Author Archives: Jim Kovpak

About Jim Kovpak

Journalist, translator, actor, humorist

Rise of the Russia Grifter Class

If you ever need a quick example of how capitalism does not, in fact, direct resources to the best possible uses, you need look no further than the massive self-help or management consulting industries. Largely unregulated, any silver-tongued charlatan can hawk some kind of psychological snake oil and millionaires if not billionaires will bury them in piles of money. Product development is pretty easy. Just come up with deep-sounding platitudes, common sense advice repacked in your own unique way, folksy wisdom, and of course, counter-intuitive “facts.” The efficacy of what you’re selling cannot be easily measured, so the only way you’re going to fail is if your audience gets bored.

Those who peddle this bullshit may go by many names- consultant, guru, therapist, pundit, lobbyist. But there is a much more appropriate term for such people- grifters. We live in a world that is rife with inequality and arbitrary or unjust authority. As such, those with power require the services of those who help justify something that cannot be justified with logic or concrete evidence. They need people to reassure them that they are wise, politically savvy, and morally upright. They need these people as much as they need lawyers, courts, the police, etc., and for the same reason- they perpetuate and sustain the conditions of capitalism. Of course when we speak about the grifters this way it is a bit of an oversimplification. After all, the grifters themselves have agency and they are basically entrepreneurs trying to survive in a market society. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are peddling bullshit because the market actually demands, nay requires, a lot of bullshit to keep running.

Since 2016 we’ve seen the rise of a new grifter class, the “Russia expert” grifter. To be sure, they started to appear around 2014, when Western politicians suddenly realized that the Kremlin is hostile to their interests (because there was literally no way to notice this prior to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas). However, 2016’s big story about Russian meddling in the US presidential election signaled to grifters everywhere that there was money to be made in the Cold War 2.0.  Enter the instant Russia expert.

Probably the best examples of this would be Eric “Game Theory” Garland and Louise Mensch. The latter, being a politician, is a natural grifter. As for Garland, he’s some kind of management consultant, which means he’s definitely skilled in the art of bullshit. But for every big-name grifter you already know, there seem to be new ones popping up left and right. What are they after? Grants? Cushy think-tank jobs? More media exposure to hawk their services? And what services, specifically?

It seems that one new mutation of the instant Russia expert (often identified by a total lack of Russian language knowledge and/or significant experience in Russia) is the Russian propaganda expert. This is someone who claims to have special insight or expertise into Russian “information warfare” techniques. Since the US and EU both seem interested in some kind of counter-propaganda (because it’s relatively cheaper than actually fixing the problems that make them vulnerable to that propaganda in the first place), there’s definitely money on the table.

How do you know you’re dealing with one of the new Russia grifters? Well one thing to look for is an utter lack of new insight or revelation in their writing. Most of the time they are just rehashing others’ work. There’s never any meat to their explanations- it’s just safe predictions or blatantly obvious observations. For a case study look no further than this piece by Brett Bruen, for The Hill.

The first thing we need to look at is Bruen’s bio, which I quote in full here:

“Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.”

Hmmm… Solid academic credentials no doubt. But notice anything missing there? Russia? Eastern Europe? Europe? Now apparently he has diplomatic experience, but given that Obama’s foreign policy was not much better than previous administrations, I’m not going to be automatically cowed by that CV. The biggest warning sign is “D.C.-based consulting firm.” I smell a lobbyist. But let’s not judge too quickly. Let’s see what insight this guy can give us into Russian information war in the near future.

“Last year was just the start. Next year, Russia’s intelligence and information operations will kick it into high gear. There are several reasons I am making this prediction.”

What does kicking it into high gear even mean in this context? When exactly was it in low-gear? How do we even measure this? While Russian election meddling has had very mixed results, we can only assume that those responsible for Russia’s information war prefer to keep their lucrative positions, and will thus continue to fight for funding. Does this mean they’ll increase their activities? Maybe not. They may decide to use more subtle, efficient tactics. They may jettison a lot of poorly-performing propaganda techniques to focus on those which get more attention. Basically this prediction is meaningless.

“First, the congressional races are an even easier target.”

Are they, though? First of all America’s House of Representatives is largely the product of massive gerrymandering back in 2010. In general, Congress as a whole has a very low turnover rate. If actual American candidates have such a hard time challenging incumbents, how will the Russians challenge them? There’s also the question of why Russia would even attempt to influence the outcome, but of course Brett has an answer for this.

“Second, their outcome will largely determine whether current sanctions stay in place or if even stronger ones are enacted.”

Oh right! The Senate passed that bill to increase sanctions on Russia and require congressional review for any presidential proposal to remove or ease the sanctions! That’s it! The Russians will want to influence the midterm elections in order to get people into Congress that would approve of Agent Trump’s efforts to remove sanctions! It’s so simple!

Oh wait a minute…That recent sanctions bill passed the Senate with a vote of 98-2. Looks pretty bipartisan to me. The Magnitsky Act, arguably the first sanctions against Russia, was also a bipartisan move. The majority of Republicans seem more than happy to pass sanctions on Russia, and you know the Democrats are game since the party’s elite is still convinced that Russia is totally responsible for ruining last year’s planned coronation.

Now given these obvious facts plus everything I’ve already pointed out about incumbents, low midterm turnouts, and gerrymandering, tell me exactly who Russia is going to back in 2018. They’re not going to have a pool of Dana Rohrabachers and David Dukes on whose behalf they can intervene.

Let’s also not forget that apart from this new sanctions bill, foreign policy is typically the domain of the president. Therefore it would be extremely difficult for the Russians to even figure out who they should support, assuming they could even find a significant number of useful candidates (and they won’t).

