Brainstorming session

Although the article that inspired this post came out late last week, it’s rather appropriate that I’m writing it on 12 September. Before I give you the link (rejoice, Russophiles, for it is an Applebaum piece), let me set the context by taking us back to the months following 9/11. Insofar as I had access to TV at the time, it seemed a great deal of coverage was dedicated to brainstorming all the different ways terrorists could kill Americans in the US. It was as if they went to action screenwriters for expert opinions on terrorist tactics.

To be sure, the terrorists did get a bit creative around that time. After using planes as missiles, there was the infamous “shoe bomber,” for example. The anthrax letters turned out to be unrelated to Al Qaeda, but this wouldn’t become known until much later. Still, there were times when it seemed like they were just winging it in order to fill gaps in the news cycle. One example I remember was the “threat” of terrorists using emergency services vehicles in order to carry out their attacks a la Die Hard With a Vengeance. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a short montage of news stories warning about exotic threats such as poison pen guns and model airplanes laden with explosives. It’s not that any of these threats were inconceivable, but they were just as possible before 9/11 as after.

This brings us to Applebaum, who apparently phoned in a piece about all the terrible things big bad Russia could do to upset or manipulate the US presidential election. At first I was thinking of answering it point-by-point, but really many of the claims are overlapping and thus I thought would be better to answer the main thrust of the piece. In general, everything centers around attempts to put the legitimacy of the US election in question via propaganda and/or hacking.

applebaum

Before I take on the article I must admit that I’m just a bit disappointed in the media establishment as of late. Just earlier last week we had open mic at Foreign Policy, and here we have an award-winning journalist who is taken very seriously in political circles introducing a piece by saying “Yes, I know it sounds insane.” And as for “If the USA were Ukraine,” well, I think this Italian chef put it best:

 

Alright enough joking around. So in case you still haven’t read the short article, Applebaum lists a number of ways Russia could try to sabotage the election so as to make it seem illegitimate, thus leading to a propaganda coup and perhaps extreme anger from one half of the population. Let’s get one thing clear, the idea that the Kremlin is trying to have an influence on the US election is very believable. The problem is how much of an influence they can actually have. The truth is that when it comes to Trump’s base, the Kremlin’s hackers and propagandists need not lift a finger nor utter a word for those angry people to declare the election rigged or illegitimate should their candidate lose in November. Trump himself already raised the idea that the election might be rigged weeks ago. If you think these people need Russia’s help to come up with a conspiracy that explains why they and their candidate failed, you simply don’t know these people, and you might be grossly out of touch with American political reality.

Once again I think we should back up again, back to 2000 in this case. When most people think of the stealing of the 2000 election, they think of George W. Bush and the Supreme Court’s decision that effectively made him president. However, if you were on the conservative side in those days, as I was, there were accusations that Gore was trying to steal the election as well. As I remember it, the accusation you’d hear from other Republicans was that Gore wanted to recount and recount until he won. Both before and after that election you’d hear rumors about illegal aliens being organized to vote Democrat, and I guarantee you’ll hear it come this election. Where was RT back then? Where was Sputnik News? How did AM radio hosts and ordinary conservatives come up with these conspiracy theories without Putin to help them?

Now for the biggest rebuttal, let’s look at the last administration and the so-called “Birthers.” I have a step-father who most likely went to his grave sincerely believing that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, and by virtue of the latter illegitimate. Anyone who remembers the Birther movement knows that a number of its leaders attempted to file lawsuits essentially arguing that Barack Obama was not the the legitimate president of the United States. To my knowledge, every such suit has been thrown out of court. This means that anyone still believing that Barack Obama is not a natural born US citizen eligible to serve in the office of the president implicitly believes that for the past eight years the presidential administration has been legitimate even if it was legally elected, and what is more, the entire court system is almost certainly corrupt and thus illegitimate. Did anyone need RT to come up with that? My late step-father had probably never heard of RT.

