The Doomsday Clock continues to tick toward nuclear war, but at its fastest pace ever. Professor Jackson Lears, a former naval officer serving on a U.S cruiser carrying tactical nuclear weapons, considers the current moment more frightening than at any time during the Cold War. Then, there was intense alarm for the fate of the earth and the survival of the human race. Today, rather than diplomacy or negotiation, talk revolves around new weapons shipments, disappointment in Ukraine’s counteroffensive failures, and even drone strikes in Moscow. But far less attention has been paid to the prospect of nuclear war between Russia and the U.S that threatens to end all life on this planet as we know it. That is the alarm sounded by cultural historian and author Jackson Lears who joins host Robert Scheer to discuss Lears’s essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Behind the Veil of Indifference.”
Lears’s piece warns that despite the public indifference, a “winnable nuclear war” has entered the minds of American strategists and politicians once again, undermining years of work towards nuclear disarmament. Lears tells Scheer that it is similar to the attitudes from the Cold War, yet this time, there is an eerie disinterest from the American side about even talking to someone like Vladimir Putin. “[T]his is, in a sense, a return to the worst kind of confrontations of the early 1960s but there’s a big difference because even Kennedy and even Reagan, cold warriors that they were, were eager to create common ground ultimately between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And that common ground no longer exists between the U.S. and Russia, and there is no interest in diplomacy at all,” Lears said.
Scheer and Lears highlight a critical factor in shaping public perception: the Russiagate controversy and the media’s role in complying with government demands for secrecy, beginning in the late 1970s, while also promoting narratives that fostered consent for war with Russia. Scheer said, “if you even dare suggest there’s some complexity to this issue, or that the other side might have a point of view, or there’s something even worth negotiating about, you’re now considered unpatriotic.” Lears agreed: “We have former directors of the CIA who have perjured themselves before Congress, now posing as professional wise men and professional truth tellers on MSNBC and CNN.”
Wrapping up the discussion, Lears gives an insight into his latest book, Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street. In it, Lears explores the history behind thinkers in America who honed in on vitalism rather than the restrictive nature of traditional cultures involving religion, science and commercialization.
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This transcript was produced by an automated transcription service. Please refer to the audio interview to ensure accuracy.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest. In this case, Jackson Lears is a professor of history at Rutgers University, a very well known historian, and he has written an article in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, which is really quite sobering. It’s called “Behind the Veil of Indifference” by Jackson Lears, Professor Jackson Lears. I’ll just read the lead a couple of sentences here, which is the thesis of this article. “The war in Ukraine has resurrected the ultimate technocratic fantasy, a winnable nuclear war. Intellectuals at the Hoover Institution are urging American strategists to think nuclear war again, reestablishing the idea that nuclear weapons are tools to assert U.S. primacy over Russia and China.” Now, I wrote a book once called With Enough Shovels about the Reagan administration when we had this fantasy of nuclear war fighting. And I think the key note here, though, is not so much that people are saying, let’s go for it. They just seem to be, correct me if I’m wrong Professor Lears, ignoring the risk, the very high risk now and the danger, what nuclear war means. There is almost a giddiness to the current involvement. This is the first time we’ve been you know, we basically are backing Ukraine as the major force, the US, against a still very powerful nuclear armed nation, the Russian Federation, that inherited these weapons from the old Soviet Union. So why don’t you instead of my telling you what you wrote, why don’t you tell me the point of this article?
Jackson Lears: Well, the point of the article was to revisit my own experience as a signal officer with a top secret clearance on a nuclear armed Navy ship, a cruiser, in 1969 and 1970. So more than 50 years ago. But the point I wanted to make in that revisiting was to show both how little has changed and how much has changed in our nuclear strategy and nuclear posture. In the 1960s, we were toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball with the Soviet Union over Berlin and certainly in the in the Cuban Missile crisis. And we came very close to blowing up the world in collaboration with with Nikita Khrushchev. But we did not and Jack Kennedy, after steering us, I think mistakenly and deliberately toward nuclear war by publicly confronting Khrushchev, in the end backed down and actually learned something from the Cuban Missile crisis. And he demonstrated that he learned it in his American University speech, where he called not only for a nuclear test ban treaty, but for a growing rapprochement with with the Soviet Union. And that took a while for that to happen. But it did gradually happen in the 1980s. And we reached a point again under Ronald Reagan, of all people, and Mikhail Gorbachev, where the US and the Soviet Union recognized that for all of their hostility and rivalry toward one another, they did have a common interest, and that common interest was avoiding nuclear war. So through diplomacy, they sought to promote that avoidance of nuclear war and to make it less and less possible. They didn’t reach the goal of nuclear abolition that Reagan had hoped for, but it was partly because of his own attachment to the Strategic Defense Initiative of the so-called Star Wars boondoggle. But we did begin a lot of bilateral reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and we did move closer toward nuclear disarmament than we’ve ever been before. And the leaders at the time, Reagan and Gorbachev can take credit for that. And yet I think there was a certain naivety that set in after the Cold War and the Soviet Union split up that nuclear weapons were no longer an issue, even though we still had these huge stockpiles in both countries. And now nuclear weapons have reappeared in the public square. They are a subject of conversation in at places like the Hoover Institution and other think tanks. And they are, in fact, being considered seriously as an option in the in the Ukraine war.And this is, in a sense, a return to the worst kind of confrontations of the early 1960s. But there’s a big difference because even Kennedy and even Reagan, Cold Warriors that they were, were eager to create common ground ultimately between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And that common ground no longer exists between the US and Russia, and there is no interest in diplomacy at all. What I wanted to do in going back to my own Navy experience was to revisit the worldview and the big picture strategy that went with. The possession of nuclear weapons on a on a heavily armed ship. The mentality that the presence of those weapons encouraged and to show how that hasn’t hasn’t really changed at the level of strategic discussion but what has changed is the loss of diplomacy. So I was in this in this position, on the the USS Chicago, which was the name of my ship, a guided missile cruiser. I was in a position where I was being asked, in fact, ordered to decrypt the message that would have launched the ship’s nuclear weapons, which were tactical nuclear weapons.
