What happens when reality hits delusion? U.S. mythology and fantasy will remain resilient. Denial, doubling-down, scapegoating, recrimination and more audacious adventures are the instinctive responses, writes Michael Brenner.
By Michael Brenner
Special to Consortium News
Americans discount the past. They live in the present and imagine the future. Events are assimilated into a mythologized pageant of progress that leads to an ever fuller realization of a more perfect union — liberty and justice at home, goodwill and good works abroad.
Happenings of an unseemly nature are sanitized so as to conform to the self-image of destiny’s child born in a state of original virtue; or they are encapsulated and repressed.
Deep within us, though, they survive in a state of indeterminant hibernation — along with the passions, impulses and ambitions that generated those misdeeds. They become spores, dormant until a favorable environment appears for their reactivation.
What we are witnessing in the United States today is a recrudescence of baneful elements from earlier times: the rapacious society that ruthlessly decimated the indigenous peoples from sea to shining sea; that warred against Mexico to steal half of its lands; that attacked Spain’s overseas possessions to build the early foundation of empire; that policed the Caribbean basin to its commercial advantage; that jailed those who voiced disagreement with the U.S.’ entry into World War I; that has glorified the frontier’s violence, sharp-dealing and wanton destruction of nature denied its status as an heirloom.
Certainly, those unbecoming episodes from the past resonate with what we observe today: in the United States’ rampage through the Middle East, its resort to systemic torture, its belligerence and bullying, its repressive treatment of critics at home, its crude and corrupt electoral politics.
These deeds are at variance with the country’s principles, its self-image, its external image and, too, a 20th century record that included policies and attitudes that aimed at generating public goods and attentive to the general welfare.
Moreover, our largely capable leaders who possessed an ingrained sense of responsibility for the good of the commonweal contrast sharply with our present crop of inept and feckless leaders with whom the nation is saddled.
We now are experiencing a clash between those latter virtues and the revival of those malign, demonic elements wresting free of their sublimation.
A diagrammatic depiction of the United States today must give central place to four interwoven facets of contemporary American society.
They are: plutocracy; the growing neo-Fascist movement; the erosion of fidelity to core Constitutional values, accompanied by a timidity in taking action to defend them.
This is evident in each of three branches of government, at state and local levels, and even among the galaxy of our famed civic institutions that populate the social landscape; and a pervasive self-centeredness that is at once an effective and reinforced cause of the nihilism that is a hallmark of our times — sapping the lifeblood out of the body politic while encouraging all manner of erratic behavior.
The complexity of the composition thus created is impossible to explicate within reasonable limits of time and space. So, let’s simply illustrate how each in its own right is manifest in the country’s external dealings.
The Financial Sector
One: Washington is unable, and disinclined, to pursue any policy that contravenes the narrow, self-defined interests of the financial and commercial powerhouses who control the political parties through electoral campaign donations and bribes, won a de facto tax holiday, monopolize the major media, underwrite foundations and think tanks so as to shape their product, and hatch schemes to infiltrate and reprogram educational institutions at every level as an invasive species denatures the eco-system.
The financial sector is the most prominent, active and influential of these private economic entities. Since they are institutionalized globally, the entire American outlook on multilateral organizations (the IMF, the World Bank, GATT, SWIFT) and their programs is dictated by the benefits that flow from them: earnings for private interests, clout for the government to cajole, coerce or dictate to other countries The abusive use made of SWIFT and the IMF in the confrontation with Russia is case in point.
When we imagine trade negotiations and accords, we visualize mainly the exchange of manufactured goods and natural resources. That is no longer the case. What counts, above all, are financial arrangements. Intellectual property comes second. Energy and agriculture next. Manufactures are an also-ran.
At present, it is China that dominates that sector of international commerce. Its overall manufacturing capacity is greater than that of the U.S., the EU and Japan combined. Add Russia’s capacity (and raw materials) to that number and you understand both Washington’s dedication to leveraging those economic assets that it retains (backed by military assets) and its mounting sense of vulnerability.
A Rising Tide
Two: The rise of a potent, expanding movement that should be properly labelled “Fascism with American characteristics” to date has had only a relatively slight bearing on the country’s foreign policy. The monsters its militants seek to slay, the enemies they see as poisoning the well of Americanism, are domestic.
