Opinion

Living in Truth - Responding to Propaganda

What lessons does the defeat of Soviet propaganda through truth and freedom hold for us today?

Protestors in Prague during Czechoslovkia's Velvet Revolution

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

By Peter Corney

January 31 2018Peter Corney looks at how Eastern European movements that challenged Soviet propaganda and honoured freedom and truth still offer lessons today for us in the West.

“The truth will set you free” - Jesus

The question of truth versus propaganda is a major issue for us all today. But it is particularly so for those Eastern European countries liberated from Soviet Russian control since the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Remember, it is only 28 years ago since that iconic moment when the Berlin wall separating East and West Germany came down!

Most of the current generation of Western young adults who have grown up in places like Australia are completely unaware of the ongoing struggle these people have to rebuild their countries on democratic principles. It is no easy matter to shake off the old Soviet mentality and, in some cases, resist ongoing interference and aggression from Putin’s Russia. Remember, Russia is currently involved in a war in Ukraine and has unilaterally annexed part of its territory; it has also been involved in conflict with Georgia on whom it continues to apply pressure and there is growing evidence of its interference in other post-Soviet countries.

It has been crucial for the leaders of the early freedom movements in those ex-Soviet countries to continue to educate their people - as they put it, to “live in the truth”. For so long they lived under the clichés, lies, and deception of constant communist propaganda! Anyone over the age of forty in these countries lived all their formative years shaped by communist propaganda. The level of control and the stifling of freedom, individual initiative, and creativity developed passivity, inertia and apathy as well as dissent. People needed to be set free in their minds and hearts to effectively embrace their new political freedom. Two other legacies from their immediate past are the tension between their renewed nationalism and their membership of the EU, and the tension between the liberalism of the West and their cultural conservatism.

In the Sept-Oct 2017 issue of New Eastern Europe the editors ran a very interesting section on the legacy of the reformation in Central and Eastern Europe. They interviewed two Lutheran Pastors who had been deeply involved in the pre-1989 struggles for independence from the Soviet Union.

Markus Meckel is a German Lutheran pastor and one of the leaders of the East German pre-1989 movement for freedom from Soviet control. He also became a minister in the first democratically elected East German government in 1990. In the 80’s he and other Christian leaders started groups meeting in Churches to teach people what was needed to have a free and open society. “It took years of our work within these groups to prepare people to say ‘No’ and be encouraged to live in truth,” he says. They continued this work while under threat and pressure from the old regime. (1) This work continues today.

Another Lutheran Pastor Juris Rubenis, a Latvian who helped organise some of his country’s largest anti-Soviet demonstrations in the 1980’s, is now working to help Latvians overcome their post-Soviet mentality through spirituality and meditation. “External freedom is only one part of total freedom,” he says. “It is impossible to properly utilise external, political freedom if people do not have enough internal freedom. So I understood that the main effort against totalitarianism in the years to come would not happen in the external world but in the internal world. How do we become internally free?” This led him to build a meditation centre and to begin to conduct retreats to teach people meditation and contemplation. His contemplative practice is shaped by his Christian tradition. He says “it’s like shock therapy for people who have been educated in communist rationalism……meditation corrects the false notion that earthly happiness is easy, quick or simple.” (2)

The so called “Velvet Revolution” in Prague that precipitated the Czechs’ liberation in 1989 took the motto of the Charter 77 Movement as their rallying cry: “Truth prevails for those who live in truth.” The vast crowds that gathered in Wenceslas square to listen to the inspiring speeches by poet and activist Vaclav Havel, who later became President, chanted “We are not like them [the Soviet regime]! They are people of lies and propaganda. We are people of the truth.” (3)

The issue of living in the truth and how to become internally free is thrown into sharp relief for Eastern Europeans because of their recent experience, but it is a critical one for us all in our contemporary world that is saturated with commercial and marketing propaganda, as well as political. Today propaganda is not just the province of commercial interests and mainstream political parties and governments. The internet and social media has made the dissemination of information, opinion, and protest cheap and easy. This has a positive side in a democracy but it can be and is abused. The information that is used by minority political and activist groups to push their cause is often deeply biased, exaggerated or false. Sometimes this is a cynical strategy, as the end is seen as justifying the means. At other times it is just passion for the cause distorting or being blind to the facts. Living in the truth is not so easy in the world of contemporary communications!

Recently, Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan wrote an insightful piece on the themes of progress, freedom, and truth in The Guardian Australia.

“Progress and freedom are not necessarily joined……truth is the precious hinge that holds freedom and progress together. China’s advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without freedom. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise. Truth is the only force we have, the one light strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness.” (4)

How should we respond?

  1. Practice personally living in the truth! That means beginning with our selves by being scrupulous in not lying, even in small matters, and not exaggerating! Being honest with ourselves also matters. Live an examined life, reflecting on your own weaknesses and then actively try to change. Seek to admit and apologise when we hurt someone and seek forgiveness. Make time for reflection and quiet in your daily prayers to allow God to speak the truth about your attitudes and behaviour.
  2. As a Christian regularly review your core values and ask yourself are they determining and controlling your ideas, opinions and actions, or are your cultural prejudices in charge?

  3. Be aware of your political prejudices and biases and your tendency to reinforce them! Seek out balanced information. Remember all governments and political parties engage in propaganda at some level in attempts to sell their ideas, policies and programs and so the citizen must be constantly alert for the truth and seek out balanced reporting on important issues. This is why freedom of speech is such a critical value in a democracy. All media outlets have a point of view and many a strong ideological bias. Public think tanks are similar and most have been set up by particular political party interests and you should be aware of their bias. Having said that, their information and opinion is often well researched and worthy of study as long as you balance it with other studies.

  4. The other alternative is to be indifferent, to have no political views, to be apathetic or so cynical that you have given up any sense of responsibility for public truth. This is to forfeit your part in the cause of the common good!

  5. All commercial marketing is an attempt to sell us something so we must treat it all with a degree of scepticism and do our research before we buy. There are many sources of information on the internet that are designed to assist in this process – don’t impulse buy is a good motto!

To ‘live in the truth’ is a challenge to live an examined life and a responsible life both for yourself, your family and the common good of others. For the Christian the words of Jesus provide the clear direction:

“If you hold to my teaching you really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

The Revd Peter Corney is Vicar Emeritus of St Hilary’s Kew.

Footnotes

1. From an interview in “New Eastern Europe” Sept –Oct edition 2017. Page115. This edition also ran an interesting section on the Legacy of the Reformation in Central and Eastern Europe. (www.neweasterneurope.eu)

2. From the same edition as above pages 140-141

3. Quoted by Os Guiness in “Time for Truth” pages 9-10 pub. Baker 2001

4. The Guardian Australia 31/10/17