The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Boots, and sandals, on the ground: Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Jeffrey Goldberg is one of those Beltway experts whose main area of expertise is his audience. For a while he was actually The Atlantic’s advice columnist. However brusque his manner (“What’s your problem?”, his column was called) he grasped the essence of Dear Abbyism: people want to be told to do what they already want to do. On the geopolitical scale, his famously arcane influence with high reaches of the American and Israeli governments (New York magazine described him as the “official therapist” of that fraught relationship, half Oedipal, half Albee) stems, similarly, from a talent for feeding each exactly what it longs to hear. He’s also an expert on the greater Middle East, meaning on what other people think about it. When so ostentatious a quest for insight comes back only with the carcass of a cliché or two, it feels a bit as though the Royal Hunt set off to shoot down chickens in a barnyard. But who wouldn’t prefer a safe Kentucky-fried dinner to a confrontation in a mapless thicket with the uncategorized, the indeterminate, the unknown?

This week, Goldberg is teaching us about Egypt. His column for Bloomberg analyses an interview on Egyptian TV:

And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. …

The gist is that, earlier this year, Stewart appeared as a gesture of support on the TV show of now-censored satirist Bassem Youssef, and made a joke about being a homeless Jew wandering the sands.  Goldberg goes on:

Look into my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Look in my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Ammar … in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”

Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.”

It requires no surplus of reason to agree that this is disgustingly looney. But Goldberg has an Important Point to make, not about a particular exemplar of lunacy but about the whole land of Egypt:

The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories — anti-Semitic or otherwise — suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.

So now we know why Egypt is poor and miserable: they’re uniquely out of touch with reality. Let’s unpack this.

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We open our arms to welcome the conquering Israeli army to Cairo: Bassem Youssef (L) and Jon Stewart on the former’s show

1) You might think from Goldberg’s piece that Amr Ammar is some kind of important writer, and that like the greats – Dickens, Mahfouz, Dan Brown – he gives voice to dreams that well upward from the collective imagination. The truth is, no. No one I know had ever heard of him. It turns out he’s a retired army colonel, whose just-published book (Civilian Occupation: Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines) is a whole compendium of craziness, arguing that the 2011 revolution was a “complex international conspiracy against our country” by the Zionists and the CIA and everybody else. A review in the state newspaper al-Ahram lists some of the “thousands of agents and spies who tried to rape the honor of our country”:

We have been through that story with the names of its stars and its proceedings: Freedom House and Otpor [the Serbian resistance movement] and CANVAS [the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies] and the National Association for Change [a liberal group headed by Mohamed El Baradei] and April 6 [one of the main youth revolutionary groups] and Bernard Levy and Jared Cohen, and Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Salah [prominent revolutionary spokespeople] and Mohamed El Baradei, Hamas and Pepsi and Esraa Abdel Fattah [an April 6 co-founder] and Huma Abedin [Hillary Clinton’s aide, accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, and through her marriage to Anthony Wiener obviously serving as the main link between Zionists and radical Islam] and Brzezinski and George Soros and Amr Khaled [influential television preacher] and Hisham Kassem [newspaper publisher]

Don’t fuck with me, farbrekhers: In secret footage taken at a Pepsi board meeting, Joan Crawford addresses the Elders of Zion.

And so on. Pepsi is the crowning touch. Goldberg barely scratched the surface of the madness. In fact (and typically) Goldberg’s whole column lazily relies on a “transcript” of Amr Ammar’s interview by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which always translates the worst stuff coming out of the region for Western consumption. But it’s not actually a transcript. As you can see by clicking the link, MEMRI offers up only five short passages from Ammar’s interview — basically, five Arabic sentences, about thirty seconds’ worth. The whole program, available on YouTube in two parcels, took an hour. I’d hate to inflict more of this stuff on anyone; but a real reporter, unlike Goldberg, might have wanted to go to the source and hear what else Ammar raved about, before devoting a whole column to it.

