Deep State Delusions

Mass media both reflect and influence popular culture. We recently wrote about gun culture and TV violence, and even more recently about the CIA and torture. Between the two we have the actual use of torture by the CIA and the use of torture as a plot point in the TV series 24.

The connection between the TV series and the justification of torture post-9/11 was clear-cut. A show I’ve been watching lately shows the connection between popular culture and the deep-state fantasies of djt and his followers.

I saw the first few episodes of the show The Blacklist when it first came out. In it, James Spader plays an uber-criminal who turns himself in to the FBI and then uses it to hunt down his enemies, a who’s who of the world’s greatest criminal masterminds; a whole subculture of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriartys, criminals we’ve never heard of but are behind the crimes of the century.

Watching it now I realize it quickly morphed into a show about the Deep State. By the end of season 2 (originally broadcast in 2015) the show is less about the various criminal masterminds and more about The Cabal, a shadowy group in high places which controls the world. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we have trouble knowing who are the Good Guys and who are part of the secret cabal. Trust the wrong person and they will have you killed and make the bodies disappear.

The trouble with conspiracy theories is that sometimes they are real. Or, as Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” [Or possibly, Buck Henry wrote the line for the screenplay. Sources differ and I haven’t read either lately. Quote Investigator doesn’t know where the line came from.] There is a well-documented history of people “disappearing” throughout the world – most infamously in Argentina where they were referred to as “Los Desaparecidos“. The FBI’s COINTELPRO was real, as was the CIA’s MK-ULTRA. (The former was a program to discredit and disrupt – to put it mildly – the New Left and the Civil Rights movement. The latter was a mind-control experiment using drugs on unwitting and unwilling test subjects.)

“Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida” – Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert

Former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren published The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government on January 5, 2016. Donald Trump ran for president that year with a pledge to “drain the swamp” and later alleged that a “deep state conspiracy” tried to prevent/overthrow his election in 2016. That same “deep state” “stole” the 2020 presidential election, “necessitating” the January 6, 2021 coup attempt.

Just as Mission: Impossible made overthrowing other governments acceptable in the cold-war 1960s, and 24 made torture acceptable in the post-9/11 early 2000s, The Blacklist made the deep state conspiracy theory acceptable in the djt 2010s. In 2019, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 70% of Republicans believed there was a deep-state conspiracy to overthrow djt. An ABC News poll in 2017 found that 48% of all in the US believed in a deep state (though only 58% of that 48% [ or 28% overall] thought it was a major problem).

We know that djt watches too much television. To what extent was he influenced by the TV show The Blacklist? To what extent did his followers develop their paranoid fantasies by watching the show? And why am I so out of touch with popular culture that it has taken me 7 years to see this? (I’m currently on season 3, 2015-16.)

Harry Belafonte

I grew up with Harry Belafonte’s music. Among the first albums I remember hearing was “Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall”, released in 1960. Along with Belafonte I learned about the Chad Mitchell Trio, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta, and first heard the isXhosa language. At that same time I learned of The Limeliters, The Kingston Trio, Leadbelly, and Josh White; soon to be followed by The New Lost City Ramblers, The Weavers, Robert Johnson, Flatt and Scruggs; and by then I was hooked – with the folk revival soon to expand with new topical music by the likes of Bob Dylan, Richard & Mimi Fariña, and Phil Ochs. Delta blues led to Chicago blues and music had washed over me (and put me out of touch with my pop-music listening peers).

Belafonte lived from March 1, 1927 until April 25, 2023. Belafonte was a civil and human rights activist, singer, and actor. He introduced white America to calypso. Is that why we later learned of reggae and ska?

Belafonte also made it okay for white women to lust after Black men. White men were always allowed to lust after Black women – that’s how Thomas Jefferson had his children and biracial children appeared in the US – the progeny of enslaved women and their rapist enslavers. But check out this video of Belafonte on Ed Sullivan and see how the barely acceptable sexuality of Elvis Presley morphed into the acceptable sexuality of a Black man.

There is nothing overtly sexual in the portrayal, but here is a handsome Black man in a vest without a shirt. He is not portrayed as dangerous.

In 1957 he appeared opposite Joan Fontaine in “Island in the Sun”, banned in parts of the US due to its depiction of love between a Black man and white woman.

For those Deadheads who first heard this song as sung by Bob Weir, this is Belafonte singing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” in Japan in 1960. It was released on his 1956 Album “Calypso”. While the Dead began performing this in 1981, it was first recorded by its composer, Norman Span, in 1936.

Belafonte appeared opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 film “Carmen Jones”, an adaptation of the Georges Bizet opera “Carmen”. Despite Belafonte’s career as a singer, his singing voice was dubbed.

For those who want the full effect, here is the album that introduced me to Belafonte.

While the visual memory I have is the “Returns” album cover, all of the songs on the first Carnegie Hall album are equally familiar.

The world has lost a great person, singer, actor, and activist. Harry Belafonte – ¡Presente!


I spent the last week in large crowds looking at big screens. It was the 25th annual Wisconsin Film Festival. Some of the films will disappear into obscurity, some will make the festival circuit, some will hit theaters, while others will see streaming services or network TV. A few are restored prints of old films you may have already seen (e.g. Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman” which I saw with a live piano accompaniment).

Reel life was a mix of real life and fiction. What follows are those I recommend. There may have been dozens of other good films. There are definitely films that others raved about that I thought mediocre. I give away as little as possible.

Merit x Zoe, written and directed by Kyle Hausmann-Stokes is based on his experience as a US soldier in Afghanistan. One character is based on him and the other on his friend. To create a bit of personal distance, he made the characters female. He also noted that women are under-represented in film, in the military, and specifically in films about the military. It is a powerful tale of the experience of two friends in war time and their return to the US. It is a 16 minute short that may (like the Academy Award-winning Whiplash) be developed into a feature-length film. It was originally envisioned as a feature and re-scripted as a short. It packs a lot into 16 minutes and reminds us that not all scars are visible. It was packaged with several other shorts (also excellent) and the screening featured a panel discussion with the filmmakers.

