Tag Archives: politics

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.

Diminishing Returns

I was on vacation recently and thus unable to report on the biggest non-Trump news of the past week, that being Macron’s victory over Le Pen in the French elections. Partisans of “the liberal order,” or as I like to call it “the liberal order that feels denying outright fascists access to political power is an anathema,” were celebrating while thousands of mentally-stunted shut-ins with Pepe frog avatars were wailing and insisting that France would now become a new Islamic Caliphate within a couple years. You know, the same thing such people have been saying for the past twenty years or so, even though the French Muslim population now is only about 7.5 percent of the total.

Of course there’s another angle to this story, which is that Russia turned its election meddling machine up to eleven this time in hopes of getting Le Pen elected. Whereas the US election meddling was mostly about trolling Hillary, the candidate they believed would certainly win, it seems the unexpected success of that campaign led the Kremlin to believe that it really could determine the outcome of foreign elections. Rather than deny connections to Le Pen and her party, Putin actually met personally with Le Pen and the two had a photo op together. Apparently neither party felt this would be seen as negative by French voters. In fact I’d bet they thought just the opposite- what better way to prove how anti-establishment you are by meeting publicly with Vladimir Putin?

Of course this all failed. What is more, the brazen attacks on Macron which included hacks, Wikileaks, and allegations that he was having a homosexual affair, will no doubt only increase his hostility toward Putin. The problem with election meddling like this is that it needs to work. If not, you’re in trouble. The trolling of Hillary worked because she lost (even if that wasn’t their original intention), and now the only repercussions against the Kremlin apart from some more targeted sanctions exist mainly on Twitter.

I think this is just another example of the Kremlin deluding itself into thinking it runs a superpower on par with the Soviet Union. I’ve long said that the “New Cold War” will be much like Putin- short and sad. This is because Moscow is behaving as though it is the Soviet Union when it has none of the advantages and far more weaknesses. By punching above its weight on several occasions, certain people at the top took those victories as proof that “Russia is back.” Now we’re starting to see how short term these gains really are.

I don’t think the Kremlin will cease its attempts at election meddling any time soon, as we will no doubt see in Germany and Italy in the near future. Still, each time they fail, or even when they succeed, more and more countries will start to take countermeasures against Russian interference. Even Russia-leaning politicians have good reason to avoid getting to close to Moscow. Russia will become increasingly isolated as the world begins to see it for what it is- not a defender against US or Western hegemony but rather an opportunistic kleptocratic dictatorship with no respect for anyone.

 

OH SHI-

I can’t remember if I ever posted about it here, but early on in the Trump race, even before he managed to cinch the nomination, I predicted that his most fanatical fanboys will not give up on their mad crusade just because their candidate loses. First of all, there would be the back-stab legends, the contrived conspiracy theories to explain, mostly to themselves, why their candidate lost. In fact, last week the Trump campaign and some of its supporters have already started peddling their basic theory that the election will be “rigged.” This will not be the last time you hear that, I guarantee it.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my concern over the potential reactions of the Trump mob. This article from Foreign Policy lays out the danger pretty accurately, judging by the past reactions to Obama’s election and the general trajectory of American political discourse. But there’s something in it even more disturbing. Check out this excerpt:

“What will Trump himself do now that he is no longer a candidate? Media insiders are predicting the rise of “Trump News,” a media empire that will cater to, as one insider said, “a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time.” If the media organization mirrors Trump’s campaign, that base will include Klansmen, militia members, and everyday racists, and will likely circulate conspiracy theories and lies, further muddling reporting in a decimated media economy.”

Forget RT. Forget Sputnik. Hell, forget Fox News. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a threat to American society. Nobody really pays attention to the former two, and as bad as the latter is, even they have some limits as to who they’ll put on. A Trump news network is likely to be a complete circus, a cornucopia of the worst ideas. This threatens to do to America what Russia’s insane media did to this populace.

While it looks like Trump’s chances in November are pretty poor, and he’s got plenty of time to alienate even more potential supporters, I wouldn’t be breathing a huge sigh of relief should he go down in flames on election day. A more difficult struggle will no doubt ensue thereafter. I sure hope the left gets its act together and reconstitutes itself into a real political force very soon.

 

STOP…DOING…THIS…NOW!

