Chutzpah, Corporate Media Style

Photograph Source: Jeff Maurone from Seattle, WA, USA – CC BY 2.0

American politics is awash in hypocrisy. It always has been, but the problem has become worse in recent years, mainly, but not only, since Donald Trump became president of the United States.

The level of hypocrisy surrounding, say, charges of Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election is staggering, but it seldom rises to the level of genuine, unadulterated chutzpah. There is a family resemblance, but the difference, though difficult to articulate, is readily discernible. Like “obscenity” for Justice Potter Stewart, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

Therefore, it is not exactly news that“chutzpah” doesn’t translate well into English. “Unmitigated gall” doesn’t quite cut it, and that is about as close as the English language gets.

The term is usually explained not by definitions, but by stories: for example, the famous one about the little boy convicted of killing his parents who threw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he is an orphan.

The run-up to Russiagate, and then Russiagate itself, provide other examples worth pondering.

To hear Democrats and their media flacks tell it, Russiagate was the big story of the 2016 election. They seem only to have discovered this in retrospect, however. As late as Election Day, the story line was only beginning to take shape.

It probably would have remained “formless and void,” like the heavens and earth before the Lord got to work on them, had Hillary Clinton not lost a sure thing to a psychologically damaged, morally and intellectually “challenged” ignoramus. That took some doing; Donald Trump was opposed, at first, by very nearly the entire American “power structure,” including the Republican Party establishment.

But the Queen of Chaos somehow managed to pull it off.

To be sure, Before Election Day, there was already talk of Russia becoming an “adversary nation.” This had been its role since the Bolshevik Revolution. However, it was widely assumed that this ended, along with the Soviet Union itself, some two and a half decades ago.

It is now clear, however, this this was mostly wishful thinking; that there were plenty of old Cold Warriors around who never gave up the faith. Clinton’s defeat got them going again.

They had their work cut out for them, however. It takes cunning to revive an old Cold War or to start a new one. Even for many hardcore Hillary supporters, the blame-the-Russians and blame Putin jibber-jabber of the early days of the Trump administration seemed overwrought and anachronistic. They had to be won over.

Lucky for them that History had not moved on quite as much as had been widely assumed; that Cold War thinking had not suffered the historical defeat that nearly everyone thought it had, but had only gone, as it were, into remission.

The tide began to turn when the Obama administration, and therefore “the West,” took a notion to bringing Ukraine lock stock and barrel into the West’s orbit, joining it to the EU, if not formally, because that would be too inflammatory, then at least substantively. The goal was ultimately to bring Ukraine into NATO too, establishing a garrison state with considerable heft right on Russia’s border.

The “satellite” nations of Eastern Europe had gone the EU-NATO route long ago, as had the Baltic republics. Russia’s buffer was largely gone in Asia too; and “color revolutions” in several former Soviet republics had already taken place.

Nevertheless, for both historical and geopolitical reasons, Obama’s and his Secretary of State Clinton’s meddling with Ukraine marked a major escalation.

Their machinations were obviously at odds with Russia’s national interests.

The idea that nations, as distinct from elite strata within nations, have interests is foundational in influential strains of international relations theory, and is widely assumed throughout the political culture.

Even so, it is problematic in societies riven through with fundamental divisions, as all modern societies are. It would be foolish, however, to rule it utterly without merit on that account. All I would say about this for now is that insofar as the idea of national interests is applicable at all, this would be a textbook case.

It is also a textbook case of geopolitical recklessness. Obama and Clinton took it upon themselves to provoke a major nuclear power — with all the risks that entails. Evidently, this mattered less to them and their neoconservative and liberal imperialist advisors than the fact that a renewed Cold War was yearned for throughout the military industrial complex they dutifully served.

Western meddling also accorded with the interests of many Ukrainians, especially in the western regions of that former Soviet republic and ancient province of the Russian empire. This too raises complicated questions – in part because, the broad Ukrainian nationalist tent covers more than a few fascists and proto-fascists.

Ukrainians whose first language is Russian and whose cultural and religious affiliations are Russian as well, abound in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Thus all the elements of a proxy war between Russia and the West, and ultimately a civil war, were in place and brewing.

Secessionist sentiments ran high in the east, as did support for (re)union with Russia. This was the case especially in the Crimea, a territory that had been part of Russia for centuries. Its largest city, Odessa, was the homeport of the Imperial, then the Soviet, and now, by treaty, the Russian navy. But in the fifties, Nikita Khrushchev turned it over to Ukraine. This was not a particularly momentous development at the time because both Russia and Ukraine were integral parts of the Soviet Union.

It was not a particularly transformative development either. To this day, Crimea and several neighboring regions have, by all accounts, remained Russian enclaves – not juridically, but in the hearts and minds of their inhabitants.

For better or worse, as the problem of Western encirclement intensified, Putin acceded to pressures to undo what Khrushchev had done.

And so, in public opinion in the United States and other Western countries, Russia abruptly changed. Formerly a friendly but generally useless partner in America’s wars on historically Muslim parts of the world and elsewhere, it became an “adversary” nation, led by a demon from Hell, Vladimir Putin.

Not very many years before that great and sudden transformation occurred, Bush 43 told the world that he had looked into Putin’s soul and found that he was good. W. may have begun to have second thoughts towards the end of his second term, but Putin’s metamorphosis is not on him. Standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, it was Obama’s and Clinton’s doing.

Around that time it became apparent, at least to me, that when U.S. based corporate media – MSNBC, CNN, worst of all NPR — would sneer at their Russian counterparts, especially RT, Russia Today, it was either because they knew nothing about what they were deriding, perhaps they had never even watched it, or because their hypocrisies had risen to the level of bona fide chutzpah, equal to or greater than that of the boy who killed his parents and then, because he was an orphan, threw himself on the mercy of the court.

Their complaint was not that RT’s production values weren’t up to par or that its focus was excessively parochial and therefore of little interest to people in the West. No one whose opinions were even slightly evidence-based could think that. Their complaint was that RT was not really a journalistic enterprise, but instead a propaganda outfit, a tool of Putin and the Russian state.

RT is owned by the Russian government; MSNBC is owned by Comcast, and CNN by Time Warner and therefore ultimately by AT&T. NPR’s ownership structure is more like RT’s. Do these differences account for differences in degrees of servility towards their respective governments?

Before Trump, No was a plausible answer.

But that was before the accumulated resentments of decades of neoliberal assaults on the well-being of all but the obscenely rich finally caused the American power structure to lose control of a large enough segment of the American population to make it possible for anyone, even someone as politically compromised and inept as Hillary Clinton back then or Joe Biden now, to lose an election to the likes of Donald Trump.

Corporate media and the capitalist malefactors behind them were so displeased by this turn of events, by the fact that for the first time in living memory they could not beat back challenges to their power, that their customary servility towards the government in place could no longer be sustained.

Indeed, nowadays, the news and information services of the self-described “center” (or center-right and center-left) actually outdo the real left in expunging any and all traces of servility to Trump and his administration.

On the other hand, when it comes to respect for the forces of law and order – to the bulwark institutions of the national security state – the situation is the same as it ever was, or worse. Like Rodney Dangerfield, the president and his underlings “can’t get any respect,” but FBI-men like Robert Mueller get all anyone, even a narcissist like Trump, could want and more.

The tragedy, of course, even beyond the unseemly, ahistorical veneration of perhaps the most anti-democratic component part of “the deep state” is that the good guys and gals were not the agents of change; the Forces of Darkness that crawled out from under the rocks Trump overturned were.

And so any good that could come from the dissolution of old pieties has been more than offset by the revivification of repressive state institutions that have been keeping real democracy at bay.

