While having lunch on Saturday I got stuck for fifteen minutes in a room where the television was tuned to Russia’s English-language propaganda station, RT, formerly Russia Today. I once saw James Kirchick write that “after 20 minutes of watching RT … I did what any sensible person would do: turned RT off.” I conclude from this that he is a much braver man than I.
A major problem with RT is its systematic distortion, its lack of balance, in its attack on Western values, actions, and institutions, which mean that anyone taking their news from RT is in a position functionally the same as if they had been lied to. And of course RT does tell outright lies and promotes wild conspiracy theories, often at second-hand by allowing guests on to air them—my favourite is Karen Hudes, who believes the pope needs a mitre to disguise his cone head because he is of a non-human “second species”—but sometimes directly by employees.
While demonstrable falsehoods are vulnerable to disproof, they are “not [intended] to convince … but to … distrac[t]“. Some of these conspiracy theories are so outrageous that they are picked up in the Western press in a can-you-believe-it way, which diverts attention of readers, and then debunking them requires time and space that could have gone to documenting Russia’s depredations. A classic example of this is all the time and energy spent by journalists in Ukraine assessing the number of Nazis among the protesters in response to Kremlin agitprop that they were all Bandera‘s heirs.
The anti-Western slant and RT’s fostering of a sense of opposition, even persecution, of itself and its watchers finds appeal among a core demographic of “radical” students and other semi-educated elements—conspiracy theories after all require a lot of factoids—who feel in some sense “alienated” from the “establishment” in the West. Western governments are described as being in the grip of “out of touch elites”—RT really did employ that hackneyed cliché—whereas the in-touch consisted of the so-called BRICS, which includes Russia and China. This is only believable if you believed it already.
The section of RT I saw began with a news roundup that included the chaos in Libya, Israel banning Norwegian surgeon and activist Mads Gilbert from Gaza, and the dangers of fracking to the earth’s core.
It really is true that Libya is a basket-case in the wake of the Western intervention. But does Colonel Qaddafi take none of the blame for this? Is there not a case to me made that more intervention would have produced a better outcome? No, according to RT. By their telling, explicit and implicit, Libya was a peaceable land that NATO bombed and left in turmoil.
Of the West but not in it and Jewish to boot, Israel is an especially fat target for RT. There is no mention of HAMAS and its actions in the plight of Gaza and certainly no mention of what Israel does to ensure Palestinians’ humanitarian needs. Subject already to global campaign of delegitimsation organised by RT’s core demographic, Israel can do no right and her very mention begins a contest for the most hysterical denunciation.
Fracking is another case where the protean nature of the Putin dictatorship shows itself. In its actions and the beliefs of its ruler, the Russian regime is staunchly reactionary, especially on social matters. But because of Moscow’s desire to keep Europe dependent on its hydrocarbons it opposes fracking, which finds the regime legions of apologists among the (heavily Left-wing) “green” movement, who insist that the real danger is that the fracking industry will exploit the impasse with Russia to sell their wares. Putin’s base economic motives in opposing fracking go unmentioned, as does the fact that fracking is a less polluting interim step than Russia’s hydrocarbons. The activists’ desire to make the best the enemy of the good makes it too easy for RT—which throws in the evidence linking fracking to earthquakes for good measure, giving only the worst-case (and most speculative) scenarios.
There was then a street interview section that promoted reforming the House of Lords. Anyone can see that there are problems with the Lords’. To say the Lords’ is anachronistic and in need of reform, even that it is undemocratic, is one thing—it’s even true. But in RT’s telling you’d imagine Britain was still run on the principle of serfdom.
So it started bad enough. I knew my limit had come when George Galloway’s show, “Sputnik,” came on. They made a great fanfare of the guest, so I waited to see who it was. Someone who had been in Downing Street, it was said, someone who “knew where the bodies were buried,” had seen the very highest political leadership in the country up close etc. etc. It turned out to mean … Damian McBride.
You might recall that McBride was fired as special adviser to Gordon Brown when it emerged that his version of politics included spreading defamation of the Opposition. But McBride was flattered by Galloway as a truth-teller and maverick, rather than the liar and insider-bagman he actually was, and the pair lamented the demise of “real Labour”. Ed Miliband was dismissed as a robot and what is there left to say about Tony Blair? But Michael Foot was praised. That did it for me.
In 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a celebrated essay entitled, “The United States In Opposition.” In it Moynihan counselled that the West should accept its numerical inferiority in the “general wreckage of the world system embodied now in the United Nations.” But this did not mean we should despair. Nor did it mean that we should either abandon the institutions we gave to the world or surrender to the belief that “if only we were more reasonable perhaps ‘they’ will be” because—in a pattern now well-established—”‘they’ do not grow reasonable. Instead, we grow unreasonable.”
Indeed, accepting our opposition to the prevailing view in the world could be “liberating,” Moynihan noted. Rather than compromising ourselves to try to fit in with this dominant set, we can simply state our own case: for liberalism in political, social, and economic matters, highlighting the not inconsiderable success it has brought us, and being firm in stating that others are responsible for their own failures by adopting anti-liberal political and economic models. “It is a good argument,” Moynihan wrote. “Far better, surely, than the repeated plea of nolo contendere which we have entered, standing accused and abased before the Tribune of the People.”
Western States are not the perfect embodiment of the values we cherish. But we have gotten closer to fulfilling the values we claim than any civilisation that came before us. Self-criticism is a key component of the liberal mind and society. But if this self-criticism is unconstrained by perspective—if only the bad is included, as it is on RT, and the good neglected—then it becomes masochism, which I submit is not the organising principle around which any society can cohere and survive.