(Author’s note: Click this link for the first part of the series)
In part one of this series, I dealt with the content of Alternet “world” editor Alex Kane’s article, entitled “10 disturbing facts about Russia that will change the way you watch the Olympics.” As I hinted at in the first article, the wrongness of this article has two sides. On one hand you have claims which are factually incorrect or sometimes dishonest; some of these might be forgivable considering the fact that the article is so full of links it can barely be considered Kane’s “work.” On the other hand there is something far more disturbing. In order to lay out what this thing is, let me relate an anecdote.
Early in 2013 I read a story about a woman named Sarai Sierra, who went missing in Istanbul and was later found to have been murdered. Having read one of the early stories in which she had only been reported as missing, I made the horrible mistake of scrolling down to the comments section. Part of me knew what was in store for me. Numerous American commentators, mostly male, loudly proclaimed that she was at best horribly naive, at worse that she deserved it. Why did she deserve it? Simple, she traveled alone to a “Muslim country.” They figured she should have known better. Some of them seemed to relish in the fact that something terrible had happened to her, no doubt because there had been a rumor that Sarai, a married woman, had some sort of “romantic liason” with a Turkish man who was later exonerated after questioning. I’m not going to dredge up any of those comments but let me just say the general tone of nearly all of them could be best described by the words sick and ignorant.
I chose this story because Alex Kane, who declared Russia a “scary place to live,” claims to be heavily interested in Middle Eastern affairs and Islamophobia, which would imply that he would probably have reacted to such comments the way I did. Islamophobes the world over constantly tell us that Muslims “want to kill us” and that we are “at war” with Islam. These are typically people who have never left their own country, much less traveled to any Muslim-majority country. In my case I have visited three majority Muslim countries, including three visits to Turkey, and one predominately Muslim region of Russia. Therefore hearing people rant about the danger of Westerners traveling to Muslim countries always comes off as plain cowardice to me. I’d like to think that someone like Kane would agree with this assessment.
I wonder how Kane would react to the following scenario- Some journalist in the US, not having been to Turkey, reads about the murder of Sierra and decides to Google up some negative stories about Turkey. There are plenty of items to choose from, whether it’s the increasingly heavy hand of the government, which has long controlled and censored the internet in Turkey to a degree which has never been seen in Russia, or the repression of Kurds. Having arbitrarily chosen ten negative pieces about Turkey, the author gives us “10 Disturbing Facts about Turkey”, calls them “the ten worst things to come out of Turkey recently,” and informs us that “Turkey can be a very scary place to live.” I would hope that Kane, someone who is an editor at a “progressive” news site and who specializes in Islamophobia, would have a lot to say about such an article. I would hope he would label it Islamophobic and racist, because the shoe certainly fits.
I think it should be clear by now that when someone with no significant(if any) experience in a country writes a ridiculously biased article on that country, deliberately highlighting the “worst” things about it and declaring it a scary place to live, this is basically an act of demonization. It contributes to prejudice, xenophobia, and of course, racism. Now I am sure that some readers might be a bit confused at this point, because it seems as though I’m implying that Kane’s article about Russia is racist, and indeed I am doing precisely that. “But Russians are white,” the good little college “progressive” might reply. “Racism = prejudice + power,” some might add. To answer the second point- bullshit. That describes institutional racism or discrimination. Otherwise you could hate all kinds of people in other countries and not be “racist” just because you have no power over them. More importantly, however, America’s definitions of “race” aren’t recognized all over the world. Even more importantly, I would argue that Russians are not “white,” as evidenced by the kinds of prejudices and stereotypes that are held against them and other Eastern European nationalities.
I wish I could say I was the first to broach the issue of anti-Russian racism, but someone else beat me to it. In an article entitled “Meanwhile in Russia: Buzzfeed, Russia, and the west”, a very intriguing point is raised:
It is no coincidence, then, that in the past few years Russia has become a rich hunting ground for easily consumable visual content (This special relationship took on an official character when market leader Buzzfeed chose the Guardian’s Russia correspondent Miriam Elder as its new foreign editor). The Russian-language internet has all the characteristics necessary to be the perfect fail-farm for those in search of a photo-fix: it is huge and active (with 70m users in 2011, it’s Europe’s biggest internet market) and, in contrast to inaccessible behemoths China and India, the dweebs and doofuses starring in Russian photobombs and facepalms don’t look so very different from English-language users. Bluntly put, they’re white.
