Monthly Archives: December 2017

Eric Garland’s Merry Meltdown Christmas Special!

It’s a Christmas miracle! Santa dropped off an early present and now I’m passing the joy along to you!

Fast Company recently published an article about fake news in 2017, in which it criticized the “work” of Deza Destroyer Eric “Game Theory” Garland. Naturally, Gardland didn’t like it one bit. What ensued next was a Twitter meltdown of epic proportions, culminating in this masterpiece:

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You will rue the day you crossed this Deza destroyer! Face the wrath of GARLAND! To fuck away from, Vlad!

Naturally Twitter responded, and every time a new twist on this memorable threat was posted, an angel got its wings. Enjoy.

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I hope you enjoyed Garland’s Merry Meltdown. I have been informed that recently, US President Donald Trump legalized the phrase “Merry Christmas” via executive order, therefore I am wishing you all a Merry Christmas without fear of legal repercussions!

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Another Take on Stolen Valor

I’m too lazy to dig up the link now, but I’m pretty certain in the past I’ve written about how much I hate Stolen Valor. But mine is not the only perspective on it, which is why I’d like to discuss an article by Alex Nichols (fast becoming one of my favorite opinion writers) on the right’s Stolen Valor obsession.

When Stolen Valor videos first appeared on Youtube, I used to find them rather amusing because the targets were almost always wannabe tough guys trying to impress people at airports or bars. They ranged from young guys going out to clubs, ROTC students pretending to be the real deal, and of course- middle-aged dads living out a fantasy to compensate for their lack of an actual life. But over time, I started to notice a trend, one which Nichols points out in the article- a lot of the people who appear in these videos are homeless, and some of them are clearly mentally ill. That’s a problem, folks.

Any workable system of ethics has to be situational, not black and white. For example, there’s the thought experiment on lying. Lying is considered to be an inherently negative action, but if you are living during the Second World War and lying to protect Jews in hiding or resistance members it’s virtuous. Circumstances matter, context matters. What virtue does one need in order to determine when something normally immoral such as lying becomes moral? It’s called judgement, and these people making Stolen Valor videos out of mentally ill homeless men on the street corner apparently don’t have it.

Why do I personally hate Stolen Valor? It’s not like I had some illustrious military career, served in combat, or had buddies die in my arms (perhaps some people I know died in Iraq when they were deployed there long after I’d got out but I don’t know for sure). Since I’ve been back I’ve had two people thank me for “my service” when I mention my time in the army and I’ve always been quick to point out that my service consisted of standing around in a parking lot and the only terrorists I killed were in PS2 games. Nevertheless I hate Stolen Valor because more often than not it’s some right-wing yahoo bragging about all the “hajjis” he killed with his .50 cal sniper rifle. Worse still, you’ve got this person claiming something that you did, that you struggled to earn, when they in fact didn’t experience and have no idea what you had to go through. Yeah I was just a 31R and went to Ft. “Relaxin'” Jackson, but that takes a lot more effort than sleeping on your parents’ couch or going to college parties after you graduate high school. That’s doubly so when you’re a nerdy 17-year-old who was never known for athletic prowess at the point. So yeah, I get a bit pissed when someone who couldn’t even handle Ft. Jackson or any basic training in any branch tells me to my face that he was a decorated Navy SEAL sniper/team leader (yeah, that’s based on a specific case and the guy knew that my friends and me were in the army at the time).

But there’s another reason Stolen Valor bothers me- it was almost like a warning of what this country had to come with the Trump administration. See one thing about Stolen Valor types is that even the Call of Duty-playing military enthusiasts don’t seem to bother to do much research before crafting their military persona. When you watch those videos and you see the non-homeless, non-mentally ill guys getting tripped up, you’ll notice that they fold almost immediately under the most trivial of questions. A guy asks “what’s your MOS” and almost immediately they get this “Oh SHIT!” look in their eyes. If there’s anything worse than lying to someone in this manner, it’s being so lazy about it that you’re insulting people’s intelligence. I’ve always been amazed at how surprised these people are when they encounter someone who was actually in the military. It’s like they’re thinking: “Wait…Those ranks they keep talking about actually MEAN something? How could this happen?!” 

It’s this kind of lazy, don’t-give-a-shit-if-it-sounds-even-remotely-believable aspect that makes the lies of Trump, his party, the alt-right, or the Kremlin state media so infuriating. What’s worse is when you press them and they give you this hint that even they don’t fully believe it (this was a feature very present in Eurasianist thought, as documented in the book Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism).

So yeah, that kind of lying where the liar makes zero effort to sound convincing is what pisses me off about Stolen Valor. That being said, if you can’t tell the difference between some right-wing wannabe warrior bragging about his “confirmed kills” at the gun show and some mentally ill homeless man panhandling at an intersection, and encountering the latter inspires you to go try to humiliate him for the whole internet, you seriously lack judgement and you’re a bully. I don’t give a shit if some mentally ill homeless man is claiming something I earned. I’m angered by healthy people who had every opportunity to “serve,” didn’t, and then lie to my face telling me they did more than me.

Sadly, there’s another aspect of this which Nichols could have hammered on but didn’t. As I pointed out on Twitter yesterday, part of the irony of the right’s obsession with Stolen Valor is the fact that even when they are not directly participating in it, they are largely responsible for creating it. Think about what motivates young, healthy men to lie about military service and combat. Sure, part of it is just patriarchal values and the desire to be seen as more masculine, but who is saying that military service is the pinnacle of masculinity and who constantly puts “the troops” on a pedestal? That would be the right. It’s always been then. If society and pop culture didn’t lavish such unqualified praise on any and every service member, and especially on high-speed “operators,” maybe people wouldn’t feel tempted to appropriate that life and bask in some of that attention. Obviously these people are responsible for their own actions, but we can’t pretend that society doesn’t influence our decisions.