But even as “liberal” corporate media have gone to war against the Trump government, the impermanent part of it anyway, the part where Trump and his minions reside, their loyalty to the fundamental institutional arrangements of the existing order, to the regime, has, if anything been enhanced.

And so, corporate media are as much a part of the state, as distinct from the government, propaganda apparatus as ever.

For assessing the honesty of their journalism, or RT’s, the relevant question is how independent their respective managements are. It is worth recalling that back in the day when the BBC was a cut or two above other news outlets, it was owned by the British government, but its editorial independence was nearly absolute.

Its Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand counterparts were similarly insulated from government interference, as are the news services of most European nations, and of other countries around the world. This is also true of NPR, though they are so spineless there that an impartial observer might well be at a loss to detect it.

Public entities nearly always enjoy some degree of autonomy, just as the control rights that private ownership confers are seldom absolute. This is especially the case with highly regulated communications operations for which public trust is an indispensable asset.

There is therefore no way to determine levels of servility without actually examining the product.

People see what they want to see, and willful blindness is rife. But in this case it is hard to imagine how anyone, no matter how biased, could fail to rank American corporate media below RT in general. And it would be even harder to claim that RT is a propaganda operation, in any meaningful way that MSNBC and CNN are not.

And yet, that is just what we hear on corporate media, over and over again. Since it is difficult for most people to do an actual comparison, because most people can only access RT on line, not on cable or satellite news services, the idea has become a dogma of the ambient political culture.

However, this does not alter the fact that what is repeated is not only wrong, but obviously wrong; and that the corporate line is not just a matter of the pot calling the kettle black – it is chutzpah, pure and simple.

My point is not that RT is a paragon of journalistic excellence, and neither do I mean to suggest that letting “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” as Chairman Mao, no friend of Russia back in the day, famously put it, comes easily to its management and staff.

Neither do I want to defend any of the subtle pro-Russian slants that might have slipped through RT’s lens. I would point out, though, that whatever RT does along those lines is a lot less blatant than the American-style boosterism that pervades corporate media in the United States.

The better and more widely the character of the propaganda system that generates and sustains American boosterism is understood, the better off we all will be. Comparisons with RT can be useful for that – not just for combatting dangerous warmongering, but also for understanding the nature and extent of the obstacles in democracy’s way.

* * *

When the history of our time is written, high on the list of shameful things for which the American political class and its media will be deemed culpable will surely be the treatment meted out to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and especially Julian Assange.

On this, as on everything else he touches, Trump has made the problem worse.

By focusing on publishers, not just their sources, he or rather his administration may even have put First Amendment protections for press freedom in mortal jeopardy. This would make the problem worse by many orders of magnitude.

Who will get the blame for that? The Grand Jury indictments on Assange appear to have been drawn up months ago, so perhaps it will be Trump’s Attorney General at the time, Jeff Sessions. Or perhaps not. Although he showed time and again that he would endure almost any humiliation to curry favor with Trump, there were limits to how much of his oath of office and how many moral and legal norms he would violate for Trump’s sake. His sycophancy therefore went unrequited, and so now he is gone.

His successor William Barr has been too busy being Trump’s stooge on the Mueller report to do much other harm.

Ultimately, of course, the buck stops at the Oval Office. However, Trump seems to have no settled views on the subject. His attitude towards Wikileaks and Assange varies according to what he believes will be useful to him each time that their names come up.

Obama and Hillary and the Clintonite scoundrels who still dominate the Democratic Party are even more culpable. They, not Trump, got the ball rolling, and they have stood by and reinforced what they began.

For Hillary and her cohort, it was because Wikileaks embarrassed them; and there was only so much lèse-majesté they could stand. For Obama, it was that too, but also, it sometimes seemed, that, having moved into the Oval Office, the Constitutional Law professor yearned in his heart of hearts for an Official Secrets Act.