Amr Ammar interview, al-Tahrir TV, December 10, 2013, part 1

2) However little Goldberg listened to the interview, he’s right: it’s anti-Semitic and loathsome. But Goldberg has repeatedly reiterated his own theory of Egyptian anti-Semitism: that it’s a popular phenomenon deep-rooted in the country’s life and “deeply damaged culture.” “Egypt has never been notably philo-Semitic (just ask Moses),” he wrote in 2012. In the past, at least, he was intent on distinguishing this from Iran, where “the Iranian leadership is wildly anti-Semitic, but … I’ve never personally felt the hatred of Jews on the popular level.” In Egypt, though, “the virus has spread widely.”

Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. Careerists know that even fleeting associations with Jews and Israelis could spell professional trouble. 

(Note the elision of any difference between Jews and Israeli citizens.) Goldberg has always been reluctant to saddle the Egyptian state, as opposed to Egyptian “culture,” with responsibility for anti-Semitism. It’s because he generally likes the Egyptian state, at least in its military-run incarnations. Even under the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, the state was pliable from his perspective — keeping its cold peace with Israel, and cooperating to police the fractious Sinai. As far back as 2001, he preferred blaming Egypt’s “press and the imams” for prejudice, to blaming friends.

Gleefully citing Amr Ammar, however, doesn’t actually back this up. An ex-officer, the guy comes out of the military establishment. His book’s been praised in al-Ahram, the state’s flagship paper and now a forum for junta propaganda. His interview was on Tahrir TV, founded in 2011 as a voice for revolutionaries but now, after several changes of ownership, “a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police” (in Ursula Lindsey’s words). The el-Sisi regime has been busily spinning horrifically inventive conspiracy theories almost from the moment it seized power, stories in which Zionists, Americans, Islamists, and Masons link up with human rights organizations and long-haired demonstrators to bring the state down. It might seem far-fetched to posit that Netanyahu and Hamas, Brzezinski and the Muslim Brotherhood, would join hands to demolish Egypt; but you’d be surprised. In fact, Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner married specifically in order to conquer Cairo for Mossad and al-Qaeda after the honeymoon. And vilifying Bassem Youssef as a tool of national enemies is not a hobby for “revanchists,” as Goldberg suggests. It’s Egyptian state policy.

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan's Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan’s Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Versions of this stuff have been going on for a long time. State-promoted anti-Semitism became a loud note of the Mubarak era’s waning years. I sat speechless in an Egyptian friend’s living room in November 2002 watching Horseman Without a Horse, a lavishly produced Ramadan soap opera that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A few months before that, the state-owned al-Akhbar, in an editorial, called the Holocaust a fraud; al-Ahram, which despite its propaganda uses still retained a claim to respectability, had repeated the blood libel (Christian children as ingredients in the matzah) two years earlier. These are only a few examples. Of course, Goldberg’s imams often spoke the language of anti-Semitism as well. But an individual preacher might reach only a few thousand souls; whereas a state production like Horseman infused tens of millions’ dreams. 

Egypt is fertile ground for lots of conspiracy theories, not just anti-Semitic ones. Last night 15 died in a bombing of the Security Directorate — secret police headquarters — in the Delta city of Mansoura; and plenty of my friends believe the state itself did it. The thing is, they might be right. Official paranoia breeds ersatz versions; and who’s to say that a secret state might not sacrifice its own secret-keepers to keep the panic brewing? These are feelings familiar to anyone who’s lived under authoritarianism; survivors of Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa will recognize them. There really is a “deep state” in Egypt, a military-security establishment with vast economic and political power. The ostensible public sphere stands severed from the occult locations where decisions are made. The more constraints encircle knowledge of what’s going on, the fewer limits there are to speculation. 

