Russiagate: Much ado about zilch

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Leonid Brezhnev: Democratic role model?

Cas Mudde, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, had an interesting news analysis about Russiagate recently at the otherwise execrable Guardian website.  It managed to make two all-important points in less than 800 words.

One concerned the nature of the investigation.  Rather than an objective, unbiased inquiry into foreign meddling, it argues that Russiagate is nothing less than an effort at regime change.  Since Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s much-ballyhooed Feb. 16 indictment of thirteen Russian individuals and three Russian corporations, Mudde wrote, “social and traditional media have exploded with speculations about the next step, because, in the end, the only question everyone really seems to care about is whether Donald Trump was involved – and can therefore be impeached for treason.  Democratic party leaders once again reassured their followers that this was the next logical step in the inevitable downfall of Trump.”

The purpose of Russiagate is thus not to get at the truth, but to toss out a legally elected US president.  This makes it no different from the US-backed putsch against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.  Mudde’s other point, however, is that, unlike the Ukraine, the dump-Trump movement is going nowhere because it lacks the requisite political support.  To be sure, 53 percent of Americans said in a recent poll that exposing Russian meddling should be a top or at least an important priority.  But as impressive as that may seem, Mudde points out that it is substantially less than the 75 percent who assign the same importance to fixing healthcare, the 74 percent who believe that infrastructure investment is a must, the 65 percent who think that the financial system needs straightening out, and  so on.  Democrats are expending vast energy on an issue that voters regard as second-rate.

Mudde clearly thinks that Dems should get their priorities straight and concentrate on the things that count, a belief that this blog does not regard as quite so self-evident.  So let’s re-examine these two points from an anti-Democratic, plague-on-both-your-houses viewpoint and see where they lead.

First, regime change.  Hillary Clinton could have blamed any number of things for her 2016 loss.  Since she carried the popular vote by nearly three million, she could have attacked the Electoral College as an eighteenth-century relic that should have been fixed ages ago.  She could have attacked FBI Director James Comey for re-opening the investigation into her misplaced emails just two weeks prior to the vote.  She could even have blamed herself for not campaigning in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, the three states that narrowly put her opponent over the edge.  But instead she blamed Russia.  As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes put it in their bestseller Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign:

“That strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech.  [Campaign manager Robby] Mook and [campaign chairman John] Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up.  For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public.  Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument” (p. 396).

But why Russia?  The answer is that for a divided and dysfunctional party, there was no other way out.  Russia is America’s chief competitor on the international scene; hence, an anti-Kremlin campaign was a way of overcoming the party’s divisions by projecting them onto a foreign rival.  It was a means of sidestepping the issues that have split the Dems down the middle, starting with HRC’s 40-year record of support for US imperial adventures from the Nicaraguan Contras on.

So Democrats decided to run with it.  Obviously, they had no hope of actually convicting Trump of treason.  But they counted on a steady drip, drip, drip of evidence to either drive him out of office or cripple him until the midterm elections, at which point they would move in for the kill.

But there was a problem.  Not only is there zero evidence of treason – which the Constitution defines as nothing less than “levying war” against the United States (Art. III, sec. 3) – but there is no sign of even lesser forms of collusion.  As even the Christopher Steele dossier admits, Trump’s efforts to do business in Russia were unsuccessful while there is no evidence of Russians using bank loans, sex tapes, or any other items either to cultivate him or compel him to do their bidding.  To the contrary, his admiration for Putin as a fellow tough-talking nationalist seems to be entirely unforced.  He looks up to him as a Russia-firster who ran circles around Obama, Clinton, and John Kerry in the Ukraine and Middle East and therefore as someone worthy of emulation.

This is why months of screaming headlines have come to naught — because there’s no “there” there.  The latest indictments are a case in point.  Not only do they describe an operation that was even more inept and amateurish than skeptics had imagined, but they notably fall short of establishing a connection with either the Kremlin or the Trump campaign.

After nine months of labor, Mueller has brought forth a mouse.  So Mudde is right: what started out as a no-brainer has turned into an all-but-certain loser.  As for his point about the widening gap between the Democratic elite and the broader electorate, the situation is even direr than he imagines.  It calls to mind what a smart French sociologist named Emmanuel Todd said about the Soviets back in the 1970s:

“Certain ruling groups, because of the way they are organized, seem to develop a mentality which is irredeemably stupid.  They are totally unconscious of the nature of social relations of which they form a part.  Bureaucratic organizations strongly encourage indifference to the fate of the masses, because they depersonalize the relations of economic exploitation. …  Structurally induced stupidity is generally manifested in the odious behavior of the privileged toward the exploited, during a prerevolutionary period.  Afterwards, one speaks of the blindness of the class which was overthrown.”  (The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere [New York: Karz, 1979], 130.]

Todd was not just slinging insults.  The Soviet bureaucracy was exhausted by the Brezhnev years.  Socialism had fallen by the wayside, and, as a consequence, the “apparatus” had no idea what to do with itself, what its historical mission might be, or even why it existed at all.  It was indifferent to the fate of the masses because it was socially and ideologically cut off and therefore incapable of attending to anyone’s concerns other than its own.  Stupidity did not flow from the individual, but from the system as a whole – hence, it was “structurally induced.”

