Friday, December 24, 2004

How Did the Blogosphere Get Fooled on Ukraine? (complete - including Part III: "Blogging as Propaganda or Disturbing Discoshaman")


Firstly, I want to make clear that in saying the blogosphere was “fooled” – or, more exactly, that large parts of the blogosphere were so – on Ukraine, I do not mean to suggest that Kuchma, Yanukovich, and “the blue” (Yanukovich supporters have a color too) are the “good guys” and Yushchenko, Timoshenko, and “the orange”, the “bad guys”. I do not think it is appropriate or useful or, frankly, particularly adult to analyze politics in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys”. When the NYTimes declares Viktor Yushchenko a “liberal” or Claudia Rosett of the Wall Street Journal pronounces him the “democratic candidate”, or when Nicholas Kristof pronounces presumed Yanukovich sponsor Vladimir Putin a “fascist” (while expressing a charming and rather revealing preference for “fascism” over communism no less!) or when CNN describes Yanukovich himself as a “nationalist”, all that the deployment of such terms serves to accomplish is to demarcate the “goodies” from the “baddies” – while having the unfortunate side-effect of simultaneously emptying otherwise perfectly useful categories of political philosophy of their specific content.

Ukraine is a multi-party parliamentary democracy which has held several both presidential and parliamentary elections in the presence of international observers since 1994. For all the chat about inspiring "democrats", on the one hand, and nasty "authoritarians", on the other, Viktor Yanukovich has never, to my knowledge, officially expressed hostility to parliamentary democracy as such. (Incidentally, it is one of the defining characteristics of those movements that historically identified themselves as “fascist” that they did express such hostility.) The present democratic constitution of Ukraine was adopted under the leadership of Yanukovich's presumed mentor Leonid Kuchma and it is precisely Yanukovich and Kuchma - not Yushchenko and Timoshenko - who were pushing for the recently adopted raft of constitutional reforms that transfer powers to parliament. So, in short, to call Viktor Yushchenko alone the “democratic candidate” is not in fact, as it might otherwise appear, to say anything about the respective programs or political ideologies of the two candidates, but implicitly to insinuate something about their characters: i.e., Yushchenko is the “good guy” who “really” won the election and Yanukovich is the “bad guy” who cheated.

As for the description of Yanukovich as a “nationalist”, for all I know he may well be one – but being a native Russian-speaker who has his most solid base of support among the Russophone minority of the Eastern Ukraine and whose political party is named the “Party of Regions”, he is most certainly not a Ukrainian nationalist. On the other hand, as has been discussed here (see, in particular, the “update”), openly Ukrainian nationalist forces – more precisely, Ukrainian ethnic-nationalist forces – including political formations that have direct historical links to movements that well deserve the designation “fascist” or, to be more precise, Nazi, do indeed form part of the “orange” coalition. As has likewise been seen here, moreover, representatives of these formations and press organs openly supporting the "Orange" have traded in overtly anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing.

My question is this: why has the Anglophone blogosphere by and large followed the MSM’s storybook characterizations of the Ukraine contest as one between a “liberal” and “democratic” “orange” coalition - the "good guys" - on the one hand, and “fascistic” and “nationalistic” Kremlinites - the "bad guys" - on the other, when the reality, to say the least, is evidently far more complex? I might add to that: given that polling data collected prior to the election showed Ukraine to be roughly divided between support for the “orange” and support for the “blue” (I cite one such poll here), and given, furthermore, that these findings were largely corroborated by the results of the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, why has so much of the blogosphere, again following the lead of the MSM, seemingly excised roughly half of the Ukrainian people...from the Ukrainian people?

Part I: A Structural Problem or A Ukrainian Fable

The vigilance of the supposedly “right-wing” or “conservative” segments of the Anglophone blogosphere with regard to the distortions of the established “mainstream” media undoubtedly made a major contribution to George W. Bush’s November election victory. Each time the NYTimes or CBS or CNN or the foregoing all together threw out what was supposed to be a bombshell story sure to derail Bush’s electoral chances – the National Guard memos, the "missing" Iraqi explosives, the “100,000” Iraqi war dead, and so on – the most enterprising representatives of the “new” media were there to examine the sources, expose their flaws or ambiguities and defuse it. As a result, the stories did not “take”. Minimally, their veracity remained highly contested or, maximally, as in the case of the memo story, they were exposed as outright falsifications.

