We’ve been looking at a recent piece in The Nation in which one James Carden spent page after page slinging mud at a report on pro-Putin propaganda in the West. His chief objective, plainly, was to try to salvage as much as possible of the reputation of the West’s #1 pro-Putin propagandist, Stephen F. Cohen, who just happens to be married to The Nation‘s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel.
As we mentioned, Carden smeared Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former billionaire imprisoned by Putin, as “corrupt” and “violent” – an apparent effort to distract our attention from the fact that Putin’s own corruption and violence put everyone else in his realm in the shade. That accomplished, Carden moved on to another now-routine pro-Putin maneuver: comparing the critics of Putin, and of his apologists, to Senator Joe McCarthy. Then, just as in the good old days when The Nation was happily flacking for Stalin, Carden pulled out the moral-equivalency card, maintaining that whether or not the Kremlin is actually engaging in disinformation, well, so are the Ukrainians. So there!
The “real goal” of the report’s authors, Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev, Carden averred,
is not to fight Russian “disinformation” but to stigmatize and marginalize—even exclude from American discourse—anyone with a more nuanced view of Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis. They are waging this war against enemies real and imagined, and by doing so they are helping to create an atmosphere in which dissenting opinion on US policy toward Russia becomes impermissible.
An interesting allegation, given that it was Carden himself who, rather than addressing the actual contents of Weiss and Pomerantsev’s report, kept busy throughout his piece serving up distractions, playing guilt-by-association games, and engaging in pure name-calling.
After he was done slandering Weiss and Pomerantsev, Carden moved on to other critics of Putin and his Western apologists. Once again – just in case we’d already forgotten – Carden reminded us that all these people who are daring to reprove Putin’s apologists are practitioners of a brand of “neo-McCarthyism” that reeks “of a barely concealed attempt to censor and intimidate.” Needless to say, none of these Putin critics – unlike Putin himself – have the slightest power to censor or intimidate anybody. All they’re doing is putting their ideas out there, accompanied by evidence and argument – none of which, again, Carden ever deigned to seriously address. Perhaps Carden’s nerviest move of all was his attempt to defile the incomparable Anne Applebaum, one of the most brilliant, best-informed, and ethically unassailable critics of the Putin regime. (Not incidentally, Applebaum has been an outspoken supporter of Weiss and Pomerantsev’s report.)
Carden saved the real objective of his article – namely, to try to rescue the shriveling reputation of his editor’s husband – for his closing paragraphs. “For much of the past year,” he wrote, “Princeton and New York University professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, a leading scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and a Nation contributing editor, has been routinely castigated in The New Republic, the Daily Beast, The Boston Globe, New York, and Slate as ‘a toady,’ ‘Putin’s best friend,’ and a ‘Putin apologist.’” Yet again, however, instead of examining the actual content of Cohen’s writings on the subject of Putin or the substance of his critics’ charges, Carden simply repeated the tired claim that Cohen’s critics are out to “marginalize” him. No, worse: they’re carrying out “a frontal attack on the core tenets of free speech” – an accusation that could only be made in any sincerity by somebody who doesn’t understand the core tenets of free speech. (But of course, sincerity has nothing to do with Carden’s rhetorical methods.)
Moreover, charged Carden, they’re following a “policy of belligerence toward Russia” – an interesting formulation, given that the creep for whom Carden, Cohen, and vanden Heuvel are providing cover here, Vladimir Putin, is guilty of real belligerence, using guns and bullets, against his own subjects and the innocent citizens of a neighboring country.
All in all, a disgraceful, dishonest screed. But what else could you expect from a magazine that spent decades spreading Stalinist propaganda?
We’ve spent a good deal of time on this website in the company of the Boris and Natasha of Kremlin buffs, veteran Ivy League Sovietologist Stephen F. Cohen and his sweet little hausfrau Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor-in-chief of Pravda – sorry, The Nation. Most recently, we’ve seen how more and more folks in the media and academy have come to recognize that Cohen is nothing more or less than a shill for Vladimir Putin. His wife, plainly understanding that the jig is perilously close to being up, has reacted in accordance with longtime Nation habits – by doubling down on the disinformation. So it was that readers of the radical rag were treated on May 20 to a ridiculously long piecein which James Carden savaged a new report on pro-Russian propaganda in the West.
The report, which Carden slammed as a “highly polemical manifesto,” was, he charged, essentially “a publicity stunt by two journalists attempting to cash in on the Russophobia so in vogue among American pundits.” He proceeded to smear one of the report’s authors, Michael Weiss, for his background at the Henry Jackson Society – a first-rate think tank in London that Carden dismissed as “a London-based bastion of neoconservatism” and maligned as “anti-Muslim” for its gutsy, cogent critiques of Islam. Carden also went after Weiss’s co-author, Peter Pomerantsev, as an “assiduous self-promoter” (a type, of course, unfamiliar to the folks at The Nation) and for his ties to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former billionaire whom Putin unceremoniously jailed, tortured, and relieved of the bulk of his assets.