The Russia threat, the China threat, the fading Islamo-fascist threat are not what drives its adherents — although they share the unanimous conviction that all of the above are evil-doers hostile to the United States. Still, it is the turmoil at the Mexican border that really gets their blood boiling — the only “foreign” issue that is as emotional, as bile-producing, as liberal elites, atheists and baby-killers.
What the future will bring in the way of adding an international dimension to this stew is unpredictable. As of now, Republicans are mainly focused on denouncing whatever President Joe Biden does rather than promoting any foreign policy agenda of their own.
Three: The degradation of American democracy is perhaps the most profound development in the troubled state of contemporary America. Its deleterious effects are multiple — and likely enduring if not absolutely irreversible.
Most obviously, an American Republic in which “government of the people, for the people, by the people” is a motto that strikes only a faint, nostalgic note is not the country on which a mighty nation was built and which has been the grounding for the individual as well as collective self-esteem that always has distinguished the United States.
What it does do is to sow doubt as to the superiority of the American enterprise, to weaken self-confidence, to undercut American credibility among other peoples and other governments, and to dissolve that veneer of goodwill — a compound of truth and fable — that so effectively has smoothed the path to global dominance.
Moreover, it breeds a cynicism that spills over from the domestic scene to dealings abroad. Autocratic methods, arrogance, the loss of any capacity for empathy, the zero-sum conception of all relationships are liabilities — ones that are unsuited for an America of diminishing prowess and relative strength in a world moving rapidly in the direction of multipolarity and multilateralism.
Finally, it tends to bring to power in Washington persons whose skills have been honed for the rough-and-tumble of domestic wars rather than for statesmanlike vision and diplomacy.
Disengagement From Reality
Four: Nihilism and narcissism are a matching pair. They go together. A fluid socio-cultural environment encourages individuals to “do their own thing” without fear of opprobrium or penalty. Limits are vague, restraints weak, models that convey the unspoken message are plentiful.
The aggregation of persons so uninhibited accentuates the nihilism of society. A disengagement from reality is the outcome. In the first instance, it is a disengagement from norms and conventions. That leads to a disengagement from the objective features of the environment in which you live and act.
Disregard for the concerns of others (ignoring them or, in more extreme cases, not even recognizing that they exist); disregard for history, background, context; disengagement from tangible reality itself — ultimately disengagement from their former selves.
We are close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call “dissociation.” It is marked by an inability to see and to accept actualities as they are for deep seated emotional reasons.
Thus, Janet Yellen is dispatched to Beijing in a futile attempt to persuade the Chinese leadership to moderate their strategy of de-dollarization, and to free American business from the Beijing government’s oversight, on the same day that the State Department warns American citizens of the risks they run by visiting China.
This in the context of an overt public campaign to undermine the Chinese economy via a campaign of boycott and embargo — e.g. denying Chinese companies the right to invest in high-tech sectors or to collaborate with American firms and arresting the CFO of Huawei.
Thus, Biden calls Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator” in a free associative string of insults two days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returns from his own trek to Beijing in a supposed effort to relax tense relations between the two rivals (in fact, of course, a short-term lowering of the temperature so as to give Washington more time to prepare its anti-China project).
Thus, Biden can declare Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman a “pariah” to be shunned and then goes hat-in-hand to Riyadh pleading for his cooperation in lowering spiking oil prices by increasing Saudi production.
Thus, as part of the same desperate effort he dispatches an envoy to Caracas to cajole Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to do the same — the very man the U.S. vilifies and has sought to overthrow by means unfair and foul.
Thus, the entire national security team embarks on a confrontation with Russia on Ukraine in the utterly fanciful belief that its economy will collapse like a house of cards (a gas station with nuclear weapons masquerading as a great power), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (that KGB thug) toppled, once sanctions are imposed.
Thus, the near universal conviction in Washington’s corridors of power that a better trained, equipped, and motivated Ukraine actually could win a war against Russia.
Thus, the facile assumption that you can steal hundreds of billions of Russian assets in the custody of Western financial institutions while paying scant attention to the incentive that gives other large depositors to move their liquid holdings elsewhere and to abandon the dollar.
Thus, you cavalierly blow up the Nord Stream 2 pipeline oblivious to how that act is in stark opposition to your “rules-based order” slogan.
Thus, the Biden White House bubbles with optimism as the foredoomed Prigozhin putsch in confidence that it will be a replay of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and march on Paris. In this latter cluster of cases, we see a display of willful ignorance whereby one’s wishes and desires fashion a virtual reality – a fable – that bears no relation to actual facts but is comforting and convenient.
