I spent this afternoon at the Cambridge film festival, watching two films which couldn’t seem more different yet spoke to our current moment in oddly similar ways. All the President’s Men was released in 1976, telling the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal. The Waldheim Waltz was released this year yet deals with events from not long after the other film was made, specifically former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s run for Austrian President in 1986 and the scandal which erupted when his service as an intelligence officer for the Nazi SA was made public.
Both films featured elements familiar from our current political scene. Accusations of fake news, manufactured scandals and disingenuous accusations figured heavily. Consensual politics had broken down, replaced with claim and counter-claim as previously trusted adjudicators found their motivations questioned. Dark forces bubble to the surface and discursive order is revealed to be a precarious achievement. Seen in this light, both films embody continuities with our present moment and provide an engaging riposte to shrill invocations of the ‘post-truth’ crisis. The weaponisation of epistemology long predates Donald Trump and his ilk.
However there was a difference which I’ve found myself dwelling upon. In both films, the powerful weaponised epistemology in a reactive way. They sought to dig themselves out of holes, shore up their defences and turn the tide of public opinion in their favour. It was all tactics and no strategy. This might be a function of the format, as the strategising I’m talking about would not translate easily into either narrative, even assuming there is a historical record which confirms its existence. It’s nonetheless intriguing to consider the prospect that the strategic weaponisation of epistemology has expanded recently, even if its tactical weaponisation is long standing.
What I found particularly striking was the lack of preparation. Kurt Waldheim had engaged in impression management through his autobiography yet his war record sat in national archives, waiting for someone to bother to look. The Watergate conspirators left a trail which they only began to obfuscate once investigative reporters from a national newspaper were on the case. If this is the whole story, something which I’m not sure is true, it raises the interesting question of when preemptive spin and crisis communications began to transform the political landscape of epistemology. I suspect that once the expectation of weaponisation takes hold, in the sense of it being prudent to assume something will be used against you, it becomes a self-fulling prophecy as strategic thought becomes synonyms with prudent planning.