From Silicon Valley to Semipalatinsk, demonization of Russia dropped into every conversation

The public personas trying to demonize Russia have developed the annoying habit of dragging their obsession into every conversation, and it has also spread to people who don’t think about Russia much but accept whatever they are being told about it. Like an obsessed war veteran who makes every conversation about the war, there is no conversation these days that can’t be injected with some reference to Russian malfeasance.  What follows is a discussion of two examples of such overreach that I came across at random within one week. The main topics of these articles were not concerned with Russia, but for unexplained reasons the speaker and the interviewer chose to take potshots at Russia by dragging it into conversations that were about something else entirely.

The first example is an interview published in New York Magazine with Jaron Lanier, who is described as a prominent technology figure (developer of virtual reality goggles), an interdisciplinary scientist, and independent public intellectual employed by Microsoft. The main point he makes in this interview is that Silicon Valley nerds have conquered the world, but they still act as if they are powerless outsiders. He manages to compare them to Russia by saying:

To me, one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world. Like, oh, I don’t know, I could give you many examples. But let’s say like Russia’s still acting as if it’s being destroyed when it isn’t, and it’s creating great damage in the world. And Silicon Valley’s kind of like that.[1]

This point may apply to companies like Uber, Facebook and Google that have disrupted the economy and social relations, but the reference to Russia shows such stunning ignorance of modern Russian history that the claim to being an intellectual comes into question. Upon what knowledge can he state “Russia still acts as if it’s being destroyed when it isn’t”? It’s important to be cautious about the limits of our knowledge when we speak about societies we haven’t studied or lived in. I’ve always been fascinated by the French and Russian revolutions. I’ve read the classic novels from these cultures and studied their history. I’ve read widely on the Cold War, the Chernobyl catastrophe, the demolition of the Soviet Union, the collapse of Russia during the 1990s and its recovery during the years since Putin came to power. I’ve read hundreds of articles on the war in Syria and the American-led insurrection in Ukraine in 2014, making every effort to look outside the official narrative fed to me by state-sponsored media in the US and the UK. Still, I have to be careful because I don’t speak Russian and I don’t know what it was like to live in the USSR and Russia over the last forty years. I haven’t been to Syria to listen firsthand to what people their think of their president. But I also know that one can visit a country and even spend a long time there without gaining the slightest understanding of its history. If the tourist doesn’t pick up a book and learn about a place, he comes home just as ignorant as ever.

I mention my background knowledge to say I think I’m qualified to say that the invocation of Russia to make a point about the power of Silicon Valley is a completely spurious analogy. In fact, the US and its NATO allies are still trying to threaten and weaken Russia. They always have posed a threat, even before the Soviet era, and they show no sign of letting up, so Russia’s restrained response to provocations in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria cannot be interpreted as “creating great damage in the world” out of a paranoid sense of “being destroyed when it isn’t.” I could dive into the details of the competing narratives about Russia and its relations with Ukraine and Syria, but it’s already been done by many others such as Stephen Cohen (historian specializing in the USSR and Russia), Oliver Stone (director of Ukraine on Fire), economist Jeffrey Sachs (eyewitness to the fire sale of the Russian economy in the 1990s), and Abby Martin (journalist who has interviewed several specialists who have debunked the Western narrative on Russia and Syria). See also the extensive coverage in OffGuardian and Mint Press News. What is remarkable is how stubbornly journalists and politicians in the NATO bloc have refused to acknowledge the information that contradicts their narrative. If anything reeks of a conspiracy it is their tacit agreement to not back up their claims with evidence, and to not consider alternative perspectives and reports about these conflicts. Mr. Lanier’s statement that Russia is causing great harm in the world implies a complete acceptance of the Western narrative that is in fact a gross distortion of what has actually happened.