Scheer: What year was that?
Lears: This was 1969 and 1970. So the Chicago was either out in the Gulf of Tonkin monitoring Russian made North Vietnamese MiGs. Or in the Pacific Missile Range off the coast of California. Basically sparring with the Russian spy ships that were disguised as fishing trawlers and what I wanted to recall from that time was not just the technocratic fantasy of winning a nuclear war, which was very much in the minds of nuclear strategists at the time, but also in the minds of local commanders whose careerism was so strong that they were willing to treat nuclear weapons as if they were weapons like any other, and they wanted to use them if they could and they often had the autonomy and authority to do that. But the mentality that accompanied the use of nuclear weapons or even the possibility of using nuclear weapons was a kind of algorithmic rationality. This is what nuclear strategists came up with, and they haven’t come up with anything better since then, by the way, which allowed them in the 1960s to imagine a step by step escalation that could somehow be brought right to the brink and then ended and we could break off either side. It was like a game of chicken, as Bertrand Russell put it at one time, and the whole notion of algorithmic rationality was that you hand it over to these rules based procedures and we have eliminated this possibility with the use of the algorithm of somehow falling prey to human error. So there was, I found that..
Scheer: Well, but now…
Lears: That kind of rationality showed up on the ship and among my shipmates as well, and I call it rationality only in the narrowest sense is that it gave the appearance of rationality, but it’s nothing reasonable about it. And what I found myself doing was in order to join what was called the SEAL authenticator system, the team that would join together to decrypt the message, launching the missiles. I had to have an interview with the chaplain to see, as my department had told me, without irony, if I had any particular ax to grind for or against nuclear war. And I decided that in fact I did have an ax to grind. But I discovered in that formulation what they were looking for was the ultimate neutral technocrat, somebody who was just doing his job. He didn’t want to blow up the world to save us from communism, necessarily, but he wasn’t opposed to that possibility either. He was just doing a job and following procedures. So we had this combination of neutral technocrats, and there were plenty of those on board my ship, and whacko local commanders. And that combination still exists in our military and in our think tank world of nuclear strategy. But one of the other things I discovered in the Navy was the chilling effect of secrecy on Democratic debate, really, and on democracy generally, because I was told that I had to remove any reference to the nuclear weapons that the ship carried when I had decided that I had to get out of this situation. And I discovered that I could apply for a conscientious objector status if I could show that my attitudes toward war had changed since I had gone on active duty. And I could do that in the sense that I was opposed to the Vietnam War when I when I joined the Navy. But I came to realize that conditions of modern war are such and certainly my job was such that it required killing civilians, usually en masse. And certainly that’s what would happen in a nuclear war. So I did apply for conscientious objector status, and I did mention the fact that I was on a nuclear armed ship in that application. And I was told you have to remove that reference because the Navy doesn’t admit that we carry nuclear weapons. And probably 75% of the people of San Diego where the ship was stationed don’t know that we carry nukes. So here I was basically being instructed to tell lies for the Defense Department, even in the process of applying for conscientious objector status. So that made it pretty clear to me that the real source of lies and of disinformation is not whacked out conspiracy theorists on the margins of public discourse. It’s the military and the national security state and their stenographers in the mass media. That’s where the disinformation is coming from. That’s where the big lies are coming from. And secrecy is a mortal enemy of democracy is another lesson I brought out of this experience. Ultimately, I did get an honorable discharge with a conscientious objector status. And it taught me, I think, really what is the nature of the modern way of war. And the modern way of war is distance. It’s button pushing. It’s gone even farther in that direction, of course, with the use of drones. But certainly in my case, it was that there was a system in place that denatured the actual human and moral meanings of what we were doing. It denatured the targets, it made the targets into numbers rather than actual human beings. And all of this was a way that people came to terms with the jobs they were being asked to do, which were potentially catastrophic for themselves and for their enemies, for their friends, for the whole human race. And yet somehow people are able to, I discovered, through techno jargon and general distancing devices, psychologically distancing devices, to remove themselves from the actuality of what they were doing from the real meaning of nuclear war. And it seems to me that’s what’s happening now, although, as you say, it’s even beyond what it was in the early sixties because there was some recognition then and it continued on through the eighties and into the nineties that nuclear war was truly unthinkable and had to be avoided. We seem to have lost that conviction and that insight now, which is fundamental to our survival as a species, it seems to me.
