Trump and the Death of the American Dream

In a world where the assessments of intelligence agencies are fake and fake news is real, Donald Trump risks dragging America into the trap of gullible cynicism.

In my more solipsistic moments, I almost feel like I brought this all on myself. From the time I first stepped foot onto Kazakh soil in June 2004 until the moment I left Moscow for India in April 2015, my reality, with a few intermissions, was a post-Soviet one. The learning curve was so steep I have trouble remembering former iterations of myself left scattered up and down those those myriad peaks and valleys. I came to Kazakhstan a Peace Corps volunteer with cookie cutter leftist politics, a Christian’s metaphysical armor, American idealism and enough cognitive dissonance to have my brain dancing like a washing machine on its last legs.

Something had to break.

A few years later, Russia obliged.

All the courtyard’s drunks and mutts Humpty-Dumptied me back into something both better and worse.

I was forever given an outsider’s view on my own culture. I was never fully allowed back in. When the time came, I thought I could leave Russia. But follow rivers long enough and you learn that they’re all connected. The slippery waters of White Sea unreality are now lapping on Atlantic shores.

So here’s the thing that everyone who’s ‘seen behind the veil’ already knows: the intersubjective order governing all human interactions is based on myths. Once people stop believing in those myths, the order collapses.

This is no conspiracy, you’re not Tyler Durden and the wool has not been pulled over your eyes sheeple.

Without collective intentionality, money is nothing more than a Rorschach Test on colorful paper; dead Syrian children are decaying organic matter and not war crimes. When teenagers who have never thought about metacognition first stumble upon Sartre and realize that “objective reality” isn’t something that pours unadulterated into their looking glass eyes, a few fits of philosophy often follow. Most search and ultimately find their footing on firm-enough ontological grounds. But when entire societies chase the rabbit down the hole and never find their way back, cynicism triumphs— authoritarian drift begins.

It has always been discomfiting for humans to accept that law, human rights, culture, religion and economies are underpinned by nothing more than shared agreement. It is in our nature to want an arbitrator to stand above the fray and keep the goalposts in place. Thus the original power vertical was born: God, god(s), kings, courts and commoners.

Get past that regressive thinking and you realize we ourselves are endowed with the awesome responsibility to create the architecture of our systems. We fashion the imagined order that shapes the material world.

The Soviet Union, for example, was swept up into a dialectic of Hegelian exuberance with Eschatological Marxism promising heaven on earth for the faithful. Philosophy was elevated to science; the mechanics of history’s movements oiled by pioneering engineers.

And although heaven on earth was not found (in fact, at times it was closer to hell) belief did propel man into space.

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When the cracks began to appear on the canvas of socialist realism, people themselves split. As Peter Pomerantsev has noted, homo sovieticus grew up lying in every public moment, for the cost of truth-telling was the loss of job, liberty (and possibly life.)

As I previously wrote, Russia, unlike the West, first came into contact with critical theory and post modernism not during the halcyon days of social revolution and economic boom, but during a time when everything was falling apart. In the absence of genuine civil society, a robust economy or any form of institutional mooring, rather than sail through the death of a godless god and the birth of another, Russia was left in a two-decade long holding pattern — existential purgatory.

Then, when Russians who came of age before 1991 came to power, “they created a society that was a feast of simulations, with fake elections, a fake free press, a fake free market and fake justice,” as Pomerantsev noted.

Thus was born triumphant cynicism, which can be summarized as a power-obsessed culture’s compromise with abject powerlessness. You can’t do anything, you don’t do anything, but that’s ok, because nothing can be done. At least you are in on the lack of need to do. It’s the idealists working against the grain who have lost their way.

Such cynicism, of course, is useful to those behind the levers of power.

“When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world,” he wrote. “Thus the paradox: the gullible cynic.”

Americans, at our worst, have long been the opposite of that: gullible optimists. But optimists are creatures of doing. Belief in the efficacy of acting creates action. That action shapes the material world. The idea of money will die with man, but styrofoam created on account of the profit motive will live forever. The belief in human rights created both Amnesty International and an ex-post facto pretext for invading Iraq.

Which is to say, optimism has its downsides.

The true danger of Donald Trump, beyond retrograde environmental, immigration and economic policies is that, as a sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder, he believes in nothing beyond the barriers of his own soma.

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Trump, in so many ways, is a living, breathing manifestation of America’s Jungian shadow; an oversized beast with body dysmorphia unatttuned to ambient noise, smashing countless fragile things underfoot and unawares. He’s an entitled rich kid who envisions himself a self-made man, a gaudy vulgarian interested in gilded, and not ivory towers. He has no time for reading but knows it all; a true exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Trump is a white man born in a cradle shaped like a tanning bed who doesn’t know if he still exists when people stop looking at him. And in case you hadn’t guessed, he’s got a big dick.

He is the cacophonous swell of disintegrating Union when the better angels of our nature have been bludgeoned to death by tone-deaf demons singing the National Anthem as a form of onanism. But it was America that ultimately begot Trump, secreting him from its oversized bile duct onto the polity. And now it shall be Trump that fashions America in his own image.

Like most narcissists, Trump displaces any sense of shame through projection. There is no institution that he would not set on fire for the sake of his own ego. Today it’s the CIA, tomorrow it’s an independent judiciary.

Trump’s rage against Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of him is reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose notoriously thin skin is routinely ironed out with botox.

When a popular satirical program called Kukly (often translated as ‘Dolls’, perhaps better translated as ‘Puppets’), routinely depicted Putin as an impotent groom or a big baby, the Kremlin asked NTV, which broadcast the show, to stop portraying the not-yet omnipotent president.

The channel responded by showing Putin as biblical theophany the very next episode (ironic, as near deification would be his future failsafe against televised satire).

That, coupled with their critical coverage of the Second Chechen War, sealed the channel’s fate.

NTV’s owner was ultimately jailed, his media holdings were brought under state control and Kukly was taken off the air.

Be careful Alec Baldwin.

Trump is the kind of man who would build an arc out of an orphanage rather than drown for the sake of saving children. Just don’t remind him of it, or he might try and drown you too. And don’t use hyperbole to prove a point, for he just might beef up those liable laws and sue you. This is the first time I’ve ever second-guessed myself when writing about an American politician. That’s how this all starts…

A narcissist views self-worth as an all or nothing, zero-sum proposition. The national interest will be subsumed to the magical thinking needed to keep the myth alive.

As a result, Trump would rather undermine the “rigged election system” than lose an election. Even when he won the electoral vote tally, he couldn’t countenance having lost the popular vote. Instead, he claimed he had also won the popular vote, if one were to deduct the millions of people who “voted illegally”.

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When the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Russian government had sought to secure a Trump victory, he retorted that their claim was “ridiculous”, adding that “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Alex Jones, the Infowars founder who believes Obama turns frogs gay with chemicals and views Sandy Hook as a false flag, backed Trump in denying Russian involvement.

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Calling Obama’s citizenship into question, declaring 9/11 an inside job and accusing FEMA of setting up concentration camps is one thing. Accusing a hostile foreign power of attempting to influence your election through hacking? Beyond the pale.

Trump also doesn’t receive daily intelligence briefings from “those people” because he views himself as a “smart person.”

By contrast, when Trump falsely accused a man who attempted to rush the stage during one of his campaign rallies in March of having ties to ISIS, he later said: “What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.”

Smart.

As for Putin, there’s a reason Trump saves his invective for his own intelligence community intended to safeguard his nation and not a hostile foreign leader who has been working tirelessly to send the City on a Hill into a ditch.

“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”

Very smart.

But the problem is not just Trump’s narcissism, opaque business practices, or questionable connections. It is the decay of American institutions that ultimately helped propel him to the White House in the first place — the same institutions that are the only thing standing between American democracy and Trump’s most despotic tendencies.

When Trump tweets of fake elections, his supporters salivate at the sound of the dog whistle. False stories about dead souls and illegal immigrants voting have long been meant to disenfranchise minorities. They’ve also undermined faith in the electoral process.

When he speaks of the lying mainstream media, his supporters are already primed for the message. For decades, it has long reverberated in the echo chamber that fake news is news one disagrees with while real news is actually fake news that reinforces one’s preexisting beliefs about the world. Hence Balkan-generated clickbait is fact and meticulously fact-checked exposes in Newsweek are “fiction”.

But it’s not all a ruse.

When he talks about the fake free market, he isn’t entirely off the mark. Throughout the rustbelt, the bailout of Wall Street and the sell out of Main Street is dolefully discussed under decaying monoliths to days of manufacture gone by.

Maybe they could never stay in a globalized world. But they had to be replaced with something.

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The King and Queen of the party of labor did rack up $153 million in speaking fees from the captains of finance; neither Trump nor Macedonian teenagers made that up.

You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to know that no one from HSBC went to prison for helping Mexican drug cartels launder money, but Patricia Spottedcrow did get 12 years for selling $31 worth of weed.

You thought that only the sons of Russian politicians, Southeast Asian aristocrats and Indian actors were allowed to run people over with near impunity. Then affluenza spread stateside like SARS, Ethan Couch was deemed too rich to be a vehicular homicider, and banana trees began sprouting in Burleson, Texas.

Trump also wouldn’t be wrong to excoriate fake justice, although somehow, in some bizarre inversion of logic, those who long found themselves on top of America’s psychologically suppressed racial hierarchy realized that privilege had diminishing returns as the wealth gap widened under their own party’s policies. But rather than confront their own intersubjective myth — the self-made man unencumbered by social debt —they turned their ire on those who had long suffered from the sort of injustice they are just beginning to glimpse.

And now, self-made men are calling for protectionism. They want the free market to bring down the price of drugs that are more costly than anywhere else in the free world because of…the free market. The cognitive dissonance has turned large swaths of the republic into a pressure cooker. And then the other is hated beyond rhyme or reason.

America is already so, so close to the edge.

Another attack on the scale of 9/11 would do much to stoke Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. America’s institutions, while more robust than those of other states where authoritarian leaders have used crisis to consolidate power (Russia, Turkey, Weimar Germany), are diminished. The party of Reagan seems unwilling to take on Trump so long as they can gut the EPA, further wealth polarization for the sake of their own failed myth and bring a woman’s reproductive health more firmly under the state’s control.

They were never democrats to begin with. Voter suppression is part of the party platform.

But even their base is becoming disenfranchised. And what do you do when the party of bloodletting wins again while the party of penicillin has been accused of corrupting souls with their witches’ brew? You know who gets the blame when somebody dies.

So as reason continues to falter, as the Commander in Chief leads the charge against reality, conspiracy will take hold of the increasingly dispossessed.

Live with fear long enough and reality starts to become slippery. It’s hard to stay balanced when you stop believing in the certainty of tomorrow (or the certitude of yesterday).

And if all of that time in Russia taught me anything, it’s this: all is lost when the little man stops believing. It’s one thing when the president is a crook, quite another when it’s cops, tax agents and postal workers. The fish may rot from the head, but a building never collapsed due to a twisted spire.

The elite have had, since time immemorial, the luxury of disbelief. After all, it’s an entirely different matter to play a rigged game when the game is rigged for you.

Americans have long believed the game was relatively fair. The Union is imperfect, but we were always moving towards our greater ideals.

“The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” Or so we believe(d).

Russians, have, for most of their history, seen the arc of history bend towards iniquity. Then a wind of change seemingly came a quarter century back. It turned out to be a storm.

American idealists and vultures got behind that slipstream and set sail to former Soviet states for myriad reasons all born of the same mind.

They always thought we were naive; we thought they were pessimists. Who knew we were both making it all up as we went along?

Ultimately, the Harvard crooks, Christ-complexed, volunteers, civil servants and bored backpackers were all caught up in the same strange missionary effort to make them more like us.

Who would have imagined, 25 years later, that it was us who just might end up like them?

Trump’s Wrong Turn or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Putin

William Echols

One candidate doesn’t know what Aleppo is, but is quite certain that whatever is going on in Syria, the only way we can deal with it is by “joining hands with Russia.” The other argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been a leader, far more than [Barack Obama] has been a leader.” His pick for VP, hailing from the northern fringe of the Bible Belt, said that opinion was “inarguable.”

But how exactly did a country which in one iteration was the the world’s first constitutionally socialist state, only to mutate into a “gas station masquerading as a country”, as one prominent critic put it, become a beacon of hope for America’s increasingly fractious (and fractured) right?

The answer to that question, of course, is as varied as the sundry state of American conservatism itself. 

Putin has become a Rorschach test for the American afflicted. Knowledge of his actual policies or how they manifest themselves in Russia society has little bearing on his perceived efficacy as a leader. Much like Trump himself, perceptions of Putin are far less a matter of rational choice than emotional need.

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Establishment Republicans, who had long excited the passions of Americans who saw elections in eschatological, and not political terms, one day woke up to find they had lost control of a base they had been whipping into a frenzy for decades.

Is it really shocking that a party which ignored (if not actively undermined) the interests of the working class at every turn while engaging in dog whistle politics and playing upon the most paranoid fears of pre-tribulationists would one day decry the fact that the lunatics had taken over the asylum?

The rise of Trump, and the seemingly oblique embrace of Putin, have been fueled in part by the establishment’s perceived betrayal of the social contract with the white working class. The post-war years were defined by rising living standards, two-tone ideological considerations and political realism.

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Americans were the good guys fighting the good fight against an Evil Empire that built concrete walls and dropped iron curtains.

But then the end of the Cold War ushered in the end of history, a much heralded utopia that for many devolved into a post-industrial wasteland where neither gender, God, nor well-paying jobs appeared to actually exist anymore.

As it increasingly seemed that the culture wars and America-first rhetoric were in fact smoke screens for a two-party duopoly beholden to the movements of global capital and other shadowy “cosmopolitan” forces, right wing political movements from Tea Party populists, libertarians, paleoconservatives, outright nazis and the so-called alt-right have all sought to pour a healthy dose of iodine into brackish political waters.

How these same groups would come to lionize one of the most opaque and unaccountable political systems in the world is, to put it mildly, ironic.

But, for leading libertarians like Ron Paul, his son Rand Paul, their ideological bedfellow (and Aleppo-amnesiac Gary Johnson), arch Paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan and white supremacist Richard Spencer, Putin has at worst been given a bad rap, and at best serves as an exemplar for the type of leader needed to pull Western civilization from the brink.

In this strange, post-Reagan world of the right, Americans no longer tear down walls, they build them; Russia is no longer viewed as the Evil Empire, but is rather the levy holding back America’s decadent globalist tide.