Readers who doubt this can go to the sources mentioned above, but they will have to search a little harder than they used to because Google has adjusted its algorithms to lower the prominence of alternative media. Here I will cite just one source, Mike Whitney, who covered this issue succinctly in one of his articles for Counterpunch, in April 2017. Addressing the question of whether Putin is the “mafia hitman” he is portrayed as in the West, Whitney writes:

… having followed Putin’s career (and read many of his speeches) since he replaced Boris Yeltsin in December 1999, I think it’s highly unlikely.  The more probable explanation is that Russia’s foreign policy has created insurmountable hurdles for Washington in places like Ukraine and Syria, so Washington has directed its propaganda ministry (a.k.a. the media) to smear Putin as an evil tyrant and a thug. At least that’s the way the media has behaved in the past. The US political class loved Yeltsin, of course, because Yeltsin was a compliant buffoon who eviscerated the state and caved in to all the demands of the western corporations. Not so Putin, who has made great strides in rebuilding the country by nationalizing part of the oil industry, asserting his authority over the oligarchs, and restoring the power of the central government. More important, Putin has repeatedly condemned Washington’s unilateral war-mongering around the world, in fact, the Russian president has become the de facto leader of a growing resistance movement whose primary goal is to stop Washington’s destabilizing regime change wars and rebuild global security on the bedrock principle of national sovereignty.[2]

On the question of Putin’s responsibility for the deaths of journalists, and spies and oligarchs living overseas, there is a lack of motive because of his high levels of support, and there is no evidence linking him directly to such violence. The question might be better understood if we asked, as a philosophical question, to what degree US presidents, or any heads of state can be held accountable for what happens on their territory—for murders committed by police, political assassinations, crushing of protest movements, violent rivalries between oligarchs, or for the killing of alleged terrorists in foreign countries in undeclared wars. Heads of state find they have limited power to curtail state violence, yet nowadays in the Western media only a few selected enemy leaders are accused of being directly responsible for every foul deed that happens within their borders. Furthermore, there is the fact that British and American intelligence have been known to carry out false flag attacks for propaganda purposes, so much of what we hear about Putin’s and Assad’s foul deeds has to be treated with utmost skepticism. If we really wanted to look for state tyranny, we could look at India and see the mass atrocities incited by the rise of a fascism based on a false religious mythology, a movement nurtured by Prime Minister Narendri Modi over twenty years during his rise to power. But we pay no attention because India is an ally to whom the United States, France, the UK, Japan and Russia all want to sell weapons and nuclear technology.[3] Perhaps all great power rivalry amounts in the end to mankind being enslaved by technology as it spreads from “developed “ North to “undeveloped” South. Jack Kerouac quipped in 1968 that the war in Vietnam was nothing but a plot by North and South Vietnam to get jeeps from their respective Soviet and American suppliers.[4]

Asking whether Putin is responsible for every politically or economically motivated murder in Russia is like asking whether in 1962 Vice President Johnson personally ordered the FBI and the CIA to murder JFK, RFK, MLK and Malcom X before the 1968 election. It’s possible he did, but it’s also preposterous to suggest he was so darkly evil and willing to put his nation through such trauma and tarnish its international reputation. As everyone knows, such foul deeds have gone officially unsolved, and presidents ask their citizens to move on and put them behind them. Stuff happens. Why should political intrigue be any different in the other great powers? Presidents learn to go along with the violence set in motion by the permanent state. President Obama grew so accustomed to government crimes that he was able excuse himself as a servant of American institutions, so he was able to joke about using predator drones to intimidate his daughters’ boyfriends, and the joke provoked no outrage, not even from his domestic political rivals who were actually less likely to question America’s right to drop bombs wherever it pleases.

All of this is not to say that Mr. Lanier doesn’t have something to say worth listening to—about his own area of expertise—but his allusion to Russia as a source of damage in the world hints that his thoughts have been shaped by the American media and corporate ecosystem, which, ironically, makes him perpetuate the sort of fake news and conspiracy paranoia he warned about in his April 2018 TED talk in which he talked about the urgent need to abandon the business model of Google and Facebook based on advertising.