Scheer: Well, that’s why I suggest there is a giddiness now. I mean, first of all, if Donald Trump were still president and this were happening now, there, I assume, would be a significant peace movement, there would be members of Congress, particularly Democrats, speaking out. There’s a deafening silence now. You’re a major historian, credentialed and so forth, an autodidact historian Gore Vidal, self-taught but brilliant, once wrote a book about the United States of Amnesia. We’re not guided by history. And there’s almost an unawareness. We’ve gone into a stage now where we and the Russians have torn up virtually every arms control agreement. There’s a view that somehow we can’t talk to Putin about this danger, even though we managed to talk with Khrushchev and Mao and with Brezhnev and so forth. Somehow the very idea that maybe, you know with here now Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to Belarus. They are talking about if you are pushing them to the end, which we’ve never even given up first strike, the U.S. posture. And so we have continued modernizing our weapons. And in fact, there’s some literature now where people argue, oh, their stuff doesn’t even work, and who knows whether it would work and so forth. But we’ve gone from a situation where a Richard Nixon could negotiate with a Khrushchev or with a Mao, and we can’t talk to Putin. And in fact, I mean, if you even suggest that there may be a Russian side or a Russian concern about NATO’s expansion, you will be taken off the internet. We actually have a new story now, a judge in Louisiana said, no, you can’t put all these people from the FBI and National Security Agency into Google and Facebook and, you know, be involved basically in censorship, you know, or we’ll go after you. So we don’t even have a debate about it. We don’t have a peace movement. And that’s why I say giddy. And yet I think anyone logically looks at the situation when we’re talking about humiliating the Russians, we’re talking about teaching them a stern lesson. We have to have their defeat. Well, that was not the basis of Nixon going to China or negotiating with the Russians. It was wait a minute, we have to come at understanding, even with people we think are absolute monsters. And the irony in this situation is that we assume we could negotiate with these communists we once described as bent on world conquest. But we can’t negotiate with someone who defeated the communists in an election, and they defeated what remained of the Communist Party. And he’s an avowedly anti-communist, Vladimir Putin. So, I’d like you, as a historian, to talk about this moment. And I’m one aspect, you mentioned that you were stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, and we now know we only learned really 20 years after the event’s documents that there never was a second Gulf of Tonkin attack, which was the justification for bombing North Vietnam and which also risked a nuclear intervention from the Russians, that it was a lie. So secrecy could cover the lie. And we, you know, as a historian, are you confident that we really know what happened in US relations with Russia, in the Ukraine and who did what? And with the color revolutions and the change of power in 2014 and so forth and so on. So we’re still operating in an area of secrecy where we’re told, you know, that if you even dare suggest there’s some complexity to this issue or that the other side might have a point of view or there’s something even worth negotiating about, you’re now considered unpatriotic.
Lears: That’s right. It’s absolutely, it’s stunning the extent to which things have changed since my intellectual and political coming of age in the in the sixties and seventies. You know, we reached a point which, by comparison to the present in the early and mid 1970s, was a moment of crystal and clarity about the perverse and destructive power of the intelligence agencies, the FBI and CIA and NSA and all the rest. And this was partly because of Sy Hersh’s reporting in The New York Times, of all places, about the abuses of power by the CIA and the FBI directed against the antiwar movement, against other domestic political dissenters, the Black Panthers, among others, breaking their charters in various ways. And this letter, as you know, I’m sure, to the Church Committee investigations in the Senate and the revelations of more malpractice by the CIA and the FBI. But something happened since then and beginning in the late 1970s, when the Times and other newspapers began to swerve back away and to say, well, the people’s right to know has to be balanced against the government’s need to keep secrets. And that point of view continued and intensified in the eighties and nineties, first under Reagan and then after the collapse of the Soviet Union, under the auspices of this new worldview of a unipolar, that we had reached a unipolar moment. And the unipolar moment was of course, the end of the bipolar Cold War and the moment when the US could assert itself as the world’s only superpower. And this is what Madeleine Albright and the Clinton administration set about doing initially by their interventions in the Balkans and the events of 9/11 and after only reinforced that that vision of once again, the US having this moral role to play in the world, the injection of moral purity and the need to maintain it and spread it and to promote democracy, as it was called, through regime change. All of this, which was a very right wing and very neoconservative point of view held by a handful of true believers initially that spread and spread and became partly through the influence of the Clintons and the Democratic Party and the neo liberal neo cons, you might say it became conventional wisdom that suddenly regime change, which is just on the face of it, a violation of international law, became official government policy. And that’s remained the case. It was, you know, certainly used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as which, of course. Was it, I think, legitimized in a lot of people’s minds by their great fear of terrorism and that the government shamelessly played on that and generated disinformation through the CIA and through the media’s parroting of that CIA disinformation.
Scheer: But you just uttered something that is now heresy, to suggest that misinformation could come from the CIA or the US government is now heresy. I can tell you I published an article by Chris Hedges, who for 20 years worked for The New York Times and other leading newspapers. He was a bureau chief in the Middle East Arabic speaker, knowledge role and so forth. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School. So he’s had his clerical background and a collar. And I published an article on my website where the opening sentence was They lied to us about Iraq, they lied to us about Afghanistan, and they’re lying to us now about the Ukraine because of that when I tried to purchase an advertisement within our own system of the Internet that I posted… It was rejected. You can’t suggest that because it comes from an individual reporter like Sy Hersh or Chris Hedges, no matter their credentials or their background. I mean, in my own case, I did work for the Los Angeles Times for 29 years. I, you know, have a background, but nonetheless, by definition, misinformation is only information that is inconvenient, to use Al Gore’s phrase, inconvenient to the American narrative and hegemony.
