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Trolls not Elves: a Putinesque Christmas

Monday, March 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a factory for words — ugh! ]
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Troll factory

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In American folklore, a Christmas elf is a diminutive creature (elf) that lives with Santa Claus in the North Pole and acts as his helper.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty has a fasacinating account in which One Professional Russian Troll Tells All. I’m gonna quote that piece extensively without putting it in blockquotes, since it has blockquotes, italics and illustrations of its own. Between the double asterisks immediately below and the double asterisks following them, then, you won’t find my words but those of RFE/RL, drawn in two gobbits from their piece.

Here’s the skinny on how it works, followed by the part that really caught my interest, dealing (obliquely) as it does with the Putin and the Patriarch theme.

**

RFE/RL: So what did your department do?

Burkhard: Our department commented on posts. Every city and village in Russia has its own municipal website with its own comments forum. People would write something on the forum — some kind of news — and our task was to comment on it. We did it by dividing into teams of three. One of us would be the “villain,” the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we’re doing. The other two enter into a debate with him — “No, you’re not right; everything here is totally correct.” One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument. You see? Villain, picture, link.

[ .. ]

RFE/RL: Does the Villain have a role in such assignments?
 
Burkhard:
If something is pro-Putin, the Villain will have doubts. For example, for Orthodox Christmas, Putin went to Mass at an ordinary village church outside Voronezh and there was sweetness and light all around. A story gets posted along the lines of, "How wonderful, how marvelous, how great, what an amazing man he is." But the Villain disagrees: "OK, come on, Putin went to Voronezh to boost his popularity with the public." To which we answer, "What's the matter with you, what popularity are you talking about? Yes, he's popular, but he doesn't need popularity, he just wants to meet with ordinary people." That's a funny example.

Next Assignment

Topic: Build a positive attitude toward the domestic policies of Vladimir Putin; the president personally celebrated Christmas with ordinary Russians.
 
Keywords: president rf, putin news, putin policies, christmas, vladimir putin
 
Again, the assignment begins with a post published on a LiveJournal account. The post about Putin is prefaced by a fragment from a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, "It's a sin to soar over a golden-domed chapel and not to pray in it," which in this context seems to take on a double meaning. 

Christmas unites!
 
The blessed holiday of the Nativity is upon us. And on such a miraculous day, which unites all citizens of Russia — no matter whether you're a believer or, as they say, "unchurched" — on the way to the Lord, the Russian president VP was, as always, with the people! Where else but in the provinces, far away from the urban hustle and bustle, is it possible to really experience this holy day? So this year Vladimir Putin visited the village church in honor of the Holy Virgin, located near Voronezh in the village of Otradnoye. And on such a holiday, one of the main holidays in Russia (and in the entire Christian church), at such a difficult time the president was with the people and congratulated all the clerics and faithful parishioners!

On the Barnaul forum, the Link Troll kicks things off with praise and a link to a December 31 vesti.ru article, Putin Congratulates Obama And Reminds Him Of The Principles Of Mutual Respect.

"Great article! By the way, the president of Russia, also congratulated the American president, the German chancellor, and other Western politicians on New Year's Eve. He's to be commended for expressing his peaceful intentions and conducting normal policy — something that's hard to get from Barack Obama."

The Villain Troll appears incensed:

"And what did you find that was so totally amazing in his Christmas message??? I don't understand!!! Vladimir Putin is an ordinary person!! So what if he's the president?? If I get on TV and wish everyone a nice Christmas, will you write a nice article about me too??? Finally we've found something to talk about!"

The Picture Troll posts a photo of Putin at the church and retorts:

"This is idiotic! Putin is our president. And it's really great that he went to a village church to congratulate everyone on the holiday. Christmas is a miracle. I envy the congregation. I would have loved to have been there on that great holiday."

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Elsewhere, on the Yekaterinburg forum, the Villain Troll attacks Putin's Christmas appearance as a stunt aimed at distracting the public from the country's massive economic woes:

"Give your neighbor a sack of buckwheat this year!! Now that's a good deed!!! Vladimir Putin represents everything that awaits us in the future!! He just went to pray for his ass and ask for forgiveness. He's driven the country straight to hell, and now what can he do??? Pray, and that's it!"

The Picture Troll issues a stern reprimand, illustrated with a bucolic photo from the scene:

"Good lord, your language! Christmas is a blessed holiday, and here you are swearing. It's not worth it. There's enough buckwheat for everyone, our country will survive the anti-Russian sanctions, no problem. So I congratulate everyone on a blessed holiday and wish everyone peace and goodness. Especially YOU!"

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And thus the troika spends the day sweeping through 35 forums. 

**

Oh, well — or Ah, hell:

SPEC social media manipulation UK US

Sources:

  • British army creates team of Facebook warriors
  • Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media
  • And as JM Berger and Jonathan Morgan have exhaustively documented, terrorists do it too.

