Cold War II is upon us. Once again, to write the phrase “the Kremlin” is to evoke images of an Oriental despotism both ominous and inscrutable, only slightly less sinister than the Dark Tower. Russia, once thought to have been liberated from its Soviet chains, is now the new Mordor. And, of course, Vladimir Putin is the new Sauron: cunning, amoral, inhumanly ruthless, he is routinely likened to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator who murdered millions and imprisoned many more in the gulags.
Not that Putin has murdered millions, or even as many as a dozen, but the ethics of the new McCarthyites – yes, they’re back – aren’t overly punctilious. Their polemics are even less exacting than their forebears’ for the simple reason that Communism, as an organized international movement with its epicenter in Russia, is dead, and will doubtless remain so. Furthermore, “Putinism,” if such an ideological creature can be said to exist – a problematic proposition – is not a global movement, let alone an international conspiracy: there are no “Putinist” parties outside of Russia, assiduously subverting the moral and political foundations of the West and harboring the 21st century version of the Rosenbergs. No Whittaker Chambers will emerge to reveal the dark secrets of these saboteurs of democracy and shine a bright light on their moral espionage – but never fear, because we have Cathy Young.
A columnist for various and sundry outlets, and long associated with Reason magazine, Young – born Ekaterina Jung – came to the US when she was 17 and became a naturalized citizen in 1989, the year her book, Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood was published. The book, which details life under the totalitarian rule of the Communists, might have ensured her a career as a defected Soviet dissident, perhaps a female version of Natan Sharanksy, but – alas – the Soviet Union fell before such promise could be fulfilled and she had to find another ideological niche, eventually zeroing in on the absurdities of radical feminism in her second book, and promoting a movement known as “Women Against Feminism.”
With the rise of anti-Russian sentiment in the Washington, however, she has taken up the rhetorical cudgels against her old motherland with a vengeance. Like many embittered Russian émigrés – Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Miriam Elder of Buzzfeed– she has been prominent in the ideological offensive against alleged Russian “imperialism,” warning that Putin is Stalin reincarnated and that the Muscovites are about to march on the Baltics. Her career as a leading voice of the new McCarthyism has been enhanced by her latest for the Daily Beast, a prolific outlet for feverish Russophobia, which zeroes in on the American Committee for East-West Accord (ACEWA), the first paragraph of which serves as an object lesson in the methods and style of the new McCarthyism:
“It is, most would agree, a worthy goal: to promote ‘open, civilized, informed debate’ on Russian-American relations and bring about ‘a conclusive end to cold war and its attendant dangers.’ But there are reasons to believe that the American Committee for East-West Accord, which is having its formal launch with a Capitol Hill event scheduled for November 4, may be involved in a less admirable mission.
Yes, folks, hiding behind that inoffensive – even benevolent – façade is a sinister conspiracy, the nature of which might be discerned by the title of this jeremiad: “Putin’s New American Fan Club?” Don’t be misled by the question mark, because to ask such a question in the current atmosphere is to answer it. It’s the kind of conspiracy theory our political class approves of.
So what’s the evidence for the existence of a Putinist cabal in our midst? Hiding behind the respectable front of a board of directors that includes a stunning array of formers – U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Jack Matlock, former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, and retired Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper – are the two principal conspirators: Stephen Cohen and Gilbert Doctorow. Cohen is described as a historian of Russia who “earned a certain notoriety last year with his dogged defense of Putin at the height of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” The link, which is supposed to document this “notoriety,” goes to one of her own Daily Beast tirades, entitled “Meet Stephen F. Cohen, Vladimir Putin’s Best Friend in the American Media.” So the source of Cohen’s “notoriety” is none other than the author herself. Circular reasoning is really the essence of the new McCarthyism, just as it defined the older version. If you protest against the witch-hunting ad hominem attacks of the McCarthyites, then that is proof positive you’re part of the Conspiracy.
Key to understanding the smear tactics of the New McCarthyism is the central role played by the personalization of the alleged “threat.” Just as the Iraq war was popularized by the demonization of Saddam Hussein – a third-rate Third World tyrant, no more threatening to us that Robert Mugabe or Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Supreme Leader of Kazakhstan – so the new cold war is advertised as a crusade against a man characterized by his enemies as a leader with the cunning of Stalin and the appetites of Attila the Hun. It’s much easier to drum up a hate campaign against an individual than it is to demonize an entire nation.