Worst of all, though, was our vaunted free press itself. How could they stand idly by while a colleague was languishing under virtual house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy in Central London for nearly seven years, deprived of fresh air, opportunities to exercise, and needed medical attention, and who is now being held by the British police awaiting extradition to the United States, where he could be subject to the death penalty, for doing more or less what they do – only doing it much better.

Hardly a peep out of them – about how, besides skipping bail, Assange’s only “crime” was not using a condom. It seems that that is a crime in Sweden, where the deed occurred, but not in either the UK, where Assange was arrested on an international warrant, nor the United States, which is lusting to get hold of him. Having unprotected sex with a woman who did not consent – to the absence of a condom, not to the sex itself — might make him a dick, but hardly a criminal; certainly not a criminal for whom the punishment is or ought to be vastly disproportional, by any reckoning, to the offense.

The United States wants to charge him under the Espionage Act, a law, legislated during World War I, so odious that it has almost never been used since.

Hardly a peep out of corporate media about that and even less about the utter presumptuousness of the United States claiming jurisdiction for a “crime” not committed in America, except perhaps in the “virtual” sense in which all cyber crimes are committed everywhere, or by an American citizen.

This is chutzpah in its own right. But it is nothing compared to what our corporate media have been up to since Assange was rearrested.

All of a sudden, commentators and editors from the quality press on down, have come to the realization that their silence doesn’t cut it anymore; that they have to speak up – if not for Assange, then against the enemies of Trump’s “enemies of the people. They realize that what is happening to Assange could happen to them – because whatever he is “guilty” of, they are too.

Bravo for that! But then, as if to justify their own acquiescence in a major assault not just on First Amendment rights but on a foundational principle of democracy itself, they dust off the old saws about how, for reasons of principle, even the loathsome must be defended.

It is the old Nazis in Skokie story – about the ACLU defending the rights of Nazis to march through a suburb of Chicago in which many Holocaust survivors lived. For decades, it has been a story civil libertarians have told themselves to keep their spirits high; how they “defended to the death” not the Nazis themselves, but their right, as it were, to be Nazis. Voltaire would be proud, and rightly so.

But just how does this apply to Assange? Apparently, because he is such a loathsome creature that, to do the right thing in his case, as with the Nazis in Skokie, good people must set their feeling aside and plunge ahead on their principles. The men and women of our “free press” have so far taken to describing their plight in blander terms, but this is the gist of what they have been saying.

Needless to say, there is even less reason to think that Assange is as horrible as all that than there is to maintain, as Democrats more or less imply, that, but for those Russian meddlers, aided and abetted by the propagandists at RT, Trump would not now be turning the world into a quasi-fascist dystopia.

The man is not foul or loathsome at all. Quite to the contrary. Somehow, despite the travails he has had to endure, he has managed to navigate his way through his situation more intelligently and with more integrity than most of his reluctant defenders could ever begin to understand

Indeed, it is hard to tell what is setting his detractors off. Is it that he is not nice to Democrats – the Joe Biden, not the AOC, kind? Well, good for him for that. And if he’s a little testy or ill humored after being kept confined in a small space with no exit for seven years, and with his health failing, good for him for that as well.

Or is it that, as Sarah Palin might put it, he “pals around” not with terrorists, like she claimed Obama did, but, worse still, with Ruskies? It is not even clear that he does; not that, as they say, “there would be anything wrong with that.”

Before his de facto incarceration, when he was asked on “Democracy Now” whether he favored Clinton or Trump, his answer, as best I recall, was spot on. He said that this is like asking whether he would prefer to die of one horrible disease or another. True enough.

For the most part, our propagandists demonize people who have more than a little that is demonic in them; Putin is a case in point. But Assange? That is more like demonizing a saint. Shame on the shallow, morally compromised liberals doing it; they are as awash in chutzpah as Democrats generally are in hypocrisy.

So for those for whom the little “orphan” boy story has gotten old, maybe the time has come for some of the talking heads on MSNBC and CNN to take his place.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).