New York Times's Bernie Sanders Russia 'Scoop': Red Scare, Yellow Journalism, Entire Rainbow Of Bullsh*t
America, the New York Times is doing that thing again. You know, the thing where it writes about something that's kind of a nothingburger (is a huge nothingburger), but is described so solemnly that it sure sounds like something awful must be up — you know, like Hillary Clinton had a foundation that took donations, and she was also secretary of State, and wasn't that horrible?
Now we've got a "both sides" the New York Times should be proud of. Sure, President Donald Trump keeps trying to give Crimea back to Putin, but Bernie Sanders did a sister city with the Soviet Union back in the '80s, along with dozens of other American mayors and with Ronald Goddamn Reagan's encouragement.
In a "blockbuster" "story" yesterday, the Times offered us the lowdown on Bernie Sanders's 1980s efforts to set up a sister-city connection between Burlington, Vermont, where he had been elected mayor in 1980, and the city of Yaroslavl in Russia. There's nothing scandalous in the story, unless you consider the news that even under Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR still thought a lot about the propaganda value — in this case more like PR value than propaganda, which implies falsity — of having Americans say they preferred peace with the Soviets over nuclear war.
Finally: the redbaiting Glenn Greenwald is always complaining about, except real.
One good thing about this piece, though: We didn't realize until reading it that when wingnuts (and your harder anti-Berners in general) talk about Sanders's "honeymoon in the USSR," they're referring to his trip to arrange the sister-city agreement. Some commie tourism, huh?
Yeah, the Times discovered old Soviet documents about pushing the message that peace, through sister-city arrangements and other efforts, is better than imperialist warmongering. Shocking! But while the piece goes into exhaustive detail on how Russian archives recorded the Burlington-Yaroslavl connection, and how Sanders, as mayor, pushed to finalize the arrangement, it mostly ends up making us feel a bit nostalgic for the late-'80s optimism that maybe the Cold War could end in something other than nuclear fireballs.
We had Sting's "Russians" stuck in our heads the whole time we read the Times story, so welcome to our earworm:
Great, now Sting can't be president either. :(
The story's lede sets the tone for the rest: Bernie, the naive peacenik, was very sincere about opposing Ronald Reagan's warmongering, but he played right into the hands of Communist Propagandists! (In an Evil Empire that was already on the verge of collapsing in a pile of inefficiency and overextended military adventurism.)
The mayor of Burlington, Vt., wrote to a Soviet counterpart in a provincial city that he wanted the United States and the Soviet Union to "live together as friends."
Unbeknown to him, his desire for friendship meshed with the efforts of Soviet officials in Moscow to "reveal American imperialism as the main source of the danger of war."
That mayor was Bernie Sanders, and the story of his 1988 trip to the Soviet Union has been told before. But many of the details of Mr. Sanders's Cold War diplomacy before and after that visit — and the Soviet effort to exploit Mr. Sanders's antiwar agenda for their own propaganda purposes — have largely remained out of sight.
Again, if you replace "propaganda," which again implies falsity, with "public relations," we challenge you to find the scary thing. We'll give them this much: It's actually pretty interesting in a time capsule sort of way, but the piece tries entirely too hard to find something shocking, even as it acknowledges that the Burlington-Yaroslavl sister city arrangement was no different from dozens of other such initiatives in the '80s. The story notes that there's not even the least hint of anything hinky to be found in the documents they looked at, from archives in Yaroslavl:
Nothing in the documents suggests that Mr. Sanders was the only local American official targeted for propaganda, or even that he was particularly receptive to it, though they do describe him as a socialist.
Mind you, that was also a fact noted by famous Soviet asset Garry Trudeau, who did a 1981 Doonesbury strip about Sanders being elected shortly before France elected François Mitterrand, also a socialist. The punchline was "We have a saying here: 'As goes Burlington, so goes France.'" The chief benefit to Burlington was that "They knock a little off the price of Renaults."
It was a simpler time.
And a much darker time, as the Times adds, immediately after noting Sanders was nothing special to the Rooshians: "But the documents do show the Soviets' intensive preparation to use Mr. Sanders's interest in their country to their advantage."
