I’d like to go down Memory Lane for a minute. A column published on Friday sent me there.
In the early 1990s, lots of people believed that the AIDS virus was invented by the U.S. government — concocted in a Maryland laboratory — in order to decimate black people and other minorities. A lot of people believe that still.
Bill Cosby was caught up in it for a while. (He was to have other problems later.) He said that if AIDS “wasn’t created to get rid of black folks, it sure likes us a lot.” (That’s a funny line, actually.)
I remember thinking, “If Bill Cosby — ‘America’s Dad’ — is vulnerable to such conspiracy theorizing, what hope does the man in the street have?”
Spike Lee, the movie director, said, “A lot of people will have to do a lot of explaining on AIDS one day. All of a sudden, a disease appears out of nowhere that nobody has a cure for, and it’s specifically targeted at gays and minorities. The ‘mystery disease,’ yeah — about as mysterious as genocide.”
He continued, “I’m convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease. They got one thing wrong: They never realized it couldn’t just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out. So now it’s a national priority.”
Another filmmaker, John Singleton, said, “If AIDS was a natural disease, it would have been around 1,000 years ago. I think it was made in order to kill undesirables. That would include homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and blacks.”
How about Dick Gregory, the comedian and social activist? AIDS, he said, “was not passed from chimpanzees to mankind, but was probably knowingly developed by doctors and scientists working for the U.S. government.” (That word “probably” is an interesting note of caution.)
And the Reverend Jeremiah Wright? “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”
Above, I mentioned a newspaper column that had sent me down Memory Lane. It is by Renee DiResta, Michael McFaul, and Alex Stamos. The first and third work for the Stanford Internet Observatory. McFaul works at Stanford too, and he is one of the leading Russianists in the country. (I did a Q&A podcast with him in early 2017, here.) From 2012 to 2014, he was U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
The three begin their column this way:
In 1983, an anonymous letter from an author claiming to be an American scientist appeared in an Indian newspaper, asserting that the HIV virus raging across the world was a bioweapon released by the United States. Over the next several years, similar claims appeared in leftist and alternative newspapers around the world and ended up becoming widely believed among those predisposed to distrust the Reagan administration. As late as 2005, a study showed that 27 percent of African Americans still believed that HIV was created in a government lab.
The authors continue,
We now know that these claims were part of a massive Soviet disinformation campaign. And as successful as this operation was, the methods it used look modest and primitive in the age of the Internet. During the 2016 election campaign, Russian intelligence used the same technique, known as “narrative laundering,” to inject its preferred stories into mainstream American media. In the 2016 disinformation operation, Russian intelligence officers and their proxies supercharged their misleading stories with real documents . . .
The title of this column is “Here’s how Russia will attack the 2020 election. We’re still not ready.”
When he was CIA director, Mike Pompeo, now the secretary of state, said, “I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election” — the 2016 election — “as is the entire intelligence community.” Moreover, the Kremlin’s interference was not a one-time-only affair. “This threat is real,” said Pompeo. “The U.S. government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, has to figure out a way to fight back against it and defeat it. And we’re intent upon doing that.”
My question is: How’s that going?
• This is related, somewhat. It has to do with the propagandistic powers — the ability to manipulate — of big authoritarian or totalitarian governments.
You know how the Chinese people reacted in outrage when someone in the NBA criticized the Chinese government? When he expressed support for the democracy protesters in Hong Kong? You know how the Chinese people, all across the mainland, cried out in their nationalism?
That doesn’t just happen. It’s whipped up, or choreographed, by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). You will want to consult Sarah Cook on this subject, here. An expert at Freedom House, she is invaluable, and I have relied on her for years.
• Lately, I have written a fair amount about Turkey. At the beginning of this year, I had a piece called “Whisked Away.” It was chiefly about Turkey’s program of kidnapping and assassination abroad. The government has established an agency with an amazingly blunt name: “Office for Human Abductions and Executions.”
A more recent piece is here: “Turkey, NATO, and a Shifting World.” I wrote this one following Turkey’s invasion of Syria, whose purpose was to attack and subdue the Kurds there.
The Turkish leader, Erdogan, has developed a nasty authoritarian state. His Turkey is the No. 1 jailer of journalists in the world. Last week, I had a post hailing the release of Ahmet Altan, a prominent writer. He had been in prison for three years. I spoke too soon. He was promptly rearrested and re-imprisoned.
