Human Rights Watch has called his record “abysmal.” He kidnaps and beats journalists, steals foreign-aid money, and tortures and kills political opponents. He demonizes gays and whites. But, as we’ve seenpreviously on this website, Robert Mugabe has his share of admirers in the U.S. Current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took part in a 2002 reception in his honor – this at a time when Mugabe, in one reporter’s words, “was already well into his campaign of terror and murder in Zimbabwe.” So did current New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who actually organized the 2002 Mugabe tribute and who today still views Mugabe as a “shining example of an African leader.”
Now it’s clear that Mugabe has fans on the other side of the globe, too. In October, he was selected as this year’s winner of Confucius Peace Prize, which was cooked up five years ago as China’s answer to the Nobel Peace Prize after that distinction went to dissident writer Liu Xiaobo. The latter is still in prison in his homeland, being punished for the crime writing a pro-freedom manifesto.
Now, no prize is 100% reliable. The Nobel Peace Prize itself is well known for its highly spotty record. In his admirable history of the prizes, Jay Nordlinger notes that Betty Williams, who won in 1976, is no peacenik when it comes to George W. Bush, whom she’s expressed a desire to kill. Laureates Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Rigoberta Menchú, and Nelson Mandela were all fans of Castro; laureates Emily Greene Balch, Arthur Henderson, Linus Pauling, Séan MacBride, and (again) Mandela all praised the Soviet Union.
But the Confucius Prize, which purportedly exists to “promote world peace from an Eastern perspective,” makes the Norwegian Nobel committee look almost like a pantheon of infallible geniuses.
In 2011, the trophy went to none other than Vladimir Putin. As one observer, an ethnographer, documentary filmmaker, and writer named Jin Ge, noted, this award came along at precisely the moment when massive crowds were gathering in Moscow to protest against Putin. Why was Putin chosen to receive the peace prize? The Chinese explained: they admired his support for Muammar Qaddafi, his criticism of Western intervention in Libya, and his “iron wrist” response to Chechen independence activists.
“You might wonder,” wrote Jin Ge, “how ‘Iron Wrist,’ Putin, Qaddafi, and Peace fit together.” Jin explained: in the view of Communist Chinese officials, “War only happens between countries, violence against your own people does not count. To protect ‘sovereignty,’ killing is justified. Human suffering is a small prize to pay to achieve the goal of harmony, stability and unity.” As for Qaddafi: “Putin, Qaddafi and Confucius are in the same camp because they are perceived as anti-West. Since the West (together with Japan) is conceived as the archenemy of China, anything opposite of what they interpret as Western is good. If the West criticizes Putin and Qaddafi, then these two guys must be good.”
With these kind of criteria, who else has won the Confucius Peace Prize? We’ll get to that on Monday.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but here’s a real airhead for you.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose autocratic, corruption-ridden presidency will finally come to an end in December, turns out to be a loyal viewer of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. And her favorite member of the cast is British actress Emilia Clarke, who plays a character named Daenerys Targaryen. We don’t watch Game of Thrones, but we’ve poked around a bit on the Internet and discovered that Daenerys Targaryen is a “driven rebel queen…who births dragons” and “liberates legions of slaves.”
When Clarke found out that Kirchner is a fan of hers, she was surprised. “Really? I didn’t know that. I take it as a compliment. I love women in power.”
There’s a generalization for you: “I love women in power.” Apparently Clarke knows absolutely nothing about Cristina Kirchner.
Nor, we imagine, has she ever heard of the French queen Catherine de Medici, who bullied her son, King Charles IX, into ordering the 1572 St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, in which tens of thousands of French Protestants were killed all over France. Now there was a woman in power. But lovable? Not so much.
We wonder, too, whether Clarke learned in school about another sixteenth-century monarch, England’s Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), Queen Elizabeth I’s bitter, brutal older sister, who burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake, including Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer. If so, is Clarke a fan?
Presumably Clarke has heard of Queen Isabella of Spain, who sponsored Christopher Columbus’s voyages of discovery. But does Clarke know that Isabella was also the mastermind of the Spanish Inquisition, in which thousands of Jews were tortured and killed? Talk about power! Clarke’s gotta love Isabella, no?
