|Number 550||March 28, 2014|
In the last issue of the Notes I said that I hoped to have something about Ukraine "in the near future," and advised people to avoid introducing themselves to the issue via mainstream media sources. That's easier said than done, of course, and that's partly why it's taken me a while to produce this extra-long issue of the Notes: I knew almost literally nothing about Ukraine, and now I know something. This issue of the Notes is not only about what I know, but about how I got there. I hope you'll find it useful.
That's all I have room for in this issue's Editor's Note. Let's go to Ukraine.
"Quote" of the Week The First: "Running the risk of being a pariah state."
From the website Black Agenda Report comes this week's first "Quote" of the Week. This is the voice of analyst Ajamu Baraka, in his March 11th piece "Ukraine and the Pathology of the Liberal Worldview: An African American Perspective":
"When President Obama and members of the corporate elite condemn the Russians for violating international law, the contradictory nature of that position is clear to those of us who are the ongoing victims of Western oppression and whose lives depend on seeing reality as it is.
"From our point of view, it is absolutely bizarre that the same country that violates the sovereignty of other states worldwide with drone strikes, military interventions and political subversion can actually suggest to the Russians that it runs the risk of being a 'pariah' state."
Read the whole piece HERE.
"Quote" of the Week The Second: "Ukraine is a front in a global information war"
This week's second "Quote" of the Week comes from the Centre for Research on Globalization in Canada. Written by the sociologist Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya and entitled "Controlling the Lens: The Media War Being Fought Over Ukraine Between the Western Bloc and Russia; The BBC and CNN versus RT," the piece included the following:
"Ukraine is currently a front, just as Syria and Venezuela are, in a global information war, which is being reflected through a battle of the international media networks. The objectives of this media war are to secure and manage domestic and international public opinion in support or opposition of the coup that took place in Kiev and the new Ukrainian transitional government in Kiev.
"The United States of America used to enjoy a near monopoly in the dissemination of information in the international media, but that has changed over the years as countries like Russia, Iran, China, and Venezuela respectively setup international news networks like Russia Today (RT), Press TV, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), and the pan-Latin American La Nueva Televisora del Sur (teleSUR) to challenge the international media networks of the US and its allies. These new anti-establishment international media networks—if they can be described thus—from Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela, and elsewhere collectively begun to challenge the status quo in the international media."
All of the networks he lists are online, just Google them to watch. His full essay is found on the Global Research website.
The Inter Press Service reported on July 16, 2003 that U.S. officials "were actively preparing the ground within days, even hours, after the 9/11 attacks, for an eventual attack on Iraq, whether or not it had any role in the attacks or any connection to al Qaeda. The challenge, in their view, was to persuade the public that such links either did indeed exist or were sufficiently likely to exist that a preventive strike against Iraq was warranted. Their success in that respect was stunning, although, in order to pull it off, they also had to distort and exaggerate the evidence being collected by U.S. intelligence agencies."
And thus we see that the supposed link between September 11, 2001 and Iraq was one trumped-up pretext for the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. But it wasn't the only one.
The most-invoked pretext for that attack—also trumped-up—was the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and thus posed an imminent threat to the United States. As we now know, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and posed no threat to the U.S.
On October 11, 2002 Senator John Kerry voted to grant President Bush the power to attack Iraq unilaterally, based on both of the above pretexts. Also voting in favor of a unilateral invasion were then-Senator Chuck Hagel, now Secretary of "Defense," and then-Senator Joe Biden, now Vice-President.
In light of those facts, it was truly startling to hear Secretary of State Kerry on the March 2nd edition of CBS's Face The Nation. Host Bob Schieffer asked Kerry's opinion on the Russian incursion the day before into the Crimean peninsula. Here's Kerry's first comment, with italics added by myself:
"Well, it`s an incredible act of aggression. It is really a stunning, willful choice by President Putin to invade another country. Russia is in violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia is in violation of its international obligations. Russia is in violation of its obligations under the U.N. charter, under the Helsinki final act. It`s in violation of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement.
"You just don`t, in the 21st Century, behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext. So it is a very serious moment. But it`s serious not in the context, Bob, of Russia-U.S. It`s serious in terms of, sort of, the modern manner with which nations are going to resolve problems. There are all kinds of other options still available to Russia. There still are."