Mr. Lanier noted, “Early digital culture, and indeed, digital culture to this day, had a sense of… lefty, socialist mission about it, that… everything on the internet must be purely public, must be available for free…”[5] He fails to note how this vision was more libertarian than socialist because it envisioned something self-organizing, with no role for government and no way for digital culture’s role to be managed by government institutions for public benefit. For Lanier, the fatal flaw of digital culture was its contradictory love of “entrepreneurs,” an innocuous term chosen instead of other possibilities such as a love of “capitalism,” “accumulation of enormous wealth and power,” “rampant inequality,” or “plutocratic usurpation of democracy.” Such terminology is seldom, if ever, heard on the TED stage. They are not in the Silicon Valley lexicon. Lanier’s critique here fails to account for Silicon Valley playing a subordinate role within neoliberal capitalism, and being devoured by it. The philosophical roots are elsewhere in the economic theories that came out of the Vienna and Chicago schools of economics. For a deeper analysis of neoliberalism’s love of “entrepreneurs,” see Keith Spencer‘s essay on the rise of superhero movies. He illustrates how Elon Musk is essentially Iron Man. The superhero entrepreneur is the inevitable product of neoliberalism’s destruction of democracy. A highlight from the essay:

In both neoliberalism and superhero movies, politics and big political decisions happen because the elite (politicians or superpeople or supervillains) make them happen. Society is ruled over by benevolent philosopher-kings (plutocrats or superheroes or both) who watch over us and aid only when needed... this is precisely how politics functions in neoliberalism: Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were presented as branded superheroes, who believed they knew what was best for us, and sought to install their elite wonks to enact their benevolent (to them) policies. There’s a relatively two-dimensional view of the world at work: there are good and bad people; they are generally born that way and seldom change. The state in neoliberalism and superhero movies is almost entirely devoted to oppression and surveillance. If the state overreaches, heroes must fix its excesses; if it fails to protect its citizenry, heroes must make up for its shortcomings. In either case, its social welfare function is invisible: because people are innately good or evil, there are no social workers or teachers or other welfare-state employees whose duties might prevent villainy (or supervillainy) through social work. Superheroes are, by definition, more powerful and more important than the state. More importantly, the superheroes’ work may save lives, but it never inherently changes the relationships of production: If the people are poor, they’re likely to stay poor. [6]

Instead of imagining a radical alternative to this model, Mr. Lanier suggests we could “imagine a hypothetical world of ‘peak social media’” by paying subscription fees for internet search and social media in order to abolish the model in which user information is sold and advertising revenue is essential. That’s as far as reform should go, apparently. He believes we could “get really useful, authoritative medical advice instead of cranks. It could mean… there’s not a bunch of weird, paranoid conspiracy theories.” He doesn’t clarify how this would happen, and he seems to suggest that it would be easy to determine who is authoritative and not in the thrall of a paranoid conspiracy theory, or that the wealthy and owners of the media would not be interested in filtering information. This statement is also made in complete ignorance of CIA programs such as Operation Mockingbird (not a conspiracy theory, as it was revealed by Ramparts magazine in 1967 and Congressional investigations in the 1970s), which planted CIA operatives in the mass media (often concealed through layers of front organizations). Lanier may also be unaware that in 2012 President Obama repealed critical parts of the Smith-Munt Act, which had made it illegal for the government to produce propaganda against its own citizens. This means that some of the information in his Mr. Lanier’s head and yours is there because the CIA wanted it to be there.

The recent concern about the Facebook and Google business model has coincided with the government’s and the media conglomerates’ concern that people, and, crucially, sponsors, are turning to alternative sources. The average age of CNN viewers is 67, so this is a battle for the attention of the younger generation. The sudden official sympathy for citizens losing control of their private information has come suspiciously late in the game. The nature of the internet was well-known a quarter century ago. It’s been considered problematic only since the deplorables elected an objectionable president and since certain paranoid conspiracy cranks got obsessed with the notion that “Russia hacked the election,” which is really a coded way of saying the established order is newly vulnerable to being questioned.

