Six years ago, the world’s news cycle was treated to what in the movie business is called a double feature. It began with a British tragicomedy called Brexit, in the category of a heist drama, starring blonde bombshell Boris Johnson as the brains of a brilliantly designed and executed scam. It was followed by the American triumph of Donald Trump in a superhero movie with a psychological twist. Instead of rescuing the persecuted lady (played by Hillary Clinton), he focused on rescuing a border by building a wall.
Those two events symbolized, prolonged and accelerated a civilizational trend: the polarization of everything. The great advantage of polarization, especially in the consumer society, is that unlike the quandary of selecting a flavor of ice cream or a pair of shoes when the choice appears to be infinite, decision-making is simplified. With polarization you can simply decide what you want to reject, even if you are not convinced by what you choose.
In the culture wars that have been raging in the US, people simply have to decide which side they are on, even in issues of life and death. On the question of abortion, they must be either pro-choice or pro-life. There’s nothing to think about other than which camp one must identify with. The same applies to gun control or choosing one’s pronouns. In all cases, you will be on one side or the other. As Larry Beck has maintained in his columns, you have the simple choice of deciding whether the second amendment is about the rights of individual (originally white) citizens or the responsibility of states to organize militias. Once you have chosen your side, you know who your enemies are.
When simplistically contradictory debate replaces nuanced discussion or even argument, as the Monty Python demonstrated decades ago, the news media themselves are transformed into platforms for propaganda. Now that polarization has become the official political religion, the narrow opening that once existed giving access to information and contributing to decision-making has closed. Why waste time weighing the facts or assessing their consequences when the conclusion is ready-made?
If 2016 got the momentum going, 2022 may be remembered as the year when, thanks to a polarizing war in a faraway land, facts and assessment of their consequences were officially banished from even the West’s supposedly “serious” media. With news itself slinking away into the wings, propaganda could take center stage.
The Guardian is a serious newspaper that covers many non-controversial topics where the play of creative thinking is still allowed. But when it comes to the war in Ukraine, it has aligned with the Washington thesis, that humanity should be neatly divided into those who support Ukraine and those who support the Kremlin. We knew that would be true of The New York Times and The Washington Post, whose geopolitical lifeline is connected directly to the US intelligence community. But The Guardian appears too respectable not to follow suit and support the same narrative.
The Guardian published an article last week that presented as news the opinion of Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, head of the UK’s armed forces, asserting that Russia has ‘strategically lost’ the war in Ukraine. What it asserts is not news. It is the statement of someone who has an obvious interest in promoting a particular official narrative.
At one point the article quotes Radakin’s words: “This is a dreadful mistake by Russia. Russia will never take control of Ukraine.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A flexible verb collocation that suggests a spectrum of meanings between mastering (good) and oppressing (bad), making it ideal for tendentious use in political contexts
Summarizing the admiral’s reasoning The Guardian explains that “the Russian president Vladimir Putin, had lost 25% of Russia’s land power for only ‘tiny’ gains and it would emerge a ‘more diminished power’ while strengthening Nato.” Since the beginning of the war, with precious little evidence, Western media have relentlessly developed the thesis that Russia was losing the war and Ukraine was winning. Almost every expert not involved in producing and disseminating propaganda – and never quoted in the corporate media – has been saying, “Not so fast!” Russia may in fact be slowly achieving its objectives.
Propaganda is the art of taking very real facts and citing other imaginary facts or intentions to create an emotionally explosive linguistic cocktail. That is what The Guardian has done here with Radakin’s narrative. The newspaper’s account begins with a simple, though not necessarily verified fact, that “the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had lost 25% of Russia’s land power.”
A Russian-American Game of Mirrors
The Guardian draws this seemingly logical conclusion, that Russia “would emerge a ‘more diminished power.’” This correlates precisely with Washington’s narrative about the West’s goal in the conflict, as explained by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, of wanting “to see Russia weakened.” There is a surreptitious semantic shift in both Radakin’s and The Guardian’s reasoning based precisely on the goal stated by Austin. Describing Russia’s material losses – whether the description is accurate or not – as implying that Russia is “a diminished power” is baseless.
Radakin cites a figure of 50,000 Russian casualties, which is impressive. It appears to derive from Ukrainian claims repeated by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. On June 3, Le Monde offered a more serious evaluation of the current state of knowledge. “Nobody really knows,” it wrote, “how many combatants or civilians have died, and claims of casualties by government officials — who may sometimes be exaggerating or lowballing their figures for public relations reasons — are all but impossible to verify.”
But Radakin went further, claiming that “Russia has strategically lost already.” He cited Finland and Sweden “looking to join” NATO as proof. The average reader may take away the idea that Russia has already literally “lost” the war, which supposes that Ukraine has won. But Radakin’s assertion can only work if we suppose (i.e. speculate) that Russia was seeking to control Ukraine and neutralize NATO rather than “liberate” the Donbas in what it continues to claim is a “special military operation.”
Radakin avoids acknowledging that a country can strategically lose at various points and ultimately win a war. Assessing strategic success or failure requires knowing the enemy’s actual intentions. But we know that propaganda is always about distorting the intentions on both sides. This includes one’s own intentions, which may be far less noble than announced, and the other’s intentions, which may be less evil than claimed.
As far as propaganda goes, the Ukraine war may occupy a unique place in history. War always and inevitably generates propaganda among the warring parties. But this may be the first time an overseas war with a complex historical background has produced such intensively developed propaganda in nations that have no direct stake in the issues behind the war. Unless, of course, they actually do have an unavowed stake in the war.
Propaganda in times of war can be described as the art of writing history before historians have the time or the means to understand its components. It sets in place a frame of reference that serves both a short-term and long-term objective. In the short-term, it fixes a population’s attention on a single and generally simplistic reading of responsibilities (who is to blame). With the liberty of a writer of creative fiction, it also describes the intentions on both sides, noble at home and devious on the enemy’s side. This is designed to prevent the local population from critiquing its government or suspecting any real or imaginary ulterior motives. The public can also be counted on to accept any sacrifice that is demanded.
In so doing, for the long term, it prepares the accounts that will appear in future history books. This is important for the continuity of the kind of emotion we call patriotism. It is essential to the future security of the state. History will thus be prewritten in a way that promotes the idea that the nation has always looked after the interests of its people and defended their shared ideals.
The New York Times’ Anti-Russian Inquisition Cancels History (again)
One unanswered question for the West will depend on the duration and ultimate outcome of the Ukraine war. Given the tenuousness of the connection with Ukraine, will the populations of the West continue to perceive the war as serving their interests and ideals? That perception is beginning to erode in Europe as well as the US. Whether it accelerates and intensifies or not, we can nevertheless be sure that the propaganda will still be there to “take control” of the people’s emotions.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.