Read on the
Russian President Vladimir Putin just wrote an op-ed piece on the New York Times and it has left readers flustered, enraged, impressed or groping for comebacks & rebuttals. This post is a look at the reaction to the Putin article.
In the brief and focused piece, Putin talked about the Syrian rebels’ use of chemical weapons, role of diplomacy in avoiding wars, the role and relevance of the UN and mutual respect among the peoples of the world. But why has it turned so many heads and angered – even offended – so many readers?
I think it is because, despite the hypocrisies in President Putin’s writing, he makes sense – simple, common sense. He appears to cut through all the fog and word-spinning we are used to hearing from politicians – certainly from our own President – and gets to the kernel of the matter. (September1940, Stamford CT)
In addition to what has been called a ‘diplomatic win‘ by Putin on the Syrian issue – Russia’s vital role in the Syrian conflict lends weight to the article. But it’s Putin’s moral highground – from where he appeals to rationality and international legal frameworks – that has irked most. That it was published at a critical juncture – just when the USA is reconsidering military strikes – and that it was succinct in its composition and logic, has left many a reader at a loss regarding how to react to it. Also, let’s not forget that it’s somewhat unprecedented to see a powerful country’s premiere being published in a leading US newspaper.
In fact, a blogpost quickly appeared on the NY Times, which purported to explore the story behind the Putin op-ed article in The Times. Quoting a Times reader, it asked, “Did he [Putin] call up the editorial page editor and say, hey, how would you like 800 words on you, us and Syria, I’ll have it in by Wednesday night deadline, no sweat, I’ll take your usual freelance rates?” Bypassing all the issues raised in the article, the vital question quickly became how exactly a Russian president gets published on The NY Times. Andrew Rosenthal (editor, editorial page, NY Times) explained that The Times prints a lot of articles that are contrary to its own views and that there can be no ideological Litmus Test. All opinions (especially, the Russian President’s) are equally interesting. The Times meant the USA no harm. Rosenthal admitted to receiving a lot of flak for his decision. Apparently, one of his readers described himself as “horrified” and said that The Times was “aiding and abetting a long-term foe of the United States.”
Many other important questions have emerged. ‘Why write in an American newspaper/NY Times?’, ‘Did Putin write it himself?’, ‘was he paid usual freelance rates?’ or ‘what is the name of his PR firm?’ are just some examples. Many skeptically questioned if a Russian newspaper would print an Obama article. Some ruefully wished that Obama would write an op-ed – at the very least, a reply. Amidst the misdirection, one reader points out that while the article is titled ‘A Plea for Caution From Russia’ – it appears as ‘What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria’ as a tab or link. It’s almost like a precautionary notice that this isn’t Russia – but Putin – and he’s got a speech prepared. I feel it may be interesting to examine some other random comments on the article.
“I’m sickened by the fact that we live in a time when a foreign leader has the ear of the American people” wrote David Voss of Richmond. I daresay that it is precisely this attitude of not wanting to listen – that has eaten away at the popularity of the USA. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, quipped, “One gets the sense that the vodka and caviar are flowing rather heavily in the Kremlin these days.” Isn’t that a comeback befitting of such an important post!
“How dare he lecture the USA on morals?” asked a Miami reader. (S)he continued to explain that Putin has a dismal human rights record and it was sad to see the article getting such positive responses. Dylan Morrissey (CA) brought up the feeble ending his argument, “we must not forget that God created us equal.” In all aspects, (s)he writes, this statement is ridiculous. “We? Can Putin really refer to himself and Americans collectively as ‘we’ when he bars Americans from adopting Russian children? Does he truly believe that ‘God created us equals’ when he actively promotes the persecution of gays?” More accusations related to the KGB, Goebbels, arming terrorists, aiding Iran abound on the site. Of course, criticism of Putin should’ve been a measure of last resort – since ad hominem (i.e. argument toward the man) attacks usually imply that the argument itself is irrefutable. Yet it’s the most common reaction on the Internet.
