Should We Punish Artists For Their Political Beliefs?

LSO Valery Gergiev
Maestro Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra

 

Music and politics make uneasy bedfellows, and this timeless truth has only been reconfirmed with the continuing tumult and unrest in Ukraine.

Russia, the protagonist in this latest crisis, provides ample recent evidence that politics and music are best kept apart. The punk band Pussy Riot, for example, is hardly ever out of the headlines in recent months, with members being jailed, released, threatened and attacked by the authorities merely for adding their voices to the civic discourse, for wanting to make themselves and their beliefs heard.

But at the other end of the artistic spectrum, for the fine arts – especially classical music – the problem is not the Russian government’s persecution of artists, but artists’ apparent eagerness to praise the political leadership and to lend President Vladimir Putin their credibility.

The most famous current case is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev was one of the most prominent Russian artists to sign an open letter in support of Vlarimir Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Part of the letter’s text reads:

In the days when the fate of our compatriots in the Crimea is decided, Russian cultural figures can not be indifferent observers with a cold heart . Our common history, our cultural roots and spiritual origins , our fundamental values ​​and language have united us forever. We want to see the commonality of our peoples and our cultures have a strong future. That is why we firmly reiterate support for the position of President of the Russian Federation and Ukraine Crimea.

Sometimes, these messages of support for Vladimir Putin’s policy of aggression are downright perplexing, such as when the Russian Writer’s Union decided to make their love and support for Putin known in a very Soviet style open letter, a sloppy wet kiss to power. Craven though they can sometimes be, one can hardly imagine the British or American press joining together as one to praise and defend the Cameron or Obama foreign policies.

At other times, however, particularly in the case of artists responsible for institutions that depend on government support, the situation is not so clear-cut and such acts of public sycophancy may be part of the inevitable cost of doing business. The Financial Times picks up on this point:

There is little doubt [Gergiev’s] position is compromised. Deep down he is a nationalist, as his ill-judged support for the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 demonstrated. At his two Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg, he has 3,000 employees on his payroll and a rich tradition to maintain. No other figure could raise the kind of money that Gergiev does to keep the Mariinsky going. Much of that money comes from members of the Putin circle. If Gergiev is presented with a petition in support of government policy, he is obliged to sign – unlike prominent freelance musicians such as Denis Matsuev and Yuri Bashmet, who have foolishly toed the line.

This is perhaps a distinction worth making, though it could equally be argued that the brave and moral thing to do would be to speak out against government malfeasance, consequences be damned. US country music group The Dixie Chicks tried this approach in 2003 when they spoke out against their president and their country’s imminent invasion of Iraq.

The aftermath was not pleasant, and it is a brave person who now does what the Dixie Chicks did – and this was in the United States, where the rule of law still means something. One can only imagine what might befall the likes of Gergiev if they actively spoke out against their government, when even maintaining a diplomatic silence would invite negative repercussions.

But of course Valery Gergiev would not speak out against Vladimir Putin’s policy of bullying and undermining Ukraine; he actively supports it, his signature to the open letter was enthusiastically given. So the question then becomes one of whether artists with differing political or world views should continue to be welcomed in foreign concert halls, or be else ostracised and made artistic pariahs?

A significant weight of critical opinion seems to be coming down on the side of ostracisation and intolerance. Prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has already made headlines by protesting Valery Gergiev’s continued association with a top-flight British artistic institution, going so far as to hijack the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz season in November 2013 and later issuing an open letter to the LSO, effectively demanding Gergiev’s dismissal. The letter concludes:

It is our view that Mr Gergiev’s current position is untenable and he should be suspended with immediate effect until he officially withdraws his name from the list published on the Russian Culture Ministry’s website and fully explains his position on the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Bill.

If he decides he is not prepared to do this, his employment should be terminated as he is not an appropriate person to be in receipt of UK public funding. He supports discriminatory legislation which goes against the UK values of equality and diversity, and he supports Russian military action which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned.

Ironically, the open letter sent by the Peter Tatchell Foundation and the Ukrainian Institute uses the same basis of government-policy-as-justification that we see in the Russian Ministry of Culture’s letter of support from Russian artists. Tatchell’s letter demands that Gergiev be fired because he supports a policy “which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned”. Does this then mean that any artist or artistic institution not in complete accordance with the current views of the British government should be denied funding and actively picketed?

As is so often the case with campaigners from the political left, it is never enough to let the people vote with their feet on matters of moral principle. Rather, they instinctively turn to the government to invoke its power to make people fall into line. If it transpired that Valery Gergiev was jetting off between concerts to personally help foment unrest in eastern Ukrainian cities, people would be outraged and his situation would immediately become untenable. But he has not, and would never do this. Ultimately, Gergiev is guilty of little more than supporting the overwhelming view – however wrong it may be – among his own countrymen, something that most of us would likely do ourselves.

