Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Not So Random Thoughts on Western Ukrainian Crisis Discourse...
1. What happened in the Ukraine was quite clearly a coup. If one wants to move to the normative or theological level one can debate whether it was "legitimate" or "illegitimate" to remove an elected leader in a coup. One would, however, think that many nations would hesitate before they claimed the Ukrainian coup was a "legitimate" coup since that would "delegitimise" many if not most governments in the West since they have violated the rights of their own citizens and on occasion taken the lives of their own citizens. Most governments, of course, are interested in nothing more than maintaining power so that would seem to mitigate against most governments seeing this as a "legitimate" coup. On a broader social theoretic level these apologetics and polemics over the Ukrainian coup show once again how important Max Weber's notion that we give "legitimacy" to some phenomena and not to others, is. As this debate over the "legitimacy" or "illegitimacy" of the new Ukrainian government shows, notions of "legitimacy" and "illegitimacy" are purely ideological.
2. On Tuesday, 4 March, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $1 billion dollar "subsidy" or "loan guarantee" package for the non-elected government of the Ukraine. Europe added $15 billion the next day. Shades of the Cold War. I am sure that there are many in the US, Spain, Portugal, and Greece that would like to see a $15 billion dollar loan guarantee or stimulus in their countries given their slow recovery from the 2008 bust caused largely by Wall Street speculation and the continuing levels of unemployment across these nations. One wonders whether those nattering nabobs of anti-stimulus politics, the Republicans and the Germans, will reject Kerry's and Obama's and the EU's foreign stimulus package for the Ukraine on those grounds. Don't hold your breath. The moral of this tale? Double standards abound in the discursive world of political power most of them seemingly unrecognised as such by its utterers. This is, of course, how ideology works. It turns inconsistencies and hypocrisies into consistencies and moral virtue. Welcome to the topsy turvy world of Orwellian doublespeak political culture.
3. Speaking of hypocrisies, we have had the British and American pots calling the Russian kettle black during this crisis. It is rich for Kerry and William Hague to condemn Russian "aggression"--and remember the Crimea was Russian until 1954--after American aggression to protect Brits and Americans in Grenada and the Malivinas/Falkland Islands and, more recently, the British and America invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing American use of drones to kill "terrorists" in foreign "sovereign" territory. Welcome to the topsy turvy world of doublespeak political discourse where charges of double standards become fictive hallucinations coming from the looney liberal left.
4. The notion that "sovereignty" is set in stone as if it was akin to the mythical commandments the Hebrew god Yahweh gave to Moses in antiquity would be surrealy humourous if some people didn't actually believe such rubbish. Ukraine, of course, is a relatively recent "nation". Part of it was once part of Poland. Much of it was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR at one time. The Crimea itself was transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. Before that it had long been part of Russia after the Russians did to the Tatars what the Americans did to the Indians and the Brits did to the Aborigines and the Maori. Before that Crimea had been invaded and occupied by Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Kievan Rus, the Byzantine Empire, Kipchaks or Kumans, Mongols, and Genoa.
5. The notion that there were "original" inhabitants of Ukrainian lands is problematic. Most "original" inhabitants migrated into "their" lands. Examples: Indo European Greeks apparently immigrated into Hellas during antiquity. Goths, Vandals, and other "barbarians" migrated into "Europe" during the latter days of the western Roman Empire. More recently in Israel, where Jews from Europe established a European settler society after WWII and created a national mythology that it was their land because god gave it to them, often forget that one of the biblical tales indicated that Yahweh gave them permission to slaughter the inhabitants who were already there. My point? It is power that historically has made your fatherland or motherland "your" fatherland or motherland not some transcendental "right". Transcendental fetishes, in other words, always turn out to be relative and ideological and grounded in the realities of power.
6. I get a kick out of Americans and Brits condemning Russia for its imperialism and noting that imperialism generally leads to bad blood. Yes imperialists like Russia rarely get a lot of love from those the imperialise. What is conveniently elided in this condemnation of Russian imperialism, an elision that once again shows how ideology works and functions, however, is that the US, the UK, the USSR, France, China, Holland, Japan, Rome, were all imperialists and in some cases colonists and that they were and are disliked despite their attempts to portray themselves as miss congenialities bringing the best of all possible economic, political, and cultural worlds to the globe's inhabitants.
7. And the doublespeak just keeps on coming. Kerry reportedly said on 4 March that the Ukrainian protestors stand for freedom. The freedom to overthrow an elected government? Attempt to strike a simulated Churchillian rhetorical pose for public relation purposes much John? Personally, I could do with the overthrow of oligarchic governments everywhere but I don't think that is what Kerry (not to mention America's oligarchs) means by his statement. One could not imagine him saying such things, for example, about protestors in the US who are calling for greater democracy and being arrested and beaten about the head for such "sacrilege". I suspect he would, like the "authorities" always do, talk about the unlawful and disorderly rabble in the streets (irony alert: wasn't he once part of the disorderly rabble in the streets?). Hmm, that sounds familiar.
