In a protest letter to the group, Cohen called this action "a political decision that creates serious doubts about the organization's commitment to First Amendment rights and academic freedom." He also noted that young scholars in the field have expressed fear for their professional futures if they break from the herd. Cohen mentioned the story of one young woman scholar who dropped off a panel to avoid risking her career in case she said something that could be deemed sympathetic to Russia.
Cohen noted, too, that even established foreign policy figures, ex-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, have been accused in the Washington Post of "advocating that the West appease Russia," with the notion of "appeasement" meant "to be disqualifying, chilling, censorious." (Kissinger had objected to the comparison of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler as unfounded.)
So, as the United States rushes into a new Cold War with Russia, we are seeing the makings of a new McCarthyism, challenging the patriotism of anyone who doesn't get in line. But this conformity presents a serious threat to U.S. national security and even the future of the planet. We saw a similar pattern with the rush to war in Iraq, but a military clash with nuclear-armed Russia is a crisis of a much greater magnitude.
One of Professor Cohen's key points has been that Official Washington's "group think" about post-Soviet Russia has been misguided from the start, laying the groundwork for today's confrontation. In Cohen's view, to understand why Russians are so alarmed by U.S. and NATO meddling in Ukraine, you have to go back to those days after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Instead of working with the Russians to transition carefully from a communist system to a pluralistic, capitalist one, the U.S. prescription was "shock therapy."
As American "free market" experts descended on Moscow during the pliant regime of Boris Yeltsin, well-connected Russian thieves and their U.S. compatriots plundered the country's wealth, creating a handful of billionaire "oligarchs" and leaving millions upon millions of Russians in a state of near starvation, with a collapse in life expectancy rarely seen in a country not at war.
Yet, despite the desperation of the masses, American journalists and pundits hailed the "democratic reform" underway in Russia with glowing accounts of how glittering life could be in the shiny new hotels, restaurants and bars of Moscow. Complaints about the suffering of average Russians were dismissed as the grumblings of losers who failed to appreciate the economic wonders that lay ahead.
As recounted in his 2001 book, Failed Crusade, Cohen correctly describes this fantastical reporting as journalistic "malpractice" that left the American people misinformed about the on-the-ground reality in Russia. The widespread suffering led Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin, to pull back on the wholesale privatization, to punish some oligarchs and to restore some of the social safety net.
Though the U.S. mainstream media portrays Putin as essentially a tyrant, his elections and approval numbers indicate that he commands broad popular support, in part, because he stood up to some oligarchs (though he still worked with others). Yet, Official Washington continues to portray oligarchs whom Putin jailed as innocent victims of a tyrant's revenge.
After Putin pardoned jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the neocon Freedom House sponsored a Washington dinner in Khordorkovsky's honor, hailing him as one of Russia's political heroes. "I have to say I'm impressed by him," declared Freedom House President David Kramer. "But he's still figuring out how he can make a difference."
New York Times writer Peter Baker fairly swooned at Khodorkovsky's presence. "If anything, he seemed stronger and deeper than before" prison, Baker wrote. "The notion of prison as cleansing the soul and ennobling the spirit is a powerful motif in Russian literature."
Yet, even Khodorkovsky, who is now in his early 50s, acknowledged that he "grew up in Russia's emerging Wild West capitalism to take advantage of what he now says was a corrupt privatization system," Baker reported. In other words, Khodorkovsky was admitting that he obtained his vast wealth through a corrupt process, though by referring to it as the "Wild West" Baker made the adventure seem quite dashing and even admirable when, in reality, Khodorkovsky was a key figure in the plunder of Russia that impoverished millions of his countrymen and sent many to early graves.
In the 1990s, Professor Cohen was one of the few scholars with the courage to challenge the prevailing boosterism for Russia's "shock therapy." He noted even then the danger of mistaken "conventional wisdom" and how it strangles original thought and necessary skepticism.
"Much as Russia scholars prefer consensus, even orthodoxy, to dissent, most journalists, one of them tells us, are 'devoted to group-think' and 'see the world through a set of standard templates,'" wrote Cohen. "For them to break with 'standard templates' requires not only introspection but retrospection, which also is not a characteristic of either profession."
Nor is it characteristic of U.S.-taxpayer-funded Radio Liberty, which has gone from promoting the views of Nazi sympathizers in the 1980s to pushing the propaganda of a new Ukrainian government that cozies up to modern-day neo-Nazis.
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