Tag Archives: Alternet

A Scary Place to Live: The Media and Acceptable Racism (Part 2 of 2)

(Author’s note: Click this link for the first part of the series)

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Our latest expert on Russia, Alex Kane of Alternet

In part one of this series, I dealt with the content of Alternet “world” editor Alex Kane’s article, entitled  “10 disturbing facts about Russia that will change the way you watch the Olympics.”  As I hinted at in the first article, the wrongness of this article has two sides. On one hand you have claims which are factually incorrect or sometimes dishonest; some of these might be forgivable considering the fact that the article is so full of links it can barely be considered Kane’s “work.”  On the other hand there is something far more disturbing. In order to lay out what this thing is, let me relate an anecdote.

Early in 2013 I read a story about a woman named Sarai Sierra, who went missing in Istanbul and was later found to have been murdered.  Having read one of the early stories in which she had only been reported as missing, I made the horrible mistake of scrolling down to the comments section.  Part of me knew what was in store for me.  Numerous American commentators, mostly male, loudly proclaimed that she was at best horribly naive, at worse that she deserved it. Why did she deserve it? Simple, she traveled alone to a “Muslim country.”  They figured she should have known better. Some of them seemed to relish in the fact that something terrible had happened to her, no doubt because there had been a rumor that Sarai, a married woman, had some sort of “romantic liason” with a Turkish man who was later exonerated after questioning.  I’m not going to dredge up any of those comments but let me just say the general tone of nearly all of them could be best described by the words sick and ignorant.

I chose this story because Alex Kane, who declared Russia a “scary place to live,” claims to be heavily interested in Middle Eastern affairs and Islamophobia, which would imply that he would probably have reacted to such comments the way I did. Islamophobes the world over constantly tell us that Muslims “want to kill us” and that we are “at war” with Islam. These are typically people who have never left their own country, much less traveled to any Muslim-majority country.  In my case I have visited three majority Muslim countries, including three visits to Turkey, and one predominately Muslim region of Russia. Therefore hearing people rant about the danger of Westerners traveling to Muslim countries always comes off as plain cowardice to me.  I’d like to think that someone like Kane would agree with this assessment.

I wonder how Kane would react to the following scenario- Some journalist in the US, not having been to Turkey, reads about the murder of Sierra and decides to Google up some negative stories about Turkey. There are plenty of items to choose from, whether it’s the increasingly heavy hand of the government, which has long controlled and censored the internet in Turkey to a degree which has never been seen in Russia, or the repression of Kurds. Having arbitrarily chosen ten negative pieces about Turkey, the author gives us “10 Disturbing Facts about Turkey”, calls them “the ten worst things to come out of Turkey recently,” and informs us that “Turkey can be a very scary place to live.” I would hope that Kane, someone who is an editor at a “progressive” news site and who specializes in Islamophobia, would have a lot to say about such an article. I would hope he would label it Islamophobic and racist, because the shoe certainly fits.

I think it should be clear by now that when someone with no significant(if any) experience in a country writes a ridiculously biased article on that country, deliberately highlighting the “worst” things about it and declaring it a scary place to live, this is basically an act of demonization. It contributes to prejudice, xenophobia, and of course, racism. Now I am sure that some readers might be a bit confused at this point, because it seems as though I’m implying that Kane’s article about Russia is racist, and indeed I am doing precisely that. “But Russians are white,” the good little college “progressive” might reply. “Racism = prejudice + power,” some might add. To answer the second point- bullshit. That describes institutional racism or discrimination. Otherwise you could hate all kinds of people in other countries and not be “racist” just because you have no power over them. More importantly, however, America’s definitions of “race” aren’t recognized all over the world. Even more importantly, I would argue that Russians are not “white,” as evidenced by the kinds of prejudices and stereotypes that are held against them and other Eastern European nationalities.

I wish I could say I was the first to broach the issue of anti-Russian racism, but someone else beat me to it. In an article entitled “Meanwhile in Russia: Buzzfeed, Russia, and the west”, a very intriguing point is raised:

It is no coincidence, then, that in the past few years Russia has become a rich hunting ground for easily consumable visual content (This special relationship took on an official character when market leader Buzzfeed chose the Guardian’s Russia correspondent Miriam Elder as its new foreign editor). The Russian-language internet has all the characteristics necessary to be the perfect fail-farm for those in search of a photo-fix: it is huge and active (with 70m users in 2011, it’s Europe’s biggest internet market) and, in contrast to inaccessible behemoths China and India, the dweebs and doofuses starring in Russian photobombs and facepalms don’t look so very different from English-language users. Bluntly put, they’re white.

