Gossip, Rumors, History

Dutton’s Arts & Letters links to The National’s The Trial of Leonid K“, which chronicles the attempt by Khruschev’s grandchildren to resurrect the reputation of their father, a World War II hero maligned of late. It is a cry against thuggery – the Russian tradition of rewritten history. Gossip, rumors, suggest: “The point is to suggest; soon, the suggestions will evolve into a belief, which will evolve into an orthodoxy.” But if our libel suits are complicated and victories sometimes counterproductive, in Russia such attempts are even more likely to cross quicksand:

This is a quagmire that could only be imagined in Russia, where the tsar or first secretary or president is enveloped by a quasi-mystical aura. It is almost certainly the case that Putin has neither done anything libellous nor ordered anyone else to do anything libellous. But he symbolises a politics, an authoritarian tradition, that is necessarily at odds with Khrushchev’s legacy, and, as a symbol, he has inspired others to build up his own, vaguely Stalinist tradition and to break down that of Khrushchev. Any attempt to locate the first contemporary instance of anti-Khrushchev libel is ill-fated: the accused libeller can always find another libeller who came before, or someone who might have been a libeller, or someone whose words, viewed through a certain prism, might lead some people to wonder what they were supposed to think. There is, in fact, an infinite regress of libellers and potential libellers that leads, asymptotically, to the tsar, who never says anything or issues any dictates, who is protected by people who believe there is value in executing orders that have not even been ordered.

Of course, this doesn’t surprise. A friend in Azerbijian sent an e-mail recently:

The remnants of Soviet education are still influencing Azerbaijani students; it’s common for Azerbaijanis to claim that the Churchill “Iron Curtain” speech “Started the Cold War” when in fact it described the distancing already in effect between the USSR and the West, and expressed concern about Soviet intentions. My teacher showed me a speech her boss (the Azerbaijani rep to a European organization) was going to give, and it claimed that Churchill had with that Fulton, MO speech “started the Cold War”. What a distortion! Old mentalities remain, but as I understand it Russian historians always interpreted the speech in that way.

Of course, history in America as told by Chomsky begins with such assumptions. When my British colleagues claim Americans are sheltered by a too-friendly media, they may be right. But their sense of exactly who it is friendly to probably differs from mine. The NYTimes & talk radio battle it out – they may polarize us, but we shouldn’t forget there are far worse effects than polarization.

My own suspicion is that as long as the web can throw out the words of a New Yorker named Savodnik who writes for a journal published by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, found by a link put up by an Australian art historian and compared with a letter home by a girl from flyover territory whose mastery of (and desire to master) endless languages has landed her in Azerbaijian, well, the truth may not be easy to find but it is going to be even harder to hide permanently.

Of course, we come back to Shannon’s post above. Does our understanding end up aggregated in that huge file that follows us from doctor to doctor, where our bodies’ infinite potential for illnesses leads doctors among so many trees they don’t diagnose the forest? Will our inability to sort it all out let libels stand as well as truths? Did that blur of detail become so intense that that – and not the lack of truth itself – is what fooled the post modernists into their nihilism? Perhaps this is yet another symptom of a time and place where starvation is less a problem than obesity and too much data more a problem than too little. I’ve always thought Thoreau was a bit of a prig (and a bit of a prick), who could write better than almost anyone. But, still, he might have a point – a slowing of our economy to help us sort this all out might be a silver lining, if a relatively thin one. As long as our solution is not to look for a strong man on a horse.

Well, this is pretty meandering. I’m going to post it anyway and try to do something with more structure some time this break.