Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fwd: Something to Know - 11 October (Part #4 Atlantic Monthly)

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From: Juan Matute
Date: Thu, Oct 11, 2018 at 11:09 AM
Subject: Something to Know - 11 October (Part #4 Atlantic Monthly)
To: Juan Matute 

Jim Morin Comic Strip for October 11, 2018

This is Part 4 of the Atlantic Magazine., October issue, entitled "Is Democracy Dying":


 ORWELL TO KOESTLER, the European writers of the 20th century were obsessed with the idea of the Big Lie. The vast ideological constructs that were Communism and fascism, the posters demanding fealty to the Party or the Leader, the Brownshirts and Blackshirts marching in forma tion, the torch-lit parades, the terror police—these Big Lies were so absurd and inhuman, they required prolonged violence to impose and the threat of violence to maintain. They required forced education, total control of all culture, the politicization of journalism, sports, literature, and the arts. 
By contrast, the polarizing political movements of 21stcentury Europe demand much less of their adherents. They don't require belief in a full-blown ideology, and thus they don't require violence or terror police. They don't force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production. Most of them don't deploy propaganda that con icts with everyday reality. And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie, or perhaps a clutch of Medium-Size Lies. To put it di erently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality. Sometimes that alternative reality has developed organically; more often, it's been carefully formulated, with the help of modern marketing techniques, audience segmentation, and social-media campaigns. 
Americans are of course familiar with the ways a lie can increase polarization and inflame xenophobia: Donald Trump entered American politics on the back of birtherism, the false premise that President Barack Obama was not born in America—a conspiracy theory whose power was seriously underestimated at the time, and that paved the way for other lies, from "Mexican rapists" to "Pizzagate." But in Poland, and in Hungary too, we now have examples of what happens when a Medium-Size Lie—a conspiracy theory—is propagated fi rst by a political party as the central plank of its election campaign, and then by a ruling party, with the full force of a modern, centralized state apparatus behind it.
In Hungary, the lie is unoriginal: It is the belief, shared by the Russian government and the American alt-right, in the super human powers of George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire who is supposedly plotting to bring down the nation through the deliberate importation of migrants, even though no such migrants exist in Hungary. 
In Poland, at least the lie is sui generis. It is the Smolensk conspiracy theory: the belief that a nefarious plot brought down the president's plane in April 2010. The story has special force in Poland because the crash had eerie historical echoes. The president who died, Lech Kaczyński, was on his way to an event commemorating the massacre in Katyn, the place where Stalin murdered more than 21,000 Poles—a big chunk of the country's elite—in 1940. Dozens of senior military fi gures and politicians were also on board, many of them friends of mine. My husband reckons that he knew everybody on the plane, including the flight attendants. 
A huge wave of emotion followed the accident. A kind of hysteria, something like the madness that took hold in the United States after 9/11, engulfed the nation. Television announcers wore black mourning ties; friends gathered at our Warsaw apartment to talk about history repeat ing itself in that dark, damp Russian forest. At fi rst the tragedy seemed to unify the country. After all, politicians from every major party had been on the plane, and huge funerals were held in many cities. Even Vladimir Putin, then the Russian prime minister, seemed moved. He went to Smolensk to meet Tusk, then the Polish prime minister, on the evening of the crash. The next day, one of Russia's most-watched television channels broadcast Katyn, an emotional and very anti-Soviet Polish lm, directed by Andrzej Wajda, the country's greatest director. Nothing like it has ever been shown so widely in Russia, before or since. 
But the crash did not bring people together. Nor did the investigation into its cause.
Teams of Polish experts were on the ground that same day. They did their best to identify bodies, many of which were nothing but ash. They examined the wreckage. Once the black box was found, they began to transcribe the cockpit tape. The truth, as it began to emerge, was not comforting to the Law and Justice Party or to its leader, the dead president's twin brother. The plane had taken o late; the president was likely in a hurry to land, because he wanted to use the trip to launch his reelection campaign. There was thick fog in Smolensk, which did not have a real airport, just a landing strip in the forest; the pilots considered diverting the plane, which would have meant a drive of several hours to the ceremony. After the president had a brief phone call with his brother, his advisers apparently pressed the pilots to land. Some of them, against protocol, walked in and out of the cockpit during the fl ight. Also against protocol, the chief of the air force came and sat beside the pilots. "Zmieścisz się śmiało"—"You'll make it, be bold," he said. Seconds later, the plane collided with the tops of some birch trees, rolled over, and hit the ground. 
