Thursday, March 26, 2020

Dueling COVID-19 Banjos: The United States and China Fiddle With Narrative While the Pandemic Burns

(Pix Credit: HERE)

It appears that, even in the midst of substantial human suffering, there is always time for propaganda and propaganda wars.  The extraordinary narcissism of nations, taxed almost to the limits of their capacity to respond to the pandemic, devoting substantial resources to the spinning of propaganda with the objective of producing narratives of their respective greater glory, has now become an essential feature of the battles that later generations will come to understand as the COVID-19 wars. 

Thus it is that one finds oneself assaulted by the simultaneous self aggrandizing and heroic efforts of three leading political authorities to control the narrative of COVID-19 origin stories (discussed earlier here). At the same time--and as the complicit, pandering, and enabling media institutions suggest--these heroic efforts extend to the role of each of these states as the leading global force for the defeat of the pandemic.  The stakes are high, at least as measured by the lusts of the propaganda ministries of these states. The state that can claim the leading role in the glorious defeat of the plague believes that it can, at the same time, claim that the defeat reveals some sort of divine sign of the "worthiness" of the political apparatus and normative structures of the "victorious" state. The stage on which these performances for mass consumption are undertaken  reflect the logic of the institutional apparatus of each of these states.

Even to state these suppositions, the "rules" of the "game" that these states now indulge is to suggest the underlying buffoonery at the heart of these antics--but when coupled with the real consequences of the pandemic is assumes a much more macabre shading. Some brief reflections on this theme follow.

The self-serving excesses of state organs in time of pandemic recalls other instances of bizarre (and after the fact) pathetic behaviors of people during times of plague.
In fact, chronicles from the 14th to 16th centuries are full of reports of people across central Europe being seized by a compulsion to dance – and doing so in their hundreds, sometimes until they dropped dead from exhaustion.   . . . In the 1340s and 50s, the Black Death tore its way across the continent – killing up to 60 per cent of the population, wiping out entire communities and causing devastating famines. In response to these horrors, flagellants could soon be seen processing through the streets of villages, towns and cities, singing and lashing themselves in a desperation born out of loss, starvation, and the fear of God. Then in 1360, in Lausitz, bordering Bohemia, something more extraordinary still started happening. A record from the town describes women and girls acting “crazily”, dancing and shouting through the streets at the foot of the image of the Virgin. . . . In fact, chronicles from the 14th to 16th centuries are full of reports of people across central Europe being seized by a compulsion to dance – and doing so in their hundreds, sometimes until they dropped dead from exhaustion. Saint John’s Dance, as this phenomenon is known (due to the fact that people often called out the name of John the Baptist as they cavorted), traumatised onlookers and triggered a fearsome backlash from a horrified, confused clergy. (Helen Carr, The medieval dance of death)
China, the United States and the European Union are even now dancing and shouting through the global streets at the feet of statues of themselves as the incarnation of  a self-reflexive summum bonum.  If the analogy holds, each will continue to do so, in their respective madness, until overcome and exhausted from their respective and sterile self-pleasuring they might thereafter return with greater intensity to the fruitful task of caring for their respective masses. But each worships a different god--as manifested in itself.  And that makes this dance macabre transform itself from bathos to pathos.  For it is in the dueling banjos aspect of these dances--of each of these mad dancers gyrating to the tunes stuck in their heads--that one understands COVID-19 as a manifestation of an ideological opportunity.  But more than that, as the way in which each of these states begins to conceive of the COVID-19 plague as some sort of divine test, victory over which will secure the divinely touched legitimacy of the political-economic model (and of the leadership of the governing core).  Internal victory must then be manifested in some sort of internationalism in which the vindicated state system is offered as a "light onto the world" (Matthew 5:14-16 King James Version (KJV) ("14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid").

Were each of these states engaged in a solitary project f narrative building, one might wonder at the effort, but leave things ot individual idiosyncrasy.  The problem, however, is that these are not strategies for internal development.  Rather, they appear to serve as means of capitalizing on the COVID-19 plague itself to advance national political agendas.  That advancement has several objectives.   

The first is to convince domestic masses that the COVID-19 plague is not a judgement of the heavens, an indictment of the contemporary political-economic system and of its leaders.  That requires the construction of an internal narrative  (1) to show either that the plague is not a divine sign (e.g., the Chinese efforts to blame the U.S. for the plague rather than "nature"), or (2) that it is not a judgment of legitimacy bur rather a test of the power of the system itself in which victory against the plague would serve to cement the internal legitimacy of the political economic model (eg, the efforts of President Trump to avoid the invocation of the Defense Production ACt in favor if encouraging public private partners to overcome the plague). 