How different are today’s Democrats?  America’s 230-year-old political system is also exhausted.  The House is distorted by gerrymandering while the Senate is the most malapportioned major legislative body in the putative democratic world.  (Thanks to the principle of equal state representation, the 53 percent of the US that lives in the ten most populous states has the same voting power as the three percent that lives in the ten least,)  Two of the last five presidential elections have been stolen thanks to the Electoral College while the judiciary is firmly in the hands of conservatives dedicated to the principle of original intent.  (Where Evelyn Waugh once complained that Tories always promise to turn back the clock but never do, the US Supreme Court is proving him wrong.)  Yet even though a structural overhaul is long overdue, the problem is unfixable thanks to an amending clause that allows thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the country to veto any repair, no matter how minor.

Nothing can be done.  As result, today’s Democrats stumble through the motions not unlike the Brezhnevites of the 1970s.  They pretend to fight Trump while the base pretends to care.  Given that the integuments that once held the system together have long since frayed, the two layers are heading off in opposite directions.  While Hillary Clinton’s summers in a $29-million house in the Hamptons next door to Harvey Weinstein and her daughter rakes in a hefty salary heading up the family foundation, the sons and daughters of those who voted for her are sent off to fight in meaningless wars in the Middle East.

No one cares because “structurally induced” stupidity doesn’t permit them to care.  Instead, it locks them in a system of induced atomization in which the only “realistic” option is to look out for number one.  Trump is stronger than ever, the bogus “resistance” is collapsing, while Democratic prospects for the midterm elections are looking none too bright.  In other words, events are following their expected course.

 

The New York Times goes to war

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NYT Edit Page Editor James Bennet: Trump in league with a hostile power.

American politics are in a trough.  The Trump administration has passed the one-year mark while midterm elections are still nine months off.  So there’s nothing for Congress and the press to do for the moment other than snipe, complain, and engage in intricate maneuvers on Capitol Hill.  The result is a steady state of boring, low-level hysteria.  Typically, Trump will do, say, or tweet something that rouses liberals to a fury.  They’ll then scream and shout that they can’t stand it anymore before going back to sleep for a day or two until the next outrage occurs.  Tweet, scream, repeat.  It’s a mindless cycle that promises to go absolutely nowhere.

Indeed, Trump sometimes doesn’t have to do anything at all to get the ball rolling.  An example occurred Tuesday when Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and other intelligence heavyweights appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify about Russian cyber meddling.  Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Democratic tech magnate from Virginia, led the charge:

“What we’re seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions.  And they’re going to keep coming at us.  Despite all this, the president inconveniently continues to deny the threat posed by Russia.  He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so.  He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern.  This threat I believe demands a whole of government response and that response needs to start with leadership at the top.”

Next up was Coats: “Frankly, the United States is under attack….  While Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea pose the greatest cyber threats, other nation states, terrorist organizations, transnational criminal organizations, and ever more technically capable groups and individuals use cyber operations to achieve strategic and malign objectives.  Some of these actors, including Russia, are likely to pursue even more aggressive cyber attacks with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances.  Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy, sow discord, and undermine our values.”

And so on for more than two hours.  No evidence was offered, no facts presented, merely faith-based assertions that the Kremlin is “engaged in a coordinated attack to undermine our democracy,” as Warner put it, and that something must therefore be done.

But notice that it wasn’t anything Trump said or did that set Warner off, but what he didn’t, i.e. the fact that he didn’t tweet, didn’t impose sanctions, and didn’t display that the requisite remorse that he’s in the Oval Office and Saint Hillary isn’t.  For Warner, this amounts to a failure of “leadership at the top.”  Warner, whose presidential ambitions are well known, seemed saddened by it all.  The New York Times seemed concerned.  As it worriedly noted in the next day’s news story:

“The warnings were striking in their contrast to President Trump’s public comments.  He has mocked the very notion of Russian meddling in the last election and lashed out at those who suggested otherwise.”

How disturbing.  Bad as this was, a follow-up editorial on Thursday was even worse.  Entitled “Why Does Trump Ignore Top Officials’ Warnings on Russia?,” it began by declaring: “No one knows more about the threats to the United States than” Coats, Wray, Pompeo, et al., “so when they all agree, it would be derelict to ignore their concerns.  Yet President Trump continues to refuse to even acknowledge the malevolent Russian role

But of course Trump refuses to acknowledge Russia’s role – presuming it even exists – since doing so would mean agreeing that he was illegitimately elected.  This strange refusal to place his own head on the chopping block proves that he’ more illegitimate than ever.

The Times flailed away at the president for failing “to confront an insidious problem that strikes at the heart of the democratic system,” which is to say Russian interference, and for refusing “to impose sanctions for election meddling and aggression against Ukraine.”  It thus blames Trump for refusing to escalate an international conflict that is already dangerously out of control.  Then came climax.  Why has Trump failed to act?  “Some have said he is giving Russia a green light to tamper with the 2018 elections,” the editorial concluded.  “That would have once been an absurd suggestion.  It can no longer be dismissed out of hand.”

Trump, you see, has invited Russia to mount a hostile takeover of US democracy.  It’s no longer out of the question that he’s helping a foreign power to wage war against his own country.  That’s means he’s not just a lousy president, but something far worse.

