The popular vlogger and comedian Katie Halper, whose journalistic take-downs of the Democratic Party establishment have certainly been deftly exploited (at least) by the Kremlin propaganda machine, wears the accusation that she is a “useful idiot” for Russia as a badge of pride—”Useful Idiots” is actually the (presumably sarcastic) name of the podcast she co-hosts with the equally problematic Matt Taibbi. We’ve always wondered, in an academic way, if such figures really are useful idiots, or something more sinister—knowing propagandists for Vladimir Putin’s deeply reactionary global ambitions. The debate has suddenly exploded onto the left-wing vlogosphere.
This was occasioned by the flap around Michael Moore’s movie Planet of the Humans, which apparently (we haven’t seen it) replicates the old error in certain environmentalist sectors of substituting misanthropy for anti-capitalism, portraying renewable energy solutions as a false hope. There have been calls to remove the film from YouTube on the basis of counter-factual content. Now, the dilemma of how to deal with dishonest propaganda on social media is a vexing one, and we will not weigh in on it here. But some very illuminating discussion has emerged from the debate.
Josh Fox, producer of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland, appeared Nov. 24 on Nomiki Konst’s modestly named The Nomiki Show to accuse Russian state media such as RT of plugging Moore’s film for cynical reasons (discussed below), and added: “You have all this Russian media, and clearly there are infiltrators among sites that are very popular with the progressive left right now.” Halper was among the figures he name-checked in this regard.
Halper appeared on a subsequent episode of The Nomiki Show to defend herself, and it turned into a cringe-inducing snipefest between Katie and Nomiki. She also counter-attacked on her own show, and posted the clip on YouTube with the sarcasm-dripping title “Katie Halper EXPOSED As Russian Infiltrator.” In both appearances, she donned a Russian fur cap and affected an exaggerated Russian accent to mock the claims.
It’s not funny, Katie. Russia’s propaganda effort to co-opt and neutralize the American left is real. If you want to defend yourself against the charge of being an “infiltrator,” fine—but don’t belittle the problem.
It’s also a case of “methinks she doth protest too much.” In addition to obsessively bashing what she calls the “Russiagate Racket,” Halper echoes the Russian line on Syria, even featuring an interview with the Assad-regime flack Rania Khalek whose Kremlin-front platform “In the Now” is directly funded by RT.
Big Oil’s ‘bait-and-switch’
Now, let’s examine in greater detail what Josh Fox actually said. The discussion begins with controversies around the Dakota Access pipeline. During the protests against the pipeline in late 2016, the private security firm TigerSwan (evidently linked to the notorious Blackwater) apparently sent agents in as infiltrators to disrupt, co-opt or neutralize the demonstrations. Fox sees this as but one side of an equation of threats facing the stateside petro-resistance: “There’s the oil companies and Blackwaters of the world infiltrating the movement on the frontline. But then there’s another part of this which is, actually, Vladimir Putin. Because RT and all of their networks spend a lot of time getting cred with the environmental movement. If you’re an environmentalist in America over the past 10 years, the one place you can always go [to get quoted] is RT. Because RT is [uses air-quotes] ‘anti-fracking.’ They love to have anti-fracking people on RT—constantly.”
But did you ever ask yourself—Why is that? Fox breaks it down: “Valdimir Putin’s Russia is basically a petro-state. That’s what they do—they sell oil and natural gas.” And the former East Bloc states are still “100% dependent on gas from Russia. So when American fracking companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell—discovered shale deposits in those countries they went in, under cover of Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s State Department, to establish fracking in those countries, so they won’t be dependent on Russia. It was a Cold War gambit.”
We’ve noted that Chevron and Shell (actually an Anglo-Dutch firm) have sought drilling contracts in Ukraine and in Romania. Certainly it is a very revealing irony that Russia has positively plugged the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, while the US is opposing Russian pipelines that would export more of Moscow’s gas to Europe.
With refreshing self-criticism, Fox adds: “The useful idiot in this scenario is me, because Vladimir Putin sees my film, and he starts pushing it all throughout Eastern Europe.” To his credit, Fox did not welcome this publicity: “Energy independence is not a choice between being dependent on [ex-Exxon CEO] Rex Tillerson or being dependent on Vladimir Putin.”
Fox accuses the Russian and American petro-oligarchs of pulling a “bait-and-switch” on us, noting that Russian energy giant “Rosneft and Exxon are making a pact in the Arctic to drill the entire place.” (Yes, this is actually true, although the US sanctions on Russia have slowed progress on the collaboration.)
This commonality of interest is seen in the Moscow media machine’s plugging of Planet of the Humans. Fox accuses Halper as well as Tiabbi and Aaron Maté (another exponent of the Russian propaganda echo-chamber) of embracing the “new narrative embedded in Michael Moore’s movie that renewable energy doesn’t work.” (Indeed, pro-industry voices are increasingly switching from the ever-less tenable position of denying the climate crisis to pushing the line that climate change in inevitable. As Fox points out, the Yale climatologist Michael Mann has a book coming out about this, The New Climate War, which is predictably generating a backlash.)
Don’t take divide-and-rule bait
Fox’s accusations against Maté have already sparked a Twitterstorm, which those sufficiently interested may view. He next goes on to charge that Lee Camp (the supposedly progressive comedian whose primary platform is RT) and the ultra-odious Max Blumethal jumped to the defense of Planet of the Humans. (And yes, it appears that they did. And so did Useful Idiots.)
On an aside, Blumenthal was also recently featured by Halper and Taibbi as a guest on Useful Idiots, where they responded to accusations of backing Syria’s Moscow-supported genocidal dictator Bashar Assad. (Which Blumenthal certainly does.)
OK, a couple of caveats about Fox’s position. First, we recognize that there is a case for keeping Planet of the Humans (no matter how odious it may be) on YouTube on free speech grounds—as we acknowledged, it’s a tricky question. And we also acknowledge the dangers of playing fast and loose with the word “infiltrator.” Even conscious propagandists are not necessarily, strictly speaking, “infiltrators.”
But terminology aside, were are totally with him on the basics: “When we’re talking about infiltration, whether it’s Jeff Bezos or TigerSwan or Vladimir Putin, we have to maintain our sanity and bring it back home to the roots—which is these people sitting around a table figuring out how to stop this industry and doing it.”
As we’ve said many times before: a global divide-and-conquer scam is the essence of the state system. And it is maddening to see activists get caught up in it.