Monday, May 10, 2010

Historical Relativism?

As I was following Russia's grandiose celebrations of the 65th Anniversary of WWII Victory, I had a post on President Medvedev's interview aired on RT, where he talked about the need to "correct the historical distortions" in the West regarding USSR's role in the WWII. There were two comments on it, and this post is a response:

Anonymous: The Bear shall reach out and claim its well-deserved glory!
Be very afraid...
Vlad: Stereotypes die hard, as evidenced, inter alia, by the above comment.
I think the Western perceptions of Russia is a specific, particular case of a more general trend, which, in my view, should be dealt with within the PD framework...
My point is that all political correctness notwithstanding, some people, nations and groups of nations firmly believe (or at least try to make others believe that they firmly believe) that Truth (and the only Truth at that) is their birthright. Their pronouncements are supposed to be (almost) absolute truths (I mean with regard to other countries and nations; obviously that does not apply to domestic affairs).
The whole idea of natural rights, which was in due time properly codified, claims equality as not only virtue but also a fundamental principle. Why, then, are "some animals more equal"?
I think it is a good question for PD. If someone engaged in PD efforts, be it politicians, media or researchers, why not address some of these simple questions? Why, for instance, Russia (or Soviet Union) has always to be apologetic for what it did or does?
I am not trying to exonerate the terrible things done by the Bolshevik regime, Stalin, etc.
OK, take Katyn. Terrible crime. But why, while demanding (and justly demanding) from Russians to apologize, etc,. for that crime, Poles (and the West that supports them) do not apologize for 60 or may be 70 thousand or even more deaths of Russian prisoners of war in 1920?
The "great" Great Britain, when an empire, did terrible things. (First concentration camps for civilians is just a minor episode). I have yet to hear constant recriminations.
Who used A-bombs? Who used them against civilians? Who used chemical warfare?
Who used a scorched-land tactics in modern times? Who used napalm indiscriminately? The list may go on and on.
But for some mysterious reason it seems like no one is to blame because they are "good guys". Russians, on the other hand, are "bad guys". Well, not only Russians.
Now, for a change, it is Iranians. Uf...
So, if there are clear moral standards and principles, why some countries are "entitled" to having nuclear weapons, while others are not? Why is it tenable to believe that someone can have monopoly on truth? The WWII is merely an example.
Simple statistics and facts show who bore the brunt of the war.
Just an episode. In Schindler's List they make fun of a dumb Soviet soldier. But the plain truth is that, as many Jewish survivors testified, in most cases it was the Soviets who liberated them sacrificing many more lives of their soldiers than otherwise they would.
Anyway... It is easier to invoke an image of a menacing Russian Bear than to take the trouble of learning some history and to not subscribe wholeheartedly to moral relativism

I couldn't agree with you more! History has always been a major matter of contention, especially in cases where bitterness and hostility persisted after the end of the actual conflict. After all, history IS the national myth, and myths, although sometimes based on partial truths, mostly consist of grave distortions and/or exaggerations of true events. Now, given the interdependence, interconnectedness, and the rise of new channels for wielding power, "controlling the narrative" is an increasingly (even) more prominent foreign policy priority for most countries. In many cases this control goes beyond current events and extends into history. That, obviously, is the case with WWII as well.

To address the point on teaching of history per se: well, not that these things are not mentioned in the books, or not explained (in many cases, at least, they are still recognized as historical events). The problem lies in that they are just not emphasized enough, or even worse, are being completely distorted in their "framing" - be it in textbooks, in class discussions, in the media, in literature... So, the line would be: "Yes. The A-bomb happened. Hundreds of thousands died as a result (immediately, and later). There is no denying that. But well, it was done out of necessity, and without it the war would not have been won." (Very questionable, yes, but interestingly, still the major argument!) Sometimes, uncomfortable events are so de-emphasized in everyday "public life" (when references are made to it, that is), that people just forget about "the bomb part" altogether.

With the Brits, the case is similar. Decolonization made up, in fact, one of the 6 modules of the A'Level exam in 20th Century History (that was in 2005. I'm not sure if it's still the case, but I think it should be). Although we studied the Boer Wars and cases like the Amritsar massacre, there was never "enough time" to discuss all the details and various sides of it in depth because of the sheer volume of the material (a hundred-year period is just too huge; while we would spent months on other modules: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or the Cold War). So, that history is taught. But, how aware of it are the British people in their daily lives? How often is this dark past invoked in the media, in the popular culture, etc.?

It is indeed amusing - and at the same time, oh so sad! - to see all the reporting done on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, or the entire continent of Africa, with absolutely no mention of history and the root causes of the plight. It's very difficult to analyze events in such light, so "leaving it to historians" is an overly convenient solution. (But for some reason, reminding the readers about the communist/socialist past of Eastern Bloc countries every time there is a story on one of them is not difficult.) Yet, the most important factor is the national myth, but the reasons behind it are more than just obvious, so I will not be venturing out in that direction here.

Even if one is to leave out current political motives behind the distortion of history, it is obvious that the "single truth" perspective is internalized so well over time, that it falls into a cycle that is constantly reinforced by the media, popular culture, other countries' propaganda (I cannot call it "public diplomacy" in these instances), etc. The following CrossTalk 'episode' on RT (this one belongs to the "exceptional" category) makes this point very well:

The trouble is, people seem to increasingly rely on popular culture - "embodied" by Hollywood, or Channel One Russia (seemingly, the major movie production company at present) - for their lessons in history. In CrossTalk they touch upon "Saving Private Ryan" , which, although a great movie, was completely biased and left out large parts of the history altogether (I would add another major example, on Vietnam - "We Were Soldiers"). That, in turn, reflects the general society's view of the events, which, initially constructed by government officials and interested parties, has been perpetuated by the media, history books, etc.: a perfect cycle.

Countries, then, see this not just a propaganda opportunity in terms of shaping other nations' (past or future) narratives of history (see below), but also as a major public diplomacy challenge, since these deeply held internalized "truths" (i.e. myths) are not easy to get rid of, even if the circumstances and initial reasons are gone. Therefore, "shaping the narrative" works not just in terms of the present, but also in the depiction of the past (walking a thin line between PD and propaganda, though).

To stay on Russia: a major recent "contention" has been the 2008 Ossetia War. Both sides - Georgia and Russia - deny being responsible for it, although both are to blame to varying extents. Nevertheless, despite the ever-present blame put on Russia in the American media, this view will be further promoted and preserved in an upcoming Hollywood movie, "Georgia". It is being made by a fairly prominent (although "mediocre") Hollywood director Renny Harlin, while Andy Garcia will be starring as Saakashvili. Take a look at the trailer:

Although the movie is supposedly "objective" and tries to focus on the human aspect of the conflict, claiming to be generally "anti-war", just a look at the trailer makes it obvious that such claims are far from being true. Rather, they are true according to a certain Western perspective. But, since there is a firmly held belief that it is the only perspective, and given a reality where far more people watch movies than read history books, Russia runs the risk of having another major historical challenge to resolve in the future. After all: "Situations defined as real become real in their consequences."

In short, it is all politicized - again - while relativism, particularly in public diplomacy, is brought up only when it suits the "narrative." Breaking such cycles is difficult, especially when they take on a "total" nature.



  1. Great comment on the comment!
    Thank you.
    Very thought-provoking...
    Controlling the narrative is indeed what it is all about, whether in mainstream diplomacy, Track II diplomacy, "approved" (or even "the only true" version of history and, may be, in PD.
    Criticisms of moral relativism are often dismissed as irrelevant. The underlying problem, however, is that it backfires. Unless the society has a solid moral foundation and stands its ground (even though it has to pay a price for it), it has no future. It will implode eventually, as Soviet Union did - without war, foreign aggression or civil unrest or even economic collapse.
    The value vacuum is what undermined the Soviet Union so effectively.
    Had the 18-million-strong "army" of the Communist party took to the streets (even unarmed), the course of history could have been different (for better or worse).
    That did not happen.
    There was no "dream" or "vision" or ideals worth defending...
    Hot war did not work. Cold War was partly successful. Propaganda war (arguably a part of the Cold War) was much more successful in winning hearts and minds of Soviet people.
    The problem, however, is that no amount of propaganda these day can do the same trick and not only in the post-Soviet countries.
    Hence, an active search of new methods.
    My suspicion is that PD is eyed to see if it can serve that function. May be it was not the original intention. May be it was a spin-off or serendipity...
    As regards the movie, I am not surprised ...
    Who will take the trouble of reading the OSCE report (or other reports for that matter)? Probably very few people the world over...
    It is also clear that the Saakashvili regime was given the green light by some (only too well-known) persons and groups to attack Ossetia. A kind of small Blitzkrieg and then, as the saying goes, "Victors need never explain."
    Unfortunately, such movies will backfire. The Russian propaganda and anti-Western sentiments in the Russian society will be fanned further.
    It is a circulus vitiosus...
    So, who was saying the old good Cold War is over?