Two things here. First note the name Miriam Elder from The Guardian. After Luke Harding was kicked out of Russia, Elder took over in Moscow for a while. Her writing wasn’t much of an improvement on that of Harding, as was evidenced by an article wherein she describes her troubles with dry-cleaning service and then declared that this was what the Russians at Bolotnaya were protesting against. The second point I wanted to make here is the claim that Russians are, as the excerpt stated, “white.” I am not going to go into deep detail here as I plan to do at a later date, but my general response to this assertion is that Russians are not “white,” but rather they become “white” only when it is useful for them to be. In other words, if someone calls you out for racism when the targets are Russian, something clicks in your American brain and you suddenly remember that Russians are “white,” which is supposed to give you a free pass for varying reasons depending on your position on the political spectrum. Much of the laughter and mocking associated with the mass arrival of journalists in Sochi, which quickly went beyond justifiable criticism, resembles the kind of attitude that English or WASPs in America held toward the Irish, Slavs, Italians, etc. That is to say that Russians seem to be mocked because they’re trying to be “like us” and they’re just not. It is reminiscent of the minstrel show cliche known as “Zip Coon,” a free black man who was mocked because of his stylish dress and confident mannerisms; his “flaw” being that he had the audacity to think he was equal to white people, an idea which was considered ridiculous by many whites when minstrelsy was popular. In a similar manner, the Russian may put on an expensive suit and carry an iPhone, but underneath that he’s still just a backward Slavic peasant whose only redeeming quality is his enigmatic, “Russian soul.”

There is one more piece worth quoting from the Calvert Journal article at this time.

Unlike their counterparts from, say, Austria or Canada, Russia’s loons and losers continue to be characterised by their country of origin: they’re not subsumed into the homogenous online country of Internetia; the word “Russian” always has to feature in the title. Russianness has, it seems, become a powerful online brand, a good way of guaranteeing clicks and thus ad revenue.

This paragraph advances a strong argument for the existence of anti-Russian racism(which as I stated before, often applies to other Eastern Europeans as well). In the same way that other groups are continually referred to by their nationality or ethnicity, the “Russian” identifier must always be used. This is most often the case with Russian women, who are fetishized in a manner similar to “Asian women.” On that note I should point out that just as many Americans lump all “Asians” together and consider them interchangeable, so do they tend to do the same with Eastern Europeans or former Soviet nationalities. Borat is the most obvious example of this, but even just the fact that Hollywood and the video game industry still manages to bungle Eastern European names in this internet age tells us how deep-rooted this issue is.

Coming back to the point of Mr. Kane’s article, I believe that the sometimes “white,” sometimes not nature of Russians and Eastern Europeans can explain why his article is unlikely to face any major backlash on the grounds of racism and prejudice. In this particular case, it’s perfectly fine to deliberately compile a list of “worst things” about a country and from that, declare it a scary place to live. Now I realize that Mr. Kane may have actually visited Russia,but judging from his publicly available info and the content of the article, which can barely be called “his” as it is basically links to other sources with some commentary,  it is highly unlikely that he has spent any significant amount of time in Russia. I don’t think not being a national of a particular country bars one from criticizing it, but obviously your credibility and right to pass judgment increases with time and knowledge.

It is doubtful that Kane will be “called out” for his demonizing, prejudice inducing article. Had he written it on India or maybe South Africa this might not be the case.  He most likely would have been called out for being prejudice, even if he did have a lot of personal experience within the country in question. I can’t speculate on an article he never actually wrote, but I’d be inclined to agree with such criticism. He may escape that kind of backlash from fellow progressive Americans who know nothing about Russia and Eastern Europe, but at least he didn’t escape Russia Without Bullshit.

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A Scary Place to Live: The Media and Acceptable Racism (Part 1 of 2)

I have to admit that in light of the “coverage” of the Sochi Olympics it certainly does seem like the “information war” on Russia is real. I feel like I have been compelled, for the sake of truth alone, to take up arms as an unpaid mercenary on the Russian side, much like the reluctant hero in a Mel Gibson film who is forced to go to war after a loved one is killed.

"I just want to tend to my farm and raise a family. I want no part in your information war."

“I just want to tend to my farm and raise a family. I want no part in your information war.”