Otherwise, after Putin comes the flood…

‘One of us’

In a December 2013 article entitled ‘Is Putin One of Us?’, Buchanan bemoaned the fact that “our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live.”

Given the fact that Buchanan’s grandfather actually fought on the side of the Confederacy, one is free to take from that statement what they will. 

He goes on to write that Reagan had once called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world,” though, as Putin implied in a recent speech, “Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.”

Buchanan continues that Americans caught up in a “Cold War paradigm” have missed the decisive struggle of the 21st century, which entails “conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”

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In a later essay published this past May entitled “Why Russia Resents Us,” Buchanan, in reference to NATO’s expansion, poses the question, “If there is a second Cold War, did Russia really start it?”

Buchanan is not the only one who who believes the US policy establishment is stuck a Cold War paradigm (while otherwise missing the plot).

On the eve of military operations that would see Russia annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Senator Rand Paul argued: 

“Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

Then, in April 2014, after Russian had already annexed Crimea and was clandestinely fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine, Johnson, the Libertarian party nominee, had choice words not for actual Russian intervention, but perceived US meddling, while speaking on RT America.

“When you look at The Ukraine [sic] right now, that would be analogous to Russia getting involved in Puerto Rico. They’re not going to do it. We shouldn’t get involved in The Ukraine [sic].”

Months later, when Russian-backed rebels shot down passenger flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, Ron Paul was quick to jump to Russia’s defense.

“Just days after the tragic crash of a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, Western politicians and media joined together to gain the maximum propaganda value from the disaster. It had to be Russia; it had to be Putin, they said.”

Those more establishment figures echo the views of Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-right movement which is, in many ways, a synthesis of 20th century white supremacy and 21st century 4chan sophomoric snark.

This past December, RT gave him a platform to both advocate for a Trump presidency and further join the chorus of right wing cheerleaders rallying against a Western-agitated Cold War 2.0.

In his words, Putin and Trump to some degree offer “an alternative to what you call neo-conservative or neoliberal foreign policy.”

He continues that it was ridiculous for former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to say that Russia was America’s number one geopolitical adversary.

“Anyone who would say that is not looking at the world as it is; they are looking at the world through some 1980’s Cold War rosy glasses.”

Spencer had previously written about what he called “Putin Derangement Syndrome, what he called “a common affliction among Washington consensus journalists” following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

“Symptoms include delusions that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not simply a totalitarian dictator at home but a super-genius strategist in foreign affairs. If anything unusual happens in his part of the world, it’s all part of one of his wicked schemes for more power,” he wrote.

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In short, Putin, through his embrace of traditional values and penchant for, if not non-interventionism, at least spheres of influence, resonates with political actors themselves who are struggling with the perceived decline of nation-states and the alleged rise of unaccountable globalist forces. For his troubles, he’s been consistently demonized by the Western establishment.

Further below the surface, there is a tacit belief among many that white Americans are being deracinated in their own homeland, and Putin, somehow, offers a chance at mooring one’s nation against inundation of the other.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has grasped at the basic tenants of these intellectual undercurrents, both in his praise of Putin and denigration of Obama, his threats to deport 11 million Mexicans and ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, and his promise of protectionist policies to somehow stem the tide of transnationalism.

Trump has also embraced non-interventionism by coming out against the Iraq War, though he did tell NBC’s Matt Lauer “it used to be [to] the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victory. But I always said, take the oil.”

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That he would advocate non-intervention and pillaging at the same time is likely a sign of his deep political illiteracy. But then, Trump is grasping at ideas put out by more intellectually dexterous members of political movements he scantly understands but primally embraces.

He further solidified that targeted ideological incorporation by choosing chairman of Breitbart Media and alt-right promulgator, Stephen Bannon, to lead his campaign.

Nothing is real

Many non-ideological Trump’s supporters, in turn, are simply harkening back to the postwar years where everything, from the rules to remaining a productive member of the middle class to the immutability of the now endlessly mutable sexual, moral and cultural values, were more concrete.

Despite fears of nuclear war, the binary battle between communism and capitalism provided a model which, at least in hindsight, was more intellectually (and emotionally) tractable. No matter how formidable the opponent, the spectacle of well-trained pugilists having it out under the Marquess of Queensberry rules provided a metanarrative everyone could follow.

The post 9-11 era, in turn, brought a Royal Rumble with the referee having been concussed by a folding chair outside of the ring. Everything has been decentralized and deconstructed. Perpetual watchers of the 24-hour news cycle have long since had the bends.

Proponents of Putin are looking to return to that world of Hegelian conflict, though this time, it will, as Buchanan put it, be a decisive struggle between traditionalists and the secular, multicultural, transnational elites. This time, it is America, or at the very least the American establishment, sitting on the wrong side of history. This time, it is our house which needs to be burnt down and built anew.

Matthew Heimbach, a self-described white nationalist and leader of the US-based Traditionalist Worker Party has followed Buchanan’s logic, telling eurasia.net this past July:

“[The World National-Conservative Movement] is a broad coalition of all ethno-nationalists – all nationalists that reject neoliberalism, and reject globalism, coming together as a united front, based out of Russia. [During the Soviet period] there was the Comintern, the Communist International. And in the modern era, it’s almost like a nationalist version – or the Traditionalist International.”

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He further said that “Putin is the leader, really, of the anti-globalist forces around the world.”

Trump, with his rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans, mixed in with protectionist promises and anti-PC swagger, has modeled himself, not exactly on what Putin is, but rather on what he perceives Putin to be.

It was enough to earn him the support of former-KKK leader David Duke, who has shown sympathy towards the Russian president, writing in 2005 that “Putin and the Russian people dare to defend themselves from the powers of Jewish supremacism.”

Duke for his part has been traveling to Russia, a country he once labeled “the key to white survival,” throughout the duration of Putin’s tenure.

He was an early adopter in the belief that Russia, along with other Eastern countries, had the “greatest chance of having racially aware parties achieving political power.”

They know not what they speak

For many of globalization’s discontents, Putin’s Russia has become an imagined bulwark against an ever-changing social and economic tide. That Putin himself is a neoliberal completely enamored with the benefits of transnational finance is seemingly lost on many of them. 

How, after all, do staunch opponents of “creeping islamisation” tout Putin as the vanguard defender of Christendom when he successfully lobbied for Russia to be granted observer status in the Organization for Islamic Cooperation over a decade back?

Putin, who opened Moscow’s new grand mosque last year, heralded “traditional Islam as an important spiritual component of Russia’s identity” during a visit to Uffa in 2013.

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Ironically, Rustam Batrov, the deputy mufti of Tatarstan, expressed a sentiment to Al Jazeera America that sounded shockingly similar to a something Buchanan (or Heimbach) might have said:

“Just like after the fall of Byzantium, [when] Moscow saw itself as the Third Rome, defending orthodoxy, under Stalin we were the defenders of the proletariat, [and] today Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage.”

Begging the question for Putin’s Western cheerleaders: What fruits, exactly, have these so-called traditional values borne at home?

Russia has been chided by pro-life activists for having an “abortion culture” while the number of registered cases of HIV exceeded the one-million mark in January.

The country also boasts some of the highest divorce rates in the world. It is beset with a raging heroine epidemic and endemic alcohol abuse. Domestic violence is rampant.

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Due to Putin’s economic policies which have led to a protracted financial crisis, prostitution has also surged in Russia. 

