On Tuesday we pondered the fact that Karl Marx, who would have turned 200 on May 5, has been getting awfully positive press lately in the Western media. We cited a recent New York Times op-ed whose author, a philosopher named Jason Barker, looked forward breathlessly to a golden future time when some government actually puts Marx’s ideas into practice – as if most of the large-scale human tragedies of the last century weren’t a result of precisely such efforts.
Barker’s piece, as it happens, was nothing new for the Times, which during the last year or so has been using the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution as an excuse to regularly run op-eds that put a pretty face on Soviet Communism. It has been difficult, indeed, not to conclude that the Gray Lady, in her dotage, seems to be going through a period of nostalgia for the grand old days of that master apologist and Pulitzer winner Walter Duranty.
Although it didn’t mention Marx, another recent Times op-ed took as blinkered a look at Marxism as Barker’s. On the very day before Marx’s birthday, China scholar James A. Millward (who teaches in the school of Foreign Service at Georgetown University) celebrated China’s current “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which involves the development of “highways and a string of new ports, from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Mediterranean,” on a scale that surpasses “even the imagination of a sci-fi writer.” Breathlessly, Millward cheered “China’s economic progress over the past century,” noting that it had lifted “hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.” One might have expected Millward to acknowledge that the same government that lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty also murdered a similar number of its people. But presumably Millward didn’t consider this little detail revelant to his topic.
Yes, Millward did admit in passing that China is flexing its muscles and challenging U.S. global dominance. “To the cynical,” he stated, the cultural elements of the One Belt, One Road program are “just so much propagandistic treacle.” But he wasn’t about to be cynical. China, he argued, “is stepping up to be a global good citizen concerned about the economic well-being of its neighbors.” One Belt, One Road “invests China’s prestige in a globalist message that sounds all the right notes – peace, multicultural tolerance, mutual prosperity – and that rhetoric sets standards by which to hold China accountable.” Millward contrasted this sweetness and light with – what else? – “the protectionism and xenophobia displayed by President Trump and emerging nationalistic ideologies in Europe, India and elsewhere.” Yes, that’s right: Millward favorably compared a Communist regime to the democratic governments of the U.S., India, and various European countries that are too “nationalistic” for his tastes. Yet even as Millward provided Xi and his henchmen in Beijing with this terrific piece of free P.R., he omitted to so much as mention the word “Communism.”
It’s considered a matter of courtesy to fly another country’s flag when one of its representatives is visiting. That doesn’t mean people have to like it. Last year, when Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai flew to Olympia, Washington, to meet with that state’s governor, Jay Inslee, the Chinese flag was hoisted outside the State Capitol – only to be pulled down by a group of private citizens who found its presence there disgraceful. A few days ago, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Czech Republic, Chinese flags lined the route from the airport into Prague. As in Olympia, citizens pulled a couple of the flags down and replaced them with Tibetan flags.
Also this month – specifically, on October 1 – a Chinese flag was raised outside the City Hall in Vancouver, Canada. But it was not because some Chinese dignitary was in town. No, it was done in recognition of China’s National Day. The flag-raising ceremony was organized by a group calling itself the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations. And the flag wasn’t the whole of it: two of the speakers at the event, a Vancouver Councilman and third-generation Chinese-Canadian named Kerry Jang and a Member of Parliament named Joe Peschisolido, wore red scarves, which were part of the uniform worn by the cruel Red Guards during Mao Zedong’s so-called Cultural Revolution.
This spectacle didn’t sit well with many locals. Peschisolido himself later claimed that he was unaware of the significance of the red scarves, and said that his remarks outside City Hall had included affirmations of “the importance of human rights, the importance for democracy, the importance of freedom of the press and freedom of one’s faith.”
