Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Russ Castronovo's "Propaganda 1776"

Russ Castronovo is Tom Paine Professor of English and Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America, Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States, and Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom.

Here Castronovo dreamcasts an adaptation of Propaganda 1776:
The first casting agent for the movie version of Propaganda 1776 had to be fired. His problem was that he couldn’t get beyond seeing propaganda in negative terms. Ever since World War I, propaganda has been reduced to deceit and dishonesty in ways that impoverish the concept. This first casting agent kept thinking that Voldermort, as the embodiment of evil, would be perfect for the role of an American propagandist. If not Voldermort, then Don Draper was the next choice since his philandering and deceptions, not the least of which are his own self-deceptions, would make him ideal for the part of an oily flimflam man.

But, as I said, the casting agent’s assumptions didn’t match the story of Propaganda 1776. By looking at the colonial network of pamphleteers, letter writers, printers and poets, this book shows how propaganda can be integral to democratic practice. Prior to the twentieth century, men and women of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world used an array of rhetorical devices—satire, barbed attacks, plagiarism, and the theft of confidential documents—to communicate unofficial truths.

The most important scenes in the movie don’t focus on principal actors but on ink-stained printers, crowds clamoring for the latest issue of the Massachusetts Spy, and riotous taverns where Common Sense is being passed around along with pints of rum. So casting extras is going to crucial for this movie. Hopefully the director will ensure that this historical picture won’t be marred as is Spartacus (1960) where tennis shoes and wristwatches can be spotted among the legions of Greek soldiers.

Indeed, Propaganda 1776 shows how effective revolutionaries occupy the shadows and keep their identities submerged beneath the flood of print. What was important to eighteenth-century democracy in America was not the individual actor but the unregulated flow of information. So the trick for casting Propaganda 1776 will be to find actors who will fit into—as opposed to stand out from—the raucous world of inflammatory pamphlets and accusatory broadsides.

Ben Franklin: Although he is celebrated today as an exemplary American, Franklin studiously resisted occupying center stage to ensure that the sources of secret information could remain secret. Either Paul Giamatti or Louis C.K. is perfect for this unassuming role.

Mercy Otis Warren: An unrelenting critic of British officials, Warren would be best played by an actress who doesn’t suffer fools. Selma Blair does a great job of rolling her eyes in Legally Blonde, and this ability to convey exasperation would serve her well here.

Tom Paine: Dedicated to expanding liberty beyond American shores, Paine suggests a global visionary. Tim Robbins is a strong possibility.

Philip Freneau: Poet-propagandist extraordinaire, Freneau is best played by a clever wordsmith. I’m hoping Macklemore is available.

As you can see, Propaganda 1776 is going to be way better than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Learn more about Propaganda 1776 at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue