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OPINION

How Putin Got Into America’s Mind

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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly, in Moscow, on Jan. 15, 2020. SPUTNIK/Reuters

In August, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported in exhaustive detail how Russia sowed division in the United States and sought to meddle in the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. Immediately, Republicans and Democrats battled over whether the Trump campaign had engaged in a “criminal conspiracy” with Russia, or “collusion,” or “cooperation,” or established “ties”—or whether, as the White House claimed, Trump was the victim of a massive liberal conspiracy. Years after 2016, Russian election interference continues to reap dividends for Moscow by turning American against American.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is particularly adept at psychological warfare because he has been practicing it for decades. He learned the art of destabilizing his opponents from the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. Russia now uses the same techniques. However, it not only targets individuals; it torments entire countries.

In the late 1980s, Putin lived in Dresden, East Germany. On paper, he ran a Soviet-German “friendship house.” In practice, he was a KGB agent, likely helping the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist group, plot attacks in West Germany. The KGB was eager to learn surveillance techniques from the Stasi, and Putin worked closely with the organization (researchers recently discovered Putin’s Stasi card).

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, East Germany worked to repress dissidents, artists, peace campaigners, and church activists. The regime was worried, however, that the usual authoritarian strategies—gulags, physical torture, and tanks on the streets—might damage the country’s reputation. After all, East Germany had promised to uphold human rights as a signatory of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. But East German leader Erich Honecker wasn’t concerned about suppressing the opposition: “There will always be the Stasi.”

The East German secret police developed a method known as Zersetzung or “decomposition” to stamp out rebellion without the use of overt force. The idea was to chip away at a dissident’s sanity so that he would lose the will to resist, or in the words of a Stasi guide, “[provoke] and [enforce] internal conflicts and contradictions within hostile-negative forces that fragment, paralyze, disorganize, and isolate” the opponent. The first step in a campaign was to identify the target’s weak spots—health, family, finances—then strike them over and over. Stasi agents might break into a dissident’s apartment and move the pictures around or change the time on the alarm clock. They might mail a sex toy to a target’s wife or send postcards from an unknown woman demanding child support. They might enlist doctors to give false medical diagnoses or ensure that a manager halted the dissident’s career progress without explanation. The techniques were targeted, flexible, and above all efficient.

Decomposition was designed to unglue a dissident’s psyche. A regime opponent would find himself trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Everywhere he turned, an evil force seemed to be hounding him, even though he could not prove that he had been singled out. Who would believe that the government was secretly stealing his dish towels? Some targets suffered breakdowns and others killed themselves. The writer Jürgen Fuchs, a Stasi victim, called the campaign “an assault on the human soul.”

In recent years, Russia has reportedly used the methods of decomposition against individual journalists and diplomats. Putin’s real innovation has been to weaponize Zersetzung against countries. Much of Moscow’s foreign policy can be understood as a kind of diplomatic decomposition, a grand strategy of gaslighting. After all, Putin faces the same fundamental problem as the East German leadership: how to suppress opposition without overt violence. Moscow wants to restore Russia as a great power and reverse the tide of Western encroachment. But in today’s world of integrated global economies and nuclear deterrence, open aggression is extremely costly—which is why conventional wars between countries are very rare. The answer to this conundrum lies with the Stasi playbook, employed on a much grander scale.

Russia seeks to weaken a foreign adversary from the inside, paralyzing its ability to resist. It partners with a range of allies, such as oligarchs and journalists, and uses a diverse toolbox, including propaganda and cyber attacks. Moscow begins by locating the target country’s weakest point, whether it’s an ethnic, religious, or partisan cleavage. Then Russia manufactures a sense of distrust to destroy the social contract. Whereas the Stasi might break into a man’s apartment in the middle of the night and turn on his electric razor—just to freak him out—Moscow uses hackers and trolls to propagate conspiracy theories and cultivate a skepticism of authority.

Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election was less about altering the result, and more about messing with America’s sanity—feeding cynicism about the system, encouraging people to second-guess reality, and leaving America too incapacitated to offer much resistance. Since 2016, the Kremlin has continued trying to maximize political division, using troll farms and Facebook to boost both Trump and Bernie Sanders, and attack Joe Biden.

Putin also tried to decompose the European Union by backing far-right nationalist parties such as the French National Rally (formerly the National Front) and the Alternative for Germany, as well as the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. Moscow spread false reports of rape by immigrants in Berlin—a classic decomposition technique. Russian operatives were linked to a plot to undermine the parliamentary election in Montenegro in 2016, and stop the Balkan country from entering NATO. (Montenegro eventually joined the alliance in 2017.)

Modern-day Russia isn’t the only country that has tried to destabilize an enemy. Long before Putin came to power, the Soviet Union engaged in what were known as “active measures.” During the Cold War, Moscow spread the rumor that the U.S. government created AIDS as a secret biological weapon. Meanwhile, the United States used Radio Free Europe to sow opposition against communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain.

Russia’s weaponized Zersetzung is unusual, however, in its calibrated use of pressure and its keen awareness of the enemy’s weak spots, especially the vulnerability of democratic societies in an age of social media, populism, and distrust of elites. Just like the Stasi sought to destroy a target’s reputation by blending accurate and damaging information with harmful lies, so Russian media mixes real stories with disinformation to make people doubt the truth, or as the Russian state television network RT slogan says, “Question More.” For its part, Moscow claims that its actions are a defensive measure against Western efforts to decompose Russia and depicts all independent reporting at home as foreign-backed psychological warfare.

Trump is unable to resist Russia’s strategy because he refuses to criticize Putin. But the issue goes beyond Trump: Countering Russia’s tactics would be tough even if the United States had a leader who took the danger seriously. Biden has promised that “if any foreign power recklessly chooses to interfere in our democracy, I will not hesitate to respond as president to impose substantial and lasting costs.” But checking Russia will be easier said than done because of America’s stark polarization. The Russian threat has become yet another partisan issue. Even if Biden wins in November, he could face Republican opposition to any tough response. And although economic sanctions might hurt Russia’s economy, they won’t easily heal the divisions that weaponized decomposition has deepened in America. Putin’s assault on the national soul is working. Atlantic

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OPINION

2018 Golden Globes Red Carpet and #MeToo Movement

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Bella Hadid attends "The Unknown Girl (La Fille Inconnue)" premiere at the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 18, 2016. GETTY IMAGES

It seems so painfully obvious now, in the #MeToo era, that to ask a woman only
about what she’s wearing, and then to turn to the man next to her and ask him nothing about his clothing, and everything about his work, is sexist, reductive and diminishing.

And yet, before we launched #AskHerMore in 2014, it was de rigueur red carpet tradition.

Over the years the campaign did its work on the red carpet — Hollywood women from Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes joined in, the internet exploded and the hashtag trended. Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic changed their tune and asked more substantive questions. Chris Rock even highlighted us in his opening Oscar’s monologue in 2016.

But #AskHerMore was never just about the red carpet. It was always about our larger culture — a culture that never celebrates a woman’s accomplishments as much as her looks.

Women who walk Hollywood’s red carpets are some of the most well-known women in the world. They’re the best at their craft and make a ton of money — though perhaps not as much as their male counterparts — and still cannot be taken seriously. And it’s not just, “Who are you wearing?” But also: “What’s your morning routine?” “How did you lose the baby weight?” “Who’s at home watching the kids?

As the Harvey Weinstein fallout and the numerous #MeToos that followed showed us, the reverberations of that kind of culture are profound. Not even the most well-known women in the world are immune to the sexism, discrimination and violence that follows.

But in the wake of #MeToo, people understandably wondered whether the red carpet even mattered at all anymore. The 2018 Golden Globes was proof that it still does – perhaps it’s even more important than ever.

These women have always had something to say, but were systematically silenced – told by the subtle and not so subtle signs of our culture that what she had to say didn’t really matter. At least not as much as what she looked like, and definitely not as much as what the man standing next to her had to say.

So what happens when you really value what a woman has to say instead of what she is wearing? When you allow women to take the lead and set the stage? Something quite extraordinary. The night was dominated by the conversation that women demanded we have.

A good majority of red carpet coverage went to the eight activists who were brought by A-list actors – Saru Jayaraman, Ai-jen Poo, Tarana Burke, Rosa Clemente, Marai Larasi, Mónica Ramírez, Calina Lawrence and Billie Jean King – bringing a national primetime spotlight to issues that never get the spotlight. Some of these issues include domestic care work, the One Fair Wage campaign and farmworkers’ rights.

On the red carpet, celebrities were asked, “Why are you wearing black?”and we were treated to incredible moments as a result. Ava DuVernay tweeted: “I am wearing black today because balance and inclusion and diversity is not some kind of allowance to be made to accommodate people. No, sir. It is a correction of an error. It is a righting of a wrong. And it is going to be done. Now.”

And then of course, there was Oprah. Need we say more.

Yes, the silence of men was disappointing, but that’s not the point. The women shined brighter than any shadow the silent men cast.

Our job now is to ensure, with precision and purpose, that this movement doesn’t just benefit the most powerful women in the most glamorous spaces, but also the most marginalized women in spaces and workplaces that don’t make the news. Because feminism that only benefits women at the top — famous, wealthy and predominantly white — isn’t feminism at all.

The women of Hollywood have stepped up to that challenge in commendable ways. In addition to their stunning show of solidarity on the red carpet, famous women are leveraging their spotlight to highlight injustice and change it. They’re banding together to say “Time’s Up.” This collective is leaderless, collaborative and efficient.

They’ve created a legal fund to support women in much less powerful industries who are coming forward with harassment accusations. In joining together, hand-in-hand with the activists on the ground, they’re publicly acknowledging and declaring that their future and equality is bound to the equality and prosperity of others. That none of us are free until all of us are. In the words of Oprah — “a new day is on the horizon.”

This moment isn’t about the red carpet. It’s not about black dresses or about the actors wearing them. It never was. Instead, this is a moment about a movement. A movement that’s uplifting women’s voices, valuing women for their whole humanity and demanding justice. This movement is about creating a different culture — a better culture — and a more just and equitable world for all.

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OPINION

I’m a Conscientious Objector, Long After the Vietnam Draft

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Students in Boston protest the Vietnam War, which drove a deep wedge into the American public. GETTY IMAGES

“Let’s play guns!” There were giant mounds of dirt on Mabie Street in New Milford, New Jersey. It was 1955. What was once a farm was now being turned to a middle-class housing development. My immigrant father had moved our family of seven out of the Bronx to a better life in the suburbs. A good place for a 6-year-old kid to run around play baseball, football, and guns. Like so many families back then it was a new start in a better place. The future was bright, there were kids my age all over the place. We were happy and living on Mabie Street, USA.

We took sticks, toy guns, pistols, shotguns, machine guns, derringers, Lugers, water guns, and an occasional rubber Bowie knife, and we spent the day playing…guns. There were rules. You couldn’t just go shooting guys. When my friend Barry’s father was laying down the rules for the upcoming engagement (dads played too), he’d explain: “If you can see even part of the guy’s head and you point your gun and yell, ‘DA! DA! DA! YOU’RE DEAD!’ Then you are dead! No arguing!” Kind of final but we got the point: if you’re dead, you’re dead. That was a fixed rule. No exceptions. Kinda like life. Except you could get up again for the next battle.

In 1960, my oldest sister, Marianne became a young Democrat. JFK was running. My Italian Catholic family was beside itself with excitement. At Sunday mass, Monsignor Curry, ordered all Catholics to vote for Kennedy. It would be a sin not to. Kennedy was our guy. He played football and swam a hundred miles to save his buddies on PT 109.

JFK was coming to the Teaneck Armory, just a couple miles from us and the entire family was going to see him. I’m behind a rope at the armory with thousands of people. I look down a broad driveway and a giant convertible comes around the corner. The crowd breaks through the ropes to surround his car. I’m 10. People are going nuts. They finally clear the crowd. The great man is coming my way. At last, he gets to me. I wave. He looks me right in the eye, smiles, and waves back. He knew me… he said hello just to me. Three years later he was shot dead. Dead is dead. There was no arguing. He would not get up again.

I didn’t leave the TV those three days in November ‘63. I saw Oswald get shot dead by Ruby on TV. Saw the riderless horse leading the funeral parade, saw that beautiful little boy salute his daddy and Jackie lighting the eternal flame. I believe those events forever changed me. Took away my confidence, my security, and my invincibility.

When I started high school in 1963, no one had heard of Vietnam. By graduation in ‘67 it was a different story. More than 11,000 guys died that year, most of them were 19, 20, 21. Kids. By the end of 1968, 16,592 more would die. Back home there were marches, and cities burning, and Panthers, and lynchings, and Ali. Students were protesting and getting beat up in the streets, some died. Then Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy get shot. What the hell is going on?

There was no draft lottery yet but lots of talk of one. Nobody wanted to go to wherever the hell Vietnam was. We were kids. We just got our letter in football! Then in December of 1969, Congress thought a draft lottery would be a good idea. I end up No. 36. This couldn’t be possible. I met Kennedy for God’s sake. How can this be? 36. I’m dead.

What now? My only hope is my terrible hay fever. My sniffling and sneezing would be dangerous to the troops. My older brother escaped just months earlier by going completely nuts at the draft board. They classified him 4F. Unsuitable for war. I could try that but I was never as good an actor as my brother. Things had changed considerably at the draft since my brother’s award-winning 4F performance. No more BS. You could be bleeding from the eyes and you were going in. No escape. I was completely trapped. I just wanted to go home, lean on my Mom’s shoulder and watch TV with her like I used to. How am I gonna get out of this mess?

Sometime during my physical, I heard two words that changed everything. Conscientious Objector. All I have to do is explain my position in writing, have a personal interview with the Selective Service Board and convince them that I should not be in Vietnam with everyone else. My appointment day with the draft board came quickly. When I went into the small office in Hackensack, a kind-looking man probably in his 40s was behind a desk. He had my file in front of him including my epic essay on why I shouldn’t fight in Vietnam. This is the man who would decide my fate.

“We’ve all killed and been killed many times in our past lives!” I said. Oh Lord, this can’t be going well, did I just talk about past lives? Boot camp here I come! I continued, “We have been killing each other since the beginning of time. We don’t learn anything, and our Karmic burden on this planet gets worse and worse.” Then finally: ”I can’t in good conscience continue this endless cycle of killing boys my own age and collecting more bad Karma. My load is too heavy as it is.” The man looks at me… and says… ”Karma”… then after what seemed like forever… “I’m gonna put this through. You have six weeks to find alternative service. Good luck!”

Almost 50 years have passed since that karmic day in Hackensack, and by any measure, I’ve had plenty of good luck. I found my alternative service at NYU medical library working in the stacks. That’s right, I was putting med students’ library books back on their shelves. I found a small room in Astoria, Queens, to live in, complete with a hot plate and toilet in the hall. Not fancy but a lot better than living in the jungle in Vietnam and getting shot at every day.

It’s 2019, and I’m back here in Astoria. I knew about the old Paramount studios that were just a few blocks away from my luxurious 32nd Avenue Astoria address back then. They made 90 films there in the 1920s, with people like Valentino, The Gish sisters, W.C Fields, and the Marx Brothers. Now Murphy Brown, a show I first filmed with Candice Bergen in the 1990s, released the first season of a reboot, made at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

And we’re dealing much of the same national madness and division that sent me to Astoria as a 20-year-old. Being here, how could I not be reminded of the guys born on August 24, 1949 who never heard of Alternative Service. Didn’t meet a kind draft board guy. Had no clue they could object. And never saw their moms again. I’m so sorry. We were all just scared little boys. I got the chance to grow up marry the gorgeous woman I’ve loved for 46 years, and have three kids of my own. They didn’t.

It feels like the world is falling off its axis again. Kids are still killing each other in some war or other. African Americans continue to be shot in the streets. People in power hurl nasty nicknames. Nazis have crawled back out from under their rocks. And anger infuses every public space. People say that they have not seen anything like this in their lifetimes. But if you’re my age, you have seen this madness before. And that’s scary. Where are we heading? What will my four beautiful grandkids have to face? Will some leader ask them to pick up a rifle and go kill somebody else’s grandkids in a war somewhere? Sadly, history tells us that might be the case.

Our little ones will discover the terrible things we do to each other on this planet soon enough. They don’t need to learn any pre-school war games from grandpa. So I’ll teach them a different game. There will be no talk of guns. When they find big dirt hills, like the ones we had on Mabie Street, they can play on them as much as they want. And there are still rules: You can climb up the hills and run down them as fast as you can. You can play a lot of stupid but very funny games. You can build huts with speakers and WiFi, get filthy dirty, laugh till you’re breathless, and then go home to mom for cookies and milk. Rules are rules. No arguing. Because what’s the point of any game unless you get to go home at the end?

Correction, Feb. 19

The original version of this story misstated whether there was a military draft before 1969. There was a process for conscripting men into military service, but not a draft lottery.

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OPINION

Angelina Jolie and Geraldine Van Bueren on Children’s Rights

Jolie: We’ve known each other for several years, but I’ve never actually heard how you became involved in drafting the convention.

