Amor Mundi: A Perfect Opportunity For Mass Disturbances
A Perfect Opportunity For Mass Disturbances
Jim Rutenberg looks at the massive Russian effort to destabilize Western political institutions through misinformation and fake news. He tells of Margarita Simonyan, a 37 year-old mother of two whose “name appears more times in the declassified U.S. intelligence assessment than anyone’s besides Putin’s.” Simonyan runs Russian Today—now rebranded as RT—the front for Russia’s information wars. The goal of RT is not simply to glorify Russia; it is to criticize the hypocrisy of the West.” Instead of celebrating Russia, Simonyan’s network would turn a critical eye to the rest of the world, particularly the United States. As Peskov sees it, the idea was: “Why are you criticizing us in Chechnya and all this stuff? Look at what you are doing there in the United States with your relationship with white and black.” He went on: “RT said: ‘Stop. Don’t criticize us. We’ll tell you about yourself.’”” As Rutenberg tells it, RT is designed to undermine the Western narrative about democracy and liberalism, something made infinitely easier by the transformation and acceleration of information technology.
“In April, I went to visit Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, at his Kremlin office. Peskov, who is 49, works in the presidential administrative headquarters, a prewar building with a grand facade but cramped hallways and offices inside. He has been a spokesman for Putin since Putin first took office in 2000 and is almost always hovering on the edge of the frame in Putin’s photo ops, whether it’s at a gathering of international heads of state or as the president is positioning his pads for a star turn in an exhibition hockey game. The whole presidential-press-attaché-as-celebrity thing is finally starting to hit Russia — Peskov’s lavish wedding to a former Russian Olympic ice-dancing gold medalist in 2015 made the tabloids — but his work look is more Politburo than Paul Smith. He has bushy reddish-brown hair and a mustache, and always appears to be suppressing a sly smile, even when he is frowning.
When I asked Peskov what Putin meant by RT’s mission to “break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon global information streams,” he went into something of a dissertation, speaking in English with obvious relish and little room for interjections. “The whole trend of global media was set by Anglo-Saxons,” he began. “It’s like the first conveyor belt. It was created by Mr. Ford in the United States.” (It wasn’t, but Ford was the first major manufacturer to use the technology on a grand scale.) But now, he went on, “the conveyor line is not only working in G.M., in Ford — it’s also working in Citroën, in Renault, in Mercedes-Benz, in Toyota, everywhere in the world.”
Something like the dissemination of Ford’s conveyor belt, he said, was now happening in media; the sort of global news networks the West built were being replicated by Russia, to great effect. What was making “the whole story successful,” he said, “is a tectonic change of the global system that all of a sudden started to develop 10 years ago.”
The transformation and acceleration of information technology, Peskov said, had unmoored the global economy from real value. Perception alone could move markets or crash them. “We’ve never seen bubbles like we’ve seen in the greatest economy in the world, the United States,” he said. The same free flow of information had produced “a new clash of interests,” and so began “an informational disaster — an informational war.”
Peskov argued that this was not an information war of Russia’s choosing; it was a “counteraction.” He brought up the “color revolutions” throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which led to the ousters of Russian-friendly governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the mid-2000s. Russia blamed American nongovernmental organizations for fomenting the upheavals. But now, Peskov argued, all you might need to shake up the geopolitical order was a Twitter account. “Now you can reach hundreds of millions in a minute,” he said.
By way of example, he pointed to “this girl, from show business, Kim Kardashian.” Kardashian is among the most popular people in all of social media, with 55 million Twitter followers, nearly 18 million more than President Trump. “Let’s imagine that one day she says, ‘My supporters — do this,’ ” Peskov said. “This will be a signal that will be accepted by millions and millions of people. And she’s got no intelligence, no interior ministry, no defense ministry, no K.G.B.” This, he said, was the new reality: the global proliferation of the kinds of reach and influence that were once reserved for the great powers and, more recently, great media conglomerates. Even Peskov sounded slightly amazed considering the possibilities. “The new reality creates a perfect opportunity for mass disturbances,” he said, “or for initiating mass support or mass disapproval.””
