These are lecture notes for my Library and Information Science 101 class next Fall. In it I am exploring aspects of media and information literacy ultimately in hopes of expanding my students' understanding of media coverage of global warming. This lecture is about government censorship.
The former Soviet Union provides us an excellent example of censorship in action. Theirs was a huge, monolithic government capable of controlling virtually all information their citizens were exposed to. Everything had to be run though “official channels” to make sure it corroborated the state’s version of reality. Even when people KNEW that the story was a lie, they knew better than to talk about it with anyone but their closest friends and family members.
Take for instance, the disappearing Russian cosmonauts. You can look online and find before and after photos that show how they “disappeared” someone who had fallen out of favor. There would be a picture of a bunch of people and then one of them would fall out of favor, and the officials would retouch the photo to take him out of it and republish it. So they could point to it and say, “See, look? Sergei was not there! He was never in the space program. We knew that guy was a cretin from the start!” And after the retouched photo surfaced, even the people who actually saw him there knew better than to disagree with the official story.
It isn’t shocking to think that people in power will want to control their image or manipulate people to ensure that they stay in power. What is shocking is how TOTAL the level of control was.
I am going to be cribbing a lot from James V. Wertsch’s “Blank Spots in Collective Memory: A Case Study of Russia,” so if you want to read that article, you should. But he calls these instances “blank spots,” and explains, “In some cases these were literal blank spots, as in photos where people’s images had been painstakingly airbrushed out of existence; in other instances, the notion was more figurative, having to do with what could—and could not—be discussed in a public setting.”
But something interesting happened in 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was basically a non-aggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Not only were they not going to fight one another, there were secret plans within the pact in which they agreed to divide the countries between them into “spheres of influence.” Germany was going to exert influence over some countries, among them Poland and Romania, and Russia was going to influence the others, specifically Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Russia did more than exert influence on them. They actually annexed those three countries INTO the USSR. It’s like all the people in those countries just woke up one morning and found out they were actually Russians. They KNEW that the M-R Pact must have had something to do with it, but officials denied it, and they knew better than to go around asking questions. Think for a second about how much state control there must have been for there to be that kind of dynamic. Now, the interesting thing about this--and the wonderful case study the collapsed Soviet Union provides us--is how this information was handled in textbooks at the time and in subsequent years.
In textbooks that reflect the official Soviet version of history—which was all of them until the late 1980s—there was nothing to say about the secret plans in the M-R Pact because, according to official channels, there were no secret plans. In A SHORT HISTORY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF THE SOVIET UNION (1970) the M-R Pact is discussed as follows:
In August of 1939 Hitler’s government proposed a non-aggression pact to the Soviet Government. The Soviet Union was threatened with war on two fronts….[and] agreed to make a pact of non-aggression with Germany. Subsequent events revealed that his step was the only correct one under the circumstances.The non-aggression pact was treated as a good idea and made no mention of secret plans or spheres of influence. Again, because in the official record, no such plans existed. Later in the book, in a completely unrelated passage, the annexation of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia are discussed:
In 1940, when the threat of German invasion loomed over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and their reactionary governments were preparing to make a deal with Hitler, the peoples of these countries overthrew their rulers, restored Soviet power and joined the USSR.The official version of what happened fit neatly into the USSR’s narrative—that the people overthrew their corrupt government and rushed to join the Soviet Union. This was how the M-R Pact was taught in Russia until the late 1980s, when Gorbachev, the Soviet Union collapsing around him, admitted that the secret protocols had in fact existed. A textbook in use at the time shows the transition between one version of history and another. Note how ambiguously worded the passage is, so as to avoid laying responsibility on anyone:
As a result of complex processes of international and internal development, Soviet power was established anew in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia….However, in the new regions entering the USSR, breaches of the law characteristic for those years of the abuse of power were tolerated along with democratic revolutionary transformations. All of this made the situation more complicated in these regions, It had a negative effect on people’s psychological state and at the same time on the military preparedness of the USSR.Interestingly, this version of history is implicitly critical of the Soviet Union, but it still dances around telling its readers what exactly happened. There is no mention of the pact, no mention of who entered into the agreement, and no mention of what exactly happened besides “complex processes of international and internal development.” Whatever that means. Wertsch states that the “obvious awkwardness” of the account was the product of a couple of competing impulses. On one hand, they had to acknowledge that something happened. But on the other hand, there was not a clear idea as of yet what the new version of truth was going to be. You can imagine that people, after years of living under complete state control, were wary that anything they said could come back to haunt them. But on a grander scale, cultures always play with the facts to make them fit within their narratives.
By 1998, a 9th grade history book reflects that a new narrative has taken hold, one of the “difficult choice.” By this time, it was safe enough to actually tell people about the secret plans in the pact, as well as to talk about the machinations behind the scenes. But in order for these facts not to be a source of shame for the country, the pact is rationalized as a difficult decision that had to be made, despite any reservations. In the textbook there is language such as:
Stalin was confronted with a difficult choice: either reject Hitler’s proposal, thereby agreeing to have German forces move to the borders of the USSR in case Poland was defeated in a war with Germany, or conclude an agreement with Germany that would provide the possibility for pushing borders back from its west and avoid war for some time.So we see through three different time periods how the past is presented in different ways. This is a rare glimpse of this process made possible only because of the USSR’s dissolution in 1991. But consider the examples that are right in front of your face. How is Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians different now that it was in the 1950s? That is happening on a different scale, for sure, but both shifts reflect a change in the culture and the agreed-upon cultural narrative.
Perhaps a closer parallel can be found when we look at textbooks in America. First, it is important to clarify that the US government does not wield nearly the kind of authority that the Soviet Union’s did. But there is a confusing and confounding political and media landscape in America that allows for censorship, some of which is more obvious than others. Noam Chomsky says that there are two kinds of censorship—the kind in Iran and the kind in America. Iran lives under the kind of Soviet model that we saw earlier (totally different politics, by the way, but the same overall effect on the freedom of information). That is, everything is censored…but Chomsky says that because everyone KNOWS that everything is censored, they also know enough to go around the official channels to get to the truth. He states that the kind of censorship in America is much more insidious. Because we live under the illusion of freedom, we are much less likely to seek any truth beyond what is given to us by the same official channels that in other countries they know to go around.
Consider the Texas school board. Up until 2011, they had the power to decide what was included in all textbooks used in Texas. (For reasons of economy, many other states adopted the textbooks, as well, so the effects were felt all over!) In 2012, individual school districts started having more say in the process, and the Texas School Board no longer had the final say. But up until then, this relatively unknown group of people who had been voted in by a very small number of people, had an enormous say in what appeared in the state’s textbooks. The documentary The Revisionaries details how the Texas State Board of Ed, led by Don McElroy, changed textbooks to reflect conservative values and fundamentalist religious beliefs. I recommend watching the film's trailer on that page if you are not already familiar with those guys.
Bill Moyers offers some examples of the Texas State School Board in action, noting that the board skews conservative and that decisions about what is put in and taken out are often politically motivated. For instance, according to the New York Times, Thomas Jefferson's role as an enlightenment philosopher was nixed because he coined the phrase "the separation of church and state."
In a particularly telling episode, as documented by Moyers, religious freedom is downplayed:
A proposed amendment from one of the Democratic board members would have required students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” One Republican member argued that the “founders didn’t intend for separation of church and state in America” and called the statement “not historically accurate” and the conservative members voted down the standard. The board then added a new one that suggests the “separation of church and state” is not a key principle of the First Amendment.Sometimes the decisions are completely arbitrary, as also noted by Moyers:
South Texas artist Santa Barraza was recommended for inclusion in a 7th grade standard by a Latina board member. Another member googled the artist and was offended by one of her paintings that included minor female nudity. She showed it to her colleagues and they refused to add her to the standard. The Texas Freedom Network notes that several of Barraza’s paintings were hanging in the Texas governor’s mansion while George W. Bush was in residence in the 1990s. The conservative bloc also removed hip hop from a list of culturally significant musical genres.We have in effect here, two different examples of censorship, the former Soviet Union kind and the present-day American kind. Though they are different, the net effect is the same: students are not getting the truth they need. If the information in a textbook can be inaccurate, then who can be the final arbiter of truth? If the very notion of truth is subject to change with political whims, how do we ensure a well-informed populace?
Wed Aug 07, 2013 at 12:44 PM PT: I kind of wish the comments had been more germane to the diary.