Perhaps Stolen Valor isn’t the real issue anymore. It’s been rolled into the larger problem, which could be dubbed “people being full of shit and getting away with it on a regular basis.” In any case, homeless people need homes and the mentally ill need access to treatment- not humiliation for foolishly donning a surplus military uniform in an effort to help them get by day to day. And if you don’t like healthy people running around claiming to be military personnel, don’t just call them out- call out society and pop culture’s worshipful, unrealistic portrayal of military personnel. People in the military aren’t all virtuous incarnations of Captain America. Some of them, even your vaunted Navy SEALs, are downright criminals. A lot of them are just confused, awkward kids who are trying to make the transition to adulthood after jumping in the deep end. I should know- I was one of them.

Fun With Russian Military Opsec Posters

Opsec (Operations security) is crucial in our modern, interconnected world. The Russian military seems to have just figured this out after several years of having its claims about the war in Ukraine blown to pieces thanks to Pvt. Ivanov’s selfies on his VK page.

This being the case, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a set of posters aimed at discouraging behaviors that could pose security risks (for comparison, think back to those “Loose Lips Sink Ships” posters of WWII). While they’re not as incredible as Russian/Ukrainian sci-fi pulp novel covers, they can still be amusing. For this bit I’ll be ignoring the Russian text and providing my own commentary.

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“When Dima needed mission critical information, Sergei was too busy arguing about Star Wars with some pedantic fanboy from NATO. Don’t be Sergei!”

 

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“To all the people back home, hello from the country we definitely haven’t invaded and aren’t currently occupying!”

 

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“Don’t waste valuable time trying to recreate the famous “tank man” photo from Tiananmen Square!”

 

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NATO SOLDIER: “This just gets better and better! Now he says he wants her to dress up like Judge Dredd and beat him while he’s tied to a chair and wearing a ball gag!”

 

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TOP HALF: “Don’t take selfies while you’re in a hot LZ!”

BOTTOM HALF: “Don’t take dick pics during mission briefings!”

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“Don’t leave your shit everywhere, especially when you’re trying to impress some woman with the dick pics that you took at an appropriate time, i.e. not during a mission briefing!”

 

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“No, we’re not interested in your Book of Mormon, even the electronic version on your smart phone. Leave those things at home!”

 

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“Remember, you will have plenty of time for yearbook signing AFTER WORK!”

 

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“It pays to be a smug blonde asshole, but you may end up being stalked by a strange man wearing a Canadian tuxedo.”

 

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“Don’t use work computers to run a Youtube gaming channel. You suck at World of Tanks anyway.”

 

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“Somebody in this picture has his own doctrine. Can you point to them?”

 

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“Where’s the money, Lebowski?!”

 

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“Hello, Colonel? Yeah it’s Klimov here. That Bond guy is back again. He’s in the pump house this time.”

 

 

Yes, Silly Liberal, Bush WAS That Bad

One of the worst side effects of the Trump administration is how it has kindled  #TheResistance’s love for things like the FBI (you know, that organization that used to spy on Martin Luther King Jr. and tried to get him to kill himself) and George W. Bush.

As the Chapo Trap House crew has said in so many words, liberal centrists have a strong affinity for procedure and typically don’t disagree with their Republican opponents on matters of foreign policy, particularly bombing the shit out of other countries. Therefore they are inclined to look back on Bush II with nostalgia because for all his speaking gaffes and pandering to religion, he observed the norms and decorum that liberals love so much.

In reality, the politics of George W. Bush led directly to those of the Tea Party revolt under Obama and to Trump, and that ought to be obvious for anyone who can remember anything past the last decade or so.

Growing up conservative in the 90’s, I heard plenty of conspiracy theories about the Clintons. Yes, sometimes the word “socialist” was thrown around. But in general the rhetoric against Bill Clinton centered around the rather tame (by today’s standards) Republican charge of “tax and spend.” Apart from this,  it was all culture wars- Clinton was allegedly friendly to the LGBT community, his Surgeon General wanted to teach teenagers how to masturbate (which was absolutely evil, because teenagers couldn’t possibly figure out how to do that on their own), and so forth. Of course there was the fringe that said Clinton would bring about the New World Order, UN invasion, etc. but that was still just fringe. You’d even hear conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh make fun of such people. The were an embarrassment to the conservative establishment and thus had to be sidelined.

Then something changed after 9/11. Liberals weren’t just about tax and spend or same sex marriage. They wanted to surrender to the enemy in the War on Terror. They wanted to make America weak. They hated Christianity and Judaism but loved radical Islam. Hating the liberal was no longer about policy- they were an existential threat to the United States and the American way of life. We were at war, after all.

Now at this point some liberal defender might chime in and point out that the rhetoric of the Bush administration itself was not so radical. Sure, Bush would say things with disturbing implications, such as “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” but that was about as far as it went. Unfortunately by focusing only on Bush’s words one misses the the forest for the tree.

Outside the administration was the active right-wing noise machine led by Fox News. This gave the White House a form of plausible deniability. When the administration was more or less compelled to admit it had not found the weapons of mass destruction it sought in Iraq, armies of pundits assured millions of Republican viewers that those weapons had in fact been secreted out of the country before the coalition forces could find them.

At the same time, the Bush administration also directly contributed to the kind of hatred toward the press that would become a key feature of Trump’s administration. Bush himself once insisted that progress was being made in Iraq, but that the American people were not being told due to media bias. This only helped contribute to this idea that news which doesn’t fit your political views is “fake” and can be dismissed.

