Our dangerous new McCarthyism: Russia, Noam Chomsky and what the media's not telling you about the new Cold War

Perverse, diabolical obsession: Policy cliques in D.C. have no intention of desisting in this war until they win it

Published January 30, 2015 12:01AM (EST)

  (AP/William J. Smith)
(AP/William J. Smith)

It is time to attempt that hardest of things—to see ourselves for who we are, to see what it is we are doing and what is being done to us.

Two things prompt the thought. We have the latest news on Washington’s confrontation with Russia, and we have a newly precipitous decline in the national conversation on this crisis. In my estimation, we reach dangerous new lows in both respects.

It is always difficult for the living to see themselves as suspended in history. Being up against the rock face of events, being the stuff of which events are made, allows no distance, and achieving perspective without any takes an arduous effort.

But we have to make an attempt at this field of vision now. Every moment counts as history, but some passages are bigger than others. And this, ours, is very big as of the last 10 days, maybe two weeks.

We are now invited to let this time take a place alongside the frenzied interval that preceded the American attack on the Spanish in 1898, the Red Scare of the post-1917 period and the second, very deadly (and deadening) McCarthyist scare of the late-1940s and 1950s. Join me, please, in insisting we are a better people than this.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at a much-celebrated research university in Moscow, gave the New York Times an interesting quotation over the weekend. “The country is on a holy mission. It’s at war with the United States,” Sonin said. “So why would you bother about the small battleground, the economy?”

Think about this, and do so in two dimensions. There is the question of war, and then the question of “small battlegrounds.” What is this man talking about? What assumptions lie behind this remark? What are the implications?

In last week’s column I confessed astonishment at the recent turn of events in Ukraine and the Western alliance’s relations with Russia. Western Europe, teetering at the edge of economic crisis, adds significantly to its vulnerabilities as it acquiesces in Washington’s sanctions regime against the Russian Federation. It is a couple of short steps now from crisis to catastrophe.

Kiev bails on peace talks and instantly launches an ambitious offensive in eastern Ukraine. As those eligible to be conscripted defect in some number to Russia, Ukraine remains heavily reliant on neo-Nazi militias—a documented reality no one in Washington or the American media cares to talk about. Instead, Washington announces—just this week; read it here —that it will begin sending troops to train Ukrainian National Guardsmen as of this spring.

The very latest arrives as this column gets written. Fresh reports from Moscow suggest—verbatim from one summary will do—“U.S. plans Euromaidan in Belarus to overthrow Lukashenko. Local nationalists licking their chops.” The Maidan is the square in Kiev where the Ukraine crisis started two Novembers ago. Lukashenko is Alexander Grigoryevich, who has presided in Belarus for the past 21 years.

I cannot confirm these reports—four, written in Russian—but I will begin following Lukashenko’s political fortunes closely, this I assure you. His sins are two. In the immediate post-Soviet period he blocked the neoliberal “shock therapy” that ravaged Russia and many other economies after the Soviet Union collapsed. More recently he sponsored the peace talks in Minsk that Kiev just abandoned. Dreadful man, Lukashenko.

What do we have here? How to make sense of these things?

These are the questions that prompt me to cast our moment in historical terms—something I have tried for months to get done in these columns. And Konstantin Sonin, the prof in Moscow, put the answer as simply as it can be put: We are at war. And in consequence, the Russians consider themselves at war with us.

It has been common usage for months to say we have entered Cold War II. This is wrong for several reasons, and it is time we understand them.

One, the thought gives surreptitious comfort, since the Cold War never came to blows. But to take such comfort now is to miss what is going on before our eyes. There is no argument for comfort or ease.

Two, there can be no Cold War II because the Cold War as we knew it never ended. NATO’s eastward creep, Georgia in 2008, Ukraine now, the merciless, reckless sanctions—all that has changed since 1991 are tactics, not strategy. Which leads to point three.

Three is that the object of the war I assert we are now waging is destruction. To put this precisely, Washington’s intent is not to destroy Russia: It is to destroy what we may as well call “Putin’s Russia.” The implications here should be evident. This is "regime change" on the grandest scale.

