Friday, November 10, 2006

Where is America's Politkovskaya? Part 2.

This is my answer to Mark Ames question.

Any war dehumanizes people. No matter what were the reasons for war the moment people start killing each other humaneness is lost and sooner or later only the need to survive remains. But fighting nations need soldiers who beyond survival can also behave “heroically”. How can you force a sane person into killing more enthusiastically? He must hate the enemy. He must hate not an abstract enemy but any concrete enemy soldier who looks exactly like you and me. One needs some magic to transform an ordinary person into beast, insect, disgusting piece of dirt, sadist and not actually a human being at all. This task at war is performed by war journalists.

War journalists should satisfy a number of hard demands, like
- The should be brave and courageous. This is a real war after all.
- They should be sincere and truly believe in what they write even when they fantasize.
- They should be able to find some real facts about enemy’s crimes to sound credible.
- They should be able to write beautiful fiction and to add chilling details to the facts they find. Who at war is really interested that two children were killed by a hellicopter missle? A real war correspondent should decribe in great details how the pilot was intentionally hunting the poor kids, how tears of the helpless babies were streaming down their faces, how the pilot was laughing demonically when pushing the button and how horrible their mutilated bodies looked. Some call it death porn but for a war correspondent it’s job – nobody says wars are pretty.
- In case there are no facts at hand war correspondents should always be able to find credible witnesses and make interviews with them.

That's exactly what Anna Politkovskaya was – a war journalist fighting on the side of Chechen rebels. And she did her job fine. I believe her books and articles helped dozens of Chechen men and women to become guirillas and suicide bombers. During proper wars like WW2 nations don’t have war correspondents writing “truth” about their soldiers but in case an army is fighting guerillas like in Chechnya or Iraq things are different. First, such wars are mostly distant and don’t disturb everyday activities of ordinary citizens. Second, we live in a very politically correct world where big transnational NGO’s keep a close eye on human rights and power abuses. This way it’s normal that there’re many Politkovskayas both in Russia and in America. Only people both in Russia or America have very little interest to read books where their sons are described as sadistic orcs from Mordor. Enemy war correspondents are almost always marginal figures to the general public in there native countries but are extremely popular in countries that support their enemies. This is why Politkovskaya was so popular in the West and Gore Vidal is so loved in Iran.

Things would be very different if the war with Iraq would’ve been real. Imagine – Iraqi tanks at the gates of Chicago, half of the country lies in ruins, office workers of yesterday are toiling at production lines. What kind of reaction newspaper stories about American soldiers raping helpless Iraqis would provoke?

Taken, for example, into the context of WW2 Politkovskaya’s best stories would sound outrageous. Imagine a Christmas 1944 Time issue with an article by Ann Politkoff. Young American intelligence officers arrest two poor German farmers Hans and Fritz, put them into a pit with water where they lie naked in their own excements when the temperature is at ice point. From time to time American officers rape them saying, “We do so because your German women don’t want to sleep with us”. At last Hans and Fritz are set free. They find Ann and tell her the story but she has to keep them anonymous as well as the place where they were tortured – evil Americans would certainly hunt them down and kill. “Now the only thing I want is revenge, - says Fritz – That’s why everyone in American uniform is a legitimate target for me.”

The story sounds absolutely absurd. How long can a person survive in a pit with freezing water? Did young intelligence offices washed the poor guys from excrements before raping them? How comes they don’t rape German women who don’t want to sleep with them? Why at last didn’t they kill them? On the other hand if this story would've been published in Voelkischer Beobachter Germans in 1944 would’ve found it totally credible – everybody knows Americans are irrational sadists and perverts.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sticking it up Vladimir the Impaler

This is an article by N.Petro published at Asian Times Online.

Sticking it up Vladimir the Impaler
By Nicolai N Petro

Among Russian President Vladimir Putin's many sins, surely the most outrageous is that he dares to compare Russia to the West. He has clearly forgotten Russia's proper role in our Narrative of Western Civilization: to serve as a poignant example of all the sins that we never commit. Putin has the temerity to suggest that Russia and the West face similar problems, and the gall to think that the West could even learn a thing or two from Russia.