Uncomfortable Questions About Title IX
Emily Yoffe has written an essential three-part essay on the questions of Title IX Policy in The Atlantic. In Part One, Yoffe argues that “On too many campuses, a new attitude about due process—and the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty—has taken hold, one that echoes the infamous logic of Edwin Meese, who served in the Reagan administration as attorney general, in his argument against the Miranda warning. “The thing is,” Meese said, “you don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That’s contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.” In Part Two, Yoffe looks at the bad science underlying much of the Title IX policies. And in Part Three, she argues that Title IX accusations disproportionately target African American Men.
“How race plays into the issue of campus sexual assault is almost completely unacknowledged by the government. While the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which regulates how colleges respond to sexual assault, collects a lot of data on race, it does not require colleges and universities to document the race of the accused and accuser in sexual-assault complaints. An OCR investigator told me last year that people at the agency were aware of race as an issue in Title IX cases, but was concerned that it’s “not more of a concern. No one’s tracking it.”
Janet Halley, a professor at Harvard Law School and a self-described feminist, is one of the few people who have publicly addressed the role of race in campus sexual assault. Interracial assault allegations, she notes, are a category that bears particular scrutiny. In a 2015 Harvard Law Review article, “Trading the Megaphone for the Gavel in Title IX Enforcement,” she writes, “American racial history is laced with vendetta-like scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women,” followed eventually by the revelation “that the accused men were not wrongdoers at all.” She writes that “morning-after remorse can make sex that seemed like a good idea at the time look really alarming in retrospect; and the general social disadvantage that black men continue to carry in our culture can make it easier for everyone in the adjudicative process to put the blame on them.” She has observed the phenomenon at her own university: “Case after Harvard case that has come to my attention, including several in which I have played some advocacy or adjudication role, has involved black male respondents.”
Another Ivy League law professor who has been involved in sexual-assault policy said to me of the issue of race, “Nobody wants to talk about it.” He said students are pushing their boundaries and that many hook up with a partner of a different ethnicity for the first time. But then, “if there is any kind of perceived injury—emotional or physical—when you cross racial lines, there’s likely to be more animus. It needs to be talked about and hasn’t been.” The professor requested anonymity, citing the difficulties of publicly discussing the subject.
Since there are no national statistics on how many young men of any given race are the subject of campus-sexual-assault complaints, we are left with anecdotes about men of color being accused and punished. There are many such anecdotes. In 2015, in The New Yorker, Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard Law School professor, wrote that in general, the administrators and faculty members she’s spoken with who “routinely work on sexual-misconduct cases” say that “most of the complaints they see are against minorities.” For two years I have received a daily Google Alert on college sexual assault. It captures only those cases that make it into the news, and is not a comprehensive or statistically valid measure. But it is illuminating. Usually the reports don’t disclose race, but sometimes it is mentioned, and if the accused is named, it’s often possible to determine his race through photo searches or other online information. Black men make up only about 6 percent of college undergraduates. They are vastly overrepresented in the cases I’ve tracked.”
Rules of Conversation
Celeste Headlee who hosts a show on public radio describes her rules for how to talk with people one finds disagreeable and even offensive.
“I’ve been told many times in recent years that there are some people you “just can’t talk to.” One person told me that she can’t speak to anyone who won’t acknowledge the existence of institutional racism. Another said that if someone he knew supported a particular presidential candidate, then “we have nothing in common and nothing to say to each other.”
These days, it seems that there are more and more deal breakers when it comes to deciding whom we’re willing to talk to. But in our tense era of deep divisions, talking to each other—and having difficult conversations—is more important than ever before.
I’ve been a journalist and public radio host for nearly 20 years and have had thousands of on-air conversations with an enormous range of people. Some went well and some badly, but from this experience, I can confidently say that a good conversation isn’t necessarily an easy one. Some subjects are so sensitive and topics so emotionally charged that discussions about them are always tricky. But there isn’t a human being on this planet with whom you have “nothing in common,” no topic so volatile that it can’t be spoken of.
How can you get through a difficult conversation? First, be curious and have a genuine willingness to learn something from someone else—even someone with whom you vehemently disagree. I’m a mixed-race woman, just a few generations removed from slavery, but I’ve had valuable conversations with segregationists and members of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.”
