I’m going on holi-JUST KIDDING, BRITS! VACATION! Seriously though I’ll be gone for two weeks, and I have decided to leave some more thoughts here to tide over those loyal readers who might miss out. In particular, there is at least one reader whose morning coffee would be reduced to a mundane pit of despair if they had to go so long without a new post. For that reason, the sub-sections of this post can be read one by one each morning, as a form of rationing. Enjoy.
Why Russia/Ukraine discourse won’t improve
My most recent article on Russia! Magazine was a rant against cheerleaders, that is people who just decide to take a particular side in a conflict that has nothing to do with them, and then lecture others on how they must carry on the struggle, dismissing all who dissent from their self-righteous and arbitrary proclamations as heretics working for the other side. The Russian/Ukrainian conflict has brought a lot of these people out of the woodwork, but realistically I’ve been dealing them since the time I first started arguing on the internet about the Yugoslav conflicts of the 90’s. And yes, I was guilty of being a cheerleader myself in those days.
In my article I referred to cheerleading as “the bane of Eastern Europe,” but it is far more widespread than that. There are actually psychological reasons to explain this phenomenon, which is in fact just one example of something much broader. In other words, cheerleaders for Team Russia and Team West aren’t really that different than other internet mobs such as Social Justice Warriors, Men’s Rights fanatics, and video game console partisans.
Cracked.com has produced a number of materials on topics like this, and I encourage the reader to listen to and look them over, and then apply the concepts they talk about to your observations of the discourse about Russia and Ukraine online- Twitter, comments sections, forums, etc. The first and most interesting piece is this podcast:
Next there’s a video about why the internet ruins causes:
The video really resonated with me because a lot of times I’ve seen these discussions where it starts something like this:
1. Person expresses an opinion which may have been influenced by Russian propaganda, perhaps unwittingly.
2. Someone like me comes in with a nuanced response based on facts, experience, research, etc., e.g. “While the far right in Ukraine is a problem per se, it’s important to realize that it is no more influential than that which exists in Russia, if not less so, since the Russian state actively cultivates and funds nationalist and other far-right groups. On the topic of Bandera, which you brought up, it’s important to understand that most Ukrainians don’t know much about Stepan Bandera in the same way many Americans actually know little about George Washington. This of course is a problem because it provides fertile ground for real Bandera-cultists to rewrite history and spread their mythology, but that is a far cry from the allegation that a significant portion of Ukraine’s population actually looks favorably on Bandera and his movement. In fact, most people really don’t care becau-“
3. In comes the cheerleader, a Canadian whose classmate’s great-grandfather was from Ukraine, to set everyone straight: “DON’T LISTEN TO THAT PUTIN-LOVING SOVIET COMMUNIST TROLL WORKING IN THE TROLL FACTORY IN ST. PETERSBURG! BANDERA AND THE OUN NEVER DID ANYTHING WRONG EVER! THEY ARE HEROES OF UKRAINE BECAUSE THEY FOUGHT FOR UKRAINIAN INDEPENDENCE AGAINST THE GERMAN AND SOVIET COMMUNAZIS!!! ANYONE WHO HAS EVER SAID ANYTHING NEGATIVE ABOUT THE OUN, UPA, OR BANDERA IS AN ACTIVE KGB DISINFOMRATION AGENT! I HAVE READ ALL THE BOOKS ON THIS TOPIC! I ASSURE YOU! STEPAN BANDERA WAS A FREEDOM-LOVING LIBERAL DEMOCRAT WHO WANTED TO MAKE UKRAINE JOIN THE EUROPEAN UNION IN 1941! HE BELIEVED IN FEMINISM, EQUAL RIGHTS, AND EVEN LGBT RIGHTS! UNLESS YOU DON’T LIKE THOSE THINGS, IN WHICH CASE HE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN FAMILY TRADITIONS, RELIGION GOVERNING SOCIETY, OR WHATEVER YOU WANT TO HEAR ME TELL YOU SO YOU’LL JOIN MY SIDE. I KNOW ALL THIS STUFF! I DIDN’T JUST HEAR ABOUT THESE THINGS IN 2014! GET OUT OF HERE, PUTLERIAN SOVIET KGB SCUM! SVOBODA AND PRAVIY SEKTOR ARE JUST UKRAINIAN PATRIOTS DEFENDING UKRAINE’S FREEDOM FROM THE SOVIET UNION, WHICH IS PUTIN! SLAVA UKRAYNY! SLAVA GEROIYIM!! FREE NATASHA SAVACHENKO!