Now, here is George W. Bush speaking in a press conference two weeks before the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq: "[W]hen it comes to our security, if we need to act, we will act. And we really don't need United Nations approval to do so. . . . When it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's permission." No argument from John Kerry was heard on this point, which makes the following remark from his Face The Nation interview even more telling. Vladimir Putin argues that Russia's incursion into Crimea is justified for security reasons, as it is intended to protect ethnic Russians, who make up nearly 60 percent of the population in Crimea. Responding to that claim, Kerry said to Bob Schieffer:
"I mean, if you have legitimate concerns about your citizens, go to the United Nations. Ask for observers. Engage the other country`s government. There are any number of choices available to Russia. Russia chose this brazen act of aggression and moved in with its forces on a completely trumped-up set of pretexts, claiming that people were threatened.
"And the fact is that that`s not the act of somebody who is strong; that`s the act of somebody who is acting out of weakness and out of a certain kind of desperation."
Here's where I agree with the Secretary of State: An invasion of a sovereign nation based on trumped-up pretexts is, indeed, a sign of weakness and desperation. And this is why peace and justice activists must be very smart. As the United States gets ever weaker in the world system, it's highly likely that the degree of desperation among our leaders—Democrat or Republican, it doesn't matter—will escalate, making future wars more likely than they already are.
A hacked telephone conversation appeared on YouTube in early February that caused quite a sensation. In it, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland was speaking to the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and was heard to say "F**k the Europeans." The recording, "went viral," as they say, prompting headlines like "Diplomat's Expletive Shakes Up EU Relations," and so forth.
But the real news about Victoria Nuland came out (and was ignored) in a December 13th speech she gave to the U.S. Ukraine Foundation. Speaking from a stage adorned with the logos of ExxonMobil and Chevron, Nuland told the crowd that "Ukrainians say they are European," adding that "the people of Ukraine will no longer support any President—this one or a future one—who does not take them to Europe." The Ukrainian people "deserve" a "European future," said Nuland, who explicitly said that a "democratic" state is a "European" state. "It is still possible to save Ukraine's European future," said Nuland, by having "a conversation with Europe and with the International Monetary Fund."
The "reforms that the IMF insists on are necessary," as they will please foreign investors, said Nuland. In fact, she said "there is no other path that would bring Ukraine back to long-term political stability and economic growth."
With the goal of helping Ukraine "to achieve its European aspirations," the United States has "invested over $5 billion"—going back to 1991—to assist those Ukrainians "who believe in [a] democratic and European future for their country."
It seems that Ms. Nuland cannot utter the word "Ukraine" without uttering the $5 billion word "Europe." And therein lies a hint to the geopolitics of the situation, as Immanuel Wallerstein explains in his Commentary No. 371 of February 15th, "The Geopolitics of Ukraine's Schism." Wallerstein begins by noting that "Ukraine has been suffering a profound internal schism for some time now, one that is threatening to become one of those ugly civil wars that are occurring in more and more countries. The boundaries of present-day Ukraine include an east-west cleavage that is linguistic, religious, economic, and cultural, each side being close to 50% of the total."
After noting that schism, Wallerstein goes on to talk explicitly about Victoria Nuland and Ukraine. (As you read his words, keep in mind that a neoconservative, or neocon, is one who the dictionary politely defines as one who "espouses a political ideology characterized by an emphasis on free-market capitalism and an interventionist foreign policy.") Now here's Wallerstein:
"Let us take a look at who is Victoria Nuland. She is a surviving member of the neocon clique that surrounded George W. Bush, in whose government she served. Her husband, Robert Kagan, is one of the best-known ideologues of the neocon group. It is an interesting question what she is doing in such a key position in the Department of State of an Obama presidency. The least he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were supposed to do was to remove the neocons from such a role.
"Now, let us recall what exactly was the neocon line on Europe during the Bush days. The then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously talked of France and Germany as the 'old Europe' in contrast to what he saw as the 'new Europe'—that is, countries who shared Rumsfeld's views on the then-imminent invasion of Iraq. The new Europe was for Rumsfeld Great Britain especially and east-central Europe, the countries formerly part of the Soviet bloc. Ms. Nuland seems to have the same perception of Europe.
"Let me therefore propose that Ukraine is merely a convenient excuse or proxy for a larger geopolitical division that has nothing whatsoever to do with its internal schism. What haunts the Nulands of this world is not a putative 'absorption' of Ukraine by Russia—an eventuality with which she could live. What haunts her and those who share her views is a geopolitical alliance of Germany/France and Russia. The nightmare of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis has receded a little bit since its acme in 2003, when U.S. efforts to have the U.N. Security Council endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 were defeated by France and Germany.