By contrast, the Ukrainian election saga as told by the same established media has most decidedly “taken”, and, ironically, some of the same influential addresses of the blogosphere that just weeks ago were busy punching gaping holes in the established media’s pseudo-scoop du jour have in this connection served as their echo chamber. The Ukrainian election saga is a tale of two Viktors: Viktor “the Good” and Viktor “the Bad”: the latter the scourge of the Ukrainian people prepared to deliver them to the Kremlinite tyranny of Vlad the Terrible; the former their savior, battling the forces of easterly darkness in order to lead his people through the gates of the European Union and into “the West”. In light of some inconvenient sociological and historical facts – most notably, the well documented preference of roughly half of the people in question for the bad Viktor and even their traditional sympathy for the empire of the terrible Vlad – it is not a particularly plausible story. It is no more plausible indeed than the story that has been making the rounds in large parts of the European media for the last three years or so to the effect that in a far off land called “Amerika”, one George W. Bush, the – variously – pampered, dissolute, bumbling, sinister, and so on, scion of an Amerikan “dynasty”, “stole” the 2000 presidential elections and then, exploiting a certain catastrophe (which this same “Amerika”, incidentally, either brought upon itself or in fact concocted), delivered the country to a tiny cabal of neo-Conservative ideologues who have since run roughshod over civil liberties, seized control of the mass media and put in place a quasi-“fascist” “dictatorship”. If the results of the 2004 American elections had been closer or if America was weaker, I guarantee you that this story with some new installments – for instance, shameless intimidation of “minorities” in American polling places (a favorite Democratic canard to which the OSCE, incidentally, has lent some credence) – would still be Page One news today in the mainstream European press. Even leaving aside the fundamental sociological and historical implausibility of the saga of the two Viktors, moreover, it has also included a spectacular “bombshell” episode: the alleged poisoning of the good Viktor presumably by forces linked to the bad and/or the terrible Vlad. As has been seen here, this supposed “bombshell” – thrown out onto the Anglophone market by the same news organizations and sometimes the very same reporters that only recently were tossing out the Bush National Guard memos or the “100,000” Iraqi war dead – is so full of unlikely twists and turns and outright contradictions that it would seem to be a natural candidate for the sort of scrutiny in which the most estimable parts of the blogosphere lately specialized.

Why, then, has the blogosphere for the most part persisted in cheerleading for Viktor Yushchenko and the “orange revolution” and remained silent on all the incongruous elements in the Ukraine story that should minimally have encouraged uninterested parties to maintain a certain reserve towards its outcome and (both) its principals? Well, one obvious reason is of a simple structural nature. The blogosphere as a rule does not speak Ukrainian. As noted, in the midst of the American election campaign, the “new” media proved their worth and their relative independence of the “old” by going to the sources of the latter’s ostensible scoops and subjecting them to a level of scrutiny far greater than that on which the “old” media organizations themselves, whether by reason of bias or laziness or whatever, had insisted. But in the Ukraine case, the most fundamental sources are in a language that is almost entirely inaccessible to the blogosphere. (Concerning the “bombshell” story, which happened to have an Austrian clinic as its setting, and concerning the ancillary background of European/German interest in the Ukrainian elections, I have tried to help a bit on Trans-Int by citing some German-language sources.) The overwhelming majority of English-speakers – or, for that matter, French-speakers, German-speakers, etc. – cannot follow developments in Ukrainian politics first-hand: they cannot read or listen to the public statements of Viktor Yanukovich or Viktor Yushchenko, they cannot follow debates in the Ukrainian parliament, they cannot consult the Ukrainian press (certain markedly “pro-Orange” parts of which, notably the newspaper Silski Visti, have been charged with anti-Semitic hate-mongering). So, in the absence of more well-researched, balanced reporting in the English-language media, the saga of the two Viktors could easily substitute itself in the Anglophone discussions for real information.

Nonetheless, given the diminished credibility of the established media, this situation could just as well have led to a certain agnosticism or disinterest toward the Ukraine story in the Anglophone blogosphere. If it did not, I would suggest that this is because of a further factor: this one of an ideological nature.

Part II: The Return of the Cold War

The Cold War is over, people. But one would not know it from the Anglophone media’s reactions to the current Ukraine crisis. In response to Ukraine's supposed “democratic revolution” – which, as noted here, displays all the characteristics of what in more common language would be called a coup d’état – the lion has laid down with the lamb: with commentators from the NYTimes and the Wall Street Journal being equally eager to serve as cheerleaders for “the Orange” in their ostensible battle against Soviet – uh, well, Russian anyway – tyranny. This remarkable unanimity has been largely reflected in the “new” media too, among which the comforting familiarity of an apparently recognizable enemy – the ex-KGB man Vladmir Putin – has somehow managed to make even some until lately rather Europhobic sectors of the blogosphere believe that Europe and the US are again somehow united by common interests and values in face of the Soviet – well, Russian – threat and that the EU’s favorite, Viktor Yushchenko, must, then, be America’s choice as well. How quickly they forget. For anyone who still harbors doubts about the depths of the antagonism towards America that has become commonplace in the Franco-German “heart” of the EU, may I recommend my earlier pieces “The Legend of the Squandered Sympathy” and “American Beheaders”.

