Extreme times: polarized politics and what we can learn from the past

If you can think of a word that sums up our current political climate, you might score worse than extreme. From Trump supporters storming the Capitol, to Antifa protesters tearing down statues, to anti-vaccinationists accusing the government of “vaccine genocide,” to vegan activists flooding storefronts with milk, radical actions are frequent and diverse. Prominent politicians argue climate change isn’t real, while protesters set up human roadblocks and damage artwork to raise awareness.

There are “wars” over everything from Christmas to chromosomes, compounded by constant and often uncompromising fuss, attacks and social media frenzy. Debate on some of these issues has become so toxic that many people are choosing not to participate in the debate at all, robbing us of nuanced opinion and replacing it with ideologically driven shenanigans from both sides of the aisle.

There are times when it seems like people from different political backgrounds don’t just have conflicting ideas; They don’t even speak the same language. While misinformation — from fake news to bots to scarily convincing deepfakes — is rampant, to a degree that seems like it could only be due to the advent of technology like the internet and social media, a particularly modern one Scourge.

An age old problem

Thus, one is tempted to believe that the type of extreme political polarization we are currently experiencing is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, that is not necessarily the case. As a society, we have a habit of oversimplifying historically complex issues or attributing them to the “naivety” of the past. Yet when similar issues arise in a modern context, we become much more aware of their nuances, merging the political with the personal—so attacking our politics feels like attacking our character. The reality is that politics has always been personal, and the extremes we think we’re experiencing for the first time have always been apparent – as gripping new ITVX drama A spy among friends disclosed.

After becoming a communist in Cambridge, Philby (played by Guy Pearce) was recruited by the KGB

(ITVX Exclusive – A Spy Among Friends)

The six-part series, spanning 23 years from World War II to the early 1960s, examining key events during Britain’s Cold War, examines how this type of political polarization has manifested itself in the past and what impact it has had could be the future. Tells the true story of MI6 agents Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) and Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis), who were close friends and colleagues for decades before Philby was exposed as a Soviet double agent. A spy among friends is a fascinating look at what happens when politics is played out on a large scale, and the deeply personal implications of those actions. Based on the New York Times bestseller by Ben MacIntyre, the story is told primarily in flashbacks, in which a Cold War-era Elliott attempts to explain his relationship with Philby, justify and defend how much or little he knew or suspected and why — after extorting a confession (of sorts) — he seemingly let Philby slip through his fingers and flee to Russia.

Through that fresh new lens of famous history, A spy among friends explores both the macro and micro impact of Philby’s betrayal. Elliott is almost immediately suspected (although he was duped like everyone else) because of his close bond with Philby—a man with whom he drank and ate regularly, grew up in the same privileged circles, and even attended the same Alma. Mater, Trinity College, Cambridge. The truth was that despite their superficial similarities and a shared love of pink gin and cricket, Elliott and Philby’s politics lay at polar ends of the spectrum, with establishment man Elliott being genuine Tory, all to preserve the status quo Philby had become a socialist and then a communist while still a student before being recruited by the KGB as one of the five Cambridge spies.

The political and the intimate are so intertwined that the show causes both characters and viewers to wonder: How can you be friends with someone who believes in something so contrary to your own values? Does this friendship mean that you also secretly sympathize with these values? And also: Can it go on (though perhaps not for obvious reasons in Elliott’s case) when you’re so diametrically opposed?

changing ideologies

This sense of paranoia and conflict is at the heart of the show, as political ideologies are met not only with suspicion but genuine fear. There is a particularly telling moment when Elliott discusses Philby’s activities in 1930s Vienna and a workers’ uprising that was taking place there during that time. Elliott tries to impress his MI5 interviewer, who was tasked with finding out exactly what happened to Philby, that “Communism wasn’t the problem then – fascism was.”

MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) was established to the core

(ITVX Exclusive – A Spy Among Friends)

He’s right; During World War II, fascism was like wildfire threatening to engulf the entire world, while in 1941 communist Russia was one of our greatest allies. Then, just a few years later, as the Cold War was heating up (or cooling down?), these poles had shifted drastically, treating Communism like some sort of mental bug that could turn even the most patriotic Englishman into a Stalinist zombie.

Elliot is a man caught between these two political extremes as he tries to explain his actions during an ideological conflict in the context of another, very different. The show shows how far that balance can shift over time as normal becomes extreme and extreme becomes normal. How do you explain that today’s enemy was yesterday’s friend? How do you explain that what we now see as an existential threat was once part of everyday life?

We see this situation playing out today, spurred on by politicians and the media vying for our attention with increasingly extreme rhetoric. What we call “fake news” today used to have another name: political propaganda. During the volatile period in which A spy among friends was dropped, this proved to be as great a weapon as any bomb, as it helped to foment strife between populations that needed it more than anything to come together. During World War II, fighter jets on both sides of the conflict dropped leaflets on enemy cities in an attempt to demoralize the populace, spread disinformation about the war effort and persuade them to surrender. While there’s a reason the Cold War was so cold — you don’t need to fire a bullet when your enemies are trying each other for their supposed beliefs, as we saw in the McCarthy Hearings of the 1950s.

The old tricks still work, they’ve just found modern iterations, with companies like Russia and Cambridge Analytica manipulating social media platforms to sway election voting, or far-right conspiracy theorists using online channels to promote anti-vax and spread pro-Putin propaganda. It’s not a bad strategy if your goal is to weaken your opponent. Why establish a dictatorship when you can persuade people to vote for their own submission?

The power of propaganda

The real problem with propaganda, and political extremism in general, is that we all secretly believe we are immune to it. We underestimate its impact because we struggle to understand how easily someone can be sucked into a dangerous, violent, or just plain weird worldview. But we are all prone to becoming accustomed to ideas over time; Reading blog posts or watching YouTube videos and starting to get the idea that certain ideas that we may have once considered marginalized are actually “normal”.

Sometimes the results are pretty mundane and only lead to more arguments around the Christmas table. Occasionally they are more severe, with calls ending friendships and even relationships, or people being harassed or “cancelled” by internet activists whose intentions can range from sincere to misguided to outright malicious. Sometimes they’re tragic, like earlier this year in Buffalo when 19-year-old Payton Gendron carried out a mass shooting after being radicalized on platforms and forums like 4chan, Reddit, Discord, Twitch and YouTube – sites where he also received Advice on executing the attack.

If there is one aspect of propaganda that has changed in the past few decades since the post-WWII era A spy among friends is set, it is the speed at which it travels. We no longer drop leaflets on villages; We’re pumping extremism straight into people’s brains at 60 megabits per second (more if you have fiber broadband). The arguments—whether subtly manipulative or overt and intimidating—get denser and faster. They have permeated every aspect of our online life, and the political fringes are ever closer. Do we know how to avoid being tricked by them? To have a chance to find a middle ground and break the deadlock of toxic extremes?

Most of us seem to think so. Let’s just hope we’re as smart as we think we are.

New ITVX show A spy among friends is a gripping six-part psychological drama that explores the real-life story of MI6 agents Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) and Kim Philby (Guy Pearce), whose relationship – professional and personal – implodes when double agent Philby’s decades-long duplicity is exposed. Exploring the deeply polarized politics of the time, the complex machinations of MI6 in an ever-changing world, and the incredible personal betrayal that lies at the heart of it all, this fascinating study of how friendship, trust and loyalty can be manipulated is your new Must watch.

A spy among friends, stream free here on ITVX

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/politics-polarisation-current-affairs-culture-a-spy-among-friends-b2211030.html Extreme times: polarized politics and what we can learn from the past

JOE HERNANDEZ

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