View Full Version : Russian TV hits the American elite's soft-spot

Paul Rigby
10-09-2009, 09:44 PM
I recall that some years ago Christopher Hitchens (?) wrote a profile of Susan Sontag in which he quoted her as observing that Readers Digest had given American readers a more accurate view of life under actually "actually existing socialism" than The Nation et al.

I remember thinking at the time that the obvious riposte to this went something along the lines of, well, who was more accurate on the Kennedy assassination, Soviet commentators or their US equivalents?

This episode came back to me tonight as I read the following drivel:


Conspiracy Theory, Russian and American Style: A Tale of Two 9-11s

For OpEdNews: Posted by Andreas Umland - Writer

One of the wonders of the digital age is the ability to travel around the world's national news shows by a mere tap of the TV remote. On 9-11 the news shows from country after country were remembering the mass terrorist attack on America in 2001. They were all in basic sympathy with America. Except one -- Russia Today (RT).

Flipping the channel to RT, I found myself in a different universe. A universe of anti-American conspiracy theories. A show about whether to believe 9-11 was an inside job by the American Government.

One should give RT credit: at least it's different. Not for RT the me-too journalism of the respectable Western daily papers. More like the supermarket tabloids with the Aliens Sighted headlines.

And sadly, more like Russian domestic TV.

Conspiracy theory is something RT is providing more and more often, not just for 9-11. On just about any American topic in the news, RT pops up with a conspiracy theory. One with American Power always as the central conspirator.

It reflects habits nourished under Russia's long history of authoritarian regimes. The regimes often made radical plans in secret, plans that amounted to conspiracies against their own people, massacring large swathes of their own societies. After generations of that kind of thing, it is not surprising Russians suspect conspiracies might be lurking around the corner everywhere. And then there are the conspiracy theories spun by the Russian regimes themselves, branding those who disagree with them as demons conspiring to drag Russia down into the abyss, or spies conspiring with foreigners against Russia.

The practice of coming up with fanciful economic conspiracies is also often seen on RT. It's an echo of Marxist-Leninist days, when regime journalists would regularly point to sinister economic interests as the explanation for anything, and any one, it didn't like. Nowadays the anticapitalist conspiracy theories, though frequent, take second fiddle to broader conspiracy themes at RT -- antigovernment conspiracy theories, far right conspiracy theories, militia movement conspiracy theories, antimilitary conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination conspiracy theories... As long as America or Capitalism or some invisible American-global power center is the Conspiracy, it seems, RT will welcome the Theory. It won't exactly endorse it openly. But it will give it privileged coverage, replete with supportive questions and comments.

This brings us back to RT's enthusiasm for the conspiracy theories of the “9-11 Truth” movement. That movement is a typical collection of extremists, far left and far right, united by one thing: hostility to the American Government.

For RT, embracing this stuff is a flip-flop. Or a flip within Russia's flop, since it would seem to contradict the official posture of the Russian regime. There can be no question but that, in its policy of spreading anti-American conspiracy theories, RT is not striking out on its own, but trying to act properly as an official state organ, reflecting what it understands to be the regime's wishes and interests. It matters not whether it comes up with the stories on its own, or with the help of guidance from above; either way, it is trying to fit in, the same way the other state controlled media do inside Russia when they propagate gutter-level anti-Americanism.

Yet the regime officially takes the opposite line on 9-11, even while it encourages this media behavior. The flips and flops are mixed up inside each other, like one of those convoluted contradictory Escher drawings.

It's the sort of thing that can leave a person topsy-turvy, wondering which way is up in Russia.

On the actual 9-11, in 2001, I had the good fortune to be in Moscow, not Washington. While my American friends were telling me of the terror in which they suddenly lived, the Russian Government was announcing its unequivocal support for America against the terrorists.

To be sure, the media in Russia were still talking anti-Americanism on 9-12-2001 -- particularly the predominant state controlled media. It was only the last major independent TV team, the one that Putin had been trying to drive out of business for more than a year, that supported Putin's pro-Western stance from the start. Perhaps Putin noticed the irony. The anti-media drive had been based on conspiracy theories: that the independent media were in league with the West, were destroying the Russian military, causing the sinking of the Kursk submarine, were agents who would lead the West to bomb Moscow the way it bombed Belgrade. For a time, faced with real enemies in the form of the terrorists, Putin slowed down his drive to destroy independent media. But he never reversed it; in due course he destroyed that one major remaining independent TV team. A couple years later, the paranoia about Western designs on Russia was revived in his comments on the Beslan terrorism incident, and immediately there ensued a sharper clampdown on autonomous political forces.

