Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On International Perceptions and Communication

I am pleasantly surprised, again, by the extremely interesting (transnational) discussion provoked by my previous post. Since my response is long, I think it deserves a separate post.

Firstly, though, I wanted to officially invite both Vlad and zApl3zzz to contribute to this blog! :) I would be delighted to "cooperate"!

To respond to some of the major points that both of you brought up:

- I have not seen any of the Rambo movies (fortunately, or not - is a different question). Yet, I know that you are referring to. General "anti-Russian"-ism is widespread in both, the mass media, as well as in pop culture, including entertainment. That all has deep-running historical and cultural reasons, and is not, in any way, what you would call "propaganda proper". Tying into this issue is also "self-censorship" and "selective broadcasting" that you brought up, which is only more than natural. To be a successful news/media outlet, an organization or project needs to cater to its audience and/or owners. Thus, if we are talking about American TV networks, for example, they all depend on advertising, so they need to make sure they appeal to the largest possible audience, which in its turn brings the reliance on entertainment + viewpoints with which their certain audience is comfortable with (hence, the deteriorating quality of general programming). If we take Hollywood: they need to sell, too; so again, catering to their greatest market, which would be the U.S. And if we go to politicized "owned" media, such as Fox or most of the Russian TV channels, they need to play into the rules and fulfill the demands of their owners to further their interests, and thus, either cultivate certain perspectives among the general population, or play into the already existing ones. What I am referring to, in short, is the constant reinforcement of existing (mis)perceptions for a variety of reasons (commercial and political ones being the most prominent).

- The Internet: I cannot but agree with what both of you said regarding it. Yes, perhaps I am still very optimistic about it, but I did not mean that the WWW, by itself, can provide a solution, or act as a "system" in which we all operate. No. Internet is a tool, and not an end in itself. It is especially important when it comes to transnational communication, but indeed, if seen as the ultimate objective, can bring about a lame army of "remote patriots and kitchen revolutionaries". I do remember the March 2008 events in Armenia (which, by the way, are completely ignored in the Wester, just as those in Belarus or Moldova, for example, unlike the Iranian case. "Wonder why"...?!), but I also remember that I would get lots and lots of news over Facebook, for example. People started groups and mailing lists as a response to the complete blackout of the mainstream media (most of the activists, in fact, were those same journalists, just gone "underground"). The Iranian case was similar, since some of what happened online served to mobilize the people in the streets. But it was GRAVELY exaggerated, since a vast majority of communication came from outside the country, apparently, while the authorities learned very well how to play by the "new media rules" (I will skip mentioning certain names here, for various reasons, but I'm sure everyone's familiar with the major story line).
And yet, I cannot but stress the increasing importance of the Internet again. At least in the more technologically advanced societies, there is increasing reliance on the WWW (ok, now there are Blackberries, and iPhones, and 3 and 4-G networks, etc.). But then there is also increasing realization of its vulnerability, which, in its turn, brings about increasing efforts to ensure its security. So, no, I don't think there is any way back to the pre-Internet age, but I agree that it will take decades to make it what it really is hoped to be. Anonymity? Forget it.

- Russia being America's "natural ally"? Interesting that you suggest that, since I was thinking that no matter the "diplomatic dances" and the PD initiatives, there will always be rivalry (if not, hostility) between the two as long as they are both so vast in size and among the leading "world powers". It is obvious that any alliance and/or friendship between them has always been based on pressing convenience and/or necessity, and I really don't think that will change (unless, of course, either one agrees to join the federation of the other; but then, that cannot guarantee "cultural" coherence, either - in every sense of culture). I do think that the current Russian administration is much more adept in talking the "American language", as well as listening to it, but I am sure that would have been impossible had there been a different administration in the U.S., for example. Public diplomacy challenges, despite that, still persist, and that illustrates the distrust among their publics. A crucial factor here would also be the extent to which the U.S. is willing to listen to Russia and how proficient the latter becomes in communication, in general. They're still learning, and it's interesting to follow that process!

- The loss of "weight" of the word, as you put it, is indeed a major problem, not only domestically, but also internationally, especially when it comes to PD. This has become an even greater problem with the Internet boom. So now, as you pointed out, there are increasing explorations of alternative "methods" for communication, that can reach the intended audience, and have the intended effect. What I believe is essential, though, is credibility, which, unfortunately, takes very long to earn and is very easy to lose. There is increasing realization of that, and now the emphasis is on "relationship building" for example (as opposed to one-way communication). And yet, this approach is still mostly prominent in political discourse and the academic sphere (print and online! :)). Since it might look politically (or militarily and economically) unfeasible, we still see that one-way communication tends to dominate.

- An important aspect of the previous challenge is also education (or rather, lack thereof). As I keep pointing out, apathy and lack of awareness of a bigger world or alternative perspectives is one of the greatest problems in PD. It ties into credibility, since there is no way one can achieve it, if the other side narrow-mindedly believes in one and only, supreme, perspective - that is, their own. The concern about the "invasion of Georgia" of the woman from Tennessee is not a surprise (though, funny!), and it only illustrates the painful ignorance prevalent in the education system, as well as the media here, in general. I recently wrote a paper on the subject, as you know... (I can go on for ages about this, so I'll just stop here.)

- As for the demise of the Soviet Union, I think it is wrong to reduce the causes to one single "major" reason. Of course, I have not lived throughout that period (I just lived the consequences, which I should say I did not like), but having studied it extensively, it seems to me there were many structural, economic, military, as well as ideological and societal problems. Yet, it was shaky from the start and it was based on coercion. As cracks started to appear, and as more "freedom" was introduced by a certain Nobel laureate, the end was inevitable, since the whole structure could not withstand the pressure (both internal and external). I'm afraid I have to agree with you that a similar outcome would not be possible today, and trying a similar approach of external pressure and intrusive "public diplomacy" with Iran (or China, for that matter) might only backfire.

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  1. Aaaaah education... Such a nice tool for nation building. Let me go a bit further and intertwine your education and internet ideas. There is no lack of education in the USA. On the contrary there is a lot of it-the problem is that it manifest itself in its absence. As much as it actually pains me to say it, the people in the USA do not get the education they should and that creates certain hindrances (or someone would say advantages) in terms of societal structures and world views. See, education is like poison - it might be beneficial in small doses, but when you overdose, things go ugly. There is a certain poster related to the famous cartoon the Simpsons - it says "You are paid to work, not to think". I am not 100% sure about the exact way the sentence was formulated (perhaps there were two sentences) but still I hope it does illustrate how entertainment actually facilitates the permeation of a certain idea into the homes of ordinary citizens via humour. As we know humour is often used as a tool both to ease the pressure and to convey an otherwise unacceptable idea. I would not venture that far claiming it is deliberate, but it is a question worth considering. Education is knowledge. Knowledge is most often derived from information (of course I am not dismissing personal experience but at the moment this is irrelevant). The sheer dept of internet is used for information relaying with enormous success, mainly thanks to the availability-just as you mentioned. However, again as per your words it is indeed vulnerable. This time not just because of the switch (on/off), but because of the common perception that internet "rulz"and that everything there is accurate, provided that you do a thorough search. Well it is not. Information can be hidden or represented in a different way. In both cases people get information (yes even when they do NOT get any of it it is still information). Thus, internet is susceptible to benign or perhaps malignant influences (promotion or censorship). It is used as a tool for control. It educates. Therefore I cannot agree that the citizens of the USA are not educated-on the contrary they are well educated as long as the purposes of the government are concerned. I do not want to point fingers specifically at the USA, therefore I will say it is common all around the world. That brings me to my previous point about the poison-if you have knowledge, you will ask questions and you will refuse to blindly follow orders-a thing all governments naturally detest. If I can bring a tinge of conspiracy - the internet was originally created by the USA military. The coverage of news is selective, as well as the audience-welcome to nation building. There was an Italian scholar - Gramsci, who formulated a theory of hegemony. Robert Cox widened it. I am mentioning this, for internet I believe, is used to achieve and maintain hegemony, by substituting values and beliefs. The example is here-we are blogging and sharing our thoughts-something that originated in the USA, and we have internalized it. I presume you have had some experience with the notions of hegemony I am talking about here. The dark side of it(no Star Wars pun intended) is that the very same people who provided us with the opportunity to voice our concerns can track us, shut down the sites that are of no convenience to them and ultimately take us into custody (again just as you mentioned). All in all internet provides freedom with some hidden bonuses.

  2. As for the cooperation between Russia and the USA-I agree that there are only interests. Allow me to use a chess simile-when the SU collapsed, the subsequent leaders of Russia were left with pawns only and were facing a severe, almost defeating check (but not a check-mate as some people would like to think). Thanks to luck, bravado and perhaps some stupidity, the leaders of what is today the Russian Federation managed to turn some of their pawns into stronger figures. I believe however that they are still missing the Queen, which is more often than not the piece, central to victory. We are yet to see in the battle for dominance if this was a check-mate attempt made by the USA or a carefully orchestrated Russian gambit. The game however continues.
    In relation to the SU's demise - I am tempted to reach again to Political Economy and draw inspiration from Gramsci and Cox's theories, but I would like to hear Vlad's opinion, for it appears his knowledge of that topic surpasses mine (judging by the comments related to the samizdat). My knowledge and understanding of that issue are based on the books I have read, and therefore in this case are inferior to the knowledge gained through actual observation of those processes happening (participation perhaps?).

  3. A few ideas - just food for thought.
    Sorry, if I am a bit incoherent. Too busy with mundane duties...
    1) I would not recommend watching Rambo movie. Not because it is propaganda (it is not, at least it is not a propaganda movie by any standard) but because it is shallow, if not downright primitive.
    If I am not mistaken, Aristotle mentioned that there are 66 basic plots for any narrative, be it myth, play or "fiction" (and, I guess, we could add "movie"). So, there is always a need to come up with something new within those limits. But not everyone can do it. Small wonder, it is usually mediocrity that wins the day. So, listeners, readers and (with the advent of TV) viewers are exposed to a huge amount of low-quality works. The situation became worse with the advent of "infotainment".
    Thousands of junk movies are produced annually all over the world. It is a vicious circle of a perverted (in this case I mean) cycle of supply and demand.
    Thus, (again back to Aristotle) forget about catharsis.
    Actually, in the 1960s Herbert Marcuse predicted similar developments. He even coined an interesting term "one-dimensional man" who lacks critical thinking ability, is most compliant with the authorities' whims and oppression, etc., etc.
    This is not unique to one country, region, culture or civilization.
    The Soviet Union did and present-day Russia does churn out a lot of such movies. So, it is not only Hollywood to blame. For instance, in the 19060s and 1970s Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia made their "huge" contribution producing such "one-dimensional" "good Indians vs. bad cowboys" ("or good cowboys vs. bad cowboys", etc.)-type movies.
    While providing no catharsis, such works of "art" are not so innocent as might seem. Because it is miseducation.
    2) Genuine education can, of course, help. It is in its "job description" to open up minds, to cultivate good taste, to promote civic virtues and ideals and important values. But hard realities of life plainly demonstrate that more often than not education is not up to the mark. I mean formal education.
    Still, I strongly believe in education, particularly life-long and thus, I beg to differ, with zApl3zzz on that one. I strongly believe that there is no such thing as "too much education."

  4. 3) Antonio Gramsci was a great thinker, albeit not entire unbiased as “practitioner.” I am sure that even individuals who do not share his (Communist) views do respect him for his commitment to his ideas, even when he ended up in a fascist prison, where he died. I guess he is correct to a certain extent that education, inter alia, is a tool of cultural hegemony. Some other Marxists even contend that education is a tool of “academic imperialism”, “neocolonialism”, etc.
    I think it is always a delicate balance between legitimate educational agenda and “hegemony”. Almost any move – on anyone’s part and initiative – can easily be construed as “hegemony.” I am not going to get into such complex, albeit fascinating, issue of a “hidden curriculum.”
    Since Armenia is of interest to Lena, I wish to draw her attention to on-going debates in that country with regard to the Government’s proposal to amend the law so as to make possible to provide instruction in languages other than Armenia.
    The overwhelming majority of so-called “progressive”, “liberal” and “democratic” “intellectuals” have so far displayed a huge amount of ignorance, misconception and lack of minimal tolerance, which is a hallmark of democracy. It is not that I am surprised that these people can easily engage in witch-hunt or that it is yet another illustration of the classical (in fact, Biblical) dictum that “the road to heel is paved with good intentions.” My point here is that while nominally “educated”, most of these people are not properly educated, especially in the field where they feel they are competent, viz. human rights.
    4) Post-modernist world is indeed full of surprises … Never before in history has there been so blatant disregard of logic. Of course, the model “Le Dieu and mon droit” (or worse) was always around but the whole point of classical education was to teach logic, reasoning, etc. A good example would be the Nobel Prize, especially Peace prize. Obviously, there were no grounds to give it to Obama. Well, at least there was some hope that he will take a pro-active stance with regard to ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    My point is about Gorvachov. The person, which under normal circumstances, would be held criminally liable, for a huge loss of life of civilians, etc. (at least for criminal negligence) is pronounced by the “enlightened” Committee as Peace person # 1! I had a chance at that time to tell Italians (since a town in Italy “nominated” him) that they might as well (or even with more grounds) have nominated Mussolini. …
    5) As regards the factors that undermined the Soviet Union. I expressed my view but I agree that there were other factors as well. Sometimes, it is pointed out that low oil prices (as a result of deliberate efforts on the part of the US) dealt a deathblow to the Soviet Union, etc.
    I remember that a few years ago Adam Michnik, a Polish dissident and a person of great integrity (unfortunately, a rare case among “dissidents”), aptly pointed out that if one goes to Washington, he will here there the talk that it was the US that brough about the downfall of the Soviet Empire. The same can be said about London or Berlin or Paris. Dissidents would claim their crucial role, etc.I do not discard those factors. Still, I tend to thin that the factors that I indicated in my previous comments were the crucial ones.

  5. Erratum:
    I am sorry. There is a typo there. It should, of course, be "hell" not "heel."