Monday, March 3, 2014

History Ever Repeats...and Repeats...

As you all probably know by now I am fascinated by the workings of ideology, the working of ideology in regions, in nations, in social movements, in identity construction, in human life. I blame my fascination with how humans construct their "realities" on my years as a Religious Studies major during my undergraduate years at Indiana University in Bloomington. It was not hard to recognise, if one was able to think even a bit empirically outside the intellectual boxes that bind and blind us, that ideology, the ways of seeing that construct our realities, was at the heart of the religious life. It was not much of a hop, skip, and a jump from seeing how religiously constructed ways of seeing constructed religiously constructed realities to how ideology in general constructs reality.

One of my other intellectual obsessions as you all also probably know by now is the media. Intellectuals and academics have long recognised that the media reflects the ideologies in which they are embedded. The scholars and intellectuals at the Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies at the University of Birmingham, for example, recognised long ago that the both sides of the issue journalism that has come to dominate the journalistic profession in the West since the 1960s was in its very structure ideological. One of the views journalists were supposed to obtain in this both sides of the issue "journalism" was the establishment one, the "view" of the "proper" authorities, the "view" of the government, the "view" of the police. To anyone with a dispassionate bone in their bodies it is not hard to see how ideology functions and works in this type of journalism and how dominant ideologies function and work in cultures at large.

It is particularly during times of "crisis" that one can see the ideological work at play in the Western media. One can see this in the conspiracy theories floating around the Olympic women's ice skating final. One can see it in media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis that is dominating the serious world's media at the moment. It is not only what the media is saying (the media is taking its cues largely from government and mainstream think tank "intellectuals")--the return of the not so repressed Cold War portrayal of the USSR, err, Russia, as an aggressive totalitarian state, the clichéd portrayal of Putin as the most recent in a long line of twentieth and twenty-first century Hitlerian dictators who must be stood up to (Putin is not so much a latter day Hitler as a descendent of the theocratic monarchs and tsars of the imperial past), the portrayal of a Putin who is living in his own separate universe (the powers that be almost go postmodern?), the cosmic apocalyptic drama of a good and virtuous West fighting against an bad and evil Russia--but also what the media (and government and mainstream think tank "intellectuals") is, by and large, not saying, that reveals the ideological work of the media.

There is a lot that the media is not saying about the Ukrainian crisis. Here are a few examples. The media discussion of the fractured "ethnic" nature of the Ukraine (the Ukraine is rather like Belgium) is either elided or segregated to the bottom of "news" reports. So to is the fact that the Crimea was transferred from Russia to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The role NATO, the EU, and the US have and continue to play in trying to push the Ukraine out of the Russian orbit and into the European Union, something that was also done in the case of Georgia, is rarely discussed. The fact that the Russian justification for "invading" the Crimea--protection of Russians--is rarely compared with US and UK claims that they were doing the same thing when they invaded Grenada in 1983 and retook the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in 1982. The fact that the new and non-elected government of the Ukraine has eliminated Russian as an official language of the "nation" is usually elided. The fact that there are fascist anti-Semitic elements in the Ukrainian nationalist crowd is rarely referenced. The fact that the new Ukrainian government is appointing non-elected mostly Russian oligarchs governors (akin to naming Wall Street investment bank executives state governors) is rarely noted (the Ukrainian state needs them to keep the economy afloat and presumably to make the Ukraine safe for Western investment). The underlying ideological assumption for all of these acts of intellectual amnesia is the same: the West is good, the West is protecting an innocent, Russia is bad. In this cosmic melodrama, of course, the good guys can do no wrong while the bad guys can do no right.

This doesn't mean that contradictions aren't present within ideological formations. Occasionally one can find a truly fair and balanced empirical analysis complete with policy suggestions like that of Anatol Lieven on the online site Zócalo. Occasionally one can find an excellent article which tries to put the Crimean crisis into historical context like this one at Haaretz. Occasionally one can find both the dominant and the minority view at a newspaper like the Guardian, a newspaper that condemned Putin with little attention to the empirical nuances of the crisis and which tried to put the Ukrainian crisis in broader and fairer contexts at the same time. The problem is not that there aren't alternative and more accurate analyses out there. The problem is that most people do not read the countercultural empirical analyses. They get their views on any crisis, by and large, by listening to and dittoing back what "authorities" and people they share an ideological culture with already say about "crises" on the dominant ideological driven media that dominates Western cultural life when such crises manage to draw their attention away from the culture of celebrity bread and circuses, the culture of celebrity opium, that dominates so much Western life these days (check out the trending nows on Yahoo). In case anyone does read these alternative empirical analyses, analyses which as any good analyses do and must,take the others point of view seriously, another strategy is used to keep anyone from taking them seriously: demonisation. In a strategy that comes right out of religious polemics such analyses are deemed liberal, leftist (as though there were no differences between the two), evil. These strategies are, as the Birmingham School and others recognised long ago, important ways in which ideology works and functions, very efficiently and effectively I might add, in the so-called democratic West.

Further Reading:
Here are four examples of alternative takes on the Ukraine crisis that have appeared in the Guardian recently. One by Jonathan Steele. Another by Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen Macaskill. Still another by Harriet Salem which takes a critical look at the Ukraine's new "government". Finally, another by Simon Jenkins explores the Western hypocrisy and impotence of Western reactions to Russia's Crimea adventure. Here is an example of the dominant or mainstream view as represented in a recent editorial in the Guardian.

The Guardian was not the only media outlet to offer a platform for both the official mainstream view and the unofficial countercultural perspective on post Cold War Russian actions. On PBS's News Hour on Monday evening 3 March Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, gave the official ideologically driven perspective while NYU professor Stephen F. Cohen gave the empirical countercultural rebuttal (as opposed to the melodramatic countercultural discourse which one can also find in the intellectual and media universe). One difference between the Guardian and PBS's New Hour is that the News Hour engages in both sides of the issue journalism while the Guardian is characterised by a greater array of views in its online pages. Despite this PBS's New Hour does, on rare occasions, and I emphasise rare occasions, offer a real critic of the official rhetoric a real platform for his or her views, something increasingly rare on an American television largely devoid of real debate programmes like the Firing Line of yesteryear. Not all American political insiders, by the way, are following the polemical party line. Jack Matlock, former US ambassador to the USSR, offers an interesting and I think largely correct take on the Ukraine.

On broader issues, specifically the false metaphors that are prevalent in media and intellectual historical analysis of crises including that of the Ukraine crisis, see Adam Gopnik's short piece in the New Yorker. Putin's Duma speech accurately lays out US, NATO, and EU provocations leading up to the Ukraine crisis. David Rohde's and Arshad Mohammed's article for Reuters also does a nice job of laying out Western provocations toward Russia. Stephen Cohen does a nice job of exploring how the West has brought about a new cold war with Russia.

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