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“A kind of comfort to conspiracy”

June 26, 2020

Sean Guillory’s SRB Podcast is always worth listening to, and I especially loved the recent episode Plots against Russia with guest Eliot Borenstein of the All the Russias’ blog, who is incredible at using academic theories to discuss big topical subjects in language that’s light on jargon. Here is Borenstein on the double meaning of “plot” (meaning conspiracy or a narrative that holds together):

The familiar thing for scholars of conspiracy in the West, I think, is this notion that the tendency to see conspiracies is connected to a kind of pattern recognition mechanism in our minds, which is very much like the way we put together stories and we tell stories. When I’m teaching narrative to my students, I point out that we have strange expectations of our fictional narratives. We expect them to hold together really well, and when they don’t hold together well, there’s something wrong with it. But if our own lives held together that well, it would be like we’re living in The Truman Show or something.

The example I give is you have a story, like a John Updike–type story, only it’s set in, say, suburban New Jersey, where a husband and wife are having conflicts, and they have a fight, and the husband goes off to work by commuter train, and then a plane hits his building, and he’s dead. That’s reality, but that’s a terrible plot, because what happens to the guy at that point has nothing to do with what’s been happening beforehand. And so when strange things like planes hitting [buildings]—which of course were part of an actual plot/conspiracy—when those things happen, we really want to find a way to connect everything so it does make sense, we want the world around us to have a plot.

And so there’s a kind of comfort to conspiracy that I think is appealing to some people, right? You have a binary choice between “the world is going to hell just because it is and things are chaotic,” or “the world is going to hell because there are certain evil people who are masterminding it.” And in a way that latter is more comforting, because there are people you can fight. (12:02–14:00)

Cf. sideshadowing. Some more highlights:

  • In Russia many assume that “no one’s motivations are pure,” which is often a reasonable assumption, but when corruption is believed to be universal, it’s hard to make any space for altruism or idealism. This cynicism may be a reaction to the “bullshit” of Soviet ideology around things like volunteerism and mutual aid (around 19:30).
  • Many Russians need to believe in conspiracies against Russia because they prove Russia matters, but Americans are absolutely convinced that America matters without outside validation of any kind, and discussions of anti-Americanism serve a different purpose in the US than discussions of Russophobia do in Russia (23:00–28:00): “anti-Americanism might affirm America’s righteousness, and Russophobia affirms Russia’s importance” (27:54–28:00).
  • Russians make good stock villains in American popular culture “because Russians are read as white,” so unflattering stereotypes of them are not coded as racist, unlike, say, caricatures of Chinese people (around 32:00).

I also loved the discussion of “zombification”:

SG: Now, the one other plot that you note is this idea of zombification, and this one I found really interesting, because here you have actually have some intersection between the Putinists and the intellectual opposition in Russia, who see the population as essentially zombies. So what is this zombification? […]

EB: Sure. Well, in the book I give a kind of archaeology going back to Western ideas of brainwashing and the anti-cult movement. We don’t really need to go into that here. I think what is more relevant is the stuff that we were talking about a few minutes ago [around 16:40—EM], which is this kind of denial of agency or agency panic.

So there’s a funny thing that’s going on, I think, when it comes to media and media consumption […] the thing that I still have not completely wrapped my head around is that when I would go to the Soviet Union in the 80s and to Russia in the 90s, I felt like whoever I was talking with, that on the whole, they were much savvier media consumers than people I talked to in America. They knew they were being lied to by television, and so they didn’t trust what they were hearing and they were reading between the lines. And this fits in with the sort of conspiratorial attitude that I’ve talked about.

But now you have the situation where, according to polls (if you believe polls—that’s a whole other thing, but there does seem to be consistency there), that people do believe what state television is telling them, which I would not have expected.

But there’s a big difference, in that in Soviet times, state television was telling you things that you could see were untrue just by walking out into the street. Like, you know, the shops were not full of wonderful goods and all of that. But the lies of Russian state television… It feels like they’re focus group–tested, right? They’re lying about things that people would already be willing to believe, to some extent, and they’re also lying about things that are not part of direct experience—you know, what’s going on in Sweden, or what’s going on in America, that they don’t immediately have [proof tests?] against.

So you have this notion that the viewer who is watching Channel One, the main TV station—but really any of these main central television channels—is just sitting in front of the TV, and everything that’s coming across the TV is just going directly into their brain, and they believe it. Now, there’s lots of problems with this idea—it goes back to really outdated media theories from the 1950s in the West—but for one thing, it turns Russian state television into this huge success, right? That they really do have the secret to brainwashing. And it caricatures people who actually agree with the regime as brainwashed idiots.

Now this is very similar to the conversation that liberals in the West have about Fox television, right? You know, that your parents and grandparents are watching Fox TV and it’s like they’ve been zombified. So there is something about the informational ecosystem in which you find yourself.

But there’s a catch-22 here, which is that once you open yourself up to the idea that other people have been zombified—zombified basically means brainwashing, it’s just the term that’s used in Russian as opposed to “brainwashed,” different metaphor—that people have been zombified by state television, that means that being zombified by television is possible, and therefore it’s a weapon in the rhetorical arsenal that can be turned against you.

Anyone can be zombified. […] And so what you have then with the outbreak of the conflicts in Ukraine is Russian state media saying that people in Ukraine are being zombified by Ukrainian television, and people in Ukraine saying that people in Russia are being zombified by Russian state television. So you have this kind of perfect symmetry where everybody is a passive receptacle to the media and has no capacity for judgement and therefore can be discounted as a meaningful, meaning-making subject. (37:26–41:23)

This part of the conversation continues, with Borenstein saying that in the West it’s liberals who (problematically) see people as passive media consumers, and that, even as we actually do see “really pernicious effects” from “people living in their own informational bubble,” those people are still making choices, believing some things on Fox News or Channel One or wherever else more than others.

The podcast conversation comes out of Borenstein’s book Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism (2019). I also recommend his Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture (2008).

Disclaimer: I’ve met Borenstein in real life as well as on the internet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 26, 2020 8:08 am

    Eliot is a wonderful scholar and writer who should be better known; I’ve read Plots against Russia, and Overkill is sitting at the top of my To Be Read pile. Thanks for this post, I read it aloud to my wife!

  2. July 2, 2020 11:03 am

    Thanks, Erik!

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