How NOT to stand up for principles

Remember a few months back I wrote about how I turned down an easy $185-200 for a voice over job because it was for a RenTV hate documentary all about how kids in Europe are being taught that they can choose their gender and sexual orientation? Well today we have a classic case of doing it wrong when it comes to standing up for your principles.In my case, there were basically two options, insofar that I disagreed with the content and purpose of the slanderous documentary. The unprincipled route would have entailed going ahead and doing the work, supposing that it was unlikely that anyone would ever find out anyway. I happen to believe that moral principles are about what you do when no one is watching, or at least when you think no one is watching. Hence I turned it down.

To understand today’s case, however, we must imagine another, absurd option. Suppose I actually agreed with the content of the video, i.e. I really believed that Europe is run by perverts who want to force post-modernist theories of sexuality on the youngest children possible for…reasons. Suppose after turning down the money, I went on to blog about the experience, condemning the attempt to buy my services while admitting in the same post that I agreed with all the talking points from the documentary nonetheless. To most people this would seem idiotic. If you agree with the content, and if you regularly write the same talking points, you might as well take the money. If there was some wealthy individual who almost entirely agreed with everything I write, and they were willing to pay me to write it without question, I would most likely not turn down that offer either.

Apparently David Swanson doesn’t understand this, as he is today’s case of doing it wrong. Swanson is some kind of anti-war blogger who recently claimed that he was approached by an official from the Russian embassy and offered money to publish some pre-written articles on his blog. Swanson makes a big deal about being a “journalist” and refused the offer. Then, in the same post, he writes this paragraph.

Many of us are well aware of the lie that NATO and the U.S. told Russia upon the reunification of Germany to the effect that NATO would not expand eastward. We’re outraged by the expansion to your borders. We condemn the U.S.-backed violent coup in Kiev. We denounce the Nazi and foreign-imposed government of Ukraine. We oppose the U.S. arms shipments, the U.S. “National Guard” now guarding the wrong nation, the war games, the baseless characterizations of Russia’s behavior, the lies about your aggression.

Congratulations, Mr. Swanson. You just wrote exactly what that Russian official wanted you to write, only you did it for free. That paragraph alone makes you qualified to be a regular guest on RT.

Hell, if I already agreed with all of those talking points, several of which are laughably wrong, I’d have my own show on RT. It would have some stupid, Alex Jonesey-sounding name like Through the Looking Glass or Behind the Curtain, and every episode I’d prattle on about how the neoconservative ex-Trotskyites and their international “bankster” minions want to overthrow the Russian government so they can get its oil and impose their neoliberal economic system. As the Joker says in The Dark Knight: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

I may seem hard on the guy, but I think that if his story is told in good faith, there is hope for Mr. Swanson. Russia attracts the support of people like him due to two factors- lack of critical thinking skills and more importantly, lack of knowledge about Russia. Regardless of your specific beliefs, the more familiar you become with Russia, the more you realize that it doesn’t coincide with them. In this case, if you’re anti-war, you’re supporting a nation which annexed part of another sovereign nation, invaded that same nation, starting and maintaining a conflict that has now killed around 6,000 people while displacing tens of thousands more. Why? All because some people didn’t want to join Russia’s Customs Union, a free trade initiative that would have been most favorable to its biggest member. If the US were doing something like this, you can bet Swanson would be all over it. So would Chomsky, Pilger, and Oliver Stone.

What is more, we’re talking about a country whose leader said on camera that he was considering using nuclear weapons, ostensibly against Kyiv, if the annexation of the Crimea didn’t go well. Russian propaganda regularly features nuclear threats against the United States and Europe.  This material is primarily aimed at the regime’s base, bitter, cynical people who feel utterly humiliated by their government yet are too afraid to rock the boat. Therefore the idea of nuking countries where people live better or at least ensuring that Ukraine is worse off than Russia makes them feel warm and fuzzy. Or perhaps that’s just the cheap alcohol. Either way, this is no place for pacifists. The treatment of the country’s minuscule anti-war movement makes that clear.

