We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Apologists for Russian aggression, lies and even lunatic screeds are everywhere. They’ll do about anything to defend Kremlin propaganda. From the infamous “Whataboutism” to “change the subject” or claiming that Ukraine tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 (never mind Putin was in South America) — all their greatest hits are here. Play, won’t you?
Putin’s $51 billion gamble to re-make Russians’ self-image achieves its initial, limited goals. Putin wanted Sochi to sell Russians they’re active participants in the 21st century’s pop culture meme bubble, not just observers. Sochi’s distraction and legitimization will buy crucial time for his regime.
Giving The Russian People A Chance To Escape Today
It’s beyond just Putin individually. His restive elites need him to peddle illusions of Russian global emergence. All have a stake in prolonging the faltering system’s inertia. Russia’s economic growth, once over 8% in the mid 2000s, may not break 1% in 2014. Infighting among self-dealing elites over extractive and infrastructure resources grows more public. Putin’s no longer the axiomatic arbiter. Russia fails to embrace economic innovation to replace dead dinosaurs/gas/oil in the ground. Russia’s future is bleak.
Worse, Putin’s bag of tricks is almost empty. He’s tapped Russia’s Reserve Fund and also guaranteed Sochi expenses. His extravagant but ineffectual re-armament plan forced his earlier Finance Minister, Kudrin, to resign. Putin adds promises for grandiose Soviet-mega projects to develop the desolate and decrepit Far East. His $15 billion bribe to Ukraine in December 2013 drains reserves still more.
It’s understandable the regime naturally turns up the AgitProp. Putin’s State-controlled media is doing everything it can to manufacture artificial “us” versus “them”.
What is the regime promoting? A toxic blend of revanchism added to ethnic and religious chauvinism that trumpets a “Russianness” brutalizing the needy and marginal. Even the Kremlin is concerned about how how to keep this environment sustainable, fearing a slide toward nihilism or spontaneous ‘chaos’ (organization) without something more.
Enter Sochi. Its essential mission — sell Russians that Putin’s noxious mixture is internationally mainstream. Revanchism with a patina of glossy, Daft Punk-loving globalism. The squalor and bigotry of Russian daily life hidden by Euro disco hip sheen.
Why Sochi Is Not Berlin
Comparisons to 1936 and Berlin miss this critical point: Putin needed Sochi because he and Russia are weak. His elites increasingly tempted to think past or through him. 1936 by contrast? The Corporal, 2 years after the famous Nuremberg rally memorialized on film, totally controlled his elites and populace. Germany’s economy boomed.
1936 declared the regime to the world. 2014 asks the world for help to make Putin’s regime look cool.
Of course, global perceptions matter. World leaders boycotting Sochi hurts. But the regime is adept turning real and imagined hurts into daily AgitProp fodder. Watching and reading the regime’s lieutenants and sycophants’ reactions to the games instructive. Not just their unhinged anger over a U.S.-Russia hockey game. Day in and day out while the games unfold the regime can’t mask its true psychology of petty resentment or rages that few Americans will ever see or care to see.
Two questions today: How long will Putin enjoy a post-Sochi halo? And was it worth the cost?
On the latter, our answer is clear. The regime faces a looming, possibly severe crisis at home with a faltering economy. Sochi may help distract by buttressing Russian self-identity and vague global legitimacy. Sochi’s reprieve – if it’s real – for Putin is worth its weight in gold. For a little while.
We’re witnessing another New Romantic historical moment end. We see it wind down in domestic American politics, including L’Affaire Snowden. And in Kiev’s Streets. We turn our gaze from Syrian killing fields. Spontaneous, unorganized mass sentiment failed to create real change anywhere.
1848 Europe’s revolutionary, democratic moment and its lessons come to mind. Europe saw its widest ever democratic revolutionary wave quickly collapse into a Continental reactionary resurgence. Historical analogies should always be suspect, especially here. Yet, we can’t help but ask, “What comes next, now?”
The New Romantics Aren’t A Pop Group
Our last 15 years constitute a Romantic Moment. First it flourished with the Colored Revolutions’ early promise. Even elements of Americans’ manipulated arc in Iraq and Afghanistan floated on misguided sentiment. Mass sentiment erupted in Tehran, ignited the Arab Spring, Syria, rock both Thailand and now Ukraine, again. Obama’s improbable 2008 presidency and aftermath are part of the tableau, too.
Cut to scene: Ed Snowden flees to Hong Kong, spending his 30th birthday there at the Russian consulate. Yet we are told his immediate run to Moscow was both unplanned and caught the Russian government completely by surprise. Some tabulate the cascading coincidences intertwining Snowden and Russian operatives or their known consorts. The sheer weight of incidents is non-trivial.
