By Matt Taibbi
Last summer there was a hit song in Russia. You might have heard it. It was by a band called the “Forbidden Drummers” and it was called “Ubili Negra”-”They killed a nigger.”
This wasn’t wholesome, healthy pop music of the sort practiced by artistic visionaries like Ivanushki and Na-Na. Just listen to the lyrics: “Arms folded on his belly/For three days hasn’t eaten or drunk/The nigger doesn’t get up, doesn’t go to play basketball/La la la la, la la la la la, la la, they killed a nigger...”
A lengthy introduction to the virtues of the crowbar and the Tec-9 might have awaited the Forbidden Drummers had our travel-ready black brothers and sisters in the U.S. ever been informed about this song. Fortunately, this sort of needless violence was averted when, among other things, Wall Street Journal Bureau chief Andrew Higgins elected to leave the reporting of that story to the non-financial press. It wasn’t his audience, after all: niggers don’t play the stock market.
But regular (i.e. not necessarily black) Americans are a different story. When yet another Russian pop artist put out a song called “Kill the Yankees,” which threatened the makers of Chevrolets and called for the destruction of hard-currency exchange offices, an outraged Higgins sprang into action in defense of his people. Leaving his usual economic and financial beat behind, the Pulitzer Prizewinner last week gingerly rolled up his sleeves and dove feet-first into the murky world of cultural commentary with his vituperative report, “Anti-American Song ‘Kill the Yankees’ Develops Strong Following in Russia.”
Some background on Higgins. Last year, Mark Ames and I wrote an article in the Nation criticizing the Pulitzer Committee’s decision to give Higgins and fellow Journal reporter Steve Liesman their award for best foreign reporting for their coverage of the 1998 financial crisis. But in that article we actually went to great lengths to show that it was Liesman, not Higgins, who was the truly undeserving one. It was Liesman, not Higgins, who had written just months before the crisis that Russia had turned the corner economically. Higgins was the one who came in late in the game and, as far as we could see, basically got the crisis story right.
We knew nothing about Higgins. His WASPy byline, coupled with his dull neo-liberal text, suggested a bepectacled geek in a pink Arrow shirt who kept a sticky volume of Adam Smith essays hidden under his mattress. And any replacement of Steve Liesman seemed automatically to represent a change in a quieter, more tactful, more reflective direction.
As it turned out, Higgins’s Journal bureau has been just as mean, if not meaner, that Liesman’s. This latest piece is only the most recent example. Here’s how it leads off:
‘MOSCOW — After a concert in the basement of a museum dedicated to a dead Russian poet, a group of earnest young music fans parse the lyrics of their favorite song, which rails against U.S. power and Russian poverty.
‘“It reflects our true reality, the burning issues of the day,” says Konstantin Kudryachev, the event’s organizer and an aficionado of Russia’s underground music scene. “This is music for the intellect.”
‘But this brain food is served very raw.’
Higgins by now has already set the stage for his approach to the story, a classic laissez-faire capitalist analysis. He declares as fact in the opening paragraph that the song “rails against U.S. power and Russian poverty.”
This is not strictly correct. Crude as it is, what “Kill the Yankees” really rails against is the American way of life-consumerism, “supermarket mass culture”, the religion of brand names, etc. The song was originally written by musician Alexander Nepominaschiy as a response to the American bombing of Iraq, and was later refined after the air attack on Kosovo. It’s about two things: feeling helpless to stop the advance of a culture you find repugnant, and not caring that your band will never get to warm up for Phil Collins. Basically it’s “Fuck the Police”, only about Americans, not L.A. Cops. Here are some of the lyrics:
“Burn the shop with the Americans! Advertise the hard-currency store with a brick. Blow up with a grenade their pretty Chevrolet. Scrawl the word p on their sales logo! Kill the Yankees! Kill the Yankees and all who love the Yankees!”
Here are some lyrics from another Nepominaschiy song, which get more to the heart of the matter:
“Buy Tampax tampons, chew Spearmint gum, eat Snickers bars, drink Hershey’s. No matter what, a bullet will be found for you. No matter what, a bullet will be found for you.”
