Nonsense news

I have mentioned before my belief in the Biblical maxim about the mote and the beam, and I have repeatedly emphasized on this blog, including my last post, the need for greater self-awareness and greater humility. An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times reveals this need very clearly.

The editorial used former FBI chief James Comey’s testimony to Congress to lambast Donald Trump for his lack of integrity, describing Trump as a ‘venal, self-interested politician who does not recognize, let alone uphold’ the ‘legal principles at the foundation of American democracy.’ The headline made the editorial’s point very clear. ‘Mr Comey and All the President’s Lies’, it said. Telling the truth, it seems, is something that the New York Times values highly.

Or maybe not.

What the editorial didn’t tell readers was that the transcript of Comey’s testimony contains the following exchange between Comey and Senator Jim Risch:

RISCH:  I remember, you — you talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. This is not factual. Do you recall that?

COMEY: Yes.

RISCH: OK. So — so, again, so the American people can understand this, that report by the New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?

COMEY: In — in the main, it was not true. And, again, all of you know this, maybe the American people don’t. The challenge — and I’m not picking on reporters about writing stories about classified information, is that people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on. … I mentioned to the chairman the nonsense around what influenced me to make the July 5th statement. Nonsense, but I can’t go explaining how it’s nonsense.

Later, Senator Tom Cotton returned to this subject.

COTTON: On February 14th, the New York Times published a story, the headline of which was, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”

You were asked earlier if that was an inaccurate story, and you said, in the main. Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?

COMEY: Yes.

The New York Times has done a lot to stoke the accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, going so far on one occasion as to publish an op-ed by Louise Mensch. But while refusing to address the issue of collusion directly, Comey nevertheless poured cold water on it, as seen by the following exchanges with Senators Burr and Cotton:

BURR: Director, the term we hear most often is “collusion.” When people are describing possible links between Americans and Russian government entities related to the interference in our election, would you say that it’s normal for foreign governments to reach out to members of an incoming administration?

COMEY: Yes.

COTTON: Let’s turn our attention to the underlying activity at issue here: Russia’s hacking into those e-mails and releasing them, and the allegations of collusion. Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?

COMEY: That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting. As I said, that — we didn’t — that (ph) when I left, we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump.

So, let’s get this straight. James Comey in effect says that he doesn’t think Trump colluded with Russia (‘we didn’t’, as he says above), and denounces the New York Times for publishing ‘nonsense’, in a story about alleged collusion which was ‘almost entirely wrong’. Yet, the response of the New York Times is not to apologize, and indeed not even to mention the matter, but instead to publish an editorial saying that Donald Trump is a liar.

Perhaps he is, but another maxim comes to mind: one about stones and people in glass houses. Recent research indicates that ‘public trust in the media [is] at all time low’. I wonder why.

Address by Minister Freeland

Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, gave a speech yesterday outlining her vision of Canada’s place in the world and the principles underlining her foreign policy. Below are some excerpts with my comments on them.

Mr Speaker, Here is a question: Is Canada an essential country, at this time in the life of our planet? Most of us here would agree that it is.

Hubris. What does it mean to be an ‘essential country’? Freeland doesn’t say, but I would guess that the idea is that the world cannot do without us. But why is Canada so special? Again Freeland doesn’t say, beyond listing a few examples of how Canadians have contributed to the world. It is arrogance for any people to believe that they are special, let alone ‘essential’, to imagine that others need them, and can’t get along without them. Foreign policy ought to include a sense of humility, a recognition of the limits of one’s own righteousness, and a recognition of the interests of others. That is the way to avoid conflict. Freeland gets off to a bad start.

She continues:

Why do we spend billions on defence, if we are not immediately threatened? For some countries – Israel, Latvia come to mind – the answer is self-evident. Countries that face a clear and immediate existential challenge know they need to spend on military and foreign policy. And they know why.

For a few lucky countries – like Canada and the United States – that feel protected by geography and are good neighbours, the answer is less obvious. Indeed, you could easily imagine a Canadian view that says, we are safe on our continent, and we have things to do at home, so let’s turn inward. Let’s say Canada first.

Here’s why that would be wrong.

First, though no foreign adversary is poised to invade us, we do face clear challenges. Climate change is by definition a shared menace, affecting every single person on this planet. Civil war, poverty, drought and natural disasters anywhere in the world threaten us as well – not least because these catastrophes spawn globally destabilizing mass migrations.

