International Relations professor Michael Brenner (U. of Pittsburgh) will appear live on Truth Jihad Radio tonight (Friday) from 9 to 9:30 p.m. Eastern to discuss his new article, posted below. -By Kevin Barrett, VT Editor
Why the Unhinged Russophobia and Anti-Putin Hysteria?
By Michael Brenner, International Relations, University of Pittsburgh
Friends & Colleagues
Among the many oddities of the Ukraine affairs, the most astonishing is the frenzy of hostile passion directed at Putin, Russia, and everything Russian. Nothing close to this has been seen since World War II when Hitler and the Nazis were Satan incarnate. Even then, it was not everything German that was cast as evil. That total condemnation was reserved for the Japanese. When Max Schmeling came to New York for the rematch with Joe Louis in June 1938, nobody demanded that he denounce Hitler and the Nazis before getting into the rink During the depths of the Cold War, it was Communism and the Soviet Union that was the object of fear and antipathy – not quite completely synonymous with Russia.
This puzzling phenomenon cries out for explanation. The first thing to be said on this score is that the passion and drive have come from American elites. There has been no great wave of popular outrage, no mass demonstrations, no blood-curdling calls for revenge and punishment. No post-9/11 national trauma.
Instead, the fury is generated by our government leaders (Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland, Harris, Pelosi, Cruz); from the media world’s clueless news presenters cum propagandists, from the demonically possessed editors of The New York Times who have discovered the thrills of ‘yellow journalism,’ from the likes of Peter Gelb, from the scores of Nobel Prize winners who in concert have lent their weight to the crusade; from the university presidents presiding over pious vigils who are thankful that the spotlight is shifting away from the innumerable scandals they are paid hefty sums to whitewash; and Gold Medal to the IOC who ban crippled athletes from competing in the Winter Paralympics because their passport says ‘Russia’.
All are hugely self-satisfied. None of them ever blinked an eye as the United States for 20 years has killed, maimed, starved, and tortured hundreds of thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria et al in exercises of brutality that have left the country’s security in a more precarious state than when the onslaught began.
Doubtless, we soon will read that Zuckerberg has forbidden the use of the term “Russian roulette.” When he does, how about ‘Neo-Con roulette” as a substitute.
This essay is in two parts. Part I examines a number of hypotheses as to the reasons for the irrational reaction. Part II takes a critical look at the public letter sent by over 200 Nobel Laureates castigating Putin and Russia.
The United States and Russia have never fought a war. No bad blood is between them. The one, minor American expeditionary force deployed near Archangel and at Vladivostok during the Russian civil war from 1918-to 1919. This symbolic gesture led to just a handful of casualties. There also were a few dogfights over the Yalu River in Korea where some MIG pilots reportedly were Russian. That’s it. It is doubtful that more than 1 American in a thousand ever heard of those incidents. The Cold War, admittedly, was a multi-layered hostile confrontation that lasted for 40 years. But military combat was limited to proxies. Then, too, the two countries were allies in the great test of WW II – without Soviet/Russian fortitude and sacrifice, Germany may not have been defeated.
In other words, one sees no basis for the visceral antagonism toward Russia and Russians now being demonstrated. Among many, even at the highest levels, emotions shade into outright hatred. It is hard to find equivalents; that is to say, analogous passions certainly are to be found in the annals of history but never against an essentially benign background.
Societies all have affinities and aversions to others based on race, ethnicity, language, ideology, or religion. They can lead to empathy and bonding or a sense of separation and distaste. Often, the latter sentiments have fueled or aggravated competition and conflict. The examples are too numerous and obvious to denote. When we turn our attention to Russo-American mutual perceptions, we observe little in the way of rooted ascriptive divisions. Both are overwhelmingly Caucasian and Christian in heritage. Catholic vs Orthodox rivalries is distant in time and place. Ethnically, Slavic Russia does not stand in stark contrast to the multitudinous American mix. The contrasts and divergences derive from the all-out ideological war between the Soviet Union’s aggressive secularism accompanying Communism’s threat to Western politico-economic foundations.