Realistically speaking, when however, when it comes to the “information war” one should remember the old maxim- do not attribute to malice that which can be ascribed to incompetence. Well it’s incompetence and a bit of racism, but I’ll get to that later. Because the subject of this entry makes an excellent case study of a phenomenon I have been casually observing in recent years, I’ve decided to break it into two separate parts; one shall focus on the content of the article in question, the second will focus on the mindset of the author and the way such writing is received in the West. But first…

Prologue

Josh sat upstairs on his Macbook, casually browsing his Facebook newsfeed for new updates. Then he saw it. Nestled in between an Upworthy story which promised that a video of a little girl addressing a school board would make him cry, and an Instagram photo of someone’s lunch, was a link to an article posted on Salon.com. The title was “10 disturbing facts about Russia that will change the way you watch the Olympics.” Josh, of course, had never paid much attention to the Olympics, but the cryptic title piqued his curiosity. He clicked, and began to read. What unfolded was a laundry list of horrors that would surely chill the blood of Poe or Lovecraft.  Sweat beaded on his forehead as he neared the final point of the article.  When it was over he sat there, staring at glowing monitor, his skin clammy and pale, or at least paler than usual. Something didn’t seem right. Had this really changed the way he thought about watching the Olympics, if he never considered watching them in the first place?  

Then it hit him- The whole family, mom, dad, his little sister…They were all downstairs watching the Winter Olympics! He had to act. Josh leaped from his office chair with such force as to upend it. No time could be spared to pick it up. He half dashed, half tumbled down the stairs and suddenly appeared in the entrance to the family’s living room. There he saw them, his own family bathed in the glow of the TV which was now showing highlights of Olympic ice hockey, to his horror. The innocent, confused look in their eyes told him they hadn’t the slightest inkling of the truth, the awful, horrible truth. He struggled to catch his breath, and with his last strength he made his move.

‘Nooooooooooooo!” He screamed as he hurled himself toward the arm of the sofa on which rested the TV remote. He landed short but managed to snatch it before his father could react. Lying on the floor in a heap, he managed to twist his torso toward the TV and hit the channel up button.  Suddenly the living room was filled with the innocuous banter of some reality show. His family watched him for a moment in shock, but Josh couldn’t care less as a wave of relief coursed throughout his body like a shot of heroin. His panicked expression turned to a cautious smile.  

Perhaps he would tell them about the horrors he learned. Perhaps they would then stop staring at him and finally understand. Then again, better that they not know. Better that they never know. All that mattered was that in that moment at least, they were not watching the Sochi games unaware. That night Josh learned that humans are indeed better off being blissfully ignorant of true fear.

As you might have guessed, the subject of this series is an article entitled “10 disturbing facts about Russia that will change the way you watch the Olympics” by Alex Kane of Alternet.  I’m posting Salon.com’s version of the link because I fucking hate Alternet, and I’m sure the reader will be appreciative because whereas the original Alternet version is divided into three pages, Salon managed to fit it all on one page.  Let me briefly lay out my case against Alternet before I mop the floor with this digitized shit that’s being passed off as “journalism.”

Alternet is a “progressive” news site which generally traffics in listicles which tend to have titles like, “8 Insane Proposals by Republican State legislators” or “7 Crazy Things Said in Public by Conservatives.” Sure, I made those titles up based on past experience with the site, but just to make sure I wasn’t being unfair I skimmed the site while writing this entry and quickly found  “10 Right-Wing Psychopaths’ Vitriol this Week—That Somehow Made Pat Robertson Look Reasonable.” Or take a look at this link, for example. In case you’d rather not I’ll summarize. It’s fucking 2014 and liberals still think Sarah Palin is newsworthy. As for the politics of the site, I’d call them mostly mainstream Democratic party line with thin coat of faux-radical paint. While I realize that arbitrarily-numbered listicles are an inevitable trend for internet news sites, I find Alternet’s particularly infuriating, as it purports to be a serious news site.  I used to make jokes about Cracked.com’s lists, but after a while I accepted the fact that most of their content consists of light-hearted pop culture banter. If you’re writing about plot holes in superhero movies, the listicle format makes sense. If you’re supposedly delivering hard-hitting journalism on world politics, it’s simply lazy. And speaking of laziness, I should point out that the author of this entry’s offending article is the editor of Alternet’s “world” section. I also want to point out that as is often the case, I’m not going to go through this article point by point; I’m only going to highlight the most problematic parts.

Things go wrong even before the article begins. First we get this photo:

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It was the only photo of Vladimir Putin they could find! Honest! He’s very camera shy!

