While I’m sure most readers of this post are taking robotically predictable, uncritical partisan stances (overwhelmingly, of course, at least on this site, with the Democrats) on the ongoing “memo wars” between Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes over what role our beloved, Deep State spooks had, or didn’t have, in the production of the Russian “collusion” narrative, I would like to ask the somewhat unseasonable as well as more unpredictable question concerning why it matters.
We know that the Russians have been messing with America since…well, 1917, or maybe even before that. The Russians have never been big on democracy (even during the 1990s). Nor have they ever been shy wallflowers when it comes to asserting their sixteenth century ethno-nationalist, Caesoro-Papal, messianic conviction of being the “Third Rome.”
But I really hand it to them this time for their cunning, not to mention their profound inventiveness. They have without even seeding a scintilla of skepticism persuaded the totality of the American left for the very first time in our ideologically charged social history that not only “the Russians are coming” (in even a more insidious way than the Unification Church-funded movie Red Dawn back in the 1980s) but that they now are pulling remotely the marionette strings for a crude and mannerless orange-haired effigy, who happens to occupy the White House, of a former reality TV celebrity to make America mean again.
But the problem I’m having is that I can’t figure out what are actually the facts these days. I know that it was Nietzsche who said “there are no facts, only interpretations.” But we are not even dealing with what might be called political hermeneutics (let alone something rising to the dignity of what we call “political theology”) any longer. Possibly we need to one up the German literary and philosophical madman who spent his summers at Sils Maria. “There are no facts, only insinuations.”
An anecdote: I have the profound misfortune every day of working out on the treadmill at 24-Hour Fitness in front of two parallel television screens, one of which always runs CNN and the other Fox News. On Friday I took breathless note of two simultaneous cable news captions. I can’t cite exactly what they said, because my heart rate was at 122 on a 6.5 slope (and I had already drunk two Diet Pibs), but here’s the gist. Fox News: Declassified Memo Shows Democrats Used Clinton-Funded Memo to Undermine Trump Campaign. CNN: Nunes Memo A “Dud” – Raises Even More Questions About Trump Campaign And Russian Interference.
I was not watching two different cable channels. I was peering into two alternate universes where “up” in one was “down” in the other, and vice versa. Sort of like different worlds made up of matter and anti-matter.
Okay, now I understand why Adam Schiff was so concerned that that release of the memo would precipitate a “constitutional crisis.” I quote James Madison, who was largely responsible for the writing of the US Constitution: ““The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.” The diametrically conflicting “insinuations” about what is actually in the classified intelligence might set off a rampant cynicism on the part of the public about whether we can believe anyone in government. And that might actually cause a real constitutional crisis.
Ironically, the very evening the memo was released (we are now expectantly awaiting the release of Memo 2.0 from the Democratic representatives on the House Intelligence Committee) I went to the theaters to watch the acclaimed Steven Spielberg film The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The movie dramatizes the heroic effort of Catherine Graham’s family-run Washington Post in the early 1970s to publish The Pentagon Papers, despite fierce and unrelenting opposition, not to mention intimidation, from the Nixon administration.
In 2018 it was the same Washington Post, now owned by global, neoliberal supermagnate Jeff Bezos who as the “richest man in the world” is routinely accused of shamelessly exploiting his employees while routinely championing “progressive” causes, that was passionately defending the mortal danger of making public classified intelligence which (if you believe Adam Schiff or James Comey) was a “nothing burger” to begin with. And the faux neoliberal academic left thunderously applauded.
What lesson should we draw from all of the above? American politics – and what unfortunately passes minimally these days for “political theology” – no longer resembles the 1998 movie The Truman Show, where the protagonist comes painfully to realize that his entire life is simply a scripted television production. Today, however, it’s more a reality TV show, and we have by bare minimum of votes elected a “shock jock”, gladiatorial personality of a President who for the first time in history comes from that genre.
But lest our ubiquitous beehive of smug, Trump-sneering, sophisticates take comfort in the fact that they au contraire inhabit a different world that is more “real” than reality TV, we should remind them that indeed it appears that the emerging evidence about the collaboration (we dare not use the word “collusion”) of the Clinton campaign with the intelligence community in producing the Trump dossier, which crystallized the framework for the Mueller investigation, cannot be quickly dismissed.
One thing we do need to admit is that “reality TV” is in reality a misnomer. The “reality” is actually a fantasy reinforced by what William James called “the will to believe.” That goes for BOTH Democrats and Republicans. No, the Nunes memo does not necessarily, according to Sean Hannity, “make Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar”. Nor does it cover over The Great Russian Conspiracy to Use Donald Trump to Steal the 2016 Presidential Election from the Virtuous and Upright Clintons of Whitewater Fame, as so many so desperately wants to believe. Sometimes fantasies can morph into perilous, obsessional neuroses.
Increasingly, we are watching mindlessly a split-screen political version of The Truman Show. If we are honest with ourselves, we must come to the realization that it is the meme-driven, Cable News-energized, corporate, hyperpartisan, subculture-enforced, addictive, thoroughly contradictory narratives of our own desperate, intractable “righteous minds”, as political theorist Jonathan Haidt aptly calls it, that is driving us toward both a national schizophrenia and perhaps (not implausibly) actual civil war.
We are reminded of the grisly, pathetic, and tragic conclusion of Euripides’ The Bacchae where Agave, the mother of Pentheus, holds up the severed head of her son whom she has wantonly torn limb from limb in a hypnotic frenzy, all the while spouting the self-referential “narrative” that she has been merely “hunting a stag”.
Pentheus murdered in his mother’s grasp
will come to know full well at last
Dionysus, son of Zeus, a god indeed
That “severed head” that both sides in their crazed narratives are poised to be holding proudly up is not named Pentheus. Its name is Democracy.
Hyperpartisanship is not, as naive commentators said in the early 1980s about cocaine, a “harmless, recreational drug.” We need to stop snorting our lines of political cocaine, sober up, stop demonizing the “other”, and start listening to each other.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.