How seriously are we to take over-the-top rhetoric like this?  After all, it’s the winter doldrums when politicians and editorial writers will say anything to stave off the boredom.  But the answer, unfortunately, is that it’s worth taking seriously indeed — very seriously.  It’s rather like Trump’s absurd sabre rattling toward North Korea.  It may not result in an actual shooting war now.  But it will eventually if he keeps at it long enough.

Calling Trump a traitor obviously makes the Times feel good about itself.  It makes it feel like it’s doing something – speaking truth to power and all that.  But the effect is to undermine democracy as much as anything done or said by Trump.  After all, a traitor is not someone you vote out of office, but someone you take outside and shoot.  Accusing the president of acting in concert with a hostile foreign power means that the time for talk is over and that moment has come to pick up the gun.  The more the American system breaks down, the more US society is beginning to resemble the antebellum period when the only way to resolve a constitutional deadlock over slavery was via civil war.  Is this really where the Times wants to go?

Mea culpa

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Fasten your seatbelts, America.  You’re in for a bumpy night.

Plainly, I’ve let this blog lapse for far too long.  The  United States seemed to be a stable place when I started it back in 2014.  To be sure, foreign policy was disintegrating at a rapid clip, particularly in Syria.  But all seemed more or less normal at home.  Barack Obama’s approval rating by the end of the year was a respectable 48 percent, Hillary Clinton was living quietly in Chappaqua, Bernie Sanders was an obscure senator from Vermont, while Donald Trump was still a hugely entertaining buffoon whom no one took seriously.

 

Since then, a few things have changed.  Obama is writing his memoirs and giving speeches on Wall Street, Clinton is in semi-exile, Sanders is gearing up for 2020, and instead of holding forth on “The Apprentice,” Trump now does so from the Oval Office.  Politics have cratered, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle where idiots like Adam Schiff and Chuck Schumer have passed the GOP on the right when it comes to beating the drums for a new Cold War with Russia.  The infighting on Capitol Hill has intensified as Republicans charge their opponents with attempting to drive Trump from office and liberals fire back that anyone saying any such thing is clearly on the Kremlin payroll.  While no one knows where all this will end, the one certainty is that the breakdown can only intensify.

 

All of which is perfectly in keeping with my thesis, first propounded in my 1996 book, The Frozen Republic, that America’s 1787 constitutional arrangement has entered the last stages of senility and that a massive overhaul is both overdue and impossible under anything resembling present circumstances.  Only a clean sweep will do, one proceeding from the assumption that the Constitution is hopelessly out of date along with the ideological assumptions behind it.  If history has an iron rule, it’s that change is unstoppable and that any attempt to halt the process only insures that it will be all the more radical when it finally arrives.  Yet this is just what the US has attempted to do by tying society up in a constitutional straitjacket for close to a quarter of a millennium.  Now that the arrangement is coming undone, we will all have a chance to see what happens when the old rules collapse and society is forced to begin again from scratch.

 

There is much to explore here, e.g. the relationship between political structure and economics, the role of law amid a growing constitutional breakdown, and so on.  Meanwhile, we can all sit back and watch as the gaudy spectacle unfolds.  Will Trump fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller?  Or will Mueller save his own neck by forgetting about Russiagate and charging former FBI Director James Comey with perjury by falsely introducing the famous Steele dossier as evidence before a federal court?  How long before the war of nerves in Washington leads to fighting in the streets?  And what will the effect of a growing blowout on Wall Street?  (Hint: it can only cause the crisis to intensify.

 

Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night….

 

Charlie Hebdo and Blowback

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

There’s been a bit of Internet chatter lately about the Charlie Hebdo and Porte-de-Vincennes attacks as false flag operations by intelligence agents eager to poison relations with France’s Muslim community and pave the way for deeper intervention in the Middle East.  After all, the French police had the Kouachi brothers under surveillance for years, one of them (Chérif) had been arrested for attempting to bust an Islamic militant out of jail, while Amedy Coulibaly actually met with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009. So who can’t help feeling a mite suspicious? The fact that all three have since been “liquidated” seems to clinch it for certain types of conspiratorialists. Since dead men tell no tales, it seems we will never know who really put Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers up one of the most sensational crimes since 9/11.

But there’s a problem with scenarios like this since they assume that intelligence agencies are masterminds effortlessly manipulating events behind the scene.  But as we know from repeated intelligence foul-ups from the Bay of Pigs to the Edward Snowden affair, these people are the kind of royal screw-ups who couldn’t put together a two-car funeral.  Not that it’s entirely their fault, though.  The real incompetence lies further up the food chain where imperial leaders have promised different things to different people and are in quandary now that the bills are coming due.

Take for example an article that Aaron David Miller, vice president of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Center, published recently on The Wall Street Journal website.  Entitled, “Why the U.S. Prefers Assad to ISIS in Syria,” it argued that Obama has decided that leaving Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power is the least-bad option since removing him would effectively turn the country into a jihadi state:

Islamic State would take over its first major Arab capital, and recruitment would skyrocket.  Alawites and other minorities would flee, further stressing neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, which are already burdened with refugees.

 

Syria, moreover, would turn  into a launching pad for attacks on neighboring states — Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and most especially Saudi Arabia, a nightmare society that I think is just an inch or so away from collapse.