It is also disingenuous for Mr. Lanier to suggest that subscribing to information services would solve the problem he describes. He cites Netflix as a positive example because it uses a subscription model, but Netflix also gathers user data and uses it to suggest titles, move clients toward insular groups interested in similar content, track popular trends, and decide which performers and which types of stories to produce. 

Mr. Lanier concluded his talk by saying, “We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.” This seems like a profound insight and a call for drastic change, but he is not really describing a recent problem. Telephones, radio, television and automobiles were also technologies owned by third parties who connected two people who wished to communicate. Their social relations and behavior were also manipulated and transformed in ways that they consented to, but their decisions came with consequences that were not fully understood by both providers and users. Humanity was just being swept along by its own inventions.

As is common in Silicon Valley and on the TED stage, the participants fail to see the capitalist ocean they swim in. Public intellectuals like Mr. Lanier could start truly thinking outside the box to start imagining ways to create national, democratic government structures that put ownership of resources and essential infrastructure under public control. Internet search and social media platforms could be public utilities, with citizens involved in their governance the way corporate shareholders get a say in corporate governance. Within such a system, the tech wizards could conceivably keep their positions and still be well-compensated, but there would be no superhero millionaires and billionaires, or employees with stock options. This is what should be implied when someone says Silicon Valley has to give up its worship of entrepreneurial giants.
Monument to the era of nuclear testing,
Semey, Kazakhstan
The other example of an overreaching, irrelevant reference to Russian malfeasance appeared in the journal Euractiv, in an interview with Karipbek Kuyukov, an anti-nuclear weapons activist and victim of Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. Toward the end of the interview, Georgi Gotev, a senior editor at Euractiv asked:

Kazakhstan made the bold decision of getting rid of its nuclear arsenal inherited from Soviet times, and so did Ukraine. But without the nuclear deterrent, Ukraine became an easy prey to Russia. How would you comment on that?[7]

Without belaboring the discussion of what happened in Ukraine in 2014, I will briefly reiterate the facts of the matter that have been widely known for years but ignored by Western media. Domestic opposition in Ukrainian was exploited and inflamed by American interference and support for nationalist, fascistic elements that were hostile to the ethnically Russian minorities in the east of the country. The president was ousted illegally, rather than through the constitutionally mandated impeachment process. The ethnic Russian majority in Crimea (where Russia had naval forces under a treaty with Ukraine) was happy to vote for annexation—understandably because they wanted nothing to do with the failing, hostile Ukrainian state. The US conducted this interference knowing full well what the Russian reaction would be. If anything, they might have been disappointed by Putin’s restraint. Ukraine and Russia were actually getting along just fine under the previous Ukrainian leadership. It was to the United States that Ukraine became easy prey for a regime change operation. To get perspective on this situation, one just has to imagine the American reaction if Russia had interfered internally with Japanese politics in order to force American military bases out of Okinawa.

In posing his question about nuclear deterrence, Mr. Gotev seems to be ignorant of the historical context in which Ukraine and Kazakhstan made the “bold decision” to give up their nuclear weapons. They may have wanted it to look like it was their decision, but if they had wanted a nuclear arsenal, they would have been denied. Their independence never would have been recognized by the US and other nations if they had insisted on keeping their nuclear weapons. Yeltsin and his minders in Washington had arranged everything. In those days, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was more valued than it is today, and Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush Sr. had spent the last six years (1985-1991) negotiating major reductions in nuclear arsenals. The last thing they wanted was newly independent and possibly unstable nations becoming instant possessors of nuclear weapons as non-signatories of the NPT. A senior editor of a serious European journal ought to know this history, but it is not clear that Euractiv is anything more than another propaganda outfit tailored for “democracy promotion” and funded through mysterious channels leading back to Washington and London, or to private philanthropists.[8] Bill and Melinda Gates are listed on the website as donors, a fact which forms a strange connection between the two examples I discuss in this essay. Jaron Lanier works for Microsoft, though he insists he speaks as an independent public intellectual. I could perhaps subtitle this essay after the 1991 film Bill and TED’s Excellent Adventure or, even better, the sequel: Bill and TED’s Bogus Journey.