The second, is to convince external audiences (the masses and their elites in liberal democracies, the ruling elites elsewhere) that there is an identity between the political-economic model of a leading state and success (as a function of the expenditure of resources and the loss of life) in vanquishing the COVID-19 plague. This has been a position taken both by the Chinese and the American leadership--but to very different ends. In each case, the character of the response was tightly aligned with the political-economic model.  In both cases the resulting responses served as proof of the strength and inherent legitimacy of the political-economic model.  But it has an additional purpose, and one that serves as the foundation for much of the invective of this essay. The purpose is this: having turned national response into a vindication of an ideologically framed political-economic model, it becomes necessary to protect that narrative from critique or challenge.  That, in turn produces two tye sof responses.  The first is to frame national narrative against a narrative of the failures of rivals.  The second is to frame the virus itself as a manifestation of the illegitimacy, of the sickness, that is the rival system

And that is what is the most interesting fight over the question of controlling narrative.  This is not merely a question of system validation.  Rather, it is the use of the plague itself--of its character as a disease that kills--as the representation of the character of the system against which it is deployed. To control narrative, then, can be measured by the extent to which it is possible to convince people that COVID-19, as illness, as plague, as disruptive force, is little more than the incarnation of the the true character of the United States, or of China.
Both the U.S. and Chinese governments have passed blame back and forth. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump himself, have upped their use of the terms "Chinese virus" and "Wuhan virus," framing the outbreak as a Chinese issue. Pompeo urged G-7 leaders to adopt the language, as well, according to a report from the German magazine Der Spiegel. They've also accused Beijing of withholding information. Similarly, Chinese officials have regularly criticized the U.S. handling of the virus and played up America's failures around the outbreak, in addition to expelling American journalists and perpetuating the Army conspiracy. (House members introduce resolution to pin coronavirus blame on China).
The European Union itself has sought to push back on narrative that disturbs its own.
In an unusual choice of language, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on EU countries to stand ready for a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives”. . . .  “There is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor,” he said, noting that the focus had shifted from Europe helping China to the other way round. “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner. “In the battle of narratives we have also seen attempts to discredit the EU as such and some instances where Europeans have been stigmatised as if all were carriers of the virus. “The point for Europe is this: we can be sure that perceptions will change again as the outbreak and our response to it evolves. But we must be aware there is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’,” Borrell said. (EU fires warning shot at China in coronavirus battle of the narratives).
Pix credit here
In this context, it becomes clearer why it is that both superpowers have expended so many resources, and why their media apparatus (public and private, directly or indirectly) have been so eagerly complicit in expanding this battle (for example Secretary Pompeo's efforts at the G7 meeting on 26 March 2020 to align EU states against the Chinese and "their" "Wuhan Virus"--here). It also explains the intensity of responses to assertions by either side of this effort to conflate COVID-19 with the essence of the Chinese or the American way of life.  That the entire exercise is unnecessary and a distraction is beyond question.  That it evidences the problem of internal control of factions in times of crisis, leaving core leadership little space for de-escalation.  And even the effort to contest efforts by each side to paint the other as the disease behind the epidemic itself underlines the fundamental ideological battle the contest represents.
Jyllands-Posten has remained calm. The paper previously caused a stir in 2005 when it published twelve cartoons depicting the central prophet of Islam, Mohammad.  Editor-in-chief Jacob Nybroe said the point of the cartoon was not to make fun of China and added that the newspaper is not considering apologizing for something it does not believe is wrong. "As far as I can see, we are dealing with two different cultural views," Nybroe wrote in the paper. "We have a strong tradition of freedom of expression and caricature in Denmark, and we will continue to have it in the future." He added he did not feel the cartoon violated Danish law. Cartoonist Niels Bo Bojesen has often made fun of other countries' flags: He gave the Turkish flag a bullet hole and Saudi Arabia's green flag a dollar bill of the same color. As of Thursday, the paper had maintained its position and not issued an apology. However, it did publish an opinion from Feng Tie, China's ambassador to Denmark, arguing why he believed it was wrong and offensive to publish the cartoon. (China angry over coronavirus cartoon in Danish newspaper).
Plague is not the only instance in which plitical societies seek to conflate disease or moral disorder with the political weakness of a rival (Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia (Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 2005)).

And it is here that one hears the strains of the dueling banjos playing the music of the danse macabre which both states appear to be unable to resist.  There is little to say about the global campaigns of both states to blame the other for the manufacture of the plague, or to the laxity or cultural failings that led to its spread. Both seek the play the basest--but usually most effective--tune to inflame mass opinion, conflating the plague with military objectives that seek to destabilize the other state. These are effective though pathetic in the most basic sense of that term (to cause suffering or calamity).  More interesting, however, is the popular expression of this dueling banjos tune when the door is opened by the state--the Chinese and American efforts of (private) elements to seek to assert legal claims against the government of the other for plague related damages (Chinese effort here; U.S. effort here). A publicity stunt?--of course; a sign (in the semiotic sense) of the popularization of the narrative at play in this contest among great powers?--certainly.

In the end, however, one is left empty.  The great battles--and the national resources devoted to them--over the characterization of the plague suggests one of the more unsavory elements of the COVID-19 crisis.  That is the irresistible temptation for states to use the plague not just to further their own interests but also to reaffirm (or perhaps to reassure themselves) of the value and legitimacy of their political-economic model. 

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