In a recent Op-Ed for the Moscow Times, author and translator Richard Lourie updates Richard Hofstadter’s famous thesis about the role of paranoia in American Politics with a focus on current goings on in the Kremlin:
Is President Vladimir Putin the Russian Mitt Romney? He certainly seems to see the United States as Russia’s “No. 1 foe.” The question, as always, is how much of this is sincere and how much is an attempt to manipulate the populace for domestic political reasons? This may be one of the rare cases in which cynicism is preferable to sincerity.
. . .
Russia’s friends in the West — and it may have more than it sometimes thinks — must do what they can to prevent the Kremlin’s current paranoid style from producing negative foreign policy consequences in the real world. Americaphobia in Russia can easily spark Russophobia in the West, which, as Romney’s remarks demonstrate, still has its knee-jerk adherents.
Lourie’s thesis is that Russia has reached a precarious point in global real politick because it lacks both the secular openness of most of the global North which has been or is being adopted by much of the global South as many of those nations are emerging as major players in the world economy, and the strong institutional and cultural values embodied by the universal veneration of the Prophet Mohammed, which form a structural framework for the growth and development of similar institutions in the increasingly important Islamic World. Both of these axes of values, in Lourie’s view, allow for the creation and development of institutions that will come to dominate the global economy and because Russia has neither, it must find a new way to engage globally.
Lourie’s concern, and it’s a legitimate one, is that the paranoia on evidence in the current goings on in Moscow is a foreshadowing of the direction Russia will take in the coming decades. Lourie’s analysis meshes with that of fellow Moscow Times contributor Alexei Zakharov:
Many educated and highly placed Russians tend to see sinister enemy plots behind the international financial crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growing protest movement. Wherever we turn, from informal conversations to official pronouncements and state-controlled television programs, Russians are told that the Pussy Riot performance and the international reaction to the verdict against the group were part of a coordinated campaign designed to undermine Russian values and bring down the state.
The list of evil forces typically blamed for these events includes the U.S. State Department, Israeli intelligence and a vaguely defined “global financial elite.”
An interesting feature of this development is that it is in many ways a mirror of the early conspiratorial views once prominent in the extreme right wing of American Politics. When Richard Hofstadter first wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” he was reflecting on the growth and popularity of Red Scare style conspiracy theories of the era. Those paranoid-style political notions were, at the time, so prevalent among the right in the 1950s and 1960s that William F. Buckley and the National Review famously felt compelled to denounce that and make a pariah of its prime movers in the conservative movement, the John Birch Society.
The John Birch Society at the time saw Communist infiltrators everywhere in the US Government, up to and including President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It traced quite openly all manner of ills in American Society (ranging from women’s liberation in the aftermath of landmark publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl and the English Translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, to the ongoing integration of the south in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education) to the infiltration of Russian Communists at the behest of international Jewish bankers. Much of what seems incoherent in modern conspiracy theories about Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Bohemian Grove can be traced to these more sordid and plainly racist and antisemitic fears of earlier generations. Indeed, those conspiracy theories are kept alive by the American Nazi Party, The Aryan Nation, and The Christian Identity Church who argue bluntly that our expanded awareness of racism and the growing social unacceptability of racial and religious intolerance that have served to conceal much of the race based fear behind those earlier incarnations of conspiracy theories in which they still believe.
That the Kremlin, with its current kleptocratic rule under the authoritarian power of Vladimir Putin, would embrace this sort of thinking and try to export it more widely&mdashlas it does with their newest employee, the photogenic 9-11 truther and Alex Jones acolyte Abby Martin—is unsurprising. This is the role that conspiracy theories play in service of the powerful, same as it ever was from time immemorial. Whether it be the Blood Libel conspiracy theories of Catholic Europe making villains of the Jews, the anti-muslim agitation of later centuries to combat the encroachments of the Ottomans and Moors, the anti-protestant and anti-liberal conspiracy theories attributed the Freemasons and Illuminati of the 18th century spread by the landed old-word nobility to discredit the American and French Revolution, or the newly born Military Industrial complex of the mid twentieth century promulgated the Red Scare in order to make sure that the US stayed the course on the policy of Containment and Brinksmanship. The sorts of ideas are always a form of false consciousness designed to distract the exploited and the oppressed from their real oppressors and get them shadow-boxing phantoms instead.
After all, it’s hard to throw out a government hell bent on giving ever more sweetheart deals to global capital and insuring that they can do whatever they want to the environment and need not concern themselves with product safety when you’re terrified that the illegal immigrant hanging around down at the Home Depot is going to take your job mowing lawns or washing dishes. Or if you’re convinced that the “privately owned” Federal Reserve system is in fact selling the entire population of the United States into debt slavery to China. Or if you’re afraid the liberals in government are going to round you up into prison camps and seize control of the food supply to create artificial scarcity.
So no, it’s not surprising that the Kremlin has adopted these same tactics and pointed them back at the United States, anymore than it’s surprising that a country as small and relatively unimportant as Israel for some reason always figures so highly in everybody’s estimation of what’s really going on. If it weren’t, most likely the world would have long ago stopped worrying about them and forced them to deal fairly with their Arab neighbors rather than going through this ongoing dance where the west props them up in order to allow them to bear all the fears we can no longer bluntly place on the shoulders of an International Cabal of Jewish Bankers. Russia is currently being ruled by a cabal of gangsters headed by Vladimir Putin and dissent is being crushed in the form of Pussy Riot and religious minorites the same way the Czars and the Stalinists did: by throwing people in jail for speaking ill of the strongman leader. If that kind of thing is to be sustainable, the Russian people are going to need some phantoms to hate.
What is surprising is that in so blatantly adopting these tactics so many people outside Russia’s borders fall for the same useful idiots yet again even when they aren’t nearly so subtle and well-sourced as the usual brand of conspiracy theory otherwise popular among the truthers, birthers, and other assorted aficionados of the paranoid style in American politics. It just goes to show, I suppose, that the Agents Provocateurs peddling this stuff among the American populace have most likely over-estimated their audience, and maybe this will make them realize it. If they do, no doubt we’re all in for a resurgence of Bell Curve style racism and stories of muslims sacrificing Christian babies to Termagant in Tennessee mosques.