Where the more hateful and virulent versions of conspiracy theory, like anti-Semitism, are concerned, one standard diagnosis finds them nebulously linked to “social change”; economic or cultural transition, if too accelerated, feeds irrational explanations. A more complex account might be: conspiracy theories breed amid uneven social change, where some structures freeze in rigidity while others shift and bend. In Imperial Germany the economy was swiftly transformed, but the political system remained fixed, dominated by an ossified and indifferent landed class. Turkey’s entrepreneurial makeover in the last three decades was slow to shake the authority of the old secular and military elites. Western investment, Western aid, satellite dishes and the Internet have rendered Egypt unrecognizable since Sadat; but the same ruling powers that were, still are. New classes — whether salaried clerks in Cologne or Islamist small businessmen in Cairo — look for reasons why their influence is less than their numbers or resources demand. If power and its persistence are neither accountable nor explicable, it’s tempting to seek not just causes, but cabalistic agents: scapegoats.

Raise your hand if you've tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Raise your hand if you’ve tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s political immobility under Mubarak, then, helped make a conspiratorial mindset attractive. The Parkinsonian rigidity of the regime despite three years of revolution can only deepen its heuristic appeal. But the monumental resilience of the military-security complex doesn’t just draw on its own inner resources. It’s due to forty years of unstinting support from the US; and that support has been a payback for the regime’s détente with Israel. Even Egyptians who never switched on Horseman Without a Horse know that. Egypt’s politics have gone through plenty of vicissitudes, but the treaty with Israel has stayed intensely unpopular throughout. It’s hated not because of anti-Semitism, and not just for itself, but because it’s both symbol and (financial and military) enabler of a government that can ram through pretty much any policy without even a curtsey to democratic consent. (That the semi-peace coincided with Sadat’s equally despised, equally authoritarian pursuit of poverty-producing neoliberal economic policies only confirmed its unpopularity.) Some of the most important moments in democratic dissent in Egypt have focused on opposition to Israel, and to the government’s ties to it. Many activists who led the 2011 revolution got their start a decade earlier protesting Mubarak’s acquiescence in Operation Defensive Shield and his failure to support the Palestinians, as well as his tacit endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq. Even more infuriating to the dissidents, WikiLeaks revealed that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s sinister security consigliere and chief torturer, was also his liaison to Tel Aviv. The old monster consulted on a hotline with the Israelis daily. Contemplating “Egyptian succession scenarios,” an Israeli diplomat said, “there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

Intelligent Egyptians were eminently capable of concluding that Israel’s vested interest in Cairo’s “stability” meant complicity in repression. There was a conspiratorial element to this belief, but it wasn’t fantasy; it wasn’t Holocaust denial or the blood libel. It was perfectly consistent with the facts. The Egyptian regime’s ignition of anti-Semitism (which hit full throttle around the time Sharon took office) must be comprehended in this light. It was fantasy, but it distracted attention from the raw truth that the regime’s strength depended on its Israeli ties. It was a way of screaming, “Don’t look here: look over there!” The state knew how to cultivate conspiratorial thinking, and divert it to its own ends. The elaborate paranoias the generals promote today — the Jew-led US in league with the Masons and Qatar — serve the same purpose. The US isn’t about to give up on the Egyptian military; John Kerry has made it clear that he approves the coup, just not the methods. But a dash of rabid anti-Americanism spicing up the anti-Semitism keeps the Obamans on their toes. And it makes el-Sisi seem independent to his citizenry when, like his predecessors, he’s not.

I talk to chairs too, when I'm lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

I talk to chairs too, when I’m lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

Goldberg points anxiously to the “culture” of Egyptian anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to talk about the politics of it. Talking politics would mean admitting that the regime spreads anti-Semitism, not just the “culture,” and it does so because it’s embarrassed by its own dependencies. Full democracy — including state transparency, accountability for past crimes, and smashing the military apparatus’ power — would be the remedy for Egypt’s inculcated political paranoias. A fully democratic state would almost certainly push for a different regional power structure. For that reason alone, Goldberg and the other “therapists” are unenthusiastic.

