Last post of the season and my summer reading

June 17, 2018

So summer is almost here once again. In Madrid we haven’t reached 40 degrees, like last June. I normally finish at the end of June, but this year I need to start my reports and the World Cup has just started, and so this will be my last post until the autumn. Now is a great time to catch up on reading. Here are some of the books I am thinking of reading over the summer:

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – Anonymous

I love law and am looking forward to this critical insider’s account of the current state of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Writing under the pseudonym of The Secret Barrister was originally a successful blogger. It is not a positive view:

Walk into any court in the land, speak to any lawyer, ask any judge and you will be treated to uniform complaints of court deadlines being repeatedly missed, cases arriving underprepared, evidence lost, disclosures of evidence not being made, victims made to feel marginalised and millions of pounds of public money wasted”.

Chicago – David Mamet

David is better known as a playwright and screenwriter. I haven’t read of his three previous novels, but I have seen a number of the films he’s been involved in: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, House of Games, Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, State and Main, Heist and The Winslow Boy. His fourth book, his first in 20 years, is a story set in prohibition era in the Windy City.

Heavens on Earth – Michael Shermer

I am a big fan of the sceptic Michael Shermer’s work. Since reading Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time some twenty years  I have read The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths and The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Apart from liking long titles, he is an excellent proponent of the sceptical point of view. In this book he goes in search of what drives our belief in life after death. He does explore religious worldviews, but he seems especially interested in the scientific quest for immortality, the world of extentionists, extropians, transhumanists, cryonicists, and mind-uploaders. I did read Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death last year, but I am looking forward to getting Shermer’s take on this. In last year’s summer reading I mentioned that I had been panning to blog about the singularity. I still haven’t got round to it and at this rate I think it may arrive before I actually write about it.

The Black Book – Ian Rankin

I am gradually working my way through Rankin’s oeuvre; this is the fifth Rebus novel, which came out in 1993.  After one of his colleagues is brutally attacked and left in a coma John Rebus finds himself in a case involving “a hotel fire, an unidentified body, and a long-forgotten night of terror and murder”.

The Vietnam War-  Ken Burns

This is the companion book to the Ken Burns’ Vietnam War ten-part documentary series on PBS. I am a big fan of Burns documentary work and this will help me remember this powerful series, which looks at the conflict from multiple perspectives.

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash – Alexander Maters

The author Alexander Masters is an author, screenwriter, and worker with the homeless. I haven’t read Stuart: A Life Backwards, his unconventional biography of Stuart Shorter. As the title implies, the book begins with Shorter’s adult life, going back in time through his troubled childhood, examining how his family, education and disability shaped his life.  The book I’m planning to read, A Life Discarded is from 2016. The source of this biography was the 148 diaries that Masters’ friends Dido Davies and Richard Grove, both Cambridge professors, found in a skip. The anonymous author was a prolific diarist, who averaged 2,500 words a day.

Rethink – Steven Poole

I am really interested in innovation and have done a number of posts about its importance. In this book The Guardian’s Steven Poole argues that innovation and progress are often achieved by going back to old ideas and revamping them. The ultimate message seems to be if you want to change the future, you need to begin by looking at the past.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Skin in the Game is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book, and I think I have read the previous four – Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes and Antifragile. In his latest work Taleb argues for the importance of players having skin in the game. This is the idea that they should have something at stake, something to lose.

Taleb is not a fan of fund managers that get a percentage on wins, but no penalty for losing, or the war hawks don’t themselves bear any risks of dying during a war which they have championed.

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

I don’t know too much about this book, but it seems to have transferred Mary Shelley’s work to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. The main character Hadi is a junk peddler who starts to bring home body parts, left in the streets from the day’s explosions. Feeling they deserve a dignified burial, he begins to stitch these bits together. If he can create a whole corpse, he hopes someone will bury it.

 

Anyway have a great summer and I’ll be back in early October.

 

Advertisements

Notes on a scandal

June 10, 2018

Nobody does political scandals quite like the English. I live in Spain and we’ve had our share over the last few years, but for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to compete with the Profumo Affair, Labour MP John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, Jeffrey Archer and the prostitute, Jonathan Aitken and the Paris Ritz Hotel bill allegations, and David Cameron’s notorious university initiation ceremony involving inserting a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig. It is such a competitive field, but I still feel pride of place goes to the downfall of the charismatic leader of the Liberal party.

