Kruschev on (not) doing the right thing

24 Oct

I smile when I’m angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by
But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And I’d die for the truth
In my secret life

Leonard Cohen

As a former inmate of Spurgeons Homes for Children I have some sympathy with Alice Miller’s ideas of poisonous pedagogies. I’d put it this way: where adults have power over children, and it is neither subject to effective scrutiny nor tempered by love, abuse is inevitable.

But that’s for another day. Today I’m concerned with our self-serving tendency to assume, however ill supported by past form, and regardless of studies by Asch, Janis, Milgram, Sherif and others, that regardless of pressure we  would do the right thing when it most matters.

Here’s Janet Street Porter digging a hole for herself on BBC Question Time, October 2012. For long minutes she holds forth on the posthumously disgraced Jimmy Savile but at 3:40 she’s hit by two audience questions a person more aware and less smug would have seen coming: why did you not say something at the time?

I once read a book by FBI interrogators, on deception. While stressing there’s no surefire way to nail a lie other than by hard evidence, they offer a set of indicators they’d learned to view as red alerts. One is responding to a factual question with a non sequitur declaration.

Q: Did you or did you not bugger that choirboy on January 22, 1967?

A: This is outrageous: I’m a churchgoer and member of the Rotarians!

Another is the respondent going on the offensive. Either may serve to dodge the question or, failing that, buy time to cook up something better.

Around 4:15 JSP does both but I’m more interested here in comments below that Youtube clip:

She knew and didn’t do anything about it, whatever the circumstances she has no excuse for that. IMHO she put her own career ahead of the children being abused. The sob story at the end when she sensed the audience were turning on her says it all for me. Self centered bitch

I always knew Janet Street Porter’s star would descend one day, but never like this. They are all of them ever so quiet now. Look at JSP body language: Downcast eyes covered by hair, clearing the throat for the lies as she casts about for the right lines.

Her feeble excuses about the culture of the time no longer apply, so why not talk about the similar rumours she knows about others? What is she doing about them? waiting until they also die so she can whine pointlessly about them too?

She has such a gob on her, yet she never used it then

I too enjoyed Street Porter’s discomfiture but my schadenfreude betrays – as does that of her second interrogator (3:59) … as do the comments above – the dubious assumption that we  would act more courageously. Maybe we would at that. But unless we’ve been tested on it, how would we know? All the odds, whether calculated on the basis of life experience or the findings of experimental social psychology, point the other way.

Here’s one of my favourite stories on such cosily self serving assumptions. It involves another motor-mouth, though one a good deal smarter than Street-Porter; faster on his feet and able, moreover, to make his point with irresistable force.

Kremlin, February 1956: 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the first since Stalin’s death. Realising it was him or them, and with the big man’s corpse still warm, a group of second tier leaders had had the truly frightening Beria arrested, tried and shot to leave Kruschev as First Secretary, a position restored to that of ‘first among equals’. To 1500 stunned delegates – observers were excluded, while a transcript had to await Gorbachev and glasnost   for publication – he spoke for four hours on ‘The Cult of Personality and its Consequences’. He denounced Stalin’s crimes, not least the torture and mass executions of loyal party members on risible charges. He told of foreign policy catastrophes (one aiding the defeat of Britain’s General Strike, another delivering Mao’s finest cadres into the murderous hands of the Kuomintang), of mass starvation by agrarian folly and of WW2 losses as needless as they were appalling. All of this, mind, to delegates who for decades had drunk the kool-aid on Uncle Joe’s saviour-of-the-revolution status.

Finally, the gobsmacked silence as Nikita takes his seat is broken by a lone voice at back of the Great Hall.

Where was Comrade Kruschev while all this was going on? Why did he not speak out at the time?

Kruschev rises, face a livid mask

Who said that?


Kruschev holds his tongue as a wave of fear rolls across the cavernous hall to work its familiar magic. Then he leans into the mike, his voice a pregnant whisper.

That’s why …

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