“Would Russia or China Help Us if We Were Invaded By Space Aliens?” At least the New York Times is asking the important questions. The answer, by the way, is an implicit no. Scary world out there!
The column itself — by Thomas Friedman, who distinguished himself in his next column by intoning “We Need More Elon Musks” more than we need more Greta Thunbergs — was reasonable, arguing that the major world powers need to cooperate on climate change. (Global warming is a national security issue for all countries, but also, like the hypothetical space aliens, a common enemy.) But the jarring headline itself fit right into the current atmosphere of conspiratorial nonsense; we’re unfortunately becoming used to seeing outlandish, paranoid ravings in mainstream media and from liberal politicians.
The Joe Biden administration, with the media’s help, seems to be largely continuing Donald Trump’s paranoid stance toward China, sounding the drumbeat over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the need for the United States to be prepared. Even Trump’s view of the region seems to have been more realistic than that of Biden and the defense establishment: Trump reportedly said in 2019, “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are eight thousand miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a fucking thing we can do about it.”
Centrist Democrats like to imagine that they’re the “reality-based community.” That phrase, first used derisively by an unnamed official during the George W. Bush administration to describe the liberals and establishment types who lacked empire-building vision, was gleefully embraced by liberals, who advertised their membership in said community with T-shirts, buttons, and mugs. Continuing in this tradition, liberal congressman Barney Frank once asked a woman who compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” and in 2010, comedian Jon Stewart held a “Rally to Restore Sanity” (perhaps the least funny of all these strained gambits, despite his profession).
The low-bar high ground of “reality,” “sanity,” and “planet Earth” is increasingly hard for liberals to stake a claim upon. Although closer to reality than the far right on issues like vaccine effectiveness and pandemic workplace safety, the “In this house, we believe in science” crowd shows many signs of abandoning its commitment to empiricism.
Remember Russia? The source of all evil, which put Trump in office and conspired to undermine the United States election? Throughout the Trump administration, liberals created a QAnon-like world for themselves around these assumptions, based partly on the Steele dossier, a collection of reports compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy. Early this month, one of the main sources for that report, a Russian named Igor Danchenko, was arrested and indicted, charged with lying to the FBI. The federal government rarely goes to court without a very strong case — it wins the vast majority of its indictments — so it’s likely that the FBI has strong evidence here, or at least evidence highly likely to convince a federal judge.
You’d think the collapse of the Steele dossier would prompt a reckoning in liberal media circles about paranoid warmongering and conspiratorial thinking. But no. “Even if the Steele dossier is discredited,” a defensive Washington Post headline read this week, “there’s plenty of evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia.” In the op-ed that followed, Council on Foreign Relations fellow and Post columnist Max Boot painstakingly tried to salvage what was left of the Trump-Russia conspiracy. There’s been no real reckoning by establishment liberals on how or why they might have gotten the Russia-Trump conspiracy wrong.
Worse Than Useless
The right-wing response to COVID-19 — in which any public health measure is totalitarian communism — has of course been far crazier than that of the liberals. But even on this issue, Democrats’ commitment to reality has been shaky. On subjects like mask-wearing and school closures, their positions have often been driven more by the desire to oppose Republicans than by epidemiology. Those identifying as Democrats overrate the risk of COVID, wildly exaggerating the dangers to children and the likelihood of hospitalization, just as Republicans underrate the risks.
Reading liberal magazines and newspapers, it’s striking how much hysteria there is: The Atlantic recently ran a lengthy Augustinian confessional by a writer who, although fully vaccinated and careful, was traumatized by contracting COVID — and pathologically filled with shame over contracting a disease many epidemiologists believe we will all catch eventually — though he did not get sick. Like a recovering sex addict on an evangelical church tour, he penitently sought to help readers avoid his “mistakes.”
On the geopolitical threat inflation, we’ve seen this madness before. For decades during the twentieth century, the liberal foreign policy establishment was in near lockstep with the Right in its paranoia over the Soviet Union. The fixation on the Soviet enemy framed all of US foreign policy and rendered diplomacy impossible; Democratic president Harry Truman said of relations with the Soviets, there could be “no compromise with evil.” Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg urged Truman to “scare hell out of the American people” regarding the Soviet threat. As Dean Acheson put it, they would do that by painting a picture of Red Menace that was “clearer than the truth.” Truman obliged, comparing Soviet leaders to “Hitler and Al Capone” and ranting about the “twin blights of atheism and communism.”
All this helped justify domestic repression as well as global warmongering: Truman created a Federal Employee Loyalty Program under which hundreds of government workers, suspected communists or sympathizers, were fired and thousands forced to resign. While the global ruling class was correct to see the Soviet Union’s existence as a boost to the global working class, it is very hard to make a convincing case that the Soviet Union was ever a national security threat to the United States or to the safety of everyday Americans. Scholars like Robert Jervis who have reviewed Soviet archives found no plans to attack the United States or even Western Europe. The Soviets knew that war with the United States was unwinnable, and they were not crazy.
Believing in science and evidence, however, is a good idea. And Friedman’s column, despite the wacky headline, was substantially on point: Science tells us climate change is the most pressing geopolitical problem right now. All disputes with China, Russia, or even mask-resistant knuckleheads at home pale in comparison. It’s time to stop making up outrageous stories and instead find a way to cooperate with as many of our former enemies as we can on this common human problem.