So the way I see it, Swanson might be at a crossroads. If everything happened as he tells it, it’s possible that he might start to ask questions when he sees other bloggers regurgitating Russian talking points. Could they be paid too? Or if they aren’t getting paid, are they taking advantage of free press junkets funded by the Russian government? Are they getting air time on RT? What are the actual politics of these people? Do they speak out against wars only when the US is involved? Have they ever criticized Russia’s interference in other sovereign nations?

If he asks these questions and gets real answers, he will see that not only is the Russian government no better than that of the US, but that it is actually worse on a number of levels. Aside from openly and officially promoting militarism, war, and conquest, the Russian government treats its own citizens as cattle, robbing them of their natural wealth and giving them staggering wealth inequality. The Russian government doesn’t care about the sincerely-held beliefs of American anti-war activists. To them, they are national traitors just like those few anti-war activists in Russia. The Americans just happen to be useful traitors. There is no solidarity, no principle. In fact there’s no concern for the young men who will have to fight in these wars. Most of these Russian propagandists avoided their military service, and the sons of the elite study or live abroad, often in the same countries they condemn on a daily basis.

Yes, there might be some hope for this one yet.

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23 thoughts on “How NOT to stand up for principles

  1. Bandersnatch

    It’s interesting to consider. The USA’s foreign policy I would say is indistinguishable or even worse than many dictatorial regimes. Its domestic policy is of course better than Russia’s simply because people can make change and engage their government.

    I am interested in knowing though, I was discussing this with the муж yesterday. If Russia is fascist then how is China or Saudi Arabia different? I struggled a bit with that one but I think I would say it is because of Russia’s ideologies on the ground fomenting xenophobia, ultranationalism, and homophobia as well as its national ‘moral’ philosophy.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I would say it’s a matter of the values you promote. A country can fail to live up to those values, but if it continually puts those values forth as their foundation, there’s a possibility that people will struggle to fulfill those values. Look at America’s idea of individual liberty at the time the Constitution was ratified and compare it to today, for example.

      In the case of China, there’s corruption and an authoritarian style of government, but the values the party espouses are progressive. I remember when I was in China there were these propaganda posters everywhere that were in English and Hanzi- They seemed to be listing important values, one of them being “inclusiveness.” This is a positive value.

      By contrast, Russia openly promotes authoritarianism, scapegoating, conspiracy theories, religious obscurantism, tolerance for corruption, xenophobia, and hatred.

      Another way of looking at it is this- Suppose China’s Communist party suddenly had the magic ability to see their stated goals and values realized, and nothing would stand in their way. Would that be positive, at least for China? For all their talk about prosperity, equality, etc., I would think it would be great for any country.

      On the other hand, if Russia could spread its system everywhere, how would that look? It would be a nightmare.

      Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Indeed. If they debated live, someone might show up with real knowledge.

      I remember this prick who sends me these emails and keeps bragging about how many publications published his “analysis” of Russia. I asked him what his background was, because his claims didn’t match facts on the ground. Mainly I asked him how much time he spent in Russia, if he knew the language, etc., but I asked him in a rather innocent way. He got REALLY defensive about both issues. I kept pressing him and eventually he responds with “I probably spent more time in Russian than you,” and his Russian skills amount to calling me свинья. After that he said he wouldn’t read any emails but he keeps sending his stupid articles to my account.

      Now there’s a reason why a person would get so defensive at such simple questions. Deep down he knows that his authority is limited to Google and Wikipedia, along with Russian English-language sources. He’s exactly the type of person who would get killed in any live debate or even a public lecture. Imagine during the Q & A period you stand up and ask a question entirely in Russian. When he asks you to speak English, you say only “No English. You are Russia expert, yes? You don’t speaking Russian?” Imagine the embarrassment.

      Reply
      1. Estragon

        “I remember this prick who sends me these emails and keeps bragging about how many publications published his “analysis” of Russia” – I can’t help but ask. Did his last name begin with A?

