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Perm: Why a Western Journalist Criticises a Russian City

Mark McKinnon at Toronto Globe & Mail gives a profoundly distorted portrait of a Russian city because its politics are not liberal.

Alexander Mercouris

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In September 2015 through the generosity of the Oxford Russia Project I visited the Urals city of Perm.

On 15th August 2015 – just a few weeks before – an article about Perm by Mark McKinnon appeared in The Toronto Globe & Mail.

I will straight away say that I do not recognise the Perm I visited from the description of the city in Mark McKinnon’s article. 

Where McKinnon saw a city of “mired in stagnation” with “brutal Soviet architecture” part of the “rusting industrial heart of Russia”.

I saw an orderly, prosperous and thriving city, with a dynamic university, fascinating and well-attended regional museums, and a brilliant and massively popular ballet and opera company.

My fundamental problem with McKinnon’s article however is not with his description of the city, false though I find it, but with his approach to Perm’s local politics and the approach he takes to its art and to its view of history.

Perm is the nearest city to Perm-36, a former Gulag camp, which subsequently became the USSR’s leading political prison and which is now a well-maintained museum. 

The fence at Perm-36

As I learnt whilst I was in Perm a conflict arose some time ago over the management of the museum, which has resulted in it being taken over by the state authorities. 

Some people who were previously involved with the museum were concerned that this would lead to an attempt by the museum’s new management to sugarcoat the Gulag and the whole Gulag experience.

I have to say that I saw no evidence of that when I visited Perm-36, and the impression I got was that some of the critics of the authorities’ takeover of the museum have been somewhat placated by the way the new management is actually running it.

More to the point however is that McKinnon also found little to complain of.  Here is what he said:

“To a first-time visitor, the tour given today at Perm-36 seems thorough enough. The violence and repression of the Stalin era are grimly illustrated with statistics and maps. Nothing is glossed over about the backbreaking work done here, or the claustrophobic isolation cells. For inmates who broke the camp’s often-inane regulations, “outdoor time” simply meant being escorted to another small room, this one with barbed wire for a roof.”

McKinnon does claim that there have been some attempts to present a more favourable image of Perm-36 since the takeover.  However he contradicts himself later in the article by saying his recent tour of the camp was all but identical to a tour he made 12 years earlier. 

It turns out that his real objection is over an ongoing controversy over how the museum represents – or fails to represent – certain Ukrainian nationalists who were detained in the camp.  For the record during my tour of the camp – conducted by a local historian from the university and not by an official of the new management – the story of the Ukrainian nationalists held in the camp – one of whom was apparently a poet – did receive due mention.  I was shown the poet’s cell and told of the circumstances of his death.

The rest of McKinnon’s article consists of a lengthy denunciation of Russia’s recent Soviet past and of the supposed attempts of some in Russia to whitewash it, and the alleged stifling by the Russian authorities of a supposed “democratic spring” in Perm which  supposedly happened under its previous liberal governor Oleg Chirkunov.

Entrance into the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

Entrance into the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

The main expression of this “democratic spring” was the White Nights Festival which McKinnon says attracted hundreds of thousands of people from across Russia and abroad.  McKinnon is rhapsodic about it:

“Some years, as many as a million visitors were drawn to its mix of street art, theatre and live music. Each June, musicians and graffiti artists, some from as far away Western Europe and Latin America, descended on the city.“

It is clear that this festival had a very strong political character:

“Among the provocative works the museum displayed was a blood-red wall, spattered with black paint to look like clouds of smoke, entitled simply Maidan – a reference to the central square in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where the pro-Western protest that was to overthrow a Russian-backed government had just begun.

The Perm-36 gulag museum – already the only place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia where visitors could experience the mix of monotony and terror that was life inside a Soviet labour camp – launched Pilorama (the name means “sawing bench,” a reference to the woodworking done by inmates), an annual festival featuring opposition politics* and folk music.”

(*emphasis added)

Elsewhere we learn of

“….an exhibit mocking the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The show included a poster showing five nooses hanging in the shape of the Olympic rings, and another depicting a snarling Stalin wearing the suit of Misha the Bear, the Sochi mascot. Mr. Gelman’s gallery displayed the exhibit during the White Nights festival in the summer of 2013, ensuring the maximum number of people would see the critique of a project deeply personal to Mr. Putin.”

