by Berry Friesen
Do you want to be relevant and well-regarded within the empire? Then join the imperial discourse, the way the empire talks about the world. In other words, repeat the empire’s story.
A vivid example of this axiom is presented by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an international, faith-based, non-government organization (NGO) that generally opposes imperialism and works to ameliorate the suffering imperialism causes.
A March 28 article by Julie Bell published by MCC in A Common Place describes the expansion of its war relief work in southeastern Ukraine. The fourth paragraph of the article provides historical background on the crisis in Ukraine:
“The conflict began in early 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine. Unrest spread, intensifying from May through November 2014 as waves of people fled fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (provinces), which share a border with Russia.”
This paragraph is not accurate. Though many paragraphs like it have been published in oft-cited sources such as the New York Times, National Public Radio or The Globe and Mail, it is false. The conflict began in early 2014 when armed groups—supported by fascist militias and Western governments—betrayed an agreement to adopt a new constitution and hold new elections by violently seizing control of the government apparatus in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
From the start, the coup was regarded as illegitimate by most Ukrainians living in the eastern provinces and in Crimea, a province nearly surrounded by the Black Sea. Thus, Russian forces already present in Crimea pursuant to official agreements denied the new Kiev government and its agents access to Crimea. And people in the eastern provinces organized self-defense units.
In response, the usurpers in Kiev called Ukrainians living in the east “terrorists” and commenced an aggressive military attack against them. The war that ensued is now in its fourth year.
So eastern Ukraine is a horror—and MCC is doing war relief work there—because a violent coup designed by the US-led empire pushed that country into chaos.
I assume writer Julie Bell and the people who operate MCC are aware of this historical background. So the interesting question is this: why omit it from the article?
To answer that question, we first need to acknowledge that the mainstream media routinely omit this information from their reporting about Ukraine. Always, we are told that Russia started the war by annexing Ukraine. By now, this is dogma: Russia is to blame.
If you tell a different story—an accurate one—you are stepping out of line, swimming upstream, sending an off-beat message, which means your message will elicit resistance.
Obviously, eliciting reader resistance would have undermined the commendable purpose of the MCC article: raising public support for war-relief work in Ukraine. Thus, we have a faith-based NGO known for its anti-imperial stance reinforcing imperial propaganda.
Alas, we all do it. Imperial propaganda is the water we swim in; unless we enjoy being obnoxious—unless we get pleasure by sticking out like a sore thumb—we don’t spend our days correcting our conversation partners when they repeat some canard from the New York Times, NPR or The Globe and Mail. Instead we nod, maybe say something disparaging about President Trump, and continue the patter.
We go along to get along, accepting the empire’s distortion of the record. That’s how you and I (and Mennonite Central Committee) legitimize imperialism and help keep it in place.
We can and must do better. Without being obnoxious, we can decline to chime in, thereby signaling that we don’t accept imperial framing. It’s a creative challenge, but one well worth the effort in order to prepare for a better world.
Indeed, a subsequent article by Bell about MCC’s work in Ukraine shows a bit of that creative extra effort. It describes the source of Ukraine’s troubles in neutral terms: “In the summer of 2014, a conflict that began in Kiev spread eastward to the Donetsk area.”
This one sentence does not begin to reverse the months of propaganda we Americans have received about Ukraine, but at least it does not reinforce that propaganda and thereby tighten the empire’s grip on our understanding of the world.
Does dissenting from imperial framing make a difference? Yes, especially when lots of people do it.
Are you already dissenting? Good! If not, what are you waiting for?
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. A version of this essay was previously published at his blog, www.bible-and-empire.net