Several weeks ago tweets were sent out before President Biden arrived at Dover Air Force Base to honor the thirteen soldiers who were killed at the Afghan airport. The tweets said Biden had failed to show and CNN said they were sent by conservatives. Perhaps, but who knows. Could they have been sent by Russians posing as conservatives? Or, is there a 5th Column in the United States that either wittingly or unwittingly uses partisan vitriol amplified by digital manipulation? Maybe several 5th Columns.
Encyclopedia Britannica describes a 5th column, “as a clandestine group or faction of subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation’s solidarity by any means at their disposal. A cardinal technique of the 5th column is the infiltration of sympathizers into the entire fabric of the nation under attack……….”
America has become radically schismatic. Our enemies are gleeful. It is quite clear that foreign adversaries want our differences to grow in both number and severity. Gleefully they watch and react as political performances become increasingly kinetic. How did Portland, Oregon turn into a stage set for violent demonstrations? I’ll tell you when, when exploitation was found to be politically useful. By the Americans? Russians? North Koreans? Or, well who knows.
Each day, internationally and domestically, agents of divisiveness plow through the day’s news looking for hosts to attach toxic viruses. And when they are successful the toxicity becomes the news. The agents are doing their job quite effectively.
The most glaring example is reaction to Covid. Since when did the transmission of a virus, its consequences, and protective public health remedies become a political cause? Sometimes I wonder if discernment is roadkill in the 21st Century because we are too lazy or preoccupied or stupid to discern fact from fiction or common sense from fraud. Sure some public pronouncements were clearly wrong, wrong because the brains behind the voices didn’t know. Coronavirus means novel virus: “In medicine, “novel” usually refers to a virus or bacterial strain that was not previously identified.”
Some decades ago I became familiar with William Wilberforce, a leading reformer in Britain in the mid-19th Century. He was a Member of Parliament and best known for his fierce advocacy against slavery. He led its abolition. A companion mission was his effort to improve what he called “manners.”
I was reminded of Wilberforce while reading an essay by Lance Morrow. Morrow has won the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and has the distinction of writing more “Man of the Year” articles for Time magazine than any other writer in the magazine’s history.
Morrow’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal began: “Stupidity is one of life’s big mysteries, like evil, like love, an ineffable thing. You cannot exactly define it, but you know it when you see it, as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography. It takes many forms. Stupidity is entitled to no moral standing whatever, and yet it sits in a place of honor at the tables of the mighty; it blows in their ears and whispers promises.”
Morrow, who claims to be working on a Unified Field Theory of Stupidity, closed his essay with this assertion: “The death of manners and privacy, I argue, are profoundly political facts that, combined with other facts, lead, eventually, to an entire civilization of stupidity. It’s a short ride from stupidity to madness. Soon people aren’t quite people anymore; they are cartoons and categories. And “identities.” The media grow feral. Genitals became weirdly public issues; the sexes subdivide into 100 genders. Ideologues extract sunbeams from cucumbers. They engage in what amounts to an oedipal rebellion against reality itself.”
Morrow went exotic to make a point. Ideologues might be extracting “sunbeams from cucumbers”, but I doubt it. Would that ideologues spend their time on such frivolous pursuits. No, ideologues are organically disdainful, vainly insistent and intensely focused on attracting followers, not sunbeams.
Historically America’s social health is in part due to a “can do” strain of pragmatism. Americans on balance want to make good things happen. After all, we all arrived here on a ship even if for many the term is metaphorical. We have inherited the let’s make America better gene and in exercising our right to select our leaders we look for candidates who in one way or another point toward a better future.
So when academic intolerance cancels thinking and expression, send your children and money to colleges that honor thinking and expression. In a dynamic economy that is the only way to succeed. And when the spear carrying elements in the Trump world say fall into line or else, push back.
In a democracy, regardless of how messy politicians and politics, free speech is paired with the secret ballot. The next nationwide ballot counting will occur in November, 2022. Given the stakes for our country it can’t come soon enough.
But, back to 5th Columns. Campaigns and elections are fields of combat. And the field has been transformed. We are now bits in computer clouds accessed algorithmically. Hackers and saboteurs are often one. They will work to destroy threads of unity and the candidates that seek to appeal to our better nature. Push back!
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.