Soviet-era Jokes, Common Knowledge, Irony

Scott Aaronson, in his blog post about common knowledge, writes:

If you read accounts of Nazi Germany, or the USSR, or North Korea or other despotic regimes today, you can easily be overwhelmed by this sense of, “so why didn’t all the sane people just rise up and overthrow the totalitarian monsters? Surely there were more sane people than crazy, evil ones. And probably the sane people even knew, from experience, that many of their neighbors were sane—so why this cowardice?” Once again, it could be argued that common knowledge is the key. Even if everyone knows the emperor is naked; indeed, even if everyone knows everyone knows he’s naked, still, if it’s not common knowledge, then anyone who says the emperor’s naked is knowingly assuming a massive personal risk. That’s why, in the story, it took a child to shift the equilibrium. Likewise, even if you know that 90% of the populace will join your democratic revolt provided they themselves know 90% will join it, if you can’t make your revolt’s popularity common knowledge, everyone will be stuck second-guessing each other, worried that if they revolt they’ll be an easily-crushed minority. And because of that very worry, they’ll be correct!

The question I want tackle in this article is: As someone who have lived in the Ostblock (admittedly though, I was 16 when the system collapsed) how did it look like in reality? How was the common knowledge spread at the face of a repressive regime? Did the insight we get from the game theory matter in reality?

Let's have a look.

But first, let me get couple of things out of the way.

I am going to ignore the question of how the message of "socialism sucks" got to the people. There was Radio Free Europe, there were samizdats, there were dissidents. But even if you never encountered one of those, all it took was to watch a western film or page through a western magazine to notice that things were just more shiny in the west. (By the way, I read that they are watching South Korean soap operas in North Korea. That's bad news for the the regime.)

Anyway, I am going to focus only on how the second-level knowledge, the understanding that other people also believe that socialism sucks, propagated.

That brings me directly to the topic of subversive jokes. Nobody had told you directly that they want to rebel against the communists. Well, few did, but those were mostly in jail. Everyone else had to find a more subtle way to communicating the message. And jokes turn out to be the optimal medium for doing that.

Yet another caveat: Not everyone who told you a "subversive" joke was planning to overthrow the regime. Telling the joke could mean a range of things from being violently hostile to the system to being generally in favour of the system but signaling your insider status by making it clear that you don't buy the official propaganda.

Here's a joke:

A new type of supersonic airplane is being developed. When the prototype reaches mach three a wing rips off and the plane crashes. American engineers are invited to help. They inspect the plane and suggest structural reinforcements. But when the plane reaches mach three the wing rips off once again. Consecutively, engineers from Britain, Germany and France and other countries are asked for help, but each time the wing breaks off. Finally, desparate inventors ask for help from Czechoslovakia. Chzechoslovak engineers come, inspect the plane and drill little holes at the place where the wing is attached. The prototype reaches mach one, mach two, mach three, mach four and the wing is still in place! Invenors are astonished: "How did you knew you had to drill those holes?" The Chzechoslovak engineers answer: "You know, at home we have such toilet paper. It's perforated and it never tears off at that place."

Wow, you say, that sounds pretty meek. What's so subversive about it?

And you are right. If you look at officially sanctioned humor magazines of the time, the toilet paper (or rather the lack of it) is a common theme.

But that's the point! You get plausible deniability. If someone called you out you could argue that what you said was no worse than what was published on daily basis in the official press. Also, it gives plausible deniability to the listener. If they were told that communism sucks and that it should be overthrown directly, they would face a dilemma of either reporting you to the secret police of becoming a co-conspirator. With a joke though they could claim that is was just an innocent fun.

Also notice how the Czechoslovak engineers in the joke did better than their American peers. You could even claim that the joke is patriotic and that it pictures socialist engineers as superior to capitalist ones.

But, on the other hand, if you think about it, what the Czechoslovak engineers did would be pretty dumb in reality. If you look at it from that perspective, you actually claimed that Americal engineers are better than Czechoslovak engineers, or even, by stretch, that capitalism is superior to socialism.

It's kind of an ironic Necker cube. You can view it in two different ways with two very different outcomes.

A masterpiece in this regard is a poem a friend of mine wrote when we were eleven:

It went roughly like this: "The heavy chains will break one day / when the red flag above the White House will flail!"

