclusion. Without mentioning a word about politics, you can communicate your political views with the a priori assumption of truth. (Acting like your ideas are the only sane, logical, and moral ones and dismissing your opponent as insane and evil is also a classic tactic.) And, you can play dumb and hide behind the banner of artistic fiction when people accuse you of bias. You can even flip the script by portraying them as political whackos grasping at straws.
Perhaps the author realized the strawman wouldn't work (or changed his mind), as it switches to Felines and Canids warring forever, and the bad guys are Canids who wanted to end the war permanently by wiping out the Felines.
This presents an interesting moral question: 'Tis nobler to wade in blood forever, or drown in in it for a minute? How generous are you being by killing the men and leaving the women and children to suffer in a war-torn hovel, continuing the cycle of retaliation and suffering? Wouldn't the overall amount of human suffering be much lower in the long run if you ended it as fast as possible?
Is there perhaps some metaphysical reason to preserve other cultures? If so, how do you reconcile that with the unforgving cruelty of Darwinian evolution and all the peoples lying in the dustbin of history?
How can you convince your audience to take your side in such a disturbing philosophical question about the moral nature of war and killing?
Easy. 1. Barely present the opposition's arguments. 2. Make your opponent as disgusting as pawsible.
The Right Mouthpiece
(He's right, you know.)
Ad hominem is a tactic as old as time, and for good reason: it works, even in reverse.
In this case, the vehicle for "drown a minute" is an entirely unsympathetic Canine supremacist (read: white supremacist) villain who "kicks the dog" like a hacky-sack, ready to kill anyone at a moment's notice, and proudly announcing that he considers non-Canine life worthless. Someone turned so evil that his own daughter (a protagonist) goes from wanting to see him in spite of his past, to disowning him entirely and wondering how she could be so foolish.
In a less dire example, let's return to the family get-together. Before Granny makes her comment about the feline refugees, the comic makes it very clear that everyone else thinks Granny is an asshole. The audience is already primed to see her as rude and insensitive.
So, in this context, even though Felix isn't disproving what Granny says or making an argument for the consequences being worth it, all the signals are there for us to disregard what she says. It's obvious we're not supposed to take Granny's side, and should instead write her off.
Granny is also completely alone in her beliefs; there isn't a Grandpa, Uncle Joe or anyone else to back her up. Popularity adds legitimacy, and we see Grandma getting absolutely dog-piled (pun intended) when the family members express their own opinions.
Felix reveals has a cat girlfriend, and that means no kids. (It seems even Mr. Grondin's straight characters can't escape his gay problems.) Grandma is concerned about having great-grandchildren. Felix dismisses it with overpopulation. How very liberal. His siblings join in, and all Granny can do is be flabberghasted as her grandchildren announce their plans to go childless and Felix's parents brag about their escapades in attempted species-mixing.
(Slippery slope is not always a fallacy.)
But of course, you can't construct propaganda on purely negative examples. Every meanie doo-doo head needs a valiant hero to provide an example for your gullible audience! But what kind of hero to make?
A Softer Mary Sue
The stereotypical Mary Sue is a character (often an author avatar) that is flawless in both skill and character. All the good guys love 'em, all the bad guys hate 'em.
In the "Sabotage" arc, the characters who laugh at Felix's expense and complain about the Space UN taking on dead weight are revealed to be evil bad guys in on an evil plot, and the people who are nice to him are the good guys who try to stop it. Except for one nice guy who immediately tried to kill Felix and his friends for discovering the plot, and a Chiuaua who only laughed. And right after the bad guys laughed at Felix, Deus ex Machina gave Felix a chance to be snarky anyway.
While the main characters DO have flaws, but they're "nice" flaws that don't cause any serious moral ambiguity, major problems, or differences to settle. And in my opinion, this lack of conflict makes the story less interesting.
In Toby's case, he's just too darn protective of his friends and gets a teensy-weensy bit carried away when fighting the evil bigots. In an early scene, Toby and his friend Lex get into a barfight with a white (of course) dog of the "we don't like yer kind" persuasion. Toby knocks his opponent out in one punch, and keeps beating him while he's down, to the horror of Lex. Does Toby see his victim in the hospital, or cause him permanent damage that makes Toby feel guilty, causing him to confront his own hatred and acknowledging that he has the potential to become the monster he hunts?