I find this passage rather bizarre, as military power doesn’t help in any way to deal with the threats that Freeland lists. How does spending more on the military contribute to combating climate change, poverty, drought, or natural disasters? It doesn’t. As for mass migrations, the use of Canadian military power has actually helped to make these worse. Canada played a prominent role in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi in Libya, an act which has contributed to the mass migration of people from North Africa into Europe.  Pointing to dangers isn’t a good argument for defence spending unless you can show that defence spending helps reduce these dangers. Freeland fails utterly to do so.

Next, she says:

To rely solely on the US security umbrella would make us a client state. And although we have an incredibly good relationship with our American friends and neighbours, such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.

That is why doing our fair share is clearly necessary. … It is by pulling our weight in this partnership … that we, in fact, have weight. … To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power. Force is of course always a last resort. But the principled use of force … is part of our history and must be part of our future.

To have that capacity requires a substantial investment, which this government is committed to making. The Minister of Defence will elaborate fully on that tomorrow. I know he will make Canadians justly proud.

Hang on. Didn’t Freeland just say that Canada isn’t directly threatened? If so, then why do we have to rely on the ‘US security umbrella’? Could we not liberate ourselves from it and remain unthreatened? Why would that make us ‘dependent’? And how does subordinating ourselves, as a very minor military power, to US-dominated institutions save us from becoming a ‘client state’? Might it not in fact have the very opposite effect? Surely the way to avoid becoming a client is to pursue an independent policy and to assert one’s sovereignty.

As for the use of force, it cannot be a ‘last resort’ if it is ‘principled’. These are two different things. The statement that the use of force ‘must be part of our future’ is quite chilling. With this statement, Freeland has thrown the idea of the supreme value of peace firmly out of the window.

Finally, in this segment, I find it odd that Freeland thinks that by announcing increases in defence spending, the Canadian government will make Canadians ‘justly proud’. Spending more on weapons isn’t something to be ‘proud’ of. At best, it is a regrettable necessity, forced upon us by the fallen nature of man’s world, but it certainly isn’t a reason for pride. Liberal interventionism has now moved beyond the realm of supporting war in pursuit of humanitarian aims into the realm of militarism.

Freeland says also:

Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules. One in which might is not always right. One in which more powerful countries are constrained in their treatment of smaller ones by standards that are internationally respected, enforced and upheld.

The single most important pillar of this, which emerged following the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, is the sanctity of borders. And that principle, today, is under siege.

That is why the democratic world has united behind Ukraine. The illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory by Russia is the first time since the end of the Second World War that a European power has annexed by force the territory of another European country. This is not something we can accept or ignore.

I fully agree with the first part of this – Canada does have an interest in ‘an international order based on rules’. But if that is what we want, we should start by looking closer to home rather than criticizing far away countries we happen not to like. It is true that the annexation/reunification of Crimea is the first annexation of territory in Europe since WW2, but it certainly isn’t the first time that European borders have been changed by force. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and still occupies half of it. Turkey remains a member of NATO. Canada joined other countries in changing the borders of Serbia by bombing Serbia and then physically occupying Kosovo in 1999. Canada has also participated in the violation of borders in many other ways. I have already mentioned Libya. What is less well known is that some Canadian troops participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These were soldiers who were on exchange posts with the US Army, and whom the Canadian government did not recall. Canada is hardly without guilt when it comes to violating borders.

As for our allies, most notably the Americans and the British, they have probably done much more to undermine ‘an international order based on rules’ and the principle of ‘inviolability of borders’ than our supposed ‘enemies’ ever have. They continue to do so today in Syria.

If it is true that breeches of international order are ‘not something we can accept or ignore’, we ought to start by doing something about ourselves and our allies. Then perhaps we might have some moral standing.

Freeland is on sounder ground when she talks about economic issues:

Another key benefit for Canada from an international system based on rules, is of course free trade. … The second great challenge is an exhaustion in the West of the belief among working people, the middle class, that the globalized system can help them better their lives. … It’s true that the system is flawed. But international trade is the wrong target, Mr Speaker. The real culprit is domestic policy that fails to appreciate that continued growth, and political stability, depend on domestic measures that share the wealth.

I’m on Freeland’s side when it comes to the benefits of trade, though I think the talk of the declining fortunes of the middle class is unjustified. But our government needs to think through what is being said here. If we believe in free trade, and wish to support measures that ‘share the wealth’ not just domestically but also globally, we should be working on eliminating the continued barriers to trade which exist within our own country. Abolition of the system of ‘supply management’ which subsidizes our dairy industry would be a good place to start.