Quite understandably the US media have responded to such insolence with a collective "ecrasez l'infame!" After the Group of Eight summit on July 19, the venerable Times of London politely told Putin that we Westerners didn't appreciate his wisecracks about the scandals surrounding Lord Levy (Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief fundraiser, dubbed "Lord Cashpoint") or democracy in Iraq. "A little more grace, and less hubris," if you please, wrote The Times.

Hear, hear! The last thing any of us needs is to hear about corruption, criminality, and violence in our own countries. Why, the next thing you know Putin will discover racism in some benighted corner of our enlightened lands and start quoting Samuel Johnson at Americans: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

The Times editorial quite properly pointed out that, as host at the G8, it was quite ungracious of Putin to give voice to such piffle. As every civilized person knows, the mark of true gentility is to attack your guest at a private dinner in his honor, as the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, did at recent the EU-Russia summit in Lahti, Finland.

According the Italian daily La Stampa, Borrell introduced his guest by sarcastically remarking that "we should be thanking Putin for closing the pipelines to Ukraine last January, which has brought us here to talk about energy". From there he spoke movingly of his concern for human rights, non-governmental organizations and the free press (only in Russia, of course). "We buy oil from the worst countries," he added sadly, "but we don't ask them to share our values."

What subtlety! What grace! What a coincidence that his remarks at an event closed to the press were leaked in time for the morning editions.

Putin, though, has still not learned to sit quietly and bow his head in shame. First, he slyly admitted that he too was concerned about crime, but then added that surely Russia wasn't the only country that had such problems. What about the recent criminal indictments of several Spanish mayors, and oh, by the way, "The mafia was not born in Russia."

One could have heard a fork drop on the fine linen tablecloth. The 25 European Union leaders who had gathered to gang up on the Russian president that evening could scarcely believe their ears. Once again Putin had violated one of the cardinal principles of our relations with Russia by comparing his problems to ours.

The danger in such behavior should be apparent to all. If Russia's problems are seen as in any sense comparable to our own, then it can no longer be excluded from Western institutions on the basis of its cultural incompatibility, and what else is really left?

Militarily, as everyone knows, Russia is but a shadow of the former Soviet Union. It poses so little threat that when Georgia seized four Russian military officers, the Russian parliament responded by speeding up the withdrawal of its remaining forces. Georgian Minister of Defense Irakli Okruashvili now regularly dares Russia to try to invade his country.

Economically Russia has done better, but its foreign investments overseas still put it on a par with Malaysia. As an energy provider, Russia supplies Europe with about a quarter of its natural gas, but this is two-thirds of Russia's gas exports, so that actually Russia is far more dependent on its European consumers than they are on it.

Putin's wily retorts pose a real and present danger to the West, however, precisely because they erode the sharp distinction between Western and Russian identity, between Western and Russian values, that are needed to safeguard Western Unity.

If this distinction disappears, pray tell, how will we be able to sustain our fear of Russia? If Russia's domestic debates are likened to our own, or if the Western press should begin reporting about all the areas of cultural, economic and political similarities that already exist between Russia and the West, I ask you, how will we preserve a proper sense of Russia's fundamental alienness?

Will we still be able to distinguish clearly between the perfectly tolerable levels of corruption, intolerance, and violence in the West and the totally intolerable levels of the same in Russia? In Russia's reflection, might not our own domestic and foreign policies soon begin appear less than ideal?

This is a very slippery slope. Ultimately, such thinking could lead to questions about whether "Western values" are truly the best for all nations at all times. The faint-hearted among us might even be drawn to consider the possibility of cross-cultural dialogue about the meaning and political usefulness of such terms as "democracy" and "human rights".

Down this treacherous path one can envisage multilateral initiatives, based on more culturally inclusive definitions of democracy, taking the place of the tried and true strategies of "regime change" and "democratic-values education" promoted by the administration of US President George W Bush. Perish the thought!

That is why it is of such vital importance that Putin's uppity attitude be firmly swatted down at every opportunity and why I, for one, applaud the Western media for their diligence in this regard. The alternatives are simply too awful to contemplate.

Nicolai N Petro served as the US State Department's special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under president George H W Bush, and now teaches international politics at the University of Rhode Island.