Vladimir Zazhmilin, deputy head of the campaign group Vice Squad, told Newsweek earlier this year that the number of Russians engaged in sex work had “exceeded 3 million a long time ago.”

And while Barack Obama is ostensibly a closeted Muslim, it is Putin’s Russia where, according to RT, “girls as young as three undergoing genital mutilation.”

Then there are the child brides and polygamy , which anti-gay activist and archconservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina said would be “ridiculous” to criminalize, as there are “not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children.”

That “traditional” idea has long held by leader of the faux ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who a decade back said polygamy should be instituted in Russia “because we have 10 million unmarried women”.

That such a country has been reconceptualized as some sort of Valhalla for white, Western, Christian traditionalists and outright neo-nazis beggars belief.

Russia, the non-interventionist, has invaded two of its neighbors in eight years, annexing (both de facto and de jure) parts of their territories, while holding other neighbors hostage by leveraging frozen conflicts that the Kremlin can help reignite at any time. Then there is Russia’s at times indiscriminate intervention in Syria.

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Another bugbear of conservatives in general and Trump in particular — immigration —is an issue that also resonates with the Russian right.

Russia, after all, has the world’s second largest migrant population, trailing only the US. And unlike in the United States, many of those migrants are Muslims. Regardless of rhetoric about creeping Sharia in the UK, France and Germany, it is Russia that boasts Europe’s largest Muslim population.

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And from the 2010 Manezhnaya Square riot to the 2013 riot in Moscow’s Biryulyovo district — both sparked by the murder of ethnic Slavs by Muslim migrants — multicultural-free Russia is anything but free of ethnic tensions. 

Putin’s embrace of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, along with his penchant for “feeding the Caucasus”, meanwhile, has never sat well with Russian nationalists themselves.

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Though in truth, none of this really matters. Such misconceptions about Putin’s Russia are essentially myths for disaffected Westerners grasping for an alternative view of reality. For those piecing together the world via message boards and broadband rather than direct experience, anything and everything can be whatever one needs it to be.

Ultimately Trump, who has long aped the affectations of the authoritarian strong man, implicitly offers a key component of palingenetic ultranationalism: the promise of societal rebirth following period of moral decay. Putin, through his rhetoric and carefully-crafted strong man image, has proved an exemplar for those looking to bring the United States from it knees, even if, in the end, they are merely dragging it into the gutter.

Datsik’s prostitution purge and morality in Putin’s Russia

Viacheslav Datsik’s recent rampage, in which he forced nearly a dozen prostitutes to march nude through the streets of Saint Petersburg, represents the nexus in which Russian nationalism, state-condoned vigilantism, sexism, and a pathological hatred of the weak collide.

When Datsik busted his way into a bordello on Vasilievsky Island early on May 18, his so-called “war on prostitution” was already in full swing. In the first video clip, released to Russia’s security service-linked Life News, his fellow travelers can be seen rounding up terrified women, one of whom was chocked against a wall to silence her screams.

The unclothed women (and a couple of johns), many visibly in tears, were then led down five city blocks to a police station, whereby befuddled officers attempted to cover them up after Datsik expressed his intention to file a report before slipping off into the night to do it all again.

But the second time around, security, perhaps being tipped off, were prepared for Datsik and crew, upon which they subdued him and his cohorts before turning them over to police.

When asked why he had led the women on a shameful procession through the streets, he told the Fontanka news portal that Russia should “know its heroes”.

Is Datsik insane? Russian authorities had previously declared he was schizophrenic before locking him up in a mental institute in 2010 following a rash of armed robberies several years prior. After escaping that facility (by allegedly tearing through its fence with his bare hands), fleeing to Norway, and shortly ending up back in custody there, a Norwegian police physician argued he was not suffering from a serious mental disorder at all. Whether or not Russian authorities agreed with that second opinion, they did opt to put the self-proclaimed Red Tarzan, the son of the Slavic god Perun, in prison for the next 5 years rather than return him to a psychiatric facility following his extradition.

Then, this past March, he was released. So what does a self-described neo-pagan, racist, cage fighter, and man of questionable mental stability do after spending half a decade behind bars?

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It seems that he embraced a zeitgeist, which, during his stint in prison, had increasingly come to resemble his own strange, demiurgic dispensation of reality.

Conspiracies, paranoia, xenephobia; muscular shows of tradition disseminated via modern portals like YouTube. In Russia, the situationist’s prank has been inverted. The muckraker’s are tools of the state trying to soil the righteous; bizarre, larger than life punks and outlaws engaged in acts of avant garde civil obedience.

Is it any surprise that Stanislav Baretsky, the 400-pound former gravedigger, musician, performance artist and Leningrad-contributor most famous for publicly ripping apart beer cans with his teeth to protest foreign libations, accompanied Datsik on an earlier leg of his crusade?

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The point of contrast is one that cannot be missed. Both men, corpulent cowboy’s in a lawless land, are cut from much the same cloth; a world of fenya — criminal slang — and seedy characters romanticized in ‘blatnaya pesnya’ — prison songs.

But whereas Baretsky is merely a self-aware jester, aping the affectations, argot and image of the hardened criminal for the sake of art and theatre, Datsik is the cage-fighter turned convict, unburdened by a sense of irony, restraint, and perhaps reality itself.

From the ersatz to the earnest, it is the convict’s worldview, and how it has permeated broader Russian society, that colors, if not underpins Russia’s social media age vigilantes.

For they are, to some degree, enforcing the power structure that exists in the ‘little zone’, as prison was known in Soviet times, across the ’big zone’ — society as a whole. They have made themselves the enforcers of what Natalia Antonova has called sublimated gulag culture.

As sociologist Anton Oleinik noted in ‘Russia’s Prison Subculture: From Everyday Life to State Power’, Russian prisons are organized along a three-tiered hierarchy. At the top are the blatniye: the elite who both make and enforce the rules. The second group, muzhiki — variously peasants, salt of the earth, and inhabitants of Russia’s eternally working and manly class (be it good or bad) — are the everymen battling to keep a sense of themselves in this hard world.  The last tier are variously subdivided into the shestyorki, six groups who, in their own ways, have been stripped of their autonomy and suffer abuse at the hands of the prison’s ruling class. At the very bottom of that barrel is the “rab” — literally slave — a position reserved for child molesters, homosexuals (though not prison wolves)  and those saddled with debts they cannot repay.

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The prison authorities themselves, representing state power, have employed smotryashchiye or overseers from among the general population, ostensibly to keep order. Bur for who and what that order is kept is an entirely different matter.

Outside, a similar structure has increasingly been solidified since 2012, when Vladimir Putin’s third term as president kicked off. His focus on social conservatism and traditional values has led to a slew of witch hunts targeting both the political opposition and otherwise disempowered groups in society.

But in the big zone, it is armies of cossacks, bikers, anti-maiden protesters and extreme nationalists (if not outright nazis) with, varying degrees of state support, harassing, attacking, filming and degrading the shestyorki of Putin’s Russia —homosexuals, punk-rock supplicants, illegal immigrants and every other variety of dissident and social deviant.

It is, as always, an attack on the weak, with a camera on hand.

During the short-lived St. Petersburg crusade, one telling incident saw Baretsky stoically standing by as Datsik manhandles more than one Nigerian women, whom he accuses of “infecting Russian citizens with AIDS.”

It is reminiscent of Maxim Martsinkevich or Tesak (Hatchet)’s Occupy Pedophilia movement, which itself involved hunting down young gay men they found online, outing torturing and shaming them in horrific videos later spread through social media; all in the name of protecting children.