The Washington Post also picks up on this point, noting that famous Soviet artists were welcomed when they performed in the West even at the height of the Cold War, at a time when diplomatic relations were far more precarious than they are now:

If a musician chooses not to take a stand, he or she is often automatically charged with collaboration in any case. Gergiev, through his support of a challenging regime, may have in some sense “deserved” the protests at some of his concerts in 2013 (though this was not a reaction many Soviet artists got when they performed in the West at the height of the Cold War, sent by an even more suspect government).

For those in the West who watch Russia’s bullying and takeover of parts of Ukraine with mounting concern and anger, it may well provide a moment of catharsis and sweet justice to send the likes of Valery Gergiev packing prematurely from the London Symphony Orchestra, and to see other prominent Russian artists who do not disavow their country similarly exiled.

But it is precisely at times like these – when passions are high and tempers flared – that humanity most needs to remain in touch with the few common threads that unite us all. Music is perhaps the most precious of these unifying threads. After all, while the West may have a legitimate quarrel with the Russian government, the Russian people are largely innocent, as much victims of Putin’s repressive regime as the people of Ukraine and Crimea.

And even when prominent artists such as Valery Gergiev weigh in on the “wrong” side of an international dispute or a political debate, how can it be right to sever an important international cultural tie, a key reminder (to quote John F. Kennedy) that whatever our many differences, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal”?

In the end, it was Valery Gergiev together with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus who answered the conundrum most eloquently, with their recent concert performance of Alexander Scriabin’s First Symphony, part of Gergiev’s ongoing promotion of the Russian classical repertoire and a concert attended by Semi-Partisan Sam.

Sitting in London’s iconic Barbican concert hall, the rich sound of the LSO’s strings and peerless brass section enveloping the audience as the symphony drew toward its noble conclusion, hearing the chorus intone “Slava isskustvu vo veki slava!” – Britain’s finest musicians conducted by a Russian maestro – it hit home that if anything is truly transcendental, if anything must be held sacred and kept apart from our cynical, self-serving and sometimes hypocritical geopolitics, it should be music.

From the text of the choral finale to Scriabin’s first symphony, in praise of art’s unifying gift to humanity:

You are an exalted vision of life,
you are celebration, you are peace,
you bring your enchanted visions
as a gift to humankind.
In those cold, dark moments
when our souls are troubled,
mankind can discover in you
life’s joys, consolation and forgetfulness.

Gather here, all nations of the earth,
let us sing the praises of art!
Glory, eternal glory to art!

 

 

More on Scriabin‘s first symphony hereMore on the London Symphony Orchestra here.

 

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Nigel Farage vs The Politically Correct Line On Russia

Attempts to sink Nigel Farage tend to fail
Attempts to sink Nigel Farage tend to fail

 

In the aftermath of last week’s debate on Britain’s place in the European Union, UKIP leader Nigel Farage had gall to say that he admired the tactics of the despotic Russian president Vladimir Putin. Not that he admired Putin as a person, agreed with his annexation of Crimea or supported his policies in any way, mind you – just that he thought Vladimir Putin had played a good hand and used methods both conventional and shady to advance the national interest of his country.

To hear Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s subsequent shrieks of outrage, quickly repeated and parroted thoughtlessly by numerous political commentators and talking heads, you would think that Nigel Farage had whipped a large Soviet flag out from behind his podium and paraded up and down with it during the debate, singing  the State Anthem of the USSR at the top of his lungs (incidentally, it’s a cracking piece of music).

The second live televised Leader’s Debate on the EU will take place tonight, and given the establishment media’s heroic efforts last week to spin the results of the first as a victory for the hapless Nick Clegg – until overwhelming reality and the results of a YouGov poll made their position indefensible and forced a sudden reassessment of Farage’s performance – this blog aims to clear the fog of war which still threatens to obscure what Nigel Farage actually said (eminently reasonable) and what he has subsequently been accused of saying (treachery).

Here is what Nigel Farage actually said, when asked by Alastair Campbell which world leader he most admired:

“As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?”

 The recognition of Putin’s moral failings and outrage at Russia’s insidious suppression of free speech was not enough to save Farage from what followed. The point was clearly that Russia has been running rings around a hopelessly divided (and in some cases, morally equivalent) international community, not that Russia pursued a just or worthy course of action.

Nick Clegg chose to see it somewhat differently:

“It shows quite how extreme people can be like Nigel Farage when their loathing of the European Union becomes so all-consuming that they even end up siding with Vladimir Putin in order to make their point.

The only reason we are able to seek to exert any influence – and it is difficult enough as it is – on Vladimir Putin is because we can act with the clout of being part of the economic superpower that is the European Union, upon which Russia depends a lot.”

A heady mix of deliberate misrepresentation and the sadly typical denigration and talking down of Britain’s capacity to act in it’s own interests on the world stage such as this would be remarkable coming from anyone other than the Liberal Democrat leader and our Deputy Prime Minister.

