History teaches us that in times of turmoil, public support of an oppressive government is solidified by fear and hate, usually fear of, and hatred toward an alleged foreign threat or of internal "subversion," and, more often than not, hatred focused upon the enemy leader.
This theme of "the essential villain" resounds, not only through history, but also through literature. There is no Othello without Iago, no Sherlock without Moriarty, no Batman without the Joker, no Superman without Lex Luthor.
George Orwell was well aware of this need for a hated enemy. In his dystopian novel, 1984, the totalitarian state, "Oceania," was at perpetual war with "Eastasia," or with "Eurasia" -- it was never entirely clear who was the enemy. But no matter, "the enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible." (1984, Signet, 1992, p., 32) In any case, all the public believed was what the government chose to tell it through its propaganda mill, "The Ministry of Truth."Because each citizen was under constant surveillance with two-way telescreens, there was no privacy in Orwell's "Oceania." ("Big Brother is watching you"). The meticulously structured language, "NewSpeak," made anti-party talk and thought ("thought-crime") difficult, with the aim of eventually making such thought impossible. Accordingly, the citizens of Oceania lived in constant fear.
Fear generates hate. But it wouldn't do for citizens to hate their government (a "thought-crime"), and so the government directed the public hatred to a single individual, one Emanuel Goldstein:
the renegade and backslider who once, long ago ... had been one of the leading figures of the Party, .., and then had engaged in counterrevolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. (14)
In order to focus this hate, the state scheduled a daily public "two minutes of hate," directed at Goldstein
... the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen... The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. A hideous ecstacy of fear and vindictiveness ... seemed to flow through the whole group of people. (15-6) (See the "Two Minutes of Hate" portrayed in the 1984 film version).
And so to my question: Is Vladimir V. Putin our Emanuel Goldstein?
Russia is a land of numerous and diverse nationalities, languages, and yes, of competing political parties. It is the home of Peter the Great, of Tolstoy, of Dostoevsky, of Tchaikovsky, of Stravinsky, of Nureyev, of Sakharov and Gorbachev. Even within the Putin government there is a diversity of contending views about the United States and NATO: "Westerners," who desire accommodation, "nationalists" who distrust outsiders and seek to isolate Russia,, and "moderates" who seek "partnership" with the West (the same word in Russian: "partnerstvo"), while steadfastly defending Russian sovereignty and security.
Yet, in our media and political discourse, all this wealth of history, of artistic, scientific and political genius, all this diversity of ethnic identity and of political thought and activism has been set aside, as "Russia" has been distilled, reduced and identified as one man: Vladimir Putin -- our "Emanuel Goldstein."
Putin is the object of much more than "two minutes of hate;" that "hate" is reiterated, unabated and unchallenged, day in and day out, in our media. By comparison, Orwell's "Goldstein" had it easy.
Vladimir Putin may be as evil and as threatening as we are told. But before we agree to believe this, are we not entitled to evidence and a reasoned argument, along with informed rebuttal? If not, then what are we getting other than propaganda and "proof" by repetition, whereby Putin is presumed guilty until proven innocent, as scant evidence is offered as to either his guilt or innocence.
A personal disclosure is relevant here: In the decade of the nineties, my profession (philosophy professor) took me to Russia seven times, usually as an invited participant in academic conferences. In addition, during the school year 2005-6 my wife and I hosted a Russian high school student, who is now a military historian in Moscow. As result, I gained many Russian friends, and today remain in frequent email contact with several of them.
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