Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

The amount of entertainment media is immense these days, even limiting it to big biz media in the United States: Hollywood, cable, television, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. I try to be discerning in what I watch, but I also have a curiosity to sample what is being produced. Viewing entertainment media offers a glimpse into the national psyche. It’s the moral imagination that Edmund Burke could never have imagined, the mental furniture of media-saturated late modernity.

I look for the narratives and tropes that are popular or for whatever reason are being pushed by media companies. As others have noted, the Cold War had re-entered or been re-introduced into the cultural imagination. It began with the 9/11 terrorist attack because our actions during the Cold War era were coming back to haunt us. In the fight against the Soviets, it was the U.S. that trained, armed, and allied with Osama bin Laden and in the process helped create al-Quaida. It was the U.S. that purposely destroyed so many secular democratic governments in order to replace them with theocracies, dictatorships, and fascist states. And it was the U.S. that, as allies with the Iraqis, gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) that he used against his own people while we watched and did nothing.

The sins of the father fell upon the sons. It was Generation X that fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and once again in the Iraq War. These GenXers and their non-military generational peers were bottle fed on Cold War media and ideology. It was maybe natural that, as this generation began careers in entertainment media, they (along with the older generations) inserted the Cold War mentality back into the mainstream. Once again, we started seeing Russians portrayed as enemies in movies and shows.

Recent political events during and following the 2016 presidential campaign brought back many of the dark fantasies of the Cold War. And the fear about media meddling struck a chord that resonated with the early Cold War. Russia has returned to the world stage as a major political power. And the U.S. corporate media have given the Russian elite all the attention and coverage they were seeking. Putin’s purpose was unlikely to elect any particular candidate and more simply to regain the respect of being treated as a real threat. As nothing else could, the fear-mongering of U.S. media boosts Putin’s ego and his popularity among Russians. They were back in their Cold War role.

I hadn’t given this much thought recently. But it all came back to my attention while watching a relatively new show, TNT’s Legends. It originally aired a few years ago and the rights to show it were purchased by Hulu. I mention it not because it is great entertainment, rather because it is an expression of the cultural moment. It’s likely Hulu wouldn’t have had any interest in it, if not for recent political events and investigations involving Russia. After watching a few episodes, it immediately felt familiar. I realized that, although outwardly about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the basic story came from my youth. It’s a revamped Vietnam War show. There is the traumatized war experience that the protagonist can’t remember and some kind of secret government operation or experiment that involved combat soldiers. The protagonist has been brainwashed somehow and he is trying to remember who he was and what happened.

Legends has hints of Cold War movies like the Manchurian Candidate, although more heavily leans on the tropes of Vietnam War movies, specifically Rambo and Jacob’s Ladder. The latter movie, Jacob’s Ladder, came a bit later in 1990 when the Cold War mood was declining but still much in the air. All of these movies weren’t limited to the imagination of screenwriters and producers. They express the paranoid mindset that had taken hold back then. Also, the U.S. government really was doing some crazy shit, from brainwashing experiments to drug experiments. Jacob’s Ladder was a fictionalized account of an actual government experiment, although the source material of Rambo was a popular conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Whether inspired by truth or paranoia, such narratives spoke and in new forms continue to speak to the public imagination. What do such narratives mean? And why do they keep coming back? The have become part of a deep-seated American mythos that continually gets introduced to new generations.

The Legends show was based on a novel by Robert Littell (two of his other works were earlier made into a movie and series). He grew up during the World War II period, was in the Navy during the early Cold War, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War, and began his fiction writing in the last years of the Vietnam War with his second novel being about that war. He is one of the authors who helped popularize the American spy novel, one of the main expressions of Cold War paranoia where truth and conspiracy were mingled. Although an old guy at this point, he is still writing and was last published in 2016 (a professional writing career that has lasted a half century).

The novel that was the source of the Legends was written in 2005, at the height of ramping up public opinion for the War on Terror. It was a time of the return of the paranoid mind with the likes of Alex Jones gaining mainstream attention. Interestingly, the developers of the show were three older GenXers: Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Mark Bomback. And all of them were born during the Vietnam War. These producers have been involved in other shows that embody the mindset of paranoia and the war state, such as Gordon having co-developed and written scripts for Showtime’s Homeland while Nachmanoff was a director for that show. Gordon had done earlier work for years as a supervising producer and scriptwriter for The X-Files, the original show that made conspiracy theory fully mainstream.