Lears: Absolutely. I think that well, I had this experience a few years ago and before the invasion of Ukraine. So it was still possible to talk about the dangers of Russophobia. And I was making the same point that you’ve just made is that the, you know, the chief source of disinformation and in fact, the agency that was created in order to manufacture disinformation, the CIA, is still doing that and is still the chief source of bad information mal-information, misinformation, disinformation, whatever label you want to put on it. It’s not a bunch of wackos in Q-anon and it’s not a bunch of Trumpists. They get a lot of things wrong and I’m not defending them in any way. But the really dangerous and powerful sources of disinformation are in the national security state and they are protected by law, by secrecy, and even more so in recent times by this project of legitimation that began back in 2016, 2017, which goes by the name of Russiagate, which was the attempt among journalists, of course, because they like these tags. Russiagate was the attempt to show collusion between the Trump administration and Putin’s government. The attempt to show that Putin had somehow intervened in American elections and that the Russians were busily at work undermining our democracy, as the phrase had it at the time. And, you know, millions of dollars, as you know, was spent to investigate this charge. And Robert Mueller basically came up empty handed as far as the Russians were concerned. And yet that point of view, that belief in Russian interference in American democracy will not go away. It created an image and this is part of the explanation, I think, for the question you were raising earlier, why the difference between the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia? Why is Putin’s Russia so evil, so much more evil even than the Soviet Union, that we can’t even talk to these people about things that we both need to talk about for the common good? Well, part of the reason is that he was demonized systematically by the mainstream press. Putin was beginning in 2016 and he was associated with Trump. And as as we know, for the Democratic Party to be associated with Trump is all you need to be condemned outright, to be untouchable, really morally untouchable. I was holding a campus event. I had sponsored a campus event which included a New York Times reporter, by the way. And it the point was to explore, you know, this this resurgence of Russia-phobia. Why was it so intense even without any evidence? And why was the disinformation so effective? And my argument was that it was really coming from the top down. It was coming from, the disinformation was coming from the national security state. We have former directors of the CIA who have perjured themselves before Congress, now posing as professional wise men and professional truth tellers on MSNBC and CNN. They have jobs, they have gigs, and this is where we are now. So when I made this argument to a bunch of graduate students, mainly, some of whom were in Russian studies, some of them were in various other foreign policy history and so on. One of them said, we don’t have to worry about that kind of disinformation anymore because we have computers, we have the Internet, and the new kind of information is just coming from social media, just whackos on social media. And so there’s this and this absolute refusal to recognize that there’s any kind of top down production of disinformation going on anymore, when in fact, I think the disinformation is stronger than ever. We have a whole narrative about the rise of the Ukraine war, which leaves out everything you mentioned in passing and the, you know, the ten years or more, eight to ten years of run up to the Russian invasion of February 2022. And that run up consisted of, first of all, the 2014 coup that overthrew Yanukovych, who was a corrupt ruler but had been legally elected and he was overthrown in this Maidan color revolution or what, you know, what was purported to be the fulfillment of the color revolution of ten years before. And this was, of course, the moment when when Victoria Nuland was caught in a phone conversation talking about regime change and how we were going to get the right guy in there to represent US interests. And what, in fact happened as a consequence of that coup was that ultranationalists, formerly known as neo-Nazis in the Ukraine, acquired a disproportionate influence in that government and proceeded to press for the suppression of Russian speakers and Russian cultural autonomy in the Donbass. And as a consequence, they provoked a rebellion there and a conflict. They ended up, over the next several years killing thousands of people. This is one reason that Putin decided he had to intervene. The other reason is that the U.S. was expanding NATO eastward and refusing to negotiate or even listen to Putin’s pleas for a new European security structure that included Russia. That was not, in other words, a recapitulation of NATO, which has truly outlived its usefulness, was, you know, it was meant to be a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union and an imaginary attack against Western Europe, when in fact, what’s happened is it’s become an offensive alliance. It’s become an excuse to put nuclear weapons on the borders of Russia and to build up U.S. bases in Kosovo and elsewhere, Poland certainly, in a way that makes one wonder what what would the US do if China were to go to the you know, to to make these kind of moves in Mexico, for example, right up close to the Rio Grande, building missile bases and military bases that are that are aimed and designed to contain a supposed aggression by the United States toward Mexico. Well, I think we have a pretty good idea what would happen. The US would not tolerate it for an instant. Why should Putin tolerate the same kind of aggressive moves in Eastern Europe against him? I think he’s not a monster. He may not be a nice man. I’m not endorsing him as a human being, but I think I am saying he is the leader of a great rival power who deserves to be negotiated with. And as you say, to say that now, to even advocate negotiation and a ceasefire, to bring an end to this escalating struggle, which is getting more and more dangerous, as we know, getting closer and closer to the possibility of some kind of use of nuclear weapons, provoke/unprovoked. They can be made up excuses. It can be actual events. All kinds of things can happen or would be said to happen that would justify the use of nuclear weapons. In the US and Russia both have nuclear posture statements that allow that. But the U.S. is posture statement is even more permissive than the Russians. It says basically, you know, we can go to we can use nuclear weapons first use, we can use them initially. We can start a nuclear war if one of our allies’ vital interests is threatened. That’s all that has to happen. So if Poland, for example, were attacked or some other or Latvia, you know, some other NATO country came under Russian attack, that we right there, we’d have an excuse in accordance with our nuclear policy to go to the first use of nuclear weapons. So this is truly insane. And what’s even more insane is the public atmosphere, or at least what we can discern through the mass media. I’m not saying that all Americans are idiot warmongers. I think most of them are are simply uninformed, partly because of the secrecy, because of the disinformation, because nobody knows the alternative narrative about the Ukraine war and how it actually was provoked by the US and by the Kiev regime as well. Nobody knows that narrative. They think Putin woke up one morning and said, by God, I’m going to invade Ukraine, and that’s it. Everything begins on February 24th, 2022. Well, as you point out, there’s a there’s an eight year run up to that, really longer if you go back to the to the color revolutions of 2004. So it’s it’s very hard to be in this position of trying to get. The actual circumstances across trying to educate people when they’re when they’re completely uninformed and misinformed about what’s actually happening.
