Written by Jonathan Cook / Mint Press

The pathologization of dissent is not going away. It will intensify as neoliberalism faces crisis after crisis and social polarization grows. Those who claim to be liberals defending democracy will soon be only too ready to snuff it out.

Back in the dark days of the Soviet Union, dissidents risked being locked up – but not, officially at least, on the grounds that they had committed a political crime. In the Soviet regime’s imagination, treason and mental illness were often two sides of the same coin.

Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia of the phenomenon:

The KGB [the Soviet secret police] routinely sent dissenters to psychiatrists for diagnosing to avoid embarrassing public trials and to discredit dissidence as the product of ill minds. Highly classified government documents which have become available after the dissolution of the Soviet Union confirm that the authorities consciously used psychiatry as a tool to suppress dissent.

The weaponization of mental illness by the Soviet Union against internal critics has been described as “punitive psychiatry.”

Vladimir Bukovsky, a Russian human rights activist who spent many years confined to psychiatric hospitals and labor camps, wrote “A Manual on Psychiatry for Dissenters,” together with a Ukrainian psychiatrist, Semyon Gluzman. The pair observed: “The Soviet use of psychiatry as a punitive means is based upon the deliberate interpretation of dissent … as a psychiatric problem.”

The medicalization of dissent was not unique to the Soviet Union, of course. It is a feature of authoritarian and repressive states. An ideological consensus is cultivated in the population by portraying opponents as traitors whose behavior is proof of a mental disturbance or insanity.

Publicizing dissent, and the reasons for it, through criminal trials risks dangerously challenging dominant social assumptions inculcated by propaganda. Instead, the dissenter can quietly be detained for his or her own good without their political ideology getting an airing.

Medicalizing dissent

This is why the growing trend in the West’s supposedly free and open societies towards conflating dissent with treason – and medicalizing its causes – should concern us. It is likely to be a barometer of how authoritarian our liberal democracies are rapidly becoming.

This has not happened overnight. It has been a gradual process that accelerated with the trauma for liberals of discovering that the political system they so revered was capable of spawning a president like Donald Trump. How could the most evolved of the Western democracies – which had defeated the evil Soviet empire ideologically, economically, and militarily – end up electing such a wretch for a leader?

Capitol Breach Feature photo

Trump supporters attend a rally in Washington before marching on the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. John Minchillo | AP

The proper conclusion to draw was that Trump was a symptom of an entirely dysfunctional, corrupt Western political system – one with which liberals had closely identified even when it was being led by the right. (U.S. politics had thrown up plenty of other clearly lamentable presidents, such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but none exhibited the same degree of vulgarity and vanity that so troubled liberals.)

It should have been a moment for the scales to fall from their eyes. But that would have meant questioning everything liberals held dearest. So Instead they found other reasons to explain the rise of President Trump.

He had to be treated as an aberration, not the exemplar of a system that had long served people very much like Trump: whether it was the billionaire-owned media, the moneyed donors that had captured both political parties, or the corporate lobbies that deprived the public of proper health care and channeled public wealth into endless, devastating wars that enriched a narrow elite.

What was needed urgently was a theory that would leave the status quo – and its claim to moral superiority – untouched.

The neatest candidate, for those committed to liberalism – or its modern incarnation as neoliberalism – was the idea that Western democracies had become so open, free, fair, and honest that they had developed an inherent vulnerability – an Achilles’ heel – that could be easily exploited by malicious actors. According to this reasoning, liberal democracy was uniquely susceptible to sabotage.

Fake news ‘threat’

From 2016 onwards, the corporate media was awash with warnings that Trump was the product of dangerous new trends: populism, fake news, Russian disinformation, and online bots. These quickly became shorthand for the same supposed phenomenon.

Paradoxically, these “threats” derived from the rapid technological development of unique forms of popular engagement and more democratic media. Social media leveled the media playing field for the very first time, challenging the traditional top-down model in which state and corporate media – the latter owned and controlled by a fabulously wealthy elite – reserved for themselves an exclusive right to decide what counted as news and how news events should be interpreted and assessed.

There was indeed a problem with fake news on social media, even if it paled in comparison to the much more influential and damaging fake news on corporate media. But the real cause of the proliferation of fake news and wild conspiracies on these platforms could not be genuinely addressed by the corporate elites running our societies – and for good reason.

