Media Criticism Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: Language and Its Enemies

Media critic Patrick Lawrence lays out how the aftermath and potential consequences of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit are made obscure by certain media outlets.
Office of U.S. House Speaker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

The provoking and the provoked  

I can hardly keep up with the various versions of nonsense coming out of Washington in the matter of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week. The House speaker’s stopover in Taipei is explained one way one day, another way the next. You expect this from American pols in our post-democratic age: They can fob off the citizenry however they wish because they no longer have to take the public the slightest bit seriously. And at this point I suppose we must expect the governing class’s clerks in the media to reproduce the nonsense, adding a further layer of degradation to our public discourse. Happens all the time.

But what we now have to call the Taiwan crisis is not a happens-all-the-time occasion. For one thing, the risks Pelosi takes in flying to Taiwan—risks the Biden regime shares—are wildly irresponsible, as many have commented. We are now offered public-service videos, such as this one from the New York City government, normalizing nuclear warfare. What is my comparison? The Cuban missile crisis, maybe?

For another, to misinform the American public as a matter of this gravity unfolds is to me just as frightening in the long term. It disarms us. It takes away our ability to see, understand, and respond to events. It deprives language of its power to address power. This is our apple-pie authoritarianism as it is forced upon us.

The speaker of the House, second in the line of political succession, landed late Tuesday evening Taipei time, late Tuesday morning East Coast time. The deed is done. At this writing China’s response to this wanton recklessness has been just as I had hoped – vigorous but responsible. It is now conducting live-fire exercises that take no notice of Taiwan’s various claims to its maritime borders, which China does not recognize but has conventionally observed; it is also imposing various carefully chosen sanctions on cross-Strait commerce. There is apparently more to come, maybe much more, but this is not our topic.

Our topic is how we have been brought to this moment.

The chronology, in brief: Pelosi announces a swing through Asia and includes Taiwan on her agenda. President Biden, lacking the guts to state his own opinion, says the military does not think this a good idea. China confirms this in its own statements. Biden converses for more than two hours with Xi Jinping, during which the Chinese leader reiterates Beijing’s opposition to Pelosi’s plans. Pelosi lands in Taipei.

For many days after Pelosi’s announcement we read that the speaker’s itinerary risked precipitating a dangerous crisis. The leading corporate dailies quoted many officials to this effect. It was implicit in what little Biden had to say on this question. Bad idea, Foolish idea. Pointless idea. Nothing good can come of it.

Then came the Biden–Xi telephone call. Here is the American readout, here the Chinese. The White House put the call across as a touch more than routine. “President Biden has continually emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to ensure that the United States and China manage our differences and work together on areas of shared interest,” an unnamed briefer told reporters. “This call was part of our ongoing efforts to do that.”

Yes, Taiwan was on the agenda, third of three topics behind climate change and the global impact of the Ukraine crisis.

“Overall, I would say that the conversation was substantive, it was in-depth, and it was candid,” saith the briefing official. Think about those three adjectives and tell me if you can come up with three that are yet more useless. This is the cotton-wool language of obfuscation as we get it daily, pretending to tell us something while telling us nothing.

The Chinese account told us something. The primary topics were two: Taiwan and the responsibility the U.S. and China share, as equal nations, to maintain global stability. In the Chinese readout we find Xi keeping his cool but lecturing Biden in the manner of a principal with a delinquent student. He spoke of the destructiveness of Biden’s China policy and his responsibilities to adhere to America’s standing commitments on Taiwan. To Biden’s open lines of communication, Xi responded pithily that Americans say one thing about Taiwan and the One China policy while continually doing another. This has been a true point for the past half-dozen years. It is exactly what Pelosi’s Taipei stopover is all about.

“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Xi told Biden in a much-quoted remark. “It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this. The U.S. should honor the One China principle and implement the three joint communiqués both in word and in deed.”

I see only one way to read this exchange. China’s trust in the U.S. has collapsed. I think China has chosen the Pelosi visit as the occasion to draw the line under the Biden regime’s inch-at-a-time shift toward formal recognition of Taiwan and a restoration of full relations. From here on out, Xi as much as said to Biden, we are playing hardball.

What, by contrast, did we learn from our media after the Xi–Biden exchange? The coverage changed dramatically. Gone are reports of the risks Pelosi was forcing the United States to take. Crisis? What crisis? There is no crisis: This is the new line in the mainstream coverage.