McKinnon complains that this festival featuring opposition politics and partly held on the grounds of Perm-36, has been “suppressed” (actually funding for it was stopped). 

He laments that it has been replaced by a new festival

“Instead of the White Nights festival that briefly drew crowds of tourists*, Perm this year held Kaleidoscope, a much smaller offering focused on an amusement park stuffed with roller coasters and shoot-’em-up games in the city’s central Gorky Park.

At the park’s entrance, there is a canvas military tent where visitors can listen to a soundtrack of falling bombs mixed with martial music – and cries of “Glory to Stalin” – as they peruse 70 black-and-white photos from the war (which in the Russian telling began with Nazis invading the Soviet Union in 1941).”

(*emphasis added)

The first thing to say about all this is that from what McKinnon says there was nothing “democratic” about the White Nights festival.  On the contrary McKinnon admits it was brought to Perm from outside and reports criticisms that the local people were at best unenthusiastic about it:

“Critics say Mr. Chirkunov and Mr. Gelman, neither of whom had lived in Perm, failed to grasp the region’s essentially conservative and working-class nature. Locals wanted culture that was connected to their lives, not high-brow installations that mocked institutions they respected, such as the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Elsewhere McKinnon admits 63% of the people of Perm voted for Putin in the 2012 Presidential election, and that

“….many of those who visit the tent wear the orange-and-black ribbon that has – in its most recent resurrection – come to imply support for Mr. Putin and his policies in Ukraine. On the average street in Perm (or Moscow), half the cars and buses that pass will have an orange-and-black ribbon hanging from their rearview mirror”.

Pope Francis wearing the ribbon of St. George.

Pope Francis wearing the ribbon of St. George.

The “orange-and-black” ribbon McKinnon refers to is the St. George’s Ribbon – Russia’s equivalent to the British Red Poppy – which long predates the USSR and Stalin, and which it would have been natural for Russians to wear in 2015 – the year of the 70th anniversary of their country’s victory in the Second World War.

In view of McKinnon’s admission of the patriotism of the people of Perm and of their support for Putin, it is hardly surprising if a festival that supported Russia’s liberal opposition and which included praise of Ukraine’s anti-Russian Maidan “revolution of dignity”, mockery of the Russian state, ridicule of the Sochi Olympics and crude attacks on Putin, might not be popular and if many people might have felt that it was not “culture that was connected to their lives”.  McKinnon says many of the people who attended the festival were “tourists”, which suggests the festival was anyway not really intended for the people of Perm, who were nonetheless required to host it.

Similarly it is hardly surprising if many people in Russia – not just in Perm – might feel that an opposition oriented political festival held on the grounds of a former Soviet era prison camp was overstepping the limit, especially given the propensity of Putin’s Russian liberal and Western critics to make false comparisons between his government and the totalitarian past.  (Marat Gelman, the organiser of the White Nights Festival, was at it again – quoted by McKinnon making absurd comparisons between the situation in Russia today and that in Germany in 1936).

It is also completely understandable why many people in Perm might in place of the White Nights festival welcome celebrations of the 70th anniversary of their country’s great victory in the Second World War, and might wear St. George’s ribbons to proclaim the fact.

McKinnon’s response to these perfectly understandable reactions is to descend into scorn and cliches in a way that I find grating. 

Thus we learn that the “stoically suffering” “conservative working class people of Perm” (“the Putin Majority”) are incapable of appreciating “high-brow installations” and “avant-garde art” and prefer “an amusement park stuffed with roller coasters and shoot-’em-up games”.  If Perm is incapable of appreciating the effort to make it the “Edinburgh of the Urals” it is because it is the provincial backwater once described by Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago and by Chekhov in The Three Sisters.

This is to stand reality on its head. 

If Perm has a cultural centre it is its opera house, one of the best in Russia, renowned for its cutting edge productions of Mozart operas and its outstanding ballet company.   As I witnessed for myself, the local people take immense pride and interest in it and on the one occasion I visited it the performance was sold out with a good half of the audience being young people.

