Book review: ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ by Peter Pomerantsev
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A disturbing rollercoaster ride through the disinformation age and ‘the war against reality’.
Every morning we seem to wake up to another ‘breaking news’ revelation, duly picked up and tossed at uncomplaining readers, viewers and listeners by the world’s major media channels. The other day it was the discovery by a group of Australian or Canadian academics that excessive consumption of red and processed meat – in contradiction to all the previous research findings - does not actually lead to cancer and is in fact quite good for one’s health. It was the same with electronic cigarettes, which in the not-so-caring hands of the media travelled the whole way from being a long awaited and highly effective remedy for nicotine addiction to acquiring the same stigma as tobacco itself and being banned in a number of countries.
Or take red wine; or coffee; or carbs... Let alone domestic and international politics. (I don’t even want to go there.)
The impression is that the omnivorous (and not just in the nutritional sense) masses are being tirelessly manipulated by all kinds of unprincipled ‘media influencers’, and made even more cynical by the proliferation of the new means of internet communications and the so-called social (in reality often anti-social) media, which has become the single most powerful opinion-forming force in the world. To quote ‘This is not Propaganda’ (Faber & Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571338634), it’s become “emptied of sense” and “devoid of meaning”.
Yes, Peter Pomerantsev’s latest book is about disinformation – the ever-growing global phenomenon that he dubs “the war against reality”.
“I am surrounded by dead words,” Pomerantsev confesses bitterly in one of the book’s final chapters, before going on to conclude that the ideals, concepts, images, stories and meanings he inherited from his parents have largely lost their power.
What kind of meanings and ideals is he talking about? To explain, Pomerantsev takes the reader on a literary excursion into his family’s – and his own – past.
‘This Is Not Propaganda’ is also the story of his parents, whose Ukrainian childhood and dissident youth, with the resulting persecution by the KGB, were very similar to my own. It is not just a passionate expose of the persisting ‘fake news’ and the all-permeating ‘misinformation’, but also a no-less-passionate and revealing autobiography, in which, among other things, the author bitterly laments the near-disappearance from our present-day lexicon of the “big words” and concepts – in their true meaning – for which previous generations, including his own parents, risked their lives.
Ideas like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ have all fallen victim to demagoguery and political correctness, he believes. Those words “… have been so thoroughly left behind by life that they seem like empty husks in my hands... or like computer files to which we have forgotten the password and can’t access any more.”
I’ve known the Pomerantsev family for nearly 30 years. They were among the very first ex-compatriots who greeted me in London on my defection from the Soviet Union in 1990. Peter’s father Igor, a distinguished writer, poet and radio journalist, was then the head of Radio Liberty’s London Bureau. It was in my interview with him that I first announced my decision not to return to the USSR. Igor was also the first to warn me about a kind of ‘spiritual heartburn’ I was likely to experience in Australia, to where I was planning to emigrate.
The ‘Pomerantsev values’ are close to my heart, and I can share Peter’s disappointment and anger at encountering the same Soviet-style half-baked ‘facts’, lies and ‘untruths’ that drove his family out of the former USSR all over the modern, largely post-Communist, world. From the Philippines to Donbass (remember Putin’s notorious “Nas tam net” – “We are not there”?); from Moscow, with its powerful troll factories, to Syria and Latin America - all drowning in the murky waters of disinformation. As Pomerantsev moves with ease from one location to another, the narrative comes to resemble a revealing, if hugely disturbing (“aggressively absorbing”, as one reviewer has described it), rollercoaster ride.
To me, one of the book’s main attractions is Pomerantsev’s writing style: in equal measure poetic, like his father’s, and academically precise. Here is his description of an evening spent with Ukrainian freedom fighters in the war-ravaged Donbass: “In the evening we drank cognac from a plastic bottle and looked up at the stars, as thick as grapes, listening for the sound of shells and following traces of missiles in the sky. We were looking for signs of our military fate, like medieval men had looked at comets in search of meaning.”
Pomerantsev, it appears, has found himself firmly astride his own literary comet, with truth-seeking as its main trajectory. I wish him a long and successful flight.
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