Director, Social Impact Studios & Posters for the People
It’s hard to acknowledge the failings of a hero. All too often we overlook the bad actions of the people we admire, focusing on the sum of their work and turning a blind eye to glaring mistakes. Sometimes we swing to the opposite extreme of disavowing them entirely when we are confronted with flaws in leadership and very bad decisions.
Yesterday was the 74th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s Proclamation No. 2537, which led the way for the internment of Japanese-Americans in our own country that same year. It’s a sad moment in the legacy of a leader who once represented pure optimism and hope and is an example of wartime fear that surfaced during the end of his reign as our 32nd President.
Our latest addition to the Posters for the People archive gives us the opportunity to address a full spectrum of what was promoted by FDR’s administration, to look more deeply at these two very different approaches to messaging, and to take note of how relevant they are today.
As we kick off a year-long celebration of the 80th anniversary of the WPA Poster Division, it is important for us to acknowledge how the full output of the program mirrored the tone and values of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration that it represented - and to show how the power of this propaganda effort transitioned from a positive and hopeful position to one steeped in a wartime economy and fear. This exploration doesn’t discount the importance of the original Progressive vision of the New Deal, in my opinion. If anything, it raises questions about priorities, democratic values and what works to motivate the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Earlier this week, we announced an exciting partnership with The Historic New Orleans Collection that adds 49 new posters to the comprehensive archive. Many of the beautiful posters in this collection were generated toward the end of the WPA Poster Division around 1942 – and specifically for what became the WPA War Poster Services dept. until it was entirely disbanded in 1943. They share a style and tone with other WPA posters from that same time period. Examples from that moment represent the abandonment of Progressive economic recovery that focused on rebuilding infrastructure in favor of a wartime economy.
What’s more striking, though, is their shift away from a visionary, hopeful and positive ideal of a better America to a more suspicious and fearful tone that includes jarring racist imagery. Propaganda has always had the potential to be used in this way. It seems easier to get attention with scare tactics and divisive messages than solutions and vision represented with mature resolve. Maybe it’s because the end results are hard to imagine and even harder to attain – requiring an unwavering commitment to values that feels impossible.
This is where strong leadership is critical. The role of propaganda is to convey the value of specific ideas held by a culture - often through strong leaders. Its job is to convince viewers to act in ways that support those ideas. It is very powerful and carries a lot of responsibility - and their makers know it. That’s why the WPA posters that are racist and demeaning are especially disappointing. They don’t just represent a limited view by the designer - they represent the ruling power. Even worse, they represent the worst tendency in human nature to debase others as a way to elevate power itself. It’s too easy. These kinds of posters miss the opportunity to face the creative challenge of engaging the viewer, while still representing difficult decisions with democratic and moral values.
We include these posters in the archive because our goal is to document and present ALL of the posters that were created under this government program. Excluding them would erase an ugly truth. But, we have made it a policy not to sell any reproductions of posters that contain racist or demeaning content.
One of the things I like the most about Posters for the People is its surprising relevance to today. The idea of building a strong America that values health, culture, education and enterprise never grows old. We need that now just as much as when Roosevelt campaigned for a fearless New Deal. Sadly, the same tired fear mongering that took over in his third term is rearing its head today. We are reminded of mistakes like Japanese-American internment that shouldn’t be allowed to happen again just because we were willing to sacrifice our commitment to freedom and democracy out of fear.
Our country’s current leader, President Obama, summoned the courage of that commitment nicely in his last State of the Union address this week.
“That's why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn't a matter of political correctness. It's a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith…When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
It’s not an easy position to uphold when we are scared of real and present danger. And that’s why reinforcing such a message is so important.