And while liberals point out how tolerant Bush’s administration was toward Muslims, they forget that most of his base wasn’t getting their ideas about Muslims from the president, but rather from the aforementioned right-wing noise machine. Books such as the hilariously inaccurate Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). In her 2002 book Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right, then rising-star Ann Coulter wrote: “Liberals hate America, they hate flag-wavers, they hate abortion opponents, they hate all religions except Islam, post 9/11. Even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do.”

Got that? Liberals hate America more than Islamic terrorists do. Post 9/11. Imagine for a second that you’re a person stupid enough to sincerely believe rhetoric like this. If you saw yourself as a true patriot- hell, if you just saw yourself as someone who would rather not see your way of life and standard of living destroyed, what would you do to stop people who you were told hate your country more than the people who literally killed themselves just to take hundreds of your countrymen with them in the process? Would your disagreements with other citizens about politics still be about tax hikes and funding for public broadcasting? Are you going to give a shit when the presidential administration, which you know nothing about apart from the occasional sound bite on cable news, says it’s important not to hate Muslims as a group?

All of this hatred set the tone for the right under the Obama administration. Obama was even worse- a “Marxist,” a “fascist,” and worst of all- a secret Muslim! To some this must have seemed like surrender- a man with the name Hussein in the White House! Bush may have been gone, but he never mattered. The right-wing noise machine that had propped him up and sold his war dropped him like a hot potato and just kept right on pushing a large portion of America further from reality.

George W. Bush, of course, did not run Fox News, but he owed them his presidency. The two went hand-in-hand, just like with Trump today. If we trace the rise of Al Qaeda-style terrorism to the aftermath of the siege of Mecca in 1979, we can trace the Trump phenomenon to Fox News and George W. Bush’s administration, which both collaborated to convince millions of Americans that feelings matter more than facts, and that many of their neighbors, co-workers, and family members are secret traitors who want to see America under Marxist Sharia law.

Oh yeah, there was one other thing Bush did that was pretty bad, even worse than anything Trump has done thus far. What was it? Right- he invaded a country for no legitimate reason, killing at least 100,000 people, destabilizing the entire Middle East which has had violent repercussions lasting up until this day, and severely weakening Americans’ faith in their government and destroying its credibility worldwide in ways that would provide great opportunities for regimes like Russia and China.

So yeah, there’s that.

 

On Applebaum and the Holodomor

So last night I was reading a piece from The Nation reviewing Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine. You’d think it would be highly critical but in fact it is extremely balanced, acknowledging the genuine research Applebaum did on the subject of the Holodomor while pointing out its flaws (HINT: it has to do with Applebaum’s barely-concealed ideological biases). But just like with articles in other left-wing mags, it strays away from history and into the present, where it can’t help but regurgitate the Russian narrative.

In terms of the history, the author Sophie Pinkham is mostly dead on, though I’d have to dispute her claim that the Bolsheviks didn’t have a Russian imperialist view toward Ukraine. This issue is tackled in painstaking detail by Stephen Velychenko’s Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925. There is a very clear case that Lenin himself had a huge blindspot in regards to imperialism and colonialism when it came to Russia, and that his concessions toward Ukraine were more a matter of pragmatism than sincerely acknowledging his ideological mistake. The chauvinism shown by members of the Russian-dominated Communist Party of Ukraine was even more pronounced.

The idea that national chauvinism still existed in self-proclaimed socialist societies really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to modern leftists, many of whom acknowledge that the struggle for socialism goes beyond the core class struggle to encompass other forms of domination and hierarchy such as sexism, racism and national oppression, homophobia, etc. Also, Applebaum, like many anti-Communists, contradicts herself by acknowledging the Russian chauvinism of Bolshevik leaders. Anti-Communists typically want to claim that socialism always leads to authoritarianism, mass death, repression, etc. By the same token, they are fond of accusing historical socialists of being total hypocrites, not actually achieving or standing behind their stated beliefs, and so on. Thus there’s a bit of a conundrum here for the anti-Communist. If the Marxists of the 20th century betrayed their own values, then all the problems that occurred under those regimes really can’t be attributed to socialism or Marxism since they did not really implement either. If they actually did implement those values (which is a dubious assertion), then they cannot be accused of being cynical liars who would readily betray their stated goals and values just to maintain power. Yeah I know it’s a bit confusing, but blame the anti-Communists; they came up with it.

Apart from this minor flaw (many Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, were more or less sincere about their beliefs in internationalism and Marxism; the Russian chauvinism was largely a blindspot), the historical aspect of the review is fairly solid. Where things go off the rails is when it comes to recent history, and I think the long-time reader knows where this is going to go- to Maidan.

There is good justification to discuss Applebaum’s bizarre admiration for nationalism, because this affects her analysis of the Holodomor in her book. But rather than tackling the flaws of Applebaum’s opinions on nationalism head-on, the author goes off on Ukraine with the old Russian narrative- “Maidan was a nationalist phenomenon, nationalists dominate the new government, bla bla bla.” Let us look at how she does this.

In an article in the New Republic in May 2014, when Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution had been followed by a war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern regions, Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation.

Let’s be a bit clearer here- a war did not simply “follow” Maidan. A Russian invasion and annexation followed. Had Russia not acted as it did, there would be no war in the East- period. To speak about Russian-backed separatists is to pretend that there was some substantial separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine where there was not- even the early incarnation of a separatist movement (totally obscure and marginal prior to 2014) was the creation of Russian “political technologists” and groups like the Eurasianist movement of Alexander Dugin. The war was started by Russia, just as Russian citizen and “Novorossiya” armed forces commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin admitted.