Moving on…

“Finally, last year was an unmitigated success for Russia. Doubt and division across America’s democracy was pushed to new heights. If I’m sitting in the Kremlin, 2018 offers me the chance to continue to stir the pot and further undermine confidence in Western democracy.”

There’s a lot of people in high-up Russian circles who would definitely, if not publicly, dispute that “unmitigated success” characterization. For one thing, Americans were clearly capable of making American democracy look like a circus- just look at the Republican primaries alone. But while the Russians have definitely scored from the outcome of the election (and keep in mind nobody has come up with convincing proof that Russian meddling had more impact than poor campaigning or other domestic factors), they also stand to lose a lot. As Mark Galeotti has pointed out time and time again, Trump is unpredictable, and Russia’s biggest advantage was the predictability of its opponents. The continuation of sanctions and the surprise cruise missile strike on Syria were just two examples of how Trump’s unpredictability is a major headache for the Kremlin.

“The first element in this plan is for Congress and the American public to continue straight on our current path. Democrats crying foul, Republicans largely feigning concern and defending their wins. President Trump creating daily distractions. Most importantly, no real action being undertaken to manage or mitigate our country’s exposure to version 2.0. This allows Moscow to prepare mostly unfettered, an even bigger assault on much smaller targets next year.”

Oh hey, why am I quoting this paragraph? No reason other than to show that it is utterly superfluous. There is nothing of value in it whatsoever.

“The vulnerability of the congressional elections is seemingly obvious.”

Eeeehhhh…No. It’s actually quite the opposite for the reasons I pointed out above. See the Kremlin has to have candidates it wants to win in order to properly interfere in the election. See Wilders, Le Pen, etc.

“Instead of manipulating national and international media, you can focus on a few local outlets where voters in those districts get most of their news.”

Huh? Who assumes that people in small towns get most of their news only from local outlets? Big cities have local outlets, and people in smaller towns and cities still have internet, cable TV, etc.

“The key races aren’t fought in the cities. Journalists in small towns are often less experienced and more easily manipulated.”

What exactly is this based on? Local journalists have often uncovered serious scandals, often better than those working for big corporations with no local expertise and a shoestring budget.

More importantly, manipulating the news at this level might arguably be much harder, because smaller locales have a more tightly-knit community. Pizzagate, a ridiculous conspiracy theory that was cooked up by American morons on the internet, got traction because it centered around a restaurant in a hipster-ish (or so I’ve read) area of DC, a major city where many Americans have never been (I, for example, have only been to the airport for a short layover). Now just imagine someone trying to manipulate the local Smallville Weekly Examiner with a story claiming Ma and Pa Walton’s Country Home Family Diner is running a secret child sex-trafficking ring. As stupid as the Pizzagate conspiracy was, it’s much easier to believe terrible things about people when they are faceless others living far away in places you’ve never been.

There’s another problem with trying to manipulate local media and interfere in congressional races- first of all there’s a lot of them, and second, there are a lot of local issues to learn about. One thing we’ve seen with Russian trolling efforts is that they are often laughably poor. Casey Michel on Twitter has often provided numerous examples of the hilariously bad English seen on a pro-Russian “Texas separatist” Facebook page, for example.

 

“Moreover, just a handful of races can tip the balance of power. Russia will concentrate their power in those places. This also allows them avoid the exposure a national influence operation involves.”

Again I’m forced to ask how they’re supposed to get around the gerrymandering issue and who are they planning to back, because so far this looks like a pretty shit plan to me. It’s important for me to point out here that I’m not saying they won’t try to interfere in the congressional elections. I can even see the value in interfering simply to cause disputed elections and more domestic chaos. But the author is clearly implying that the Russians will try to interfere with a specific goal of achieving certain outcomes and he has ignored so many basic features of the 2018 elections that if I hadn’t read his bio, I’d assume he was a foreigner. Russian perhaps?!

So far what we have here is something that was clearly intended to sound like analysis, but which is utterly devoid of any real content and utterly lacking in any sort of insight. It would have been much better if he’d just written “They interfered in the last election and they’ll probably keep doing it because it causes a lot of problems.”

“Having coordinated America’s first modern campaign to counter Russian propaganda in Europe, I’m all too familiar with how they work.”

I feel like if this is what his background is, I should have at least heard of him so far. In any case, Europe and America were way behind Ukraine in countering this propaganda. Furthermore, much of the counter-propaganda effort has boiled down to nothing more than fact-checking. While this is useful, it doesn’t really do much to rollback the effects of the propaganda. The main reason for this is that the West has no suitable counter-narrative. They don’t even seem to think a counter-narrative is even necessary, beyond some platitudes about human rights, democracy, and a “rules-based order.” But that’s a topic for another article.

In any case, being in charge of such a new effort doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. In this case I’d actually argue that I have more expertise with such propaganda having been in several target audiences for Russian propaganda, plus my experience in Russia and my connections who work or used to work in the Russian state-run media.

“The potency of their tradecraft is found in its successful manipulation of facts.”

Tradecraft! One hundred intelligence points awarded!

Seriously though, is the successful manipulation of facts really an exclusively Russian propaganda feature? This is one of those cases where it is definitely not whataboutism to say that tons of actors, from politicians to pundits manipulate facts. If anything Russian propaganda, in certain contexts, is unique in the sense that it will often totally invent stories almost out of thing air, and then continually repackage them until you can’t easily determine the original source and thus can’t tell whether they are real or where they came from. Even this is not terribly original. I’d say the most unique thing about Russian propaganda is the fact that they will do this often with very poorly concocted stories which are easily debunked. They seem to believe there is some value in the continual use of such poorly constructed stories.