The point I’m getting at here is that when you’re talking about Trump’s base and the far right, you don’t need any kind of special action to get them to dispute the legitimacy of an election that doesn’t go their way. These are people who already “know” what really happened, and all the Youtube videos or viral links they share thereafter to support their claims are just justification after the fact. Just take a look at how such people react whenever there’s a terrorist attack or mass shooting, for example. Typically they’ve already declared it to be a “false flag” carried out by the US government long before the blood has even dried. Media erroneously reports something in the first few minutes of the event? False flag! A person in the background of a photo doesn’t “look right?” False flag! In short, these people don’t really place a high value on concrete evidence and critical thinking, and as such, they don’t need any kind of Russian manipulation to make them question the legitimacy of the presidential election should they lose. If Zimbabwe had an English-language news service promotig a story about Hillary rigging the vote, they’d snatch that right up and have it on their news feed in seconds.

It’s here that I get to my main problem with this piece by Applebaum, or at least the problem apart from the fact that it looks as though the thought process behind it went something like: “Dammit! I’ve got to publish another article this week about how Russia’s going to screw us.” In a word, the problem is projection.

I, like most people used to think that psychological projection just means that you constantly accuse others of doing what you actually do, as if you’re the Russian foreign minister. As it turns out, it’s not quite that. In layman’s terms, it’s basically a way of coping with uncomfortable impulses or thoughts by denying them and instead attributing them to others.

You can see this in Russia in the statements and behavior of certain government officials and celebrities. They insist that Russia has this other civilization, a true European civilization, which embodies Christian traditional values and morals unlike the decadent, decaying West that always seems to have higher standards of living and more stability for some unknown reason. But when you observe Russian society as it is, it’s clear that this idea is laughably false. It’s not that Russia is actually worse or more immoral than many other countries out there (once we exclude the activities of the government and its bureaucracy), it’s just that Russians are basically like everyone else in the world. They sometimes get drunk and act stupid in public just like American college students (I must say Russians are a lot cooler about this than Americans). They like porn. They can be consumerists and put crass materialism ahead of higher values. But when confronted with the fact that Russia is by no means morally superior to other developed countries, the self-proclaimed patriots always have an excuse- these things exist in Russia because of the West. The West makes girls want to learn to twerk and it makes boys hungry or internet porn. To be sure, many fashion trends or ideas have spread into Russia from the West and other countries, but the fact is that if Russians were truly a civilization with higher morals and an inherent aversion to such “degeneracy,” these things wouldn’t take hold in Russian society; they’d be rejected. More importantly, they wouldn’t need laws or groups of violent thugs to suppress them or weed them out. Russia is what Russia does, not what some jackass in the Ministry of Culture or the State Duma imagines it is.

Now brace yourself, readers- the same thing I just wrote about projection in Russia also applies to the United States. Ever since political pundits and policy wonks suddenly woke up to the fact that there are these Russian foreign language news outlets, they seem to have become very eager to offload responsibility for our own political dumpster fire on the Russian propaganda apparatus. Here’s a tip, my punditchiki. See all those fringe guests they have on RT and Sputnik News? They’re Americans and other Westerners. Many of them have been peddling their conspiracy theories for decades. Alex Jones started his empire of conspiratorial bullshit circa 1996, four years before Putin became president of Russia. Oliver Stone’s conspiracy film JFK was released literally weeks after the Soviet Union fell. In case you haven’t heard, there’s been something of a conspiratorial streak in American society for some time now. One fellow even called it a “paranoid style.” In 1964.

I could go on for pages and pages about how the American establishment lovingly tilled the soil and made it fertile ground for right-wing extremism, but for now I’ll keep it brief. Russia didn’t inflict Trump on us. Russia didn’t create our far right. They’re not the reason why, should Hillary win, millions of perpetually enraged Americans will be screaming about rigged voting and possibly expressing their fury through violence. This cancer on American society was one of the few things the post-industrial United States manufactured entirely on its own.

