Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-American Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Russians pride themselves on an awareness of “living history”—memories of past events whose recurrence or consequences continue to influence current politics. The phenomenon known as “Russiagate” suggests that many Americans have less such awareness or memories, though this may be partly generational. Cohen, who is old enough to be emeritus (retired) at two universities, has vivid memories of past events and practices that are precedents ignored by today’s promoters of Russiagate. He discusses the following examples:
§ A fundamental tenet of Russiagate is that the Kremlin sought, primarily through social media but not only, “to create or exacerbate divisions in American society and politics.” Even if true, there is no evidence that this purported campaign had any meaningful impact on how Americans voted in the 2016 presidential elections. And even if true, the social and political “divisions” were hardly comparable to those experienced by Cohen and his generation of Americans, which included segregation and the black civil-rights struggle (Cohen grew up in the Jim Crow South); the social-political barricade in American life generated by the Vietnam War (Cohen was draft-age and a graduate student at Columbia during the 1968 events on that campus); or the religious-political division over abortion rights during several electoral cycles. And these “divisions” leave aside those associated with Watergate, which drove a president from office, and the actual impeachment of President Bill Clinton. To assert that the much lesser “divisions” in 2016 were any less American in origin or needed to be exacerbated by Russia is a kind of unwitting or willful amnesia. Certainly, such allegations are uninformed by history.
§ Closely related is the allegation that “Russian propaganda and disinformation” has been playing, at least since 2016, an oversized role in American life and continues to do so. But Cohen vividly recalls, at least since his schoolboy days in Kentucky, that this was an everyday allegation back then as well, including during the civil-rights struggle. Indeed, the primary source of those dire warnings was none other than the longtime director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, whose writings were very often assigned readings in schools. Hoover’s essential theme was, of course, that Americans posing as loyal citizens were actually agents of Soviet (Russian) Communist “propaganda and disinformation.” And that allegation was also widely used for political purposes, and perhaps widely believed. Still more, when blacklisting came to Hollywood in the 1950s, films were “investigated” for latent “Communist propaganda,” which was purportedly found. This was a search, so to speak, for “Russian trolls” in the movies, and Cohen cites a particularly preposterous example, not unlike those being found today in ongoing investigations.