Monthly Archives: March 2016

I’ll just leave this here…

I’ve been too busy to sit down and hammer out any of the long posts I’ve planned recently, but just to show that I’m not dead I’ll share a rather amusing article with you readers, courtesy of an old friend of mine.

Take a look at it and you’ll see that it seems Sputnik News plans to spar with the fake Sputnik Twitter account and even Russia in Your Face! for the title of most hilarious Russian parody news site ever.

Now I don’t think it makes sense to go through this line by line and debunk it. It is so out of touch with reality it might as well be a flat-Earth argument. It’s worth commenting on a couple of key details, however.

First we’ve got another anonymous writer. This seems to be getting more popular with RT and Sputnik lately. This time it’s “The Tactical Investor,”who I’m guessing is probably Zero Hedge or someone who reads his work. Oddly enough the name seems to link to a legitimate investment advice site of some sort, but if they did indeed prepare this article I wouldn’t take any of their financial advice. Hell I wouldn’t buy a ham sandwich from this son of a bitch.

The article is of course about the “worthless dollar,” yet it’s definitely not worthless to point out that Russia holds substantial dollar reserves and also increased its share of American debt in 2015. For example in December of that year, the Russian government owned $92 billion in US Treasury Securities. This is something you don’t do when you think a nation is crushed by its sovereign debt and its currency is on the verge of worthlessness.

Of course the crux is the article of the long-held fap fantasy of the Kremlin and its ideologues, which is the abandonment of the dollar for trade in favor of local currencies. Check it out:

“One of the reasons the US has engaged Russia is that it has made it a mission to wean itself from the dollar. Putin openly stated that Russia should sell its oil and gas in ruble. This does not sit well with the US for many other nations could follow in Russia’ footsteps as it is a dominant and powerful player in the energy sector.”

If Russia has had a mission to wean itself from the dollar, it has failed spectacularly just as it failed in its mission of modernization, fighting corruption, and nanotechnology. For one thing, Russia is still selling oil and gas in dollars. At the moment there’s actually some benefit for them to do this. Kremlin politicians and pundits never shut up about switching to local currencies in trade, and yet every time they sign a big energy deal to great fanfare (which then immediately runs into obstacles and stalls), the buyers want to pay in dollars. It was that way with Turkey, it was the same with China. Early last year Putin visited Egypt and there was talk in the Russian media of Egypt switching to trade in local currencies. Guess what- the Egyptians denied it.

Next, a note about their little theory regarding Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, and selling oil in euros. First of all, the theory about the former is disputed. In any case, the claim is so widespread it begs the question- if the danger of Saddam selling oil in euros was so great because it would cause other oil producers to follow suit, why didn’t those oil producers perceive this and start doing exactly that? Why didn’t Russia take the lead against the dollar at the time? Oh right- oil prices shot up and Putin benefited from the Iraq invasion, as did Gazprom (which has operations in Iraqi Kurdistan). They give no evidence for Gaddafi planning to switch over to the euro. The pretext to intervening in Libya was an uprising inspired by Arab Spring, which did not start in Libya. Was Tunisia planning to sell oil in euros? Was Egypt’s Mubarak, a long time ally of the US, planning to sell oil in euros? Hmmm… Looks like this hypothesis might be flawed.

And for a few more laughs, look at some of their “analysis.”

1) The US is desperate and they are doing their best to portray power, but instead it is coming off as weakness. But a desperate animal is bound to do even more desperate thing;

Hey can someone remind me of the definition of psychological projection? Anyone? Anyone at all? Replace “US” with Russia and that sentence suddenly makes perfect sense.
2) Now that China and Russia have joined forces, they have become a lethal combination. China has the money and the economy and Russia has the guns and firepower.

Just one little problem there, slick- Russia and China haven’t joined forces. China has signed exploitative trade deals with Russia. It’s also suffering itself under an economic and approaching demographic crisis. This makes it all the more laughable that the author says they have the money and the economy. First, why doesn’t Russia have it? Second, China’s military is considerably bigger. Lastly, what do they expect to happen? Russia’s going to go to war and China’s going to pay for it…just for the pretext of “standing up to the US?” These people live in Fantasy Land, plain and simple.

In the mean time if you have a surplus of worthless US dollars, I’d be happy to take them off your hands. The email address for the Paypal account is in the FAQ.

 

 

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BREAKING NEWS! Someone compares contemporary Russia to a non-Russian historical precedent!

I’m quite certain I’ve said this before at some point, but one of the most irritating cliches when it comes to Russia coverage is the unspoken rule that modern Russia can only be understood through its own history. We get inundated with articles debating whether Putin is a new Tsar and if so, which one. Is he Andropov? Is he like Brezhnev? Is Kadyrov following in the footsteps of Ivan the Terrible, or could he be a new Stalin-like figure on account of his Caucasian heritage? Is Russia’s current economic situation reminiscent of the 90’s, Perestroika, or the Brezhnev stagnation?

The same rule applies to potential solutions.  Russia needs a Peter the Great to re-open relations with the West! Who will be the “Gorbachev” that re-introduces “democracy” to Russia? And so forth. In fact, the rule is often adhered to not only by Western observers, but also pro-Kremlin people as well. After all, Russian chauvinists shudder at the idea that their country, so unique, esoteric, and utterly mysterious, could ever be compared to another nation at any point in history.

Well guess what- someone actually ventured to break the cycle, and how! In this article, Sumantra Maitra dares to compare Putin to Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor of India. You may disagree with the analysis, but they deserve credit for daring to suggest that no, Russia is not so ridiculously unique that we can’t find better explanations by looking at other historical precedents in other countries. Personally I’ve always found Putin to be more of a Mobutu than a Russian Tsar or Soviet premier.

Sometimes I wonder how people would react if we applied this rule to other countries, specifically Western European nations, the UK, or the United States. You say Trump is like Hitler or Mussolini? Preposterous! Go find an American analog. Off the top of my head I’d say George Lincoln Rockwell, assuming you’re married to the whole Nazi comparison. Comparison that liken the American experience in Afghanistan to the Soviet one? Impossible! You must choose something American, like the Seminole Wars. It doesn’t matter how different these situations actually are, all analysis of American politics must be based on American history and no other country is comparable!