Now since the quote above does touch on an article by Applebaum which the author thinks is relevant to her work in Red Famine, rest assured I will get to discussing Applebaum’s thoughts on nationalism because they are indeed extremely problematic. But bear with me for a bit while I tackle these nuggets of the Russian narrative that are used to refute Applebaum’s ideas.

Across Europe and around the world, stark economic inequality and the capture of political and legal systems by the ultra-rich have fed popular anger and resentment. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, this anger can be misdirected—often intentionally, by self-serving politicians—into a populist nationalism that encourages hatred and exclusion rather than economic and political reform. Instead of asking why power has been concentrated in the hands of a corrupt elite, nationalists put the blame for social problems on migrants, minorities, and foreign influence. Relatively small groups of extreme nationalists can help stymie political reform.

While all this is undoubtedly true in general, it really doesn’t apply to Ukraine. Even Ukraine’s weak nationalists typically aren’t peddling the usual anti-migrant or anti-Semitic scapegoats on a day-to-day basis. And for those who do, they are easily matched by Russian propaganda that also echoes the same claims, such as “Ukraine is controlled by Jews!” Given Ukraine’s specific and very obvious problems, it’s kind of hard to garner support with anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s a lot easier to join the chorus of slogans against “oligarchs,” “treason,” etc.

By far the worst salvo is to be found here:

Over the years since the Maidan Revolution, it has come to light that right-wing nationalists not only physically attacked unarmed leftists at the protests, but helped to initiate the turn to violence that led to the deaths of some 100 protesters at Maidan Square. Since the revolution, right-wing nationalists have been able to take important positions in government, manipulate policy and the judicial process, push forward a blockade that helped cause a humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine, and harass minorities with impunity.

Lot to unpack here. First of all, a lot of people at Maidan had what could be called left-wing views. To date, I have heard one specific story of nationalists attacking left-wing protesters during the march. If the nationalists had been doing this on a large scale, eventually it would have caused a rupture in the camp. This does not seem to have happened throughout the movement. Whether it did or not, it’s important to note that there is evidence to show that Yanukovych and his party had a long history of supporting and even funding the far right in Ukraine as an electoral strategy.

The more egregious claim in the excerpt, however, is that it was the nationalists who sparked the violence during the revolution. In reality, it was the police who turned the protest violent with their brutal suppression of Euromaidan at the end of November. This movement consisted mainly of young students- not right-wing nationalists. Their is no concrete evidence to suggest that nationalists were behind the killing of protesters either (apart from one unconfirmed claim reported by the BBC).

The claim that the radical nationalists have important positions in government is also overstated. As for the blockade- I’m sorry but who started the war? These so-called “republics” declared themselves to be independent and essentially at war with Ukraine. Did they expect friendly trade relations? And if the author actually believes these to be genuine separatists as opposed to Russian puppets, why not spare a word about their nationalism? One could argue that their entire governments are dominated by “nationalists.”

As for harassing minorities with impunity, this is not nearly as frequent as the sentence implies. Ukraine has problems with racism just like any Eastern European country- perhaps a bit less than some other Eastern European countries, in fact (ahem). The problem of attacks with impunity has a lot more to do with shitty police than nationalists being in charge of anything. Just to give you an example, while doing a story on an agency that helps sex workers, the NGO employees told us that one of the worst enablers and beneficiaries of the human trafficking business in Ukraine is…get ready for it…the police anti-human trafficking unit.

And while I agree with the author’s sentiment in the next passage, I must remind the reader that no modern leftist piece on Ukraine seems complete without a reference to Azov.

Having witnessed a torchlight march of hundreds of balaclava-clad nationalists from the Azov Battalion in Kiev last year—their insignia was a modified Wolfsangel that, they claimed, represented the initials of the phrase “national idea”—I am not convinced that more nationalism is what Ukraine needs.

This, folks, is what I mean by regurgitating the Russian narrative, which demands that critiques of Ukraine always need some reference to the Azov battalion. The so-called “DNR/LNR” have battalions made up of Serbian nationalists, Greek neo-Nazis from Golden Dawn, Hungarian members of Jobbik, “cossacks,” Italian neo-fascists, and many other scumbags whose ideology does not significantly differ from that of the more political members of the Azov regiment or Pravy Sektor. Yet when we speak of the war in Ukraine, it seems that right-wing extremism is always made a feature of the Ukrainian side of the war and not the Russian side. The few positions that self-proclaimed nationalists have in Ukraine’s government are used to spread the narrative that post-Maidan Ukraine is dominated by nationalists, whereas people often totally miss the fact that Russia’s pro-Kremlin nationalists (imperialists, really) and their foreign allies are backed by a massive state that is a regional military power.

I really wish leftist publications like The Nation or Jacobin would stop falling for this trope again and again. It’s not that we should be ignoring the far right in Ukraine or pretending there is no problem. Rather it’s that we should talk about the far right when it’s appropriate because it’s the subject of the article rather than shoehorning it into other topics. Moreover, it would be grand if people could stop internalizing the Russian narrative that says any outward display of Ukrainian national or cultural identity goes hand-in-hand with right wing nationalism. Even many, if not most of the people you see waving red and black flags often have no idea what that flag is (I’ve had at least two people tell me they thought it was the “original” Ukrainian flag), and those who engage in apologetics for Bandera or the UPA typically have very little real knowledge about either and believe them to have been anti-Nazi fighters who did not subscribe to exclusionary, genocidal nationalism. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory doesn’t just engage in the glorification of the nationalist resistance; it has also spent a lot of time trying to convince people that it was anti-fascist and all-inclusive. Now none of this makes that narrative true or justifiable (it is, after all, lying), but you can’t pretend that people who believe these myths are right-wing exclusionary nationalists when their knowledge of the subject is extremely poor and consists of the anti-Nazi, diverse Disney-version of the UPA. That is a completely different issue.

