Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.

So…

Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!

 

Truth is a Slippery Animal

There’s a passage in a British political autobiography (I think it’s Julian Critchley’s A Bag of Boiled Sweets, but I couldn’t swear to it) in which an old stager warns a younger colleague on the campaign trail that one should never tell voters that crime is falling, even if it is, because you won’t be believed: “that’s just not what crime does.”

Similarly with these US tales of Russian airstrikes in Syria hitting some hospitals. There’s every possibility that they’re entirely true; the Russians have certainly never shown or laid claim to any great passion for pinpoint accuracy in their military operations. Nevertheless, coming immediately after US strikes did verifiably hit a hospital, the announcement becomes unconvincing ex officio.

Suppose you toss a coin five times. The first four times it comes up heads. Of course, the chance of it coming up heads the fifth time you do it is still 50:50, but even knowing that your mind rebels and tells you that the probability of getting heads a fifth time must be massively reduced.

Similarly in this case. The probability of Russian airstrikes hitting a Syrian hospital has not changed, but the story nevertheless looks far less believable coming immediately after the US really did bomb a hospital.

Look at the comments from the video above:

cctv comments thread

Granted, people who follow CCTV on Facebook are unlikely to constitute the most pro-US audience out there, so let’s try an alternative source. Reddit is an always-reliable furnisher of lowest common denominators opinions that tend to be pretty evenly spread across the spectrum:

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

So here’s a handy hint for the State Department: whether it’s true or not, next time just say it was a fucking orphanage or something. It’s not as though the Russians are going to come forward spluttering and saying “I think you’ll find it was actually a hospital…”

Shock and awe

Russia Works drone footage

Who knew reality could be this beautiful?

We’ve already covered the oddly pleasurable-to-watch Russian plane-cam videos from Syria here, but this is something new.

The one line about Western intervention in the Middle East from Vladimir Putin’s recent address to the UN that got picked up by all the headline-writers was “Do you realise what you’ve done?” Well, if not, then there’s a team of Russian journalists and a drone on hand to show us in glorious high-definition and with the aid of a breakbeat soundtrack*.

This is the most beautiful war footage I have ever seen. Watch it. Then pour yourself a glass of wine, call the family round and watch it again because it is genuinely that good.

Incredible, isn’t it? These guys have a vlog where you can check out some of their other footage.

* The song is High Roller by The Crystal Method, just fyi.

CCTV evaluates Syria

CCTV Facebook post on Syria

Ironically, Chinese has no exact translation for the term “irony quotes”, though they are used occasionally (notably in reference to Taiwan’s government in exile).

If you want to watch the full video, it’s here:

Several things here:

a) CCTV’s English-language Facebook page continues its transformation into Russia Today. Even as little as a year ago, you could never expect sarcasm in their posts. (Also, the endless stream of hypnodogs and twirling ladies on tv talent shows.)

b) The Chinese haven’t actually been very vocal on Syria, so it’s nice to get an idea of how the authorities really feel about things via their foreign language social media. (Learn English to know China!)

c) “It has not worked the way it was supposed to.” This one sentence is interesting for two different reasons. Firstly, because by changing “was” to “is”, CCTV’s social media manager makes the Americans sound far more arrogant and clueless than Obama’s actual statement did. Secondly, because it’s a sort of through-the-looking-glass version of Victor Chernomyrdin’s famous statement on the Yeltsin era: “We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual.” (Officially the most Russian sentence ever uttered.) Taken together, the two pretty much sum up the difference between the optimistic American attitude to politics (let’s make a plan and the default assumption is that it will work) and the pessimistic Russian attitude (if we’re very lucky this won’t be a complete fuck-up).

Good Intentions

Syria Russia

There has been plenty of media coverage of the US-Russia spat over whether or not Russian airstrikes in Syria have been targeting ISIS or the various other rebel groups in the area.

Probably the best article on the topic comes from Sylvain Attal on France 24 and is, unfortunately, in French. Because I am all about the public service, here is a quick and dirty translation:

Moscow’s demials should fool nobody. The Russians do not have the same opponents as the West in Syria. In the end, it’s Bashar al-Assad who is likely to emerge stronger.

