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.

The Stories We Tell

[W]ithin each of our individual introcosms we are always “seeing” ourselves as the central characters in the drama of our lives. However, a certain selectivity to this inner theater is apparent, since we choose those images of ourselves that fit into our favored scripts and ignore those that do not. This attribution of causes to behavior or “saying why we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes, as reasons, may be true or false, neutral or ideal.” An interiorized self is “ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing,” and a “stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.” We are not “consciously aware of all the information our mind processes or of the causes of all the behaviors we enact, or of the origin of all the feelings we experience. But the conscious self uses these as data points to construct and maintain a coherent story, our personal story, our subjective sense of self.”
~Brian J. McVeigh, A Psychohistory of Metaphors (Kindle Locations 2736-2743)

I’ve lost what little faith I have in rational public debate, democratic process, and the liberal dream. The stories we tell about ourselves and our society.

We don’t live in a free society. I’m not sure what a free society would look like in a country such as this. I simply know it would not be this way. In a free society, corrupt power-mongers would not become leading candidates in elections and certainly not elected into positions of power. A free people wouldn’t tolerate it. But we aren’t a free people in a free society.

Freedom is an odd notion. It is an ideal, a social construct that is reified through repetition. We talk about it so much that we take it for granted without understanding what we’re talking about. It relates to other notions, such as free will—the ability to act freely. The term ‘free’ etymologically goes back to a basic meaning of being among friends, which is to say being treated by others as they would treat themselves. As such, it actually has more of a connotation of mutual relationship than of independent individuality. To be free, in the oldest sense, is to belong among those one knows and trusts.

Our modern sense of freedom is rather abstract. It’s become entirely disconnected from the concrete reality of human bonds within a specific community. We know freedom from the stories we tell or rather from the media we consume, not so much from our lived experience. American communities aren’t locations of freedom, in any sense of the word. And we don’t have a culture of trust.

When I observe people in American society, I don’t see freedom of thought and action. What I notice most of all is how blindly and unconsciously people act, the dissociation and ignorance that rules their minds, how trapped people are in the life conditions that have shaped them, the persuasive rhetoric of media and politics, and the reactions to emotional manipulations. Even the ruling elite who love to play their games of power aren’t any more free than the rest of us, maybe even less so as they exist within the echo chambers of a self-enclosed establishment, based on the demented belief that they make their own reality.

The entire society forms a near hermetically-sealed reality tunnel. That is what it means to be in a society like this, to be a subject of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. We can’t see out, much less see beyond to other possibilities.

I keep coming back to a basic insight. We humans are a mystery to ourselves. I mean that profoundly but also simply. We don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do. We know so little about the very things that matter the most, specifically our own nature. The ideals of a liberal society are the light glinting off the surface of deep waters, indicating mere ripples while leaving the currents beneath unseen. That nice-sounding rhetoric does not make the world go round nor does it tell us where the world is heading.

It’s pointless to expect a functioning democracy under these conditions. We are like children at play, knowing not what any of it means. Asking for democracy from an American politician is like asking for healthcare form a child playing doctor. Games, endless games. We are better able at imagining than in acting, for our imaginings are but daydreams and fantasies. As for voters, they only demand one thing, to be told comforting lies and entertaining stories. Our political system is a spectacle of lights that blinds us to the darkness around us, as we stumble along, more likely over a cliff than out of Plato’s cave.

We are all stuck in this mire and sinking deeper, even those who claim to be outside of it. The critics, left and right, are simply hypnotized by other scripts. Genuinely original thought and deep insight is so rare as to be practically irrelevant. Nothing will change, until conditions force change, and when it happens no one will be able to predict where those changes will lead.

At some point, the stories we tell ourselves stop making sense, as the world refuses to conform. What then?

* * *

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

The Stories We Know

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions