Thursday, 23 November 2017

Demonising Russia and RT - the dark effects of liberal authoritarianism

The current political and media assault on Russia, fearmongering over Russian 'bots', and McCarthyite outing of  'Russia apologists' casts revealing light not only on the usual right-wing foghorns, but the more crucial role liberals play in upholding, reproducing and naturalising the dominant order.

Such is the rising liberal antagonism against Russia that leftist writer Glenn Greenwald has had to dismiss countless facile tweets casting him as a Kremlin stooge, while pointing out that Western liberal charges against Russia are now so hysterical and distorted that it's left even liberals in Russia itself perplexed and isolated.

As Greenwald notes, spurious claims of Russian subterfuge are now spreading like wildfire. Having helped de-bunk so many false and unsubstantiated charges, he asserts that:
an incredibly reckless, anything-goes climate prevails when it comes to claims about Russia. Media outlets will publish literally any official assertion as Truth without the slightest regard for evidentiary standards. Seeing Putin lurking behind and masterminding every western problem is now religious dogma – it explains otherwise-confounding developments, provides certainty to a complex world, and alleviates numerous factions of responsibility – so media outlets and their journalists are lavishly rewarded any time they publish accusatory stories about Russia (especially ones involving the U.S. election), even if they end up being debunked.
Every other standard-bearing Guardian liberal now seems enthused to join in the anti-Russia frenzy. From 'robbing Hillary' of the White House, to 'bot-shaping' the Great British Public over Brexit, it all links back to that most damnable Putin-Kremlin 'interference in our affairs'.

Conveniently, this dispenses with any serious need to examine the crisis of neoliberalism that has given rise to Trump and Brexit. Likewise, there's no need to detain ourselves with the crucial part our liberal class has played in entrenching that neoliberal 'reality', leading to the populist reactions and eruptions we're now seeing. Instead, we're all enjoined to rage against Trump, bewail the 'Brexit apocalypse' and point an all-indicting finger at those scheming Russians.

Caught up in her own political crisis, Theresa May saw the obvious distracting opportunity to denounce Russia and Putin. It should have been equally obvious even to the Westminster bubble media what she was up to. Instead, true to form, the BBC dutifully headlined all her contrived charges.

Yet, BBC journalists need no automatic cue from imposters like May when it comes to pious evasion. They're already BBC-primed. And there's no more ready target for BBC worthies than that odious media usurper, Russia Today.

Whatever the limitations of RT, it provides an important counterpoint to much loaded Western media. For Jonathan Cook:
RT is far from a perfect source of news – no state or corporate media is – but it is a vital voice to have online. It has become a sanctuary for many seeking alternative, and often far more honest, critiques both of western domestic policy and of western interference in far-off lands. It has its own political agenda, of course, but, despite the assumption of many western liberals, it provides a far more accurate picture of the world than the western corporate media on a vast range of issues.
The level of anti-Russia liberal chatter was raised again after ex-First Minister for Scotland Alex Salmond launched his new chat show on RT. Seemingly appalled by the move, the BBC's Nick Robinson used his 'impartial' BBC Twitter account to insist that our open democratic broadcaster cannot be compared with their closed authoritarian pretender. For Robinson:
The question is not whether is making Kremlin propaganda. It is whether he’s lending his credibility & that of his guests to Kremlin propaganda
It most likely doesn't occur to Robinson that he is only able to say such things as an elevated correspondent from the BBC because his very own words are so establishment-tuned. That's a form of managed denial, institutional conditioning and state control that Russia and RT are never likely to match.

Readers might also like to recall here Robinson's own display of liberal tolerance, as he smashed up an anti-war placard outside Westminster.

Yet, in a field of serious competitors, one might struggle to find a more brazen platform for state propaganda than the BBC's This Week. Even beyond the system-serving output of Robinson, Marr, Kuenssberg, Humphrys and trusted BBC others - one wonders quite how the openly-reactionary Andrew Neil still manages to maintain such a commanding - and highly-remunerated - presence at our 'public service' broadcaster.