The relation between the US, the EU and Russia is today a triangular one. Indeed, if there is a fundamental and volatile fissure today it is between the US, on the one hand, and the Franco-German “axis” and its inner-European satellites, on the other. Russia, which is in an economically and strategically weak position vis-à-vis both, has largely attempted within the limits of its abilities to avoid committing to one camp or the other. Although in certain parts of the blogosphere and the Anglophone media more generally, it is commonly imagined that Russia was a leading player in the opposition to the US-led intervention in Iraq, in fact the official attitude of Russia to the Iraq War confirms this hypothesis. Whereas Russia was indeed at a certain point seen to rally to the self-styled Franco-German “axis of peace”, Russian authorities have as a rule – and in marked contrast to their German and French colleagues – avoided calling into question America’s rationale for taking action. Indeed, as I have already noted on this blog, when the French, German, and Russia Foreign Ministers held a joint press conference on 5 March 2003, ostensibly to demonstrate their joint resolve on the Iraq question, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov merely indicated that Russia might use its veto to block a proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Since, however, French President Jacques Chirac had already announced that France would use its veto, the Russian threat was superfluous. It was, in short, like Russia’s recent commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, a sop to the EU and nothing more.

In any case, by falling back upon Cold War schemas, some of the, let’s say, anti-anti-American sectors of the blogosphere have inadvertently provided ammunition to their enemies. As I have repeatedly noted here, there is much evidence that Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovich did indeed have significant popular support in Ukraine: notably in its Russophone east. Hence, the possibility of a Yanukovich victory in the November elections was hardly implausible. The actual division of Ukraine between the pro-Yushchenko "Orange" and the pro-Yanukovich "Blue" has, however, been effaced by the fable of the Ukrainian people, seemingly as one solid mass, rising up against Kremlinite tyranny. Nicholas Kristof did not even wait for the results of the Ukrainian election re-run to make use of this simplification against the current American administration and its Iraq policy. Thus, he notes in his NYTimes column of 8 December that “These days, Ukraine’s pro-democracy leader, Viktor Yushchenko, is promising to pull Ukraine’s troops out of Iraq. A Ukraine that is responsive to public opinion, it seems, will not be a member of our coalition.” Nice work, guys....

Part III: "Blogging as Propaganda or Disturbing Discoshaman"

The “Orange Revolution” has made an internet star of “Discoshaman”, the host of the blog known either as Le Sabot Post-Moderne or The Postmodern Clog. A simple Google search will turn up ample evidence of the extent to which various of the “bigs” of the blogosphere abjured the search for balanced reporting and factual background on the Ukraine situation in favor of the highly subjective live-blogging of the “revolution” by the unabashed “Orange” groupie Discoshaman. “Here’s a guy who’s there,” an endorsement from Andrew Sullivan on the homepage of The Postmodern Clog reads, “And, yes, the revolution will be blogged.”

For the purpose of exhibiting the fundamental righteousness of the “Orange Revolution”, the Discoshaman seemed too good to be true. He was exceedingly hip, as the trendy moniker and obscure French blog title make clear. His blog had lots of cool pictures direct from Kiev, including, among other inspiring subjects: festive young people in orange accessories, quaint old ones in folkloric garb, and, uh,…big beefy dudes in military camouflage and orange armbands, whom the “Discoshaman” genteelly dubs “Yushchenko’s peacekeeping force”. He even had a blogger wife with an equally neat handle – “Tulipgirl” – and Disco and Tulip had a gaggle of cute kids (“my yellow-haired monkeys”), whose pictures also turn up on the blog or on pages linked from it. What more could possibly be needed to know that in the global, nay cosmic, struggle of niceness against not-niceness, Disco and Tulip were on the side of the nice? Best of all for the pro-Bush sectors of the Blogosphere, feeling their oats after President Bush’s re-election and who might otherwise not have known quite what to make of the Ukraine crisis, the Discoshaman was an open right-winger, a pious Christian and a fervent supporter of our troops in Iraq. If the Discoshaman did not exist, the “Orange Revolution” would most certainly have had to create him.

But closer scrutiny of the Postmodern Clog reveals a number of disturbing inconsistencies in the Discoshaman’s self-presentation as innocent chronicler and exegete of the “Orange Revolution”.

