Tag Archives: vanity fair

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse

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What the Media Can’t/Won’t Tell You About Why Russia Invaded Ukraine

As usual, America’s foreign correspondents are falling down on the job.

Stories devoid of historical context cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a naked act of neo-Soviet aggression. Considering that the relevant history begins a mere two decades ago, its omission is inexcusable.

The spark that led to the takeover of Crimea was not the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich. It is what happened the day after.

A 2012 law gave the Russian language official status in regions where Russians comprise more than 10% of the population. This is the case in most of eastern Ukraine and particularly in Crimea, where 59% are ethnic Russians.

One week ago, Ukraine’s rump parliament (members of Yanukovich’s party, hiding from opposition forces and in fear for their lives, didn’t show up) took advantage of Yanukovich’s downfall to overturn the language law. Americans didn’t notice, but Russians did.

            Attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights,” Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, tweeted that day.

Seems a little over-the-top, right?

Sure, but only if you don’t know that millions of ethnic Russians in former Soviet Republics have suffered widespread discrimination and harassment since the 1991 collapse — and that their troubles began with laws eliminating Russian as an official language.

Laws like the one passed last week in Ukraine.

The demise of the Soviet Union left 25 million Russians stranded in 14 newly independent states, in such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine. These new countries had to scramble in order to create the trappings of national identity virtually overnight. They designed new flags, composed national anthems and printed new currency.

To instill a sense of loyalty and patriotism, the governments of many of the freshly-minted republics resorted to rank nationalism.

Nationalism isn’t just about what your country is. It’s also about what it isn’t. This requires defining some things — some people — as outsiders. Unwanted. Scapegoats. Enemies of the state.

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian dictatorship and former Soviet republic in Central Asia, is one example. It instituted a policy of “Turkmenization” after 1991. Russians, a privileged group before independence, were now refused work permits. A 2000 decree banned the use of the Russian language in official business; since Turkmenistan is a totalitarian state and all business is legally governmental, this reduced Russians who didn’t speak Turkmen to poverty and low-status jobs.

The Turkmen government abolished dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, leading to the mass exodus of panicked Russians in 2003. Denaturalization — the stripping away of citizenship — followed. “Many people…were having to sell houses and apartments at far below market values in order to leave by the deadline,” reported the UN. Hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned.

“Over the past decade Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan’s government or state institutions,” says the report.

Russians who remained behind after 2003 fared poorly. “On the streets of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, Russians appear to be rapidly becoming an underclass in a nation mired in poverty. Many scrape a living as taxi drivers, waitresses or in other low paying, insecure jobs.”

Harassment of Russians is rife throughout the former USSR. Every other Commonwealth of Independent States nation has abolished dual citizenship.

In the former Soviet Union, everyone knows that the road to statelessness, unpersonhood and poverty begins with the official elimination of Russian as an official language.

National language statutes targeted against Russian speakers are analogous to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which prevented Jews from holding jobs or even owning a radio: the beginning of the end. At the end of the Soviet period in 1989, the Tajik SSR passed a law establishing Tajik as the sole official language. Less than two decades later, 85% of ethnic Russians had left the country.

“The linguistic nationalization carried out in each republic provided a strong impetus to emigrate…Even if schools systematically introduce children to the official language today, the [former Soviet] states have established no programs to train adults,” Seymour Peyrouse noted in a 2008 report for the Woodrow Wilson Institute about the Central Asian republics. “It seems that the principal cause of emigration remains the absence of a future, or the perception of such, for the younger generations.”

Given recent history, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that ethnic Russians freaked out when one of the first official acts of Ukraine’s parliament was a linguistic nationalization law.

As for Russia’s response, you need to know two facts. First, Ukraine isn’t as independent of Russia as, say, Poland. None of the former Soviet republics are. “Kiev is an ancient Russian city,” Masha Gessen writes in Vanity Fair. “It is an overnight train ride from Moscow — closer than 90% of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine — the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter, and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.” And of course there’s the Black Sea Fleet. Really really independent countries don’t have 11,000 foreign troops stationed on their soil.

Had it been possible for rational diplomats and demographers to manage the Soviet collapse, Crimea probably would have wound up in Russia.

Until half a century ago, after all, Crimea was Russian. Nikita Khrushchev “gifted Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, at the time, it did not occur to anyone that one day the Soviet Union might collapse and that Ukraine would again be an independent country,” writes The Moscow Times.

It’s easy to see why Vladimir Putin would invade, why Russian public opinion would support him, and why neither cares what America thinks. Back in September, after all, most Russians told pollsters Crimea is part of Russia.

Why are American reporters covering Crimea ignoring the big picture, and instead so focused on secondary distractions like how it makes Obama look and whether there’s a chance of a new Cold War?

Four horsemen of the journalism apocalypse afflict overseas reporting:

Journalistic stenography, in which attending a government press conference constitutes research.

Kneejerk patriotism, where reporters identify with their government and are therefore less likely to question its actions, while reflexively assuming that rivals of the U.S. are ill-intentioned.

Jack-of-all-trades journalism, in which the same writers cover too many different beats. A few decades ago, there would have been a bureau chief, or at least a stringer, who knew Ukraine and/or the former Soviet Union because he or she lived there.

American ahistoricism, the widespread and widely acceptable ignorance of politics and history — especially those of other countries.

All four horsemen are pulling the Crimea story, but the fourth — not being aware of stuff that happened just one generation ago — is the most embarrassing.

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COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

SYNDICATED COLUMN: How I’d Spend My Powerball Winnings

Musings of a Wannabe Newspaper Warlord

Asked how they’d spend the $293.7 million they won in November’s record Powerball lottery, a Missouri couple told reporters they planned to buy a Camaro. They plan to travel to China. They might adopt a second daughter. They’ll up their grandkids’ college tuition. OK, so that leaves $293.6 million.