    The battle flags of religion

    Sunday, March 29th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — vexilla regis prodeunt, comparative version ]
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    Two recent examples of religious iconography on the battle field.. from the Badr Brigade, outside Amerli, Iraq:

    badr brigade

    and from Pro-Russia fighters near the eastern Ukrainian city of Starobeshevo:

    Christ flag

    **

    The Vexilla regis is a hymn written by Venantius Fortunatus to welcome the procession bringing a fragment of the True Cross to St Radegunda‘s convent in Poitiers: the first line translates to “The banners of the king go forth”.

    Here it is, illustrated with battle flags flown by Catholic and Royalist troops during the War in the Vendée:

    **

    Sources:

  • Iraq
  • Ukraine
  • TwitterFightClub 2015, the best yet

    Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — March Madness for those whose sport is what William Blake called “Mental Fight” ]
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    If you’re unsure what TwitterFightClub is, it’s “an annual March Madness style tournament for national security and foreign policy tweeters”, overseen by the remarkable Caitlin Fitz Gerald, creator of Clausewitz for Kids. Hayes Brown has a fuller explanation.

    **

    Okay, let’s get real. As Kelsey Atherton noted:

    That caught my attention, so I went to hannah draper‘s twitter feed and got a rapid education on religious freedom in Turkey, in staccato 140-character bursts:

    When it comes to the Orthodox communities of Turkey (as there are a few), religious freedom is the right to train and their own clergy. It’s the right to provide religious education as they see fit for their communities, and it’s the right to equal protections before the law. For the Greek Orthodox community, one of the biggest concerns is Halki Seminary, a theological school in Ist that’s been closed for decades. For the Syriac Orthodox community, it’s finding enough space in Istanbul for their community of tens of thousands to worship. For the Armenian Apostolic community, it’s property restitution to address expropriated properties in decades past. For the Jewish community in Turkey, it’s protecting the safety and history of their centuries-long presence in Anatolia and Istanbul.

    Deep breath.

    For the Baha’i community, it’s legal recognition of their faith and protection of their holy sites, especially in Edirne. For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s the right to conscientious objection and to perform civil instead of compulsory military service. For Alevis, it’s the right for their houses of worship, cem evleri, to be recognized as such. For Protestants, it’s the right to open and operate houses of worship. And lest you think we only care about minorities, religious freedom for Sunnis in Turkey – by far the largest religious group – matters too. For Sunnis, it’s the right to wear the headscarf or not, as each individual sees fit. It’s the right to worship as they deem appropriate. For atheists, it’s the right NOT to worship and not to face discrimination for that choice.

    You can read more about what works and what needs more work in Turkey in the International Religious Freedom report. I wrote two or three of those during my time in Turkey. Writing annual reports like this are the basics of a political officer’s work.

    If that wasn’t enough, these two tweets alone would have won my vote:

    Ms Draper went on to tweet extensively about Ambassador Chris Stevens and Benghazi — keen insight with the personal touch:

    Ambassador Stevens was a legend. Everyone knew him and his big, goofy smile. Everyone called him Chris, or “Krees,” depending on the accent. And damn, was it fun working for him. We may not have had regular cell service or food that passed the bar of tolerable, but he made it fun. The man was a brilliant diplomat – not formal or stodgy, not forceful, but warm, engaging, funny, and knowledgeable. Everyone felt they could be honest with him and that he would be honest in return.

    We went to meetings with anyone and everyone. Mahmoud Jibril. Abdulhakim Belhaj. Mohammad Sawan. Ali Tarhouni. Ali Zeidan. Some random religiously conservative guy who sat up until 3 AM with us one night, drinking coffee and talking about E. German philosophy. …in Arabic. With me and the Ambassador translating for our visitors from Washington. Believe me, I was not prepared to discuss Eastern Bloc philosophy in Arabic with a former LIFG member. But hey, that’s how Chris rolled.

    — which drew this appreciative comment:

    **

    But hey, TwitterFightClub is also fun — because not only does it educate you and suggest a bunch of twitter-feeds you should probably follow year-round, it also brings a concentrated and brilliant dose of those irrelevant images which become a glut when unleashed 24/7/365 across all channels of communication.

    I get mine for the year here, and allow myself to forego “fun pix” the rest of the time:

    and:

    And those were just from one of Rebecca Johnson‘s fans…

    **

    Back to serious. Today’s find and follow for me is Ivan Plis, who also tweets up a storm:

    We had a good number of #TFC15 tweets about religion & policy yesterday and today. Allow me to expand on that… USG has several offices on religion. State has a religious freedom office with Ambassador-at-Large, plus “religion & global affairs.” And outside State, there’s a commission — @USCIRF — with its own global religious freedom mandate, management style and tone.

    @draperha explained yesterday why religious freedom is a US interest abroad. The fun part’s seeing the different elements interact. I’ve met a lot of foreign affairs folks in DC, and outside the religion silos they tend to be less religious than the general public. When I worked these issues on the Hill, we saw secular Jews, New Religious Movements, every Muslim & Christian flavor, and much more.

    I learned 2 key points: 1) religious freedom benefits everyone, and 2) those who ignore religion in their field do so at their peril. As someone whose church is politically nervy (Orthodoxy in Russia) I’ve realized seeking state privilege hurts long-run legitimacy. In other words, big groups (e.g. Orthodox) look bad when they act threatened by smaller ones (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc).