4. I avail myself of Facebook’s block feature, yet die a little inside.
As a veteran debater, I’m really fascinated by this phenomenon, repulsive though it may be, and I devour up whatever I find on this topic. Here’s a great comic which puts forth its own characterization of the problem, for example.
One of the most interesting aspects for me is how people will find themselves taking a certain side for reasons that don’t necessarily make sense. Back in the States for example, I rarely met someone who was passionately opposed to abortion yet very concerned about global climate change and social welfare programs. As Thomas Frank explored in What’s the Matter with Kansas, you get these people who are really emotional and passionate about certain social issues, and if you appeal to those issues they’ll buy the rest of the platform hook, line, and sinker.
You see a lot of this on the Russian side of the debate, for example. Members of Putin’s foreign fan club often espouse views which contradict the Kremlin’s general line. Leftists wouldn’t like to experience Russia’s militarism, enforced patriotism that is reminiscent of early Cold War America, state-enforced religious meddling, and wealth inequality that makes the US look like a Scandinavian country by comparison. The libertarians, White Nationalists, and assorted far rightists wouldn’t like to live in a country that claims to be on an anti-fascist crusade and which glorifies the victory of the Stalin-led Soviet Union over states and movements that some of them greatly admire. In spite of these contradictions, the fan base, fringe though they may be, remains.
What keeps them in Kamp Kremlin? I think it is largely Russia’s posturing as a guarantor of the “multipolar” world, the check on American power, or however each individual phrases it. Many of these people may harbor deep misgivings about Russia for a myriad of reasons, but they fear to voice those reservations because it will look like weakness in the daily battle they wage on the internet. And if Russia “loses,” somehow, this will mean they lose, even if their cause is completely different from the interests of the Kremlin.
To give you an example, I was in countless debates with leftists who had been taken in by “Novorossiya” propaganda that had been tailor-made for that audience. If you’re an American leftist, the position of the Ukrainian government and the Donbas’ status has absolutely zero bearing on the causes you face. Zip, zero. It’s a Kremlin-manufactured war that’s more about Russian domestic issues than social issues, labor rights, etc. Yet plenty of leftists were duped into believing that this was their fight too, to the point that some actually went as far as to compare the struggle for “Novorossiya” to that of the Palestinian rights movement. Where do I even begin to explain what’s wrong with that?
I know I’ve said it before, but here it is again, in more or less the same words: Can anyone imagine some scenario where Obama is about to pass massive legislation banning trade unions and confiscating private firearms, and yet is prevented from doing so because he learns the DNR and LNR still exist? The way things are going now, it looks like Russia has lost interest and both territories will remain, one way or another, in “fascist junta”-ruled Ukraine. How many folks have the US authorities rounded up into FEMA camps since this development in the past month or so, when these developments took place?
Naturally none of those things happened. Many of those leftists were indeed duped by propaganda from Russia, some coming from supposedly independent, neutral sources, including the same that once had an effect on myself in late 2013 and early 2014. But even if they weren’t exposed to any Russian-produced media at all, many of them would have taken the Russian or at least anti-Ukrainian side simply based on what they saw in the US media. The US appeared to be supporting Maidan and the new Ukrainian government, so it had to be bad. Whoever opposed them had to be right. End of story. Well not quite the end. You see, sitting on Facebook stumping for the DNR is a lot easier than trying to organize American workers or learn about your local political system so you can actually work towards some kind of effective change. Fidel and Che sure were lucky the internet didn’t exist when they were alive.
What I’m getting at here, is that people seem to get so passionate and emotional about something that there comes a point where they’re arguing for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the original reason they got into politics in the first place. And when you try to talk them down and get them to dial it back to their original issue, they lash out and double down because obviously the only reason you’d take issue with one or two points on their “platform” is that you’re a dupe or a paid agent with a hidden agenda. So disagreeing with them on something like Ukraine, which they have never been to and know nothing about, is in fact part of a calculated strategy to further roll back workers’ rights in the US, stop the $15 minimum wage hike, and give law enforcement the right to arrest anyone who reads Jacobin.
Here I’ve been sticking to the topic of Ukraine and Russia, but you will see this almost everywhere. People who want saner gun regulations “really” want all guns confiscated, after which they plan to ban all religion and make white middle class Christian families slave laborers on kale plantations. The clueless white hipster woman who doesn’t agree that belly-dancing is “cultural appropriation” secretly looks down on Arabs and wishes America would bring back blackface minstrel shows. You can’t trust what people actually say they believe; there has to be some sinister, ulterior motive. People have been doing this for decades. In America, white supremacists constantly claimed that civil rights for blacks wasn’t about equality- it was a plot to enslave white men. In Russia, liberals or opposition supporters don’t really want a democratic Russia that resembles Germany or Norway. They want to completely humiliate their own country and make it a colony of the United States because…reasons.
Sadly, little is going to change until knowledge of these phenomena is more widespread. Till then, you know the drill- don’t read the comments (except on this blog).
Winter on Fire? Or Burning Pile of Bullshit?
Lately I’ve been seeing ads for a documentary series on Netflix about Maidan called Winter on Fire. Take a look at the poster and tell me what’s wrong with this picture. First of all, I realize this is a poster and it has to be symbolic, but I find the use of a little girl juxtaposed with Berkut to be a bit weaselly. First, it reminds me of this annoying Adbusters poster for the clusterfuck failure known as Occupy Wall Street. Second, and more importantly, it portrays Ukraine as a little helpless child. It’s important to remember that even as agents of oppression, those Berkut riot police were also Ukrainian. So were the college students, the old people, the anarchists, the liberals, the far-rightists…What I’m getting at is that Ukraine shouldn’t be infantilized or made to look like this poor helpless child. Maidan had many people with lofty, positive goals and progressive views, and it also had backward, reactionary people with horrendously terrible ideas. It was, as protest movements tend to be, multifaceted and complex.
This I have learned the hard way, where I had to actually go to Ukraine several times to get an accurate account from participants. Probably the best explanation I got was from Stopfake’s co-founder Yevhen Fedchenko, who succinctly summarized it by explaining that in general, it was about Ukrainians wanting to change the way they were living toward something different. In other words, specifically those of 2pac Shakur, “See the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do, to survive.”
This brings me to my second point, which is that I suspect this series will make the same mistake as many other Western media outlets and oversimplify and romanticize the movement rather than inform people about a key historical event. Obviously this can’t be a review as I have not yet seen the material- I’ll see what I can do just as soon as I can find a decent torrent of the series because Yo-ho-ho me hearties! Still there are some warning signs that prompted these concerns.
One is the phrase “Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” Ukraine was an independent country at the time of Maidan. It has been since 1991. Sure there was a lot of Russian economic influence on the country, but a lot of this remains today and was only impeded or in some cases severed thanks to Russia’s activity. In short, the Russian and Ukrainian economies were and still are very integrated, ergo to pretend that this equates to Ukraine not being independent and needing to struggle for “freedom” from Russia is inaccurate. Look around the world and you’ll find many other stronger nations influencing poorer neighbors via economic means.
Perhaps “freedom” in this case means freedom from an increasingly authoritarian government? Sure, that makes a lot more sense, but naive outsiders and observers need to realize that Ukraine hasn’t achieved that kind of society just yet. Authoritarian tendencies still lurk in the government and among some of the biggest supporters of Maidan. A number of laws passed in the country are nearly mirror images of laws passed by Putin’s regime, restricting free speech and other basic civil rights. What Ukraine has now is a chance; it’s at a crossroads. It can develop into a real progressive democracy, or it can degenerate into a Little Russia, where each “national value” is only an opposite of its counterpart across the border, and where con men dupe the population with populism, again same as in Russia.
Indeed, when it comes to things like fighting corruption, Ukraine is far from out of the woods yet, as realistic supporters have to remind us all the time. Unfortunately Snyder-esque blather about “European values” and delicious Europe-py European Europe isn’t going to improve the situation. In my opinion, Ukraine has but one thing going for it, and that is the tendency of the population to resist and self-organize. Makhno himself would probably be proud if it weren’t for the far right segment of that crowd, but if we ignore that for a moment, the bottom line is that people in Ukraine, compared to Russians, seem to refuse to sit at home grumbling and patiently enduring non-stop humiliation for the sake of “stability” they never receive. It’s worth remember that America has its share of far right racists, which seems to be rising as of late, but there’s no need to fear a fascist takeover of the US so long as there are legions of people willing to organize and stand up to them whenever they rear their heads.
Lastly, I have one more bone to pick with this documentary series. One thing I’ll never get over is the way the American media will happily cheer on mass protests in other countries, while at home they always tend to demonize them by focusing on fringe elements, looters, or whatever. In other words, the US media does to protest movements, particularly those on the side of the poor, workers, and minorities, what the Russian media did to Maidan. Just replace “Banderite Nazis” with “looters,” “thugs,” etc.
You could almost say the American media something interesting in common with the Russian press- a moral lesson about protests. The Russian moral of every protest story is that protesting only makes things worse and replaces precious stability with chaos. One must obey the “legitimate” government at all costs, and nothing that government does can ever destroy its legitimacy (so long as it is somehow friendly to the Kremlin’s foreign policy interests). The American lesson is a little different. Obey the law unquestioningly at home, but live vicariously through protests abroad.
Yes, Maidan was violent. Yes, that violence was mostly defensive and in many cases, justified, but I can’t help but wonder what might have happened to the Ferguson protesters had they formed their own self-defense companies as the Maidan protesters did. Given the militarized police response to the protests, I would have predicted a bloodbath. Sure, if you’re an old white cattle rancher who stole something like $1 million from the government, you and your militia buddies can point guns at federal agents, patrol the area decked out in military gear and assault rifles, and generally play guerrilla insurgent. Try that shit protesting police brutality in a black community or right-to-work laws and see what happens.
Unfortunately a lot of Westerners, many of them leftists, look at this inconsistency toward foreign protest movements and conclude that tacit government endorsements must mean the protest movement is inauthentic and bad. This isn’t the case. Instead of condemning these movements, Westerners should study them, learn how they work, and think about how they can safely and effectively apply their tactics on their home turf. What is more, they can reject right-wing involvement in Maidan while building solidarity with those who weren’t part of that element. For any leftist who still balk at that idea, keep in mind that Occupy also had its share of far-right participants and was actually publicly endorsed by neo-Nazis like David Duke and the American Nazi Party. Remove the mote from thine eye…
Obviously I’m a bit apprehensive because I highly doubt this documentary series will properly inform outsiders about all the points I’ve outlined above. Instead I’m predicting oversimplification, stripping the agency from Ukrainians, and a lot of Europeans, Americans, and probably Canadians patting themselves on the back.
WHY DON’T YOU WRITE ABOUT AMERICA?!
