“History is a set of lies agreed upon,” Napoleon Bonaparte famously said as the self-anointed emperor of France. Surely he was in a place to know, as he waged fiercely successful propaganda campaigns on several continents.
Bonaparte created and wrote for two newspapers dedicated solely to his own promotion and glory. He adroitly manipulated the press by keeping unsavory personal details buried under heaps of red herring and frivolity. Artists such as David and Delarouche were commissioned to paint him swashbuckling and heroic: “Superman with a sash saves France!” Napoleon’s exploits were glorified in theaters and novels and his face postered all over Paris, followed by swooning citizens and a fawning press.
Why does this sound so familiar?
Two centuries later the White House is similarly inhabited by a man obsessed with public opinion and attempting a government made in his image. Streams of rhetoric gush from paid barkers and their collaborating machines (formerly known as the free press.) President Obama is variously compared to JFK, Lincoln, FDR or other titans of humanity with virtually no specific similarity or substance mentioned. Strike a pose and presume ignorance of the masses – and it’s been working.
Napoleon (minus military campaigns and genocide) was a bit like Lady Gaga or Elvis Presley, virtual unknowns who decided to make a name and image with global recognition. And so was the president of the United States less than a decade ago.
How do they do it? With the help of a devoted and unquestioning media, essential to politicians whose world is even more competitive and ferocious than the arts.
Leaders with world-class egos can be dangerous when slighted. In China, Iran and Russia, naughty press people who just don’t understand the rules have disappeared. Fortunately, we have no such problems in the U.S., as most newscasters and big networks believe exactly what they’re told by the administration and are never unreasonably skeptical. This makes me feel so much safer.
For French emperors and pop stars, it helped to have a doting, ferociously loyal fan base. This can get dicey in political situations when fans turn into roiling mobs of hooligans, but it’s something all good oligarchs try to funnel for their benefit.
Obama, a good student of Marxism, understands how to appeal to the more volatile masses while feigning empathy and a shared background (probably learned at the feet of Bill Clinton – “the first black president”). Obama made the bold step of congratulating the Occupy Wall Street squatters in an official statement from the White House, making his loyalties quite clear.
Of course the president is his own man, hardly a carbon copy of Napoleon, who became a general at 25 and emperor at 35. Bonaparte fought dozens of real wars (although he started most) with strategic and military genius. He also recovered Corsica from the English and greatly expanded the French empire. Historians accuse him of invading Egypt and losing many lives for purely political reasons, waiting for the opportune coup d’Etat moment to reenter Paris in crowning glory. Meanwhile Napoleon juggled the press and state affairs from long distances with no technology. Brilliant self-promotion, many wars and a totally revised history of France were the fruits of his labors.
Consider the times and be grateful for silicon, Allen and Brin. It’s no longer necessary to kill a lot of Egyptians (not in person anyway) or cross the snowy Alps on horseback to get a lot of press now. Think how Obama did almost nothing but magically appear with corollary announcements of extraordinary abilities and to “organize communities,” which no one has actually defined yet.
A brilliant manipulator, the General appealed to artists’ pride and greed, presenting them with lavish commissions still gracing France. The monumental Arc de Triomphe is one of these. Blessed with a sense of the theatrical, Bonaparte invaded Egypt with spectacular glamour like a staged musical. Scientists and artists came along to report and illustrate the assumed victory – a legion of 18th-century paparazzi.
Several artists helped craft Napoleon’s myth of the great and beneficently destined ruler, such as Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. Given the job inspecteur aux revues, he was the paid propaganda artist for the French army. Gros proved his worth by conveniently reconfiguring visual and historical reality in “Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa.”
His painting portrays Bonaparte tenderly visiting soldiers suffering Bubonic plague in Jaffa, showing no concern for his own safety. The real story, rarely mentioned after two centuries, is still hard to believe. Although the visit took place, Napoleon eventually ordered the poisoning of his ill soldiers as he prepared to leave Jaffa after a brutal and extremely cruel campaign. He was accused of torching the “pesthouse” there to cover his actions. The annals of art history have no higher example of sheer disinformation and spin control posing as fine art.
Another partial disinformation art project was a beautiful gloss over of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, “Description de l’Egypt,” finished in 1822. Copper engravings were the rage, and it took 400 artists over 20 years to publish a monumental work of over 3,000 illustrations in colossal folios. Their art may be the best thing that came from Napoleon’s attempt to “liberate” Egypt.
Not all artists and writers joined the heavenly choirs singing the French man to fame. Hold-outs included textile manufacturer Adelaide Bauche and Catherine Arnaud-Tizon, who wrote essays remarking on the equal opportunity oppression over both men and women.
The church wasn’t shunned on the day of Napoleon’s apotheosis, as Pope Pius VII reluctantly crowned him Emperor of France. Why is hard to say, perhaps he hoped it would bring France closer to the church after a bad bout of atheism. Look to the recent list of tolerated speakers at the National Cathedral for a more contemporary version of the church kneeling before the state.
Unlike the political landscape now, where artists are more crudely courted for their political leanings, the last French court painter, Joseph Marie Vien, overcame revolutionary government rejection. Napoleon generously acknowledged his talent by making him a senator after he won a government competition. The man may have used artists for personal gain, but was big enough to value art in spite of its political shading.
Fast forward to 2009, when filmmaker Patrick Courrielche drops a bombshell on Breitbart that secret planning sessions are taking place between private artists and the NEA. Specifically he was asked to promote the president’s “United We Serve” campaign (a.k.a. forced labor for social reengineering). Courrielche was disturbed at the clear partisan tone over issues under hot debate in Congress. Artists were encouraged to enthusiastically support of Obama’s platform in health care, energy, security and education.
Another trick Obama may have picked up from le Francais was to take advantage of the political machine he’s parked on at the moment. Bonaparte used considerable resources from the French government to promote his policies and particularly to polish his own image. He used “all the powers of state to support his efforts” and literally made it his throne. Bonbon boxes, books and thousands of gold medallions were crafted keeping his likeness close to the hearts of the people he wished to soon rule over.
Bonaparte blamed any failings on the “Directory,” or revolutionary government that preceded him, so much that only recently have scholars have noticed it. Simultaneously he claimed all their successes for himself – reminding us that nothing is new under the sun.
The Frenchman granted religious freedom to Protestants and Jews, a bold move for his times. Light years beyond the new Anti-Semitism in D.C. today, was Bonaparte’s intent to declare Palestine an independent Jewish state (again) in 1799. He was only blocked when his military campaign in Acre failed and the British intervened.
We live in times when sophisticated social networking and constant information bombardment has gifted Obama with far more power and possibilities as a propagandist than Napoleon, Caesar or any past ruler. To be fair, these can be utilized by anyone with the technical savvy or hired help if propaganda is their goal.
The question is: How much high-tech propaganda can be used against Americans without rousing our suspicions- and how many artists and writers are willing to create it?
Napoleon never lost his pride even while imprisoned hopelessly on St. Helena. He plotted to control how he would be viewed years later and attempted to rewrite his failings: “Even when I am gone, I shall remain in people’s minds the star of their nights, my name will be the war cry of their efforts, the motto of their hopes.”