No. That would sully Toby's victim status. He's a goood guy who never goes too far! The white guy "had it coming to him" for being a "bigot", and is A-Ok. In fact, the White Dog becomes a recurring villain to be defeated yet again by the heroic Toby, after he refuses Toby's oh-so-generous attempts at a peaceful resolution. What could have become an interesting look into the blurred lines between "victim" and "oppressor" is reduced to momentary drama and a two-dimensional villain.
It's said that Felines have a culture that Canines are afraid of because it's "different". Beyond saying that Toby is from some kind of Noble famly, Feline culture hasn't been expanded on beyond that, and Toby doesn't do anything culturally abnormal to Canines. Do Felines have a rigorously-enforced caste system or some other custom unacceptable to Canid (aka western) tastes? A culture clash could provoke interesting questions like: Do we have to tolerate cultures we find barbaric? If our morals are relative, what good are they? Do we have a right to be proud of our own people in spite of their shortcomings in a modern perspective?
Lawrence of Arabia (1968) provides a good example of culture clash as a major theme. Lawrence views the murderous tribalism of the Arabs as a barbaric shortcoming (we see a man shot in cold blood for drinking from the well of another tribe). Despite this, Lawerence respects the Arab culture and wishes to see them succeed. He even wants to be part of them, leading them to victory and going so far as to enact bloodthirsty revenge upon the Turks. But when he tries to get the Arabs to work together to form their own independent state, their tribalism rips them apart. Lawrence realizes that, in spite of his work, he can never be one of them. He's trying to give them something they simply don't want.
You can portray different cultures in a respectful light without whitewashing them into Liberals with funny outfits, but that requires the kind of moral nuance a comic like this doesn't have. Hell, the protagonists almost never disagree on anything. Either you're on his side, or you're one of the bad guys.
A little INB4
I'm going to turn off my "jaded propagandist" mode for a while and criticize Space Pawdessy's politics as they relate to the storytelling.
Mr. Grondin has said he isn't too concerned about consistent physics because it's supposed to be an 80's style soft sci-fi. (https://twitter.com/Spacepawdyssey/status/1229556556347379712) I assume he'll use a similar argument for justifying the two-dimensional villains and general lack of nuance.
You can't use the ham-fistedness of your inspiration as an excuse when you're trying to make social commentary about current events and modern issues (At least not without looking disingenuous). One of Space Pawdessy's biggest problems is that it gives its serious elements only a token analysis. It feels like cheaply-injected edge instead of an important aspect of the story. It makes me assume the author either: A. Doesn't care, B. Knows what they're doing and is only doing it for propaganda value (unlikely), or C. Suffers from Dunning-Kruger and thinks they're being deep.
Compare this to Star Wars (The Original Trilogy). Star Wars is both lighthearted and serious, but it works because it never tries to act deeper than it is. It knows it's a family film about space wizards. If you tried to add social commentary about, say, Capitalism and the Vietnam war, it wouldn't be the same film. It would have to seriously change its tone and execution to give the subject matter the respect it deserves, or else it would be stuck with an awkward, dangling blob of soapbox moments that don't fit the rest of the film.
Rowan's dad didn't need to be Space Hitler. He could have been a Mafioso. This would preserve the relationship dynamic with his daughter, while avoiding the awkwardness of the author wading into political and philosophical territory he obviously isn't ready (or willing) to explore. But of course, all roads lead to Toby the oppressed, so the main villain has to be Space Hitler for the liberal power fantasy to work.
My criticism is harshest when I see potential. The building blocks for a raw, unsettlingly real story are there. Perhaps I'll make my own version one day, with blackjack and hookers.
So Class, what have we learned today? To make propaganda without making "Propaganda", you
- Make all of your opponent's arguments come out of the mouth of an asshole
- Represent the bare minimum of your opponent's arguments to give the impression of a conversation
- Make all the good characters agree with you, and the bad ones disagree with you
- Make vague allusions to real-world events so you can plant ideas in the audience's heads with plausible deniability
- Never have the good guys question their own morals
If executed well, you can fill a story chock-full of propaganda and most people won't notice or articulate it. If the subtext is an unintentional result of Mr. Grondin writing what he knows, it demonstrates how much deniability someone has if they do it intentionally.