The Ukraine flyer hoax was a perfect mix of American propaganda tropes

It happened so quickly in the mainstream American imagination. Russia went from being merely part of the rogues’ gallery of American adversaries to an opaque, Oriental Reich bent on global conquest. Russia is on its way to being another North Korea—a country about which people will believe anything, as long as it’s bad. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, people are seriously discussing whether or not Russia is about to conquer Scandinavia. Russia didn’t even invade all of Ukraine, but the US Pacific Northwest better watch out.

The Russian Empire tried to dominate North America before, it will do it again!  Flag of the Russian-American Company, 1806  Wikimedia Commons

The Russian Empire tried to dominate North America before, it will do it again! Flag of the Russian-American Company, 1806 Wikimedia Commons

Despite liberal fetishism of the idea that “knowledge is power,” information doesn’t confer power or spread based on its quality alone. Stories about the depravity of America’s enemies are amplified because of how they serve the interests of the powerful. A bellicose Russia is an ideal vector for stories that make America look good. It gives the US a chance to perform concern for high-minded ideals. For additional traction, these narratives are reduced to the simplest moral binary. When these elements are married, it guarantees that you’ll be hearing that story–whether it’s true or not. All of these elements came together this week in a widely circulated hoax, concerning anti-Semitic flyers being handed out by Russian-allied separatists in Donetsk. The hoax encapsulates American propaganda’s favored tropes: whitewashing the actions of America and its allies and ascribing Nazi-like behavior to America’s enemies.

The story was that pro-Russian elements had disseminated flyers in the separatist-friendly Ukrainian region of Donetsk, ordering local Jews to “register.” The letter, with its threatening, anti-Semitic nature containing overtones of the Holocaust, caused “an international scandal.” The American mainstream media, from Drudge Report to ThinkProgress, took it up and amplified the story. The letter made its way to Secretary of State John Kerry, who called it “grotesque.”

It certainly would have been grotesque, if it had been true. However, the letter was a hoax, fabricated for as-yet-unknown ends. The content of the letter itself should’ve raised questions. A portion within accused local Jews of collaboration with the “Bandera Junta.” A group aligning themselves with Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian figure who collaborated with the Nazis, would be an unlikely ally for Donetsk’s Jews. The American media loses its already anemic critical faculties to make America’s enemies look identical to the Third Reich. Beyond the American media’s receptiveness to this message, this narrative is very friendly to America’s interests in the Ukraine. At this point, aligning the pro-Russian separatists of Ukraine with right-wing anti-Semites accomplishes a whitewash of America’s support of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis.

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Jurors rejected from the Cecily McMillan trial are revealing a lot about our elites and their world

Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old Occupy activist, is going to trial on charges of assaulting a police officer. Chase Madar explains that McMillan is “a 25-year-old student and activist who was arrested two years ago during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan. Seized by police, she was beaten black and blue on her ribs and arms until she went into a seizure. When she felt her right breast grabbed from behind, McMillan instinctively threw an elbow, catching a cop under the eye, and that is why she is being prosecuted for assaulting a police officer, a class D felony with a possible seven-year prison term.”

This week, jury selection has begun for McMillan’s case. The Guardian reports that the “trial of Occupy activist struggles to find jurors impartial to protest movement.” The selection phase is moving so slowly because the pool is full of people like “Mary Malone–an Upper East Side resident who previously worked for a bond fund and said: ‘I have really strong feelings about Occupy Wall Street and the people involved’–and Peter Kaled, a corporate finance worker from the Upper West Side who said that one of his friends had policed Zuccotti Park at the height of the protests.”

That so many New Yorkers interviewed to serve on the jury have shown strong antipathy towards the Occupy movement isn’t that surprising. Since the city is the world’s financial capital, enough of its citizens see threats to the interests of oligarchs as threats to their own interests. However, the responses of these prospective jurors are remarkable for how they encapsulate what the rich think about the rest of us.

McMillan’s case is one of these events where Middle School civics-lessons about freedom meet the real limits on permissible dissent. Petitioning your government for a redress of grievances is fine until your government’s owners want you out. According to Madar, “Cecily McMillan’s Occupy trial is a huge test of US civil liberties,” and he asks “will they survive?” Now, the process of jury selection is illuminating even more about the boundaries of the world in which we live. In a series of revealing statements to The Guardian, these finance-connected Manhattanites illuminate the contours of the alternate physical, mental, and moral world that capital has created.

