by George Bialek
If you’re a Facebook user chances are you’ve probably seen a popular “meme” regarding Iceland. It’s the one that supposedly quotes some Icelandic politician who was asked something like “Why has Iceland managed to do so well after the economic crisis of 2008?” His response was something about punishing bankers and letting the people decide on the new constitution, followed by the statement that these policies are “the opposite of what the US does.” You don’t remember that one? Well then maybe you saw the one where Castro talked about how Cuba’s indisputably high health statistics are due to investing so much in universal healthcare, which is “the opposite of what the U.S. does.” Or perhaps you’ll remember the one where the owner of Costco was asked why his company is so competitive, and he replies by talking about paying people a living wage with healthcare, which is “the opposite of what Wal-Mart does.” Are you starting to see a pattern here? Regardless of the sentiments behind these viral photos, and there are no doubt countless other versions about other topics, once you’ve seen more than one “opposite of what X does” photos, it becomes obvious that these quotations are fake.
It wasn’t long ago when the only ridiculous urban legends you might run across were to be found in your e-mail inbox, usually sent by one of your right-wing family members. Even a thorough examination of chain e-mails on Snopes.com reveals that the overwhelming majority are right-wing in nature. Luckily Facebook and Twitter have leveled the playing field, making it possible for more progressive people and self-styled leftists to fall for ridiculous claims about GMOs, Iceland, or more importantly, political struggles in far away countries.
Several years ago the American media decided that the story of Egyptians rising up against a dictatorial regime which had been a U.S. client for decades didn’t quite sit well. Looking at simultaneous protests in Tunisia and Egypt, the media elected to turn the whole story of “Arab Spring” into a massive advertisement for Facebook and Twitter. Despite the fact that few people in Egypt or Tunisia even had internet access, much less social networking accounts, the media told us how those poor Arabs had a shot at freedom thanks to Western-developed technology. A story of white man’s burden modernized as a TED talk. From that point on, Americans and other Westerners with no serious understanding of Middle Eastern politics came forth to lend their support, by changing their profile pictures in “solidarity” with the masses.
Later on the hysteria became even more ridiculous when protests broke out in Syria. A blogger known only as “a gay girl in Damascus” captured the hearts of thousands in the West. Surely any lesbian in the backward and regressive Middle East must have had great courage to stand against the Assad regime! The mainstream media fell in love with the 25-year- old Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari. Too bad it was all a lie. The gay Syrian girl was actually a straight American man named Tom MacMaster, who was studying in Scotland at the time. Tom happily carried his white man’s burden and later insisted that he didn’t misrepresent situations on the ground in Syria, where he was not, incidentally. He wrote, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground.” Sure, Tom. We’ll keep that in mind when someone makes a blog called “A Captive in Tom MacMaster’s Basement.”
A little critical thinking would have been helpful in this situation. While the Assad regime probably isn’t a champion of LGBT rights, any LGBT person would be far safer under his secular regime than they would under the rule of the radical Salafists who dominate the Syrian rebel forces. Given the number of infractions which merit a death penalty according to these thugs, a real-life Amina probably would have had her throat cut long before anyone ever discovered her to be a lesbian.
In a similar story, a photo circulated through Facebook depicting a supposedly Syrian girl holding her passport and dressed in a tank top and shorts. Below her passport, on a piece of paper, we see the message, “I’m with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years, I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair or in(sic) my body.” The implication is clear, at least to ignorant Westerners. The Assad regime makes women cover up their bodies, and the rebels will end that patriarchal tyranny. In reality, the Assad regime is of course secular and it is one of several Middle Eastern regimes which actually restrict the use of the hijab rather than mandate it. The niqab, or full burqa associated with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, is banned. White feminism was duped by racist Orientalism. Incidentally, a close inspection of the passport suggests that it may actually be Egyptian, and not Syrian as the Facebook meme suggested. For white American liberals it makes little difference; all Arabs are just “brown people,” about whom one should occasionally pretend to care about.
The bandwagon continued on in Russia in 2011 and 2012. According to the Western media, the Russian opposition was led by Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov at the head of cosmopolitan young liberal Russians. This narrative played right into the hands of the Kremlin’s media, which was then able to portray the opposition movement as a minority of privileged young people in Moscow. Western liberals with no prior knowledge of Russia jumped on the bandwagon as usual, totally unaware of Navalny’s well-established connections to the Russian fascist movement, or the fact that most of Russia hates Boris Nemtsov and his “party” is virtually unknown. There was virtually no coverage of the participation of nationalists and even neo-Nazis within the protest movement.