For fuck’s sake, at least try to appear as though you’re not ridiculously biased. Then under the main headline we find this:

From environmental destruction to a brutal crackdown on dissent, Putin’s Russia can be a scary place to live

Pay close attention to the word “scary.” That’s going to be real important.  The first question which came to my mind in this case was how Kane would know that Putin’s Russia can be a scary place to live.  I’ve been living here for nearly eight years as I write this, and while there are things about the state of the country which cause me worry, I can’t say that I’ve ever been “scared.” The things I worry about would be relatively the same whether I lived in the US or some other country.  I searched in vain to see if Kane had ever spent any significant amount of time in Russia or even visited the country at all.  Once again, keep the line about Russia being a “scary” place to live.  Let’s move on now.

The world’s eyes are certainly on Russia, as hundreds of athletes from around the world travel there to compete in sports ranging from freestyle skiing to ice hockey to figure skating. But instead of acknowledging Russia’s achievements, the Sochi games have sparked a deluge of negative press aimed at Putin’s regime. (The U.S. is only somewhat better on gay rights and other issues than Russia. As Ian Ayres and William Eskridge wrote in the Washington Post, eight U.S. states have provisions similar to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law.) From virulently anti-gay laws and corruption to crackdowns on dissent, Putin’s Russia is a dark place for many of its citizens. Here are 10 of the worst things to come out of Russia recently.

This paragraph is a bit strange because it admits that a wave of negative press has hit Russia, but rather than question as to whether this is fair or anything like the kind of press which has surrounded other Olympic venues in the past, it simply joins in the chorus of hate by presenting “10 of the worst things to come out of Russia recently.”  I find this to be almost surreal when you note a wave of negative press about a particular country, and then instead of questioning or attempting to explain it, you proceed to tell them the “worst” things about that country, all based entirely on other people’s work.  At least some of the authors of the negative press occasionally mentioned positive things about Russia, and a few actually balanced their bad pieces with a few good ones. But this is just insane. I imagine someone in school saying, “People have been picking on that nerdy kid a lot lately…Here are the 10 worst things about that kid.”

Might it be a good idea to ask if this is a normal thing to do when a sports venue is held somewhere? When the EUFA championship was held in Poland, did journalists decide to find 10 horrible things about Poland so they could “inform” readers? When it was announced that Rio de Janeiro would host the summer games, did journalists immediately draw up a top ten list? To be sure, no major event like this has been without surrounding controversy, but these stories in the past have tended to be closely connected with the games, much like the stories about corruption and waste in transforming Sochi into the Olympic venue. There were some controversies concerning the way South Africa prepared for the 2010 World Cup, yet I doubt you would find any “progressive” journalists eager to deliver readers the 10 worst things about South Africa. Do I need to suggest what would happen if a white, American journalist had written such an article and added the line that South Africa “can be a scary place to live?”

Perhaps even more bizarrely he acknowledges the fact that the US is not far ahead of Russia when it comes to gay rights. He’s actually right, and I will provide details on this later. I have to wonder, however, how he would feel if some journalists from say Sweden or the Netherlands decided to highlight some of the facts he cited or those I will cite, and then based on his labeled the entire United States as homophobic and a “scary place to live.”  I wonder how he would feel if they did this solely because the US happened to be hosting some kind of sporting event at the time.

1. Gay Propaganda Law

Russia’s brutal targeting of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population has attracted the lion’s share of press coverage and activist initiatives around the world related to the Olympics.

Why yes, it has attracted a lot of press coverage around the world, but what does it have to do with the Olympics? You know what, never mind, that’s a minor point.  I take issue with the phrase “Russia’s brutal targeting” of its LGBT community.  Brutal? Is the author, who supposedly specializes in Middle Eastern topics, not aware of how many countries not only ban homosexuality but punish it with death? Many of those countries, as more honest or at least responsible journalists have pointed out, happen to have close relations to the US and other Western nations. The law is idiotic, unnecessary, ridiculous, poorly written, backward and perhaps dangerously ambiguous, but “brutal” it is not.  Kane’s thesaurus is clearly defective.

The first anti-gay law passed in the Russian legislature last year and was signed by Putin on June 30.

You know, when the first anti-gay law in the history of the Russian Federation was just passed in the middle of last year, maybe your missing something here.

The bill bans “propaganda” about “non-traditional” sexual relations around children. It is written so broadly that it effectively bars any positive discussion of gay rights or any action labeled as gay around children. The legislation imposes fines of up to $156 for an individual and $31,000 for media organizations, and could also lead to the arrests of LGBT people.