“They then use their own of affiliated media outlets to ensure the information gets traction. Yet, they don’t expect most voters to tune into Russia Today. Instead, they are betting a blogger, an activist group, or local journalist will report on it or share on their own networks. This tactic can be used independently or coupled to their intelligence work, as it was in the presidential race. “

Here there is some truth to this, but what is new or insightful here? What do we learn from this? It’s nothing that hasn’t been said by plenty of people for the past two or three years now. Also he’s ignoring how much of RT’s content actually comes from mining Western conspiracy theories. It seems zero effort has been made to attack homegrown propaganda. Gee, I wonder why that might be…

“There will be hacks. Yet, the damage won’t come from the information their intelligence service will expose on campaign plans or questionable stuff staff were saying and sharing. The new danger comes from that ability to manufacture seemingly authentic material. Emails you didn’t write that insult key constituencies will suddenly appear on Wikileaks. How can you disprove them? Even if you do, time and credibility will be lost. More importantly for the Russians, confusion will be created.”

So the country that has acquired a reputation for cyber-attacks will keep doing them. Okay. Could have saved some words there. Also, earlier he points out that important races will be decided in smaller towns where people get their news from local sources (his assertion). Now we’re supposed to believe these people will be browsing Wikileaks? Will local reporters see the material on Wikileaks and report on them? That’s possible. But it’s also possible that for the reasons I stated above, it will be easier for them to investigate and find out they are false.

“Many will say that we have seen this before. Yet just as in France this year and in our own presidential campaign last year, the size, scale, and sophistication of this information operation will be unprecedented. Its potency will be far greater in 2018.”

Did someone forget to tell him that Russia’s efforts to do this in France failed miserably this year? In fact, Macron’s team even found a way to play the hackers at their own game.

“Having refined their tools and tactics, we can expect a much more dangerous version to emerge. They will be firing from their asymmetric arsenal of influence at small town and suburban America, where the key races will take place.”

Again. Gerrymandering. Candidates hostile to Russia. How are they going to deal with any of that? Are they going to somehow get voters to write in some local Putin-loving defective en masse? What’s the plan here?

“It will be like the Cold War era movie I remember watching as a kid, “Red Dawn.” Except this time, it will be massive armies of Russian propagandists landing in Middle America. We will need more than the spunk of a teenage Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen to defeat them.”

Um no, it will be nothing like Red Dawn, especially since even if this did actually happen as you say, the Russian propagandists don’t literally come to America at all. The only sense in which this analogy works is that this article is analogous to the kind of right-wing paranoia that inspired Red Dawn.

“So where are the preparations for this new Russian assault? Why are the government, political parties, and the news media not preparing more countermeasures?”

Gee, Brett, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I bet you do, and you’ll happily tell our government what to do, for a modest fee of course!

I’m going to leave Brett for a bit and just say that this Russia grifter class is not just a group of harmless wannabe spies. Apart from the money and resources they suck from governments, they actually aid Russian propaganda efforts in two ways. One way is by portraying Putin as being more powerful and influential than he actually is. Putin’s domestic propaganda, which is the propaganda most important for his survival, incidentally, is almost entirely dedicated to portraying the Dear Leader as a defender against Western encroachment. Not only does he stubbornly oppose them, but he trolls them while doing it. Another way is by the propagation of Garland/Mensch-like conspiracy theories. These tend to generate a lot of low hanging fruit that can easily be picked off by pro-Russian writers. A favorite tactic of the RT Op-Edge is to pick on the easily debunked claims of some Western journalist, and then imply that all Western coverage of Russia can be dismissed for its Russophobia.

The other way it helps Russian propaganda is by securing and increasing funding for outlets like RT and Sputnik. As Alexei Kovalev has pointed out many times in the past, Western government hysteria about these outlets has become a kind of performance metric for them. They collect quotes of Western leaders angrily railing against RT and Sputnik and then use them as proof that they are doing something. This, of course, is basically just scamming the Russian government, but in terms of information war the effect helps the Russian propaganda machine.

So if they don’t actually turn back Russian propaganda and basically help it both indirectly and directly, why are these grifters the darlings of the Western establishment these days? Why can’t someone like me get in on this Russian propaganda-debunking business, given my experience?

The draw for the grifters lies in the fact that they tell Western leaders what they want to hear. “All those social problems you refuse to deal with? That’s not your fault. It’s Russia. They’re exploiting those problems.” This is particularly pleasing because it means that people who keep talking about those problems, activists, for example, can be tarred as Russian propagandists, doing the bidding of the Kremlin. You know, that almost reminds me of this other government I know, but I digress.

 

Bullshit self-help gurus succeed because they tell their clients something they want to hear. Sometimes, the therapy works. Many times it doesn’t. Most of the time it’s impossible to measure.

So it is with the Russia grifters. They’ll keep spitting out lots of intel-speak like “tradecraft” and “active measures” and they’ll keep raking in the dough until there’s a new big threat on the horizon. We’re witnessing the decline of the phony Islamic terrorism expert (see Sebastian Gorka)  and the ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. I’d imagine the next incarnation will most likely be the phony Chinese propaganda expert, but looking at Chinese foreign-language propaganda so far, it looks like it will take a while before Western politicians can be successfully duped into seeing it as an existential threat.

 

UPDATE: I’ve updated the piece regarding the Senate vote, as a source I read today said it was 98-2 and not 97-2 (I’d seen the figure somewhere before and assumed someone abstained). Also it appears the new sanctions bill discussed in this article is floundering in the House, with the opposition coming from Republicans. They’re claiming that it’s a constitutional issue, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s really going on- all House Republicans are compromised Russian agents!

Journalists Stage Uprising in Donbas, Declare Independent Country of ‘Pressia’

DONETSK- War correspondents from around the world working in Ukraine’s embattled Donbas region staged an armed uprising against both Ukrainian government and Russian-backed forces in the region on Thursday. The rag-tag army of reporters, recognizable by their “uniform” of blueish body armor and PRESS logos, held a presentation in the Radisson Hotel in Donetsk to announce the declaration of independence for a new nation they call “Pressia.”

