David C. Speedie and Krishen Mehta: Russiagate and the New “Conspiracism”

David Speedie writes that, “the sage advice of John Quincy Adams two centuries and more ago about not going forth seeking monsters to destroy, the United States, or at least its political leaders, seem in need of an external threat to tackle and defeat.” His full article here:

The term “conspiracism” is relatively new to the language [circa 1980], and is defined thus in the Oxford English Dictionary: “the belief that major historical and political events are brought about as the result of a conspiracy between interested parties , or are manipulated by or on behalf of an unknown group of interested people.”

Conspiracist literature is now in vogue: see, for example, a recent review by Jill Lepore in the Times Literary Supplement, the subtitle of which is “The continuing rise of conspiracy theories”.  Not that these are anything new; from UFOs to the Kennedy assassination [or, for that matter, President Garfield before him], to the McCarthy witch hunts, the search for scapegoats has fired the human imagination.  The most popular, or convenient, have been other people, or outsiders. Lepore cites the Jews and their “international conspiracy—people with ties across international borders.” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion [1903] warned that “Pulling the strings behind the scenes, dominating the new system of modernity, the Jew becomes the cause of every catastrophe.”  Closer to home, and more recently, Lepore quotes “housewife and America Firster Agnes Waters” in 1942: “There are 200,000 Communist Jews at the Mexican border waiting to get into this country.  If they are admitted they will rape every woman that is left unprotected.” [This sounds familiar.]  In the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower was dubbed “Ike the Kike”.

Bizarre though these ravings may be, one may allow at least that the conspiracists nurturing and spreading them do actually believe them to be true, and that they may be exposed through tireless detection—to quote the old quip, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.   Of more recent vintage, Lepore identifies a conspiracism that is even more sinister, described by the political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum in their book “A Lot of People are Saying: The new conspiracism and the assault on democracy”.  “The new conspiracism” they argue, “is something different.  It dispenses with the burden of explanation.”

Which brings one to the most fertile strain of current conspiracism: the ongoing, multifaceted and destructive role of Russia in our democracy.  This has ranged, accusers say, from interference in our 2016 Presidential elections, to booty paid to the Taliban in Afghanistan for killing of our men and women in uniform, to hacking of Covid19 research in Western laboratories.  “Russian interference” has become a mantra, accepted as fact by otherwise thoughtful Americans.  Never mind that the Mueller report, after painfully extended consideration, found no evidence of Kremlin-ordered  election string pulling.  Forget that the Afghanistan bounties were based on “intelligence reports” by nameless opposition [and in some cases criminal] individuals.  Ignore the fact that Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute has, apparently, developed a promising Covid19 vaccine. [Indeed, one might reasonably ask: why should there be the need to engage in anything other than global cooperation on vaccines?  If we cannot come together against a pandemic, what hope is there for our planet?]  In this “new conspiracism”, with Russia as the perpetrator, we might echo the famous words of the old lady in a hamburger commercial some years ago: “Where’s the beef?”

The fact is that, despite the sage advice of John Quincy Adams two centuries and more ago about not going forth seeking monsters to destroy, the United States, or at least its political leaders, seem in need of an external threat to tackle and defeat.  In the thirty years since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the perfect existential enemy, Soviet Communism, this has become a tricky but manageable task.  Russia, as the successor state, is the bogeyman of choice [Note: I have heard on more than one occasion over the past thirty years a member of the US Congress refer to “Soviets” in the context of post-1991 Russia.]  As the Russia expert on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, Thomas Graham, summarized in a recent article  “We have an attitude about Russia, not a policy”.  By way of illustration of this, another, much lesser authority, James Clapper, can toss off a sound bite that Russians “are almost genetically driven by aggression, expansionism, authoritarianism”—and be heeded; the conspiracism is freed from “the burden of explanation.”

We are not alone in the West in this shabby game of blame.  In a recent interview on Sky TV in the UK, the network’s Moscow correspondent {!} was asked about recent accusations of Russian interference in British elections [including, improbably, the Scottish referendum of 2014; as a Scot, I wonder why Scottish elections, and not those recently in Germany or France or Poland, rather more important to Moscow?].  The interviewer asked, reasonably: why should Moscow, which is also accused of laundering money in London [cynically altered in some quarters to “Londonigrad”] not just quietly go about this business rather than risk the consequences of such behavior? The only answer the correspondent could must was “Because they can.”  Thin though this is, it does serve to illustrate the cynical and surely detrimental undermining of our relations with Russia—which, as experts like NYU’s Stephen Cohen have correctly noted, are worse than during the Cold War.  The combination of baseless reporting and follow-up accusations of dilatory response from governments is a toxic one indeed.


David C. Speedie is a member of the board of the American Committee for East-West Accord.


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