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Apr 16

The Soviet Union in 1960s Television – Unconscious Propaganda

Star Trek - The Soviet Union in 1960s Television - Unconscious PropagandaIn my page on Space: 1999 at Psychotronic Review, I wrote, “And the original Star Trek had its stupid Soviet Empire proxy in the Klingons — actually more pernicious propaganda than you got from the John Birch Society newsletter.” Lawrence defended the show, pointing out how liberal it was. And he’s right. But it wasn’t my intent to pick on Star Trek. For one thing it was hardly alone.

Hogan’s Heroes had Marya (played by the television Rosalind Russell, Nita Talbot), who was a Russian spy who perfectly encapsulated American’s strange reaction to the fact that the Evil Empire was our ally during World War II. First, she could never be trusted. In the end, she always turned out to be on the ally’s side, but her commitment was at best unclear. What’s more, she just stood around and let the Americans take care of everything. This was, and still largely is, the way that Americans see the war. The idea that in the simplest terms it was the Soviet Union more than anyone else who defeated the Germans and the Japanese is something most Americans have a very hard time dealing with.

There’s also The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show where Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale act as the perfect foil to our all-American heroes: evil for the sake of itself and incompetent. But note: I’m a big fan of both Hogan’s Heroes and The Rock and Bullwinkle Show. And I am rather fond of the original Star Trek — especially when it did comedy. So I’m not putting these shows down just because they fully embraced our country’s international propaganda. In the case of Hogan’s Heroes and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, it was done in quite a charming way. And I certainly don’t think that any of the writers of these shows thought they were creating propaganda.

Unconscious Propaganda Is the Most Powerful

To my original claim, I do think that Star Trek was far more effective anti-Soviet propaganda than the John Birch newsletter.

But it is exactly because these shows didn’t know what they were doing that made them such powerful propaganda delivery devices. This is another issue of fish and water. If someone says that the Soviety Union is the Evil Empire, you can question the claim. But when such a belief is simply in the air — when no one even knows that they are making an assumption — that is when you are really in the danger zone. That is the sort of thing that causes the Cuban Missile Crisis.

(And speaking of the Cuban Missile Crisis: who won that confrontation? Certainly it was presented to Americans as a victory. But that’s not true. The US installed nuclear weapons in Turkey — a clear first-strike threat to the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet Union installed nuclear weapons in Cuba. The Soviet Union got what it wanted: nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy. It was the US, not the USSR, that blinked.)

My point is that it is the unstated assumptions that are the most dangerous. Lawrence noted, “For when it was made Star Trek was about as liberal as you could get.” And that’s exactly the point. When the conservative assumptions go unnoticed, even the liberals spread them. And they do it even when they are specifically trying to be liberal.

The John Birch Society

So to my original claim, I do think that Star Trek was far more effective anti-Soviet propaganda than the John Birch newsletter. It’s not hard to read Birch material and see that they are true believers who have a faith-based take on the world. It’s hard to fight against the Klingons given that they don’t actually exist.

But note that in the first run of the show (Klingons have evolved as a people), Klingons weren’t very good characters. There was no depth to them. They were just bad. And accepting that the world worked that way in the 23rd century makes it all the more easy to accept that it works that way today.

The Chicken and the Egg

The Federation wanted to allow people choose for themselves but the Klingons wanted to force people to do as the Klingons said. It’s funny that this is literally exactly what the United States still says of itself; why we support so many despots is just one of those unknowables. Every war we get into, we do so reluctantly. It’s truly amazing how different we think we are from every other empire in history. The one way we are the same as every other empire in history is in thinking that we are different and only trying to do good.

Now I understand: there is a chicken-egg issue here. People accept the Klingons between they accept the Evil Empire mythology. But the truth is that the two feed each other. And this is why people should watch for the themes in movies other forms of entertainment. It is also why I’m not crazy when I talk about fascism in super hero movies.

Our entertain defines us. And I think we were doing far worse in our 1960s television shows than the Ancient Greeks were in their myths and stories. And that embarrassing.

4 comments

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  1. paintedjaguar

    I think Boris & Natasha were actually a reworking of an even older meme that predates the USSR – the shadowy, bomb-throwing East European Anarchist.

    It pays to keep in mind that these propagandist memes in popular entertainment are often inserted quite deliberately, like the reactionary tropes Al Capp put in his Li’l Abner strips or the macho fantasias of John Milius. Speaking of which, you should check out his The Wind and the Lion (1975), a wonderful Boys & Girl’s Own Adventure and pseudo-historical romance.

    Naturally all sorts get in on this game. I just finished reading the latest Charles Stross “Merchant Princes” novel, Empire Games. (recommended, but be aware it’s part of an ongoing series). As the book wore on, it became apparent that he was mapping a certain agenda onto his protagonist. Thus:

    * The point of view protagonist is a young woman.
    Great, some of my very favorite SF yarns were by James Schmitz (If you’ve never read “The Demon Breed”, what are you waiting for?). Bring on our spunky, talented heroine!.

    * A dark skinned young woman.
    Right, whatever.

    * Who suffers from prejudice towards Middle Eastern looking types (her father was actually Indian).
    Hold on there, Charlie. This is an alternate timeline where the current US boogieman is a gang of alt-reality terrorists who launched a nuclear attack in 2003. I can’t remember whether the WTC attack even happened in your series, but anyway this is sounding more like our world than theirs.They don’t need a ME boogieman anymore.

    * Did I mention she’s a lesbian?
    Uhh… why am I getting subliminal flashes of a Bingo card?

    *Ok, our girl has to be relatively vanilla, for plot purposes (she’s a spy). But here’s her formerly Barbie-double childhood sweetheart, who has evolved into a nose ringed, tatted up, rainbow haired, construction trade, PDA flaunting dyke, despite living in a paranoid security state even more dominated by religious whackjobs than ours is.
    Oh come on, now! This is literally an MRA caricature of an SJW, though there’s no sign of satire, which would be out of place in this book anyway. Are you just trying to tweak someone’s nose Mr. Stross?

    1. James Fillmore

      There’s a longstanding tendency towards libertarianism among sci-fi writers; Orson Card & Robert Heinlein to name two. I suppose it’s their publishing success plus their ability to dream up imaginary worlds, leading some to think our real world is imperfect because it’s not run by geniuses like themselves. Still entertaining writers, though!

    2. Jurgan

      “I think Boris & Natasha were actually a reworking of an even older meme that predates the USSR – the shadowy, bomb-throwing East European Anarchist.”

      That’s probably true. Keep in mind, Pottsylvania was stated to be a tiny, very weak country, so it doesn’t make sense as a stand-in for the USSR. Boris and Natasha were the most prominent of the villains, but their bosses were an egotistical military officer called Fearless Leader and a shadowy mob type called Mister Big. I interpret the country as a kleptocratic despotism somewhere in the Soviet orbit.

  2. Dave L

    Have you read Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/columns/freshly-rememberd-kirk-drift/? An interesting discussion about Kirk’s supposed sexism.

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