In his latest set piece, Neil, aided by nodding accomplices Michael Portillo and Ed Balls, launched a searing attack on RT presenter Afshin Rattansi - who, of course, had been given his own 'take of the week' just to show how 'open and balanced' the BBC really are.

Repeatedly labelling RT "Roubles Today", Neil laid out a long list of alleged Russian and RT villainy, from unleashing 'bot armies' to peddling every form of conspiracy theory. At one point, Neil's rambling charge sheet on Russian interference lapsed into emotional blather, pleading to understand from Rattansi just why RT is trying everything in its power "to divide us":
"The whole point of Russia Today and the election meddling done on social media is all focused to undermine our faith in our democratic institutions and to divide us....Why do you want to be a part of that?"
Neil's touching urging to 'leave our democracy alone' was met with a look of bemused incredulity from Rattansi.

Joining the anti-RT chorus at BBC Radio Scotland's Shereen show, ex-MP and enduring Blairite Tom Harris also castigated Salmond for ending his career in such an "undignified" way, by "selling your soul for Kremlin gold". He also rubbished anyone who would dare equate RT and the BBC, calling it an "appalling comparison."

One might recall that, unlike an unrepentant Harris, Salmond didn't vote to bomb Iraq, resulting in the deaths of a million souls and untold, ongoing carnage. As with similar appearances by other media-hopping warmongers like Alastair Campbell, none of this studio ensemble seemed able to contemplate the significance of Harris's political crimes, or mention the dark irony of his own shameless resort to late career-washing. The idea of the BBC acting as a major medium of state propaganda was, of course, ignored by all as no less risible. 

Alas, the noble liberal crusade against Russia and RT has also spread to further parts of the liberal-left commentariat. In a tortured Bella Caledonia article, From Russia With LOLs, editor Mike Small repeated all the same liberal-based charges, declaring that:
The deluge of evidence about the actions of Russia to effect the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the US election will continue, and as they do it will become not just increasingly absurd to call Russia a democracy, it will become increasingly offensive to do so.
In a piece that could have been lifted straight from the Guardian, Small even used the notorious US-funded, CIA-fronted Freedom House as a 'valid source' in pointing-up Russia's lowly 'democracy rating'. To many critical responses, Small again objected that "Russia is not a functioning democracy."

How readily faux leftist commentators adopt this spurious liberal box-placing narrative, no less facile than the 'our model democracy' gushings from Neil.

And this fits a pattern of mutual liberal approval and encouragement. The BBC/Guardian liberal fixation on Russia and RT provides a leading, 'moral' narrative for others on the soft liberal left to follow. Thus did much of the SNP leadership feel 'upright' in openly distancing themselves from Salmond's RT show.

The default defence here, of course, is 'liberal consistency'; in essence, 'we won't turn a blind-eye to Russia's human rights abuses, homophobia or state interference'.

Much of this indulges in conformist notions of a still-benign and enlightened West. In geopolitical terms, it's manifested, typically, in liberal denunciations of Russia's 'aggression' over Ukraine/Crimea, rather than actual recognition of the Western-backed neo-fascist coup carried out there, or the wider realpolitik of Russia protecting its territorial interests from an expansionist Nato and EU.

Nor is such vilification of Russia ever comparatively consistent. Where are the similar liberal denunciations of Saudi Arabia, and the armed support it receives from the UK in annihilating Yemen? Where, indeed, are any of the multiple crimes committed by Britain and the US around the globe so scathingly denounced? Where are all the liberal political and media calls to impose sanctions on the outlaw state of Israel, as it continues its brutal 60-year occupation and persecution of Palestinians?

This 'liberal consistency' also involves an often unctuous, virtue-signalling identity politics in attacking Russia. It's right, of course, to denounce the persecution of any vulnerable community anywhere in the world. Nor do we need deny the criminal capacities of the Russian state, just as we understand the criminal capacities of most others. Yet, liberal voices have elevated such concerns to a much more Manichean, 'Free World' level, suggesting capacities for repression that are somehow endemic or particular to Russia. The main ideological beneficiaries of this shouldn't be hard to fathom.    

