poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 17, 2014

The Three Tipping Points in Ferguson.

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 9:39 PM
Tags: , ,

Or, “Damn, I thought brain sandwiches were weird, but St. Louis, you have some strange fruit.”

 

I have been asked to write about the “race riots” in Ferguson, MO for PoliSMI.ru. I am not going to write about race riots, because that does not adequately describe what is taking place in Ferguson. On one evening a number of individuals did riot. What is important to understand are the events preceding this and those that have followed.

 

I must qualify my perspective, which is neither that of a journalist nor that of a citizen of Ferguson. I am originally from the St. Louis region (Alton, IL) and have family across the St. Louis metro area, where my ancestors settled in the 19th Century. I have spent a lot of time in north St. Louis County where Ferguson, MO is located. I am white. My little brother used to manage one of the stores attacked in the riot. The following is my understanding of events shaped by reading live reports from local residents, speaking with my friends and family and my own knowledge of the history and culture of the area. I cannot pretend that I am not emotional, that it has not impacted me in personal ways or that I understand what it is like to be there on the ground or a random American in Ohio watching this on the news. I cannot speak for anyone or claim objectivity. I can try to provide context and insight.

 

Last Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old. Unofficial explanations for why police were pursuing him have varied from shoplifting to resisting arrest (for what?) Officially, no explanation has been given. Brown had no criminal record. According to witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air when police proceeded to fire multiple bullets into him, he was denied medical help and his body was left in the middle of the street for hours. Horrified by the unwarranted use of lethal force, the treatment of his body and no explanation for the shooting, residents of Ferguson gathered for a public vigil that evening.

 

The senseless killing of a young man by police. Young black men are shot everyday in America, but we often only hear about it when they shoot each other. We expect black men to kill each other. It’s sick and wrong, but it’s true. That he was shot by the authorities who were entrusted with protecting his life made it both a tragedy and serious professional misconduct at minimum, a State-sponsored hate crime in the eyes of many. While far less publicized, police routinely mistreat and even kill black men in America. But the real-time communication magic of social media was quickly conjured, and news of the disturbing event traveled like wildfire. The shooting of Trayvon Martin was also still fresh in public memory. These factors ensured that the death of Michael Brown garnered public attention, but I expected the event to disappear with the next news cycle. The residents of Ferguson were determined to make sure that did not happen. And they got a LOT of help from Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments.

 

The day following the shooting, peaceful protesters demanding an explanation and investigation were met by riot police pointing guns at them and accompanied by police dogs. Such tactics recall imagery of the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s, a time of often violent confrontation between police and American citizens marching for desegregation and voting rights. Protesters in Ferguson already believed that the shooting of Michael Brown was racially motivated. The police dogs and riot gear solidified this fear, the fear that in the eyes of police they were guilty until proven innocent, and that being black in public was the crime. It is worth noting that while the majority of residents in Ferguson are black, the Ferguson police force is almost entirely white, and black residents are disproportionately the targets of police suspicion. That local law enforcement used intimidation tactics in response to people asking for justice was interpreted by many as an attempt by the police to distract attention from their own heinous misconduct and as intentionally confrontational.

 

Late that night, over a dozen local businesses were looted, vandalized and/or burned by young black men. There is dispute as to whether the looters were residents of Ferguson acting out of anger or people from other parts of city taking advantage of the unrest for personal gain or, probably, a combination of both. These riots were not on the scale of those following the Rodney King beating or the Watts Riots of the 1960’s, but they were evocative of them and the unrest that rocked the nation during those years. And with this night of riots, what was previously seen as an unfortunate event in a rough neighborhood became a situation in a major US city. If the shooting death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for Ferguson, the riots were a tipping point for St. Louis.

 

Ferguson, located in St. Louis County, is not a suburb in the sense that it is unique geographically or culturally from the city. Logistically, it is located between multiple arterial highways and in close proximity to the airport, area hospitals, etc. St. Louis is a commuter city, with relatively little public transit infrastructure. People drive to work, to school, to the store, to the airport. Which means that despite racial and economic segregation, it is impossible to bypass entire neighborhoods using a subway, as one might do in Chicago or New York. If you run low on gas on the way to dinner or need to pick up milk on the way home, you’re often doing that in a neighborhood that might not be the one you live or work in but somewhere in between. Those are the logistics which bring Ferguson physically into the fold of St. Louis. In terms of identity, residents of St. Louis County are St. Louisans. It’s Midwestern hospitality at its finest. A journalist can point to the borders of St. Louis city on a map, but Benedict Anderson famously theorized that communities are defined in the collective imagination. And those St. Louis city borders do not play a significant role in the collective imagination of the St. Louis community, a.k.a. “Cards Nation”. It is easiest to understand the relationship of Ferguson to St. Louis as that of a small autonomous population within the larger St. Louis community. This is not a story of unrest spreading from a small town to big city, but one of unrest in a local neighborhood becoming impossible for surrounding neighborhoods to ignore.

