A long time ago, I specialized in Russian and Soviet Area Studies. I read the literature, listened to the music, and studied the history. Through it all, I was amazed at how much the then-Communist regime relied on blatant disinformation – a steady stream of fictions designed to degrade other nations (most often the USA) and build up their own legend in the minds of the people. One example I still remember was that when first those tall sound-barrier walls were erected along the Capital Beltway, the Soviet Union published pictures with captions explaining that US authorities were building walls to keep citizens confined to the area. Who could believe that? I wondered.
That was then, this is now. But some things stay the same: even in the age of the Internet, the Russian government manages a stream of false news, commentary, even blogs and commenters that justify its power and degrade all challengers and opponents. This active disinformation is not limited to current events, but reaches into history, as false or twisted accounts of the past are published and made into movies or operas. Who could believe that? I wonder, but there is evidence it does have an effect on public opinion.
As I read the accounts of such things way back when, I was relieved that I lived in a time and place where freedom of speech and of the press made for a background of truth that made such cover-up and concoctions untenable. As I read the accounts now, instead of relief, I find recognition, for even in the age of the Internet – and perhaps especially because if it – I discern streams of disinformation having an effect our own country and culture.
A recent example is to be found in the most unlikely of places: British television on PBS. Well-educated and high-minded, this has been a lifeline of serious thought and quality entertainment for more than a generation. But now I wonder.
I read the reviews of the show Wolf Hall when they first appeared, and was pleased that somebody showing Henry VIII as something other than fat and foolish (and Damien Lewis was portraying him, whom I have liked since he was in Band of Brothers). I also found it curious that the show was from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, whose importance has always been acknowledged, but whose character had never been found very appealing.
That was not because of ignorance or disinterest among historians; quite the contrary. Historical review of the documentary evidence indicates that “Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.” But in this new series, he is portrayed as the very model of virtue, charity, and moral uprightness.
It turns out that this elegant and erudite program is based on novels by an expressly anti-Catholic writer, who apparently set out to “take down” the historical understanding of Saint Thomas More, who was Cromwell’s opposite throughout the action covered by the series. Motive and method are fairly clear to anyone who has historical knowledge or does the requisite research.
It would be easy to swallow whole this engaging entertainment and walk away with the impression that not only was Thomas More an evil man, but that his Catholic religion necessarily is an force for evil in any society. How could one enjoy the series and not come to believe that?
The established falsehood of the premises of Wolf Hall does nothing to defend the consumers of the entertainment. Not only does it remind me of the “golden age” of Soviet disinformation, but it reveals that such manipulation is alive and well and living in our own country, in some of our most respected institutions. Be careful what you allow yourself to believe.