Mr. Kuyukov was born with severe handicaps as a result of Soviet nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk, and he has been an anti-nuclear activist all his life, so it is surprising that a journalist wouldn’t understand how offensive it was to ask him if he saw some benefit in more countries having a nuclear deterrent. It was to Mr. Kuyukov’s credit that he answered the question tactfully. His response was actually very similar to what Putin himself has said continually in the face of American provocations and unilateral military actions that attempt to resolve conflicts:

… we are in every way supporting potential opportunities to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, for decreasing tensions and the risk of a conflict between the US and Russia, between these two largest nuclear powers, over Syria, as well to prevent the onset of an even worse version of the Cold War, between the West and Russia. We are for peace, for dialogue, for solving problems rather than their aggravation. Kazakhstan and the government are doing everything that would not lead to the situation that is currently happening between Russia and Ukraine. Our relations, first of all, are friendly mutual understanding, by striving to resolve any issues on mutually beneficial and non-antagonistic conditions. We will continue to generate a policy of good and peace, a world in which everyone will live comfortably, regardless of nationality or religious beliefs, and we urge everyone to do the same.

This example of Russia fearmongering caught my attention because it’s particularly disturbing to see people trying to make nuclear disarmament advocates take sides in the US-Russia dispute. All nations that have built nuclear weapons have committed high crimes against people and the environment wherever nuclear weapons were built and tested, and the weapons programs have always been inextricably linked to the proliferation of nuclear power plants and their associated crimes against nature. Mr. Kuyukov handled the question well by keeping the focus on peaceful settlement of all tensions between countries, but he was, like all anti-nuclear voices of Kazakhstan that I have come across, curiously silent about Kazakhstan’s role as a leading exporter of uranium. What really needs to be discussed is unipolar dominance and the oversized Pentagon budget—the gross disparity in US military spending on non-nuclear forces that pushes other nations to want the asymmetrical weapon of choice: a cheap nuclear deterrent. We need to discuss what the United States has been doing during its century of domination—its history of annexations, interference in foreign nations, regime-change operations, fomenting of civil wars, disregard for international law, hypocritical stances toward the crimes of allies and their nuclear arsenals, and the presence of hundreds of military bases in foreign countries. To borrow the phrasing of Mr. Lanier which I quoted at the top, we could say one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world. Like, oh, I don’t know, I could give you many examples. But let’s say like the United States acting as if it’s being threatened when it hasn’t been since the War of 1812, and it’s creating great damage in the world.


[3] Arundhati Roy, “My Seditious Heart,” in The End of Imagination (Haymarket Books, 2016), 1-36. This essay (also published in The Caravan) describes the pogroms in Gujarat and the rise of Hindu nationalism since the 1980s.

[4]Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. Episode 113 ( The Hippies),” Hoover Institution Archives, September 3, 1968, 18:54~, Kerouac: “I think the Vietnamese war is nothing but a plot between the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese, who are cousins, to get jeeps in the country.” Buckley: “Not very good plotters, are they?” Kerouac: “Well, they got a lot of jeeps.”

[8] Richard Rhodes, Twilight of the Bombs (Random House, 2010). Rhodes provides a long account in Chapters 5 and 6 of how arrangements were made for the Soviet arsenal to come under Russian control. On page 119 he notes the words of one US negotiator, “Our missions was to tell these governments that President Bush meant what he said when he said that international recognition depended on them accepting their international obligations, particularly in the arms control field, particularly in the nuclear weapons field.”

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