  2. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    Of course but here’s the thing. I don’t read Russian and have never been there but I have the ability to sift fact from fiction and to do proper sourcing and, crucially, to think critically and question my received opinions. So I feel I can write stuff like what I’ve written about Russia and it can stand up.

    To explain. For many years I worked on international LGBT activism, mainly resulting from my work with asylum seekers. In order to do this I had to sift through precious few sources, often hostile and often not in English. I wrote articles from this. Occasionally I got it wrong but I would fess up and correct where necessary.

    Now I did this despite getting quite deliberate and targeted attacks from people, including some from the global south, saying I had no right to do this, that I was pretending to be the ‘great white hope; etc. Some of this was extremely nasty and all I was doing was reporting news, nothing to do with opinion. One of my best mates, working in similar terrain, was destroyed by such people because he was reporting stuff various people didn’t want reporting. I will never forget what I saw done to him because it was sick.

    I refused to go under, even when it was some Ugandan having a go, because I think it would be patronising, if not racist, for me to assume that their opinion or, worse, facts, are more important than mine. The facts are, to quote The Guardian, sacred. Plus, I also knew that there was some other Ugandan, for example, who disagreed with the person trying to destroy me.

    In other words I had some ethics, and those could withstand criticism. People like the guy who you engaged with have no ethics, hence what they are doing crumbles under even mild questioning.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think that Russia is actually doing people a favor in expanding its foreign propaganda, in the sense that there is now a way that unassuming people without Russian skills and experience actually can get a feel for the truth. While the language barrier is still very difficult, the Russian media has put out so many ridiculous lies and stories that a person who didn’t hold an opinion before but who got both sides of the issue(e.g. Ukraine) could decide that at the very least, contemporary Russian state-run media sources aren’t trustworthy.

      They have nobody to blame but themselves and their shotgun style approach that entails bombarding every story with multiple, often-conflicting “alternative” theories.

      Reply
      1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

        Yup.

        That’s why I think the MH17 report will be a final nail.

        I’ve noticed a number of journos who might have previously moved heaven and earth to appear ‘balanced’, BBC/Grauniad types, shifting completely over the last six months. This is undoubtedly because of the blatant lying.

    2. Bandersnatch

      It always kills me when people attempt to bring identity in as the primary argument for why you shouldn’t be discussing universal human rights or pointing out their suppression. Yes, there are rude and respectful ways of doing this. But at the end of the day, violently attacking a minority is violently attacking a minority and race relations, gender, imperialism, patriarchy and power-dynamics have no bearing on the ethics of scapegoating and calling out the scapegoating and oppression of a group. You either acknowledge that the wholesale character assassination and sexualization of the LGBT community is wrong or you don’t. There is no grey zone here.

      Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        You had a perfect example of that one time. Remember you said something about a feminist lecturer in Australia who balked at criticism of female genital mutilation by comparing it to cosmetic labia surgery in the West, which is entirely elective? Who was that?

  3. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    Speaking of hope ,,,

    This perked me up and maybe will you too Jim.

    Russia got defeated today in a vote at the UN on the SecGen’s right to approve spusal benefits for gays. Now the vote breakdown is fascinating because Russia was reduced to pretty much the usual suspects, plus India.

    This is the sort of thing I’ve been following for years and, believe me, Russia is losing more and more influence globally when they are pushing this sort of stuff. Heck, even Venezuela voted against them.

    Reply
  4. Estragon

    “I think I can confirm that much publicly. Did he do the same to you?” – this individual is notorious among Russia watchers for mass emailing his “top quality analysis” to the widest possible range of people. He’s been doing it for ages. I still like to read his stuff, because of the hilarious spelling/grammar issues and stilted robotic language that he uses. It’s good entertainment.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      It’s another case of good present, bad history. I suspect this person is a left Communist or Trotskyite, because they just couldn’t resist inserting a totally irrelevant paragraph about Stalin which is laden with numerous errors and spurious claims. He totally ignores the fact that pro-Moscow Communists had been fighting fascists in the 1920’s and 30’s, not to mention the Soviet support for the Spanish Republic and the struggle on behalf of the Soviet Union to establish a collective security pact with Britain and France against Germany in the second half of the 30’s. By contrast, Trotsky himself condemn the USSR’s attempts to establish such a pact and defend the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia. He characterized it as a defense of bourgeois nationalism in the guise of self-determination, and condemned working with imperialist Britain and France. Yet this guy claims that Moscow became anti-fascist on 22 June 1941? What massive ignorance. Not the first time Trots failed to read their own cult hero’s writings though.