Here is the headline on The New York Times’s page one story in its Tuesday editions: “U.S. Warns China Not to Turn Pelosi’s Expected Trip to Taiwan Into a ‘Crisis.’” Now tell me, readers, can you top this for language that is perpendicular with the truth?

Here is the lead, which is a different competition: “The United States warned China on Monday not to respond to an expected trip to Taiwan by Speaker Nancy Pelosi with military provocations even as American officials sought to reassure Beijing that such a visit would not be the first of its kind nor represent any change in policy toward the region.”

This is what Xi was complaining about with Biden: You profess adherence to the One China principle and send the No. 3 official in your government to Taipei on an official visit. But never mind that. All of a sudden, the Chinese are the warned, not the warning. All of a sudden they are the provoking, not the provoked.

Along with chronology, context.

The U.S. has been incessantly provoking China on the Taiwan question since at least as far back as the Obama administration, when the China hawks gained ascendancy on Capitol Hill. Fonops—idiotic Pentagon-speak for freedom of navigation operations—are conducted routinely through the Taiwan Strait. Last summer we learned that the Pentagon had troops on the island training Taiwan’s army.

Two summers ago Mike Pompeo, Trump’s freakishly messianic secretary of state, gave a radically inflammatory speech at the Nixon Library attacking “Communist China” and asserting America’s duty to destroy it, Book of Revelations–style. Now the China hawks are all the way out of the closet. This spring, Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham introduced the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which, if passed, would openly abandon the One China policy and stop a hair short of full relations with Taiwan as an independent nation. Responsible Statecraft’s excellent coverage of this bill can be read here.

Those provocative, aggressive Chinese, ever intent on creating a crisis, The Times wants us to know. Or think we know. This is what language does in the hands of those corrupting it.

Russiagate redux3

In the annals of our imperial misconduct, there is no shortage of cases wherein the national security state has thought nothing of abusing Americans, on occasion fatally, to keep the public fearful and its power beyond challenge. This is the thing about empire: All culture, all features of the political economy, must serve it.

We now have the case of the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) and its associated organization, the Uhuru Movement. These groups are a half-century old this year and reflect thought that was current at the time of their founding: Pan–Africanism, an internationalist perspective on race and geopolitics, nonalignment, a Marxian political line. Uhuru is Swahili for freedom.

Among the prominent exponents of African socialism was Julius Nyerere, the gentlest soul among those towering leaders of the “independence era”—Nyerere, N’Krumah, Nasser, and Nehru (my four N’s), along with Sukarno, Lumumba, and various others. I came to admire Nyerere, the president of newly independent Tanzania, during my graduate work in African history and political economy.   

And now the descendants of this movement are accused—are you sitting down?—of taking orders from the Kremlin, which has directed it—stay seated, please—to “sow discord,” “heighten grievances,” and “create strife and division.”

And you thought Russiagate had finally gone away.

This new iteration goes like this. It is almost as much fun as some of the old fables—a saving grace.

Last Friday the Justice Department announced that it has indicted one Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, a 32-year-old Russian, who met members of the African People’s Socialist Party, including Omali Yeshitela, the APSP’s chairman, at a conference on self-determination held in Russia some years ago. Yeshitela has put out a video explaining this encounter during one of his two trips to Russia. From here on out we are wading into that swamp familiar to those who followed the Russiagate farrago beginning to end. Most of what we are told we know about the connections Ionov subsequently maintained with the APSP derives from the 24–page indictment Justice made public last week.

This stuff gets very tiresome. Ionov is alleged to have extensive relations with Russian intelligence. Ionov is alleged to have directed the APSP and the Uhruru Movement, along with other groups, to do all the sowing and heightening and creating mentioned above. Ionov is alleged to have helped run the political campaigns of two Uhuru Movements members as they sought office in St. Petersburg, Florida. Per established custom, we are supposed to accept these assertions as evidence of their veracity because the Justice Department asserted them.

Here are quotations from messages Ionov is supposed to have sent to one of his Russian intel contacts. “Our election campaign is kind of unique.” And “Are we the first in history?” And a reference to one of the candidates as one “whom we supervise.”

Just the sort of thing an operative says to his minder in the mail, wouldn’t you say? So perfectly damning, so let-there-be-no-doubt. It brings back old times. I always loved it when the Russigaters made up the truly impossible quotations. It added a little fun to the drear of it all.