 

“Whereas journalists have for decades put their very lives at risk to inform the people, whereas they have rarely been adequately compensated for that sacrifice, and whereas everybody, everywhere, hates us with a passion, we liberated journalists do declare the sovereignty and independence of the nation of Pressia,” the declaration reads.

Many of the revolutionaries were described as ecstatic by themselves.

“I can’t believe it,” said Roger Felton, a freelancer who is extremely good-looking and until now was forced to work for six different publications just to make ends meet. “Two weeks ago I had to supplement my income by teaching bratty kids in Kyiv, and now I’m a founding father of a new country!”

Tom Rawlings, acting minister of defense for the new nation and an extremely eloquent correspondent who has never been given his due until now, explained why the journalists were able to overpower both the Ukrainian and Russian forces so easily.

“You have to remember that with war correspondents you’ve got people who have prior military experience or have at least witnessed several military conflicts,” he said, running a hand through his awesome hair that looked totally badass with his long beard and olive-drab keffiyeh.

“Besides that, we all have body armor and helmets, some of which are better than those used by the combatants,” he added, putting on a pair of dope shades.

The journalists have formed a provisional council to organize a system of governance in the territory they control. According to sources who are very well-traveled, experienced, and intelligent, the new nation’s government will consist of local autonomous councils making decisions via direct democracy and choosing delegates for higher, regional councils. The system is based on that instituted by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in northern Syria, where some of the journalist militia leaders have worked in the past.

Apart from radical direct democracy, spokespeople for the provisional council also promised that style guides would be eliminated. Council members affirmed their commitment to human rights, but reserved the right to legislate capital punishment for late payment to freelance writers.

Meanwhile, world leaders, particularly those of Russia and Ukraine, have expressed their opposition to the fledgling nation.

“This is an unacceptable violation of the Minsk process,” said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is totally lame.

“This is obviously a plot by our Western partners who are desperate to prevent the rise of a multi-polar world,” babbled Vladimir Putin’s deformed spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. His mustache makes him look like a 70’s porn star who did so much coke his eyes are about to burst out of their sockets.

Apart from general whining by loser politicians, overall coverage of the Pressia revolution has been overwhelmingly positive, and is expected to remain so. Spokespeople for the new country asserted that they plan to carry the revolution throughout the world, starting first in conflict areas.

“Journalists of the world, you have nothing to lose but your stupid editors,” said one revolutionary who is definitely a successful well-adjusted adult. “You have the world to gain! Journalists of the world, unite!”

If you are a journalist please see our contacts page to find out how to stake out police or military armories in your locale. Our day has come!

 

The Sinister Urge

Vox had a pretty good explainer breaking down Louis “I literally claimed to have fried my brain” Mensch, John “Srebrenica never happened BTW here’s a photo of my dick” Schindler, and some other shlub I’ve thankfully never heard of. If fate has been merciful to you and you are not familiar with these internet personalities, I’ll give you the gist. Basically ever since the election of Orange Man, certain people have made a career out of not only claiming that the Russians collude with Trump or that they interfered with the election (both claims with some evidence), but that Trump’s election was in fact the result of a secret Russian operation which, according to some “woke” Twitter pundits, may have spanned decades, all the way back to the late Soviet era.

Being Vox, they naturally had to include a large portion detailing a psychology experiment that would supposedly help explain why people, even super-smart liberals, would fall for conspiracy theories. I’m not disputing the experiment, of course, but I think there’s a much simpler explanation and it’s not one most liberals would like to admit. I strongly suspect that many liberals have long held an urge to immerse themselves in the conspiratorial thinking that was once largely the domain of the right. Maintaining the veneer of rationality is in some way discomforting to them.

I remind the reader that in a recent post, I pointed out how most people don’t have a coherent, consistent political worldview and don’t care whether or not they do. The same goes for a lot of self-identified liberals. Liberals have always had a few conspiracy theories to their name. Bring up Monsanto and you’ll often see what I mean. Bill Maher, a liberal’s liberal, is anti-vaccine because “Big Pharma!” For many liberals, I suspect that the appearance of being rational is more important, and it’s not hard to appear rational when your opponents often sound like random word generators spitting out an incoherent stream of “Where’s the birth certificate?!” and “Benghazi!!!

But liberals have a huge problem- despite the fact that their values are largely more popular (based on surveys), the fact that their views largely dominate pop culture, and the “fact” that they are so much smarter than those hordes of ignorant rednecks who didn’t even go to college (I know, right?! LOL!), liberals have basically been losing on every front for the past eight years. As some talented observers have noted, eight years of Obama didn’t really bring much meaningful change. The most significant change was increasingly right wing Republicans virtually dominating the federal government and state governments as well. This wasn’t supposed to happen! The data failed!

Nothing serves as a premise for an overarching conspiracy theory like a good back-stab legend. When you’re too afraid to be honest with yourself and you’re convinced that you’re more intelligent and savvy yet you still lose again and again, you become vulnerable to conspiracy narratives. Losing the 2016 election to an elderly sociopath with the mental capacity of a toddler should have been a sobering moment for the Democratic Party. Plenty of supporters have been telling them exactly that. However they are repeatedly being dismissed for their disloyalty to the Eternal First Female President and their apostasy from the true faith of the Holy Data and the Holy Model. Naturally, many who keep the true faith are more than happy to latch onto a soothing, yet implicitly frightening explanation- that Russia is manipulating US politics from afar. Like any conspiracy theory it is paranoid, but the world of fear it offers is preferable to admitting one’s ignorance or one’s mistakes.

