Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said. Alan Furst, Dark Star (2002)
I am sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by Pravda journalist André Szara, the central character in Alan Furst's political-historical novel Dark Star. (I consider it the best of his 13 novels to date.) Once upon a time I too spent a great deal of my time listening to politicians, reporting for the Jerusalem Post on Parliament and the British government.
I cannot blame the Episcopal Church or the Church of England for giving me my jaundiced eye. Reading the debates in Hansard and ministerial press hand outs was unpalatable work, akin to eating sand. I no longer follow politics and politicians. For my sins I now read denominational reports, church press releases and bishops' sermons. I've exchanged sand for sawdust.
Yet, this work must still be done. Even though a great deal of fluff and nonsense is spouted by the great and good, reporters must keep their ears (and brain) open. Even politicians say things that are novel and important.
Foreign correspondents have a doubly difficult job in that what may be novel and important in one culture is drivel in another. And, if they do not speak the language, they must rely on what others tell them. Raw information passes through sieves of culture, language and spin before it lands in the ear of an American foreign correspondent, who then must make it interesting and intelligible for his home audience.
The result often is an incomplete, or wrong-headed news story. One that bears but slight resemblance to what was said or done.
As GetReligion's editor tmatt has noted in a recent story, the conflict between Russia and the West is one are where the press has fallen short by omitting, ignoring or not understanding the religious issues that are in part driving the conflict. On June 4 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow the clash between East and West was a clash of religious worldviews (Orthodox Russia v. post-Christian Europe/America).
And, from what I have been able to find, this story has not appeared in the mainstream press.
The ITAR-TASS news agency published an English-language reporting summarizing Lavrov's speech -- but their correspondent seems to have slept through the talk. The TASS lede stated:
MOSCOW, June 04./ITAR-TASS/. Russia is not going to build anti-western constructions and get involved in senseless confrontations only for the sake of providing us and NATO with desirable enemy image, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The policy of limiting Russia’s capabilities is conducted mostly not by European powers, but by the United States, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting of Russia’s council for international affairs. “The oddest thing is that all this is happening contrary to the obvious and objective benefit the pooling of technologies, resources and human capital might yield for both parts of the European continent,” Lavrov said.
The remainder of the article continues along these lines -- tedious babbling. All politics, all foreign policy wonkery -- dull, dull, dull.
Yet the next day the Interfax News Agency put out a one-paragraph story reporting that Lavrov had said the clash between Russia and the West had arisen over Russian return to "traditional spiritual values" and that America and Western Europe were "more and more detached from their own Christian roots and less susceptible to the religious feelings of people of other faiths." Oh my.
Intrigued, I went searching for a copy of Lavrov's speech and found an English language text published by the RIAC. The Russian Foreign Minister could not have been more clear. NATO had continued its program of deterrence following the break up of the Soviet Union, even though Russia had returned to its Orthodox roots. The elites of Western Europe and America were more at ease with an atheist Communist state than an avowedly Christian one.
The events in Ukraine were not a manifestation of new trends, but rather a culmination of the course implemented by our western partners for many years with regard to Russia. In fact, the habit not to perceive Russians as being of their kind has been present in Western Europe for centuries – despite the fact that we have been an integral part of the European culture and politics for at least the last three centuries, and the periods of Russia’s active participation in general European affairs were characterised by stability and peace in the continent. I would not like to go deep into contemplations about why we cannot reach true partnership in Europe – differences in worldview, historical experience, traditions, and finally the size of our country evidently play their role.
Unfortunately, the trend to see a rival rather than a partner in Russia was also maintained after the breakup of the USSR. In fact, the course of deterrence of our country in a mild form was continued. We were surprised that they even started to use the idea that the Soviet Union with its communist doctrine at least remained within the framework of the system of ideas, which were developed in the West, while the new Russia is returning to its traditional values, which are rooted in the Orthodox faith and therefore is becoming even less understandable.
Of course, it is not about this alone. Lately, we have been seeing a clearer contradiction between the strengthening multipolarity and the aspirations of the United States and the historical West to keep their usual domineering positions,between the cultural and civilisational diversity of the modern world and the attempts to impose the western scale of values on everybody, while this scale of values is tearing away from its own Christian roots more and more and is becoming less sensitive to the religious feelings of people of other religions. The wish of western elites to show that the recent trend of reduction of the weight of the West in the global balance of forces, is not irreversible. The words by Fyodor Dostoryevsky come to my mind, who once wrote with irony that we should serve the European truth, because there is no and can be no other truth.
TASS's reporters doubtless know Lavrov better than I. And this may be a local example of the talking-dog phenomena. The fact that he is foreign minister of Russia is interesting, but no sane reporter takes what he says seriously. Perhaps TASS is returning to its old Soviet ways and spiking stories that feature religion?
Yet, the clash of civilizations thesis is one well-beloved by pundits on this side of the Atlantic. With the twist that this time round it is our civilization that is seen to be wanting, and the clash is over religion and the international order.
I do hope this story is picked up by the Western press in Moscow. I can't think of anything more important -- or more interesting -- to report from that city in recent days.