I hope I’m not a lone voice suggesting that firstly, not all analysis of Russia should be based on finding alleged parallels in Russian history, and secondly, comparisons should be based on what really fits, not what happens to be the closest historical parallel in Russia’s history. Some might claim that since the Kremlin leadership seems to have a similar worldview, whereby history is used to explain every action, it makes sense to use the same technique. That’s credible for sure, but to be fair the historical knowledge of Putin, Lavrov, and other assorted Kremlin cronies is horribly incomplete. They focus on “Russian” victories of the past while ignoring the key defeats, and especially the reasons for those defeats. If observers do the same, I think there’s a danger that their analysis will inevitably suffer as the whole practice starts to resemble a trivia contest.

So just a humble suggestion- maybe it’s time for some journalists and analysts to follow in the footsteps of Maitra and expand their horizons, looking for parallels outside the narrow focus of Russian history.

Selective skepticism

Facebook has a weird “related” stories function when people share news stories. While the original story your “friend” shared might be from a reputable source, the recommended links almost always seem to be from conspiracy nut sites. Recently I saw what looked like a rather idiotic link and clicked on it.

The article is basically a conspiracy theory about a car bomb attack in Syria which apparently left some Russian military personnel dead. Apparently some folks are saying the Russian KIA were generals, but I doubt it. In any case, the conspiracy article claims that “dozens of Russian generals” were killed by a US missile. It also claims, with no evidence whatsoever, that Putin was “supposed to be” at this base, which is reminiscent of the initial MH17 conspiracy theory that Ukraine shot the airliner down believing it to be Putin’s plane.

What evidence do they provide? Well this is from the ridiculously short “article:”

” Even though camera footage made it appear like a car bomb, it’s suspicious because how could a huge bomb like that get into a secured Russian Base without it being noticed?”

Conspiracy theorist logic at its finest, folks. Confronted with actual video evidence, they say that the footage “made it appear like a car bomb.”  And it’s suspicious because the author, arguing from ignorance, cannot figure out how they could get the bomb into the Russian base. Then it’s followed up with a video rant from a man who would make an excellent “political analyst” on RT.

Obviously the story is bullshit. There are stories online about “US missiles” killing Russian military personnel, but this is about front-line action involving US-made TOW missiles. So why am I highlighting it at all?

Well you see, Russian state media loves conspiracy theories. Ukraine supposedly shot down MH17 with a Buk, an Su-25, and Su-27, and they had a bomb on board just for good measure. They were using American mercenaries, then Polish mercenaries, then African mercenaries, and finally, they started using Turkish mercenaries, conveniently right after Turkey shot down an Su-24 over Syria. And of course the bloodthirsty Nazi junta army is slaughtering civilians left and right in the Donbas, even shelling people on their own side! Ever notice anything missing though?

In the Kremlin narrative, “NATO” legions always inflict civilian casualties, even against their own populations in “false flag” attacks. But what you don’t see are defeats inflicted on the Russian military or its proxies. Instead their successes are always inflated, often to laughable extremes. ISIS was devastated in 24 hours. Ukraine lost 3,000 armored vehicles in the Debaltseve (this is more than the entire Ukrainian army had at the time, and keep in mind the rebels claim all their armor was captured from Ukrainian motor pools), an Su-24 unleashed some kind of EMP on a US ship and shut down its electronics. Of course in real life things are a bit different. For one thing, when American made technology met the Su-24 it blew the latter out of the sky. Russian technology has proven just as vulnerable on the battlefield as any other nation’s arms.

So when I saw this story I began to wonder if the Russian state media or sites like Fort Russ and Russia Insider would cover it. I mean sure, it’s a great conspiracy theory if you want to claim the US is deliberately trying to sabotage Russia, right? Well no. The story tells us that the US can wipe out a dozen Russian generals in “their” base, in a hostile country, and basically get away with it since Putin didn’t have a word to say about it in spite of supposedly being a target for assassination.

For those reasons, you can be the pro-Kremlin expats and staff writers will suddenly turn into critically thinking skeptics. They may point out that the base in question was actually under Syrian control, whether that was actually the case or not. They could suggest that cars enter and exit the base all the time, and the security staff are too overworked to thoroughly search each car. They might claim the rebels found a turncoat on the inside. Whatever the excuse, I doubt there’s any pro-Kremlin hack out there who wants to openly suggest that the US can wipe out dozens of Russian generals at a time without any repercussions whatsoever. Alright, to be fair, you can no doubt find plenty of such people who insist that the CIA/SBU/Praviy Sektor was able to assassinate a Russian political figure on a bridge just outside the Kremlin and totally get away with it, but this only points to the total incompetence of a number of Russian security agencies. You can do that, but you mustn’t ever suggest the same about Russia’s military.

Of course this wouldn’t be the only conspiracy theory that turns pro-Kremlin people into temporary skeptics. The 1999 apartment bombings give us another such example (to be sure, I’ve never been really convinced about the false flag explanation myself). They’d probably even attack this more detailed explanation, which apparently saddles Yeltsin and Berezovsky with a lot of the blame for masterminding the attacks. There was also a false flag theory about MH17 that said the Russians deliberately shot it down thinking it was an Aeroflot flight to Larnaka, Cyrpus. How much you want to bet you can turn the usual 9/11 truthers into rational thinkers on a dime with that little theory?

In truth this is a funny thing about all conspiracy theorists. There are so many conspiracy theories often backing different narratives. I’ve often noticed that backers of a particular theory tend not to argue against one another regardless of political alignment, the alleged culprit (e.g. Zionists vs. Illuminati), or even differing explanations (e.g. bombs planted in towers before 9/11 vs. towers built with explosives pre-planted). Generally you can choose any theory you like so long as it’s not “the official story.”

