»  National Review

May 3, 1999

   Forget About It


I was looking forward to Stolen Years, the new PBS documentary on Soviet labor camps. "To be aired March 4th," said the notice in my newspaper. On that day I located the TV listings and went looking for the program. Not there. I checked back through the week's schedule: my local PBS affiliate had aired the program March 2nd. Hoping for a repeat, I carefully went over the next week's listings when they arrived that Sunday. Nope; the only things being much repeated were The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story and something called The Courage to be Rich ("valuing and respecting money …") I checked the entire country's listings on the Internet: the only repeat was on satellite TV, which I don't have, at 3 a.m., when I have better things to do. I guess I missed my one shot at Stolen Years . I doubt I shall get a second chance. From my small number of encounters with PBS execs, I don't imagine Stolen Years is the kind of thing to fire them with enthusiasm — certainly not when there is stuff on hand like The Courage to be Rich. In any case, I suspect that they are all members of the SPCDH. Secret members, of course — the SPCDH is a secret society.

It was the late Arthur Koestler who alerted us to the existence of the SPCDH. In 1967 Koestler published a book called The Ghost in the Machine in which he put forward a theory of human nature entirely at odds with the Behaviorism that dominated academic psychology through the middle years of this century. Koestler believed that naïve Behaviorism — the mechanistic ideas of Watson and Skinner — lay just beneath the surface of current theory, even though it was hard to find any psychologist willing to defend it. In an appendix, Koestler forewarned the reader to expect that academic psychologists reviewing his book would ridicule him for supposing that Behaviorism still held sway. Behaviorism (they would say) was all old hat. Nobody took it seriously any more. Ancient history, that stuff; psychology had moved on. "Mr Koestler, I am afraid, is flogging a dead horse" — such, Koestler predicted (correctly, of course) would be the academic response. He went on to infer the existence of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dead Horses, whose mission was to discourage the airing of historical embarrassments by pouring scorn on those who aired them — floggers of dead horses.

I don't think I am being over-suspicious in seeing the fell hand of the SPCDH in PBS's low-key approach to Stolen Years. The Society has always been very active in defence of Stalin. Koestler himself — an ex-communist — observed that the Vozhd was hardly cold in his mausoleum before the SPCDH began issuing notices that anyone with the bad taste to bring up collectivization, the purge trials or the Nazi-Soviet Pact would be flogging a dead horse: the Soviets had long since "moved on" from all that. Members of the Society were similarly mobilized on behalf of Mao Tse-tung, another favorite dead horse. When I was studying Chinese in London a mere four years after Mao had passed from the scene, one of my lecturers gave us a passage from the Chairman's works to construe. I stood up in class to object, on the grounds that the assignment would contribute to the legitimization of a mass murderer. Several of my classmates — closet members of the SPCDH, I am sure — chided me for bringing up things that had been dealt with long before. I should get over it, they told me. I should move on. In China itself the following year, I learned that the slogan of the hour was ji wang bu jiu: let bygones be bygones. Mao's Great Cultural Revolution was best forgotten, everyone explained to me patiently. People were sick of hearing about it. Why bring it up? Clearly the SPCDH had planted moles at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party.

There is no use pretending that the SPCDH is impartial in its selection of expired equines in need of protection. You may whack away at Hitler and Mussolini all you like — the Society will not raise a peep. (Though the Japanese chapter has been vigorous in insisting that discussion of whatever it was their country's armed forces did from 1931 to 1945 is utterly de trop.) Similarly with the late Senator Joe McCarthy: I venture to speculate that a thorough search of one of those news media databases would yield zero instances of a commentator urging his readers to "move on" from obsessing about McCarthyism.

The SPCDH has been out in force these last few months in defence of President Clinton. His Senate acquittal may, indeed, be the Society's greatest triumph. Under the guidance (I have no doubt) of SPCDH-supplied advisers, the White House succeeded in turning — sometimes in a matter of days! — each successive embarrassment into a dead horse. By the time the President came to trial the streets of Washington D.C. were choked with the corpses of these unfortunate quadrupeds, which only the most compulsive of sado-necrophiliacs — someone like Ken Starr, say — would wish to continue thrashing. I expect the Society to remain in a state of heightened vigilance through the rest of Mr Clinton's term. Whitewater? The Travel Office? Campaign contributions from China? Lewinsky? Good heavens, do you think anyone still cares about all that? Sorry, old boy — you're just flogging a dead horse.