Bolshevism, and the Soviet system that it fathered, were singularly thin on ascriptive characteristics. Sure, in important respects, that condition emerged from the Russian empire where Russia predominated throughout. A scan of the roster of the USSR’s elites reveals just how multinational it was. Brezhnev, Voroshilov, and Trotsky were from Ukraine – as were hundreds of senior officials in all spheres. The large Jewish presence in the Bolshevik leadership ranks is well-known: Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Radek, Yagoda, Kaganovich, Sverdlov. Lenin himself reportedly was ¼ Jewish, Russian. German and Swedish in terms of ethnic ancestry. Molotov and Dzerzhinsky (the Polish nobleman who founded the Cheka/NKVD) had Jewish wives. Stalin and Beria, of course, were Georgians; Mikoyan was Armenian; Yezhev was Lithuanian – and so on. The political leadership of the country today is distinctly more ethically Russian, leavened by a fair number of ethnic Jews who survived and didn’t emigrate (e.g. the Deputy Foreign Minister and the 2 high-ranking officials who head the Russian delegation in negotiations with Ukraine).
So, it would be far-fetched to seek explanations for the American political class’s fierce anti-Russian antagonism to some kind of atavistic aversion.
FEAR & DREAD
Americans do not see a threat to their national security from any conventional Russian military menace. In this sense, minds and moods differ fundamentally from where they were during the Cold War. Sure, Russia still has the physical capability to destroy the United States with nuclear weapons. However, we have come to live with the Bomb, and post-Soviet Russia never was cast in the same dark colors. Admittedly, the Pentagon placed Russia at Number 2 in its threat rankings as early as 2017 – in the aftermath of its intervention in Syria. But that had more to do with budgets and wounded pride at having failed a mission once again than it did serious worry. Russia was more a surprise than a threat.
That explains why Ukraine’s affairs were viewed as a serious concern by only 26% of the public at the end of last year. That is to say, before the vast propaganda campaign got into full gear. Most were as familiar with the country, and took as much interest in it, as they did Madagascar. (Nancy Pelosi could place it in Europe, but its exact geography eluded her). Even today, there is no rush to build bomb shelters or check with distant relatives the availability of housing deep in the sticks. Here, again, we have a discrepancy between public attitudes in general and our political elites – especially the foreign affairs community. Its pivot is less intellectual than it is one of the feelings: pride, self-esteem, and national esteem. It is among the latter that we find an acute concern about America’s standing as Number 1 in the world: supreme, dominant and hegemonic. A gnawing sense that we are losing that status, that we are becoming an ’ordinary’ power is unsettling. China’s rise, financial turmoil, job insecurity, the growing signs that fewer countries now bow instinctively to our will as readily as they did in the past – together, they undercut personal self-regard which, throughout American history, has drawn strength and credibility from the country’s standing as the trail-blazer of human progress. Hence, a creeping sense of dread, i.e. free-floating anxiety. Its shifting fixation moves from Islamic terrorism to China, to Russia with stopovers at Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Everything bugs us disproportionately – even the crickets in Havana.
To search for an explanation of this behavior, one would have to dive into the turbid depths of the human mind. That is beyond the scope of this essay. A couple of thoughts do come to mind.
One is that this overreaction may be propelled in part by hidden feelings of guilt about the West’s irresponsible abstention in doing next to nothing to prevent or even mitigate the atrocities in Bosnia. Silence, then, was golden. (And public lies the order of the day: e.g., German President Franz-Walter Steinmeier and then Foreign Minister outstanding among them). Perhaps, those feelings were strengthened by the excesses of the American ‘War On Terror’ in which the Europeans were accomplices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. In addition to the provision of tangible aid, every NATO government was an accomplice in the rendition program, in one way or another – with the sole exception of France. They, thus, found themselves on the wrong side of a line of blood. Crossing back is important for a group of nations whose self-identity, and one card in playing the game of international politics is their proclaimed virtue and enlightenment.