What's so dismally absent here is any critical context on why Russia is so vilified, and what propagandist purpose it serves. It evades all the real power issues: notably, how, as a serious capitalist contender, Russia refuses to conform to the West's 'consensual' demands, or allow its economy to be appropriated; and how the omnipresent 'Russian threat' is needed to help sustain a whole militarist, war-waging, corporate arms economy in the West. There's an entire historical background on Russia defending its borders and resources against Western aggression and interference that seemingly doesn't even occur to the crusading liberal mindset. 

 And, as Chomsky so neatly reminds us on all those claims of 'Russian interference':
"Half the world is cracking up in laughter. The United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like, institutes military dictatorships."
We can, indeed, but laugh at the indignant liberal charge that Russia is 'meddling with our democracy'.

Yet, the darker implications of such repeated tropes are now becoming apparent. The liberal baying against Russia has raised the stakes for a more punishing turn to online control and censorship.

Twitter has banned RT and Sputnik adverts. Facebook is under increasing pressure to 'police' 'fake' Russian content. An RT affiliate has been forced to register as a "foreign agent" under US 'anti-propaganda' laws. And, in true Orwellian-speak, Google has announced that it will now "de-rank" RT and Sputnik. As reported at RT:
Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, says the company will “engineer” specific algorithms for RT and Sputnik to make their articles less prominent on the search engine’s news delivery services. “We are working on detecting and de-ranking those kinds of sites – it’s basically RT and Sputnik,”Schmidt said...The Alphabet chief, who has been referred to by Hillary Clinton as a “longtime friend,” added that the experience of “the last year” showed that audiences could not be trusted to distinguish fake and real news for themselves. (Italics original.)
The task of hegemony - as in how to build legitimacy and maintain popular consent - requires an ever-inventive mobilisation of class forces, political interests and cultural ideas to help insulate, validate and sustain power. And it's here that a liberal network, notably its media arm, plays such a vital role: in normalising the political and economic order; in moderating dissent and radical options; in managing neoliberalism and upholding corporate rule as still the only game in town; in repeating the same elite-based narratives and arguments over issues like Brexit; in castigating Trump as a crazy outlier, rather than the symptom of a crazy system; in keeping the truth of climate emergency and corporate culpability safely detached; in cheering and mitigating Western warmongering; and in amplifying the establishment's cast of international villains.

In so many ways, liberal agencies help ensure system continuity. Their spreading of official enemy narratives has been key in helping to popularise the fake meme 'fake news', a corporate-serving contrivance that disguises the real manipulation of news and information.

And this is giving impetus to more sinister openings. Seizing the 'fake news' moment, a concerted corporate purge is now underway to take out not only media like RT but multiple other leftist platforms, with barely a liberal murmur. As Cook warns:
They [RT] and progressive sites are being gradually silenced and blacklisted, herding us back into the arms of the corporate propagandists. Few liberals have been prepared to raise their voices on behalf of RT, forgetting warnings from history, such as Martin Niemoller’s anti-Nazi poem “First they came for the socialists”.
Rania Khalek also notes how the feeding of anti-Russia hysteria has much slippier consequences:
Google will pick and choose what ppl see and don’t see all bc of anti-Russia hysteria pushed by the US govt. the media ppl cheering this on need to understand that this is a slippery slope to their outlets being censored 
And Adam Johnson reinforces the point:
leftists & liberals shld ask themselves: which is more of a threat to the left: (1) state-run TV channel whose avg program is watched by less than 30K ppl/day (2) the world's second-largest corporation making ad hoc calls about what is & isn't "propaganda" and "misinformation"
So, will those lofty liberals start to realise what kind of service to power they provide? Will all those liberal 'champions of free and equal speech' now stand up for RT? Will they acknowledge their complicit part in stoking the fear agenda that allows governments and corporate monoliths to collude in closing down awkward viewpoints? As the 'halt Russia' and 'fake news' purge plays out against more selected leftist sites, will they reflect on their own liberal authoritarianism as the most perverse threat to real independent media and democratic expression?