It is difficult to say with certainty that the first Russian air strikes in Syria on Wednesday September 30 did not target the Islamic State (IS). In their first statements, those responsible for French and American defense and foreign policy, Laurent Fabius, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Ashton Carter and John Kerry, have been careful merely to suggest that IS was “probably” not hit. This immediately caused an annoyed Moscow to refute the claims.

It is impossible to create a precise map of forces in the Syrian chaos, but it is clear, however, that Russia is thumbing its nose at the rest of the world.

Indeed, if the real objective of the Russian planes had been the IS training camps, it would have been easy to choose a target in eastern Syria, which is almost completely under the control of jihadists. However, Russia has purposefully chosen to strike areas around the cities of Hama and Homs, already taken by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad – and resulting in high numbers of civilian deaths – in an area where the majority of clashes are between the regular Syrian army and various jihadi rebel groups not belonging to IS, including the Al-Nosra Front, which is affiliated to Al Qaeda.

These groups have one the main difference with IS, in that they still want to bring down the regime in Damascus. Moreover they have been giving the Syrian Army a hard time in recent weeks. Rightly or wrongly, they are considered by the West – unlike IS – as potential participants in future political negotiations on the future of the country. For all these reasons, they are the most formidable military and political opponents of Assad, who has – in consequence – called in the Russians to help him stay in power. And Moscow has never concealed the fact that behind its calls to “fight terrorism”, the real purpose was clearly to strengthen the Syrian regime, which it considers to be the only bulwark against so-called terrorists.

This is also the main weakness of the Western position. The fighters grouped under the Free Syrian Army who were not jihadis or even moderately pro-democracy have been virtually swept away. Faced with Assad, the West’s choice is now between a rock and a hard place. Can we say that Syria would be better if it was in the hands of the henchmen of Al Qaeda? Can we ensure that if they took power they would not exact revenge upon local Shiites or allies of the regime? Of course not.

But it is certain that in the short term, the main enemy of Damascus, and therefore of Moscow is not IS. The Syrian regime never considered IS as a target, and, on the contrary appeared pleased. IS, with its burnings and beheadings, has terrified the world and by implication makes all other Middle Eastern governments look better by comparison, moreover, it has now begun to threaten the West. For its part, IS’s tactics are to avoid – for now – a large-scale confrontation with the Syrian regime, being more concerned with establishing its control over Sunni areas in Syria and Iraq.

A strategic disaster

This approach, while demonstrating diabolical cynicism, turned out to be a winner for the Syrian regime, to the extent that today major foreign powers are  openly considering a resumption of contact with Syria, merely attempting to save face by saying that their “red line” is acceptance of Assad himself. This results in groteque scenes such as the reception of parliamentarians from the French ruling party not by Assad himself but by the Speaker of the Syrian Parliament, who immediately deluged them with anti-French rhetoric, no doubt upon Assad’s direct orders.

It is a strategic disaster for the West, which has arrived four years late to the party. Assad’s trap has worked beautifully, closing over Paris and Washington, which are still mired in confusion on the Syrian issue. Russia sat by and watched the car crash, growing more confident than ever that its position will triumph in the end. Once the last pockets of resistance to Assad have been crushed, we will be left with a situation in which we are forced to pick between him and IS – a decision which can only have one outcome. The Russian military involvement in Syria could change the strategic game dramatically. The Americans and the French, who intervened first (uninvited, unlike the Russians) can not do anything to stop it. Each side will continue to attack its own prefered enemies (not to mention the Israelis who, are targeting as a priority Hezbollah and the Iranians). It will make for a lot of planes in the Syrian sky. Let us pray that the situation does not degenerate any further.

What’s particularly interesting here is the way in which military objectives vary over time and between groups.

In theory, all wars have the same aim: to achieve one’s goals as economically as possible. In practice this isn’t a particularly inspiring battle-cry to rally behind, and populations need something a bit juicier to get their teeth into. This can be anything from Allah, to God-Harry-and-Saint-George, to civilising the natives, to making the world safe for democracy. If it’s just a matter of selling the war to the masses, then for all practical purposes the specific cause chosen doesn’t matter very much.

On the other hand, when leaders themselves start to believe the propaganda, that’s when it gets interesting.

