How to think like a spy

Full disclosure: I have no experience at all as a spy, unless you count watching parodies of James Bond movies.

However, when dealing with our current political landscape, I think there is a lesson to be learned from the spy movie mindset.

Say you’re a spy (in a James Bond parody) named Credulous Dude. You have to save the world from a villain named Evil Megalomaniac. As you go about this, you meet another spy named Mysterious Agent who is also working to overthrow Evil Megalomaniac. You start working with Mysterious Agent because, obviously, since both of you are against Evil Megalomaniac, you are on the same side – right?


Actually, as you find out later in an unpleasant scene involving torture and humiliation, Mysterious Agent is working against both Evil Megalomaniac AND you. He was just using you against his other enemy before taking you down, too. What you thought was a landscape of Good vs. Evil is actually Good vs. Evil vs. Evil. (Assuming you are actually good, which you may not be too sure of now …) And there could be an indefinite number of other evils, which are also opposed to each other and to you.

Most of us non-politicians think way too much like Credulous Dude at the beginning of the movie. Maybe we think that the foreign government is Evil Megalomaniac and our government is Mysterious Agent. Maybe we see these roles reversed: our own government is the bad one. But actually, we should distrust them both. We should distrust their motives, their selection and presentation of information, everything.

I have repeatedly explained to my mother that I am not pro-Putin, but every time I say anything to the effect of:

“I’d like to avoid a nuclear war with Russia,”

or, even worse:

“I don’t trust our government”

what she hears is:

“I love Putin. I hope he takes over our government and runs it from the Kremlin.”

She hears this because she is mentally living in a Good Vs. Evil universe. Many people do, which is why I’ve had similar conversations with many people besides my mother. At the same time, for the same reason, some progressives and radicals who are critical of the U.S. government’s actions feel it’s necessary to defend everything Russia does. These are variations on the same type of thinking.

Global politics is messy and many-sided. As the various Powers That Be fight with each other, bribe and blackmail and manipulate and threaten each other, make deals and alliances with each other, shift loyalties, change the stories being told about each other, and so forth, the only thing that seems to be consistent is that we – the ordinary people living under these various powers – do not have their loyalty.

We are pawns to be used in their planet-sized chess game. We can be manipulated via propaganda to believe things that benefit one side or another. (The manipulation comes from foreign governments AND from our own.) They will play us against each other. They will be “on our side” when it benefits them. They will listen when they absolutely have to.

I do believe that there are individual politicians who are good, principled people. They generally don’t have very much clout in the government. We need to stop looking up to politicians as if they are our celebrity friends or our big brothers (except in an Orwellian sense) who are going to protect us from the schoolyard bully (whether that bully is Trump or Putin or Clinton or God knows who else). They are POLITICIANS. At their best, they are as much on our side as we forcefully demand that they be.

So when it comes to powerful entities, don’t trust anyone. Listen to different points of view. Be skeptical of all of them. Don’t assume someone’s on your side. Think like a spy.


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