Clarke had more wisdom to offer on the subject of women in power. “Women who are leaders have a feminine sensibility in a masculine world,” she lectured. “As is the case with the dragon queen” – that is, her own Game of Thrones character – “they have to know when to be more aggressive and when to show more sensitivity.”
(Warning: we’re engaging here in what’s called “back-translating.” Clarke presumably spoke in English, but we’re relying on Spanish-language news reports – so when we translate those remarks back into English, we might not be reproducing them word-for-word.)
That’s not all. Clarke was asked what advice she would give Kirchner. “Kill all the men!” she replied, adding: “No, no…I’m joking. Better to get some dragons.”
Funny joke. A charitable observer might suggest that Clarke has spent so much time inhabiting a fantasy world that she’s forgotten how horrifying the real world can be.
A few months ago we weighed in on British comedian and actor Russell Brand, a self-identified “big fan of Castro and Che Guevara” who produced a book described by one critic as “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism.”
A while back, with immense fanfare, Brand married American pop star Katy Perry. They both did the talk-show circuit and prattled endlessly about how deeply in love they were. Then they promptly divorced. Not knowing much about Katy Perry, we thought that perhaps Brand’s foolish, ill-informed politics – and all-around narcissism and puerility – did the marriage in. Last month, however, Katy did something that caused us to push that theory onto the back burner: in a move that must have made her ex green with envy, she hung out at a Havana bar with Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul Castro. The supposed topic of discussion was their supposed shared interest in LGBT rights – this in a country where nobody has any rights.
To be fair to Katy, she’s only one of the latest of many American celebrities to make the now apparently obligatory trip to the island prison.
Septuagenarian British rocker Mick Jagger was also there in October, reportedly scouting locations for a Rolling Stone concert. While he was there, he also visited several nightclubs in Old Havana; the Daily Mail ran a picture of him tripping the light fantastic, apparently with some young locals of the female persuasion, on the dance floor of a place called the Shangri La Club.
Meanwhile celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz was in town, too, snapping ultra-chic pics of globally adored Barbadian songstress Rihanna at a multitude of glamorously shabby Havana locations for this month’s issue of Vanity Fair.
But let’s flash back to last February, when the slummer du jour was Celebrity Without Portfolio Paris Hilton, who flew down to Havana and did the one thing she apparently has a talent for: she partied.
It was a busy sojourn for the aging yet enduringly ditzy heiress/celebutante. She dropped in at the 25-story, 500-room Habana Hilton, once the biggest hotel in all of Latin America. In an unfortunate case of less than impeccable timing, Paris’s great-grandfather, Conrad Hilton, built this pile just a year before Fidel, Che, and company drove Fulgencio Batista out of town; needless to say, they nationalized the thing pronto (“nationalize,” of course, being the Communist euphemism of choice for “steal”). Judging by the pictures Paris posed for outside the hotel, looking all saucy and sprightly, she would appear to have forgiven the Commies for relieving her family of its property all those years ago.
Paris also took part in Cuba’s 17th annual Cigar Festival, where – as if to confirm that there’s no hard feelings – she chummed around with Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, the son of the man who stole her great-granddaddy’s hostelry. The pictures – including selfies taken by Paris herself – would seem to testify that they both had a jolly time together. Also involved in these cheery totalitarian festivities was Naomi Campbell, a British woman who was famous for being a fashion model in the previous century.
Capitol Hill Cubans, a website devoted to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba,” wasn’t impressed by these high-profile folks’ visits to the home of rum, cigars, and oppression:
Under the guise of “supporting the Cuban people” – and completely aloof to the island’s brutal realities– these celebrities are enjoying the hospitality of the Castro dictatorship and supporting its repressive apparatus.
Meanwhile, innocent Cuban men, women and children are being beaten on the streets for their peaceful democracy activism, and artists imprisoned for their attempts at critical expression.
