How Democracies Perish, Deathbed Edition
This is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of How Democracies Perish, an analysis of the spread of world communism by Jean-François Revel, one of freedom’s most serious French defenders since Tocqueville. At the heart of this work, Revel details “The Tools of Communist Expansion,” among which the most relevant for understanding our current situation comes in Chapter 16, “Ideological Warfare and Disinformation.” The profound simplicity of Revel’s nuts and bolts account of totalitarianism’s Cold War advance, far from being obsolete, actually sheds light on a defining feature of today’s progressive ascension: the perverting of the free press into a propaganda ministry.
Revel’s trenchancy is proven in the fact that the mechanics of Soviet cultural infiltration he identified may now be seen at work again, this time undermining the West not from without, but from within. The war Revel described thirty years ago has progressed to its natural final stage: the West, having weakened before communist propaganda even as the communist nations themselves were crumbling, has now taken to propagandizing itself into rejecting its victorious heritage in favor of the “ideal” of complete state control. Marxist disinformation is now homegrown.
First, a look at the mechanism Revel isolated. Paradoxically, the totalitarian world’s great advantage in its cultural assault was the openness of the democracies themselves. Specifically, our free press became the communists’ best weapon, as it gave them a strategic advantage: the communist nations, being closed to Western observers, were able to impoverish, starve, and execute their populations at will, with almost no direct scrutiny until much later, whereas in the West, every government action was questioned and critiqued as it happened. The practical result was to shield totalitarian atrocities with a real-time information blackout, so that the state’s official propaganda was all that the outside world was permitted to hear, initially. Meanwhile, Western society was continually wriggling under its own microscope, its imperfections fully exposed.
This exposure disparity fed very nicely into the mythology of communism as a grand ideal, by contrast with the rickety, flawed political machinery of the West. Everyone saw freedom’s warts, blunders, and impurities; from the totalitarian world, there were only declarations of purity and superiority, supported by apologetics from Western intellectuals, and mitigated only by vague, unsubstantiated rumors of secret police, repression of political opponents, and other implausible sounding evils.
This real-time information gap, as Revel explains, was the key to tyranny’s ideological success. For when the ugly truths of communism did, at last, leak out, they inevitably came “too late,” once the potential public effects of immediate knowledge—horror, outrage, disillusionment—had already been diluted by time. That is, the West received the worst of the news once it had already become mere “history,” thus dulling its emotional impact.
More importantly, however—and this is Revel’s great clarification—the delay served to detach the atrocities, perceptually, from the underlying ideology that had produced them.
As Revel explains:
The disclosures had come too late to purge Western thinking and politics of the golden legend of communism swallowed between the two world wars. The imposture maintained by Soviet propaganda during those years has had a lasting influence on Western countries’ internal politics by diverting the left into a feckless fight for, or at least goodwill toward, totalitarian socialism. (Translated by William Byron, New York: Harper and Row, 1983, p. 168)
Aided by the temporal separation between the propagandistic portrayals of communism and the subsequent revelation of its indisputable horrors, Western progressive empathy—buttressed by devious Marxist intellectuals and rabble-rousing, Bolshevik-envying leaders of the “working class”—had successfully constructed a broad public myth of communism as, in principle, a worthy experiment, a noble ideal, even a purveyor of “true Christian values.” (Watching Henry Fonda’s socialist speechifying at the end of John Ford’s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, or Charlie Chaplin’s at the end of The Great Dictator, one is impressed by the extent to which brazen Marxist propaganda had infested the West’s popular consciousness by World War II.)
In other words, by the time the truth became known, a non-malevolent interpretation of communism had taken hold of much of the West—a pre-rational programming not easily undone by demythologizing facts learned later. This forced information delay was essential to building the illusion of communism as a rational and moral ideology, thus rendering it impervious to later revelations of mass oppression and death at the hands of actual communists. This explains the progressive clichés we all grew up with, such as “Communism is a good idea, but it hasn’t worked in practice,” or “True communism has never really been tried.” These are the lies whereby the West attempted to reconcile its emotional programming with the facts before its eyes.