The first rejected juror is one George Yih, whom LinkedIn identifies as a “Venture Capital & Private Equity Professional”:

“I’m involved in Wall Street things. I’m on the Wall Street side, not their side,” George Yih, one of a group of prospective jurors…said under questioning from Judge Ronald Zweibel on Wednesday. “They can protest all they want, but they can’t brainwash my mind.”

For Yih, like so many others who are benefitting from the way the world works, widespread discontent is baffling. A movement like Occupy could seem like reality-free “brainwashing” only if one had no connection to the daily, lived reality of millions (or rather, billions) whom capitalism is immiserating rather than enriching. For billionaires and people like Yih making six figures a year serving those billionaires, all this citizen discontent must seem strange and frivolous. Continue reading

The only criticism that’s Left

How did “hypocrisy” become the worst accusation leveled against the powerful?

When looking at a recent Daily Show segment that amounted to a whitewash of American assassination policies, I was struck by the focus on “hypocrisy.” To hear America’s most-trusted liberal satirist tell it, President Obama was mostly guilty of the crime of saying one thing and doing another. The focus on hypocrisy elided the fact that the thing in question, which he said he wouldn’t do, was murdering people. From my humble perspective, that seems like a worse sin than duplicity. Once I had “hypocrisy” on my mind, though, I noticed that the accusation seemed to be everywhere. It seems like the worst thing left-aligned people say about the powerful anymore is that they’re hypocrites.

Last month, the new left-most boundary of acceptable criticism, First Look’s The Intercept, wrote about an in-house NSA advice column named “Ask Zelda.” Why was this “Dear Abby for spies” worth writing about? An NSA employee had written in to ask Zelda how they could set boundaries with an intrusive boss. It turns out NSA employees value their own privacy, even as they violate our privacy. We, the American people, charge the national security state—with the grave crime of hypocrisy!

J’accuse!

Actually, no, I meant a different French phrase—no shit. To say that our elites and their spies, enforcers, and state apparatchiks see themselves as subject to different laws and standards as the rest of us should be so obvious as to be totally banal at this point. In fact, I remember reading a book about that years ago.

In addition to the accusation of hypocrisy being obvious, it’s also largely exculpatory. The accusation is embedded with the idea that there’s a high-minded ideal being betrayed. We need only to get the hypocrites to see the wisdom of their core beliefs, then get their actions to mirror these deeply held convictions. It’s the same idea at the heart of the hoary, vomit-inducing tall tale about how Obama just needs his liberal base to “make him” enact the progressive agenda that he really desires.

What seems more likely is that hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug, of the exercise of power. The state and our plutocratic class do what they want, and then they tell us whatever they want, regardless of that statement’s relationship to reality. Otherwise, why would we consent to being ruled by the venal mediocrities who are our elites, unless they made overtures towards democratic pluralism, transparency, and the common good? Continue reading

Why the surprise over Obama’s comments on Crimea? The President has been whitewashing the Iraq War since before it began.

Many liberals were shocked this past week when Barack Obama dismissed accusations of American hypocrisy on Crimea by defending the war in Iraq. Responding to accusations that the 2003 invasion has robbed the US of moral authority when it comes to condemning violations of international law, the President declared that Russia’s actions in Crimea are worse than the War in Iraq. The liberal reaction to Obama’s whitewashing of recent history was swift. CommonDreams cited “Anger [and] Disbelief as Obama Defends US Invasion of Iraq.” Huffington Post said “Obama’s Iraq War defense [was] met with surprise.” Slate.com asked “Why did Obama just defend the Iraq War?”

Surprise! Disbelief! Why?  Many liberals are stunned that Obama would undertake what amounts to a whitewash of the Iraq War, given that the President was elected largely on a platform of opposition to the invasion.  It’s a testament to the President’s rhetorical prowess and charisma that, six years into his term, he can still manage to “surprise” his liberal base like this. On the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion, Obama has been remarkably consistent. Obama’s 2014 defense of the Iraq War should be no surprise, because he has been whitewashing the War since before it even started. Continue reading