As with all things, data by itself is not information. The key questions remain unanswered: (i) when did Snowden decide to be an adversary of the U.S. government?; (ii) how did he reach that decision – by himself or did Others recruit or encourage him?; (iii) carrying out his actions, did he have help and from whom?
State of play so far since our last episode. Putin bemoans now being stuck with an unwelcome Christmas present (Snowden). Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia offer Snowden asylum but can’t get him there. The man of the hour meanwhile finally seeks asylum in Russia yet’s vague about ceasing public ‘anti-U.S. activities’, a pre-condition set by Putin.
Greenwald in turn threatens the U.S. with the worst disaster in history should anything ever happen to Snowden – while decrying that people pay too much attention to Snowden. And the U.S. hints about canceling a tete-a-tete with Putin after the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg.
So we ask you to join in our poll:
Events in Boston last week illustrate how technology shapes our personal identity. And how little we understand the process. Boston shows us a foretaste of the new tribalism that relies on ephemeral situations and adrenalin to create a sense of belonging. It will change what it means to be an American.
First, the definitions. We’ll start with new tribalism is an individual’s sense of self, belonging and loyalty. That sense of self is defined by participating in communal activity responding to an ad hoc event or crisis. Here, it’s a new tribe following a terrorist bombing. This new ‘tribe’ is interesting because its values can supplement traditional ones, at least temporarily.
Doubtlessly you are already asking, ‘So is it really new’? In the past, rallies and concerts might be seen as the forerunners to today’s phenomenon. Certainly true of the Party rallies in the 1930s, for example. And the various ideologies of the now trite ‘happenings’ and ‘sit ins’ in the 1960s, as well as mass spectacles of Woodstock, etc.
Pop culture fascination with the covert continues to crest. Under Bush besides the torture porn of ’24’, NCIS began its long run exalting ‘warfighters’ and hierarchical obediance. We endured the Bournes’ editing and celebrated a more brutal Bond.
And it continues. “Homeland” has become a ‘Starbuckian’ touchstone. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” pull crowds. Even lighter, sillier cable fare like the CW’s “Nikita” and USA’s “Burn Notice” name check espionage argot.
So what to make of FX’s new series, “The Americans”? Larval CIA employee Joseph Weisberg (1990-94, no overseas) launched it all. He runs with the 2010 ‘Anna Chapman Spy Ring’ sensationalism but places his ostensibly married Soviet ‘illegal’ couple in Reagan’s 1981 America. The producers add some “Californication”-esque gestures; within the pilot’s first hour the female Soviet spy fellates a hapless presidential confidante, ostentatiously wiping her mouth afterwards and is later shown raped brutally. She also asks said confidante, supra, if he liked her finger up his ass. Quelle shock!
But is it any good?
When credits rolled, we asked “What did we just see?” It’s all preposterous, of course, as it must be. A show survives if it entertains. Here, the team generously drops gratuitous and titillating details to provide a modicum of verisimilitude – beyond say, “Burn Notice”. Yet for all that “The Americans” likely will be a soap opera.
The Soviet husband likes American malls and wants to defect. The wife is fiercely opposed, clinging to a memory of Moscow in 1962. And their kids! Already their young boy seems to have the hots for the next door neighbor’s daughter. Her dad’s an FBI counter-intelligence agent (yes, really). Oh, and there’s a KGB general. He pops up somehow at the end in D.C. to tell the female spy he’s fighting off extremists in Moscow while defending the motherland.
The atmosphere is the show’s real star and asset. Like Miami Vice, the show wants us to notice the music, style and set decorating. The clothes accurately are post 70s muted browns and not the much later, stereotypical big hair, neon and mullets. (Watch for Members Only jackets in future eps). They’ve gone the extra mile recreating 1981 on a basic cable budget. The music from Phil Collins to Pat Benatar is true to that year’s charts. (The only bum note was using The Who’s ‘Eminence Front’ as the FX TV ad campaign, which was from 1982).
Still, atmosphere can carry only so far. A soap opera requires caricatures acting broadly. The show’s premise and conceit point the other way. And nothing suggests ambition to deconstruct the American self-image through the eyes of its Soviet protagonists. Leaving us with what, precisely?
We doubt we’ll stick around after initial novelty dissipates. Aside from name-check fan service, it feels like Oakland, no there, there. (For that matter, we’ve never been able to sit through a re-watching of the recent “Tinker, Tailor” remake; the original BBC show remains sublime). Many pulp series have overcome inauspicious pilots. Will be interesting to see if we’re given a reason to care in time.
