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March 7: Unity
Like many voices in the West, The Economist appears delighted by one of the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The title of a current article contains the self-congratulatory message: “Russian aggression is prompting rare unity and severe reprisals.” The New York Times made the same point with its own more melodramatic rhetoric. “In a few frantic days,” a trio of Times reporters wrote, “the West threw out the standard playbook that it had used for decades and instead marshaled a stunning show of unity against Russia’s brutal aggression in the heart of Europe.”
Unity is stunning, and The Economist’s “severe reprisals” are the icing on the cake that demonstrate the West’s vaunted ability, according to The Times, to respond “on a global scale and with dizzying speed.” So why is beleaguered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy now complaining about not getting the support he expected?
Emmanuel Macron’s Chance to Appear Transformative
The suffering of the Ukrainian people and their president’s complaints apparently haven’t dampened the West’s penchant for self-congratulation. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, writing for The Washington Post, goes further in summing up US optimism: “It’s too early to think in these terms, but a NATO that perhaps also has Sweden and Finland as members should be ready to invite both Ukraine and Russia to join.”
It’s the dream of every politician inside the Beltway and nearly everyone in Arlington and Langley: the evocation of a new Europe enthusiastically and harmoniously united under the US military leadership. Bildt nevertheless concludes on a note of appropriate humility and even a dose of realism: “But before we get there, much will happen, little of which we can foresee today.”
Harvard University also noticed the phenomenon, which it describes as “a much-needed wake-up call for Europe.” In the interest of offering some much-needed perspective, Harvard mobilized two serious thinkers for a panel discussion. The noted theorist and professor of international affairs, Stephen Walt, argued that “the war in Ukraine has in some respects dispelled a whole series of liberal illusions that misled many people during the post-Cold War period.”
This remark is particularly apt at a time when the entire US establishment, led by a Democratic administration that has been obsessed by the Russian threat since losing the 2016 election to Donald Trump, is currently using the power of the media to recreate a dangerously bellicose Cold War atmosphere.
Walt’s analysis dares to call into question the major assumptions inculcated by US media in its presentation of the stakes of the current crisis. He unveils some of the “liberal illusions” that other less charitable analysts might more appropriately call a case of systemic, voluntary blindness. Among the illusions he cites “the idea that a major war could never happen again in Europe, and that the spread of economic interdependence and the expansion of NATO would mean that ‘eventually all of Europe would be a vast zone of peace.’”
These were essentially acts of faith shared by every administration and promoted by the massive security state and military-industrial for the last 30 years. They stemmed from the neoliberal conviction that a stable American economy required a system based on subsidizing an industrial core focused on military technology that was also indirectly coupled with the consumer market. The military side, through the global presence of US armed forces, guaranteed unencumbered access to the resources required to produce the technology. The military also served as the initial outlet for the technology’s use.
This rational system supposedly respectful of free markets that was launched in the aftermath of World War II rapidly turned into a “liberal” version of a new version of state socialism with global reach. It imperceptibly acquired the attributes needed to build a modern hypertechnologized hegemon.
Alas, its very scope and several of the mistakes it produced along the way made the formerly invisible model of state socialism visible to critics. It became increasingly clear that the institutions of a democratic nation had become dominated by a financial and political elite. They even had a name, “the 1%.” They banded together to fuel, manage and monitor the system they had put in place. Politics was redesigned to meet their needs rather than those of the people.
Liberal Orthodoxy at the Service of State Socialism
The world has seen three contrasting models of state socialism in the past century, as well as a fourth and highly aggressive one — fascism. That one was thankfully eliminated at the end of the Second World War, discredited for providing a model that was too in your face. Fascism’s focus on military technology and the media’s role in disseminating nationalistic propaganda nevertheless provided models that influenced the other versions of state socialism. The three other more solidly built models are those of the Soviet Union, the US and China.
The Soviet model ultimately failed because it was frozen into an ideology crafted in the 19th century that took no account of an evolving world. The American model gradually took form, initially as a reaction to the particularly aggressive version of laissez-faire capitalism that emerged in the late 19th century. Its taming began in the 20th century with the anti-trust movement.
Eschewing any form of collectivist ideology, the US model subtly and nearly invisibly imposed its collectivist nature through its understanding of the power of media and the birth of the “science” of public relations, pioneered in the early decades of the 20thcentury by Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. These consultants worked in the darker shadows of the corridors of political and economic power. Unlike Marx and Lenin, they were cleverly prevented by their handlers from being seen on center stage as they honed the powerful ideology that undergirded the new American version of state socialism. They and their ideology remained too invisible to criticize.
The new ideology nevertheless didn’t go unnoticed. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky engaged a valiant effort to articulate criticism of it in their book “Manufacturing Consent.” And they did so with great precision. But their thesis focusing on the oppressive power of the media at the service of a corporate and governmental oligarchy became known only to a marginal segment of the population.
The new ideology nevertheless didn’t go unnoticed. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky engaged a valiant effort to articulate criticism of it in their book “Manufacturing Consent.” And they did so with great precision. But their thesis focusing on the oppressive power of the media at the service of a corporate and governmental oligarchy became known only to a marginal segment of the population. The media it criticized predictably ignored it, ensuring the invisibility of the true structure of a system of state socialism.
In traditional centralized power systems — and this is true in many nations even today — the lack of cultural influence of their media forces them to resort to direct censorship. In an evolved system in which the media has attained a superficial image of autonomy, government censorship serves no purpose because it can count on the media to self-censor. Indeed, any attempt to censor calls attention to what the government prefers people simply to ignore.
China has turned out to be a special case. With the Communist Party running the government, it is archetypically a socialist state. But it has learned some of the lessons provided by the US example, including the admiration of personal wealth stemming from the traditional Chinese celebration of prosperity.
Because many Westerners have traditionally labeled Chinese culture “inscrutable,” American establishment strategists, attracted by the dynamics of the Chinese economy but repelled by its political culture, appear to be floundering about in their quest to categorize the evil they desperately want to see as the essence of a perceived powerful rival. It was easy for Americans to dismiss the Soviet Union as a relic of a 19th-century worldview. In contrast, China’s state socialism is oriented toward the future, notably with its emphasis on technology and proactive concern with infrastructure.
Moreover, in too many ways, China’s state socialism resembles the US version, which means criticizing China might invite self-criticism. Worse, instead of placing all its faith in the ruling class as the US does with its trickle-down economics, China factors into many of its policies the needs of the entire population. That, as Edward Bernays might remark, gives it a certain PR advantage.
At the Harvard event, the Atlantic Council’s Benjamin Haddad represented a point of view more consistent with the optics of the US security state. But, in contrast with The Post’s editorialist, he noted that “something much deeper is happening in Europe that will have really long-term consequences.” He has dared to express the heterodox view that, instead of perceiving an increased need for NATO, Europe may now be calling into question its traditional acceptance of US leadership.
As such debates continue in the US, the Ukrainian people and President Zelenskyy appear to be losing patience with NATO and the US, who have expressed their undying love for the country while refusing to save it from a situation they created. They may be well placed to appreciate Stephen Walt’s observation that “powerful countries often do pretty horrible things when they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their security is being endangered.” The US and NATO are more worried about their own security than Ukraine’s. On that, they are in total agreement with Vladimir Putin.
Why Monitoring Language Is Important
Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.
In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.
Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.
Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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