Fake news, like genuine news, thrives in the more democratic environment of social media only because political and media elites have kept so much real information – information that might make them look less virtuous – under wraps. It is the tight secrecy of Western democracies that has encouraged such variety of news and views, informed and uninformed alike, to proliferate.

Social media “conspiracy theories” are not evidence of how a section of the public has fallen under the malign influence of “Russian disinformation.” Rather they are a sign of how a growing number of Westerners have become so deeply distrustful of their elites and what they are concealing that they are ready to believe almost anything about their depravity, however incredible.

‘Russiagate’ born

There were two other, self-interested reasons for the billionaires and the journalists who work for them to vilify users of social media, painting them as either victims of, or colluders in, “Russian disinformation.”

First, social media made it possible for the first time to illuminate the inherent weaknesses of the traditional media’s reporting and analyses. Users could highlight what was being ignored or misrepresented, and the glaring double standards at play. Voices that had been disregarded or actively silenced suddenly had visibility.

And second, those offering a mode of critical thinking that has always been impermissible in the corporate media were positioned to question the foundations of the political and economic systems on which the billionaires – and those they employed – depended for their power and privilege.

The foundations of a political system with which liberals deeply identified were being shaken. As a result, a whole industry sprang up to insulate them from the terrifying thought that maybe Trump both personified, and represented a reaction to, something already unwholesome about the United States and its values.

And so “Russiagate” was born: the idea that Trump’s electoral success had occurred – could only have occurred – because the U.S. system had been sabotaged from outside and within. Trump must have colluded with the Kremlin to subvert U.S. democracy.

Despite years of investigations, no evidence was ever adduced to support that claim, but nonetheless, it soon had a vise-like hold on the imagination of U.S. liberals.

The subtext was that only those with feeble minds, or perverse and treasonous ideological impulses, could fail to understand that the liberal candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, was far better.

‘Basket of deplorables’

But Trump also provided the perfect opportunity for liberals to start subtly medicalizing their opponents – whether on the left or right. Trump’s narcissism, bordering on personality disorder, was hard to ignore. Those who supported him were therefore readily discredited as a “basket of deplorables” – Clinton’s infamous term for them. (Clinton’s language offered a subliminal message that they were “basket cases” too).

Of course, support for Trump was not the only symptom of the breakdown of the liberal – and neoliberal – order. That consensus was also challenged from the left by Bernie Sanders. He was supposedly a product of fake news and Russian disinformation too. His supporters were dismissed as “Bernie Bros”: a doubly false characterization that they were overwhelmingly male and peddlers of toxic masculinity.

Over in the U.K., similar processes were underway. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was disappeared from view (first in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, then in Belmarsh high-security prison) for revealing war crimes committed by the West’s military-industrial complex – or, as liberals preferred to call it, the “defense industry.”

Wikileaks | Julian Assange Arrested

Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London, April 11, 2019. Victoria Jones | PA via AP

The liberal Guardian exemplified the shift from at first vilifying Assange as a rapist (also, an evidence-free accusation) to portraying him as mentally disturbed: its journalists led the way in spreading fake news that he abused his cat and smeared feces over the walls of what amounted to his cell in the embassy.

The British and U.S. security services knew that by the time they engineered Assange’s seizure from the embassy in 2019, he would fit perfectly the image of the crazed dissident the Guardian had so meticulously crafted. Three months earlier, the CIA had gotten embassy staff to confiscate Assange’s shaving equipment. He was carried out, bearded, disheveled, and pale from lack of sunlight, looking like a mad hermit from Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian.” Or a “demented looking gnome,” as long-time Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore called him.

The actual U.S. charge against Assange, largely overlooked in all the messaging from liberal media like The Guardian, was the true insanity. He was accused of “espionage” for publishing evidence of U.S. war crimes – even though he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, had done none of his work in the U.S., and had not participated in any act, even had he been a U.S. citizen working in the U.S., that could realistically be characterized as spying.

Digital gulag

It didn’t end there. Britain had its own version of Bernie Sanders, a left-wing insurgency candidate. But unlike Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn won the contest to become Labour Party leader, riding a wave of support from party members that shocked and incensed the Blairite centrists that had long controlled the party. Naturally, Corbyn’s success also infuriated the corporate media.

He was initially portrayed as a traitor. But soon liberal media like The Guardian were focusing on an entirely concocted charge that Corbyn was either a confirmed antisemite or wilfully indulged a strong antisemitic tendency within the party.