In what has become a standard ploy of Putin apologists, Carden besmirched Khodorkovsky – “it should not be forgotten that the oil tycoon made his fortune in a spectacularly corrupt and sometimes violent fashion,” etc., etc. – as a means of distraction from the epic corruption and violence of Putin, who, after all, unlike the former businessman and current human-rights activist Khodorkovsky, is the saber-rattling, gay-oppressing, opponent-murdering head of a nuclear power.
Please do come back tomorrow: we’re not quite done with Mr. Carden’s jeremiad – or, needless to say, with his shifty, Kremlin-loving paymasters, the American left’s own Boris and Natasha.
We concluded our previous post on The Nation, the leftist weekly now celebrating its 150th anniversary, with a recent summing-up by Daniel Greenfield. The Nation, he wrote, has “learned nothing from the past. Instead it repeats history as farce, stumbling from one tyranny to another in the hopes of finding progress somewhere among the corpses.” Having “aided the Soviet plan for world domination,” Greenfield noted, The Nation is now “doing the very same thing for the Islamists.”
Yep. And just as it manages to align itself, in all its preening, putatively progressive self-satisfaction, with the least progressive forces on earth, it consistently savages the one democracy in the Middle East – and then, when necessary, lies through its teeth about it. In a recent interview with the Jewish Daily Forwardon the occasion of The Nation‘s big anniversary, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel insisted that her magazine had a “great” pro-Israel record, and cited what she described as a 1940s Nation article by Ron Radosh “lobbying Truman, the UN, for the creation of the state of Israel.” But Radosh himself, after reading the interview, called vanden Heuvel’s attempt to claim his article as a part of The Nation‘s heritage an outrageous misrepresentation. “My wife and I,” he explained in a Facebook post, “wrote an article for World Affairs Journal about Freda Kirchwey and Israel, and NOT for The Nation. In fact, vanden Heuvel wrote a letter to the editor accusing us of being Likudniks. Now she tries to make it appear our pro-Israel article appeared in her magazine.”
But, of course, without lying – outright lying – a magazine like The Nation, which is still peddling ideas that have been totally shot down by history, wouldn’t be able to survive. Just as the USSR pursued a systematic policy of radically revising its own past – including the total removal from the public record of any trace of certain individuals who’d played major roles in government – so The Nation just keeps on amending its own annals. So deep-rooted at Ms. vanden Heuvel’s magazine is this longstanding impulse to dodge and distort, to prettify and prevaricate, that, as Jonathan Tobin has noted, it ran a review in 2013 that – with breathtaking audacity – sought to whitewash the late U.S. Treasury official Harry Dexter White by quite simply ignoring Soviet records proving that he’d been a KGB spy. Throughout the Cold War, observed Tobin, the folks at The Nation had pretended that “Soviet infiltration of Washington in the 1930s and 1940s was a figment of the imagination of demagogic right-wing anti-Communists”; but after the Cold War, when the facts were put before them, they continued to cling to their falsehoods.
As noted, The Nation‘s anniversary issue also contains some new material. There are testimonials to the magazine’s extraordinary value by Gloria Steinem and Alec Baldwin, among others. Michael Moore offers a long piece – which is apparently intended to be funny – about why he should be elected president. In another article, Kai Bird argues for total U.S. “disengagement” from the Middle East – in other words, leave Israel at the mercy of its neighbors. Bird presents this as a respectable retreat from imperialism –because, in the eyes of The Nation, absolutely everything is ultimately about U.S. imperialism. Also included is yet another attack on “Islamophobia” – which, of course, The Nation has been savaging for years. The anniversary issue’s overall message is summed up in a cartoon by the reliably execrable Tom Tomorrow; entitled “All the Right Enemies,” it expertly toes the party line, claiming that The Nation has always been on the right side of history.
(It should be mentioned that, in the entire issue, there’s one admirable exception to the rule of irresponsible inanity: cartoonist Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, pays tribute to his late colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, writing “I have NO interest in baiting psychopaths, but I must show respect to the foolhardy and brave Charlie Hebdo artists.”)
Fittingly, the issue concludes with a few brief contributions from young people who are presented as embodying the future of the magazine and its ideology. Here’s a sample, from a 22-year-old Harvard student: “I am 22 years old, and I have been a climate activist for ten years. My call is for a radical future now.” Plus ça change…
Quite appropriately, one of the big names who have provided a blurb for The Nation‘s anniversary issue is Mikhail Gorbachev. “It is very important a magazine that stands for left-wing, progressive ideas has an audience in America,” writes Gorby. That The Nation, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary,can proudly flaunt the approval of the last unelected Communist ruler of the Soviet Union says pretty much all you need to know about what this rag is all about.