So Miller is correct – the idea of an ISIS state in the middle of the Levant staggers the imagination.  But while he’s right about ISIS, he’s wrong about Obama.  Rather than leaving Assad in place, the U.S. has merely decided to kick the can down the road, putting off his removal to some future date when Washington will be in a better position to dictate the terms of a post-Baathist government and see to it that a compliant pro-American (and pro-Israeli) regime takes control.

Indeed, the same day that Miller’s article ran on the WSJ website, an excellent piece by Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum ran on the newspaper’s front page describing how the U.S. is following a two-pronged strategy aimed at pushing ISIS out of Iraq but merely bottling it up in Syria.  “Certainly ISIS has been able to expand in Syria, but that’s not our main objective,” Nissenbaum quoted an unnamed “senior defense official” as stating.  “I wouldn’t call Syria a safe haven for ISIL, but it is a place where it’s easier for them to organize, plan and seek shelter than it is in Iraq.”

In other words, Syria is a safe haven for ISIS, a place where it can regroup and expand its territorial control, as Nissenbaum makes clear.  The article adds that “U.S. strategy in Syria is also constrained by a reluctance to tip the balance of power toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting Islamic State and other rebels.”  Washington wishes ISIS would leave its client government in Baghdad alone, but at the same time it wants ISIS to keep the heat on the Baathists in Damascus.  It is thus using ISIS to keep Assad on the defensive — to soften him up until the time is ripe to finish him off.

Although some might see this as some sort of fine-tuned policy-making, it’s really a case of driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake.  Obama is torn.  He’s frightened of what will happen if Assad goes and frightened of what the Republicans and Hillaryites will say in Washington — not to mention the Saudis in Riyadh — if he stays.  So his response is to straddle, allowing ISIS to enjoy a little R&R in Syria, leaving Assad in office in Damascus a little while longer, and promising to train some 3,000 “moderate” rebels under Saudi auspices to insert in the Syrian battlefield as soon as the right moment comes.

But the results are disastrous.  ISIS is growing stronger, the addition of several thousand Wahhabist troops can only add to the combustibility, while the violence continues to overflow into other countries — as the recent carnage in Paris shows.  The idea that the violence can be contained in Syria is ludicrous.  When veterans of the Saudi-backed fighting return to their families, they do not leave their jihadist doctrines behind.  To the contrary, they take them with them.

The upshot has been a growing “Syrianization” of the banlieues complete with radical imams spewing hatred at all and sundry, extremist camps and schools, and ISIS-style attacks on everyone from freethinkers like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to religious minorities like the Jews.  Yet François Hollande is just as paralyzed as his mentor Obama, declaring war on Islamic fundamentalism while at the same time siding with the Saudis, the ultimate jihadist state, in its efforts to overthrow one of the few secular regimes left standing in the Middle East.  The civil war can only intensify in its latest venue.

Although Chérif and Saïd Kouachi never got an opportunity to fight in Syria and Iraq, they reportedly rubbed shoulders with mujahideen who did.  But Chérif did succeed in traveling to Yemen, an other war-torn society in which the U.S. is also playing both sides of the fence, i.e. bombing Al Qaeda militants while at the same time joining with the Saudis in backing local Wahhabists in their fight against Shi‘ite insurgents known as Houthis  Since Wahhabists and Al Qaeda are often difficult to tell apart, Saudi money has wound up flowing to both, with little or no protest from the Americans as far as anyone can discern.

Benefiting from both U.S. and Saudi largesse, Chérif Kouachi used the money and training provided by the Wahhabists and Al Qaeda to assemble his little venture against Charlie Hebdo.  This doesn’t make it a black flag operation, but, rather, a classic case of blowback.  After financing Islamic-fundamentalist violence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other placesl, the U.S. and its allies can hardly be surprised that it is now washing up in Paris.

Waiting for Santy

The great S.J. Perelman

The great S.J. Perelman

Jacobin’s mock-Marxist analysis of Santa’s North Pole sweatshop was pretty good, but I think S.J. Perelman did it much better back in 1936: 

WAITING FOR SANTY

A CHRISTMAS PLAYLET

(With a Bow to Mr. Clifford Odets)

Scene: The sweatshop of S. Claus, a manufacturer of children’s toys, on North Pole Street.  Time: The night before Christmas.

At rise, seven gnomes, Rankin, Panken, Rivkin, Riskin, Ruskin, Briskin, and Praskin, are discovered working furiously to fill orders piling up at stage right.  The whir of lathes, the hum of motors, and the hiss of drying lacquer are so deafening that at times the dialogue cannot he heard, which is very vexing if you vex easily.  (Note: The parts of Rankin, Panken, Rivkin, Riskin, Ruskin, Briskin, and Praskin are interchangeable, and may be secured directly from your dealer or the factory. )

Riskin (filing a Meccano girder, bitterly)— A parasite, a leech, a bloodsucker— altogether a five-star nogoodnick!  Starvation wages we get so he can ride around in a red team with reindeers!

Ruskin (jeering) —Hey, Karl Marx, whyn’tcha hire a hall?

Riskin (sneering)— Scab!  Stool pigeon!  Company spy!  (They tangle and rain blows on each other.  While waiting for these to dry, each returns to his respective task.)