"The nightmare has receded a bit but lurks there just beneath the surface, and for good reason. Such an alliance makes geopolitical sense for Germany/France and Russia. And in geopolitics, what makes sense is a constraint that insisting on ideological differences can affect very little. Geopolitical choices may be tweaked by the individuals in power, but the pressure of long-term national interests remains strong."
I added the emphasis there, to remind people that Wallerstein is relying on a systems analysis, and not on the personality-based analysis that is so common in the media version of events in Ukraine. Or anywhere, for that matter.
The corporate media relies almost exclusively on official sources. Victoria Nuland is a common source; Immanuel Wallerstein is not. And by juxtaposing these recent remarks from the two of them, I hope to underline how important it is NOT to rely on corporate media to introduce you to the subject of Ukraine. The next article outlines an alternative approach for getting yourself up to speed.
P.S. I've kind of given away the ending, but if you want to read all of Wallerstein's commentary, it's on the web. You can also watch Nuland's speech if you like (it's only about nine minutes long: Count the number of times she says "Europe"!). Go HERE and search for "Nuland."
The first tip I give people to avoid being victimized by the (conscious or unconscious) propaganda that flows into our minds via the media is this: NEVER USE NEWS MEDIA TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO A SUBJECT. That is, when an issue or a region about which you know nothing suddenly pops into the daily news cycle, I advise taking the time to 1. Recall how the media works; 2. Get the Big Picture in your head; 3. Practice Political Empathy, and 4. Seek out alternative points of view. And do all this BEFORE you read even one word of whatever is on the front pages.
In practice, it's hard for an activist—or anyone who likes to think of themselves as being "informed"—to ignore the daily news. And we really can't afford to ignore the daily news, since it plays such an important role in shaping political reality. The point is not to ignore it, but to learn how to deal with it.
I was on vacation (and not looking at newspapers or anything else that wasn't a bird) when the news about Ukraine exploded, so to speak. When I got back and saw that Ukraine was all over the front pages, I had a perfect opportunity to follow my own advice and attempt to educate myself before I subjected myself to the party line as it appeared in the media. I realized that I knew almost literally nothing about Ukraine. So, where to start?
The Starting Point
The starting point is always the knowledge that corporate media—for millions of reasons that I have tried to point out in these pages over the years—typically base their reporting on some sort of official "line." Included in those million reasons are the facts that: Big-time journalists favor big-time (i.e. powerful, official) sources; their beats are the halls of power, and; they don't have the energy or the resources to do what is called "enterprise reporting," which is defined as "reporting that is not generated by news or a press release." So they absorb and rely upon the ABCs (Assumptions, Beliefs, and Conceptions about the world) that are used by their sources. The first assumption they absorb is the assumption about newsworthiness. What is important enough to make the front pages? In the case of Ukraine, as in any case, we should keep in mind first of all that this story would likely not be on the front pages unless U.S. leaders were worried about it. Then the question arises: Why are U.S. leaders worried about it?
Here's what President Obama said on February 19th: "Our approach as the United States is not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future..." Here it is good to bear in mind the wise words of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn: "Never believe anything until it has been officially denied."
Following Cockburn's advice yields two assumptions about the Ukraine story. The first is that competition with Russia—and the larger geopolitics of the relationship between the Great Powers—is a big part of the U.S. approach. The second assumption is that the media will base its reporting on the denial of that truth, as articulated by the President. So the starting point with the Ukraine story is to notice the official line, and to have an awareness that the key to the real story lies elsewhere. In order to see that more clearly, we need to back up enough to allow us to see the big picture. That is, what is the nature of this "Cold War chessboard," the existence of which the President is so eager to deny?
The Big Picture
We are talking about geopolitics, which involves the influence of economics, geography, and politics on the relations between nations. So, what are the geopolitics of Ukraine? In general, I suggest that activists should have a list of "go-to" sources of various types to which we can turn for background and context when confronted with a new area of concern. I'll list just two right now. (More appear elsewhere in this issue of the Notes.)
One of the first sources upon which I call when I want to understand the geopolitics of Ukraine, or anywhere, is world-systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein. Sure enough, on February 15th he published a short piece called "The Geopolitics of Ukraine's Schism." I quote it extensively elsewhere in this issue of the Notes, so here I'll just point out that Wallerstein situates Ukraine in the context of the massive realignment of the World Order that has been going on for decades.