The story was told in a 2016 book called A Very English Scandal by John Preston. Curiously, in Wikipedia it is called it a true crime non-fiction novel. But no it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a real page turner with an amazing cast of characters. It was recently adapted into a three-part drama series by the BBC, which I can thoroughly recommend.  Jeremy Thorpe was an MP by 30, and just seven years later he became one of Britain’s youngest ever party leaders. he was a brilliant politician, who had an eccentric fashion sense and according to Preston, “favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” There was his lover, Norman Scott, who was mentally unstable and had a tendency to blame everyone but himself for his problems. There was Peter Bessell a fellow Liberal MP and a failed businessman, who took money from party funds to hire a hitman. The professional killer, Andrew Newton was known to his friends as chicken brain.

After a chance meeting in a friend’s stable in 1960, Thorpe commenced a sexual relationship with a young man who was then called Norman Josiffe. He subsequently changed his surname to Scott, which was how he was known when he became famous. At the time homosexuality was still against the law. Once the affair was over Thorpe saw Scott as a blackmailer who could wreck his political career. The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott.

After the break-up Scott found employment here and there, but he never really stuck at anything.  He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt. Given his financial difficulties, he would look to Thorpe, the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life. He was particularly obsessed with his National Insurance card, which he needed to get a job or benefits. Thorpe would wash his hands of his erstwhile lover and he would leave it all to Peter Bessell. By 1974 Thorpe was on the verge of joining a coalition with the Conservative leader Ted Heath, where he might have headed the home or Foreign Offices. That did no happen. Norman Scott would not go away. There were compromising letters and journalists sniffing around. Something would have to be done. Thorpe wanted to have Scott killed.

This is where it all descends into farce. Andrew “Gino” Newton, the man Thorpe’s men chose for the job, was so incompetent that he went to look for Scott in Dunstable instead of Barnstaple. The former town is in Bedfordshire, where Newton would spend a couple of days before he was told he was in the wrong place. He then had to drive 230 miles to the north Devon town, where he finally found Scott. He persuaded him that he had been hired by an anonymous benefactor to protect him from a hired hitman

He too him in his car out to Exmoor First he shot Scott’s Great Dane. He was then going to shoot his intended victim, but his gun jammed and Scott was able to get away. Newton had to speed off and Scott was able to hail down an approaching car. The first thing he said to the driver was that it was Jeremy Thorpe who was behind it all. The shooting of Rinka the Great Dane on October 23 1975 at a wet and windy lay-by on Exmoor had the opposite effect to what was intended. A scandal that may well have gone away would now wreck the career of Jeremy Thorpe. He would subsequently be arrested and would appear in court.

The trial began on the 8th May 1979, just five days after the election that saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Incredibly,       Thorpe had stood in his own North Devon constituency, where he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. Another of those standing was the satirist Auberon Waugh who campaigned against Thorpe representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. In an election address declared: “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.”

There were four defendants, but only Thorpe faced two charges. Thorpe hired a superstar lawyer, George Carman. He did a brilliant job of discrediting the three star witnesses – Bessell, Scott and Newton- as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars. Well it is true that they were not perhaps the most credible of witnesses to start with. His other stroke of genius was to persuade Thorpe not to testify. That could have been a real disaster.

The star of the show was the judge, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley. His fair and ballanced summing-up has entered the annals of legal history:

“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”

This summing up was brilliantly satirised by Peter Cook in his Entirely A Matter For You sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyos-M48B8U

After deliberating for 52 hours, the jury unanimously acquitted all four men on all charges. The previously impassive Thorpe broke into a broad smile, tossed the three red cushions on which he had been reclining out of the dock, then leaned over and kissed his wife. ‘Darling, we won!’ he exclaimed to her, while he congratulated his old Oxford chum Carman with the words: ‘Well rowed, Balliol!’

Despite his acquittal, Thorpe’s reputation never recovered and he faded into obscurity. Had all this not happened, Thorpe would now be remembered as one of the most of the great politicians of his era. In an interview not long before his death in December 2014, he remarked: “If it happened now, the public would be kinder.” He is surely right about attitudes to homosexuality – the past was another country. Yet it is amazing that the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe seemed blithely unaware that murdering someone might actually be wrong. In 2014 Michael Bloch published biography of Thorpe, which had had to wait until after his death. He said that Thorpe was a man with a massive sense of entitlement, who thought who thought the rules were for little people. He also had a penchant for illicit sex and got a thrill from being able to escape the consequences; he had a Houdini complex. In the end though, Scott would be his nemesis.