We’re taking an extended look at the history of the American left’s flagship weekly, The Nation, which this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a special issue that’s available for free online– and that does a pretty neat job of airbrushing and whitewashing that history. We’ve seen how The Nation, during the Cold War, served as a Stalinist mouthpiece, an apologist for the Khmer Rouge, and an enemy of Western freedoms.
Then came 9/11. The response of The Nation was predictable. After the Twin Towers were brought down, columnist Katha Pollitt wrote a self-satisfied screedabout her refusal to let her daughter, whose high school was “only blocks from the World Trade Center,” fly the Stars and Stripes from their apartment window. While the smoke was still clearing, Jonathan Schellpreachedthat if Americans wanted to prevent another such assault, they needed to “understand…the sources of the hatred that the United States has incurred” – the point, of course, being that the U.S. had brought on the attack through its own actions. Naomi Klein took the same line, accusingthe U.S. of having “become expert in the art of sanitizing and dehumanizing acts of war committed elsewhere…The United States is a country that believed itself not just at peace but war-proof, a self-perception that would come as quite a surprise to most Iraqis, Palestinians and Colombians.”
In the whole rag, the lone voice of logic and decency was longtime contributor Christopher Hitchens – who soon found himself driven out of The Nation for recognizing the 9/11 perpetrators not as pitiable, justice-seeking victims of evil Western imperialism but as vile jihadist haters of American freedom. (Interestingly, The Nation‘s anniversary issue omits all of these pieces, boiling down its entire coverage of 9/11 to a snippet that takes up part of page 171.)
The post-9/11 posture of The Nation on Islam has been no surprise. After all, the one constant at the magazine, ever since its embrace of Communism, has been its determination to hold fast to its anti-American ideology in the face of one onslaught after another of facts that thoroughly discredit that ideology, and to evince sympathy for whatever totalitarian entity has set itself up against U.S. “hegemony.” Daniel Greenfield summed up the whole business quite neatly in 2013:The Nation has “learned nothing from the past. Instead it repeats history as farce, stumbling from one tyranny to another in the hopes of finding progress somewhere among the corpses.” Having “aided the Soviet plan for world domination,” Greenfield noted, The Nation is now “doing the very same thing for the Islamists.” Indeed.
Tomorrow we’ll wrap up our series on The Nation with some closing observations about its anniversary issue – and a thought or two about its future.
We’ve been taking a look at the history of The Nation during the Cold War, when it was, as the phrase went, “anti-anti-Communist.” Practically speaking, to be sure, there was little if any difference between The Nation‘s “anti-anti-Communism” and robust advocacy for (or, at the very least, defense of) Communism. Routinely, The Nation‘s editors and contributors wrote about the U.S. and USSR as if their people had, quite simply, chosen different systems, just as you might order a Coke and your best friend might order a Pepsi. And while The Nation tended to dance around the question of whether the Soviet system was inherently oppressive, it had no qualms about stridently denouncing the supposedly intrinsic evils of American capitalism – and supporting America’s enemies, the more tyrannical, it sometimes seemed, the better. In the 1970s, for example, it ran Noam Chomsky‘s defense of the Khmer Rouge from charges of genocide and supported the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Among the other postwar-era low notes reprinted in The Nation ‘s special centennial issue: in a 1988 editorial, the Nation actually endorsed world-class shakedown artist and Castro crony Jesse Jackson for president of the United States – this, in the midst of Jackson’s public enthusiasm for Jew-baiting, gay-bashing Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (whom Malcolm X’s own relatives publicly accused of complicity in his assassination) and in the wake of Jackson’s own disgusting reference to New York City as “Hymietown.”
Then there’s gay rights. The Nation presents itself today as having always been at the forefront of the struggle for gay equality; but for years, in fact, its contributors were consistently, fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage, gays in the military, and other forms of what they considered gay “assimilation” into bourgeois institutions. In their view, the proper socialist objective was not to achieve equal rights for gay people in mainstream capitalist society, but to marshal marginalized gay people as far-left storm troopers in the battle to overthrow mainstream capitalist society. The anniversary issue reprints part of a typically jejune 1994 article by Tony Kushner that sneeringly rejects gay marriage and calls for gay people to be true to utopian socialist ideals of “liberation.” (It is instructive, by the way, to compare the complete original article – which can be found here – to the expurgated version served up in the anniversary issue.) The bottom line about The Nation and gay rights is that Kushner and other gay stalwarts at the magazine fought tooth and nail against the social changes that have enabled gay Americans to live and thrive openly with far less difficulty than they could a generation ago; yet now the magazine happily, and deceitfully, takes a big chunk of the credit for those very changes.
