David Edgerley Gates
I ran across an article by Katherine Cross in the Daily Beast that used the expression "Potemkin morality," which struck me as an interesting phrase. Her piece is about the alt-Right troll campaign against CNN, with its echoes of GamerGate. (GamerGate is itself a complicated story, with a subtext of women-hating and a foretext of anti-Semitism and agitprop, essentially tone-deaf to facts and reasoning, or shame.)
She uses the Potemkin reference to mean something akin to crocodile tears, or bare-faced hypocrisy, to make the truth uncertain and proofs negotiable.
Prince Grigory Potemkin was an 18th-century Russian, a favored minister of Catherine the Great. Governor-general of Novorossiya - the southern Dnieper watershed and the Black Sea from Odessa to the Donbass, including Crimea - he famously hosted Catherine on a trip downriver from Kiev in the summer of 1787. Along the banks, he allegedly built colorful villages that were basically stage sets, and peopled them with thousands of smiling, waving peasants. The empress graciously acknowledged her happy subjects from a suitably royal remove.
The story is by all accounts exaggerated, but hence the term Potemkin Village. More than a false front, or a false-fronted building, it's a false narrative, a belief system, but constructed out of whole cloth. From what we know, Catherine might not have been fooled, or she may have chosen to turn a blind eye to the deception. You can turn this back to front yourself, of course, depending on POV. Usually, it's seen as a cautionary tale, about vanity. Or a courtier's flattery, telling your queen what you think she wants to hear. Catherine, we suspect, would have been better served by honesty, but that's a toughie. What if the unwelcome truth cost you your place near the throne, or your own head? Gifts and favors can be withdrawn.
In the event, however, Potemkin's village is an empty shell, a facade, a ghost town. The empress graces it with her glance, and it drifts astern. Its purpose has been served, to distract attention from broken walls and failed crops, sickly livestock and barefoot tenants. Misdirection is one way of putting it.
'Active disinformation' is another possibility - borrowing the vocabulary of the modern security apparat - and I think this is the sense Katherine Cross intends. She means Potemkin, the modifier, to indicate something not simply staged, a puppet show, but a more sinister design than that, calculated disregard. None of your moral relativism, either, Complete abandonment. No baseline whatsoever. Prince Potemkin's fiction is inflated to metaphorical extremes. But it was always a metaphor about surfaces, and hollow figures, empty air.
In the context of the Daily Beast article, we're talking about vigilantes on social media, and the practice of doxing [dox = docs = documents], exposing somebody's personal information on the Internet for revenge. This isn't a tactic exclusive to the alt-Right, but the politics of bullying are familiar enough. It's old wine in new bottles. Even if the delivery changes, the message stays the same, and it's curious how the clothes of righteousness still seem to be one size fits all. (It is a little disconcerting how many of these people are neo-Nazis or Aryan Nations or white supremacists, in or out of uniform.) Oh, but of course they themselves wear masks, this being the Internet and all. You can't disguise your handwriting, though. It gives the game away.
We know to mistrust absolutes, orthodoxy, the received wisdom. Too often it's an alibi for cruelty, or flat-out extermination. But aren't there basic norms? We accept certain conventions, like driving on the right (or the left, in some countries), just to make it safely through the day. And we accept certain others, simply because they seem part of civility, or common decency. You don't have to subscribe to any particular party line. Most of us, for the most part, agree a few courtesies are necessary.
There are always the ones who think rules are for suckers. A lot of them are criminals. Not all of them get caught. What they share is a sense of entitlement. They're the dispossessed, they've been cheated. Trolls, lurking in the virtual undergrowth. Parasites, by any other name.
It comes down to something outside our own convenience, a fundamental respect for other people. The lesson of Prince Potemkin's reconstruction is that it's theater, a dress rehearsal. You don't rehearse morality. You don't wear it as a costume, and take it off when the lights go dark.