[Related: Prigozhin’s War]
Furthermore, the vise-like grip this attitude has on thought and policy barely loosens even as the Russian economy proves robust, when Putin is more popular and secure than ever, when Ukraine’s military is being methodically dismantled despite the West’s supplying it with vast quantities of weapons (exposed as inferior to Russia’s) and money.
This conforms exactly to the pattern of behavior that narcissistic individual evinces in their mundane individual lives.
Thus, finally, Ukraine is anointed as a flourishing democracy deserving to enter the exclusive “garden” inhabited by the virtuous – NATO & European Union. This effusion of respect for a country that is a sump of corruption, where all political parties except those of the rulers are banned, where draconian censorship has liquidated any semblance of media independence (far more repressive than in Putin’s Russia), where the mildest of dissenters are exiled or jailed, where statues are being erected to honor Stepan Bandera, the homicidal chief of the Ukrainian SS that were the Nazis’ partners in World War II.
A few, the Victoria Nulands, may know the score but cynically ignore these awkward truths as they relentlessly drive their own agenda for hegemonic control. However, most of the country’s political class who cultivate this deceit suffer from the collective fantasy that America’s nihilism fosters.
[Related: ROBERT PARRY: The Mess That Nuland Made]
Thus, finally, there is Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky who is embraced with the starry-eyed acclaim reserved for the most fulgurant celebrities. The comedian from the Balkan Borscht Belt whose greatest prior achievement was to star in a Ukrainian soap opera where he played a befuddled Ukrainian president.
Promoted by a sleazy billionaire at a time when Petro Poroshenko was polling in the single digits, he ran as the peace candidate who promised to reconcile with Putin. Immediately upon taking office, he was strong-armed by the hard men who provide the steel and uber-nationalist dogma that sustains the post-coup regime.
He has been a remarkably successful front man. His performance is the ultimate tribute to Stanislavski method acting. Put differently, Zelensky is the consummate conman whose unabashed non-stop lying is integral to the part. Deceit becomes a way of life. Truth and falsity are indistinguishable for somebody who rejects the notion that the former has a claim to primacy — it is strictly a matter of personal preference.
This undeniable theatrical talent may qualify him for an Oscar — but his reverential embrace by the West as a hybrid Nelson Mandela/Vaclav Havel — with a dash of Churchill — provides the most compelling evidence of how total the disengagement from reality has become. Zelensky’s wholly fictitious recounting of events — or non-events — then are broadcast as Gospel Truth by complicit, believing media from New York to Melbourne; a perverse variation on the children’s game “Simon Says.”
The oddity in this woeful performance lies not in the serial misjudgments per se. It is that most are not the outcome of a deliberate policy process. Rather, they appear as rash, compulsive and disconnected effusions.
These decisions and actions express an irrepressible urge to fill a want, a desire, a selfish need. They are expected to achieve their aim because that is the natural outcome due the privileged self. This behavioral pattern is pure narcissism — writ large for the collective elite persona.
When Reality Confronts Narcissism
It would be erroneous to call this behavior gambling. Gamblers know the odds, they calibrate risk in full knowledge of what the chances of success are balanced against a clear prospective gain. That kind of conscious rationality is absent from the examples noted above.
For a gambler, awareness of realities is crucial; for a narcissistic policy-maker, inhabiting a fantasy world, what they see of reality and how they see it is dictated by subjective want and desire.
What happens when reality punches the narcissist(s) in the face? When the Russian army is on the Dnieper? When deindustrialization joins with inflation to drag the EU into depression? When the Sino-Russian bloc of BRICS breaks the American controlled phalanx of financial overlords? When Saudi Arabia waves good-bye?
When prized organizations of the collective West start to take on the appearance of Wall Street gentlemen’s clubs in 1935 whose complacent and self-satisfied members gazed out the mullioned windows at the growing crowd of militant protestors?
Mythology and fantasy can be expected to remain resilient. Denial, doubling-down, scapegoating, recrimination, more and more audacious adventures are the instinctive responses.
For to come to terms with reality carries two intolerable threats to the narcissistic self:
1) exposing as mere conceit the core, unconscious premise that the world ultimately will always accommodate itself to your wants and needs; and
2) admission of wrong — conceptual, behavioral, interpretative — is fatally incompatible with the exalted sense of self. Vietnam is the outstanding example — demonstrating how powerful, and effective, is the impulse to forget whatever disconcerts the core of one’s being.