Attacking the Straw Man is a logical fallacy that sets up it’s own premise and refutes that – instead of addressing the real argument. For example, this obviously-upset reader writes:
The sophistry of the argument presented by Putin is appalling. He claims that a U.S. strike would weaken the legitimacy of the United Nations, while Russia stands ready to use its veto power to shield the Syrian government against any U.N. resolution. (Daniel Cuhat, Cedar Falls)
There’s no attempt to refute the argument that a (unilateral) US strike would hurt the legitimacy of the UN. Instead, a new premise ‘a veto diminishes the legitimacy of the UN’ is presented and Russia’s vetoes presented as evidence. The reader hasn’t refuted anything, only put forward a new premise of his choosing. Apart from these, there are innumerable non sequiturs like Nancy Imperiale’s “President Putin is threatening nuclear war if the U.S. attacks Syria. Reading this any other way is romanticizing it.” That conclusion just doesn’t follow.
Putin’s last paragraph said that American Exceptionalism, based on its policies, was an extremely dangerous idea and that Americans were no more (or no less) special than all other people in the world. Most of those who not bothered by unilateral wars or constant bypassing of international laws by the US – were devastated upon being called mediocre. It’s my prediction that just like Snowden was the residue of the PRISM uproar – Proof of Exceptionalism will become the center of this debate.
But Obama was essentially saying Americans are better than other people in ways that matter here. For example, probably we care about children who’ve been gassed to death more than people in other countries care. (Thinker, California)
This could be an argumentum ex silentio (argument based on ignorance) i.e. I know of no people who care for children more than Americans. Therefore, Americans must care most for children. Another one is an Existential Fallacy – the assumption that Americans care more about children is a universal fact. In fact, it is not a fact at all – but an opinion. And a pretty bigoted too.
Apart from the ad hominem attacks, assaults on straw-men, conjunction fallacies and plain bigotry – a vast number of (mostly US) readers have asserted one of three things: a) regardless of what Putin had to say, I support the printing of his views, b) say what you will of Russia/Russians, I think Mr. Putin is right on this time and c) reaching out to Americans at such a juncture is quite unprecedented and intelligent. Obsessed as I am with the country, I’ve been known to harbor a lot of anti-American views. But Americans’ utmost dedication to ‘defending one’s right to say it’ is unparalleled and I sincerely admire that culture. I hope it’s something we, Bangladeshis, can cultivate.
Self-reflection is another recurrent theme – as reflected by the stream of comments on the article itself and other related content. In a moderately volatile situation, it’s hard to keep calm and judge something based purely on its merit (and not the surrounding propaganda). Consider the following comment:
Putin’s claim that the originators of the gas attack likely were Syrian rebels requires the same evidence of proof as Obama’s claim the attack was made by the Syrian government. “Trust me, I know” isn’t sufficient. (JFX, Chicago)
I can’t imagine how much discipline it must require to maintain such rationality at a time when everyone is jumping on the bandwagon (rationalized by a type of argumentum ad Populum) and when the likes of Fox News and CNN are constantly broadcasting YouTube videos that they can’t independently verify. Since when does unverified content constitute ‘news’? YouTube is a social media! Playing YouTube videos – speaking rationally – is no better than reading out Facebook statuses as news reports. But at a time when US media conglomerates are conveniently redefining what constitutes news, it’s fascinating to read these comments:
I don’t trust Putin, but I think he is exploiting a weakness that the US needs to correct, namely, that we are far too mired in self-delusional, campaign-style spin — even on the international stage, e.g. that we’d be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, that President Obama’s Syria strategy was a high-level chess game and played out exactly the way he planned. (AR, Chicago)
Let’s not just blindly trash Putin. He is probably no saint on many issues, but his Op Ed piece was right on the mark. Accepting the truth doesn’t mean we don’t love our President or our country. (PlanetEuropa, NC)
It was Aristotle who wrote “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. Apart from the emotionally-charged, suspicious or abusive reactions, I’ve seen a convergence of educated minds around the topic. The general consensus on focusing on the message instead of bashing the messenger is quite astounding – especially given historical US-Russia relations. Any people or person – American or otherwise – who can contemplate an idea without prejudice or preconceived bias, with sincerity and reason …is quite exceptional.