 

St. Louis is a proud community. Eye-rollingly proud. If you have ever been around Cardinals fans, you know the kind of pride I am talking about. It’s religious. They are better dressed than Chicagoans and neither shy nor haughty. They can give you baseball stats and their opinion of a Napa Valley vintage in the same sentence. They iron the pants they will wear to make the best barbecue you’ll ever eat. They are not intimidated by high culture or afraid of educated folk. They are not embarrassed by low culture or afraid of uneducated folk. They are Missourians who value straight talk and believe gullibility is a cardinal sin. St. Louisans are a mythological everyman. They are America. If you put the rugged individuality of the west, the industriousness of east, the food and music of the south and the non-nonsense simplicity of the north in a VitaMix, what you’d end up with would be a St. Louis smoothie. It would taste like toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, Imo’s Pizza and Eat Rite.

 

Notice: I did not mention anything about scary black people burning down businesses in my mythology of St. Louis. St. Louis is no stranger to violent crime, but violent uprisings, uncommon in America these days, are unheard of in St. Louis.

 

While everyone condemned the riot, reactions to Sunday night’s rampage varied widely and illuminated a divide between the concerns of black and white St. Louisans whose differences had heretofore been camouflaged by universally red baseball caps. Widespread media coverage of the riot angered black residents who felt the media was only interested in portraying them as criminals and savages, as if to justify the shooting of Michael Brown itself. They asked why there was more public outrage about the destruction of property than the destruction of an innocent human being’s life. (A question that resonated in the context of recent Supreme Court decisions giving the rights of corporations more weight than those of individuals.) My white middle class friends and family were wrought with anxiety about if they could get to work the next day with streets shut down, if it was safe to let their teens go out, if the violence would continue and spread to their neighborhoods. They wondered what exactly was meant to be accomplished by burning down convenience stores. Protesters wondered what exactly they were meant to do with their outrage. Many white residents supported the police, whom they described as trying to secure the area and restore order. If you are a white person who has never been unfairly profiled by police, that’s an understandable if naive expectation. White privilege, in essence, is a lack of awareness of the breadth, depth, causes and effects of racial discrimination. And it is a tacit if hesitant acceptance of a status quo which, while admittedly imperfect, feels preferable to a chaotic breakdown of society. What I heard from white residents was a desire for a return to normalcy. What I heard from black residents was a refusal to return to normalcy. They both just wanted to be able to feel safe.

 

And there was racism. I remembered all time times I sat in the back of a car headed through north St. Louis County listening to someone say, “I’m not racist but…” or “Some of my best friends are black and even they say…” followed by pontification about how the behavior of these blacks in north county are why people are racist. Pontification about these people having no self-respect, while leaving out the fact that self-respect has to be taught, and reinforced. Pontification about these people having no work ethic, while leaving out the fact that economic conditions in the area did not favor gainful employment. I knew that black people in this area were collectively judged harshly by white people, and their anger was not just directed at the individual but the mentality that took Michael Brown’s life. And then I imagined, What if my little brother had been in that store closing up when a violent, armed mob entered it? My heart broke. Nothing would justify it if he had been harmed, or killed. And then I imagined, What if Michael Brown had been my little brother? My heart broke. Nothing could justify it.

 

In the days that followed, looting stopped but public demonstrations calling for answers in the killing of Michael Brown -the police department had yet to issue any official statement- continued almost without interruption. Each time the demonstrations garnered a more iron-fisted response from the police, whose ranks had swelled to include the St. Louis County police and tactical forces equipped with tear gas and wooden bullets, which they used without hesitation. Protesters were ordered to disperse and not film anything, in the name of public safety and to prevent a further escalation of tensions. I heard concerns about “outsiders” coming to gape and agitate, making crowd control a security concern. I’ve seen St. Louis police control much larger, equally rowdy, usually drunk crowds outside of Cardinals games and the annual 4th of July fair held under the Arch and know they can effectively do so without resorting to teargas, wooden bullets and media embargoes. Darker explanations for the increasingly vicious crackdown on protests and their media coverage circulated. There was pride. No one wanted this to be what people thought of when they thought of St. Louis. It was becoming an image problem. Some asked, just what were police planning to do that they did not want witnessed by outsiders or documented for evidence? Others recognized the refrain about “outsiders meddling in local problems” employed in a racially charged atmosphere as language lifted straight from the history books about the Jim Crow South. In addition to strong-arm tactics on the ground, an FAA “no-fly zone,” something most Americans associate with the attack on the World Trade Center, an act of war, was placed over Ferguson. It is said that those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. What isn’t said is that some people read history and mistake it for an instruction manual. Whatever the explanation for the unusual law enforcement strategy in Ferguson, things were feeling … historic. Not so much because of the importance of the events themselves, but because of those they referenced.

