America revives the Cold War on the cheap
By Boris Kagarlitsky
I had not been in America for several years. Not for some political reasons: I just had too much to do at home. This time my colleagues insisted that I gave a few lectures. The main questions, of course, turned out to be related to the economic crisis and the events in Ukraine. And for me, as a political scientist, it was a chance to figure out what kind of views and attitudes dominate American society now.
I want to state it in the very beginning: the only thing that balances and somehow mitigates the effect of anti-Russian propaganda drowning the average Joe Smith through the media, is the typical American lack of interest in foreign policy. Besides, it is very difficult to focus on two sources of evil at the same time.
Over recent years, the narrative of “Islamic terrorism” was imposed on the US audience. This was not limited to just talk: whatever happened on September 11, 2001, it was a sufficient reason to expect trouble from the Middle East, especially since there was also a terrorist attack in Boston, there were attacks on US embassies in Muslim countries. So the image of the enemy for fifteen years, was more or less established an persistent.
And then suddenly there is a new “great evil” embodied by Russia, to be exact – by Vladimir Putin.
For Hollywood-type consciousness it is important that evil is personified in a particular “bad guy”,
be it Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. In this sense, the current “Islamic state” – is “the wrong villain”, they do not have a sole charismatic leader.
Against this background, Putin looks more interesting, because he can be used to mold the image of a treacherous enemy who dreams to conquer the world. Well, just about as in the Pinky and the Brain cartoon.
And do not forget: cartoon mice discussing how to conquer the planet every day, are a mockery, of course, but they reflect the very real American mass consciousness stereotype. There is a villain who dreams to take over the world. Why does he dream about it, does not matter. Probably just because he is a villain. He is opposed by the good US guys who just need to control the whole world so it is not captured by the bad guys.
Remaking specifically Russia into a new evil empire is attractive from a mediatic and cultural point of view, as well as for its roots in the cold war tradition.
Veterans of 1970’s and early 80’s immediately perked up, remembering everything and feeling they were back in business. It does not matter that the US-Soviet struggle was at the level of two systems and two ideologies, while today’s Russia is no less capitalistic than America. No one cares about such subtleties.
Yet having two major enemies at the same time is distracting and contrary to the general logic of the American press.
Especially when these two enemies are completely unrelated and building a united hierarchy of villainy is impossible. Still, attempts to synthesize them are made. Turning on the TV in New York, I was treated to a long and rather chaotic thriller about US special forces fighting Islamic terrorists, who, to the last man, were Russian. And they had converted to Islam exclusively to hurt hated America.
Meanwhile, however much we may ironize about oddities of American popular culture, one cannot but admit that it reflects a certain political line, which dominates not only propaganda, but also government practice.
The problem of American politicians is not that they dislike Russia – in the end, it would be naive to demand that foreign statesmen love us – the problem is that they categorically do not realize what is actually going on in our country.
The ideas of those making serious decisions are, alas, not much different from what we see in the case of the average citizen, zombified by Hollywood. And this is a new and very dangerous phenomenon.
During the “Cold War” all sorts of propaganda clichés about the terrible Soviet Union could be mass-produced and distributed, but analyses which helped guide serious government bodies were of the highest quality. Russia, the Soviet republics, Eastern Europe, their economy, history, culture were tackled by a variety of departments, first-class journals were published, money and time were never spared on research and training of competent staff. And they were well aware that to understand a foreign country current political and economic analysis does not suffice, it is necessary to examine literature and historical context. Studying the relatively distant past is no less important than the collection of current information, because you never know what is going to “go off” and how, where in the past the roots of today can be found. As a result, these entities not only sponsored pragmatic work of collecting data, but also increased the overall level of knowledge – and the overall level of the humanities.
All that is gone.
The number of research programs on Russia and Eurasia has been reduced to a minimum.
Funding was not just cut, it collapsed. In addition, the composition of students has changed. Previously, the ambitious young people used to apply for the Departments of Russian language. In the future they could get a job with the State Department, the intelligence, in the teams of leading politicians. Russian language was often learned by economists and sociologists who did not plan on dealing with our country, but thought it was an important part of general education. Prospects for an academic career in the constantly rising “Russian” programs at universities also looked attractive.
Today, the average students engaged in Russian studies are cute boys and girls who want to read Leo Tolstoy in the original and are ready to sacrifice career prospects.
