Pando

The geometry of censorship and satire

By Mark Ames , written on February 4, 2015

From The News Desk

I first heard about Sergei Dorkeno’s theory on “vertical censorship vs. horizontal censorship” back in 2008, right around the time that the Kremlin shut down my satirical Moscow newspaper, “The eXile”. Dorenko was a rather unique (and loathsome) authority on Kremlin censorship—a once-famous TV news anchor nicknamed "Telekiller," he’d served as Putin's most effective TV character assassin, helping propel the obscure KGB spy's rise to power in 1999-2000...but as soon as Putin's political opponents were thrashed into submission, Dorenko fell victim himself to Putin’s censorship for daring to criticize the new Master on his popular evening TV show. Dorenko's show was pulled, and he's been scrounging around the margins of Russia's broadcast media world ever since.

As Dorenko explained it, Kremlin censorship under Putin is “vertical”—top-down censorship that is brutal and frightening when you’re targeted; but also flawed and inefficient as censorship strategies go, because the top-down vertical approach is too narrow, too concentrated under one tyrannical locus at the top. There are too few censors, and too many people and too much material to censor, meaning there’ll always be someone you miss, and there’ll always be journalists or satirists looking for ways to circumvent the narrow-minded censors.

This was contrasted to our “horizontal” censorship in the West: rather than coming from a tyrannical top-down force, our censorship is carried out horizontally, between colleagues and peers and “society”; through public pressure and peer pressure; through morality-policing; and from within oneself, one’s fears for one’s career, and fears one can’t necessarily articulate, fears that feel natural rather than imposed upon.

Under vertical censorship, you know exactly who you fear, and therefore, who and what to avoid or sneak around and oppose. But horizontal censorship feels like it comes from everyone and anyone, depriving the censored of martyrdom status. Which makes our “horizontal” censorship in many ways more effective and powerful than the cruder Kremlin “vertical” approach to censorship—according to Dorenko’s theory.

Dorenko was right to call out — and give shape to — how Western censorship works, and why it’s so effective. And he was clearly boasting, calling out the cowardice that greases Western “horizontal” censorship as opposed to the courage or insanity it takes to face down “vertical” censorship. Dorenko, a highly compromised figure, did it and lost, as everyone who faces down Putin’s vertical power loses; my newspaper lost, as have other satirical and critical media in Russia. Whereas Al Qaeda’s “vertical” censorship has been more hit-and-miss, so to speak: Charlie Hebdo refused to censor itself when it came under threat, and after the censors massacred their cartoonists, the magazine had its biggest Muhammed cartoon print run ever...and yet the violent-vertical threat has worked pretty effectively too, scaring all sorts of Big Media outlets here in the US and in Europe from reprinting the last cover of a repentant Muhammed.

Dorenko was onto something much bigger with his riffing on Western “horizontal” censorship back in 2008. At the time, it seemed like he was mostly riling up Western correspondents for their facile, sanctimonious denunciations of the way censorship power is crudely exercised in Russia. But it’s been over six years since my satirical Moscow newspaper was shut down by “vertical” censors—six years plus years of doing journalism in our brave new horizontal model—and this "Western horizontal censorship" I've seen over these past six years is a lot worse than even Dorenko's riffs implied.

That’s because the Internet and social media have pretty much flattened whatever remained out here of the old media hierarchies with a new sort of horizontal dystopia. In theory, as we all know and have heard a bazillion times, the Internet and social media were supposed to bring something far better than the old vertical, top-down, elite distribution of media and journalism. Under the bad old ways, the media “elites” imposed conformity and consensus from the top-down, foisting their “elite” interests on the rest of us without any real debate. It was this vertical, “elitist” control over media and information that supposedly was the real cause of all of our political problems, and our political disasters (Iraq, financial crisis)—at least according to the popular cant of today. The solution to “elites” controlling our narratives is therefore supposed to be horizontal, decentralized structural power, i.e., the Internet, and especially social media—which, again, levels and flattens old media hierarchies and makes it possible for other non-elite viewpoints and narratives to break in.