 


Real Madrid’s three-peat

June 3, 2018

Just one week ago in Kiev Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 to win their third European Champions League in a row, and their fourth in five years.  In American sports this is known as a three-peat. And a team with multiple successes is a sporting dynasty. Real Madrid are surely this. To put all this in context, until last season no team had been able to win back-to-back Champions League titles. 24 years of intense competition under the revamped format had produced a different winner every time. Not even Barcelona at their most brilliant managed to win the European Cup then do it again the following season. Last year’s demolition of Juventus saw them break the champion’s jinx. And now they have broken their own record. The recent burst of titles means that Real Madrid actually have a higher success rate – seven wins in 26 attempts than they did under the original format, where after winning the first five and one in 1966, they endured a drought of 32 years before winning their seventh title.  That makes a record of six wins over 37 seasons. Indeed, the last time Real Madrid lost a European final was against Alex Fergusson’s Aberdeen in 1983 – 35 years ago. Since then they have been in two UEFA Cup and seven Champions League finals winning all of them.

This success of the last 20 years is put in perspective by their role in the in their own league. Seven Champions league wins have been accompanied by “just” six league titles. In the same period Barcelona have four Champions leagues but eleven league titles. Bayern Munich have two Champions leagues and 14 Bundesligas. Juventus have just one Champions League, but they have won ten Serie A titles. This number would be twelve, but after the Calciopoli scandal they were stripped of the two titles won under Fabio Capello in 2005 and 2006. They were also relegated to Serie B for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, they won four more league titles than Real Madrid. How can a team that dominates in Europe not dominate at home?

A number of pundits have been less than generous in their appreciation. They are said to be lucky, but no team wins this tournament without a dose of luck. This fortune included the odd refereeing decision and Sergio Ramos injuring Mo Salah. Former Barça midfielder Xavi has invoked witches. I would agree that this is not a team like 1970s Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan or Guardiola’s Barcelona. But this team is different – they have not revolutionised football. But they do have the greatness of being competitive. They don’t mind if other teams punch them in the face – they just get up, dust themselves off and keep fighting. Their German midfielder Toni Kroos summed it up before their semi-final tie in Munich:

Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”

After their unexpected debacle in this year’s league the Champions League was their only chance; failure was not an option. This competitive DNA can sometimes seem to affect opponents three of their last four goals came from horrendous goalkeeping errors.  Sven Ullrich must have thought that he had the worst goalkeeping error against Real Madrid in the 2017-18. Of course the second goal by Bale was out of this world.

Then we have the manager Zinedine Zidane. I have to say I wasn’t especially optimistic when he was appointed. His results with Castilla were distinctly underwhelming. It shows how difficult it is to judge what makes a manager successful. Curiously he doesn’t seem to fit the profile of what club chairman Florentino Perez wants. He seems to want the authoritarian types who crack the whip with their players. The chief exponent of this style was José Mourinho. But what seems to work are the more easy-going types, such as Del Bosque, Ancelotti and Zidane. Florentino has won 23 titles, 19 of which have been with these three trainers. I don’t know if he is tactical genius, but he is an excellent man-manager. And after all the sterile controversies of the Mourinho years, Zidane was just the opposite, a wonderful ambassador for the club.  In over 300 press conferences and in all his other dealings with the media he deployed his considerable charm. His skills will be sorely missed.

The future suddenly looks a bit more complex. It started minutes after the final whistle last Saturday, with Bale and Ronaldo both asking to leave. We will see who the new trainer is. Now Florentino will be coming to the fore. I can’t say that fills me with optimism. I do rate him more in terms of the business and marketing areas, but I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the first team. Recently there haven’t been all these marquee signings so beloved of Florentino. There has been a more rational policy and this has coincided with the success. If you look at the Real Madrid midfield, it probably cost more or less the same as Pogba. I have a feeling that with a World Cup this summer the chequebook will be out again. Still, Barcelona with the great Leo Messi have won just one champions league since 2011 and are now eight trophies behind Real Madrid. And we have the three-peat to keep us going.


Nerd-sightedness and other new words

May 27, 2018

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

agnogenesis

The deliberate production of information or ideas that create ignorance or unwarranted doubt.

cry-it-outer

A person who practices or advocates letting babies cry themselves to sleep.

dog-directed speech

A manner of talking to dogs characterized by a high pitch, slow cadence, frequent repetition, and whimsical tone.

ghost hotel

A residence that is used mostly or exclusively as short-term rental accommodation, particularly when offered through an online booking service such as Airbnb.

insomnia identity

The erroneous belief that one has trouble sleeping, which leads to physical and psychological problems similar to those experienced by true insomniacs.

kittenfishing

Embellishing or exaggerating one’s online dating profile.

manel

A panel or similar public discussion group that consists only of men.

nerd-sightedness

The inability to see beyond a technology’s interesting technical aspects, particularly to miss its ethical implications; to see the world from the perspective of a nerd.

nutpicking

Claiming that the craziest or most outrageous member of a group is a typical representative of that group.