Or vice versa, these are guys that plan to work in a completely different sphere, but have decided to expand their horizons. As for the study of, say Ukraine or Moldova, no experts are trained at all, only nationalist immigrants are interested in similar topics, often in the second or third generation – with their appropriate starting positions. Another type of experts are the people associated with the ruling regimes of the countries concerned and quite consciously lobbying their interests. All too predictable in terms of “scientific” results.
Sovietologists of the older generation have either died off or retired. Of these, almost the only one – let us put aside Zbigniew Brzezinski – is Stephen Cohen, who is almost labeled an “agent of Putin.” Cohen’s guilt is that it only tries to criticize the simplistic “Hollywood” schemes and ideas about Russia, calling for a closer look at the real processes. Alas, this does not find any understanding among the ruling circles or among intellectuals, with the exception of the few lefties in the US.
The Russian reader encountering the quite phantasmagoric lies about Russia, Ukraine or New Russia, replicated by American journalists or even politicians, gets outraged and indignant. But it is time to stop being offended and think: These statements reflect not only the overseas attitudes to our country, but also the level of awareness, competence and a culture of the American political class. We know perfectly well how our officials and politicians have degraded over the past quarter of a century, but we sometimes do not realize that the degradation on the other side of the Atlantic is no less significant than ours, and maybe even worse. And world domination does not guarantee high level of political culture.
We can say that the Americans were as much victims of neo-liberalism, as we are.
University intellectuals striving to maintain a high scientific standard, is deeply on the defensive. And it’s not just that the budgets of even very prestigious organizations are ruthlessly cut. The story of the University of Wisconsin, with whom I was associated for many years, and where I gave a lecture this time, is rather revealing. The University Charter implies “Quest for the Truth” as a basic tenant, but the current Republican State Governor Scott Walker tried to remove this provision from the document and replace it with ‘training people for business positions’. In fact, who needs some truth these days?
This same governor also became famous by his refusal to accept hundreds of millions of federal dollars allocated to his state for the development of railways and the construction of urban streetcar networks. In his view, public transportation means socialism, and socialism in America he would not tolerate. Oh, and by the way, Scott Walker is now one of the leaders in the race for the nomination of the candidate for the US presidency from the Republican party…
Not surprisingly, the lectures on the situation in Russia and the Ukraine provoked as much interest in academic circles, as the eventual story of a man who has just returned from an expedition to Mars.
One could detect an elementary deficit of information sources.
And the problem was absolutely not in whether people in the audience held positive or negative attitudes toward our country – both sides admitted that they are suffering from a catastrophic lack of serious information.
In Milwaukee my performance was attended by a troop of supporters of the Kiev government, speaking very good English and telling me that they had seen with their own eyes the documents where Russian snipers on the “Maidan” were promised $ 500 for headshots to demonstrators, 300 – for a bullet in the heart and $ 100 for a non-lethal wound. The pragmatic American audience got worried: Is the work of snipers in the Ukraine not paid on any other basis but the outcome of forensic and ballistic examination of each corpse?
The funny thing is that the speakers came with prepared cribs that had no relation to the content of lectures, resulting in wild oddities: they attributed to me exactly the opposite of what I was saying, dispute theses that I did not even think of stating.
Such attacks produced a depressing effect on the university crowd, forcing many to think about what kind of power Barack Obama’s administration supports in Kiev. And again, the issue is not about the political orientation of this government, but that at this level of incompetence it will end badly.
Still we cannot expect anything good coming our way in the near future as well. Barack Obama today is under the pressure of much more rigid and aggressive politicians – from both the Republican and Democratic side.
And they will increase the pressure no matter what will be the real fruits of American policy towards Russia. Moreover, the less satisfactory the results of this pressure, the more it will grow.
This combination of assertiveness and incompetence dooms us to an escalation of the crisis
Sooner or later, of course, the turning point will come. And this includes the American society as well, where not so much as protest but distrust of politicians is growing. Of all politicians in general, regardless of party affiliation. So that changes can, eventually, be very dramatic. And the Russian theme can suddenly “go off”, demonstrating the failure of the existing US political class. But it will be sometime later.
In the meantime, we are forced to note: before it gets better, it will get a lot worse.
Original article at Stoletie.ru (In Russian)
Boris Kagarlitsky is a Russian political scientist and politician of the left. A dissident in Soviet times, he currently heads the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow.
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