3) Goldberg is a reality therapist, all about pragmatism and responsibility and paying your doctor bills on time. His diagnosis of the Egyptian disease is “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” this being “an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.” He elaborated in 2012:

The revolution that overthrew the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, held great promise, but it also exposed the enormous challenges facing Egyptian politics and culture. … As Walter Russell Mead [a Bard College professor] has written on his blog, countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor.” They aren’t backward and poor because the Elders of Zion conspire against them. They’re backward and poor because, Mead argues, they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” 

That anti-Semitism was the property of poor and backward countries would have surprised Jews in rich France during the Dreyfus affair, or in technologically advanced Germany in the 1930s; or even in thriving, skinhead-infested Russia today. Certainly anti-Semitism — conspiracy addiction in general — is a cognitive failure. But is the inability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect” distinctive to fetid Egypt and its “damaged culture”?

Goldberg lives in the US now, and as a commentator with political pretensions, maybe he should check the polls. It isn’t just that surveys repeatedly show nearly 80% of Americans believe in angels. It isn’t even that 4% of citizens affirm that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies,” with another 7% “not sure.” Absent a militant movement to throw the reptiles out, those credos won’t do much. Probably.

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries "The Bible," 2012

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” 2012

But what can you say when 20% of Republicans say Obama is the Antichrist? (18% of Americans overall, of course, think he’s a Muslim.) What about the 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents who believe in a global conspiracy to install a totalitarian superstate called the New World Order? These aren’t innocent illusions; they’re predicates for how folks vote and agitate. And what intervening angel will prevent the 37% of Americans who think global warming is a hoax from incinerating the rest of us with their delusions?

Plenty of analysts have held paranoia to be a deep-rooted characteristic of America’s political “culture”: see Richard Hofstadter. Rich and forward the US may be, but that doesn’t keep it from being fearful. More cogently, from the anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s through McCarthyism to the anti-Obamism of the present, conspiracy theories seem connected to uneven social change, to classes and identities terrified of being left out by economic or political transformation. But like anti-Semitism in Egypt, they’re easily manipulated and bought up by entrenched, existing power. The Koch Brothers, after all, paid for the Tea Party: the former’s method used the latter’s madness. And there’s plenty of media to promote these stories. Pat Robertson has a whole TV network to spread his ideas about how Satan, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Council on Foreign Relations plot a one-world government through central banks. Broadcaster Glenn Beck, the Kanye of paranoia, beloved of the Tea Party, maps all kinds of conspiracies on his trademark chalkboard: University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein is planning genocide; Obama is an ally of Egypt’s blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Egypt, in fact, is something of a Glenn Beck fetish. One of his more intricate narratives had Obama, George Soros, and international Communism working together to launch the Egyptian revolution, in order to build a “Muslim caliphate” that for some reason would make them all happy.

 Egypt, your caliphate is coming: Glenn Beck connects the dots, which look suspiciously like small brain lesions.

It comes full circle. Egypt’s popular, insane TV presenter Tawfik Okasha plagiarizes the Tea Party, raging about how Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, helped by Zionists and Masons. Not for nothing is he known as the Egyptian Glenn Beck. (If you don’t know Okasha, this brilliant parody Twitter account in English gives something of his mad flavor.)

In fact, there’s one key point Goldberg left out in his account of Amr Ammar, so hampered was he by MEMRI’s selective editing, so fixed on Egypt’s “damaged culture.” Many of Ammar’s conspiratorial fantasies didn’t spring from the “Egyptian fever swamp.” They come from the US. 

