The drive to create reality transformed Soviet life into a masquerade. What became important was not what was true but what could be made to appear to be true as the structure of factual reality was replaced with organized falsification so that real life might, if only after the fact, appear to conform to Soviet ideology.
Age of Delirium
Not too many years after the collapse of the Soviet state, I spent a couple of weeks in Moscow reporting on the rise of Russian capitalism -- or the system of organized corruption that then (as now) was passing for capitalism in the former workers paradise.
I quickly found that most Russians I interviewed didn't want to talk about the past. Some may have been afraid, or had something to hide (in a Stalinist police state, just about everyone eventually has something to hide); some may have found the memories too painful.
But I had the distinct impression that most of the people I met didn't want to talk about the former regime, its crimes or its downfall, because they didn't give a damn about it any more. They were too busy trying to survive (and/or get rich) in the social chaos the collapse of the system had left behind. The price of milk in the now tolerated (if not strictly legalized) private markets, the dollar-ruble exchange rate, the prospects for listing privatized (i.e. stolen) assets on the New York Stock Exhange -- these the topics that seemed to preoccupy people.
Likewise the "free" Russian press, which had long since worn out the novelty of glasnost and was busy figuring out how to make a buck filling a ravenous Russian hunger for infotainment -- an appetite every bit as big as its American counterpart. Gangsters and strippers, not democrats and dissidents, were on the cover of the New Russia.
There was, in other words, an informal cone of silence in effect -- motivated, I guess, by a tacit agreement that it was best not to pick at old wounds, or acknowledge divisive truths, out of fear that the battered national psyche (and national unity) might not be able to handle it.
This was not exactly a whopping big surprise -- it seems to be the way most societies cope, consciously or unconsciously, with the aftermath of a trip through the totalitarian funhouse (almost always funner going in than coming out). And, judging from the coverage of Commander Codpiece's last White House press conference, it also appears to be how the semi-official media in this country is going to cope with our own ugly brush with the dark side of the national security state.
But the difference -- or one of them, at least -- is that the old system here is still more or less intact, and has every intention of remaining that way right through the Obama era. Which means it has even less of an incentive to confront (much less investigate) nasty truths.
And so we get leads like this one, from one of our major "news" organizations (i.e. corporate conglomerates):
In his final news conference today, President Bush candidly reflected on the mistakes and milestones of his eight years in office, conceding he made some mistakes but forcefully defending some of his most controversial actions.
And here's a little sample of what ABC (or rather, Disney-Cap Cities-ABC) considers a "candid" defense of the administration's policies on Gitmo, the invasion of Iraq and the use of torture:
And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States, and putting plans in place that makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking, because all these debates will matter not if there's another attack on the homeland.
Or FEMA's criminally negligent response to Hurricane Katrina:
People said, well, the federal response was slow. Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed . . . I Thirty thousand people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It's a pretty quick response.
Or the neocon dream team's willfully destructive approach to Middle East diplomacy (diplomacy as an act of sabotage):
Why haven't we achieved peace? That's a good question. It's been a long time since they've had peace in the Middle East.
To call this "candor" is either a baldfaced lie -- or an admission that you are completely incapable of recognizing the difference between a lie and a truth. And while ABC (like Bush himself) may only be guilty of the latter, not the former, the fact that this produces reporting that is functionally indistinguishable from a lie is telling. It shows just how far the system -- specificially, in this case, the Beltway political press -- has wandered from reality.
You can see this in just about all of the transition coverage. Reporters (like the ones responsible for the journalistic abomination above) and columnists and pundits are busy cranking out the usual lame duck legacy stories, as if this were the "normal" end of a "normal" presidency, instead of the concluding chapter of a national tragedy.
There is just a yawning disconnect between the nature of the crimes allegedly committed (and, in many cases, essentially admitted): waging aggressive war, torture, secret prisons, illegal wiretapping on a massive scale, obstruction of justice, perjury, conspiracy -- to the point where it would probably take an army of Patrick Fitzgeralds and a full-time war crimes tribunal a year just to catalogue them all -- and how the story is being treated in the corporate media.
It's not quite Pravda -- at least some of the hard questions are being asked, if only half-heartedly -- but it still has some of the same barely concealed, everybody-knows-even-though-we-are-not-allowed-to-say quality of Soviet discourse in the USSR's terminal Potemkin Village phase. It's as if keeping up the pretense -- observing the customary rituals as handed down by the priests of High Broderism -- is all most of the press corpses know how to do any more, or care to do.
And, as in late Soviet times, the absurdity of the official story line is only reinforced by the other systemic failures that surround it: in our case, financial collapse, plunging asset prices, massive fraud and a corrupt, sclerotic political system that may be incapable of doing even the most simple, obvious things (like printing and spending sufficient quantities of fiat money) to stave off an deeper downward spiral.
This being the case, I have a strong hunch the political-media complex (i.e. the Village) is going to want to move fairly quickly to the post-Soviet solution I described earlier -- skipping right over the perestroika and glasnost to get directly to the willful amnesia and live-in-the-moment materialism of mid-1990s Russia.
Which means, in turn, that Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Feith and the whole noxious crew are about to get flushed straight down the memory hole: banished fairly quickly from public discussion and corporate media coverage -- in much the way the Iran-Contra scandal (go ahead, Wiki it) was almost immediately forgotten or ignored once it became clear that the fix was in. America apparently had its big experiment with truthtelling and reform in the post-Watergate era, and the experience was so unpleasant that nobody (or nobody who counts) is willing to go there again. That would be like expecting the Baby Boomers to start dropping acid again.
There is an upside, of course: We may actually get a break from Bush and his insufferably arrogant, dimwitted face -- that is, until he re-emerges in a couple of years as, if not exactly a respected elder statesman, then at least a harmless old geezer of an ex-president, good for the odd charity golf tournament and the occasional Larry King interview.
Cheney, on the other hand, I fully expect to be permanently banished to an undisclosed location and airbrushed out of all the old photos.
Like I said: There is an upside to historical amnesia.
In times of war and crisis, as presidents such as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt discovered, the nation needs a strong chief executive. The flaw of the Bush-Cheney administration may have been less in what it did than in the way it did it -- flaunting executive power, ignoring Congress, showing scorn for anyone who waved the banner of civil liberties. Arguably, there has been an overreaction . . .
To measure how much has changed (or how little), imagine Newsweek, circa August 1974, publishing something similar:
The flaw of the Nixon-Agnew administration may have been less in what it did than in the way it did it -- flaunting executive power, ignoring Congress, showing scorn for anyone who waved the banner of civil liberties. Arguably, there has been an overreaction . . .
To quote myself: "The old system here is still more or less intact, and has every intention of remaining that way right through the Obama era."