Initially, Jarosław Kaczyński seems to have believed that the crash was an accident. "It's your fault and the fault of the tabloids," he told my husband, then the foreign minister, who informed him of the crash. By that, he meant that it was the government's fault because, intimidated by populist journalism, it had refused to buy new airplanes. But as the investigation unfolded, its findings were not to his liking. There was nothing wrong with the plane.
Perhaps, like so many people who rely on conspiracy theories to make sense of random tragedies, Kaczyński simply couldn't accept that his beloved brother had died pointlessly; perhaps he could not accept the even more dif- cult fact that the evidence suggested Lech and his team had pressured the pilots to land, thus causing the crash. Or perhaps, like Donald Trump, he saw how a conspiracy theory could help him attain power. 
Much as Trump used birtherism and the fabricated threat of immigrant crime to motivate his core supporters, Kaczyński has used the Smolensk tragedy to galvanize his followers, and convince them not to trust the government or the media. Sometimes he has implied that the Russian government downed the plane. At other times, he has blamed the former ruling party, now the largest opposition party, for his brother's death: "You destroyed him, you murdered him, you are scum!" he once shouted in parliament.
None of his accusations can be proved, however. Perhaps to distance himself somewhat from the lies that needed to be told, he gave the job of promoting the conspiracy theory to one of his oldest and strangest comrades. Antoni Macierewicz is a member of Kaczyński's generation, a longtime anti-Communist, though one with some weird friends and habits. His odd stare and his obsessions— he has said that he finds the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be a plausible document—even led the Law and Justice Party to make an election promise in 2015: Macierewicz would definitely not be the defense minister.
But as soon as the party won, Kaczyński broke that promise and appointed Macierewicz. Immediately, Macierewicz began to institutionalize the Smolensk lie. He created a new investigation commission composed of cranks, among them an ethnomusicologist, a retired pilot, a psychologist, a Russian economist, and other people with no knowledge of air crashes. The previous o cial report was removed from a government website. Police entered the homes of the aviation experts who had testi fied during the original investigation, interrogated them, and con fiscated their computers. When Macierewicz went to Washington, D.C., to meet his American counterparts at the Pentagon, the first thing he did was ask whether U.S. intelligence had any secret information on Smolensk. I'm told that the reaction was widespread concern about the minister's mental state. 
When, some weeks after the election, European institutions and human-rights groups began responding to the actions of the Law and Justice government, they focused on the undermining of the courts and public media. They didn't focus on the institutionalization of the Smolensk conspiracy theory, which was, frankly, just too weird for outsiders to understand. And yet the decision to put a fantasy at the heart of government policy really was the source of the authoritarian actions that followed. 
Although the Macierewicz commission has never produced a credible alternate explanation for the crash, the Smolensk lie laid the moral groundwork for other lies. Those who could accept this elaborate theory, with no evidence whatsoever, could accept anything. They could accept, for example, the broken promise not to put Macierewicz in the government. They could accept—even though Law and Justice is supposedly a "patriotic" and antiRussian party—Macierewicz's decisions to re many of the country's highest military commanders, to cancel weapons contracts, to promote people with odd Russian links, to raid a NATO facility in Warsaw in the middle of the night. The lie also gave the foot soldiers of the far right an ideological basis for tolerating other offenses. Whatever mistakes the party might make, whatever laws it might break, at least the "truth" about Smolensk would finally be told.
The Smolensk conspiracy theory, like the Hungarian migration conspiracy theory, served another purpose: For a younger generation that no longer remembered Communism, and a society where former Communists had largely disappeared from politics, it offered a new reason to distrust the politicians, business people, and intellectuals who had emerged from the struggles of the 1990s and now led the country. More to the point, it offered a means of defining a new and better elite. There was no need for competition, or for exams, or for a résumé bristling with achievements. Anyone who professes belief in the Smolensk lie is by definition a true patriot—and, incidentally, might well qualify for a government job. 

Part 5 tomorrow


"...(burp)...what goes around comes around."
- B. Kavanaugh


"...(burp)...what goes around comes around."
- B. Kavanaugh

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