Obama, Putin, the Ukraine: A Symbolic Lynching

The murder of a 17-year old German exchange student, Diren Dede, in the act of committing a midnight prank in a garage whose door was left open, video camera and sensors at the ready, alerting the homeowner who rushed for his shotgun, fired four blasts in the dark, legally/constitutionally protected by the Montana “Castle” law, killing the youngster—a law, receiving bipartisan endorsement, which amended a 2009 law specifying the imminence of mortal danger as grounds, now, eliminating the provision to allow unconditional license to kill on one’s property, IS America in microcosm circa 2014.

How did we get this way? Jack Healy, in a NYT article, “A Boy Shot, and Regret on Montana ‘Castle’ Law,” (May 7), describes the scene—although judging from readers’ comments, nationally, to the article, regrets are in short supply. Many Americans would have pulled the trigger. This contempt for human life, often paraded as pride of gun ownership as the ultimate manifestation of freedom (next, of course, to the property right itself), forms, as microcosms of reality often do, the background for the current justification of the fascist takeover of Ukraine, the demonization of Putin. Whether America is bound up in pervasive fear (of what lies Out There), or equally pervasive GUILT for asserting global dominance over the broken bodies of hundreds of thousands, the trigger-response (pun not intended) to whatever is construed as menacing—single-payer system, diminished military budget, even speed limits on the Interstates—connotes bravery, individualism, Exceptionalism, the American Spirit.

The psychopathology of violence inheres in the nation’s DNA, wherever one looks, whether Missoula, Newtown, or reaching out to, in one’s heart of hearts, praise the thugs who burned alive the unarmed protesters in Odessa recently, or club OWS demonstrators in New York. This violence is the kissing cousin of counterrevolution, itself hatred of, contempt for, bitterness against, any who strive for an alternative path to happiness. If it isn’t 100% American, it must be socialist, communist, loathsome, vile.

Healy begins: “Teenagers call it garage hopping. The goal was to sneak into an open garage, steal some beer or other items and slip away into the night. It was dumb and clearly illegal. It was not supposed to be deadly.” But it was, and, given the “Castle” law, intentionally so. The killer is out on bail. Perhaps this helps to explain America’s low reputation in the world, along with private contractors clearing intersections in Iraq with machinegun fire, torture in Afghan prisons, turning people into blood spats wherever armed drones brandish the flag, a reputation altogether suppressed from mind and sight at the water’s edge, part of the psychopathology, myopic to a fault.

Healy again: “German consular officials have called for justice….In Mr. Dede’s hometown, Hamburg, hundreds of his stunned relatives, friends and soccer teammates attended memorials, holding photos of Mr. Dede and unfurling a banner that read, ‘Our brother is dying while America is looking on.’” Soccer teammates, a culture seemingly like our own, yet having strict gun laws and a mentalset which, after the experience of, and participation in, Naziism, has led to eschewing gratuitous violence. In the “castle doctrine,” having NRA support, the 2009 law—he writes–“placed the burden on prosecutors to rebut claims of self-defense,” and therefore, Montana residents “can use force if they reasonably believe” self-defense is necessary. The assailant’s lawyer: “He just didn’t know what was going on. Then he started to shoot.” Even a Democratic state representative who wanted to repeal the recent change in the law, hastened to add: “I’m a liberal legislator from Montana, and I have a handgun in my closet.” At least she had the decency to add, “We are proud of our gun-owning tradition, but enough is enough. It’s like a license to kill.”

The details of the murder are heart-wrenching. The couple left the garage open to set a trap, leaving a purse in the back of the garage. A hairstylist reported that the shooter “had come into the Great Clips salon three days before the shooting and talked about how he had been waiting with his shotgun for three nights ‘to shoot some kid,’” because of two earlier burglaries in the area. The fateful night, a neighbor “heard a few yells of ‘Hey!’ or ‘Wait!’ from inside the garage, and then gunshots….The friend accompanying Mr. Dede that night, an exchange student from Ecuador, stayed outside the home.” The host family of Dede, “who say they have never locked their doors and have never been burglarized, have spent the last week grieving for a 17-year-old who had begun to feel like a family member. One said, “Whatever happened to turning the lights on and yelling, ‘Hey kids, go home’?” The other: “Or closing the garage door?”