  2. Hehe, indeed. When one looks at things from this angle, the Cold War seems to be very much alive (sort of a replay of the Detente years). And yes, the overly-positive assessment of the "success" of current US PD in Russia (and all of the former Eastern bloc, in fact) seems to be groundless. That the Russian public is still quite anti-American is a fact, but then the same is true of the Americans' view of Russia. And again, the general media/culture/politics only reinforce these sentiments.
    As for relativism: again, I could agree with you. To achieve a "moral victory" (whoever that fight is against, be it communism or Islamic extremism), one needs strong moral ground. HOWEVER, declaring its existence, by itself, is far from guaranteeing success, since the latter also requires true internalization of that morality and UNEQUIVOCAL dedication to it (if we follow that line of argument). It would mean that there can be no double-standards, what ifs, and exceptions, right? You referred to the nuclear issue in your previous comment - I cannot but go back to it.. (I personally LOVE the idea of postmodernism, but every time I indulge in it, I am forced to make a crash-landing: "back to Earth" of realism..)
    And PD in general: first and foremost, it's a matter of national security for every country. And yes, it is, perhaps, one of the more positive and optimistic aspects of it, but again, the ultimate goal is to promote and achieve certain interests, and everyone knows that. With globalization, and the boom in communication technologies and the info society, the info sphere is where these "battles" are moving into, apparently. Don't forget that "Cyberwar" is the latest craze, and PD will certainly play a big role. Interesting to watch that playing out...

  3. Where should I start... the post is indeed thought provoking but so far I have seen only one side of the possible outcomes. Vlad has rightfully pointed one of them-the possibility of all that propaganda backfiring. I saw the trailer - my vocabulary is not rich enough to express my contempt for that ridiculous animated pasquinade which will claim a movie status, without reaching for vulgar words. Cinema is a powerful tool for propaganda or as it is now known as public diplomacy. This thing directly copies the Rambo III chopper scenes where the soviet attack helicopters are killing afghan women and children. The difference is that while I did enjoy Rambo III for numerous reasons (one of them it being more or less disinterested having in mind the still ongoing Cold War), this Georgia thingie would be pitiful. I cannot reason why people who supposedly have access to information would believe it - even the EU officially stated that it was Georgia that fired the first shots and started the conflict. But then again one would be misguided if one believes everyone has access to information. I am not talking here about the great China firewall. I am talking about selective broadcasting. This twisted representation of reality will probably get full coverage, whereas a documentary, for instance, shot by a Russian journalist will not even make it to a local channel. Here we go all the way back to the Cold War-who is our enemy? Of course Russia-why bother asking?! Well then why would be one surprised to see such a mishappen materialize out of Hollywood's studios. Vlad finishes with a very wryly last sentence-of course the Cold War is not over. It just got hot-but not thanks to nuclear exchange. It is just the rules of the game that have changed. It is really amusing to see the USA fighting for the hearts and minds of the Russian people the way former soviets tried to do it with the western people. Sometimes I am tempted to believe there is more censorship in the USA than in the Russian Federation, for Russian reports are not aired by the large corporate TVs. This Georgian fairytale will not be censored in Russia, and as a result it will only increase the the anti-US sentiments. This is not the Cold War but apparently the people who decided to change the rules apparently have forgotten about their very same actions. Rambo was censored and yet people watched it-in it if my memory serves me well the Soviet soldiers were again the bad guys but they were shown torturing only USA soldiers, who have come to the rescue of some indeed innocent people. (there was no Al-Quaeda mentioned anywhere). Now this movie shows (or at least the trailer) how Russian helicopters again kill civilians and destroy homes, and how the valiant Georgian soldiers defend their fellow-countrymen. Well because of the new rules, the Russians also managed to get a couple of camera crews there and actually showed that Georgians were using american weapons and that all in all they did kill all those people. I do not want to go into details but the Russians this time outplayed the USA. Big time. And this movie will only serve to the detriment of the USA plans in the region. For if one actually bothers to read the comments posted by Georgians below the Russian videos in YouTube (apart from the comments which are obviously left by people in need of medical attention) one will see that the Georgians themselves realize who's a puppet and who attacked. I would believe that the people in the former SU will also know who to blame. So-fail. USA could have invested money in much better movies and in fact should have. But if this movie is entirely for domestic usage-oh well it might just work. I remember reading in a forum, where one person said that if the Russians have invaded Georgia, she'll start packing for she was leaving in Tennessee...