We’ve always maintained that D.C. is a weird amalgamation of First World Starbuckian smugness and Third World dreariness and incompetence. Nothing makes that point better than the regional utility companies. Or Metro. But today let’s go with the utilities.
It’s true that every American is convinced that their utility is uniquely incompetent. Dominion, PEPCO et al. actually are. Once one leaves the federal enclaves the infrastructure, particularly the electric grid, is beyond feeble. It’s not that the grid failed so broadly after this violent storm. Rather, it predictably fails after almost every storm.
— MattBai (@mattbai) July 1, 2012
(Dominion, too. Bueller? Bueller?)
Right before the utilities folded like a paper napkin a TV personality friend sent an email about a DHS report detailing domestic incidents of Stuxnet contaminating U.S. computer networks. Which naturally prompts one to imagine the post-storm quasi-apocalytpic landscape (SUVs forlornly waiting outside dark Wholefoods, drivers unable to overpay for prosciutto) as D.C. under a foreign power’s decision to ‘take down the lights’. Via their version of a less discriminating Stuxnet or even kinetic fire strikes like Belgrade 1999.
It’s a stretch, of course. Only the electric grid collapsed. Other than a stray tree in the road here or there, the transportation remained intact. Communications continued; cell networks, while congested and slow, eventually did work. And psychologically, a storm as culprit is easier to process than a foreign adversary.
But only a stretch. For as sure as Dominion, PEPCO et al. will fail again soon, we will as a nation reap the whirlwind we have sown from 2001-2012.
Newt on Italian vacation plugs utility incompetence as prelude to EMP attack ala Frank Gaffney.
Friend and coauthor bill forstchen notes washington-baltimore blackout mild taste of what an emp (electromagnetic pulse) attack would do
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) July 2, 2012
His next tweet underscored how the storm aftermath proves the need for East Coast BMD installations but got lost in Italian packet networks.
Another season of political packaging is upon us. If 1968 gave us “The Selling of the President”, 42 years on both the product and its marketing are on a baroque trajectory. Personality products and manufactured controversies peddled as disposable morsels. Many are happy with the synthetic diet of Potemkin public politics – as long as the us vs. them game continues.
It’s hard to see how meaningful political action could arise from the current political apparatus. It’s too far gone in technical decadence, when self awareness of the ‘how’ transcends the quaint notion of the ‘why’. And above all, there’s money. The current dysfunction of politics and institutions still provides useful cover for interest group zeal.
There’s many a conversation to be had about how we got here, what can be done, such as campaign finance reform, etc. We’re skeptical that internal reform is possible. In an ideal outcome, one or both of the major political parties would recover sufficiently to re-engage in effective political pluralism. The other trajectory, which we’ve all discussed here, is Man on A White Horse.
With this in mind we watched the recent Chicago demonstrations for signs of effective public theater. How strong would their voices be? Political theater requires first a stage, then an audience and some kind of narrative. Two out of three isn’t good enough.
In fairness to the protestors, Obama moved the G-8 Summit to Camp David. Organizers elected to protest with NATO as backstop instead. Close to Dada in a way. OWS, housing, gender, and social reform groups protesting NATO? At least NATO bureaucrats and many hangers on got an inflated sense of relevance.
A consequence not considered by protest organizers, apparently, is that an audience to political theater determines its effectiveness, not the actors. Ill-conceived protests can boomerang and actually bestow (undeserved) legitimacy on the target. Something they would do well to consider before the upcoming conventions.
Bioware’s much anticipated “Mass Effect 3″ video game promised players a unique culmination to their 100 hour investment in its far future universe. Supplemented with books, comics and tie-ins over the years, Mass Effect evolved into an unusually detailed play space. Some argue that Mass Effect is the most important fictional universe for the current generation fan base. So how did Bioware botch it so badly?
Huge audiences across genders and age groups embrace Mass Effect on the simple premise that their choices in the game matter. Players select which gender to assign the hero, Commander Shepard (Jennifer Hale’s voice acting so good as to almost mandate playing femshep at least once). During the game, the player’s decisions make or break friends, lovers and the commander’s own moral code. Each play through feels and looks personal. Plus, Bioware pushed the notion that decisions in games 1, 2 or 3 carry over. The game universe remembers individual fates which in turn affect the galaxy’s survival.
Or maybe not so much.
You’ve probably noticed enraged fans reaching the ‘end’ to be told that nothing really mattered. That anger is sweeping corners of the Internet. All those morally difficult choices? Who to save and who to sacrifice? Who to woo or beat down? Nothing. The last 6 minutes of the game feature a deus ex machina new character who, like “The Architect” from the Matrix movies, reveals you never had free choice at all. To cushion the blow, the player’s three phony choices blow up the galaxy in a different color.