There are moments in society when many go mad. Not all — some are skeptics and resistant to collective hysteria. But examples abound about how many in a community can collectively believe an illusion.
The fictional examples of the Wizard of Oz and the Emperor’s New Clothes, or the philosophical puzzle in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Republic, seize on the notion of how we know the world about us and how we can be deceived about such a consensus of “knowledge.”
Such literary examples are matched by real-world examples of collective illusions. There was the dancing mania in Europe from the 14th to the 17th century involving the chaotic dancing of up to a thousand individuals until exhausted.
Closer to home, there was the 17th century Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. One of the original girls accused of witchcraft, Tituba, admitted to being an agent of the devil. Mostly women, but men also, were subsequently accused of witchcraft. But there were those, like John Proctor, who saw these girls as con artists. And then he was accused of being a witch since he denied the existence of the collective illusion.
We know it now to be a mass psychogenic illness — but what about being in the moment in 1692?
The U.S. has had several experiences with the red scare — a fear of infiltration by Soviet agents. From the inception of the Bolshevik Revolution at the end of World War I to the revelations of Elizabeth Bentley naming numerous Soviet agents in the late 1940s, followed by Whittaker Chamber’s naming of Alger Hiss, an influential member of the Roosevelt administration, as a communist spy. Hiss and Chambers testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee; Chambers accused, Hiss denied. But who was telling the truth? Interestingly, the U.S. government’s Venona Project that decoded many Soviet diplomatic communications, validated Chambers.
During the 1950s, my own family was affected by the broad investigation and fears of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Yes, there was a legitimate concern about Soviet espionage in the United States. But oftentimes, the scare was overly broad.
Part of the difficulty was the fascination by many Americans with the allure of Soviet communism. The United States and the Soviet Union were allies during WWII. And many heard such allures of communism such as universal health care. That was what attracted my mother and father to want to emigrate to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but they were dissuaded by the Soviet consulate to avoid the “grass-is-greener” wishful thinking.
From personal family lore, I understood that my parent’s affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1940s became a black mark against one of my father’s brothers. He wanted to work for the U.S. government. An FBI check nixed that job. My uncle then went on to a better career as a civil engineer in the private sector in Florida.
Still, those FBI and word-of-mouth markers served as a blacklisting to many — whether having communist ideas or defending the right to believe as one wishes.
The question, whether in the 1920s, 1940s-50s, and now in the 2000s, is to what extent such contacts — spy vs. spy, economic competition, Cold War, and the like — can be accurately measured, how deleterious these contacts are, and whether there is fear beyond a reasonably sane understanding when connecting these dots (and assuming these dots exist).
Is there mass hysteria from time to time? Yes, of course. There have been moments of a red scare in the past. But what about today?
Can we tell whether we can be the skeptic like John Proctor during the Salem Witch Trials and say the red scare today is a scam? Or are we stuck being the prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave with shadowy revelations about the current administration? As in the Allegory of the Cave, are we bound to benches watching shadows on the wall? To use a modern idiom, are we captives of the media and social media, unable to tell tweets from actual facts (assuming we can separate the “actual” from the “wishful” facts)?
Leading up to the present cluster of events and “facts” is the 2012 perspective. Mitt Romney debated President Barack Obama and declared that Russia was our “number one geopolitical foe.” Romney was soundly mocked by Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews among others.
Obama: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because…the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Biden: Romney likely belongs to “a small group of Cold War holdovers.”
Maddow: “He read about Reagan’s private, outside-the-CIA cabal of team-B zealots who were telling him that Russia had all the stuff they didn’t have so he could justify a giant defense budget.”
At that moment in 2012, should we have adopted Romney’s assessment of Russia or those of Obama, Biden, Clinton, Maddow, etc.? Was Romney’s assessment prescient or a throwback? Were the differences simply “facts” derived from partisan ideology? How would a citizen, limited to media and social media, be able to form a judgment that would be reasonably sound?
Looking back from other moments, such as Russia invading Crimea or deploying troops in parts of the Ukraine in 2014, and interfering in our presidential election in 2016, would those earlier assessments change?
In trying to understand what the Obama administration did against Russian interference in the 2016 election, one is left wishing more had been done beyond the warnings given to the Russians.
Jeh Johnson, Department of Homeland Secretary in the Obama Administration, testified he did not believe Russian interference “altered or suppressed” votes in the 2016 election.
We can see Russian interference in the United States over time. The latest episode involves President Trump. For the last several years, the FBI has been investigating “collusion” between Trump, his campaign and the Russians. Thousands of articles have been written surmising all manners of collusion, and yet, when the report was done, such collusion seems to have been part of a red scare and mass hysteria.
Yes, there were 25 Russians indicted as well as three Russian companies — out of a total of 34 indictments. That’s 82 percent of the indictments. Several others were for lying to the FBI and pre-campaign unlawful activity.
The Mueller Report’s overall conclusion about President Trump and his campaign was: “[T]he Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
So, where are we? Did we just experience an example of mass psychogenic illness? All those media reports that were wrong or misleading; all those promises by several politicians that there was substantial evidence went poof!
Have we just witnessed mass psychogenic illness, more commonly described as Trumpmania?
Perhaps there shouldn’t have been an investigation into President Trump at all. Perhaps he should have been given a defensive briefing, a warning, just as the FBI had given to Senator Diane Feinstein who had a 20-year employee who was a Chinese spy. Why the different treatment?
Perhaps the investigation was motivated by a more mundane reason — not a red scare, but of one campaign using — or misusing — the federal government with a fake dossier?
There are a myriad of “facts.” Some alternative, some misleading, and some actually true. It is difficult for even the most voracious consumer of media (right, left and center) to have confidence in the totality of what happened.
Shouldn’t we want, as observers of human society, to tell whether we have just witnessed a moment in mass hysteria? And whether we participated in it?
Or are we doomed to manic and mob behavior like those in the Salem Witch Trials?
Is there a path that we can agree on that will give us a semblance of historical accuracy?
Perhaps, the way out is what Atty. Gen. Bill Barr suggested at a recent Senate Hearing: “As I said in my confirmation hearing, I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016. And a lot of this has already been investigated, and a substantial portion of it has been investigated and is being investigated by the office of the Inspector General, but one of the things I want to do is pull everything together from the various investigations that have gone on, including on the Hill and in the [Justice] Department, and see if there are any remaining questions to be addressed.”
Don’t we all want to know the complete story?
Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.