I am reading the book Topaz, by Leon Uris, an espionage novel about events leading up to the Cuban Crisis. Early in the book is one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda I have ever read. It is a masterpiece of subtlety that inspires contempt for an entire people and pride in “us” in one fell swoop. When you analyze it, it is nasty. When I first read the book, when it was new and I was young, I presumably just swept quickly past it as background and accepted its values without thinking. In other words, I was completely taken in. That is the mark of good propaganda. When I read it last week I was appalled at how crude it looks today.
The paragraph is short. In the book the American espionage resident in Copenhagen is about to take a Soviet master spy into American protection – the Russian is defecting with his wife and daughter. The paragraph describes the two Russian women. It reads:
Near the building, Stebner and a half-dozen ININ agents waited for Bartlett and the blue Ford. Stebner took a position so that he could clearly see Boris Kuznetov with his wife and daughter. They came down from the second floor. Mrs. Kuznetov read the time from a lavalier watch. Stebner wondered why her husband loved her so. She was a drab and dumpy woman. The daughter, he estimated, was about twenty. A fine figure, but it ended right there. Severe hairdo, no make-up, flat shoes. (Pages 18-19.)Given that the scene is part of background, not action, we tend to read it quickly and form a fast impression. Let’s analyze the impression. I don’t know what a “lavalier watch” is, perhaps a hint of Soviet corruption, but I do not include it in my opinion. Consider only the last five sentences.
1. Stebner wondered why her husband loved her so. This sets up what follows. Obviously there must be something dreadfully wrong with the woman.
2. She was a drab and dumpy woman. What is drab? Presumably an absence of bling. Probably like her daughter, who is described as wearing flat shoes and being without make-up. Obviously she is not like a western woman, slender, impeccably dressed and laughing with her hair blowing in the wind (at the time they were in a museum under surveillance by four Soviet guards, but this fact is left without comment). Dumpy? Well, she isn’t slender, is she? She is a middle-aged mom. She obviously doesn’t spend time every week at the spa. We are told it is surprising her husband loved her so. Obviously communism is bad and produces second class people.
3. The daughter, he estimated, was about twenty. A fine figure, but it ended right there. Severe hairdo, no make-up, flat shoes. Style style style. This is the Cold War, armed SAC bombers were on 24 hour patrol and we are naturally expected to feel no human warmth for a young woman with flat shoes and no make-up, although there is a hint of “fine figure” for the imaginative. To the victor go the spoils.
Westerners are expected to take pride in the comparison wrought by the description. We are sophisticates. We are expected to honour family values and love our families because our wives are not drab and dumpy. They are chic and slender. They wear make-up. Their eyes flash and their teeth shine as they swirl in front of expensive shop windows. They are worth defending from the drab and dumpy Slavic hordes. It is interesting what this also says about western morality. I do not remember the line in my wedding vows that reads, “Till drab and dumpy do us part,” but apparently love should have stopped some time before. I don’t like radical feminism, but at times it is easy to understand feminist anger.