 

 


The strange exile of Julian Assange

May 20, 2018

I was at a bit of a loss as to what to write this week when I saw an opinion piece in Friday’s Guardian – Julian Assange is suffering needlessly. Why not report that?:

Assange has won numerous awards for publishing information that has exposed egregious violations of human rights and abuses of state power. He has also won the more dubious prize of being placed in the crosshairs of US government attempts to silence free speech by silencing the publications and publishers that dare to speak freely.

There is no doubt that Assange helped inspire an era of whistleblowing, from Edward Snowden exposing illegal US and UK surveillance, to the Panama Papers that showed the extent of global tax avoidance. Assange has been a hero for many.  But, something doesn’t quite true to me. He seems to me to be a flawed character. I also believe that when material is leaked, we need to ask cui bono? This was true with Watergate, when Mark Felt aka Deep Throat had his agenda. Ultimately, the question is: who can hold the whistleblowers to account?

The WikiLeaks website, was set up in 2006 “to bring important news and information to the public… One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Another of the organisation’s goals is to ensure that journalists and whistleblowers are not prosecuted for emailing sensitive or classified documents. Their online “drop box” was designed to be “an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to [WikiLeaks] journalists”. Instead of leaking directly to the press, whistleblowers have an intermediary, which will leak to the press on their behalf. In this way they have a greater chance of avoiding detection and punishment.  They are based in Stockholm because of its strict laws protecting confidential source-journalist relationships. It has servers throughout Europe which can be accessed from any uncensored web connection.

A selection of Wikileaks’ greatest hits would include unearthing evidence of military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan and US espionage of the French, German and Brazilian governments. With the former the most famous case was that of Chelsea Manning. They also published a whole series of diplomatic cables in 2010, the protocol of the US Army at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and “the collected secret ‘bibles’ of Scientology”.  Their most significant act of recent times was the publishing of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. And just last year WikiLeaks posted links to e-mails allegedly from Emmanuel Macron during the French 2017 presidential election. The documents had first appeared on the far-right 4chan forum and by pro-Trump Twitter accounts. What is interesting is that the leak came 36 hours before France’s runoff election in which Macron defeated Marine Le Pen.

This would be my first big criticism of WikiLeaks its apparent proximity to Russia. There are reports from different Western security agencies that WikiLeaks has been infiltrated by Russian agents aiming to discredit NATO governments. This is what I was blogging about last week. The security agencies even claim that Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev receive details about what WikiLeaks publishes before publication. I don’t know about that – these organisations have also been known to spread misinformation.  Establishing who leaked is a difficult task. But I believe that Russian involvement was highly likely. They do seem to be doing Russia’s bidding. The leaking of the hacked DNC material is a revealing case study. Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate and there is not doubt that that Julian Assange had a all-consuming hatred towards her. I suppose there could justify publishing in terms of transparency. Curiously, they came out immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump talked about “grabbing pussy”.  But there can be no justification for collaborating with the Trump campaign. Yet, they leaked nothing on Donald Trump and his invisible tax records. Indeed, he frequently corresponded with Donald Trump Jr. through direct messages on Twitter during both the presidential election and after.

Talking of tax WikiLeaks also criticised the Panama Papers, which had among other things revealed Russian businesses and individuals linked with offshore ties. The WikiLeaks Twitter account tweeted:

“#PanamaPapers Putin attack was produced by OCCRP which targets Russia & former USSR and was funded by USAID and [George] Soros”.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) Putin and RT would use Wikileaks to dismiss the Panama Papers. Despite Assange’s claims, the papers did not give western leaders and their allies a free pass. David Cameron and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko were both outed.

There has been a fascinating metamorphosis in political attitudes to Wikipedia. In its beginnings when it was exposing abuses by George W. Bush’s presidency, many liberals and left-wingers praised them. On the right, Donald J. Trump has gone from calling for the execution of Assange to saying that he loved WikiLeaks As a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Sarah Palin had her  private email hacked and all the data posted on WikiLeaks. In 2010 she described Assange “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”  Like Trump, she called for the site to be shut down. Now in this upside-down world Sarah Palin has apologised to Wikileaks.

