Political subversion, real and imagined, in American history

Ronald Reagan, the Movie: and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, by Michael Paul Rogin. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. Illustrated. 356 pp. $25. ``Political demonology'' is the study of subversive threats to the political system and countersubversive measures to stem such threats. Defined this way, it appears to be a clear-cut discipline. It is anything but that. At the heart of political demonology is the ability to separate real from imaginary threats, and, unfortunately, as much of political demonology revolves around myths and untruths as revolves around genuine threats.

This difficulty has been treated, historically, by the development of two camps within the field. There are the realists, Progressive scholar Charles Beard among them, who often accept subversive threats as real and focus on the element of political repression as a result of countersubversion.

And there are the symbolists, Richard Hofstadter, for example (who wrote a seminal piece on this subject in 1965 entitled ``The Paranoid Style in American Politics''), who discount the reality of most threats and focus on paranoia as a result of countersubversion.

Rogin summarizes the difference succinctly: ``Realists addressed interests and conscious political manipulation: symbolists addressed anxiety and unconscious grievances. Studies of political repression looked at economic and political power; studies of the paranoid style investigated symbols, subcultures, and status anxieties. The American political system narrows debate and excludes radical alternatives, for those studying repression. In the alternative view, an intolerance of diversity threatens the stability of pluralist politics.''

In many ways, it matters little if the subversive threat is real or imagined. A threat, once stated, can be used to further measures to counter it; threats of subversion usually take heroic efforts to prove or disprove convincingly. So, once stated, the threat lingers. Moreover, for political demonologists, the main emphasis of study is how political actors deal with subversive threats - basically through repression or paranoia - and, of course, ``policy.''

While making no attempt to document all major United States countersubversive policies, Rogin provides examples sufficient to convince the reader that policies engineered to control subversion have been of major importance and have been a constant feature of American politics.

Rogin chronicles the background and effects of such policies, but first he categorizes them into three eras.

The first era was the ``merging of the savages'' - America's response to the Indian ``question.'' The second was the ``merging of the revolutionaries'' - the response to immigration and the intellectual acceptance of Marxism. The last, still current, is the ``era of Soviet agency'' - beginning with the cold war and focusing on Soviet hegemony.

The episodes of political demonology Rogin presents are considerable: The new nation's answer to the Indian ``question''; slavery and post-Civil War racism; the Alien and Sedition Act of 1917 implemented to deal with immigration; the violent reaction to the anticapitalist Independent Workers of the World; the McCarthy-inspired Red scare; and the manipulations during the antiwar decade of 1965-75. These were all major US policies, created with an eye toward countersubversion.

Of course, Rogin could make only glancing comments on each of these episodes (although he dedicates an entire chapter to Jacksonian policy toward Indians), yet he is able to provide a summary conclusion. It's a disturbing conclusion and makes a perverted twist of our concept of the American melting pot.

Basically, Rogin contends that our policy toward subversive threats is to merge subgroups into one society to prevent subversion.

He writes, ``Similar efforts to force indigenous peoples into a single `modernizing' pattern have continued to hypnotize American policymakers. `Merged' into liberal society, Indians [and here Rogin could have included blacks or immigrants] would no longer offer subversive forms of experience, forcing whites to encounter identities not replicas of their own.''

Understanding how significant and central to American history the above episodes are is key to understanding Rogin's main thesis: The division of political demonologists into two camps is artificial. Disagreeing with the realists, Rogin states there is indeed a demonological world view, latent with unconscious meanings.

Yet unlike the symbolists, he believes there is also political repression, and that the countersubversive threat is not mislaid on the periphery, but is in the center of the American political tradition.

While Rogin concentrates on this synthesis within political demonology, this breakdown of the two camps, he also creates a secondary theme in the book: the power of movies. If one thinks about it, the connection is natural. Political demonology, at its core, grapples with political symbols; movies and television are media composed entirely of symbols.

Offering a nearly shot-by-shot analysis of several political and pseudo-political films, Rogin examines about a dozen cold-war films and dedicates an entire chapter to the political and social analysis of D.W. Griffith's ``Birth of a Nation.''

More important, Rogin examines Ronald Reagan's Hollywood portfolio. After supplying the political context of all these movies, Rogin demonstrates their importance as reactions to the then-prevalent strains of subversive threats. Movies have the power to foster countersubversive ideas, subtly and effectively; they can be used as instruments of repression in accord with realist principles; they can create or dispel paranoia in fulfillment of the symbolists' analysis.

In a counter-Orwellian viewpoint, Rogin writes, ``The President reelected in 1984 does not promote the telescreen as an instrument of surveillance and personal invasion on which big brother is watching you. Instead, he offers freedom from public and private anxieties by allowing you to watch big brother.''

Rogin collected nine essays for this volume, well-written essays, some heavily theoretical, others not so much. Some of the essays had been written or conceived earlier, with the oldest presented in 1970. Because the book is a collection, there are un-smooth transitions between chapters; this distraction, however, subtracts very little from this important book.

Ralph Braccio works for ICF Inc., a public-policy, environmental-policy firm.

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