Scheer: Yeah, but the reason they’re misinformed now, come on, let’s let’s really talk about our class and what I call the courtier class of well-paid professors and journalists and so forth. I mean, you there’s a story right now because there was one allusion with the Internet. We had sort of the Wild West of Freedom and you could publish anything, which I thought was the best of all worlds. And it was described as the worst of all worlds. And on the list it doesn’t exist anymore. We know. As a matter of fact, it was actually a 55 page court statement from the federal court. Yes, he’s a Trump appointee. Nonetheless, a documenting and with names, the people from the Biden administration. But certainly Trump was doing this as well, but with enthusiasm in the Biden administration, putting FBI agents, NSA people or people from this national security state to advise Facebook, Google, all of these organizations much more extensive than what the Church Committee revealed decades ago. And it is in the actually news story in The New York Times. It’s not. This is potentially a threat to the First Amendment, which is what the judge said after all. No, this is a threat to making the Internet safer. This is and this is the same thing. You know, and their business section this morning, not a hint that maybe this is dangerous to free speech. And I suspect if this had been revealed as being done by the Trump administration, there’d be at least some civil libertarians complaining they even quote professors who are supposed to be experts on the press and on freedom, saying, well, it really didn’t cross the line because they didn’t come in with the power to stop them. You have an FBI person in your newsroom telling you, wait a minute, do you want that paragraph? At the same time, the government is saying we’re made crack down on Google, we may break up Facebook, we may get rid of Section 230 of the old, you know, obscenity code that’s giving you the freedom to do this. And you’re representing that government and you’re in the newsroom. You’re in at these agencies. I suspect this is pretty much what happens in China. I know this will be heresy to say it. I suspect they don’t go in there. They don’t have to go in with guns drawn. They got members of the Communist Party sitting there. Right. And saying, wait a minute, this story is unbalanced. You might want to think twice about that. And they’re listened to. You know, that’s the modern form of totalitarianism. And the irony is right now I’m talking to you as a highly regarded, distinguished professor. I’m not blowing smoke here. You know, as was Chris Hedges, a highly regarded, distinguished journalist, winner of Pulitzer Prize and other prizes over Sy Hersh as well. And these people are made non Persians overnight. So there’s actually, without my being paranoid, a real possibility at this podcast that I’ve been doing now, I think for six years or something. I mean, I’ve done it for a long time, maybe five years of, you know, whatever it is now, six could be dropped by NPR, right? It would it just would take a phone call somewhere. Wait a minute. Do you realize on that show we had a Ukraine the necessity of our Ukraine involvement denier, but not quite as bad as a vaccine denier. But, you know, I denier or somebody who had said Putin may not be the most dangerous, irrational person that ever lived, that’s heresy. Now, absolute actionable heresy. If you were not a tenured professor, I don’t happen to be. There would be people calling for your dismissal, maybe even with tenure. You’re not allowed to say that. Even at respected universities, what you just said on this show.
Lears: Now, what what used to be called legitimate dissent is now dismissed as Kremlin Talking Points.
Scheer: Memo. But it’s espionage. It’s a violation of the Espionage Act. It’s that’s right.
Lears: And so we shall we shall see. I mean, the the you’ve raised so much so many fundamental points, and I. I didn’t read the Times story, but I read The Washington Post account of the same legal decision that you were referring to that that basically confirms the work that Matt Taibbi, another investigative reporters have done through what he calls the Twitter files to demonstrate the the deep entanglement of the national security state in in systematically censoring public discourse where it is most vital and vibrant today on social media. I mean, the national security state and the surveillance agencies have always been have always done that. The FBI used to do their job, has always unofficially been to monitor and control the boundaries of permissible dissent and to keep the debate narrow and to keep, you know, in in to keep peace advocates, for example, during the Cold War, to tar them with the brush of of a communism, they were sympathetic to the communists. If you were asked if you were calling for peace between the superpowers in 1950 or 1951, you could be easily accused of being a communist. We have returned to that that mentality.
Scheer: And let me interrupt you. We have communists we love, and then we’ve got the ones we need to hate. Now, for example, China. We love when Nixon made peace as long as and right up through much of the pandemic, as long as they supplied us through all these goods that Amazon delivered everything, every computer, every pore, they were wonderful. It’s when they challenged America to and said, Look, we’d like to get into the high end. We’d like to make more sophisticated equipment. We’re not just going to exploit young Chinese women to assemble iPhones. We want to get to them. You know, you have a company like Apple that’s being celebrated now, a $3 trillion company with, you know, income greater than France and India combined, etc., etc.. Nobody points out that Apple rose to this great capitalist success, unprecedented on the backs of exploited Chinese workers, exploited by a communist system that delivered a docile labor force that couldn’t form unions, couldn’t object. Some people tried to commit suicide out of these buildings, never examined. Human rights was never discussed in terms of the rights of the Chinese worker working in a Foxconn or Apple plant. You know, whether they’re right to strike their right to have opinion, the right to deny their labor or not. We loved come and write the irony. Right? Exactly. At this moment we want Chinese, the people making products in China to move over to Vietnam. Vietnam is still this communist country that we went to war with. And, you know, four or five or 6 million people, nobody’s clear about the figure died in that war, including almost 59,000 Americans. But, you know, we that’s the communism we like. And the fact is the fact of the matter is and you hardly ever hear any reference to where Putin came from. Yes, Putin had been, you know, in the Soviet security system, as most people were involved with the old system. But Putin was part of the what used to be the Leningrad, then Saint Petersburg group. He was a reformer with subject. He’s the guy picked by our guy Yeltsin, the guy we had against Gorbachev. Right. And freedom loving. And he was there because he was the only sober person when Yeltsin when I was covering this at the time for the L.A. Times, Yeltsin was this hopeless drunk. Putin had the virtue of being sober, and he was fiercely anti-communist, indeed defeated the economy, the remnants of the Communist Party in election. So it never was about communism. It’s always was about U.S. hegemony, and power was never about human rights. And this I get that, you know.