Everything about this is essentially true, save for a couple things.  The law can just as easily lead to the arrest of straight people as well. Also as the author himself seems to have admitted, the actual text of the law is very similar to American state regulations regarding sex education in schools.  These regulations ban “advocacy of homosexuality.” When Russian politicians have been accused of “targeting” LGBT people with the recent law, they have repeatedly claimed they are against “gay propaganda.” Something tells me that those who oppose “advocacy of homosexuality” in the US would probably resort to a similar defense.

The law also applies to foreigners. If non-Russians are seen as spreading pro-gay messages, they could be fined and detained for up to 14 days and then expelled from the country. On July 22, the first foreigners were taken into custody for violating the bill. Four Dutch citizens were arrested for filming a documentary and interviewing Russian youth on gay rights.

Holy shit! Laws apply to foreigners? Seriously this is just plain dishonest and totally indicative of the kind of vitriol against Russia that has long since gone beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism. The law itself is worthy of criticism but he tries to punch it up by making it seem as though there is something extra sinister in the fact that it applies to foreigners. When you go to a foreign country, you are subject to its laws. In this case the injustice of the law is irrelevant.

As Jeff Sharlet wrote in a GQ magazine cover story this month, the bill is a way of bolstering Putin’s populist credentials. The Putin-backed initiative is as much about gays as it is about “the unstable price of oil and Putin’s eroding popular support…The less prosperity Putin can deliver, the more he speaks of holy Russian empire, language to which the Russian Orthodox Church thrills,” wrote Sharlet.

At least here he quotes a real journalist. What Sharlet wrote is very true, but would you like to know another thing which bolsters Putin’s populist credentials? When lazy journalists write sensationalist articles about Russia, often laden with ridiculous errors, thus creating the impression that there is an “information war” against the country. The ordinary Russian citizen who watched the 2012 summer games or the 2010 winter games would struggle to recall the Russian press bombarding them with the horrors of the UK and Canada, respectively.  This is why in the wake of ill-informed criticism from the West, it seems that many Russians who used to march in the streets against Putin are now joining up for the information war, either openly or passively supporting the Kremlin.  That’s what tends to happen when you enthusiastically attack an entire nation for some of its problems. In fact I would argue that it’s even worse in the case of Russia, because of the lack of normal liberal democratic rights. In most liberal democracies the actual capability of an ordinary citizen to influence politics is already slight, but in Russia it’s practically non-existent. As much as Alternet writers attack the Tea Party movement, they managed to elect a number of their candidates, many of whom attempted to carry out their idiotic promises which on one occasion nearly led the country into default.  In Russia no such influence on politics exists, so bashing Russia for the government’s laws is almost like bashing people simply for being Russian in the first place. What’s that called, when you paint entire nationalities with one brush and see them only as a collective rather than as individual human beings?  There is a word for that, right?

2. Russian Adoption Law

On July 3, Putin signed into law a bill barring gay couples from adopting Russian-born children.

Here it might be worth noting that the original adoption ban strictly targeted American citizens, both gay and straight. As horrendous as the law was, this was a response to the ridiculous Magnitsky Act, which was passed shortly prior to the ban on American adoptions. Of course by passing that act, Russia promptly pissed away any moral high ground it had against the Magnitsky Act, but there is something worth remembering in all this. Ever since Obama was elected he promised to improve relations with Russia. Again he promised, right to Dmitri Medvedev’s face, that he could be more flexible after the 2012 election.  Yet throughout Obama’s administration, not only has no serious attempt been made to improve relations, but rather on several occasions the US seems to have deliberately provoked and antagonized Russia, leading to this wave of populism which began in late 2012. All this benefits Putin, of course, as it allows him to pose as a strong leader standing up to the West. One wonders if this is exactly the kind of “flexibility” Obama actually had in mind.  People tend to forget that Russia is a major source of investment for the United States, and Russian businessmen also invest or buy property in the United States.  If the US government sees no better alternative to Putin, and it’s pretty clear that they really don’t, then they’d be willing to put up with some embarrassment on the world stage in return for a Russia that is stable enough for profitable investment. This would certainly not be the first time.

3. Foreign Agents Law

In 2012, a law was passed targeting non-governmental organizations that receive money from abroad. It forces NGOs in Russia working on issues ranging from LGBT rights to corruption to register as “foreign agents” with the government. Since its passage, Russian authorities have investigated thousands of nonprofits suspected of being “foreign agents.” Some organizations have suffered hefty fines. A few groups that could not withstand the fines were forced to shut down over the law.