Next, Freeland comments:

Now, it is clearly not our role to impose our values around the world, Mr Speaker. No one appointed us the world’s policeman. But is our role to clearly stand for these rights both in Canada and abroad.

… It is our role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, and Indigenous people.

In short, it is our role to impose our values around the world. What else is the ‘principled use of force’ about? And it would have been better, I think, to have left indigenous peoples out of this list. The Canadian record on this matter is not good. Again, perhaps we should look to rectifying problems at home before setting out to rectify the problems of the rest of the world.

Finally:

I offer the example of my grandfather, John Wilbur Freeland. … My grandpa was the opposite of an Upper Canada elite. But in the darkest day of the Second World War, Wilbur enlisted to serve. Two of his brothers, Carleton and Warren, joined up too. Wilbur and Carleton came home. Warren did not. … They rose to their generation’s great challenge. And so can we.

At least Freeland did not mention grandfather no. 2. But, putting that to one side, the anecdote on which she chose to end her speech is revealing. The analogy she uses to describe the world is WW2. This a frame of good v. evil, one  in which failure to confront ‘evil’ wherever it appears, however far away, is seen as endangering Canada itself. But the world is not such a simple place. Canada and its NATO allies aren’t all ‘good’. Their geopolitical opponents, such as Russia’, aren’t all ‘bad’. Confrontation doesn’t help provide solutions, but often makes things worse. And failure to resist ‘aggression’ in places like Ukraine isn’t actually going to put the lives of Canadians at risk. We often can simply leave things as they are for others to sort out themselves. In fact, as often as not, they will probably sort them out much faster without us than with us.

Overall, this is not an encouraging speech. It lacks humility and self-reflection. In this respect, it is exactly what one would expect from a politician: self-reflection isn’t patriotic; it certainly isn’t a vote winner. But at least we can take consolation in the fact that nothing much is likely to come out of it. To a large degree, it’s  hot air. Canada isn’t going to suddenly become a military, political, or economic superpower. By international standards, Canada is a great place to live. There is an awful lot to be said in its favour. But, whatever Freeland says, we aren’t an ‘essential nation’ at all.

Democratic progress?

One of the subjects discussed at our roundtable in Toronto last week was the prospects for the development of liberal democracy in Ukraine. Peter Solomon, who wrote a book about the criminal justice system in the Soviet Union, expressed some very cautious optimism that judicial reform in Ukraine could make positive progress. Ivan Katchanovski, by contrast, was far more sceptical and suggested that Ukraine had become less not more democratic since the Maidan revolution.

Those who support the idea that Ukraine is moving towards becoming a Western-style democracy have been rejoicing this week over the news that the Netherlands has ratified Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement. ‘Ukraine won. Putin lost’, crowed RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore, adding that ‘Ukraine is finally getting what it has been fighting for.’

By contrast, anti-Maidan commentators have picked up today on the news that the city of Kiev has renamed one of the city’s major thoroughfares from General Vatutin Prospect to Roman Shukhevich Prospect. And for sure, replacing the man who led the forces which liberated Kiev from the Nazis with somebody who collaborated with them seems an odd way of marking the transition towards liberal democracy (though I am sure that Vatutin himself was no liberal democrat).

Missed in all the fuss about these stories, however, were a couple more which are quite revealing about the state of democracy in Ukraine.

First, the Kyiv Post reported today that, ‘The municipal council of Kyiv has approved the granting of combatant status for volunteer battalion fighters’ after ‘The war veterans burst into the assembly hall demanding the legal status on June 1.’ According to the report:

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko proposed changes before consideration of final passage during the next council meeting, but protesters forced the council to take a final vote. Several persons in camouflage entered the hall, initiating a scuffle with the assembly’s security, and succeeding in persuading the city council to vote on the issue.

Indeed, I am sure that they ‘succeeded in persuading the city council’ very easily. I have no opinion on whether members of the volunteer battalions should have official veteran status, but it’s an odd sort of democratic procedure when it’s undertaken in the presence of camouflaged soldiers who have burst into the council chamber. Also rather odd is the Kyiv Post’s insouciance about this act of blatant intimidation. One would surely expect supporters of Western liberal and democrat norms not to be too keen on this sort of thing.

