Is America becoming the new Russia?

Illustration for article titled Is America becoming the new Russia?

Yesterday, whistleblower Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, after revealing how the US government was spying on its citizens. Meanwhile, some of the most idealistic Americans on television are the Soviet spies in FX series The Americans. Have the 1980s superpowers swapped positions in the 2010s?


They haven't swapped in real life, of course. I'm talking about the realm of pop culture.


For decades, Russia was represented in Hollywood as a shadowy power where secret police spied on citizens and freedom was illusory. But thanks to Snowden's revelations and the subsequent political fallout, Americans are starting to realize that their country has been an even more powerful surveillance state than the USSR ever was. And now, Russia is granting asylum to an American citizen who dared to reveal how much surveillance was actually going on in the States. It seems like a weird historical about-face.

What's interesting is that these real-life issues are taking place against a backdrop of US pop culture that offers a new perspective on the Cold War. The most obvious example is The Americans, a show where we identify with Soviet spies who are working undercover in the 1980s, posing as an American couple in the suburbs of Washington, DC. We see the Reagan Administration through their eyes, as a nest of crazy ideologues who threaten the world with annihilation. What these spies want more than anything is to save the world from nuclear war. And that means keeping covert lines of communication open between Washington and the Kremlin, mostly to de-escalate conflicts. These Soviet spies seem to want to save America more than their American counterparts do.

Meanwhile, hit series Person of Interest takes the concerns of The Americans up to the present day, where a group of mercenary spies and hackers are trying to protect Americans from their own government's surveillance-industrial complex. Both shows represent the US government the same way a previous generation's pop culture, embodied by movies like Red Dawn and The Hunt for Red October, represented Russia. It's as if we're living in an alternate history version of the 1980s, where everything is reversed.

This isn't the first time our pop culture has offered this possibility. Classic intelligence agency paranoia flicks like The Manchurian Candidate and Three Days of the Condor — both released during the height of the Cold War — were about how the US government was just as bad or worse than the Soviets. Stories like these tend to cluster around crisis points in history, where people are seeking out tales that offer a more complicated picture than what they're hearing from politicians.

For several years now, we've been in another such crisis point. And now Russia has become a safe harbor — temporarily at least — for a person who leaked secret government information about the NSA's abuses of its surveillance powers. Obviously Russia suffers from many problems, and is hardly a poster child for democracy. But as Americans are forced to confront the failings of our own government, our pop culture is starting to tell a new story about old conflicts. Maybe we were the Soviets all along. Or maybe, as both current events and Person of Interest suggest, things are a lot more complicated than that.


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So, I'm watching The West Wing for the first time. It seems like the first post 9/11 episode is a S3:E01. They're having a kind of contrived civics lesson for some teenagers during a crash (lockdown for the White House due to terrorist threat). CJ and Toby argue increased surveillance. CJ is for, Toby's against. It was so very relevant to today, and yet even people like CJ who thought they wanted more/better surveillance probably never imagined they'd be monitoring all of us at all times. I think they thought, "Hey, this is just for the bad guys!" When you go into panic mode, everyone ever is a potential bad guy.

TL;DR: The issue of domestic surveillance is more complicated than we thought, but it's also more sinister than we imagined.