Missoula to Washington is a straight line projection. A war crisis is brewing, largely, I would argue, because, like Montana’s gun culture, replicated all over America, symptomatic of a deeper clutching at straws to remain the unilateral global superpower capable of dictating terms of national existence to all others, the US, seeing itself threatened, invokes its own “Castle Doctrine,” the license to kill, subject to our own perception. Obama’s loathing for Putin, personally, because Putin does not genuflect before him, flattering him, praising him to the heavens, ideologically, because he sees through the program of global hegemony which stamps the Obama presidency, has led to, not simply a campaign of demonization, pressure being exerted on the media to follow suit, but also the concrete militarization of diplomacy (?) in the present, willed confrontation with Russia. Turn, then, to Neil MacFarquhar’s article in The Times, “Putin Announces Pullback from Ukraine Border,” (May 7), for an account which should on the surface have relieved tensions given the evident de-escalation of any possible military threat, and instead is fitted into the continued narrative of Russian (subliminally, Soviet) purported aggression. Like US gun freaks who perceive social justice through a shoot-on-sight credo, Obama and USG perceive peace as a national condition of weakness, unmanly, appeasement writ large, in face of self-constructed demons ready to steal our precious heritage of freedom (the purse in the back of the garage).

Just try it! We’ll show you! Putin is actually slandered for the pullback, because denying America its confrontation, the titillating frisson of always being in a state of war readiness, lest we question our own manliness and ideological convictions. (Of the latter, not to worry, centuries of indoctrination in the moral worth of the property-right, incorporated into the definition of American democracy, places the value system on rock-ribbed foundations. And as for the former, bullying over the same time frame—perhaps bullying, both at home, as in working people and minorities, and abroad, becoming an integral feature, and implementing mechanism, of democracy—serves as healing ointment to stave off doubts.) Thus, “In an apparent [only an apparent, the word choice loaded] attempt to halt the escalating violence in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin ordered “troops back from the border, and he urged Ukrainian separatists [another loaded choice, many calling instead for greater federalism and rejecting formal integration with Russia] to call off a referendum on sovereignty they had hoped to hold on Sunday.”

Cold water is dashed on Putin’s role here, the pullback being perhaps less important than his call for moderation, including a direct dialogue between the protesters and the Kiev government. Even the reporter sees this, quoting Putin that he was appealing “to representatives of southeast Ukraine and supporters of federalization to hold off the referendum scheduled for May 11, in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.” With Didier Burkhalter, president of Switzerland and chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) beside him, Putin states: “We think the most important thing now is to launch direct dialogue, genuine, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine. This dialogue could give people from southeast Ukraine the chance to see that their lawful rights in Ukraine really will be guaranteed.”

MacFarquhar reports that Putin, despite the coup, could accept the results of the May 25 presidential election: “Let me stress that the presidential election the Kiev authorities plan to hold is a step in the right direction, but will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place.” The reporter sought to dismiss the statement by first saying that Putin “left the door open to Russia accepting under certain conditions” the election, yet these “certain conditions” are far different from Obama and the West’s propaganda barrage about an imminent invasion and the destruction of Ukraine as a unified state. This whole pattern of thinking is INEXCUSABLE, an incitement to further building a war cloud. Putin’s intentions are clear. He is even quoted further as saying, “We all want the crisis to end as soon as possible, and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine no matter where they live.”

From this point, everything is downhill. The mediation, which is light-years away from the accusations projecting Russian conquest, is reinterpreted to mean, still the menace of conquest, an achievement of “what Russia has been seeking since the rebellion in Kiev overthrew [Yanukovych},” i.e., regional autonomy, “including electing their own governors and directing their own foreign policy with their immediate neighbors.” This last is problematic, given Putin’s position on federalization, but more to the point, this is not a posture of conquest; rather than “directing their own foreign policy,” his position is that the region would have a veto on the emplacement of NATO troops on the Russian border—to me, a not unreasonable position. Much of the remainder of the article is given over to canvassing expressions of suspicion, his own, though divorced from evidence, and that of various analysts, including, the last word, a gem from Viktor Zamyatin (“I don’t have any basis to say at this point that his strategy is changing; I see that his rhetoric is changing”), who is “a political analyst with the Kiev-based Razumkov Center think tank,” a wholly disinterested (?) party.

My New York Times Comment to the MacFarquhar article, same date, follows, along with two replies, also same date, and my response to them. I do not wish to try the reader’s patience, but the first so beautifully captures the Cold War mindset (red-baiting and all), a far-better caricature than I could hope to write, that its value lies in telling us what opponents of current policy have to contend with in terms of rigid ideology. In answer to each of the replies, I was enabled to explore further the significance of the assault on Putin. The insinuation: I am therefore a fellow-traveler. Welcome back, Joe.