In closing, we’ll just take off our hats to Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, who, when asked in late October when she plans to visit Fidel’s Caribbean penal colony, supplied an unequivocal, and excellent, answer: “I’ll go to Cuba when it’s truly free, and not just open to foreigners, to celebrate with the Cuban people a new beginning.”
In the view of many soccer fans, he’s the greatest player in the history of the sport. Born fifty-five years ago in a shantytown in Buenos Aires, he played for such teams as FC Barcelona and Napoli. He captained the Argentine national squad to victory in the 1986 World Cup finals, where he scored a goal that’s been voted the greatest in World Cup history.
Millions adore Diego Maradona. And there are a few people he adores, too. Recently he recorded a video tour of his home in Dubai – yes, Dubai. In addition to pointing out family portraits, he proudly showed off photographs of himself with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, whom Maradona called, respectively, “the greatest man” and “his best disciple.”
The soccer giant, observed Adam Dubove at the PanamPost, “has never hidden his political inclinations. He publicly backed Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, ardently defends the Cuban dictatorship, and even became friends with the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi.” His body bears tattoos of both Fidel and Che Guevara. On his house tour, Maradona displayed a framed letter from Castro, sent to him “earlier this year to debunk rumors of his death,” and another recent missive, from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “I framed it,” he explained, “because to me, she is my president.”
The letter from Castro, which ran to four pages, made headlines in January of this year. As the Independent put it, the letter provided “the first news heard about Castro and his activities for nearly three months.” When Maradona showed it to journalists, media around the world reported that Fidel – who had not been seen in public for over a year – was, indeed, still alive. Rumors of his death had circulated only a week earlier.
That’s not all. Maradona is also friendly with the rulers of the United Arab Emirate, and was a fan of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the former President of Iran.
These friendships go back quite a while. In 2005, Maradona went with Chávez to Mar del Plata, Argentina, to protest a trade agreement proposed by the administration of George W. Bush. Appearing on Chávez’s own radio show back in 2007, Maradona said, “I believe in Chávez, I am a chavista.… Everything Fidel does, everything Chávez does is, for me, the best. I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”
“I came to Venezuela to find a president,” he later remarked, “and found a friend.” Chávez, he added, “taught me a lot.”
In February of last year, Maradona responded to democratic protests against Maduro’s regime by offering to fight for it. “We’re seeing all the lies from the imperialists, and I’m willing to be a soldier for Venezuela for whatever is needed of me,” Maradona vowed. “Chávez would have wanted this.” George W. Bush and others U.S. leaders, said Maradona, “disgust me.” He added: “I believe in Venezuela. Long live Maduro, and Chávez, from the heavens, is accompanying you.”
In April 2013, a month after Chávez’s death, Maradona and Maduro paid tribute to him at his tomb. “What I remember about Hugo,” Maradona confessed on Venezuelan government TV, “was a great friendship, an incredible political wisdom. Hugo Chávez has changed Latin America’s way of thinking. We had surrendered to the United States and he put it in our heads that we can go forward on our own.” Apologizing for not making it to the funeral, Maradona smeared the “imperialist” U.S. and expressed his support for Maduro’s presidential candidacy.
This past June, Maduro himself recommended that Maradona be named head of FIFA, the international soccer association.
Yesterday we noted that the admiration of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro by his American fans shows no sign of having been dimmed by reports of his apparent descent into madness – and his transformation of his country into what one observer has called “an Orwellian dystopia.” Today we thought it might be appropriate to wonder aloud whether the American aficionados and collaborators of another tyrant, Robert Mugabe, who’s been running Zimbabwe since 1980, have been unsettled at all by his latest moves.
Among Mugabe’s stateside enablers, as we’ve previously seen, is New York hedge-fund king Dan Och, whose shady deals with Mugabe provided the despot (whose profligate government had run out of funds) with enough cash “to buy votes and unleash a campaign of brutal repression in an election in which he [had previously] faced almost certain defeat.” Och, as one account put it, “raised $100M for Mugabe’s weapons and torture-chambers in exchange for a sweetheart deal on the country’s platinum mines.” Och can’t claim he was acting out of ignorance: he knew very well that his payments to Mugabe – which led to investigations by both the Department of Justice and the SEC – would be used to fuel the systematic, savage abuse of Mugabe’s own people.