If the “Zionist Occupied Government” explains why the superior vanguard of “the White race” largely consists of petty criminals, con-men, perverts, and people who can’t maintain a relationship, the Russian Trump operation explains why those super savvy liberals just can’t stop failing. Funny though- Russian election meddling, at most, only explains the presidential election. I’ve yet to see these geniuses explain Democrat losses in the house and at the state level. But what would I know, I was probably added to the roster of “Team Deza” long ago.

And speaking of “Team Deza,” there are a couple more factors that make conspiracies very attractive to some Democrats. One is the new jargon. Kompromat! Dezinformatsiya! Chekist! Game theory! Nothing makes some liberals happier than dropping jargon and factoids at parties to sound like they actually know what they’re talking about: “So like, yeah, like, Vladimir Putin is a Chekist, which is like a type of Chechen Russian that kills LGBT people. And, like, he got kompromat on Trump and Flynn, so they have to keep putting out Kremlin dezinformatsiya, which is like information that’s like, not real, like disinformation, so like we’re basically living under this…Cyrillic autocracy controlled by Vladimir Putin! Might as well cover the White House in Kremlin minarets, right? This cheesecake, by the way, is literally amazing!

If it’s not the jargon, then it’s the same thrill some people apparently get from role-playing online. Long ago in discussion forums I learned that some conspiracy theorists aren’t there to just share and discuss their theories and other views. They are online to actually live out the conspiracy. If they encounter someone who questions their theories or whom they just don’t like, they will allege that this person is some kind of “disinfo agent” working for the Mossad, CIA, or whomever. Now savvy liberals can sound smart as they engage in the same behavior, accusing people of being “Kremlin trolls.” We can’t forget that much like many conservatives, plenty of liberals live dull, pointless late-capitalist lives and thus may be starving for excitement. Imaging you’re unraveling a Russian intel op can be a cheap alternative to video games, and unlike with video games, this makes you look like a mature, politically-minded adult.

So while psychological research on conspiracy theories is interesting and explanatory, I think the best shorthand answer as to why so many Democrats are “falling for fake news about Russia” is, apart from simple partisanship, a strong desire to let go and indulge in the comfort of conspiracy theories. For some people it’s more comforting to imagine that the world is controlled by shadowy forces who always win than to admit their own failings. Moreover, the conspiracy exempts the believer from any concrete actions. There is no point if the puppet masters are in control the whole time. There are clearly significant numbers of liberals who want their own Alex Jones, and now they have it in the form of Louise Mensch. Simple as that.

 

 

Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A Great Introduction to Ukraine

I wanted to do a short post that was positive for a change, so I thought the book review I’d been planning to write for months would naturally be the most appropriate.

Some months ago I finished Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A History of Ukraine, and it is absolutely masterful. It’s strongest features? First, it is written by a Ukrainian historian. No, I’m not saying this like Viatrovych fanboy who says “Ukrainians should write Ukrainian history!” But when studying a country it helps to spend some time reading the work of that country’s historians to get their point of view. While outsiders’ detachment may help free them from potential biases, that same detachment can also cause them to miss or devote less time to those things in the country’s history which don’t necessarily catch their interest. A native historian can give you an idea of what local people find significant about their country.

Secondly, Plokhy strikes a good balance between detail and pacing. One thing about general histories is that they can sometimes be either too light, not delving deep enough into some important events or phenomenon and lacking crucial nuance, or they do the opposite, forcing you to slog through excruciatingly-detailed descriptions of sometimes minor events over the course of centuries. Naturally when I saw the book opens with the region of Ukraine during Antiquity I feared it would be the latter. Yet the author moves at a lively pace, moving more quickly over those parts which aren’t as crucial in the history of Ukraine. And speaking of crucial parts in Ukraine’s history, the book is also very recent, giving the reader key details about events such as the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion and occupation of the Donbas region.

Having deliberately saved the best for last I can now tell you the greatest feature of Plokhy’s book- it truly brings the Ukrainian people, stretching back to the ancient Rus, to life. It does this by properly reclaiming Ukrainian historical figures whenever they lived, even if they died long before the ethnogenenis of the Ukrainians. Plokhy shows the Ukrainian people, particularly from the early modern era onward, as a coherent nation even though it lacked its own state.

Another great aspect of this portrayal is agency. For much of my life I’ve noticed the tendency of some Ukrainians or well-wishers to portray Ukrainian history as one of victimization and domination. In Plokhy’s history, different groups of Ukrainians act, and sometimes it doesn’t go well for them, but they are responsible. They are not simply acted upon. Even in the Soviet era, a period of Ukrainian history that some nationalists like to declare totally invalid, Plokhy shows that Ukrainians could be both victims and perpetrators, ruled and rulers via their dominance of key cadres after the Stalin era. Rather than treating the centuries of foreign domination in Ukraine as a black hole in which Ukrainians were simply objects and not subjects, he presents the long march toward Ukrainian statehood in a progressive way, from possessions of the Commonwealth and the Russian Empire, to a short-lived series of states in the revolutionary interwar period, to a unified Soviet republic and founding member of the UN, to an independent state suffering from Russian neo-colonialism, and finally to a state up in arms to overcome that neo-colonialism. Regardless of nation state status, Plokhy’s Ukraine has never died.

If I had to note some flaw I could say the book does skimp a bit when it comes to pointing out the role of the OUN-B nationalists and their role in the Holocaust (it does, however, clearly mention the ethnic cleansing of Poles), but if you look at the actual amount of text dedicated to those nationalists in general this is not particularly surprising or egregious. I think sometimes some of my Ukrainian readers infer that I insist every mention of interwar Ukrainian nationalists must necessarily include the laundry list of atrocities committed by some nationalist groups. I suspect this is because of the legacy of Soviet propaganda plus the Yanukovych administration, which often put up monuments to “victims of the Banderites” in places where no Banderites or any other nationalists even operated, such as the Crimea. This is simply idiocy.

