Periodically, America experiences episodes of mass, hysterical contagion.
What is “hysterical contagion”? A sociologist explains it as the spread of symptoms of an illness among a group, absent any physiological disease. It provides a way of coping with a situation that cannot be handled with the usual coping mechanism.
For example, in 1983, girls in the West Bank fell ill, one after the other. Soon, all the schools and finally the entire community were engulfed, affected with the same symptoms. Arab doctors implicated the Israelis. But of course. The Israeli occupation had poisoned the girls by gas to reduce their fertility. When real doctors arrived on the scene to examine the neurotics, the girls were pronounced physically healthy.
The frenzied behavior known as mass hysteria or hysterical contagion is well-documented. The Trump-Russia “collusion,” “obstruction of justice” probe qualifies, with an exception: This particular form of mass madness involves not physical symptoms such as those observed in the West Bank, but a meme, a storyline. Rumors for which no evidence can possibly be adduced are recounted as facts. Naturally licit behavior – such as diplomacy with Russia – is criminalized by a federal government that has enough laws on the books to indict each one of us, if it so desired.
Indeed, the Establishment and opposition elites have poisoned the country’s collective consciousness. However, it’s the emotional pitch with which the Trump-Russia collusion groupthink is delivered, day in and day out, that has gripped and inflamed irrational, febrile minds.
What sociology terms “a collective preoccupation” is fueled by organizational and communication networks. Friendship networks and work organizations (think government departments infested with like-minded individuals) serve as nodes in a system that transmits faulty signals across the synapses of a collective, damaged brain.
The political storyline du jour is manufactured by America’s gilded elites. To this, D.C. operative Karl Rove confessed during the era of Bush II: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
When you’re the most powerful entity in the world, as the U.S. government certainly is, you get to manufacture your own parallel universe with its unique rules of evidence and standards of proof. What’s more, as the mightiest rule-maker, you can coerce other earthlings into “sharing” your alternate reality. Or else.
The manufacturing of fake news by the Deep State, circa 2017, is of a piece with the anatomy of the ramp-up to war in Iraq, in 2003. (Chronicled in achingly painful detail in “Broad Sides: One Woman’s Clash With A Corrupt Culture.”) Except that back then, Republicans, joined by diabolical Democrats like Hillary Clinton, played a lead role in dreaming up Homer Simpson’s Third Dimension.
Conscripted into America’s reality, Iraqis paid the price of this terrible American concoction. Hundreds of thousands of them were displaced and killed due to “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Because of fake news generated so effectively by the likes of Judith Chalabi Miller, the Gray Lady’s prized reporter at the time, American soldiers paid dearly, as well. Miller shilled for that war over the pages of the New York Times like there was no tomorrow. She’s now a Fox News “expert.”
To manufacture consent, elements in the intelligence community worked with neoconservative counterparts in Bush 43’s administration, in particularity with “the Office of Special Plans.” And while fake-news babes did wonders to sex up the cause of senseless killing stateside, the dissemination of fake news, vis-a-vis Iraq, was hardly the exclusive province of Fox News. With some laudable exceptions, Big Media all were tuned-out, turned-on and hot for war.
Now, it’s all-out war on Trump. Then, the same Machine aligned against Iraq.
Salient in 2003, as in 2017, was the monolithic quality of the cheer-leading coming from the networks, an unquestioning uniformity that spoke to a slutty sell-out throughout the media establishment. For journalistic jingoism, it’s impossible to best the coverage of the high-tech media extravaganza known as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
“Embedded” with the military turned out to be a euphemism for in bed with the military. Practically all network embeds focused exclusively on the Pentagon’s version of events, to the exclusion of reality on the Iraqi ground. Yet reporters who slept with their sources were treated as paragons of truth. Those of us who refused such cohabitation were labeled “unilaterals.” (This column paid with a syndication deal.)
Reporting hearsay as truth and failing to verify stories were all in a day’s work on cable and news networks. A Geiger counter that went off in the inexpert hands of a Marine, stationed in Iraq, became “breaking news,” possible evidence of weapons-grade plutonium. Every bottle of Cipro tablets located was deemed a likely precursor to an anthrax factory. Anchormen and women somberly seconded these “finds,” seldom bothering to issue retractions.
To comprehend the hysterical mass contagion that is the war on Trump, it’s essential to trace the contours of that other war, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and the way it was peddled to the American public.
The war on Trump could end badly. By “badly,” I don’t mean the violent silencing of conservatives and their speakers on campuses and beyond, or media muckraking, meant to overturn or shape election outcomes, or the firebombing of Republican Party headquarters (October 2016), or the attempted murder of Republicans representatives (June 2017).
These are barbaric. But if past is prologue, the frenzy of inflamed imaginations could spill over into all-out war – against Russia, Iran or North Korea.