If these narratives, these collective fantasies didn’t have such staying power, it would be a lot harder for them to be constantly used as propaganda tools. The Bush administration was able to use them to great effect in drumming up support. And that persistent paranoia has taken on new life and new uses during this Trump era. It’s because the public and politicians are constantly being fed this kind of entertainment that we get this world we find ourselves in. They are powerful narratives, capturing the moral imagination through visions of power and greatness, paranoia and terror. We get trapped in the stories we tell. There is no way to rationally respond to them. They are mind viruses that get passed on from generation to generation.

4 thoughts on “Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

  1. It’s been remarked that the purpose of the mainstream media is to turn Americans into neoconservatives for their foreign policy.

    • Based on the evidence of direct observation in watching MSM, it is easy to come to that conclusion. And that is an important point to emphasize and repeat. But recent posts have led me to another line of thought, probably leading to another post soon.

      It appears that the Russian government or related interests have been pushing ‘fake news’, much of it conspiracy theory. Just to fuck with American society and to draw attention to themselves as once again being adversaries of concern. But the same thing happens in the US. The Buzzfeed investigation proved that Mercer money is flowing into organizations that push fake news and conspiracy theories. There is all kinds of dark money serving a variety of purposes, as Jane Mayer wrote about.

      In my most recent post on conspiracies and conspiracy theories, I quoted an academic scholar on the subject. She noted that, during the Cold War, the government would sometimes intentionally spread conspiracy theories for a number of reasons such as muddying the water. It also makes for great way to hide actual conspiracies because, by swamping the public mind with conspiracy theories, the true and false get so mixed up that either people begin doubting everything. or they choose whatever story they prefer. It’s ripe ground for propaganda to operate.

      In a different recent post, I discussed free speech. I linked to an article that shows the same big money funding sources behind the campus ‘free speech’ movement are behind many other operations to mould the public mind, e.g., right to work. But they also push conspiracies such as the claim that liberal elites, cultural Marxists, and left-wing professors are out to brainwash our children and take away our rights and freedom. Not to defend liberal elites, but I’m far less fearful of them than I am of the power-mongering and murky moneyed interests pushing this propaganda.

      All of this brought to mind some social science research I saw years back. There is a psychological connection between the paranoid mind and Machiavellian behavior. The one study I specifically recall was only looking at individuals, but I suspect this applies to entire societies. The fact that the US population is prone to paranoia is surely related to the high rates of inequality, segregation, and distrust (compared to other more developed countries but also compared to many less developed countries, along with non-national societies such as hunter-gatherers).

      My guess is that societies with rampant conspiracy theorizing also greater levels of actual conspiracies. This is precisely why spreading conspiracy theories is so useful in a paranoid society that has good reason to be paranoid. As conspiracy theories hide real conspiracies, paranoia makes it near impossible to see clearly the Machiavellianism among the powerful, such as blocking the awareness that Americans now live in a banana republic. On the other hand, functioning social democracies with high levels of public trust most likely would have populations that measure low on paranoia and elites low on Machiavellianism (as well as the rest of the Dark Triad).

      This would relate to at least one of the posts I’ve written this past year on psychopathy and sociopathy. And it could be hooked back into your comment. Maybe the neocon agenda requires pervasive paranoia to operate, so as to gain a submissive population. This may seem counterintuitive. The point is to rile people up into a state of stress, fear, and anxiety. Then to give them an outlet through a grand narrative directed at a target, either genuine or a scapegoat. This is where news media spectacle comes in. But before spectacle, the public mind needs to be made fertile through constant paranoid narratives in the entertainment media.

    • Basically, even when paranoia is misdirected (often intentionally by those controlling the media narratives), it doesn’t follow that the paranoia isn’t justified. The trick is to not ignore the genuine paranoia and instead focus on the cause of fear and suspicion.

      The devious win the battle when they get us to mistrust our own instincts. Attacking and dismissing people as conspiracy theorists is one of the most effective methods of gaslighting. As it has been said, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

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