Higgins probably didn’t like NWA either. His assessment that this song is about “U.S. power” and “Russian poverty” is consistent with the usual reactionary approach to this kind of dissent. Since the U.S. is guiltless, this Russian can’t really be angry with Americans. Obviously he’s really just angry with himself over his own inability to make money, and over his country’s inability to thwart American influence.
Higgins’s piece gets even better from there:
‘The song hasn’t made pop-music charts — some radio stations have banned it — but it has struck a chord among an eclectic bunch of devotees: bookish but bitter students, rebels in leather, and shaggy-haired dropouts. United by their youth, they are a new market for anti-Americanism.
‘Such sentiments are hardly mainstream: Opinion polls show scant ill will toward Americans among most Russians. But the hostility is breaking out of a ghetto of old-timers wistful for Soviet power and for the stirring strains of the Red Army chorus.’
Okay, first of all, who are these dissenters-rebels “united by their youth”, or “old-timers wistful for Soviet power”? Are they old, Andrew, or are they young? Clearly the people listening to the song are young people-so why mention the old? Answer: in order to more easily blame the phenomenon behind the song on misguided nostalgia for communism, those wonderful days when these would-be losers and consumers of hate art could loaf around, instead of having to work for their money.
This passage echoes the same kind of sentiment that followed the communists over the years, that the communist electoral support was soft because it relied mainly on the devotion of old people, who, thank God, were going to die soon anyway. In the Wall Street Journal vision of the world, the only people who matter are the professionally-productive 22-54 set. All other people are just frustrated fringe elements who do not matter, because they do not contribute to the GDP. These people are not like you and me: they are “shaggy”, “bitter”, “in leather”, from a “ghetto”. The bit about the “ghetto of old-timers” was particularly striking, given that it was U.S.-backed reforms that helped rob the elderly of their dignity in this country, hollowing out their pensions through hyperinflation and austerity programs, slashing their health benefits, vilifying their generation for the crimes of communism.
Beyond that, Higgins describes these people as possessing an anti-Americanism that isn’t even their own, as it doesn’t come from within; instead, they’re impressionable dupes who’ve had their anti-Americanism sold to them by canny operators who recognized them as a “market.”
Then there is this sentence: ‘Such sentiments are hardly mainstream: Opinion polls show scant ill will toward Americans among most Russians.’
First of all, does a thing have to be mainstream to be legitimate? Higgins seems to think so. Secondly, what does he mean by “scant”? During the NATO bombing of Kosovo last March, the polling agency Vtsiom found that 49% of Russians felt “negatively” or “very negatively” toward the United States. After the war, those numbers dropped into the thirties, but they haven’t fallen much farther than that (the latest VtSIOM poll shows anti-Americanism at 22%). This is not “scant” ill will—this is at least a noteworthy amount of ill will.
Then the question arises: if there is “scant ill will” toward the United States, and the song has not become a hit, then why is Higgins doing this story? If the song isn’t a hit, then why did Higgins later on write the following alarmist passage about the angry mob at Nepominaschiy’s concert:
“When he declined to perform his anti-American anthem at a recent concert, he was jeered by foot-stomping fans. They calmed down after he agreed to play a different, marginally less incendiary ditty from his repertoire... The audience loved it and joined him in a lusty chorus.”
The answer, of course, is that the song is popular enough, and that it’s the very popularity of the song which compelled Higgins to write in protest. But Higgins plays both sides of the issue because his treatment of the subject demands that he be at once dismissive and alarmist about the song. Because the sentiment in the song is baseless, the song cannot be popular, therefore it isn’t; because someone has dared to threaten Americans, the threat must be exaggerated, and therefore it is.
Note Higgins’s description of the crowd. You know the old saw-the poor have passions, the rich have reasons. It’s an age-old rhetorical trick: identify your opponent’s point of view as a by-product of emotion, instead of as an intellectually-arrived-at conviction, and you’ve won half the battle. U.S. newspapers used the trick over and over during the Kosovo war, consistently describing Russian popular opposition to the war as “frustration” and “evidence of wounded pride”, discounting any and all “reasons” for their stance.
