American propaganda has come a long way since genteel writer Peter Mathieesen founded The Paris Review as part of his CIA gig in postwar France. The Washington Post today reported that the intelligence agency tapped Donald Levine, the seasoned former Hasbro executive responsible for G.I. Joe, to create a demonic Osama bin Laden toy for distribution in Pakistan or Afghanistan. (Not the first time G.I. Joe has been implicated in the condescending manipulation of kids!)
Though the project was ultimately scrapped, the paper obtained images of the preposterous prototypes created for the agency’s consideration:
A Chinese artist took publicly available photographs of bin Laden and created an image that was strikingly close in appearance to the al-Qaeda leader. The final prototype was dressed in traditional garb and packaged in a cheap box covered with plastic and presented to the CIA for approval. Levine was said to have been pleased with the final bin Laden product.
Given this origin story, bin Laden’s makeover as Darth Maul seems to be a clear-cut artifact of Chinese “copy culture.” Curiously, the Washington Post does not note the striking resemblance to the Star Wars character, pictured above. Star Wars creator George Lucas has described the character’s appearance as “a figure from your worst nightmare.” The concept itself reportedly unites the appearance of flayed flesh, African tribal face painting, and Rorschach inkblots. The Darth Maul character was introduced in the Star Wars franchise’s 1999 Episode I, and is the copyrighted intellectual property of George Lucas’s Lucasfilm.
Though cultural propaganda might be relatively innocuous compared to other intelligence strategies, it is of course carried out covertly by the CIA and other government agencies, and the Washington Post notes that “[l]ittle is known about the kind of influence operations the CIA has run since the Sept. 11, 2001.”
Furtive pop-culture appropriation in Chinese factories: the way we propaganda today.