Now to get to Applebaum, Pinkham’s criticisms are rightly damning. Applebaum is basically the darling of the amoral neoliberal community, and as such, she apparently sees nothing wrong with changing her beliefs to suit her needs. When nationalism threatens EU integration or centrist neoliberal politicians or their policies, it’s “populism” and bad. When it supports them, it’s great. The wording Applebaum uses is also curious.

Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation. She blamed political apathy on the lack of “national identity” in post-Soviet Ukraine, a place where, for example, a half-Polish husband and his Russian-Jewish wife—two acquaintances who hosted Applebaum during a visit to Lviv—could look upon the removal of a statue of Lenin with a dismaying lack of enthusiasm. “Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf,” Applebaum claimed. Of war-torn eastern Ukraine, she wrote: It “is what a land without nationalism actually looks like”

And again:

Applebaum believes that the Soviet destruction of Ukrainian national identity has caused Ukrainians to have “mixed and confused loyalties,” which “can translate into cynicism and apathy.” She argues that ”[t]hose who do not care much or know much about their nation are not likely to work to make it a better place.” But “mixed loyalties”—which could also be called, less pejoratively, “multifaceted identities”—aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they are part of what has made Ukrainian culture so rich and, arguably, what has kept the country relatively open and democratic despite acute corruption and oligarchy.

Pinkham astutely points out that the kind of nationalism Applebaum is talking about fueled the rise of imperial nationalism in Russia, as well as things like Brexit, the Hungarian pro-Putin government, and other things Applebaum wouldn’t approve of. I would go even further.

A lot of the wording used by Applebaum in those quotes could just have easily come from a far right nationalist from any country. Rare is the far right activist who tells you they simply hate people who are different and they wish to subjugate or exclude them by force. No, they are almost to a man “just patriots,” defending their language, national tradition, and so forth. Applebaum, to the best of my knowledge, is no fan of Poland’s right wing Law and Justice party, and yet any Polish nationalist might, with some argument, claim that they are merely proud patriots without Applebaum’s hated “mixed and confused loyalties,” which incidentally is a charge often used against Jews by anti-Semites.

And while we speak about people without roots and loyalty to their native land, what of Applebaum herself? After all, she fled her country to live abroad and married a Polish ex-diplomat. Applebaum is a fierce supporter of international capital, for example when Greece had an outburst of populism due to its debt situation. And of course she is critical of “country first” politicians in both Europe and the US. It’s almost as if Applebaum’s position on right wing nationalism depends on the geopolitical goals she’s supporting rather than any set of concrete principles.

And that really shouldn’t be surprising because neoliberals and their shills don’t really have any principles. If promoting blood and soil nationalism is useful to your sponsors- go ahead and back it to the hilt until your words are indistinguishable from that of a European neo-Nazi. If the same nationalism suddenly becomes inconvenient because it leads to Brexit or the rise of a pro-Kremlin politician, you can suddenly switch back to your cosmopolitanism and pretend to be a defender of human rights and universal values. When you believe that your side has no ideology, just cold hard facts and data, morality or consistency go out the window.

The real lesson of the Holodomor has nothing to do with Communism or Marxism. Rather it was the inevitable result of any state which reduces human beings to a mere factor in its calculations. In the case of the USSR, collectivization was aimed at industrialization and modernization, and human costs were secondary at best. In other words, the USSR did the same thing that capitalist governments have done throughout time and continue doing to this day.  In the logic of Applebaum and her supporters, the Holodomor is also a utilitarian thing, to be used in service of what is essentially a system that also reduces humanity to numbers on a balance sheet. Applebaum’s anti-Communist rhetoric and praise for nationalism obscure this central fact. To her, the Holodomor is useful for achieving geopolitical goals in the present, when in reality it should be seen as a call to the action against any system that results in people starving when food is available. Today, that system is overwhelmingly the one that Applebaum enthusiastically defends.

At the end of the day, it’s a good and balanced review. Where I think it went off the rails is ironic, considering how Pinkham calls out Applebaum’s use of history to support political goals. I’ve often noticed in these Nation and Jacobin articles the authors tend to get the historical criticisms dead-on, while failing to grasp reality in the present when it comes to Ukraine. It’s as if the Applebaum’s and Snyder’s creatively interpret history to support their present political ideas, while many Western leftists get the present wrong because they’re critiquing bad history. Any way you slice it, it’s still doing the same thing- bending reality to fit a narrative instead of looking at all claims objectively and weighing the evidence.

The Correction

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life and career. Like most people, this was due to a lack of adequate information. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, or in this case when more facts become available, I change my position. I know this is unfashionable, and that the trend today seems to favor doubling down on your assertion in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but I guess I’ll play the backward old curmudgeon in this case.

Long time readers know I have always hated The eXile. I saw it as a trashy newspaper that romanticized the “Wild 90’s” in Russia. At the same time, I’d started reading the work of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi before I’d even learned they were associated with that rag (in my early years in Russia I tended to avoid all trappings of the expat life like the plague). I have almost always enjoyed the independent work of Matt Taibbi and I even found myself agreeing with a lot of Ames’ work before he went full-on Putin defender. I’ve now read three of Taibbi’s books and found them to be both entertaining and informative. So naturally, having also been exposed to the accusations against both Ames and Taibbi, it created an awkward feeling for me.

It was easy to dismiss Ames, who continues to write smear jobs of Putin critics, constantly invoking the 90’s even where it has no bearing on the topic, but Taibbi, who took a different trajectory, was a little bit more disappointing. But now, especially in light of the new evidence I’ve seen in the past few months, I have to admit that I have been wrong about not only Taibbi, but also Mark Ames as well.

