A Wilderness of Lies

Way back in the before times, a regular feature of the media was the Kremlinologist, who would be brought in to explain something about the Soviet Union. Strictly speaking, Kremlinology and Sovietology were different things. The former focused on Russia and its role in the Soviet system. The latter focused on the Soviet Union as a whole, as if it was a single organism. The terms were often used interchangeably in the Cold War.

Further, the media version of the Kremlinologist was something like the court astrologer, in that they were tasked with using their secret knowledge to explain what was happening with the Russians. If Brezhnev was seen as distracted at a public ceremony, the Kremlinologist would be brought in to explain its meaning. The Kremlinologist became a carnival act toward the end of the Cold War.

Kremlinology and Sovietology were useful to statecraft, however, as the Soviet system was a black box. The West had its spies, but many of those spies were double agents used to feed the West false information. In the wilderness of mirrors that was the rivalry between East and West, the Kremlinologist was useful in helping to sort the facts from the deliberate fictions. They helped contextualize Kremlin behavior.

No doubt the roles are now reversed. The rest of the world is forced to develop experts at analyzing the American regime in order to understand what is going on in Washington and why it is happening. The administrations of Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama were like the Brezhnev period of the Soviet Union. The rhetoric changed from one administration to the next, but public policy, especially foreign policy, did not change.

“When consuming American media, you start with the assumption that the narrative is false.”

Then we get Donald Trump. The logic of the American political class said that a populist firebrand could never win a primary, much less a general election. The system made sure of that after the Perot and Buchanan scares. Trump wins and official Washington has a nervous breakdown trying to expel him from the capital. Eventually they replaced Trump with a dementia patient and the empire no longer makes any sense.

The Soviet analogy is not a perfect one, of course. Trump was more like Khrushchev, a reformer who failed to reform the system and was pushed out by hardliners. Biden, on the other hand, is a good analog for Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, two men long past their prime, who were installed as placeholders. They did not last long and were eventually replaced with a younger man, which is what will happen with Biden.

Historical analogies are not supposed to be perfect. They are simply a useful way to use the past to shed light on the present. As the American empire follows down a similar path as the Soviet empire, the comparisons between the two are helpful in understanding what is happening in Washington. Just like the Kremlinologist of yesteryear, we are left to guess about the internal workings of the ruling regime.

That is another aspect of Kremlinology useful for us today. Outside the system, academics in the West pored over publicly available information to explain to the public what was happening inside the Kremlin. American intelligence did the same thing but relied on data not available to the public. Inside the Soviet empire, however, people came to understand their rulers using similar techniques.

For example, no one living in Russia accepted what was told to them through state media as the truth. It could be true but was most likely false. The game was to figure out what the lies meant. Instead of poring over photos in the newspapers, citizens relied on their personal networks to provide a narrative that explained what they could see happening around them. There was public truth and private truth.

This is something Americans are learning. When consuming American media, you start with the assumption that the narrative is false. The framing of the story is always a self-serving fairy tale. You eliminate that and then try to figure out a new narrative from the facts that can be verified. Figuring out what is really happening has become a booming industry for independent commentators and analysts.

You see this with the Covid panic. The one thing everyone agrees upon is that the virus did not start from a bat market in rural China. That is the official explanation, but everyone knows it is a lie. Similarly, few people think the government measures have much to do with public health and safety. Some do, but they are mostly old people more afraid of the Grim Reaper than being lied to by their government. The result is we have lots of theories about what is “really happening” behind the Covid scare.

Similarly, the militarization of Washington is becoming another topic for regime experts to analyze. The bizarre reaction of the inner party to the very peaceful demonstrations in January makes no sense at face value. There must be another reason for why they are telling the citizens that they will shoot the next demonstrators who come into the city to petition their rulers for redress. The question is, what are they plotting next?

That is the problem with black-box government. When Brezhnev was in control of the party, people did not need to know what was going inside the Kremlin, because the Kremlin was predictable. It is why Russians who remember those days look back fondly on those times. It was a time relatively free of politics. They woke up every day knowing the rules were going to be the same as they were yesterday. When the black box became unstable, no one could be sure of anything.

This is the state of the American regime. No one knows what is really going behind the razor wire and Army troops patrolling it. We are left to analyze video of Biden falling down the stairs of Air Force One and reading the body language of his handlers. Amateur linguists try to tease meaning out of his incoherent mutterings on Zoom sessions. The other geriatrics running the party are scrutinized by regime analysts, looking for clues to contextualize their behavior.

Like the Soviet empire, the American empire is now a confusing black box. It does things and makes noises, but none of it can be accepted on its face, so the world is left to guess. As citizens, we are forced to rely on private networks and create our own narratives to explain what we are seeing. There is the public truth and then millions of private truths. This is the result of black-box government. It is a wilderness of lies.


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