On Whitewashing Russia: Power-worshippers Only See Black-and-White

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

In Christopher Buckley’s book, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, an executive of a defense contractor describes his vision of the general population in the Middle East:

“Look here, we’re talking about a part of the world where one-third of the so-called general public are in their kitchens making IEDs to kill American soldiers. Another third are on the Internet recruiting suicide bombers. And the last third are on cell phones planning the next 9/11.”

Buckley’s book is satirical, but the reality we currently inhabit is no less hysterical than the profiteering CEO cranking up his Congressional hype machine. On the strength of assertions, President Obama banished 35 Russian diplomats from the United States, declaring them “personas non grata.” A report generated by the Orwellian Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers no proof of state-directed hacks, just a bland and tedious recitation of various digital methodologies it presumes to have been initiated by Vladimir Putin, perhaps as he stomped his scythe on the ground, rattling the ghostly Kremlin floorboards. (Even as Michelle pens her outgoing cards to beltway friends, admonishing everyone to take the high road.)

Howard Friel insightfully explores how The New York Times’ response to this coordinated farce is no different from its embrace of the Bush administration’s groundless tale of Iraqi WMDs. Recall Colin Powell wielding nefarious exhaust pipes and banging on about mobile WMD labs racing around Lower Mesopotamia (later found to be high-powered falafel food trucks). In other words, the mainstream media (MSM) has learned nothing from the Iraqi yarn. Still besotted with power. Still insensate to fact. Still asleep at the switch of critical journalism. But let’s not kid ourselves: the media never intended to learn anything from Iraq except how to better peddle fables, and it hasn’t even learned that.

The trouble with this latest fairy tale is that the media has swallowed the state-sponsored story without demanding a scintilla of evidence, and has turned the entire factitious endeavor into a witch hunt aimed at alternative media. The binary constructs of the Bush era are being reanimated for another Halloween of imbecilic fearmongering. So those that apply the withering lens of the scientific method to this latest mythmaking program are quickly labeled as pro-Russian, anti-Democratic, or worse, traitors.

Manichean Mix-Ups

Anthony DiMaggio, a CounterPunch regular, recently penned an interesting article suggesting there were two propaganda fronts open in the post-election media. The first includes naive leftists who whitewash Russia and Syria and pretend they haven’t committed “atrocities” in the Syrian War. The second include the mainstream media (MSM), which predictably whitewashes U.S. military action in the Syrian War and pretends they haven’t committed “atrocities” in Syria. DiMaggio is probably right, these two fronts may exist, though the latter is far larger and more influential than the former.

Even so, there’s a big difference between being an apologist for Russia and being a critic of U.S. foreign policy. And the two are too often conflated. DiMaggio doesn’t go this far, but many do. One grows sick and tired of the relentlessly rehearsed trope that if you aren’t against Russia, you’re for it. This plays well with armchair flag-wavers hooked up to the Fox News media drip and pushing pizzagate stories to the top of Reddit. It also plays well with latte liberals who think Obama is a civil rights champion and a judicious peacenik. But the charge is only the basest and most vulgar form of either/or thinking. It is naturally easier to draw a red line down the middle of reality and pick a side; that’s probably why we do it. Cuts down on the cognitive dissonance. Our panoply of superhero flicks depicting the world in infantile good/bad dichotomies isn’t helping either–hammer-wielding studs and ironclad defense contractors beating back the fearful hobgoblins of the netherworld, or Midgard, or Krypton. But we should try to separate the reactionary apologists from the rest of the left that revile imperialism and authoritarianism in all of their disguises, be they cloaked in the Russian tsarist tri-color, a Chinese five-star steeped in revolutionary red, or the stars and stripes.

But isn’t the left’s primary task to critique its own rulers? Criticism of foreign governments is already more prevalent than Coca-Cola. It’s catnip for the mainstream; why should the left add to the already staggering pile of invective leveled at alien flags? The pickings are too easy. For instance, if you need to reinforce your collapsing faith in American exceptionalism, why not have a comforting look at the Russian Federation’s “foreign agent” law, ostensibly designed to deter foreign interference in Russian affairs, but predictably now serving as a kind of scarlet letter affixed to any organization taking money from abroad. Or you can always check up on the state of the death penalty in China and Iran, two countries that just can’t seem to get enough domestic bloodletting. It is evidently impossible to assign a credible number of Chinese state-sponsored killings; they number in the thousands. Hmmm, could this be part of the reason why a new protest erupts in China about every three minutes or so (at least in 2010)? Still feeling delicate about our place in the cosmos of high ideals? Look at the way our NATO ally and closet Islamist (not-so closeted anymore) Recep Erdogan has leveraged a post-coup environment to annihilate freedom of speech in one of the most secular Middle Eastern nations. Or look at Syria’s record of extrajudicial murder, torture, disappearances, and more–prior to the 2011 outbreak of war. Remember, Syria signed up for our rendition program some years ago. Don’t even ask about that other ally, Saudi Arabia, with whom we share the universal value of eternal profit.

Just because leftist writers don’t focus on the crimes of foreign countries, doesn’t mean they are whitewashing them. Likewise, many on the left also recognize the reason we know so much of this has to do with the openness of our society and the principles of free speech, assembly, and religion that, though under constant assault, continue to persevere. We might add that those rights should always be companion to a right to know, since knowledge precedes speech in an ideal sense, and without that sequence, the latter loses much of its force.

