A prerequisite for assimilation into American culture is delusion. Delusions of grandeur, delusions of superiority, delusions of invincibility — we're all stocked up on those in the land of the free and home of the health insurance deductible. One of the principal tasks of the scholar or journalist in American culture is to find some justification for eliminating a clarifying vocabulary and replacing it with esoteric or academic terms that make the ugly sound pretty. Instead of "delusion" or "lie," we might use the phrase, "American exceptionalism," referring to the intellectual-yet-illiterate theory that the United States is inherently different from other nations. Ronald Reagan was the most effective propagator of the myth. With his "carny smile and a missile up his sleeve," to quote songwriter Warren Haynes, he would spin childish yarns like, "America is a shining city on a hill," and "Standing up for America means standing up for God."
God does have a sense of humor.
The United States presently is the exception among wealthy educated, and developed countries in its shocking failure to react with competence, discipline, and probity to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our case count escalates with no sign of slowing down, while hospitals in Arizona, Texas, Mississippi and Florida may be forced to turn away patients from their overwhelmed ERs and ICUs. The financial effects of the coronavirus compound to devastate millions of lives — all while Japan, Iceland, New Zealand, Italy, Germany and several other comparably civilized countries have more or less returned to pre-pandemic life.
After decades of refusing to construct a social welfare state while neglecting public health institutions and infrastructure — and after electing an ignorant and incoherent reality-TV grifter to oversee the executive branch of the federal government, with a stunning lack of imagination regarding what could go wrong — the bill has arrived at America's doorstep. The "indispensable nation," as everyone from Madeline Albright to Barack Obama liked to call it, will have to pay in treasure and blood.
Vladimir Putin, the latest incarnation of the Red Menace, warned Americans that they were arranging a rendezvous with disaster in 2013. As the Obama administration was considering a strike against Syria, and risking the country's third war in 11 years, Putin moonlighted as a freelance writer for the New York Times. He concluded his op-ed against military intervention in Syria with a broad observation on American culture: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
When the newest dangers of maintaining a foolish sense of superiority became manifest in 2016, many leading figures of the Democratic Party and popular media commentators responded not with critical self-examination of a society in free fall, but with a pitiful cop-out tactic familiar to any juvenile delinquent: "Putin did it!"
It is undeniable that the president of Russia is an enemy of human rights, within his own country and abroad, whose strategic interests align with the support of reactionary regimes and nationalist movements across the world. The degradation of democracy and international alliances among free nations suits his purpose and advances his ambitions. It is also true that Russia is weak nation, desperately hanging on to its petro-economy and overextending itself with dubious misadventures in Ukraine and the Middle East.
According to mainstream analysis, Putin is also responsible for seemingly every political problem in the United States. From the election of Donald Trump to increasing polarization among the American public, Putin has orchestrated and is brilliantly executing a "Plot to Destroy Democracy," to quote the book title of former intelligence officer and MSNBC contributor Malcolm Nance.
Thanks to Putin paranoia and a bizarre attempt to resuscitate the Cold War, the Democratic Party and mainstream media outlets have taken a largely, and often justifiably, bored public through a series of supposedly "shocking" Russia-related stories: Putin's "interference" in the 2016 election, which was little more than a Facebook advertising campaign; the extended yawn of the Mueller investigation and report of Trump's threat to withhold military aid from Ukraine, without anyone asking why the U.S. is so deeply involved in a border dispute over Crimea in the first place; and the absurd Russian "bounty" scandal.
The deflection of American failures onto Putin paranoia reached its nadir when Hillary Clinton accused Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and U.S. Army combat veteran, of acting on Putin's behalf during her campaign for the presidency. The evidence against Gabbard was nothing more than her critical views on U.S. foreign policy and militarism. These completely unmerited accusations, parroted by purportedly smart reporters and analysts, brought to mind the opening lines of Warren Zevon's classic, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money": "I went home with a waitress, the way I always do/ How was to know she was with the Russians too?"
