Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pravda Moments

This is not the land that was promised me,

Even as far as my eyes can see...

Not The Land, Derek Webb

There is a series of articles about Soviet history at the PBS website. One article deals with the function of propaganda in the Soviet regime, specifically mentioning Pravda, the former official news organ of the Soviet Communist Party, which is now an independent news/editorial organization in its own right. The PBS article states that, “When the Bolshevik party came to power in the October 1917 revolution, it immediately began creating the world's first modern propaganda state. This is not at all surprising...The means of communication...were ordered seized as a priority. To hold the means of communication denied them to enemies. Public opinion mattered; making sure rivals could not get their message out mattered more.” The purpose of seizing all means of mass communication was simple: to reform and re-structure a society comprised of many heterogeneous traditions and traditional sources of authority into a cohesive unit under a strong central authority.

Thus the Bolsheviks attacked any rival authorities, including traditions of elders, ancient yet heterogeneous cultures, parental authority and religious faith. In place of these authorities they inserted themselves and their party structure, and they created a new collective of “saints” and heroes to legitimize their reign in the minds of their subjects. The constant hammering of their message through state-owned means of mass communication was another means by which they sought to legitimize themselves.

From the start, the Bolsheviks wanted to turn Russia into a new, modern, scientifically advanced techno-utopia. This was the Soviet ideal. Lenin's administration achieved the widespread electrification of the Soviet Union in a very short time. The rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union continued under Stalin, along with the breakup of family farming and the rise of collective farms. These things took place alongside the massive indoctrination of Russian children and youth in order to displace the influence of local, traditional culture and the authority of elders.

For a long while, this strategy worked. Soviet life began to improve and modern technology became widely available to a large percentage of the population. World War Two validated the propaganda depiction of the Soviet Union as a utopian experiment threatened by enemies, and validated Stalin as a defender of that utopia-in-progress. After the war, the Soviets rebuilt and expanded their industrial economy, achieving some significant public relations victories with the detonation of their own nuclear weapons, the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, the first man in space and the first space walk. While times were good and things were going the Soviets' way, it was easy for the average Soviet man on the street to believe the propaganda being pushed on him.

That began to change in the late 1970's and 1980's, as the Soviet regime experienced a series of reversals and setbacks, and ordinary people in the Soviet Union were able to travel more freely to other countries. It became apparent to a large number of people that the reality of their daily lives contradicted official media pronouncements. As one source wrote in the 1880's, the old joke about the Soviet press was that “there's no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.” Soviet media began to lose its power. Samizdat and alternative sources of news became much more important.

At least, that's how I understand how all this worked out. I must provide a caveat: I'm not Russian and haven't lived anywhere near Russia during my entire life. But my opinion is formed by the sources I've read and by sketchy memories of a Cold War childhood.

There are parallels between the “world's first propaganda state,” as Western propagandists describe the Soviet Union, and the supposedly “free,” “democratic” nations of the West, particularly the United States. I won't belabor them, as they have already been covered amply by other writers (particularly by a former citizen of the Soviet Union, a copy of whose book I own). One of those parallels does deserve some mention, however.

In the West (particularly the United States) over the years, some extremely rich people have succeeded in loosening state restrictions on the concentration and aggregation of wealth and resources. These restrictions were originally created to prevent large numbers of people from being hurt by the side effects of predatory capitalism. These restrictions are now almost completely erased. One of these restrictions was a restriction on the amount of media ownership any one person or corporation could have.

Because that restriction has been largely erased, a handful of men own huge numbers of very rich and powerful media outlets. I am thinking of Rupert Murdoch in particular (as some of you probably guessed), who is as rabid and enthusiastic an apologist for predatory capitalism as Pravda once was for Soviet socialism.

The problem for Mr. Murdoch (and for people like him) is that recent events are presenting a reality of daily experience for many Americans which is very different from the official party line they get from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal. This reality is not being experienced in isolation, but rather out in the open, by people who can look at each other and compare notes. This makes it harder for the propaganda machine to say, “So your experience is different from what we promised? That's because you're a failure.” In other words, it's getting harder for perpetrators of societal abuse to blame their victims for their own suffering.

A media outlet like Fox might still be able to succeed in making someone feel guilty for losing his job and being on food stamps (even though this person is out of work because of massive layoffs or the bankruptcy of his employer). But how can one blame residents of coastal cities and towns for a massive oil spill that pollutes their beaches and contaminates their groundwater? Or how is this the fault of “them 'terrrists,' socialists and liberals!”? By the way, which “news” outlets and political candidates were pushing the “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” message over the last two years?

The right-wing media in this country (which comprises the majority of mainstream media nowadays) would tell us that greed is good, that laissez-fare capitalism is wonderful, and that all our social problems can be solved if only we remove all governmental restrictions and “let the market decide” what our lives shall be. But if free markets and small government are so wonderful, who poisoned the water supply of Charleston, West Virginia to such an extent that seven-year-old boys there now have mouths full of caps on teeth that have been rotted away from drinking the water?

The “free-market,” selfish, “greed-is-good,” John Galt message of the American Right is diametrically opposed to reality, and is a very bad way of coping with a future of diminishing resources and a poisoned planet. For a long time, forward-thinking people have known this to be true, although the signs of our resource and environmental predicament were not obvious to most. Now the signs are becoming a lot more obvious. The Kool-Aid we've been fed is starting to make more people queasy - or, as Ahavah Gayle said recently on her blog Shalom Habayit, "This caviar tastes funny." The Deepwater Horizon accident was an American “Pravda moment.” The United States and its dominant media will be experiencing many more “Pravda moments” in the near future. Hopefully, such moments will be the start of an adult conversation.

For Further Reading,

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your willingness to really look at and think about the world and what is going on in it.