A second, related point of conjecture is that these people have lived ‘non-moral’ lives in an ethically sterile environment. That is to say that Westen elites rarely were placed in or sought circumstances where they faced difficult moral choices – where they had to affirm through action the ideals and virtues to which they nominally adhere. They grew up in pedestrian circumstances. At some level, certain of these well-educated enlightened elites have felt that void to varying degrees. Suddenly, out of the blue comes a golden opportunity to do so. To do so without pain or serious cost, with the mutual support of a large consort of cosmopolitan fellows.
THE TENDER AMERICAN EGO
As I have written in an earlier commentary,
‘Americans are struggling to draw into focus their exalted image of themselves and reality. They are not doing a very good job of it. The gap is wide and growing.
Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with – whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective persona are inseparable. No other country tries so relentlessly to live its legend as does the U.S. Today, events are occurring that contradict the American narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.
America’s idealized sense of self is rooted in the belief that we are pacesetters and world-beaters in every domain. The state of affairs sketched above – marked by impulsive enterprises that underline our foredoomed, audacious ambition to gain global dominance – does not represent cool strategic judgment. It is the national equivalent of ostentatious iron-pumping by bodybuilders worried about losing muscle tone. Those worries never disappear, though, even as one becomes muscle-bound striving ever more energetically to reassure oneself that nothing is creeping up behind you. The mirror is much preferred to the backward glance.
Americanism acts as a Unified Field Theory of self-identity, collective enterprise, and the Republic’s enduring meaning. When one element is felt to be in jeopardy, the integrity of the whole edifice becomes vulnerable. In the past, American mythology energized the country in ways that helped it to thrive. Today, it is a dangerous hallucinogen that traps Americans in a time warp more and more distant from reality.
At the psychological level, this approach is understandable since it plays to the United States’ strength: overweening self-confidence coupled to material strength – thereby perpetuating the national myths of being destined to remain the world’s No. 1 forever, and of being in a position to shape the world system according to American principles and interests. The tension for a nation so constituted encountering objective reality does not favor heightened self-awareness or a change in behavior.. Today, there is no foreign policy debate whatsoever. In addition, our vassal governments in Europe and elsewhere either have a national interest in preserving the warped American view of the world (Israel, Poland) or have been so denatured over the decades that they are incapable 0f doing other than to follow Washington obediently – despite already having tumbled over a number of cliffs and staring at a potentially fatal abyss re. China and Russia
Finally, there is the facilitating factor: a society in which anything goes. Where norms, standards, and codes of decent conduct are so diluted as to be inoperative. In our state of generalized alienation, each of us is permitted – indeed, encouraged – to ‘do our own thing.’ Feelings of embarrassment, shame, of guilt are weak or totally absent. Impulse, emotion, and – not -least – the enormous pressures of uniformity void that nominal freedom of meaning. Few have the wherewithal to work out an individual structure of values, of rights & wrongs. Whatever primitive benchmarks we walk around with, they obviously are inadequate to guide us when faced with complex issues, value contradictions, or the need for subtle, qualified judgment.
In these circumstances, it is unsurprising, if not inevitable, that “fuck the Russians” becomes the universal order of the day – for Nobel laureates, university presidents, pundits, editors, or wannabe moralists of every stripe. Not an edifying spectacle – or a reassuring harbinger of what’s to come.
P.S. In accordance with the principle of absolute candor in discussing these issues, we should consider the possibility that some of the over-the-top attacks on all that is Russian, from certain prominent persons prominent in the anti-Russia campaign, could arise from family history – namely, a great-grandmother assaulted by Czarist-inspired Russians during the frequent pogroms in the Russian Empire or some similar incident. Let me say in this regard that my paternal grandmother was indeed assaulted by Cossacks in Ukraine in 1915. Yet, I never felt that was reason to freeze-dry my brain on all matters concerning either place OR to take revenge on Anna Netrebko, Daniel Medvedev, or those brave ‘Russian’ men and women who have been given the bum’s rush at the Paralympics. Anyone who does should be automatically disqualified from this discourse and their loudly advertised devotion to human rights placed in brackets.
