The Common Good

Surprising Insights on Ukraine in the New York Times

The news coverage of international conflicts can be very disappointing from a mimetic perspective. When conflicts escalate into violence as in Syria or the Ukraine, news outlets rush to cover the hostilities. They give us the facts on the ground, or rumors thereof, accompanied by an almost mindless report of what each side is saying by way of self-justification. However, if you listen to their rhetoric with mimetically tuned ears, which happens after spending time here at Raven, you realize that their rhetoric is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Unfortunately, it is this “nothing” that usually makes the headlines.

Aquir/Shutterstock.com
The U.S. and Russia may be at odds, but they also might not be so different in attempts for power. Aquir/Shutterstock.com

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Major outlets like the New York Times rarely give as good an analysis as my colleague Adam Ericksen did last week. Speaking of the crisis in Ukraine, Adam said that we often think conflict is the result of differences. But the truth is that rivals resemble each other in often surprising ways. They are in conflict because they share the same desires and so are locked in a competition for something that they cannot or will not share. In the case of the conflict over Crimea, the “thing” is not the region but power and prestige. Adam explains:

Russia’s desire for power is mimetic, or imitative, and modeled on its rival for power, the United States. Russia wants what the United States has — the prestige of being a global super power — and Russia is willing to use the same methods that the United States has used to gain and sustain that prestige — violence.

News reports tend to emphasize differences, because that is what the combatants do, so imagine my surprise when in the last week I came across not one, but two articles in the New York Times that focused on the similarities between the U.S. and Russia! A focus on similarities is a sure sign that a mimetic analysis is going on. If you’d like to play a game — read the articles before you take a look at my comments to see if you can spot the mimetic moments in them for yourself.

Difference #1: I’m the True Believer in Self-Determination, Not You!

March 7: For First Time, Kremlin Signals It Is Prepared to Annex Crimea

In the following excerpt we see a good understanding that each nation claims to support the right of self-determination which is a similarity they openly admit to. Yet they insist that only they and not their opponent are the true supporters of self-determination. And they give examples to prove it. But the reporter clearly sees the hypocrisy behind the rhetoric. All the rhetoric is around trying to explain why when I intervene somewhere it’s about my noble belief in self-determination, when I don’t intervene in a similar situation, well, let’s not discuss that right now!

Mimetic point: Rivals insist on differences and cannot see how alike they are, something only skeptical onlookers can see.

With Washington and Moscow trading heated accusations of hypocrisy on the issue of respecting state sovereignty, validating Crimea’s secession would carry pointed political risks for Mr. Putin, given longstanding demands for independence from Russia by its own similarly autonomous republics in the Caucasus, including Dagestan and Chechnya.

Michael A. McFaul, a former American ambassador to Russia, noted the parallel in a sharp post on Twitter. “If Russian government endorses Crimean referendum,” Mr. McFaul wrote, using abbreviations needed for a 140-character limit, “will they also allow/endorse similar votes in republics in the Russian Federation?”

The West, which has insisted that the Ukrainian people are entitled to decide their future without interference from Russia, faces similar challenges as it seeks to explain why the people of Crimea should not necessarily decide their own fate.

The United States and its European allies typically support self-determination, but have opposed independence for regions within their own borders, like Scotland in Britain or Catalonia in Spain.

Difference #2: My Violence is Good – Yours is Bad!

March 8: Sovereignty vs. Self-Rule: Crimea Reignites Battle

This excerpt points to the thorny dilemma that our military intervention in Kosovo created for us. The U.S. saw its use of violence as legitimate and unique. In other words, this was an extreme case in which good violence was necessary to stop bad violence and so it was not a precedent that should be imitated by other nations. We were trying the old parental gambit, “Do as I say, not as I do,” which is mimetic foolishness at its most extreme.

We imitate the actions of our models, even when they tell us not to. What Russia saw us doing was use violence in the name of a good and just cause while reserving the right to condemn the use of violence by others. And so Russian makes the same claim: they insist their violence is just and justified, while ours is not. Mirror images once again — all similarity and very little difference.

Mimetic point: Rivals see only the differences between their violence and that of their rival, while skeptical onlookers and especially the victims of the violence, see no difference at all. The rivals are mirror images, enemy twins, as they use violence, ignore victims, and never doubt their own goodness.

Kosovo is the case that deeply divided Europe. After Yugoslavia fell apart, the Kosovo Liberation Army, a rebel group representing the Albanian minority, struggled against the Serbian government, which responded with punishing force until Mr. Clinton intervened in 1999 with a 78-day NATO bombing campaign.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The United States under George W. Bush recognized it, as did Britain, France and Germany, but Russia adamantly rejected it, as did Spain. The International Court of Justice later ruled that Kosovo’s declaration was legal.

“We never saw it as setting a precedent, but there were some nations that saw it that way and still do,” said James W. Pardew, who was Mr. Clinton’s special representative for the Balkans. 

John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer at the State Department under Bush, said: “We were very careful to emphasize that Kosovo was a unique situation. We were fond of saying it was sui generis — and it did not create a precedent that would likely be replicable anywhere else.”

That is not how the Kremlin sees it. Ever since, Russia has cited Kosovo to justify support for pro-Moscow separatist republics in places like Georgia, where it went to war in 2008 and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia over Western objections.

Difference #3: It’s Not About Differences!

A good mimetic analysis is always skeptical of the rhetoric of combatants for one simple reason: rivals insist on their differences for one reason — to justify their use of violence. Rivals divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, those who can use violence with moral or legal authority and those whose violence always falls outside those boundaries. When reporters fall under the spell of the conflict, they spend their time in a futile search for the good guys to defend, the victims to protect, and the bad guys to punish. But in a conflict in which violence has erupted, the distinction between good guys and bad guys fades into meaninglessness. There are only perpetrators busy justifying themselves and victims who suffer and die.

The painful outcome of a mimetic analysis is the discovery that your side, your nation, your people, your morality may have fallen victim to difference-destroying violence.

But out of that painful realization, hope for peace is born. Once we recognize that we are no different than our rivals, we may also recognize that to be truly good means to renounce the legitimacy of violence. That hope can be born out of a painful truth is what motivates our analysis here at Raven. I wonder if the New York Times is beginning to dare to tell its readers a truth they may not want to hear. If these articles are any indication, the Times may finally be reporting news fit to print.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Photo: Aquir/Shutterstock.com

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