Russia’s foreign agent law is actually not significantly different from the United States’ law for NGOs. Click this link and scroll down to “The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).”

4. Anti-Gay Violence

The anti-gay laws have contributed to an environment in Russia where being gay is seen as a crime. The legislation has institutionalized homophobia, and LGBT activists say the bills are encouraging violence against gays. In September 2013, the Guardian reported that activists told the newspaper, “the legislation has emboldened rightwing groups who use social media to ‘ambush’ gay people, luring them to meetings and then humiliating them on camera—sometimes pouring urine on them.” Gay teenagers have been particularly targeted.

I really wish he hadn’t decided to split his items regarding LGBT rights. This is why I fucking hate listicles so much. It used to be that you’d have a “top”, as in “top ten” list which would count down to the item which is supposed to be the best or worst of something.  That these lists don’t go from best to worst is somewhat understandable, but at the very least he could have kept it thematically cohesive by grouping related items together. Well what the fuck do I know? I’m not a journalist.

Anyway, hate crimes are a serious issue. Another serious issue, however, is the American news media exaggerating crime rates, something that is well documented and commonly experienced as most Americans you ask will swear that crime has been going up despite the fact that it has been declining since the 90’s.  I’m not saying this to downplay the reports of hate crimes in Russia, but rather to suggest that it’s quite possible that the rates of anti-LGBT hate crimes haven’t significantly risen above whatever the normal rate was.  A few particularly shocking hate crimes, such as the torture and sexual abuse of gay teens on video, do not necessarily constitute a massive increase in anti-gay hate crimes.  When I first arrived to live in Russia in 2006, one man told me that some years ago he had been brutally beaten on the street by multiple attackers because he was perceived to be gay(he wasn’t). The provocative fashion accessory was an earring. In recent years in Moscow, one sees plenty of young men dressed in fashions which conservative-minded people might consider effeminate or “queer.”  The area around Pushkin Square in the center still remains a hangout for rather open lesbians(I apologize but I never learned the story behind the Pushkin Square/lesbian connection).  My point is not that Russia is as safe for LGBT people as it could or should be, but rather that one shitty law and a handful of highly publicized hate crimes shouldn’t lead one to the conclusion that gays in Russia have been driven entirely underground so as to avoid the legions of skinheads which patrol the streets at night.

Since this is the last point he makes about LGBT issues in Russia, I will so-to-speak conclude this section with two points.  The first is that Kane missed what could have been a great opportunity to highlight all the press hysteria about they gay rights issue in Russia and then show how the United States has a long way to go. For example, take a look at the issue of anti-LGBT hate crimes reported in the US. The article, which was from late 2012, asserts that anti-LGBT hate crimes have not significantly dropped. This is important because unlike Russia, the US is in a far better position to keep track of this data.  Kane could have highlighted the hypocrisy of many Russia critics, and used Russia as an example of what happens when right wing populism gains traction.  Instead he joined in the finger pointing. Why? Because it was easy, that’s why.

I want to make a second point on this topic, if only because I have some anecdotal evidence that even some Russian gay people are highly offended by this negative press, even when it is supposedly for their sake. The Western media is contributing to a narrative that Russia’s right-wing happily embraces- that is the idea that gays and lesbians aren’t really Russians. They are not a part of Russian society and they have far more in common with the Western Europeans or Americans.  When America and Western Europe hypocritically present themselves as the defenders of LGBT rights in Russia, it allows LGBT Russians to be demonized as some kind of fifth column. That’s precisely what Russia’s extreme rightists, many of whom are not fans of Putin and who might have taken part in the opposition rallies of 2011-12, would like to see. Just as the Western press objectively supports racism, xenophobia, and fascism in Ukraine because they are too lazy to investigate readily obvious facts, so do they often indirectly lend moral support to Russia’s far-right.

5. Environmental Destruction

The Sochi Olympics are no anomaly: Russia’s general environmental record is nothing to praise.Oil and gas development in the Arctic have threatened indigenous people and contaminated rivers. Russia’s air is thoroughly polluted, much of it due to factories.