In both campaigns, using coercion to publicly out people existing on the margins of society was integral.

It is similar to the phenomenon of facial recognition technology being used to identify, embarrass and harass Russian women performing in pornographic movies.

As Antonova wrote, citing Snob columnist Arina Kholina, Russian attitudes towards “fallen women” are notably vicious.

“For generations, we pass down this very strange and cruel rule – a whore is inhuman,” Kholina wrote.

And then there are criminal groups with no ostensible ideological motivations who have increasingly begun targeting homosexuals for blackmail, knowing that many victims will not go to the police for fear of being outed.

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In this dark world where the weak are targeted with the tacit consent of the state, it is no coincidence that both Datsik and  Martsinkevich have deep links to the far right.

For these appeals to tradition, “contempt for the weak” and need to purify the nation and stem the tide of decadence through redemptive violence are among fascisms primary markers.

It should also come as no surprise that of all Russia’s family values YouTube muck rackers, Martsinkevich was actually incarcerated (though for racist remarks, not for brutalizing gay men) while Datsik risks returning behind bars.

The reason is quite simple. Datsik and Martsinkevich themselves belong to movements, that, to the degree they have not been absorbed through state sanctioned channels, represent threats to the current order.

Attacks on brothels and migrants fly in the face of Putin’s regime, which tolerates decadence in private and is, to his credit, genuinely open to Russia’s ethnic and religious diversity (so long as non-Slavic groups do not rally for greater autonomy.)

Through genuine political disenfranchisement, the government allows for controlled violence to be directed at the state’s enemies, or groups that are otherwise viewed as disposable, as a means of sublimating social tensions bred through their policies.

But those whose rage risks being redirected back at the state will quickly be neutralized.

Ironically, those who take the rhetoric of the Russian state at face value risk finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Many of the state’s enforcers are already there.

Datsik himself is the apotheosis of exaggerated masculinity in a country of manly men primarily raised by single mothers. He is a disenfranchised chauvinist, a hard man with a soft mind and a maximalist approach to life that many Russians embrace, if only rhetorically, with a sense of pride.

But to see this figure, eight limbs of madness and a penchant for taking the government’s toxic spew of hate and paranoia to heart,  is to witness a grotesque manifestation of what it has come to mean to be not only a moral agent in Putin’s Russia, but a man.

 

 

Putin doesn’t care about borders (or boundaries)

Russia’s New Year’s holidays have ended. Groggy eyes on the metro, aching heads on electric trains. The stories of ten days of debauchery trickle in one by one. The doctor who punched his own patient dead. Lazarus who drank himself to death and back to life. The homeless men who drank themselves from death to deader after finding an unidentified brown liquid in a dumpster and going full on YOLO.

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Plunging like the blood sugar of the morning commute funeral mass and their post 10-day communion wine hangover, oil hit a 12-year-low, bringing the long-suffering ruble even further down with it. Following previous claims Russia was rebounding from recession, both Moscow and the IMF now expect GDP contraction for 2015 to be at 3.8 percent. Rising economic tides are not predicted for 2016.

In December 2014, Putin vowed the Russian economy would start growing again in two years under what he called the worst case scenario. He’s still got a year to pray for the global oil glut to go away, all the while pretending that much needed economic diversification will just manifest itself in a virtual mafia state where personal initiative is deincentivized via legal nihilism and systemic rot. It doesn’t help that the best of Russia have been leaving in droves. But what does one do in a country where the glass ceiling has nails?

In a revelatory interview with the Germany daily Bild published on Monday, Putin appeared to be straining under the bad news, economic and otherwise. Looking at the state of Russia and the world today, Putin argued that Russia should have been stronger after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the world would somehow be a better place. The question is: A better place for whom?

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Putin’s latest use of Western media  for yet another “J’accuse…!” screed against the West offers a potent glimpse into the “other world” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said he now inhabits. His lack of consistency and belief are seemingly the hallmarks of a sociopath, a chekist who believes in nothing beyond intrigue and raw power, or both.

Putin can, on the one hand, bemoan how former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner allegedly promised Gorbachov during the 1990 negotiations on German reunification that NATO would not expand eastward. Never mind that this alleged promise from an official who has been dead for two decades referred to Eastern Germany itself, and not Eastern Europe, as has been argued. Never mind whether a promise holds the weight of a ratified treaty.

Every perceived slight against Russia has the half life of forever.

Manfred Wörner

On the other hand, Putin has absolutely disregarded Russians obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances its borders would be respected, force would not be used against it, and economic pressure would not be levied to influence its politics. Which of those points has Russia not broken time and time again? Violations of the third point, in particular, most certainly predate the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.

In reality, the attempted dismantling of Ukraine echoes the anger of Munich 2007, with the spheres of influence Putin actually believes in ultimately clashing with the rule of law he pays lip service to. Ukraine, of course, never joined NATO, it was never even close. But there is always the chance. In Putin’s world, that chance fit into his own version of ‘The One Percent Doctrine.’

When asked if the Eastern European states had the right to organize their own security affairs by joining NATO, Putin dismissively noted he had heard this argument “a thousand times.”

“Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate,” Putin said.

“But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east,” he continued.

Translation: “I claim to support the principle in spirit, but I will take a torch to it in practice.

I know Central and Eastern European states had every right to join NATO, but it was in the member states interests to deny them this right so as to avoid illegal military action on Russia’s behalf.”

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In other words, a pure attempt at dismay. Don’t do what you have every right to do; do what we say you can do or there will be trouble. Then deflect your own aggressive actions by claiming you were pushed into a corner and forced to act defensively against your weaker neighbors…by invading them.

If Putin’s complete disregard for a rule-based international order was not already apparent, his 19th century imperialist thinking shone threw when discussing the annexation of Crimea.

“For me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes,” he said.

“Napoleon once said that justice is the incarnation of God on Earth,” he would go on to say.

“I’m telling you: the reunification of Crimea and Russia is just.”

Never mind a small man evoking Napoleon and making his actions coequal with a theophanous manifestation. Stick to his far less esoteric claims of support for the “people’s fortunes” when an estimated 160,000 were killed to crush Chechnya’s dream of independence.

When Grozny was razed, filtration camps were set up, and rape and torture were used as instruments of collective punishment against a civilian population, whose interest was Putin acting in again:  “Borders and state territories” or people?

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Is Putin not the one who deemed calls for “separatism” in Russia illegal, making them punishable by up to four years in prison? Has Putin not forced the same type of federalization on Kyiv that he has actively opposed in Russia since becoming deputy chief of the Yeltsin’s presidential administration in 1998?

Just how absurd is it? Rafis Kashapov, a Russian Tatar activist, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for criticizing Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. In Russia, you can literally (ok, figuratively) cleave off part of another country, and then imprison people who criticize that illegal land grab on…separatism charges. The mind boggles.

And yet, after once again evoking Kosovo, Putin says “everyone should comply with uniform international rules and not want to change them any time one feels like it.”

In the codex of Putinist propaganda, this is called mirroring —accusing others of doing precisely what you are doing.

He then goes on to claim that Western sanctions are not about helping Ukraine, but “geopolitically pushing Russia back.”

If by geopolitically pushing back Russia, he means expelling Russian soldiers from Ukrainian soil, he is correct. But in Putin’s world, invading a foreign country and then being sanctioned for it is deeply unjust.