By contrast, every action of democratic nations was reported—and by the 1960s, literally watched “live,” on television, a medium so vivid that one easily forgets that its selectivity inevitably conceals far more than it reveals. Western men never saw same-day footage of the Ukrainian forced famine or Maoist re-education camps. They did, however, see their own leaders being assassinated, riots and injustice in their own cities, their own soldiers killing and being killed overseas, and their own young people rebelling against anything and everything. The mass indoctrination in the idea that Western liberty was the compromised cousin of the pure equality and brotherhood represented, however “impractically,” by communism, was overwhelming, even when it was unintended. (Consider the political trajectory of twentieth century Christianity.)
By sheer force of easy access to information, free societies critiqued and projected counterargument against themselves readily (whether in the name of “news,” sensationalism, or genuine political disputation), whereas totalitarian failure and brutality were experienced only peripherally, usually long after the fact. This precipitated defeat in the “propaganda war,” leading to constant Western self-reproach and self-diminution through moral equivalency arguments that were only produced by the West to the benefit of the totalitarian world, never the other way around.
In sum, through the mechanism of delayed revelations, the sensibility of self-doubt and sympathy with the enemy was well-embedded in the West before the arrival of the decisive evidence that might have nipped this self-indoctrination in the bud. Consider the example of John Dewey: a brazen propagandist for Stalinist Russia who, when the truth leaked out, turned Trotskyite without missing a totalitarian beat—and lost not one iota of public credibility in the process. He is “the father of modern education” throughout the civilized world, a world he spent a lifetime hating and attempting to undermine through an education theory built on the principle that all children must be forcibly divested of individual thought, personal initiative, and private motivation. Had the Soviet Union he admired been fully exposed without the delay effect, his own motives and credibility might have been damaged. Instead, he has been lionized as the great educator, while the educational establishment formed according to his theories has (intentionally) reduced the civilization of Shakespeare and Locke, Jefferson and Melville, to an ahistorical, amoral, semi-literate den of dependency and submissiveness.
To summarize with Revel’s own words:
So the non-Communist societies function permanently in the spotlight of criticism from both the Communists and their own inhabitants. Their defects, real, supposed or exaggerated, are condemned as absolutes, as the only ones on the planet, since the Communists’ defects are not subject to daily scrutiny, are seen only as abstractions by anyone not living in the Communist world. The people who do live in it acquire concrete knowledge of those faults, but too late to do anything about them. (p. 187)
Revel’s powerful analysis of defeat—self-scrutinized West against propagandizing East—assumes a Western media full of gumption and essentially muckraking in nature, in perfect contrast with the repressed and subservient totalitarian propaganda ministries which orchestrated the information blackout on communist atrocities, from the gulags to the Tibetan genocide.
The ideological war Revel described has been lost, however. The new Western media, products of the fully propagandized Western university, have broadly succumbed to the sympathy with totalitarian ethics and intentions that Revel warned was the West’s imminent danger, and the communists’ long-term strategy. In the aftermath of their victory, the totalitarians have turned to the natural next stage. Having morally weakened the West by exploiting the legitimate free press to their clever advantage, and at last having converted that press itself into a de facto ally, the enemies of freedom could begin their work on the inside of the Western establishment in earnest. It was now time to bring the ideological war home.
This moral struggle between the totalitarian impulse and the defenders of freedom is no longer a “cold war” between nation-states. It is now a war within the so-called free nations themselves. The Western media has been factionalized into the totalitarian propagandist majority and the searching, skeptical minority which forms the last remnant of the true calling of that free press which was once supposed to be a bulwark of liberty.
Today’s Western totalitarian propaganda apparatus, still operating under its former, respected title, the “news media,” functions on precisely the same mechanisms as the Soviet or Chinese propaganda operations described by Revel: suppress, obfuscate, dilute and, when revelation seems unavoidable, delay. And since, unlike their spiritual forebears in the fully communist world, our new propagandists do not have the advantage of a complete monopoly on the dissemination of information (yet), they are forced to rely rather less on direct suppression, and more heavily on obfuscation, dilution and delay.
