April 5, 2014 · 0 Comments
By Jason Hirthler:
Empires rely on the studious manipulation of facts to maintain a pristine image
One of the simplest ways to pervert the facts of a story is to take them out of context. Isolated, facts can be made to support nearly any prefabricated ideology. This technique is usefully employed by fanatics of various faiths, from Christianity to Islam, as well as their no-less zealous opponents. But ideologies cut across every spectrum of social discourse. Religion is an obvious example, but it is equaled in American society by political ideology—not of Democrats or Republicans, but of the U.S. state itself.
The context-free technique is largely how the world’s leading propaganda paper, The New York Times, adheres to the doctrinal system of the American state. That doctrine fundamentally demands that the United States be portrayed as a ‘force for good’ in the world, actively seeking to defend liberty and human rights wherever they are threatened by amoral actors who themselves have been perverted by false ideologies such as Islam, Communism, Socialism, or Totalitarianism. This concept has always been colorfully expressed in the broadcast advertising of the armed forces, as bright-eyed, innocent American youth are transformed into grease-faced warriors emerging from swamps in their waterproof fatigues, M16s leveled at some anonymous shoreline. Here, the narrator enthuses, troops are fighting for peace. The Navy has even adopted the line, “A Global Force for Good” as its marketing tagline.
Sometimes, though, this activist portrait isn’t useful as a frame through which a particular geopolitical scenario can be reshaped. In such instances, the objective shifts. The goal is then to present the United States as an innocent bystander in the international arena, a passive entity confronted with regrettable violations of international law or norms. The U.S. is then depicted as being forced to act—often ruefully and with deep reservations—by virtue of the noble values it is constitutionally made to uphold, wherever they are in peril.
A Decent and Disinterested Onlooker
This latter profile—of freedom’s reluctant defender—has lately been used to characterize the United States in relation to the events in the Ukraine. (Note that when I say, “United States” I’m largely referring to the U.S. government, not its people.) A perfect embodiment of this portrait was cleverly sketched in Saturday’s Times. Front page, right rail, headline, “U.S. and Russians will hold talks in Ukraine crisis.”
The article is ostensibly reporting on Vladimir Putin’s “surprise step” in calling President Barack Obama to “discuss ideas about how to peacefully resolve the international standoff over Ukraine.” This comes as a surprise to Western ideologues because until then, in their view, Russia had positioned itself on “the brink of an escalated confrontation that has put Europe and much of the world on edge.” The article continues, noting that Russia has spent weeks committing “provocative moves punctuated by a menacing buildup of troops on Ukraine’s borders.”
These facts are debatably accurate if a bit theatrical: First, Russia has theoretically violated the U.N. Charter by annexing Crimea, notably by first violating the 1997 accord with Ukraine to station a fleet on the Black Sea. By scrambling troops beyond the ambit of that agreement without Kiev’s authorization, it opens itself to charges of aggression under the U.N. Charter. Second, the Crimean vote to secede violates the Geneva Conventions on the illegality of secessionist decisions taken under occupation by foreign powers. Since Russia had broken its military accord with Ukraine, it could be said to be occupying Crimea. But there are other points of view to consider. Russian authorities have displayed an invitation from then sitting President Viktor Yanukovych asking for its military intervention. This might then invalidate the foregoing arguments. Still others suggest that the regional Crimean authorities were absolutely within their rights under the U.N. Charter articles on self-determination, regardless of the presence of Russian troops, which, they might argue, were a welcome deterrent to a illegitimate new nationalist regime that had already moved provocatively against Crimean interests by scrapping a language law vital to ethnic minorities. Also cited in this line of defense is the Kosovo precedent, in which Kosovo unilaterally declared its autonomy from Serbia, a decision later confirmed by the U.N. general assembly. The sheer ambiguity of international law on the issue of autonomy and annexation should surely be acknowledged. The U.N. seems at odds with its own track record on this topic.
The larger point to note, however, about America’s leading newspaper is this: in less than two paragraphs, the Times has succeeded in characterizing Russia as an aggressive and “menacing” actor in Eastern Europe. It has evidently acted in an unprovoked and wildly aggressive manner. Note, by contrast, the absence of any actions attributed to the United States. Nothing aside from Barack Obama lifting the receiver of his Oval Office phone, a sign of the President’s quintessentially American capacity to open-mindedly engage troubled foreign leaders. A textbook example of the ‘innocent bystander’ motif.