I am going to try to give a less partisan opinion. I am in favour of whistleblowing. I think that it is important that we know about military abuses, political corruption or corporate malfeasance. I do, however, have other reservations about WikiLeaks. I think their methodology is questionable. They really should be more careful about how they leak. The data dumps they do can compromise the security of people whose names appear.

Curiously for an organisation which promotes transparency, they are themselves rather secretive. Employees are made to sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements, with the penalty for non-compliance said to be  £12 million. I think that transparency is good, but an activity like diplomacy does need to be carried out away from the glare of publicity. In the end actors will feel unable to give advice for fear of this coming out a later date.

I have to confess that I’m no fan of Assange. As to the rape case in Sweden, the charges have been dropped, so I would not want to try him in the court of public opinion. I have criticised what he know he has actually done. Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly six years now. I would be opposed to his extradition to the United States. The US secretary of state has declared that first amendment protections don’t apply to Assange, and the US Department of Justice has promised that his arrest remains a priority. I think it would be outrageous if Assange were prosecuted under laws that were introduced in 1917. The effects on free speech would be dire. So I say despite all my personal reservations about him: Free Julian Assange!


The Road to Unfreedom – Timothy Snyder and Cold War 2.0

May 13, 2018

 

Timothy Snyder had originally set out to write about Russia and its relations with Ukraine and Europe. However, events let to a different book. It evolved into The Road to Unfreedom, a history of Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US in the 2010s. Russia would end up playing an key role in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 election, which saw Donald J. Trump elected as the 45th president of the United States. Many   local journalists who had seen Putin’s playbook in Russia and the Ukraine were not at all shocked by Trump’s victory. Snyder, who was born in 1969, is an American historian, a specialist in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. The Yale professor’s most famous work is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, in which he explored how “In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people.” It was an acclaimed book, which I must get round to reading.

A central idea The Road to Unfreedom is the distinction between two opposing narratives of history. The narratives of inevitability include free market evangelicals who prophesy the triumph of the free market or Marxists who foresee the withering away of the state. For them history is moving inexorably toward a clear end. Events such as the fall of communism and the Global Financial Crisis have seen these narratives being challenged by the narratives of eternity Here’s how Snyder describes it:

“The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.

 In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.”

Snyder introduces us to a thinker I had not heard of before – an obscure Russian fascist, called Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin. Such is Putin’s devotion that he organised the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains for reburial in Moscow in 2005. According to Ilyin, God made a mess of the world but fortunately there was one pure and innocent being — the Russian nation. Consequently, whatever Russia did, and does, to defend itself is legitimate. One day it will find its redeemer – inevitably a strong and virile man – and triumph. I wonder who that might be.

This redeemer will wage war on Russia’s enemies. These foes start with his own citizens who have the impertinence to demand democratic rights. Then, we get Ukrainians and other neighbours who dare to be independent. Finally, we have the European Union and the United States, who offer the temptations of a more prosperous way of life. Snyder has an interesting take on Putin’s strategy, which he calls strategic relativism:

 “The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe, and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be gained by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skilful player will lose less than everyone else.”

Apparently Putin once described the internet as a CIA conspiracy. That was then. Now the Russian state has unparalleled expertise at manipulating cyberspace to apply Sun Tzu’s “confusion to our enemy” principle to a mass disinformation war. They have effectively transformed international affairs by waging a systematic war on the very concept of truth. The internet has made getting into the heads of Europeans and Americans is considerably easier than it was in the past. The Russians like to fight in this psychosphere rather than on the battlefield.  With electronic screens you can create havoc with a few cleverly targeted messages. The great advantage of this way of fighting is that the bang for the rouble is unbeatable; Russia’s cyber budget is less than an F-35 according to Snyder.

How Russia employed propaganda in the Ukraine is fascinating. They were able to use the internet to target opposing political susceptibilities. To appeal to the right they argued that the Ukraine was an artificial construction run by an international Jewish conspiracy. To attract the left, Ukraine was an artificial construction by fascists. Then there was the brazen lying with Putin denying that Russia had invaded the Ukraine. This was complemented by something that is more traditional – the atrocity story:

One day after Russia began shelling Ukraine, Russian television provided a compelling escalation in the competition for innocence. On July 12, 2014 Pervyi Kanal [First Channel] told a stirring—and entirely fictional—story of a three-year-old Russian boy who was crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk. No evidence was provided, and independent Russian journalists noted the story’s problems: none of the people in the story existed, nor did the “Lenin Square” where the atrocity supposedly transpired. When confronted with this, Russia’s deputy minister for communications, Alexei Volin, said that ratings were all that mattered. People watched the cruci-fiction, so all was well.