Lears: You’re putting your finger on the right thing here and us at Germany in power, because what we’re looking at now in this Biden administration, in this awful moment that we’re in and this flailing over, you know, this pouring of billions into this point. And I was going to say pointless Ukraine struggle. But it’s not it’s it’s worse than that. It’s potentially calamitous. Quite, quite easily. Could become calamitous for all of us. But but there’s no debate. There’s not even a murmur of dissent within Congress or within the mass media. And there’s very little within the universities, the the the the educated class, the people, the people who used to call themselves intellectuals or public intellectuals, there’s been a major failure to confront what was actually going on here. It seems to. I mean, which is the failings of an empire in decline. You know, we have a situation where we constantly hear talk about global leadership from the likes of Biden at all. Genuine global leadership would involve a leader coming up and saying to the world, look, we’re going to we’re going to step back from this nuclear brink. We’re going to begin dismantling the Doomsday machine. We’ll keep enough of a of an arsenal to serve as a deterrent. But we are going to make the first move. We’re going to step away from this nuclear arms race. And part of the reason we’re going to do that is we want a new era of international cooperation, because we have to we have to have international cooperation to confront the climate crisis, for example, the environmental crisis, which is so often mistakenly separated from the threat posed by nuclear war, when in fact, of course, is nothing more poisonous for the environment than a nuclear exchange. We don’t even have to talk about nuclear winter, although that’s the ultimate expression of environmental collapse under under a nuclear exchange. But the point is we need international cooperation. We don’t need to be going around picking fights with everybody in the world, every every rival leader we can imagine. We can turn into an enemy, an adversary. And there’s almost a yearning for that kind of at least among the strategy, making classes, the intellectual classes, the chattering classes. There’s a yearning for what they call moral clarity and for an evil. That’s why the demonization of Putin was so important. And I think China, the Chinese, of course, can be demonized as well and probably will be. There’ll be a bipartisan demonization effort there, too, so we can forget about the kind of international cooperation we absolutely have to have at this cultural and historical moment. As long as we’re doing this, this idiotic adolescent posturing, you know, it’s like the schoolyard bully challenging everybody around him to fight and put up their dukes, because we’re going to we’re going to win for democracy here. We’re going to we’re going to get ourselves some regime change going. I’m just appalled by it, by the the sophomoric banality and also the huge danger that these people are playing with. And by people, I mean, the, you know, the Fab Four of Biden, Biden, them and Blinken, the new one and Biden, Biden, probably the least functional of the four, but that the others can run him and can run him around any way they want. So I think this is a way for an empire to face up to. Its own decline is a very hard thing, and not many have done it very successfully or gracefully. But that is really what we have to do here.
Scheer: You know, we’re going to wrap this up, but I think what we haven’t talked at all about, your great work in understanding our history, your professional career and so forth. And I do want to draw on that a bit because what really seems to be at stake is this hubris, this American exceptionalism. And it’s it’s toxic. I you know, and I’ve been in totalitarian countries. I covered the also I was in China during the culture revolution. I’ve seen you know, I know tyranny scares me. Totalitarianism in its totality, in its control. But nonetheless, whether it was Nasser’s Egypt that I was whatever I’ve been, I Cuba, whatever, at least most people or many people knew the game was rigged. You know, like no one ever thought Pravda is telling you the truth. They’re telling you the Communist Party position you might want to read provided a senior Communist Party. But even members of the party, when I interviewed, they really didn’t believe they would get, you know, a balanced view. They didn’t get it from this vessel. That was the government position of safety in China. I know we have a lot of the Chinese students do dissertations and so forth where I teach. And you can see in social networking and in the media in China, there’s a lot of suspicion about how does medicine work and where is the role of corruption and what doctors were drunk in, you know, and this questioning, you know, and and I’m not saying that. I mean, I like the idea of limited government. I, I believe in there are amendments. I believe in that. But but the the corrosive thing in America is we think that whatever we do is, by definition, democratic, enlightening. And I mean, it’s startling. So, you know, we didn’t do torture. We did enhanced interrogation. We still have one. We’ve never had a single trial about the people we accused of doing all this and what was it all about and where, You know, we never really had any examination of who were the 15 Saudis and what was their relation to us. You know, just as we’re not having any examination of who blow up this pipeline going to Germany that was opposed to the oil, there’s no questioning of it. And so this it seems to me, as you as a historian, just a few minutes here, if you have the time. But but it seems to me this notion of American innocence, that by definition we are we even have headlines now. The democracies are doing well. The democracy includes Hungary, includes Turkey, but all the all democracies. And as if no other state has to worry about delivering towards people, as if the Chinese leadership can be totally indifferent to the flooding they’re having now or breathing in Beijing or, you know, the issues that go into global warming, as if all they have to do is push a button and silent. No, people don’t stay silent, certainly not in the modern world of communication and so forth. And so that seems to me the real the cancer here is this arrogance, this American exceptionalism that we teach from the earliest days in school. And this is, first of all, a lie, because after all, we were founded on slavery and only rich white males could vote, etc., etc., etc., We destroyed it. I don’t have to go through the whole history, but we don’t even learn from our own experiences. That’s the US of amnesia. And and we just assume that we tell the truth that there is no such thing as American hegemony. That’s simply the effectiveness of our wonderful economic system is startling. So as a historian, we have a view. Just tell me, what did you learn? Studying history and our place in that history now?
