07 December 2017

Seeing red, part two: On the other hand

Phishing e-mail of the type I received. You too? (Source.)  
The podcast host's question: "What do you make of all of these conspiracy theories that Trump, our president, is in bed with the ... is in cahoots with the Russians?" (The Warzone episode 23, "From Russia with ... love?" - 03:10)

Podcast guest Natalia Antonova's reply, in part:
I think you have to take all that stuff with a grain of salt ... I think it is very obvious that Putin did support Trump's candidacy in our election, and I think he did it with the mindset that Hillary would win anyway, and I feel like, when Trump won, I guess they've been recalibrating, and we see the effects of that.

... I don't want to be one of those people who says, like, "It's all true," but I also don't want to say that none of it is true. I feel that it's a complicated issue and we have to be very careful and allow for nuance. And nobody's a fan of nuance in the States or in Russia, so, like, I am the least popular commentator by the way on this subject, because I've always asked for nuance.
In my original "Seeing red" post, I tried to be nuanced -- yes, Russian agents of one kind or another were almost certainly attempting to influence the election, but on the other hand, don't let those Russian efforts distract us from studying the specifically American factors that led to the presidential election's disastrous outcome. Based on the arguments I've been having since I wrote that post, it might be useful to list some of the nuances and "other hands":

Yikes! The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming! Just kidding! I couldn't resist a link to an article about one of my favorite films from my teen years. Nobody is really that panicked about Russia now, right?

... On the other hand, I think some of Trump's opponents really are tempted to revive Cold War fears of Russia as a rhetorical crowbar in their attempts to pry Trump out of power. I want to remind people that, as trite as it might sound, the Russian people are thoroughly decent, kind, and insanely funny people, with the same small minorities of idiots, xenophobes, and kleptomaniacs that any society has to deal with.

... On the other hand, Russia (among other nations) suffers from a long and very specific historical pattern of dysfunctional relationships between the ruling classes and the general population. The essential decency of ordinary Russian people might not be reflected when the people at the top decide to safeguard their wealth and power on the national and international stage.

Russian hackers working for military intelligence tried to compromise our politicians' e-mail and even the Internet infrastructure of our voting systems.

There are at least two "other hands" here. First of all, I think this charge may very well be true. On the other hand ...

(1) The evidence is circumstantial. The experts who have studied the evidence don't generally assert that Russia's involvement is proven, and lazy assumptions shouldn't cause us to miss this point.

Even given this presumption of fairness, it is hard for me to imagine any global actor other than the Russian leadership who would stand to benefit from the particular selection of targets attributed to these hackers. That selection emphasizes political and military figures of interest in the Russian authoritarian political context; they're generally not financial, industrial, or intellectual-property targets.

(2) The USA's intelligence agencies do the same thing. Is there anyone's e-mail or mobile phone safe from NSA hacking? In fact, don't Russian and American taxpayers alike assume that their taxes are paying for competent spies and covert influence campaigns? What are we Americans getting for our estimated annual intelligence budget of $73 billion?

Nuance alert! This second point is not an argument for equivalence or against vigilance. In the case of our own government, we should not assume passively that our government is always playing on the side of the angels. We should constantly defend and promote our values, whether we're demanding accountability for domestic surveillance or for the way we treat other countries. Asking for accountability from our own agencies and politicians doesn't contradict being utterly realistic about threats from elsewhere, and analyzing those threats for both method and motive.

I don't argue that we're no better than other countries who spy and hack, but I really hate the imperial mentality that says that, when we Americans do something, it's automatically ok because God bless America etc.

Russian commentators who are essentially sympathetic with democratic ideals sometimes caution us with yet another nuance: Don't credit Putin and his team with more sagacity or strategic vision than they actually have. To do so just plays into their hands, amplifying their own efforts and fitting right into the "Make Russia Great Again" agenda.

The Russians threw the election to Donald Trump! As I said in my first post, and as Natalia Antonova said on the podcast, Trump almost certainly had Putin's support.

On the one hand, the question "What exact forms did this support take?" is a subject that is totally worthy of investigation.

On the other hand, an investigation fueled by anti-Trump and Red-baiting animus is the last thing we need. We should distinguish between two very different targets of any careful and non-hysterical process:

(1) The hacking and cyber-attacks mentioned above. Those campaigns started long before Trump and are likely to continue long after him. They take place in many parts of the world. Even if Trump himself turns out to be as innocent as a proverbial lamb, the technical investigation is worth doing, and our capacity to detect future incursions is worth building.

(2) The alleged complicity of Trump, his campaign, and his staff. By law and by custom, American politicians should be allergic to the blandishments of foreign powers. Let's establish the facts of this (unique, we hope) episode of apparent flagrant corruption, and wherever those facts lead us, let's restore and reinforce the norms that used to prevail.

On the related subject of cable and Internet propaganda such as Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and news and opinion channels such as RT and Sputnik, there are lots of nuances to consider.

On the one hand, social networks are under pressure, and quite rightly so, to improve their screening and transparency, so that fake news, political campaigning, and bullying can be exposed, labeled appropriately, or even blocked altogether if needed.

On the other hand, "foreign agents" such as RT and Sputnik, are a slightly different matter. They are not masquerading as private citizens or civic organizations, and they are a mix of propaganda and actual competent journalism -- and our commentaries about them should help us train audiences to distinguish the two. After all, do we think that our own American outlets are entirely free of pro-USA bias?

The requirement imposed on RT to register as a foreign agent in the USA was, predictably, countered with a similar requirement on American-sponsored outlets aimed at Russian audiences. Having appeared four times on one of those outlets, I happen to admire them, but I can't pretend not to know that their purpose is to give an alternate viewpoint to their audiences.

In their own words, "RFE/RL journalists report the news in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate." Excellent mission -- and let's be sure that they live up to it, so that the primary propagandistic content of such outlets is in fact their fairness.

A missiological "on the other hand" ... Why people still speak Guaraní.

Mark Kellner wonders why reporters aren't more curious about Kate Steinle's family's faith and lack of vindictiveness, and about the funeral in a winery.

Shaun Walker describes Navalny's presidential campaign and its motivational power.

Who's left to fight for Russian academia?

Kaitlyn Schiess writes one of the best articles I've seen on the church's response to (or responsibility for) sexual assault. Also: Rachel Waltner Goossen on historical justice and the legacy of John Howard Yoder.

Nostalgia warning!! Hamilton, Ontario, 1983 ...

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