These confected allegations rarely operated at the political level. The subtext once again was that an enemy of the neoliberal order was unhinged, a man in the grip of irrational prejudice and demons he was incapable of slaying.

Corbyn’s supporters weren’t literally being wheeled off to the psychiatrist’s couch – not quite – but the implication was clear: those who voted or campaigned for him, like those who stood by Assange and his right not to be jailed for telling the truth, were a menace to wider society. They needed to be silenced, put in a digital gulag – enforced through algorithmic changes – as a first stage of containment.

They were to be treated as one would deal with a dangerous illness, rather than a popular movement driven by a political ideology or political grievances.

In an initial move to cure society, Trump was hounded off social media platforms even while he was president. Meanwhile, damaging stories that might question the virtue of his liberal challenger, Joe Biden, in the 2020 election were erased from public consciousness through coordination by the traditional and new corporate media.

But the question remained: was digital containment enough?

Pandemic debates

One of the advantages of having power – especially when it is power over narratives – is that the perception of any real-world event can be shaped in ways that serve the interests of power.

That meant that the arrival at the tail end of the Trump presidency of a global pandemic – a cataclysmic moment with biblical overtones – could be used as yet another lens for liberals to interpret the world, and in terms that posited anyone like them as virtuous and everyone else as dangerous or mentally unsound.

The reality was that COVID offered an ideal opportunity to question some of the most cherished tenets of a neoliberal orthodoxy that had had absolute dominion over Westerners’ lives for more than four decades.

  • Was the planet primarily an economic asset to be endlessly exploited?
  • Did the individual have more inherent value than the collective?
  • Should the value of relationships, and virtue, be measured chiefly in economic terms?
  • Ought public health to be at the mercy of profit-driven corporations, from pharmaceutical to food companies?

None of these questions – pivotal as they are to our survival as a species – came to the fore during the pandemic, the moment when they had the most obvious relevance and topicality. The corporate media made sure to steer the national debate away from questions so incompatible with a world designed by and for billionaires.

Instead, the problem was quickly reduced to a simpler one: Why were a minority of the population not getting themselves or their children vaccinated? What could be done to deal with this irresponsible section of the population?

Almost immediately this became the obsessive focus of media and popular attention. Proof of vaccination became the only legitimate marker to distinguish between the virtuous and disease-free (the clean), and the selfish and disease-carriers (the unclean).

From the outset, there were lots of problems with this distinction. Scientific evidence, even if it was publicly downplayed, indicated that those who had already caught COVID enjoyed a natural immunity that offered stronger protection than that from vaccination. (Notably, until COVID, natural immunity had always been considered the gold standard of immunity.)

The vaccines, it quickly became clear too, had very short-lived efficacy. They offered personal protection against more severe illness, but they did little to stop the communal spread of the disease, as Omicron’s current rampage through heavily vaccinated populations should underscore.

It could not be stated publicly at the time, but virtue was not the main reason to take the vaccine. Selfishness was.

Fortunately for the health of our public conversation, if nothing else, the arrival of Omicron shattered the liberal consensus that passports and social shunning, if not enforced isolation, were the solutions to what were until then being dismissively labeled the “anti-vaxxers” – those depraved individuals who had failed to take three or more shots of the vaccine, whatever their reasons.

Ukraine survey

It would be a grave mistake to imagine that we are anywhere near the end of this trajectory, just because Trump is gone (for now) and the COVID pandemic looks nearly over.

The framework for our current “debates” has been fixed by the billionaires and the liberals who are their willing accomplices. Political arguments have been subsumed by liberal claims to mental clarity and moral superiority. The implication is that the mentally infirm, those susceptible to the influence campaigns of the enemy, need to be dealt with to stop liberal democracy from being subverted.

As an example of the way this is starting to play out in more overtly Soviet-style terms, consider this recent thread on social media by a New York academic who has quickly gained half a million followers on Twitter by pandering to liberals still in shock at Clinton’s defeat in 2016.

Caroline Orr Bueno is described as “a behavioral scientist who researches social media manipulation, online information warfare, and far-right extremism” – ascribing almost all of it, predictably, to “Russian disinformation.”

In a recent interview, she observed that she had “moderated” her tone on Twitter as her influence has grown:

Because right now so much of what is wrong on the internet is super divisive. It’s hype, and I find that to be not helpful and not productive, and it doesn’t really lead to anywhere good. So I try not to contribute to that cycle.”