The article goes on to further characterize the U.S. as a skeptical observer. It is “uncertain whether Mr. Putin was seriously interested in a resolution.” The shorthand is decades old: Russia is not to be trusted. Putin may in fact surreptitiously be seeking “diplomatic advantage” given that Russia is “isolated internationally.” For once, this last addition is accurate. The United Nations passed a widely supported resolution in its general assembly condemning the annexation as illegal. More than 100 nations voted in favor, only 11 against.
Finally, we find a hint of a deeper narrative. Putin is said to have complained to Obama about “extremists” in Ukraine. This is simply deposited in the third paragraph with no explanation. Why? Because the explanation is a Pandora’s Box which would instantly add unwanted context to the situation. And, as noted above, the lack of context is required in order to sustain the building narrative of Russia as rogue and America as disinterested mediator.
Since the question of extremists has been noted only in passing with no clarification, the article’s goal has been achieved: the garden variety reader will have firmly concluded that Russia is in the wrong—again—and that America is simply hoping to defuse a situation it wishes had never emerged.
Forgetting Half the Facts
What is omitted? Only a few important chapters in the story (aside from the legal ambiguities mentioned earlier). Here are a few of them:
The American-Backed Coup – First, we should consider the spark that lit this prairie fire: the American-engineered fascist coup. This has been elided from the narrative: namely, the fact that the United States unarguably provided billions of dollars in support to anti-government elements within Ukraine, leading directly to the putsch by violent neo-Nazi factions in Kiev. American support included funnel monies through false NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy and CANVAS to supporters of right-wing elements such as the Ukrainian Svoboda party. A recent European Parliament report highlighted the party’s xenophobia and racist proclivities. Their leader Oleh Tyahnybok has claimed that “organized Jewry” controlled the Ukrainian government. It was this U.S.-backed coup by these Nazi sympathizers that led directly to the Crimean ‘yes’ vote join the Russian federation.
NATO Expansion – Nor should we omit the fact of continuous Western military provocations since Mikhail Gorbachev’s unrequited efforts to thaw the Cold War (troop reductions, weapons reductions, submitting to the reunification of Germany, etc.). In agreeing to these steps, he was assured by George H.W. Bush that NATO would not move to fill the military void created in Eastern Europe by the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Since then, NATO has moved aggressively East, swallowing up Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Albania as part of a widely recognized plan to envelop Russia militarily. It now enjoys military access to both the Baltic and the Black Seas. Yet when Russia moves troops to the Ukrainian border, fully within the scope of its international agreements, it is demonized as a “menacing” expansionist power. Neither the mendacity of the West in reneging on its word nor the hypocritical double standard applied by Western media is given the slightest mention. But why would it?
Historic Western Aggression – Why would it, indeed, since the Times also conveniently overlooked the historic fact of fascist and imperial aggression against Russia from the West. The post-Bolshevik invasion by four Western nations, including attacks from the Black Sea. Likewise, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union cost millions of Russian lives. Russia bore the brunt of the cost of the Allied victory over the Axis powers. This history cannot be ignored in light of the fact that Western-backed fascists in the ideological lineage of Hitler and Mussolini have taken power in a Russian border state, threatening to throw open its doors to a hostile and duplicitous NATO as well as attempt to eject Russia’s Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol.
The Black Sea Prize – The Times also overlooked the gargantuan fact that the Ukraine sits alongside the resource-rich Black Sea with its tremendous fossil fuel stores—a coveted geostrategic prize by numerous world powers.
Neoliberal Expansion – Nor did the Times note that democratically elected but now deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suffered his ouster when he turned down an austerity-conditioned multi-billion dollar IMF loan in favor of a less strictly conditioned offer from Moscow.
This deliberate absence of context and the elision of inconvenient facts demonstrate the glaring bias of the Times and the American intelligentsia that both informs it and shapes much of beltway thought on foreign policy. It likewise reinforces the doctrinal view of the United States as a benign bystander shoved into action by the rascality of rogue states. This dramatically perverts the picture; the truth is that the U.S. was the ‘first mover’ in this crisis, backing and enabling a coup that set off a chain of events. Given the wider context, American readers would likely form a strikingly different opinion of both Russia and the government that acts in its name. But so long as this myopic and nationalistic perspective persists, Americans have little hope of escaping the dragnet it has cast over the population, generating prejudice in even the most apolitical of citizens.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at [email protected].