Higgins does his best to lay down the battle lines here in the same way. The inclusion of the word “lusty chorus” is no accident. You can imagine the concert scene, with the crowd as a big single organism with no brains but plenty of eyes, fists and mouths, fueled by bulging prostates and bubbles of hormones gurgling in their abdomens.
In fulfilling his obligation to exaggerate, Higgins moves on to tie the success of the song to the success of the movie “Brat-2”, which he describes as a sort of irrational hate movie about killing Americans:
‘For some young Russians, killing Americans is boffo at the box office.
“Brat-2,” a movie hit this year, features a baby-faced Russian hit man called Danila who goes from New York to Chicago blowing people’s brains out. The film has spawned a Web site — and a counter Web site was launched by appalled critics. Internet chat rooms froth with polemics on the pros and cons of xenophobic homicide.’
Here is a short list of American movies I invite Higgins to watch. They are: The Saint, Golden Eye, Red Dawn, The World is Not Enough, Knock Off, Air Force One... Remember Air Force One? A crazed Russian terrorist seizes the U.S. Presidential plane for no good reason, forcing not a baby-faced hit man, but the actual President of the United States to go around personally blowing Russians’ brains out. How about “Born American”? Remember that one, Andrew? A pair of teenage American yo-yos cross the Soviet border in Finland “for fun”, and end up having to kill busloads of Russian extras to get out of their trespassing sentences and back home to the bean-bag chairs in their suburban homes.
Holllywood producers have been mindlessly killing Russians by the stadiumful for almost thirty years. But now that Russia has produced one movie-and it’s literally one movie-in which a dumb Russian action hero kicks ass in America, the Wall Street Journal cries foul. Amazing. What makes this even more incredible is that Brat-2, all things considered, was a pretty entertaining movie, which is more than can be said for any of the abovementioned American monstrosities. In fact, I would instantly acquit Nepominaschiy of all charges of unfairness to Americans if I were to find out that he had been forced even once to watch “The Saint”, a movie so dumb it makes “Brat-2” look like “Citizen Kane.” For sheer dumb xenophobic violence, America has Russia beat by more than mile-we’re so far ahead, the Russians will never catch up.
Just for kicks, Higgins goes on to quote a Russian who has accessed the Brat-2 chat room to complain to the film’s fans: . “You clowns are overwhelmed with pride for scum who kill Americans. You are all imbeciles. If it weren’t for Americans, we’d have been under Hitler’s rule.”
Higgins didn’t make this statement himself, but he was the one who put it in. It fits in with the overall rhetorical line of the piece a little too harmoniously to be in there as an afterthought-it’s pretty clear that Higgins was nodding his head in approval as he stuck it in there. Most Americans would have more shame than to suggest publicly that Russia’s heroic effort in World War II would have come to nothing without the help of the United States. Not Higgins. And not the Wall Street Journal, whose owners probably spent the war in their East side Penthouses weeping over lost investments, while Russians were throwing themsleves under Panzers, starving and freezing in outdoor P.O.W. pens, eating each others’ corpses to stay alive, etc.
Higgins’s effort to discredit Nepominaschiy was impressively exhaustive. After establishing that he’s unpopular and deluded, his song the ugly product of envy and misguided frustration, he moves on to try to undermine Nepominaschiy’s motives. In these passages, he describes Nepominaschiy as a businessman who was motivated to do what he did by the desire to secure his own commercial niche:
‘Boris Barabanov, a director of Nashe Radio, a popular Moscow music station, calls it the “pendulum effect.” As recently as the early 1990s, he says, American popular culture and icons of success reigned supreme. “Today, young people see ordinary Americans as dolts chewing gum and hamburgers. This stereotype has replaced the old stereotype of the successful young businessman.”
‘The shift has been a big boost to Mr. Nepomnyashchy’s career, and it has also helped his rage-filled rivals — groups with names like Mental Depression, AK-47 and Spleen. Mr. Kudryachev, the underground music aficionado, says Mr. Nepomnyashchy has a firm lock on the market: “He’s found his niche in this type of art.”
