languageabout

-and other misdemeanors

So-called free nations are bedevilled by increasing censorship, corruption and fear of outsiders. HELEN WOMACK believes the time has come for some perestroika in the West.

Launching the Labour manifesto for the British general election, Gordon Brown stood against the backdrop of a golden cornfield and promised a future fair for all. As I watched, I was struck by a powerful sense of deja vu. Where had I seen and heard all that before? Yes, of course, the Soviet Union circa 1980 – the old propaganda that spoke of bumper harvests and five-year plans fulfilled and over-fulfilled.

Not that the British Labour Party – or, indeed, crisis-hit Britain, with its rundown, dreary atmosphere – are alone in making me feel that I am back in the USSR. I spent most of last year in sunnier and economically healthier Australia but that, too, turned out to be a surprisingly Soviet experience.

Is it just me or is the West really starting to resemble Russia under Brezhnev, just as Russia is beginning to look a bit more like the free world?

Every schoolchild knows what was missing in the old Soviet Union: freedom. Information was power and the authorities made sure the people received only a diluted dose that came through the filter of censorship.

The state still controls the media in modern Russia and elections are manipulated to ensure a satisfactory outcome for the Kremlin. But if they make an effort, today’s Russians can find out whatever they want to know by surfing the internet. They can speak freely – and they do.

Meanwhile, in the West, it seems we are putting gags over our own mouths, censoring ourselves lest we give offence and otherwise tying ourselves up in self-defeating knots. On the campaign trail in Britain, all Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy asked was a question about immigration and she found herself dismissed by Brown as a bigot, although this treatment of the voter did backfire on him. Political correctness, excessive fear of litigation and absurd considerations of health and safety are all making us live smaller, more cautious lives. Or, alternatively, making us bottle up our rage.

Like any Westerner, I am shocked when I hear the anti-Semitic, racist, sexist and homophobic things that some Russians say without a blush. I deeply believe in equality. But I also believe in the right of the idiot to express him or herself. Because then there can be rebuttal and a free, open debate. Minds can be changed.

Gagging ourselves is no guarantee that we are not still thinking our poisonous or misguided little thoughts. And when we are all wearing gags, there is a danger that we assume what other people are thinking, rather than knowing what is on their minds.

All of this I said to my students at the Australian university where I taught journalism for a semester last year. I think it came as a breath of fresh air to them.

The students had been told they would be writing mainly for people with a mental age of 15. They had been victims of dumbing down at school and in the media, as I could see from the generally low standard of their writing and their ignorance of life beyond sport and celebrity gossip. They hadn’t been allowed to fail and thus they couldn’t excel either. The tall poppies had been cut down; they were reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator. Didn’t the communists once do that?

The students had an assignment to write about changes to public transport. University policy did not allow them to go out and do street interviews – to speak to the pregnant woman at the bus stop or the elderly man waiting for a train. Apparently, the university feared lawsuits or the consequences of one of the students tripping over a footpath. All the future journalists could do was to sit in class and interview each other or write that in theory they would go out and test public opinion.

We sat indoors and did exercises instead. In one lesson, I asked them to read a text about the high proportion of Aboriginal men in Australia’s prisons and give me their ideas.

“You couldn’t print this,” said one young man. “It’s politically incorrect.”

“No,” said another, “that’s inverted racism. The question you have to ask is why there are so many Aboriginal men in prison.”

Indeed.

We had a lively discussion. Two young white women got up their courage and said they were sick of being made to feel guilty for things that had happened before they were even born. We drew a parallel with modern Germans, still agonising over the crimes of an earlier generation. I could see the relief on the students’ faces when they were allowed to talk about this and realised they were not alone.

Within the four walls of my classroom, it was possible for anything to be said out loud and dealt with. I began to feel like a Russian dissident, running an underground seminar, hoping the room wasn’t bugged, praying the thought police weren’t waiting outside with their handcuffs and straitjackets.

Was it just me remembering a Soviet past that I knew only too well, having worked as a correspondent in Moscow under three Kremlin leaders?

A Russian friend who migrated to Sydney a few years ago told me of his experiences working for a corporation. He’d been called to a meeting, he said, and ordered to write an essay on why he loved his company. “Just like in the old days, when we had to say why we loved the Communist Party.”

An Australian friend offered another interpretation. Surely the management meant to weed out the obedient workers who handed in the essay and promote the free thinkers who refused to write it. But either way, one would have thought the company could have used the time and talents of its staff differently – in the service of the customer, for example.

Don’t get me going on a grumpy old woman’s rant about “customer service”. Suffice it to say we have all experienced the erosion of our freedom in the marketplace, where the big companies bombard us with promotions we don’t want while responding to our actual needs by having us press button one, listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and wait for a human voice in a call centre in Malaysia. No Soviet citizen felt more impotent in the face of state propaganda, inefficiency, bureaucracy and indifference.

Rather, let us consider corruption, which we always used to regard as a smelly Eastern European problem until we discovered that Britain’s parliament was mired in it, blowing taxpayers’ money on moats and duck houses. Not to mention corruption scandals in Australia.

What do you do when you have a plank in your own eye? You look for the mote in someone else’s, of course.

As successive Kremlin leaders knew well, the best way to divert attention from internal problems is to focus on the enemy outside. So we pursue our war on terror; we demonise poor foreigners in distant lands. We send our troops to Afghanistan.

In May 1988, I was one of a few Western journalists and one of only four women to ride in the first convoy of Soviet tanks to pull out from Afghanistan. The stream of body bags coming home to Russia from the unwinnable war had become too much for the Soviet leadership and Mikhail Gorbachev had ordered a withdrawal.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the scenes of mourning and silent protest in the British town of Wootton Bassett every time an army funeral cortege passes through. Almost nightly on British television, viewers hear that another soldier has been killed in Helmand province. “He was defusing a roadside bomb. His family has been told,” the announcer says. “His family has been told” – as if that somehow makes it better. “His family has been told” – it’s a formula used again and again, like nails being hammered into a coffin, like the cliches of Soviet news.

The draining involvement in Afghanistan was a painful period in Russian history; indeed, it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it also led to some national soul-searching and rethinking. The withdrawal was an important part of perestroika.

During the Cold War, the West thought it was engaged in a simple, black-and-white moral fight with the Soviet Union. It is true that under Stalin the Soviet Union was a killer state. But later it became merely a stagnant pond that kept its citizens at a basic level while frustrating their aspirations for anything better. I have come to understand that in many ways the Cold War was a game between East and West. There were no goodies and baddies. We held up the mirror to each other, that’s all.

And now I think the time has come for some perestroika in the West. We need to look in the mirror and admit what’s rotten, what’s absurd and what’s limiting about our own society.

The fact that I can write this in a mainstream newspaper and not face arrest means that our society is still free. But freedom is hard won and easily lost. We cannot allow any more erosion but must fight to strengthen what remains of our liberty.

Russians must strengthen their freedom, too. Under Vladimir Putin, they slipped back into some Soviet habits that perhaps, for a while, made them feel secure.

As a correspondent writing from Moscow, the question I always asked was: “Are ordinary Russians living better?” I now ask the same question about ordinary people in the West. Are we eating junk food or good bread? Are we living like mice or free men and women? East and West, ordinary people deserve to live in truth, peace and freedom, not in theme parks created by politicians, the media and big business. Yes, a future fair for all or – as Aussies would say – a fair go. But, please, let each poppy grow to its natural height and spare us those Soviet-looking cornfields.

Helen Womack is returning to Russia as the Herald’s Moscow correspondent after a year’s break in the West.

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