      The worst thing is that this was a totally irrelevant digression, but many left coms, Trots, and sometimes anarchists have this bizarre idea that if they always manage to launch into a tirade against Stalin, everyone will see how anti-Stalinist they are, and then give their ideology a “do over.” In reality, however, I have never seen anyone opposed to socialism or communism of any sort back down just because someone claimed they are an anti-Stalinist Communist. It’s pretty clear that if your great and wonderful theory could ultimately fail literally EVERYWHERE it was implemented all because of ONE GUY, it’s pretty easy to torpedo in any debate.

      On the other hand, leftists such as myself try to understand the history of socialism in a proper, dialectical Marxist way, looking for answers to these failures in the inner workings of the system while also comparing them to successful capitalist systems to discover why some things succeeded and other things failed. Trots can rant about how much they hate Stalin all they want- the right will never stop using him to beat them over the head. All of these people already tacitly accept most of the anti-Communist claims about the USSR anyway; from there it’s a short leap to pointing out that ANY socialist system will inevitably be co-opted by a Stalin-like figure.

      This is precisely what anti-Communist intellectuals do today. As I mentioned before, you never see them publish best-sellers wherein they acknowledge how effective socialism could have been if only Trotsky had become General Secretary(in contravention of party rules).

      When it comes to the present, I think part of the problem is that their positions aren’t so much derived from real principle. This author is also pretending Maidan was something it wasn’t, much in the same way these other leftists pretend the Donbas uprising is something other than what it is. The position on the other hand is based more on inter-leftist rivalry. If all the “Stalinists” seem to be supporting Moscow, then they must support Maidan and the EU.

      All in all, however, I have to repeat that when it comes to the present, his criticism is generally right. For all the talk about “double standards” on the mainstream left, too many of these people seem more than happy to resort to great power, in fact almost neoconservative arguments when it comes to Russia. For example, the US maintaining a sphere of influence is imperialist and bad, but it’s perfectly fine for Russia to have its sphere of influence, defended by openly imperialist arguments.

      Reply
      1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

        I’M afraid I gave up after a while, he seemed to be repeating/wanking on with the same point.

        The targets he cites are mostly fruitloops, literally bonkers. There are plenty of other pro Kremlin lefties which could be cited with real influence. Like, doh, Der Linke, Syrizia or even .. Seumas Milne or Chomsky (who just repurposes the Russian MFA line). Or even how the only reason anyone’s heard of Stephen Cohen is because Democracy Now keeps having him on.

        And, as I may have mentioned before, the best counter is always actual Ukrainian socialists or anarchist voices. This author could have easily cited them. Didn’t even occur to him. Funny how that just keeps happening? Anyone might think the western left had lost its moorings …

        Another plug for http://ukrainesolidaritycampaign.org/

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Reading further, I also have to say that his analysis is quite backward, pretending like 2015 can be compared to an era about a century ago. Sure, bourgeois Ukraine didn’t survive long, but it is not accurate to pretend as though Ukraine in the early Soviet Union can be compared to Ukraine in the Russian empire or Austro-Hungary. Compare Stalin’s Ukrainianization policies with the Tsarist Ems ukaz, for example. Furthermore, Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991. Sure, Russia has exerted of influence on them, but that didn’t stop the success of Yushchenko, who responded to Western, European influence. Basically- BOTH sides have been wrangling over Ukraine for some time- that doesn’t change the fact that Ukraine is an independent nation and has had its bourgeois revolution.

      Also I don’t see any reason why principled leftists should refrain from condemning Poroshenko’s government so long as it is on principled ground. I have had it with these sectarian leftists on both sides who demand that we shut our mouths and simply acquiesce to this capitalist power or the other, in the idiotic hope that this will somehow benefit us. How many times does this need to fail before these so-called Marxist intellectuals wake up and try something new?