On numerous occasions I have written about why connecting Trump to Putin is not only a stupid idea, but one which ultimately benefits both Trump and the Russian propaganda machine. Apart from the fact that Trump and Putin couldn’t possibly “get along” if the former were elected (perish the thought),this strategy seems to have been tried with Brexit and look how that worked out. And despite the fact that I’m by no means the only person pointing this out, it appears that the Chicken Littles are doubling down on the Trump-as-agent-of-Putin angle. So much so that now Trump is Putin.

If you’re looking for a sane voice debunking that particular article, I would recommend this one. I am not looking to debunk this idiotic theory anymore, because doing so doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact. Instead, I’m going to do something that many of these pundits are incapable of doing- empathizing with the sort of people who might be swayed by Trump and Russian propaganda. See, I know how the world looks through the eyes of a Kremlin supporter duped by propaganda and living in America because…well…over a decade ago I was one.

Before I can go on to explain the way many of these people see the world I must point out a key difference between them and myself back then. I was “self-radicalized” in the era before RT. You couldn’t really be passively exposed to Russian propaganda back then. This distinction is crucial because I had a personal interest in Russia pre-dating the Putin administration whereas much of the Kremlin’s target foreign audience today knows nothing about Russia and doesn’t care to know. As such, any focus on Russia is lost on them. These people are concerned about domestic issues.

That out of the way, let me tell you how your average populist responds to hysterical wailing about Trump being friendly with Putin. In the fantasy world inhabited by many pundits, people are supposed to read about these real or imagined (or distorted) connections and think: “What’s that? Trump is friendly towards Vladimir Putin?! Well that’s it! Hillary’s got my vote now!” In real life the reaction is something more like: “Well this Putin guy must be pretty good if the politicians I hate seem so upset about him and he likes Trump.”

From the other side of the pond, the goal of Russian propaganda has long been about promoting Russia’s image as some kind of alternative to the “globalized, neoliberal order,” the “establishment.” It really doesn’t matter what your political ideology is. Many neo-Nazis are convinced that Putin is fighting against the “Jewish-controlled New World Order.” Leftists are duped into believing that Putin represents an alternative to free-market “neoliberal” economics and the austerity that followed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Whatever you see as “the establishment,” Russia wants to portray itself as the exact opposite of that. That this image is total bullshit is really irrelevant. Only a tiny portion of this audience will ever actually visit Russia and it is unlikely they’ll discover the truth from their trip thanks to the language barrier and expat privilege.

Trump is playing a similar game, and it’s amazing that the punditry still hasn’t figured it out yet. This is the same thing teenagers do when they’re rebelling against teachers or their own parents. Whatever shocks the adults the most is “cool.” In Trump’s case, he’s been playing this game against two sides. First you have the Obama administration and his opponent, Hillary. On the other side he’s been waging war against the stagnant, traditional side of his own party. If you look at the policies of all these sides, it isn’t hard to understand where Trump’s Russia strategy is coming from.

For an example let us go back to the election of 2012. Remember when Obama got caught on mic telling then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev about how he could be more flexible after the election? Here you can see how GOP candidate Romney played it in a debate:

 

From a traditional conservative standpoint it was a perfect gaffe on Obama’s part. It goes with their line about how Democrats are weaklings who are willing to submit to other countries, including our “enemies.” But Trump, of course, is not a traditional conservative. He’s a populist who’s after a rising number of people who are conservative but who grew weary of the Bush doctrine and its aftermath. At the same time, occasionally spitting out anti-war rhetoric (when he’s not talking about slaughtering terrorists’ families) ingratiates him with a large but politically illiterate radical anti-war movement. And again, virtually none of these people give a shit about Russia.

Thus when pro-Hillary pundits start screaming “Putin! Putin! Russia!” it sounds like they are advocating a new Cold War. Russian propaganda seizes on this and portrays Hillary and anyone who opposes the Kremlin’s regional imperialism as “neocons” out of the Bush era. This just makes their candidate look even more distasteful, more establishment.

The fact is that there are plenty of reasons to hate and revile Trump. There are plenty of reasons why people who currently support him really ought to think twice about the consequences of their actions. Idiotically labeling Trump an agent of Putin isn’t going to sway any of those people. Why not focus on the issue at hand, which is America?

