A week ago I prepared a draft of a post about Russiagate, intending to revise it and publish; but since then I was scooped by everyone–even in one limited respect by freaking Ross Douthat who is the least obnoxious conservative columnist at the New York Times. (Actually, on his best days, or the others’ worst, you could strike out the word “conservative”).
In “The Trolling of the American Mind,” Douthat made the point that if you want to talk about Russian influence on the election (assuming all charges are true for the sake of argument), the Democratic National Committee emails were far more consequential than the silly Russian social media campaign, because the information supplied was real and significant whoever obtained it. Douthat doesn’t put it this way, but the revelation that the DNC was colluding with Hillary Clinton in the primaries might conceivably have embittered enough Sanders supporters to make a difference. Of course people who read far-left blogs would have also learned that an idiot Hollywood billionaire named Haim Saban was treated with great deference as he voiced his opinions re the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, BDS, aimed at Israel. No; Ross didn’t say that. What he did say, which should be obvious to anyone who lives here, is that the social media campaign was sophomoric and the Russians could pass it off as American because it was a tiny drop of stupidity in a vast ocean of American nonsense.
The larger point about Russiagate hysteria has been made by Paul Street and various other lefties. So what is there for me to say?
Well, there is this piece by Adrian Chen at The New Yorker: “A so-called expert’s uneasy dive into the Trump-Russia frenzy.”
The piece is good and interesting in its own right and should be read for what Chen argues. His strongest points are made in the first two paragraphs: The Russiagate hysteria is the product of experts who have their own interests— internet security types who hope for more business, thinktank pseudo-intellectuals who make their living warning of deep dark threats, journalists who need sexy headlines. And a journalist who wishes to fit in has to go along.
The most important part of the piece is the subtext, which is so close to the surface it might as well be text: journalists in the mainstream press sometimes have to make a choice between being honest to the facts as they see them and being mainstream. There is a narrative to be narrated, dammit, and facts can get in the way. And if you naively choose the facts, you might find yourself in this case demonized as a pro-Putin propagandist or find your article cited by pro-Putin propagandists and lefty skeptics of Russiagate. Though you will notice that Chen doesn’t acknowledge that such distinct categories exist; he can’t fully validate skeptics of Russiagate.
Observe his treatment of Aaron Mate, the lefty journalist at the Real News network who embarrassed Chen by citing his comments on MSNBC. Chen does not want Mate’s approval or, as he would put it, to be part of Mate’s own propaganda campaign. If Chen is to be a dissident, he wants to be alone on the life raft of truth with Martha Gessen, the only skeptic of Russiagate who can get away with it in the mainstream because of her long record of Putin criticism. If Mate tries to join him, Chen will beat him off with an oar.
I could feel my words slipping away, becoming the foundation for someone else’s shakily constructed argument. The fact that I had been given the rare opportunity to share an opinion on national television seemed pretty much cancelled out by the ways its online audience had put it to use.
In contrast, Chen mentions Rachel Maddow as the object of Mate’s attacks– she is “a strong advocate of the notion that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.” But while Chen clearly disapproves of Mate, he is unable to single out anyone in the mainstream by name for critique. They are all simply critics of Trump– Trump critics who demonize anyone who disagrees with the Russiagate narrative.
Chen’s piece is valuable because it pulls away the curtain and we see someone in the press admitting to the uncomfortable position of a mainstream journalist who doesn’t conform to the narrative on a given subject. Yet there is something he doesn’t sufficiently explain: why is there near-unanimity in the mainstream about the enormous consequences of (the farcical) Russian social media attacks? Yes, it is because of experts drumming up business and because journalists favor sexy headlines, but why warmongering sexy headlines?
To ask the question that way is to answer it. There are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. The mainstream press mostly goes along with what its chosen experts tell it; and those experts seem to be people who invariably justify more military intervention, more military spending and more money spent on the intelligence community. And the passive readers are supposed to fix our gaze on the malevolent intentions of Putin and never ask questions about the military industrial complex, the Saudi lobby or the Israel lobby or any other group with actual political influence on our foreign policy because that is seen as either conspiracy thinking or as old stale rhetoric that nobody in power has to take seriously.
For Chen, the larger foreign policy motivations behind Russiagate never seem to arise. But there is an important distinction between people who criticize the Russiagate hysteria because they see it as warmongering, and people who criticize it because they are pro Trump. One never sees this distinction made in the MSM, and Chen’s piece is no exception.