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Children Stage Mass Protest Parade Highlighting World Issues
Children march around Southbank Centre in London to celebrate children and young people's rights on Oct. 22, 2015. Ben Pruchnie—Getty Images

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When the Charter of the U.N. was signed in San Francisco in June 1945, it promised equal rights for all, but made no specific mention of children. Thirty years ago, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted, recognizing for the first time that children have their own rights, distinct from adults. The distinction is vital to the millions of children who still live with conflict, poverty, violence and abuse. Professor Geraldine Van Bueren was one of the drafters of the convention. I asked her if it has lived up to its promise, and what her message is to children fighting to be heard today.

Jolie: We’ve known each other for several years, but I’ve never actually heard how you became involved in drafting the convention.

Van Bueren: I was invited by Amnesty International to represent them at the United Nations in the drafting process. I was only in my 20s.

What compelled you to say yes?

When I was young, we lived with my grandparents, who were refugees. My grandmother was a young child, one of 13 siblings, when she walked across Europe from Lithuania to the English Channel. It was in the days before aid agencies, mobile phones or instant food. I never heard her talk about how hard this must have been. Most of my Eastern European and Dutch family, including young cousins, were murdered in the Holocaust. From the age of 11, I wanted to be a human-rights lawyer to prevent the same thing happening to other people.

When we first met, I told you my children had a summary of the convention on the wall of their schoolroom, but that I had explained to them that so far, the U.S. hasn’t ratified it.

America’s refusal to ratify is puzzling as the country was one of the leading drafters. It protects children’s right to free speech and religious freedom, the founding principles of the Bill of Rights. It’s based upon the best interests of the child, which has been a fundamental principle of American law since at least the 19th century. But it does a lot more. The convention tells us to look at the child’s right to participate in decisions affecting them through a child’s eyes, and to provide information in a format appropriate to a child. So it also helps build an educated citizenship.

What difference does the lack of ratification make to children in the U.S.?

Because childhood was invisible to the Founding Fathers, the Constitution makes no provision for children. America was not alone in this, but other countries have added legal protection for the rights of children by accepting the convention. It also provides a safety net, which all children need to have in case their government fails them. Incongruously, the leading United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, has always had an American as its head, but UNICEF’s work is based around a treaty which America hasn’t ratified.

Two American children, Carl Smith and Alexandria Villaseñor, have joined Greta Thunberg and children from 10 other countries in filing a complaint arguing that carbon pollution violates their rights. Is this an example of the convention at work?

Their petition concerns all children, and generations yet unborn, so it is generous and compassionate. Under what is known as the Third Protocol, a treaty additional to the main convention, children can petition the U.N. Committee, but only after they have exhausted all possible national remedies. In other words, if America were party to it, state and federal legislators and state and federal courts would have opportunities first to remedy the violation.This is just common sense.

Could children apply the convention to other areas?

Absolutely. It’s a Bill of Rights for children. The main aim of the convention is to act as an early warning system, so that children and adults can point out that any particular policy or law, or lack of policy or law, has a detrimental impact on children—for instance, social media and the right to privacy.

We’ve discussed the importance of children’s being made aware of their rights. What is your message to them?

The convention is for the children of the world. Children participated in the drafting. American schoolchildren lobbied governments to persuade them to include the abolition of the death penalty, and Canadian First Nation children successfully called for the protection of indigenous children’s rights. Children can use the provisions in the Convention to call for their rights to be protected. Children can help other children and prevent their rights being violated. But to do this, children need to know their rights and be supported in how to use them.

There is a disconnect between what the U.N. Convention says are fundamental rights for children and the way governments pick and choose which ones they will or will not uphold. How do we get to the point that upholding children’s rights is seen as an absolute responsibility?

You are right that there is often a disconnect between what children are entitled to and what is happening to them, particularly to child refugees and children caught up in armed conflicts; situations for which they are not responsible. What the Convention does is to provide an avenue for children not to be targeted. But it requires political will. The challenge is to make children the central plank of our policies. Childhood cannot wait.

Do you ever despair at the gap between the ideals of U.N. and the selective way they are applied?

It’s not helpful to children to be despairing when so much more still needs to be done. Despair is a paralyzing emotion. We do not focus enough on the Convention’s successes, whether it is reducing infant mortality, providing necessary healthcare or creating ways in which children can and have effectively participated in policy—from children’s parliaments to children contributing to the shaping of budgets. If we keep in mind the successes as well as what needs to be done, then it gives us the energy to do more and to do it better. The U.N. system is imperfect but it is the best we have, and better than its predecessor, the League of Nations. Children deserve the best we have to give, so we have to work with what we have, whilst simultaneously trying to improve it.

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