Respectable Racism: Only backward savages in Russia have oligarchs. Civilized Americans have "rich guys."

Ever since oligarch Michael Bloomberg started crudely bribing his way into the election — handing out hundreds of millions to TV networks, “donating” to non-profits, and flooding the meme market with cold hard cash — there’s been a very weird, liberal nativist debate raging on the sidelines.

The topic of discussion: Is Michael Bloomberg really an oligarch? And is America even capable of having oligarchs? It’s not that kind of country, is it?

To Jason Johnson — MSNBC contributor and doctor of journalism — the answer to all three of those questions is: Nope. Nope. And nope.

To him oligarchs can only exist in a corrupt and savage place like Russia. In a rules-based, democratic society like America they simply aren’t possible!

Calling Mike Bloomberg an oligarch has implications in this country that I think are unfair and unreasonable. I disagree with a lot of things Mike Bloomberg has done as a mayor. But oligarchy, in our particular terminology, it makes you think of some rich person who got their money off of oil in Russia. Mike Bloomberg is just a rich guy. America is full of rich guys. Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean that you’re an oligarch who abuses his power.”

Jason Johnson isn’t alone thinking these kinds of thoughts. Take, for example, Jeff Stein, an old school Newsweek journalist.

Like Jason, Jeff’s was really disturbed by this whole “Bloomberg is an oligarch” business. To show just how disturbed, he took to Twitter this weekend to air his grievances.

He berated some random guy for using the oligarch “epithet,” explained that the term only applies to “corrupt & murderous Russians,” and then went on the offensive, accusing people who insisted on calling Michael Bloomberg an oligarch of being racist. To Jeff, they were “orientalizing” the successful self-made businessman with an asiatic slur!

As best I can tell, his thinking went like this: Because only shifty asiatics like “the Russians” can be oligarchs, calling Bloomberg an oligarch was the same as calling him a shifty asiatic. It’s all very logical. All very ipso facto.

I’ve been friendly with Jeff online for years, despite him being a total Russiagate fanatic and accusing me of being a Kremlin agent. But this time, our brief exchange ended in him blocking me on Twitter.

Really, you can’t make this stuff up. Look for yourself:

Jeff’s belief that Americans can’t be “oligarchs” — that oligarchy is some sort of exclusively foreign political affliction  — is deeply racist and nativist. And the fact that people like him and Jason (and many others) say it publicly without a hint of self-awareness is an example of how normalized this kind of casual xenophobia towards Russians and Russia has become in liberal political and media circles.

As I’ve pointed out before, a lot of people think that racism comes from below — from the uneducated, from the “low-class.” But what this shows again is that racism comes from the very top of our media and political class — the very people who say they oppose Donald Trump and his bigotry.

I’m going to write something longer about this whole “orientalizing” billionaires business at some point.

What makes all this even more cynical is that America’s political elite helped create the Russian oligarchy — an oligarchy that they’re now trying to say comes from some sort of special barbaric gene that only Russians have. But no one wants to acknowledge that. Hell, last year Mark Ames and I were supposed to write a book about how America — and especially the Clinton Administration — helped create Russia’s oligarchy. But no publisher wanted to touch it because it ran counter to the nativist Russia hysteria that’s been gripping America. But I’m going to have to leave that for a later time…

—Yasha Levine

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“Stop orientalizing me!”