05 July 2010

Distorting Reality with a Myth Filter

A group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and a journalist descended in Moscow at the end of May.  This was a first-ever tech investor gathering in Russia.  It was backed by the Russian government and had a strong support from the US government as well.

Both Russia and US have strategic interests in bolstering Russia’s technology sector.  Russia’s interest lays in the desire to diversify the economy and lower dependence on natural resources.  US’s interest is forging stronger economic and political ties with Russia. 

The gathering was quite successful.  Based on my individual conversations with the US delegation members, most were convinced that Russia is invested in its technology future and is making the right structural changes.  However, reading the sole report that came from the journalist, one would conclude that members of the delegation wasted their time and that Russia is far from being investment-friendly.

The journalist in question is Matt Marshall.  I know Matt; he is a decent person and an experienced journalist.   He worked for two respected US newspapers, Wall Street Journal and San Jose Mercury News.  He now leads an influential technology blog called VentureBeat.  Yet, his writing about the May event is riddled with factual errors and anti-Russia biases.

For example, Matt starts his article with the following phrase:
Russia is the sixth-largest economy in the world, but it’s also a country relatively untouched by foreign investors…
In fact, and according to the CIA, Russia is in top twenty and ahead of India in foreign direct investment.  As such, any reference to “untouched by foreign investors” is wrong.  And Matt’s headline of “Investing in Russia? Better hire bodyguards and hunker down” tells you all that you need to know about his bias.  Reading his article closely and watching his supporting videos, one notices that many of his quotes were taken out of context.  Indeed, people that have been quoted by Matt have complained to him precisely about this.

My personal conclusion is that Matt came to Russia with preconceived notions and looked for clues that would reinforce his preconceptions. The question is why a journalist of Matt’s caliber would report in such a manner.

As it happens, Matt is human and is not alone in his manner of interpreting facts.  Having had more international exposure than most people, I have noticed a plethora of examples where people from different backgrounds observe, report, and reflect on events in completely different ways.  A prime example is how America sees itself in the world and how many foreigners view America from the outside.

I recently heard Stephen Kinzer, an award-winning American foreign correspondent and a former New York Times journalist, speak at The Commonwealth Club of California.  Mr. Kinzer was describing America’s role in the overthrow of the 1953 democratically elected government of Iran when someone asked him why there are not more journalists like him that describe the harsh ugly realities of some of America’s actions.  In response, Mr. Kinzer cited the tens of thousands of American books on World War II events and stated that (my paraphrase) “America sees itself as a spreader of liberty and democracy throughout the world.  World War II was an example of that, and this is why Americans are obsessed with World War II history.  However, a closer examination of America’s interaction with the outside world indicates that America’s role in World War II was the exception.  Most of America’s actions have been about thwarting democratic regimes.”

The bigger point in Mr. Kinzer’s remarks are that self-definition, and therefore the definition of the outside world, largely rests on the premises, or the myths, that one holds.  Reality serves to reinforce those myths and therefore perpetuate the definition of the self and the outside world.  As such, facts are cherry picked, subjectively interpreted, and fit within the existing mental models of how things are and how they work.  Matt’s article on his Venture Beat blog is yet another example of this. 

This is an unfortunate reality, but, regrettably, this is how we work.  And although I have focused on the United States and their international relations in this posting to make a point, I do not mean to single them out.  There are numerous such examples of this type of reasoning in Russia.

To illustrate the point, consider Russia’s vast territory, formerly spanning 11 time zones (now simplified to 9).  The country of Russia spans the eastern edge of Europe and covers the entirety of the northern part of Asia, the largest content.  After defeating Napoleon, Russians briefly occupied Paris.  In northern California, an ocean away, there are many former Russian settlements. Russia was the engine of the Soviet Union, a mighty world military and scientific power.  And Russians have a history of excellence in literature and the arts.  These are significant accomplishments for a nation that at its peak only had 150 million people.  These accomplishments in territory, power, the sciences, literature, and the arts, are the hallmarks of an intellectually aggressive people.

Understandably, many of Russia’s neighbors, like Ukraine, view Russia with mistrust and apprehension.  This mistrust and apprehension is not fully understood by most Russians that I encounter.  The Russian myth is of a friendly nation that shares its bounty with its neighbors and not of an aggressive and conquering culture.  Most Russians know that Russia is not loved by a large section of Ukraine, and most Russians attribute this to jealousy, ignorance, obscure historical relics, or current Ukrainian political shenanigans.  As it happens, the Russian myth gets in the way of analyzing the world, just like America’s self-image myth prevents a more comprehensive American world view (and a more effective foreign policy regime).  

And as it happens, Matt’s personal myth of what Russia is all about - thanks to commonplace, dated, inaccurate, or sensationalists reports in the American news media - precludes him from writing a more accurate and fair blog about technology investing in Russia.  Matt completely misses the point and does a disservice to anyone who reads his report.

Be that as it may ... nay, damn be that as it may, and damn the myths that cloud our world view.  Each one of us should be in pursuit of a better understanding of the world around us, as each one of us is responsible for making this world a better place.


  1. Russia being the engine of the Soviet Union, right. Seems that engine is worn down to the point of breaking up. Apathy of the masses, self-loathing of the intellectuals - thats Russia today.

  2. With one TINY exception, the USA NEVER destroyed democratically-elected governments. And, that tiny exception is understandable: said destruction only occurred if the US perceived it (the US) would benefit in some way from the destruction or accompanying collateral events.


  3. Lynn's comment is correct. That aside, "thwarting democratic regimes" is not the same as "destroying democratically-elected governments." Taking the CIA-led coup that toppled a democratically-elected government in Iran as the beginning of an arc, we see (a) the 1979 revolution in Iran, (b) Saddam Hussain's invasion of Iran in 1982; (c) the ensuing US aid to Saddam Hussain in his war against Iran; (d) US aid to Mujahedeen of Afghanistan - a precursor to the Taliban and Al Qaeda - because (i) Iran was no longer an ally and (ii) the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan; (e) the 9/11/01 attack by Al Qaeda; (f) US military action in Afghanistan; and (g) US invasion of Iraq.

    One is hopeful that (f) and (g) will eventually yield democratic regimes; that remains to be seen. (a), (c), (d) are not examples of spreading freedom or democracy.

    Nearby in the region, US support of the Saudi and Egyptian governments are yet other examples of thwarting democracy.

    In fact, it is to US's interest to spread freedom and democracy. Where US has been successful, as in Japan and Germany, the results have been quite positive. Where US has pursued its short-term interests instead of striving for a higher goal, results have been - generally - a less stable world in the long run. I say generally because support for Augusto Pinochet is a clear counterexample, but a rare one.