But Jang was unrepentant. Describing himself as “agnostic” about Chinese Communism, he attributed initial criticism of the event to “ignorance and racism.” But its most vocal critics turned out to be his fellow Chinese-Canadians. Meena Wong, a local politician who had been a child in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, said she was “dumbfounded” at the sight of “my city councillor in my city hall raising the flag wearing the symbol of loyalty to communism.” On October 6, a Chinese-American group called the Alliance of the Guard of Canadian Values – which, as we saw yesterday, had recently opposed a Maoist concert in nearby Richmond – held a public protest against the Vancouver flag ceremony and demanded Jang’s resignation.
During the last decade, charged the group’s head, Louis Huang, the Beijing government had vastly expanded its influence in Canada – “not only in our government organizations, but also in the hundreds of Chinese associations in Canada.” This development, Huang warned, represented a threat to “the foundation of our freedom and democracy, the loyalty to our country and our national security.”
As a result of the protest, Vancouver authorities said they were re-examining their policies regarding displays of foreign flags. And Jang, while repeating his claim that many critics of the ceremony “just hate all Chinese,” also sought to slough off responsibility for wearing a red scarf, maintained that someone else had tied it around his neck and that he was scared to remove it lest he cause an “international incident.” Now there’s the kind of character, principle, and resolve you want in an elected leader.
On October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrated his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’ve spent the last few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world.
This one is particularly depressing. Apparently it’s time to add a new wing to the Putin fan gallery. A huge wing. For, as it turns out, Vladimir Putin is a superstar in China.
While people in other countries have cooled on Vlad since he sent troops into Ukraine, in China his numbers have soared. A biography of him was a bestseller last fall. After Russia annexed Crimea, his approval rating hit 92%. A 2014 article in a Chinese publication referred to “Putin fever.”
The Wall Street Journal‘s Jeremy Page provided the context in an article that appeared last October: in recent years, he noted, the governments of China and Russia have grown closer, united by their contempt for democracy in general – as represented by pro-freedom protests in Hong Kong and Kiev – and for the U.S. in particular, which is seen as instigating such protests.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has said that the two countries have the world’s “best great-power relationship.” In September, Putin said: “Russian-Chinese ties have reached probably their highest level in history and continue to develop.” Last year, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian that Xi and other Chinese leaders, who “grew up under Chairman Mao,” look up to Putin because they love “the idea of another non-western leader standing up to the capitalist and imperialist west.”
Indeed, Mao may be history and China may have become a top-flight capitalist power, but the PRC’s government remains firmly Communist – and its people are still taught from infancy to respect, and even fear, authority. While Putin, as Page notes, has “overseen a gradual rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin,” Xi has done much the same for the memory of Mao. Even though millions of Chinese citizens unquestionably crave democracy, long for greater freedom, and are active in reform movements, millions more, like generations of their ancestors before them, reflexively esteem tyrants. Or, as they might prefer to put it, they admire leaders who have power and aren’t afraid to use it boldly to benefit their own countries.
Uninspired by Obama, they’re galvanized by Putin. They’re impressed by his bullying moves against Georgia and Ukraine. As one Chinese journalist has said, they’re attracted by Putin’s “strong ’emperor’ quality.” They view him as “a leader with character” who “strikes back when the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is invaded.” To quote a commenter at an online Chinese forum: “Chinese people approve of Putin for the same reasons that they reminisce about Chairman Mao.”
Since Page’s article appeared, the Chinese enthusiasm for Putin has only intensified. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that China’s “adulation” of the Russian president had “reached dizzying new heights” thanks to “a slick propaganda video lavishing praise” on him. The video includes comments by Chinese people praising Putin for his “very big muscles” and calling him “a big handsome man!” How can freedom compete with that?
The other day, watching the Eurovision Song Contest – Europe’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, only with bad songs instead of a football game – we reflected on how odd it was to see performers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland taking the same stage as an act from Russia. This was, after all, going on at a time when the people living in the countries on Russia’s Western border have serious, growing, and thoroughly legitimate concerns that Vladimir Putin, any day now, may order Russian troops to march across their borders. As one observer noted a couple of weeks ago, the Baltics may be “model states for democracy, respect for human rights, and transparency,” may “have the highest standard of living among the former states of the Soviet Union,” and may be the only former Soviet states in the Eurozone, but “the mood in all three countries is dark.”