All this Internet utopian cant about flattened, decentralized power networks—derived originally from corporate managerial theory, but that's another depressing story—jibes nicely with one of the most enduring middle-class romantic dreams that we’ve inherited from the hippies and never quite shaken off: the dream of leaderless, horizontally-structured utopias in which power itself dissolves along with the old oppressive vertical hierarchies. It’s an enduring middle-class dream up to this day. If anything it's grown stronger since the hippies turned their dream of horizontally-structured utopias into a series of disastrous real-world communes, before turning to corporate consulting about decentralizing corporate structures, a la Stewart Brand. This same romantic “horizontalism” framed the Occupy protests, both their spectacular start and their embarrassing failures; and more to the point, it’s the major premise in much of the cant you hear from cheerleaders for the Brave New Media.

ACTUALLY, IT’S ABOUT ETHICS IN SATIRE

But there’s another, darker aspect to horizontal power beyond the utopian cant—a new hyper-conformist culture accelerated by social media horizontalism. You see it most clearly on Twitter, which was just launching around the time that Sergei Dorenko riffed on the Western media's horizontal censorship.

Last year, Pew conducted a study on how social media lived up to its promise of breaking elitist-imposed conformism by allowing a more democratic sharing of unpopular opinions. Using the controversial issue of the day—the Edward Snowden leaks—what they discovered was that social media’s horizontal model was creating a far worse culture of conformity than before. In fact, people were twice as likely to share their opinion about the Snowden controversy in person (86%) than on social media (42%); and regular users of social media were far more prone to self-censorship and group-think both online and off-line than those who weren’t regular social media users:

Some social media creators and supporters have hoped that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might produce different enough discussion venues that those with minority views might feel freer to express their opinions, thus broadening public discourse and adding new perspectives to everyday discussion of political issues.

Overall, the findings indicate that in the Snowden case, social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views on the Snowden-NSA story online and in other contexts, such as gatherings of friends, neighbors, or co-workers.

This dystopian e-conformism is something even Dorenko hadn’t foreseen back in 2008, when he riffed on Western horizontal-censorship...

The Charlie Hebdo massacre provided yet another grim example of how social media horizontalism imposes conformism and censorship on the very same groups who consider themselves outside the old mainstream consensus.

Take for example this warp-speed way that the most popular of Anonymous Twitter accounts, @YourAnonNews — the very symbol of contemporary radical activism — fell into line with the Twitter Left’s verdict on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Actually, in a few tweets you see the conformism unfold in warp-speed time-lapse, almost comically, going from sensible outrage over a “senseless massacre”:

...to bandwagon conformist hashtaggers:

...to counter-conformists falling in line with the Twitter Left's counter-consensus:

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, my own twitter feed was bombarded by the Twitter Left’s satire police for not denouncing the murdered cartoonists as “racists” who really had it coming. For proof, most of of these satire-shamers tweeted that same CH cartoon caricaturing France’s black justice minister as a monkey, virtuously unaware of what that cartoon even represented. In the flattened, de-contextualized world of Twitter social media—in which meaning has 140 characters to explain itself—the alleged “racist” Charlie Hebdo cartoon proved to be an effective shaming weapon, despite being wildly, idiotically misinterpreted by the Twitter Left. (It turned out that the supposed “racist” cartoon was in fact a mockery of the far-right National Front’s racist attacks on the black justice minister, as were other "racist" cartoons waved around as proof that Charlie Hebdo had it coming to them.)

Twitter’s horizontalism does more than flatten out old elitist relationships (such as between reader and Twitter-engaged journalist)—it also flattens out time and space, cultures and contexts, and brains. It has a way of empowering credulous idiots and outrage addicts, who brandish their ignorance like a virtue. And reptilian ignorance is a virtue in social media’s horizontal model. Which is why, at some point, you figure, it’s not worth arguing with them. The whole platform can be as toxic as a Komodo Dragon's gums.