 

By Wednesday, motivated by solidarity, professional responsibility, morbid curiosity or just the opportunity for self-promotion, journalists and civil rights leaders from around the country had booked trips to St. Louis. What they witnessed when they arrived was a police presence that looked prepared to fight the enemy in Iraq rather than to provide security for an American town of 20,000. Outfitted in camouflage, armed with assault rifles, water cannons and explosive devices, perched behind guns atop armored trucks in the middle streets, local police, drunk with unchecked power, appeared to have declared war on Ferguson, MO. In a brazen feat of cognitive dissonance, public officials instructed citizens to remain calm, begin the healing process, work together to return to normal while treating them as an enemy on par with the Taliban. National media were there broadcasting it all. In a routine that was beginning to define the situation, the disproportionate response of law enforcement stoked public outrage. Americans watched and asked how local governments who cannot afford to keep our schools open or even our water running can afford … were those tanks? (They were MRAPs, obtained through a secret program that was news to Americans.) And, why are we treating our fellow Americans like we treat terrorist organizations abroad?

 

The first tipping point was the shooting – it angered Ferguson. The second tipping point was the looting – it angered St. Louis. The third tipping point was the militarization of the police and the denial of freedom of the press – it angered America.

 

While permanently at war these days, America hasn’t been subjected to a ground invasion in any of our lifetimes. Our wars take place on the other side of the world. We do not see tanks on our streets. Military parades and showcases are rare, and even then, the guns on those tanks are certainly not pointed at us. Black people are shot by cops in America. People riot and loot in America. But this was something most of us had never seen before: our police dressed up like Rambo ordering Americans off the streets and telling them what they can write in the papers, like a scene from some bad Hollywood action movie where Soviets have taken over America. White people who were afraid of and embarrassed by black looters a few days ago were now afraid of and embarrassed by these police, who, like the rioters, seemed to have lost both their minds and all respect for the law. These men in camo, aiming their guns at the residents of Ferguson and the mainstream media were police, not soldiers. American military service members, the real ones, were infuriated not only that these local policemen were pretending to be soldiers, but were doing a very ineffective job at it. American civilians were infuriated not only that these local policemen were role-playing as soldiers, but that they had reversed the roles and were fighting against our rights rather than for them.

 

Our country is politically divided, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American who does not believe he or she has the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Criticizing the wisdom of those who practice these rights is a national pastime. But black, white, conservative, liberal, your average American – and what more representative of the average American than St. Louis? – accepts that these are fundamental, Constitutional rights. No right is absolute, but Americans don’t go in for nuance. It is why our right to bear arms is interpreted as “Guns for everyone! Bring ‘em to the bar! It’ll be fun!” Americans will disagree about the right of a dying man to see a doctor before disagreeing about freedom of speech. It’s our little quirk. It’s why we hate Russia. It’s also why when our own police dress up like soldiers and tell us we can’t say that or stand there, our response is not to cower in fear but to mime whipping an invisible Constitution out of our back pocket and say, “Well, actually, uhm yeah we can,” and cock our heads like the mean girls in high school.

 

Knowing their rights, journalists and protesters stood their ground. A St. Louis elected official who had joined the protesters was arrested. Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post were assaulted and arrested. Al Jazeera journalists were tear gassed. It is as if the police had not only forgotten that the US Constitution protects freedom of the press, but that the press are the media. To call the events of Wednesday evening a PR disaster for the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments would be an understatement. By Thursday morning all of America was deeply disturbed by how phenomenally out of hand the situation had become.