He proceeds to call European Union sanctions “a theatre of the absurd.” But saying the tens of thousands of Russian troops to have actively taken part in military operations in Ukraine are on holiday (with uninterrupted supply lines) is not absurd? In what world is using economic pressure rather than military force to  compel an aggressive party to back down  somehow beyond the pale?

Putin, one can be certain, has an answer to that question. It just might not correspond to any knowable reality.

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As I previously wrote, in the “graveyard of ideologies”, for many Russians in general (and Putin in particular), a simple rule of thumb has come to define morality of action: “If Russia does it, it is right.”

Putin is not for or against military intervention in principle, but he is for Russian military interventions. Putin is not for or against security services meddling in the internal affairs of other states, but  he does support Russian security services meddling in the affairs of other states. Putin is not for or against imperialism, but he does support Russian imperialism. He is not for or against international law, but he opposes it when it’s not in his interest, and supports it when he sees an opportunity to stick a finger in Washington’s eye.

And Putin has no particular regard for “the freedom of expression of the people,” as he claims to have had in Crimea. But he will use the pretense of the democratic will as a trojan horse to carve up neighboring states, as has been done in Georgia and Ukraine, as could easily be done to Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia and beyond. As for the “freedom of expression” of Chechens and Russia’s other ethnic minorities, well, no need to belabor that point.

In a rational world, a leader of 15 years and counting with carte blanche to do whatever he wants might hold some sense of accountability for the state of the nation.

But, rather than face up to the monolithic failings of his power vertical, he is doubling down on rage and victimhood. Time and time again, he cries about where his neighbors have built their fences, all the while, burning his own house to the ground.

Russia is on the ropes and punching itself in the face. But to hear Putin tell it, the West has once again given her a black eye.

And just like with the ten-day-drinking binge to have engulfed Russia over the holidays, the hangover from Russia’s hallucinated reality is coming. The big question is: On the Monday morning after the masses finally come down from the latest Russian trip, how many people will be left lying dead in the snow?

Happy New Year’s everyone.

 

Putin’s Ukraine Admission and a Culture of Lies

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William Echols

After persistent denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly admitted to a Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine (before he didn’t). In any “normal country”, coming clean about a clandestine military operation on live television would have huge political implications. But in Russia, it didn’t even make the evening news.

It all started on December 17 during Putin’s annual marathon Q&A session, a PR exercise in which he vacillates between his roles as global statesman and provincial Santa Claus.

Putin faced many queries, some serious, some prosaic. Due to Russia’s economic woes, his usual air of confidence was punctuated by more bluster than usual. This was especially true when questioned over recent corruption allegations leveled at the family of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.

But from Chaika’s alleged mob ties to a quasi-admission that Katerina Tikhonova was in fact his daughter (because only in Russia is the identity of one’s children a matter of state security), it was his answer to a question about Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, two alleged officers of the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) captured during fighting in East Ukraine, that gave pause to many watching the proceedings.

“We never said there were not people [in Eastern Ukraine] who performed certain tasks, including in the military sphere,” he said. “But that does not mean there are Russian (regular) troops there, feel the difference.”

Putin, of course, has vehemently denied that very thing before…

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine

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Russia’s Draconian ‘Anti-Maidan Law’ Claims Its First Victim

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William Echols 

The noose is tightening around Russia’s increasingly shrinking civic space. On Monday, activist Ildar Dadin was sentenced to three years in prison by a Moscow court for taking part in multiple, unsanctioned protests. He is the first victim of a repressive 2014 law that criminalizes the act of violating public assembly rules more than twice within a 180-day period.

As Amnesty International notes, a single violation of the so-called ‘anti-Maidan law’ is now punishable by a fine or up to 15 days in jail. Three strikes and a five-year prison sentence might be on the table. In Dadin’s case, the prosecutor had asked for two years, a sentence which the judge (or whoever ultimately handed down the verdict), found too lenient.

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Ironically, at the time of the bill’s signing, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the authorities would not fight “radicalism” in the country by “tightening the screws.” And yet, Dadin certainly appears to have been put in a vice…

Read the full article at Russia! Magazine 

Russia’s Prisoner Dilemma

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William Echols

Much has been said of the “legal nihilism” which consumes Russian society. Few, however, have realized that rather than some esoteric expression of the Russian soul, the orgy of corruption in the Third Rome is a logical reaction to the world its citizens have been forced to navigate.

In 2008, Russian presidential place holder Dmitry Medvedev argued that “if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.”

Nearly eight years later, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika believes the battle against corruption, following a rocky road and more recent economic dips, is going swimmingly well.

“Over the past two years, the Prosecutor-General’s Office has been keeping impartial crime statistics on whose basis I can confidently say that the fight against corruption in the country has been intensified substantially recently,” Russian News Agency TASS cites Chaika as saying.

Over the past nine months, officials had been implicated in corruption cases amounting to 30 billion rubles ($423 million). One-fifth of that sum has been reimbursed. While Chaika himself admits those figures could be higher, he also believes they should “command respect.”

In a country where corruption accounts for anywhere between 25 and 48 percent of an ever-contracting GDP, how much respect the authorities deserve on that account is debatable. But then, how does one stamp out corruption in a nation where graft is not a byproduct of the system, but rather the raison d’etre?

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

Russia and the Sinai plane crash fallout 

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Will Putin double down on a war he never expected to win?

William Echols

[*Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, before Russia admitted its passenger jet was bombed in Egypt, the Paris attack and now the incident in Turkey. That being said, it’s still interesting to see if my thesis will hold in light of just how much has happened in a short amount of time.]

The alleged bombing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula has brought home the risks involved in Moscow’s Syrian intervention. The question is, will Putin be forced to change his political calculus in battling an enemy where victory in any traditional sense was never really part of the equation?

From “likely” to “99 percent certain”, Western intelligence has increasingly taken the view that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 on board.

Moscow has been far less willing to jump to conclusions or air its own intelligence on the matter, though Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev conceded “the possibility an act of terror” downed the plane.

Russia’s reticence to speculate on the incident likely reflects the potential domestic and international consequences a terrorist strike would entail for Moscow’ recent Syrian intervention.

There are several factors, however, which will diminish Russia’s need to mitigate for any sense of popular backlash, leaving Putin’s Syrian objectives unaffected.

Matter of opinion

Empirical evidence suggests that Russian public opinion on Syria remains highly malleable. Less than two weeks before bombs started falling over the Levant, only 14 percent of Russians believed Moscow should give the regime of Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Following a targeted media blitz, a later poll by the Independent Levada Center saw a full 72 percent of Russians feel mostly or entirely positive “towards the strikes on the ‘Islamic State [IS]’ in Syria.” 

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Interestingly, another survey released by the Levada Center on November 6 (though conducted prior to the October 31 crash) found a plurality of responds (a full 40 percent) believed the primary benefit of the Syrian intervention would be “a decrease in the terrorist threat to Russia posed by the Islamic State.” Only 17 percent believed it would increase the threat.

Thirty four percent also said intervention would “strengthen Russia’s authority in the Middle East/the world arena,” while 22 percent believed it would “normalize the situation and end the bloody war in Syria.”

Only 6 percent believed Russia’s actions would undoubtedly lead to “a new Afghanistan for Russia,” while 29 percent thought it was entirely possible an Afghanistan-style quagmire could develop.

