In his book Political Pilgrims (Oxford University Press 1981), Paul Hollander talks about alienated Western intellectuals who visited Communist countries such as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and North Vietnam in search of a better society. These intellectuals poured out praise for regimes that had killed large numbers of their own people, put political prisoners in labor camps, and indoctrinated the average citizen. As Hollander says "It seemed that they (the intellectuals) had a tendency for a selective preoccupation with various historical and social events and issues while allowing others to bypass them completely. I was struck by a puzzling juxtaposition of insight and blindness, sensitivity and indifference."
How could these political pilgrims not see the underlying reality of the countries they visited? Hollander quotes a former admirer of Mao’s China, Jonathan Mirsky, who wrote in 1979 of his attitudes in 1972: "Throughout our trip…we sheathed the critical faculties which had been directed at our own Government and… humbly helped to insert the rings in our own noses." Mirsky quoted one of his former guides, whom he met again in 1979: "We wanted to deceive you. But you wanted to be deceived."
What was the mechanism of self deceit? Paul Hollander gives several reasons for the blindness of the intellectuals, but one interesting mechanism he describes is what he calls "Contextual Redefinition": For example, he says about visitors to the USSR: "The connection between predisposition and perception was so close that even sights or experiences unappealing or indifferent in other contexts were transvalued and redefined in the Soviet." He quotes Eugene Lyons who arrived there in 1928 "…Elsewhere the dinginess might be depressing. Here it seemed to us romantically proletarian…". Hollander notes "at times the perfectly ordinary sent the observer into raptures over something he would have paid little if any attention to in his own country. Waldo Frank discovered virtues in a Russian train he would not have been able to find in similar pieces of machinery traversing capitalist rails: "There is something about a Russian train standing at a station that thrills… The little locomotive is human…" Eugene Lyons observed the "…Voks [agency dealing with tourists] sell the glories of mass production to a couple of California back-to-nature, hand-loom faddists. Vegetarians..swooned in ecstasy of admiration for Soviet slaughter-houses." Theodore Dreiser wrote "…in Moscow there is poverty. There are beggars in the streets…But Lord, how picturesque! The multi-colored and voluminous rags of them!"
Contextual Redefinition can also be used to justify things that ought to have disturbed the visitors complacency. Thus Corliss and Margaret Lamont could reconcile themselves to manifestations of militarism in Soviet kindergarden by asking "in a setting of a socialist state may not all this have a different aspect?" And Feuchtwanger said that the "minor" inconveniences of life in Moscow did not blind Moscow’s citizens to the big things which life in the Soviet Union alone can offer…"
The Soviets went to great length to deceive their visitors. For instance, visitors to a prison camp did not know that the wooden guard towers that lined the road to the camp and all been destroyed the day before their visit, so that the camp would seem less forbidding. It would have difficult for visitors who were already favorably disposed to the USSR to overthrow all their conceptions and realize that they were victims of an elaborate scheme of deception. The reality of prison camps in the USSR was inhuman conditions and death.
Hollander points out that the visitors could have taken the stance that some things about the USSR were good, and some things were bad. But he says, for the most credulous visitors it all came in a package. ""They could not bring themselves to think or say, for instance, that the decline of illiteracy and infant mortality was admirable, but clearly the Purges and police terror were not."
Later, in the 60’s, alienated Americans looked at their own society as a package of evil. "The political and economic system, schools, colleges, mental institutions, prisons were all equally hellish (even "childhood was hell, the mass media brainwashed, mass culture was junk, the police a new Gestapo, the place of work a place of slavery; the family the oppressor in the home."
Visitors to other Communist utopias also employed contextual redefinition. Angela Davis, an American Communist, observed that in Cuba "The job of cutting cane had become qualitatively different since the revolution" because "during the cane season everyone pitched in." Likewise giant billboard posters, held in contempt when filled with the sloganized praise of capitalist products, were instantly transformed into devices of dignity and beauty when they advertised the blessings of the political system.
When 120,000 Cubans poured out of Cuba in the spring of 1980, this should have warned Cuban sympathizers that Cuba was no utopia. But Hollander quotes Philip Brenner of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington who described these refugees as "materialistic malcontents."
In North Vietnam, visitors used the double standard of contextual redefinition. "while healthy and happy looking children in an American kindergarten would not have been regarded as proof of the superiority of capitalism over socialism, in North Vietnam the presence of beautiful children…is evidence of the regimes benevolence."
Hollander sums up. ""the objects of contextual redefinition may include material scarcities, hard manual labor, physical discomforts, and other depriving situations endured for higher purpose, and endowed with dignity because of the elevating context or meaning attached.
The people who visited these regimes had predispositions, or scripts. In their script the regime had given purpose to their people, had restored "community", and brought about social justice. These regimes were so wonderful that everything about them had to be wonderful, from their collective farms to their prisons. The psychological mechanisms of selective perception and projection were at work, and another mechanism, "contextual redefinition", which allowed mundane situations to be suffused with an emotional glow.
It is worth noting, as Hollander does, that in many cases the harsh truth of these regimes had been exposed by refugees and others, and this had absolutely no effect on the Political Pilgrims. In many cases their scripts were overthrown eventually, but they would never have been formed in the first place had the Pilgrims looked at the information that had always been available.