The most obvious and important implication is that Americans will be ever more dependent on maintaining that sense of exceptionalism and superiority that is the foundation of their national personality.
A fragile psyche, weak in self-esteem and prowess, is sensitive to signs of its decline or ordinariness. It follows that every conflictual encounter is magnified, loaded with the full weight of the compulsive campaign to confirm a now jeopardized sense of national greatness.
Hence, the obsession with curbing China. Hence, the United States will continue to exert itself energetically on the global stage rather than become progressively more selective in its engagements and choice of methods for fulfilling them.
Continuity is a lot easier than reorientation. It doesn’t demand fresh thinking and different skills. Quite frankly, today, the caliber of high- and mid-level personnel would have to be upgraded. Less amateurism and careerism, more experience and sophisticated knowledge.
It follows that the United States will not negotiate any Ukrainian peace deal that satisfies Moscow’s primary conditions.
It follows that its mano y mano contest with China will escalate as Washington resorts to increasingly drastic measures — more so since early indicators of success are disconcertingly rare.
It follows that Washington will pull out all stops to coerce smaller, vulnerable BRICS states back into the fold.
It follows that schemes will be devised to stymie the ramifications of the Saudi-Iranian détente — all in cahoots with Israel.
It will accelerate and expand its new-found statist industrial policy whereby a trillion or is funneled to the big players in high tech, IT and energy while erecting barriers to foreign involvement in the American economy.
It will do so even as it continues to demand that the rest of the world abide by neoliberal strictures that open the way for American financial and corporate profit seekers.
The Tender American Ego
As I have written in an earlier commentary:
Americans are struggling to draw into focus their exalted image of themselves and reality. They are not doing a very good job of it. The gap is wide and growing.
Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with — whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective persona are inseparable.
No other country tries so relentlessly to live its legend as does the U.S. Today, events are occurring that contradict the American narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.
Americanism acts as a Unified Field Theory of self-identity, collective enterprise, and the Republic’s enduring meaning. When one element is felt to be jeopardy, the integrity of the whole edifice becomes vulnerable. In the past, American mythology energized the country in ways that helped it to thrive. Today, it is a dangerous hallucinogen that traps Americans in a time warp more and more distant from reality.
A drive to revalidate on presumed virtue and singularly now impels what America does in the world. Hence, the calculated stress placed on slogans like “democracy vs autocracy.” That is a neat metaphor for the uneasy position in which Uncle Sam finds himself these days.
The U.S. proudly pronounces its enduring greatness from every lectern and altar in the land, pledges to hold its standing as global No. 1 forever and ever; yet, it constantly bumps its head against an unaccommodating reality.
Instead of downsizing the monumental juggernaut or applying itself to a delicate raising of the arch, the U.S. makes repeated attempts to fit through in a vain effort to bend the world to fit its mythology. Evocation of the Concussion Protocol is in order — but nobody wants to admit that sobering truth.
The Russia Animus
Among the many oddities of the Ukraine affair, the most astonishing is the frenzy of hostile passion directed at Putin, Russia and everything Russian. Nothing close to this has been seen since World War II when Hitler and the Nazis were Satan incarnate. Even then, it was not everything German that was cast as evil. That total condemnation was reserved for the Japanese.
During the depths of the Cold War, it was Communism and the Soviet Union that were the object of fear and antipathy – not quite completely synonymous with Russia.
This puzzling phenomenon cries out for explanation. The first thing to be said on this score, is that the passion and drive have come from American elites. There has been no great wave of popular outrage, no mass demonstrations, no blood-curdling calls for revenge and punishment. No post-9/11 national trauma.
Instead, the fury is generated by our government leaders (Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland, Harris, Pelosi, Cruz); from the media world’s clueless news presenters-cum-propogandists, from the seemingly demonically possessed editors of The New York Times who have discovered the thrills of ‘yellow journalism,’ from the likes of Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, from the scores of Nobel Prize winners who in concert have lent their weight to the crusade; from the university presidents presiding over pious vigils who are thankful that the spotlight is shifting away from the innumerable scandals they are paid hefty sums to whitewash; and the Gold Medal to the International Olympic Committee who bans crippled athletes from competing in the Winter Paralympics because their passport says ‘Russia’.
All are hugely self-satisfied. None of them ever blinked an eye as the United States for 20 years has killed, maimed, starved and tortured hundreds of thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria et. al. in exercises of brutality that have left the country’s security in a more precarious state than when the onslaught began.