While Afghanistan syndrome and the increased likelihood of terrorism remain genuine concerns, anecdotal evidence suggests Russians by and large have not begun to question Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria as a result of the Sinai incident. Rather, they appear increasingly dead set on seeing IS destroyed. This in part stems from the fact that Russians have a different relationship to acts of terror than Westerners, and thus expect different reactions from their leadership when such acts occur.

Putin would know, for he himself helped create this expectation.

Zero-tolerance 

The June 1995 hospital siege in Budyonnovsk, in which Chechen separatists took at least 1,000 people hostage, proved instrumental in forming Putin’s zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism.

Following failed attempts to storm the building, Moscow was compelled to negotiate with the militants, ultimately securing a ceasefire which was viewed as a turning point in the First Chechen War.

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It is unsurprising that Putin’s rise to power was cemented by a rebuff to this perceived humiliation, when the suspicious 1999 apartment bombings helped spark the second military conflagration in Chechnya. Putin’s “we will rub them out in the outhouse” philosophy came to signify a willingness to stop at nothing to counter terrorism, even if it meant significant Russian civilian casualties.

From the 2002 Moscow Theater hostage crisis, in which Russian special forces employed an unknown chemical agent, leading to the deaths of 130 hostages, to the 2004 Beslan school siege, where 385 were killed after Russian forces stormed the building using tanks and rocket launchers, Moscow will risk sacrificing its own citizens rather than capitulate to terrorist demands.

Due in part to a compliant state media, proclivity towards stoicism, employment of conspiracy theories to deflect blame, ethnoreligious animosity, and a militaristic culture which places a lower premium on human life, Russians appear willing to accept such civilians losses. As for the Sinai incident, nothing indicates anything will change in that regard.

Putin doesn’t care? 

Recently, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told the Moscow Times “Putin is not concerned with domestic events at all,”  and thus does not feel an obligation to his electorate during this time of tragedy. A Washington Post editorial noted that unlike Western states, Putin was more interested in “defending” his government than his own people.

While there is some truth to these assertions, they miss the broader point. One, Putin’s actions on the international stage are all done for domestic considerations. As it stands, domestic events are a less efficacious path towards generating a sense of national greatness the Russian public craves than international ones.

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Secondly, that this potential bombing happened abroad gives Putin more room to maneuver. Domestic attacks, especially those conducted by separatists, are viewed as an existential threat to Putin’s state supremacy model, giving him no choice but to execute his “outhouse” policy. An attack on a soft target abroad, meanwhile, allows for a more nuanced response.

Another factor comes into play as well. Just as in the West (or anywhere else for that matter), the attempt to correlate acts of terror with foreign policy decisions is a non-starter. Russia is no exception in this regard.

Staying the course 

Even if the Kremlin is more or less indemnified from public outrage, will Putin feel compelled to prove to IS or the Russian people that such attacks will not go unanswered?

For now, Flight 9268 will likely facilitate Putin’s pre-existing goals in the Levant rather than spawn new ones.

Video: New Russian Airstrikes against ISIS Terrorists in Syria

New Russian Airstrikes against ISIS Terrorists in Syria

Putin’s primary strategic goal remains securing Russia’s military foothold in the region while dictating any forthcoming political settlement, ideally with Assad still in power.  As early as 2012, Syrian expert Fabrice Balanche propopsed that “Russia and Iran can support an Alawite state on the coast, like [Russia’s support for] Abkhazia in Georgia.”

Ultimately, Russia only needs to secure about 20 percent of Syria to achieve its aims, though any additional territory would be a bonus.

An extended campaign against IS would likely run counter to those strategic goals, though Putin would remain amenable to forming his proposed “anti-Hitler Coalition” in Syria in exchange for a range of concessions from the West, including a lifting of Ukrainian-related sanctions.

Meanwhile, the need to look strong and reaffirm to the Russian public that the terrorist strike will not go unpunished, while simultaneously not risking a more serious ground campaign, can be accomplished with the help of state media.

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Despite the perceived need for vengeance, there is really no litmus test for retribution. How many televised airstrikes, how many glitzy graphs detailing the number of terrorists killed would be needed to sate the Russian public?

As it stands, an estimated 88 percent of Russians receive their news via a largely state-controlled medium (television). This gives the Kremlin carte blanche to create its own Syrian realities for the public —something it has clearly been doing from the outset.

Of course, if additional terrorist strikes against soft targets are forthcoming, or if zinc coffins start piling up in Sevastopol, public sentiment could eventually push Putin’s hand. But even in the event that cutting and running became politically expedient, Putin would neither have to deal with a critical media or viable political opposition in executing a Syrian volte face. Turn on the television, and whatever message the Kremlin needs to tell will be told. That will be true for the Sinai crash; that will be true for whatever comes to pass in Syria.

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“L ‘enfer, c’est les autres” 

William Echols

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Blood was still wet on the theatre floor; guns trained on other human beings and extinguishing life after life with clinical efficiency. Rock and roll joie de vivre ripped apart by heavy metal; lives ravaged by hate.

Four had already died in twin suicide bombings at the Stade de France. One hundred shell casings steaming on the pavements at Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge.

Death showers at the corner of Rue Fontaine au Roi and Rue Faubourg du Temple; at Rue de Charonne; at Comptoir Voltaire.  Is this not the heart of terror; to instill fear in millions with the deaths of dozens?  But before the dust had settled, before the last drop of blood was to be spilt — the last spark of life to be extinguished through the last rites of the death cult — social media was ablaze with a sanctimonious fire that was all about the self but unburdened by righteousness.

It was not difficult to imagine, reading such torturous words, the wild eyes reflected in the halcyon glow of monitors around the world; appropriating the ongoing tragedy to their pet causes, petty resentments and private well springs of hate.  Autacoidal anger paints irises black; drips down their tongues, their fingers; keyboards turned the color of ink ponds at midnight — transparent optical fibers glowing red with rage.

When just over three dozen deaths had been confirmed, Julian Assange tweeted to some imagined enemy in his fevered mind that it’s “not so funny now, is it”, as if anyone had ever been laughing.

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Across the Atlantic and political spectrum, a motley crew of US conservatives were emitting the collective hate of America the resentful; a miasma of guns, muslims, migrants, trigger words and other assorted grievances of the perpetually aggrieved

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And some in Russia, whose national psyche has been transmogrified by the distilled venom of angry white insecure Christian rage and fallen-great power resentment; where empathy escaped finding its way into the cultural fabric, channeled the rhetorical wretch of Fox News through its own cyrillic script.

France, through its orgy of tolerance, its position as the epicenter of Gayropa, its failed foreign policy in Syria, had brought this on itself. It’s never too early to say I told you so, even if people are still choking on their own blood. “That’s what you get for thinking you’re better than other people”, they argue from a place of unattenuated moral, cultural, intellectual and/or spiritual superiority.  Yes, that is what you get.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian activists were attempting to appropriate dead Parisian bodies for their own “battle against terrorism.”  Some said what is happening in Paris right now (as in RIGHT NOW) happens in Eastern Ukraine everyday.  No, no it doesn’t.

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And then the half-cocked actuaries of human life; the whataboutists peddling their fallacies of relative privation, the bean counters of Eros and Thanatos.  Dyed-in-the-wool individualists using leftist reductionism to advocate some sliding scale of collective punishment for that vast abstraction of life that, unlike them, is formless.  The “this isn’t about religion” religious monsters viewing ISIS and French society as coequal.