And that’s one of the ways that Western horizontal censorship has been supercharged by social media. It’s also a depressing example of why and how aggressive satire cannot survive social media’s horizontal, peer-to-peer censorship. The emotional physics in social media will always favor virtuous ignorance and sleazy, demagogic outrage over satire’s more complicated buzz. The really great satire, the kind that makes everyone uncomfortable, is doomed in this hot flat climate. Even the safer, suburban satire of Colbert—clearly signposted with a “just kidding!” qualifier for any idiot to see—was nearly purged by the social media satire-shaming police's #CancelColbert campaign.

Fact is, Swift today would be hounded off Twitter for "promoting child cannibalism as a solution to Irish poverty"; demagogic satire-shamers would trash Swift for "punching down, not up"—because as every social media Stalinist will tell you, "satire should punch up, not down." And it's all effected without the crude, violent methods used by the Kremlin censors—we do it to ourselves, thanks to our decentralized new utopia.

GULLIVER’S TWEETS

Like I said, all of this is very personal for me. Because if there’s no place for the milquetoast satire of Colbert—or the culturally stagnant '68 satire of Charlie Hebdo, an institutionalized relic of French Baby Boomer radicalism—then it stands to reason that there’s even less room for The eXile’s satire, which was far more aggressive, outrageous, radical, and anarchic than anything I’ve seen since being forced to return to the US in 2008. For one thing, the differences in contexts between Russia of the late 1990s and America today couldn’t be more different, and more incomprehensible in a flattened social media 140-character environment.

Russia in the 1990s was where neoliberal colonialism reached its grotesque and deadly highwater mark—Moscow was crawling with Western neoliberal missionaries who exerted enormous control over the transformation of Russia’s political economy, leading to a 60 percent collapse in the country’s GDP, the collapse of Russian life expectancies, and the creation of the world’s most unequal society out of what had been the world’s most equal. Millions literally went to their graves early; rape and prostitution were the dominant metaphors...and what made it all the more surreal and horrific to report on was that all this violence and misery was accompanied by sanctimonious Westerners hectoring Russians about their immoral, illiberal, "backwards" attitudes, blaming the patient for not responding properly to the catastrophic Western-led neoliberal reforms. A story like that could not be conveyed in the dreary, humorless language of the Chomsky Left, not without reifying and flattening out the actual experience…a sick and violent story like this could better be conveyed through a sick and violent satirical journalism that moved among it, not above it...

Anyway, the point is that in retrospect, it’s clear that the sort of aggressive satire that we experimented with at The eXile could only exist under those unusual circumstances, in that strange and alien context—a collapsed empire traumatized anew at the hands of neoliberal colonialism, so that in a country where censorship was only vertical and not horizontal, and where the vertical power structure was in shambles, it meant that censorship was almost non-existent—it was a risk worth taking. But with potentially dire consequences if you found yourself targeted.

I fled Russia in a hurry in mid-2008—shortly after my paper was closed down, a top Duma deputy in Putin’s party (and former head of the Putin Youth “Nashi” movement) went on a shouting fit on Russian radio denouncing me as an “extremist”—and I realized very quickly, as soon as I got here, that there was no place here for the sort of satire we did at The eXile. Everything was too different; the same satire in this wealthy, comfortable, culturally stagnant American context would look like mere dickishness, or worse. It wouldn’t slap anyone awake and force open ears the way good satire should. It wouldn’t even be funny; it’d just be a distraction. The only option in this stagnant culture would be to massively scale down the satire and clearly signpost it so that even the most dishonest idiots couldn't miss it, because this literal culture needs literal signposts: Look, we’re a parody! Look, we’re like Hunter S. Thompson, only safer!

One of the most revealing reactions to the Charlie Hebdo massacre came from Jon Stewart, who complained that “comedy shouldn’t be an act of courage.” That pretty much describes the sad state of contemporary American liberalism, and why so much of our satire feels stagnant. (Personally I don’t really get the point of comic writing if it’s not an act of courage—that’s the whole advantage that comics have over other genres: they’re more courageous and tell us painful truths we can’t otherwise swallow...but what the fuck do I know, I haven’t been funny in at least six years.)