When the Iron Curtain fell, millions of Eastern Europeans wept with joy and rushed to embrace capitalism and democracy. But the folks at The Nation – like other stateside comrades of the Kremlin – offered no mea culpas and exhibited no shame. Quietly, they more or less dropped their longtime enthusiasm for the Kremlin down the memory hole. But they didn’t revise their poisonously anti-American attitudes, revisit their fierce hostility to the NATO policy of containment, or rethink their resounding contempt for the unapologetic pro-freedom rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher, which they had repeatedly denounced as vulgar and dangerous. No, they just kept preaching their same old ideology, as if it had not been thoroughly discredited. They even allowed Mikhail Gorbachev, in a 2009 interview with Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and hubby Stephen F. Cohen, to cast himself as the hero of the end of the Cold War – and to depict the whole conflict, in the same old way, as a clash between two morally equivalent regimes. Entirely removed from the picture was the monstrous injustice and intrinsic evil of the Communist system, and the fact that that system ultimately came crashing down precisely because of its injustice and evil.
And what about 9/11 and its aftermath? We’ll move on to that disgraceful chapter of The Nation‘s history next time.
We’ve been pondering The Nation, America’s top left-wing weekly, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Founded as a respectable organ of liberal opinion, it became, in the twentieth century, a megaphone for fans of Soviet Communism. A generation ago, on the brink of the fall of the Iron Curtain, The New York Times’s Richard Bernstein summed upwhere The Nation stood during the Cold War:
The Nation often argues…that the United States is at least equal as a menace to the world as the Soviet Union, perhaps worse; that the United States has been the primary culprit in fueling the arms race and that it has fomented much of the atmosphere of the Cold War; that the United States has perpetrated injustice in places like Central America and the Middle East because of blind anti-Communism.
Bernstein was actually being rather kind here: in fact, during the Cold War The Nation was fiercely, brutally “anti-anti-Communist,” smearing every critic of Communism as a hysterical McCarthyite reactionary. Routinely, the magazine’s contributors wrote about the anti-Communist “witch hunt” of the 1940s and 50s as if the presence of Communists in Hollywood, in Washington, and in New York media and intellectual circles were a feverish figment of paranoid far-right imaginations. In fact, more than a few of the Nation writers who pontificated piously about the presumably fascist “witch hunt” were themselves card-carrying Communists. The anniversary issue of The Nation includes a self-righteous piece by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo about the Hollywood blacklist; it was not accompanied on its first printing, and is not accompanied now, by any acknowledgment that Trumbo was a devoted Stalinist, who in the service of his appalling political loyalties was prepared to do far more than simply blacklist his ideological opponents. The anniversary issue also presents a 1956 piece by W.E. B. DuBois complaining about the lack of attractive choices in the current presidential contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson; there is no mention here, either, that DuBois, at the time he wrote that article, was also a convinced Stalinist, who would have been glad to see the U.S. under the thumb of the mass-murdering Soviet dictator rather than in the hands of Eisenhower or Stevenson.
We’ve noted that the back pages of The Nation were ideologically sealed off from the front – but not always. In a theater review from 1964, reprinted in the anniversary issue, Harold Clurmanpraises Fiddler on the Roof –set, of course, in Tsarist Russia – as an admirable representation of the joy of collectivist living. Note that Clurman wrote this review just a decade after the death of Stalin, who’d murdered millions through forced collectivization (which The Nation, by the way, had applauded): “Is it any wonder,” wrote Clurman breathlessly in his review of the musical, “that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people?”
Clurman seems to have missed entirely the point that the characters in Fiddler on the Roof were poor, tormented victims of Tsarist tyranny and that, at the end, when they’re forced by that tyranny to flee their beloved village of Anatevka, the good news is that they’re all on their way to America, where – as the audience knows, but they don’t – their descendants will enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity beyond those villagers’ wildest dreams, will escape the Jew-murdering totalitarians of twentieth-century Europe (including not only Hitler’s minions but also the Communist masters of the Gulag), and will one day be able to attend a Broadway play reminding them of just how lucky they are to be living in 1960s America and not turn-of-the-century Russia.
Not so long ago, we took a sidelong glance at Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the left’s flagship magazine, The Nation. Like her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a longtime Ivy League expert on Russia, vanden Heuvel was a big apologist for the Soviet Union and is, today, a big fan of Vladimir Putin. Not to beat a dead horse – or a cadaverous ideology – but it would be remiss of us not to revisit Katrina, and her storied publication, in commemoration of what is, in more than one sense, a red-letter day in the history of American political journalism: namely, the 150th anniversary of TheNation, which was founded on July 6, 1865.
To celebrate this milestone, The Nation has published an extra-large special issue, a pdf of which is available for free online. It’s well worth perusing. Simply in terms of layout and design, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Among the dozens of articles drawn from the magazine’s immense archives are critiques of George Armstrong Custer’s attack at the Little Big Horn, the annexation of Hawaii, U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, and many other once-burning issues. There are also innumerable essays and reviews by such eminences as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Clement Greenberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Ray Bradbury, and poems by the likes of William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop – a salutary reminder that, for a long time, the back pages of The Nation were deservedly respected for introducing the public to major literary works and for publishing serious literary and cultural commentary, all of which was more or less effectively sealed off from the ideologically saturated claptrap up front.
