Vladimir Putin gave a rambling press conference today in which he insisted that Russian troops were in fact not occupying the Crimean region of Ukraine. Russian state-controlled media has bombarded Russians with accounts of Nazis and fascists on the march, while purportedly “independent” Kremlin-funded outlet RT blanketed its airwaves with the hilarious narrative that any military mobilization in Ukraine was expressly to do with protecting ethnic Russians.
Of course all of this is untrue.
There is a delicious and spectacular irony to the Obama administration’s exasperation at all this Russian deception. It is almost as if they are experiencing their karmic comeuppance for all the lies and propaganda they spew on the domestic front. Speaking from Kiev today, John Kerry was literally dumbfounded when told of Putin’s claim that the Russians hadn’t actually invaded Crimea. President Obama must feel betrayed after his 90 minute talk with Vlad turned out to be a bunch of misdirection and empty promising; imagine our president’s dismay at seeing the footage of Russian helicopters breaching sovereign borders after being assured by the Russian leader over the phone that no such thing, under any circumstances, would occur. Mr. Burns exhibited less naivete about foreign despots when he allowed Fidel to glimpse the trillion dollar bill.
Julia Ioffe, The New Republic’s resident Russia expert describes the bubble Putin lives in:
For the last few years, it has become something like conventional knowledge in Moscow journalistic circles that Putin was no longer getting good information, that he was surrounded by yes-men who created for him a parallel informational universe.”They’re beginning to believe their own propaganda,” Gleb Pavlovsky told me when I was in Moscow in December. Pavlovsky had been a close advisor to the early Putin, helping him win his first presidential election in 2000. (When, in 2011, Putin decided to return for a third term as president, Pavlovsky declared the old Putin dead.) And still, it wasn’t fully vetted information. We were like astronomers, studying refractions of light that reached us from great distances, and used them to draw our conclusion.
Sound familiar? To what other politician or ideology can we ascribe a fondness for propaganda? To the man who said “you know, I actually believe my own bullshit” perhaps? To the political party obsessed with constantly portraying their opposition as culturally backward, intolerant, sexist and racist? Whether the culprit is President Obama or the wider progressive movement, the inescapable fact of 21st century American politics is that the left’s coalition accepts the powerful utility of propaganda and deploys it mercilessly. The Obamacare Deception has been well documented to the point where it is now wholly uncontroversial to cite Obama’s “lie of the year” or mock the incessant failed promises that accompanied the law’s sales pitch. And yet the administration clings to the same false and meaningless explanations and technicalities regarding the “if you like your ______ , you can keep your ______” lie, and continues to maintain sites offering helpful FAQ answers to the pervasive “myths” surrounding the law. Leftist hacks, media, and the administration have all thrown fits of late whenever the CBO has trashed their claims and destroyed their propaganda. On the consequences of raising the minimum wage, on the effect the ACA will have on the labor market, on the real unemployment environment, on the Benghazi talking points distortions, and on the apparent scourge of all things democracy known as the Koch Bros, the left’s propaganda is currently suffering through its first prolonged expose. Yes, the internet and the proliferation of 24/7 news is a major factor in checking the left’s monopoly on disseminating information. But the larger reason for the weakened posture of the left’s Ministry of Information is reality. The truth usually does win out, and no matter how sophisticated the scheme, operations based on propaganda and lies usually fail.
Which is why the clash of two epic champions is so exciting. Who is going to out-deceive the other? Who is better at keeping a straight face while telling outrageously tall tales? Will the Russians under Putin prevail with their stories of fascists arriving in Crimea from Western Ukraine (even though the bus’ license plate is Crimean and the thugs were Russian plants)? Or will American progressives win the prize for Harry Reid’s suggestion that “all” Obamacare horror stories “are untrue“? Sadly, even Stephen Colbert has received his marching orders and, being the good little progressive mouthpiece he is, has answered Reid’s bat signal.
Ultimately there can be no winner in a battle of shameless propagandists, particularly when the scale of the campaigns are so different. For the Obama administration and the left, their “messaging” is intended solely for a domestic audience. They couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks; as long as they’re winning the propaganda war at home, the progressive cause is secure. For the Kremlin, Russian propaganda fights a two-front war, at home and abroad. They must convince their Russian citizens that intervention in Ukraine is a noble endeavor to protect ethnic Russians longing for the motherland, and at the same time tell the world that they haven’t actually done anything and that it’s all the fascists’ fault.
The result of juxtaposing these two great propaganda powers is somewhat counter-intuitive: one would assume that the country with the state-controlled media and the censorship would be better at hiding its duplicitous deeds, yet the world and the Russian people alike are clear-eyed about the corruption of their government and seem reflexively allergic to trusting much of what Putin says. Meanwhile, the country that prides itself on a free press – a press meant to antagonize and check its government in order to foster accountability in its representatives – has evidently stopped caring very much about the role of the fourth estate in extracting truth from government. Instead, most American media are increasingly political and aligned with progressivism, and have concluded that occupational integrity is subordinate to political gain. Most of our media are part of the cause, and if a little lying is necessary in furtherance of the cause, meh.
Nonetheless, truth does win out, even against rigged games and long odds. Propaganda cannot win in an information era like the one in which we are now living. It can be harder to identify and to quash, as the cacophony of voices and opinions can sometimes be as unintelligible as it is noisy, but ultimately propaganda is going to be exposed for what it is. Vladimir Putin is currently testing the boundaries of the alternate universe he has crafted for he and his cronies, whereas progressives and the Obama administration are rapidly discovering that their fantasy version of America is being rejected by those not susceptible to fairy tales and witless propaganda. And they did not anticipate that there would be so many…
I am somewhat sympathetic to the toxic clouds of frustration billowing out of the White House, Pentagon and State Department this week. No doubt, it must be infuriating to listen to a strong man ruler of a kleptocratic petro-oligarchy talk in circles to the global community. It must be exhausting to witness a country fabricate out of whole cloth and in plain view of the international community a false motive for invading a sovereign neighbor. And it must be excruciating to have to deal with a world leader who consistently over-promises and under-delivers. And yet all one can ask of Obama and the progressives is “how does it taste?”
In Vladimir Putin and all the lies that come with him, it is simply a taste of their own medicine. Liars meeting their match by way of confrontation with other, better liars. Considering the political and ideological forbears for all concerned though, should we be at all surprised that the radical left and the ex-KGB elements in the U.S. and Russia deploy similar tactics in messaging?