First You Ride the Meme and Then the Meme Rides You

What follows was put into my head by a piece claiming that in Syria “Russia [was] using advanced weapons system developed through a secret agreement with extraterrestrial visitors“. I’m not suggesting that anyone take this seriously but notice the assumption that Putin is in the superhuman category. Its creators are losing control of Putin Derangement Syndrome.

At first Putin was a figure to be mocked. He overcompensated for being short by taking his shirt off on all possible occasions, by catching large fish, finding amphoras and wrestling tigers. The high point of the mocking period was the Olympics: he’d squandered billions building a site where the water was brown and the doorknobs fell off.

But then the quick little regime change in Ukraine went sour and Putin became evil. As one of Canada’s professional Ukrainians put it “My Ukraine: A personal reflection on a nation’s dream of independence and the nightmare Vladimir Putin has visited upon it.” Ukrainians just wanna have fun but Putin turned the dream into a nightmare. Remember Olga Znachkova who didn’t want the Eurasian Union but wanted frilly undies instead? Evil Putin stole them too. “Smart but truly evil man” says Madeleine Albright (of all people). Too evil for derision but still limited in his effect: a “regional power” acting out of weakness.

But PDS has evolved far past any localised evil, let alone mockery. In my Putin Derangement Syndrome collection in August there were two principal themes. The first was that Putin had the very same uncanny influence over Donald Trump and Jill Stein that he had had over Bernie Sanders; in other words, he has such a grip on the American election that Hillary Clinton is the only truly American candidate left. The second theme was the extraordinary ability of RT and other Russian media outlets to shape people’s thoughts; far exceeding the effects of the much (much) better funded Western outlets. Putin has the power to cloud minds at a distance: he operates at a more than merely human status and he’s using that power to reshape the world.

This is an illuminating case study because it shows that propaganda can take off on its own and exceed the intentions of its originators. The US establishment is fond of demonising its enemies – in recent times we have seen it happen to Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden and many others – but those hate campaigns, once they had whipped up war support, ceased and were forgotten (anyone remember Aidid?). Washington’s current trouble is that it has never tried the technique against someone whom it can’t get at, against someone who is not cowed and, worst of all, against someone who outwits it at every stage. The propagandists have no idea of what to do except turn the volume up higher and higher. So the rhetoric builds and builds, more and more extreme, larger and larger until it bursts into full-blown psychosis and panic.

Putin is already the Moriarty, the Voldemort of the US propaganda machine: the hidden power behind everything bad. Will we see Putin the extraterrestrial agent or Putin the Antichrist, already out there in the crazy fringe, start to appear in the NYT or WaPo as they are compelled to account for the next ratcheting up of hysteria?

Economist cover sometime next year: Cthulhu Returns!