Steal This Meme: Beyond Truth and Lies

February 6, 2020 | 6 books mentioned 13 min read

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

—Audre Lorde

At that unhappy moment when Donald Trump took the oath of office with what has proven to be an attitude of obscene disingenuity, I happened to be 38,000 miles in the air somewhere above the Pacific off the coast of California. By happy and fortuitous circumstance, I was in possession of a ticket to Honolulu in January, the month when most of my colleagues’ professional society of literary scholars chooses to force its members into dreary hotel conference rooms in Boston or Chicago. By unhappy circumstance, of course, this day scheduled for my trip to God’s own terrestrial paradise (everything they say of Hawaii is true) happened to be the genesis of our never-ending Annus horribilis. All morning I’d harbored irrational fears about what would happen at the exact second when Trump put his hand to Bible (for the first time I assume). When I bundled into a cab on First Avenue headed on the Van Wyck towards Kennedy, the pink-gauze sky was just breaking over shrouded Brooklyn and Queens and Barack Obama was still president.

Half-a-day later, when we touched down some 5,000 miles away, having completely embargoed myself of any social media or news, and thus being blissfully unaware of “American carnage” and the inauguration speech that even George W. Bush thought was “weird shit,” I was able to fall asleep near Oahu sands in a cocoon of immense privilege while pretending that I was somehow not even in America anymore (Trump started his political career claiming something similar). With morning, I first encountered Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who in recent years has attempted to rehabilitate himself on Dancing with the Stars in that characteristically malevolent and tacky way that Americans have perfected, with his bizarre insistence that the National Mall contained “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” an easily disproven claim. A day later, and Trump adviser and amoral mercenary Kellyanne Conway would defend Spicer while on Meet the Press, arguing simply that they were in possession of “alternative facts.”

coverBecause a Catholic scrupulosity compels me to never totally enjoy a vacation, I’d taken with me the Anglo-Russian television producer and London School of Economics media theorist Peter Pomerantsev’s crucial Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. When I came across the unfamiliar title at the Strand’s Central Park book stand a few days before, I suspected that there might be something helpful in Pomerantsev’s account of how the Kremlin had constructed a strange, chimerical, mutant form of authoritarianism that wasn’t just built on lies, but where lies themselves became the operative ideology, an epistemically anarchic relativism that he called “post-modern dictatorship.” The son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Britain and later Germany, where his father first worked in Russian programing for the BBC and then Radio Free Europe, Pomerantsev would later spend a decade in his native country also working in media, where he could watch as Vladimir Putin, with the assistance of Svengalis like Vladislav Surkov, mastered the dizzying, confusing, relativist aesthetics of modern Kremlin propaganda.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible presents a Russian authoritarianism that owes as much to the cruelty of reality television as the Stalinist show trial; as much as they used to make the commissar vanish, they’re just as content to make people disbelieve the commissar (though ricin is still useful sometimes). Pomerantsev describes a country that “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression—from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich—that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and position or belief is mutable,” so that the Russian state can be defender of a staunchly reactionary traditionalist order when that benefits its aims, or the battle-hardened fighter of fascism when that perspective assists it. What Putinism represents, argues Pomerantsev, is not ideology so much as something transcendent of truth or falsehood, where lies aren’t strategy so much as faith itself.

coverNow Pomerantsev broadens his scope out from Moscow, to London, Washington, Belgrade, Manila, Beijing, Mexico City, and that nebulous universe that exists in the connection between modems and smartphones in his second book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He describes a “world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin. Trump,” where the author meets “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls and elves, ‘behavioral change’ salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders.” While not always as unified as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev’s latest book (culled from essays originally published in The Guardian, Granta, The American Interest, and The London Review of Books) does provide a primer on how our dystopian new reality of digital simulacra came to be, what it has come to mean, and possibly how we might mitigate the worst of its effects.

