Those who follow my essays over at Mad Genius Club, will have seen my five-part series I did on the magnificent disaster epic Chernobyl. Masterfully written, acted, directed, and produced, Chernobyl is astounding both for its quality, and for the fact that it got made in an era when Hollywood is daily proving that McCarthy wasn’t all wrong to ring the alarm about Communists in Tinsel Town. Chernobyl is a damning indictment of the Soviet State as it existed in the 20th century — a country and society shot through with fear, run by an arbitrary and often cruel bureaucracy, which feeds on lies.
There’s one particular scene at the end of the series where the nominal protagonist, Professor Legasov, gets herded into the back of a government car occupied by the head of the KGB. Who presents Legasov with promises of glory and position if Legasov will just keep repeating the same lies he’s already helpfully rehearsed in front of the world — and about which Legasov is increasingly uneasy, as both his conscience and his colleague (Khomyuk) have been pestering him over the fact that the same deliberate errors which caused the nuclear accident at Chernobyl could be repeated at other RBMK reactors elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Unless the same arbitrary and cruel bureaucracy which facilitated the disaster can be convinced to admit it was wrong, and fix the flaws. Which the bureaucracy absolutely has no interest in doing.
It’s a great scene. Legasov knows he’s already been coopted. KGB Chairman Charkov is merely adding some sweetener to the deal — to try to keep Legasov from answering the call to truth. From Charkov’s position it’s am eminently practical move. Legasov is a useful man in so long as he can be made to flatter the Soviet State’s official narratives regarding what actually happened, and why. So that a handful of designated scapegoats can be prosecuted and convicted for causing the disaster, while the State never has to own up to the fact it’s culpable.
The scene in the car dovetails beautifully (and tragically) with a second, later scene, in which Charkov remonstrates Legasov for rejecting Charkov’s enticements. Legasov — knowing he’s now at the KGB’s mercy — gets an earful about how his accomplishments and important leadership in the Chernobyl disaster response will be blotted out, nothing he’s reported before the court will go beyond the court’s walls, anything he’s said about the RBMK’s inherent design flaws will be ignored, and Legasov himself will die as an unperson. Evicted from the halls of polite Soviet society. Unable to work with his colleagues, and cut off from his former allies in government. In essence, Legasov is excommunicated. By a man who (we now know, ironically) believes the Soviet State and its asserted truths are eternal.
We all know what happened next. Only a few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight. The truth of what happened at the Chernobyl plant was eventually disseminated to the wider world. International partners had to be called in to continue the abatement effort which is still ongoing to this very day. And the fact a show like Chernobyl got made vindicates Legasov’s legacy — he is now glorified as a significant hero, with the usual creative license one must account for with dramatic series.
I found Chernobyl gripping for another reason. Too much of the Soviet State and its subtle evil (as portrayed) is mirrored in modern American society. Whether it’s the rise of the digitally-surveilled culture — CCTVs, phones, tablets, computers, Apple watches, Siri, Alexa, et al., routinely recording much or even all of what you say, and what you do, and where you go — or the emergence of authoritarian government which uses events like the Covid-19 pandemic to enact and enforce clearly unconstitutional measures which make a mockery of the Bill of Rights, we are occupying an eerily Sovietized landscape. Especially since billion-dollar corporations have adopted the Woke religion as their official branding and now use Woke logos and platitudes as sales pitches — not to mention fig leaves, covering corporate America’s usual quest for money and market dominance. While the major establishment media outlets now put the old Soviet Pravda to shame — carrying water for official narratives and talking points better and more efficiently than the Soviet news apparatus ever could.
Of course, as with the actual citizens of the former Soviet Union, an increasing number of Americans simply don’t believe what’s told to them. I’ve used this space recently to lament the fact that our so-called “experts” have sold their credibility for chump change. Whether it’s the merry-go-round of Covid-19 responses — the endless demands and commands for action against personal choice and personal freedom — or the fantastic and awful spectacle that is the clumsy, catastrophic abandoning of Afghanistan. A widening array of Americans simply can’t believe the official lies. Not when the self-appointed high-and-mighty of politics and society routinely and flagrantly flout their own rules which they impose on the rest of us, and too much evidence of authoritarian perfidy leaks around the enlarged cracks in their edifice of official truth-making.
I suppose this was inevitable in a society which is losing from having won. The supreme national American run from 1941 through the end of the Cold War was unlike anything the globe had ever seen. But it bred a kind of complacency on the one hand, while it also protected, fostered, and spawned a new breed of post-truth professionals on the other. People who used to work only in the universities, but who gradually spread their post-truth politics and post-truth ideas out into the wider world. So that now post-truthism is the defining characteristic of American life in the year 2021. The commanders and shapers of official narratives daily cry and whine that their narratives are questioned or even countermanded by still other commanders and shapers of narratives. And the internet allows anyone with sufficient popular (perceived) traction to assert literally any craziness: whether it’s 57 genders and the denial of medicine and biology, or a Neo-Marxist princess like Ocasio-Cortez swanning in her ball gown advertising the words “TAX THE RICH” on her ass.