Then there’s Bill de Blasio, now Mayor of New York, who during his tenure in the City Council took part in a tribute by that body to Mugabe, who gave a speech and was fêted at a cocktail reception. The man who organized that event, as we’ve seen, was former Black Panther Charles Barron, who at the time was a City Council member and is now a state assemblyman.
De Blasio and Barron represent themselves as progressive heroes. What, then, do they have to say about Mugabe’s late September speech to the General Assembly of United Nations, in which he concluded an inane rant condemning international efforts to address his human-rights abuses by insisting: “We are not gays!”
“We are not gays!” The subject of homosexuality has been a longstanding preoccupation of Mugabe’s. Gays in Zimbabwe face fines, prison, beatings by the police, and worse. (“Even Satan wasn’t gay!” Mugabe growled when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land.)
Of course, Zimbabweans don’t need to be gay to feel deprived of freedom, security, and prosperity: Mugabe’s presidency is, by all reasonable accounts, a “reign of terror,” his government a “murderous kleptocracy,” his nation a land of “bloodthirsty depravity” that is characterized by cartoonish levels of corruption, is patrolled by a thuggish secret police that spreads “dread in the cities,” is guilty of “torture on an industrial scale,” and has undergone a precipitous economic decline that The Economist has described as “the most dramatic peacetime collapse of any country since Weimar Germany.”
The very fact that Mugabe was allowed to speak at the UN was a disgrace. But it’s hardly a first. Officials of international organizations, in the face of demands by human-rights activists and other right-thinking people that Mugabe be banned from international conclaves, have routinely given in to demands by Zimbabwe and its African neighbors that it be included. As Marian Tupy wrote in the Wall Street Journal Europe in 2007, European Union officials – who’d recently fallen for Zimbabwean propaganda depicting Mugabe as a victim of Western propaganda and/or succumbed to African leaders’ boycott threats – were responsible for the ethically challenged decision to welcome Mugabe to an EU summit in Lisbon.
But African leaders, noted Tupy, were also deeply culpable: under Mugabe, Zimbabwe had become a terror state, but many leaders of neighboring countries had responded to the nightmare he was creating for his people by “clos[ing] ranks” around him. The most guilty party of all, in Tupy’s view, was South African President Thabo Mbeki, who, given Zimbabwe’s economic dependence on his nation, was “in a position to force change or end Mr. Mugabe’s reign overnight,” but who’d in fact “done more than any other African leader to help Mr. Mugabe hang onto power.”
Alas, Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, has proven to be even more supportive of Mugabe, saying earlier this year that economic cooperation between the two countries “has never been stronger.” Peter Godwin, a white Zimbabwean who now lives abroad, explained this seemingly inexplicable state of affairs a couple of years ago: these various African regimes came to power in anti-colonial revolutions, and they’re all still in power, and “it’s not in the interest of any of them to let any of the other ones lose power.” Susan Booysen of the University of the Witwatersrand, commenting in 2008 on Mbeki’s refusal to criticize Mugabe, made essentially the same point: “People expected statesmanship. But at the end of the day, he didn’t have the guts to stand up to a fellow liberation movement leader.”
But why is any Westerner eager to be an apologist for Mugabe? One word: imperialism. Or, if you prefer, colonialism. In the eyes of certain Western leftists, who subscribe to a political philosophy that sees the West (especially America) as invariably evil and racist, and the rest of the world (especially Africa) as its helpless victims, Mugabe, no matter what horrors he may be guilty of, is still a good guy, a casualty, a hero, an innocent.
Such is the case, apparently, with Toronto newspaper columnist Rick Salutin, who, as Jonathan Kay of the National Post noted a few years back, had slammed Prime Minister Stephen Harper for, in Salutin’s words,
piling onto Zimbabwe…for its “fraudulent election” and “illegitimacy.” He showed no sense of perspective: that the U.S. held a fraudulent election in 2000, or illegitimately tortures in Guantanamo, and that his own government continues to permit the Americans to practise on Canadian Omar Khadr.