Finding ferry-people across this social media Styx, Pomerantsev talks to experts like Russian dissident Lydia Savchuk who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” that long played a role in Moscow politics and that during the 2016 presidential elections saw “Over thirty million Americans… [share] its content among their friends and families.” The author doesn’t limit his analysis to the Kremlin, however, noting that Putinism is but “one front of a vast, global phenomenon.” Something those of us who are horrified by Trump would do well to keep at the forefront of our minds; for there is a certain type of centrist “#Resistance” person addicted to MSNBC and long conspiratorial Twitter threads who harbors the dangerous illusion that Trump is the disease and not the symptom, and that some mythic “normalcy” can be returned upon his ejection. There is also a variety of further-left individual (of which I suppose I’d include myself as a cautious fellow-traveler) who find the first group’s thinking unhelpful, but then overcorrect and end up minimizing the legitimate ideological and technological threats posed by a Kremlin that’s made itself the international of a revanchist order. What Pomerantsev makes clear is that this phenomenon is one that isn’t limited to one country—that’s precisely the point. Our crisis of democracy does not begin and end at the United States.

To that end, This Is Not Propaganda includes interviews with dissidents, hackers, and activists around the world who are attempting to fight a multi-pronged war against the cyber divisions of authoritarian states that have been able to so effectively weaponize information (and the appearance of information) over the past decade. These include the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa who has repeatedly been the target of digital attacks directed by the authoritarian president Roderigo Duterte, the Serbian democracy activist Srđa Popović who was instrumental in the movement against war criminal Slobodan Milosevic (and also literally wrote the guidebook for 21st-century agitators against oppressive governments) and the Mexican hacker Alberto Escorcia who has developed strategies for protestors to reverse-engineer some of the very same technologies used by states to spread disinformation. Pomerantsev even talks with the godfather of digital disinformation, the advertiser, analyst, and cofounder of Cambridge Analytica (which played such a decisive role in the 2016 election) Nigel Oakes. What emerges is an incomplete and sometimes inchoate picture of the second decade of our century, though one that still provides some names, faces, and intentions behind the dark avatars that swarm through Twitter like locusts spreading memes and propaganda, and the good wizards who’ve made it their mission to stop them.

coverAny radically new information technology alters human consciousness, and has the potential to promulgate disinformation amongst a credulous public not yet literate in the vagaries of the new order. Medieval manuscripts were no more accurate than websites; 14th-century readers of the anonymous The Travels of Sir John Mandeville thrilled to stories about dog-headed Cynocephalics, and two centuries later a rash of printed apocalyptic pamphlets, like the “English Nostradamus” Mother Shipton’s pseudographical prophecies, spread throughout Europe, driving paranoia as surely as Reddit and Twitter defuse QAnon conspiracy theories today. Yet Pomerantsev would be correct in saying that our current predicament is of a different kind, for unlike manuscript or print, our smartphones make us veritable cyborgs, creatures with super computers in our pockets who are continually, potentially connected by network to every other fellow cyborg in the world. This relativist consensus, an epistemic collapse that allows everyone to choose whatever truth is convenient to them, is a type of post-modern magical thinking. However, it isn’t just a return to archaic superstitions, but a reversal of the Enlightenment project that was based in an idea of objectivity that made the work of democracy possible. “There is nothing new about politicians lying,” writes Pomerantsev, “but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”

We see this happening in real time if we compare the (obvious to some of us at the time) bogus rationale that the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the similar way that the Trump administration has gone about validating the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani. While the former was an unmitigated human disaster and the later may yet hopefully prove to not result in the same scope of death, the Bush administration operated as if falsehood and truth were actual categories, even while they consciously chose to mislead. They operated in quasi-official channels, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for war with (compromised) intelligence, and cobbling together a coalition of other countries that supported the invasion. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, tells us to believe that Soleimani was imminently about to attack U.S. interests, and doesn’t even bother to construct a more fully fleshed out lie. At that point, we’ve left even the realm of falsehood, and enter the halls of magic. Pomerantsev explains that “Fox and the Kremlin exploit the same ideas: If reality is malleable, why can’t they introduce their own versions too? And if feelings are emancipatory, why can’t they invoke their own? With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears.”

