Hegemony and Moskalenko

The mercury found in Karinna Moskalenko’s car may have come from a barometer that the previous owner of the car had accidentally spilled, according to the French authorities (see Le Figaro, BBC, IHT). When Moskalenko, a Russian lawyer whose clients have included Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the family of Anna Politkovskaya, was recently diagnosed with mercury poisoning, she feared the mercury was planted intentionally to poison her and her family. Indeed, she then remained away from the opening of the trial over the murder of Politkovskaya.

Peter Lavelle sums up almost exactly what I was thinking:

When the story broke that the lawyer for slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was allegedly suffering from mercury poisoning, I braced myself for the now standard reaction: “Putin did it”. When it comes to Russia, the West’s commentariat refuses to use logic or attempts to investigate. The fact is, writing sensational stories about Russia sells and serves time-honoured stereotypes, prejudices, and reinforces a sense of Western hubris. Actually, I am a bit surprised the global financial meltdown has not also been pinned on Putin!

At the time, The Washington Post wrote:

Perhaps this was an unfortunate accident; the police in Strasbourg say they are still investigating. But history suggests otherwise. Numerous opponents of Mr. Putin have been killed or gravely sickened by poisoning.

Yes, the standard reaction. But I do disagree with Lavelle on ‘stereotypes’ and the western commentariat’s lack of logic. There most definitely is a logic at work here: a hegemonic logic. In Lavelle’s words:

Some dots were quickly and erroneously connected: “Kremlin critic – dead journalist – lawyer – poison – Kremlin.”

At any one time, and/or in any one place, there will be a set of expectations, conventional understandings, political exclusions and inclusions, sets of norms and values, leading definitions, etc. All this makes up the fully formed hegemonic (in Gramsci’s sense) discourses of that time and place.

Russia is one of the prime examples of media hegemony. By no means do the media speak with one voice (Lavelle and other bloggers are not the only exceptions), but by and large, when something vaguely political happens, the immediate interpretation is that the Kremlin was to blame. Be this Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, Ukraine’s gas, Estonia’s computers. The ‘dots’ are connected and a binary opposition is set up: Kremlin vs. The Others.

New information appearing on a journalist’s radar is embedded into this already existing binary. If someone is not an associate of the Kremlin, they must be in danger from the Kremlin. I am quite convinced that most of these news reports are not ill-intentioned. Journalists see their job as passing on the most recent newsworthy information they receive. Of course the initial news story is more likely to be noticed and remembered than the small correction printed later.

Lavelle challenges the comentariat ‘to grow up and get real’. Maybe there is something in this. If more individuals shift the discourse, as he does in his in-depth analyses of Russian politics, then the current hegemony will be destabilised. But this only addresses part of the problem. Individuals alone can only do so much to change such entrenched discourses. A fundamental aspect of most significant social or political transformations is a serious ‘dislocation’, i.e., a moment when conventional understandings break down and can no longer help us to make sense of events.

I am watching carefully what happens in the wake of the conflict in the Caucasus. The standard reaction there was also that Russia invaded. The Sunday Mail wrote of Russian ‘barbaric’ ‘slaughter’ of civilians. And then it turned out that western intelligence reports answered the Spiegel’s headline ‘Did Saakashvili lie?’ with ‘yes, he did’.

This is a massive dislocation for most western observers. Wait a minute, they have to think, the standard interpretation doesn’t fit. Georgia-the-innocent-victim-attacked-by-Russia doesn’t wash.

Not that Russia was the innocent victim. But now is the chance for new hegemonic projects — new reports which offer a different take on events — to gain media space. In this phase of dislocation, there is less need to argue with the (old) hegemonic account of events. Instead, it’s time to offer new interpretations, new vocabulary, new discourses. This should (optimistically) be the time when even the Washington Post is open to stories from an ‘alternative’ commentariat.

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