Two things here. First note the name Miriam Elder from The Guardian. After Luke Harding was kicked out of Russia, Elder took over in Moscow for a while. Her writing wasn’t much of an improvement on that of Harding, as was evidenced by an article wherein she describes her troubles with dry-cleaning service and then declared that this was what the Russians at Bolotnaya were protesting against. The second point I wanted to make here is the claim that Russians are, as the excerpt stated, “white.” I am not going to go into deep detail here as I plan to do at a later date, but my general response to this assertion is that Russians are not “white,” but rather they become “white” only when it is useful for them to be. In other words, if someone calls you out for racism when the targets are Russian, something clicks in your American brain and you suddenly remember that Russians are “white,” which is supposed to give you a free pass for varying reasons depending on your position on the political spectrum. Much of the laughter and mocking associated with the mass arrival of journalists in Sochi, which quickly went beyond justifiable criticism, resembles the kind of attitude that English or WASPs in America held toward the Irish, Slavs, Italians, etc. That is to say that Russians seem to be mocked because they’re trying to be “like us” and they’re just not. It is reminiscent of the minstrel show cliche known as “Zip Coon,” a free black man who was mocked because of his stylish dress and confident mannerisms; his “flaw” being that he had the audacity to think he was equal to white people, an idea which was considered ridiculous by many whites when minstrelsy was popular. In a similar manner, the Russian may put on an expensive suit and carry an iPhone, but underneath that he’s still just a backward Slavic peasant whose only redeeming quality is his enigmatic, “Russian soul.”
There is one more piece worth quoting from the Calvert Journal article at this time.
Unlike their counterparts from, say, Austria or Canada, Russia’s loons and losers continue to be characterised by their country of origin: they’re not subsumed into the homogenous online country of Internetia; the word “Russian” always has to feature in the title. Russianness has, it seems, become a powerful online brand, a good way of guaranteeing clicks and thus ad revenue.
This paragraph advances a strong argument for the existence of anti-Russian racism(which as I stated before, often applies to other Eastern Europeans as well). In the same way that other groups are continually referred to by their nationality or ethnicity, the “Russian” identifier must always be used. This is most often the case with Russian women, who are fetishized in a manner similar to “Asian women.” On that note I should point out that just as many Americans lump all “Asians” together and consider them interchangeable, so do they tend to do the same with Eastern Europeans or former Soviet nationalities. Borat is the most obvious example of this, but even just the fact that Hollywood and the video game industry still manages to bungle Eastern European names in this internet age tells us how deep-rooted this issue is.
Coming back to the point of Mr. Kane’s article, I believe that the sometimes “white,” sometimes not nature of Russians and Eastern Europeans can explain why his article is unlikely to face any major backlash on the grounds of racism and prejudice. In this particular case, it’s perfectly fine to deliberately compile a list of “worst things” about a country and from that, declare it a scary place to live. Now I realize that Mr. Kane may have actually visited Russia,but judging from his publicly available info and the content of the article, which can barely be called “his” as it is basically links to other sources with some commentary, it is highly unlikely that he has spent any significant amount of time in Russia. I don’t think not being a national of a particular country bars one from criticizing it, but obviously your credibility and right to pass judgment increases with time and knowledge.
It is doubtful that Kane will be “called out” for his demonizing, prejudice inducing article. Had he written it on India or maybe South Africa this might not be the case. He most likely would have been called out for being prejudice, even if he did have a lot of personal experience within the country in question. I can’t speculate on an article he never actually wrote, but I’d be inclined to agree with such criticism. He may escape that kind of backlash from fellow progressive Americans who know nothing about Russia and Eastern Europe, but at least he didn’t escape Russia Without Bullshit.