Despite the impenetrable sounding name, it is relatively easy to break into the Iranian spy cave once you have overcome the psychological booby traps in the surrounding garden of anti-arrogance.
A skeletal-faced mural of the Statue of Liberty growls from the outside of the den’s barbed walls. Lady Liberty also adorns admission tickets, which are locked in a red circle crossed with the diagonal line of the prohibition. Ghost hunters-Style. The walk through the garden of anti-arrogance is lined with posters tarnishing esteemed American institutions, from the KFC to the Oscars.
A peeling seal of the US president over the main entrance reveals the former existence of the “US spy cave”: It is “this” American embassy that was stormed and conquered by 400 revolutionary college students, a focal point of the 1979 Iranian revolution, dethroned by the Shah In this founding relic of the Islamic Republic in downtown Tehran, 52 US diplomats and US citizens were held hostage for 444 days.
It was turned into a museum in 2015, apparently at least in part, to counter Ben Affleck’s Hollywood-ization of revolutionary events in the film Argo. In theory, it’s the perfect propaganda palace.
Within its thick, bureaucratic green walls, The Den is frozen in ’70s CIA chic; just as the Americans left it (probably a little re-enacted). Its vault-like rooms are anchored by antique typewriters, rows of telex machines, and massive, wall-mounted supercomputers with ambiguous functions. Roaring fluorescence illuminates sinister dummies that are placed strangely in the soundproof “Glassy Room for Top Secret Negotiations”, presumably where the alleged or actual espionage of the USA has gone down.
Serious tour guides tell stories of espionage and document mass destruction, painting Argo‘s storyline as a telltale Hollywood deception. Nor do they appreciate the exhilaration in Den’s John le CarrÃ©-esque descriptors (apparently appalling translations by a professor who has exaggerated his English skills).
As fascinating as it may be, the espionage den is a propagandistic navel. Its melodramatic message may have aroused Iranian emotions before a lifetime, but locals generally wave it around (my taxi driver couldn’t find it). International visitors only come for the freak show appeal, as well as for the most dogmatic dictator tribute in the world: the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori, Republic of Georgia (the birthplace of the former Soviet despot).
Inside the intimidating “Stalinist Gothic” palace, Stalin’s image is everywhere: from carpets and parquet to mosaics and busts. His death mask even has its own macabre cave.
Stalin’s death mask in the Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori. Photo: Getty
Visitors are force-fed a sugary propaganda pulp: Stalin, the accomplished poet; Stalin, the clever chess player; a man showered with extravagant gifts from maddened world leaders. Foreigners looking for ironic souvenirs and older Georgians (some apparently still enthusiastic about their compatriot) browse the merch salon for tote bags and T-shirts.
The blatant tribute song, however, basically skips a crucial verse: 20,000,000 deaths attributable to Stalin’s blood-splattered rule. The elephant in the room is inadequately addressed with a half-hearted exhibition under a staircase that refers to the prisons of Siberia as if they had grown organically. Mea Culpa is not, but as the animal itself allegedly said: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.
We expect asymmetrical information from current and former totalitarian regimes (or from any place with “Democrat” or “People” in the title). You’re not wandering into Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square waiting for an open debate on the Cultural Revolution or determining a destination for a history class on the top floor of the State Museum of Uzbek History.
Visitors pose in front of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles, which come from the Parthenon in Athens. Photo: Richard Baker / Getty
But do we direct our critical senses to institutions of the so-called free world that â€œtalkâ€? The British Museum in London spoons on charged, high-minded harassment as thick as anywhere, positions itself as an authority on human history and culture and advocates “critical examination of all assumptions, open debate … progress and tolerance”.
But from its culturally appropriated Greek Revival facade, the museum is a temple of colonialism as an edifying force; filled to the eyeballs with priceless artifacts looted from venerable lands that Great Britain “saved”. Artifacts such as Greece’s Elgin Marbles and the immeasurable wealth of African culture that the British simply cannot return. This isn’t a hangover from the colonial past – the British Museum is still drunk from the night before.