8. So Barack Obama, constitutional lawyer cum president, says Russia may have broken international law. Perhaps. But then so has the United States (as has Great Britain) on a number of occasions including recently in Iraq and currently in its continuing use of drones for vigilante justice all across the globe. Imperialist pot calls imperialist kettle black. Imperialists, in other words, rail against the violations of international law by enemy imperialists and ignore the imperial mote in their own eye. Government propagandists, as this evidence shows, can turn from absolutists to relativists on a dime when it suits them. Situational ethics. By the way, the fact that Obama, Kerry, Cameron, and Hague can say with a straight face that Russia is breaking international law while they and the nations they represent have broken international law on a number of occasions over the years makes them decent if not necessarily believable actors. Perhaps they can migrate to Hollywood, take up the law, or become spin doctors after their political careers end.
9. As NYU professor Stephen F. Cohen noted on 3 March on PBS's News Hour condemning Russia for its concern about what is happening in the Ukraine (or what happened in Georgia in 2008) particularly after the new unelected government eliminated Russian language rights is akin to asking the US not to be concerned with what is happening in Canada or Mexico. Scenario: Let's imagine that protestors bring down the elected governments of Canada and Mexico and, in their anger over American imperialism in their countries, force Americans living, working, or visiting both countries to speak in French or Spanish.
The fact is, is that the US would act just like Russia and would declare such unelected governments "illegitimate" should such a scenario occur. We know the US would act the same way because it has acted similarly throughout its history. Between 1846 and 1848 the US fought a war with Mexico that had a border dispute between the two countries as its short term cause and ended with the American appropriation of large amounts of Mexican territory that its manifest destiny types had long salivated over. The US would invade the sovereign nation of Mexico several times afterwards including in 1913 and 1917 not to mention in a number of other of sovereign nations across the Caribbean and Latin America including the Dominican Republic in 1965, Panama in 1989 and Haiti in 1995. Canada, by the way, has not escaped American invasion either. The US invaded British Canada during its second war with Great Britain in 1812 and burned its capital York (which is why the British repaid the favour by burning the American capital of Washington, DC; payback is a bitch) in 1813. The Americans, as the Canadians like to remind their neighbour to the south, were repulsed during each of its invasions of the Great White North.
All of this points up, of course, just how idiotic, moronic, and twisted the ideologically driven rhetoric of America's mainstream polemicists and apologists is regarding Russia recently. The fact that the US and Western nations have accepted the unelected government in the Ukraine as "legitimate" reveals for all with the non-ideologically driven eyes to see that the West, despite the aid the German government provided to Viktor Yankovych’s government on domestic security matters between 2009 and 2013 (Guardian Berlin correspondent Philip Oltermann quoting German Green MP Hans-Christian Ströbele, "Ukraine Crises", 4 March 2014), prefers a government (they claim it to be "constitutional" though I think that is not only a naive but also an ideologically driven characterisation and I think if the coup had been the other way around, with a Russian friendly government impeaching a Western friendly president after forcing him to flee to Germany, the West would be yelling "coup, coup") friendly to it even if it is a non-elected government with nationalist anti-Semitic elements within it.
10. Conservative columnist and pundit David Brooks wrote an opinion piece on Russian messianism and exceptionalism in the New York Times yesterday arguing that both are essential for an understanding of what Putin is up to in Russia's near abroad these days. Brooks, of course, has a point. Russia has long had a messianic complex (protector of Slavs everywhere) and Russia has long seen itself as exceptional (as different from and better than Europe and the West). But Brooks misses a rather obvious comparative something that Western apologists and polemicists (though interestingly not Robert Gates) often don't see for whatever reason. All empires have a messianic complex and all empires think of themselves as exceptional in some way, shape, or form, whether they are the American Empire, the British Empire, the Roman Empire, or the Athenian Empire. Even non-empires sometimes exhibit a messianic complex. Don't believe me? Read or listen to the New Zealand national anthem.
11. What has really going on in Western policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War is a strategy as old World War I if not much older. It is called box your potential or actual great power rival in. The UK did it to an industrialising and militarising (the two go hand in glove) Germany in the 19th and early 20th century. The West has been trying to do it to Russia in the 20th and 21st. This boxing in strategy was easier when Russia was weak in the wake of the fall of the USSR. Now that Russia is stronger it is clearly not going to be as easy. Welcome to the latest round of great power struggles. Mass propaganda, of course, continues to play a major role in these great power cold wars just as it has since WWI.