    One last thing: the “persecution-industrial complex” is real, and insidious. It feeds cynicism and spoils good will. People can have disagreements about US policy on religious minorities abroad, but don’t manipulate vulnerable groups to your benefit. And there are ways to talk about religion, and religious actors, without violating the 1st Amendment or being played for a fool. Back to my earlier point: NatSec and foreign policy analysts must then do more to hear religious voices. Most agree that religion plays an undervalued role in security and geopolitics. Weighing it has to be part of the solution too.

    Amen, brother.

    Or in secular, #TFC terms: that gets my vote.

    **

    You can follow along at #TFC2015 on Twitter, and vote on today’s round — quick — here.

    Ah, Religion: the trailer

    Saturday, February 14th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — on turning the other cheek once, or even twice, perhaps ]
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    The Wall Street Journal has the story:

    In a preview trailer for a new action movie, famed Indian spiritual leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan takes on sabre-wielding villains, splinters a log with his fist and rides a monster-wheeled motorcycle in a high-speed chase.

    “Some call me a saint, some call me an angel, some call me guru and some call me God,” Mr. Insan intones in a voice-over. “If it is a sin to serve the country and the universe, then I will keep committing this sin until my last breath.”

    Sample wisdom:

    In another musical number, Mr. Insan, wearing tightfitting gold pants, red boots and an oversize red top riveted with gold stars, performs a patriotic song that he says he wrote himself, dedicated to his followers in the armed forces.

    “We’ll live and die for the country,” Mr. Insan croons to a jubilant crowd in an amphitheater with a band playing behind him. “First, we’ll stop them with love, weapons of humanity. If they don’t stop, we will shoot them!”

    That, btw, is Plan B: if love doesn’t work, try deadly force.

    **

    Coming soon to a shrine-room near you!

    John Schindler 3: his latest

    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — third of three, almost caught up ]
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    Schindler a few days back:

    Schindler’s latest:

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    Today’s John Schindler post, The West, Islam, and the Last Stand of the WEIRD, is another blockbuster must-read, but for my purposes in this series I’ll just quote a short excerpt. It’s the middle paragraph here that’s key, but I’ll give you a little before and after for context:

    While Christian Europe of the last century still had some common ground with believing Muslims, the gap today between our societal values and those of most Muslims is vast and cannot be overcome without huge changes, perhaps on both sides, that seem unlikely to happen without bloodshed.

    To make matters worse, the only European country that is making an effort to appeal to normal people of faith in dangerous times is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the Kremlin, speaking through its religious mouthpieces, has staked out a clear position that terrorism is unacceptable, but so is intentionally offending religious people with blasphemy. In this formulation, Russia — and Russia alone — offers a welcoming home to Christians and Muslims alike, while driving extremists of all sorts, whether they be jihadists or Communist cartoonists, out of the public square. Religion is not the problem, Russia makes clear, and its support for traditional religions here is consistent — extremism is.

    WEIRDos in the West naturally find all this a tad comedic, and they were mightily surprised when Pope Francis (“One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith”) came alarmingly close to towing the Kremlin line about Charlie Hebdo. Yet again, post-moderns were distressed to discover that the Pope of Rome is actually a Catholic. You have to be part of the WEIRD demographic to find it “shocking” when traditional religion stands up against aggressive blasphemy.

    **

    I still haven’t quite figured out how almost everybody comes to have an opinion about almost everything: I know enough about a small archipelago of topics to have a sense of how much I don’t know, even in my areas of interest, in between my islands — and I am vividly aware that my chosen archipelago is only one of many, many, many — oh, why don’t I just quote Newton, and let him speak for us all:

    I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

    There are areas of knowledge that John explores, in this post in particular, that I don’t know enough about to trust my own opinions on, but one point he keeps making keeps on shining through: that the western secular mindset has a blind spot wherever religious intensity appears.

    And by religious intensity I don’t necessarily mean piety, or deep theological knowledge — which are the criteria that pollsters use to judge such things. The disciples of Christ were fishermen, he talked with prostitutes and (oy!) centurions among others, they were his peeps. The test, then, is not mosque, church or synagogue attendance, nor dietary behavior: religion happens, first and foremost, to humans, and that’s something John captures neatly, as it applies to Muslims, in this para about the majority of Muslims world-wide:

    They try, they fail, they keep trying. They usually make an effort during Ramadan, at least, and if a life crisis appears, they will pray and seek the comfort of the mosque; the rest of the time their lived faith is rather hit-or-miss. In other words, they are completely normal human beings.

    Human beings, that is, with an available transcendant perspective that can be activated by crisis, by global dissonance, by perceived injustice — as the supreme justification for brutality among those so disposed, and as the supreme invitation to good works among the likes of Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, and many less known but no less generous souls.

    Heaven and Hell, no less than East and West, are present in human reality, as John Milton knew. We should permit them, with caution and understanding, into our minds and models, and onto our maps. First, though, we should understand and sense what they mean, within human hearts and minds — no easy task.


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