 

Unable to ignore the evolving breakdown of law and order in Ferguson, which now looked like a war zone, President Obama appeared on TV to say tanks are for militaries and militaries are for killing Iraqis, and no more burning down convenience stores black people, you are making me look bad. Governor Jay Nixon of MO finally got around to damage control and announced law enforcement in Ferguson would be turned over to the highway patrol. In the American psyche, informed heavily by pop culture, highway patrol conjured images of the fun-loving, charming policemen from the old TV show “CHiPs”. The reality was even better, as Captain Ron Johnson, leader of the new security regime in Ferguson, was black, a local and dressed like a policeman, not like G.I. Joe. Images flowing out of St. Louis were now of protesters and police smiling, hugging, conversing. Thursday night thousands of people all over the country attended peaceful vigils and marches against police violence, and a national moment of silence was held for Michael Brown. Tensions between police and the Ferguson community eased and protests continued with little violent confrontation or arrest – Captain Johnson even marched in solidarity with the protesters. The dramatic change in tone that followed the change in police tactics seemed to validate the belief of many that it had been the Ferguson and St. Louis County police who were responsible for fomenting unrest.

 

There are still daily and nightly demonstrations by the people of Ferguson who have yet to receive justice for the killing of Michael Brown. They are now joined by protesters affiliated with radical organizations (such as Occupy), whom the people of Ferguson are concerned will both co-opt and endanger their agenda or behave in intentionally provocative ways. There remains a late-night curfew, but police have shown more restraint against those defying it. There are still hooligans out looking for trouble late at night, but they are now being held in check by their peers in remarkable acts of community self-policing. Things are better, according to those I’ve spoken to in the area. It feels tenuous, but promising.

 

Replacing a hair-trigger police force with a kinder, gentler highway patrol is an effective PR campaign to let the people of Ferguson know their concerns are being listened to and to repair the image of St. Louis on American TV sets. And in fairness, a lot of escalation of the situation can be attributed to bad PR, from the police dogs to the tanks. And in fairness, the message that the people in charge of law and order are supporting those who want law and order is a message we all needed to hear. But the tensions between races did not begin with Michael Brown’s death or the looting and it will not end with Captain Ron Johnson singing kumbaya with protesters. As one person remarked, the people of Ferguson did not create this situation of us v. them but are reacting to it, that if you want to talk about race riots, let’s not leave out the long history of white mobs taking violent action against black people in this country.

 

From the Missouri Compromise to Dred Scott, from school de/segregation to a current scenario in which the people elected to represent, the people hired to protect and serve the residents of Ferguson not only do not look like the residents of Ferguson, but do not even share a reality of what it is like to be a resident of Ferguson with the residents of Ferguson… the roots of racial inequality here run deep and wide, and that tree is alive, and its fruit is still left to rot on the ground. Electing a black man as President of the United States could not fell that tree. I do not know what can.

 

But some people have some ideas.

 

March 24, 2011

In which I am interviewed by InoForum!

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S.,Interviews,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 2:26 PM
Tags: ,

Posted below is the English version of my Q & A with the folks at InoForum, “Интервью автора блога Poemless с читателями Инофорума.” (more…)

March 21, 2011

War

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 3:24 PM
Tags: , ,

I am extremely angry about the war with Libya. Perhaps I am a peacenik and am simply opposed to all war, but I am also worried about the state of my own country and wondering how on earth we can afford this when we, ostensibly, cannot afford to pay for the education, healthcare, retirement and enlightenment of our own citizens. I can be a selfish person too. The bombing breaks my heart, makes me so sick that after turning on, and immediately off, the CREEPTASTIC American news this morning, I did yoga. I usually never am able to do yoga in the morning, but I needed some type of psychic shower after about 5 minutes of CBS. I felt that rage bubbling up inside me, the same rage I felt about the Iraq war, same helplessness and frustration and moral disgust. It is true, I am morally disgusted by just about everything these days. I don’t know how much more I can handle, so I am making an effort not to pay close attention to what is going on, which would normally be impossible for a news fiend like myself, but depression-induced apathy appears to be an asset at the moment.

However, I have found a few articles of note. Articles my regular readers have probably already seen a dozen times, so no breaking news here. Just gobs of interestingness.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy has been hammering out one gem after another:

I. How Obama turned on a dime toward war.

Or, why the FUCK is President Obama acting on the advice of his notoriously bone-headed Russia advisor and not that of Congress or the Department of Defense when choosing whether or not to bomb Libya?

“This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values,” a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

But Obama’s stance in Libya differs significantly from his strategy regarding the other Arab revolutions. In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention – instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia.

I am beginning to wonder if every bad foreign policy decision made by Obama might be traced back to Mike. Or is it just coincidence?

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), “a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

“Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government,” he said.

Inside the NSC, Power, Smith, and McFaul have been trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House going forward. Donilon and McDonough are charged with keeping America’s core national interests more in mind. Obama ultimately sided with Clinton and those pushing R2P — over the objections of Donilon and Gates.