I saw several examples of contemporary avant-garde art in the city’s main art gallery, whilst the students of the city’s university were in the process of holding a major arts festival whilst I was there.  The university was also hosting a major literary conference as well as lectures from a top US neuroscientist.

I also met in Perm individuals of various political views including a postgraduate student interested in ecological questions and two local politicians, both members of the opposition Communist Party, with different views of local and national politics.

Lastly I also met a political scientist who had straightforwardly liberal views.

To imply in the light of all this that Perm is some sort of reactionary “stagnant” cultural backwater where freedom of expression has been crushed is a travesty. 

McKinnon says nothing about any of the artistic activity going on in Perm unconnected to the White Nights Festival though it would be difficult to think of a more “high-brow installation” than an opera house. (The only reference to the opera house in his whole article – supposedly about culture and free expression in Perm – is in a photograph).

The reason McKinnon is so uninterested in all this artistic activity is because it is not focused around liberal anti-Putin and anti-Communist opposition politics as the White Nights festival apparently was. 

In other words it is not the quality of artistic activity that matters for McKinnon.  It is its political message.

Similarly what angers McKinnon about Perm-36 is not that the facts of what happened there are being suppressed (he admits they are not) but that the history behind those facts – whether the subject is Ukrainian nationalists or any other issue – is not being interpreted in the only way he wants it to be.

As for “democracy” in Perm, for McKinnon the measure of democracy in Perm is not in respecting what its people want.  It is in having what the West and Russia’s liberal opposition want imposed on them.  That is “democracy” and not acceding to it is its “suppression”.

If this all sounds like inverted Stalinism – judging art by its political message, imposing a single view of historical truth, and imposing on people what an elite thinks is best for them – it is because it is.

As everyone who visits Russia today can see, the country is in the process of a deep re-examination of its past.  Outsiders are obviously entitled to their views, but ultimately this is a Russian debate and Russians’ right to conduct it should be respected. 

In the meantime words like “democracy” and “freedom of speech” should be used properly, not manipulated to further a particular agenda. 

As for Perm and its people, they should not be mocked and criticised and accused of acting to suppress free speech and the truth, simply because most of them happen to hold opinions about their country that are different from the ones McKinnon wants to impose on them.

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BBC producer admits Douma attack was false flag that nearly sparked Russia – U.S. hot war (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 176.

Alex Christoforou

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BBC producer Riam Dalati believes that the scenes caught on video from a hospital in Douma, Syria were staged, all in an effort driven by jihadist terrorists and White Helmet “activists” to draw the U.S. and its allies into full on confrontation with Syria, and by extension Russia.

The viral images caused a media firestorm in 2018, showing children allegedly suffering from chemicals, as main stream media channels, like the BBC itself, called for war with Assad.

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the BBC producer’s stunning admission, after a 6 month investigation, that reveals the “‘chemical attack” hospital scenes in Douma were completely staged.

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Via RT


Emotive scenes of Syrian civilians, among them crying, choking, half-naked children, dominated the airwaves in April last year after rebel-affiliated mouthpieces reported yet another “chemical attack by the Assad regime” in the town of Douma. Disturbing reports, including some from the controversial White Helmets, claimed scores of people had been killed and injured.

Mainstream media quickly picked up the horrific (but unverified) videos from a Douma hospital, where victims were treated after this “poison attack.” That hospital scene was enough to assemble a UN emergency session and prompt the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ to rain down dozens of missiles on Damascus and other locations.

But Riam Dalati, a reputable BBC producer who has long reported from the Middle East, took the liberty of trying to sift through the fog of the Syrian war.

He believes Assad forces did attack the town, but that the much-publicized hospital scenes were staged.

After almost 6 months of investigations, I can prove without a doubt that the Douma Hospital scene was staged. No fatalities occurred in the hospital.

Anticipating further queries, he said no one from the White Helmets or opposition sources were present in Douma by the time the alleged attack had happened except for one person who was in Damascus.

Dalati also says that an attack “did happen” but that sarin, a weapons-grade nerve agent, was not used. He said, “we’ll have to wait for OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] to prove chlorine or otherwise.”

However, everything else around the attack was manufactured for maximum effect.

The journalist said Jaysh al-Islam, an Islamist faction that fought the Syrian army there, “ruled Douma with an iron fist. They co-opted activists, doctors and humanitarians with fear and intimidation.”

Dalati’s revelations could have become a bombshell news report, but instead it was met with a deafening media silence. His employer preferred to distance itself from his findings. The BBC told Sputnik in a statement that Dalati was expressing “his personal opinions about some of the video footage that emerged after the attack but has not claimed that the attack did not happen.” 

After a while, Dalati restricted access to his Twitter account which is now open only to confirmed followers.

Interestingly, his previous inputs did not sit well with the official narrative either. “Sick and tired of activists and rebels using corpses of dead children to stage emotive scenes for Western consumption. Then they wonder why some serious journos are questioning part of the narrative,” he said in a tweet which he later deleted over “the breach of editorial policy.”

In all, Dalati is not a lone voice in the wilderness. The Intercept has recently run a story that also cast doubt on the mainstream coverage of Douma, although it doesn’t doubt that the attack itself happened. While a veteran British reporter Robert Fisk suggested there was no gas attack at all, saying people there were suffering from oxygen starvation. Witnesses of the “chemical attack,” for their part, told international investigators the story was a set-up.

Moscow, which supports Damascus in its fight against terrorists, has long stated the Douma incident was staged, calling for an international OPCW inquiry. Last year, the Defense Ministry presented what it said was proof the “provocation” was to trigger Western airstrikes against Syrian government forces.

This time, the military recalled a similar 2017 incident in Khan Sheikhoun, where an alleged chemical attack took place. The ministry’s spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Friday that a closer inspection of footage from that location clearly shows this was a set-up as well.

Now the Foreign Ministry has suggested Dalati is being silenced for voicing inconvenient views, with spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asking on Facebook: “A telling story. How about Western advocates of rights and freedoms? Had they accused BBC of censorship and pressuring the journalist?”

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President Trump schools liberals with National Emergency declaration

President Trump skillfully defeats Democrat naysayers, by increasing support for the border wall prior to declaring a National Emergency.

Seraphim Hanisch

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President Trump signed a continuing resolution to keep the US government fully running through the rest of the 2019 fiscal year. The CR contained a $1.374 bn allocation for US border security, and that money includes and pays for the completion of some fifty-five miles of border fence (or wall, or barrier, or “not-a-wall” depending on one’s preferential phrasing.) He also declared a National Emergency, theoretically freeing at least another $8 bn for the continued construction of the border wall.

Yes, it is a wall. And, yes, it is being built right now. And yes, it will be completed. The President of the United States has made this abundantly clear.

Some news reporters talk about this matter still as though there is in fact no wall now, and that there is no construction in progress on any wall. To that we can say, please watch this:

This section of the wall is going up near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. It augments a very well-designed 18 foot wall stretching from west of Santa Teresa, NM to Tornillo, Texas. If someone wants to cross the border without having to negotiate this barrier they have to go very far off the beaten path to do it. President Trump wants to make it even more difficult; in fact, he wants to have the barrier run the entire length of the US-Mexico border.

This second video says a bit more about the situation:

His campaign to get this has been brilliant in terms of getting the American people informed that there is a problem. How did he do this with a press that hates him?

Easy. He made an issue out of it, knowing that the news media has no choice but to cover the President’s every antic, and in so doing, while seeking fodder for criticism, they actually ended up reporting on the actual problem.

This has been an interesting flow of events:

  • Mainstream news slamming the President’s every statement about the need for a wall
  • The fury of Democrat leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles “Chuck” Schumer in their 100% opposition – their own temper tantrum whilst blaming that tantrum on Trump, who actually acted more like a strict parent than a bratty teenager
  • The very public presentations of Border Patrol experts that Trump arranged, the purpose being to listen to their own expert assessment of the actual needs at the border

This last issue marks a need for even the conservative press to have a wake-up call. Daniel Horowitz wrote a piece in The Conservative Review excoriating President Trump’s signing of this present deal as a “sell out”, noting that:

Trump originally demanded $25 billion for the wall. Then he negotiated himself down to $5.6 billion. Democrats balked and only agreed to $1.6 billion. This bill calls it a day at $1.375 billion, enough to construct 55 miles. But it’s worse than that. This bill limits the president’s ability to construct “barriers” to just the Rio Grande Valley sector and only bollard fencing, not concrete walls of any kind.