12. Speaking of propaganda and the role it plays and has played in great power conflicts for centuries, propaganda, the discourse that comes out of the mouths of apologists and polemicists of the "official version", exaggerates the differences between "us" and "them", between competing great powers. The ideologically driven melodramatic propaganda that dominated the Cold War and which distinguished between a "good America" and an "evil USSR", for instance, had a number of functions. One was to make disappear the fact that both the US and the USSR were the products of modernity with its big hierarchical political bureaucracies, its big hierarchical economic bureaucracies with their limited "competition" (competition was limited in the US by its big corporations which invariably formed cartels and monopolies in order to increase profits while it was limited in the USSR by its emphasis on a command economy), and its big industrial militaries which have brought mass total war to the globe. Mass propaganda, which gave birth to mass advertisng, of course, allowed the rulers of modern nations, economic oligarchs in the US, political oligarchs in the USSR, to more easily manipulate and control mass populations through mass ideology, phenomena all of the modern world. Welcome to, from the oligarchs point of view, the best of all possible profit making and political controlling worlds.
13. Boy, it is sometimes hard to figure out what the talking political power that be heads of the United States mean by "democracy". I got up this morning (6 March) and turned on NPR to discover that President Obama was readying sanctions against those who were "undermining Ukrainian democracy". Naturally I first thought Obama was going to sanction those who through a coup took over the Ukraininan government from the elected leader of the country (a leader who admittedly may be enriching himself at the public trough but he certainly isn't the only one; even that self-proclaimed best of all possible worlds the US has its bribery, graft, and croneyism). But no that is apparently not what Obama meant. I was momentarily left wondering what the hell the US government meant by democracy. Then I finally got it, the US definition of the term changes like a chameleon to suit whatever American "interests" happen to be at the moment. Same imperial practise as it ever was: situational.
14. I got a kick out of this "non fiction" article in the Daily Beast. I got a kick out of it for several reasons. First off, there is no doubt that nationalism, an emotional tie (nationalism is akin to religious beliefs) to a particular place in space, impacts Russia Today, the English language news service funded by Russia's political powers that be. To be fair and balanced, however, it is also true that the same thing can be said about media everywhere including that in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Now I know that towing the ideological party line isn't the only function and work of the corporate media in the United States and the West. They also have a money interest. That is why they do stories about Lindsay and Britney, popular stories about Lindsay and Britney. Second, there are limits to what you can say on the American corporate media and even on that "most trusted of American media", PBS. How many times, for instance, has Noam Chomsky been on the News Hour talking about American foreign policy? Speaking of real critics of American policy on television, I have to say I was shocked that the New Hour had Stephen Cohen, a superb historian of Russia and critic of EU and American policy toward the Ukraine, on the other night. The appearance of a real critic on American television does not, by the way, mean that US television is "fair and balanced". It simply points up the fact that real critics of American television are rare and that they stick out like a sore thumb during their extremely rare appearances. Third, the most recent five minutes of fame that the media, well at least the Daily Beast, are celebrating, Ms. Wahl, undermined whatever objective credibility she may have had by taking the job at RT in the first place despite that she knew what she was getting into. Needless to say she further undermined any "objective journalistic credibility" she had left by going on and on about being a proud Ameri-can on air. Speaking of journalistic objectivity: The author of this "article" showed the same lack of objectivity as his subject by turning Ms. Wahl into the latest in a line of nationalist journalist saints. I guess predictions that objective journalism is dead have not been exaggerated.
15. Recently reports have surfaced that snipers shot not only anti-government protestors in Maidan Square in Kiev but also supporters of the existing regime. Two explanations--there are probably more--all already appearing attempting to explain this. Both are grounded in pre-existing melodramatic good versus evil ideological frames of reference. Both are also plausible. Which one is right can only be ascertained after we have more empirical evidence. The first scenario, by the way, that the Russians did it, is likely to get much more traction in the European and North American press. The other, that "provocateurs" within the Ukrainian opposition to the elected government did it, is not, for obvious reasons, likely not to get much traction in the reputable Western press. The telephone conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton leaked to Russia Today, for instance, has only gotten play in the Guardian prior to this report in Haaretz to my knowledge.
16. Interesting. So in Western discourse the actions of the Parliament in Kiev in overthrowing the elected president of the Ukraine are legal while actions by the Crimean Parliament, which voted for alliance with Russia, and the upcoming referendum on that topic in the Crimea are not. Does this mean that many in the West are not only hypocrites but scribes as well, at least when it suits their interests?