I’m only including the last paragraph of this point because I’m not going to dispute the other problems he lists and more importantly, it is this paragraph which contains more shining examples of profound ignorance and laziness.  Russia’s environmental record is nothing to praise? I’m sorry did anyone ever suggest that it was? This is particularly disturbing when it comes from an American publication, America being the country where oil and mining companies have managed to convince large swaths of people that “gub’mint regulation” is bad for the economy, and perpetual deregulation, if not the destruction of the EPA, will somehow lead to a better-protected natural environment.  You can see the most recent results of this line of thought in West Virginia.

The last line is the major indicator of both ignorance and laziness. Yes, parts of Russia have very polluted air. I haven’t taken measurements but I’m sure Moscow’s air is far from pristine, though it may not look as smoggy as L.A., Phoenix, or Beijing.  That being said, Russia happens to be the largest country on earth, with huge tracts of either sparsely populated or even virtually undeveloped land. Can you see then why writing “Russia’s air is thoroughly polluted” due to “factories” is problematic?

6. Corruption

Wow this intrepid reporter sure scooped the competition on this story! Seriously I’m not disputing anything about corruption in Russia, but one thing worth mentioning is that today’s corruption in Russia pales in comparison to what existed in the 1990’s, and this article is supposed to be the ten worst things about “Putin’s Russia.”  Of course Team Russia fanatics and lazy Western journalists and academics seem to have a special unwritten agreement to always sever the deeds of Yeltsin and Putin.

7. Targeting Journalists

Russia is no haven for the press. Since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000, dozens of journalists have lost their lives on the job. Many were slain by contract killers, and the Russian police and judiciary have done a poor job at catching the culprits. Since 1992, at least 56 journalists have been killed.

Let us begin with dishonesty before incompetence. This point refers to the “targeting” of journalists. As many journalists tend to have an inflated sense of unwarranted self-importance, they tend to believe that any time a journalist is killed we should all be indignant.  Realistically speaking, journalists are often people who willingly go into dangerous places, sometimes with little knowledge or training on how to cope with the dangers they might face. To paraphrase the Joker in The Dark Knight- The press isn’t terribly concerned when a truck full of soldiers, often poor youth who joined up due to a lack of viable alternatives, is blown to bits by an IED in Afghanistan.  Should there be an embedded reporter with those soldiers it’s a different story.  Look I realize that journalists to a very important job, namely dutifully repeating the official statements of politicians and spokespeople without question so as to keep us “informed.” But let’s try not to lose perspective. The Western press all but ignored a major war which claimed the lives of five, possibly six million Africans in the Congo, but we’re supposed to get indignant over “at least 56” journalists killed under various circumstances in Russia?  

Kane is being ridiculously dishonest because he first claims that since Putin took power in 2000, “dozens” of journalists have been killed, clearly trying to draw a link between their deaths and the Kremlin. The closest he gets is mentioning that the courts and police have done a bad job at catching the culprits, but this doesn’t mean that the culprits were hired by the Kremlin. Russian police have long been bad at numerous other activities, such as not taking bribes and not engaging in criminal behavior.

Another point worth noting is that he says dozens died since Putin took power in 2000, yet he then goes back to 1992 to give us the figure of 56 dead journalists. Let’s think for a second. Was there anything that happened since 1992 which might have led to the death of a lot of journalists, if not many more ordinary people, who of course are not as important as the foot soldiers of the fourth estate?  Was there not a massive battle in the streets of Moscow in October of 1993, when the Western press sanitized the Constitutional crisis on behalf of that great “democrat” Boris Yeltsin? Wasn’t there this war that dragged on from 1993-1996, and then which flared up again from 1999-2000 and which punctuated by numerous terrorist attacks of all sorts?  Might these not account for a number of the deaths? In fact, if you look at the statistics, many of the deaths are listed simply as “homicide”, meaning they could have been ordinary murders. Even the contract killings can most likely be attributed to Russia’s well-known problems with out of control organized crime in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Of course corruption plays a role in many of these killings, and that corruption intersects with the state. But still, it’s a far cry from the state deliberately targeting journalists.

Beyond the killings is the general harsh climate for the press in the country. Opposition bloggers have been arrested. Journalists fear gathering information from organizations the government dislikes. Visas have been denied to journalists critical of Putin.

Note that he refers to “bloggers” without giving names. I figure he must be referring to Navalny but that’s another story entirely.  He then mentions how journalists “fear” without naming any journalists, publications, or organizations which they supposedly wish to avoid.  As for visas being denied to journalists, they are also denied to tourists, businessmen, and even English teachers. The Russian visa system is ridiculously bureaucratic and requirements tend to vary depending on which consulate you go to.  I think the journalist he is alluding to is Luke Harding, but Luke Harding was not merely “critical” of Putin and he did indeed violate the terms of either his visa or press pass.