 Finally they created a cacophony of competing rumours to create doubt. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, the Russians did not deny it. What they did instead was to float a series of possible conspiracies. One of these was that it was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet. Instrumental in this campaign was Russia Today, whose slogan is – “Question More“. Yana Erlashova, who used to be one of the star reporter for the Moscow-based, international news network claims to have found many witnesses who said they had seen jet fighters:

I don’t push any scenarios or theories, I just report what people say.”

Despite this modesty she has produced a documentary called “MH17: A Year Without Truth” I found it referenced on what seems to be a far-right website, which praises the video:

“The anti-Putin agenda of the Zionist-controlled media in the West, however, blames Russia in this blatant false-flag operation and ignores the facts and evidence.  This video is highly recommended viewing.”

The Dutch Safety Board’s official technical report concluded that a single, powerful, Russian-made Buk ground-to-air missile had hit the plane.

These dark arts employed in Ukraine were then employed in the west. In Germany Russia spread false information, like the fake story of a German schoolgirl’s gang-rape by Muslims. The bombing in Syria created millions of refuges, many of whom ended up in Germany. This provided a fertile area for the German far-right; Alternative for Germany In the 2017 German federal elections the AfD won 12.6% of the vote, the best performance of such a party since 1933. Snyder shows how Russian news sources promoted the idea that the Scottish independence referendum had been “rigged”. The goal of course is to undermine faith in democratic institutions and processes. They have also sought to sew division in the European Union. Russia TV regularly featured Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Russia’s great European success was the Brexit referendum. However, they were not finished yet.

Snyder dubs Trump Russia’s candidate. The hacking of emails, the spreading of disinformation, the Russia-linked Facebook ads and the troll farms may well have decided an election where the margins were very small. I don’t know what Mueller will unearth in his investigation. But what Snyder has shown already seems scandalous. He talks about how Trump would retweet Russian propaganda posts. He also shows how Trump’s business was saved by Russian buying his properties in order to launder money. What about Paul Manafort, the American lobbyist, political consultant and lawyer, who joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team in March 2016. As well as lobbying dictators like the Philippines’’ Ferdinand Marcos, and the   Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, he was promoting the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. According to leaked text messages between his daughters, Manafort was also one of the proponents of violent removal of the Euromaidan protesters which resulted in police shooting dozens of people in 2014. In one of the messages his daughter writes that his “strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered.”

Ultimately there is a fascinating dovetailing between Russian disinformation campaigns and Trump’s shameless mendaciousness. Of course politicians have always been economical with the truth. But Trump has a total disregard for the truth.  One unlikely hero in this story is Mitt Romney. When he called Russia the US’s number one geopolitical foe, he took a lot of flak. Obama quipped that “the 80s called and wants their foreign policy back.” According to the New York Times Romney’s words displayed “a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.” Now amid Mueller’s probe of the 2016 presidential campaign Romney appears to have been prescient. And we are living in a world turned upside down, with the Republicans blasé about Russia and the Democrats hawks. Indeed one Democratic senator compared the Russian intervention to Pearl Harbour

I have always found Putin’s mix of Soviet nostalgia, Orthodox Christianity Fascism and homophobia difficult to understand. Snyder’s book has helped me see things a bit more clearly. I can also see how this all relates to what has been happening in the West. Snyder likens Putin to a perverse doctor who diagnoses you and then tries to make your diseases worse. Nevertheless, Putin’s diagnosis is correct.  Wealth inequality, economic problems, voter suppression and gerrymandering, race relations, and the opioid crisis are all very real. Without these Putin’s efforts would not have had the impact that they undoubtedly did.  I will admit that I am intrigued by the way Putin has been able to achieve his geopolitical goals. I have always had a sneaking admiration for the KGB, one of the few things that actually worked in the Soviet Union. I would also say that none of this is new. When I hear about the meddling in the U.S. election, I do remember that the Americans have been known to influence elections in a number of countries. However, we will have to look at how we can make our societies immune to such damaging interventions.


A Man Like Putin: the backstory

May 13, 2018

I first heard Someone Like Putin on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. The song, which is performed by the duo Singing Together, first appeared as far back as 2002 and quickly topped the charts in Russia. It went on to become a Putin theme song, and is still played at his rallies. I didn’t realise the fascinating backstory to this catchy propaganda song. This PBS documentary takes a look at how it was created…