Briskin (sadly, to Panken)— All day long I’m painting “Snow Queen” on these Flexible Flyers and my little Irving lays in a cold tenement with the gout.

Panken— You said before it was the mumps.

Briskin (with a fatalistic shrug)— The mumps— the gout— go argue with City Hall.

Panken (kindly, passing him a bowl)— Here, take a piece fruit.

Briskin (chewing) —It ain’t bad, for wax fruit.

Panken (with pride)— I painted it myself.

Briskin (rejecting the fruit)— Ptoo!  Slave psychology!

Rivkin (suddenly, half to himself, half to the Party) — I got a belly full of stars, baby.  You make me feel like I swallowed a Roman candle.

Praskin (curiously)— What’s wrong with the kid?

Riskin— What’s wrong with all of us?  The system!  Two years he and Claus’s daughter’s been making googoo eyes behind the old man’s back.

Praskin— So what?

Riskin (scornfully)— So what?  Economic determinism!  What do you think the kid’s name is— J. Pierpont Rivkin?  He ain’t even got for a bottle Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic.  I tell you, it’s like gall in my mouth two young people shouldn’t have a room where they could make great music.

Rankin (warningly)— Shhh!  Here she comes now!  (Stella Claus enters, carrying a portable phonograph.  She and Rivkin embrace, place a record on the turntable, and begin a very slow waltz, unmindful that the phonograph is playing “Cohen on the Telephone.”)

Stella (dreamily)— Love me, sugar?

Rivkin— I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, that’s how I love you.  You’re a double malted with two scoops of whipped cream; you’re the moon rising over Mosholu Parkway; you’re a two weeks’ vacation at Camp Nitgedaiget!  I’d pull down the Chrysler Building to make a bobbie pin for your hair!

Stella— I’ve got a stomach full of anguish.  Oh, Rivvy, what’ll we do?

Panken (sympathetically)— Here, try a piece fruit.

Rivkin (fiercely)— Wax fruit— that’s been my whole life! Imitations! Substitutes!  Well, I’m through!  Stella, tonight I’m telling your old man.  He can’t play mumblety-peg with two human beings!  (The tinkle of sleighbells is heard offstage, followed hy a voice shouting, “Whoa, Dasher! Whoa, Dancer.”  A moment later S. Claus enters in a gust oi mock snow.  He is a pompous bourgeois of sixty-five who affects a white beard and a false air of benevolence.  But tonight the ruddy color is missing from his cheeks, his step falters, and he moves heavily.  The gnomes hastily replace the marzipan they have been filching.)

Stella (anxiously)— Papa!  What did the specialist say to you?

Claus (brokenly)— The biggest professor in the country … the best cardiac man that money could buy … I tell you I was like a wild man.

Stella— Pull yourself together, Sam!

Claus— It’s no use.  Adhesions, diabetes, sleeping sickness, decalcomania— oh, my God!  I got to cut out climbing in chimneys, he says— me, Sanford Claus, the biggest toy concern in the world!

Stella (soothingly)— After all, it’s only one man’s opinion.

Claus— No, no, he cooked my goose.  I’m like a broken uke after a Yosian picnic.  Rivkin!

Rivkin— Yes, Sam.

Claus— My boy, I had my eye on you for a long time.  You and Stella thought you were too foxy for an old man, didn’t you?  Well, let bygones be bygones.  Stella, do you love this gnome?

Stella (simply)— He’s the whole stage show at the Music Hall, Papa; he’s Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Fifth; he’s-

Claus (curtly)— Enough already.  Take him.  From now on he’s a partner in the firm.  (As all exclaim, Claus holds up his hand for silence.)  And tonight he can take my route and make the deliveries.  It’s the least I could do for my own flesh and blood.  (As the happy couple kiss, Claus wipes away a suspicious moisture and turns to the other gnomes.)  Boys, do you know what day tomorrow is?

Gnomes (crowding around expectantly)— Christmas!

Claus— Correct.  When you look in your envelopes tonight, you’ll find a little present from me— a forty-percent pay cut.  And the first one who opens his trap— gets this.  (As he holds up a tear-gas bomb and beams at them, the gnomes utter cries of joy, join hands, and dance around him shouting exultantly.  All except Riskin and Briskin, that is, who exchange a quick glance and go underground. )

CURTAIN

Timothy Snyder does it again

Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder

Best-selling historian Timothy Snyder has posted another screed on The New York Review of Books web site, his first in eight months, and it’s pretty much what readers of his 2010 bestseller Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin would expect: a dangerous farrago of half-truths and non-sequiturs whose purpose, as I pointed out in a detailed analysis in Jacobin a couple of months ago, is to pump up the anti-Russian war fever now sweeping through portions of eastern Europe and the US.

The occasion is a recent comment by Vladimir Putin about the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact.  “The Soviet Union signed a nonaggression treaty with Germany,” the Russian president told a gathering of historians last week.  “People say, ‘Ach, that’s bad.’  But what’s bad about that if the Soviet Union didn’t want to fight?  What’s bad about it?”