Of course conflict is inevitable at some point, because people who adhere to such theories typically have their own political agenda. The neo-Nazis and fellow travelers who believe these conspiracies are aimed at advancing the Zionist, Cultural Marxist agenda will inevitably clash with the vulgar left-wing populists who believe in hidden Nazi conspiracies that go back to Operation Paperclip. A Ukrainian, Baltic, or Polish conspiracy theorists may buy into the same Western conspiracy theories about Cultural Marxists, but they’re going to be more inclined to believe anti-Russian conspiracy theories rather than pro-Kremlin ones.

Unfortunately I don’t see much progress in the direction of critical thinking and combating conspiracy theories. If anything it seems things are moving in the opposite direction. A lot of think tank types like to blame this on the Russian media offensive, but in reality even America alone is so adept at producing conspiratorial bullshit that a lot of the Russian media, both foreign and Russian-language, relies on Western sources for many of their conspiracy ideas. The subject of this post is an example of a home-grown conspiracy theory that the Russians probably won’t touch.

As for solutions? Well I’ve said before that teaching critical thinking makes a lot of people nervous, because the same logic you can use to take down a conspiracy theory can also take down more “respectable,” mainstream theories on economics, society, crime, and politics. Some people actually explicitly oppose the teaching of critical thinking.

One thing I can recommend is for people to stop referring to conspiratorial thinking as “crazy.” Yes, it is true that there are many conspiracy adherents who are actually certifiably mentally ill, but if this kind of thinking were limited to such people it would never be so prevalent in mainstream society. These theories are in fact simple explanations for complicated issues, they smooth over contradictions that are hard comprehend and fill in the gaps left by ignorance about the world. On the latter point, better history education would be a major step forward. More education on how the government works would be useful too.

Another possible solution is to take some advice from Cracked.com and examine the influence of pop culture on our perceptions. Movies influence behavior, and movies where heroes explore vast conspiracies and attain esoteric knowledge have a major impact. Most readers have probably heard something about the so-called “Red Pill” community, but in fact The Matrix was inspiring conspiracy theory peddlers almost from the time of the theatrical release. Using the movie as an analogy, con-men like David Icke and Alex Jones offer their marks a way to feel like a real-life Neo, taking the red pill, waking up in the real world, and then reentering “the Matrix” with superior knowledge than that of the mindless drones around them.

It reality of course, this is bullshit. In virtually every debate with a conspiracy theorist I’ve found that they actually possess less knowledge, sometimes no knowledge, about the subject they’re discussing. If it’s 9/11 they’ll incorrectly quote “the official story,” getting the most basic details wrong. Maidan conspiracy theorists don’t seem to know when Maidan started, nor do they know anything about the parties involved or the internal conflicts within the movement. Basic chronology tends to be a major problem.

What can be done about that? Well I think that burden falls on the media. Unfortunately very few people seem to have any idea how the news is made. What is more, they don’t seem to know why the news looks the way it does. Lastly, a lot of news coverage is oversimplified, and it also wouldn’t hurt if news outlets stuck with a story a bit longer, so that people get the most basic details about a story.

I also know from personal experience how difficult journalism can be, but it also might be helpful for journalists to cover angles of major stories that aren’t getting a lot of attention. This way it would be harder to make allegations of a deliberate cover-up, or at least those allegations would look that much more stupid. In this era of “information war,” failure to cover certain topics effectively cedes the battlefield to other actors, who fill in those gaps with their own narratives.

Of course there’s one thing we cannot help, and we may just have to basically evolve as a species in order to overcome this obstacle. Here I’m referring to the deluge of information we face on a daily basis. It’s quite possible that the prevalence of conspiratorial narratives is in some part a natural reaction to being overwhelmed by information our ancestors never had access to. Not only are we hearing about global news stories, but we’re hearing about them constantly, from the TV, the radio, newspapers, magazines, and our mobile phones. When millions of otherwise educated people have zero experience in the Middle East (or anywhere outside their country in many cases), and have never read any serious examination of the politics of radical Islamic terrorism, how are they to understand that Al Qaeda and ISIS are mortal enemies? With their poor historical knowledge about the history of US involvement in Afghanistan and a righteous distaste for US policy in Iraq, is it not a lot easier to believe that the US created both groups and lump this into a larger conspiracy theory?

That’s what it’s all about- what is easier. Make the truth easier to comprehend than the convoluted conspiracy theories, and it will probably go a long way toward putting con men like Alex Jones out of business.

Trumpapalooza

So today’s one of those days when I get to satisfy the Kremlin-loving “Why don’t you write about THE WEST?!” crowd. Yes, folks, America is in deep shit now, and it’s probably going to get worse. What Russians on all points of the political spectrum need to understand is that while key differences between the current Russian system and American democracy have major impact on society and living standards, this in no way means the American system is vastly superior, nor is it invulnerable to decay and degeneration. No, you’re not going to see me endorse the “America’s gonna collapse” nonsense, but anyone living below the minimum democracy line needs to understand that Americans are walking a fine line themselves.

Alright then. Trump. What more can I say about him? I don’t much feel like going into a long dialectical polemic and repeating what others have said on the matter. Instead I’d like to expose the reader to some of the best and worst I’ve seen on the topic. Why don’t we start with the worst?

Is Trump a sleeper agent for Vladimir Putin? Short answer: No. Longer answer: No, what the hell is wrong with you? Slightly longer answer here if you’re up for it.

Seriously, this is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard. First of all, yes, I’m aware of the supposed “mutual admiration” between Trump and Putin. And yes, I’m aware that Kremlin ideologist (though he’s been cast under the bus in recent years) Aleksandr Dugin recently said some kind words for Trump. All this shows, however, is how little the Kremlin understands American politics and American culture.

First of all, I hate to dismay the “neocons” out there, but the far right has been a part of American and European politics for decades. During the Cold War it was nurtured by NATO intelligence services, but that’s another story entirely (and one worth reading). Putin himself embraced the far right when it was useful to him mainly because far right ideas were widespread in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Far right admiration for Russia pre-dates Putin, and in some cases it actually pre-dates the fall of the Soviet Union. The only difference when it comes to Putin’s regime is that it is actually conscious of the admiration far-rightists have for Russia, and it’s willing to exploit this. These groups and organizations, for a myriad of different reasons, project their ideals onto Russia and the Kremlin is more than happy to let them do so.