In 2012 there was the Pussy Riot trial, and Western “progressives” the world over turned them into feminist icons. How did they know that Pussy Riot were feminists? Well, because Pussy Riot claims that they are feminists. A few Western feminists did some research into the group and their associated “performance art” organization Voina(war), and were horrified to find the women taking part in humiliating publicity stunts with horrendously misogynistic titles. Once again, Western media distortions played directly into the hands of the Kremlin regime, which retaliated with a counter-offensive of right-wing populist laws starting in late 2012. These laws, which focus on typical scapegoats like LGBT people and the United States, seem to have rallied a great deal of people to the national colors, and away from the streets and demonstrations.
Hopefully the reader is beginning to recognize a pattern here. A protest movement appears somewhere in the world, the mainstream media distorts it, then it gets plastered all over Facebook where progressive and left activists happily jump on the bandwagon in hopes of appearing more worldly and socially conscious. Or in other words, there is this tendency for seemingly progressive people, who consider themselves more informed, to jump on any bandwagon associated with a protest movement. The media certainly contributes by highlighting artists, musicians, and bloggers of the movement in question, which is highly attractive to Western hipsters who want to believe that rock music and street theatre can make revolutions. Even when protest movement turn violent, Western “radicals” get the opportunity to live vicariously through the images of young masked people throwing Molotov cocktails at the police.
The latest liberal bandwagon has been the “Evromaidan” protests in Kyiv, Ukraine. As is usual, the Western media gets it wrong. This is not a question of Ukraine joining the European Union; it is a trade agreement similar to that which the EU has with countries like Tunisia and Turkey. The ruling regime is accused of selling out to Putin and his offer of a customs union, but realistically speaking the EU’s “association agreement” is far too demanding on Ukraine and for all its faults, Russia is the only side offering any kind of relief to the heavily indebted country. To be sure, both Russia and the EU are purposely twisting Ukraine’s arms in order to secure a trade deal favorable to their businessmen and investors, but both the Western and Russia media deliberately downplay the manipulation of their own side.
The far more important issue, and the reason why anyone considering themselves to be a leftist needs to think twice about supporting Evromaidan, is the heavy presence of far-right and even Neo-Nazi elements acting as the core of the movement and the provocateurs of much of the violence on the street. One struggles to find crowd shots where you cannot see nationalists and neo-Nazi symbols among the protesters, whether in the form of the right-wing, racist Svoboda party flags, or more traditional White Power symbols like the Celtic Cross or “14/88.” Also noticeable are black and red flags. Bad news, young leftists – those aren’t anarchist flags. These are the flags of the OUN, or Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. During WWII people associated with this genocidal organization murdered thousands of Jews, Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians in Volyn and Galicia, Western regions of Ukraine. In modern times, Ukrainian nationalists like those of Svoboda have learned how to appeal to Westerners, taking advantage of the barriers between reality and media-manufactured fantasy in Eastern Europe. “Judeo-Bolshevik” domination is replaced with “Russian imperialist Bolshevism.” Ridiculous tales are spun about how the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) fought “against Stalin and Hitler”, how they saved Jews, and how countless well-documented atrocities were actually committed by Soviet NKVD agents disguised as UPA guerrillas. Having honed their talent for deception of foreigners, particularly Westerners with little knowledge on the relatively obscure history of Eastern European nationalist organizations of the WWII era, the nationalists have thus far displayed considerable skills in duping people into thinking that their struggle is actually a fight against Russian domination of their country. This begs the question – If this is simply a matter of independence for Ukraine, why participate in violent protests because the government refused to sign what is essentially an unequal trade deal with the European Union? Is domination by Brussels or Berlin better than domination from Moscow? Historically, Ukrainian right-wing nationalists have answered yes to that question.
Indeed, Putin’s “generosity” toward Ukraine is not without strings attached. However we must remember that we live in a capitalist world, in which smaller or weaker countries are at the mercy of the larger rich nations and their imperialist blocs. A principled stand would reject both the EU association agreement and the Russian customs union, and Ukrainian organizations like Borotba have taken such a position. For much of the Evromaidan movement, however, the struggle is about scoring a point against Muscovite Russia and nothing more. Even when the movement’s participants attempt to characterize themselves as progressive adherents to so-called “European values” and modern liberalism, it’s not hard to catch them engaging in the typical “it’s okay if my cow dies as long as my neighbor’s cow ties too” nationalism, something which is typically associated with the Balkans even though it often applies just as readily to other parts of Eastern Europe.