Ooh, intensive preparation to use him to their advantage? You mean, exactly like every other American who made nice with the USSR at the time? Well then, that's exactly equivalent to how post-communist Russia sought to get every possible advantage from possible business relationships with an American real-estate and entertainment mogul who wanted to pursue big projects in Moscow, except for how Sanders didn't play along. But he was targeted, so clearly a Russian dupe.
We also loved the bit where the Sanders campaign "didn't dispute the documents' authenticity," as if there were anything particularly terrible in them. The whole piece is like that, suggesting darkly that Americans who objected to nuclear war were mere useful idiots because the USSR sought to gain a propaganda advantage against Reagan's anti-communist rhetoric. The anti-antiwar tone sounds at moments like an amalgam of Pat Buchanan columns from the mid 1980s, though perhaps with some of the larger globs of spittle wiped off.
The piece does at least include some context, though usually framed as the foolish thoughts of a naive dreamer who failed to prop up the wisdom of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Two days after returning to Vermont, Mr. Sanders wrote to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, asking for help in setting up the sister-city program.
"It is my strong belief that if our planet is going to survive, and if we are going to be able to convert the hundreds of billions of dollars that both the United States and the Soviet Union are now wasting on weapons of destruction into areas of productive human development, there is going to have to be a significant increase in citizen-to-citizen contact," Mr. Sanders wrote.
Good lord! Bernie Sanders didn't want America to be treated to a live-action roleplay of The Day After! Can he possibly be trusted with the nuclear codes now? Yr Editrix had thoughts:
Nah, none of that. The Times contrasts Sanders's letter with some official communications of the Yaroslavl delegation that went to Burlington to seal the deal:
Throughout their negotiations with Burlington City Hall, Yaroslavl officials were coordinating their messaging with Soviet officials in Moscow.
In a letter to Moscow seeking approval for travel to the United States, Yaroslavl officials pledged that they would talk about the "peace-loving foreign policy" of the Soviet Union and the changes being implemented by Mr. Gorbachev. They attached a seven-point "plan for information-propaganda work" on their visit to Burlington, with specific talking points for each of the delegation's three members.
The plan is followed by a nine-page guide issued by the Soviet Foreign Ministry on how to communicate Mr. Gorbachev's policies to international audiences. It describes antiwar movements, sister-city contacts and foreign cultural figures as particularly important targets for Soviet propaganda.
See? Bernie was being played for a fool! A com-symp dupe! A fellow traveler! Just imagine how the Times could spin Ronald Reagan's suggestion to Gorbachev that both countries scrap their entire nuclear arsenals. What a commie tool!
Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca said the delegation's 1988 visit to Burlington wasn't exactly an infiltration by devious spy types, saying, "Reporting at the time is clear, rather than propaganda, officials on both sides discussed the limitations of the Soviet system and their common desire to avoid nuclear war."
That interpretation is also suggested by Yuri Novikov, one of the delegation members the Times caught up with. He recalled that after a tour of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream plant, Ben Cohen Himself told him and the other visiting Soviets they were welcome to take home anything in the gift shop. Congratulations to the Times for not exclaiming that a compliant Bernie Sanders was ready to give away the store to the USSR.
In a wistful closing to the story, the piece finally gets a lot closer to the truth as we remember it from the late '80s. Novikov is downright nostalgic for what could have been, before the empire fell, and before Boris Yeltsin auctioned everything off to the oligarchs and installed Putin as his successor:
Some of the Yaroslavl residents involved in the relationship with Burlington still look back wistfully at the heady circumstances of Mr. Sanders's visit in 1988 — a time when the Iron Curtain was starting to crumble, the Soviet Union seemed poised for democratic change, and interactions with Americans felt new and fascinating [...]
In Mr. Novikov's view, the goal of a President Sanders should be, at the least, to restore the level of cooperation that existed in the last years of the Cold War.
Kind of sounds like the Russians really did love their children too. What a bunch of simps.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.