The deregulation of media made it possible for one viewpoint to dominate the AM band. Conspiracy theories started to become mainstream. During the Bush administration it became acceptable political discourse to accuse dissenters of treason. From 2008 onward we saw a return of incoherent, nonsensical red-baiting that would make Joseph McCarthy cringe. In a sense, a large part of America, as much on the left as the right in some cases, has decided that reality simply does not matter. People make their own realities. All the while the establishment either did nothing to combat this trend, or at times they encouraged it because it was politically expedient. Trump, the “alt-right,” the neo-Nazis coming out into the mainstream spotlight- they’re all just the natural consequence of a society that puts the profits and power of its top elite ahead of public good and the mental health of society.

In this sense, there is nothing Russia can do to American politics that Americans haven’t done better. All the Kremlin is doing is gathering up our garbage and dumping it back through our kitchen window. When you start engaging in projection and blaming other countries for your problems, you’re on your way to Putopia.  I’m sorry, DC pundits, but Trump and his movement are an American mess, and Americans have to deal with it.

And Anne, if you need more ideas for columns just let me know. There’s always a story about someone saying something positive about Stalin somewhere in Russia, or something equally “ominous” to warn Western leaders about.

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18 thoughts on “Brainstorming session

  1. AndyT

    Exactly – in Europe we have a very similar situation: the Front National was born in 1972, the Northern League between the late 80s and the early 90s; Putin was a total stranger here, back then.

    Today, he might have ties to these groups, but their growing influence is not a result of Russian involvement: financial crisis, high unemployment, political scandals, perceived privileges for refugees… These are the real issues Western governments should address.

    Turning Russia and her President into scapegoats doesn’t fix anything – and makes them much more powerful than they actually are.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Another way you could put it that might help some people understand is this:

      If Putin’s government stopped assisting these movements tomorrow, they’d still be around, and they’d still be a problem. On the other hand, if they movements disappeared and Putin were still around, your country would still be a lot better off.

      I think what the establishment is afraid to acknowledge is that fringe movements don’t exist in a vacuum. They are motivated by concrete factors, failures of the government, etc. This doesn’t mean that their claims are true or their solutions are morally right, it just means a problem exists and you’ve got some people trying to address it via bad ideology and methods.

      Reply
      1. AndyT

        I agree with you: “mutatis mutandis” it’s a bit the same thing which happens with murders – most people often say “Oh, he/she had psychiatric issues, we good and NORMAL citizens would do anything like that”.

        They are afraid of admitting than crime can happen everywhere, in every family, even in the “normal” ones: they do not think about the cultural and social roots of domestic violence of any kind, for example.

        They just say: “He/she’s mad” – and that’s all.

      2. AndyT

        Quite a few good points, there, IMHO.

        We should focus on our issues, instead of getting hysterical about Russia’s supposedly seamless string of triumph… I’d say we are in a stalemate, actually.

  2. Sanchez Garcia

    This article seems uncomfortable that .every time Applebaum talks about Russian attempts…she is admitting the success of RT and Sputnik .

    RT and Sputnik have never shown any interest in the gender of Obama’s wife, the history of his mother or his birth certificate. It is wholly wrong to place this and alien abduction talk with the RT and Sputnik brilliant reporting on US government criminal behaviour of a conspiratorial nature that has happened time and time again over the last 50 years ( the list of US coups after 1945 and corporate crimes would take too long to list on here). If it wasn’t for RT then the whole world would have hoovered up the western lies about Georgia 2008 …of which the EU ADMITTED in a report was not started by Russia….contrary to American and Saakasvili claims. That is the actual EU saying that.

    Russia is a newborn democracy, having just come out of a 70 year ,vastly different system, and 9 years of immedite poverty after that….as such it is normal that it wasn’t in a position to reject much of the nonsense from the west – and to blame if for not being able to do so is wholly wrong. There is a real cultural identity forming there now..and making a good success out of it. It is different from western elites that dont represent but force ideas onto their societies. There isn’t any different reaction in Russians feeling nauseous at some bearded man-woman freak winning the Eurovision song contest …..to the overwhelming majority of French,British,Gemans and so on.