Beating the dead nationalist horse is not my aim at all; I don’t really see them as being very relevant to Ukraine today. I’m far more opposed to the whitewashing, glorification, double-standards, and pseudo-history concerning the OUN and UPA. I’m sick of seeing them shoehorned into Ukrainian politics and Ukrainian history whether as heroes or villains. Thus Plokhy’s book truly shines because he gives the nationalists exactly the amount of text they deserve for a movement which never attracted more than a minority of Ukrainians as a whole, many of whom joined only under duress and not out of ideological fervor. The legend of the nationalists, which has been inflated by Soviet and Russian propaganda on one hand and the Bandera cult on the other, gets deflated to its proper place in Ukrainian history by Plokhy. So in the end, the one “flaw” really isn’t a flaw at all, or at least it is a totally defensible one.

In conclusion I highly recommend The Gates of Europe as an essential introductory general history of Ukraine. I think any Ukrainian or person of Ukrainian heritage reading this book would be proud to see that Ukrainians made important contributions in the history of the region and even globally despite lacking a nation state for much of their history.

 

Gotcha!

 

If I had to name one of the saddest, most useless tactics in the toolbox of Democrats/liberals, it would be those “Gotcha!” moments- pointing out the hypocrisy of their right wing and far right wing opponents. Take a look on Twitter some time and see liberal responses to President Pumpkin-face’s dainty curtsy for the Saudi King to see what I mean:

For the readers that aren’t aware, during his first Middle Eastern trip in 2009, Barack Obama made a shallow respectful bow upon greeting the Saudi monarch. The conservative mediasphere when nuts. Naturally they aren’t doing that now in response to Trump and if you managed to corner any conservative and demand an explanation they’d probably give you a rambling response about how Donald was just making it easier for the King to put the medal over his head before changing the subject to something else entirely.

Knowing this, however, I’m pressed to imagine exactly what liberals think would happen by pointing this out. Are they expecting to see conservatives respond with something like: “You know you liberals have got a point there! We made such a big deal of Obama just trying to show some courtesy to an important ally and friend of the Bush family, and it was all over nothing! I hope you can forgive us for flying off the handle that time! We’ll try to be more consistent with our outrage in the future!”

The point here is that just as basic facts don’t sway opinions for most people, pointing out even the most glaring hypocrisy can be just as useless. Even when that non-scandal with Obama took place in 2009, I predicted that there would have been outrage either way. That is to say if Obama hadn’t made any bow and just greeted the Saudi King as Westerners greet one another, Fox News and the army of conservative pundits would have screamed themselves red in the face about how the President disrespected this “valuable ally” and important partner. I’m sure some of them would have certainly declared the slight so serious as to jeopardize the War on Terror and by extension, America’s security.

These people weren’t genuinely angry about Obama being seen as submissive to a foreign leader (because normal, informed people don’t see the gesture that way at all), the point is that it was Obama, leader of the opposing team, and thus everything he does or doesn’t do is terrible and with malicious intent. And in spite of all that vaunted formal education, liberals totally missed this point and seemingly built an industry of cataloging each and every single time conservatives contradicted themselves, as though any of these people even cared about being consistent. The pundits who produce this manufactured outrage on the right are well-paid to do so. They aren’t so much as representing a coherent ideology as they are serving their purpose, which is getting masses of people to vote for the GOP and, quite often, policies which actually go against their own self-interest. I’m not saying that none of those pundits and columnists have some genuine, sincerely-held beliefs, but rather that they aren’t terribly concerned with being morally or ideologically consistent.

Realistically speaking, most people don’t have any coherent political worldview. The severe limitations on political participation and the pressures of capitalism mean that even in the most developed liberal democracies, the majority of people just “aren’t into politics.” With so many people posting political memes and sharing political stories it might seem that they are, but if you really look at what’s being shared most of it is simply bullshit. It’s clickbait, typically designed to provoke outrage or to stroke the reader’s ego for being on the “right” side. In other words- this isn’t politics but entertainment, in some cases highly-addictive entertainment. As such, it sort of resembles another form of popular entertainment- professional sports.

If you watch professional sports, you’ll notice that even casual fans balk at referees when they call fouls or penalties against their team. Sometimes, after watching the replay, they’ll acknowledge that the call was justified, but more often than not the immediate reaction to a call against a fan’s team is “bullshit!” When you’re rooting for a team, what matters is that they win. I’ve never heard of a sports fan who worries that their team might push the rules or even break them without getting caught. For a more extreme example of this just look at last year’s doping scandal in Russia. There people flat-out broke rules in a big way, and yet a good portion of people just alleged that there was an anti-Russian conspiracy and that Western athletes were getting away with the same thing (they weren’t, actually).

Obviously the world of sports doesn’t translate over to the world of politics very well. Here it’s supposed to be about ideas, values, worldviews. If you’re trying to convince people that your side is morally right (as has been the case for a long time now), you ought to be consistent in regards to your values. Ought to be is the key phrase there. In reality we’ve long passed the point where consistency matters. And yet you still have liberals saying things like “How can you be so opposed to abortion and not want to help poor women who keep the babies as you demand? Sounds like someone’s a hypocrite!” Poor liberals. As a great baseball player once put it- they think it don’t be like it is, but it do.

I must confess that I’m guilty of playing the “Gotcha!” game with hypocrisy. Who isn’t? It’s one of the easiest games to play. It’s not entirely useless either. Part of the reason why it matters to me is that I actually care about having a morally consistent worldview, and that worldview has actually evolved radically over time as a result. Plus pointing out hypocrisy is useful for youth and people who are politically undecided. If you’re not really that involved, you might steer clear of a movement which demands ideological conformity yet openly betrays its own values. In this sense it is like fact-checking, which is still useful and important even if it doesn’t actually help persuade people on a large scale.