Consider this: in a single week earlier this month, NATO military exercises were held in Poland, Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia and the Baltic Sea. Such is the air of menace Putin has created in his neighborhood, reported the Guardian in May, that “[e]ven Sweden and Finland have started musing aloud about joining NATO.”
Missing from Eurovision this year was Ukraine, which already has Russian troops on its soil. (In fact, the financial challenges caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine were reportedly the reason why Ukraine pulled out of this year’s Eurovision.) One is reminded of the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, at which countries soon to go to war with one another engaged in “friendly” athletic competition under the very eyes of Hitler; only the comparison would be even more apt if the Berlin Olympics had taken place not in the summer of 1936 but three years later, after the Anschluss and Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland.
Putin has been rattling sabers for months. According to recent reports, he’s informed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that if he wanted, he “could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest” within two days. He also told European Commission President José Manuel Barroso: “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.” In mid May, the heads of the Baltic countries’ armed forces asked NATO to station on their territories “a new unit similar to the Berlin Brigade that was stationed in Germany during the Cold War.” The danger is real.
And yet even as things heat up along Russia’s western border, Putin’s apologists in the West hold firm.
Take action-film heavyweight Steven Seagal, who not only calls Putin a pal but considers him “one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive.” This month, when Putin held a celebration of Russia’s World War II victory – at which he gave a speech accusing the U.S. of seeking “to create a unipolar world” – Seagal was there in the audience, cheering him on. We’ve already noted Seagal’s curious friendship with Putin, but recently there have been some fresh tidbits of news from that front. It was reported in April, for example, that Putin, back in 2013, asked the U.S. to recognize his movie-star buddy as an “honorary consul of Russia” who would act as “a potential intermediary between the White House and the Kremlin.” (The U.S. response, according to one unnamed official, was: “You’ve got to be kidding.”) Although U.S. and European officials boycotted Putin’s VE-Day anniversary event in protest against his actions in Ukraine, Seagal was able to rub shoulders at the shindig with some of Putin’s other international comrades – including Raul Castro, Robert Mugabe, and Xi Jinping.
Even some people who don’t really seem to be full-fledged Putin fans have been infected by those fans’ disingenuous rhetoric. Take British journalist David Blair. He doesn’t appear to possess any great affection for Putin, but in a recent article, after snidely mocking Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves for having grown up in New Jersey and for speaking English with an American accent (horrors!), Blair actually characterized Ilves’s distaste for Putin as rooted not in an understandable concern about Kremlin belligerence, but in an indignancy over “Putin’s disregard for post-World War II international rules (and, by extension, his disrespect for post-Cold War American hegemony).”
American hegemony. Yes, in the lexicon of Putin’s Western fans, that’s what this is all about. Not the reality of Russian aggression, but the fiction of “American hegemony,” a nonsense term used to make a good thing – the banding together of democracies for mutual protection against a warmongering tyrant – look like a bad thing.
Blair went on to note that even though the Baltic countries are full NATO members, “no American or NATO soldiers are permanently defending the Baltics.” If Putin invaded, “these countries could not protect themselves” and “NATO would not be able to reinforce them.” But while Ilves calls for NATO to put permanent NATO troops in the Baltics, Blair warned against it, maintaining that “Russia would regard this as a grave escalation.” Again, Blair doesn’t seem to be a Putin fan, but he’s speaking their language – referring to a purely defensive measure as if it were an act of aggression. Nobody, including Putin, seriously believes that NATO would station troops in the Baltics with an eye to invading Russia. That being the case, the word “escalation” is utterly out of place here.
