Saturday, April 17, 2021

Taibbi: "The Sovietization of the American Press" and Natan Sharansky: "The Doublethinkers"

Within the space of thirty days we saw two very different observers of the passing scene raise warnings about pathologies in the media and the wider society. This piece from Matt Taibbi and another from Natan Sharansky on similarities they were seeing between Soviet and/or Russian  media and what's going on in the West.

Though Sharansky probably speaks with more weight having spent nine years in Soviet prisons as a dissident, Taibbi did his foreign correspondent time in Moscow and Uzbekistan as a freelancer and later a sports reporter for the Moscow Times and saw first hand the results of the flood of Western looters competing with the Russian looters for the spoils of the fall of communism.

What it all seems to come down to is you either have a multi-party press or you have an authoritarian oligarchy running things, an oligarchy striving for more and more control, total control, the very definition of totalitarian.

And that drive for total control forces people into "Emperor has no clothes" childlike—childlike with its connotations of wonder and exploration not childish, with its selfishness and uncaring impulsivity—childlike honesty:

Here's Taibbi at his substack with the headline story, March 12:

The transformation from phony "objectivity" to open one-party orthodoxy hasn't been an improvement

I collect Soviet newspapers. Years ago, I used to travel to Moscow’s Izmailovsky flea market every few weeks, hooking up with a dealer who crisscrossed the country digging up front pages from the Cold War era. I have Izvestia’s celebration of Gagarin’s flight, a Pravda account of a 1938 show trial, even an ancient copy of Ogonyek with Trotsky on the cover that someone must have taken a risk to keep.

These relics, with dramatic block fonts and red highlights, are cool pieces of history. Not so cool: the writing! Soviet newspapers were wrought with such anvil shamelessness that it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever read them without laughing. A good Soviet could write almost any Pravda headline in advance. What else but “A Mighty Demonstration of the Union of the Party and the People” fit the day after Supreme Soviet elections? What news could come from the Spanish civil war but “Success of the Republican Fleet?” Who could earn an obit headline but a “Faithful Son of the Party”?

Reality in Soviet news was 100% binary, with all people either heroes or villains, and the villains all in league with one another (an SR was no better than a fascist or a “Right-Trotskyite Bandit,” a kind of proto-horseshoe theory). Other ideas were not represented, except to be attacked and deconstructed. Also, since anything good was all good, politicians were not described as people at all but paragons of limitless virtue — 95% of most issues of Pravda or Izvestia were just names of party leaders surrounded by lists of applause-words, like “glittering,” “full-hearted,” “wise,” “mighty,” “courageous,” “in complete moral-political union with the people,” etc.

Some of the headlines in the U.S. press lately sound suspiciously like this kind of work:

— Biden stimulus showers money on Americans, sharply cutting poverty

— Champion of the middle class comes to the aid of the poor

— Biden's historic victory for America

The most Soviet of the recent efforts didn’t have a classically Soviet headline. “Comedians are struggling to parody Biden. Let’s hope this doesn’t last,” read the Washington Post opinion piece by Richard Zoglin, arguing that Biden is the first president in generations who might be “impervious to impressionists.” Zoglin contended Biden is “impregnable” to parody, his voice being too “devoid of obvious quirks,” his manner too “muted and self-effacing” to offer comedians much to work with. He was talking about this person:


Forget that the “impregnable to parody” pol spent the last campaign year jamming fingers in the sternums of voters, challenging them to pushup contests, calling them “lying dog-faced pony soldiers,” and forgetting what state he was in. Biden, on the day Zoglin ran his piece, couldn’t remember the name of his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and referred to the Department of Defense as “that outfit over there”:


It doesn’t take much looking to find comedians like James Adomian and Anthony Atamaniuk ab-libbing riffs on Biden with ease. He checks almost every box as a comic subject, saying inappropriate things, engaging in wacky Inspector Clouseau-style physical stunts (like biting his wife’s finger), and switching back and forth between outbursts of splenetic certainty and total cluelessness. The parody doesn’t even have to be mean — you could make it endearing cluelessness. But to say nothing’s there to work with is bananas.

The first 50 days of Biden’s administration have been a surprise on multiple fronts. The breadth of his stimulus suggests a real change from the Obama years, while hints that this administration wants to pick a unionization fight with Amazon go against every tendency of Clintonian politics. But it’s hard to know what much of it means, because coverage of Biden increasingly resembles official press releases, often featuring embarrassing, Soviet-style contortions.