17. So many of the punditocracy in the West claim that the Crimea referendum is illegal? Hmm. Have their been regional referenda on independence and switching national allegiance before in Western history? Well yes. In 1905 Norway voted to become independent of Sweden. In 1935 the Saarland, which was administered by France after World War I, voted for union with Germany. In 1955 Iceland voted to become independent of Denmark. In 1955 the Saarland voted against independence from Germany. In 1962 Algerians voted for independence from France. In 1991 Georgia and the Ukraine voted for independence from the USSR. By the way, not all referenda have been successful for a variety of reasons. In 1946 the Faroese voted for independence from Denmark, a vote the Danes ignored. In 1980 and 1995 Québécois voted against independence from Canada. In 1991 Serbia ignored a referendum in Kosovo in which 87% of Kosavars voted for independence. Serbian Kosavars boycotted the vote. In 2008 Spain cancelled a referendum on Basque independence in the Basque region of Spain. In 2012 a referendum in the Serbian parts of Kosovo saw 99.74% of voters reject the writ of the Republic of Kosovo's institutions. For a brief history on recent referenda in Europe see this interesting article by James Dawson in the New Statesman.
For an interesting essay comparing Kosovo and Crimea see Mike Walker's article in the Moscow Times. Walker notes that the transfer of the Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 was symbolic and recognised as such by the Ukraine when it became independent in 1991 through its granting of the privileges of self-rule to Crimea. Walker also notes that the Ukraine government restricted the powers of the Crimean parliament and stripped it of the privileges of self-rule in 1994 after Crimea's leadership expressed its desire to leave Ukraine and establish itself as an independent state. Let's hear it for Ukrainian double standards. The Ukraine voted to secede from the Soviet Union in 1991 but it did not allow the Crimea a similar vote.
18. So many of the taking heads in the West seem to think the Ukraine is a viable nation. Is it? The Ukraine, as it is presently constituted is not a real nation, it is not a place in space with a largely shared sense of identity, community, and culture. Western Ukraine, which was once part of Poland, with its centre in Lviv/Lwov, is culturally "Ukrainian" and Catholic. Eastern Ukraine is culturally Russian and Christian Orthodox. The Ukraine, in other words, is rather like Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, and Iraq. Ukraine might become a more culturally homogeneous and a more functioning nation if it was divided into Western and Eastern parts or if Little Russia was incorporated back into Russia.
19. So many of the pundits in the West think that Putin, who they claim bemoans the decline and fall of the USSR, wants to bring the Soviet Union back. I beg to differ. I think Putin is bringing something back to contemporary Russia. It is not the USSR, however, that Putin is bringing back. It is a kind of neo-Tsarist Russian theocracy Putin is reviving in contemporary Russia as the Pussy Riot case seems to show.
By the way, there is no evidence that I see which suggests that Russia will expand into or beyond its near borders. If the Russian and Georgian war of 2008 tells us anything, it tells us that Russia, because of Georgia's attempt to recover territory which no longer wants to be part of Georgia (Georgian demagogues puffed up on nationalist ideology) and because of fears of NATO expansion and EU expansion into Georgia and the Ukraine, will protect its near borders, its near abroad, but will not likely move beyond protecting its near borders. Russia, after all, pulled back from Georgia and remained only in those areas that want to be independent of Georgia. One way, of course, for the West to deal with Russia's concerns is for the great powers that be in the West to tell Russia that we will not expand NATO into the Ukraine or Georgia (a promise that will hopefully be kept better than the verbal promise made to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a united Germany), we recognise your concern about the civil and human rights of Russians in near abroad diasporas, and we will create a situation in which the Ukraine and Georgia can be part of both a European economic union AND a Russian economic union.
20. And the discursive bizarrity continues. Apparently, or so one can infer from the language of the current interim leader of the Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk, it is OK for anti-Yanukovich protestors to take over government buildings but it is not OK for opponents of the current regime in Kiev, who Ukraine's leader dubs "terrorists", to do the same thing. If one can't see the irony, hypocrisy, and attempts at demonisation here than that someone is simply unable to think critically.
21. And the discursive bizarrity continues, part two. So NATO chief and NATO chief demagogue Anders Fogh Rasmussen says Russia should "stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution". Apparently poor Rasmussen has forgotten that Russia offered a solution to the Ukrainian problem: greater federalism. Perhaps NATO and Rasmussen should stop spouting crap and get on with responding to Russia's proposal for solving the problems associated with the failed "nation" of the Ukraine.
22. By the way, I am not a believer in exceptionalism. Humans are humans and humans who live in similar social and cultural formations tend to be similar. Most humans living in most nations, of course, BELIEVE they are unique. I think the discourse of both the West and Russia on the Ukraine are the same. They are both ideologically driven. What gets lost in all this ideology, of course, is what always gets lost in all the ideology, the empirical truth. One of these days I hope some enterprising intellectual writes a tome on how apologists and polemicists on all sides view the "equivalents". I suspect apologists and polemcists on all sides detest "equivalents" even more than they detest each other because on some level they realise how dangerous empirical analysis potentially is to ideologically driven apologetics and polemics.