One of the inspirations for writing a blog comes from Gin & Tacos, whose author Ed recently produced this beautiful piece in response to another “get off my lawn” rant about millennials. He apparently had the stomach to get through that “satirical” article and the follow up the columnist wrote in response to the backlash it caused. I could not. I just can’t. Ed’s response is dead on, but I just want to add a few comments of my own.
First, why are these “fuck those millennials” articles still a thing? They’re never more than a collection of cliches. If I had the time, I’d create a bingo card for them. Since I don’t, here’s some of the key words so you can go make your own:
Selfies, expensive coffee, lazy, participation trophies, soccer/tie games, reference to how much harder it was back in the old days, “entitlement,” Facebook, Instagram, advice based on hindsight, totally oblivious to who raised the millennial generation, FREE SPACE: Bullshit bootstrap story
Second, I’m sick of people producing bullshit and hiding behind the term satire. Yes, sometimes people literally mistake satire for reality. But believe it or not, it is indeed possible for someone to realize you were trying to be satirical, and still decide that A. It’s not really funny, and B. It’s bullshit. The “it’s satire” defense is just incredibly pretentious- “Of course you wouldn’t get it! It’s satire.” No, no, I get it. It’s just not funny. Or it’s stupid. Or it’s totally inaccurate or offensive. No, I’m not saying it should be censored. This is called criticism. You’re not persecuted. Shut up. Sit down.
Lastly, the thing that drives me up the wall about the millennial bullshit is that people keep playing fast and loose with the definition. A few years ago, I was secure in the knowledge that I just made the cutoff for Generation X. Then one day I looked again and found that I had been lumped into Generation Y, the millennials, along with people who were in high school and who had just graduated college.
I’m sorry but I don’t really have much in common with those people. I still find myself failing to connect on certain topics with people who are only a few years younger than me from time to time. If we talk about Metal Gear Solid, we’re fine. If I talk about Splatterhouse, Shinobi (arcade), NES Ninja Gaiden, etc. I’m often faced with blank stares. Ditto with 80’s cartoons. Occasionally I feel like some kind of out-of-place time traveler trying to find someone who appreciates what it was like the first time they put a quarter into an arcade Double Dragon machine. Please!
You remember this? Right? TELL ME YOU REMEMBER THIS! THIS REALLY EXISTED!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pulling one of these idiotic “I’M SO OLD” routines. It’s not that I’m old, it’s that I live in a country which had a very different experience in the 80’s and 90’s, and when it comes to people near my age or older, many weren’t into those games because video games in general were far less mainstream than they have been since the 2000’s.
The point I’m making is that the whole “fuck millennials” lobby not only applies to millennials ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that are not entirely accurate, but that they also lump together groups of people who have very different upbringings, experiences, and mentalities. To be sure my time abroad plays a major factor, but even if we set that aside I can’t see myself connecting very well with today’s college-age kids. I’m probably already lame as hell in their eyes.
I guess there are several conclusions we can draw from this. The first is that millennials, of any age, are not lazy. The hack writers who regurgitate shit like: “Maybe you should stop taking selfies with your participation trophy and get a job instead of acting all entitled all the time,” are lazy. Lazy, unfunny and fucking stupid.
And for you younger millennials, those just graduating with a chunk of student debt and the high school seniors who are even more screwed for the foreseeable future, I leave you with the following message: First, remember that even if those boomer detractors are occasionally right, it was they who raised you and built the society you grew up in. If you really turned out so poorly, that’s on them. Second, and more importantly, these hacks and the dipshits who read these rants and chuckle at the youth will depend on you to care for them when they can no longer care for yourselves. When they need your help, feel free to remind them that just like you, they aren’t entitled to anything, and they really ought to take personal responsibility for things like feeding themselves or getting around.
And if they really piss you off, you could always try a more radical solution.*
*This is satire, which means you’re not allowed to criticize it for any reason whatsoever. If you attempt to do so I’ll accuse you of having no sense of humor, not getting it, and wanting the government to step in and censor me! SATIRE!