Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Rules of the Contemporary Potemkin Universe: How Media and Academia Works Today

Barry Rubin

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “Potemkin villages.” These were supposedly stage-set prosperous villages created by Grigory Potemkin to impress the Russian Empress Catherine II when she visited the Crimea in 1787. The idea was to show her that he was doing a great job enhancing the region’s prosperity.. Historians are divided as to whether Potemkin really did this but Communist and other totalitarian countries repeatedly used this gimmick in fooling foreign reporters and delegations about the well-being and good treatment of people who were actually suffering deprivation and repression.

Later, Soviet officials dubbed those so duped as “useful idiots,” a tradition which Roger Cohen of the New York Times recently showed to be very much alive when his regime-managed visit to Iran convinced him what a great place it was. The current upheaval followed immediately thereafter but Cohen, after a brief and partial apology that he was 100 percent duped by the dictatorship, is still writing about Iran as if he were some kind of expert.

A couple of years ago the top official running the Middle East division in the Foreign Ministry of a certain country told me that he thought Iran was a free country because when he walked around the area of his hotel he didn’t see a lot of armed police. And, no, I’m not making that up.

Often, today, it seems as if we are living in a Potemkin universe. There are many reasons for this but let me mention some. The key is a modernization of the old medieval concept of the “torturable” and the “untorturable” classes. We now have the "criticizable" and the "uncriticizable" sectors. The old Enlightenment notion which worked so well and built democratic, prosperous societies has gone out the window faster than you can say "politically correct," "multi-cultural," "hate crimes based on offending someone," and "affirmative action quotas."

Law Number One: If you are considered to be on the left you cannot be criticized by the dominant Western intellectual elite; on anyone else (including people who in the not so distant past would be regarded as mainstream liberals) it is open season.

Law Number Two: If you are in the Third World, you cannot be criticized by the dominant Western intellectual elite; on anyone else it is open season.

Law Number Three: Law Number Two trumps Law Number One, for example in the treatment of radical Islamist groups and regimes. During periods of crisis—the current upheaval in Iran, for example—Law Number One may temporarily take precedence but only for the most limited possible time. [Note, a special exemption might be made in the case of a Third World politician or intellectual who loves Western civilization. See, for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.]

Law Number Four: Women will be treated according to these laws and will receive little special consideration. [See Law Number Five, below].

Law Number Five: Social class will be treated according to these laws and will receive little special consideration. If someone from further down the social ladder—e.g., Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber—falls under Law Number One, the full force of social snobbery may be unleashed against them. Being poor—beyond the most basic lip service—is out; being downtrodden is in.

Law Number Six: The mass media and academia in general follow these laws. If necessary under duress, however, they will fall back on the claim that they are fair and balanced. A key element of being fair and balanced is to accord proven liars, dictators, and terrorists total credibility as to their claims. Since these two institutions are structurally independent and judge only themselves, in any self-examination they will always be acquitted by themselves.

Law Number Seven: There are a growing list of sins—which do not include being a dictator or a terrorist—which result in someone being cast into the outer darkness. At one time, this list more reasonably included real racism, real sexism, and mass murder. Today, the list includes disbelief in human-made global warming, opposition to unlimited immigration, the idea that the United States is and has been a great country, and many more such items. Once someone is classified under the heading of thought criminal, any point that person may make will be ignored or distorted to a ridiculous extent.

Law Number Eight: In contrast, a member of the "uncriticizable" categories by definition cannot be racist (a Latina is a better court judge? International economic problems caused by people with blue eyes? No problem), sexist (Chadors? Female genital mutilation? Local customs!), or oppressive (They love being ruled by Hamas, the Taliban, etc.).

Law Number Nine: Any attempt to mention for the first time in these circles the misdeeds of the uncriticizable categories will be met by instant invocation of some misdeed of the Western or democratic society which has been endlessly discussed because that society itself uncovered and repudiated the fault.

Note 1: Of course these are generalizations and do not apply to many individuals, institutions, or even issues. But it is an attempt to understand the underlying structure of the contemporary Western intellectual/media reality.

Note 2: To keep this post from getting too long, I am providing a little case study of how some of this works as a separate post: “Aspen Suspension of Credibility.”

Obama Meets, Greets, and Self-Inflicts Defeats

Posted: 06 Jul 2009 06:04 PM PDT
Some months ago I teased a European ambassador by saying, "You Europeans have spent years pulling back the United States from one direction and now you're going to have to pull it back from the opposite direction." He laughed, understanding the point precisely. Europeans thought Bush was too far to the right, now they have to deal with an American president who, even for their tastes, is too far to the left.

The G-8 meeting will show how much this factor is in play. Clearly, a number of European countries were tougher on the Iranian regime than was Obama. But still, the Europeans don't actually want to do anything so perhaps the Americans and Europeans will get along okay any way.

Obama's visit to Moscow, in contrast, looks like a failure to anyone other than the mass media for which he cannot do much wrong. Given the massive problems and misunderstandings plauging the relationship, getting an agreement on reduction of nuclear arms doesn't achieve very much.

A serious U.S. president would have been dealing with differences over Central Europe and the south Caucasus, as well as regarding sanctions on Iran. But Obama's world view seeks to avoid trouble so--except when dealing with Israel or Honduras--he ignores actual problems (North Korea, Iran crisis, Somali pirates, instability in Pakistan, for example). That's the first thing wrong with Obama's policy.

There is something profoundly revealing about his use of the phrase "bearing witness" regarding the conflict within Iran. The issue is not that a U.S. president should intervene internally there, but certainly if America becomes witness rather than leader, observer rather than shaper of events, there is a second aspect of Obama's policy that is seriously wrong.

In the stead of real issues we get utopianism, the third thing wrong. Obama wants to eliminate nuclear weapons, he says, and so the deal with Russia can be portrayed as such. But there's a mistake here. America's problem is not with Russian nukes but with Pakistani and Iranian nukes. No matter how few warheads the United States and Russia have will not contribute anything to world peace or stability.

Similarly, Obama wants to obtain a quick Arab-Israeli peace agreement but gets tangled up in details; to make friends with Iran and Syria but they keep biting his hand; and make Muslims love America by pretending that radical Islamists are an insignificant minority that's got nothing much to do with Islam.

As the administration approaches the six-month mark, one can be grateful that not more damage has been inflicted but it's still early and the president has not faced a crisis yet. True, there have been some crises, but he didn't face them either..

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