In this context, it became necessary to take a much straighter, much less satirical approach to fighting power—to “the story.” But then a funny thing happened since returning here in 2008: The more our US journalism upset the powerful, the more we became targets of smear campaigns, which have only intensified as social media turbocharged our culture’s horizontal censorship. The smears have tended to arise from a variety of sources: white supremacists, Mens Rights Activists, libertarian trolls, and the occasional liberal weenie — but one thing all the smears have in common is this: They all are premised on denying that The eXile was satirical.

Every smear today that cites our old eXile articles insists, absolutely, that The eXile was not satirical at all, but rather “non-fiction,” “memoir” or some such. That the notoriously shocking and outrageous satire in our Moscow-based newspaper was actually non-fiction confessional autobiography, 100% factual and objective, and 100% contextually transferable to America-2015. The funny thing—in a not-funny way—is that The eXile was shut down by Kremlin censors in 2008 precisely because satire is not a legal defense under Putin’s reign.

Here in the US, satire is being denied altogether in order to silence our journalism. Because satire is legally (and culturally) protected, the strategy is to convince people unfamiliar with The eXile that the satire was not satire. They want to tell us what we wrote; and in superimposing their definition and genre, use that to censor through smearing our journalism. It is a kind of Orwellian thought-policing that even Orwell hadn’t imagined: Redefining and genre-twisting satirical writing as “non-fiction” in order to censor…rather than airbrushing the past, this is a case in which the past is weaponized by retroactively redefining the creative mind’s genre and intention.

If the trolls are right about us—the white supremacist jailed for breaking his girlfriend’s skull; or the GOP smear artist kicked off Twitter for libeling rape victims; or the Koch-funded libertarian trolls, or the Pentagon’s anarcho-libertarian Tor Project contractors, or the odd liberal weenie jumping aboard their power-wagon—if they are right when they superimpose from today what our minds then were really thinking and what genres we really intended in The eXile, that what we thought was satire was all along “non-fiction” or “autobiographical non-fiction” whether we knew it or not, as they insist…if they’re right, then frankly, we’re fucked. A lot of people are fucked too, because this flattened-out horizontalism means you don't even control your own creative mind, your historical context, your intentions, your output—everything is now in the hands of the social media's hyper-conformist crowd.

I don’t know, it’s all pretty weird, and yet pretty serious. I’ve never heard of this type of censorship before—censorship by imposing on the writer a genre that the writer never intended. Stalin’s censors did something like this when they re-labeled and re-categorized “wrong” creative writing and art — categorizing “wrong” art as “deviationist” or “counterrevolutionary” or “bourgeois,” regardless of the author’s intent—with deadly consequences. Religious fundamentalists are big on superimposing their categories and genres on writers too—and sometimes they show they mean it by acting on it.

In any event, for the record, we can’t avoid the times we live in or the horizontal censors who police satire, so one day we posted a short list of some of the publications that have described The eXile as "satirical"— because nothing is too degrading in this horizontal idiocy we live in. (For those interested in knowing more, Vanity Fair published a big eulogy to The eXile a few years ago.)

None of this is very funny—having to set the record straight on satire—not funny now, anyway. Might be funny in a few years or decades, if we live that long. But not now. Then again, I’m not very funny these days either, not since getting tossed out of Russia. 21st Century America, it turns out, ranks as one of the most un-funny paradigms to be stuck in since the Bronze Age.

We tried to bring wild satire back at NSFWCORP, launched in 2012 and now owned by Pando, but we found there we ran into the same cultural forces: wrong context, wrong audience, horizontal censorship turbocharged by social media and its legions of credulous outrage addicts... It’s no surprise to me that Taibbi’s “Racket” never got off the ground, with all the hype and money and promises. Whatever we’re told about the Racket’s management and personnel/personality problems, I’m sure Taibbi discovered the same thing—there’s no real place for satire in this dumb flat paradigm, especially if it’s satire that takes risks.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]