So what about Trump and this fear that he will embrace Putin? Anyone living in America, inundated with news about Trump, ought to know better. This is a guy who lashes out at the slightest provocation. He’s the type of guy who can be goaded into a fight by someone asking: “Hey are you gonna let them say that to you?!”  With this in mind, imagine Trump in the White House (sorry for the cold chill in your spine) for a minute. Do you seriously think Putin and his foreign language media are going to stop shit-talking the United States at every turn? If you’re not sure, ask yourself  whether Russia’s suddenly going to become a thriving economic powerhouse with rising living standards and an end to endemic corruption come 20 January 2017. Since the answer is obviously no, you can rest assured that the shit-talking will continue and all the anti-Obama rhetoric will inevitably be replaced by anti-Trump rhetoric. “Obama ChMO” will turn to “Tramp ChMO” (yes, in Russian Trump is spelled “Tramp” and that is a beautiful thing).

When you get one of these expat “immigrants” who get a career, official titles, and loads of attention by cheerleading for Putin, the kind of anti-American rhetoric you get from RT or Sputnik news doesn’t matter. “Oh yes Ma’am, Miss Margarita! I’m an American dissident! I had to escape that place it was so bad! It’s so much better here, and I know I have Mr. Putin to thank for that! I’ll say anything you want Miss Margarita, if you just keep paying me 200,000 rubles a month to write about how terrible America is!”

Trump on the other hand doesn’t owe shit to Putin, and like I said, he bristles with hatred at the slightest criticism. As such when the Kremlin does what it always does, he’s going to lash out and it’s going to be bad. I’m not saying he’s going to launch World War III, but rest assured his response will not only make relations even worse, but it will also almost certainly involve long, stereotype-laden rants in which he insinuates that Russians are “Asiatic savages” with “Mongol blood.” There might be something about the need for “living space” and the dangers of “blood poisoning” in a contiguous land empire.

So no, not only is Trump not Putin’s “sleeper agent,” but he would never get along with Putin for the same reason why Putin can’t get along with Turkish president Erdoğan- all three are megalomaniacal dickheads. Trump’s wannabe tough-guy base isn’t going to stand for him knuckling under to Putin no matter how much they admire the Russian president.

Moving on, I want to highlight two must-read articles on the Trump phenomenon, both by former eXile writer Matt Taibbi. The first is about the motives of Trump’s supporters, while the second is about the broader problem of unreality in American society. I’d like to give my take on both topics, but before doing so I should point out that Cracked.com has an article and a podcast that also provide some vital insight into Trump’s political success.

First my take on Trump’s popularity and the motives of his supporters. I do have some unique insight into conservative, even extreme right-wing politics because well, I was brought up in them. What regrets I have about that are offset by the advantage of having personal insight into the minds of right-wingers because I can see the world through their eyes. And while I can pontificate for hours about what motivates these people to support Trump, I’ll leave that to Taibbi and say that it seems a lot of the GOP base got fed up with the bait and switch.

To explain what I mean, come with me back to the Clinton era. The Culture Wars were in full swing. In more “respectable” Republican circles, Clinton was an irresponsible “tax and spend” liberal. In the world I was growing up in, he was much worse. He was a drug kingpin with multiple murders attributed to his illicit side business while he was governor of Arkansas. His wife was a pagan who practiced witchcraft. In general the rhetoric might not have reached the furor that it did under the MUSLIM MARXIST FASCIST KENYAN ALINSKY-TRAINED COMMUNITY ORGANIZER/USURPER, better known as Barack Obama, but it could reach hysterical heights even in the mainstream. For example, Rush Limbaugh post 1992 started using the phrase “America held hostage,” because you know, that’s what happens when people vote in a free election for a party you don’t like.

Yet all the folks who believed they were being held hostage by the socialist weed-smoking, ass-grabbing Marxist and his pagan, Gaia-worshiping wife were up for a disappointment in 1996. The Republicans nominated Bob Dole. Assuming you’re American, after reading that you probably thought: “Oh yeah. Bob Dole. Whatever happened to that guy? Is he still alive?” The answer is yes, he is still alive, but when it comes to Dole most people will probably only recall that he had a tendency to refer to himself in the third person and that’s about it. His presidential run will probably be remembered only for the Simpsons episode it was featured in.

Now let’s skip forward to 2012. America isn’t just being held hostage, it is on the precipice of the tribulation the conservative pundits had been warning us about for years. Any day Obama could hold the fateful meeting, whereby an executive order is handed down to go out and arrest Christian ministers, forcibly marry white Christian males to gay foreign men of questionable visa status, and of course, confiscate everyone’s precious guns. There’s just one chance to avert this disaster and steer America off of the path to a politically correct, Islamofascistomarxist dystopia- vote for a Tea Party Republican and pray Obama does’t try to cling to office by unleashing his Acorn thugs (*wink*) and urban gangs (*WINK!* *WINK!*), thus causing a civil war.

And who did the Republicans get as their only shot in 2012? Mitt Romney, this stiff, obviously rich guy from Massachusetts, of all places. Not only that, but he was Mormon, and while they might not always come out and say it, evangelical Christian fundamentalists hate them some Mormons. Yes, I skipped 2008 and McCain, but remember that McCain was running before the MUSLIM KENYAN ANTI-COLONIAL ALINSKY-TRAINED USURPER had moved into the White House and wrecked America, according to the conservative talking heads. Even if you want to go that route, McCain was no favorite of the radical right-wingers, be they Christian fundamentalists, anti-immigration nativists, or people who believe Obama is an “Arab.”

Oh you done fucked up there, son. What were you thinking, correcting a conservative woman’s blatantly false belief. All opinions have merit! 

Imagine for a moment how it must feel when you’re one of these people whose blood is brought to the boiling point every day by talk radio show hosts, chain emails, and Fox News, and then when it comes time to exercise the one little thing you can do to stop this incessant onslaught of the Marxist Nazi Muslim Gay horde, you’re offered this “moderate,” this “Republican in Name Only,” who drones on about “keeping America strong” and lowering taxes to help small businesses. Sure, conservative voters like these things, but what tax cut is going to liberate America from the Nazi death panels of Obamacare?! How can they be sure that Obama’s not going to settle 50,000 military age Muslim males from Syria in their small Midwestern town? Sure, the military and war are awesome, but could Bush’s war in Iraq have weakened the country so that it is unable to put up a good fight at the impending battle of Armageddon, as foretold in Revelation?

This is where Trump comes in. It’s not just because he’s a political outsider. It’s because he’s basically like a right-wing talk radio show host you can actually vote for. While run-of-the-mill GOP candidates talk about “immigration reform,” Trump sounds like the local AM radio guy who says “build a wall!” These people don’t want to see politicians acting respectable and having a gentlemanly campaign. They want to see attacks, and not the sneaky “Swift boat,” plausibly deniable ones.

And here’s the best part- conservative Republicans have no one to blame for this but themselves. For roughly two decades they’ve been playing the Culture Wars card. They went all in on a demographic that wasn’t rational, and they massaged and nurtured that demographic so that their way of thinking became the norm. Now, to borrow a metaphor from Karl Marx, they are like a necromancer who has lost control of the spirits they have conjured into existence.

As Taibbi puts it, these people weren’t really interested in “conservative values.” There might have been some overlap, but many of these people got on board because the Republicans kept harping on some issue that resonated with them. Obsessed with guns? We’ll protect your precious guns! Hate abortion! We do too! Now that we have your attention, safety regulations and environmental regulations are bad! In for a penny, in for a pound. Of course its the latter “values” that the Republican establishment really cares about, and it seems that after so many years of pulling this trick, they’ve lost the ability to see politics from their voters’ point of view. Mr. and Mrs. Conservative voter really are more concerned about “terrurists” and “illegals,” not the “dangers” of net neutrality. they might have been so soured on the idea of “handouts” that they’re not too enthusiastic about subsidies for corn growers either. And by God they supported the troops, but Iraq’s just such a mess today, ain’t it?

If we were to compare this to Russia, Putin has a similar problem.For a long time he’s often relied on a strategy whereby he is surrounded by supposedly more radical figures waiting in the wings. Whether to Western leaders or his own people the message is the same- “Sure, I might be bad, but there are others far worse than me, and only I can keep them in check!” Of course this creates a problem for Putin, because his regime needs to continuously generate these more radical movements and leaders. What is more, it must continually “betray” them in order to maintain the fiction that Putin is the moderate keeping the loonies at bay. It can’t be lost on someone in the administration that had there been some kind of fair presidential election in Russia in 2014 or 2015, Putin might have lost to some more imperialistic figure who promised to finish off Ukraine once and for all.

But while we’re making comparisons to Russia it’s a good time to segue into my take on Taibbi’s other article, about the rise of unreality in American society. In that article, he demonstrates how what seems to be a growing portion of Americans apparently have no concern as to whether their beliefs are in line with material reality. Taibbi points out how when journalists fact check and refute certain politicians’ claims beyond all debate, the new normal reaction is to simply double down on the claim and attack the journalist. Trump’s claims about Muslims in New Jersey dancing and celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

This should be cause for great concern. All talk about the Russian propaganda machine is a waste of time if something isn’t done to correct this trend in American politics and the media. This is how America transforms itself into Putin’s Russia- when people stop caring whether things are real or not.

Just to give one example, I was recently attacked for pointing out that the old story about anti-Vietnam War protesters spitting on returning veterans at airports was a myth, essentially an urban legend that picked up popularity thanks to pop culture and a shitload of phony Vietnam vets. I pointed out that there are no documented cases of this happening anywhere, and the behavior goes against everything we know about the anti-war movement. My detractor claimed that just because something wasn’t documented doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Sure, fair enough, that is very true. But the problem with history is that we base it mostly on what is documented, and the problem is that nobody ever seems able to nail down this story. It doesn’t fit the documented ideology and behavior of anti-war protesters, nor are there any police reports describing an altercation where a returning vet got violent after being spit on by a dirty hippie (come on, what are the odds of a veteran marine in 1969 returning from a combat tour in Vietnam and then just calmly moving on after being spit on by hippies?). The problem with my opponent there is that he forgets that in situations like this, the default position should be disbelief.

I realize the solution isn’t easy. I also realize that many people don’t want that solution, because critical thinking tends to be harmful for certain economic theories favored by the ruling class, as well as historical narratives that justify them. But the alternative to teaching critical thinking at the youngest age possible is almost certainly going to be far worse. People have to be made aware that failing to properly understand skepticism and critical thinking is an existential threat. The more false things you believe, the lower your quality of life will be. You will waste money on things that don’t help you, or even harm you. You will be angry upset about things that aren’t even happening, while failing to do anything about real problems. No one I know of put this better than the skeptic extraordinaire James Randi, in responding a writer who suggested that belief in the paranormal and supernatural is nothing but harmless fun:

“That writer never saw the distraught faces of parents whose children were caught up in some stupid cult that promises miracles. He never faced a man whose life savings had gone down the drain because a curse had to be lifted. He never held the hand of a woman at a dark seance who expected her loved one to come back to her as promised by a swindler who fed on her belief in nonsense. “Nothing is funnier…?” Tell that to the academics who lost their credibility by accepting the nonsense about telepathy that came out of the Stanford Research Institute. “The machine gunning of butterflies?” Explain that to those who spent their time and money trying to float around in the air because a guru said they could. Are the “dangers of mass popular delusion” not “so menacing?” Mister, go dig up one of the 950 corpses of those who died in Guyana and shout in its face that Reverend Jim Jones was not dangerous. “What has happened to their funny-bones?” That deserves an answer. Our collective sense of humor has been dulled by the grief, frustration, and anger that comes of preaching in the wildnerness. The Star, apparently, would like that wilderness to continue to be empty of rational forces. I hope they enjoyed their big laugh.” 

“What’s the harm” indeed, Mr. Randi. But while Randi would apply his skepticism to claims of the paranormal, supernatural, and pseudo-scientific, the fields of history and politics are largely ignored. As Taibbi points out, America seems to have reached a point where grown adults, people capable of owning guns, operating vehicles and computer technology, and paying off a mortgage, seem to have trouble remembering major historical events that happened in their lifetime, sometimes just a few years back.

This is a problem, a huge problem. Russia is a country which could have been a leading emerging market by this time had it not been for the widespread bullshit and acceptance of that bullshit by the populace. People bought into tales about Russian historical greatness without ever looking at the cautionary lessons each one contained. People acquiesced to supporting a group of cronies who rob them blind and piss away their nation’s future all because they’d bought into the myth that NATO was surrounding and strangling their nation. This, while the US was actually removing troops from Europe and closing base after base. Young men went off to fight and kill in the Donbas because they saw stories about Ukrainian Nazis crucifying children. And what was the “journalist’s” response when that story was debunked? That it was our responsibility to prove it didn’t happen. I’m sorry but that’s totally backwards, and as a result of this disdain for basic logic, thousands of people are dead with many more wounded and even more displaced inside and outside of Ukraine.

What does the future hold for America when people can’t remember or even don’t care whether the invasion of Iraq was a smashing success or an unmitigated disaster (Psst! It’s the latter)? How is America going to remain competitive economically when the vast majority of its citizens not only have almost no understanding of basic science, but are seemingly proud of their ignorance? Could Americans vote for someone even worse than Trump so long as he tells them that he can bring back a Golden Age that never existed? It’s times like these I feel like I’m writing to Americans from the future.

 

Alexei Kovalev: Why I’ve got no love for Margarita Simonyan

 

Translated from the original by Jim Kovpak

Frequent readers have no doubt noticed my, shall we say, “special” feelings toward Russia Today (RT) and MIA Rossiya Segodnya chief editor Margarita Simonyan. I’ve decided that it’s finally time to explain them in more detail, and frankly I just wanted to get it off my chest.

First I must say thanks to Margarita. I am sincerely grateful to her, because she (or more accurately her deputy) freed me from a difficult dilemma. I could remain in a good position within my agency (I was head of a department within RIA), but under her direction- not a good trade-off. Or I could leave with pride, slamming the door on my way out.  I never had to make that choice. As soon as Margarita was firmly established as the head of a new agency (and consequently, as my boss) in early 2014, she immediately fired nearly all of the old management, including myself. To be sure we were not formally dismissed, but rather our contracts were not renewed after all RIA employees had been cut following the decision of the liquidation commission. But I’ll spare the reader the technical details.

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It all happened very calmly, prosaic even.  One day in April of 2014 I come to work in the orange newsroom on the second floor of a building on Zubovsky boulevard, and there sitting in the office of my now-former boss was one of Simonyan’s deputies. I say hello, introduce myself, explain that my contract has expired, and I ask what we’re going to do about it. They tell me there is nothing to do; they have no intention of renewing my contract. There is no other way. Thank you and goodbye. Then as is typically the case when employees are dismissed, I went through the clearance procedures, got all the necessary signatures, and received my severance compensation according to the labor code.

In short I have no claims against Margarita Simonyan or her subordinates, nor do I have any tales of personal vengeance (this does not mean however, that other ex-employees of RIA don’t, as I have heard. Perhaps I was just lucky). And dear readers, I must say I really abhor these personal attacks on Margarita, about what she eats or whom she allegedly sleeps with. What disgusts me the most are the xenophobic attacks directed against her nationality. I don’t care how much she gets paid, how she spends her personal money, or whose children she allegedly bears. And all these stupid jokes about beavers have been done to death. This beaver has become an obsession to some of you out there. I also love cooking and am no stranger to culinary experimentation. I’d try eating beaver meat and I don’t see any joke in this.

So here’s what I really don’t like and in fact despise about Margarita Simonyan- her duplicity, hypocrisy, and constant lying. Margarita is an extremely intelligent person with a well-tuned moral compass. The only pity is that she shows this in all the wrong ways. In every interview Margarita loves to lecture about journalistic ethics, addressing both her Russian colleagues and Western counterparts. The problem is that all her moral preaching would best be applied to herself. Besides that, she’s continuously lying. I’ve already written so much about that and still she continues to lie. It’s almost like some kind of disorder. Moreover I can perfectly see that Margarita or at least her employees have read all of this. Links from Noodle Remover routinely go through RT corporate email. For every post I can see where visitors are coming from.

I know that she’s lying; she knows that I know, and so on. And yet it goes on as though nothing has happened. Take any of her interviews, TV appearances, or commentary- wherever you look you’re sure to find a ton of lies so primitive that they can be easily refuted within a few minutes search on Google. Here’s a fresh example that illustrates what I’m referring to.

Margarita went on the program “The Right to Know” on TVC (aired 6 February), and at 24:48 she said the following:

“We do what is interesting for the audience. Here’s an example: when the Occupy Wall Street protest started, we were the first to tell people in the States about it. For two weeks even the key news agencies were silent about this.”

 

I honestly don’t know how she manages to pull this off every time. A simple search on Google news for the two weeks following the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in New York reveals plenty of coverage of the event from all the major US and international publications. This is directly from the first day, 17 September 2011, when the first protesters appeared in New York’s Zucotti park:

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Here we have an example from the Fox News channel, which Margarita loves to contrast to RT. There are photographs from the Associated Press:

 

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Are those not “key news agencies?”

Here’s RT’s own page from the first day of Occupy. Not a word about the protests.

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And these examples were just from one broadcast. Again, we’re talking about lies which can be easily refuted by a simple internet search. Here’s something I found entertaining when I was sitting on the second floor of the building on Zubovsky boulevard and Margarita was on the fifth:

“If the US media coverage of Manning were at least 10% of their coverage about our Pussy Riot, I’d believe in democracy.”

“Margarita, you can’t do anything without this, can you? NYT: Bradley Manning: 3,520 results. Pussy Riot: 2,170 Results.”