Many of the recent wars indulged in by the US and Europe have had as their understood aim not to gain a strategic advantage, but the idea that something must be done. Aka, the good intentions school of strategic thought.

I suspect that this is a product of two phenomena:

  1. The doctrine of justification by faith. The idea that no matter how badly you fuck up, it’s all ok as long as you had good intentions underlies a large part of modern, Western ethics and morality, even in secular Europe. It has its uses: it’s wonderful for providing hope to individuals in the depths of despair, for example. On a battlefield, however, it’s less useful: “I’m terribly sorry. I massacred my own platoon out of a mixture of carelessness and incompetence, but my heart was in the right place. No hard feelings?”
  2. World War Two. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which modern US and European military thought remains based on the incredibly powerful narrative that WW2 provided. It’s the perfect movie storyline: doughty volunteer conscripts sacrifice everything to preserve their homes, families and way of life, finally defeating the Evil Empire. In reality, this was not so much the case, with Churchill, Stalin and FDR playing a multi-year game of chicken with each other, each aiming to commit as few resources as possible to the fight. Nevertheless, it is the heroic version of the narrative that has stuck – one that, unfortunately for those of us living in a messy 21st century universe – sings a siren song on the theme of “If you’re on the side of virtue and give it everything you’ve got, you will triumph in the end.”

And this is why the question of whether or not Russia is attacking IS camps is a big, honking PR deal.

Of course, attacking Assad’s own enemies as a priority to help shore up the regime and enable it to push back IS from Syrian territory is a better strategic choice than chucking bombs in the vague general direction of the IS camps themselves. But only if your aim is to actually push IS back.

If, however, your aim is to demonstrate your virtue to the world – regardless of the concrete results on the ground – then bombing IS camps with no real hope of success while Assad struggles interminably with the other non-IS islamists is absolutely the correct stragegy.

Interestingly, there’s a famous parallel to this in Japanese culture, with the tale of the 47 ronin. If you don’t know or have forgotten it:

The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (becoming ronin) after their daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was Kōzuke no suke. The ronin avenged their master’s honor by killing Kira, after waiting and planning for a year. In turn, the ronin were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder.

Wikipedia

It is famous as an example of people willing to die more or less futilely for the sake of honor – they knew they would end up dead one way or another, but nevertheless chose to follow the rules of propriety and at least attempt to kill Kira. Nevertheless, the 47 ronin have – surprisingly perhaps – come in for criticism for being too strategic in their thinking. Tsunetomo Yamamoto, author of the Hagakure, criticises them for being overly concerned about the success or failure of their plot against Kira. Rather than coming up with a good strategy, they should have attacked immediately with no thought for results, if necessary dying in the attempt:

You cannot achieve your purpose if you stop to think how to do it. Do not hesitate, but dash at it. To be killed in revenge is not shameful at all. You will miss the chance if you think you must find some means to kill him. If you are horrified that your opponents are many, you will think of giving up. No matter how many opponents there are, rush at them with determination to cut them all down. That is how to achieve it.

The dismissed samurai of Asano Clan made a night attack on their enemy in Edo after one year, but they should have killed themselves at Sengaku-ji Temple right after that. They should have taken revenge on Kira Kozuke-no-suke much earlier. What if he had died of illness or something before they made their move?

(A little earlier, Yamamoto follows up on a passage about assisting in his nephew’s seppuku with some handy tips on how to avoid appearing impolite by yawning in public. He was quite the chap.)

Video footage of Russian air strikes oddly soothing

Most of the media-related coverage regarding the Russian assistance provided to Syria has boiled down to two topics:

1. Golly, it’s difficult working out who the baddies are in this one.

State Department confused about Syria

And, just this evening:

2. Putin accuses Western media of premature publication:

Reports of alleged casualties among civilians caused by Russian airstrikes in Syria emerged even before Russian warplanes were launched for their first combat mission, President Vladimir Putin said, branding such reports ‘information attacks.’

“Other nations have been bombing Syrian territory for over a year,” Putin told the Russian human rights council on Thursday, stressing that the US-led coalition invades the Syrian airspace with no UN mandate or invitation from Damascus.

“We have such an invitation and we intend to fight against terrorist organizations and them only,” Putin added.