Clegg and Farage

 

Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind also loses the plot over Farage’s comments, railing against the UKIP leader in his uniquely blustering, pompous style:

How very revealing. When asked which world politician he most admires, Nigel Farage chooses, of all people, Vladimir Putin. While others might have sought a successor to Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela, Farage fawns over an autocrat who has made Russia the least free country in Europe – a man who locks up his political opponents and has just invaded his neighbour, annexing part of its territory.

Rifkind also chooses to go with the trusty trick of blatant misrepresentation. Nigel Farage was clear to add the caveat “as an operator, but not as a human being” before making his comments about Russia’s effective foreign policy. Those key words by Farage, which place his remarks in context and which came literally right before the ones that Rifkind quoted to support his diatribe, seemed to sail past his ears unnoticed.

Rifkind then goes on to miss the point entirely:

[Farage’s] irresponsibility has not just been restricted to Putin’s behaviour in Ukraine. He described Putin’s policy on Syria as “brilliant”. Does he not realise that Russia has vetoed every resolution in the UN Security Council that was aimed at pressing Assad to end his murderous violence – which has led to the deaths of over 140,000 Syrian men, women and children? Does he not know that without Russian arms supplies, the Assad regime would have been forced to negotiate an end to the civil war two years ago?

Again, we see the deliberate, false equating of Farage’s admiration of the brilliant execution of an terrible policy with actual support for that policy. But the two are clearly not one and the same, no matter how much the prevailing climate of political correctness may insist that because something is judged by the collective to be bad, all aspects of it must be denounced as equally terrible and any positive aspects be purged from discussion and memory.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is outrageous and terrible – on that much, nearly everyone aside from Russia agrees. But to stop at saying that is not enough for the politically correct pundits of today. In this world, because Russia has done this terrible thing and made itself persona non grata in the international community, we all must now say that everything about Russia is bad, and never acknowledge any good until we are told by our superiors that it is safe to do so.

To be fair, Russia makes this task quite simple. Through their domestic and foreign policies on any number of issues, that country has placed itself on the wrong side of human rights, freedom of speech and even the arc of history. The lamentable implosion of Russia’s nascent democracy is well known, as are the stories about increasing suppression of free speech, the government takeover of the media and Russia’s appalling record on civil rights for gay people. But why must all of these misdeeds be meticulously restated before a British politician can say the truth – that despite Russia being completely wrong on all of these issues, they played their foreign policy hand really well in support of their own national interests?

Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley hits the nail on the head in support of Nigel Farage’s right to say the blindingly obvious:

Farage’s sin was to say that he admires Putin as a political leader, although not as a human being. Why this is controversial, I have literally no idea. Farage made it abundantly clear that he regards the Russian leader as a despot (“How many journalists in jail now?”); he simply thinks that he outwitted Obama on Syria. I think that; you think that; even Obama probably thinks that … Ah, but you can’t say such things out loud because the consensus in Westminster right now is that Putin is Hitler, Ukraine is the Sudetenland and anything less that outright Russophobia is treachery. And probably a little bit homophobic.

Precisely. Believing that Putin outwitted other world leaders in terms of the response to the awful situation in Syria does not imply support for Putin’s position, just as believing he is currently one step ahead with regard to Ukraine does not mean that Nigel Farage wants Russia’s gamble to succeed.

Tim Stanley continues, giving a brilliant summation of the current problem with British political discourse:

And that’s Farage’s real sin: he dares to be different. Contemporary British politics works by an unusual degree of consensus. All three party leaders want to stay in the EU, all wish to preserve the principle of the welfare state, all back gay marriage, all accept the need to go green, none will challenge the concept of open borders on immigration. Some or all of these positions may well be right – that’s not the issue. The issue is that this homogeneity of opinion is fundamentally undemocratic. In democracies, voters are supposed to be offered real choices rather than one establishment philosophy spun three different ways. To make matters worse, the party leaders now not only sound alike but also lookalike.

This much is true, and scarily so. The sad fact is that the British political elite have imposed a consensus on society that the people themselves have not yet reached. For good or ill (okay, for ill) there is a large rump of opinion within the British population that would bring back the death penalty in a heartbeat, scrap the new legalisation of gay marriage, become Fortress Britain for immigrants seeking the right to work, and undertake any number of other regressive policies. But in Britain the elite went ahead and determined the “correct” answer to all of these issues on behalf of the people but without seeking their input, and so the debate is continually suppressed – except for when it bubbles to the surface manifested as support for the insurgent or extremist parties.

Contrast the situation in Britain with that in the United States. The political debate there is no more enlightened or informed, but there is still the sense that they debate important issues, often from diametrically opposing viewpoints. The US senate hears strident views from such diverse characters as self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, the senior senator from Vermont, as well as the fire-and-brimstone filibusterings of Tea Party darling Ted Cruz. And people with views anywhere within this spectrum are made to feel welcome in the political debate. As a result, though the American process is a lot slower, louder and more contentious, when political unanimity is finally reached (and it takes a long time – civil rights has more or less just crossed the line, with gay rights looking at another 30 years of toil) it is much more strongly reflected in the people, and is consequently much more likely to stick.