To start with, if the Discoshaman is such a great supporter of President Bush and the American-led intervention in Iraq, why has the fact that Viktor Yushchenko has made the withdrawal of Ukraine’s troop contingent in Iraq a centerpiece of his election campaign seemingly not registered in his estimation of the man and the movement he leads? This fact alone need not, of course, have led Discoshaman to abandon his faith in “the Orange”. But given his ostensible political convictions and given his self-appointed vocation to report on and even “explain” the “Orange Revolution” to the folks back home, it would at least seem to merit some reflection. A search for “Iraq” on the Postmodern Clog turns up a number of posts with generically “right-wing” ruminations on Abu-Ghraib, the search for weapons of mass destruction, the failings of the UN, etc. – but nothing whatsoever on Iraq in connection with Viktor Yushchenko and the Orange Coalition. (If I have missed something of relevance in this connection, I would welcome comments or an e-mail to my address in the Profile section.)

A November 30th post does refer obliquely to Yushchenko’s stance on Iraq, but only in order to dismiss its relevance, since somehow the “Orange Revolution” is supposed to be above politics. “The Left-Right concensus [sic.] on democracy in Ukraine is incredibly precious to me,” Discoshaman writes, “It's precisely for this reason that I'm fisking the small segment of the Left which is working to fracture that alliance. We NEED both sides with us. I could not be less interested in scoring cheap political points about American politics. If you doubt me, consider this -- a Yushchenko win will likely cost America a member of the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ Do I seem concerned?” Well, no. And given that the already thinly-stretched American military will presumably have to dispatch another division to Iraq to replace the parting Ukrainians and that these soldiers will be at risk and some might die – this indifference on the part of a self-professed "conservative" is somewhat unusual. (Incidentally, such consequences of a Yushchenko victory have been noted by a couple of posters on Free Republic - and, to my knowledge, virtually nowhere else on the Web.)

Discoshaman has not been able entirely to ignore the charges of anti-Semitism directed at certain components of the “Our Ukraine” coalition. But his characteristically glib response to them raises more questions than it answers. In a 28 November post, the Discoshaman appeals, in effect, to his supposedly privileged status as witness of the “revolution” – or, in Andrew Sullivan’s phrase, “a guy who’s there” – in order to reassure his readers that the charges are baseless. “I have seen ZERO evidence of anti-Semitism during the protests,” Discoshaman writes. That’s fine and may even be true. But it fails to engage the existing documentary evidence of anti-Semitic tendencies among important segments of Ukrainian society that openly support Yushchenko’s candidacy: notably, such evidence as has come to light in connection with the Silski Visti affair.

In an update to his 28 November post, moreover, Discoshaman adds: “I forgot to include the fact that Yanukovych's campaign hired a neo-fascist group to campaign on behalf of Yushchenko. Yushchenko promptly denounced both them and the agitprop itself. But don't expect those attacking him to mention that fact when using this alleged endorsement against him.” As is again typical for the Discoshaman, no evidence, let alone source, is given for the charge that the Yanukovich campaign hired a neo-fascist group to campaign for Yushchenko. We are supposed simply to take it for granted that Discoshaman has it on good authority. Presumably, the episode that Discoshaman has in mind – since he provides no specifics, we are obliged to speculate – was a pro-Yushchenko rally held in Kiev by the UNA-UNSO [Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self-Defense], at which participants are said to have displayed SS insignia and given the Hitler-salute. As noted here, Viktor Yushchenko did indeed denounce the proceedings. However, as likewise noted here, he was at the same time careful to distinguish the UNA-UNSO that is alleged to have organized the rally from the “‘UNA-UNSO’ organization headed by Andriy Shkil,” which via the Yulia Timoshenko Block is an acknowledged member of the “Orange” coalition. Now, if one is to judge by the writings of Andriy Shkil himself, which among other things – and as quoted in English on the UNA-UNSO’s own website – openly endorse the ideas of Nazi “racial theorist” Walter Darré, the UNA-UNSO of Shkil richly deserves to be qualified as a “neo-Fascist”, if not indeed, more precisely, neo-Nazi organization.

It would be easy to multiply examples of such glaring lacunae in Discoshaman's blogging of the "revolution". The hagiographic presentation of Yulia Timoshenko is notably cleansed of the many shady aspects of the would-be revolutionary heroine's vita - not to mention of her frequenting of the likes of Shkil.

The friendly but fatuous style of the Postmodern Clog - and it is curious that this same style extends also to a large part of the commentaries on the site - lends itself perfectly to the purposes of propaganda. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the Discoshaman is in fact an English language editor working for the "Orange" youth organization PORA. He himself announces this in a post dated 24 November that is reproduced on Free Republic. Indeed, the title of the original post as reproduced on Free Republic is "Updates from PORA -- The Revolution WILL be blogged". The references to PORA have, however, been removed from the archived version of the post on the Postmodern Clog - as has the cheerful admission "I am writing from HQ".

To those bloggers who have in good faith adopted the Discoshaman as their authoritative source on the Orange "revolution", I would suggest the following: you have been used.