What really grabbed my attention though, for some reason, was how relaxing the videos of the Russian air strikes are to watch.

Nice, isn’t it? Try playing a bit of Enya over the top. It’s like a lava lamp.

You might be thinking “Ah, these nefarious Russkies. Trying to sanatise their war coverage. Don’t they know we invented that game?”

In fact, it’s probably not intentional. The fact is that bombing raids just look nicer as plane-cam technology improves.

This recent footage from the Iraqi Airforce is less good, but still has something of the same hypnotic quality about it:

Compare and contrast this with the shaky black and white footage we got during the US invasion of Afghanistan, for example:

In The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper argues that the Marxist view of history as progress is incorrect for various reasons, one of which is the fact that history depends to a large extent upon technical innovation, something which cannot be predicted ahead of time.

This would appear to be a small but not necessarily insignificant example of this phenomena. Imagine if that black and white footage from Afghanistan had been shown to you with no sound and a caption saying that it was footage of a Russian raid on a rebel position in Syria. Would you feel differently about the intervention?

Will war become easier for the public to accept now that the videos coming out of it are that much prettier?

CCTV, arbiters of good taste

You know the photo of Aylan Kurdi that has done the rounds on social media as everyone tries to prove to one-time Tinder dates and people they hated at high school how sensitive they are raise awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees?

CCTV blurred it out on its English Facebook page:

Aylan Kurdi

facebook.com/cctvnewschina/posts/1035210689853084

We’ve noted the fact that CCTV censors blood and guts in its English language broadcasts while happily showing all the gory details on its Chinese channels here before.

Interestingly, not only is it not censoring the image on its Chinese language site, it’s even running stories about how Western media has using the (uncensored) picture for the past few days.

Aylan Kurdi

http://news.cntv.cn/2015/09/04/ARTI1441327523160637.shtml

I presume that this is the result of an odd combination of standard rules and gradually more liberal reporting of the news. CCTV’s general policy states that Western audiences can’t hack images that are too graphic. However, when Western audiences – on occasion – prove that they most definitely can, then CCTV obviously has to report that.

Interestingly, Russia Today – an outlet never previously known for its delicacy – has shown a similar committment to good taste reporting, opting to blur its own photos too:

Aylam Kurdi

I am whatever you say I am

SyriaPlenty has been said here about the excellence of ISIS’s communications strategy.

Relatively little, however, has been said about the other groups because, well, they’re just not that good.

On the other hand, if ISIS is a marketing fox, then its opponents are clearly a communications hedgehog, as shown by the photo above, which features opponents of ISIS dressed in the familiar orange boiler-suits, beheading ISIS members wearing the – equally familiar – black ensembles.

I wouldn’t be surprised if one day this had almost as much popular resonnance as, if not the Tiananmen tank man photo or the Vietnam napalm girl, then at least Ali Shallal Al-Qaisi (yep, he has a name).

Ali Shallal Al-QaisiIt’s a pretty basic trick: taking ISIS’s own imagery and using it against it – having the guys in the orange boiler suits (itself a reference to the orange uniforms of ‘non-compliant’ prisoners at Guantanamo Bay) behead the guys in black, rather than the other way round.

It’s a trick that’s been used to make points for years, but only really came into its own in the last couple of decades: responding to insults and abuse by not merely owning up to them, but taking a pride in it.

From ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it‘ to NWA to Wizardchan – more and more groups are not denying or combatting slurs, but are taking ownership of them. It’s certainly not a purely Western phenomenon. Just within Asia, China has its diaosi and short-ugly-poor – young men unashamed to have few prospects, Japan made otaku (geek) culture cool across the world, and even Gangnam Style pokes fun at those who try too hard.

Here, ISIS’s opponents have pulled off the same trick: taking the orange boiler suits as a banner for their cause, repurposing the symbol for their own ends.

It’s not even the first time the strategy has been used in an international political context lately. The members of Vladimir Putin’s entourage targeted by US and European sanctions didn’t try to argue their innocence, or prevaricate, or even feign compliance. Subjected to a finger-wagging for their macho irresponsibility in invading Ukraine, their reply was basically ‘Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?

In Dave Skylark’s immortal words: haters gonna hate, and ain’ters gonna ain’t.