When Biden decided not to punish Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi on the grounds that the “cost” of “breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies” was too high, the New York Times headline read: “Biden Won’t Penalize Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi’s Killing, Fearing Relations Breach.” When Donald Trump made the same calculation, saying he couldn’t cut ties because “the world is a very dangerous place” and “our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the paper joined most of the rest of the press corps in howling in outrage.

In Extraordinary Statement, Trump Stands With Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing.” was the Times headline, in a piece that said Trump’s decision was “a stark distillation of the Trump worldview: remorselessly transactional, heedless of the facts, determined to put America’s interests first, and founded on a theory of moral equivalence.” The paper noted, “Even Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill expressed revulsion.”

This week, in its “Crusader for the Poor” piece, the Times described Biden’s identical bin Salman decision as mere evidence that he remains “in the cautious middle” in his foreign policy. The paper previously had David Sanger dig up a quote from former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who “applauded Mr. Biden for ‘trying to thread the needle here… This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests.’” It’s two opposite takes on exactly the same thing.

The old con of the Manufacturing Consent era of media was a phony show of bipartisanship. Legitimate opinion was depicted as a spectrum stretching all the way from “moderate” Democrats (often depicted as more correct on social issues) to “moderate” Republicans (whose views on the economy or war were often depicted as more realistic). That propaganda trick involved constantly narrowing the debate to a little slice of the Venn diagram between two established parties. Did we need to invade Iraq right away to stay safe, as Republicans contended, or should we wait until inspectors finished their work and then invade, as Democrats insisted?....


 And from Natan Sharansky at Tablet Magazine: 

The Doublethinkers

In assessing my own liberation, I recall a conformity that feels terrifyingly familiar today


....I started my own life as a doublethinker at the age of five in 1953, when Josef Stalin died. The seventy-four-year-old despot was at the peak of his anti-Semitic campaign—and Jews were increasingly nervous. On that March day, out of any neighbor’s earshot, my father told my seven-year-old older brother and me, “Today is a great day that you should always remember. This is good news for us Jews. This man was very dangerous to us.” But,” he added, “don’t tell this to anybody. Do what everybody else does.” The next day, in kindergarten, as we sang songs honoring Stalin, “the hope of all the people,” and mourned his death, I had no idea how many children were crying sincerely, and how many were only following their father’s instructions.

The end of Stalin’s life, therefore, marked my entry into the Soviets’ deceptive order of doublethinkers. This round-the-clock public charade defined the typical life of a loyal Soviet citizen. You knew to be politically correct in everyday life. You said and wrote and did everything you were supposed to do, while knowing it was all a lie. You only acknowledged the truth with your family and a very close circle of trusted friends.

If in the first generations after 1917 the choice had been between being a True Believer and a doublethinker, by my generation there were few True Believers left. Your field of vision had to be very narrow indeed to still see the crumbling society around us as some kind of Communist paradise. My peers were choosing between Doublethink and Dissent. True, after the Communist Party turned away from Stalin’s policy of murderous purges, dissent usually only cost you your career or your freedom rather than your life. Nevertheless, few were willing to cross the line from Doublethink to Dissent.

Still, it was hard to pick out the doublethinkers. As in kindergarten, I could never know who was sincere and who was playacting—even though we all knew that more and more of us were living lies. External observers watching millions of citizens marching loyally in May 1 demonstrations, saluting their leaders, concluded that we were all True Believers. The KGB secret police, however, knew how few within the adoring crowd were sincere.

To keep the growing mass of doublethinkers under control, the KGB turned our daily life into a series of tests. There were constant probes, some subtle, some direct, to determine your loyalty. You had to watch your language, your gestures, your reactions, your friendships—because “they” were always watching you.

In the Soviet web of lies, even as a child, your main job is to fit in. At the age of ten you join the Pioneers, proclaiming your patriotism. Then you join the Komsomol, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, proclaiming your patriotism. You mouth their platitudes, you play the good citizen, in order to get ahead in your own life....

He then goes on to describe how he used science to get ahead without completely surrendering to the mob, all the while putting up with the Soviet versions of the current American pitch: "Math is oppressive because it demands a 'right answer'" (which of course has the boys in Beijing laughing their heads off at the sheer stupidity of the West.)


....It was a comforting illusion—until I read Andrei Sakharov’s manifesto.

Sakharov was our role model, the number one Soviet scientist sitting at the peak of the pyramid each of us was trying to climb so single-mindedly. In May 1968, this celebrity scientist circulated a ten-thousand-word manifesto that unleashed a wrecking ball which smashed my complacent life. “Intellectual freedom is essential to human society,” Sakharov declared. Bravely denouncing Soviet thought-control, he mocked “the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favorite weapon, ideological censorship.”....