I’ve never read the works of Leo Strauss, but a colleague (who we’ll call ‘TK’) once described Strauss’s philosophy to me roughly as follows:
TK: Strauss believed that people don’t actually mean what they say. There’s always a hidden subtext. If you are one of the initiated, who has the key to the code, you can decipher what they mean.
Me: So when Strauss said that people don’t mean what they say, did he mean that? Or did he, according to his own philosophy, actually mean something different? In which case, what he really meant was that people do mean what they say. But if that’s so, then he did mean that they don’t mean what they say. And then, well you get the point – we’re stuck in an endless logical loop.
TK: Indeed. Followers of Strauss are divided on this issue. Some think that he did mean that; some think that he didn’t. They’ve fallen out pretty badly over it.
I’ve no idea if that’s a fair description of Strauss, but it was enough to convince me that I could avoid reading him without doing great harm to my intellectual sanity. Apart from being inherently paradoxical, this sort of thinking is, I think, rather dangerous. It allows anyone who considers themselves one of the ‘initiated’, and as such understands what’s going on beneath the surface, to argue that we should ignore what others are saying because it’s not what they mean. Instead, we should pay attention to the initiate’s interpretation of what they’re saying, even if it’s the exact opposite of the actual words uttered. In this way, our intellectual high priests can convince us that black is white, dark is light, and the moon is made of green cheese.
Let’s take an example. If the Russians deny that they have plans to invade the Baltic states, are they are actually denying that they plan to invade the Baltic states? Or are they, by repeatedly denying the claim, deliberately drawing attention to it, thereby reinforcing in people’s minds the possibility that it might be true? If it’s the latter, then by saying that NATO fears are exaggerated, what the Russians are really doing is constructing a ‘fear narrative’. Denials are admissions, and attempts to reassure are in reality attempts to frighten.
Crazy? Yup. But this is precisely the argument put forward by four Estonian scholars in a new article published in the academic journal Media, Conflict & War. Entitled ‘Discourse of fear in strategic narratives: The case of Russia’s Zapad war games’, it needs to be read to be believed.
Zapad, you may recall, is the name of occasional exercises held jointly by the armies of the Russian Federation and Belarus. The last of these took place in 2017, and led to lots of hysterical commentary in the Western press. Numerous ‘experts’ lined up to explain that the exercise was much larger than the Russian claimed and that it could even be the precursor to an invasion of Poland or the Baltic States. The Estonian article analyzes how the Russians responded to these claims. It studies statements by official Russian spokesmen about Zapad 2017 ‘as a case study to exemplify concrete uses of fear discourses in strategic communication.’ The stated assumption is that military exercises are more than military exercises. They are tools in a psychological game of ‘strategic communication’ in which the Russians seek ‘the cultivation of a general atmosphere of fear and confusion.’
So how did the Russians spread fear during Zapad 2017? According to the authors, they did so by accusing the West of spreading fear. Russian officials, they say, ‘maintained that all danger scenarios about Zapad were ungrounded because the exercise was, in their words, “defensive”.’ Words ‘like “panic”, “hysteria” and the “Zapad syndrome” were used to describe the discourse of “irrational fear of Zapad”, allegedly cultivated among Western people by the NATO allies.’
Now, you might imagine that we should take these words at face value – that there really was a lot of ‘irrational fear’ and ‘hysteria’ about Zapad, and that all the Russians were doing was complaining about it, as well they might. But that would be wrong, say our Estonian friends, arguing that they have unlocked the secret code of what the Russians truly meant. The key to this code is the ‘logic of antithesis’. The Russian complaints were ‘projection’, in which the Russians accused the West of ‘everything that Russia has usually been accused of.’ According to the ‘logic of antithesis’, ‘when an antithetic enemy is created, it is often constructed as a symmetrical copy of one’s own structures.’ The Russians’ complaints of Western fear-mongering, disinformation, and aggression were, therefore, merely reflections of Russia’s own fear-mongering, disinformation, and aggression.
I suppose that could be true – in theory. But the authors don’t produce any evidence to show that it’s true in reality. All we have is the claim that they’ve somehow cracked the code. You can believe that if you like, but there’s no particular reason why you should. A simpler explanation would be just that the Russians meant exactly what they said. And as a general rule, I tend to think that the simpler explanation is normally the right one.
The same complaint can be made about the authors’ assertions concerning the second part of the Russian code, which they refer to as ‘affirmation through negation.’ The authors describe this in the following way:
It is noticeable that when representatives of the Russian Federation spoke about the threat of war in relation to Russia, they did it in a ridiculing tone, casting the threat scenarios related to Russia military’s capability as absurd, and referring to the ‘paranoia’ in the Western media. For instance, the news portal Delfi quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin [as saying] … ‘I can assure you: there are no plans for any sort of invasion into the territory of neighbouring countries.’ … Fomin’s explanation could be seen as both ironic and threatening. … What this example illustrates is that, rhetorically, Russia did not always need to express the growth of its military capability directly. Although the Russian spokespeople persistently denied the threat of Russia instigating a war, they nevertheless referred to the narrative of Russia’s increased military capability and the potential of starting a conflict. This rhetorical means could be called affirmation through negation – if something is constantly negated, the target audience develops a justified doubt that something is disguised behind the negation.
So, let’s get this straight. When Mr Fomin denied that Russia intended to invade neighbouring countries, this was ‘ironic and threatening’! What we’re being told is that by constantly denying that they had plans for military aggression, what Russian officials were really doing was drawing attention to the claims that they had such plans, and thereby deliberately inciting fear. I’m sorry, but in my mind this is ridiculous. It truly is a case of saying that white is black. Again, I guess that theoretically it could be true, but isn’t it more likely that the denials were just that – denials? If we follow the Estonians’ argument, if the Russians admit that they have aggressive intent, then they have aggressive intent. But if they deny that they do, then that’s ‘affirmation through negation’, and so that’s an admission too. Either way, the Russians are aggressors. This isn’t logic. It’s just a way of reinforcing prejudices.
This isn’t even the worst of it. For the authors wrap up their article with a rather bizarre piece of speculation, writing:
We cannot confirm whether ‘Zapad 2017’ was set up by Russia so as to depict NATO as exaggerating the ‘Russia threat’ and Russia as the moral victim, but this could indeed count as a plausible interpretation of Russia’s behaviour.
As I’ve said before, ‘Damn, those Russians are clever!’ They deliberately organized their exercise in a way that they knew would get all the crackpot Russophobes in the West to make hysterical, paranoid, exaggerations, multiplying the true number of troops in the exercise five-fold, ten-fold, or twenty-fold, and speculating that it would lead to the annexation of Belarus or the invasion of Poland. All those lunatic stories about Zapad 2017 – it turns out that they’re not our fault after all. The Russians conned us into writing them so that we’d look bad! You have to hand it to the them. They’re amazingly cunning.
Or maybe not. Maybe people in the West wrote all that nonsense about Zapad because they actually are paranoid or Russophobic or just have an interest in fomenting the idea of the Russian threat. Maybe when Russians complained about it all, they did so simply because it was something worth complaining about. Maybe when they denied that Zapad was a precursor to an invasion of Europe, it’s because it wasn’t a precursor to an invasion of Europe. Aren’t those more logical explanations than that it was all part of some dastardly plan involving saying one thing but meaning another, but in such a way that people knew that they meant the other and not the one (which makes me wonder why they didn’t just say so in the first place)? Conspiracy theories – even when framed in fancy academic jargon – generally overcomplicate. The idea that the Russians are grandmasters of the black arts of psychology and semiotics, that they’re craftsmen of complex scenarios in which their every action and statement is weaved seamlessly into coherent plans of ‘strategic communication’, gives them far more credit than they deserve. Sometimes, things are what they seem, and people mean what they say. When you start saying that a denial is really a confession, then you can accuse anybody of anything, and anything they say is an admission of guilt. And that, I guess, is the point. But it begs the question: who’s really constructing the ‘fear narrative’ here – the Russians or the Estonians?