Since I’m sick of writing about Russian hackers, and for the past two weeks I’ve wanted to punch anyone who says “fake news” unironically, I’ve decided to try something a little different. A bit more serious, if you will.
Recently I’ve noticed fellow writers, some of which I know personally, trying to communicate to Americans the signs to look out for in an authoritarian country. Unlike theorists who study these matters in academia, they are sharing knowledge that comes from personal experience in countries like Russia and Turkey. As I happen to have both knowledge and experience in both of those countries myself, I figured I might as well pitch in and tell my fellow Americans what to expect. Since this is the first in a series, I want to make a few disclaimers.
First of all, the point of this series isn’t to say that something is being imported from Russia. The problems I’m discussing here have grown out of purely American soil. The point is these problems are growing to the point where they resemble the situation in Russia, and trust me, that’s not where you want to be as a society. But also note that as I am compare things with Russia for the sake of analogy and helping Americans understand, don’t think that I’m implying that these things are somehow exclusive to Russia. You can easily find analogous situations in many countries around the world, including those with more or less functioning democracies.
More importantly, I’m purposely trying to skip general trends in favor of more specific aspects that don’t get noticed as frequently. There are plenty of writers who have tackled the proliferation of conspiracy theories in American politics, including myself. This is too general. Conspiracy theories have been extremely popular in America since 9/11, if not earlier. It’s not particularly difficult to understand either- 9/11 forced millions of average Americans to suddenly notice a world they’d ignored for decades, and while they were too lazy to pick up a book on Middle Eastern affairs, they all insist on having an opinion about the topic and appearing savvy. Hence the popularity of conspiracy theories, which are often like potato chips- one is never enough.
I want to focus on trends that are more specific, more subtle, but which I believe are far more dangerous. I want to highlight those things which I believe are making society collectively dumber. I watched in horror as certain ideas and modes of thinking cowed the great Russian people into submission to a tiny circle of lying thieves, who declared themselves patriots and defenders of the nation they have robbed. If Americans start adopting such ideas en masse, the country is doomed. Maybe not in the near future, maybe not in fifty years, but one simply cannot go on succeeding while being totally disconnected from material reality. Reality always wins.
With all that out of the way, let’s move forward with today’s topic. As you see in the title, it’s about beliefs, specifically people’s political beliefs and opinions. In a normal, healthy society, people at least comprehend the idea that other people have their own political beliefs, values, and so on. If a person calls themselves a conservative, they are most likely conservative. If they are liberal they are liberal, and so forth. People who are anti-abortion tend not to get abortions (yes, I know many do), and people that are for same-sex marriage typically don’t hate gay people. When things are working the way they’re supposed to be, we assume good faith when someone expresses an opinion.
In an unhealthy, modern authoritarian society, nobody really holds beliefs that oppose the powers that be. They are either being paid to espouse such beliefs by hostile foreign governments, or in more extreme cases they’re said to be on drugs. The latter explanation might sound amusing, but its been voiced multiple times by Russian opponents of Euromaidan and it was once used by Muammar Gaddafi against protesters in Benghazi. In this kind of unhealthy, authoritarian society, it’s not just that the people are espousing beliefs or engaging in activities only for money, and it’s not even that they don’t sincerely hold those beliefs. No, the real unique concept I’m getting at here is the idea that someone can consciously know that their values are wrong or harmful to the country, yet still espouse them for a paltry sum of cash.
If you want to know why this idea is prevalent in Russia it’s not too mysterious. Widespread poverty, wealth inequality, and a combination of cynicism and apathy towards politics leads to a political space wherein both the state and opposition parties often spend money on “rent-a-crowds,” which typically consist of pensioners and young students. It certainly isn’t just a Russian thing either; it still happens in Ukraine, and I’m sure many other countries. If Russia stands out, it is only because of the government’s long history of suppressing or co-opting civil society groups and NGOs, plus the constant propaganda narrative that spreads the aforementioned cynicism and apathy.
The message of the state propaganda is consistent: “You can’t know what’s real and what’s not, so why protest? Why believe in anything? Those who say they’re trying to make the country better- who’s to say it’s not all a charade? Even if they’re not working for some foreign government, how do you know for sure? Nobody really believes in those so-called democratic values. It’s just a lie Western leaders and their lackeys use to cover up their own corruption. Deep down they’re no better than your own leaders. At least with them you have stability. Rock the boat and who knows what will happen?” I could go on but you get the idea.
The “lesson” for the audience is that if you see some figure like Alexei Navalny saying he wants to fight corruption in Russia and make the country more advanced and prosperous, it’s all lies. He really just wants to weaken and destroy Russia for his American paymasters, and he knows this. He “knows” that his activities are somehow hurting Russia, but he does it anyway and claims to be a patriot.
Now with the rise of Trump I have identified a similar current in America. Specifically, we’re starting to see people imply that their opponents actually consciously know their beliefs are wrong, but they keep espousing them anyway because they have some nefarious ulterior motives. I don’t want to speak for those who were actually alive during the anti-war movement of the 60’s, but I do think I have enough experience to say that there’s definitely been a shift. During the Bush years, for example, we anti-war protesters were seen as weak or hopeless naive, but people didn’t typically question whether we really opposed the war on Iraq. In other words, it was “you oppose that war but you’re wrong because…” That’s a setup for a debate at least.
Nowadays the accusations have evolved. Now the “mainstream media” journalists know that they’re lying about Trump, but they’re doing it anyway. George Soros is a liberal with Jewish heritage who says he just wants to promote democracy and individual rights, but he’s supposedly funding neo-Nazis, “socialists, and Islamic fundamentalists around the world (I’d love someone to explain the endgame of that plan). Thousands of climate scientists around the world know that they’re lying about climate change, but they keep doing research on it and receiving funding just the same. It’s starting to be less “your opinion is wrong” and more “you don’t really believe that.”
If I had to trace where such ideas come from, I’d probably say it’s rooted in American religious conservatism, something I have a lot of experience in. There’s a more-or-less common belief among many American Christian fundamentalists that can help explain. For my foreign readers, know that a great many American churches, including some that are extremely wealthy and influential in politics, have an obsession with what some call “End Times prophesy.” This is typically associated with the book of Revelation in the Bible, and the end of the world and the second coming of Christ is the basis for the wildly popular Left Behind series of novels and films. There are actually many different interpretations of that “prophesy,” and if anyone wants to delve into the details of the particular version as told by Left Behind, I seriously recommend reading the work of Fred Clark on the subject. It is both informative and incredibly entertaining. But I digress.
A key feature of a lot of this prophesy is that it posits a near future which resembles our present, and in which miraculous events happen on an almost daily basis. Just to give you an example out of Left Behind, the story starts with Russia, Ethiopia, and several Muslim countries launching a massive, unprovoked attack on Israel with their entire air forces as well as ballistic missiles. God steps in and utterly destroys all the attackers and their missiles in one fell swoop. Next -and this is the most important part of the book- there is “the rapture,” where God miraculously gathers up his loyal true Christians and all innocent children born or unborn in an instant. This is followed by the rise of the Anti-Christ, who creates an unholy New World Order which persecutes Christians. The Anti-Christ is also endowed with miraculous powers, which he is supposed to display on at least one occasion (resurrection after death).
Throughout this story, which the Left Behind authors claim is based on a “literal” interpretation of the Bible (HINT: It’s not), millions of people engage in all manner of un-Christian behavior in spite of the fact that miracles foretold in the Bible are happening before their very eyes. Let that sink in for a second. The authors, and many other people like them, tell us that these are real things that will happen in the future, things that are foretold in the very same Bibles that are available in almost every hotel room in America. But just like in that Bible and just like countless preachers have been telling us for decades, millions of people simply disappear in a flash in front of our very eyes, while at the same time millions of other people will continue to doubt the veracity of Christianity and either cling to their old religions or join the new world religion of that really charismatic world leader who happens to look like the personification of Satan and can’t stop laughing maniacally at press conferences. If you’re struggling to get your head around that sentence don’t feel bad; it’s totally mindboggling.
It’s even worse news if your Jewish. See, something like a third of the Jews are supposed to notice all these miracles that happen to line up with Biblical prophesy and do the most logical thing that anyone would do- embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. But the other two thirds are going to see all these miracles and still remain loyal to their ancient faith in spite of seeing concrete evidence that it and every other religion except the true Christianity of John Hagee Ministries is flat out false. In the books, in fact, tens of millions of people around the world rapidly embrace the new one-world religion of the Anti-Christ without any significant protest. Tens of millions of Hindus, Muslims, “wrong” Christians like Catholics and Orthodox- they just totally cast off their traditional beliefs and embrace a totally different religion because- Bible.
That, by the way, isn’t just limited to their prophesy. There’s a cringeworthy Christian film called God’s Not Dead, about a Christian college student debating the existence of God with his atheist philosophy professor. In the trailer, the caricature of an atheist played by Kevin Sorbo tells his class to write the phrase “God Is Dead” in their notebooks. Only our “true Christian” protagonist objects to this. There were no observant Jews in the class, no Muslims, not even a pretentious agnostic. Or perhaps there were Muslims or Jews present, but they didn’t take their faith seriously enough to stand up for it, unlike our Christian hero.
Now this might seem like we’ve drifted very far from the topic, but I hope the reader is starting to recognize a pattern. In this authoritarian, religious fundamentalist worldview, people don’t sincerely believe in other religions or doubt the existence of God. They actually know they’re wrong, but they just want to sin because they are wicked or manipulated by Satan.
Of course in that type of Christianity, those who continue being “wicked” deserve eternal torment in hell. In more secular political world, people who espouse the wrong views are worthy of extermination, violence, or at the very least their own words can be totally dismissed without debate. After all, if someone is willingly engaging in “evil” and refuses to admit it, why even try to debate them or understand what they’re saying? Those journalists “know” they are making up “lies” about Trump, and they just keep doing it. Their editors know the stories are full of lies and they keep running them. Why? Because they really want to destroy America, of course!
So here’s what you folks in the States can expect a lot of in the near future. Don’t expect people to actually engage with your opinion or try to debate you. Expect to be labeled a “shill.” You’ll be accused of working for George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, the CIA, or the Mossad. You don’t actually believe in those things you’re saying or writing online. Only your opponent has sincerely held beliefs, opinions, and values. You’re just saying those things for the paycheck, and one day you’ll get what’s coming to you, shill!
This is one reason why watching liberal centrists whine about what’s supposedly happening to “the discourse” is so pathetic. There is no discourse when one cannot actually hold any beliefs that are opposed to the regime or its supporters. American liberals aren’t going to somehow coax Trump’s rabid supporters back to the debate table with appeals to reason. One does not debate with conspiratorial New World Order agents who cover up the truth about a child sex-slavery ring operating in the basement of a pizza restaurant! Nor will they express any pity for the poor liberals when they inevitably become victims of violence and intimidation. They had it coming for trying to destroy America!
The the authoritarian society that might be in America’s near future, it won’t be a question of your beliefs conflicting with those of the powers that be. You won’t be allowed to even have your own beliefs.