Higgins here is sincerely suggesting that Nepomischiy spent some eight years writing a single song as part of a strategy to help his career. He makes writing a song called “Kill the Americans” out to be an act of pure opportunism. Again, this is another tactic designed to discount the sentiment of the song, which would be likely to frighten Higgins’s readers. In suggesting that the artist was only writing his song because he knew it would sell, he convinces readers that Nepomiaschiy was just trying to make a buck, that he didn’t really mean it. What’s doubly revolting about this tactic is the underlying correct assumption on Higgins’s part that his American readers will naturally embrace the motives of anyone who comes up with an innovation that makes money. In the Wall Street Journal, anyone who fulfills a market need is assumed to be a good guy.
From here Higgins moves on to imply that the song has already inspired Russians to violence against Americans:
‘The song crystallized into its current feverish form during last year’s U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
‘A series of demonstrations were held outside the U.S. embassy after air strikes began in March. Protesters hurled paint, threw rocks and screamed Mr. Nepomnyashchy’s lyrics and other anti-American abuse through bullhorns.’
Question: if protesters at the embassy were shouting “Kill the Yankees”, were they quoting Nepominaschiy’s song, or were they just saying “Kill the Yankees”? Probably Higgins had some specific reason for thinking that the crowd was shouting specifically those lyrics-maybe he was there, or maybe Nepominaschiy told him so himself-but he doesn’t make it clear, and so you’re left with the suspicion that Higgins might either be mistaken, or bending the truth already.
This is a mistake he can’t really afford to make, because the attentive reader during this passage already suspects that Higgins’s excuse for bringing up the demonstrations at all is a thin one at best. The practical effect of writing this passage the way he did was obviously to leave the reader with a clear example of cause and effect, beginning with Nepominaschiy’s song and ending with rock-throwing (and, as noted later, gunfire). Higgins’s chronology goes as follows: first NATO bombs Yugoslavia, then Nepominaschiy changes his lyrics to make them more “feverish”, and finally angry mobs of Russians start throwing rocks at the embassy. The extra step in the middle allows Higgins to blame the violence on the artist, and not on America’s conduct during the war. It’s done smoothly enough that a less attentive reader won’t realize that this is bullshit until it’s too late.
Another thing worth noting here is the word “abuse”. The very use of this word implies that the protesters’ opinions were groundless. A writer taking a more objective approach to the protests would have used a different word here—”invective”, say. Webster’s defines abuse as “language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily.” One doesn’t abuse the guilty—one abuses the innocent, and America is an innocent in Higgins’s version.
Higgins wraps up his piece by trying to show that on top of everything else, Nepomiaschiy is a hypocrite. He does this mainly by showing that this enemy of American consumerism is himself an enthusiastic consumer of American culture. In the foilowing passage, Higgins first worms a salute to American rock stars out of Nepominaschiy, then levels another blindside hit on the “lusty” crowd that follows his music:
‘The songwriter says he has nothing against Americans personally and cites Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain as heroes. But he has trouble naming a living American he likes. The lyricist himself is a partisan of the kill-the-inner-Yankee school of musical interpretation. “It’s necessary ... to kill the values of liberal, postindustrial society,” he says.
‘But subtlety is lost on wilder concertgoers with a taste for skull-motif jewelry.’
It’s odd to see the Wall Street Journal writing in an approving tone about Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. I’m sure the Journal’s usual readers didn’t have much use for any of these three musicians while they were alive, but in this context—juxtaposed against the lusty subhuman crowd of poor Russians (note the use of the word “wilder”, of course an antonym for “more civilized”)—they’re upheld as icons of civilization.
Higgins’s sociological views are made very clear in this passage. It is of course okay for a civilized foreigner, i.e. someone who knows enough to admire Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrission, to have his own opinions about liberal, postindustrial society. But “wild” people with “skull-motif jewelry”-again, people falling outside that responsible, taxpaying, 22-55 set-cannot be trusted to keep such opinions. Because they cannot make “subtle” distinctions, inflammatory ideas should be kept from them.
Higgins also blasts Nepominaschiy for being a bad businessman, and appears to argue that writing this kind of music for this kind of crowd is inherently unprofitable and therefore neither socially desirable (profitability being the ultimate moral indicator in the WSJ world view) nor worth pursuing:
“The musician hasn’t made much money from his underground celebrity.