Trump is a candidate who is literally making open racism and neo-Nazism publicly acceptable. Just a few years ago no political candidate would want to have even the most tenuous link to anti-Semites or far right figures. Now we have a candidate who refuses to speak out against any of the numerous open racists supporting him; on the contrary, he often re-tweets their messages. Meanwhile online it seems that people have forgotten why Nazism was evil in the first place. On several occasions critics of Trump who have Jewish heritage have found themselves the target of mass harassment campaigns involving Holocaust-themed imagery. As polarized as the country was during the last Bush administration, such a thing seems unthinkable in those years.

Another issue that ought to get far more attention than Trump’s contrived Russia links is the rise of what some have dubbed “post-fact” society. Vox fact-checked Trump’s recent speech and as it would turn out, he actually managed to get a few things correct. It’s worth reading just to see what he was right on, because some of those points help explain Trump’s success and Hillary’s obstacles. But while Trump’s speech was more distortions than outright lies, the orange man has been pulling claims straight out of his ass since the beginning of his campaign. There is a serious problem with out society when a person can make up something that never happened, have their claim thoroughly debunked beyond any shadow of a doubt, and yet people are still willing to support him, fanatically even. When objective reality no longer matters, things get bad. That’s how you get ISIS. I’d say that’s how you get Nazi Germany, but this is the internet in 2016 and I’m afraid there are too many people out there who would need me to explain in painstaking detail why that’s bad.

These are just two of the major dangers of the Trump campaign- that he is causing division and discord in America and that he is waging a war on objective reality itself. Our media would do well to focus on these subjects instead of casting Trump as the Manchurian candidate of a county and leader most Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about.

Stop saying words

Want to play a drinking game? It’s very simple- Read this article and take a drink every time the commentator  Yevgeniy Ikhlov makes a reference to some kind of -ism.

“Napoleon,” he writes, “fell because having discredited and destroyed the medieval orders, he liberated European nationalism — German, Spanish, and Russian which turned out to be no less powerful than the French a force whose awakening he so successfully based his operations.”

Okay, nationalism. Nothing unusual here. Take a sip of  Jag or a shot of Putinka.

It's dangerous to go alone. Take this.

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

“The obvious evil represented by Hitler united both heirs of the Great French Revolution, liberalism and communism which did not allow any chances for a medieval order to be reestablished by the Nazis.”

Two shots there. Still pretty level-headed. Hitler wasn’t trying to restore any “medieval” order, but people have often associated the term with fascism because fascist movements did tend to glorify romanticized versions of the feudal past.

The current Russian president converted himself into a much desired “velvet Pinochet,” and he learned that he could have “the greatest success” with “a totalitarian restoration” based on “market Stalinism.”

Gulp. That’s for Stalinism. Never heard of market Stalinism though. I guess, to use the conventional(but wrong) definition of Stalinism, “market Stalinism” must be about creating a market in one country as opposed to permanent market, and it would favor heavy industry over light or something. Also that comparison to Pinochet is a bit odd. Putin’s regime has promised(and to some extent delivered) to privatize much of Russia’s state-owned property, but this has never really been associated with Putin the way it was with Pinochet. To be fair, Pinochet never privatized the Anaconda mines as far as I know, and he was forced to nationalize Chile’s banks.  Strange analogy, but I suppose I can go with it.

“But since Stalinism itself was “a restoration of Russian archaism” in and of itself, Putin’s “market Stalinism rapidly began to be transformed into a Chekist oprichnik operation,” with the FSB turning out to be a more reliable “party of power” although rapidly degenerating into “a corrupt police machine of the South Asian or South American type.”

Uh…What? How much have I had so far? Am I already getting drunk? I know these words but these sentences don’t make any sense.  Well it’s four more drinks now, “Chekist” counts.

“According to Ikhlov, “Putin instinctively went along the path of least historical resistance – and developed consumer totalitarianism.” That worked for much of his time in office because it condemned protest against him to failure much as the dissident movement had failed in the times of Brezhnev and Andropov.”

Consumer totalitarianism? Did I read that right? Another drink.

“But totalitarianism by definition is a society in the state of mobilization,”

But that’s not the definition, and even the conventional definition was problematic. I don’t feel drunk, but this just isn’t making any sense. Drink again for totalitarianism.