II. Inside the White House-Congress meeting on Libya (also by Rogin)

President Barack Obama hosted 18 senior lawmakers at the White House on Friday afternoon to “consult” with them about the new plan to intervene in Libya, exactly 90 minutes before Obama announced that plan to the world and one day after his administration successfully pushed for authorization of military force at the United Nations.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) complained on Thursday that the administration had not properly consulted Congress before deciding to support military intervention in Libya, and called for a formal declaration of war by Congress before military action is taken. Inside the White House meeting, several lawmakers had questions about the mission but only Lugar outwardly expressed clear opposition to the intervention, one lawmaker inside the meeting told The Cable. [...]

Rogers, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Friday that the White House clearly emphasized the U.S. role would be limited.

“We are going to play a very supportive role. France and Great Britain and others are going to lead the way along with our Arab League allies; there may be four or five Arab countries participating,” he said.

Rogers said that the administration had been in contact with lawmakers and had kept him up to date, but the communications had been mostly one way.

“I wouldn’t call it consultation as much as laying it out,” he said.

Oh look, there is a Dick Lugar being sensible again. At this point if he ran for President I might even vote Republican. Not that I can see any discernible difference between the Democrats’ and Republicans’ foreign policy strategy. Or any strategy at all, to be honest.

This last article from the Moscow Times is in response to a question recently posed to me by an Inforum reader wanting to know why I liked that Prime Minister Putin fellow so damned much:

III. West in ‘Medieval Crusade’ in Libya, Putin Says

VOTKINSK, Udmurtia Republic – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the call for armed intervention in Libya to the medieval crusades on Monday in the first major remarks from Russia since a Western coalition began airstrikes.

In some of his harshest criticism of the United States since President Barack Obama began a campaign to improve ties, Putin also compared the intervention to the George W. Bush-era invasion of Iraq and said it showed Russia is right to boost its military.

Putin, whose country opted not to block the UN resolution last week leading to the strikes, said that Moammar Gadhafi’s government was undemocratic but emphasized that did not justify military intervention.

“The resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything,” Putin told workers at a ballistic missile factory in the city of Votkinsk. “It resembles medieval calls for crusades.”

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council member, abstained from the vote on Thursday in which the council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians against Gadhafi’s forces.

“What troubles me is not the fact of military intervention itself — I am concerned by the ease with which decisions to use force are taken in international affairs,” Putin said. “This is becoming a persistent tendency in U.S. policy.

“During the Clinton era they bombed Belgrade, Bush sent forces into Afghanistan, then under an invented, false pretext they sent forces into Iraq, liquidated the entire Iraqi leadership — even children in Saddam Hussein’s family died.

“Now it is Libya’s turn, under the pretext of protecting the peaceful population,” Putin said. “But in bomb strikes it is precisely the civilian population that gets killed. Where is the logic and the conscience?” [...]

“The Libyan regime does not meet any of the criteria of a democratic state but that does not mean that someone is allowed to interfere in internal political conflicts to defend one of the sides,” Putin said.

U.S.-Russian relations have improved in the past two years under Obama’s “reset,” capped by the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that took effect last month.

During that period, Putin toned down the anti-Western rhetoric he often employed as president.

Apparently Dima and Vova are in quite a little row about this now… You might say he’s simply covering his ass in reference to Chechnya. You might be right. But in this case acting in his self interest and being bloody right as hell in his assessment of the situation do not appear to be mutually exclusive possibilities. Medvedev may be trying to be a team player with the West, but the world will always need people unafraid to call it like they see it, even if it means losing friends, or rather, realizing that foreign policy has nothing to do with being friends. This isn’t middle school, people.

January 25, 2011

Odds and Ends: Throwing links overboard from the ship of bookmarks Edition.

Contents: Mercurial Surkov; Lenin’s gravediggers; “Top Thinkers,” revisited; The American Spite-Bloc; leaked photos and much, much more!

It’s like a document dump, except I practice safe sex.

I. Featured.

Dugin’s deconstruction of Surkov (and Surkov’s decomposition of Lenin.)

Александр Дугин: “Деконструкция Владислава Суркова.”

