The political situation in the United States has been disheartening for a number of years. At least part of this is due to the fact that utterly trivial—and, more to the point, purposefully distracting—provocations are being mistaken, over and over again, for states of emergency, worth responding to at any cost.
I often find myself thinking about Slavoj Žižek’s writings on Stalin’s show trials: Žižek specifically highlights moments during those politically fake procedures—which were not trials in any real sense, but dramaturgical events, literal theater, administrative stagecraft—wherein Communist Party members broke out in laughter at the earnest replies of people trying to defend themselves against imaginary accusations.
Part of that laughter, if you will permit me to paraphrase Žižek from memory, was directed at the sheer absurdity of seeing someone take the trials seriously, of watching a person genuinely and truthfully engage with the charges—disloyalty, treason, betrayal, whatever. Party members witnessing these acts of earnest self-defense correctly perceived them as a perverse and comedic misunderstanding of the position those defendants found themselves in. It was the laughter of embarrassed disbelief: wait, you think all this is real?
We—that is, huge sectors of the U.S. electorate—seem stuck in almost exactly this scenario today, one of humiliating misperception. Just this weekend, for example, “news” broke that the current U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, implied that Mary Louise Kelly, a veteran reporter from NPR, had misidentified Bangladesh as Ukraine. This set off a still-ongoing, grotesquely earnest attempt by hundreds of Twitter users to defend the NPR reporter’s cartographic awareness, saying that, no, she studied abroad, she has been a journalist for decades, she is Ivy League-educated; she clearly doesn’t think that Bangladesh is Ukraine. Satirical maps have been produced, entire articles written. (To be clear, Kelly all but certainly knows the difference between Bangladesh and Ukraine—it was a childish and idiotic thing for Pompeo to imply.)
“There is no way [this reporter], who has a master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge, confused Bangladesh and Ukraine,” one person tweeted, wasting their time (and getting 2,000 retweets). “The notion that [this reporter] would confuse Ukraine with Bangladesh on a map is so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit comment,” one person commented, wasting their time (and that of 518 people who quickly retweeted her). “Is this the Secretary of State / the top U.S. diplomat, 4th in line for the presidency / claiming that [this reporter] / a Cambridge-educated journalist who’s covered Europe, the Pentagon & the intel community / was asked to identify Ukraine on a map / and pointed to Bangladesh?” another person wrote, where my slashes indicate the use of annoyingly stylized Twitter formatting, not only wasting his time but that of 660 people who retweeted him (and, now, my own, spent writing this post).
Hold on—to be honest, I’m still not clear I really get this. Could someone repeat it? Again and again? “So let me get this straight,” another person tweeted, hoping to drop the mic once and for all (alas…). “Pompeo accuses [this reporter] – a former national security correspondent with a degree in government from Harvard and a Masters in European studies from Cambridge – of misidentifying Bangladesh as Ukraine.” Wait, did he say Harvard? As in Harvard University? (Never mind the absurdity of this entire line of argument. George W. Bush went to Yale, for God’s sake—yes, Yale University, an actual college—he was governor of Texas, and he was President of the United States for eight years, yet many of these same people would immediately—and, in my opinion, justifiably—believe a story that Bush had misidentified the location of Ukraine. I mean, Mike Pompeo went to Harvard! This entire argument is ridiculous.)
Anyway, if you want to feel your brain being slowly sucked out of your head, have fun.
At the end of the day, hundreds of professional journalists and random opinioneers have spent hours—an entire weekend—arguing whether or not a specific person at NPR knows the difference between Ukraine and Bangladesh. The stakes of this argument are so low as to be imperceptible, the waste of time involved both astonishing and sad, the earnestness in defending this person so out-of-tune with the initial provocation that the only reason not to laugh is sheer despair at the fact that many of these same people will do it again and again—and again and again—endlessly falling for what amount to social-media show trials. (In fact, there is already a new controversy; it is already happening again.)
There seems to be a fatal misbelief that minor symbolic events, almost like voodoo dolls, can be used to trigger larger systemic changes on a higher, more important layer in the political sphere. This is only rarely true, unfortunately, and it is really not politics but a form of performance art resembling ritual magic.
In the process, an endless landslide of trivial distractions has been steadily eliminating the ground needed for systemic political change. People who might once have been an opposition—or, even better, people who might once have been leaders capable of articulating a clear way forward, rather than a muddled, shy, often weirdly apologetic way to resist someone else’s initiative—are left genuinely believing that if only Mike Pompeo could be forced to admit that an NPR reporter knows where Ukraine is, then some sort of symbolic, magical goal will be achieved.
At its most basic, imagine that this NPR reporter did, in fact, misidentify the location of Ukraine. Imagine that she totally and truly botched it. The pillars of the world would crumble! Like that day Obama wore a tan suit—total chaos. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.
Imagine that, with everything going on today, this is what you care about.
It’s as if the U.S. polity—sadly, including people who share my voting record—is under an almost literal distraction spell. Donald Trump could tweet that Bernie Sanders doesn’t know the difference between a soup bowl and the Super Bowl, and, my God, man, didn’t you know that Bernie went to the University of Chicago? (889 retweets)