      You know why the Islamic state is so successful, in spite of their horrid ideology and open display of atrocities? It’s partially because they don’t say shit like: “Yeah I know we hate Shiites, but Iran is anti-American and anti-Israel! We should support them and stop calling them apostates!” I’m pretty sure if you suggested that at an IS staff meeting you’d probably be beheaded on the spot.

      Not in the leftist world though. Here you have to side with a right-wing fascist dictatorship to oppose the US/EU hegemony, or support the EU and its businessmen. Sorry- we’re not allowed to just be Communists, anarchists, or whatever. We always need to be a gaggle of dupes following someone else’s coalition.

      I know people like him would say that this is because there is no organized radical left. Okay, why not then? Maybe it’s because Ukrainian leftists like him just openly accept the whole anti-Communist narrative that legitimizes oligarch and right-wing power in Ukraine?

      Or better yet, maybe it’s because they have nothing to sell. They preach about revolution but then explain away dozens of ultimately failed revolutions just by saying Stalin, Stalin, Stalin. But don’t worry, OUR revolution can’t POSSIBLY be wrecked by one person, because…errr…reasons.

      At the same time, these people portray themselves as so radical and revolutionary, and yet their own solution is to support a bourgeois movement almost entirely uncritically. Hypocritical? It shouldn’t surprise anyone. See when he talks about nationalism having a progressive character? Guess who supported the same idea- Stalin. Guess who routinely condemned Stalin for that policy on numerous occasions(Spain, China)- Trotsky. In fact Trots have a long history of attacking the defense of self-determination and nationalism when it suits them(i.e. when “Stalinists” are supporting it). That example of Czechoslovakia pre-Munich in my previous comment is a good example.

      Also while I do feel that Ukrainian independence is certainly progressive, Ukrainian nationalism, since the rise of the OUN and its monopolization of that idea, can never be progressive. For one thing, as I said before Ukraine is no longer a colony. It has only recently come under direct occupation. As I said before, the Ukrainian bourgeoisie has come of age. It’s old enough to be tried.

      Reply
      1. Chukuriuk

        As for the Trotskyists, agreed: always fighting the last revolution (or the current one with the last one’s tactics).
        But it’s important to distinguish nationalism (OUN-style) from the national. The former reorients politics onto a pseudo-transcendent national body (“the Nation”), while the latter is potentially a site of solidarity, nothing more. Look at the Solidarnosc movement in Poland, before it became a party.
        For better or worse, and not necessarily for the better, any revolutionary movement — in both senses, of organization and of forward movement — in Ukraine will include a strong national element because of the Ukraine-Russia relationship. If and when the Russian left is able to construct (or even represent politically) a Russia that embodies real democracy, this will begin to change. Unfortunately, there’s been a regression on the Russian left since the annexation of Crimea.
        My point is that you’re right that the Ukrainian bourgeoisie has indeed “come of age,” but that at the present moment, its “being tried” from a class-based place without significant national coloring is almost impossible in Ukraine. And, as Velychenko points out (if I recall), this was the case in the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-20 as well: the Ukrainian communists fused themes of national and social liberation. You can see this in Dovzhenko’s early films.
        Finally, and here I agree with you, this by no means proposes any solidarity with the far right, which is always fatal for the left.

      2. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

        Orwell had a thing or two to say about nationalism vs patriotism ..

        Didn’t realise this guy was a Ukrainian leftie. Given the people he picked out to wank on about I assume he’s in the diaspora? There are others, actually in Ukraine. Be nice to see them get some attention.

        I’d also say that although it is nice to have some background the endless replaying about C20th history or even earlier seems to me to repeat the patterns of Russian propaganda and mostly seems irrelevant.

  5. Asehpe

    What would ‘trying the Ukraine bourgeoisie’ consist of? As far as I can see, the main problem in Ukraine seems to be oligarchs vs. progressivism…

    Reply

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