I was so taken with this article that I added Aleksandr Dugin as a facebook friend (he’s just just added Pig Latin to his languages.) Inspired by two essays Surkov has recently published in art magazines, Dugin… That’s right – Slava’s new hobbie is art criticism! What’s next? Such a Renaissance man! Anyway, Dugin is less interested in Slava’s artworld bona fides than his stubborn unwillingness to take a final position on anything. Dugin suggests the “mercurial” Surkov is the epitome of Russian society itself:

Парадоксы высокопоставленного археомодерниста

В значительной степени, Сурков и есть проявление того, что можно назвать археомодерном. В нем есть стремление уйти от архаики, но не порвать с ней окончательно. Встать на сторону модерна, но не признавать тех внутренних директив и определенности тех катастрофических разрушений бессознательного, на которых основан модерн. Он не хочет рвать связи до конца, но и укреплять их не собирается. В личности Суркова, как в магическом кристалле, отражается специфика всего нашего социально-политического развития. Органические протеизм, гибкость, амбивалентность, вечная двусмысленность, перетекание одного в другое с блокированием и одного, и другого, вероятно, и являются секретом влияния Суркова и устойчивости его позиции. Но одновременно это и диагноз, который мы, в общем-то, можем легко поставить нашему обществу в целом.

Пока мы будем пребывать в протеическом археомодерне, где не доминирует ни одна из сил, – ни модерн, ни традиционализм масс, ни невротическая паранойя элит, ни психотическая шизофрения народа, – одно не сможет одолеть другое. Элиты и массы смотрят друг на друга из своих боксерских углов и не способны выиграть ни матч, ни, тем более, кубок. Сурков – это рефери в битве элит и масс, государства и народа, «либерало-чубайсов» и архаических силовиков-рейдеров. Государство у нас, как говорил Пушкин, «единственный европеец». Сурков – европеец, но европеец, который, тем не менее, не то что не может, но и не хочет до конца избавляться от своих неевропейских, евразийских, русско-чеченских корней. Однако не стремится и укреплять их.

Отложенный выбор: с Богом или с чертом?

В этих двух текстах содержится ключ к пониманию не только самого Суркова, но и всей нашей политической системы. В них о «суверенной демократии» сказано гораздо больше, чем во всей болтовне обслуживающих власть экспертов, которые готовы подгонять под высшую установку все, что угодно, и поэтому нерелевантны.

В современной России все время возникает дуализм, четко очерченный Сурковым, между «юрким дьяволом» и «неподвижным Богом».

Лозунги «прогресса», «модернизации», «либерализма», «Запада», «демократии», «эффективности», «процветания» – все это, безусловно, от дьявола. Сурков это прекрасно понимает – в одной и той же фразе он сначала говорит, что не в этом дело, но потом добавляет, спохватываясь, что без этого нельзя (то есть именно в этом дело). Угрюмо изображение статического божества; оно спокойно, никуда не торопится, а на «модернизацию» и «демократию» посматривает со своих высот гневным оком. Сувереном в России является только Бог, Ветхий Деньми. И его рабы – смиренные простые русские люди – ведут отчаянную, почти безнадежную битву с «сынами века сего». Русские аполоннийцы.

Я думаю, что Сурков сам не определил, с кем он, с Богом или с чертом. Более того, меркуриальная природа категорически не способна выдержать такой жесткой проблематики.

С Богом или с чертом? Для меркурия, для трикстера, для культурного героя, как в североамериканских индейских мифах, не стоит такого выбора. И с Богом, и с чертом, и против Бога, и против черта. Это и есть то, что называется археомодерном, когда блокируется любая решимость, приводящая к определенности, резкому действию, а значит, к ассиметрии, конфликтам, угрозам, жестким и насильственным выводам. Археомодерн любыми способами и любой ценой, до истомы, до истошности, до истерики стремится эту решимость обойти. Я думаю, что пока Сурков является тем, кем он является, то есть, важнейшей фигурой в российском государстве, археомодерн будет доминировать и дальше. А наше общество не сможет сделать ни одного серьезного шага, ни в сторону модерна, ни в сторону архаики, ни в сторону Бога, ни в сторону черта, ни в сторону либерализма, ни в сторону консерватизма. Дело, конечно, не в Суркове, дело в состоянии народа, в состоянии русской истории, русской государственности, русского общества.

[English Translation c/o Google Here.]

I find it interesting that he brings up the “God or the Devil” matter. For some reason, Surkov has always reminded me of the passage in Demons in which Stavrogin asks Tikhon if it is possible to fear the Devil but not believe in God. It seems that if Surkov had any guiding political philosophy whatsoever, aside from keeping himself close to the man in charge, it might be described that way. Here are our Slava’s musings on Miro and Polissky:

Владислав Сурков: “Война и мир Хоана Миро.”
Владислав Сурков: “Полисский въезжает”.