Greener Pastures, directed by Samuel-Ali Mirpoorian, tells us that “in the four years of making this film, over 20,000 farms closed their doors.” Through extensive interviews and on-farm visits with four midwestern farmers, we see the toll this takes on financial and mental health. This film will be part of the PBS “Independent Lens” series next year. We met the director and one of the farmers.

Mental health also figures in Starring Jerry as Himself, directed by Law Chen, written by Chen and the titular Jerry Hsu. It is a harrowing tale of financial misdeeds – is Jerry a criminal or a victim?

Saturday the temperature was over 80 degrees (27 C). On Sunday it snowed.

We Are Not Ghouls is a documentary by Chris James Thompson. It follows Yvonne Bradley, a military defense attorney assigned to defend Binyam Mohamed, held in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. How does an Army officer come to terms with a system that holds her client for years, tortures him with impunity, denies access to him for months, yet never charges him with a crime? Did he have any connection to the 9/11 attack? The attorney and director appeared for a post-screening Q&A.

Filmmaker Chris James Thompson (L) and attorney Lt. Col. (Ret) Yvonne Bradley

Viking, a French Canadian film by Stèphane Lafleur, concerns a mission to Mars. When interpersonal conflicts threaten the mission, a surrogate team is assembled and sent to a remote area of Alberta. Their mission is to work out the interpersonal conflicts, while living as though they were on Mars, and relay recommendations to the Martian crew. They are matched to the actual crew via personality profiles and they (and we) have to navigate a course between role-playing and reality. While often funny, it is more than a comedy.

Sanctuary, soon to be released in the US, was directed by Zachary Wigon from a screenplay by Micah Bloomberg. It takes place in a hotel suite. A man is ordering room service when a knock comes on the door. A professionally-dressed woman with an expensive attaché case enters and sets up to interview the man. She has a list of questions on letterhead from a law firm. The questions soon become very personal and it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary interview. The film unfolds over a single day in a single suite as we are taken on an emotional roller coaster. We may think we know what is happening but we’re never quite sure. What is scripted? What is real? Who is being taken for a ride?

Mardi Gras

Fellow cycle tourist/blogger Rootchopper recommended the book “On Freedom Road”, in which a small group of cyclists endeavors to follow various routes of the underground railroad and explore the landmarks and historical sites along the way.

The tales of New Orleans reminded me of a long-ago trip to Mardi Gras.

We were working an overnight shift at Acid Rescue. Late at night someone called, lonely but not depressed, just sort of melancholy and wanting someone to talk with because they couldn’t sleep. No drugs were involved on their end. We were just the people who were available all night in addition to our normal role. (If not obvious from the name, the role was rescuing people from bad acid trips.)

We began to spin a yarn to entertain our caller. There were three of us and we moved to separate rooms (we had phones with long cords, this being back in the day when telephones were attached to the wall) so we couldn’t see each other. We decided we were in three different cities and made a plan to meet up for a trip. The caller had trouble believing we had branch offices in other cities, but the yarn-spinners had knowledge of the cities they pretended to be in and described the sights out their windows as day broke.

The late-night yarn became an actual plan. We looked into chartering a Greyhound bus and discovered we couldn’t afford it. We ended up with a Ford Econoline van, a VW bus, and eighteen people. Someone knew someone with an apartment in New Orleans. They had moved out but the rent was paid through the end of the month and we could have the key.

We drove to New Orleans in caravan and found our apartment. We realized that a tour group of 18 was pretty hard to keep track of so mostly spent the week in our two groups of 9. Much of Mardi Gras week involved rain, tightly-packed crowds, and broken glass in the gutters. One evening hundreds sat down in the middle of an intersection to protest police brutality. A squad car driven through the crowd (no lights or siren) ended that pretty quickly. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries.

We spent a rainy day in Congo Square painting children’s faces. We spent a sunny day on the campus of Tulane University, tossing a Frisbee to escape the drunken crowds for a few hours.

“Congo Square”, the Neville Brothers.

We spent an evening learning about the dark side of one of our friends. He was normally an even-tempered, mild-mannered guy. I’d only seen him upset once, when someone tried to pick a fight with four of us in our neighborhood pub. We left and the person came after us, kicking the VW bus. J didn’t take kindly to that and got out of the bus to go after the guy. We held him back.

That day in New Orleans we got tossed from several bars. I’d never been thrown out of a bar before (or since), so it was a day to remember. (We may have dragged him out of some of those before getting tossed.) We also discovered that night the origin of another friend’s chosen name – it was a word spelled backward. We stopped in a tourist shop that printed custom phony newspaper headlines and exposed him via a headline that we sent back to the office.

After the last bar-tossing we headed for home. J was too drunk to drive and we finally persuaded him to let someone else drive the sacred bus. That lasted a short while until he insisted upon driving again. Two of us mutinied and insisted he not drive. He forcefully insisted that it was his bus so his decision. We let him know that we were afraid of his driving and preferred to walk or hitchhike. He invited us to do so.

After a few blocks they picked us up again, with a new driver. Another few blocks, and J insisted on driving again. We started walking again.

It was pouring rain and our facepaint (this being the evening of the Congo Square facepainting adventure) ran. Our hitchhiking became mostly walking but we still beat the bus home by an hour or more. We never did learn what took them so long, but it apparently involved a couple more stops, arguments about driving, and driver changes.

Fifty years later I still have no desire to go back to Mardi Gras. Been there, done that.