Mainstream music shops don’t stock his crudely recorded tapes, and his mostly cash-strapped fans tend to make their own bootleg copies.”
As noted earlier, some mainstream stores ban Nepominaschiy’s music. It is to be assumed that no major label would record his stuff either. Therefore the musician is left to make crudely-recorded tapes, which are of too poor quality to reach the stores. Worse, the audience Nepominaschiy is writing for has no money, and prefers to make bootleg copies.
All of these details strongly suggest that Higgins believes the following: one should make music acceptable to mainstream stores, and one should write songs for audiences who have money. It is attitudes like these which make me dream of herding the Wall Street Journal staff into the nose of an Energiya rocket and shooting them into the center of the sun.
Higgins ends the piece with another smug salvo directed at Nepominaschiy’s supposed hypocrisy:
“He warms to his theme. “The more we consume, the more we depend on what we consume. I think asceticism is the main perquisite for human freedom,” he says, and lights up a Marlboro Light.”
For a financial reporter, Higgins has a very poor grasp of economics. If buying a pack of Marlboro lights compelled the purchaser to accept uncritically the entirety of the global capitalist system and the inevitability of American expansion, then people sure as hell wouldn’t pay three and a half bucks for them. They’d expect, on the contrary, to be paid for that privilege. Higgins is trying to tell us that a person can’t claim to be an anti-consumerist ascetic and smoke Marlboro Lights at the same time. Apparently Nepominaschiy is expected to smoke forest-floor debris in a pipe carved out of driftwood if he hopes to be taken at his word.
This is another one of the favorite underlying rhetorical themes of papers like the WSJ and the Financial Times: that if you participate at all in the global economy, and enjoy its benefits, then you cannot criticize it. Higgins is a strong proponent of the “hard knocks” school of capitalist education, in which people who have quality-of-life issues are warmly invited to fuck off if they can’t take care of themselves. This prideful parsimoniousness is his most distinctive characteristic as a literary observer; his other main passion is for third-tate puns and plays on words, usually thrown out as part of a joke made gloatingly at the expense of some unsuspecting low-income loser (“The peasants are revolting!” “They certainly are.”). Here’s an example, a passage from a bemused account of a bunch of stinky Russians in Pavlovsk who nearly revolted over a proposed increase of entrance fees to a local banya:
“Stripped bare, the issue is this: Can the cold hand of free-market economics keep people clean? The local government says no. Accusing Mr. Vanin of overpricing and underinvesting, it has tried to nationalize his bathhouse. Mr. Vanin sees a naked grab for power and property.
The dispute has left a lot of people steamed.”
Yuk, yuk, yuk. Who says belt-tightening free-market zealots can’t have a light side?
The banya story was typical Higgins. He took the predictable position that the Russians were wrong to make a fuss over the banya prices because expecting them to be lower, i.e. affordable, would have meant that the banya would have to operate at a loss. “As with many Russian passions, humdrum concerns about profit and loss have tended to wilt in the steam,” snorts the punster, adding: “In the Soviet era, that made little difference: The state footed the bill.”
What Higgins doesn’t address in his story, of course, is the fact that many homes in places like Pavlovsk have no hot water, which means that the local banya is very often the only place people can go to bathe. The banya is therefore much more like a public utility than a simple recreational business. Now, whatever attitude one takes toward control over public utilities in general—and we can imagine what attitude Higgins would take—one has to admit that there is some legitimacy to the idea that in a civilized country, life necessities should be made accessible to most if not all people. I mean, there’s nothing radical about saying that you have the right to take a bath.
Higgins doesn’t agree. When the people in Pavlosk threatened to riot for the right to bathe cheaply, he clearly found the absurdity of their situation highly amusing. Here he is laughing at their grimy, silly little problems:
“French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace. Here on the banks of the River Oka, 220 miles east of Moscow, the citadel that really gets the blood boiling is a malodorous concrete bunker equipped with two steam rooms, four broken washing machines and a pile of birch twigs ready for use as welt-raising whips. (The town’s other passions are ice fishing and scavenging at a municipal dump.)”
This is the kind of sensitive, forgiving person who wins our Pulitzer Prize. No wonder people want to kill us Yankees.