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Look in my eyes and, trust me, you will never get out alive: Michele Bachmann editorializes in Daily News Egypt, December 2013

The “fever swamp” is in DC, as much as the Nile Delta. It’s doubtful Ammar or anyone else in Sisi’s circles would even have heard of Huma Abedin if Michele Bachmann hadn’t been smearing her for years as a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the US government. The Islam-loathing Bachmann has become a serious and baleful influence on Egyptian politics, visiting the country twice since the coup to share her “witless ramblings” with the junta leaders; in Cairo, she even accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the September 11 attacks. George Soros as bête noire and fulcrum of the global conspiracy is an idea borrowed, of course, from plenty of Tea Party polemicists, Glenn Beck high among them. Ammar would hardly have thought to mention Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name — as hard to pronounce in Arabic as in English — but for the work of right-wing US paranoiacs, who have long fingered the dour Pole as an Illuminatus and inventor of the New World Order.

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, "Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt's Jews, is an obligation": via @ablasalma

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, “Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt’s Jews, is an obligation”: via @ablasalma

Indeed, much as right-wing evangelicals arguably exported their homophobia to Uganda, conspiratorial neocons and other conmen are shipping their Islamophobia to Egypt. What’s arising in Cairo is a peculiar blend of Islam(ist)-hatred and anti-Semitism, a weird worldview in which the Elders of Zion breach protocol to lend a hand to the Ikhwan. The key ideas come from outside. And the melding seems liberating for many Tea Party types like Bachmann. Egypt is a place where the latent anti-Semitism bred by Becks and Robertsons, by Christmas warriors and Confederate nostalgists — a sentiment confined to coded dog-whistles in the corseted US — can emerge and stretch its limbs and find its voice.

Goldberg is spot on that some people can’t “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” But they’re not all Egyptians. Some of them live right in his own town, and promote their paranoias in his neighborhood. One person, in fact, who has some trouble with cause and effect relations seems to be Goldberg. Therapy begins at home.

Cultural Cold Wars: Where “traditional values” came from

"Communism destroys the family": Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

“Communism destroys the family”: Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.

A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War.  It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.

I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?)  But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well.  (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,

25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.

Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.

All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but  it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)

What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.

"This Godless Communism": Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

“This Godless Communism”: Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.

When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.

Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.

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Getting Mommy in the workforce isn’t the half of it, though.  Next come state-run nurseries, and “So ends the story of the American family.”

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We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.”  But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.

Canadair advertisement, 1955

Canadair advertisement, 1955

The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):

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Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.

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And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:

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It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.

This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.

US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Poster for António Salazar's dictatorship in Portugal: "Salazar's Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education"

Poster for António Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal: “Salazar’s Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education”

The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to

Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.

After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that

for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.

Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.

Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.

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This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”

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“Chile: Yesterday” –street violence — “Today” — family; 1975 propaganda

This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.

“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”

Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA

Top L: "Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!" Top R: "Vote Christian" -- while snakes labelled "Divorce" and "Free Love" hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: "Mamma and Papa are voting for me."

Top L: “Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!” Top R: “Vote Christian” — while snakes labelled “Divorce” and “Free Love” hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: “Mamma and Papa — Vote for me.”

More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.

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“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”

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“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.

CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:

The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.

The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.

We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?

The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters

200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …

Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.

During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:

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Leaflets distributed in government-controlled villages by white Rhodesian forces, 1970s

You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.

Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God!  And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”

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What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!

There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in  — so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals.  Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.

America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.

What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communist Crusade

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communism Crusade

On choice

Cynthia did not put adequate thought into the ramifications of her words

The Cynthia Nixon scandal roils on. I’ve stopped keeping count of who’s blaming her for what these days; the last I heard, she was responsible for kids being electroshocked in Tennessee. Loose lips sink ships; but it seems that Cynthia’s, like a Helen of Troy in reverse, have torpedoed a thousand of them. It all reminds me a bit of G.W. Bush’s press secretary, in the chilly first days of our War of Terror, warning critics that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”   I am not sure that Guantanamo has a cage or two for loquacious actors, but I gather some folks wish it did.

In discussing the affair, Andrew Sullivan graciously linked to my own post, and the question of what would happen if we treated sexual orientation like religion, “a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it.” He added:

Of course, I don’t actually experience my faith as a choice, in the usual sense of the word. It feels as deep a part of me as my orientation.