Based on two articles, one recently published and another by my friend Natalia Antonova, I think it’s safe to say that both Ames and Taibbi were telling the truth when they claimed the things they wrote about in The eXile and their book were in fact “satire,” or better said, they didn’t actually happen. It is not right to call either of them rapists or sexual harassers.

Having got that out of the way, it doesn’t mean we can’t make valid criticisms of The eXile. As Antonova points out in her article, the image promoted by The eXile was taken as fact by thousands of men who flocked to Russia in search of desperate, pliant women who would do anything for a ticket out of the country. Ames and Taibbi may have wanted their audience to react with disgust at the expat lifestyle, yet it seems the opposite occurred.

There are valid criticisms of the satire as well. First of all, if your satire causes people to believe you were literally rapists, you might have fucked up somewhere. Now granted, I think their book publisher also owns some responsibility for this by declaring the accounts to be authentic, but at the same time nobody thinks Sacha Baron Cohen is really from Kazakhstan. At the same time, The Onion is a satirical newspaper but you don’t see them constantly writing stories glamorizing rape, prostitution, and yes- sexually assaulting young girls. In short, if your “satire” causes people to think you were literally a kiddie rapist, well, bro, I think you suck at writing satire.

 

fieldguidetomoscow

From The eXile’s “Field Guide to Moscow. Many Russian youths graduate secondary school around the age of 16 (which is, for the record, the age of consent, but still). 

Another thing that is annoying about this claim of satire is that it is somewhat dishonest, and satire works best when it is truthful. Ames and Taibbi routinely characterize their work as satirizing the lifestyle of expats who came to Russia peddling neo-liberal advice, ostensibly to transform Russia into a prosperous democracy, but by night those same men were enjoying the benefits of the economic ruin their recommendations were inflicting on the country, usually in the form of prostitution. I totally get this too; in both Russia and Ukraine I’ve come into contact with people who in public are staunch defenders of the Russian or Ukrainian people, yet in private conversation you learn they have utter disdain for Russian or Ukrainian women. In the case of Russia this can describe both pro- and anti-Putin expats. But there’s something wrong with the way Ames and Taibbi treat the issue, as the more recent article I referenced shows:

“The paper was to be a mirror of the typical expatriate in ‘exile,’ who was a pig of the highest order,” Taibbi explained. “He was usually a Western consultant who made big bucks teaching Russians how to fire workers or privatize markets in the name of ‘progress,’ then at night banged hookers and blew coke and speed. The reality is most of the Westerners in town were there to turn Russia into a neoliberal puppet state by day, and get laid and shitfaced by night. So the paper was a kind of sarcastically over-enthusiastic celebration of this monstrous community’s values.”

This comes from Taibbi, but it could just as easily come from Ames, who also portrays the 90’s as some kind of colonial conquest of Russia by the evil West. There is no agency for Russians in this story. Yes, the West played the role of an enabler for Yeltsin and a lot of the corruption that occurred during the era, but if they really wanted to humiliate and destroy Russia there was a lot they could have done differently. They looked the other way as Russia set up puppet pseudo-states in Moldova and Georgia. They disarmed nuclear-armed republics like Ukraine and transferred those weapons to Russia. They never recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and they let Yeltsin have a free pass to do as he pleased there. They also never lent any support to Tatarstan’s independence bid. As for the horrible economic advice they were pushing on Russia- it was the same bullshit economics they’d already been pushing in the West for years. Why expect them to say anything different in Russia?

But more importantly, this “colonial” narrative also ignores Russian agency, such as “red managers” stripping enterprises’ assets for cash, duping their fellow citizens out of their vouchers to take control of companies, etc. Black markets existed pretty much throughout the entire Soviet period, and they were quite active around the time of Perestroika- the simple fact is that there were plenty of Russians and other Soviet citizens who thought imported clothes and fancy foreign cars were worth exploiting and even killing their fellow citizens, and no Western consultant planted that idea in their heads. Another failure that can be laid at the feet of Russians is the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other authoritarian tendencies which became quite popular around the time of the Soviet collapse, especially among Yeltsin’s opponents. Many Russians could have chosen to rationally assess the problems facing their nations, but instead they chose to blame Jews or foreigners and thus they failed. No Western consultant made them do that.

Of course as I’ve said plenty of times, contrary to the claims of people like Ames and other Putin apologists, Putin never actually resolved any of these problems. He, or more accurately his “political technologists” just found ways to manage them, and the oil boom of the mid-2000s helped alleviate some of them or at least made them less in your face. Of course that has been starting to change in recent years. Things like gunfights in public and raiding on small businesses have gradually returned to Moscow. Poverty is rising. All these problems can and will come back in full force the more living standards drop toward 90’s levels. But this time, there won’t be any Western consultants to blame it on- no “neo-liberal colonial project.”

The “Wild 90’s” were a terrible time for Russia and many former Soviet Republics- this is indisputable. The West, while also sending needed aid, also dumped a lot of garbage in the form of neo-liberal economists and far-right losers like David Duke. But the 90’s were also a reckoning for the errors of the Soviet Union and the Russian colonial imperialist ideology, which we have seen fully revived under Putin. Trying to protect Russians from their own responsibility does them no favors. And I also find it hard to believe there wasn’t a much better way to satirize the Moscow expat lifestyle so that audiences got the right message- that it was horrible.

So that’s it- that’s my actual criticism. I still admire Taibbi’s post-eXile work and now I feel a little better about it because of what I’ve learned. Mark, if you hate read this blog regularly, I sincerely apologize for insinuating that you did those things you wrote about in The eXile, and I will try to correct whatever I wrote along that vein in the past wherever I should find it. I acknowledge that it was, as you both said, satire. Really fucked up satire to be sure, but satire and fictional nonetheless.

