Amazing how quickly the punditocracy switches maps, time zones and histories, simultaneously mastering new combinations of consonants and vowels, to report and react to a "surprise" conflict in Georgia. It's almost hard to recall that, just a few days ago, the most urgent questions confounding most of the media had to do with just how narcissistic John Edwards really is, or what the ramifications of Barack Obama's plans to announce his vice presidential pick via text message might finally be.
Since the sight of tanks rolling usually has a way of concentrating the media mind, the question has become: Whither Russia?
In truth, the demise of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn earlier this month was a journalistic godsend. After all, who hadn't already dusted off their long-retired Soviet history books -- not to mention their long-retired Soviet history experts, all of whom have had the busiest couple of weeks in years -- by the time Vladimir Putin announced last week that "war has started" over South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
Historical memory somewhat refreshed, Western media were ready with the headlines -- "The evil empire is back"; "Welcome to the 19th century"; "The Russian bear's new teeth" -- to promote the main thrust of most stories: namely, that Russia is reverting to tsarist, expansionist, Soviet-style, empire-amassing type.
It's not that there's anything controversial in this journalistic approach, although I do tend to think there remain aspects of the Georgian story we haven't reconciled. What's noteworthy about this narrative consensus, however, is that the invocation of Russia's historical and cultural record is being made so frankly and without hedging. That is, no one's blaming "Russian extremists," "tsarismists," or "hijackers of a great history." On the contrary, the implication behind most Russia-versus-Georgia stories is that the Russians' world-stage behavior as they smash Georgia is something that this same historical and cultural record tells us that Russians do.
Certain political leaders in the West are saying much the same thing. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the invasion was "a reversion to not just Cold War politics, it is a 19 century way of doing politics." At home, John McCain explained the Russian strike against Georgia as a part of the same historical continuum: "I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian empire. Not the Soviet Union, but the Russian empire."