Issue #27/52, November 19 - December 2, 1998  smlogo.gif


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Hacks Bite Jew-Bait

by Matt Taibbi

Claiming he wanted to make a chowder, my father took me out on Long Island Sound a few weeks ago to fish for bottom-feeders called blackfish. We were on one of those party boats, a kind of floating frat house with enough room around the edges for about a hundred vacationing middle-class drunks to wobble in place holding poles rigged for them by mates over the side. Fishing on the sea-frat started when the captain rang a loud electronic bell--a bell so loud that gulls on the shore a mile off flew away in alarm every time that bell rang.

No other kind of hunting could possibly have been less stealthy. Any fish with sense should have been able to avoid us with ease. Any fish, that is, except the blackfish. The blackfish is the supreme moron of the sea. It sits on the sea floor in shallow water its whole life, so you always know where to find it when other, tastier seasonal fish are scarce. It will also bite at anything it sees, absolutely anything, up to and including a bare hook with a sinker attached to it. If you throw an aluminum baseball bat overboard, a blackfish will likely beat itself on the head with it and then jump half-dead out of the water into your bucket. It might be the world's stupidest prey.

The only thing in the world that gives a blackfish a run for its money, stupidity-wise, is a journalist on an anti-Semitism story. Chum up the airwaves with a few anti-Semitic remarks, and journalists will quickly arrive from all directions to join in a feeding frenzy. And there's a frenzy going on in Russia now.

The world's mainstream media long ago collectively determined that there are only three important issues left facing humanity at the end of this century; airplane crashes, the Royal family, and anti-Semitism. Of these, the most important is anti-Semitism.

In increasingly uncertain times, anti-Semitism is the only moral issue the great Lords of Public Opinion still feel certain about. When a hack sticks a convincing enough anti-Semite in any atmosphere of bewildering social chaos--today's Russia, for instance--he usually finds that the landscape is suddenly familiar again. Suddenly it's not 1998 in Moscow, but 1944 in Berlin. He knows the ending to this movie, so he can relax. This dialogue practically writes itself.

That said, one could almost hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the Western press corps a few weeks back when a half-baked loser named General Albert Makashov made a series of anti-Semitic remarks in public. The outburst by the Archie Bunker-ish communist deputy, in which he called Jews "yids" and blamed them for destroying Russian society, was the first real headline news to come out of Russia since the crisis. It was also the first incident since the failure of "reform" that allowed Western reporters to place the Russia story in an easily accessible moral framework. Suddenly they could replace the once-reliable reformers-vs.-communists/reactionaries plotline in their political reporting with the old standard--the anti-Semites-vs.-Right-Thinking-People-Like-You-and-Me story. David Hoffman of The Washington Post even obliquely admitted as much in his Makashov story:

"The exchanges in recent days underscore how Russia's economic hardships have spawned a bitter round of ethnic scapegoating. Such virulent anti-Semitism had been rare in post-Soviet Russian politics, but appears to have taken on a new dimension because of the difficulties following the Aug. 17 devaluation of the ruble."

Hoffman never goes on to explain what that "new dimension" of anti-Semitism is, but we know: the new thing is its role as a central theme in the new post-reform version of the Russian political drama, as presented by Western journalists. Anti-Semites are suddenly more important to REPORTERS, not to the Russian people.

Hoffman might argue that anti-Semitism is a bigger story now precisely because reform has been discredited, and Russians may be looking for scapegoats for their economic troubles. If that's true, the furor around the Makashov story only demonstrates yet another weakness of the Western press corps; the degree to which it is reactive rather than proactive. Skinhead groups and radical anti-Semitic parties like the RNE have been steadily growing for years now, but it wasn't until an obvious yo-yo like Makashov decided to get himself a little press that the issue got any real attention.

About six years ago, when I was sports editor for The Moscow Times, then-editor Meg Bortin asked me to run a stand-alone photo of some lunatic who had threatened Steffi Graf at Wimbledon and had to be dragged out of the stadium by security. I argued that it was unethical to run the story, because getting into the headlines all around the world is exactly what those Mark David Chapman-type maniacs want when they pull dumb capers like that, and that by complying, we were only encouraging that kind of thing. Meg answered by rolling up a newspaper and whacking me over the head with it. I ended up running the photo. That's a true story.

Who is Albert Makashov? To most of the world, he was a nobody until about a month ago. Now, overnight, he's Adolf Hitler. He didn't have to write Mein Kampf or burn down the Reichstag or anything. All he had to do was give an interview to an Italian newspaper, menace one fruity Russian TV journalist, and then steadfastly refuse to apologize to a hysterical international coterie of hacks. Not much in the way of a grass-roots campaign there. In the age of commercial media, hatemongering can be as easy as catching blackfish.

Western reporters were so eager to provide their readers with a new Rising Menace to worry about in Russia that they frequently went a little overboard in their efforts to recall the spectre of the Nazi/Soviet regimes. Here's an excerpt from an article by Jean MacKenzie of The Boston Globe:

"But the general's parliamentary colleagues have refused even to issue an official rebuke, raising fears that state-sponsored anti-Semitism is making a comeback in Russia."

Several Western reporters used the phrase "state-sponsored anti-Semitism" in their Makashov pieces. The phrase is not only hyperbolic, it's actually misleading. Just as the bought-off Russian parliament the past few years was mistakenly used by reporters to hype a completely fictional "powerful communist opposition," describing even a monolithically anti-Semitic parliament of the present of being capable of "state sponsored anti-Semitism" would be ridiculous.

Political power in this country still rests with the executive branch and oligarchic bankers, and those segments of this society are still disproportionately represented by Jews. This is an uncomfortable fact for a right-thinking person to have to report, and most reporters, in their Makashov coverage, opted indeed for comfort and left it out. The few who included it tended to go the route MacKenzie took:

"The issue of Jewish wealth is a sensitive one: Many of the country's leading bankers and financiers are Jewish, which has made them a target for popular discontent in a time of deepening economic crisis."

All MacKenzie says here is that "many of the country's leading bankers and financiers" are Jewish. But that would be true in many countries, including America. The difference in Russia is that these same bankers and financiers are also unabashed thieves and mobsters who make life difficult for ordinary Jews through their grotesque and very public disregard for the law and for common decency. Just as David Hoffman once failed to note that there was a reason Anatoly Chubais was a "lightning rod for discontent," MacKenzie fails to note in her piece that there is a reason these bankers are a "target for popular discontent." Being wealthy isn't a legitimate reason to be vilified. Being a thief and a plunderer of the state budget is.

The current rules of engagement in American public discourse make it difficult to talk frankly about anti-Semitism in Russia. Jean MacKenzie was even apparently forced by her editors to censor Makashov's remarks, replacing "yids" with "[Jews]." No one wants to see violent retards like Makashov or Barkashov gain any more influence than they already have. Actually, they should probably both be hung by their balls. But we shouldn't make this thing into another cowboy movie. Like this column, that technique is getting pretty fucking boring.

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