Monday, August 8, 2016

The blatant racism of liberal Russophobia

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace vice president Andrew S. Weiss has accused Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein of "gushing over Russian support for human rights" in a campaign video. Yet in the video, what Stein actually talks about is
meeting with press and policy people from all over the world, including from Russia, and Europe, and Paris, and Germany...it's been so wonderful to see people come together from across all borders and from across the political spectrum come together around basic human values, around human rights, around the need for international law, including the need to rein in US exceptionalism and totally revise our foreign policy so that it is based on international law, human rights, and diplomacy...
At no point in this video or in her discussion with RT does Stein talk about human rights. Don't take my word for it: just ask John Aravosis, who also wants to accuse Stein of going easy on the Kremlin, but who seems a bit off-message:
Jill Stein in Moscow criticized US human rights, said nothing about Russian human rights 
...Stein has nothing negative to say about Russian foreign policy, or Russia’s horrific lack of respect for human rights — Putin has journalists and other opponents killed. And we all know the way Putin treats LGBT people. Yet Jill Stein had nothing to say about any of that.
Which is it? Did Stein gush over Russian support for human rights, or did she say nothing about it at all?

On its own, a smear this empty would be somewhat unremarkable - but this is just the latest in a growing wave of anti-Russian suspicion that has overtaken American liberal punditry. The most prominent precedent, of course, is the enduring conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is some kind of puppet candidate being installed by the Kremlin; another instance includes Anderson Cooper's claim that Sanders "honeymooned in the Soviet Union". All of these narratives have three things in common:

1. They are aimed at electoral opponents of Hillary Clinton: Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Donald Trump.

2. They are extraordinarily tenuous and speculative at best, and sometimes even demonstrably counterfactual. The attack on Stein is baseless for reasons already given. As Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith notes about allegations that the Kremlin hacked DNC email servers to help Trump, "there is no public evidence whatsoever tying Russia to the hack...all we have are reports by private firms and anonymous government officials." And as Timothy Lange explains, Bernie Sanders visited Yaroslavl as part of a diplomatic trip sponsored by the US government that he has only jokingly referred to as a honeymoon.

3. Absent any actual evidence, what these attacks rely on is racist paranoia and suspicion of the Russian people.


I see no way around that last conclusion. As a matter of simple journalism and scholarship, none of the people peddling these attacks are doing the basic work of making their case (see 2). They don't rely on the minimal standards of substantiation and argumentation that you would expect of claims as extraordinary as "Donald Trump is Russian agent" or "Jill Stein is fine with Putin's attacks on the LGBT community". The only reason that anyone takes any of these arguments seriously is that they play on racist fears and stereotypes that have always oppressed Slavic people in general, and Russians in particular.

There are, as far as I can tell, two major reasons why Americans tend to dismiss Russophobia as a real and dangerous category of racism.

First, because in the United States, racism against black and Hispanic Americans has always been a far more serious and urgent concern. Especially today, we are far removed from the Russophobia of even the early twentieth century - which not only killed 26.6 million people during the attempted Nazi genocide of WW2, but which resulted in laws like the Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 in the US. Anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism has occupied a central place in modern American politics, and for that reason we're tempted to conclude that other forms of racism just don't exist.

Second, we dismiss Russophobia as a problem because when it does emerge in the US, it usually appears in tandem with the a more pronounced form of bigotry: anti-communism. That's why advocates of the Trump-Putin conspiracy theory like Franklin Foer think that they've cleared themselves from charges of bigotry simply by pointing out that Russia is no longer a communist state. As Nathan Robinson points out, this defense fails even on its own terms when "Cold War parallels are coming straight from the accusers themselves" - but even if we absolve Foer of anti-communism, his rhetoric still clearly plays into racist suspicions Americans have always harbored against the Russian people.

To clarify how this works, just consider the double-standard we've put in place against Russians. Suppose Sanders had honeymooned in Paris instead of Yaroslavl - does anyone think that Cooper would have raised the possibility that this signified some kind of ominous influence exercised by France on the senator's politics? Hillary Clinton spent her honeymoon in Haiti - so why aren't we concerned about her sinister affection for Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier? The difference, obviously, is that we have always suspected Russians of exercising some uniquely powerful corrupting influence on anyone who gets anywhere near them.

That's why all it takes is the image of Jill Stein standing in Red Square to license incredible claims like Weiss's suggestion that she is actually unduly sympathetic to Putin murdering journalists. No one would have expected her to offer some requisite criticism of France's Islamaphobic legislation if she had been standing in front of the Eiffel Tower; but because she is in Russia, Aravosis can insist that the mere absence of condemnation from Stein is evidence that she has been indoctrinated by the Russians.

Similarly, after insisting that Clinton's transactions with Wall Street were above suspicion, and dismissing criticism about this as mere "insinuation", her campaign is now just asking questions about Trump's potential "ties to Russian oligarchs". "You have to ask yourself," a recent press release announces: "what's he hiding?" But what is it about Russian oligarchs that make them so much more suspicious than American oligarchs?

Liberals may be comfortable with shrugging off racism against the Russian people as a trivial or necessary evil, but they are playing with fire. The social and psychological forces that animate any form of racism are hard to rein in once they've been unleashed, and they can easily metastasize into forms of bigotry that are even more widespread and oppressive. What a Pyrrhic victory it will be if Clinton's partisans only manage to beat Trump by stoking the very flames of racism they hope to stamp out.