But let us go back to 9-11-2001. In those days even the state media and pundits, despite all their anti-Americanism, steered clear of extremism and conspiracy theories. For the most part they simply attacked America, honestly, for having fostered the Islamist extremism in Afghanistan during the fight against the Soviet occupation; and less honestly, said America created the Taliban for the sake of that fight (forgetting that the Taliban were formed in the mid-1990s, not the 1980s when the Soviets were around). It was only from nutty websites and ideological extremists in America that I came across anti-American conspiracy theories about 9-11. In Moscow, after a short but hard national debate -- and in face of some loss of realistic space for other approaches, as the global coalition supporting America against al Qaeda and the Taliban was taking shape, and some Caucasus and Central Asian states were moving to participate with or without Moscow's assent -- Putin's verbal support for America was translated into practical policies. Even the state media came over to the Western side.

Now, in 2009, it is the other way around. Americans are no longer living in daily terror. And official Russia is joining with the nutcases in America in spreading anti-American conspiracy theories.

To be sure, I did hear in the Moscow of 2001 one conspiracy theory about 9-11. It was that Putin did it -- he arranged to have America terrorized, by dummy Islamists. After all, how did it happen that Putin was the first leader in the world to think of picking up the phone and offering sympathy to President Bush? Was he tipped in advance?

This was in keeping with the Russian tradition of assuming that the Russian government is the hidden hand behind of everything that happens, and it is capable of practically any monstrosity, since in fact it has very often operated that way domestically.

To be sure, this Russian anti-Russian conspiracy theory was not quite as absurd as the American anti-American ones. The motives for this Putin conspiracy at least had a certain logic and seriousness to them. It was done, the Russian explained, so America would turn to Russia for support against the Taliban. The West would let up on Russia about Chechnya. We'd all join in a war on the common enemy Islamism instead. Russia's relations with the West would get better. America would do Russia's work for it and overthrow the Taliban, something Russia would bungle if it tried itself. Russia would regain some security on its southern flank. It would even regain some influence inside Afghanistan.

Obviously a lot of this did in fact happen. The West finally, after a lot of post 9-11 hesitation, dropped the idea of compromise with the Taliban. The U.S. military linked up with the Northern Alliance, a coalition largely of Tajiks and Uzbeks, headed by an anti-Soviet mujehhedin until his assassination just before 9-11, but encompassing some warlords who had fought on both sides in the 1980s. It toppled the Taliban. The Northern Alliance entered Kabul and played a significant role in creating the new government.

Warnings ensued in a fraction of the American press, among them some furious warnings from Central Asia and Caucasus Institute (CACI) people, that America was doing Russia's dirty work in Afghanistan, helping the horrible Northern Alliance, winning for Russia the position there that it had been unable to win for itself. But these dire warnings fell on increasingly deaf ears.
Even these occasional warnings were, to be sure, not conspiratorial but geopolitical in style; they never suggested that 9-11 was a conspiracy orchestrated by the Kremlin (to find that sort of thing in the West, one had to turn to weblists with an Islamic anti-Russian ethnic base, such as a Turkestan List, where one could indeed come across such comments as that, in matters of terrorism networks, “all roads” lead back to Moscow). CACI had earlier had some influence on keeping America from joining forces with Russia against the Taliban; in 1999 Clinton was accused of arming Russia against the Chechen rebels, and this helped scare Clinton off from the alliance he had briefly declared with Russia against terrorist extremism when Basayev made his incursion into Daghestan. This might be called an accusation of a behind-the-scenes action or conspiracy between the U.S. and Russia, but it was not the convoluted kind of conspiracy theory in which reality is presented as the opposite of appearance, due to a scheme of insidious invisible Powers that are trying to trick and cheat us all. Clinton's endorsement of Russia's territorial integrity and its fight against Basayev was quite public; he was only “accused” of being too serious about it. Svante Cornell, a deputy of Fred Starr at CACI, went further, in a pro-Taliban event at the Institute in this period. He acknowledged that it might sound nutty to say that Russia is behind all the problems in the Caucasus – and I might interject that it is nutty, it doesn't just sound nutty; just consider the number of ethnic disputes in the region, each encompassing sizable ranks of ethnic and religious extremists and trigger happy actors -- but bravely went on to say that this was nevertheless the case. That did qualify as a conspiracy theory: behind every local evil, there was the hand of the central devil in Moscow. Perhaps even this could be passed off as a mild brand of conspiracy theory, since he was not attributing weirdly convoluted motives to Russia, just normal, or semi-normal, power politics motives. Anyway, after 9-11-2001, the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute took a more respectable tack, removing the pro-Taliban stuff from its website, although the basic orientation remained unchanged in the polemics against the Northern Alliance. There was a decent interval before Starr and Cornell went back to the business of blaming Russia for everything wrong in the Caucasus.

That pretty much gives us the lay of the land about conspiracy theories, in Russia and in America, about one another. The Russian ones far exceed the American ones. They exceed it in quality of nuttiness and viciousness, not just quantity. Meanwhile both do damage to the nation's ability to perceive things rightly, and to pursue its actual interests.