The hypocrisy factor in all this is through the roof. How many of the Western politicians, journalists, and others who defend Putin would want to ply their trades in Russia? Even one of Putin’s top domestic media stooges, it turns out, no longer lives in Russia but – guess where? In the U.S., naturally. We’re talking about Ashot Gabrelyanov, who, with his father, has “built a tabloid empire” and is believed to “wor[k] closely with Russia’s intelligence services” to promote the Putin regime and defame its enemies. A few months ago, as Mashable reported on May 1, the younger Gabrelyanov, founder of Russia’s top news (or “news”) site, LifeSite News, moved to New York City – and ever since then he’s been busy on social media gushing over the same country he routinely demonizes on his website. “NYC is incredible,” he enthused on Instagram. Meet the new poster boy for hypocritical Putin fandom.
We’ve seen how far-left filmmaker Oliver Stone admires Kremlin gangster Vladimir Putin for his “new authoritarianism” that, in his view, gave Russians their “pride back.” Stone is far from the only Western cultural or intellectual figure who has a soft spot for the former KGB thug, but he’s something of an exception to the rule: most of Putin’s fans in the West, as it happens, aren’t left-wingers like Stone who like Putin because he reminds them of Fidel Castro but social conservatives who like Putin because they see him as a hero of “traditional values.” Indeed, all he has to do is say the words “traditional values” and they start salivating.
Never mind that Putin’s “traditional values” are pre-democratic and pre-modern; never mind that they’re part and parcel of all the worst chapters of both Tsarist and Soviet history – the pogroms, the Gulag. Putin’s disdain for gay rights and other such Western phenomena – a disdain shared and applauded by the likes of Pat Buchanan – is nothing new; contempt for Western “decadence” was a staple of Soviet propaganda from 1918 to 1989. What Putin is encouraging with his “traditional values” rhetoric is the perpetuation, and even revival, of a self-destructive, pathological culture whose hallmarks are maudlin self-pity, dictator-worship, a love of cruelty and physical brutality, rampant alcoholism, and the often violent oppression of Jews and other minorities.
But you’d never know that to read apologists like Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, who in September 2011, while not quite admitting that he himself celebrated Putin, was eager to provide reasons why others might do so: “he saved the country from servility”; he “[f]lout[ed] western norms”; he has “address[ed] real problems.” Caldwell dismissed Western critics of Putin, such as Le Monde, as “harsh” and “condescending.” And he suggested that if Putin is less than a saint, well, it’s largely the fault of NATO, whose “moralistic adventure in Kosovo humiliated Russia and its Serbian allies unnecessarily.”
As for Putin’s offenses, they were relegated by Caldwell to the “yes, but” category: yes, “the west can deplore” Putin’s imprisonment of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his invasion of Georgia, and his assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and dissident Aleksandr Litvinenko, “but it cannot ignore the reality of Russian sentiment.”
In his 2011 piece, Caldwell seemed hesitant to praise Putin too overtly; this hesitancy pretty much disappeared in an article he published this February, in which he scorned Obama, Hollande, and Cameron for their “ostentatious” boycott of the Sochi Olympics while praising the “level-headed” decisions of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Islamist despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend the games. Caldwell dismissed attention paid to “alleged corruption around Olympic construction” as “obsessive,” calling it “a local story.” Besides, he argued, haven’t other Olympic games also been corrupt? He offered a good deal of this sort of argumentation: yes, Putin has introduced undemocratic laws, but haven’t other governments done the same?
Caldwell was more critical of the gutsy anti-Putin protesters of Pussy Riot, whom he criticized for interrupting worship at a church, than he was of the punishment Putin meted out to them. He expressed less concern about Putin’s assault on Russian freedom, as exemplified by his brutal crackdown on gays, than about rulings by U.S. judges in favor of same-sex marriage. He even trivialized Putin’s persecution, torture, and ten-year imprisonment of billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling it a cause “beloved of western elites.”
In short, a disgraceful performance by a guy who’s often viewed as a relatively moderate conservative and whose work appears in places like The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly.
But, as we’ll see, Caldwell is far from alone on the right.