We can now comprehend Washington’s logic—a perverse, almost diabolical logic, Strangelovian logic. In last week’s column I used the term “monomania,” single-minded obsession. I hesitated to keep it in—too strong, I worried—but there was no need. The policy cliques in Washington have no intention of desisting in this war until they win it. Recognize this and you will find the prospect of hot war staring you down.

We can also understand the apparently nonsensical risks Washington is taking and forcing Europeans on the front lines to accept. Five thousand Ukrainians dead, the arming of hyper-nationalist Nazis, Russia provoked into full-frontal hostility, the E.U. economies at the precipice: All this amounts to the “small battlegrounds.” It goes down among the policy cliques as collateral damage and nothing more. I find no evidence of concern in Washington for any of it. This is what I mean by monomania.

Third new apprehension: It is not merely unlikely that Vladimir Putin will not step back in Ukraine or buckle under the sanctions regime. It is impossible. Russians far afield from the Kremlin share the thought that they are in a war with Americans. The bitter truth, available to us as of these past weeks, is that they are right.

Many readers make the argument—to say “accusation” is to enter into the nonsense—that this column propagates on Putin’s behalf. The thought (not really the word) misses the point entirely, as follows:

In my read, the war we have entered upon brings into sharp focus the 21st century’s single most vital zone of conflict. This is the non-West’s historically unprecedented insistence that it is the equal of the West, that its values are as valid as the West’s, that the world is multiple now and that “to become modern” no longer means “to become Western.”

It is this the American elite thinks is worth a war. It is Putin’s sin that he fights this war. Bitter truth No. 2: In this context we must hope he wins it, for the world will be far better off when America's compulsion to dominate it is defeated.

The columnist is paranoid, you may say, given to grandiose delusions. Uh-uh. Only Americans allergic to history can possibly think so. Another deluded writer put it this way a long, long time ago: "There are only two peoples now. Russia is still barbarous, but it is great. The other young nation is America. The future is there between these two great worlds. Someday they will collide, and then we will see struggles of which the past can give no idea."

This Alexis de Tocqueville. He published the first volume of “Democracy in America,” where this observation appeared, in 1835. Forget about the small matter of whether the Cold War ended and now restarts: The line is unbroken between de Tocqueville’s time, when Czarist Russia was first identified as a challenge to the West’s primacy, and the front in eastern Ukraine.

This is the inheritance, readers. This is who we are and this is what we are doing.

One of the running arguments this past year has been just who started the trouble in Ukraine and who authors the hostility now prevailing between Russia and the West. Relying on half-truths, untruths, and the good old “power of leaving out,” the orthodoxy solidifies on the unsubstantiated presumption that Russia must be wrong, especially given Putin presides over it. No need of evidence; saying it is enough.

A few reporters and analysts who refuse to surrender their integrity—Robert Parry at Consortium News, Stephen Cohen at Princeton, a couple of others—marshal the plentiful and persuasive evidence of Washington’s responsibility: It extends back to the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Europeans are reluctant tag-alongs.

Americans have this argument concerning responsibility and innocence with every intervention, going back to Polk’s war with Mexico during the first “Manifest Destiny” days in 1846. Another resort to history helps.

The name of the American game has from the first been simple: We, a peaceable people (which we were in the 18th century and some way into the 19th) do not aggress. We take up arms only in response to the unjust provocations of others. No exceptions.

Go down the list: The ridiculous pretenses that preceded the Spanish-American War; Truman’s first, phony accusations of Soviet aggression; the “Communist threat” of Arbenz’s social-democratic government in Guatemala (and ditto the Sandinistas later); the fraudulent Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; the bait Bush I threw Saddam Hussein so he would invade Kuwait; the WMD bit before Bush II’s invasion of Iraq. There is much more, but who can miss the point?

The point being: Let us learn history’s rich lessons, seeing by way of it who we are and what we do and how to judge these questions of causality and responsibility.