In the tradition of their intellectual ancestors, the new McCarthyites are proud of their abilities as dogged researchers, and Young documents – through a common mailing address – the ties of the Committee to the family of Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation and Cohen’s wife. In the course of this Young reveals that the Committee’s total annual budget is a meager $30,000 – a paltry sum compared to the neoconservative thinktanks that are pouring millions into the hate campaign directed at Russia, but hey, the failure to find Moscow’s gold behind this Putinist conspiracy doesn’t deter our Cathy. Because this is a conspiracy of ideas, which must be exposed and stamped out, no matter how cheaply they’re promoted.
Another technique favored by the neo-McCarthyites, akin to the circular reasoning noted above, is that they “document” their charges by referring to each other’s work. Thus we get this:
“Cohen’s views have been widely described as pro-Putin and “Moscow-friendly,” labels he has hotly disputed. Similar charges have been leveled at other people and organizations linked to ACEWA; the March 2015 World Russia Forum in Washington, D.C., where Doctorow made a pitch for the Committee, was skewered by The Daily Beast’s Jamie Kirchick as ‘a gathering of Kremlin apologists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted nut jobs.’”
That Kirchick, a gay version of Norman Podhoretz, is now considered an authority on who is a “nut job” is a real head-scratcher: here is a neocon who is truly a caricature of the species, a Roy Cohn for our times who has accused everyone from Edward Snowden to Ron Paul of being in part of a Vast Putinist Conspiracy. And if you follow the links in the above cited paragraph, you land on a screed by Jonathan Chait which references … Jamie Kirchick and indulges in the same evidence-free smears of Cohen. For further proof of the Putinist Conspiracy, Chait gives us as one of his star witnesses one Rosie Gray, another neoconservative propagandist masquerading as a “reporter.”
Alongside this is a link to a site called “kremlintrolls.com,” which assures us that “fascist elements remain sidelined in Kiev” and states its mission on its masthead: “Regarding the activities of Kremlin agents, assets, trolls, allies, fellow travelers, dupes, useful idiots, bots, and whoever else attracts my attention.” The sheer kookiness of this anonymous obsessive is truly a sight to behold: here is his diagram of “problematic social networks” of alleged “Kremlin agents.” One imagines he stayed up all night working on it, crouched over his computer, his eyes gleaming with fanatic energy, only taking a break to watch episodes of “I Led Three Lives” on YouTube
Another link is to a New York Times piece by Polish writer Slawomir Sierakowski defending Svoboda, the Ukrainian neo-Nazi party, and smearing anyone who points to its ideological origins as a pawn of Moscow. Young also links to a piece by Carl Schreck, a former journalist at the Moscow Times, now a US government employee with Radio Free Europe, the US government propaganda outlet that functions as the American version of “Russia Today.” Schreck’s article is devoted to characterizing Cohen as beyond the pale, “arguably the most divisive American public intellectual commenting on the crisis today”: he links to Sierakowski and also to Julia Ioffe, perhaps the bitterest of all the émigré Russia-haters, whose piece for The New Republic is entitled “Putin’s American Toady at ‘The Nation’ Gets Even Toadier.”
There is, to be sure, a certain Soviet flavor in all this anti-Russian propaganda: in its over-the-top vituperation, it recalls Stalinist imprecations hurled at “Trotskyite wreckers.” You can take the Russian out of Russia, but apparently a rhetorical residue remains.
Young’s piece makes no real arguments, aside from implying that the founders of ACEWA are agents of a foreign power. She is miffed that Doctorow is not sympathetic to expatriates like herself who have turned on their motherland with unseemly viciousness, calling for “regime change” and openly campaigning for NATO to take on the Russians. Yet she never confronts the actual case made by ACEWA, and other critics of the new cold war: she neglects to tell us why she thinks NATO pushing up to the gates of Moscow isn’t a provocation. Never engaging her opponents, she only seems capable of challenging their motives, darkly implying they are part of some subversive “Moscow-friendly” network devoted to poisoning the precious bodily fluids of the West.
This is typical of the methods of the new cold warriors: like the red-baiters of the past, they are mainly concerned with closing down debate rather than actually winning it. They don’t make any real arguments because there is no rational argument for starting World War III with nuclear-armed Russia. So they resort to the familiar McCarthyite memes in the hope that no one will notice the huge vacuum at the center of their polemics.
Young and her neoconservative allies are living in a time warp. The dead giveaway is when they utilize the old cold war phraseology – “Moscow-friendly,” “Kremlin apologist,” etc. Consciously or unconsciously, they are conjuring up the 1950s, when J. Edgar Hoover was busy chasing down “Communist agents” – i.e. anyone who ever questioned Washington’s war on American dissidents – and the House Committee on Un-American Activities was hauling half of Hollywood before it in the American version of the Moscow Trials.
Do we really want to relive that era of repression, scare-mongering, and ideological conformity? Or can we have a real discussion about what a rational policy toward Russia ought to look like?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.