It's a work of genius and probably incomprehensible to anyone who haven't lived behind the iron curtain. It's so subtle that even official censors would have hard time explaining why it was subversive. Yet, at the same time, no sane person would take it at face value, but rather as a parody.

The reason why it worked was that socialist revolution in the US was so far out of the Overton window, that the language and the stylistic inventory of the classic pompous Soviet-block propaganda entirely failed to work and produced a comic effect instead.

A short cryptographic diversion: I can theoretically imagine this working in a different way. I know that my friend wouldn't ever lower himself to write such pompous bullshit. Therefore, I can say with certainty that the verse is ironic. A by-standing secret policeman, though, knows nothing about my friend's literary tastes and therefore he has to take it at face value. It's kind of like a 1-bit OTP, except that you don't have to distribute the pad beforehand. You just take a bit of an existing innocent common knowledge (literary preferences) and use it as a key to encrypt a bit of secret information (political preferences). I don't recall such a scheme being discussed in cryptographic literature.

Anyway, let's get back to the jokes. You are probably wondering whether secret policement were so dumb that they could not distinguish irony.

But have a look at "The Illusory Transparency of Intention: Linguistic Perspective Taking in Text" (Keysar, 1994) paper. They've made the experimental subjects read the following story:

Mark asked his office mate, June, to recommend a restaurant; his parents were in town and he wanted to take them to a good place. "I strongly recommend this new Italian place, called Venezia. I just had dinner there last night and it was marvelous. Let me know how you all enjoy it." That evening, Mark and his parents ate there. The next morning Mark said to her: "You wanted to know about the restaurant, well, marvelous, just marvelous."

Except that some of the subjects were told that the experience in the restaurant was terrible and some were told that it was good.

Then they've asked them whether June would perceive the message as ironic. Those who were told that the restaurant was bad asserted that June would interpret the message as ironic. But those who were told that the restaurant was good assumed that June would take the message at face value.

The point to take home from that paper is that distinguishing ironic from non-ironic is not a simple task and depends very much on the context you have. In the case of subversive jokes, where the narrator deliberately tries to skirt the border between ironic and non-ironic as closely as possible it may be almost impossible.

Here's another joke:

A drunk Russian man in front of the Kremlin shouts, over and over again: Down with the mustached dictator! A policeman arrests him and brings him to Stalin. Stalin asks: "Who did you mean?" The man, suddenly sobered up, answers: "I was shouting against Hitler, of course." Stalin turns to the policeman: "And what did you mean?"

Now try to apply that to irony. You see the problem. If policeman interprets an ambiguous joke in anti-establishment way he risks that he'll be seen as the one with anti-establishment sentiment rather than the original narrator of the joke who may have been honest. In practice, of course, it's always the policeman that wins. However, if you are not a policeman and you are told a subversive joke, you prefer not to report it to the police. If you did, police may interpret it as you making up subversive interpretations of innocent content.

You can even imagine that in the perpetual dog-eat-dog power struggle among communist apparatchiks one may have accused a legit propagandist of being ironic and thus anti-system.

All in all, it seems that spreading of common knowledge under oppresive system is a subtle and delicate matter. It's a system where everyone balances close to the line where propaganda becomes indistinguishable from irony.

But in the end, everybody must participate in the game lest they inadvertently wander into harm's way and by participating in it and by seeing others participate in it everybody gets at least some level of insight about the state of common knowledge.

To end on a lighter note, here is a truly subversive joke from the era. For context, Gustáv Husák was Chzechoslovak president in years 1975-1989:

Husák is walking around Prague, picking up rocks and collecting them in his pockets while making strange beeping sounds. His assistant gets worried about his mental health. He calls Moscow and explains the situation. Brezhnev says: "Oh shit! We must have mixed up the channel to lunokhod again!"

And I like this one for its raw absurdity:

A man is devoured by Brezhnev. As he passes throught the digestive tract he encounters Gustáv Husák. "Hey, comrade!" he cries "Have you been eaten by Brezhnev too?". "No," Husák replies: "I came from the other side."

("To stick oneself up someone's ass" is a Slovak idiom for what the English call "brown-nosing".)

Martin Sústrik, May 12th, 2018

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