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.

How to Speak of Culture?

How to speak of culture? I’ve struggled to find a language that can capture the essence and form of culture, make visible what otherwise gets taken for granted.

Speaking about culture’s role in society is like trying to have public debate about racism after the ending of slavery and Jim Crow. You can point to the proven fact that racial prejudice is shown in psychological research and in analysis of the results of the justice system, but none of this will convince many people who aren’t already convinced because it isn’t part of their cultural reality. Racial prejudice isn’t so much an ideology as an implicit social system that pervades every aspect of life, with no conscious knowledge or intention being necessary.

Like racism, no single person or group is solely responsible for the culture that results. There is no plan behind culture, nothing that culture is trying to accomplish beyond its own continuation. Cultural narratives need no reason other than fulfilling the human need for being told a story about the world, about humanity.

Culture relates to ideology, ethnicity, religion, community, economics, ecology, to about anything you can think of. The complexity of it is that culture isn’t any single thing, rather is the glue that holds it all together and so allows it all to be enacted coherently within a society. This is essentially what is referred to as a reality tunnel, culture being how a reality tunnel plays out in the real world of societal action and social interaction. It is through culture that a reality tunnel manifests and maintains itself.

It is cultures within cultures, all the way down. Cultures overlap, merge, form confluences, and form new lifeways and mazeways. Cultures are amorphous when you try to grasp them, yet distinct enough to survive massive change over centuries and even millennia.

In some ways, a culture is a prison. It determines how and what we think, perceive and act. On the other hand, culture is what gives form to what freedom potentially can mean. A culture is a set of possibilities. Cultures, in clashing, form new cultures with new possibilities.

Multiculturalism is a nifty trick of trying to keep open as many possibilities as is possible.  However, a society will disintegrate if too many possibilities create incoherence. Americans have created a society where have been loosened the bonds between culture and social conditions, where the factors of culture can shift and realign.

This is why culture holds so much power over the American mind. The present-day culture wars are just skirmishes that only appear to be more central for the deeper underlying forces that incite them. The culture wars are superficial antagonisms compared to the battles of the Revolution and the Civil War.

It’s not like any single culture is going to win and annihilate all the others. The diverse cultures continue on in the world, albeit transformed in the process. Particular cultures may seem to disappear, but it is rare for a cultural tradition to completely die once established in the larger society, although it may become buried deep under layers of historical events and sociopolitical changes.

Cultures have memetic power. This is why regional cultures have such persistence. The first major establishment of a culture is a sociological imprinting, the duckling of society forever after following.

It gets frustrating. Culture isn’t a war, isn’t team sports, isn’t partisan politics. We underestimate culture as a social force. We think we control it when, in fact, it controls us. We are the products of culture. We aren’t just enculturated. We are culture itself in embodied form.

In bringing forth my thoughts on culture, I’m forced to use different ways of speaking. I sometimes refer to history as if outward forms can be definitive or at least descriptive of the underlying pattern. At other times, I mention ideas and data from the social sciences. More often than not, though, metaphor is the language that feels the closest to how culture operates in the human mind.

Metaphor is the language of story. In becoming conscious of the metaphors we are using, maybe we can become conscious of the stories being told. Stories aren’t just words. They are living things, the divine fire of the imagination that lights our vision of the world.