    “They can be consumerists and put crass materialism ahead of higher values. But when confronted with the fact that Russia is by no means morally superior to other developed countries, the self-proclaimed patriots always have an excuse

    Again…that is borne out by the fact of not having these luxury cars and so on during the system they group up in. It can’t be compared with the crass materialism of the west. There is no “fact ” showing that Russia “is by no means morally superior to the other developed countries”.. There is no data supporting your pornography claim. We are talking about what could be described as a state ideology…not about whether they have murderers and rapists, in case your argument is to them list crimes in Russia ( that are like other countries). Russian crime is higher than in Europe…..but is coming down from out-of control South American levels that it was at before Putin took over.

    The whole Ukraine crisis has released a massive charitable cause, civil-society initiative in Russia. There is pride in helping injured people in the Donbass, providing aid….or rehousing the millions in Russia. This is in stark contrast to how Ukrainians who have gone the other way are feeling…..or the lack of help to these suffering people from “Catholic” Poland.

    Syria is a complicated crisis with different views….but many Russians feel they are doing a moral thing there, helping millions of Syrians……a few million Orthodox Christians there also.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Let’s correct your outpouring of bullshit here:

      “This article seems uncomfortable that .every time Applebaum talks about Russian attempts…she is admitting the success of RT and Sputnik . ”

      Anne Applebaum isn’t in a position to talk about the success or failure of RT an Sputnik. There are objective ratings and other means to measure this, and guess what- they don’t look good for Sputnik or RT.

      People like Applebaum need to overstate the efficacy of Russian propaganda because they don’t want to admit how the system they stump for actually made Putin’s Russia what it is today.

      “It is wholly wrong to place this and alien abduction talk with the RT and Sputnik brilliant reporting on US government criminal behaviour of a conspiratorial nature that has happened time and time again over the last 50 years ( the list of US coups after 1945 and corporate crimes would take too long to list on here).”

      Actually the best sources on criminal behavior by the US government are typically Western. For example, if you’re talking about coups, there’s Killing Hope by William Blum, published two years before RT even existed.

      Western sources are more likely to be peer reviewed and accurate. By contrast, Russian media these days tends to rely on conspiracy cranks for sources, and if it does produce anything remotely accurate, they’re relying on Western sources. In fact, they always love to trumpet when something comes from a Western source, because just like the Russian domestic media they know that Western sources are more likely to be trusted.

      “If it wasn’t for RT then the whole world would have hoovered up the western lies about Georgia 2008 …of which the EU ADMITTED in a report was not started by Russia….contrary to American and Saakasvili claims. That is the actual EU saying that. ”

      Wait- I thought the EU was Russophobic, so why did they say that? Saakashvili’s offensive was actually in response to some Ossetian shelling of border posts, but yes, the EU and many others considered his full-scale offensive to be the real cause of that war. In case you didn’t know, RT isn’t the reason we know that. This was reported by other news outlets as well.

      I remember reading breaking news of a Georgian offensive into Ossetia, and it sure as hell wasn’t RT.

      “That is the actual EU saying that.
      Russia is a newborn democracy, having just come out of a 70 year ,vastly different system, and 9 years of immedite poverty after that….as such it is normal that it wasn’t in a position to reject much of the nonsense from the west – and to blame if for not being able to do so is wholly wrong. ”

      Nine years? You actually think the poverty stopped as soon as Putin took power? You’re hilarious.

      “There is a real cultural identity forming there now..and making a good success out of it.”

      Oh there is? You realize that you’re lecturing someone who is actually living in Russia on what Russian society is like, right?

      “Again…that is borne out by the fact of not having these luxury cars and so on during the system they group up in. It can’t be compared with the crass materialism of the west. ”

      You’re right, it can’t, because the Russian elite is happy to steal from their own people just to have luxuries that most Westerners can’t even imagine. How often do you hear about golden toilets in the US? I’ve actually pissed in a guest toilet with a laminated gold leaf seat, and I guarantee you the man who owns that compound (it’s not just one house) is by no mean anywhere near the top of Russia’s elite.