We’ll close with Kay’s highly apropos comment:
Ah yes – “perspective.” Who among us does not remember those pitiful scenes from the 2000 U. S. election, when Republican storm troopers went door-to-door in Florida’s left-leaning counties, burning alive the children and wives of Democratic activists? Or Al Gore’s pitiful concession speech in which he pled (unsuccessfully) for Dick Cheney to spare the lives of DNC election observers being held at South Beach concentration camps?
Over the last few months, we’ve seen that a whole gallery of American celebrities are fans of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. Last year Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, who’d lent his name to some Massachusetts power-supply initiative (presumably to burnish his image in his family’s home state), effusively thanked Maduro (who’d made a token contribution to the effort in order to burnish his image in America’s bluest state), for “answer[ing] our call to provide heating assistance to the poor.” Also last year,Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Tom Hayden, and several other clueless Hollywood luminaries signed a letter to the U.S. Congress singing Maduro’s praises.
Why are we serving up this reminder? Because of a Daily Beastarticle in late September whose headline asked a head-turning question – namely, “Has Venezuelan President Maduro Gone Insane?” Maduro, wrote Jeremy Kryt, “has grown so erratic some are calling him ‘the South American Hitler.’” In the course of a few weeks, he’d “come to the brink of war” with both Colombia and Guyana. He’d turned Venezuela into “an Orwellian dystopia, complete with the highest inflation rate in the world,” not to mention rampant violence, crime, and kidnappings, and shortages that are “so severe that it’s sometimes impossible to buy a roll of toilet paper in Caracas.” He’s told the media in all seriousness that he receives “advice from the deceased Chavez via a talking bird” – a claim that brings to mind the off-the-wall statements by the victorious leader of a coup d’êtat in a fictional Central American country in Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas. (“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish.”)
Maduro’s paranoia has led him to jail popular opposition leader Leopoldo López. It’s led him to order “the use of deadly force against demonstrators he sees as a threat to his regime.” Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told Kryt, “If he believes a lot of what he’s saying about the conspiracy theories against him, then he’s not the sanest man in the world….Internationally there’s no trust of Maduro at all….He says things that aren’t true, and he’s quite erratic….Something very ugly could happen in the next few months.”
To top all this off, on November 10, Haitian officials arrested two nephews of Maduro’s wife and turned them over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which flew them to New York for arraignment on charges of drug trafficking. Longtime observers of chavismo weren’t surprised: in today’s Venezuela, the principal activities of the leaders and their families are raiding the treasury, laundering money, and selling narcotics.
But were Kennedy, Glover, Stone, and Hayden surprised? Have any of them said anything about any of this? Not that we know of. As far as we’re aware, they’re all still in Maduro’s corner. What, one wonders, would it take to shake their faith in the caudillo? The mind reels. For such people, it’s clear, ideology will always trump reality.
The image of Bernie Sanders as a lovable kook – a cranky but harmless Communist grandpa – was perhaps cemented for all time by Larry David’s hilarious impersonation of the Vermont pol on Saturday Night Live on October 17.
But there’s nothing funny about the real Sanders’s politics. He’s been representing the people of the Green Mountain State in Washington for nearly a quarter century – serving as the state’s only House member from 1991 to 2007 and as Senator since 2007. Although he’s running for President as a Democrat, he’s never been belonged to either party, and has served longer on Capitol Hill without a party affiliation than anyone else, ever.
He calls himself a “democratic socialist” and says he admires the political systems in the Nordic countries. We’re not the first observers to point out that his image of the Nordic countries seems hopelessly stuck in the past – but, then, his politics in general seem hopelessly stuck in the past. Although born in 1941, he brings to mind the raving New York Communists of the 1930s, who, from the safety of America, cheered Uncle Joe Stalin, turning a blind eye to the Gulag, the show trials, and the Ukrainian famine, and forgiving him for the shock of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as soon as Hitler invaded Russia. Listening to Sanders, you’d think socialism had never been tried – you’d think, in fact, that the entire twentieth century had never happened, and its horrific lessons never been learned.
