Globalization has turned the world upside down. Reader’s Digest was so anti-communist in the cold war that its enemies muttered that the CIA might as well have been funding it. They sneered at its middlebrow manners, as much as its politics — “I mean, condensed novels for Christ’s sake.”
In 1982, the sight of Solidarity — a genuinely working-class movement — rising against the Soviet occupation of Poland, disoriented the Western left. Susan Sontag, who knew how to hurt when she had to, wiped the smiles from a few lips by raising the despised Digest. At a meeting at New York town hall attended by the publisher of The Nation and many another eminent figures from the US left, she told her listeners that they had been so keen to defend the victims of McCarthyism and US capitalism they had forgotten about the victims of Soviet communism.
Imagine if you will, she continued, “someone who read only the Reader’s Digest [magazine] between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only US politics magazine The Nation, or British political and cultural magazine the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
The audience booed her, but although there are many on the left who are as indifferent to universal human rights today, I will say one thing for them: No one can smack them over the head with a Reader’s Digest now.
During the cold war, business had to be anti-communist. The communists wanted to take capitalists’ money and, on occasion, kill them too. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the state capitalist dictatorships in Russia and China, defending free speech, defending even the right of an author to criticize torture in passing, may risk the chance to profit. For if China offers the cheapest printers and a huge market, who wants to alienate its leaders? No one, if the grotesque spectacle of the “market focus on China” at last year’s London Book Fair was a guide. The British Council, which provides international educational and cultural opportunities, and the British book trade kept the Chinese Communist Party sweet by refusing to invite any Chinese “visiting authors” whose work had upset the regime in Beijing.
When the party was Maoist, Reader’s Digest denounced it. Now it guarantees profits, Reader’s Digest censors on its behalf. When Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the KGB, bankers, lawyers and industrialists deplored the old Soviet Union. Now that Putin is in the Kremlin, they ensure that the first aim of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s advisers on the Ukraine crisis is to do nothing that might “close London’s financial center to Russians.”
Everyone knows L.P. Hartley’s line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If that were ever true, it is not now. For most people, the present is foreign and frightening. The intellectual left that Sontag so magnificently upbraided in 1982 had little real power, one only has to look at it to see that. By contrast, the publishers, banks and corporations who have taken over the role of deferring to Moscow and Beijing have power and money, and the ability to use both.