And no, Natan Dubovitsky has not given up on the wikinovel Машинка и Велик, so there is still time to contribute. You know, at first I thought, all experimentalism aside, perhaps he’d just mixed up the basic concepts of authorship and democracy. Some kind of conceptual dyslexia. But now I see he’s intent on throwing them overboard from the ship of modernization.

Along with mushroomified corpse of Vladimir Ilyich:

GoodbyeLenin.ru

So the kids at United Russia want Lenin in the ground. Someone has suggested that Slava was behind this, given the mischievous URL. My initial reaction was, “What do they have to gain by pissing off the Commies?” Then, “Frankly I’m surprised they don’t just charge an exorbitant entrance fee to tourists. They could make a buck and revel in delicious irony at the same time – without destroying one of the great, not to mention weirdest, wonders of the world.” Then, Goodbye Lenin! was a great movie…” Then, I was reminded that the only form of progress Russia seems to know involves taking bulldozers to their personal past. I hate that. Anyway, if correct, this puts a dent in Dugie’s “archeomodern” theory. Or at least the archeo part of it…

I voted NO. I also think there should be a law against letting anyone under 25 weigh in on the destruction of historical treasures.

II. Required Reading.

We’re a sick world… We are a spiteful world. I believe our prefrontal cortex is diseased.

Financial Times: “Where have all the thinkers gone?”

(HT: Russia Monitor)

Progress! We have moved beyond asking why Russia has no great minds to asking why the world has no great minds! FT compares Foreign Policy’s annual list of Top Thinkers (see above link for in depth discussion) to one that may have been drawn up 150 years ago:

The 1861 rankings could have started with Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill – On the Origin of Species and On Liberty were both published in 1859. Then you could include Karl Marx and Charles Dickens. And that was just the people living in and around London. In Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were both at work, although neither had yet published their greatest novels.

Even if, like Foreign Policy, you have a preference for politicians, the contrast between the giants of yesteryear and the relative pygmies of today is alarming. In 1861 the list would have included Lincoln, Gladstone, Bismarck and Garibaldi. Their modern equivalents would be Mr Obama, Nick Clegg, Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi.

Still, perhaps 1861 was a freak? So let us repeat the exercise, and go back to the year when the second world war broke out. A list of significant intellectuals alive in 1939 would have included Einstein, Keynes, TS Eliot, Picasso, Freud, Gandhi, Orwell, Churchill, Hayek, Sartre.

So why does the current crop of thinkers seem so unimpressive? Here are a few possible explanations.

A phantom copyright notice is spooking me when I try to paste more, so I suggest reading the rest at FT, unless you lack the means to penetrate the registration firewall. Their explanations for no Dostoyevsky caliber brainiacs these days range from lack of historical perspective on our own peers to the democratization and/or hyperspecialization of knowledge, from globalization (the great thinkers are in India – we just haven’t heard of them yet … except why assume there were not great thinkers in India centuries ago?) to …drumroll… we’re just not that smart anymore.

I would add that there are 6 times as many people than there were in 1861, and a much higher percentage of them are literate. The bar is set higher for getting noticed for your big brains. Also, TV has been invented. And watched. And, dare we say it, Late Capitalism has spread like a cancer throughout the world, devouring our little grey cells until the only functions we have left are those that make us money and get us laid. Not that 19th Century Europe was a glowing meritocracy, but intellectual pursuit for knowledge/art’s sake still had some panache.

Mark Ames: “Dead Souls: How Russians React to Terror.”

In this Vanity Fair article, Mark, relying largely on the rants of one Eddie Limonov, argues that Russian badassery in the face of terrrrists should set an example for the rest of the world. (I think the qualifier about in the face of terrorism is unnecessary…)

As appalling as it might seem, let’s remember what America’s far more sentimental reaction to 9/11 got us: two disastrous wars, tens of thousands of deaths, and the sorts of police-state measures once thought unimaginable. The difference may be more in our sentimentality than in our brutality.

This is a bit disingenuous. Though I envy Russian pragmatism, I do recall a few skirmishes in Chechnya, and the argument could be made that the war there is not yet over. And while the police-state measures here have indeed been unimaginable, the fact points to a lack of American imagination, not to a Russian civil utopia. The argument is based on the false premise that Russians are brutal and Americans are sentimental. From my observations, both cultures possess almost supernatural capacities for both brutality and sentimentality, we just disagree on the scenarios in which they are appropriate. We’re like each other’s Bizzarro Worlds.

Mark Ames: “We, The Spiteful.”

A much better, if far more controversial piece from Ames. I suppose now is as good a time as any to confess I’ve had the same epiphany from time to time. The only difference is that I hoped I was wrong and didn’t dare discuss it.

