January 18, 2017

It's a Dreary World, Gentlemen!, or, "Make Russia-blogging Great Again"

In days of yore, I spent a good deal of my time writing about Russian affairs, affairs of the political sort, though not without libidinous appeal. Alas, all obsessions are unhealthy obsessions, and I was content to abandon my satirical takes on Vova and the sexy Chechen for more mature pursuits. I can now add this to the list of progressive accomplishments Trump has ruined before even taking an oath of office.

In November I voted for Hillary Clinton, who once remarked that Putin has no soul. I don't like my politicians meddling in metaphysics, but I do like my healthcare plan. I fear Donald Trump may be the most dangerous thing to happen to my country in my lifetime. But the danger he poses is not evidenced by his Putin fan-boy status. Given the Russian President's physical appeal and self-discipline, it's obvious why Trump imbues him with god-like status. Nor is it evidenced by reports that Russian officials facilitated his election. Putin doesn't like Clinton. But do keep in mind that Trump is an uncontrollable variable, and Putin doesn't like those either. There are more compelling endgames for Russian meddling in American affairs *cough* which I will get to later, but it does appear another depressing outcome of this election is that educated Americans now believe everything they read in the news. But as Matt Taibbi, a seasoned veteran of exposing Russian government shenanigans, reports, the story of Russian interference in the recent U.S. presidential election is more precarious and perilous than has been presented to the American public. Still, Trump is dangerous not because Putin may have preferred him, but because SIXTY THREE MILLION AMERICANS DID. Based on his intelligence services background, I imagine Putin can identify fake news when he sees it. Americans, however, are not skilled media consumers. Had they been, Russian propaganda would be a non-fucking-issue. It is not as sexy or as easy to read as a Tom Clancy novel, but my fellow Americans, we're the monster at the end of this book. Don't take my word for it. Masha Gessen, one of Putin's most consistently outspoken critics, has come to the same conclusion.

Still, I've felt a nagging preoccupation with Russia lately. Not with the trashy kompromat, nefarious hackers or oil tycoons. Such tropes are too stale to raise an eyebrow. And naming an intelligence report "Grizzly Steppe?" Is this a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon or a serious matter of national security, America? We declare new Cold Wars as routinely as Apple issues new iPhones. It takes a lot to make me listen to accusations bandied about by American politicians, especially those who need a very good excuse for how they lost to Donald Trump. But I confess that something about the election does feel exquisitely Russian.

We read fiction and learn history for a reason. It gives us insight into and a template of human psychology. Russian fiction and history, often wound tightly around each other in prophecy and imitation, are littered with reoccurring motifs. Nihilism and instability. Bizarre and capricious events. The depressingly but comically absurd. A classic plot device in Russian literature features an ounce of mischief carefully dropped into a pool of convenient lackeys and a populace obsessed with their own reputations, creating a tidal wave of chaos and throwing society into disorder. The election of a con-artist, exposing respected members of our government, press and public as ignorant, bigoted, self-serving, frightened quislings bears strong resemblance to the intrigues of Gogol's Chichikov, merchant of dead souls, Dostoyevsky's Verkhovensky, inciter of anarchy and Bulgakov's Woland, a devil sent to create unthinkable pandemonium. And what of the praxis of an American ideology in which inhumane deeds are ostensibly vindicated by the nobly democratic principle that here anyone can become President, taken to its extreme? The accompanying adrenaline rush and resulting terror torments us like Raskolnikov's fever dreams.

Trump's ceaseless paranoia about what is said or thought of him, inconsistent application of the law and arbitrary and infinite targets of abuse are redolent of Stalin's psychological profile. Trump's "drain the swamp" doctrine of mass firings and destruction of fundamental social services in conjunction with questionable business tactics and insatiable greed is textbook "shock therapy," a doctrine the U.S. imposed on Russia in the 1990's. The spectacle of our system failing simultaneous with the banality of our day-to-day lives has been described by British documentarian Adam Curtis as "hypernormalization," a term borrowed from Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, an examination of Russian society in the years precipitating the end of the Soviet Union. And last but most curiously is Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov's theory of blending of drama and politics for the purpose of "non-linear warfare," lending double meaning to the term avant-garde. It remains unknown if the sexy Chechen actually directs coups via pseudonymously written novels. But who embodies Surkov's idea of power attained through the ruthless and relentless confusion of fact with fiction more than our new Reality TV President?

Is it easy to find Russian fingerprints upon close inspection of current events: if not those of top Russian officials, at minimum those of dead novelists whom top Russian officials have certainly read? Of course. Russia has motive to influence our elections and destabilize our system. Russia also has motive to want us to believe they can influence our elections and destabilize our system. Did they? I don't know. But either scheme, like those of Chichikov, Verkhovensky and Woland, or of a real-life Surkov, requires an astute understanding of the human condition and an America public who is gullible, haughty and prone to either hysterics or apathy.

Has the possibility that Russian officials stole, hacked or otherwise influenced the recent U.S. presidential election forced me to re-examine my previous, oft heretical and swooning, analyses of Russian politics? Of course. I'm a big fan of flexible thinking and open-mindedness. In recent days I've peered deep into my soul (if we're going to be colonial subjects of Mother Russia we have to talk about our souls) and I've found there, well, this is awkward… many of the same opinions and observations I did a decade ago.

I still assert that positive relations between the U.S. and Russia are a noble and viable goal with the potential to make both nations safer and wiser. That security and prosperity are inalienable human rights, but NATO has a 20th Century mission, is an engine of the military-industrial complex and promotes as much hostility as peace. That American hegemony poses just as great a threat to mankind as Russian imperialism and must not continue to be assumed well-intentioned. That instead of factual geo-political analysis of Putin's foreign policy, the American public is spoon-fed stereotypes, fear-mongering, lingering bias and circumstantial evidence, undermining the credibility of potentially valid concerns. That depictions of Russia are rife with caricature and contradiction: the savage mastermind, the indigent billionaire, the isolated expansionist, the Brezhnevian stability wreaking global havoc. That America you don't really want to go to war with them bad Russians. Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.

I'm still inspired by the rich cultures and political experiments of both our countries. I'm still left craving more intelligent satire and less defensive jingoism from our punch-lines. I still ask what is in it for Americans when we ramp up the rhetoric. Is Russia an enemy woven into our nation's DNA by Hollywood propaganda? Is our fear of Russia indeed sublimated fear of our nation's emasculation? Even as we consider if Russia informed the outcome of our election, should we sink to this crude level of nationalist bombast so as to refrain from addressing our own failures? The narrative is formulaic. We've seen this movie. The only thing that's changed is Trump has the nuclear launch codes and no evidence of self-control or historical literacy, so if he'd rather play with his Russian puppy than kill us all, let's pet the puppy.

It is easy to make the case that Russia hacked the election. It is also easy to hack your opponent and lose. It is also easy to prey upon people's fear of The Other, the unknown, the foreigner, the interloper, the one who doesn't know their place, who is a threat to our way of life and whose DNA predisposes them to crime and savagery as everyone knows you just have to watch the news to see that. It is easy to hate. It is easy to find comfort in conspiracy theories when paralyzed by a sense of helplessness. What needs to be done will not be easy. American politicians, the press and the electorate must begin to comport themselves with the same sober awareness of both their national legacy and individual agency as Putin does. If we do, the United States of America's democratic institutions will be secure and the people governed by them empowered.

The best way to prevent Russia from placing a racist clown plant in the White House? Stop fertilizing the racist clown crops in America. And never, ever give in to nihilism.