 

“A British blog has published research on why RT is beating the BBC. I will tweet a few quotes.”

“Here’s the BBC’s coverage from the first day of Occupy London. Who beat whom?”

You get the idea. I have a whole collection of these. It all ended when she blocked me on Twitter (and then fired me- ha ha!).

banned

Then there was the time when Margarita wrote a column complaining about the British communications regulator Ofcom:

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“There are direct threats to revoke our license. Recently we have had nine warnings from the British media regulator. They do not like us at all. I would understand if they found we had broadcast actual lies, incorrect facts, or something concretely wrong. But they didn’t find any of that. Indeed they don’t have to. It’s enough for them to accuse us of lacking objectivity. For example, in the case of Ukraine, from Ofcom’s point of view our television channel “did not adequately reflect the position of the provisional government in Ukraine.” Or in the case with our coverage of Libya, there was an accusation that NATO’s point of view was not presented. As if the BBC ever “adequately reflects” the Kremlin’s point of view on anything.”

“I would understand if they found we had broadcast actual lies, incorrect facts, or something concretely wrong. But they didn’t find any of that.” What do you take us for, Margarita? Not only did they find brazen lies, but there was even the modern blood libel of the so-called “crucified boy.” RT itself admitted as much when they deleted the episode of Truthseeker which contained the story from their site. Here is the relevant quote from the Ofcom newsletter, in which the claims against this (and several other episodes) can be found, along with RT’s reaction.

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“Horrific and wild claims” – this, among other things, and the title “Eyewitnesses: KIEV ARMY LITERALLY crucify babies in captured towns and forced their mother to watch” (i.e. the very same “crucified boy” story from First Channel).

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 Caught in a lie, they were made to remove it and ordered to issue an on-air retraction. They still haven’t done the latter, meaning that Ofcom’s complaints have the status of “upheld,” meaning they are still active. This, according to Margarita, means that the British regulator just “doesn’t like” RT at all.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that RT lied, Margarita went and lied to RBK about the incident in an interview, where she claimed the story had never been aired.

Interviewer- How does the situation with the sanctions and Ukraine influence the development of RT and Rossiya Segodnya?

Simonyan- On the whole, the situation in the mass media does influence our development. I don’t need to mention, perhaps, the fact that there isn’t one significant Western media outlet that hasn’t written us off as scoundrels. Anyone writes anything about us, and then it goes down in print and the rest reprint it. The biggest problem is that 99% of the mass media lies. For example, Anne Applebaum wrote about RT and said that this is the mass media that aired the story about the crucified boy. But we didn’t have any crucified boy!

Margarita loves to attack the “mainstream media,” hypocritically accusing them of lying. Her favorite example is the story of how the New York Times actually provoked the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This story was based on the fact that in 2002-2003 the paper put out a lot of material which supported the claim that Saddam Hussein had a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. These articles were later cited by Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice as a casus belli for the invasion, yet it was later revealed that much of this material had come from unreliable sources- for example, the biased founder of the anti-Hussein Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi.

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What Margarita is silent about is the fact that the New York Times has admitted their mistakes in this matter numerous times (on their site there is a whole section dedicated to refuting their earlier articles about Iraq), the reporter who wrote those articles was fired after the scandal in spite of the fact that she was a Pulitzer prize laureate, and still the New York Times’ general reputation was irreparably harmed by the incident. And what about RT and the “crucified boy?”  Simonyan is simply lying, and the host of the Truthseeker program, Daniel Bushell, is still quietly working at RT.

In principle, a pathologically lying journalist is not a unique phenomenon. We’ve encountered them long before Margarita came along. There are several famous, or infamous stories such as that of Jayson Blair, a reporter for the New York Times, and Stephen Glass from The New Republic, who began with inventing small details and then ended up fabricating entire stories and interviews with non-existent people. If you watched the acclaimed TV series The Wire, you might remember that we meet such a character in the final season. The collective image of the reporter is that he is a resourceful liar.

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The Wire, HBO

The moral of that story, of course, is that such cases represent a pathology, and they are used as a negative example of how not to be a reporter. And of course in the history of journalism there doesn’t seem to be a single known case where a pathological liar was the head of a country’s largest news outlet.

This is the most horrific thing about this situation. RIA used to have a reputation not only in Russia or the Soviet Union, but in fact the whole world, for being one of the most reliable sources of information. This reputation was built up over a whole decade. Then Margarita, a pathological liar, came to RIA and it began to assault audiences with the most outlandish, primitive nonsense, “hanging noodles on your ears” as the Russian colloquialism goes. The problem is that RIA is not only the main source of information for its own audience, but also for other publications as well. If RIA publishes something, then it’s true, and one can publish their own news citing them as the source. The main news service of a country couldn’t be lying, could they? Oh wait…

***

Here’s another example of duplicity- Margarita simply idolized Julian Assange. She calls him her friend, he had his own TV show on RT, and almost every day the channel reports on virtually every step taken by this courageous fighter against the American intelligence community in the name of freedom of information. It leads to curiosities such as this:

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“A crowd waits for Julian Assange to emerge from the Ecuadorian embassy in London”

The tweet with this photo and the headline about the “crowd” was later removed, but the message was clear- Assange is a hero if not an idol. However, if Assange were just an ordinary employee of RT and not a star personality and a personal friend of the chief editor, and he had tried to tell the world what goes on behind the scenes at the TV network, he would have received the following letter from the management:

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“Colleagues!                                    

I want to direct your attention to the mandatory rules of proper behavior on social media. I remind you that every one of us has signed a labor contract and a confidentiality agreement. In accordance with both of these you do not have the right to distribute or discuss information about your work with the channel or co-workers in open sources during the time you are employed by the channel and for the three years after you leave. Any social network, regardless of the type of account (e.g. one with highly restricted access), is considered to be an open source.

We have been forced to enact such policies after numerous occasions when posts from employees were used by malicious people in order to spread lies about RT and those who work there.”