Specific to the region of Eastern Europe is the excellent Diana Johnstone. Her article "Ukraine and Yugoslavia" succinctly explains the role of the now-global military alliance called NATO in the whole Ukraine mess. It's not only NATO, of course. Here's a sample of Johnstone's analysis: "US-Russian relations are determined primarily by an ongoing U.S. geostrategic hostility to Russia which is partly a matter of habit or inertia, partly a realization of the Brzezinski strategy [that's former Jimmy Carter adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski] of dividing Eurasia in order to maintain US world hegemony, and partly a reflection of Israeli-dominated Middle East policy toward Syria and Iran." That's a Big Picture! Find the Johnstone article HERE.
Empathy is the act of putting oneself in the shoes of another, trying to experience things as that other person might be experiencing them. Political empathy, then, is simply the act of seeing things from the other side of a political divide. Political empathy is extremely useful in understanding international conflict. Especially when we consider that the conditions for war are greatly enhanced by a propaganda process that I call "Evilization," in which the population is trained to see the designated enemy—its leadership, institutions, or media—as immoral, crazy, or less than human. As in any propaganda exercise, facts are secondary. Media and other information sources must simply attribute to the "enemy" any characteristics that may be seen to make that "enemy" appear to be responsible, or potentially responsible, for evil. That's why I call it Evilization. Empathy is important precisely because it makes Evilization much more difficult.
Empathy is not on the minds of the editors and reporters in the corporate media, as we can see in this snippet from the New York Times of March 2nd: "Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. 'In another world,' she said." And here is USA Today, opining on March 4 that Putin's "behavior increasingly suggests... that he is out of touch with reality."
So that's the mainstream view: We're dealing with a dangerous nutcase who must be stopped by any means necessary. A little bit of political empathy would come in handy here. It isn't hard to find, at least not for those willing to turn away from the mainstream media. Speaking of Russian actions in Crimea, Diana Johnstone, for instance, encourages us to "Simply compare. Is Russia urging Quebec to secede from Canada so that the province can join a military alliance led by Moscow?"
A more-specific example of political empathy was seen on the news show Democracy Now! of February 24th, which featured a lengthy interview with Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton University. Cohen encourages us to:
The Evilization of Russia has been underway for some time. Even with the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. media's danger focus was firmly on the official enemy, as seen in a February 4th NY Times headline: "Terrorism and Tension for Sochi, Not Sports and Joy." The focus appears to have been misplaced, since there was no terror at the Olympics. There was, however, a very real long-term danger that could be glimpsed by those watching the Sochi Olympics. And that was the balmy weather and lack of snow that led National Geographic to warn that "Climate Change Threatens the Future of the Winter Olympics." And the future of homo sapiens, I might add.
Readers would benefit from looking at Professor Cohen's article in the March 3rd edition of The Nation Magazine, "Distorting Russia: How the American Media Misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine." http://www.thenation.com/article/178344/distorting-russia#
Warning: If and when you attempt to empathize with the "other side," your attempt may make some people think that you are against "our side." The answer to that is to point out that, when empathy is grounded in a systems orientation, there really aren't any "sides," or at least not just two of them. Even at the current moment, where it may seem like there are clearly three sides—Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S.—there are other important systems and actors: Syria, NATO, Germany, various corporate (read: Energy) interests, and on and on. As always, there are systems and conditions, functioning at the same time and in relation to one another, and all together they produce certain outcomes. The trick is to get a glimpse of as many of the moving parts as we can, keep them in our heads simultaneously, and remember that the present moment emerges from a long and complex history. That's where empathy comes from: Remembering that every moment has a long history and that every person and nation has a complex story.
Alternative Points of View
Remember that our starting point is the assumption that corporate media will construct a story drawn from the perspective of their sources, which will tend to be high-ranking, official sources drawn from "our" side. (Making that assumption is not a reflex, but rather comes from long observation of the media business.) The narrative that emerges from such a process is predictably self-serving and aimed at putting our leaders, and our country, in the best possible light. That's understandable—we all try to construct narratives that put us in the best possible light, do we not?—but lacking an opposing perspective makes it nearly impossible to make sense of any situation.