      “There is no data supporting your pornography claim. ”

      Actually there is.

      https://nataliaantonova.com/2014/08/04/oh-my-god-becky-look-at-pornhubs-statistics-on-russia-and-anal-sex-videos/

      https://www.opendemocracy.net/natalia-antonova/russian-porn-stars-arent-just-hot-theyre-also-ostracised-and-exploited

      But no, please tell me that Pornhub has been tricked. Please tell me that super secret State Department agents embed themselves in homes throughout Russia and and watch tons of porn to trick Pornhub.

      Please, I want you to tell show me how delusional you actually are.

      Do you realize that in a lot of popular porn sites today, you can actually easily see Russian money, Russian signs, even Russian landmarks (a lot of it seems to be shot in St. Petersburg, on that note), in the background? This is no secret. Sorry to break your heart.

      “The whole Ukraine crisis has released a massive charitable cause, civil-society initiative in Russia. There is pride in helping injured people in the Donbass, providing aid….or rehousing the millions in Russia. ”

      Um no, I’m sorry but that hasn’t happened. In the past couple years I’ve seen collection boxes on the street for Novorossiya, Donbas, etc. They’ve always been almost completely empty every time I saw them. I’ve talked to Russians who claim to work with Ukrainian refugees and they have nothing but terrible things to say about them, as they tend to say about Ukrainians in general. One friend of mine lived in a building where the concierge lady had recently come from Luhansk. She was living in the concierge office (not an unusual thing in Russia), but for some bizarre reason some residents of the building were trying to get her kicked out. The woman told me friend about how some men offered her shelter for sexual favors. Brother people, right?

      “but many Russians feel they are doing a moral thing there, helping millions of Syrians”

      I don’t care what they “feel” they are doing.

      Your long, disjointed rant makes no sense.

      Sanchez, if you want to continue posting here I want you to take a minute and think real hard about something. You are currently lecturing a person who has not only studied Russia and its culture and history for about half his life, but who has also lived in Russia for more than a decade, about how Russian society is. Does that seem like a logical thing to do? I don’t know what country you are in, but suppose I just start lecturing you on what I think that country’s society is like, even if I haven’t even been there or spent any significant amount of time there. Oh sure, maybe I could read news articles about your country from sites that tell me exactly what I already believe, which is basically what you’re doing.

      Do you see how idiotic that is? I’m really sorry but Russia isn’t this traditional, ultra-moral society you seem to think it is. And no, poverty didn’t end with Putin in Russia. Putin was the heir to a criminal regime. He pardoned the criminals and then went on to build his own criminal system. Yes, things improved in his early years, largely due to high oil prices, sensible policy (on Putin’s part), and a lot of foreign investment. But Putin was more concerned about his power and that of his friends than truly building a strong Russia. And because of his actions toward that end, we see how the advances Putin could once claim are now rolling back, with increasing poverty, wage arrears, factory closings, etc. In the past couple years we’ve even seen 90’s style crime like raiding and public shootings.

      Reply
      1. alkeilani

        William Blum’s writing is hardly ‘peer-reviewed’ or accurate. In many of his writings, he whitewashes every dictatorship from the moment it claims to be anti-US. The US did a lot of bad things in their history, including before WW2, and yet Blum’s analysis is not better than RT, it’s often even worse.
        I don’t think there is such a thing as the Cambridge Complete History of American Imperialist Crimes, but then again it doesn’t exist for other countries, including Russia, and it probably wouldn’t make sense to study a country from a purely negative point of view.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I was just throwing out an example off the top of my head. There are much better books and documentaries out there.

        I never finished all of Killing Hope, but the parts of it I did read do jive with other things I’d read on the topic. One of Blum’s arguments is that many of these country’s become more tyrannical as a result of espionage, sabotage, etc. We know now that this kind of thing did happened throughout the Cold War.

        Of course like I said, I can only comment on that work which I read, and that was a long time ago. In any case, I remember it being better than Chomsky. Virtually everything I read from Chomsky seems to boil down to: “The US government is saying this about that regime. But what about this other thing that this other regime did that they didn’t talk about?” Sometimes he makes a good point, but you’re always left thinking- “Okay, then what?”

