In the Spring of 1987 ABC (the television network … still exists) announced it would broadcast a TV miniseries titled Amerika. Like the movie Red Dawn that preceded it, the premise of the show was that the Soviet Union had accomplished a bloodless takeover of the United States. A handful of citizen militias stood in the way of Total Communist Domination. Yada yada.
Now Reagan’s pronouncement about the Soviet Union being an “evil empire” — and the sharp escalation in military spending that went along with that rhetoric — were one thing. But turning anti-Communist propaganda into prime-time entertainment … well, that was something else. Considering this development in the comfort of my Yale College dining hall, I asked myself: Was there no way to impede the brainwashing of the viewing public by the corporate propaganda machine!?
Something clicked. I had to counteract the incoming barrage of fear mongering misinformation. (My distaste for fear mongering is longstanding. Ref. most recently this.)
My action was swift, decisive, and fully commensurate with the magnitude of the challenge: I printed 100 flyers.
Then I did what students used to do in those dark days before Facebook, Twitter, and the like: I walked around the campus placing the flyers on tables in dining halls. The idea I had — a quaint one in today’s age of ubiquitous self-publication — was, for one afternoon in the center of campus, to create a forum for political self-expression. A rally with no agenda. Just an open mike. The slogan: “SPEAK!”
A week later the lawn in front of the main campus library was filled with hundreds of energized students. (Could also have been 42. We didn’t count.) More to the point, the local TV affiliate was there. The revolution was, indeed, going to be broadcast! For over an hour, one student after another took to the mike, sharing their views on the broadcast of Amerika, and what it meant for the United States, the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world. That night I watched the evening news segment about the SPEAK! event with the friends who had helped put the event together. The next day we were thrilled to find we’d been mentioned in news reports from San Jose to Moscow.
Yet, immediate satisfaction aside, the primary lesson I took away from the experience was a disturbing one: making news (for a Yale student, anyway) was much easier than I had previously thought. Maybe too easy. It was conceivably possible to be doing something everyday with impact beyond the classrooms, beyond the campus. But what? I would have to put my career as a campus activist on hold for a bit while I sorted out what, precisely, I was intent on getting active about.
Fast forward four years. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Velvet Revolution had swept away a communist regime in Czechoslovakia. A less tidy uprising had brought the brutal regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu to an end in Romania. All parameters of the past had been reset.
A “New World Order,” as President George H. W. Bush famously proclaimed at the time, was in the making. I had graduated from college and was working as a math teacher in District of Columbia public schools. I didn’t want to be left out. So I signed up with a group organized through Georgetown University that was sending students to Czechoslovakia for the summer to teach English.
I ended up at the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava. Unlike Prague, whose medieval charm is still intact, Bratislava then was a sterile, socialist city savagely bisected by a motorway and presided over by a massive bridge across the Danube as monumental as it was ugly.
My job was to engage a class of about twelve students in conversation for a full week — six hours per day. That was a lot of time to come up with conversation with a group of strangers with whom I shared the most tenuous of linguistic connections. But it worked out. I was very curious about life in Czechoslovakia, as they were curious about life in the United States.
I learned all sorts of things I didn’t expect. For example, I learned that butchers were among the most economically privileged people under socialism. Why? Well, they could rather easily rig their scales to skim two or three percent off of every sale. Their surplus they could sell on the black market or use to curry favor with party officials. Not very productive. But certainly entrepreneurial. Coal miners also made out quite well under the Communist regime — they were handy to bus into the city to fill out a pro-state rally or (appropriately equiped with pipes and bludgeons) should the urban-dwellers get restive.
I also learned that my students were not very fond of the Soviet Union. O.K., that’s an understatement. The Soviets had violently crushed a popular uprising in 1968 intended to reestablish Czechoslovakia’s autonomy from the Soviet system. The same happened in Hungary.
To my students, the Soviet Union had been, well, an evil empire. Pure and simple. What had I gotten wrong?