“That was war, and his “appeal to xenophobia, anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism and imperial nationalism almost doubled his social base,” Ikhlov says.”

Oh…shit.

“Putin’s “Hamas in this case is a designation of a kind for a local, aggressive religiously motivated pseudo-state formation of a totalitarian (political-gangster style) type, which sets for itself utopian goals, uses violence against liberal values and global processes and does not have internal resources for its existence.”

I must be hammered now. Is this guy actually a political scientist as the article says? Is he actually comparing the gang of thugs in the Donbas to Hamas? Say what you will about Hamas, but they’re actually capable of running a state under the most horrendous conditions. You don’t see them demanding that Israel pay pensions to their people.

“While some Russians may find that attractive for a time, “the civilized world will sanction practically any abortion of the Donbass HAMAS,” Ikhlov says”

Okay I have clearly lost it. I’m quitting.

In fact, Ikhlov argues, it may prove to be what Moscow was for Napoleon and El Alamein was for Hitler, the turning point to defeat.

Clearly I am wasted because nobody with even a superficial understanding of the Second World War would call El Alamein the turning point to defeat for Hitler. Most people say Stalingrad, but Moscow is a perfectly good alternative. I must be drunk if that’s what I read.

I don’t have a fancy degree in political science, but words still mean things. You can’t just throw out an alphabet soup of random -isms and bad historical analogies and hope that this will cow your audience into believing you have a coherent point. Is this the state of the Russian opposition intelligenstia? Is this all th– BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAARCH!!!

Oh shit! I’m so sorry, I… I’m okay. I’m alright. I just need to get some fr-BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEARGH!!!!

forwardrussia

But they have newspapers! – Misconceptions about modern dictatorships

A typical Western Russophile argument, launched whenever there is talk of Russia being a dictatorship, is that Russia can’t possibly be a dictatorship because it has lots of different newspapers. Indeed, there are many newspapers in Russia and a few of them are quite critical of the government. I often find this argument amusing, if only because were the Russian government to shut down any of these newspapers, those same Russophiles would be the first in line to declare that this was totally justified, as the paper in question was no doubt a foreign-financed propaganda organ aimed at supporting the overthrow of the government.  Nonetheless, so long as there are critical publications like Novaya Gazeta, Team Russia will uphold this as proof that Russia as has much freedom of press as the US or any European country.

Of course this claim is nonsense. It doesn’t take much searching to find yet another story about the Russian state harassing independent media sources, or mysterious violent assaults on people who work for such outlets or independent organizations. But if we ignore all the harassment, assaults, and selectively applied laws and regulations, this argument does nothing to prove that Russia isn’t a dictatorship. The problem is that our understanding of dictatorships is totally flawed. It proceeds largely from Hannah Arendt’s deeply flawed concept of “totalitarianism” at best, and at worst it comes from dystopian science fiction like 1984 or the far more recent V for Vendetta. We have been conditioned to assume dictatorships must consist of uniformly grey apartment blocks, murals of the Great Leader, and loudspeakers blaring political propaganda.  The state ceaselessly works to stamp out any dissent, even unvoiced mental dissent, i.e. “thought crime.” The media, apart from the aforementioned ubiquitous loudspeakers, consists of omnipresent TV screens with presenters blathering on and on about the Glorious Great Leader’s most recent accomplishments and the need to weed out enemies of the state.

Books and films about this sort of dictatorship appeal to us because their heroes are always vastly outnumbered underdogs challenging the system. We have been taught that dictatorships and oppressive systems thrive off of conformity, and of course we don’t want to conform. We’d like to believe that we’d be that one person who, in spite of the threat of torture or death, would defiantly shout that 2 + 2 = 4. Unfortunately, this sort of dictatorship, particularly in the post-war era, is virtually non-existent. The closest you get is North Korea. Few dictatorships ever achieved that level of control.  What is more, dictatorships of this sort don’t manage to get join the ranks of the wealthiest industrial countries; more often than not, they are financed and controlled by them instead.

In the post-war era, every country needs to portray itself as a democracy, no matter how spurious the claim might be. In the post-Cold War era, countries are expected to attract foreign investment, tourism, and to allow their citizens to travel. South Vietnam was a dictatorship, but I think their are few who would have claimed that it had strict rules and regulations. On the contrary, it was famous for graft, corruption, and nepotism. The same could be said for Iran under the Shah. Yes, these governments cracked down hard, but on dissent, not so much in general. They always put on a show for their Western patrons. This modern reality has made life very hard for more traditional dictatorships such as that of the late Saddam Hussein. The secret to running a successful modern dictatorship comes not from crackdowns, mass arrests, and loudspeakers, but rather from the absence of rule of law. For this reason, a modern dictatorship can sometimes seem freer than countries where rule of law exists.

To take one simple example, one of the most striking things I noticed about Russia when I returned in 2006 was the lax attitude toward intellectual property. In open markets, in little kiosks dotting the streets, and sometimes even on tables in underground crosswalks, one could find people hawking not only pirate DVDs, but even pirate software and games. I’m not complaining; I lived alone in a small town and I was thrilled that I could buy the entire Call of Duty series on one disc for about 150-200 rubles.  By contrast, the entertainment lobby in the US kept pushing for more and more Draconian laws against piracy. Do I need to bring up SOPA here?

While pirate movies and software might seem trivial, Russia has also been known for businesses keeping rather creative books, black salaries which are exempt from taxation, and attempts to get apartment owners to pay taxes on their property has often proven fruitless. Tax evasion in Russia is actually a necessity. The economy and millions of workers literally depend on it, and thus the government usually turns a blind eye. It also, of course, turns a blind eye to bribery and embezzlement, almost.  Due to the masses of bureaucrats with their hands out, business in Russia entails bribery and graft as a necessity, but of course this is against the law.  This means that everyone who does business of any sort must become dirty, and if they should run afoul of the wrong person, that dirt can be used to hang them.  It worked on Khodorkovsky, it worked on Navalny, and the latest victim might be Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

Whether you’re a businessman, a journalist, an entertainer, or even a performance artist, you can’t be sure as to where the boundaries lie. The modern dictatorship doesn’t necessarily crush you under the weight of countless rules and regulations; they may exist but be rarely enforced. It’s only when you cross the wrong person, someone with power, that you suddenly find yourself getting the hammer. Thus, instead of being controlled by the state, you control yourself because you’re afraid of crossing one of those invisible lines. Not that staying within the lines will necessarily save you. In short, there’s a reason why I decided not to have anything to do with any political activities in Russia whatsoever several years ago. There’s a reason why I don’t translate my work into Russian and distribute it more around the Russian internet. There’s a reason I don’t go seeking lots of attention in the media for “exposure.” And there’s a reason why I wrote all of that just now. It pays to be the “grey man.”

What of politics then? Successful modern dictatorships are those which can create a plausible illusion of liberal democracy. Russia does have, in theory, opposing parties and contested elections, does it not? Well if we ignore the ridiculously strict rules about party and candidate registration and the constant accusations of rigged elections, Russia’s mainstream opposition parties don’t offer much opposition. KPRF, the so-called Communist party seems happy to support the Russian oligarchy now that the Crimea has been annexed. Liberal Democratic Party leader Zhirinovsky has suggested that elections be done away with entirely, and that the rank of “Supreme Commander” be conferred on Vladimir Putin.  Strange actions for supposed opposition parties.  The one member of the Duma who dared stand against the tide now fears for his life. In the US, failing to vote your party line can get you into some hot water, at least with your own party, but you won’t be accused of treason and be forbidden to leave the country.  Yeah yeah, I know. Information war. Russia’s surrounded by enemies! But I thought that Russia has risen from her knees? I thought Putin saved Russia from the chaos of the 90’s and now it’s the West that’s decaying. So shouldn’t it be the West clamping down on their press and forcing their politicians to stay in line?  Aren’t they afraid of the rising Russian bear? If Russia is still fighting from an unequal position, why is it still unequal? Has Russia risen from her knees or not? Are the 90’s behind Russia or not?  Fuck it. Don’t even answer.

Of course Team Russia always swears up and down that they have criticisms of the government. Oh they’re just bursting with all kinds of scathing criticism! Turns out though, the criticism is always safe. The problem with Putin is always that he’s not being tough enough. He’s not doing enough to ram some contrived “ideology” down everyone’s throat. That way, in case he does decide to do that at a later date, he can always claim that he is giving in to popular demand.  “They wanted me to censor the internet! They wanted me to make religious schooling mandatory! They wanted me ban this or that.”  Any truly scathing criticism of Russian society is met with, “But that happens in America too,” even when it doesn’t, or at least not to that degree. As if that is supposed to solve any problems here.  So much for criticism.

Western journalists do carry a heavy share of blame for misrepresenting the nature of Russia’s dictatorship. They seem to be stuck in a Cold War paradigm, with the USSR as a model. They invoke Stalin even as the Russian state increasingly yet subtly erases the vestiges of socialism and replaces them with the glorification of Tsarism, imperialism, and clericalism.  Worse still, every time they try to portray Russia in that sci-fi dictatorship mold, even casual observers and short term visitors to Russia get confused if not offended. Casually browsing groups on the Russian social network VK.com is enough to dispel the idea that life in Russia resembles a dystopian science fiction novel.  The most offensive dissent is tolerated, so long as it is rendered impotent and disorganized. Then again, you still have to be careful.

That is the last feature of the modern dictatorship. These states love to portray themselves as strong, but they cannot help but reveal their weakness. Only a weak state fears bloggers, performance artists, and old women running charity organizations for soldiers.  More specifically, those in power realize that they are trapped in their position. At first they felt secure because they eliminated any real political opposition. Unfortunately, in the process they eliminated not only any potential leader who could carry on the business of running the state after they leave, but they have also eliminated every mechanism of changing the political system besides violent revolution.  They now have a tiger by the tail and cannot let go. That is why they gambled on the disastrous seizure of the Crimea, and the bizarre tragic comedy of “Novorossiya” in Eastern Ukraine. Like a compulsive gambler tossing the keys of his car into the pot, they’re willing to do anything to distract the people just a bit longer, anything for a few more months of high approval rating in the polls. If the people get fucked six months to a year down the road, who cares? What will they do? Vote for someone else?

There’s the paradox though; they can’t vote. They can only rebel. Friends could stab you in the back and ride the masses’ rage to power, and as soon as they get that power, they’ll deliver you up to a crowd that’s demanding blood.  So that’s why you’ve got to crack down on bloggers, mimes, people holding invisible placards, musicians, journalists, artists, doctors, and so on. That’s why yesterday’s regime supporter needs to be careful about what they say today or tomorrow. Everybody must be kept in line with those invisible borders. Mass protest movements which topple governments can start with the most innocuous incidents, as both Arab Spring and Euromaidan proved. Those in power in Russia know damned well that people don’t throng to public squares and riot simply because the US State Department is paying them. They also know full well that they pay people to show up to their rallies, or compel or at least cajole state employees into attending such events. They know the grievances of many of these people are real, probably better than the protesters themselves.

Worse still, they know that many of their citizens have been abroad, and whether they will admit it in public today, they know deep down that something is very wrong with Russia’s way of life. In spite of being one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, you wouldn’t know it driving through provincial Russia or even walking through some parts of the capital. You wouldn’t know it from the fact that Russia’s economy barely tops that of the state of California.  No Russian citizen can be blind to the fact that in other industrialized countries, politicians and leaders change every few years. Even in China the leadership is almost entirely cleaned out and replaced with some regularity.  But in Russia there’s only Putin. Even Medvedev wasn’t good enough for a second term. It’s got to be Putin. He’s the only choice; he saved Russia. Yet if he saved Russia, why has it only produced one person capable of leading the state in over a decade?  Never mind, it’s just another one of those inconvenient questions.

Taking into account these facts, it’s no wonder the government is tripling the budget for its media machine and massively increasing military spending in spite of the fact that the finance minister has already declared the spending unrealistic. No wonder they’ve enacted more laws against the poorly-defined “extremism” and against independent media. To stave off the inevitable, they’ll resort to more traditional dictatorial methods, but none of it will work in the end. The USSR tried to fight against popular force and did so from a much more advantageous position. This was not enough to save it. I’m afraid all these traditional dictatorship tactics, dredged up by minds who have long since departed from reality and which took the wrong lessons from history, will only prevent Russia rising from the ashes after it’s all over. More likely than not, the man who usurps Putin will do so based on the promise that he will be the strong hand Russia needs, that he is a true patriot, and that he, not Putin, is capable of restoring Russia’s empire. Then the cycle of theft and corruption will begin anew with different names, and the process of decay and destruction of Russia will continue unabated.