Ways of Seeing, Sas Carey: Misleading voices sound convincing
National Public Radio recently played a clip from the government about why it is important to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S. It reminded me of another voice I heard four decades ago in Sweden.
1973 — On this day Clas and Mats are leaving Dalarna in Clas’s Saab Duett for a conference on workers’ rights. My friend Mats invites me to go along. The panel truck is decorated with flower designs from the hood to the back doors. Just stepping inside is exciting, even though I sit in back where there is no seat. Everywhere we go, people stand and wave. It is the hippie days.
After the six-hour drive, we pull into Gothenburg and park on the curb. Immediately, longhaired teenagers surround the car. We make a path through them and climb up a staircase into a room full of people. Mats whispers to me, “This is a communist rally about poor labor laws.” I look around and see a little blonde girl on the floor who is playing with a doll. The audience looks like it could be a town meeting in Vermont. What? Communists? I start to ask Mats a question. He puts his hand up to stop me, and whispers, “Don’t speak English here. They might throw you out.” Really? Communists?
When I was in school in the fifties and sixties, we heard how bad communism was nearly every day. We had a series of lectures called, “The Truth about Communism.” We practiced air raid drills and climbed under our desks or filed into the hall to prepare in case they bombed us.
Soon it is lunchtime, so everyone empties out of the room. I take a deep breath. Can we talk now? Out on the street Clas says, “Come on, we are going to an art exhibit put on by the conference.”
We enter a dim exhibition room. Straight ahead is a platform with a four-foot dollhouse: a factory with three floors — open in front. Inside, the rooms on the top floor and in the basement look like spiders’ webs with exposed, drooping electrical wires — showing how capitalist countries don’t care about their workers. On the ground floor, a spacious light-filled office features one man with his feet up on the desk. In a democratic country, these luxurious conditions are only for the boss. I swallow at the exaggerated scene.
Next is a map with communist countries painted red and “imperialist” countries like the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe painted black. I am the enemy. I cringe inside. We are fighting the Vietnam War, which I think is wrong and yet I think democracy is good. Where does the truth lie?
When we move to a theater space with a screen and folding chairs, a black and white film shows the poor living conditions of Russian citizens in the early part of the century — crowded working environment, uncomfortable apartments and food scarcity. Then happy music comes on and the film turns to color as communists march to liberate the country. Everyone on the screen is dressed in rich clothes, smiling, dancing and eating. The tone of the voice-over leaves no room to question it. Russian life has become joyful.
Suddenly, my reality shifts. I heard the same tone on the news at home explaining the need for the Vietnam War and even the My Lai Massacre. That same voice explained the domino effect and if the U.S. lets Vietnam be communist, all the other countries in Asia will follow. I realize it is all propaganda. Both sides. For effective brainwashing, a convincing voice is carefully chosen. And that voice gives the message in a tone that makes you want to believe.
I feel scared when I hear that voice again in today’s world. It is a voice that does not allow for any truth but its own. Its purpose is to very carefully manipulate. I need to stay awake.
Sas Carey of Middlebury is writing her new memoir and showing movies of her work in Mongolia this summer (see calendar).
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