Vermont is a pretty blue state, but Sanders is so far left that one suspects that for many voters there, a vote for him in a House or Senate election may not necessarily represent an affirmation of his entire worldview but may, instead, be a way of getting their little corner of the country noticed, and – just maybe – an attempt to shake things up, to give the two-party system a poke in the eye. One Sanders on Capitol Hill, in any event, doesn’t endanger the prosperity or security of the Republic. But the idea of Sanders as a serious presidential candidate is something else again. And the fact that he’s drawing huge, enthusiastic crowds – and getting standing ovations on programs like Bill Maher’s Real Time – is deeply worrying.
This is, after all, a guy who supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, praised their “very deep convictions,” met with their leader, Daniel Ortega, and – while serving as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, before his entry into national politics – arranged for his burg and Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, to be “sister cities.”
This is a guy who honeymooned in the Soviet Union – specifically, in the glamorous tourist mecca (not!) of Yaroslavl, which he also made a “sister city” of Burlington. This is a guy who vacationed in Cuba in 1989, met with the mayor of Havana, and tried unsuccessfully to arrange a tête-à-tête with Fidel Castro – whom he admires greatly, insisting “that he educated [Cubans’] kids, gave their kids healthcare, totally transformed the society,” and saying that “just because Ronald Reagan dislikes” Castro and his cronies “doesn’t mean that people in their own nations feel the same way.”
This is a guy who, during his years as mayor, reportedly had “a socialism-inspired softball team…called the ‘People’s Republic of Burlington.’” This is a guy who, before getting into politics, “wrote, produced, and sold ‘radical film strips’ and other education materials to schools about people like Eugene Debs.” (In fact, Sanders “still has a portrait of Debs on the wall of his Senate office, and calls him a ‘hero of mine.’”)
At a time, moreover, when chavismo has emptied Venezuela’s supermarket shelves and rendered the bolívar virtually worthless, Sanders has nothing to say about that disaster – which is a direct result of the kind of socialist policies he calls for – but is busy complaining on the campaign trail about the “choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers” that America offers at a time when, as he claims, “children are hungry in this country.”
In short, he’s a guy who doesn’t understand economics. He’s a guy for whom the real-world consequences of implementing economic policies matter less than the ideological impulse underlying those policies. And that ideology? It’s an ideology that’s led him, throughout his career, to embrace tyrants and belittle liberty.
Some readers may have noticed a news story a few weeks back about Elton John and Vladimir Putin. Yes, that’s right, Elton John and Vladimir Putin.
In an interview, Elton had expressed concern about gay rights under Putin, whose 2013 law banning “propaganda about non-traditional sexual relations” helped spike gay-bashing in Russia. Elton has long been outspoken on gay rights, and last year, writing on his website, he discussed his latest visit to Russia, in December 2013:
On that trip I met with members of the LGBT community in Moscow. Although I was still welcomed as an openly gay foreigner, I wanted to really understand at first-hand what difference the legislation had made to Russian LGBT in their own country. What I heard reinforced all the media stories that have been circling since the propaganda bill became federal law: that vicious homophobia has been legitimised by this legislation and given extremists the cover to abuse people’s basic human rights.
The people I met in Moscow – gay men and lesbians in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s – told me stories about receiving threats from vigilante groups who would “cure” them of homosexuality by dousing them with urine or beating them up. One young man was stalked outside a gay club by someone posing as a taxi driver who tried to garrotte him with a guitar string because he was a “sodomite”. Everyone shared stories of verbal and physical abuse – at work, in bars and restaurants or in the street – since the legislation came into force last June. And, some of the vital work providing HIV prevention information to the gay community has been labelled “homosexual propaganda” and shut down.
In September of this year, while visiting the Ukraine and voicing support for LGBT rights in that country, Elton told the BBC that he wanted to talk LGBT rights with Putin himself: “It’s probably pie in the sky….He may laugh behind my back when he shuts the door, and call me an absolute idiot, but at least I can think I have the conscience to say I tried.”
