A Loud of Silence - By Denis Dragunsky

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By Denis Dragunsky
September 2006

The mass media bosses secretly share the views of Bishop George Berkeley

So far one can only speak about the trend of curtailing freedom. One doesn’t want to use such scholarly terms as “authoritarianism”, or “the revival of Soviet-type censorship”, or “total etatism”, etc. These high-sounding words only muddle the sober thinking of those who use them. Besides, one should agree that the situation in the Russian mass media at present, as far as freedom of information is concerned, is incomparably better than it was in Soviet times, or now in some countries that are beacons of authoritarianism. Incidentally, this situation in the Russian mass media is fraught with the danger of the ruling regime losing its political identity. But we shall dwell on this later.

I can hardly believe that on the other side of the barricade erected in the middle of the information field sits some monster resembling the governor of a town. He has a small organ in his head instead of a brain and repeats over and over again “I’ll ruin you! I won’t tolerate this!” and is guided only by his own stupidity and senseless spite.

No, of course not. The bosses are normal people who are often well educated and, strange as it may seem, are guided in their actions, apart from careerism and greed, by some noble considerations of a political nature.

Unfortunately, these ideas are not expounded in written form anywhere (we will tell why below). So the motives of the bosses will have to be reconstructed.

First. Judging by everything, the mass media bosses adhere to radical epistemology. This school of thought, at whose sources stood the well-known subjective idealist, Bishop George Berkeley, states that reality is formed solely and exclusively by our perception of it. What caused the Soviet Union to collapse? You’d think it was the economic crisis plus the growth of national self-consciousness in the Union and autonomous republics. Nonsense! It was undermined, first of all, by transistor radio sets and ultimately destroyed by Gorbachev’s glasnost. Otherwise, where could people have learned about the economic crisis and the growth of national self-consciousness? In present-day Russia, it is precisely TV that is the only nationwide means of mass information (I don’t want to offend newspapermen, but this is so). Hence, the conclusion that all politics -- from local elections to world wars – are synthesized on the TV screen. This is why it is its screen that should be constantly the centre of attention of the powers that be, not plants and factories, farms and hospitals, schools and universities, research laboratories, parliament, ministries, etc., etc. Inasmuch as it is on the TV screen that all these things become reality and acquire the necessary definitiveness.

Secondly. The mass media bosses are sure that the people are nothing but a bunch of sadists with a sweet tooth, that the majority of them are dull-witted and primitive and get quickly tired of physical or mental work. Their only wish is to have a good time, and get a thrill. Hence, there are so many entertainment programmes and imported thrillers.

Thirdly. The mass media bosses have their own view on the social processes taking place in Russia. This view is difficult to describe in great detail, but on the whole, it is charactrized by the legitimization of criminality (not crime as such, or concrete representatives of the criminal world, God forbid, but an unlawful, criminal way of life). The countless Russian TV serials show that one can achieve success, obtain justice, conquer a business or personal rival, win friends or a woman’s love only through violence. And the great abundance of all and sundry “criminal chronicles” provide the background and context, and gives the feeling that the country is sliding into an abyss of crime.

And so, with some caution, we could suggest as a preliminary hypothesis, the following concept of the mass media bosses. Russia is inhabited by rather dull-witted and cruel, yet very light-minded and jolly people who do not like and do not want to work, but like to steal and cheat, who do not believe anyone and don’t give a damn about anything. And these people live not so much in Russia, but “in the TV”. They exist with their eye glued to the TV screen. This is why, before doing anything in Russia, it is necessary, first of all, to do something with these people; instill more culture in them; depriving them of stimulae making them disobedient; make them believe that in this mad world only the government control is able to guarantee some degree of security; and make them respect the authorities. And to do this it is necessary to remove all contradictions, not from life, of course, but from the mass media. Because the latter is the Main Life.

Functional idiocy

If one takes the theory of Bishop George Berkeley seriously, one should agree that the mass media bosses are acting reasonably and consistently. However, life is richer and more multifaceted than any theories. Actually, everything is not so smooth.

An absolutely healthy child will grow up an idiot if his parents do not talk to him. An idiot cannot talk or think, he has primitive animal emotions, he is slovenly and gluttonous. And he can only understand several commands, that is less than a trained dog. In contrast to the idiocy caused by serious diseases of the brain, this state of mind is termed “functional idiocy”. This disease was first discovered in Switzerland, in a family of shepherds which had such a son. In the rare cases of children having been brought by animals, the children were like that. The sadest thing is that such a child can never be taught human language: the functions of speech are (or aren’t) developed in the first years of life and cannot be corrected later.

The mass media is a way of communicating within society. Ironing and polishing the information field, the mass media bosses take people’s speech away from them. They take away the means of nationwide discussion of an entire range of vital problems facing the country. The country becomes a deaf mute.

All TV channels are crammed with various programmes day in day out. It is like the chirping of birds for wolf children. It does not replace human speech in normal contacts.

But the authorities want to control the mass media in order to talk to the people without any interference.

Yes, but a conversation is always a dialogue. What we call the truth exists only juxtaposed to what we call a lie. Otherwise, it will not be the truth, but only empty words, information noise. A statement of an authoritative government is valid only as a counterbalance to a newspaper campaign. If there are no “false rumours and empty sensations”, such a statement is a set of empty words about which nothing can be said – whether it is truthful or false, noble or vice versa.

The suppression of criticism in the mass media devaluates the government as such and makes all its efforts meaningless. But the authorities do not realize it. Just like an old Russian lady who emigrated to Germany and wrote her friend from there: “It’s all very clean and cosy here, the pension is good and the flat is cheap. However, there are too many Germans. If it weren’t for them, everything would be perfect.” An airplane experiences air resistance, but this gives it lift.

Moreover, while imposing speechlessness the authorities themselves lose the ability to speak. Many events of state importance (for example, the resignation of Premier Kasyanov and the appointment of Fradkov Premier) were described by analysts as follows: “The president has given a sign of his future policy”. But why give a sign when the Russian language is so great and rich?

Evidently for the same reason the victorious party has not presented its programme to the people. It has only said that it supports the president, not in general, but a concrete one. And that concrete president did not tell the people how he was going to rule the country during his time in office. The people voted “for”, unable to explain why they did so. Some post-modernist would say: “The death of discourse has come”. I’d say simpler: the tongue of the nation is atrophying and its ears are becoming clogged.

This is very dangerous. When the people vote silently and indifferently, it means that they will vote for anybody, if only that person is duly seen on the TV screen. Universal support means its absence. Or rather the absence of political participation.

There is another danger, a more long-term one. It is the loss of the ability to have an intranational dialogue, which could become irreversible. Our feverish glasnost was an attempt to learn to speak after many decades of Soviet silence. But that silence was different: through it one could sometimes hear grumbling in the countless long queues, whispering in kitchens and the rustle of Samizdat pages. But the silence which is being imposed by the policy of the mass media bosses is more reliable. It is very loud, and there are songs and dances, talk-shows and films to suite all tastes, and also various spicy TV dishes and news, in short, everything, except a dialogue with the authorities.

Sometimes it seems that if censorship were suddenly repealed in a deeply authoritarian country, there would be a flare-up of violence, a war of all against all due to the complete inability to talk and come to an agreement. Something like this is now happening in Iraq.

There are grounds to believe that the mass media bosses and some higher-ups well understand all this. This is why they will carefully watch over the mass media, and keep them like a magic egg in the hands of a wicked sorcerer, as in a Russian fairy-tale, until it cracks.

Splinters of fragments

Of course, the Soviet newspapers and TV were not free, they were mendacious and engaging. They could not even be called the mass media, for they were collective propagandists and organizers, nothing more. But they had one important advantage compared to the present-day Russian mass media. The Soviet press, in its form and content, fully corresponded to the pattern of Soviet society. It was as authoritarian, hypocritical and “impartially critical” as everything in the country within the bounds fixed by the communist party.

But the times have changed. We now have a democratic Constitution, free elections, a market economy and open borders. But the national mass media, primarily TV, is again beginning to have some typical Soviet features. True, so far this concerns mainly their style and management. But content is subordinate to style.

This is not simply a paradox of development, but the dangerous fragmentation of political life. The government is trapped between the different layers of reality that coexist as it tries to combine them instead of giving preference to something definite. This is a typical Russian illness of long standing. Peter the Great modernized the country while ruining flourishing regions. Catherine the Great brought enlightenment and introduced freedoms while keeping peasants in greater bondage. Alexander III built railways and developed industry while strengthening the autocracy. As a result, there was no real modernization, no enlightenment and no industrial development. The hybrid of the tsarist autocracy and progress did not grow. The result was ruin, serfdom and the autocracy.

The abundance and indefiniteveness of orientations lead to a risky choice. As compensation there emerge the myths of an “original way” , “Eurasianism”, “guided democracy”, etc.

The ruling regime loses integrity and definitiveness. As a result, there is a compromise with the monarchists -- the double-headed eagle, a compromise with the democrats -- the Russian tri-colour flag, a compromise with the communists -- Stalin’s old anthem. But this cannot last long. The regime wants to please all, but all remain displeased.

The question arises: “What are we, in the end run?” We cannot be comprehended by our political partners. For Cuba and North Korea we are a dangerous seat of pernicious liberalism. For the West we are a country pursuing an authoritarian policy in the mass media. Forget about them. What is more important is that we ourselves cannot comprehend what we are. Suffice it to look at the TV screen. Every day it reflects the desire of the powers that be to have the entire information field under its heel and at the same time, develop a civil society and improve the international image of Russia.

Apocalypse on the Internet

It is known that one of the most crucial problems of modern time is the so-called digital divide. This is the dividing line between those who have and daily use modern computer technologies, and those who cannot use computers or E-mail and are not included in the worldwide web, due to their age, education, or for political and geographical reasons.

If pressure on the freedom of the press in Russia continues, then the Internet will be the only zone of the free exchange of information. This could have two serious negative consequences.

The digital divide will take on not only a technological but also political meaning. And two cultures will emerge within one, just as was predicted by Lenin. They will be two absolutely different political cultures -- the post-industrial culture of the Internet and the neotraditionalist culture of government TV channels. In other words, the culture of those using the Internet, and the culture of TV viewers. The people belonging to these cultures will differ not only in their education and financial status, they will also have different political loyalties.

And something quite unexpected may happen. The government will wish to get control of the Internet mass media, not only those belonging to the government but all ru. It will start to register and licence them, demand regular reports, etc. But Internet users are word-wise and irrepressible, they have a very specific understanding of what’s permissible and what is not. In short, they’re hackers. Any attempt of the authorities to impose control over the Internet may lead to apocalyptic consequences, something like the stoppage of work of the subway or airports.

Freedom of information guarantees the life of society, both figuratively and literally.