I My Comment to the article:

I expect better of MacFarquhar and The Times–everything here to disparage Putin. Why the one-sidedness, except that NYT has become an uncritical mouthpiece of the administration, abandoning objective journalism. There was no point for the remark, “there was some chance that it was all a feint,” unless to smear Putin, and the sentence, “By pulling back from the threat, Mr. Putin seemed to be trying to reassert some measure of control,” means that he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, so that the pullback per se is first denied, and then given negative meaning. This kind of distortion disgraces the memory of A.O. Sulzberger.

Putin even urges dialogue and postponing the referendum; meanwhile all Obama can do, like a spoiled brat or bully, is stir the pot in order to a) bring NATO to Russia’s border, and b) incite tensions in the hope of dramatic confrontation. No softie there. With Brennan, Clapper, and Rice by his side, America, in the name of liberal humanitarianism, is spoiling for a fight. And after Russia, comes China. Obama’s Pacific Rim tour is at one with his get-tough policy toward Russia–do to both Russia and China the same thing: encirclement, containment, isolation.

No doubt The Times editorial board would applaud, no longer indecisive, now the determined leader of the Free World, a fusion therefore of counterterrorism, anticommunism (we’re still fixed on the Cold War, no matter the changes in Russia and China), and counterrevolution.

II First reader’s response (name deleted):

Simply Amazing analogy. Are you sure you are from Michigan? Sounds like documentation from the party line to me. How can anyone with any understanding of Putin the Man, The Dictator, etc., ever for one second think that he plays like the rest of the world and that some how nothing is his fault? Every move he has made in the past 23 years in direct relation to the big bad evil U.S.A.! We are so evil, we want the whole world! Everything that happens all over the world is due to American Imperialism. I think I’ll turn this off now. This is digressing to nothing more than a forum for the Russian state Party line. Sickening. I will say it one more time. Putin is a thug, a murderer, an individual that thinks that what anyone else has belongs to him and he will stop at nothing to take it, from super bowl rings, to Nations. How can any sane person put him the same category of the President of United States. I fear for our country if your ideology is an way indicative of a great number of people now living in this US.

III My reply to first reader:

Good, I respect spirited disagreement. I ask in return: Does Putin have a hit list and Terror Tuesdays sit around personally authorizing Assassinations? Has Putin mounted two unjustified interventions, Iraq and Afghanistan, in sync with GWB? Has Putin reached the same degree of contempt for civil liberties via massive surveillance, eavesdropping on foreign leaders, and using the Espionage Act to silence whistleblowers? Has Putin engineered the coup that toppled the Ukrainian democratically-elected president, or for that matter sponsored paramilitary operations of CIA-JSOC for regime change? Has Putin developed the “pivot,” the Pacific-first strategy, for isolating China–or kept a global network of military bases, or sought a military alliance (NATO) right up to the border of America?

In the spirit of frank discussion I ask you and NYT posters who enthusiastically condemn Putin to answer my questions. I suggest Putin in this developing crisis is acting more responsibly than Obama, that Lavrov is more committed to peace than Kerry, that Obama’s national-security team is far more determined on a course of war (eventually, nuclear) than Putin’s team. America has been an aggressor for so long that we take that for granted. One does not have to be a stooge of the Kremlin (of which you accuse me) to recognize the dire consequences of US policy. Red-baiting seems old-fashioned; we’ve been through that with McCarthyism. I’m glad to see it back in style.

IV Second reader’s reply (name deleted):

I see nothing in this article that dishonors the memory of Arthur Sulzberger, Sr. I think he would be quite proud of the Times, were he alive today.
V My reply to second reader:

You neglect to mention that Sulzberger, Sr., published the Pentagon Papers, a brave act, in support of freedom of the press, in DEFIANCE of USG. Obama, beyond an effective White House machine for managing news, has shown greater contempt for government transparency than any previous POTUS. Espionage Act prosecutions, more than all presidents combined. His DOJ setting dangerous precedents in disrespect for habeas corpus rights (detainees) and Obama personally approving indefinite detention.

You sully A.O.S.’s journalistic courage through omitting that chapter, and by implication, giving Obama a free pass in his efforts to undermine a free press. Sorry, but I think of Snowden as an American patriot exposing the corruption, illegality, and murderous intent (for what else are drone killings?) of Obama and his administration. We of course differ, but I await your and the many posters’ response to Obama’s civil liberties record, of which freedom of the press is among the most important.

Of course you are on safe ground. Most Times readers haven’t the vaguest idea who A.O.S. was–I only wish the present editorial board would take seriously his legacy and refrain from the demonization of Putin. News coverage, yes; but not losing sight of the initial coup and the move to place NATO on the border. Days ago, 40 unarmed protester were burned to death in Odessa by fascist thugs. Where the outcry, from NYT or its posters?

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.