This statement caught the attention of a couple of Russian TV comedians, Vladimir “Vovan” Krasnov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, who are apparently famous in their country for pranking celebrities. They duped Elton with a phony phone call, pretending to be Putin and inviting the singer-songwriter to come to Moscow for a friendly chat. John accepted the invitation. Later, when he found out he’d been pranked, he took the news in good spirits.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. In mid October, it was reported that Putin, after learning about the gag, actually did call Elton.
The source for this report was none other than John’s husband, film producer David Furnish. Appearing at an awards ceremony in London on Wednesday, Furnish said that John and Vlad had actually made plans to meet and discuss gay rights. Apparently they got off to a very friendly start. As the Daily Mail put it, Furnish “described the man who backed a civil war in Ukraine and sent forces to help Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, as ‘so polite and lovely.’” Furnish repeated: “He’s genuinely lovely.” And then he added this baffling remark: “Besides, this isn’t about politics – I’m not a politician – it’s about humanity.”
Meaning what, exactly? When a man’s “politics” are inhumane, not to say downright brutal, how to pry loose the concept of “politics” from the concept of “humanity”? Does Elton, whose devotion to LGBT rights is surely admirable, agree that Putin, who has imprisoned and murdered his political opponents, is lovely? Does it really take a simple phone call to make Furnish, and maybe Elton too, decide that a tyrant is perhaps actually not a tyrant at all? Or that a tyrant can remain a tyrant but still, somehow, be lovely? Does this fall into the same category as Hitler loving his pet dog?
With all due respect to Elton’s activism, we’re admittedly scratching our heads over that one.
During the last couple of days we’ve been learning a few things about one Gilbert Doctorow, who, together with fellow Putin apologist Stephen F. Cohen, and with the backing of Cohen’s wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and her deep-pockets family, has founded something called the American Committee for East-West Accord (ACEWA). Perusing a few of Doctorow’s recent commentaries, we’ve recognized the truth of Cathy Young’s statement, in an illuminating Daily Beast piece about the ACEWA, that Doctorow is even “more pro-Kremlin” than Cohen.
Here’s one last tidbit from Doctorow’s oleaginous oeuvre. This summer, writing in Russia Insider, hetrashed Putin’s liberal opposition; as in much of his work, sneering was his principal rhetorical device. He ridiculed Maria Gaidar, whose father was a pro-free market prime minister under Yeltsin, for relocating to Ukraine to work for Putin opponent Mikhel Saakashvili, and for exchanging her Russian passport for a Ukrainian one. Likewise, he jeered at Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of a popular, pro-liberty St. Petersburg mayor, for taking a job with an anti-Putin TV channel. Throwing around words like “neo-fascist,” Doctorow charged that when these and other high-profile Russians accept employment from critics of Putin – or, quite simply, just move abroad, presumably to escape his thuggery – their motive isn’t a love of freedom but “just money.”
Doctorow concluded his piece by slamming opposition leader and former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, who in recent op-eds for the New York Times and Washington Post had dared to criticize Putin’s human-rights violations and to broach the subject of regime change at the Kremlin. Accusing Kozyrev of “courting sedition” and “giving comfort to the enemy,” Doctorow warned in the strongest terms against regime change (“Most of the obvious candidates to succeed to the presidency are far less experienced, far less prudent than the incumbent”) and, without addressing Kozyrev’s actual charges about human rights, suggested he was obviously not “someone genuinely wishes his native country well.”
Doctorow’s columns on Russia, then, are easily summed up, and Young has already done the job: as she puts it, he “serves up a steady diet of frank Kremlin apologism and vitriolic attacks on Putin foes,” all the while suggesting that any Russian who has anything negative whatsoever to say about the president is an out-and-out traitor. “Opposition treachery,” Young writes, “is a Doctorow leitmotif.”
Interviewing Cohen, Young asked him about what she called Doctorow’s “crude dissident-bashing.” Cohen seemed to try to distance himself from it, averring that he and his fellow ACEWA board members “probably disagree as much as we agree about specific issues.” But if Cohen really has significant disagreements with Doctorow, why put him on the board? Why list him as a co-founder? He’s no ex-Senator or ex-Ambassador; nor does he seem to be a moneybags like William vanden Heuvel. What, other than his noxious views, does Doctorow bring to the table?