My above account lets the Bush administration off the hook entirely too much, for the fact is that Trump is just better at deconstructing the division between truth and lie than they were. That most people know that Trump is lying—and that he still gets away with it—counterintuitively shows how masterful said lying is. Much of this has to do with the way the social media ecosystem of Facebook and Twitter have altered how people understand reality; Trump doesn’t have to make any case for the third of the country that’s going to believe what he says, no matter how absurd it might be—they’ve already made that case themselves in their own heads. The previous Republican administration had already flirted with epistemological tweaking during the Iraq catastrophe; one should remember the anonymous source high in the White House who in a gambit worthy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Susskind. Propaganda has always traded in flat-out lying—that’s its nature. Part of Pomerantsev’s argument, however, is that the new world of digital misleading has in some sense democratized tyranny, making all of us unwilling accomplices in spreading a constructed reality, whereas in the past such campaigns were obviously top-down.

coverGlib traditionalists could point to “post-modernism” as the origin of this free-for-all, but our current crisis of epistemology doesn’t come from French academic salons, but rather the cynical calculations of political pragmatism. Charting how the democratic promise unleashed by the fall of communism in 1989 cynically ended with the justifications for the Iraq war in 2003, Pomerantsev notes that “Words and images filled with potent meaning in East Berlin ended in Baghdad.” With democratizing events as varied as the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism, the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the exile of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia, and the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, it could seem obvious to the self-satisfied liberal that the moral arc of history did indeed predictably move towards justice. “If once upon a time one could speak confidently about history’s waves of democratization flowing in a single current,” Pomerantsev writes, “now a great storm has broken out and it’s hard to tell what’s flowing where and in which direction.” We’re done with Ceausescu, Marcos, and Suharto, but now we have Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump. Such is the state as aptly described by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor in her perceptive book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone when she writes that “Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice.” Into that vacuum defuses the state agitprop of cynical actors willing to hijack our agency for their own coercive ends.

Such meme engineering rewrites the DNA of consciousness, acting as a parasite in the host and completely altering their worldview. In a passage that will no doubt have many nodding in recognition, Pomerantsev describes “people I have known my whole life [that] slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of… which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see.” By way of making contrast between the previous century’s authoritarians and today’s savvier Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley-trained versions, Pomerantsev begins each chapter with a biographical account of his own parent’s running afoul of the Soviet government during the 1970s. In his family’s story, information was something emancipatory that could dispel the official Kremlin line, with censorship the cudgel used by the Soviets to oppress those who opposed them. Today, however, and it’s a surfeit of information that does the same, so much data that nobody can sort through it.

Censorship in 2020 functions not literally, but rather by screaming untruths so loudly through so many channels that reality itself is drowned out. Appropriately enough this is a free market version of propaganda, the tools of the state’s lies privatized and outsourced to your friends, family, and coworkers. The irony is that in the Soviet Union, everybody knew that what Pravda printed was a lie; today people share links from dubious sites pushing a line to assist the status quo under the guise of subversion. Our dire situation was summed up by the Ukrainian investigator Tatyana Gerasimova, who helped conduct an investigation of a tragic fire in Odessa that occurred following the Russian invasion, and which separatists and nationalists each blamed the other for, the truth ultimately being more complicated. Despite that nuance, Gerasimova explains that the truth can’t set one free if you’re incapable of recognizing the truth when presented with it. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth, there is no reconciliation. We created the investigation to show that there is a difference between truth and lies. In that sense we failed.” So inured are we to the idea that there might be a truth, that there has been a trickle-down rewriting of reality, where now Big Brother doesn’t even have to convince you that 2+2=5. You saw it memed by your uncle on Facebook (the Deep State was the one who said 2+2=4 all along).

covercoverOur hellscape’s prophet of authoritarianism is less Franz Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Kafka’s vision of totalitarianism is of the show-trial, the prison, the centrally organized bureaucratic state whereby in The Castle he could write, “If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” In our current world, we’ve put the bandage on ourselves and forgotten that we’re wearing it. Ours is much closer to the neon cacophony of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where a character says “Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought.” The cruel irony of that is if everything is true, then nothing is true; if everything is permitted, then nothing is.

Pomerantsev writes that “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent.” As it has turned out it’s the melee of continual information shared by our zombified fellow citizens that’s proven the easiest method to awash us in propaganda. Compared to the authoritarians of the past, Pomerantsev writes that “today’s strongmen are not so rigid. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak with different tongues.” To the detriment of all of us, one of the languages they’re most proficient in is a rhetoric that has been available on A.M. radio and amongst shock jocks and stand-up comics for generations, but that has been divorced from any transgressive import it may have once had, now rather serving the purposes of state power.