 

All employees at RT are forced to sign something called the “non-disparagement agreement.” This means that they are not only obligated to refrain from discussing the channel while they work there, but up to three years after they leave. It’s interesting to think about what Julian Assange would have to say about this. And there is something to talk about. Paranoia reigns at RT, where denouncing and intimidating dissidents is encouraged. This is what I’ve been told by one of a few former employees who spoke to me on the condition that they remain anonymous:

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“The silence is easy to explain. Employees who write about forbidden topics, even under invented names, are later called in for a discussion about values. I personally know one of these people. Margarita Simonyan loves Assange, who sits in London and slings mud at America, scoring points for RT. But she does not tolerate Assanges in her ranks. So you must understand that you are talking to people that have the basement of the Lyubyanka looming before them.”

Julian Assange, who regularly appears on the channel, might be curious to find out that Russia Today is one of the most opaque media outlets in the world. The fact is that most of the state media in Russia, such as “MIA Rossiya Segodnya,” VGTRK, and others are legally classified as Federal State Unitary Enterprises (FGUP in Russian). Therefore they regularly complete and detailed accounts on their activities. All this data is publicly available- you can find out how they spend each and every kopek they get from the Ministry of Finance under the heading “Mass Media.”

Russia Today is a different case. The owner of RT is an ANO, “Autonomous Non-commercial Organization” i.e. a non-profit or charitable organization, called TV-Novosti (news). Here’s what kind of subsidies the richest non-profit organization in Russia receives:

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Where any of this money goes is utterly incomprehensible. How much, for example, was spent on the luxurious RT office in London, the one with a view of Big Ben? Nobody knows. But these are our taxes. After much head-butting against the Ministry of Justice, to whom all Russian non-profit organizations including TV-Novosti must report, lawyers from “Team 29” managed to get some kind of report from RT, but it looks like some kind of ambiguous mockery. The report on the expenditure of 11 billion rubles is just one page with two lines:

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1.1.1 Founding and broadcasting for television channels in English, Arabic, and Spanish. 1.1.2 Founding and broadcasting of a television channel in the French language

Such a report to the Ministry of Finance from any other non-profit organization in Russia would have earned them a fine, but Margarita got away with it. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars which belong to us are cast into a bottomless pit which requires more and more. Margarita constantly moans about how most of her expenses are in foreign currency, and the dollar is growing so please give more. But what she does with that money she does not want to tell us for some reason. If only some story about some shadowy Israeli attorney and millions of dollars deposited in Luxemburg bank accounts would leak out. If only there were some Assange or Snowden to tell us the whole story. But Assange is a hero only on the air at RT, and behind the scenes of the network Margarita wages a ruthless struggle against Assanges.

***

This is why I don’t like Margarita Simonyan. It was not because she fired me; as I mentioned in the beginning I was actually grateful to her for that. It is because she is a pathologically lying, dishonest, and duplicitous person who is a disgrace to the profession of journalism and who is destroying the once-great reputation of the best news organization for which I was proud to work.

About the author- Alexei Kovalev was head of InoSMI for RIA-Novosti before the latter was liquidated in 2014. He currently heads up the project Noodle Remover, which scrutinizes propaganda and bad journalistic practices in the Russian media. 

Karma

Did you hear about the fanatical woman who decapitated a four year old? No, no, not in Ukraine! In Moscow. Yes, this actually happened, and it is every bit as horrifying as it sounds. Of course if it had happened in Ukraine, the Russian state media would be all over it. Hell, they’d be all over the story if it never actually took place outside the imagination of some random “Donetsk People’s Republic” official’s imagination. But although Russian state media often isn’t shy about sensational crime stories, they were silent on this one yesterday.

This morning an explanation has emerged as to why the state news agencies kept silent about the barbaric crime of this obviously deranged individual. According to RBK, one motivating factor for not airing the story was the fear inciting ethnic hatred among the viewers, as the woman in question was a hired nanny from Uzbekistan. Now that brings up a few interesting points.

First of all, the Russian media was more than happy to not only stir up ethnic hatred towards migrants, but to do so with a completely fabricated story- so long as this was done outside of Russia’s borders. For those not in the know I am of course referring to the story of Liza, a 13-year-old Russian-speaking girl living in Berlin. As their story lacked any evidence, a major component of the narrative was that the Berlin authorities were deliberately engaged in a cover-up for the sake of deterring racist reactions.

Second, in a way the Russian state media chiefs are rightly concerned about how the story will be received, but for a horrible reason. Some of them must be conscious of the fact that their own media has for years slandered Europe using racist themes, specifically those about hordes of Muslim immigrants displacing and dominating the native population. They might also realize that they have promoted the most primitive worldview, whereby any misdeed by one member of a large group justifies hatred, even violence, towards any other member of that group. We’ve seen this in action in recent times, when Turkish citizens working in Russia suddenly reaped a wave of harassment just because their government shot down a Russian plane which was taking part in a foreign war. Years ago, race riots in Moscow and other parts of Russia typically followed an alleged crime committed by a non-Russian, typically a Caucasian. All Caucasians are expected to answer for the crime of any Caucasian. It’s idiotic in the extreme, but the Russian media played a role in stoking such tribal concepts.

The sad thing is that authorities actually help fuel racism by not publicizing stories like this and making sure everyone knows the circumstances and details. While the Russian state media didn’t report on the killing, it was all over Russian Twitter, and no doubt on VK and other Russian social networks as well. People with ideological motivations also tend to use the internet, so rest assured plenty of people saw what happened. When it comes to far-right, racist narratives, attempts to suppress facts relating to nationality are perceived as a deliberate cover-up by the authorities. This is by no means unique to Russia; authorities in several European countries have had policies about not releasing ethnic or religious details about suspects out of fear of stoking the far right. The problem is that the far right inevitably finds out, often invents their own details, and then uses the “cover-up” as proof that they are being persecuted.

The cat’s out of the bag, whether the Russian state media acknowledges it or not. I’m sure they’ll report on it eventually, assuming they haven’t already started as I write this, but I’m quite certain that they’re all secretly wishing this had happened in Ukraine instead of Moscow.