Seems like a fair question.  But rather than answering it, Snyder uses it as an excuse to throw in everything from Hitler’s Anschluss to the Russian war of aggression supposedly now underway in the Ukraine.  Where the casual reader might think that Putin was merely defending the pact in a tentative, half-hearted way, Snyder argues that he was attempting nothing less than to “rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began World War II.”  Putin is seeking a symbolic “rapprochement with Nazi Germany” in order to hook up with ultra-rightists bent on Europe’s destruction and, in the process, jettisoning “one of the basic moral foundations of postwar politics: the opposition to wars of aggression in Europe in general and the Nazi war of aggression in 1939 in particular.”  Combining the worst aspects of both Hitler and Stalin, the Russian president thus wishes to turn the clock back to the nightmare years of 1939-41 – or so Snyder’s latest NYRB contribution contends.

All this because of an offhand remark about a 75-year-old treaty.  Based on the flood of excited messages on Twitter, it appears that there are a lot people out there who just lap this stuff up.  But the spin that Snyder puts on Putin’s comments couldn’t be sillier.  To begin with the treaty itself, Putin’s point is far from mistaken.  As repellent as the idea of a military accord with a monster like Hitler might seem, the Soviets had every right to stall for time if it was to their advantage.  This was particularly the case in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement just eleven months earlier when Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier gave Hitler the go-ahead to dismember Czechoslovakia.  The Soviets had offered to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid in the event of a Nazi attack, but the Anglo-French capitulation left Prague no choice but to throw in the towel.  For Stalin, it was a sign that British Tories were giving the Nazis a free hand in the east and that the USSR would henceforth be on its own.  Given their isolation, the Soviets can hardly be blamed for doing whatever was necessary to preserve their fighting capabilities.

Putin was therefore not incorrect as far as he went.  What he did not say, of course, is that if the Soviets not ready for a fight at that point, it was because Stalin had just finished decapitating his own military by executing scores of generals, admirals, and commanders in the Great Terror of 1937-38.  He also neglected to mention that rather than taking advantage of the breathing space to build up his forces, Stalin dropped all mention of anti-fascism and lulled himself into the belief that Hitler’s promises were trustworthy.  The result was one of the greatest blunders in diplomatic history, which is why, when Beria, Mikoyan, and other members of the politburo showed up at Stalin’s dacha eight days later, he assumed that he was about to be arrested and presumably shot.  But since just about everyone already knows how the story things turned out, Putin probably figured that there was no reason to revisit such a painful topic and decided to leave it at that.

Yet Snyder takes a tepid defense of a disastrous 75-year-old treaty and turns it into a blueprint for European conquest.  Stalin wasn’t stalling for time, he now argues, but was actively seeking to turn German forces to the west so that “the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously.”  By defending the 1939 treaty, Putin is making clear his intentions to do the same by hooking up with various elements opposed to European unification: “Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists … [who] wish to bring an end to the current European order.”  Putin, in Snyder’s view, is Stalin without the mustache.

But he’s wrong on both counts.  Stalin was not a grand strategist seeking to bring about the collapse of European capitalism, but a petty and provincial politician chiefly concerned with shoring up defenses in its own backyard, i.e. the Balkans and the Black Sea.  As the Israeli historian Gabriel Gorodetsky notes in the most incisive study of the non-aggression pact to date, his vision extended no farther than that of Pavel Miliukov, the Liberal foreign minister who was Lenin’s archenemy and whose chief concern was maintaining control of the Bosporus.[i]  Contrary to those who see him as an arch-revolutionary, Stalin’s outlook was actually quite backward, which is why he was so unprepared when a real revolutionary like Hitler came along, albeit a revolutionary of the right rather than of the left.

Snyder is no less wrong about Putin.  The man clearly has his authoritarian side.  But rather than a radical rightist out to overturn the western order, he is an old-fashioned conservative struggling to hold things together at home under increasingly adverse circumstances.  Perhaps the biggest problem he faces is not taming the oligarchs or diversifying an oil-dependent economy, but the old nationalities question.  The Soviet Union was not a unified nation-state along French or Italian lines, but a multinational federation consisting of 176 nations and ethnic groups according to the 1926 census, all bound together under the rubric of proletarian internationalism.  Such principles suffered repeated assault and battery during the Stalin years, yet somehow the system still held together. But when it finally came undone in 1989-91, the post-Soviet leadership found itself faced with the problem of what to replace it with.  Since it couldn’t be communism or czarism, it had to be … what?  With NATO and the US encouraging separatists in the Baltic, the Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia, something had to be done to prevent the structure from unraveling.  If Russia had had a better government than the cumbersome bicameral legislative system that Boris Yeltsin foisted on the country during his alcohol-sodden reign, it might have managed the transition more democratically.  But it didn’t, so a drift to some ill-defined authoritarianism was inevitable.

This does not make Putin a fascist, merely a cautious politicians seeking to check such centrifugal tendencies and, in the international arena, return to the balance of power that pertained prior to 1989.  This could change.  Either he could lurch to the right in the event of a major politico-economic breakdown or a real strongman could push him aside, one who is much tougher and harder-edged.  But for now, the best way to describe his actions is as wary and defensive.

