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NBC’s Cuddly Dictators

NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union? In its opening video for the Olympic Games, NBC’s producers drained the thesaurus of flattering terms devoid of moral content: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”

To parse this infomercial treacle is to miss the point, for the whole idea is to luge by the truth on the frictionless skids of euphemism.

Agreed. But let’s take the “infomercial treacle” to its logical conclusion. If socialistic governance is a “pivotal experiment,” then we can all agree it’s taught us a valuable lesson, because it’s an “experiment” that failed. (Why the left needs an experiment to learn that gulags and death camps aren’t the way to go is another question entirely.) I would almost be willing to ignore the “pivotal experiment” nonsense if they actually treated it like an experiment.

For example, the violence, repression, and anti-Semitism of the regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela could earn him plenty of cogent and accurate descriptors. On the day of his funeral, however, NBC’s news anchor went looking for a phrase to sum up Chavez’s legacy, and landed on “harsh critic of the U.S. who ruled for 14 years.” Proponent of a “pivotal experiment” would have been a step up from that.

Chavez’s successor isn’t an improvement, and as Ben Cohen explained here last week, Venezuela is continuing its descent into misery and chaos. AFP has the latest on Venezuela’s version of the pivotal experiment:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday accused Washington of plotting with anti-government protesters and expelled three US diplomats in retaliation.

Maduro’s order came on the same day that fugitive opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez re-appeared and called for a mass rally on Tuesday and challenged the government to arrest him at the event.

Nearly two weeks of anti-government protests spearheaded by students have become the biggest challenge to Venezuela’s socialist rulers since the death of longtime leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

The oil-rich country is mired in a deep economic crisis critics blame on policies that Maduro largely inherited from Chavez.

Strict controls on currency and prices have created huge bottlenecks that have fueled inflation and emptied store shelves.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the wonder of the socialist experiment. Deprivation, violence, paranoia. Goldberg is correct when he implores readers to “Imagine the controversy” if the Olympics were held in Germany and an opening ceremonial program involved a floating swastika. Would broadcasters, when eulogizing the Nazis, talk of a “pivotal experiment”? Now imagine the controversy if a Nazi leader had been described as a “harsh critic of the U.S.” as his identifying characteristic.

There is moral clarity with regard to the Nazis that there simply isn’t with regard to other socialists, as Goldberg notes. And part of that is because leftists don’t mean it even when they gloss over socialist horrors as an “experiment.” Martin Malia has written that because the Soviet project was conducted on behalf of global socialism, the way those in the West talked about Russian socialism was infused with a self-consciousness about the way it reflected on socialism everywhere.

“It is only by taking the Soviets at their ideological word, treating their socialist utopia with literal-minded seriousness, that we can grasp the tragedy to which it led,” Malia wrote. That advice can be broadened: we should take not just socialists but their enablers, excusers, and whitewashers at their word.