Media – where does one start?

Growing up behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, a person had to learn to ‘read between the lines’ of what the official news-media were reporting.  The alternative was being left with patently self-contradictory messages.  One little example:  the headline in a newspaper touted the Soviet Union as the most developed country in the world, while the newsstand itself was just by a big ‘inspirational’ sign that read ‘We will catch up to, then surpass the USA!’ 

In other words, keeping one’s brain from exploding from ‘doublespeak’ required that one began to construct filters through which to pass all ‘official news’.  And, it was all ‘official news’.  Of course, we had ‘freedom of the press’ – there were several independent sources besides the official government newspapers!  There was the Communist Party newspaper and there was the official ‘Union of Trade Unions’ newspaper, too!  Plus, we were told  we had freedom of the press!

When we came to Canada in the 1980s, we experienced something that we had then written off as just a bit of a quirk – but, looking back, I suspect it may have been a symptom of a malaise that is now causing the part of the illness of our ‘Western’ mainstream media sources.

I say ‘part’ because in my never-humble-opinion, there are several underlying causes….  It is not a simple situation.

So, what was this ‘quirk’?

When we came here, many Canadians were very welcoming of us.  Most were very nice – even if somewhat naive of the world situation, at least, it seemed so to us.  They would ask us a lot of questions about what our life had been like and offerered very empathetic replies.  We we would describe to them the type of censorship of the press that existed there – how difficult it was to actually find information on what was happening in world events.  They smiled indulgently and told us:  ‘It is the same here – just from the other direction!’

This seemed a singularly strange response to us.  We concluded it was just a poor attempt at trying to make us feel welcome.  But, because several different people offered me the same sentiments, it is something I have never forgotten – it did continue to bother me over the decades.

It bothered me because it showed an inability to differentiate between the freedom of the press and censorship.  It bothered me because it diminished the importance of protecting freedom of the press by a smile and a wave of the hand…. 

But it also told me that there was a danger that these people would perceive ‘right-wing bias’ where none existed.  That they would suspect it is there – simply because they are told that in Communist countries (which is their ‘opposite’) there is a ‘left wing bias’ – so here there ‘must’ be the opposite, ‘right wing’ bias…  This seemed to me to be both a twisted form of reasoning, lack of an ability to assess veracity, as well as an indication of undeserved self-deprecation.  Perhaps it was a kind of self-put-down:  considering one-self unworthy of actually asessing the situation using their own reasoning an therefore refusing to even try.  And I thought this was potentially dangerous….

It seems to me that this, or similar, faulty reasoning has permeated a lot of the learning institutions in ‘the West’ – that this ‘attitude’ is actively being taught in schools to our kids, teens and young adults.  And, it has been taught since at least the 1980s!

This started me thinking about how this attitude may have become come to be in the first place – why was this type of mis-reasoning never debunked by the intelligent people who were being taught it?  And then it occurred to me:  people will NOT question something IF they do not realize there is something to question!!!

Perhaps I am confusing things a little….  Let me explain this by going over a conversation I had with one of my high-school English teachers.  He was a 60’s hippy – all grown up and teaching American Literature now.  As we went over interpretations of differen novels, it became clear he was fiercly pro-peace (all war is evil, nothing is worth going to war over) and that he regarded the Soviet Union and the United States as pretty much ‘equivalent’ – economically as well as morally.  But, his in-born sense of fairness demanded that since he is part of ‘the West’, it is his duty to be critical of ‘the West’ – just as we, emigrants from ‘the East’ are critical of ‘the East’.

He and I had many interesting discussions – inside the class, as well as outside of it.  I’m afraid my inability to properly perceive ‘social boundaries’ meant that I asked some pretty direct questions of him – but he was genuinely a very nice guy and would discuss them with me in the spirit in which I asked them.

If this teacher is indicative of how the attitudes formed in other people of his generation, I don’t know.  However, it is interesting to entertain the possibility that he might… 

Part of the ‘culture’ of ‘the West’ in the decade plus following WWII was a significant amount of propaganda against Communism.  This went along with some pretty serious abuses of human rights – McCarthy and all that.  But that culture was also imbued with very positive things, like ‘patriotism’ and the knowledge that as horrible as war is, it is necessary to fight it sometimes…

It is one of those things we, people, tend to do:  we tend to bundle ideas together.  In this case, the ‘counter-revolution’ which happened – the ‘hippy movement’ – bundled the ideas of ‘freedom=good’  ‘McCarthyism is against freedom’ along with ‘patriotism’ and ‘necessary self-scacrifice in war’, ‘McCarthyism=right wing’, ‘facism=right wing’, ‘facism caused war’….  you see where I’m going with this. 

The Hippies (and, really, many pre-Hippies…Hippies were sort of the ‘trailing edge’ of this trend, but I don’t know the proper term to apply) rebelled against ‘the zeitgeist’ of their parent’s society – the good along with the bad!  And they were so busy rebelling against ‘the bad bits’ that they never noticed they did not reason things out…and that there even were any ‘good bits’ in their parent’s culture.

In other words, many of these people ‘bundled together’ all their partents’ era stood for.  They saw ‘rebelling against government control’ and ‘fighting for freedom’ to be the same thing as ‘rebelling against right wing ideas and people who espouse them’.  It never even occurred to them to question whether this reasoning is sound.  And since it did not occurr to them to question this, they never did.

These people then became the teachers of the next generation!

Thanks to the demographic ‘waves’, people who grew up on the leading edge (agewise) of this cultural wave have filled all the vacancies in Universtities and Colleges that were getting ready for the swelling numbers of the ‘boomers’ and they made sure to drum these ideas into the students’ heads. 

You want to question ‘government authority’?  Then question right-wing ideas!!!

Simply put, they failed to differentiate between the ’cause’ and the ‘symptom’:  since they saw ‘opression’ come from the ‘right wing’, they eqauted the two and did not reason any further.  This then became their entrenched dogma.

And they are still there, still teaching these same ideas… and they are senior enough to be in charge of approving the hiring of new professors.  Predictably, they select ones who think like they do.  After all, they must ‘guard’ the ‘institutions of learning’ against falling under the influence of ‘right wing McCarthyists’!!!

So, how did my conversations with my teacher go?  Rather well.  I walked away with a deeper understanding of ‘the West’ and its ‘internal struggle’.  But, I think I also had an impact on my teacher.  I recall that during one of our last conversations (the year was almost out) we were talking about the Soviet Union’s military backing of some of the most brutal revolutions in Africa. 

My teacher was dismissive of my criticism, saying it did not matter if the ‘new’ country accepted help from the USA or the USSR.  In his words:  ‘When you are hungry, it does not matter who offers you a steak.  You don’t ask about their politics, you eat the stake!’

To which I replied that the USA spends billions of dollars on foreign aid – a lot of it in Africa.  Sure, they do some bad things – nobody says they don’t.  But, they also bring in vaccinations, rice, beans – and books and teachers.  The Soviet Union also spends money on foreing aid in Africa.  But they never send food or books or medicine.  Instead of handing the Africans ‘a steak’, they hand them a gun and say:  ‘Your neighbour has a steak.  Go take it!’

All my teacher said was:  ‘I had not thought of that…’