9. Abusing Migrants

The abuse of migrant workers is part of a larger crackdown. In July 2013, authorities in Moscow started detaining people who looked non-Slavic. Thousands of people were taken into custody. Some were expelled, while others were held in prisons under inhumane conditions.

First off I don’t know what he is referring to when he mentions July 2013. Russian police have always hassled non-Slavic looking migrants for bribes. What Kane doesn’t tell you, in fact what he can’t tell you because he doesn’t know anything about Russia or Russian politics, is that the impetus for this crackdown was a nationalist-instigated pogrom against migrants which broke out in the Moscow suburb of Biriulevo last October.

What many Western reporters fail to explain, due either to ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two, is that while Putin has in the past courted Russian nationalism for his own purposes, he is also a realist who knows that Russia has to compete in a globalized world but more importantly, Russia is a multi-ethnic nation which must maintain internal integrity to do so. There has been for quite some time a large right-wing opposition element, which is clearly visible in many photographs from the anti-Putin demonstrations of 2011-12, assuming you know what to look for.  In their minds, Putin is a traitor because he still allows non-Russian oligarchs to profit from the country’s natural resources, and because he supposedly isn’t doing anything to control the spread of migrants from Central Asia or the Caucasus. In fact, many Russian nationalists resent the money that is spent in Chechnya and actually wish that Chechnya were no longer a part of the country. Putin disagrees, hence their opposition.

10. Russia’s War on Terror

Before I take this point apart, please note that there is another country which has been waging a “War on Terror” since 2001 which has had far more negative impact on the world, if only because of its global scale.

For over a decade, Russia has been engaged in its own war on terror against separatists in Chechnya and Dagestan, two mostly Muslim federal subdivisions of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, separatists in Chechnya renewed their struggle for independence. Violent attacks on Russia have become an inseparable part of that struggle. The roots of their grievances lie in attempts by Russia to incorporate the republics, which are ethnically and religiously distinct from much of the country.

For over a decade, Russia has been engaged in its own war on terror against separatists in Chechnya and Dagestan, two mostly Muslim federal subdivisions of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, separatists in Chechnya renewed their struggle for independence. Violent attacks on Russia have become an inseparable part of that struggle. The roots of their grievances lie in attempts by Russia to incorporate the republics, which are ethnically and religiously distinct from much of the country.

Kane could not have bungled the “roots of the struggle” more.  For one thing, these “republics” were already incorporated into the Russian Federation by default. Second, the case of Dagestan involved Wahhabist extremists from Chechnya, out of control of the separatists in Grozny, expanding their war into a neighboring region.  Much of the violence in the region stems not only due to religious differences between Russians and Chechens, but Chechens and other Muslim, Caucasian groups, as well as the post-Soviet return of traditional, clan-based politics.

Kane also used the term “over a decade” when in fact it has literally been just over two decades. The difference suggests that he is completely ignoring that significant part of the conflict which began under Yeltsin, who bears a great deal of responsibility in the matter. Moreover the idea that the conflict under Putin and Medvedev has actually lasted a decade is dishonest. Russian troops are no longer active in Chechnya, and the main terrorist element remains the so-called Caucasian Emirate, a Wahhabist group which is not only very small, but also at odds with the exiled “government” of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, i.e. the original separatist movement.

The large-scale wars are over for now, but Dagestan and other Northern Caucasus regions still have active Islamist groups operating, which have carried out attacks on Russia. In response, Russian authorities continue to deploy a heavy hand, especially in the run-up to Sochi.

While there has always been much to criticize about Russian anti-terrorism policies, this point seems to imply that Russia should be held responsible for the actions of terrorists, an idea which would be an anathema to most of the American mainstream press were it applied to something such as the World Trade Center attacks.  While a few voices in the media have courageously pointed out that Al Qaeda terrorists are more motivated by bad US foreign policies as opposed to merely “hating our freedom,” I doubt any of them would put the responsibility for the attacks squarely on the shoulders of America itself.

So there you have it, more laziness, ignorance, and even stylistic failures. Rather than trying to give us any insight on these matters, he merely makes assertions and then links us to other people’s work.  There is something far darker about this, however, and I intend to explore that in the second part of this series. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, if you’d like a break from the bad news and bias, here’s an article which actually attempts to try a radical new approach on Russian journalism known as objectivity.

CLICK FOR PART II