This includes his actions in the Ukraine.  Western media reports notwithstanding, Putin did not encourage separatism.  To the contrary, it was Ukrainian nationalists who encouraged it by hoisting the banner of the World War II collaborator Stepan Bandera, notorious for slaughtering not only Jews but tens of thousands of Poles, and pushing to downgrade the Russian language.  Russophone elements in the east responded exactly as blacks would have responded in the US if giant portraits of Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest had suddenly gone up on Capitol Hill and a KKK-led mob had forced Barack Obama to flee the White House — in other words, with fear and outrage.  Russian speakers wanted out of a ramshackle republic that was turning on itself and lurching toward civil war – and who can blame them?  Putin did not invade the Crimea; he already had 25,000 troops there under a 1997 agreement giving him full access to Russian naval facilities in Sevastopol and other areas.  Faced with a mass rebellion on the part of the Crimea’s overwhelmingly Russian-speaking population, he merely bowed down before a fait accompli and cleared the way for union with Russia.

Indeed, the radicalism has been entirely on the other side. The insouciance of the US with regard to the growing fascist presence in the Euromaidan uprising that began last November has been astonishing.  While passing out cookies on the barricades and posing for photos with Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland put out word that all those masked fighters with Wolfsangel insignias on their armbands – the same isignias that the Second SS Panzer Division used to wear, by the way – were of no consequence and that the Russians were wrong even to bring them up.  In his latest post, Snyder similarly turns reality on its head by railing against Russia’s “grotesque claim” of a fascist threat.  If the Russian foreign minister had called for the forcible breakup of the United States, Congress would be resounding with war cries.  Yet when Zbigniew Brzezinski called for breaking up Russia into three separate entities in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, he met with nothing but praise.

The growing hysteria of Snyder and his ilk is further evidence of a deepening radicalization.  His vision of a Russian threat extending all the way to Lisbon is the perfect complement to the Russian fascist Alexander Dugin’s concept of a totalitarian state stretching along Eurasia’s entire northern tier.  One foresees an expansionist Russia pushing steadily to the west and the other an expansionist Europe pushing steadily to the east.

Snyder is also evidence of growing support for what Dovid Katz, in his invaluable website www.defendinghistory.com, calls the theory of a double genocide.  By now an East European orthodoxy, the theory holds that Nazism’s crimes were in no sense singular or unique, but part of a gruesome pas-de-deux in which Stalin’s murderous policies played no less an important role.  The rightwing German historian Ernst Nolte set off a firestorm in the 1980s by arguing that the Nazis “commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed,” i.e. a mass slaughter by Stalin and his Mongol hordes; and now Snyder seems to be saying much the same thing by arguing that Stalin’s crimes somehow paved the way for Hitler’s genocide years later.  As he says of the non-aggression pact in the NYRB blog:

Less than two years later, the Holocaust began in precisely the part of Europe that was dealt with in the secret protocol of the pact.  By 1945 almost all of the millions of Jews who lived in these regions would be dead.  Stalin famously said that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an alliance “signed in blood.”  Much of the blood shed in the lands concerned by the agreement would be that of Jewish civilians.

The pact led to the death of the six million, although precisely how is left unclear.  But the argument is spurious for the simple reason that the Nazis would have slaughtered every Jew they could get their hands on regardless of whether the anti-Soviet war had started in 1939 or 1941.  To be sure, Stalin made Hitler’s job easier by being so criminally unprepared.  But so did FDR by delaying America’s entry into the war by a full 26 months and then repeatedly putting off the opening of a second front.  Does that mean he, too, prepared the way for the Holocaust?

What Snyder is trying to do here is get the Nazis ever so slightly off the hook.  By “relativizing” Nazi crimes in this manner, he makes Hitler seem merely reactive while portraying Stalin as the prime mover.  Since the two tyrants were morally equivalent, as he argues again and again in Bloodlands, Poles, Ukrainians, and others who aided the fascists were no worse than Jews who aided the Soviets.  Either side contributed to what he calls an “escalation of both German and Soviet violence.”  The lesson that growing numbers of East European nationalists take from this is that there is no point prosecuting Nazi war criminals until every last Communist is prosecuted as well, including those Jews who managed to join the Soviet partisans.  Since they fought on behalf of a criminal regime, they must have been criminal, too.  And if Jews persist in hailing them as heroes, then Ukrainian nationalists will feel justified in hailing Stepan Bandera as a hero as well.  Based on Snyder’s “scholarship,” this seems to be the only conclusion one can draw.

[i] Gabriel Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), p. 58.

Daily Beast: Swastikas are “hot” in the new Ukraine

Winston Churchill: Singing the praises of a new Germany in 1933.

Winston Churchill: Singing the praises of a new Germany in 1933.

Russia Insider, a right-of-center web site run by Moscow-based expats, has spotlighted an article in The Daily Beast, which, with amazing loopiness, poses the question, “Why Are Swastikas Hot in the West Ukraine?”  After noting that such images are popping up all over – on military helmets, in party insignias, in demos, etc. – the reporter, Anna Nemtsova, assures us that neo-Nazism has nothing to do with it.  To the contrary, the swastika merely stands for national independence and resistance to Russia.  To be sure, “most nationalist and ultra-right youth organizations in Ukraine today use symbols that millions of Ukrainian citizens associate with the Nazi army.”  But, she says, “one reason, certainly, is that the much longer and very deadly occupation by the Soviets is also a huge part of the national consciousness.”  Given that the Soviet occupation was so much more recent, the old one has thus acquired a certain burnished glow.  “[I]n Lviv,” Nemtsova goes on, “…legislators and the local administration insist the Nazi symbols are not dangerous for the country.”  She quotes a political official declaring, “I don’t care what flags or symbols they use for as long as they fight for Ukraine’s freedom,” and passes along comments by a certain Ostap Stakhiv, the 28-year-old leader of a start-up ultra-right group calling itself Idea of the Nation:

The swastika is a very strong symbol, and as soon as we adopted it, we immediately grew popular among young people.  Those who join us know exactly what they want, and they are ready to go to the very end. …   A yellow swastika on a black field stands for power and spirit.