    2. alkeilani

      Russians are not helping Syrians, they’re helping, along with Iran, to sustain a regime hated by the vast majority.
      The horrors unleashed by Putin’s support for Assad go way beyond what Bush did to Iraq. The irony is syrians were never particularly pro-US, precisely because of Iraq, and if Putin had helped them at the beginning and supported the revolution, they would have welcomed it.

      As for your claim of “a few million orthodox in Syria”, the percentage of Orthodox Christians in 1943 was 4,7 %. You can be sure it decreased a lot during the 1950s due to high migration rates, and even further because of lower birthrates (higher economic standing), so the real number before the war started was less than a million.
      Also, a lot of them (not all) want Assad gone (or dead), and those obviously oppose Russia’s “help to Syria”. Russian planes destroyed last month rebel-held Idlib’s orthodox church, and that’s the only kind of support Putin seems determined to bring Syria.

      Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I don’t think Sanchez is big on facts. He seems to have constructed his own fantasy world.

        That’s a good point about Syrian attitudes. A lot of leftists forget that the Assad regime has twice worked with the US, and Bashar was even involved in the US rendition/torture program.

        Even the casualties are worse because right now I think we’re at what- 250,000 dead and something like 4 million displaced? By contrast the Iraq war caused something like 100,000-150,000 dead and something like 1 or 1.5 million displaced (I haven’t looked at the figures in a long time).

        This doesn’t excuse what the US did in Iraq, but it just shows how bad Assad is for basically managing to match or even upstage the US at murder- of his own people.

      2. alkeilani

        Thanks for your reply. Actually the figures are far worse than that in both cases. For Iraq, most counts gave around 160 thousands during the eight years of US occupation. According to some studies, many death weren’t included in those databases, due to the danger of traveling on the ground to gather information, and to the fact that social media didn’t exist.
        For Syria, the number of INTERNALLY displaced is already around eight millions, and the number of refugees abroad is around five million, not even counting the wealthiest who fled to the Gulf countries and who don’t have refugee status.
        The number of dead is around 400 k.

        Assad is worse than Bush also because, without Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, there would still be the oppressive Saddam in place (a lesser evil than the chaos that ensued, many would argue).
        On the other hand, without Assad ‘s repression, and foreign support for him, there would be something much better in Syria than Saddam or chaos. Probably some degree of instability, but no powerful ISIS, no massacres, no millions of refugees.

        You wrote “leftists forget that the Assad regime has twice worked with the US”, and it’s true.
        But working with the US or not shouldn’t be the real reason to support or oppose Assad, the right of Syrians to live, free from the fear of torture, and from corruption, has an intrinsic value.

        Also, Obama has been bombing Syria since 2014, he could have bombed Assad’s planes and military facilities before Russia got directly involved. He had around 4 years to ponder about it and chose not to do the slightest thing about it. And some fools still think that Assad and his foreign supporters are “resisting US imperialism” !!

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        There’s something I’ve always wondered about though. If Saddam had survived till Arab Spring, wouldn’t there have been the possibility of an uprising against his regime too? Or would it have been more controlled? Against Saddam one thinks it would have been Shiites, so that would probably still prevent the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq AKA ISIS.

      4. Sanchez Garcia

        “Russians are not helping Syrians, they’re helping, along with Iran, to sustain a regime hated by the vast majority”………….data?
        Big amounts of land, or at least, heavily populated areas, have been retaken by Assad, he seems to have the population relatively contented there.
        Most of Damascus is under his control. Things look pretty safe there. Russian media coverage is focusing on Aleppo and other war zones…and it’s likely that most western outlets aren’t allowed into Damascus to report on life there…so at the moment it can’t be definitively proven what its like in Damascus.

      5. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “Big amounts of land, or at least, heavily populated areas, have been retaken by Assad, he seems to have the population relatively contented there.”

        Actually they haven’t. You know there are maps of this stuff, right? What they have retaken they could not have got without Russian help.

        And again, please reexamine your epistemology here. You say Damascus looks safe on Russian TV, then you say it can’t be proven what its like. Does that make any sense at all?

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