The difference could not be clearer – a lively national debate where everyone feels they can speak and be heard, or the stultifying restrictions of an artificial consensus imposed by the political elite.

Now faced with a politician who refuses to follow the approved talking points on Russia, these weasely politicians who came scurrying out of the woodwork to denounce Nigel Farage over his comments are deliberately misleading the public and attempting to change the narrative. Hell, let’s call a spade a spade – they are lying, deliberately lying to the British people in the political establishment’s latest doomed attempt to make Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party and the millions of people who share his viewpoint seem extremist, weird and dangerous.

All of these armchair pundits know what Nigel Farage meant when he said he admired the direct effectiveness of Vladimir Putin’s assertive foreign policy as compared to the dithering and retrenchment which have all too often characterised the governments of David Cameron and Barack Obama. But why let a non-story go to waste when words can be twisted and mischaracterised to falsely make their speaker sound like the CEO of the Vladimir Putin Fan Club?

Of course, all of this kerfuffle could have been avoided if Nigel Farage had chosen his words more carefully. Had Farage prefaced his words with a lengthy (but surely unnecessary) denunciation of Russia’s behaviour and Putin’s morals, he might have escaped censure by the self-appointed moral arbiters of British political debate. That’s exactly what they want to happen, and it is why they are now so furious with the idiosyncratic UKIP leader, resolved once more to try to drive him out of British politics.

In the heavily thought-policed world of Nigel Farage’s critics, no opportunity to say The Correct Thing should ever remain unseized. If you want to make a point about the effectiveness of Russia’s foreign policy then that’s okay, but by God you had better utter the cross-party approved talking points before you do so. Only once all of your political pronouncements become entangled in endless disclaimers and footnotes grounding them in established political correctness will these meddling people be satisfied.

Tim Stanley puts it well:

Westminster is going to continue hitting its head against the brick wall of public antipathy towards politics-as-usual. The more that Farage acts up, the more different he seems, the more the establishment will hate him, the more the voters will like him.

And there, right there, is the popularity of Nigel Farage. Political correctness and towing the establishment party line? He will have none of it, thank you very much. Whether you like his political stances or not, he is the only leader of a major political party in Britain who remains willing and able to speak honestly and passionately as though he isn’t reading from a focus group-approved script.

How richly will the voters reward him in May’s elections for daring to talk like a normal human being?

 

The next Leader’s debate on the European Union takes place tonight (Wednesday 2nd April) at 1900 BST, and will be shown on BBC Two.

Ron Paul, The New Russian Apologist

RonPaul

 

Former US congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) is nothing if not consistent – an admirable and all too rare quality in a politician. But just sometimes, the unflinching adherence to a particular principle or policy can be a bad thing – witness the Tea Party’s stance on taxation, the National Security Cheerleader Caucus’ enthusiasm for government surveillance, or the legislate-by-Bible-verse preference of the religious right.

Ron Paul has now sadly joined this group of ideologues, not because many of the points that he makes have suddenly stopped being timely, persuasive and correct, but because he now makes them in such a way that they no longer inform or educate, but merely generate material to be used by enemies of the United States and the West as ready-made propaganda pieces.

Indeed, some of Paul’s recent pronouncements on the Ukraine crisis and the Russian usurpation of Crimea are so one-sided and so determined to examine only the faults of the West while negating or ignoring the faults of Russia, that one wonders what his motivation could possibly be. Paul seems to be adopting a one-man Fox News Strategy, whereby he single-handedly attempts to redress what he sees as an inherent bias or gross imbalance by coming down incredibly hard on one side of an argument – whilst proclaiming all the while to be fair and balanced.

The latest fodder for Kremlin-apologists came on Sunday, when Paul penned an op-ed for his own Ron Paul Institute website, the subtitle of which could easily have been ‘I told you so.’ In this piece, he lashes out at the monetary and other forms of assistance given to Ukraine over the past ten years by US-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs):

But what do the US taxpayers get, who were forced to pay for this interventionism? Nothing good. Ukraine is a bankrupt country that will need tens of billions of dollars to survive the year. Already the US-selected prime minister has made a trip to Washington to ask for more money.

And what will the Ukrainians get? Their democracy has been undermined by the US-backed coup in Kiev. In democracies, power is transferred peacefully through elections, not seized by rebels in the streets. At least it used to be.

As with most effective attempts to mislead, there is just enough truth contained in this statement to suggest respectability and provide a stepping stone to reality, but not too much that it might get in the way of the misinformation being delivered.

It is certainly the case that the National Endowment of Democracy, a private and non-profit organisation, is active in Ukraine. But the NED is not secretive about this fact. Indeed, they detail all of their activities and funded initiatives across all of the countries where they work on their own website. Details of their funded work in Ukraine can be read here.

It is certainly possible that organisations such as the Human Rights Training Center or the Ukrainian Catholic University are nothing but shadowy US puppet organisations, greedily taking in American taxpayer money and using it to subvert the will of the Ukrainian people, just as it is possible that Barack Obama became president of the United States for the sole purpose of gathering material to aid in his upcoming romantic comedy about living and working in the White House. Possible, in other words, but eyebrow-raisingly unlikely.