But that being said, pointing out hypocrisy can’t really be a winning or even effective strategy, and it certainly can’t be a replacement for having one’s own internally consistent set of values. American Democrats spent years relying on snark and the “Gotcha” approach, trusting that the glaring hypocrisy of the right would attract more people to their side. In the end, it was their own hypocrisy of claiming to care about the working class and the poor while constantly kowtowing to super-rich donors that was one of the most decisive factors in their pathetic defeat.

 

 

 

A Primer on Russia’s Presidential Election

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! I’ve decided to write one more article about Russia-related stuff (for the foreseeable future) just because I recently saw another example of a trope that never seems to die and I don’t think I’ve ever actually dedicated a whole post to it. Before I proceed let me point out that I’m not trying to single out any particular author here. I’ve seen this trope and variations thereof many times over the years, and in my less-informed days I’d actually voiced similar arguments. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in.

Among Western Putin apologists there’s a grand tradition of smearing Western Russia correspondents by pedantically homing in on any mistakes, real or imagined, in their work. The idea is that they’re actually ignorant about Russia, that they have an axe to grind against poor wittle Putin. To be fair, some journalists, usually those not actually based in Russia, can display horrendous ignorance about the country. Case in point:

However, when attacking long-time Moscow correspondents, the grievances are typically unfair, inaccurate, nitpicky, or all three at the same time. When there’s a major election in Russia, Putin’s pedants rehash the same trope every time- they complain that the Western media gives so much attention to non-systemic opposition candidates who in fact are very unpopular and have no chance of winning.

In support of this claim they will provide plenty of legitimate opinion polls. Rest assured you can usually take these polls at face value; they’re typically correct. It’s no secret that opposition politicians in Russia are incredibly unpopular, indeed far less popular than the two leading systemic-opposition parties the “Communist” Party of the Russian Federation (I can’t put enough quotes around the word “Communist” in their name) and the equally inappropriately-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. So why does the Western media focus so much attention on politicians who have no chance of winning and are almost unheard of outside of Moscow? Apparently someone actually needs to explain this, so here goes…

First let me say that the inspiration for this comes from a tweet thread by David Filipov, Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, in which he addressed this very question.

In case that didn’t make it painfully clear to you, let me break it down to preschool level.

In an election, a real election, candidates are supposed to compete. That means they actually want to be president. Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have no plans to be president of Russia. If you deny the existence of systemic opposition in Russia you are either ignorant or a liar- period. While there is sometimes opposition at the local level and in the Duma, none of the systemic opposition parties pose a threat to Putin and his favored United Russia party. None of them plan to do anything to change the system that basically lets Putin do what he pleases as long as he wants.

Those opposition candidates, in spite of their minimal popularity, actually do want to change the system in some way. They actually intend to be real politicians. It’s kind of the media’s job to interview candidates, ask them about their ideas, why they want to be president, a representative, or whatever. Unless we’re talking about the Russian state media, of course.

And speaking of state media, it might be time to ask why these politicians are so unpopular. Apart from occasionally appearing on talk shows while they are mercilessly shouted down by other guests, most major opposition figures in Russia almost never appear on TV unless it’s in a bullshit story alleging that they’re working for the CIA, Soros, the YMCA, or whatever other organization the Kremlin is scared shitless of this week. All the while they and their volunteers are routinely harassed and their offices searched or closed under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile the perpetrators are either never found or are promptly released.

Remember that the Putin apologists who constantly whine about the Western media devoting so much attention to minimally-popular opposition candidates are at least tacitly asserting that Russia has a functioning democratic electoral system. If they aren’t, I don’t know why they even bother, but let’s assume for the moment that they do. If this is the case, why are Russian elections so bizarrely different from those in other democratic states? Why are the second and third most popular presidential candidates not even interested in actually becoming president? Hell, one of them (Zhirinovsky) actually called for elections to be abolished and for Putin to be given the title of “Supreme Commander.” Can anyone imagine a Republican in the US suggesting such a thing for Obama? Can you even imagine them just calling for Obama to be able to run for a third term? The scandal would be at least equal to the one surrounding the Trump administration at the moment.

So please, Putinist pedants- stop pretending Putin’s regime is just a little quirky or just as democratic as other states and wringing your hands while presenting polls to show how unpopular candidates like Navalny are. We all know they’re unpopular, and anyone who knows about Russia’s political an mass media system knows why. To para-phrase Filipov, if you think there’s another candidate Russia correspondents should be spending more time covering, please name them and explain why. What is newsworthy about them? And to extrapolate from that- if you’re not happy with the stories that Western journalists cover, maybe you should provide examples of the stories you think should be covered and again, say why. I’ve often written about my complaints about some of that coverage and I give my reasons.

Otherwise, I suggest you drop that trope and stick to your whataboutism. At least there you’re more likely to come up with a decent point from time to time.

The Pinnacle of Manliness

I originally was going to write this as a sort of palate cleanser before returning to the usual topic of Russia’s wacky adventures in fantasy land, but to be honest I’m thinking I’d rather be writing stuff like this than covering Russia and Ukraine. I’ll address why in a later post, rest assured, but for now let’s just say that it is repetitive, boring,and depressing. So with that in mind, here’s something completely different.

As we are constantly told by the media and totally well-adjusted adult Youtube personalities, there’s a “masculinity crisis” in America, or the West in general. The alt-right, “Men’s Rights” movement, and the general “anti-feminist” community we see on the internet all seem to think so. PUAs (Pick Up Artists), Red Pillers (dumb fucks), MGTOW (You don’t even want to know)- all of these masses of mostly millennial males are struggling with this crisis of masculinity. Some in rather bizarre ways, such as the so-called “Proud Boys” which have a rule against masturbation. Hilariously, or perhaps tragically, all these defenders of traditional masculinity seek to end that “crisis” by demanding more of the same thing that caused it in the first place, but that’s a subject for a very long post if not a book.

