George Clooney meets Vin Diesel: For ten years Mark Ames (above) entertained Muscovites with The eXile - a magazine in the anarchic and outrageously brutal satirical tradition of Hunter S. Thompson. Forced to flee the Russian Federation in 2008, Ames returned to the United States with an even sharper satirical eye and a much heavier journalistic heart.
MARK AMES is an unusual man. When he decided to set up a satirical magazine in Moscow, in the late 1990s, most of his American compatriots regarded him as more than a little eccentric. But using his magazine to publish withering satirical attacks on the Russian Government? Most of his Moscow readers regarded that as certifiably insane.
But "that" is exactly what Mr Ames did. For ten outrageous years his dangerously provocative publication The eXile gave Muscovites a glimpse of what a genuinely free press might look like. The eXile featured the sort of fearless journalism that only a citizen of the United States, believing in the efficacy of his First Amendment rights, knows how to produce.
But not even Mr Ames could withstand the sort of pressures brought to bear on The eXile by Russia’s authoritarian President/Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Since 2008, when he and his colleagues were forced to flee the Russian Federation, The eXile has become an online-only media phenomenon.
Russia’s loss has been the USA’s (and everybody else’s) gain. The same searing honesty and excoriating wit which once skewered Moscow’s vicious and vapid kleptocracy has now been turned on America’s own dysfunctional society – and its even more dysfunctional political system.
Just last week, Mr Ames’ s lashed the liberal establishment – represented in this case by the eminent American economist, Paul Krugman – for its apparent inability to understand the true nature of the Republican Right.
"In just a few short paragraphs," he wrote, "Krugman unintentionally reveals why liberals are still getting their asses handed to them in every serious battle with the Republican Right: the liberal establishment is still convinced it’s competing in a middle-school civics class debate."
The liberals’ fatal mistake, according to Mr Ames, is that they refuse to let go of the myth that all the American people want from their politicians is the Truth.
"But what if the Truth is that Americans don’t want to know the Truth? What if Americans consciously choose lies over truth when given the chance—and not even very interesting lies, but rather the blandest, dumbest and meanest lies? ….. If I’m an obese 40-something white male living in Ohio or Nevada, locked into a permanent struggle with foreclosure, child support payments and outsourcing threats, then I’m going to vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the [liberal elite’s] dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process."
It’s the last line that stings the most. Because, as Mr Ames so rightly puts it: "The left’s wires short circuit when confronted with this awful possibility."
Indeed they do, because, for all its faults, the socialist left, remains a child of the 18th Century European Enlightenment. Just like neoliberals, socialists are convinced that people are not only hard-wired to recognise their own interests, but also to pursue them rationally. Socialism and neoliberalism, as coherent ideological systems, depend upon this being true.
But what if Mr Ames is right? What if most people don’t think with their brain but with their gut?
In other words, what if most people are emotional, rather than analytical thinkers: responding to issues not on the basis of fact and logical thought, but according to the feelings those issues arouse? What if, far from being convinced by individuals with the facts at their fingertips, most people react in the same way as the American fundamentalist preacher who, in the midst of his church’s campaign to supplant Darwinism with "creation science" at the local high school, uttered this oft-quoted cri de coeur : "We feel as if we’re under attack from the educated and intelligent sector of our culture."
Wouldn’t that explain why it’s proving so difficult for Labour and the Greens to get any political traction on issues like National Standards, Climate Change, Tax Reform and Crime & Punishment?
Certainly, the Russia Mark Ames spent ten years satirising offers scant encouragement to those who put their faith in rational self-interest. For ten years Russians sampled the wares of liberal democracy – Mr Ames’ magazine among them. In the end, however, they preferred Vladimir Putin’s version of democracy: one party rule, a state-controlled media, and the ruthless repression of dissent.
When asked to nominate Russia’s greatest hero, they invariably vote for Joseph Stalin.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 5 March 2010.