For people like the Nobel Laureates, signing one’s name to a full-page ad denouncing the vices of Russia may be experienced as a last-chance ethical saloon (or altar) – a god-given opportunity to secure one’s place on the side of the Angels. That high-stakes psychological motivation carried the implication that, in order for the moral uplift to take full effect, the subject of moral objection had to be exaggerated – to a cartoonish extent. It is the fate of such expedient lunges for salvation to boomerang. The 200 or so Laureates put themselves in the position of adding fuel to the bonfire of anti-Russian passions. Perhaps the most disgraceful episode in this pogrom has been the banning of Russian athletes from the winter Paralympics on the grounds that their very presence would sully the games’ moral purity.
On March 3 – a few days before the opening ceremony – the International Paralympic Committee told the Russians that they should get back into their wheelchairs and roll back to Moscow. This brutal action reversed, under intense Western pressure, an earlier decision to permit their participation. Let’s make no bones about it: this is as morally atrocious conduct as is imaginable – obscene as taken in the name of ethics. Ethics as defined and shaped by elites, like many of the Laureates, whose morality arises from a calibrated, self-serving motivation rather than genuine empathy for the victimized. The outcome: they are accessories to the crime of inflicting incalculable pain on men and women whose lives have exceeded by far the normal measure of pain any human could expect; they insulted courageous persons whom we should honor and respect; they punctured hopes and dreams fashioned from a thousand hours of grueling perseverance; they pronounced guilt on the innocent. Their self-centered, obtuse try at exalting themselves has diminished them. They have added to the degraded spectacle of collective indecency.
God forgive them – for they know not what they do.
This is the end-point of a contrived and debased humanism that is a hallmark of our times. A humanism that places less value on fresh and blood-sentient people than it does on a doctrine, on self-gratification, on the political or emotional need for an enemy, on a public posture, on parochial interest. That is the mindset that, in modern times alone, has sent tens of millions to an early grave.
The Nobel petition is meant to impress – and it does, representing the common opinion of over 203 persons of scholarly distinction. Still, I do not believe that it is disrespectful or denigration of their academic accomplishment, to take a searching look at the authoritative basis for what they write, and the grounds for arguing that the public should accord them exceptional value. Such an inquiry can be organized in the form of a set of inter-related questions, i.e. the scientific method of dispassionate investigation and analysis.
!. What are the credentials of the 203 in making the political judgments that underlay their appeal? Do they possess exceptional information about the Ukraine-Russia affair? Have they studied the matter? How much of the factual data have they assimilated? There answer is none; that is to say, no more than that possessed by any educated person of superior intelligence who follows the news. Moreover, on all counts, it is far inferior to that of truly knowledgeable persons (e.g. Ambassador Jack Matlock who played a central role in navigating the break-up of the Soviet Union) who have spent a lifetime studying Russia in all its dimensions. His outlook on the entire year-long crisis diverges in quite critical ways.
2. What are the credentials of the 203 in making the severe ethical judgments boldly stated in their letter? Are they versed in the daunting complexities of applying ethical standards to relations between states? How much knowledge of history do they have? Have they pondered the philosophical questions of guilt & innocence, of just & unjust war, of individual morality & the ethic of public responsibility? Here again, a fair assessment is that there is no evidence of their having acquired exceptional insight or experience. Of course, one would have to be familiar with the backgrounds of each of the signatories to reach a definitive conclusion. However, it seems reasonable that in aggregate the 203 do not meet the standards that would qualify them as experts.
3. An essential trait of the scientific method is to review all available empirical evidence gathered from diverse sources before making pronouncements – whether in the form of general laws or in the assessment of particular cases. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
Have the Laureates investigated other instances of inter-state violence? Whether or not they have, is there a record of judgments made publicly that are consistent with those they are making about Russia, Putin, and the conduct of the Russian military in Ukraine? To put it bluntly: what exactly have they said/written in regard to: a) the use of violence by the United States government in Iraq, in Yemen, in Syria, in Libya, in Somalia, in Afghanistan; b) the use of violent force by the state of Israel in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories and in Lebanon; c) the material American support given to repression regimes that kill, maim, torture and imprison their citizens (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Honduras, Guatemala, El-Salvador inter alia)?