Gabbard was attempting to provoke Americans to reconsider their bellicose posture toward the rest of the world, and in the process, calculate the losses of our nation's ongoing wars, drone strikes, special forces raids and other violent interventions in every corner of the planet.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both having studied the collapse of ancient Rome, concluded that it was impossible to simultaneously maintain a functional republic at home and an expanding empire abroad. Vladimir Putin is not responsible for the American establishment of 800 military bases, the $6.4 trillion the U.S. has wasted on post-9/11 wars, or the obtuse insistence that America enjoys a magical exception from the observable truths of history, the demise of past empires included.
The murky allegation that Putin was paying Taliban fighters $100,000 for every U.S. solider or Marine they killed aroused considerable hysterics, all of which avoided the crucial question: Why is the U.S. still in Afghanistan, especially after the Washington Post's unearthing of the "Afghanistan Papers" proved that political and military planners have acknowledged for many years that the war has served no purpose?
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proposed a measly 10 percent reduction in the bloated Pentagon budget, and most Democrats — their campaign coffers full of defense industry cash — rejected it. Putin is not responsible for the destructive influence of the "military-industrial complex," an anti-democratic and parasitical leech on government, culture, and infrastructure that President Dwight Eisenhower first admonished in 1961.
Images of unmarked and unidentifiable federal centurions beating and arresting protesters in Portland, Oregon, with no apparent provocation, have shocked even the typically timid U.S. press. But there is little acknowledgement that Trump's fascistic move is possible only because of a provision in the bipartisan Homeland Security Act of 2002 authoring then President George W. Bush to deputize agents of any federal agency to use force to protect federal property. Vladimir Putin did not write, sponsor or vote for that bill, nor did he influence the Obama administration to ratify its most dangerous elements every year in a series of National Defense Authorization Acts.
One of the most persuasive and applicable arguments Eisenhower made against the rising power and influence of the military-industrial complex is that resources are finite, and the development of a garrison state will inevitably diminish the social welfare state. "Every gun that is made signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed," he warned.
He could have easily added, "those who are sick and not treated." The inadequacies of American society, the ineptitude of American institutions, and the insidiousness of American priorities become hideously clear as the federal government continues to spend hundreds of billions on weaponry, but watches as doctors, nurses and other health care workers treat COVID-19 patients without sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment.
The lucid nightmare of Donald Trump's presidency may well have received assistance from a Russian-directed social media campaign of "fake news," but the effects of Putin's schemes cannot compare to the subversive influence of voter suppression. Assaults on voting rights in Wisconsin prevented 200,000 voters — mostly poor, and disproportionately Black — from exercising the franchise in 2016. Republican officials in North Carolina, another swing state, were brazen enough to boast that their suppression campaign lowered voter turnout among Black residents by 8.5 percent.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of what amounts to a poll tax that Florida officials will use to prevent ex-felons from voting in 2020. Democrats could aggressively present the case for voting rights, and attempt to expose how Republicans, often by their own admission, win by preventing Democratic constituencies from casting votes. Instead, they have consistently pursued the Ian Fleming story of Russian sabotage.
As far as those Kremlin-funded Facebook advertisements are concerned: Why are so many Americans gullible enough to believe outrageous or laughable lies? Putin did not degrade the public education system — cutting civics, history and social studies courses from curricula — and did not create an anti-intellectual culture that leaves people susceptible to quack claims and crude lies.
Putin's malevolent opposition to gay rights, his oppression of journalists and dissidents, and his encouragement of illiberal parties across the world certainly make him an international villain. But the posture that everything was going swimmingly with American democracy before he and Julian Assange screwed it up is willful blindness and stupidity. As long as liberals obsess over Russia, they will remain unable or unwilling to confront the escalating crises of their own country.
Unless, of course, they are correct about all this, and Putin really is responsible for America's failure to competently respond to the coronavirus pandemic, its refusal to protect the voting rights of millions of its citizens, and its inability to provide basic social services and resources for the poor and working class, while it conducts multiple wars with no clear purpose. But if Putin can do all that by social media memes, wouldn't that make America even weaker than it already appears?