Two years ago I took my first trip to Moscow to participate in the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Congress. The event happened to coincide with the week that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea. This appropriation of the territory of another sovereign nation was an egregious flaunting of international law. When the Kremlin announced that a rally would take place in Red Square — just a hundred yards from the conference site — on the last day of our event, the word from the organizers was clear: Stay away. This will be trouble.
To many of us, this warning translated into: Do not miss this historic event.
Crowds began to gather at mid-day. As I had expected, buses lined the streets surrounding Red Square, offloading squat, square-faced men in dark clothes, closely resembling the coal miner heavies that my students in Bratislava had described to me years ago. What surprised me, however, when I made it through security into Red Square (a process not much different than getting onto the National Mall in DC for fourth of July fireworks) was that an equal number of those gathered looked to be middle-class Moscovites out to show their support for their president. Young, old. Families, couples. The environment was festive and upbeat.
Putin clearly was, and is, no simple dictator. He is no blunt-edged tyrant ruling with an Iron First. Rather, he is a (lesser) Stalin updated for the Information Age. He is a charismatic, autocratic, demogogue, who has made a vast swath of the Russian population — including almost everyone not in a major city (ref. this general phenomenon) — feel like they matter.
From the standpoint of those in the audience that day in Red Square, the annexation of Crimea was not an aggressive action that evidenced a disregard for international law. It was barely about Crimea at all.
It was, purely and simply, about Making Russia Great Again.
Fast forward again, to this week.
Where, as a college student nearly 30 years ago I sprang into motion to counter what I took to be anti-communist fear mongering, I have just devoted the better part of the past four days to raising the alarm over . . . well, the threat of a stealthly Russian attempt to shape the U.S. political process — one not unlike that portrayed, with a catastrophic outcome, in the miniseries Amerika.
The irony is almost comical — except that it isn’t. What happened?
It may be easy to confuse my vehemence on this point with some dislike for Republicans, or for Donald Trump. The reality is — as I believe my record of ~34,200 tweets will support — I have no real interest in either. At times in the years I have interacted on social media, I have been accused of being a right-wing ideologue. So be it.
The fact is, I learned something from Amerika, from my students in Bratistlava, and from my afternoon in Red Square: Our political process is bigger than our political parties. Indeed, at the ends of the spectrum, the distinction between the political “right” and the political “left” is more like Coke vs. Pepsi than it is Good vs. Evil. Clever packaging. Relentless marketing — with the addition of demagoguery. But in the end, just sugar water — though potentially deadly if consumed in quantity over time. (Look at this CIA compilation of Soviet Era propaganda about the United States. Anything here sound familiar?)
The case of Paul Manafort, the subject of my last post, is illutrative. In Ukraine, Manafort worked on the presidential campaign of a Communist billionaire. In the United States, he works on the presidential campaign of a Capitalist billionaire. But the difference is illusory. In both of these cases, as in others, he has advised bandits. Extractive bandits. Rent-seeking bandits. Murderous bandits. Paul Manafort has worked for them all. He has spent most of his life as an advisor to bandits of the worst variety and an enabler of the destruction of societies, in precisely the manner described by Mancur Olson in his profoundly important book, Power And Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist And Capitalist Dictatorships. And he has sought (for example here), and at times received, the assistance of the government of the United States in doing so.
That such an individual is now the campaign director for a presidential candidate nominated by a major party in the United States of America is deeply worrisome. What is more, the tactics employed by that candidate are deeply worrisome. If fear mongering is “the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue,” I suppose I have myself become a fear monger.
I know what I’m against: I’m against kleptocrats and their facilitators who use positions of power and privilege, combined with propaganda of fear and exclusion, to impoverish others and enrich themselves.
I know what I’m for: Any and all efforts to create environments where every single person is able to achieve their full potential in society.
There is no right. There is no left. There is only backward and forward. We can only hope that a majority of the electorate in the United States on November 8 is able to grasp that difference.