In the following article I offer a lengthy list of alternative sources of information about the Ukraine crisis. It's very one-sided, and intentionally so. The other side is so well-represented in the daily press that you will need no help from me to get that perspective. Since that might lead some to accuse me of being "biased" or "one-sided," I'll stress again that the nature of my list is based on what I always think should be an obvious pair of assumptions. First, that most people have gotten most of their information from the daily media, intentionally or not. My second assumption is that most people will, as a result, find themselves with a serious information deficit. It's been my experience that the people who attend to the news most closely are often the most victimized by this dynamic. (Readers of the New York Times and listeners to NPR: Beware!)
Another caveat: The value of "alternative" points of view is not necessarily that they provide the "truth" about the issue. They simply provide more information, which hopefully will help us to see more clearly the nature of the crisis and thus to understand what might be done. And that's the point, after all.
So, to review, here are the Nygaard Notes Four Steps to take before looking at the headlines of the day:
1. Remember that corporate media generally responds to power, which breeds propaganda.
2. Try to get the Big Picture in your mind before getting the details about anything from anywhere. Out-of-context details lead us astray.
3. Practice Political Empathy as a way of fending off Evilization.
4. Seek out Alternative Points of View. It's not that these points of view have "the truth." They just give us alternatives to consider. Complexity is the enemy of propaganda.
What follows is a list of sources that I've used to get myself ready to tune in to the news about Ukraine. I've somewhat arbitrarily grouped them based on what I think are their strengths, but many of them look at the issue from multiple angles and acknowledge the complexity of the issue. And that's partly why I recommend them.
To get an idea of the Big Picture—the geopolitics of the crisis in Ukraine—I recommend reading Immanuel Wallerstein's commentary "The Geopolitics of Ukraine's Schism." I would follow that up with Diana Johnstone's "Ukraine and Yugoslavia."
Juan Cole's article, "Russian Annexation of Crimea, Israeli Annexation of Palestine," calls into question U.S. concern with "self-determination."
Central to the geopolitics of Ukraine is NATO, the U.S.-dominated military alliance that is rapidly becoming global, and is aimed in part at encircling Russia. The website STOP NATO provides daily news and analysis from sources around the world that aims "to document and oppose global militarist trends and an expanding theater of war that began in the Balkans in the 1990s."
University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle has a lot to say about NATO, as well. Google him.
Still another perspective on NATO and Ukraine is offered by anti-nuclear activist Bruce Gagnon, in his piece "Boxing in the Bear."
To counter the standard dualistic angle on the crisis (U.S.: Good. Russia: Bad.), it's useful to listen to a few voices that suggest possible motives for U.S. actions that differ from the official ones. And don't forget to seek out evidence that there may be more driving the Russian response than pure Evil. A number of pieces have been published that help in this regard.
I quote Stephen F. Cohen elsewhere in this issue of the Notes, and I recommend reading his article in The Nation magazine, "Distorting Russia: How the American Media Misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine."
On March 13th the Inter Press Service published a brief article offering a readable bit of history called "Ukraine-Crimea-Russia and the West" by Johan Galtung. Here we learn, for example, that Nikita Krushchev was Ukrainian. Who was Nikita Krushchev, and why do we care? Galtung explains.
Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, published "10 Things to Remember about the Crisis in Ukraine and Crimea" on March 3rd. Brief, lots of history.
If you haven't looked at a map of the region, that would be a good idea. Most of the articles or reports in the corporate media that claim to be a "timeline" or a "history of the conflict" are either very superficial or misleading in other ways. Avoid them.
An understanding of the dynamic of white supremacy is always helpful in trying to understand U.S. foreign policy. Where does white supremacy come into the picture of Ukraine? Analyst Ajamu Baraka eloquently explains in his piece "Ukraine and the Pathology of the Liberal Worldview: An African American Perspective." Search the website of Black Agenda Report for this article and more on Ukraine.
The radical website Counterpunch always offers a platform to voices that are outside the mainstream. Currently on their website you'll find articles on Ukraine from people like Seumas Milne, Conn Hallinan, and John Pilger. (Full disclosure: Counterpunch has published articles from Nygaard Notes on various occasions.)
Al-Jazeera English is always a good source for "outside-the-U.S." points of view. Go to their website and search for "Ukraine." Their Timeline of Ukraine's political crisis is useful.
The World Socialist Website is another good source of radical, outside-the-mainstream interpretations of current events, Ukraine included.
A thoughtful, if sarcastic, perspective from a leader of France's Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, can be found online HERE.
Looking at this lengthy list of sources, I would imagine that some questions might come to mind. Such as: How did I find them? How do I evaluate them? How do I know these are good sources? Well, that's a subject for a future Nygaard Notes. Stay tuned.