Trolling Stock

by Andrew Stutaford

I had always assumed that propaganda trains were a thing of the early Soviet past.

Here’s a description of one from Pravda in 1920:

‘Lenin’s train’ – that is what the peasants and workers call the train. It now carries the name of Lenin and recently returned to Moscow after a trip around the western part of the Soviet Republic. This train consists of 15 cars, decorated with paintings in bright colors, with forceful and unmistakably revolutionary inscriptions. It contains a moving picture apparatus [projector] and screen, a bookshop, and a branch of the telegraph bureau, which posted the latest news at every station and sent out bulletins with the latest telegrams. On this train were representatives of almost all of the People’s Commissariats, and a staff of agitators.

 The train has been in constant service for about two months. It has traveled through the governments of Pskov and Vitebsk, Lettonia, White Russia, Lithuania, and has extended its trips to Kharkov. It has made 25 long stops and covered 3590 versts. Everywhere it passed, tens of thousands of leaflets and revolutionary pamphlets were handed out, socialist and revolutionary literature distributed, with books of all kinds, meetings arranged, lectures held, while propaganda instructed and animated the masses.

 The Commissariat representatives who accompanied the train visited the soviet institutions and informed themselves as to the work of the local organizations, offering suggestions and aid. Around this special train, workers and peasants assembled and meetings took place. The speeches were made from the roofs of the cars, and revolutionary leaflets and pamphlets were scattered from the bookshop like snowflakes.

 During its trip the train circulated books, papers, and pamphlets worth more than a half-million roubles, distributed free more than 150,000 proclamations and leaflets, posted more than 15,000 posters, and supplied 556 organizations with various publications. About 90,000 workers, peasants, and soldiers from the Red Army attended the lectures, meetings, and conferences; about sixty lectures were organized on all sorts of burning questions.

But I was wrong. It turns out that there are propaganda trains still rolling about. And very sinister they are. The Thomas the Tank Engine gang has apparently been poisoning the minds of some of the youngest in the land.

Fortunately, writing in the Guardian, Tracy Van Slyke is on the case:

Thomas and those friends are trains that toil away endlessly on the Isle of Sodor – which seems to be forever caught in British colonial times – and, on its surface, the show seems to impart good moral lessons about hard work and friendship. But if you look through the steam rising up from the coal-powered train stacks, you realize that the pretty puffs of smoke are concealing some pretty twisted, anachronistic messages . . .

There was one particular episode that caused me to put the brakes on Thomas for good. It revolved around James, a red engine who is described in the opening credits as “vain but lots of fun.” (Wait, it’s OK to be vain if you can show others a good time occasionally? Great – that’s going in my Parenting 101 book.) In the episode “Tickled Pink”, poor vain James, is ordered by Topham Hat to get a new coat of paint. But while James has only had an undercoat of pink slathered on, Topham Hatt interrupts and demands that James go pick up Hatt’s granddaughter and deliver her and her friends to a birthday party right now. James is mortified that he has to travel while pink and proceeds to hide from all the other trains along the way. When he’s caught, the other trains – including Thomas – viciously laugh and mock him.

“What are you doing James? You’re a big pink steamie,” says Diesel, the bad-boy engine. (For the record, all the “villains” on Thomas and Friends are the dirty diesel engines. I’d like to think there was a good environmental message in there, but when the good engines pump out white smoke and the bad engines pump out black smoke – and they are all pumping out smoke – it’s not hard to make the leap into the race territory.)

But once James gets back on the rails and picks up Granddaughter Hatt and her friends, all seemingly ends well because the girls love pink. Well guess what? It’s not OK. You think a little boy watching Thomas is going to file away the lesson that pink is OK for boys? No, what kids remember is that James was laughed at, cruelly, over and over again, because he looked different and was clad in a “girly” pink color.

And that’s not even to get started on the female trains. Well, actually it’s hard to get started on them, because they barely exist.

If we are to believe Ms. Van Slyke she has banned her three-and-a-half year old from watching the show (“there was one particular episode that caused me to put the brakes on Thomas for good”), a nasty little preparation, perhaps, of what will await him at university.

I write “if we are to believe,” because Ms. Van Slyke, a fellow at the Opportunity Agenda, “where she researches and writes about the intersection of social justice [giveaway term] and pop culture,” refers in a tweet to “my funny takedown” of Thomas the Tank Engine, leaving the faint hope that her article was either parody (if it was, well played!) or that she intended to package a serious point in joke wrapping. The latter alternative, of course, would still suggest that there is a serious point to be made.

Mind you, she wouldn’t be alone in thinking that there is. Her article also contains this nugget:

Last year, the British Labour shadow Transportation Secretary even called out Thomas for its lack of females, saying that the franchise setting a bad example for girl wannabe train engineers everywhere.

Sigh