Each country, Russia and America, also has conspiracy theories about itself; these follow a slightly different pattern. Both countries are unduly prone to conspiracy theory about itself, and about the entire world for that matter, for their own very different reasons of national history. Both are always at some risk to their political sanity from this. In America, paranoia is rooted in the heritage of the conspiracy theory propounded in the Declaration of Independence, which became the foundation for the legitimacy of the independent American state; and in the imagined history in which the roots of the American regime are in turn credited to the schismatic Puritan sect in Massachusetts rather than to the colonial mainstream and to European history. In Russia, paranoia is rooted in the heritage of living under governments that operate inordinately often by conspiracy against their own society, and equally often project the blame, blaming disagreement as treason and conspiracy. The contents of the popular national conspiracy theories vary accordingly, Americans too often attributing conspiracy to their government, Russians too often attributing conspiracy to both sides, their government and its real and alleged opponents. The American anti-American conspiracy theories affect Russia indirectly, for example when the American government is accused of conspiring to be nice to un-American foreign dictatorships like Russia. The Russian anti-everyone conspiracy theories affect America more directly.

In America, more often than conspiracy theories about Russia, there are often gross journalistic simplifications that blame Moscow's side in every conflict, and blame that side alone, as if it were acting in a purely unprovoked malicious way while the other side was purely innocent.

Sometimes this bleeds over into something close to conspiracy theory, in which Russia is always pursuing its most nefarious possible power politics interest behind the scenes and is the cause of all that goes wrong in its neighborhood. The journalists who purvey this kind of stuff no doubt think they're serving America's interest, even if their own government says nicer diplomatic things about Russia.

In Russia, there are often wild conspiracy theories that blame a convoluted American scheme for anything that goes wrong anywhere. These theories pervade much of the state controlled media. The journalists who purvey them no doubt think this serves Russia's state interest, even if the state formally says otherwise. The damage to America is real, but the greatest harm they do is to Russia's own interests, and to its very sanity.

And what of Putin?

There is the Putin of conspiracy theories. The Putin who blames the Kursk sinking on the independent media and proceeds to take it out on the Russian media. Who blames the Beslan terrorists on Western powers trying to break Russia into pieces, and takes it out on the West (and on Russia's own long-term interests) in Russian foreign policy. Who bundles together, into one vast occult power, the Democrats, the Media, the Terrorists, the West.

And then again, there is the Putin who spoke on 9-11-2009. He used a very different tone, one that recalled his better days: “I believe that this is yet another reminder that in the war against universal threats, we must put behind us all possible contradictions and arguments, and join forces.”

It was an echo of the Putin of 2001. A wiser Putin. One who looked at the larger picture, at what was really being done by major entities in the world rather than at monsters emanating out of the imagination. And who had the common sense to discern the basic interests of Russia in this actual world situation.

It was a Putin that never was the whole Putin, but one that in some periods was able to prevail over the other Putin -- the Putin of cheap resentments and revenges. And one that evidently still exists somewhere inside the Putin of today.

This is the kind of thing that appears to be annoying the US elite:

Chechen Leader - C.I.A. Attacking Us


David Guyatt
10-10-2009, 08:13 AM

Christopher Hitchens can be dangerous to your health. It is strongly recommended that if he must be read (we reccommend otherwise), that children not be present in the same room.

Nor young animals.

Nor, for that matter other humans.

Paul Rigby
10-25-2009, 10:13 AM

From The Times obit for Sontag:

At a 1982 rally for Polish Solidarity in New York, she famously declared communism to be “Fascism with a human face”, which was widely but erroneously read as a conversion to the Right. Her political activism and concern for human rights also took her to Yugoslavia in the early-1990s, where she called for international intervention to put an end to the erupting civil war there.

In other words, Sontag was a fully paid up member of Intellectuals for American Imperialism, albeit the Radical Chic wing (Intermittent Lesbian Branch). A sort of Gloria Steinem with brains, if you will.

Hitchens interviewed Sontag in the aftermath of her 1982 speech. The article that resulted was entitled “Party Talk: Christopher Hitchens talks to Susan Sontag who has recently taken New York intellectuals by surprise,” which dates the piece to 1982. From the typeface of the article – which I clipped but didn’t date or paginate – it would seem to have come from The Observer. Hitchens included this extract from her speech:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone who in the same period read only The Nation of the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Could it be that our enemies were right?

Later in the piece, Hitchens offered us this portrait of life chez Sontag:

I went round to see Susan Sontag in her town house on the Lower East Side. ‘Book-lined’ would about describe the place, which she shares with her son and a Polish writer, member of Solidarity, who was caught abroad by the Warsaw coup and is now living the part of the man who came to dinner.

I wonder who the writer was; and how much subsidy he trousered from the Republic of Langley in the course of his career?