Those two sentences rang true, and they pointed me to a basic question. What do we mean by “choice,” anyway?   There are certain cultural horizons that define people as much as any biological ones do.  And thinking about these things can make the concept of “choice” seem inadequate as a way of grasping how human beings act, decide, and are.

It’s inadequate, at least, if taken in the way we moderns tend to treat it, as a pure act of untrammeled freedom, occurring on an abstract plane vacated of constraints or pasts.  Andrew has stuck with being a Catholic despite the Church’s best efforts to make people like him pariahs. Is that courage, or acceptance? I would bet at some point he has expressed this as “I choose to be a Catholic because” … But I would also bet he has expressed it as “I can’t imagine not being a Catholic because…” Both seem to me equally valid ways of saying much the same thing – equally true pictures of the same situation, only seen from different aspects, like the blind men groping the elephant. We don’t always choose by making pure, existential leaps in the dark, like Kierkegaard or Lord Jim. Sometimes our freedom consists in staying rather than in going, though to stay means embracing the conditions that formed us and limit us. Sometimes we choose by being, not deciding.

For myself, though I am certainly not a practicing Christian, though I was not raised in an especially devout family, and though I believe virtually nothing of Christian dogma, when I’m asked about my religion I almost always describe myself as Christian – because certain aspects of a religion that in other ways I loathe form my horizon still. The myths of resurrection and redemption are deeply if inarticulately ingrained in me,  frames of hope and mercy through which I understand the world. (I have tried telling people I’m an “agnostic Christian,” but it nearly always makes everybody terribly mad.)  I confess to a mild, instinctive mistrust of people who convert from one whole religious tradition to another: Muslims who become Christian, or Christians who become Hindus, switches like that.  (I make something of an exception for Buddhism, since it is less a religion than a philosophical stance.)  At some gut level I feel you can lose your religion and become an atheist, but you can’t just take on a completely different tradition, with all its weight and taboos and cultural baggage. Such converts appear to me at times like followers of Gilbert Osmond, the cold-blooded collector of culture in James’ Portrait of a Lady, who said that if you happen to find yourself one day without a tradition, it’s incumbent on you to purchase a new one as rapidly as possible. But that won’t work!  I feel like shouting. You can scrap your original one, but that doesn’t mean the new one you try to own will own you.

Objectively, I realize this is completely silly. To change your beliefs in one compartment of your life doesn’t make you a luftmensch (a person of the air, as the Nazis called the supposedly rootless Jews). Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with being a luftmensch.  Air is healthy. My point is that I feel a weight, a drag, of resistance to the idea that choice is unconditioned, and I feel it in areas completely apart from the putatively destined, determined realms of sexuality or desire. There’s not some simple antinomy where genes decide a part of who we are, and all the rest is up for grabs. Everybody has their arenas where they feel freer, and others where they feel fixed. Our histories decide them, not just some biological allotment.

Another instance: I know I am and will always remain a middle-class American. Being rich or being poor, moving to another country, even changing my passport wouldn’t alter that. Wherever I’ve lived outside the US borders,  I’ve always eschewed the American expatriate scene. You don’t go abroad in order to make new American friends.  But from time to time, every couple of months or so, I found I needed to talk to my fellow countrypeople. Not to share political chat, or explore our economic interests, or voice some gross contempt for the locals: But because there was a subtler if more trivial common horizon of pop culture, of gestures comprehended and jokes understood, of TV commercials we watched when we were kids.  I needed that to remind me of who I was. Living in Romania, I might have a lover who was Romanian, and we might understand each other better than anybody else in the world did. But he still didn’t know why the silly rabbit could never eat Trix. Sometimes I needed to talk to people who knew that Trix was for kids.