It was heavy going for the APSP and Uhuru after Justice announced the indictment. Dawn raids on the homes of the movement’s leaders, battering rams knocking down doors, broken windows, raided offices—the APSP has a radio station and a newspaper, Burning Spear—handcuffs, battle fatigues, automatic weapons, the whole paranoiac nine. The FBI, which was responsible for all this, sent a drone through Yeshitela’s front door in St. Louis, where the party has its headquarters.

It was after his home was raided, at 5 a.m. last Thursday, that Yeshitela made the video. He is irate, as those taking the time to view it will see. He recounts the APSP’s numerous programs, covering at the local level health, nutrition, training for ex-convicts, sports, education. They build local markets to address the problem of “food deserts.”

“All of this is contrived,” he says into the camera. “It’s a ridiculous charge, a ridiculous claim. We’re supposed to be tools of Russia as if we don’t have minds of our own?”

On the international side, I read the APSP and the Uhuru Movement as of a piece with Paul Robeson’s tilt toward the Soviet Union. “The Russians didn’t enslave us,” Yeshitela asserts. “The Russians didn’t kill Mike Brown. The Russians didn’t overthrow N’Krumah.” The party supports—no apologies from Yeshitela here—the Russian operation in Ukraine, noting the illegality of the Kiev regime.

It seems to me the APSP and the Uhuru Movement have done us all a favor, whether or not we agree with their positions. They shrug in response to all the name-calling, labeling, and canceling that the Russiagate frenzy made a feature of American discourse.  

I’ve saved the very best bit for last.

Those phrases quoted above to the effect that the Russians have led a 50–year-old organization with a long record of local activism and thought on the international side to sow divisions and so on? They come from The Times, which quotes none other than Peter Strzok, the discredited FBI official, who was fired after his texts to his mistress midway through the Russiagate mess, indicated the extent of the official campaign to bring down the Trump administration.

Bear with me. The Times, which quotes none other than Peter Strzok: I could not resist writing that phrase again. What are these people thinking, assuming they are? 

I have to note in concluding this item that Mr. Ionov resides in Russia and is unlikely to see the inside of a U.S. court. There will be no legal proceeding. It reminds me of those indictments Justice issued years ago against a dozen Russians, including one or two companies, for their alleged role in the Russiagate affair. Remember?

None of those indicted was in the U.S. When one of the companies unexpectedly took the trouble to hire an American attorney and contest the charges, the prosecutors failed to show up in court and the case was subsequently dropped.

Just like old times.


A couple of gems come our way, worth noting briefly.

Warring sides in conflicts such as Ukraine’s typically have prisoner-of-war camps, or detention centers. This has been so for a very long time: Let us count in centuries.

We now have the case of the…detention center where Russian forces held Ukrainian captives. It was shelled last week, and just who shelled it is currently a matter of great contention. But I have misspoken, The Times’s Carlotta Gall wants me to know. That wasn’t a detention center: It was a penal colony.

Carlotta, really. Get a grip. You’re not walking around in a 19th century novel, and if your intent is to evoke the gulags of the Stalin era, all I can say is shame on you. It was a detention center, and there is a body of emergent evidence, compelling I have to say, that the Ukrainians shelled it to prevent the prisoners therein from recounting their orders to mistreat Russian captives. Get yourself busy on that.

To my knowledge, the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation never once apprehended an American spook. Not if you go by the major dailies, this is to say. But it is always curious to note how our corporate press navigates this touchy subject so as to preserve the fiction that there are no American spooks in Russia to apprehend.  

We do not know precisely who Paul Whelan is. He was serving as a Marine in Iraq in 2007 when he began making multiple trips to Russia for reasons unexplained. He holds passports from four nations. As one does.

And he came by a goodly number of Russian friends, it seems. One of his closest friends was an active-duty intelligence officer of rank. This intelligence officer had Whelan arrested on espionage charges. Whelan’s defense says he was framed—which does not cancel the charge that he is a spy, as he could be an apprehended spy. The Russians say Whelan had a memory key in his pocket with the names of some number of Russian intel people on it. Presumably this can be produced in a court of law.

Now the Americans want Paul Whelan back. The State Department says he was “unjustly detained.” But every American detained in Russia is unjustly detained, so this is not much to go by. 

What, then, are we going to call our Paul Whelan? There are a lot of strange details about him and his doings in Russia. But you and I are in no position to call him a spy. I go, then, with The Washington Post. He is “a security consultant.”

That’s different.

Just as the U.S. does not hire mercenaries to fill in the ranks in American military operations. They are “security contractors.” Different, you see.

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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