Shock TV: Pavlik Morozov Redux

Recently I once more found myself thinking about what was probably the most shocking moment in the history of television. It was after I stumbled on an article that wraps up the story of the Iraqi youth who was one of the main actors in that event. Here is what I mean.

Ages ago, in elementary school I was told the former Soviet Union had been a very bad place to live in. I was told the regime there had been so rotten it encouraged children to inform on their parents and report them to the authorities, if they suspected their guardians were plotting against the state. The authorities would praise the children for having done so in the press and handed them trinkets as a recognition for a job well done. Certainly I thought then, and since then, that any authority which engaged in something like that must had been beyond contempt and redemption.

Scroll forward to 2005 or 2006. I am seated in front of the TV set, flipping channels. There’s Oprah Winfrey Show — normally I would keep on going, but something makes me hesitate. There’s Oprah’s best therapist voice, and there are people in camo seated on her couch. This could be Iraq-related, which means I’m definitely interested.*

The TV has my undivided attention as Oprah ask a Middle Eastern-looking boy sitting next to the soldiers: “And when did you realize your father was involved with some very bad people?” I grow momentarily uneasy, and as I continue to follow the conversation I find myself sitting in disbelief, completely at a loss to assimilate what my ears are undoubtedly hearing. They are praising a boy for turning in his father to the occupational authorities, in the clear sight of hundreds of millions of people the world over. Have they gone completely mad??

Long story short, a 14-year old Iraqi youth, Jamil, sought out American troops and informed them on his father’s role in the Iraqi resistance. By his own claims his father was abusive, and reading between the lines it seems likely this was the reason he turned him in to his enemies. This led to the arrest of Jamil’s father by the Americans, and soon thereafter the murder of his mother and sister by vindicative guerrillas, after his father — having learned it was his own son who had turned him in — broke under interrogation and gave up the names of the people he had been fighting with.

After this Jamil lived on an American military base with the troops he had sought out, eventually going on patrols with the Americans dressed in their uniform. He was initially left behind when troops from his base rotated back stateside, but eventually made it to America. Immediately upon immigrating he was seized upon by Oprah Winfrey who hosted him at his show and arranged for him to meet John Travolta — the only American star he knew by name. His life in America after this included his being tossed between foster homes, knocking up his high school girlfriend and converting to Christianity.

When Jamil foolishly approached the American soldiers, which represented the state authority in his environment, claiming he wanted to inform on his father, these probably had good reason to believe hearing the youth out might provide them with information they could use to their advantage. They also had just as good a reason to believe this would also likely result in tearing up his family apart and destroying his life. They do not seem to have considered that given that the only truly humane and honorable course of action for them would have been to save the boy from himself, and turn him away.

There must be a limit to what one is willing to do to better protect himself and to advance a political-military goal, especially one as unjust and unworthy as that of the American occupation of Iraq. Using children against their parents at least, should have been beyond the pale, just on the principle of things. Nonetheless if the motives of the soldiers on the scene may not be condoned they may at least be understood. They would protect their hides against guerrillas taking aim at them, at any expense to foolish Iraqi teenagers. But what, on the other hand, was Oprah Winfrey thinking?

It probably seemed like a story that could highlight that aside from vicious, hate-filled insurgents, there were also good, right-thinking Iraqis. It could furthermore show that good Iraqis may choose America, even before their fanatic insurgent parents! If the fact their enemies’ children would side with them over their parents didn’t prove Americans were the good guys then what the bloody hell did?

Of course what I saw instead was the presentation of a tale where an Iraqi youth in denouncing his father for his anti-American activities had done his duty to his American liberators. This cost him the lives of his mother and sister, but for his sacrifice he was now receiving a pat on the back from no other than Oprah Winfrey, who would also arrange for him to meet John Travolta. And if it had been dystopian Soviet Union instead it would have been a medal of the Lenin’s Pioneers and an article in the Pravda instead!

The story had exactly the same twisted appeal found in the Pavlik Morozov myth. For at least twenty years in the Stalin-era Soviet Union a Russian boy Pavlik was upheld, particularly to children, as the epitome of martyr to Soviet power. In the propaganda narrative of the Soviet state, Pavlik was a good, 13-year old lad who turned in his criminal and seditious father to the authorities. He was a patriot even to the point of turning in his rotten father (which in the myth narrated by the Soviet state ended up costing him his life when his grandfather did him in in revenge).

Of course, if Oprah likes to present herself as the America’s high guru of sensibility and sensitivity I don’t know who actually buys into that. As unbelievable as seeing the making of a relaunched Pavlik Morozov myth in my own time was, it was not half as shocking as the absence of reaction to it. To all appearances just about nobody in the US was bothered that Mrs. Winfrey thought America needed its own retelling of one of the most perfidious classics of Stalinist propaganda!

Apparently nobody who saw the episode stood up and asked whenever did using children against their parents prove your moral worth? Why exactly was destroying families by pitting child against parent a good thing, and whenever was it worth advancing a political goal of the state? Either nobody who watches Oprah in America ever had an elementary school teacher tell them that if a regime encouraged and praised children for informing on their parents — it was all you needed to know it was rotten to the core. Either that, or war intruded on the calculation.

Looking at it from Denver or Orlando there had been a family which had been destroyed, but specifically it was a foreign, even an enemy family. It didn’t really mean encouraging American children to inform on American fathers. It was merely praising an enemy child for opting to serve American power. The costs inflicted were borne by a foreign family, the benefits reaped by Americans. Specifically the most holly of Americans, the troops. Those who bomb, invade and kill exotic foreigners so ordinary Americans don’t have to.

There you go, the next time you ask yourself how could a society be blind to the fact it was being served propaganda literally from the textbook of the regime of Iosif Vissarionovich, the answer is it’s real easy with a little misplaced patriotism in a time of war.


~ Marko


* The episode in question was aired stateside in September 2004, but this was Croatian TV which naturally airs American shows with a delay.

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