Ours is now a country wherein the self-appointed, self-asserted ruling class don’t even try to hide their hypocrisy.
To even call it hypocrisy is an act of revolution — met with outcry or punishment.
Are you allowed at your place of work to tell them “No!” when they force you to attend political struggle sessions dressed up as “awareness training” the likes of which we formerly saw in Communist China during its so-called Cultural Revolution?
I didn’t think so.
But if history is any indicator, all of this spectacular hubris presages an eventual landslide. As the rot and corruption of the mighty seeps into their foundation, it eventually only takes a steady rain to cause the whole mountainside to cut loose and tumble down.
Not that the mighty are at all interested in the lessons of history. They have their narratives, after all. Rehearse a narrative with your prestigious or wealthy or famous friends, and do this often enough, and it becomes your truth. You believe it as surely as you believe the sun will rise every morning. All the correct people repeat all the correct truths to each other, over and over, from the correct podiums, and nobody dares to wonder if it’s not just a lot of shit. That reality is still lurking underneath everything. Waiting for a combination of accidents or deliberate sabotage, to rip the whole house of cards down.
Now, I personally don’t look forward to what that’s going to look like in everyday Middle American life, because I anticipate when it does happen there’s going to be such massive disruption of utilities and services that conducting the basics of living — potable water, food, electricity — is going to be difficult or impossible for many. If our mighty keep on ignoring the obvious right under their noses they will precipitate a combination of societal and monetary detonation which will leave individual territories and municipalities scrambling to do for themselves what has previously been done at a higher, broader level. And that’s going to mean a lot of suffering for a lot of people. Just as there is already early-entry suffering with supply chain shortages and inflationary pricing.
We cannot claim — after the record of the 20th century — that we didn’t know any better.
And that’s the shame of it, right? We have all the evidence of past collapses to tell us what the next collapse is going to sound like, before it comes. We have the cultural and political seismic clues to tell us when our institutions and our systems are playing with fire. But the people running those institutions and those systems do not (in 2021) seem ready to admit — as the KGB was never ready to admit — that those same institutions and systems are gradually flipping over into a mode of perpetual failure. Witness the White House’s endless assertions on Afghanistan. And the way this same White House tries desperately to deflect both national and international attention from its culpability in the destruction of 20 years of hard effort. Not to mention sacrifice.
Ask me how many of my veteran friends — the ones who served and fought in Afghanistan — are happy with what this White House has done in the first year of its administration.
But the self-appointed ruling class will just keep repeating its lies to itself. Telling each other their era is an invincible era. That history is their property. They own reality. Have copyrighted and patented it. And now manufacture that same reality for the rest of us. Who have increasingly become aware of the fact that these self-appointed rulers — the tellers, the demanders, the occupiers of high places — cannot be trusted any further than they can be thrown. The stink of corruption and falsehood is just too strong.
Our betters won’t change, though, because too many people stand to lose too much if simple, uncomfortable facts are acknowledged. So they shore up and continue to pronounce the lies. And spend quite a bit of money and effort ensuring as many of the rest of us as possible are coopted — like Legasov being offered Soviet baubles of prestige, on the very eve of the Soviet Union’s crumbling.
Also like Legasov, each of us has got to realize there is a penalty for preferring the truth. Nobody gives you goodies for acknowledging and promoting facts over falsehoods in Post-Truth 2021. You would be much better off to just obey the narratives, do what you’re told to do, and participate in the scolding and ostracization of anyone who thinks for himself. Any man or woman who looks at the way the country and the world are going, and says, “You know what, I think we’re headed down the wrong path,” is asking for trouble. Pointing out the emperor has no clothes is not the kind of message the ruling class want to hear.
But is a crumbling inevitable?
Not if a large number of people become estranged from the ruling narratives, and decide to rebel. Enough Americans have to become routinely disgusted with what’s being imposed on them, that they simply decide not to cooperate. They invent for themselves — as is invented in every corrupt and authoritarian nation in the world — a black market of both goods and ideas. While the system perpetuates its narratives up top, the real business of society is conducted at the bottom. Cynicism about official positions and words spoken from podiums becomes the calling card of everyone who acknowledges reality. Like the Chernobyl Tula coal miners who routinely mock and scoff at the Soviet state, while telling jokes through dust-blackened lips.
In the end, thinking for yourself has never been more important in your lifetime. It is vital.
Almost none of the authorities nor institutions you once trusted to do right by you, are doing right by you.
Question what must be questioned.
We might soon occupy a world wherein the cultural and economic and political landslide has come to pass — and reality is once again having its Gods of the Copybook Headings say in our lives. Just as it did for the former Soviets.