To be sure, there are non-nationalists among the protesters. Many of them, like millions of Eastern Europeans in the last decade, have been taken in by the European Union’s fantastic propaganda. Many have been convinced that this agreement will either mean EU membership or at least eventual membership in the near future. This will either lead to a massive improvement in Ukraine or at least the possibility to emigrate. Both ideas are ridiculous and this would be readily apparent to anyone who bothers to look over the conditions of the association agreement or who has at least been paying attention to the developments in actual EU member states going back to the economic crises of 2008. Western leftists are so easily attracted to the plucky, young protester in the street, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who is willing to trash their own city for what amounts to a fantasy, all because they didn’t bother to inform themselves. More importantly, it is reprehensible to feel sympathy for a protest movement which willingly associates itself with neo-Nazis and nationalist parties. The right wing Svoboda party remains a major player in a triumvirate of opposition parties. No attempt has been made to publicly criticize or sever ties with nationalist and neo-Nazi elements in these protests, and given the latter’s well-established passion for violence which pre-dates Evromaidan, it’s no mystery why those liberal believers in “European values” haven’t done so. In the past, right-wing and neo-Nazi groups have attempted to infiltrate left-wing protests in the United States. Typically they succeed only to the extent that people’s political illiteracy keeps them from decoding the messages that these right-wingers display on their signs and literature. Yet wherever they are recognized and discovered, they are loudly condemned, rejected, and in many cases physically attacked. Yet in Ukraine, as in the Russian opposition rallies, supposedly progressive liberals march shoulder to shoulder with open neo-Nazis and nationalists, showing how unprincipled they are.
A typical retort to these well-founded accusations is that it is nothing but a smear campaign by the Kremlin and Russian nationalists, who are opposed to Ukrainian independence. Boneheads in Russia have certainly done their part in muddying the waters of Ukrainian politics for years, but no one need listen to them to know the truth about Evromaidan. In an article entitled “Not My War”, independent union activist Svitlana Tsiberganova writes an open letter to the supposedly moderate elements of the protest movement. Her partner and his brothers were attacked with pepper spray and beaten by a mob, thanks to the incitement of some nationalists who spotted them passing out pamphlets which encouraged people to support the public transport workers’ union and to fight against the raising of public transport fares. A group of nationalists told the crowd that the union activists were “hired thugs with red flags.”
In case one still thinks that the accusations of neo-Nazi participation in the Evromaidan movement are nothing but propaganda coming from supporters of the regime, one can turn to the words of Ukrainian anarchists, how have also been trying to spread the word to Western cheerleaders (see links at the bottom of this text – author). They provide visual evidence of neo-Nazi and nationalist activity. Again, if the non-nationalist parties and their supporters don’t want to be associated with these “bad apples” let them stand up and publicly declare their opposition. Let them publicly condemn parades in honor of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator, rather than re-writing history and whitewashing his crimes and those of the movement he represented. What’s the worst that could happen, if this neo-Nazi, ultra-right movement is in fact so marginal as the Western media and Evromaidan “moderates” would have us believe?
The lesson for American or Western leftists in all this is simple. Stop jumping on media-fueled bandwagons. Not every protest movement is righteous and morally superior. Remember the Tea Party? Remember the Segregationist protesters of the 60’s? Many leftists, in fact many Americans in general, prefer to see themselves as people who “don’t listen to the mainstream media.” People like to believe they are independent thinkers and yet when some photos show up on their social media news feeds it often seems all this flies out the window. Here’s a radical idea to avoid being a bandwagon supporter- check things! When you fall for some social media fad cause, you’re basically doing the same thing your conservative, Fox-watching relative does when they forward the latest Obama outrage of the month. Either put in the time to do some serious research into the issue at hand, or stay out of it. It may sound a bit harsh, but it helps to remember that there are people who are actually “on the ground” or at least close to it, and they might have a slightly better understanding of the situation than someone who gets their news from Facebook, John Stewart, and MSNBC, particularly when that someone has never visited the country in question and doesn’t speak the language. Fetishizing and living vicariously through the struggles of others, even when that struggle is morally justified, is not “solidarity.” If anything it is a distraction from what Western leftists ought to be doing- protesting in their own streets. Despite all its flaws, it is a shame that Occupy fell by the wayside while its former supporters have foolishly taken up the cause of radical right-wing nationalists in a country they clearly know nothing about.
It is very helpful to continually remind oneself that we have for quite some time been living in a world dominated by PR and marketing. That political movements have been using the tools of marketing and brand images is not recent news at all. So the next time you see your media romanticizing and gushing so enthusiastically about the valiant young protesters in some far off country you have never visited, you would do well to be skeptical. Skepticism should be the default position in any issue we do not fully understand. That’s what separates you from that right-wing family member who sends you the chain e-mail about the Muslim woman who insults America in a supermarket only to be told off by the heroic war veteran behind her. Don’t be a gullible, vicarious activist. We have access to more information than any other generation before us. There is no excuse not to be informed, and if you feel you can’t properly judge the veracity of what you are reading, don’t take a position on it. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool. In short – check things!
Additional photos of Ukrainian neo-Nazi symbols (in Russian):
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