Leftists were once the funny ones, the Dadaist antics of groups like the Yippies potently using rude and obscene humor to challenge state and corporate hegemony, for “laughter removes the aura of impenetrability around an authoritarian leader.” A perusal of much of woke Twitter will demonstrate that the left has disastrously ceded ground in this regard, the import of humor being taken up by the right in a manner that poses serious challenges to the cause of justice. Pomerantsev recounts visiting popular Manila comedy clubs where stand-ups “pick victims in the audience and roast them, taunting them about the size of their penises, or for their weight, and this right in front of entire families who all laugh along in the relatives’ humiliation.” Duterte’s rhetoric mimics such stand-ups exactly, and goes a long way to explaining his popularity in the ostensibly socially conservative nation. “It’s a type of humor he shares with a troupe of male leaders across the world… [where] toilet humor is used to show how ‘anti-establishment’ they are.”

Such is the disingenuous use of “I was just joking” by leaders from Putin to Trump, who are able to deploy a cavalier cruelty without repercussions. It’s an ingenious hacking of liberals’ natural affinity for the freedom of speech, but done for profoundly illiberal aims. We still understandably valorize the jester speaking truth to power, men like Bill Hicks and George Carlin who were willing to say the seven words you can’t say on television, because if you’re barred from saying the word “fuck” then you’re barred from saying “fuck the president.” But our new authoritarians understand something about amoral tools—they can be asymmetrically used. Pomerantsev notes that “when such language is used consistently by men with real power to degrade those weaker, this humor becomes menacing: It lays the linguistic path to humiliating victims in other ways as well, to as pace where all norms disappear.” Laughter, it seems, is indeed indelible in the hippocampus.

Voters with NPR tote-bags and New Yorker subscriptions may have been caught off guard by the 2016 election results, but they were never the audience for The Apprentice anyhow. The current crisis in democracy, facilitated by cruel and relativist propaganda, is much less surprising if you’re familiar with the past several decades of popular culture that doesn’t receive prestige awards. Trump’s rhetoric matches not the highfalutin pretensions of William F. Buckley, George Will, and The National Review, but it owes everything to A.M. radio sports talk, shock jocks like Don Imus and Howard Stern (neither of whom were supporters of the White House’s current occupant), reality television, and the preening and theatrics of World Wrestling Entertainment. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was much hand-wringing about how people don’t talk like Trump did in that video—but of course many people do.

For his supporters, the “joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense,” writes Pomerantsev. It’s not that they’re unaware of the cruelty; the cruelty is the point. While I had long been more pessimistic about the election then many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I definitively knew that Hillary Clinton would lose when on that Tuesday night I saw CNN interview a woman in a Pennsylvania bar (of the sort that I’m estimably familiar with) who dismissed the “pussy grabbing” comments by saying (and I paraphrase) “I don’t care. Lots of women talk that way too.” From a certain perspective, the election of Trump—a gameshow host who is in the WWE Hall of Fame and made his entertainment career appearing on Stern and talking about how his daughter is sexy—seems less a fluke and more a dispiriting inevitability.

This Is Not Propaganda is not necessarily a hopeful read. True, some of the figures whom he speaks with, from Popović to Escorcia, have and do contend with far worse than we do, and they are able to keep a type of revolutionary optimism. It’s hard to ignore Trump, and in some cases it’s malpractice not to consider him when necessity compels us. And yet few of us will wish on our death-beds that we’d wasted more words on his inanities, his narcissism, his bloated absurdity. One of authoritarianism’s most insidious characteristics is that it doesn’t give you the option to ignore it.

Pomerantsev doesn’t necessarily offer the average citizen much in the way of a map out of the quagmire, though that’s less his intent. He alludes that if we’re to hope for any kind of restoration of truth, of objectivity, of rationality, of democracy, that we must “formulate a vision of the alternative political model you want to see.” What this looks like will be hard to say, but it’s necessary to figure that out. What it won’t look like is the endless, lame obsession over Trump, who wants us to obsess over him: all of our own memes inexpertly put together about “Mango Mussolini,” “Cheeto Jesus,” and “Drumpf.” We can’t win that game, so let’s stop playing it. Tyrants may not believe in truth, but there should be succor in knowing that truth is very much real—and patient. “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real,” wrote that prophet Leonard Cohen, “Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” And yet the chorus could still be sung that “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Hopefully.

Image: rob walsh

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

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