No: plainly Cohen and his wife want to have an extremist like Doctorow on board. It makes sense: he can mount even more fervently pro-Putin arguments than they themselves dare to put their names to, all the while doing Cohen the service of making him look like a reasonable moderate by comparison.
It’s a neat deal: Doctorow’s arguments get out there – perhaps even in the pages of the Nation – and they attain a certain legitimacy thanks to his association with ACEWA, even though, at the same time, Cohen and vanden Heuvel are fully free to claim (if strongly or unpleasantly challenged by, say, his colleagues at NYU, or her friends on Capitol Hill and on Manhattan’s limousine left) that Doctorow’s opinions aren’t necessarily their own.
In short, a sneaky stratagem, eminently worthy of this wily pack of pro-Putin propagandists.
Yesterday we were introduced to the American Committee for East-West Accord (ACEWA), which is yet another brainchild of NYU Kremlinologist Stephen F. Cohen and his heiress wife Katrina vanden Heuvel, and which is obviously meant to be a vehicle for spreading pro-Putin propaganda far and wide. We also met Gilbert Doctorow, who, with Cohen, is listed as the group’s co-founder, and who, as it turns out, is even more fervent an apologist for Putin than Cohen.
Since November, Doctorow has been writing regularly for a website called Russia Insider. His contributions, not to put too fine a point on it, read like Kremlin press releases. Last November, for example, he attributedthe European Parliament’s overwhelming vote in favor of two resolutions condemning Russia to “a Cold War mentality that never faded since 1989.”
A week later, Doctorow blamed anti-Putin attitudes among left-wing U.S. peace activists on “years of denigration and information warfare coming from Washington,” including “propaganda about an authoritarian regime that allegedly jails dissent, about homophobia and about conservative family values of Russia’s silent majority, not to mention about greedy, raw capitalism.” Doctorow argued that Putin has in fact promoted “peace and international cooperation, justice and indeed human rights,” and is the only head of government on the planet who’s “directly challeng[ing] American global hegemony.” For these reasons, he argued, Putin should be treated by sensible stateside peace-lovers not as a bad guy but as a hero.
In January, Doctorow penned a column that was one long, drawn-out sneer. The topic: a book called Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha. He smeared Russia expert Anne Applebaum, author of the magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History, as a “blowhard” for the crime of favorably reviewing Dawisha’s book in the Washington Post. And he made a mocking reference to “the saintly Khodorkovsky” – meaning human-rights activist and former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin robbed of billions of dollars and then tossed into prison on trumped-up charges. Doctorow lamented that once reliably left-wing American media, such as the New York Review of Books and PBS, have now “join[ed] the jackals” who engage in “Putin bashing.”
And on and on it goes. In May, after attending the Moscow parade marking the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, Doctorow gushed exuberantly over what he described as Putin’s ascent to the very “heights of statesmanship”: by allowing ordinary citizens to march in the parade while holding up photographs of their relatives who’d died in the war, the Russian leader had driven home “the point that this is a day for every Russian family and not just a pompous show of military capability for the high and mighty to strut on the stage.”
If at the Sochi Olympics, enthused Doctorow, Vlad had sent a message “that Russia has its own traditions of both popular and high culture but is open to the world and hospitable to all,” in Moscow, his people had pulled off the parade at “a supremely professional level” and shown “very great respect for the spectators, both those on the Square and the others watching it on their television as I did.”
Ugh. It’s the kind of cringeworthy bootlicking that’s rarely found outside of the propaganda organs of totalitarian states. And it raises certain questions. Such as: can this guy really be such a convinced disciple of Putin? Or is he on the payroll? Have Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, her rich dad, Bill Bradley, and others in fact chosen to hitch their wagons to a paid Kremlin operative?
We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we can say one thing, for which we’ll provide more evidence tomorrow: when it comes to propagandizing for Putin, Doctorow churns it out as naturally as a slug leaves a slime trail.