How To Read Donald Trump
Ariel Dorfman, the author of the great 1971 work of comics criticism How To Read Donald Duck, remembers seeing his book burned after the Pinochet coup a few years later, and wonders if we can read a second Donald into the first:
“I would hardly deny that, so many years later, I find satisfaction in the continuing life of a book once consigned to the flames, no less that its “birth” in this country is taking place not so far from Disneyland or, for that matter, from the grave at Forest Lawn Cemetery where the cremated remains of Walt himself lie. (No, he was not frozen cryogenically, as urban legend has it.) No less important to me, our scorched book has snuck into the United States at the very moment when its citizens, animated by the sort of nativism and xenophobia I remember from my own Chile when General Pinochet reigned, have elected to the presidency another Donald — albeit one more akin to Uncle Scrooge McDuck than his once well-known nephew — based on his vow to “build the wall” and “make America great again.” We are clearly in a moment when a yearning to regress to the supposedly uncomplicated, spotless, and innocent America of those Disney cartoons, the sort of America that Walt once imagined as eternal, fills Trump and so many of his followers with an inchoate nostalgia.
It intrigues me that our ideas, forged in the heat and hope of the Chilean revolution, have finally arrived here just as some Americans are picking up torches like the ones that once consumed our book, while millions of others are asking themselves about the conditions that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office where he could fan the flames of hatred. I wonder whether there’s anything those who are now my fellow citizens could learn from our ancient assessment of this country’s deep ideology. Can we today read a second Donald into How to Read Donald Duck?
Certainly, many of the values we impaled in that book — greed, ultra-competitiveness, the subjection of darker races, a deep-seated suspicion and derision of foreigners (Mexicans, Arabs, Asians), all enwreathed in a credo of unattainable happiness — animate many of Trump’s enthusiasts (and not merely them). But such targets are now the obvious ones. Perhaps more crucial today is the cardinal, still largely unexamined, all-American sin at the heart of those Disney comics: a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States.”
When We Can't See
Toni Morrison reflects on how she uses color in her work, turning the conventions of race in American literature on their heads:
“The cultural mechanics of becoming American are clearly understood. A citizen of Italy or Russia immigrates to the United States. She keeps much or some of the language and customs of her home country. But if she wishes to be American—to be known as such and to actually belong—she must become a thing unimaginable in her home country: she must become white. It may be comfortable for her or uncomfortable, but it lasts and has advantages, as well as certain freedoms.
Africans and their descendants never had that choice, as so much literature illustrates. I became interested in the portrayal of blacks by culture rather than skin color: when color alone was their bête noire, when it was incidental, and when it was unknowable, or deliberately withheld. The latter offered me an interesting opportunity to ignore the fetish of color, as well as a certain freedom accompanied by some very careful writing. In some novels, I theatricalized the point by not only refusing to rest on racial signs but also alerting the reader to my strategy. In “Paradise,” the opening sentences launch the ploy: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” This is meant to be an explosion of racial identification, which is subsequently withheld throughout descriptions of the community of women in the convent where the attack takes place. Does the reader search for her, the white girl? Or does he or she lose interest in the search? Abandon it to concentrate on the substance of the novel? Some readers have told me of their guess, but only one of them was ever correct. Her focus was on behavior—something she identified as a gesture or assumption no black girl would make or have—no matter where she came from or whatever her past. This raceless community neighbors one with exactly the opposite priority—race purity is everything to its members. Anyone who isn’t “eight rock,” the deepest level of a coal mine, is excluded from his or her town. In other works, such as “The Bluest Eye,” the consequences of the color fetish are the theme: its severely destructive force.
I tried again in “Home” to create a work in which color was erased but could be easily assumed if the reader paid close attention to the codes, the restrictions black people routinely suffered: where one sits on a bus, where one urinates, and so on. But I was so very successful in forcing the reader to ignore color that it made my editor nervous. So, reluctantly, I layered in references that verified the race of Frank Money, the main character. I believe it was a mistake that defied my purpose.”