It isn’t unique, however.  Earlier this week, the founder of the nationalist Azov Battalion, Andrei Biletsky, led a group of supporters in an action to occupy the Lvov regional council building. Their aim was to force the council to send a request to President Poroshenko to amnesty members of volunteer battalions accused of crimes in the war in Donbass. Afterwards Biletsky declared ‘that, on the basis of the example of the storm of the Lvov regional council, activists would storm councils in other regions to demand an amnesty for those who had fought in the Anti-Terrorist Operation’. ‘We want to create pressure, to show that every region supports these things’, said Biletsky, ‘We will come to other regional councils, and will continue to do this.’

Again, it has to be said that this is an odd sort of democracy.

In our panel, I avoided taking any firm position on the subject of Ukraine’s future development. On the whole, I’m trying to avoid making predictions, as I have got too many wrong in the past. But these stories make me lean a bit more to the sceptics’ point of view. How things turn out in the future, I cannot tell, but as far as the present is concerned they don’t look too healthy.

June calendar

Last year, Rosatom announced that it intended to build a nuclear engine capable of driving a spaceship to Mars in a month and a half. It hopes to have a prototype ready by 2025. This would be just in time for the centenary of the 1926 Soviet film ‘Journey to Mars’, the poster for which is the picture for June in my Soviet poster calendar. The artists are Nikolai Prusakov and Grigory Borisov.

calendarjune

Less TV, more conservative

The anti-corruption protests in Moscow and elsewhere a few weeks ago were interpreted in many quarters as evidence that Russian youth were increasingly opposed to the ‘Putin regime’. As I pointed out at the time, the available sociological evidence doesn’t support this claim. Nevertheless, various analysts continue to believe that changing patterns of media usage will eventually work in that direction.

Part of the narrative which emerged from the protests concerned the fact that young Russians watch less TV than their parents and grandparents. According to some commentators, this means that the Russian state is losing its ability to spread its propaganda, and is therefore in danger of losing control of the population. For example, an article published today by the reliably ‘anti-regime’ Intersection Project discusses how the Russian state is waging an information war designed to create a sense that Russia is under attack from external and internal enemies, but:

Not only do young Russians predominantly access news via the Internet but they also choose to ignore the prospect of a conflict with the West. … the inevitable generational change may bring about a situation where the very idea of information warfare as a means of rallying Russian citizens against external and internal enemies will lose its former efficacy.

It is a superficially plausible thesis, but it doesn’t stand up to very close scrutiny. As the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov argues in a recent edition of Gazeta.ru, on the basis of surveys carried out by the Centre, the fact that young Russians don’t watch as much TV as older generations doesn’t mean that they are compensating by accessing political news on the internet, let along accessing ‘liberal’ or ‘pro-Western’ news sources. They aren’t. Instead, they just aren’t accessing political news at all!

If you turn on the TV news, you get politics whether you want it or not; on the internet, you have to actively seek politics out. Many don’t bother. They use the internet to find out the sports news, to track what’s happening to their favourite celebrities, and the like, but they pay little or no attention to Russian or international politics. Consequently, Volkov says, ‘The massive rejection by youth of television in favour of the internet doesn’t signify an alternative point of view, but a low level of knowledge about what is happening.’ In other words, the shift to the internet isn’t making young Russians more anti-regime, just more ignorant.

Volkov points out that the combination of the internet and Russian youth’s relative political ignorance does offer opportunities to those who can exploit the internet to grab young peoples’ attention. This would seem to give some hope to politicians like Alexei Navalny, but in fact Navalny is less known among youth (45%) than he is among the Russian population as a whole (55%). Young Russians ‘know little about the opposition’, says Volkov. The turn to the internet does not seem to helping the opposition much.

Indeed, Volkov suggests, the increased ignorance may actually make young people more conservative, more supportive of those in authority. Since they don’t bother informing themselves much about politics, they pick up their political attitudes from those around them, such as family and older people. The result is that, ‘as even independent sociologists note, support for the authorities is 15% higher than average among young people.’

The internet is indeed changing how people get information about politics, and thus is shaping the way they view the world – but not, it seems, in the way so many think.

Conference bound

I’m heading off to Toronto for a conference. If you are in town, you can see me tomorrow (Saturday) in a roundtable on the subject: ’25 years since the fall of the USSR: Where is Eurasia headed?’ The roundtable takes place in room 223/227 in the Rogers Communications Centre, Ryerson University, at 0900 hrs.

Also speaking are:

Peter Solomon, U of Toronto,

Sergei Plekhanov, York U,

Ivan Katchanowski, U of Ottawa,

and Joan DeBardeleben, Carleton U

 

Russia, the West, and the world

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