No end of the ideological spectrum, it seems, offered shelter from the madness.  No permutation of political thought was not a prism through which to penn political poison; no strand pulled from the binding force of “religio” free from getting caught up in the noose.

For behind religion and politics, there is nothing more than people.  And for many,  no matter what flag they flag, be it black or white, nothing trumps the need for narcissistic self-satisfaction.  For solipsists in a social media age, death through political or religious violence is little more than a sacrifice on the alter of failed ideals.  If only they had listened to you…TO YOU!

During the 1960s, the phrase “the personal is political” became a second-wave feminist rallying cry of awareness, a rhetorical means of connecting the dots between personal experience and the structures, political and otherwise, in which we live and interact.

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But one could also flip the subject and predicate: “The political is personal.” Politics is so often a proxy for some other deep-seated trauma.  World events and the lives and deaths of other people become nothing more than the ammunition for sublimated rage and humiliation; political ideologies another way of asserting dominance for those who have refractorily wrestled with their sense of subjugation.

For many, the orgy of murder in Paris was reconceptualized as another hammer to strike out at the world with, a world which had fallen short of their own normative values of justice.  Beyond politics, beyond nationalities, beyond religion, to see a person’s neurosis is to understand why, time and time again, many were unable to connect with those who were actually dying in that moment.

From node after node of self-contained bubbles battling along the front lines of intersection, there is no room for quiet moments of reflection on lives that were very much like yours.  A warrior for humanity couldn’t find a split second to not keep score.  A cross carrier was more focused on taking oblique shots at everyone and everything he hates.  A secularist dipping his quill into a dead man’s guts to scriven 140 characters in crimson on the inappropriateness of  requesting prayer in an avowedly secular society.

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Yes, after Friday night, the words of Sartre rang more truly than ever: “Hell is other people.”

Pray for Paris? Pray for us all.

The Sinai crash; the fog of war

William Echols

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Having written Sinai Plane Crash Could Cast Dark Shadow on Kremlin, I played off of an idea that media portrayals of Russian military action within Syria had become the next great reality show.

Subsequently, what could be conceptualized as blowback, the alleged downing of the Metrojet Airbus A32, is not part of the script.  Now, a few points are in order. First, I categorically reject any implication that Russia deserved this attack.  Nothing I write is intended to be conceptualized as an ‘I told you so’.  Beyond philosophical arguments on the legitimized right of violence (state vs. non-state actors), the death of civilians through terrorism or errant bombs is an unmitigated wrong.

Perhaps one can differentiate morally between targeting civilians and the wholly dehumanizing notion of ‘collateral damage’.  Intention does matter. But death is death.

Ultimately, the use of military force by nature entails morally reprehensible action. That political and military leaders are forced (or merely choose) to engage in a certain utilitarianism regarding human life is by its very nature unsettling.

The rubric laid out by the School of Salamanca’s specific brand of just war theory, especially regarding moral limits to action, reads like common sense.  And yet we are so often senseless.

Even the best conducted war is a dance with the devil.  It’s human killing humans, often over how their imagined meanings clash in the ether with each other.  At it’s heart, it’s madness.

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We first go astray when we forget it’s madness, when we think there can be something just or honorable about factions of humanity organizing en masse to kill each other.  Even when we are merely there to defend the weak and powerless from ethnic cleansing, we should not lose sight of the insanity of it all.  It’s the only thing that may keep us sane.

One should never forget that even just causes have their dangers.  To battle some form of evil incarnate — a death cult in a desert, or perhaps in the mountains — with foreign gods in his heart and the Tower of Babel on his tongue, can give us a sense of being too comfortable in our action.  We can allow the presumed or actual pathology of another’s ideas, to strip them of their humanity, to revel in good vs. bad binaries.

Our righteousness cannot allow us to create a hierarchy of human life; a pretext to whitewash one’s own sins.

Maybe righteousness means stopping the rape and slaughter of women; the beheading of infidels,  the burning of pilots.  Maybe it simply means your right to another man’s land. Maybe it means both. But when we don’t do body counts, we may find ourselves unknowingly wrapped up in a blanket of death; the fog of war impenetrably black.

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During an interview with Andrei Babitsky, the veritable Chechen angel of Death Shamil Basayev had these haunting words to say following the Beslan tragedy:

“Officially, over 40,000 of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone saying anything about that?…Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which through its silent approval gives a ‘yes’ [gives its consent].”

Basayev’s siren song of retributive justice is a familiar one; his appeal to collective punishment seductive.  Through complacency, do we not all, on some level, give our tacit consent when we are silent in the face of government crimes?  Is it not merely convenient for governments to cynically follow Augustine’s own just war dictum, that states are the only legitimate initiators of wide-scale force?

When they kill our children but conceptualize it as something else other than murder, who says we cannot do the same thing?  And, after all, did not the US bomb Afghanistan for the same reason; did not Russia initiate the Second Chechen War the spill blood for blood spilt?  They will all suffer for the sins of the prodigal son, even, as was possibly the case in Chechnya, it wasn’t even his sins.

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Of course, this appeal to abstraction is intended to divorce intent from action.  A police officer attempting to shoot a gunman on a college campus and accidentally killing a student is not morally equivalent to the gunmen himself targeting students. But sadly, many states have been wiling to use indiscriminate violence in war. Sometimes indiscriminate violence is a tactic.  The leveling of Grozny was policy, not collateral damage.  But that does not justify a free fall into the darkness.

If non-state actors use violence to resist oppressive states, by abandoning any belief in the sanctity of life, they de facto delegitimize their causes.  Merely appealing to tribalism: ‘we value our lives more than yours lives’, will not stop the descent into madness. Any cause should necessarily be humanitarian.  To abandon humanity is to abandon any cause to fight. Because if violence is not, as paradoxically as it seems, used to stop aggression against human life, it is simply being used as a tool to support an ultimately far less valuable abstraction (religious, political or otherwise.) No abstraction trumps human life.

A man carries a wounded girl who survived what activists say was an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Assad in Aleppo's al-Ansari al-Sharqi neighborhood

You cannot compartmentalize human life within a stratified sense of value based on cultural and intellectual considerations.  That so many revolutions have resulted in even more repressive regimes replacing the ones they were fighting against is a testament to the notion that creating a hierarchy of life is a failed strategy.  You will ultimately throw out the baby with the bathwater.

So no, Russia did not deserve this any more than the US deserved 9/11 or the UK deserved 7/7. But in Russia, the West and beyond, when we willfully buy into nationalistic orgies of violence, sanitized of the consequences of war through slick editing and feel good media-product packaging, we are abandoning our own humanity.  Even in just wars, we cannot separate our actions, even righteous actions, from their consequences. Being right is not a panacea against guilt or shame.  Any attempt to insulate ourselves form that reality is laying the foundations for future wars. And their will be wars. But there should never be any illusion of the full scope of what we are embarking on, even in the best of circumstances. Otherwise, far more ignoble action will find fertile breeding grounds.

That is a hard circle to square.  Maybe there has never been a truly just war; maybe we have to live with just-enough. And just enough is harder to come by than you think.

The regime of Bashar Al-Assad has been indiscriminately dropping barrel bombs on civilians for years. Russia is now using military force to prop up his regime. And now 224 are dead, at least 25 of them children. An eye for an eye? No. A blind man in the desert blocking out the light. And then the cold sets in…

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