Taking Sides on Syria

If we are thus capable of critiquing practices inside and outside our borders, could it not also be true that no sane leftist would look at the Syrian War and not know that both sides in the conflict were killing innocents? Can there be any doubt that Russian and Syrian and NATO coalition militaries are killing civilians in Syria when they bomb from the sky? You’ve seen the photos of Aleppo, just to take the latest instance. It is a canvas of one bomb-blown civilian building after another. Yes, the Russian/Syrian contingent went to some lengths to set up “humanitarian pauses” in their shelling to ostensibly permit civilians to flee. Evidently some thousands were able to escape, while unnumbered others were kept from leaving by the terrorist factions controlling the east. How many were executed by terrorists, or slaughtered by Syrian/Russian bombs, or starved to death in the siege, will likely never be accurately tabulated. But in war, all sides are guilty of killing innocents.

That raises the question of whether or not the conquest of east Aleppo amounts to a liberation. Hard to see an abandoned ghost town of blown infrastructures as liberated. But one can see how the Syrian government and its allies would view it that way. Syria was invaded by a NATO-supplied army of mercenary terrorists–from Jordan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and China, and elsewhere (wherever willing jihadists could be found to wage war on the Assad government). What else do you call it when a democratically-chosen government clears a city of an invading army? Sure, there was a climate change-induced drought in the eastern Mediterranean that caused an upswing of protest against the Syrian state in 2011. But that peaceful protest was quickly buried beneath a surge of violent jihadist extremism supplied by an opportunist West. So why persist in this farcical ruse of referring to these mercenaries as “rebels,” as though this war is some wildly noble democratic revolution of Syrian farmers? Some scene out of Zola’s Germinal with a pitchfork-wielding Gerard Depardieu in the vanguard of a seething agrarian horde. Please.

When they could, civilians fled for Syrian government areas, suggesting they feared the “moderates” more than the Assad regime. It should also be noted, as it rarely is in the MSM, that the Russians are in Syria on the invitation of the Syrian government. The NATO coalition is there uninvited, which is aggression in international law. Aside from that obscured fact (how insignificant international law becomes when we’re violating it), the Syrian government is one of the most secular in the region, with modern institutions and nominally democratic infrastructure. The terrorist factions our allied team is backing are quite openly anti-democratic, pro-theocracy, and have little regard for anyone they brand as infidel or kafir, to the point of summary executions and all manner of social repression for whatever frightened populace they rule. And yet to say that one supports Syria and its allies winning the war against NATO- and GCC-backed terrorists is not to sanction all the domestic or battlefield behavior of those nations. It is rather to support the rule of international law.

Lies of the West

The point is never that foreign governments are pure, but rather the fact our government is anything but. This is an essential criticism to make because it is so much harder to find serious criticism of U.S. foreign policy. By “serious criticism,” I mean appraisals that don’t make tidy work of American war crimes by excusing them as noble blunders: you know, sniffing napalm in the morning and reminding yourself you meant well before things got a little out of hand.

Instead of doing the real job of investigative journalism and holding power accountable, the Western media is by far the most sophisticated purveyor of state-sponsored bullshit on the planet. Other nations are making strides in their use of media to disseminate and influence opinion, but the U.S. has been building and fine-tuning its doctrinal system for a century now. Studies by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, as well as relentless documentation by organizations like Fair.org, lay plain the inbuilt bias of Western mainstream media and its subservience to powerful corporate interests. It has now reached the point of pure sycophancy. Our doctrinal system is perversely effective at a) selectively using facts to create a false narrative (spinning Iranian civilian nuclear energy program as a military initiative aimed at the production of warheads); b) omitting facts to support a false narrative (the erasure of the successes of Latin leftist governments in countries such as Venezuela and Argentina, and the omission of Israeli provocations and international law within the Israel-Palestine narrative); and c) promoting whole-cloth falsehoods to create or sustain a false narrative (Iraqi WMDs).

More immediate examples include the disparate coverage of the Mosul and Aleppo battles. Military.com reported that since October 21st, the U.S.-led air attack on Mosul has dropped 1,300 bombs in and around Mosul, and one every eight minutes at the outset of the campaign. Yet coverage of that underreported “liberation” is dwarfed by hyperventilating condemnations of the “liberation” of Aleppo. Western readers have also been bombarded with ceaseless reports of hospital bombings in east Aleppo supplied by Al Qaeda-sanctioned reporters, and the relentless promotion of the supposedly selfless and valiant work of the “White Helmets,” a shadowy Western-backed front that seems only to work in Al Qaeda-held areas, uses jihadists in its videos, and stages rescues. All of this facilitated by the feckless ruse of the “moderate rebel,” the unicorn of the Syrian war.

A Faithless Left 

That is the failure of the mainstream: it doesn’t seriously question its government and instead legitimates its lies. Yet no government should be trusted, only held to account. So it falls the citizenry and alternative media to do the media’s job. Citizens of every nation ought to hold their own governments to an unrelentingly high standard. And this should be the first order of business, not something taken up reluctantly after hammering every other nation on earth for its failures. Or after posturing about one’s own noble intentions. This is one of the lessons of the profound failure of lesser evilism: that without significant pressure from the left, governments–and the media, too–will drift right, enmeshing themselves with corporate industrial-finance megaliths that profit by authoritarian regimes and hawkish foreign policies, the better to betray the will of the populace to line the pockets of the elite. The media should represent a society’s capacity for self-reflection. When it ceases to do this, it partakes in a kind of sophomoric good/bad dualism that is better left to teen fiction and Marvel Universe backstories. Glenn Greenwald says it’s tribalism writ large, this seemingly hardwired need to paint such stark distinctions between ourselves and others, always and revealingly in the most self-serving manner feasible. Which is why it is hard to answer the question of when was the last time anyone inside the beltway uttered that once-famous maxim to take the plank out of your own eye before removing the speck from your neighbor’s eye. Not a bad piece of advice. Washington and its MSM flacks might pay it some heed.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.