There’s an entire sub-genre of political commentary devoted to pointing out the intolerances and hypocrisies of self-described ‘liberals’. So it’s not a new observation that some of the people who take most pride in being ‘broad-minded’ actually harbour the deepest, most implacable prejudices. In fact it’s been a vintage year for liberal illiberalism, fuelled by anger at the outcome of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election.
Some commentators attribute those election results to a rise in xenophobic or racist attitudes. In other words, they allege that voters are currently more inclined to feel negatively toward entire groups of people, based on nationality or perceived background. A worrying development, most would agree. Except that some groups of people, indeed some nationalities, are subjected to sweeping generalisations by the same commentators, sometimes in the same articles.
These types of inconsistencies have probably always existed, but it seems they are getting worse. They were once commonly directed at Israelis and even, to an extent, Northern Irish protestants but, just at the moment, the people it’s most ok for liberals to smear are Russians. It’s a witch-hunt led by the Democratic Party in the US, but it extends to the UK and parts of western Europe too.
The Democrats and their supporters want the world to believe that Hillary Clinton was beaten by Donald Trump only because Russians interfered in the election. Russians hacked her campaign team’s emails and Russians spread ‘fake news’ that tilted US public opinion in Trump’s favour. Right-thinking, liberal people are ‘hawkish’ and tough on Russia, while those who want better relationships with Russians are Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppets’ and ‘apologists’.
In the UK, a Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, claimed that it is “highly probable” that Russia interfered in the EU referendum. He offered no evidence, but the supposed perfidy of Russians certainly did feature in the campaign. The ‘remain’ side alleged that Britain would be ill-equipped to deal with a “newly belligerent Russia”, outside the EU, and Boris Johnson was dubbed an ‘apologist’ after suggesting that Brussels’ foreign policy may have contributed to the conflict in the Ukraine.
Attention can be diverted from any political result one doesn’t like, or any insinuation of wrongdoing, by howling about Russian ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘fake news’. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Brexit, Trump, an Italian referendum or British Olympians penchant for taking ‘anti-asthmatic’ steroids just before they compete.
While hacking does take place and some of it originates in Russia, the evidence linking it to the Russian state is flimsy. As for ‘fake news’, its definition has expanded to encompass, not only flagrantly invented stories, but also any editorial line or news outlet one doesn’t like. The Washington Post recently published a story alleging that ‘fake news’ had affected the US election, based on ‘research’ supplied by a group, PropOrNot, that equates ‘non-mainstream’ views with Russian propaganda. The paper later appended an editor’s note to the article, explaining that it didn’t “vouch for the validity” of PropOrNot’s findings and acknowledging that its methods were flawed.
The New Yorker did a very effective job of examining “the propaganda about Russian propaganda”. The definition of “fake news”, it found, was broad enough to include “not only Russian state-controlled media organisations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world”.
The allegation could be levelled at many of the more outlandish stories about Russia in western media, for instance Russian football hooligans waging “hybrid warfare” on their state’s behalf or The Times’ description of Russian language programmes at British universities as a “secret propaganda assault” by the Kremlin.
The idea that Russia has been unfairly demonised is not the preserve of hard-core Putinists either. Mikhail Gorbachev, a former statesman who is profoundly respected in the west, has spoken about western “provocation” and believes that negative western press coverage has enhanced the President’s popularity at home. In particular, he believes that analysis of Russian foreign policy objectives has been unfair.
The conflict in the Ukraine, where a violent putsch took place, unsupported by the majority in the state’s eastern and central provinces, has been portrayed as unalloyed aggression by Russia. There has been an obstinate insistence on viewing the war simplistically, ignoring Moscow’s perspective and the perspective of a large proportion of the Ukraine's population. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s support for President Assad in Syria has prompted the west to take the part of rebels, many of whom are Islamists, linked to Al Qaeda among other terrorist groups.
Russia’s conduct in neither of these countries is blameless, but it is rational, conforms to a coherent view of world affairs and advances its own interests. None of this nuance is reported or debated in western newspapers, other than the odd isolated column, and Russians’ fiercest critics are nearly always self-styled ‘liberals’. The indecent urge to confront or even to fight Russia is aired constantly.
There are words for demonising an entire nation of people on the basis of cliches and generalisations. They are prejudice and xenophobia. The Russian state’s actions, like any other state, are sometimes unscrupulous and questionable. It’s foreign policy is sometimes at odds with the UK and it’s system of government is not the same as ours. To blame it for everything though, which is the current trend, is irrational and bigoted.