Father and Son
Elke Schulze eulogized the German cartoonist Erich Ohser:
“Ohser was particularly aggressive in using his skills as an artist against the emerging National Socialists. In his drawings he exposed the megalomania of Hitler and Goebbels and depicted their cohorts as gangs of dull-witted thugs, employing all the weapons of caricature: exaggeration and distortion, one-sided emphasis and intentional grotesquerie. The blunt visual language he developed for this purpose is parsimonious but effective. The originals of these caricatures, many of them published in Vorwärts, do not survive; Knauf and Ohser are said to have burned them in the spring of 1933 for fear of persecution.
Their concern was not unjustified. With the rise of the Nazis, the “three Erichs” all had to make compromises in order to stay in Germany and survive. By this time Ohser had a family: he married his one-time fellow student, Marigard Bantzer (herself an artist and children’s book illustrator), in December 1931. Their marriage was soon followed by the birth of their son, Christian.
After Hitler took power 1933, Ohser’s ridicule of the Nazis made it almost impossible for him to find work. Thus it was a stroke of luck when the editor of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung asked him for ideas for a comic strip. Ohser’s proposal, a strip about the day-to-day adventures of a good-natured father and his imaginative and unruly son, won him over. Ohser’s well-known and canny new editor was able to pull strings at the Propaganda Ministry allowing him to work—as long as he used a pseudonym, and worked only on nonpolitical newspaper comics. Ohser, who was not only a great inventor of gags and funny stories but also liked to play with language and dialect, remembered his Vogtland beginnings: Erich Ohser from Plauen became “E. O. Plauen.” Though this pen name was originally intended simply as a safety measure, it became so popular that the artist’s real name was practically forgotten.
The strips that Ohser delivered every week between 1934 and 1937 quickly won him an audience of millions and brought him financial success and prominence. Father and Son were not superheroes, but rather, as a contemporary critic remarked, “circus acrobats of life,” inhabiting a humane utopia. Father and Son made its creator famous during his time, but he was unable to avoid official appropriation: Father and Son was used to advertise the Nazis’ annual Winterhilfswerk charity drive. Similarly, the marketing of Ohser’s characters was sometimes a frustration to him, a situation he referenced in the strip as it wound down. Ohser’s creations were duplicated, imitated, took on an uncontrollable life of their own. Father and Son, like their creator, could not escape the evils that beset them.”
In an interview, Daniel Mendelsohn remembers our forgetfulness:
“I think there are two kinds of forgetting. The first is that the literature that has survived to us represents a tiny fraction of the literature that was. We don’t know whether the literature that we have is representative of the civilization that we’re studying. Obviously, we have a pretty good idea of what the ancients thought of their own literature, but we don’t have a lot of the literature itself. There’s always the danger of making claims for the ancients that may not stand on firm ground. That’s a methodological problem — it’s not that we’re forgetting. We never even knew 90 percent of what there was.
And then, of the 10 percent that we do have, we’re always in danger of forgetting how essentially different the civilization that produced it was. So many of our institutions and our vocabulary of aesthetics and civics come from the Greeks and the Romans. And yet, in many ways, we’re just profoundly different. The Iliad and the Odyssey have standards of behavior and expectations, both ethical and moral, which strike us as very strange. Every time I teach the Odyssey, my students rebel against the vengeance against the suitors, which is so violent and terrible — it’s total wholesale slaughter. And then the hanging of the maids — no one can understand that, but it makes perfect sense if you think like a Greek. The suitors are not just dissing Odysseus. They are in violation of very strong religious and moral codes. They deserve to die. That’s hard for us to understand. Of course, this is a strange thing for me to say because I’ve spent my entire career, as both a critic and memoirist, making an implicit argument for the ongoing relevance of classical models, but one has to do this very gingerly. They are not us. There are just certain family resemblances.
And yet these texts wouldn’t be classics unless there was something in these works that transcended the circumstances and values of their original creation and seem to speak in some larger way about the human condition. But it’s a balancing act between universality and accounting for cultural specificity. It’s possible. You just have to be tactful and careful. We have to recognize their difference even as we respond to the sameness, where it glimmers through the thickets of difference.”
Posted on 17 September 2017 | 8:00 am
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