Consider the current spate of scandals surrounding the Obama administration. Most of them relate to activities that were known or suspected to be ongoing long before the November presidential election. The American “news media,” which in the past would have seen the obvious explosiveness of these stories, and would have pursued them if for no other reason than to “sell newspapers,” chose—collectively, without exception, which means by tacit agreement—not to let any of them out of the bag until after the November election. Now, like a house of cards, they come tumbling down, fast and furious, as it were. In each case—Benghazi cover-up, IRS targeting of conservatives, universal surveillance of private correspondence—the response of most of the media may be summarized as follows: first, deny the story outright; second, accept that something happened, but claim that it has been blown out of proportion; third, admit that what happened was pretty bad, but insist that none of it is in any way traceable to the officials at the top of the hierarchy.
Observed as a consistent and repeated pattern of response to every revelation about the Obama administration, this uniform behavior on the part of the American media creates an inescapable impression: the bulwark of freedom has been usurped by the spirit of totalitarian propaganda.
The key to the method, as Revel explained, is to ensure a sufficient time lapse between an occurrence of tyrannical behavior and the revelation of its full ramifications. This not only dulls the public’s response, an effect perfectly captured in Hillary Clinton’s uncharacteristically honest “What difference, at this point, does it make?” As with its Cold War manifestation, the truth delay also serves the more profound purpose of detaching the state’s horrors from the ideology that produced them, thereby protecting the ideology itself from public condemnation.
This last point—Revel’s important contribution to our understanding of ideological warfare, now manifest as the fully-realized enemy within that Revel was too hopeful to predict—is essential to understanding the depth of the problem. Leaving Americans to die without lifting a finger to help, and then concocting an elaborate lie to protect oneself from scrutiny, is not an anomaly, or a fatal “mistake,” independent of any underlying philosophy. Rather, it is a perfect expression of an underlying philosophy: it is progressive collectivism’s natural method, using “mere individuals” to achieve one’s devious ends, and abandoning them—to death, if necessary—when they are no longer useful.
Using the information-gathering powers of a federal agency to isolate, harass and suppress one’s political opponents is not the wayward act of a few low-level bureaucrats; it is the normal operation of a totalitarian faction that seeks not to “do a better job” than the other party, but to annihilate all principled resistance to its fundamental transformation of a semi-free nation.
Forcibly collecting data from every electronic communication, in order to have the power to determine a person’s patterns of behavior, or to identify his contacts and associations, is not the product of a sincere disagreement about the best way to prevent harm to the community; it is an expression of progressive authoritarianism, pure and simple—of a complete disregard for men as men, in favor of viewing them as interchangeable objects to be arranged and manipulated for the state’s purposes, at the state’s discretion.
By obscuring such despotic acts, or allowing details to be released only in dribs and drabs, months or years after the fact, the American media is not merely, or even primarily, protecting Barack Obama. It is protecting progressivism, by reporting all leftist abuses as “history,” rather than breaking news, thereby implicitly reducing every outrage to the past misjudgments of men, rather than the defining nature of progressive collectivism. Just as in the earlier stages of the war described by Revel, the totalitarian ideology wins a moral pardon from most of its prey through sheer obfuscation, delay and claims of “noble intentions”—hope, change, fairness—regardless of what the facts might show.
This explains the refusal of some of Obama’s critics to ascribe immoral motives to him or his fellow progressives, or to believe they could really have done, or be doing, what the facts reveal. On September 11, 2012, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did what collectivist tyrants do—and then they did the other thing collectivist tyrants do, namely lie shamelessly about their actions. The facts, the witnesses, and the gaping holes in the administration’s lies were all available from the outset. The “free press” pursued none of these, instead actively obfuscating about the facts, burying the witnesses, and dutifully disseminating the lies. They wished to save the re-election campaign of inhuman creatures, and in doing so they masked the even deeper horror that full and immediate revelation might have exposed, namely that inhuman brutality is no anomaly among Marxist-progressives, but rather the raison d’être of progressivism itself.
Jean-François Revel, a powerful voice against European anti-Americanism, and a bringer of clarity to the subtle mechanisms of the West’s Marxist subversion, did not live to see the final poison fruit of twentieth century ideological warfare in its full ripeness. What would he think of an American “free press” standing unanimously and eagerly as the bulwark of tyranny?
(Originally published in June 2013)