It’s strange I should feel this about religion or nationality, by objective standards fairly contingent things, when I firmly believe we can change our genders. But gender, when it’s assigned to us at birth, isn’t given us with a history. As we grow up, it takes on all kind of symbolic meanings, but doesn’t necessarily acquire a past.   Being a “man” doesn’t require associating yourself with the whole history of manhood (some model figures, yes, but manhood itself doesn’t have a story). It’s forward-looking. You will become a man, fathers tell their sons, you will grow into manhood. Gender is a project, a perpetual becoming. It’s easier to abandon a future than a past. By contrast, faith and class are part not just of our personal histories, but of the immensely longer history behind us. Some people can liberate themselves from that history to greater or less degrees; some don’t want to.   But whether any one area of your life has been thus liberated as against another is, perhaps, a morally neutral question. What Kant called the project of autonomy, the task of ridding yourself of the vast weight of the given, is necessarily partial. No one can ever denude herself altogether. Recognizing that you can never place all your life under the dominion of choice, you must choose where you will strive to exercise your choices.

Our language around “choice,” and “freedom,” is terribly impoverished. By “ours” I mean “us Americans”: but also parts of the LGBT movement in many places around the world, which have got their vocabulary and a fragment of their worldview from an American definition. This is one consequence of being from a place where choice is so valorized, so elevated as the sole intent of life, that no one bothers to define or interrogate what it means. We either imagine that choice is completely free, untrammeled,  taking place in a vacuum –or that we’re completely constrained, controlled,  defined, overdetermined creatures of an implacable destiny. It’s obvious, and yet hard to articulate, that neither is true.  It’s telling that one side in the most extended U.S. political battle of the last forty years couches its advocacy in terms of the “right to choose.”  It’s never the right to choose something – to have an abortion or not, to carry a child to term or not. All that’s elided, as though “choice” summed up that and everything else that could be said. Certainly, this rhetoric was field-tested for palatability and persuasiveness, and I cringe to cavil at it. Equally certainly, controlling reproduction opens up for women a whole repertory of other choices that would otherwise be closed.  But insistently reiterating a right to unlimited choice must turn many a listener’s mind to all the things she never had a choice over: the hand-me-down clothes in childhood, the crappy carpet that came with the house, the job, the husband. And with that comes resentment, a feeling such choice is less a right than an invidious privilege.  Has this whole strategy worked out the way we planned?

The truth is that we choose; and we choose from a repertory that our pasts have given us; and we choose as beings who are already endowed with histories behind us, not sprung fresh and new from Jupiter’s head or the half-shell.  We bring our lives to our choices. What would they be worth otherwise?

Being in love is a bit like what I’m talking about.  There has to be an element of free will in it, otherwise nobody would want your love. To be sure, nobody in love feels entirely free. Nobody deludes themselves they’re in full command of their feelings. Yet who would wish to be presented with an attachment that’s just a bundle of involuntary drives? Who would like to be told, “Honey, my hormones selected you,” even if they get a bouquet of roses into the bargain? From one side it’s an unstoppable passion, but that’s not the only aspect. The side from which we can say we chose the loved one represents our respect, not just for them as deserving objects of desire, but for ourselves as reasonable beings who deserve to be desired back.    And yet, of course, it’s a determined choice. And of course, love opens up a Pandora’s jewelry box of further choices everyday: To stay or to go, to accommodate or argue, to speak or be silent, to share or not to share.  In our intimacies where we struggle most to be ourselves, choice and compulsion are inextricably intertwined.

Nixon in "Wit": The bald truth

Maybe we in the United States need a bit more Edmund Burke, to ground our sense of freedom in a context.  Burke understood that when we vote our ancestors vote with us: that we are inheritors of history, not just its inhabitants and masters.   But that knowledge is not just a property of the Right. Marx too grasped that our consciousness is conditioned, that history makes us before we can make it.

Nor do philosophers map the only road to realizing this. A poet or two has been there first. These days Cynthia Nixon is reading John Donne on Broadway (the New York Times, which exposed her heresy on “choice,” gave her a glorious review to make up for it).   Perhaps, in her private moments when the audience is gone, she also whispers to herself some lines from Auden:

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth. …

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.