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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ethnic Cleansing in Freedonia?

Faithful readers may remember that in early 2010 I promised to blog about real-world references to film.  While I often write about film and teach a course on "Global Politics Through Film," I'm not sure I've been faithful to that promise.

In a recent book review of a satirical novel, I found an old reference to film. Specifically, literary critic Liesl Schillinger reminded readers of this 1993 prank that was apropos of its Marx Brothers film reference:
It’s worth remembering that in 1993, when Spy magazine prank-called U.S. congressmen, asking what the administration should do about ethnic cleansing in Freedonia, several of the officials demanded immediate action. Freedonia, as it happens, was not a warring Balkan land but the fictional setting of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. Spy soon exposed the trap it had laid...
If readers are unfamiliar with the 1933 film Duck Soup, my advice is to watch it! Turner Classic Movies airs it frequently. For now, however, suffice to know that it is a farce about the buildup to war between Freedonia and Sylvania. Groucho becomes Prime Minister and his brother Chico serves as his Secretary of War. The storyline is wacky and as I wrote a few years ago, one would be "hard-pressed to learn any valuable lessons about international relations or war from the film."

In any case, I found a news item about this old prank in The New York Times of January 13, 1993, which means the congressional interviews must have occurred about the same time as the U.S. humanitarian intervention into Somalia.  The newspaper of record supplied some details about Spy's methodology:
Posing as the host of a New York radio talk show, Spy's staff called about 20 first-term House members and, after a series of innocuous questions, asked, "Do you approve of what we're doing to stop what's going on in Freedonia?" or "Do you approve of what we're doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?"
The Times also quoted some of the responses: 
Representative Corrine Brown, Democrat of Florida, said she approved of what the United States was doing in Freedonia, and added, "I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people."

Representative Jay Inslee, Democrat of Washington, was candid. "I have to be honest with you, I'm not familiar with that proposal," he said. "But it's coming to the point now that a blind eye to it for the next 10 years is not the answer."

Representatative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana, said, "Yeah, it's a different situation than the Middle East."
The magazine also called Nick Smith (R-MI),  who said that "moving through the United Nations effort has a great deal of merit."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel noted January 27, 1993, that "All 20 of them were tricked by the clever editors of Spy magazine, who concocted this little exercise in political embarrassment.....not one of the gullible freshmen caught on to the joke."

Before closing, I should note that members of the general public also provide answers when pollsters ask them questions about fictitious issues.

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