Turkey has become a “republic of fear,” to borrow a phrase from Kanan Makiya. That was the title of his book about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I think of another phrase, “fear society,” which comes from Natan Sharansky.
Last week, Erdogan had his latest visit with President Trump in the White House. Trump was effusive in his praise of his Turkish counterpart. “I’m a big fan of the president,” he said. (Erdogan calls himself the “president” of Turkey.) He said to Erdogan, directly, “You’re doing a fantastic job for the people of Turkey.”
On top of it all, he said this, about Erdogan: “The president has a great relationship with the Kurds.”
I think of what Cuban dissidents and democracy activists have told me for years. “It would be nice to have your support” — the support of the American government and others. “But if you can’t do that, at least don’t side with our oppressors. At least don’t excuse and praise them.”
• “Rabid dogs like Baiden can hurt lots of people if they are allowed to run about. They must be beaten to death with a stick, before it is too late.”
Trump tweet or statement from North Korea’s Central News Agency? The latter.
Our president quickly followed up on Twitter, however: “Mr. Chairman [that would be Kim Jong-un], Joe Biden may be Sleepy and Very Slow, but he is not a ‘rabid dog.’ He is actually somewhat better than that, but I am the only one who can get you where you have to be. You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!”
“Mr. Chairman.” So respectful. Trump treats dictators one way, politicians in democracies another way. Biden may be a wrongheaded Democrat — I have opposed him for practically 40 years, while Trump has been a Republican for about two seconds — but at least he is not dictator of a one-party state with a gulag.
North Korea is the worst place on earth.
• I think I mentioned Democratic politics. My eyebrows lifted at this headline: “Obama tells Democratic candidates to ease off talk of revolution.” Two seconds ago, Barack Obama was the progressive edge of the Democratic party, claiming in the 2008 primaries that Hillary Clinton was too “establishment” and staid. Now he is a moderating force, warning the Democrats not to fall off a cliff into a wacko pit.
Obama sounded downright conservative in his recent comments. “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement. They like seeing things improved. But the average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it. And I think it’s important for us not to lose sight of that.”
I was struck by Obama’s word “improvement” (and “improved”). This was a big word in the middle of the 19th century — the Lincoln era, roughly: “improvements.”
Last month, Tulsi Gabbard, the Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, called Hillary Clinton “the queen of warmongers.” Gabbard is an interesting duck: pro-Putin, pro-Assad. She has many fans on the right, obviously. She was auditioned for a foreign-policy position in Trump Tower by President-elect Trump.
Anyway, things on the Democratic side are interesting, all too . . .
• By now you are familiar with Helmet-gate. But maybe that is too cutesy a term for Myles Garrett’s assault on Mason Rudolph. The former is a defenseman for the Cleveland Browns and the latter is a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Garrett pulled the helmet off Rudolph and then hit him on the head with it.
Garrett has been suspended for the rest of the NFL season, and will have to apply for reinstatement in the league.
Okay. Have I got a story for you. When I saw it last month, I could hardly believe it, because it seemed so extreme. I had to read the story two or three times, to be sure I was understanding it.
Bio Kim is a player on the Korean PGA Tour. He was hitting his tee shot on 16 during the final round of a recent tournament. A camera in the gallery went off during his downswing. He turned around and flipped the bird in the general area of the camera. Then he slammed his club into the ground.
Not great, sure. But he was suspended for three seasons. (And fined about $8,350.) Three seasons. For doing a couple of things that anyone can understand entirely, and probably excuse. I might have fined him — but a suspension for three seasons? In the prime of his career?
They don’t screw around over there. The Korean Tour said that my man had damaged the “dignity” of golf.
I’m a big conservative — and I am as traditionalist in golf as I am in everything else — but wow. Here in Amurrica, no one would blink! We’d probably want to ban the picture-taker from golf tournaments! (I would.)
• Feel like a little language? I am always banging on about “I” and “me.” Americans have forgotten how to use those little words correctly. People use “I” when they should use “me” because they think it sounds classier. They also use the word “myself,” incorrectly, when they can’t decide between “I” and “me.” “Myself” is their fallback.
In everyday speech, okay. Whatever. But in the Washington Post? Let me quote from an op-ed piece: “In the episode titled ‘Sideshow Bob Roberts’ . . ., scripted by Josh Weinstein and myself, Bob starts a grass-roots effort . . .”
Why not “Josh Weinstein and me”?
Well, that’s enough — more than enough — from myself. Thank you for joining me, dear readers, and I’ll catch you soon.
If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to firstname.lastname@example.org.