Across the Atlantic, the faceless US agencies are masters of soft propaganda, which is perfectly whistled at NASA Space Center Houston. The 70-minute tour / indoctrination of the huge facility furiously waves both the stars-and-stripes and the red flags of propaganda.
At the Space Center in Houston. Photo: Alamy
Inspirational hero music strategically scores points for the glory ride. Schmaltzy films compliment NASA’s everyday successes (from memory foam to freeze-dried food). Every unbalanced element is troubling on the mark, right down to NASA’s humorless internal cops (I double dare to ask them where the “set” of the moon landing is. It didn’t go well …)
By telling you where to look, these institutions tell you by default where not to look. The inconspicuous memorial to the space shuttle disaster does not encourage dialogue about the agency’s alleged guilt. And the Houston we have a problem control room isn’t exactly the forum for discussing the alternative social uses for the billions of dollars that have flowed into NASA since the middle of the last century.
NASA is no longer the Cold War propaganda need it once was, but is fighting for relevance in an internationalized and corporate space race. “Getting to Mars will be hard, but NASA is ready for it,” bursts a retro poster from a gift shop. Classic propaganda intended to tug the heart and open the treasury. And like the British Museum, people with big eyes stand infinitely to have their turn.
Money is political power in this age of hyper-consumerism, and armed with small marketing and PR budgets, faceless, cash-rich corporations often outperform governments in making the unreal real and the mediocre amazing.
Amsterdam’s Heineken Brewery Experience is several master class glasses in this regard. Suspiciously pink Dutch men and women in green suits beguile the visitors with a smooth flame in order to convince the masses that mass beer is as fresh as a babbling brook, as Dutch as KaassoufflÃ©. Of course everyone drinks the Kool-Aid at the end of the tour.
Nothing disarms propaganda like a good, hard context. A day trip from Seoul to the Korean DMZ (the demilitarized zone between south and north) is the highlight of the “Tour de Context”. The South Korean Dora Observatory looks out over the fortified border to North Korea’s Potemkin-like Peace Village (known by the south as the “Propaganda Village”). Distant speakers boom with repetitions under a phallic North Korean flag; its flagpole is intentionally higher than the South Korean one.
The DMZ’s Dora Observatory. Photo: Alamy
Despite being on the “right side of history”, South Korea’s Freedom Village experience is bursting with crude political messages; Passively and aggressively camouflage the entire population of the north as uncivilized barbarians. The 20-minute “history film” of the day trip sells its message harder than the owners of the ginseng and DMZ branded chocolate stands outside.
One place confuses more problematic definitions of propaganda more than any other. On the surface, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is a one-sided broadside against the American war effort in Indochina of the last century.
Exhibits weave a hideous narrative, especially sober black and white photographs of injured and deformed children, “collateral damage” from carpet bombing, and chemical warfare campaigns. The museum’s coup de grace, however, is a simple renaming: the name “the Vietnam War” has been replaced by “the American War”.
“Tiger Cages” in the War Remnants Museum, with which Viet Cong soldiers were tortured. Photo: Alamy
Is that propaganda? Counter-propaganda? Or is it a nation’s truth, a cumbersome attempt to offset America’s almighty Dudley do-right narrative of world freedom?
In 2021, the propaganda is still haunting us, evolving rapidly and seeking the ears of the ignorant beholder. Therefore, in these privileged, information-rich times, it is of crucial importance to recognize echo chambers, whether actual or virtual, for what they are and to embark on a contextual search for second and third opinions.
Propaganda palaces crack uncomfortable truths. The victory of one country is the loss of the other, and the terrorist of one is the freedom fighter of the other, as they say. But they also offer poignant memories. Just like the difference between an elected official you disagree with and a real dictator is measured in millions of lives.
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