Daniel’s point is great for rhetoric because, of course, the President originally did promise a big beautiful concrete wall running the entire length of the border.

However, he missed the point about using bollard-style walls that can be seen through – the Border Patrol agents themselves said this kind of wall is to their advantage. A solid wall prevents natural visibility and the agents were getting rocks thrown at them from people they could not see on the other side. A see-through capability means that people approaching the wall on the other side can be seen and tracked.

This marks an example of conservative ideology being too strongly fixed, just as the liberals’ ideology is fixed at the level of a four-year old child refusing to let someone else play with his toys.

They both do not understand that President Trump is not concerned with ideology. He is concerned with useful results, which he got in this deal.

Now about that National Emergency. Is this really the constitutional crisis Trump’s detractors say it is?

Probably not.

It has been widely reported that the US is currently running under some 31 other national emergencies, and that the one President Trump declared makes it number 32. The rhetoric from the news media and Democrats is centered around the idea that no President has ever used this power to get money that only the Congress can allot.

We also probably already know that this is an irrelevant point – the President is in charge of the national security of the nation, and he can and must do what he can to ensure it. The huge numbers of illegal crossings, nearly half a million in 2018 were largely apprehended and released into the United States, rather than deported. Half a million is far less than the 1.6 million that came through in 2000, but it is also not zero. Half a million is the size of the city of Atlanta, Georgia.

The distractors in the Democrat party and media do not want anyone comprehending this fact, so they try to divert and dissuade. But President Trump has not let any of this get past him. In a media event, the President had parents and relatives of people who were murdered by illegal aliens in a direct face-off with none other than CNN’s provocateur-in-chief Jim Acosta, and the reporter was forced to listen to what these family members had to say about their convictions that the president was correct in his:

Trump pointed to angel moms in attendance, asking them for their thoughts.

“You think I’m creating something? Ask these incredible women who lost their daughters and their sons,” Trump said. “OK, Because your question is a very political question because you have an agenda. You’re CNN. You’re fake news.”

Trump told Acosta the statistics he provided were “wrong” and told him to take a look at the federal prison population for proof.

“See how many of them,percentage-wise, are illegal aliens,” Trump said. “Just see, go ahead and see. It’s a fake question.”

Acosta was subsequently confronted by the angel moms in attendance, after the press conference. As angel moms confronted the CNN reporter, he invited them to appear on the network in the background of a live shot.

“There is no attempt whatsoever to diminish what they’ve gone through, or take away what they’ve gone through, but as you heard in that question that I had with the president … it was really about the facts and the data,” Acosta said on CNN following his exchange with Trump. “Some of these folks came up to me right after this press conference … they’re holding up these pictures of loved ones who lost their lives.”

An angel mom then discussed that a previously deported illegal alien murdered her son.

“President Trump is completely correct on this issue, we need to protect this country,” the angel mom told Acosta.

Acosta actually was a victim of his own passions when he went to the border to a place where the bollard wall presently stands and reported that nothing was happening there. It seemed that he was expecting that there were supposed to be angry mobs on the other side trying to get through. However, no one was there, because it is rather pointless to try to get over this wall at this place. Even liberals were forced to acknowledge Mr. Acosta’s strategic miscalculation.

The new national emergency is about getting results. If we were concerned only with smooth and impressive politics, we could only remark on the President’s success in maneuvering the Democrats (not all of them were slavishly going with the Pelosi-Schumer stance) and his ability to do what he does best – getting his message to the American people, and giving them information with which to decide what they want.

This campaign is not over, but this particular battle appears to have been won with a lot of hard work.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, it would seem that the forces of common sense are making some headway in America.

 

 

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“This is America” reveals a shocking vision of the United States

The Grammy Award winning Song and Record of the Year feature the very darkest vision of what America has become.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The Grammy Awards are the second of the three most significant musical achievement awards in the United States. Two of the anticipated awards that many fans of this event look forward to learning are the Song of the Year and the Record of the Year.