All this without a hint from Nemtsova that anything is amiss.  So not to worry: the swastikas that nice young Ukrainian nationalists are waving these days have nothing to do with the ones that bad old Nazis used to display. The new ones stand for strength and nationalism whereas the old ones stand for, umm, nationalism and strength.

This is all quite ridiculous, of course. The new swastikas are exactly the same as the old ones.  The reason they’re so popular among Ukrainian nationalists fired up with anti-Russian zeal is that they remind them of the last time the Russians took a good beating, which was at the hands of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in June 1941.  What everyone else remembers as the start of a long nightmare was, from a Ukrainian nationalist perspective, a short-lived period of national liberation.  Since the Nazis were on the side of freedom and patriotism, local rightists welcomed them with open arms, declared a fascist Ukrainian republic in their honor, and then went on a rampage against local Jews just to show that their heart was in the right place.  In Lviv, for example, where the slaughter claimed an estimated seven thousand lives, the killings began as soon as German troops arrived in town on July 1, 1941, and went on for days after.  By displaying the swastika, Ukrainian nationalists are essentially adopting the same logic.  It they don’t specifically endorse the actions that followed, they don’t reject them either.

Not that this is particularly surprising.  When the Euromaidan barricades went up last November, leftists raised the alarm about the prominent role that ultra-rightists were playing in Kiev, only to be dismissed either as hysterics or pro-Russian stooges.  But Nemtsova’s article is one more piece of evidence that the left was correct and that the stooges were entirely on the other side.  The New York Times has written about a growing neo-Soviet trend in the pro-Russian east where people are increasingly nostalgic for the good old U.S.S.R.  But what seems to be happening in the rest of the country, the portion under Austro-Hungarian domination prior to 1918, is an equal and opposite process of neo-fascism, one in which the swastika is more and more popular and the World War II collaborator Stepan Bandera, whose forces slaughtered not only Jews but tens of thousands of Poles, is more and more hailed as a national hero.

Although fascists like the Svoboda Party and Right Sector have gotten most of the attention, the phenomenon is much more widespread.  In 2011, parents with small children waving Ukrainian flags crowded into downtown Kiev to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the German “liberation” while soccer fans have long made a point of taunting opponents from the east by hoisting Bandera’s portrait.  Last week, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s “moderate” president, declared October 14, the day Bandera’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army was founded in 1942, to be “Day of Defender of Ukraine.”  As Alya Shandra, the editor of Euromaidan Press, helpfully explains (in somewhat imperfect English), the purpose of the proclamation is to

go beyond the black-and-white painted by Soviet historiography … by giving room for glorification of forces that fought against Red Army and Soviet powers, such as the army of the Ukrainian People’s republic and the UPA.  Vilified in Soviet times … these military formations [are] gradually getting the appreciation and attention they deserve.  This gains a special meaning nowadays, as thousands of Ukrainian men and women are giving their lives to fight off the regular Russian army invading its East.

 So there you have it.  Contrary to Soviet propaganda, World War II was not all black and white and the Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya, as Bandera’s fighters were known, are finally coming in for a bit of their own. The Ukrainian People’s Republic, led by the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura, is coming in for praise since its forces fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, even if they killed around 50,000 Jews in the process.

A Banderist-Petlyurist state has thus arisen on the banks of the Dnieper, one that vilifies Russians, brands dissidents as “terrorists,” and, according to Human Rights Watch, uses cluster bombs against the civilian population in the east.  As The Times noted, “The army’s use of cluster munitions, which shower small bomblets around a large area, could also add credibility to Moscow’s version of the conflict, which is that the Ukrainian national government is engaged in a punitive war against its own citizens.”

Precisely.  Where the Times once airily dismissed Moscow’s depiction of neo-Nazi running amuck as “caricatures in the Russian media’s fun-house mirror,” it is now forced to backtrack.  This is why pro-Washington shills like Nemtsova are rushing into action, telling readers to pay no attention to the proliferating number of swastikas because they’re really quite benign.

The Daily Beast piece is a joke, but a dangerous joke since the effect is to disarm readers and allow fascism to slip in through the back door.  Neo-Nazism under the impact of the economic crisis is spreading not only in the western Ukraine, but in Hungary, the Baltics, and elsewhere as well.  The more people turn a blind eye to it, the stronger it will grow.  It wasn’t so long ago that nice respectable people thought that fascists were people they could sit down and do business with.  FDR referred to Mussolini in 1933 as “that admirable Italian gentleman” while, less than three weeks after Hitler took power, Winston Churchill was among those singing the praises of a new Germany

with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland.

Eighty years later, The Daily Beast is serenading western leaders as they go down that same garden path, oblivious to the consequences.