It has been a remarkable week. Within five days, a new craze has completely conquered the West, a sort of Beatlemania for battle. Coronavirus lies forgotten in the dusty recesses of distant memory. Climate change and LGBT rights have receded from the public discussion, much to the frustration of those who are particularly distressed by such issues. The concern of the day is Ukraine.
The majority of the discourse has been shallow and emotional. Much of this is the responsibility of corporate media, which has approached the conflict with an activist attitude. Our airwaves have thus been clogged with uncritical propaganda.
A few insights can be gleaned from reviewing this coverage. Firstly, there is the tendency to characterise Russian forces as ‘Putin’s troops’, or otherwise identify Russia with Putin for the duration of the conflict. This trend has become near universal. The relentless association of Russian forces with Vladimir Putin is not journalism, it is a power-political tactic. As a form of spin and propaganda, this trick is as old as time: pick a target, personalise it, polarise it. The Russian army is an enormous and diverse organisation, largely composed of ordinary Russians from across the vast Federation. Putin is a much easier thing to hate.
Another curious feature of the media coverage is the representation — or underrepresentation — of the Ukrainian army. A casual observer might think that Ukraine has no vehicles, no aircraft, no artillery, or even no army. The focus is on Russian armoured vehicles, with the implication that the Ukrainians are a mass of peaceful civilians taking up arms against an evil empire. The parallels to American history are obvious, and a beautiful underdog story is crafted from it. But it is just that: a story, a lie, a fiction. Ukraine has a conventional military and it is fighting a conventional war.
Finally, anti-Russian feeling in Western countries has reached an all time high. In Britain, the fictional animated meerkat ‘Alexander Orlov’, from ‘Compare the Market’ adverts, has been taken off air in response to the invasion. The message is that sympathetic portrayals of Russians are verboten, even when they are meerkats.
In the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland, a protest was held against allowing a Russian-owned oil tanker to dock. Soon the government had introduced legislation preventing any Russian-owned ships from docking in the United Kingdom. Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea, had to distance himself from the football club which he has owned for many years. Being Russian is now a terrible stigma, and this happened almost overnight.
The mass media operates like Pravda, formerly the official newspaper of the USSR: they seek to control the narrative of events, rather than merely reporting information. Alternative news sources such as the Ukraine Observatory seek to report the truth, secure in the knowledge that we will never have hegemonic control over the news narrative.
The challenge for individual people is to resist the emotional pull factor of both the mass media narrative and the emotionally-destabilised majority. Most of those who are commenting online about the Ukraine crisis are doing so off the back of five days’ experience of mass media. Their analysis is as superficial as you might expect. Putin is a ruthless dictator, but he is no Adolf Hitler. The threat of a Russian conquest of Europe is zero, since its military is far less effective and advanced than those of Germany, France, and Britain.
Different people respond to media crazes in different ways. Most people conform unthinkingly to the message, because people generally like to follow the herd. But there is a minority which invariably goes against the herd. These are the unthinking contrarians, the headache of narrative-controllers anywhere. However, they are still responding to the media narrative: simply moving in the opposite direction is not independence of mind, or freedom of thought. The unthinking conformists and the unthinking contrarians are both subject to the whims of the media’s narrative framing.
In the context of Ukraine propaganda, these contrarians have accepted the framing of the war against Ukraine, but decided that Russia are the ‘good-guys’. They have then reinforced this perspective by seeking out evidence of Ukrainian double-dealing and Western hypocrisy — which there is plenty to find — while explaining away the unpalatable actions of Russian foreign policy with ever-flimsier apologetics. In other words, the contrarians have gone full Pravda. Never go full Pravda.
Putin may be a colourful character on the world stage, and he is unlikely to be the cloven-hoofed monster of the mass media, but he is clearly undeserving of hero-worship.
The role of the true individual, then, is to mis-identify from the collective. In order to understand the subject of a media craze, one must step outside the media narrative entirely. In this case, we must accept that Russia is alien, but not insane; paranoid, but not delusional; brutal, but not sadistic. Its leaders live in a world of priorities and threats which form the basis of a cynical political calculus. They can be fought, but also reasoned with on occasion, even if their reason operates according to an unfamiliar paradigm.
Independence of thought is good. Don’t just use your healthy scepticism against the mainstream media: save a respectable portion of doubt for contrarian voices too.
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