In the agitated August of 1968, the myopic Soviet Union rolled its drab tank platoons into Czechoslovakia, crushing a spontaneous outbreak of free speech and self-determination known as the Prague Spring. Far away, perhaps cloistered in some poet’s atelier, W.H. Auden scripted his impressions from a distance:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
— “August 1968”
Auden’s swift and masterful portrait of the autocratic state imagined the Soviet state as Czech citizens surely saw it, though not as inhabitants of the Kremlin saw the monolith whose gears they so crudely engineered. Today the Ogre has relocated, no longer a habitué of Moscow and its onion-shaped domes, but of Washington and its own drab neoclassical domes and pedestals. It peers out of its labyrinth not at the Moskva River but the Potomac.
Propaganda as Projection
Today, U.S. foreign policy is the Ogre, a narcissistic psychopath for whom the mainstream media (MSM) is the mirror it glances in every morning to confirm its noble visage. Normally, the image reflected back to the onlooker confirms its identity: a judicious paternal chaperon of the new world order, guided in most cases by noblesse oblige, in rare instances by humanitarian concern, a felt responsibility to protect, and–it goes without saying–an overarching wish to impart democratic values to benighted tribes in various global backwaters. When in the rare instance that the mirror gives a glimpse of the ogre shrouded behind that mask of altruism (a stray truth-telling editorial in the Boston Globe, for instance), the shock is minimal. It is simply a question of optics. The lighting is poor, the wardrobe needs updating, the mirror itself is warped. At no point is there the slightest trace of self-recognition. All the qualities at the bristling core of the reflected cyclops—the obsession with power, the avarice, the bloodlust, the fearmongering, the compartmentalization, and the blindness—have been projected onto the perceived enemy, who then becomes the perfect replica of the Ogre itself.
The Media as Mirror-Image
In 2014, then Secretary of State John Kerry described Russian President Vladimir Putin thusly to the Wall Street Journal, “You almost feel that he’s creating his own reality, and his own sort of world, divorced from a lot of what’s real on the ground for all those people, including people in his own country.” He also said of Russia after it had reintegrated Crimea into the Russian Federation, “You just don’t, in the twenty-first century, behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” Kerry uttered neither of these comments with the slightest trace of irony or self-awareness. They were characterized by the now tiresome American quality of earnestness. An earnestness purblind to its own hypocrisies, in large part because the titular journalists that are on the receiving end of these bombshells refuse to deliver even the most meager of rebukes. Rather they nod, smile, reaffirm, compound, and ask benevolently for more. Instead of a reflective glass, the media are supposed to be the fourth estate, that institution tasked with holding power to account, which is a laughable proposition in the 21st century, when nearly every overt war or covert intervention has been cheer-led, mischaracterized, or unreported by the armchair courtiers tasked with showing the Ogre what he wants to see. You’ll rarely see the kind of gloves-off honesty you sometimes see in the movies or on Netflix, like Jeff Daniels’ cynical news anchor in Newsroom, finally cracking and telling a bubbly patriot that, “When you ask why America is the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Instead, when inconvenient facts slip through the filter, the corridors of power do not become halls of self-reflection, where the managers of bureaucracy pause the wheels of the machine and take stock of their strategy. Rather those corridors are flooded with consultants, each brandishing a fresh storyline that will restore the internal coherence of the narrative of manifest destiny, by which America would lay claim to the wealth of the world. Branding democracy has often preceded changing policy as a method of crisis resolution, as the Bush administration attempted in its failed in-country rebrand of Iraq policy. What the Bush administration failed to understand is that, like the Democrats in the 2016 election, “perception management” is far more difficult in the domestic arena because the target audience actively experiences the impact of government policy. Iraqis, like working class Americans, largely rejected attempts to recalibrate their perception of reality. When propagandizing a domestic audience on foreign policy, however, perception management is easier because the domestic population doesn’t experience the impact of policy firsthand, only through on-the-ground reporting. And their understanding of actual events can be reshaped by a media that reimagines the motivations for foreign policy action: instead of imperial aggression, actions can be recast as self-defense or nobly defending vulnerable allies. This can generally secure popular support, or indifference.
It is a fairly simple task. All one must do, as Adolf Hitler never tired of reminding his acolytes, is to make sure the masses are never presented with more than a single enemy. Focus their malleable minds with singular intensity, as Hitler biographer Joachim Fest wrote, “…upon a single phenomenon as the presumptive cause of the evils in the world…a specifically imaginable figure, never any elusive cluster of causes.”
As an empire, this is best achieved by projecting all of one’s faults onto some innocuous character pulled from the swelling ranks of proletarian nations. Ideally some colonial ruin now struggling to police its borders, feed its people, and conjure some notion of national purpose. However, sometimes actual world powers must be comprehensively demonized in order to prime the national consciousness for any manner of dangerously aggressive action, to be characterized as defensive. This is the case with Russia. Notice how the myriad complexities of its behaviors have been rolled like a piece of clay into a perfectly odious but psychologically digestible image of evil. This demented projection developed in the hermetically-sealed bubble of the beltway is then transcribed and replicated in a million television tickers, mobile alerts, and bite-sized summaries for the news-curious electorate.