But the narrative sounds very good to anyone predisposed to view any American or Western activity with suspicion, and so by floating unsubstantiated assertions that western-funded NGOs are doing anything other than trying to promote and build the strong institutions required for democracy to flourish, Paul is playing into a harmful narrative which misconstrues the intentions of his own country and those of the West.

In a separate intervention last week, Paul rhetorically asked:

Why does the US care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”

The thought does not seem to occur to Paul that perhaps the United States does not care about the flag – that perhaps it is not the small piece of land that is at stake, but rather the way that it changed hands so rapidly under threat of force that is the problem. And, regrettably, he seems all too willing to recall previous bad actions and mistakes made by the United States to excuse current crimes committed by Russia:

“Where were these people when an election held in an Iraq occupied by US troops was called a ‘triumph of democracy’?

Iraq was certainly very recent, but to make a blasé statement such as this without giving a thought to the many differences between the invasion of Iraq (non-permanent and not for acquisition of land) – however terrible and wrong it may have been – and the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, is propagandist point-scoring at its worst.

No strangers to propagandist point-scoring themselves, the Kremlin-funded Russia Today network predictably seized on Ron Paul’s latest op-ed, and folded it into their continuing efforts to spin the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory as something entirely consistent with international law, recent precedent and human decency.

RT.com wasted no time putting their own helpful gloss on Ron Paul’s words:

According to Paul, high-funded intervention doesn’t equate to spreading democracy. Instead, he wrote, the US has invested in a country where power has been passed along not by the way of a democratic election, but rather the ousting of the country’s presidents by his opponents.

Of course, the regime of Viktor Yanukovych ousted by the supposedly undemocratic popular uprising in Kiev was itself busily trying to subvert the Ukrainian democracy by cracking down on freedom of speech, silencing dissent and dramatically increasing the powers of the president, which rather muddies the waters and exposing the Ron Paul / Russia Today line as the one-sided propaganda that it is.

Ron Paul accuses President Obama of doing many of the things in America that Viktor Yanukovych did in Ukraine, albeit on a slightly smaller scale – certainly, Obama’s war on whistleblowers and the surveillance state that he has tolerated and expanded can be said to chip away at the foundation of democracy. And yet this outrage at the illiberal policies being enacted in America is nowhere to be found when he looks at the former Yanukovych government, who, for all Paul seems to know or care, were benign arbiters of justice and democracy, unjustly pushed from office by a baying mob of anti-democracy fanatics.

If the recent Edward Snowden / NSA / surveillance debate have taught us nothing else, we have at least been reminded that democracy and its institutions are fragile and never more than one generation away from serious damage, subversion or destruction. When countries such as Britain and America – who have traditionally held aloft the flame of liberty and democracy – now suffer under governments that think nothing of secret surveillance of their own citizens, detain people or subject them to indefinite curtailments on their freedom without trial or allow those who permitted torture to take place to avoid justice, how much more fragile and in need of support must be those nations with a much shorter history of democratic government?

And in this context, is NGO money spent to strengthen democratic institutions in countries around the world not one of the best investments that the West could make?

The suggestion is not that Ron Paul has no right to speak out against past US failings – he has a longstanding and admirable track record of doing so. But the problem comes when his zeal to remind people of past US and Western failings leads him not to condemn those same actions by other countries, but rather almost to praise them as a perverse means of restoring parity within the global order.

In his recent speech to the Russian parliament, Vladimir Putin ranted, raved and gave the world a stark insight into his paranoia, his sense of inadequacy and the huge chip on his shoulder concerning how his country is perceived by the rest of the world. Railing against the West, he said:

Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

They did it before, so now we can do it, too.

Ron Paul is in many ways a visionary, and is certainly a real American patriot. Which is why it is concerning that he and the dictator from Russia find themselves singing from the same hymn sheet.

The death throes of free speech in Russia

 

As the world’s attention remains fixed on Ukraine, less attention is paid to the final nails being hammered into the coffin containing the corpse of Russia’s free and independent press. And while the annexation of Crimea and the west’s shamefully half-hearted response (slapping sanctions on a mere handful of Russian officials and exempting Vladimir Putin and his closest confidantes) certainly deserve their column inches, journalistic independence and free speech finally died in Russia, without a shot being fired. It is only right that we acknowledge this backward step, too.

A couple of excellent columns published over the past weekend aimed to do exactly that – Julia Ioffe writing at the New Republic and David Remick at The New Yorker. Both articles come highly recommended and paint a compelling, sad story.

In his piece, Remnick mourns the backwards steps under Putin which have now erased each and every gain made for freedom of expression under the Gorbachev glasnost era, with particular reference to the Russian government’s recent interference with popular news site Lenta.ru:

In recent years, when Russian liberals have tried to sound optimistic, they have invariably said, Well, at least they haven’t cracked down on the Internet the way the Chinese have. Lenta.ru is one Web site, not the entire Russian-language Web, to be sure, but today’s firing is still an important and ominous step. Lenta.ru was getting more than thirteen million unique visitors a month, and was far more direct and critically minded than anything on state television or in most print publications. Some staff writers and editors have said that they will leave rather than work with [new editor] Goreslavsky. They have no doubt that responsibility for today’s firing lay with Putin and his circle.

Seventy-nine staffers at Lenta.ru issued a statement of angry protest, reading, “Over the past couple of years, the space of free journalism in Russia has dramatically decreased. Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through curators, and others by editors who fear losing their jobs. Some media outlets have been closed and others will be closed in the coming months. The problem is not that we have nowhere to run. The problem is that you have nothing more to read.”

Remnick notes that in today’s world and with modern technology, the domestic Russian media can be bought, manipulated and coerced very easily by Putin, with no need for recourse to any of the Soviet-era’s more heavy-handed techniques:

In each individual case, the degree of censorship and pressure is hardly Stalinist in degree. Putin’s media strategy is more sophisticated than that. (The book-publishing industry has remained quite free and unchanged in recent years.) The sophistication of it is that Putin exerts just enough control (blacklisting certain known dissident voices from state television, for example), and punishes just enough of his opponents, to set markers—boundaries of the permissible. Sometimes those boundaries are crossed, but a general tone has been set.

This is precisely the problem, and perhaps the reason why the assault on the Russian free press is getting much less attention than it deserves. In the modern age, the sheer number of cable television channels, newspapers and online news sites can easily give the impression of a vibrant, raucous and effective media, easily reflecting the views of the entire population and holding the leadership to account. However, because of concentration of ownership and endemic corruption, the appearance diversity or independence is merely an illusion – everyone toes the party line.

Julia Ioffe’s New Republic piece sees even more danger, with Russia’s authoritarian attempts to control speech and thought now reaching the internet:

Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow’s biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest. Last week, the owner of Dozhd announced that, due to the clampdown, the channel is going to close in a couple months.

Within the span of a couple months, the Kremlin, by hook and by crook, has cleared all the media underbrush. There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel.

Some of the personal anecdotes recounted by Julia Ioffe are even more disturbing:

Then came the day a Moscow acquaintance announced on Facebook that her daughter, a first-grader, came home from school in a panic because the teacher had told the class that America was about to invade Russia. But then television host and attack dog Dmitry Kiselev went after the “radicals” in Kiev in a special broadcast dedicated to Ukraine, saying that the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 was “a historical crime” and blaming the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the West. “What is Yugoslavia now? A pimple on the body of Europe.”

The Russian Writer’s Union then felt the need to write an open letter to the Kremlin throwing their wholehearted support behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

… the Russian Writers’ Union, which is as Soviet as it sounds, declared that, “in these worrying times, when the fate not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of all European civilization, is being decided, we want to express our support of your firm and responsible position.” They also blamed “the destructive forces of the West.”

Whatever one might think of the press in the United Kingdom or United States, one cannot imagine them banding together like this to explicitly praise the leader. It is certainly true that President George W. Bush received ridiculous levels of hagiography and unquestioningly supportive coverage from the western press in the run-up to the second Iraq war, the profession as a whole did not feel the need to pledge their fealty with one voice. And though they were largely banished from the main networks, there was strong and vocal opposition. Not so in Russia today.

If there is any glimmer of hope to be had in this sorry situation, it is the fact that a sizeable number of Russians – despite their almost total erasing from the domestic news – have grown heartily sick of their country’s backward slide, and are making their views known as best they can.

The BBC reports that up to 50,000 people attended a pro-Democracy “Hands Off Ukraine” rally in central Moscow. And apparently caught off guard, Putin’s regime did not thwart the march, and mustered only 15,000 of their own supporters in a counter-demonstration:

Earlier in Moscow, tens of thousands rallied against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the biggest such protest in two years. As many as 50,000 attended the rally, with protesters shouting: “Hands off Ukraine.”

One man told the BBC he felt Russia was turning back to the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Nearby, some 15,000 supporters of President Vladimir Putin came out to support the Crimean referendum. Many of them wore identical red outfits and carried Russian and Soviet flags.

But displays such as this are likely to become far fewer as the number of truly – or even partially – independent news outlets willing to provide a non-Kremlin perspective on the world dwindles to nothing.

Regrettably, the paranoid propagandists at the Kremlin are now also being encouraged to a degree by some in the west. The usually-admirable Ron Paul, for example, clearly shows the limitations of applying libertarian philosophy to its ultimate limits, and of citing moral equivalency between Russian meddling in Ukraine and unauthorised Western invasions to argue that the West has no legitimate basis to condemn Russia’s actions. Because the United States and Britain did wrong in the past, goes this argument, Russia must be allowed to do wrong now:

Paul said Crimeans should be allowed to break away from Kiev.

“I think everyone should have right to express themselves,” he said. “It is messy, that is for sure, because two big governments are very much involved in trying to tell the Ukranians what to do.”

However he said Russia had a more justifiable basis for being involved in Crimea than the US, and no government should prevent locals on the peninsula from determining their future.

This deference toward Russia maintaining a geopolitical sphere of influence whereby it is allowed to meddle and assert special interests in the politics of its neighbours would be slightly more defensible coming from Ron Paul if he did not castigate the United States for doing the same thing when it comes to influencing America’s Latin American neighbours:

PAUL: Well, I think free trade is the answer. Free trade is an answer to a lot of conflicts around the world, so I’m always promoting free trade. And you might add Cuba, too. I think we would be a lot better off trading with Cuba.

But as far as us having an obligation, a military or a financial obligation to go down and dictate to them what government they should have, I don’t like that idea. I would try to set a standard here where countries would want to emulate us. Unfortunately, sometimes we slip up on our standards and we go around the world and we try to force ourselves on others.

If free trade and an absence of foreign meddling is truly the stance favoured by Ron Paul he should be vigorously denouncing the aggressive actions taken by Russia, not seeking to justify them by finding tenuous comparisons in recent US and western foreign policy. Ukraine had a clear choice – closer engagement with the European Union or re-embracing Russia. Until Vladimir Putin began interfering in Ukraine’s internal politics and encouraging President Yanukovych to abandon the EU deal in exchange for sweeteners from Russia, Ukraine leant towards Europe. The EU may have its imperfections, but it represents a much more liberal option than anything Putin’s Russia represents, and if anyone has subverted the will of the Ukrainian people and deserves Ron Paul’s disapproval today it is Vladimir Putin.

And while Ron Paul has led from the front in the important public debate about the nature and extent of the US surveillance state, and any curtailments on free speech in America, there is no acknowledgement from him of the grave and far more routine impositions on free speech that take place in Russia. That’s not to say that every criticism of America needs to be counterbalanced with a corresponding flaw in the rest of the world, but it is certainly the case that jumping into the debate on Ukraine without acknowledging this elephant in the room significantly detracts from his argument.

When it comes to counterarguments and balance in media coverage, Russia makes America and Britain’s own tribulations look like nothing by comparison. And while it is unfortunate that some people – particular those from the left/libertarian part of the spectrum – have felt the need to use the Ukrainian crisis as an “I told you so” moment or to burnish their own non-interventionist credentials, this is nothing more than posturing for a domestic audience. It does nothing to help the people of Ukraine or Russia.

While it is Ukraine that is currently being deprived of its territory in Crimea, the usurping Russians are also being robbed. Their loss, taking place with far less comment, is that of their independent press and free speech. And without a free domestic press to even go through the motions of scrutinising Vladimir Putin’s leadership, today’s Russia – in full paranoid, expansionist, Soviet-nostalgic mode – is not going to stop at Ukraine.

On Barraco Barner

gemmaworrall

 

It began with a simple tweet.

Gemma Worrall, a 20-year-old receptionist from Blackpool, picked the wrong day to start following the news. She became confused while watching a television report on the geopolitical chess game underway between Russia, Ukraine and the West, and by sharing her own two cents on Twitter she did more to tarnish the image of British education in a mere second than a whole years worth of falling national examination results could ever do on their own.

Misunderstanding President Barack Obama’s job specification (and grotesquely, if comically, mangling his name), she posed the rhetorical question:

If barraco barner is our president why is he getting involved with Russia, scary

We can all count the ways that this is embarrassing, cringeworthy, depressing. Failing to grasp that Barack Obama is not “our” president. Getting Obama’s name so terribly wrong (a Damn You Autocorrect fail for the ages, if her excuse is to be believed). Not understanding that in carrying out their duties as heads of state or government, leaders “get involved” with other countries as a matter of course. Et cetera.

The ridicule was predictable, and it came. Seven thousand retweets, numerous mean-spirited comments and the usual smattering of death threats from the trolls. This was unfortunate and unseemly, particularly because the author of the offending tweet seems to have no malice about her at all, unlike many of her detractors.

There was no need for the more hateful reactions to the beautician’s blunder, nor even for the snide and scornful ones, because in truth, there is a little bit of Gemma Worrall in us all.

Take the Daily Mail for instance, one of many national newspapers to jump on their story. They and their readers may look down at Worrall for her geopolitical ignorance, but in the same article they feel it necessary to gently explain to their geriatric readership what it is to ‘hashtag’ or ‘retweet’ a statement on Twitter:

Within just 12 hours, her comment had been retweeted (where people send on your tweet for others to read again) almost 7,000 times and screenshots of her words were appearing on television news programmes as far afield as Australia, Canada and America.

A solid argument could probably be made (though not proposed by this blog) that it is actually far more useful to know the intricacies of social media and the workings of smartphones than it is to be up to speed on world leaders and foreign policy, especially given the degree to which technical and IT savvy have become such important prerequisites for employment and the equal degree to which foreign policy is conducted on behalf of us all by those who presume to know best but never deign to ask our opinions.

Rather more concerning is the low esteem in which the supposedly patriotic Daily Mail clearly holds our country in relation to the United States:

It’s a corker of a gaffe by anyone’s standards. Making the most powerful man in the world sound more like the fizzy vitamin supplement Berocca is one thing. Demoting him to leader of the UK is quite another.

Maybe Paul Dacre can order the Daily Mail to publish its definitive ranking of countries so that we can see just how much of a ‘demotion’ it is to go from President of the United States to Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It is rather astonishing that a major British daily newspaper should hold such an inferiority complex, previously hidden and apparently deeply suppressed, with regard to another country. But this revealing morsel of information and potential area for debate will also no doubt be lost amid the swell of outrage at Gemma Worrall’s personal ignorance – an ignorance from which none of us are entirely free.

Grace Dent, writing in The Independent, hammers home this fact and points out (albeit somewhat condescendingly) that while it is extremely hard to monetise a good layman’s knowledge of geopolitics, Worrall quite probably has other more practical skills that will stand her in much better stead throughout life:

Gemma has a skill. Gemma will most probably have a thorough understanding of Shellac nail procedures and skin exfoliation. She’ll probably know how to remove excess upper-lip hair, push back cuticles and spray a Fantasy tan without missing elbows or staining knees. So, yes, Gemma seemingly can’t spell Barack Obama. But she will always be in employment.

Meanwhile, the clever person with an arts BA Hons 2.2 who can spell Angela Merkel first time without googling it will be sat at home writing petulant blogs to David Cameron about why the Government hasn’t furnished them with a job as a medieval art curator. We deride the differently skilled and slap down the not quite as sharp, but the country’s cogs turn via the energies of people not quite as bookish as you.

While Dent probably cuts Worrall a little too much slack (inferring in their article that her principle error was the misspelling of ‘Barack Obama’ and not her ignorance of the leadership of her own country), there is surely some degree of truth to her conclusion:

As access to the internet makes many of us feel cleverer, more connected, more omniscient, more infallible, it’s tempting to write off all the people “left behind”.

All those little unthinking people without university degrees who shape our nails, or clean our houses, or mend our toilets, or rewire our kitchens, and can’t even spell a president’s name without messing it up.

But the fact is, they might not know where Ukraine is, and they might not know why Germany doesn’t favour sanctions against Russia, but when the lights go out in your house, they know where the fuse box is and which wires to fiddle with to mend it. And right at that moment that’s a damn sight less stupid than you.

Dent labours the point, but it is an important one. Knowledge and skill come in many forms, and it is quite unreasonable to expect everyone’s spheres of knowledge to coincide with our own – though a basic level of fundamental civics awareness really should not be reaching for the stars.

Fraser Nelson, writing in The Spectator, makes a similar point, but while his critique of the Westminster set is dead-on, his excusing of fundamental ignorance is not:

The Spectator’s great coalition of readers include those who think poetry is more important than politics.  Those who buy us just for Jeremy Clarke and cartoons  are certainly getting their money’s worth (just £1 a week, by the way, sign up here).

If you decide that life’s too short to follow the Westminster tragicomedy, it emphatically does not make you stupid. The societies which tend to make a fuss about the bloke in power tend to be the societies in which you don’t want like to live. The freer the country, the less the need to know who is running the government. That’s why Ms Worrall’s tweet can be seen a sign of something going right, rather than wrong, in Britain today.

But what should be of infinitely more concern to everyone than how many minutes of national and international news Gemma Worrall consumes every evening after she finishes work is the fact that a young woman with a seemingly solid and respectable school education has seemingly emerged from twelve years of compulsory education with next to no knowledge of how her own country operates and is governed.

The Daily Mail informs us that Worrall is not stupid on paper, and has the qualifications to back it up:

While Gemma might not be signing up for Mensa any day soon, she’s certainly no Jade Goody. Softly spoken and articulate, she was educated at a local Catholic school and insists that she has 17 GCSEs — an extraordinary number, as most people obtain 11 at most — in subjects including English, Business Studies, Religious Education, Textiles, Technology and Media Studies, all with passes of grade C and above. She also says she has two A-levels, in Travel and Tourism.

Worrall is educated to A-level standard, and yet she is sorely in need of the type of introductory civics lesson that an American child might reasonably expect to receive by the age of eight. And this blogger has extensive personal anecdotal evidence that Worrall is far from alone in her want for basic knowledge.

How is it possible to gain numerous GCSEs (even if the reported figure of seventeen turns out to be inaccurate) and A-Levels and not pick up some civics knowledge along the way?

More pressingly, perhaps especially today with the need to assimilate immigrants and their children, why is civics – the nuts and bolts of British society, citizenship, law and government – not one of the very few mandatory and inescapable classes for all British children?

Michael Gove, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Ruth Kelly, Charles Clarke, Estelle Morris, David Blunkett, Gillian Shephard, John Patten and Kenneth Clarke: please stand up. Would you care to explain yourselves?