“The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.” -S.M.
It is a regular experience when evaluating power relationships to find that a political reality may be contrary to the facts of a situation. Such divergence is common any time a popular misconception is so widespread that it creates its own political truth.
One example of this is the effect of misinterpreting the holding of elections for having democracy. This quaint political reality has led to millions of dollars of annual effort being wasted across the developing world despite most developing nations only loosely adhere to their constitutions anyway. Africa is one such developing region and Zimbabwe is a showcase example of this behavior. Political realities have their own sort of power that usually trumps the power inherent to truth. This is why elections are held in Zimbabwe at all — they are important even if not for the reason that is publicly believed.
Political realities must be observed and obeyed, just like facts. Because of their basic nature political realities almost always receive far more treatment by politicians in the media than the concrete core issues do. If the power brokers of Zimbabwe were to refuse the public its chance to play out a process it anticipates participation in — even an election process that same public is suspicious of — the level of civil malcontent and international demonization would likely far exceed the levels seen over the last several years.
The key problem is that the average person simply does not have enough time to hear about more than a very few events around the world every day and take in and interpret only a very few facts about each of those. People take their hard facts through a straw. Average people do seem to find time to invent or accept conspiracy theories and over simplified interpretations to cover over the gaps in their specific knowledge of world affairs. Journalists are particularly adept at this, finding ways to write huge articles replete with semantically ambiguous blather and speculation but sparse on hard facts. Average people also often find time to go vote, join a protest or further communicate and reinforce whatever public misconception they are a customer of — after all running around the street breaking windows in Greece is a lot more fun than researching that country’s economic fundamentals.
That brings me to a situation I find very interesting today: the fallout of the Polish plane crash.
[Note: The following half of this article includes Putin image memes from across the net that represent a political reality of today, though not all represent actual truth.]
On the day of the crash I wrote that nobody was going to believe that the Russians did not somehow cause that plane crash. This statement was completely independent of whatever facts come out concerning whether they actually did or not. I was pushing the idea that the political reality would be that the Russians killed their top opponents in the Polish government even if the fact was they didn’t. The statement of fact would have to wait until today (it turns out the case for a simple plane crash on landing is pretty solid) but the effects of the political reality took hold immediately. In a situation like this the fact does not matter, the political reality does.
Now we have a few weeks between us and the crash, but people still refuse to accept that it was likely an unfortunate accident rather than a case of hard political engineering. The reason is that the first stories to hit public eyes is the one that sticks, and the first media stories were rampant with speculative Russian conspiracy theories so that is all that is remembered.
Polish President literally going down in flames = Front page news
Results of crash investigation = Page 6 or so, even if the Polish President was aboard
But let’s rewind again to the day of the crash.
Nobody knows what is really going on.
We only have one fact: The Polish President’s plane just crashed with scores of senior government officials on board including the most critical opponents of Russia’s regional expansion policy. And the crash happened in Russia. On the way to a Polish-Russian atrocity-remeberance/memorial event, no less. Another time and place could never be as symbolic to the Poles. This is undeniably advantageous for Russia
At this point we have:
Truth = Unknown
Political reality = The Russians did it
There is only one actionable piece of information to be had and that is the assumption. Even if the truth were known it would not be a meaningful revelation because nobody would believe it anyway. So that still leaves only one piece of actionable information.
I wrote at the time of the crash that the Russians should find a polite, politic and sly way of claiming credit for the crash while officially distancing themselves from it. An hour later they had already demonstrated how deft they were at this sort of image game and I updated my write-up. Medvedev appointed Putin the head of the crash investigation — giving the man who stands to gain the most from the crash the authority to sign the official record of how it happened. He then sent the head of a GRU directorate (“Ministry of Emergency Situations” — an organization created to appear like Russia’s version of FEMA) to “prepare the scene for investigation” — which sounds like a post-sabotage cover job to those who know what that ministry actually does.
To pro-Russian elements — who loved the Soviet, hate America and actually believed that Big Brother was only watching them as a protective and loving sibling — the appointment of Putin indicated that Medvedev cared so much about the crash investigation’s accuracy that he would appoint The Putin Himself to check up on it. The dispatch of a GRU chief to the scene can be seen from the same perspective as an indication that the earnest Russians were concerned with not contaminating the scene and helping out with the disaster recovery so much that they mobilized their version of FEMA to accomplish it.
Either interpretation is a benefit to the Russians. This disregard for fact and focus on political reality demonstrates how well the Russians understand the game. On the one hand it is good to be seen as a steward of honesty and regional goodwill when anything like this happens. On the other hand it is extremely useful to be seen as a scary, dominating force that will eleminate its regional opponents in permanent ways if it feels like doing so. The fearful grow more afraid and compliant for an apparent lack of alternatives, the trusting deepen their trust. It is a win-win for Russia, and that is the heart of playing to political realities and not getting wrapped around the axle about truth.
This stands in stark contrast to the Israeli (and to some extent the American) government. They (particularly their military’s public relations department) are obsessed with truth and consistently allow their opponents to shape the media perceptions of them by refusing to make statements until after the conclusion of investigations. That is a terrible practice because it ignores the impact of political realities and focuses on the much less powerful truths of a situation.
The first one to press owns the press despite having no time to locate any truth. The last to make a statement has the most time to investigate a situation before speaking but will have no impact on the press at all — and might not even be considered newsworthy by the time he comes forward. In this example, First to press = Israel’s rivals who aren’t so concerned with truth; Last to press = Israel’s government who is obsessed with researched truth but does not understand or ignores how political realities shape the human landscape.
In somewhat unrelated news today, here is a story about the short-sightedness of populism that I find hilarious: European countries are suddenly realizing their social subsidies are unsustainable. Daily Finance version and New York Times version.