Why the Historical Hostility?
The United States and Russia have never fought a war. No bad blood is between them. The one, minor incidence involved the American expeditionary force deployed near Archangel and at Vladivostok during the Russian civil war in 1918-1919.
This symbolic gesture led to just a handful of casualties. There also were a few dogfights over the Yalu River in Korea where some MIG pilots reportedly were Russian. That’s it. It is doubtful that more than one American in a thousand ever heard of those incidents.
The Cold War, admittedly, was a multi-layered hostile confrontation that lasted for 40 years. But military combat was limited to proxies. Then, too, the two countries were allies in the great test of World War II. Without Soviet/Russian fortitude and sacrifice, Germany may not have been defeated.
In other words, one sees no basis for the visceral antagonism toward Russia and Russians now on display. Among many, even at the highest levels, emotions shade into outright hatred.
It is hard to find equivalents; that is to say, analogous passions certainly are to be found in the annals of history, but never against an essentially benign background. Hormone rushes and sound policy are not compatible.
Societies all have affinities and aversions with others based on race, ethnicity, language, ideology or religion. They can lead to empathy and bonding or a sense of separation and distaste. Often, the latter sentiments have fueled or aggravated competition and conflict. The examples are too numerous and obvious to denote.
When we turn our attention to Russo-American mutual perceptions, we observe little in the way of rooted ascriptive divisions. Both are overwhelmingly Caucasian and Christian in heritage. Catholic vs Orthodox rivalries are distant in time and place. Ethnically, Slavic Russia does not stand in stark contrast to the multitudinous American mix.
The contrasts and divergences derive from the all-out ideological war between the Soviet Union’s aggressive secularism accompanying Communism’s threat to Western politico-economic foundations.
A Nation of Shared Delusions
Americans are good at forgetting. They also are good at relying on national myths to keep their lives buoyant. The two go together. To make sense of this we should recognize that the essence of the American experience is the common belief that the country was born as Destiny’s child – hence, American history is viewed as a pageant of progress, of achievement, of success, of fulfillment.
Any deviation from that exalted norm has to be neutralized. That is done by one of a number of ways: by recasting the occurrence as something other than what it in fact was (Korea; in a minor key Venezuela); shift time perspectives to highlight less negative images (Pearl Harbor and World War II); foster a deceptive narrative from the start (Syria, Ukraine); sublimate.
A country that was “born against history” had no past to define and shape the present. A country that was born against tradition had no rooted and common sense of meaning and value that cut deeply into the national psyche. A country that was born against inherited place and position left each individual at once free to acquire status and obliged to do so for insignia of rank were few.
Strenuous displays of patriotism have a contrived cast to them. They suggest strained efforts to overcome doubt more than they do genuine pride and conviction. National self-confidence is not demonstrated by gigantic flags seen everywhere from used car lots to hot sheet motels, the ubiquitous lapel pin, the loud and gaudy demonstrations of chauvinism at sporting matches, the bombast of shock jockeys, or the belittling and condescending treatment of other peoples. Rather, those are sure signs of weakness, doubt and insecurity.
Here, again, we have a discrepancy between public attitudes in general and political elites – especially the foreign affairs community. Its pivot is less intellectual than it is one of feelings: pride, self-esteem and national esteem. It is among the latter that we find an acute concern about America’s standing as Number 1 in the world: supreme, dominant, and hegemonic. A gnawing sense that the U.S. is losing that status, that it is becoming an ’ordinary’ power is unsettling.
Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with – whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective persona are inseparable.
No other country tries so relentlessly to live its legend as does the U.S. Today, events are occurring that contradict the American narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.
America’s exalted sense of self is rooted in the belief that Americans are pace-setters and world beaters in every domain. The state of affairs sketched above – marked by impulsive enterprises that underline a foredoomed, audacious ambition to gain global dominance – does not represent cool strategic judgment.
It is the national equivalent of ostentatious iron-pumping by bodybuilders worried about losing muscle tone. Those worries never disappear, though, even as one becomes muscle-bound striving ever more energetically to reassure oneself that nothing is creeping up behind you. The mirror is much preferred to the backward glance. More important, they fool themselves into the false belief that other, more relevant adjustments to reality are either unnecessary or intolerable.
The tension associated with a nation so constituted encountering objective reality does not force heightened self-awareness or a change in behavior if the dominant feature of that reality is the attitudes and expressed opinions of others who share the underlying delusions.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.