The Song of the Year is awarded to the songwriters of a given song, where the Record of the Year goes to the artists, producers and engineers involved in crafting the recording (the “record”) of a song. Both categories are huge and both usually go to an artist or organization responsible for a pop song.

It also happens to be that usually the song that is picked is beautiful and in most cases, reflects the character of beauty (whether in music or lyrics or both) for that year.

This year was quite different. Both awards went to Donald Glover, a.k.a. “Childish Gambino” for his song This is America.

This song features a radically different tone than previous winners going back for many years. Though rap remixes are usually less musical, the Grammy winners among these mixes have nevertheless retained some relatively positive, or at least attractive, aspect.

This is America is very different, especially when watched with its video.

Musically, it is genius, though the genius appears to have gone mad. Glover paints a picture of some very positive segments in American life, but then destroys it with his audible form and message that says absolutely nothing positive, but even more so – it doesn’t make sense unless one knows the context.

That context is revealed in the video with frightening images: someone getting their brains blown out (we see the blood fly), a gospel choir shot up with an automatic rifle while they were singing, and cannabis, front and center, being smoked by the artist himself.

This is America?

For Glover, this song and others on his album do seem to reflect that point of view.  Feels like Summer, one of Glover’s other recent songs, also reflects this sense of hopelessness, though it is far more musically consistent. The video gives the most clear contextual information that one could ask for, and while the video is not violent, it features degradation in society, even though the people depicted appear to be trying to make the best of their life situations.

The image Mr. Glover paints of America is a far cry from that which was known to most Americans only twenty years ago, and in fact, in many parts of the country where cannabis is still illegal there is a corresponding sense of positivity in life that is absent in Childish Gambino’s California-esque view of life.

There is a massive change that is taking place in American society. Our music and art reflects this change, and it sometimes even helps drive that change.

The United States of today is at a crossroads.

How many times have we read or heard THAT statement before?  But does it not seem so now? The attempt of identity politics to separate our nation into groups that must somehow fight for their own relevance against other groups is not the vision of the United States only twenty years ago.

Further, the normalization of themes such as drug-use and racism, the perpetuation of one in reality and the other as a mythological representation of how life “really is” in the US is radically bizarre.

In discussions with people who do not live in the United States, we found that sometimes they believed that white-on-black racism really was happening in America, because the media in the US pumps this information out in a constant stream, often with people like Donald Trump as the scapegoat.

But it is not true. Anyone in America’s new “accused class” of white, Christian, European-descent males (and some women who are not feminists), will note that they are not racist, and in fact, they feel persecuted for their existence under the new mantra of “white privilege.”

But it does not matter what they say. The media pumps the message it wants to, and with such coverage it is easy to get to halfway believing it: I know I am not this way, but I guess things are getting pretty bad elsewhere because all of those people seem to be getting this way…

This is the narrative the press promulgates, but upon conversations with people in “those places” we find that it is not true for them, either, and that they may in fact be thinking this is true about us.

Made in America is a visionary song and video. However, the vision is not a dream; it is nothing that anyone in the country would sincerely hope for. Even in Donald Glover’s case – as one of Hollywood’s hottest actors, and as a big success in music, he is far from being one of the “boys in the ‘hood.” In fact, Time Magazine in 2017 named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Certainly his musical work creates a powerful influence, but it also must raise questions, with the main ones being:

  • Are we really like this?
  • Is this what we really want to be as a country?
  • Is this the kind of image we want our children in the US to adopt?

In fact, if Mr. Glover’s work was viewed with care (rather than just as something that is “cool” because the media says it is), it might help us steer away from the cliff that many Americans are in fact heading towards.

We have elected not to link to the video because it is too disturbing for children. It is even too disturbing for many adults. For that reason we are not making it one-click-easy to get to.

Parents reading this opinion piece would do well to screen the video by themselves without the kids around first, before deciding what they want to do. Even though the video is probably something that they have already seen, the parents still stand as the guides and guardians for their children through all the perils of growing up.

These times call for great guardians indeed.

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