Updated: Mar 3, 2022
“Mr. Smith Cleanses The Temple”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 2.3, Chapters 1& 2)
So we’ve been talking about the Deep State. In the past two episodes, we’ve asked some of our friends about their level of trust in the government, in the bureaucracy, in large corporations, and in surveillance technology. We’ve talked about military coups, the ever-so-hated CIA, and the alleged “Secret Team” that—according to Fletcher Prouty and his supporters—controls and manipulates the world’s governments and financial institutions against the interests of those they claim to serve.
Most people who promote theories about conspiracies—pretty much all of them, I think—lay blame on some particular group of plotters they believe is intentionally controlling their lives from the safety of their secluded bunker, corporate boardroom, government Star Chamber, or academic ivory tower. The concept of the “deep state”—much like the terms “Secret Team”, “Establishment”, and “Oligarchy”—conjure vivid images of secret societies, hyper-competent secret agents, and genocidal psychopathy. It can be pretty scary to think that some branch of the government is plotting against you right now, maybe even spying on you, attacking your wealth, health, and freedoms to bolster their power and bank accounts. But it’s also a bit reassuring to know—or at least to believe that you know—who your enemies are, where they hide, what they’re up to, and most importantly, that you’re not one of them; that you’re one of the good guys in your life story.
But what if you’re wrong about that?
A few days before I wrote this essay, it was Easter. And on this particular Easter—because there was a country-wide shut-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic—there wasn’t much else to do all weekend except to actually think about Easter and read the Easter story. That is, if you’re a Christian like me and you can’t go to church, visit your parents, cook a huge meal, entertain lots of friends, or be distracted by sports on TV. So that’s what I did. You might be familiar with the Easter story. No, not the one about bunny rabbits hiding chocolate eggs in your yard; the one about Jesus, who, after celebrating the Jewish Passover with his closest friends, was betrayed by one of them, Judas, and discretely abducted by the Sanhedrin, a sort of religious high court who tried him in secret in the middle of night. There he was accused of blasphemy and delivered to the Roman authorities, a ruthless foreign invader, who tortured and crucified him like a common thief, not because he was guilty of sedition (the charge that was arbitrarily laid against him) but to please the local religious hierarchy, who might have provoked an armed insurrection if they didn’t get what they wanted. If ever there was a conspiracy perpetrated by a "deep state", surely this was one of them. After that comes the part about his resurrection, but that’s not the part that captured my attention, at least not this time.
At the beginning of the Passion story, there’s a scene in which Jesus enters Jerusalem with pomp and ceremony, and makes his way up to the Temple, Israel’s most holy site. There he violently overturns the money changers’ tables and chases the animals, merchants, and worshippers out of its courts, accusing them of turning a “house of prayer” into “a den of robbers”. Whatever you might think or believe about Jesus, you’ve got to admit this was a radical move, the one that pretty much got him crucified. The most interesting thing about it, I found, was the fact that, both in that scene and the ones that follow, Jesus never scapegoats a particular group—not the Sanhedrin, not the militaristic Romans, not the wealthy landlords, not the moralistic Pharisees or the egg-headed Scribes, nor the violent nationalists plotting to start a revolt. The problem of evil, the story suggests, is not that some small group of powerful humans are lording it over a mass of weak ones, but that all humans, so easily corrupted by fear, pride, lust, and greed, are capable of lynching an innocent man if only you give them a reason to think that that man is a threat to their personal interests. In a word, the world is made up of millions of Judases all looking out for themselves.
In a previous episode [See Episode 2.1], I told you about a 1939 Frank Capra film called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s the story of a simple and good-hearted man—a boy scout, quite literally—who is arbitrarily chosen to take the seat of a deceased U.S. Senator. And so Mr. Jefferson Smith takes a trip up to that other Temple—the United States Congress—with dreams of making his country a better place. What he finds there instead is a den of robbers, where just about everyone—including his mentor and all of the journalists covering the scene—are self-interested grafters, liars, gossips, and backstabbers. Smith, who introduces a bill to help poor children go to summer camp, is ridiculed by the press and set up by his elected colleagues, who accuse him unjustly of fraud to cover up their own crimes. And so, like Jesus, Smith faces a kangaroo court, in which he nearly dies of exhaustion during a 25-hour-long filibuster. The story ends, not unlike Christ on the Cross, with the confession of one of his lynchers who, racked with guilt, finally sees Smith for what he was: the innocent victim of a corrupted system.
They say “Money makes the world go round”. In a world where money pulls the strings, and all humans are tied to those strings by the powers of greed and self-interest, does the world really need a group of evil puppet masters to create economic inequalities, massive amounts of conflict and crime, and a system that fails to take care of those it was meant to protect? Or are we all puppet masters in waiting, playing into the game of systemic corruption? The power of money and its corrupting influence is what our next guest is most concerned about.
Mike Lofgren was a Congressional aid who worked in Washington for nearly three decades, preparing budgets and defense contracts. He’s seen many administrations come and go, and he’s also watched hundreds of people travel back and forth through the revolving doors that separate the halls of political power and those of private industry. As he explained in a 2014 essay titled “Anatomy of the Deep State”:
“I use the term ["deep state"] to mean a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.[...] Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. [...] What is euphemistically called “private enterprise” is an integral part of its operations. [...] The membrane between government and industry is highly permeable. [...] These contractors now set the political and social tone of Washington, just as they are increasingly setting the direction of the country [...] It is not too much to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice..." (Mike Logren: “Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State,” billmoyers.com, Feb 21, 2014)
In his most recent book, titled The Deep State: The Fall of the Government and the Rise of a Shadow Government, Lofgren paints a more modern, and somewhat more subtle picture than Capra’s 1939 movie of the corrupt money game that underlies Washington politics. And, even more unsettling, he tells us [See Episode 2.3 interview], it’s almost entirely legal and conducted in broad daylight. While some people certainly have more power than others to pull the strings of government, can we be certain that we wouldn’t do the same thing ourselves if we were given the same opportunity? As a teacher myself, who knows how even good students can cheat when given the right kind of motive and chance, I’m tempted to think that he’s on to something.
Michel J. Gagné, 2020.
Readings and media related to Episode 2.3:
1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia Pictures, 1939), Directed by Frank Capra; Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains.
3. Mike Lofgren “Anatomy of the Deep State”, February 21, 2014, Moyers On Democracy, moyers.com.
4. Mike Lofgren: The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. Penguin Books, 2013.
5. Mike Lofgren: The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. Penguin Books, 2016.
6. Irving L. Janis: “Groupthink,” Psychology Today, November 1971.
7. Chalmers Johnson: The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, Metropolitan, 2005.
8. Robert Heinlein: Starship Troopers. Ace, 1959.
9. Isaac Asimov: Prelude to Foundation. Spectra, 1989.
10. Hannah Arendt: “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” The New Yorker, February 9, 1963; Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin, 1977.
11. Graham T. Allison: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Harper Collins, 1971. (Out of print). See also Allison’s 1969 essay: “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” The American Political Science Review, Volume 63, Issue 3 (Sep., 1969).
12. Todd Gitlin: Media Unlimited (How the torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives), Picador, 2007.
13. Eric Schlosser: Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.