They obviously have absolutely no idea how much money $293.7 million is.

Mark and Cindy Hill seem like an average couple in their early 50s. Working class. Salt of the earth.

But man, what a waste of money to give all that loot to them! $200,000 would have been more than enough to change their lives. Not really knowing what to do with such a massive sum, the Hills will likely waste most of it on America’s self-perpetuating charity industry, which says that spending up to 35% of donor money on six-figure executive salaries and other luxuries is perfectly acceptable.

It is, of course, the Hills’ quarter-billion-plus to spend/squander. Not mine. I get it; I grew up under capitalism.

Let’s get something straight. I’m not jealous. I can’t envy the Hills because there is no way I could have won. This is because I don’t buy tickets. Whether I play or not, I figure the odds of winning are basically the same.

However, I do know how I’d spend their money.

Like the Hills, I’m a Midwest boy without fancy tastes. I’d pay off my mortgage and credit cards. My mom loves the beach; I’d buy her a house over the ocean. My car is eight years old; I’d buy one of those new Challengers.

Which would leave me $293.4 million.

Lottery winners always talk about helping their families. What about their friends? I have friends whose lives would be instantly transformed by $5 million checks. Brilliant cartoonists who could quit grueling day jobs and focus on developing their careers. Ailing writers who could finally get medical care for chronic conditions. Aspiring entrepreneurs who could capitalize their great ideas. People who are stressed out because work is scarce or nonexistent and are having trouble making ends meet. I have a couple dozen of friends like that. Helping them out would cost me about $100 million. Money well spent.

I want to help transform the media. That’s my big dream. Unfortunately, I will never realize it because I don’t have access to the kind of capital necessary.

The disintegration of print newspapers and the failure/refusal of digital media to deeply invest in serious journalism and smart commentary and satire is making Americans stupider, allowing evil corporations and corrupt, lazy politicians to thrive.

Warren Buffett is a smart man, picking up newspapers at rock-bottom prices. Personally, I’d buy The Los Angeles Times now that its parent, the Tribune Company, has emerged from bankruptcy. Experts guesstimate you could pick the Times for $185 million or less.

(Full disclosure: I draw cartoons for the Times.)

Aside from the fun of running a major metropolitan daily newspaper—12 pages of full-color comics!  Hire a kick-ass investigative reporter to infiltrate government for a year or two and then cough up all the dirty secrets! Create an editorial page that runs no one to the right of Mao Tse-Tung!—I think the Times would be a fab investment.

People say newspapers are dying. Specific companies are hurting, many are dying, but the dead tree form is here to stay. They said radio was dead after TV came along, but radio is bigger today than ever. TV killed old-timey radio—plays, variety shows. New formats—album-oriented rock, news talk—emerged. Old-fashioned fat lazy newspapers basically minting money from gigantic office towers in the centers of major cities are on the ropes, but as long as print can do something that digital can’t, it will survive and thrive. TV can’t replace radio because you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) watch TV while you drive. Similarly, an iPad or a Kindle can’t replace a print newspaper’s awesome disposability, portability and—an advantage that people are just starting to become aware of—memory retention.

Print magazines and newspapers will get their groove back when they understand what they are for. The Internet is for short updates. The Web and apps tell you what happened and who won the game. Print is for long-form analysis. Print tells you why you should care about what happened, walks you through how the game was won and how the season is shaping up.

We need serious analysis. But no one wants to read 15,000 words on a smartphone.

These days, the clueless barons of print are screwing up big time; Tina Brown just closed Newsweek after using the glossy to try to out-Internet the Internet with full-page photographs, vacuous “charticles,” and more lists than you can shake a Daily Beast at. The publications that are doing okay are those that are embracing in-depth feature stories, like the Economist and Vanity Fair. Publishers are going to figure out that that the destiny of print is more, longer, smarter, edgier content.

The future of newspapers in the United States will look a lot like Europe, where nations have a few big national newspapers, each of which serves a particular political orientation or interest, like sports or finance, and individual communities are served by hyperlocal outlets and, possibly, regional ones that would go to, for example, people in the Southwest.

We already have a few big national newspapers. USA Today was first, but it lost its way before it found one. The New York Times is our big national paper of news and high culture. The Wall Street Journal, of course, is the national paper of finance. (Under Rupert Murdoch, the Journal is muscling in on the Times’s territory.) The Washington Post should be the big national political paper, but its management doesn’t get it, so there’s an opening there. Anyway, there should be a big national newspaper focused on entertainment—video games, film, music, I’d also include books—and the logical candidate is the Los Angeles Times. They have the contacts, the location, and the brand recognition to pull it off. What they need is for someone to point them in the right direction.

Imagine if it worked! Not only would you make a killing, you’d establish a template to revive American journalism. Don’t forget, over 90% of all news stories originate in newspapers.

Which would leave me with about $8 million. Call me the man who would be king minus the panache of Sean Connery, but the salary of a soldier in the Afghan national army is about $2000 a year. The Taliban pay closer to $4000. So I could hire 2000 badass Afghan mercenaries for a year for my spare Powerball change and take over a province or two after the U.S. pullout and the civil war heats up. I’m not exactly sure whom we’d fight. Maybe Turkmenistan because, well, why not? Perhaps we’d just sit in the Hindu Kush and shoot at pictures of Arianna Huffington while reading back issues of the Los Angeles Times. I’ve always wanted to test-fire an RPG.

I may never win a Pulitzer, but no one can ever take having been a cartoonist-columnist-newspaper-baron-warlord away from you.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL