Trouble

Obama nuke button

“What the hey, I’m outta here in a few months anyhow…”

 

“It seems clear that what invariably gets us into trouble is our tendency to demonise foreign leaders or foreign groups we neither like nor understand. In such cases, we fill our gaps of ignorance with prejudice, and the result is hostility fuelled by demagoguery, and damage done to all concerned.”

– Donald Gregg, former US Ambassador to South Korea, in his memoir, Pot Shards, published in July 2014

“Clearly reckless and risky, evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment.”

– John Kerry, describing the North Korean leadership, 25th January 2016, going against the opinions of the analysts who broadly concurred that North Korea’s nuclear test was a pretty smart move in the circumstances.

“How many world leaders, you think, are just completely out of their mind?”
“A pretty sizable percentage. Some of these people, you must meet them, you’ll just be chatting and you look in the eyes and go, ‘Oh, this guy’s gone’. Part of what happens is, these guys, I think the longer they stay in office, the more likely that is to happen.”

– Barack Obama exercises the international diplomatic skills for which he has become so celebrated, while chatting to Jerry Seinfeld in December 2015

知己知彼,百战不殆。(If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.)

Sun Tzu, probably sometime in the 5th century BC

See also under: This; I am normal, you are exotic

Here’s something confusing for a Monday morning

Putin gun

Sure, but what’s the margin of error?

Here’s an odd little tale. Just recently this story has popped up in the Russian media:

Early in the morning , I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.

“A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president’s low ratings, a night news anchor said. “He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin’s speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama’s speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president.”

Link. (I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly gained in popularity now, since the original poll and the initial reports on it came out over a month ago.)

If you want the RIA Novosti version, you can find it here.

The story has been picked up by various US right wingers:

Though some sites both in the US and Russia have been more cynical, speculating that the win may have been the result of voting by Russian 50 cent parties or even that the whole thing was a fabrication. Meanwhile, the armchair generals of Reddit have congratulated themselves soundly on seeing through the propaganda.

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s interesting to see the different spin put on the information by the different media outlets, largely because it reflects the way in which Russia’s PR guys take care to modify their message based on the kind of audience they’re targeting. For instance, while domestic and foreign media use similar techniques and have a similar ethos behind them, the aesthetics and the tone is entirely different. Domestic PR appears ridiculously unsubtle to foreign eyes but in fact plays relatively well to the sort of domestic audiences on whom the sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of something like Russia Today would be largely lost.

If what the blogger says is correct, Rossiya 24 was reporting this as a straight-down-the-line popularity poll, which it obviously isn’t. They can get away with it, however, because they know that 99.99% of their audience isn’t going to go online and check. By contrast, Ria Novosti – which tends to target a more serious, grown-up audience – has given one of the more restrained versions of the story, sticking to the facts without trying to make it sound more than it is. Nevertheless, it has reported it – something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a serious, grown-up news agency to do for every tinpot little online survey. Perversely, RIA Novosti manages to give the tale more credibility by the mere fact of covering it, even while Rossiya 24 is doing the exact opposite.

Secondly, its an excellent example of how Russia’s soft power strategies have developed under Putin. (Soft power is an over-used term;Russia’s media strategy in recent years is one of the few phenomena that merits it.)

Usually, when you are running a PR campaign you decide on a message you want to put across and then look for the best way to do so. The Russians have not taken this path. Instead they provide us with dozens of different possible messages, theories, conspiracies and hints and allow us to pick the one we like best, while nevertheless leaving us uncertain as to whether or not we have picked correctly.

Even the green-black-and-silver aestehtics of the RT site are borrowed straight from The Matrix, something which its intended audience will definitely register at least on a subconscious level, purely because it is such a familiar part of the demographic’s visual vernacular.

Russia Today aesthetics

There is no spoon

As a strategic response to the widespread perception that the “Washington Consensus” has imposed a single narrative on the world, it is a stroke of genius – like something made up by Umberto Eco (or, more probably, by Vladislav Surkov). They’re just providing alternatives: who could possibly object to that? Their slogan is “question more” because they want us to do just that: ask questions, not come up with answers.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is that when all truths are possible, no possibility is definitively true. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. In other words, the same strategy works equally well to legitimise alternative narratives as to sew confusion.

Moreover, this is approach to mass communications is not simply a sort of invisibility cloak to conceal whatever is really going on inside the Russian state. It is what is going on inside the Russian state. The maintenance of perpetual uncertainty is central to the current government’s management strategies.

To pick one example: the rumour that Putin funds his own opposition has been doing the rounds for ages. It could be entirely true (it’s what I’d do if I was an autocrat, and if I’ve thought of it then he certainly has), or it could be made up to induce paranoia at a relatively low cost.

I’ve even heard from people who should know that Putin’s PR team has, in the past, pressured polling organisations to reduce his popularity scores to make the numbers more democratically plausible. It could well be true, or they could be putting the rumour about purely in the hope that incorrigible gossips like me will repeat it as widely as possible. Either way: mission accoplished.

Slick moves

Watch this video with the sound on. It’s worth it.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I, as a connoisseur of fine PR, enjoy RT’s work.

I assume that this guy genuinely is a spy of some variety. Not just because he has the too-clean look of a secret policeman (he also looks like he’s openly wearing an earpiece, so he’s probably someone‘s security guy to start with, just going the extra mile with the aid of a retro manbag full of directional microphones), but also because I’m not convinced that RT would decide to out a complete stranger just for the hell of it – for all they know he could well turn out to be a Russian spook collecting audio of a supposedly off-the-record meeting.

Also let’s face it, most of the people in that shot look pretty shady to begin with. You could add the Pink Panther soundtrack to footage of any one of them and end up with something almost as hilarious. If they’re picking on this one individual, we can only assume it’s because they know who he is and want to fuck with his employers.

It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list

Link.

There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.

Star in a reasonably-priced car

Courtesy of Russia Today:

Breaking small rules: it can do so much to endear a politician to the voters. Consider the famous photo of Jacques Chirac jumping the barrier in the Paris metro when he was Mayor:

Chirac jumping the metro barrier

Obviously it’s a photo-op and he’s not really fare-dodging, but it gets a response out of us because we’ve all jumped the barrier at some point. Yes, even you. Don’t play the innocent with me.

To quote an old post:

He was the authorities, but he retained an air of anti-authority chutzpah til the end. People felt as though he was one of us, even when he was more or less openly manipulating the political system in favour of ‘them’.

Boris Johnson takes things a step further, and manages to get away with serial infidelities by reacting to their discovery as though they were just laddish misdemeanours, more or less on the same level as jumping the barrier on the underground. And, by and large, voters are willing to go along with it. As Paul Goodman put it:

In modern politics unconventional politicians are judged by different rules from conventional ones.

Link.

Even the story about David Cameron putting his cock in a dead pig’s mouth at a Piers Gaveston society party failed to damage him in the way that many of the more puritanical elements on the left hoped. We’ve all done stupid things while young and drunk, after all (even, whisper it not, the holier-than-thou Spartists among us). Quoting Brendan O’Neill:

Dave, King of the Lads. If only he would fess up to his pig thing (if it’s true) and take ownership of it. In 2015, it often feels like the world is ruled by the unworldly, by over-spun politicians, a moralistic media class, and fun-allergic student bureaucrats. Pig-gate gives me hope — hope that behind Cameron’s too glossy veneer there might just lurk a real man. Maybe even a bloke.

Link.

And this is where Barack Obama’s PR people may have made their biggest mistake. No, not in preventing him from fucking livestock, but with regards to a habit that – these days, at least – is almost equally reviled. We all know that Obama smokes at least sporadically, and yet there are no leaked photos out there of him puffing away in the Oval Office

Well, actually, there are, but they’re all poor photoshops. But here’s the thing…

Picture of Obama Smoking a Ciggerette

That’s a fake (for the original, see here), but doesn’t he look a million times more sympathetic in that picture than when standing behind a podium, blandly explaining to us why this latest Middle Eastern bombing expedition really is necessary?

Hell, a cigarette can even soften Kim Jong Un’s image:

Kim Jong Un smoking

So why doesn’t the Obama media machine just let us see him smoking? Well, probably because they’re middle-aged Beltway democrats who wear Fitbits and drink kale smoothies and see smoking as being the next thing to genocide.

For the rest of us poor schleps who are just trying to get through the day and put some food on the table, however, a few pics of the leader of the free world demonstrating that he too has his indulgences would go a long way towards increasing our sympathy for him.

I can’t remember what I was doing at 23; certainly nothing frantically exciting

In light of this blog’s particular dedication to chronicling incidences of before-they-were-famous photos of politicians, have this:

Obama Netanyahu Putin

A friend shared it from some obscure US conservative news site.

Interestingly, the Obama-smoking-a-joint vs. Bibi-in-the-Sayeret-Matkal (quite the hottie, isn’t he?) comparison is not a new one. If you google Netanyahu’s army days, it’s one of the first results that comes up:

benjamin netanyahu sayeret matkal

And if you Google “Obama Netanyahu” it’ll even autocomplete in such a way as to lead you to that precise comparison gif:

Obama Netanyahu comparison

I have absolutely no desire to find out what that finger thing is about

As far as I’m aware, however, the trend towards adding Putin into the mix is more recent.

It’s moderately interesting that the Soviet era is sufficiently distant in people’s minds now that being a KGB officer is considered a respectable career choice. I suspect it’s also a reflection of a a new way of approaching international relations wherein:

a) Personality matters more, affiliation matters less, and

b) There is a certain amount of suspicion directed towards liberal internationalism, but patriotism – and even nationalism – even on behalf of a country that we are not particularly fond of, is generally understood and respected.

The CIA torture report

CIA torture of Al-Qaeda suspects was far more brutal than acknowledged, did not produce useful intelligence and was so poorly managed it lost track of detainees, a scathing US Senate report revealed Tuesday (Dec 9).

The Central Intelligence Agency also misled the White House and Congress with inaccurate claims about the program’s usefulness in thwarting attacks, the Senate Intelligence Committee said in its graphic report that revived the debate over interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.

President Barack Obama admitted some of the tactics detailed in the explosive report’s 500-page declassified summary were ‘brutal.’ ‘There are a lot of folks who worked very hard after 9/11 to keep us safe, during a very hazardous situation and a time when people were unsure of what was taking place,’ he said in an interview with Telemundo. ‘But what was also true is that we took some steps that were contrary to who we are, contrary to our values.’

Among the findings: a CIA operative used ‘Russian Roulette’ to intimidate a prisoner and another – untrained in interrogation techniques – threatened to use a power drill. Detainees were humiliated through the painful use of medically unnecessary ‘rectal feeding’ and ‘rectal rehydration.’ One died of hypothermia while shackled, some suffered broken limbs.

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/cia-torture-brutal-and/1521080.html

1. Humans are fucked up.

2. There’s no delicate was of saying this, but… Why the preoccupation with asses? This has to be the A1 gayest account of torture I’ve ever encountered. In case you weren’t previously aware of the fact, no, that stuff isn’t standard operating procedure. Anywhere else in the world, the basic approach just involves beating them until they talk and not getting any closer to another man’s rectum than is strictly necessary.

Huffpo clickbait leads to something moderately interesting

Winnie and TiggerYou’d Be Surprised What Chinese College Students Think Of America These Days.

Well no, actually, you probably wouldn’t. It’s pretty much what you expect.

I was interested by this one, however:

It’s really not that easy to be president in China. It’s a lot harder than in America. Because in America, you just have to be very handsome and give some good speeches, and they are stars. But in China, you can’t just win the election. It is really official, with great authority. If Obama came to China to try to be president, he would lose.

– Chen Bo

True story. Ask Bo Xilai.

Personally, I think that it’s an aspect of the system that could well do to be exported. If failed candidates for the US presidency were subsequently subjected to the kind of debriefing that makes you pass out 27 times, there’d probably be a dramatic improvement in the quality of the contenders. Hard模式, yo.

The idea that elections are a frivolous way to choose one’s leaders is one that’s been put to me by various nationalist youth at different times. It’s always impeccably reasoned with references and everything. I’m not sure whether it’s taught in PRC schools or not.