Just consider the Ukraine. There Russia must be made to appear to be an absolute aggressor, having apparently invaded and annexed Crimea; and an inveterate meddler, having evidently and clandestinely funneled soldiers and weapons into Donbass; and a poor and untrustworthy negotiator, having apparently been unable to keep ceasefires in check. All of this can be chalked up to some underlying imperial impulse in the Slavic character, perhaps phrased in a more genteel fashion, so as not to needlessly awaken any social justice warriors. All other possible Russian motivations must be uniformly elided from view. No mention need be or can be made of the association agreement with the European Union that former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected, or the competing offer he favored from Moscow, or the importance of the federation’s sole naval port at Sevastopol, or the billions Washington poured into Ukraine this decade to effect a change in rule, or the U.S.-fomented neo-fascist putsch in Kiev, or the reasons why a civil war broke out in the country immediately afterward, or how Minsk Accords were used by Kiev to rearm, or the ethnic character of Eastern Ukraine, or the plebiscite that signaled that region’s desire to reunite with Russia, or the predictably disastrous surge in utility prices once the association agreement was finally penned with the EU, or the new regime’s open butchery of its own citizens in Odessa, or the geostrategic importance of Ukraine as a thoroughfare for energy to Europe, or its coveted heavy industry. Isn’t it so much easier for the lazy journalist with an obsequious desire to repeat the state’s talking points to simply sweep all such exhaustingly complicated matters aside and sketch a crude image of an ogre casting a dark shadow over Europe, his gaze appetitive, his mouth drooling, his eyes supercilious, his claws clutching cruise missiles, his boot on the neck of some tattered and luckless camp of freedom fighters? How much more appetizing for the public, too. How much more fun to be a Mary Shelly than a Walter Cronkite. More clicks, more dollars. More dollars, more status. Beowulf is memorable, but policy wonks fleshing out the details of some ill-starred ceasefire, not so much.
We have, as journalist Dmitry Babich of Sputnik News remarked, worked “to replace reality with ideology,” a prescient statement about the intellectual culture of Washington. (I recognize that the source of this comment instantly delegitimizes this article in the eyes of many a conspiracy theorist, but that rather makes my point in another fashion.)
Babich also noted how the American press reminded him of King Lear, particularly when Lear admonished Gloucester,
Get thee glass eyes,
And like a scurvy politician seem
To see the things thou dost not.
King Lear (4.6.163-5)
Where Kerry was a font of ideological cant in the Obama administration, the same comes courtesy of the revanchist cold warriors that President Trump has unleashed on the world. Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis has claimed that ISIS is Washington’s priority in the Middle East, and that Bashar Al Assad still possesses chemical weapons, the first claim belied by U.S. behavior in Syria and the second presented evidence-free. Then National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster literally blamed Moscow for having “perpetuated a civil war” in Syria, said the Russians did nothing to prevent the Idleb chemical attack earlier last month, and accused President Vladimir Putin of “subversive actions in Europe.”
There are at least four lies embedded in McMaster’s claims, most notably that Russia escalated the war in Syria, when it has intervened at Syria’s behest to bring the war to an end. Actually, the war would end if the United States and its extremist allies in the Gulf were not funding, training, and arming foreign jihadists against the Syrian government. The U.S. is likewise increasing its direct presence in Syria and massing troops and weapons on its border. Next, the war is not principally a civil war and never was; it has always been a proxy war by the West to stymie the influence of the Iranian-Syrian-Russian axis and assert its primacy. Trump’s bristling Svengali also presented zero evidence to support his claims that Russia knew a tragedy would happen or that the event was a chemical attack at all. His vague reference to Muscovite subversion elsewhere on the European continent simply resurrects the image of the old Ogre, peering hungrily across the European plain. The comment was likely an oblique reference to the French elections, where extremist neoliberal (called a “centrist” by the mainstream media) Emmanuel Macron has happily spread rumors of Russian interference, establishing, like the Democrats did, a fanciful excuse to deploy if he loses the runoff with Marine Le Pen.
The rest of the tale, that of the flour-pure protagonist, practically writes itself. Simply reverse all the moral horrors you’ve imputed to the make-believe mutant you’ve erected in the national consciousness. Not amoral, but noble. Not acquisitive, but altruistic. Not monstrous, but magnanimous. Easy work. The lusus naturae, as it were, the cackling colossus of your imagination, will seem more real than reality itself, as Secretary Kerry said, and you will find yourself charging windmills believing they are dragons, and perhaps one day finding that the dragons are indeed real, breathing a fire that feels fiercer than any bland fiction.