A corollary question: did the Laureates protest Biden’s outright theft of $8 billion from the Afghan Central Bank at a time when millions are starving after 20 years of America escorting them down the garden path that led to the illusory land of milk & honey we promised them?
4. The laureate finely tuned sense of ethics presumably ranges far and wide. Presumably, it is applied with even greater vigor and rigor close to home. So, let’s ask them: a) to Harvard professors: when and by what manner did you protest your institution’s close. Honored and lucrative relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, one that was publicly known and involved 3 Presidents?; b) to MIT Professors: when and by what manner did you protest your institution’s receipt of substantial funds from Mr. Epstein – after his sordid criminal acts were on the public record?; c) to Yale Professors: which of you have protested your institution’s summary firing of Dr. Bandy Lee for the sin of offering a professional judgment of our dangerous psychopathic President Trump – based on credentials infinitely superior to any you can boast on Putin’s mental state/Russia/Ukraine, or hiring General Stanley McChrystal to a distinguished faculty position despite his having been the initiator and overseer of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, or selling an academic piece of your university (Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy) to two predatory billionaires from the world of financial buccaneering in exchange for their right to censor curriculum and faculty assignments – culminating in their forcing the resignation of the director last year? d) which of you have condemned the abuse of every academic ethical code by the American Psychological Association for entering into contracts with the CIA and the Pentagon to instruct them in torture techniques forbidden by American law, the U.S. Constitution, and International Conventions to which we are signatories?
5. You proclaim the principle that every people has a right to exist as an independent country. What efforts have you made, in aggregate or individually, to promote the independence of Palestine, Kashmir, Tigray, Kurds, of Chechnya?
6. You state: “In a move that recalls the infamous attack of Nazi Germany on Poland in 1939 and on the Soviet Union in 1941, the government of the Russian Federation, led by President Putin, has launched an unprovoked military aggression –…..” And then you have the audacity to claim: “We choose our words carefully here….’ Let’s hope not!
What is the objective, evidential basis for drawing and highlighting this parallel? What data or logic support the implied contention that Putin/Russia aims at conquering all of Europe, murdering millions of its civilians in organized death camps, in imposing an oppressive totalitarian rule, to give all power to a superior race of Russians? The answer: you have none. And in an act of staggering indecency &/or abysmal ignorance, you use as a model one of the greatest crimes of history that killed roughly15 million Russians (and Ukrainians, Byelorussians -among other ethnic groups). Why then do you conjure false images and make the most elementary errors of comparative analysis? Can you honestly say that it is not an anti-intellectual device for demonizing a foe by deploying a gross insult and evoking the most horrific images from modern history?
If I were to compose a similarly crude screed in support of my views regarding genetics and racial intelligence, the potential for ‘cold fusion,’ or harnessing nuclear power so easily that energy would be available so cheaply that it wouldn’t even be worth the cost of charging for it – if I wrote any of those, should the world stand up and take notice and honor my conclusion just because I won a prestigious prize in the Social Sciences? No – you would tell me: “Get out of here; we’re not interested!”
6. In the light of the above, what plausible reason is there for your fellow citizens, our government leaders, and parties in other countries to have their conclusions, judgments, and opinions about preferred action re. Russia influenced by your brief but a bold public letter – disproportionate to other persons? Is it simply a matter of celebrity and name recognition? Why not give equal weight to other stars in the nation’s over-populated galaxy of celebrities? – why not Tom Brady, Meryl Streep, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, Tucker Carlson, Adele, Anthony Fauci, Lady Gaga, or Kanye West?
Dr. Kevin Barrett, a Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist is one of America’s best-known critics of the War on Terror.
He also has appeared many times on Fox, CNN, PBS, and other broadcast outlets, and has inspired feature stories and op-eds in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and other leading publications.
Dr. Barrett has taught at colleges and universities in San Francisco, Paris, and Wisconsin; where he ran for Congress in 2008. He currently works as a nonprofit organizer, author, and talk radio host.