Recently I heard a rather hilarious reading of a conservative’s column about this subject courtesy of the Chapo Trap House, and it made me recall a similar article I’d riffed on years before I even started blogging. It also brought back some memories of other things I’d read and I began to notice a curious, if not ridiculous theme in this genre of writing. If I could put this theme into words, I’d call it “bullshit masculinity,” and I would define it as people lamenting the “loss of traditional masculinity” and then presenting personal examples that set the bar ridiculously low.

To demonstrate what I mean I’ll start with the example of that article I riffed on years ago. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my original note and don’t remember the author’s name, but it was about why soccer is somehow destroying America. In case anyone is already wondering, yes, he basically steals jokes from that episode of King of the Hill about American football versus soccer. The only difference is that the TV show was being somewhat ironic and the jokes were actually funny. But conservatives do seem to have trouble mixing up fiction and real life, after all.

So the author’s gist is how soccer is all about not playing to win, participation trophies, standard millennial hate before it was mainstream. He’s obviously going to compare it to a more wholesome, American sport, and for added surprise, it just happens to be one that he played in high school!

If you’re guessing he played American football you’d be wrong. Boxing? Not even close. Basketball? Nope.

Baseball. He played baseball.

Yes, that sport where players spend long periods of time just standing around or sitting in a dugout.

In a pathetic attempt to make his readers think baseball is hardcore, he talks about how the opposing teams infielders would be screaming “Ey batter batter!” like…get ready for this awesome metaphor…”Buddhist monks on steroids.” And he warns you that if you weren’t careful, the pitcher might just brush you with a fastball to remind you that you’re not playing a kids game. This is a game of true men. A game of sweat glistening off the iron biceps of men who can admire that in a totally heterosexual way, whether on the field or in the locker room, away from prying eyes of those ever-nagging women.

Moving on to the article read by the Chapo crew, this particular author laments that based on one study, male grip strength is significantly weaker among millennial males. By extension we’re supposed to believe that millennial males are weaker than previous generations, including those generations’ females.

So now you’re ready to here his personal anecdotes about all the manly things he did back in his proper childhood, right? Well get ready for a letdown. Apparently his examples consisted of helping his dad change the oil on their car and carrying firewood around. And I was really hoping for tales about underground vale tudo matches in the favelas of Rio.

Aggiunta olio motore

CAN YOU DO THIS, YOU MILLENNIAL BETA SJW CUCKS?!! CAN YOU?!

Are you starting to see a pattern here? Guy makes a career off of complaining about the decline of traditional masculinity, and then tries to make the rather mundane tasks he did seem like the equivalent of storming the beach at Normandy or being an MMA fighter. Sure there are people who pull this shtick who have done some objectively hardcore shit in their lives. Chris Sajnog shoehorns laments about gender and masculinity into a book he wrote about how to shoot better, but in Chris’ defense, he’s an actual retired Navy SEAL. He’s not some guy writing, “Man these so-called young men today are all a bunch of pussies! If only they knew the kind of shit I saw when I worked the grill at McDonald’s during the lunch rush!”

I’ve even seen this kind of thing pop up when reading articles by expats extolling the virtue of Russian or Ukrainian women. According to them, these women appreciate traditional masculinity, and make you feel like a real man! And how do they do this, you ask? By letting you buy them stuff for no reason. Yes, you’re supposed to feel like a real man by holding the doors for a woman you know nothing about, and then paying for her dinner, movie ticket, or whatever. That’s what passes for “chivalry” these days. You know back in the day you had to hold your vanquished enemies for ransom, among many other duties, to be considered chivalrous. Nowadays guys who can’t even ride a damned horse say they have chivalry because they bought some woman named Olga an overpriced meal. If only Godfrey of Bouillon could have a word with them.

The last breed of these morons consists of those who exalt things like the military and combat experience yet never served. I remember one piece by one of these “manosphere” dorks that was all about how the lack of major wars is somehow leading to a decline in masculinity. I just had to skim a few paragraphs before I had the guy pegged. I sent him an email telling him I was a journalist who’d worked in a warzone and I was interested in his experiences of combat. He replied quite promptly- never served in the military. I guess he doesn’t need all that character building; he’s already a real man because he writes about it.

Look, defenders of “traditional masculinity,” I ask you kindly- if you want to write an article lamenting the supposed decline of manliness, don’t try to pass off your mundane sports, household chores, or automotive maintenance skills as hardcore pillars of the masculine ideal. If you’re ashamed because you never boxed or worked as a lumberjack or whatever you see as being more objectively masculine, feel free to express your regrets about that. Or maybe just shut the fuck up and join a gym or better yet, join the military so you can see how glorious war really is. When you pull this bait-and-switch nonsense, inflating common tasks as though they were rites of passage for Viking warriors, you’re just screwing with your readers and wasting their time. Not to mention the fact that I haven’t done any Brazilian jiu-jitsu training (or any other martial arts training) since 2014 and yet I’m confident I could easily choke out almost each and every one of these Youtube stars who make hours upon hours of pedantic ranting videos blathering about how weak and “beta” males are these days.

So in conclusion let me just say this in short, staccato sentences to make things perfectly clear. Concepts about what is masculine have varied throughout time and by culture. Traditional masculinity is rooted in patriarchy. Patriarchy privileges males but at a high cost. Many of these whiners want those privileges without the responsibilities and negatives. Moreover, the generation before you had it tougher. Their parents had it even worse. No matter what sports you play or what you’ve done, take a look at how Roman soldiers or Mongol warriors lived sometime. Nothing you do will ever make you more “hardcore” than that. Rejoice that you live in a world where you don’t have to live that way.