Lears: Well, I.
Scheer: Knew the specific books you think we should read or articles you read or what have you, in addition to the Harpers.
Lears: Well, I just came out with a new book called Animal Spirits The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street. So I have to plug that at the moment, which is okay.
Scheer: And who’s the publisher at FSG?
Lears: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And before that, I so I’m concerned about the you know, what the Economist Keynes referred to as animal spirits, which is the spontaneous urge to act, you know, the kind of kind of individual and ultimately collective vitality, how people get worked up about something. And one of the things they get worked up about, about, you know, asset prices in the you know, in a bull in a bull market. And Keynes was very interested in the role of that kind of excitement in in capitalism, kind of emotional history of capitalism. But there’s also an emotional history of war and empire, which, of course, is connected strongly to capitalism and structural and economic ways. But there but there is a kind of yearning for heroic, heroic action, for relief from the the boredom and routine of a prosper in a prosperous commercial society. And I was looking for ways to redeem itself and and to somehow pursue transcendent goals, whether it’s going abroad in search of a monsters to destroy or just staying home and paying someone else to go after those monsters, as we’re mostly doing in Ukraine, though not entirely. But but the point about this this war has always had this exciting dimension and and it has you. After 911, there were people like George Packer writing in the New York Times magazine saying, well, you know, this is great. I feel great. I like the feeling of being at war. He actually said these things because it generates heroism, it generates self-sacrifice. And he went on and on. It was it was such a familiar argument to me because I had encountered it so many times in my own cultural history of the of the imperial U.S. And the what what I like to point to is that I think is really important in American public consciousness. Is this the role of evangelical Protestantism? And I don’t mean to it out and. Angelica Protestants for particular abuse here because I think it’s a very secularized version of evangelical Protestantism that ends up governing our foreign policy and influencing our public debate. But the the part of it that I think is is critically important and that has survived is the notion of a righteous community. That is, if you are if you are saved in an angelic tradition, the Protestant tradition, then you are part you become part of this righteous community. There is no purgatory. There is no middle way. So you’re either inside or outside. You’re saved or damned. And that’s when, you know, patrolling the boundaries of the righteous community becomes important. And agencies like the CIA and the FBI become important, too. But I think that we are looking constantly at the formation of a righteous community, the attempt to sustain it and defend it and to attack those who are outside it. And we seem somehow to to threaten it. And the. Involvement in maintaining that righteous community creates a feeling of virtue, that creates a feeling of hubris, a sense that we can do anything. We can do anything. We’re the greatest country on earth. And all of that came was reinforced by the nineties and then reinforced in a different way by 911 and then the so-called global war on terror. So there was an unending pattern of righteous war to fight. And and I think the moral dimension is very important for Americans. And I think that’s one reason that Biden and company are so resistant to diplomacy, is that they’re mired in this rigid morass of moralism and they can’t look beyond their noses to see that, you know, you have to find common ground with people whose actions you might deplore. And that’s called diplomacy. And diplomacy is that army of the notion of the righteous community. And I think it’s the maintaining of that righteous community that is sort of the last act of empire here that we will see unfolding before us and in the months and and years to come.
Scheer: You know, I could end it there. And that’s a strong statement then. And I agree with much of it, except. It takes. Responsibility away from people who are not born again Christians and who are not don’t believe in a righteous career. I don’t know what they believe in. Some go to church, some.
Lears: You’re sure? Well, what I’m saying is it’s secular, though. It’s not.
Scheer: Yeah, I understand that. But the inspiration is actually a perversion, an ideological perversion of something that I certainly believe in. I show you some you do a notion of democracy, of limited government, of responsibility, of elections and so forth. And and these are the same people who have destroyed the meaning of all those democratic institutions, not by talking about an afterlife, but by deliberate embrace of a public relations distortion. Money counts. And I’m not just talking about, you know, Citizens United. I mean, the the the mangling of language what what Huxley and Orwell both warned about when they predicted a dystopia, which seems to come upon us that that their careerism and this is our colleagues why we’re not having discussion on college campuses right now is not the hangover of fundamentalist religion.
Lears: I don’t I didn’t I wouldn’t say that either. I, I completely agree that it’s that it’s it’s a kind of secular hubris. It’s technically technologically based. And it’s and it’s based on a very limited and distorted idea of democracy, because the whole the whole notion of democracy now has pretty much boiled down to voting. Voting in elections. And and nobody talks about the importance of spirited and robust public debate and free speech. You know, to get back to those, you know, the so-called this is an Orwellian phrase, right? Content moderation on social media. Content moderation. Oh, you’re against the war. And in sorry, it’s Freudian slip. You’re against the war in Ukraine. Well, we have to moderate that. We have to moderate your content. We can’t have that. But that violation of community norms, there are all these phrases. I mean, Orwell should certainly be living at this hour. I agree. The blandness and the euphemism that the ultimate triumph of euphemism was the renaming of the War Department, the defense as the Defense Department in 1947. And we’ve lived through one euphemism after another. I don’t know how to explain all this except to say that people somehow combine this secular hubris with a kind of moral certainty and a longing for moral certainty that is very dangerous.
