“The first casualty when war comes is the truth.”
– Sen Hiram Johnson (R-CA) (1917)
As Barataria has noted before, the United States appears to be at war. This war, primarily with Putin’s Russia, is a new kind of war with weaponized disinformation and division.
It is important to note, however, that the US is far from the only target, nor is it entirely innocent. More critically there are actors within the US who are exploiting the war for their own benefit – a new kind of war profiteering for a new kind of war. It is easy to compare this to McCarthyism, but the implications are potentially more vast.
Senator Hiram Johnson made his famous quote when the US was entering World War I. He was dismayed by the rush to demonize Germany and projections that the US was going to easily sweep aside a demoralized field stuck in the mud. The experience of the US since this time, reasonably the start of the American Century of global projection, tells us there is more to fear.
Democracy and an open society are based on truth. They are clearly also early casualties of war.
A report from the BBC highlights UK Prime Minister May’s assertion that Russia has “Attempted to weaponize imformation … in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.” A list of 18 nations whose elections were influenced by social media has been produced and it includes nearly all large Western democracies.
Yet to be included was the Brexit vote, which reasonably was also tainted – and probably should be run again for just this reason. This may yet develop as a political point in the UK
There is indeed a new kind of war going on and a gradually increasing sense of panic over it. So far, however, it’s been up to a few footsoldiers to make any use of this situation, and many have their own agendas. So far, this new war is more about exploitation of Democracy rather than defending it.
For example, NFL players taking a knee in protest is a simple act started by Colin Kaepernick as a personal gesture based on his own feelings. How did it get whipped up into the frenzy that envelops politics and the NFL? Largely by Russian trolls, it turns out. That simple fact has been twisted by Sen Lankford (R-OK) to suggest that the players themselves are paid by Russia.
This is simply the flipside of Putin’s assertion that pro-democracy protesters in Russia, Ukraine, and other nations are in fact paid and organized by US intelligence agencies. Statements in support of these protesters is given as evidence. This nonsense was a feature of a lot of coverage of Ukraine, easily influenced by the fact that it far away from Americans’ minds.
Given US politics, it is hard to imagine an administration standing silently by while a pro-democracy rally is held in an authoritarian nation. But to Putin, and a large number of people who are willing to believe any number of bad things about the CIA/et al, this makes it all our responsibility. Who fired the first shot in this war? Those attacking the US right now will say that we did.
This is the reality that was first noted by Sen Johnson at the start of the American Century. Since this new kind of war is continuous and can occur well underneath the daily grind of most ordinary people, it is an ideal kind of war for authoritarian governments. It is also very useful for anyone who wants to consolidate power in our democracy as well. It’s all below the surface.
Who or what can anyone believe anymore?
The very process of engaging this new war is obviously going to require a democratic response. Social media is supposedly a democratic institution in itself, made up of millions of individual actors. Yet most of them lack the critical skills necessary to evaluate truth and participate in a truly open, democratic process. Our nation, now weary of wars hot and cold, has been more of a Republic leaning towards an empire for far too long.
There is only one answer to defend democracy. We have to all insist on it, believe in it, and unite around it. There is much that we have to improve in the US, certainly, but we have to rally around the principle that we can only solve our problems together, unafraid.
The war? The same applies. The only force strong enough to defeat the US and democracy around the world is democracy itself, turned inward and angry. We cannot let that happen.