  4. Still the battles will not move in the internet as you (Lena) claim. Internet is vulnerable-all it takes is to shut down the providers. What next-you cannot "smuggle" internet or print it in your cellar. It does not have the power of the "samizdat". It does not come directly from the people for the people. It is virtual. It is not palpable. One thing is to sign up for a revolution on-line and go finish your supper. Another thing is to actually distribute illegal pamphlets and live undergrounds. This is all illusory and makes people believe the internet is the new world (real, albeit virtual). Not now, not during our lifespans. Perhaps later-if the Washovski Brothers'script becomes reality. That is why the SU fell-because people were excited to be part of something secret and that gave them hope and consolation. Now it is not secret. Everyone can join a Facebook group (see even when I wrote facebook it shows a mistake-apparently it MUST be Facebook...) and do whatever one wants. The internet is the place of remote patriots and kitchen revolutionaries. Everyone feels nice and cozy in the anonymity offered by the "net". But once they have to go out and do something-oops dude this is not where I parked my car. The people who believe internet can create revolutions are as deluded as I am when I play online games and I thing I actually have 46 space battleships under my command and I am attacking an enemy planet... Indeed, internet can be helpful, but on its own is just a recreational discovery (putting aside the obvious military benefits which we do not get to reap, at least palpably). I feel I am getting loquacious, so I will stop here with the following words - Russia is never as strong as it seems and never as weak as it seems. To whom it does that quote belong-well if you know you know why I wrote that post. If not-go read your history textbooks. Cheers!

  5. Oh and excuse me for the typos here and there-it is 2 in the morning here and I am a bit sleepy.

  6. I look forward to Lena's response (if any) to very insightful comments by zApl3zzz.
    I liked them so much that I felt I would like to share a couple of brief comments.
    (i) It is hard to say where censorship is worse, given the "traditions," "norms," the way things are usually done in media, self-censorship, etc.
    I guess the movie will be shown in Russia for several reasons. To begin with, given widespread DVD piracy, etc., it does not make any sense to try to "suppress" any movie. It will be circulated anyway. As that segment of the market, I mean movie distribution, movie theaters, etc. are controlled by big businesses, they would not want to lose their profits. And they have some leverage...
    Secondly, it is in the best interests of the ultra-"patriots" to have such movies around as those movies play into their hands.
    So, it is not a question of censorship per se.
    (ii) I am not sure Russia outplayed the US. My feeling is the current Russian Administration has been trying to walk a fine line asserting their interests, while at the same time trying not to antagonize the USA.
    An illustration. While there was ample evidence of the direct US (military) involvement in the Russia-Georgia conflict, official Moscow did its best to downplay that involvement and was more than accommodating in giving the benefit of the doubt.
    I believe that was partly the reason why the US Government officially (!) requested the Russian to return 6 Hummers crammed with the state-of-the art equipment etc. (the funny part is that while reporting the incident of seizing those Hummers from Georgians soldiers, the Russian military frankly admitted that there were some pieces of equipment in those vehicles that they could not figure out what those were for, etc.).
    How come!? There was not a single American in those vehicles, Those vehicles were packed with armed Georgian military personnel on a reconnaissance mission. Yet, the US officials requested the vehicles back. To tell the truth, I do not know what happened then. I will not be surprised, though, if the vehicles were eventually returned to the US "owners" only to make their way back to Georgians.
    We have yet to see the times when policy-makers in the US realize that Russia is their natural ally, whose significance will only be growing with the passage of time.
    (iii) I agree that the internet cannot replace the actual world and the actions that have to be taken in the real world.
    So, at least for now the 'Matrix' is a metaphor, probably a useful metaphor at that as any Dystopia with a potential to influence people's perceptions is.
    I also agree that Internet can be easily shut down. I would like to remind Lena that in her native Armenia not only CNN, BBC, etc. but also quite a few web-sites were blocked during the 1 March 2008 and subsequent events.
    But vulnerability does not stop there.
    While comfortable, anonymity is in fact seeming.
    We can rest assured that the "Big Brother is watching" us at any time...

  7. Sorry for a long comment.
    It was even longer but the system refused to accept it.
    Here is what follows:
    (iv) I have mixed "feelings" about samizdat and, more generally, about the dissident movement in the Soviet Union (but it is a different subject).
    Sazizdat was powerful and I can personally attest to it, having experienced it first-hand, but only because the word, both spoken and written, carried some weight then. Solzhenitsyn or Vaclav Havel would not become today what they became then. While living in "a lie", people wanted the truth and hoped that life will be different then. Well, life is definitely different now but not exactly as expected or hoped. Now it is PD... not "living in truth".
    Still, I would beg to differ as regards the underlying reasons and causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union.
    Very few, in fact negligibly few, people were engaged in clandestine activities, even of the most innocent kind (like reading and circulating the "banned" publications). The majority could not care less.
    I guess it was sociological propaganda that so enticed the overwhelming majority of the Soviet people and the human rights discourse that so enchanted the Soviet intelligentsia that did the trick.
    (v) The quote is nice. It was like a flashback.
    While it is sometimes attributed to Churchill, it goes back to Talleyrand, who was probably the first to express the idea but, of course, in a slightly different form.