But when it comes to the articles in this anniversary number that have been drawn from the front of the book, the two key words are caveat lector – let the reader beware. For this special issue is a masterpiece of cynicism and dishonesty. First, the editors have selected – and silently edited – vintage texts that show off the magazine at its best; second, they’ve supplemented those texts with new material that positions those articles in the magazine’s history –and presents the magazine’s role in the history of the modern world – in a way that takes creative spinning, whitewashing, and airbrushing to new heights, presenting The Nation as a magazine that has always been right, even when everyone else was wrong, and that has always been good, even when everyone else was bad.
To be sure, in its early decades, The Nation was indeed a highly admirable mainstream journal. Its founders were Republican abolitionists who believed in liberty and democratic capitalism, and who argued for the equal rights of women and blacks. In the back of the book – the cultural pages – they published works by such luminaries as Henry James and Willa Cather.
Then…well, something happened. The Gilded Age came along – the era of the “robber barons” – and the capitalist abolitionists were succeeded by reflexively pro-labor, anti-capitalist “progressives.” They were (to put it mildly) soft on socialism, but they had valid points to make about the need for worker protections and safety nets.
From there on, however, it just got worse. In A Better World, a 1982 book about the relationship between Stalinism and the American intellectual left, William Oneill [sic] notes that after The Nation was purchased in 1937 by Freda Kirchwey, an outright Stalinist who’d been working at the magazine since 1918, she installed herself as editor-in-chief and turned the weekly, former “an open forum of the liberal left,” into “an organ of the Popular Front” – meaning, essentially, a propaganda mouthpiece for Stalin.
For Kirchwey and The Nation, solidarity with Stalin necessitated the denunciation and smearing of all critics of the Soviet Union, whether conservative or liberal, and the fierce, unequivocal rejection of any hint that the USSR might, in fact, be – like Hitler’s Germany, and even moreso than Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain – a cruel and evil totalitarian state. Kirchwey’s logic? As she put it herself, Communists, for all their imperfections, had “also fought for decent conditions for workers and the unemployed, for equality of rights for Negroes, for relief and aid to the victims of the civil war in Spain.” Yes, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. The current editors of The Nation – who tastefully omit to mention Kirchwey’s Stalinism in the anniversary issue – offer this outrageously lame explanation for her systematic refusal to so much as hint at the monstrous truth about life in the USSR: “Kirchwey and [her successor as editor-in-chief] Carey McWilliams felt that to couple a critique of McCarthyism with accounts of the situation in the Soviet Union would deflect attention from the threat to freedom at home.” Right. Just as The Nation of 2015 denounces Western “counterjihadists” today while acting as if jihadists themselves are a creature from some bestiary of the imagination, so did The Nation of yore pillory anti-Communists while all but pretending that Western Communism – a very real threat – was a fantasy.
August 1939 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which Stalin fans capable of being honest with themselves recognized as a mammoth betrayal, an alliance of their greatest hero with their most despised enemy. Many of them felt driven, as Oneill puts it, to try “to explain what had gone wrong, and sometimes even where they had gone wrong personally.” Yet some on the American left “resisted this temptation.” Oneill identifies this resistance primarily with The Nation, “whose capacity for introspection,” he states, “was nonexistent.” Quite simply, the magazine “did not apologize for past errors,” and “[e]xcept when nursing grudges it had almost no memory, the world being born anew in its pages every week.”
The Nazi-Soviet Pact, in any event, was soon forgotten; a few weeks later Europe was at war, and the USSR was allied with Britain and France, and Stalin was once again a hero – in, above all, the pages of The Nation. And after the war was won, The Nation reliably provided its readers with (in Oneill’s words) sheer “fantasy” and “naked propaganda” about the victorious Uncle Joe and his workers’ paradise. InThe Nation during these years, Oneill points out, Russia was depicted as “alternately revolutionary and liberal – or sometimes both at once – as the need of the moment required.” Writing in The Nation in 1946, Walter Duranty described a purge by Stalin as “a general cleaning out of the cobwebs and mess.” (As one observerlater put it, “The Nation excused mass murder so long as it was red mass murder.”) When the USSR brutally turned the countries of Eastern Europe into Communist satellites, Kirchwey, far from protesting this savage act, supported it as a “process of revolution.”
As for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic republics, Oneill cites a suggestion by Reuters correspondent Alexander Werth that this, too, was just fine, because, after all, those republics had been run by fascists (or so the Kremlin said) – and besides, they weren’t “really countries” anyway.
Readers of the current incarnation of The Nation will find these two arguments very familiar: they’re precisely the same ones that vanden Heuvel and her husband employ today to justify Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: (1) it’s (according to them) a fascist state, and (2) Ukraine is (to quote vanden Heuvel) “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.”
Then as now, you see, the countries “on Russia’s border” don’t matter to The Nation; all that matters is Mother Russia itself, which in 1917 became the beacon of hope for utopian ideologues and enemies of individual liberty around the world, and which, even all these years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, continues to serve the America-haters at The Nation as a counterbalance to American power and American values.
We’ve mentioned that The Nation‘s cultural pages were generally free of control by the editors who ran the front of the book. Sometimes this had results that might fairly be described as schizophrenic. Consider James Agee’s 1947 review of the now-classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which is reprinted in the anniversary issue. The review is a total slam – and what’s interesting about it is that what Agee is criticizing in the movie is precisely what’s wrong with the magazine for which he happens to be reviewing it. “I mistrust any work,” he writes, “which tries to persuade me—or rather, which assumes that I assume—that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage.” One could hardly pen a more stinging indictment of the dangerously credulous view of the world – trusting in the power and virtue of social engineering, and rejecting the importance and value of individual liberty and individual character – that informed the political pages of Kirchwey’s magazine.
What about The Nation during the Cold War? We’ll move on to that next time.
The title of John J. Mearsheimer‘s September/October 2014 essay for Foreign Affairs said it all: “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.”
Like his NYU colleague Stephen F. Cohen, whose perverse defense of Putin we’ve already looked at, fellow Putin apologist Mearsheimer – a University of Chicago poli-sci prof who’s been called the “standard-bearer of the pro-Putin realists”– focuses his wrath largely on NATO growth, which he calls “the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” By extending NATO eastward, Mearsheimer charges, the West has moved into “Russia’s backyard” and threatened “its core strategic interests.”
This language of “orbits” and “backyards” and “strategic interests” is standard issue among self-styled “realists” like Cohen and Mearsheimer. And it’s very effective at sweeping aside such concepts as freedom, sovereignty, national self-determination, territorial integrity, and a country’s right to choose its own allies and arrange for its own defense – all of which Mearsheimer finds naive, part of “a flawed view of international politics.”
Mearsheimer, of course, champions “realpolitik.” But take a good look at his brand of “realpolitik” and you’ll realize that it renders meaningless the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the liberation of Eastern Europe. As far as he’s concerned, the decades-long existence of the Soviet Union, during which formerly independent countries were either incorporated into or subjugated to the totalitarian USSR, gives Russia, even now, a historical right to keep dominating them.
Writes Mearsheimer: “it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them.” But Russia’s neighbors? In his view, they have no right to decide what threatens them. And that goes double, apparently, for Ukraine. Noting that some Westerners “claim that Ukraine has the right to determine whom it wants to ally with and the Russians have no right to prevent Kiev from joining the West,” Mearsheimer counsels:
This is a dangerous way for Ukraine to think about its foreign policy choices. The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.
What Mearsheimer is saying here to the people of Ukraine – and to all of Russia’s other neighbors and former vassals – is this: you know that freedom you thought you won in 1991? Forget about it. Be realistic. You’re still at the mercy of Moscow, and always will be – and should be. What’s more, if you stubbornly refuse to accept your role as an obedient satellite in Russia’s orbit, it’s up to the West to give you a good swift kick in the teeth: “There is no reason,” Mearsheimer lectures, “that the West has to accommodate Ukraine if it is bent on pursuing a wrong-headed foreign policy….Indulging the dreams of some Ukrainians is not worth the animosity and strife it will cause, especially for the Ukrainian people.”
Dreams, in short, of living in freedom rather than behind an Iron Curtain.
The illogic, injustice, and moral iniquity of Mearsheimer’s position are self-evident. He urges us to take seriously Putin’s putative fear that NATO, once settled in on Russia’s borders, will invade it. But the thoroughly legitimate, historically well-founded fear, on the part of Russia’s neighbors, that Putin might invade them? That’s something Mearsheimer wants us to dismiss out of hand. Indeed, he wants more: he wants us to accept Russia’s right to invade them. For it’s only Russia’s comfort, Russia’s security, Russia’s inviolability that matters. In Mearsheimer’s eyes, its neighbors’ freedom – including the freedom to form alliances to protect that freedom – is nothing but a provocation.
Here’s a revealing line from Mearsheimer: “The West’s triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite.” Read that again. What Mearsheimer’s saying here, basically, is that the West’s very dedication to freedom – and to the defense thereof – represents a provocation to Putin. And why? Pace Mearshimer, it’s not because Putin really thinks we’re going to march on Moscow, but because he’s a dictator who hates freedom. Period.
There’s a word for Mearsheimer’s kind of thinking. It’s not “realism” or “realpolitik.” It’s “appeasement.” Rank appeasement. Do whatever it takes to keep from rousing the beast. Somehow it’s always OK for Putin to be belligerent; whenever he does so, it’s because he’s worried about us. But if we respond to his aggression in any way other than by stepping meekly back and letting him have his way, then whatever happens is the West’s fault.
…the United States should emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev. And it should demand that future Ukrainian governments respect minority rights, especially regarding the status of Russian as an official language. In short, Ukraine should remain neutral between East and West.
Here’s a thought: why not follow this kind of thinking to its logical end, and disband NATO entirely, so as to avoid giving Putin any worries?
But even that, truth be told, wouldn’t do the job. For Putin’s aggressiveness, as Russia expert Robert Horvath underscores, isn’t really motivated by a fear of NATO invasion but by a “terror of democratic revolution” on the part of his own people. Indeed, the ultimate problem with the cockamamie analyses served up by the so-called Russia “realists” is that their interpretation of Putin is rooted entirely in the assumption that he’s a rational actor rather than a tyrant who fears his subjects’ hopes of freedom. As Horvath puts it, he’s “paranoid, irrational and dangerous.” Or, to quote Chris Dunnett of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center: “Far from being a ‘realist’ policy maker, Vladimir Putin is a myopic autocrat.”
Bingo. And for Mearsheimer, Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and other big-name “Russia experts” not to recognize such an obvious fact is well beyond myopic – it’s blind. Perilously, treacherously blind.
Every year for the past several decades, an event called the World Russia Forum has taken place in Washington D.C. This confab – which back in the days of the Cold War was a reasonably respectable affair – has in recent times degenerated into “a gathering of Kremlin apologists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted nut jobs.”
The quote is from James Kirchick, who reported on this year’s Forum in March. Among the creeps who turned up: our old pal Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (who, as we’ve seen, arm-wrestled Putin one night at a D.C. bar and fell in love). Also present were – surprise! – that most lovable of American couples since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: left-wing Putin apologists Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel.
At the Forum, Cohen gave a speech in which he repeated his usual plaint: that back in the good old days, both the US and USSR had their “legitimate spheres of influence,” aka “zones of national security.” But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, this “parity” disappeared and Russia was treated “as a defeated nation.”
For Cohen, these developments are profoundly lamentable. But why? In what way was Moscow’s subjugation of the Baltic and Eastern European countries ever “legitimate? What would make such subjugation “legitimate” now? Why should a dozen smaller countries suffer subordination and oppression – and perennial insecurity – in the name of Russian “security”? Why, for that matter, should anyone in the West buy into the notion that Russia needs a “security zone” in the first place? Does anyone seriously believe that the US would ever decide to invade Russia? Or that, even if it wanted to, it could get its NATO partners to play along?
After Cohen’s talk, Kirchick challenged him directly. How, he asked, could Cohen equate NATO, a voluntary defense alliance, with Russia’s so-called “zone of national security” – which, like the earlier Soviet “zone,” “consists of countries that are cajoled, blackmailed, threatened, and then – if those tactics don’t work – invaded by Russian occupation troops”? Cohen offered an incoherent, “meandering” reply, maintaining that NATO’s “original intent” was lost with the dissolution of the USSR and that the Ukraine crisis is a result of “reckless NATO expansion,” which has caused unnecessary tensions and insecurity.
Kirchick’s take on that nonsensical claim was right on the money:
On the contrary; had the Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact members not joined NATO, the security situation in Europe would be much more tenuous than it already is today. Before their membership, these nations’ status vis a vis Russia was ambiguous, constituting a security gray area. Today, they all have—at least in theory—a rock-solid security guarantee as members of the world’s strongest military alliance.
But of course Cohen has rarely if ever expressed any concern about the security status of these little countries. For him they’re peripheral – bit players; pieces on Washington and Moscow’s chessboard. What matters for him, first and last, is Russia; he sees all these issues from the perspective of the Kremlin; his take on all of this stuff is effectively indistinguishable from that of Vladimir Putin himself.
And why is that? Because Putin challenges American power. And for the likes of Stephen Cohen, nothing could be more important than the “balance” the USSR provided to American international “hegemony.”
Never mind the Gulag, the Holodomor, Stalin’s reign of terror: for Cohen and his ilk, the Soviet Union was, take it for all in all, a good thing, if only because it represented a counterweight to Uncle Sam. Hence Putin, however much of a monster, must be defended, precisely because he’s pushing back against the US. And if this pushback means crushing freedom in a few small countries on Russia’s fringes – well, that’s a small price to pay for keeping America in check.
Such is the thinking of NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen. And of course Mrs. Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel, longtime editor and publisher of the perennially Kremlin-friendly Nation, feels exactly the same way. At the World Russia Forum, vanden Heuvel congratulated herself for putting out a bravely “heretical” publication that rejects received opinions on Russia only to be subject to vitriol (“as opposed,” Kirchick wryly observed, “to those who express ‘heretical’ ideas in Russia, who—if they’re not shot in the back four times like opposition leader Boris Nemtsov—are thrown in jail”).
At the Forum, vanden Heuvel joined her hubby in condemning the “demonization” of Putin. She also chaired a panel consisting of three former US journalists – Robert Parry, Martin Sieff, and Patrick Smith – and a former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern. The whole gang, apparently, echoed Cohen’s Orwellian rhetoric – talking about Russian aggression as if it were purely defensive, while depicting US and NATO defensive moves as the real acts of aggression.
Who are these guys? Sieff, a former national security correspondent for UPI, has been a frequent contributor to Pat Buchanan’s far-right American Conservative magazine. (In a fine example of the cozy Ribbentrop-Molotov camaraderie between today’s far right and far left, Sieff penned a glowing review, in 2007, of a book about Donald Rumsfeld by Alexander Cockburn, late editor of the loony left’s flagship rag, Counterpunch.) Smith is a frequent Nation contributor; Parry writes regularly for the left-wing site Alternet, where, in a February piece that summed up his take on US-Russia tensions, he put the words “free market” in scare quotes, defended the cruelly “demonized” Putin by demonizing billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky – whom Putin put in prison – and slung mud at the democratic leaders of Ukraine, a country that Parry has previously smeared as a nest of neo-Nazis. (Parry has also made something of a specialty of “exposing” the darker side of American history, as if Howard Zinn hadn’t made it there long before him.) And, last but not least, McGovern is a guy who, since leaving the CIA in 1990, has become a fanatical anti-Israel activist and 9/11 Truther.
We’ve been talking about NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen, Russia “expert” and Putin apologist extraordinaire. But so far we’ve failed to mention his #1 ally in his pro-Putin crusade – namely, world-class limousine lefty Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation, the Bible of America’s far left. In private life, vanden Heuvel is Mrs. Stephen F. Cohen; in public life, she shares her husband’s breathtakingly unequivocal support for Putin.
Famously, vanden Heuvel and her crew at The Nation don’t hesitate to lecture the U.S. and certain foreign countries – notably Israel – about what they’ve done or haven’t done, should or shouldn’t do. But when the subject is Putin’s Russia, vanden Heuvel’s line is the same as her husband’s: what Putin does is none of our business.
Cohen and vanden Heuvel characterize this position as one of “realism” and “common sense.”
It’s all quite fascinating, really. Neither the professor-husband nor his publisher-wife ever saw a U.S. military action that they liked; but when Putin sent tanks rolling into Ukraine, both rushed to his defense. Vanden Heuvel sneered at Americans who were concerned about Ukraine, calling them “armchair interventionists” and “rightwing rodeo warmongers” – as if it were they, not Putin, who’d just mounted an invasion.
Writing in the Washington Post in March 2014, vanden Heuvel dismissed Ukraine as “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.” Her point apparently being that because Ukraine hasn’t been around for very long, and because it’s a pretty vulnerable entity, its well-being and territorial integrity aren’t worth a great deal of consideration.
Could this argument be any more grotesque and odious? The reason why Ukraine didn’t have an “independent existence” before 1991 was that it was part of the Kremlin’s totalitarian empire; the reason why its independence since then has been “fragile” can be spelled in one six-letter word: Russia. Despite Putin’s dearest wishes, Ukraine is now a free and democratic country – a development he’d clearly like to reverse. Which is precisely why Ukraine has looked to the U.S. and NATO to help defend its freedoms.
Freedoms that vanden Heuvel – make no mistake – plainly views as an affront to Mother Russia. She actually complained in her Post article that “the post-Cold War settlement…looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods.” Translation: just as the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany in part because it handed over German territory to France, Denmark, and other neighboring countries, the “post-Cold War settlement” was unfair to Russia because it liberated the captive nations of Eastern Europe from the Communist dictatorship that had been imposed on them and gave them freedom.
As we’ve noted earlier in connection with similar statements by Cohen, the only way to make any kind of sense of vanden Heuvel’s obnoxious line of thinking is to consider the source: like her hubby, she’s an old, dyed-in-the-wool leftist admirer of the Soviet Union and, as such, retains an intense affection for the idea of autocratic Kremlin power – and, especially, for the notion of the Kremlin as a crucial counterforce to the hegemonic power of the United States.
“Russia has legitimate security concerns in its near-neighbor,” wrote vanden Heuvel in the Post about Putin’s moves on Ukraine. “The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the European Union…than about the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the U.S. fleet and provide a home to NATO bases.” Got that? In vanden Heuvel’s view, Putin fears – legitimately – an invasion of Russia from across the Ukrainian border.
Outrageous. Then again, such outrageousness is part and parcel of The Nation‘s heritage. Throughout the Stalin era, The Nation was staunchly pro-Stalin, finding ways to apologize for every monstrous crime against humanity that good old Uncle Joe committed – from the Ukrainian famine to the Moscow show trials, from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the postwar subjugation of Eastern Europe. Finding excuses for Putin, by comparison, is child’s play.