Sorting Out the Mess in Kyiv

I apologize for the long gap in blog posts. On the upside, I now have hosting for the podcast and I’ll be recording and hopefully releasing a new episode next week. I do plan to speak about the situation in Ukraine for part of that episode, so hopefully between that and this post, readers will have an idea of my stance on this.

I should point out that I’m going to try to keep this as brief and simplified as possible because as long-time readers and friends know, when it comes to Ukrainian politics I tend to get on my soapbox. And since my location prevents me from having a more hands on approach at the moment, I’ll save the stump speeches for another later.

So in case you’ve missed it, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and who crossed the Ukrainian border illegally earlier this year, has been running around Kyiv trying to raise hell and calling for the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko. There are arguments over the size of protest crowds and accusations of working for the Russians are flying like bullets at Gallipoli. Pro-Saakashvili people are trying to compare their movement to Maidan, while pro-Poroshenko people are starting to sound a lot like pro-Kremlin voices talking about Yanukovych during the actual Maidan revolution, right down to implying that the protesters are paid or duped without any agency.

vipertoad

A viper and a toad- the best descriptor for the Saakashvili-Poroshenko War of 2017.

Right from the start I must say that observing both sides (and I have friends and acquaintances on both sides of the barricades), I don’t think anyone sticking up for Saakashvili really puts much faith in him or even cares about him at all. Saakashvili seems to have made himself a rallying point around which opponents of the president can concentrate. Unlike the Russia-leaning Opposition Bloc, it’s kind of hard to pretend Saakashvili is really Russian when he, like Poroshenko, basically got into a shooting war with Moscow back in 2008. This means protesters can rally behind him while maintaining that all important “patriotism” that is so essential in Ukrainian politics these days.

For my part, I always felt bringing Saakashvili to Ukraine was a stupid gimmick, a feature of this idiotic idea that every country or individual who has some beef with the Kremlin must be a useful ally for that reason alone. That Saakashvili cleaned up corruption in Georgia and transformed that country is beyond question, something I’ve heard personally from Georgians who otherwise didn’t like the former president. Nonetheless, there was zero reason to believe that he could repeat that in the Odesa oblast or anywhere in Ukraine for that matter. I, like many Ukrainians, also have a problem with the way the Poroshenko government would hand out Ukrainian passports like candy to any semi-celebrity, including Russian Duma deputies who actually voted for the Crimean annexation, while people who have risked their lives fighting for Ukraine find themselves without residency or deported, in some cases back to Russia to face prosecution.

As ridiculous as Saakashvili’s “revolution” is, I’m more dismayed by the reactions coming from defenders of the status quo, be they openly pro-Poroshenko or not. For one thing, Poroshenko brought this on himself by first bringing Saakashvili in and then by stripping him of his citizenship when he became inconvenient.  I wonder how many of the status quo defenders were excited by Poroshenko’s decision to invite Saakashvili in the first place. But never mind that for now. I think the best way to handle this succinctly is to give an approximation of the arguments I’ve been seeing from the status-quo defenders and providing an explanation as to why they are bullshit.

We’re at war! 

No. Sorry, status quo defenders, but you don’t get to use this argument. Remember, you chose Minsk II, not victory. Any time you see this argument, push the person to say what Ukraine should do to end the war. They have no answers whatsoever. UN Peacekeepers? Won’t happen and would probably lead to a solidification of the phony “republics” if it did somehow happen. The West wins the war for Ukraine? Not going to happen. Obama had the perfect chance to crush and humiliate Putin in 2014, but he ruled out any military action from the get-go. Wait until Russia collapses? Forget it. Ukraine would suffer some sort of socio-economic collapse first, and even if it somehow didn’t, a collapse of the Russian Federation would have grave consequences for Ukraine, especially one still run by corrupt oligarchs. This is all fantasy.

Ukraine can in fact win a war against Russia, but the Poroshenko government clearly has no interest in doing so, and I’ve yet to see any of these “We’re at war” people put forth any plan for victory.

And it’s also worth noting that Ukraine has no shot at victory or even a favorable peace if its war effort is undermined by oligarchs and corrupt officials who put their personal luxury above Ukraine. Corruption in Ukraine not only exists in the arms industry, but even within the military itself.

This is helping Russian propagandists!

I find this objection rather amusing for several reasons. First of all, we know that Russian propagandists are perfectly content to just make shit up about Ukraine. Such made up stories include putting Hitler on a Ukrainian banknote, claims that the US is using Ukraine as a biological weapons testing site, and about 47 different alternative MH17 conspiracy theories, to cite just a few.

Another reason why this argument is funny is that it seems to be coming from the same side that supports things like the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory’s mission to whitewash the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and transform the Ukrainian Insurgent Army into a diverse, inclusive multi-cultural outfit that killed 12,000 Wehrmacht soldiers and never, ever killed any helpless civilians (but if they did, those people had it coming). When you try to point out that promoting the cult of literal fascists (yes, they fucking were by definition, fascists) like Stepan Bandera or Roman Shukhevych can alienate many Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Western Europeans, and Americans while at the same time providing excellent propaganda material for the Kremlin’s agitprop mills, these people tend to tell you that they don’t care what anybody says- “Ukraine has a right to its own heroes! And we decide who those heroes will be and what their stories are!”

So in short- fuck people who do that and use this argument about airing dirty laundry in front of the Russians. Either you care about optics and values all the time, or you’re full of shit. And I also have little sympathy for chest-thumping patriots who claim not to give a fuck about what the Western world thinks of Ukraine, but then have their hand out, whining about why the US hasn’t sent them Javelins yet. Hey, partisan, why don’t you just defeat the Russian Federation the way your heroic UPA defeated the Soviet Union? Oh…Wait…That didn’t work out too well, did it? Well there’s no better strategy than glorifying failure and doing the same fucking thing over and over again no matter how many times its been shown not to work, right?