Contradicting herself moments later in the same interview, Orr Bueno notes of her critics:

I get a lot of attempts to discredit me or my work through various disinformation campaigns, often emanating from people and organizations with direct links to the Russian government.”

So what comes next can presumably be discounted as “Russian disinformation.”

Orr Bueno highlights a survey whose methodology is itself troubling. A poll of Canadians on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine breaks down the responses on the basis not only of age and gender but whether the respondent has been vaccinated or not. This is now a relevant category for assessing the public’s views, it seems.

The headline Orr Bueno wants to highlight as evidence of a mental infirmity among the unvaccinated is that 26% of them reportedly support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, compared to just 2% of those vaccinated with three shots.

Her conclusion, dressed up as academic analysis, is that the unvaccinated are either so incapable of rational and moral thought, or such willing dupes of Russia, that they are susceptible to obvious disinformation campaigns.

Skeptical posture

There is a very obvious problem with this analysis, as answers to many of the survey’s other questions demonstrate. We might assess one marker of sanity – or, at least, mental clarity – vis a vis Ukraine as an unwillingness to provoke a World War III between nuclear powers, especially if such a provocation is actually a way to avoid negotiations to achieve a ceasefire.

So how do unvaccinated and three-shot-vaccinated Canadians square up, based on that yardstick? According to the survey, more than three times as many of the highly vaccinated as the unvaccinated want their government to send Canadian fighter jets and troops to Ukraine. Just over half of all three-shot Canadians surveyed appeared ready to start a war with Russia over Ukraine.

It might be reasonable, using Orr Bueno’s approach, to assume that it is therefore the three-shot vaccinated rather than the unvaccinated who are mentally unsound. But I will resist that temptation.

What we need to do instead is consider the kind of influence peddling that might have led so many vaccinated Canadians to promote what looks like an insane policy.

If it is Russian disinformation to think there may be grounds for Russia to invade Ukraine – and taking a wild stab, I suspect some of the respondents may have regarded it as a justified response to NATO expansion – whose disinformation might have encouraged so many Canadians to conclude that joining a war against Russia is a good idea?

Ukraine Feature photo

Protests outside of the White House call for NATO military action against Russia, March 6, 2022. Jose Luis Magana | AP

The correct inference here is not, as Orr Bueno concludes, that a minority with infirm minds is susceptible to Russian disinformation, but that there are two population groups that have differing attitudes towards established authority and, as a result, have been exposed to different kinds of information.

Those who have taken three shots of the vaccine are more likely to rely heavily for their information on traditional sources of authority. They are what I have called elsewhere “trusters.” They assume their leaders are well-meaning, if sometimes complacent or incompetent, and that they generally seek to act in the best interests of their societies and the world.  They consume “mainstream” media largely passively – the very media run by and for the benefit of Western oligarchs.

It is therefore hardly surprising that they were keen to take as many shots of vaccine as the government’s medical advisers told them to, and that many of them also believe it makes sense to launch a war against Russia when so many prominent corporate media journalists are telling them that is what is needed.

By contrast, the unvaccinated are more likely to be drawn from those who are suspicious of their governments and major corporations, as well as the structural forces shaping information on the West’s political processes. These “doubters” insist on maintaining a skeptical posture.

Critical thinking

Were we to do more surveys on this basis, we could probably guess a range of other views likely to resonate with the three-shot vaccinated more than the unvaccinated:

  • That Assange deserves to be locked up for life for revealing U.S. and U.K. war crimes;
  • That social media should be tightly controlled either by governments or by the billionaires of Silicon Valley;
  • That the class concerns of the “far-left” are actually cover for a deep-seated antipathy towards Jews;
  • And that NATO is a purely defensive organization trying to protect countries from Russian imperialism.

There is nothing in these views that suggests mental clarity or superiority; resistance to disinformation; independence of mind: or even basic critical thinking skills. These just reflect the consensus manufactured by a corporate media that services the interests of the billionaire class. All of these views are useful to those in power and help to maintain the status quo. Which is precisely why these views, rather than others, dominate.

What Orr Bueno and liberals like her are doing is subtly pathologizing those who dissent, just as the Soviet Union did more brashly. They are suggesting a mental infirmity among those who refuse to accept what the political and media class – and the billionaires behind them – declare is true.

The pathologization of dissent is not going away. It will intensify as neoliberalism faces crisis after crisis and social polarization grows. Those who claim to be liberals defending democracy will soon be only too ready to snuff it out.

Jonathan Cook is a MintPress contributor. Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

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