* * *

I have had occasion to cite the great Kundera quotation before in this space, from “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” the Czech novelist wrote. It applies here, now, to us. It is our responsibility to engage this struggle so history gets written correctly. This is critically important now.

But there is a destructive enemy in this struggle. The American press, the New York Times in particular, has no intention whatsoever of struggling against either power or forgetting. It fails more or less completely now to remember that it, too, is supposed to be a pole of power, a countervailing pole. And its effect upon us creates another crisis, as I read it. Never mind the manufacture of consent: We live amid the manufacture of ignorance, a worse condition.

This ignorance is what is being done to us. It is essential, indeed, to the prosecution of the war as defined above.

I came to this thought by way of a keyhole’s view of the larger phenomenon. The thread attaching to these columns has grown swiftly of late into a chaos of irrational nonsense when the words “Russia” or “Putin” come up in the copy. Name-calling suffices, the need for logical argument (always welcome) obviated.

From the specific to the general in this case: This casting of critique and dissent as un-American—a deeply un-American notion, of course—is a danger paying-attention people can no longer ignore. Most important is the enabling of bad policy. We are getting ourselves in very bad trouble. Remember, the Cuban missile crisis materialized more or less overnight.

More personally, do many readers remember what it was like to live through the McCarthyist 1950s? Very horrible. One could not breathe. Europe remains populated with the aging exiles from this period.

My abiding concern here is the psychological violence this climate causes. Study the 1950s, or the period just before Teddy Roosevelt invaded Cuba and sent Admiral Dewey into Manila Bay. We are not far from either.

Incessant red-baiting, incessant Russia-baiting, incessant Islamophobia, incessant what have you: The deafening noise of jingoism and contempt for others’ perspectives renders people unable to think. Such people are no longer self-governing. They are the powerless subjects of masters.

Such periods of history also leave scars. People do not emerge from them vigorously ready to think it all through anew, eager to get it right. As I have argued previously in this space, the American consciousness remains marred by the violence done to it during the Cold War decades.

You want a case in point, don’t you? As it happens one arrives as we speak. We now learn that Stephen Cohen, the distinguished Princeton Russianist, along with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the Nation’s long-serving editor, had their teeth kicked in last autumn because of Cohen’s principled essays on Russia and Ukraine, work noted previously in this space. This is the mid-1950s redux, miss the point not.

Cohen and vanden Heuvel proposed funding research via Cohen’s scholarly association, dedicated to Slavic and East European studies. Then came the Ukraine crisis, then the edifice of lies casting Russia as the aggressor—and then came Cohen’s corrective pieces, many of which vanden Heuvel (who is also Cohen’s spouse) put in the Nation’s pages. In November, the association voted down funding of more than $400,000 because Cohen’s name would be on it.

With notable exceptions, scholars have proven a gutless lot since the early Cold War years (nickel-plated footnotes and infinite citations on request). Scholarship has obliged official ideology ever since, but this is running for cover of a depravity I have not seen since I was barely old enough to understand the intellectual corruption all around us in the 1950s. This is one of the scars.

Dangerous and nearly ruinous then, dangerous on the way to ruinous now. No detached scholarship, no authentic culture, no capacity to see beyond the spectacle. History will have to be disinterred by future scholars. One cannot take this lying down.

Here is the report on the Cohen affair, published inThursday’s New York Times. And therein lies the caker, at least for me: The piece by Jennifer Schuessler, the Times’ publishing correspondent, is cleanly done. It appears in the newspaper more responsible than any other medium for creating and sustaining the disgraceful climate wherein Cohen’s colleagues can censor him with straight faces.

“The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals,” Gustave Le Bon wrote, “is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.”  Le Bon published “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” in 1908. The truth held in Mussolini’s Italy and quickly thereafter in Joe McCarthy’s America. Ask yourself: How closely does it describe our time?

Forget “It can’t happen here.” Too late. It is happening, at what pace one cannot say. In my read we find ourselves now enmeshed in those “struggles of which the past can give no idea,” as de Tocqueville put it. Except that there is a lot more in our past than in his, and ours gives plenty of idea if you look at it carefully and open yourself to what it has to tell you.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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