Now to be fair, it is true that Russia’s propaganda machine benefits from Saakashvili’s antics. It helps support their narrative that Ukraine is a chaotic basketcase and protesting never solves anything. On the other hand, however, it also casts doubt on the claim that Ukraine is run by this iron-fisted neo-Nazi junta as well as the claim that it poses some kind of threat to Russia.

Saakashvili’s pseudo-revolution is not the solution to Ukraine’s problems, obviously, but it’s a really bad idea to tailor one’s actions based on what the Russians might say about it. You cannot control what they will put out, so if you let them determine the limits of your discourse you’ve effectively let them control you. People say that Putin misunderstood Ukraine in 2014 and that’s why he failed to achieve all his goals there, but while I think there is some truth to that, the game really hasn’t changed so much that Putin and his strategists couldn’t rely on the bulk of their techniques in order to keep Ukraine pinned down and unable to move forward with progressive change. From cultural policy to Eurovision, we’ve seen how easily Moscow can still press Kyiv’s buttons because the game hasn’t really changed.

Anti-Corruption Activists are Full of Shit!

I’ve seen many variants of this argument, including one recently from a certain diaspora cheerleader so dense I half expect her to one day explode and create another universe. But that individual is just an extreme case. I know far smarter people who also react to the phrase “anti-corruption activist” with this:

reforms

Believe me, I get it. I realize that these people aren’t all angels and they don’t have all the answers to Ukraine’s corruption problems. If anything they’re also victims of an extremely narrow range of political discourse in Ukraine, where it seems you’re always faced with false dilemmas and viper-toad choices. I’ll get into why “anti-corruption” doesn’t work as a political strategy later, but for now let’s just say that if one side is demonstratively corrupt, as Poroshenko and his people appear to be, it’s really hard to go all out against anti-corruption organizations. The government has, in fact, brought a lot of this on themselves.

But there have been changes since Maidan!

Okay. Great. But not all these changes have been great, nor do they all matter to most people. This is a little like Donald Trump talking about how great the stock market is doing. If we just take one issue, such as salaries, you can kind of see where the problem lies.

Things like low salaries and corruption directly undermine the war effort because they support key points of the Russian narrative:

-Protesting does nothing; it only makes things worse

-Ukraine has become worse off after Maidan

-There’s no difference between living in “democratic” Ukraine or under Russian occupation

-Russia may be corrupt and less democratic, but salaries and pensions are higher

Without getting into too much detail here, rest assured that the only way Ukraine can hope to achieve victory or even a favorable peace against Russia is by reaching the people behind enemy lines. Those people would be taking an extreme risk taking part in an insurgency against the Russian occupiers. Would they do that for the promise of an average salary of 190 euros and the opportunity to pay bribes to patriotic Ukrainian officials as opposed to Russian-speaking ones? I doubt it.

Put simply, Ukraine must provide these people with convincing proof that they would have a better future in Ukraine, and that vision must be so real to them that they would be willing to risk death and torture to attain it. Visa free travel they can’t afford or vague talk about “reforms” just won’t cut it. Unfortunately I’ve seen many examples of the current Ukrainian intelligentsia not caring about this issue in the slightest. It seems only in Ukraine can you find “nationalists” who would happily give away swathes of their territory simply so they can have a safe space to build their fantasy version of Ukraine (even if that Ukraine might need to resemble a Russia-like authoritarian kleptocracy). That these people aren’t immediately dismissed as traitors shows us how much reform Ukrainian politics really needs.

Conclusion

It’s a clusterfuck. That’s about all I can say. Poroshenko and the status-quo defenders won’t defeat Russia if left alone, nor will they do anything about major corruption. Anti-corruption activists aren’t going to defeat it either. The only thing that’s going to have an impact is when you get a militant, well-trained left movement in Ukraine which demonstrates the ability to fight the war against the occupier while at the same time organizing against the corrupt officials and oligarchs. What the centrists, nationalists, and anti-corruption crusaders all lack is a coherent, realistic understanding of why there is corruption in the country in the first place, i.e. capitalism. Just as the American ruling class, perpetually at odds with the vast majority of Americans, is using its influence in government to appropriate a larger share of public wealth, Ukrainian oligarchs and officials use a more direct, less legalized form of doing the same. And for that matter, Russia’s ruling class is doing it as well.

Ukraine’s understanding of class struggle has been stunted by several factors. I’d say the most prominent would be the relatively late formation of Ukrainian statehood and the fact that when the former briefly became a reality, Ukraine had no Ukrainian capitalist class (individual Ukrainian capitalists existed, but they were typically Russified and disconnected from the peasant majority). The other obvious factor is the disdain for socialism that comes not only from the Soviet experience, but the abhorrent behavior of the so-called “Communist Party of Ukraine” since independence in 1991. To this we can also add those well-meaning leftists who still can’t help but regurgitate the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals or talking points about “peace.”

But whatever the popularity or lack thereof when it comes to class struggle, it is very real, and it is shaping the events that we see in Ukraine, from the Russian invasion (an act of neo-colonialism) to Mr. Saakashvili’s aborted “revolution.” The invasion and occupation must necessarily take precedence over all, but the idea that Ukraine could ever hope to defeat such a powerful opponent while it is ruled by criminals or even just self-interested businessmen whose goals clash with that of the majority of Ukrainians is simply ludicrous.

To put it another way, Ukraine can’t win until there’s a force that points out what ought to be obvious by now- not all Ukrainians are on the same side.

 

Damn. There I am on this soap box again. Sorry about that.