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Why Don't We Take the Russian Spies Seriously?

In a season of crises, from Iran to North Korea to the Gulf of Mexico, the revelation of a Russian spy ring in the United States has been greeted as a source of welcome comic relief. It’s not just Jon Stewart, or the headline writers of the New York Post, who can’t keep a straight face talking about the eleven Russian “illegals,” long-term secret agents who built up elaborate cover identities as ordinary Americans. Even The New York Times jocularly asks, “What’s not to love” about the story?

How can we explain this levity about what is, after all, a hostile action by an authoritarian, nuclear-armed state? For one thing, there is the failure of the “illegals” to actually get any American secrets—indeed, they are not even being charged with espionage, only with failure to register as agents of a foreign government. It is not just the harmlessness of the spies that the media has focused on, however, but the obsolescence of their techniques. The use of invisible ink and money caches and garish code phrases all seem to come, in the words that have become mandatory in reporting this story, like something out of a Cold War thriller.

When you think about it, this is a silly observation: Real spies seem to act like fictional spies only because fictional spies are modeled on real spies. What the mockery of spycraft is really meant to communicate, I suspect, is not that this or that particular spying tactic is obsolete, but that the idea of Russia as an enemy is obsolete. In popular culture, when the obsolete makes an unexpected re-appearance, it takes the form of kitsch or camp, and we all know the proper attitude of superior disdain to adopt toward it. Theodor Adorno, writing in the 1940s about the contempt people show for obsolete styles of music, suggested that this hostility was a way of taking retroactive revenge on the “culture industry,” for having made us embrace music we never actually liked in the first place. This same sense of superiority is what Americans are now allowed to feel toward Russia, our conquered enemy. Russian espionage is the past, and their failure to recognize our monopoly on the future provokes a sense less of outrage than of knowing contempt.

The other reason why we can’t take Russian espionage too seriously is that it has been shorn of exactly the element that made Soviet espionage so serious: ideology. Americans who became Soviet spies were not just betraying their country, they were endorsing an ideological critique of their country. In the most dramatic sense, they were “voting with their feet” for Communism; and as long as Communism had the power to win such dedicated converts, it could not be dismissed as a philosophical rival to liberal democracy. When Alger Hiss was exposed as a Soviet spy, it forced a whole generation of left-liberals to examine their own consciences, since they had professed sympathy with the same principles that led Hiss to become a traitor. “Certainly, a generation was on trial with Hiss,” Leslie Fiedler wrote in his essay “Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence”: “the half-deliberate blindness of so many decent people … is a vital part of the total Hiss case.”

When Russia spies on America in 2010, however, none of us are implicated. We are not even especially outraged. Isn’t it an acknowledged rule of international relations that countries try to gain an advantage over one another? Don’t we all want America to do the same kind of thing to Russia that Russia has been doing to us—though, we hope, more smartly and effectively? There is no moral issue raised here, only the old game of power politics, from which there seems to be no escape.

But the fact that, from 1941 to 1989, the wars America fought were preeminently ideological—first against Nazism, then against Communism—should not make us forget that mere power politics is just as capable of bringing on catastrophe. Germany and France in 1914 were much more similar societies than America and Russia are today, yet it took very little ideological enmity to make them bring down the palace of European civilization upon their own heads. If the day ever comes that we have to decide whether to honor our treaty obligation to defend Poland against Russian aggression—and recent Russian history makes that possibility all too easy to imagine—then we may look back incredulously at this moment, when Russian spies and Russian ambitions could make us smile.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor of The New Republic.