Scheer: I don’t think. Okay, let me do this.
Lears: I’m getting out of juice myself.
Scheer: I know. I know you are. Let me just end this. Well, I don’t. I can’t have the last word, but. But I do I because I. And I. I love the way you explain things and I agree and so forth. I think it’s presumptuous for me to lecture you in any way, but I have come away. I’ve interviewed a lot of these people. I’ve interviewed a lot of policy people who other people think of as monsters. You know, I actually have a letter from Richard Nixon. I try to summarize his career and went to see you. He invited me to come see him because at least I could cut him a little slack and see. Well, it wasn’t so simple. We always have this ordering. Now Trump washing gets them all off the hook. This whole election is going to be fought by, Oh, you can’t have a third party or Cornel West or RFK. You can’t do this. We have to get Biden in because otherwise it’s Trump and he’s the big mess and so forth. And I see it in much more cynical terms. I see it is driven by careerism privilege and playing with language, you know, too good to check. I remember former editor of mine explaining why some of the corruption at the L.A. Times. And I said, well, why didn’t they look into this? And how come? And is it too good to check, you know, to get a check?
Lears: And yeah, this is where the whole notion of meritocracy comes in. These people believe they’re the product of a meritocracy. They have the credentials to prove it. And and rightly, that leads to a kind of overweening arrogance.
Scheer: And what’s happening now is their arguments are not strong. No, it’s crazy. We had we were all supposed to be preoccupied with climate change and now we’re talking about more fighting and more tanks and more guns. We obviously forget.
Lears: No one is going to address climate. Yeah.
Scheer: So what I’m saying is and let me use this show as a test case, because I’ve seen the Internet change just in the years that now I’ve been editing and publishing and doing stuff on the Internet. You can’t get. They have denied any kind of large audience to people who challenge the dominant narrative in a coherent way. If you, you know, show cats debating it or something, or you can get away with a stunt, but you will not. I just published Sy Hersh. You know, and and very thoughtful and so forth. Didn’t get that large audience. I don’t think it’s because Sy Hersh lost his ability. I think the Internet is being censored very heavily. And I don’t think I’m being paranoid.
Lears: About completely agree. And I think that the the articles in The Times and the Post this morning were perfectly suggestive of how the ruling elite in Washington, as has decided that, you know, this is a terrible thing, this dissent from the source of disinformation is is is Trump and the BA and the yahoos who support him. It has nothing to do with the CIA. It’s nothing to do with the threat to free speech. It’s all anti-science. It’s all bad information that’s dangerous and has to be suppressed. And so the view of this this government and, you know, suppression of speech on social media is it’s setting back the war on disinformation. That’s what the Times and the Post are saying. This is a setback to what we’ve been trying to do, you know, to to get the truth out. And it’s it’s a very it that’s, again, an Orwellian moment for me where the actual people who are suppressing information are claiming to be right.
Scheer: And to finally wrap this up, bringing it back to your own. You know, they always say people in the military, when you go to a ballgame or something, they’re there to protect our freedom. We’re you were there to protect our freedom. You were there. Maybe you could have pushed the button on instructions and destroyed the world and you would have been doing your duty. Thank you for your service. You almost got us all killed. Thank you for your service. But to question it when you question it or say somebody like Ron Kovic, who gave up three quarters of his body in the war in Vietnam. Question then suddenly your patriotism is challenged, denied. And and I think what makes this so frightening right now is that we have the illusion that we are engaged in a public forum right now, you and I talking because we have the Internet, we have home. The fact the matter is, as Chris Hedges points out, the walls are closing in. Right. And the debate is we have never had such a narrow, tightly controlled debate as about Ukraine and this war.
Lears: Rick MacArthur is one of the few people, the publisher of Harper’s magazine. It’s one of the few people with something close to a mass circulation magazine. Anyway, who’s trying to do something that’s specifically about the Ukraine, the absence of debate in Ukraine. So I recommend the article. Why are we in Ukraine from the June issue to anyone whose interest is of that powerful recreation of that narrative that you and I were both referring to that one has to know about in order to know that Putin didn’t wake up one morning and decide to to invade Ukraine because he’s an evil neo imperialist. He did it because he was provoked over years. And this is I am not quite sure where to end either, but I am very much afraid. My computer is about to.
Scheer: Okay. I want to thank you and I want to thank you. What is the book coming out? We can at least sell some books here.
Lears: Animal Spirits How the American Pursuit of Vitality From Camp Meeting to Wall Street. And there’s there’s a lot about the war and empire in there eventually, but there’s also a lot about capitalism, which, of course, is tangled up in war and empire. So but I think that your your listeners might enjoy it, so I recommend it.
Scheer: Okay. And thank you for doing this. I also want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the NPR station in Santa Monica, California. And hopefully they’ll keep posting this. This will be one of those test cases for the rest of the Empire Station. I want to know they’ve been very good at getting this up. I want to thank Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, for bringing your article to my attention. Diego Ramos writing the introduction. Max Jones for doing the video aspect as he did today. And I particularly want to thank the JKW Foundation in the memory of a terrific independent public intellectual thinker, Jean Stein for providing some funding to help these shows get produced. And so see you next week with another edition of Sheer Intelligence. And thank you, Professor Jackson.