Innocents Abroad. While reading about some of Michael Moore's latest intellectial atrocities, I came across a mention of Sean Penn's trip to Iraq. Having just checked out a pretty devastating deconstruction of Oliver Stone's love note to Fidel Castro, I got to thinking about why so many otherwise semi-intelligent Leftists seem to be totally unable to understand the nature of totalitarianism and the manner in which it maintains control. Orwell claimed that, having spent all their lives in a free society, artists and intellectuals in democratic countries simply can't concieve the magnitude of oppression and violence that exists in unfree societies. Certainly that has to be doubly true for pampered Hollywood actors and directors, or tenured professors at major universities. These are people who spend their lives being indulged, even encouraged, in the use of free speech. They are celebrated for their depictions, analysis, and often brutal criticism of their own societies. As much as they may enjoy crying wolf about McCarthyism, the truth is that they have never beenn silenced in their lives. They have never had strange men come knocking at the door at three in the morning because they published a displeasing article, or took part in an anti-government petition. They have no fear of being stripped of their jobs or their homes, or dragged off to prison without trial. And when they do entertain such fears, it is always from the safe remove of indulgent fantasy.
And, of course, these folks are used to play-acting. They are practitioners of illusion and abstraction. They may know, deep down, that Castro or Saddam is playing an elaborate game of smoke and mirrors with them, but they are used to such exercises and, after all, these are people who are prone to thinking the worst of their own government in all circumstances, so such innocent parlor games on the part of its enemies are easy to forgive.
But none of this is forgiveable. It is not ultimately so difficult to discern the outlines of an oppressive society. As John Burns, the excellent NY Times Iraq correspondent has pointed out, you merely have to listen to what isn't being said, to where the silences are, to what people will not talk about. Leftists in totalitarian regimes are often highly impressed by the way its citizens sing their praises. The people always seem to be happy and contented, despite their government's ill reputation. Which is precisely the point: People in free societies complain all the time. They complain that their taxes are too high and their health care is bad. That their garbage isn't picked up on time. That things cost too much. That their salary isn't sufficient. The whole plethora of minor inconveniences and petty frustrations is given voice because it can be spoken without fear. Only totalitarian regimes are perfect, because to state otherwise brings the most dire of consequences or, at the very least, the paralyzing terror the thought of such consequences evokes. The fact that the otherwise intelligent seem to be unable to make this most elementary of deductions says a very great deal about what they are capable of knowing and seeing when their politics are involved. Or perhaps, like most ideologues, they can see only what they wish to see.