In the summer of 2004, I published an article in the New York Press that answered Thomas Frank’s question “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The Bush-Kerry campaign was heating up, and it was clear to me that the American left was going to make the same mistake it’s been making for 30 years, and will continue making until it faces some unpleasant truths about the rank, farcical psychology that drives American voting habits. Why don’t they vote in their own economic interests? Why don’t voters vote rationally, the way we were taught in grade school civics classes? In a rational world, with rational voters voting in their rational economic interests, Bush—who dragged America into two lost wars before destroying the entire financial system—would’ve been forced to resign before the first primary and exiled to Saudi Arabia; rationally, rational voters would have elected anyone or anything, John Kerry or a coconut crab, over that fuck-up of fuck-ups, George W. Bush.

The answer came to me just I was just finishing my book Going Postal. Researching and writing that book was a real mind-fuck: spending all those isolated months sloshing through Middle American malice. I realized something obvious when I pulled back from all that research and looked at the Kerry-Bush race: malice and spite are as American as baseball and apple pie. But it’s never admitted into our romantic, naïve, sentimental understanding of who Americans really are, and what their lives are really like.

If the left wants to understand American voters, it needs to once and for all stop sentimentalizing them as inherently decent, well-meaning people being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs—because the awful truth is that they’re mean, spiteful jerks being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs. The left’s naïve, sentimental, middle-class view of “the people” blinds them to all of the malice and spite that is a major premise of Middle American life. It’s the same middle-class sentimentality that allowed the left to be duped into projecting candidate Obama into the great progressive messiah, despite the fact that Obama’s record offered little evidence besides skin pigment to support that hope. (For the record, I called out the left’s gullible Obamaphilia during the primary campaigns in early 2008—here in Alternet, and here in The eXile.)

[...]

Like the Grumpy Old Man character, Americans are miserable and we like it! We love it! Hallelujah!

Just as in 2004, today, in 2011, the left can’t make sense of it all. So the only way they can frame this contemporary American insanity is either by blaming it all on the oligarchs who exploit this latent spite, as if taking the oligarch funding out of the equation would solve it all…or, when getting too close to facing the awful possibility that maybe a lot of Americans are just contemptible jerks in dead-ender lives, the left retreats into the safe, comforting irony of Jon Stewart, where it’s stored away as just another zinger that requires no serious thought, no painful analysis.

Here is my article that tries to get the left to finally face the truth about American voters as they really are—to consider the possibility that maybe a huge bloc of American voters are worse than merely “irrational.” What if there’s not much to like about them at all? Or more importantly, why the hell do we need to like them; why is “likable” even a factor?

So go read the rest. Dark side of democracy indeed…

III. Links.

For you slackers. You know who you are.

“Kremlin Clans: The Sequel. Return of the Grey Cardinal.” In 3D. Wait, why is this not in 3D, Tolya? I thought all sequels were these days. Anyway, Sublime Oblivion has Surkov in Putin’s clan, and I can’t see Vova putting Lenin in a grave. So perhaps there is hope yet.

Awesome photos from someone allowed to hang out alone in Slava’s Kremlin office with a camera. If you needed any proof the Cold War were over. But it’s still rather thrilling, isn’t it? Mucking about in Kremlin inner sanctums… Where you’ll find fotos of Tupac, Obama, Che and a library that looks rather like the Slavic backlog in my department. Also, is that a Miro on his desk?

Less Awesome photos from someone probably not allowed to hang out in Putin’s palace with a camera but who did anyway. Nice upgrade, Vova. Lemme know if you need someone to test out that bathtub out for you.

LA Times: “Who is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky?” A Russian-Chicagoan handpicked by Roger Ebert to carry on his film critic legacy, is who.

Well, that should keep you occupied for a while.

As always, thanks for reading, and have a lovely week!

December 22, 2010

“Santa Baby, put a Treaty under the tree, for me…”

Filed under: Politics: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:32 PM
Tags: ,

“Bring Tovarisch Kerry and Lugar a pony, ok?”

So I’ll be away for a bit for the holiday. Well, one is never actually “away” anymore, is one? But the point is, if I’m not responding to your insane comments, it’s because I am busy getting sloshed and overfed and spoiled, or sleeping, or rocking the ‘rents new outdoor hot tub sauna thing… But don’t think that means you can get away with a coup or something. I’m not going into the desert – I can still see what crimes you’re committing here; I just may not be willing to care about them, is all.

On that note, thanks for the intriguing conversation, debate, Nemtsov love-fest action in the comments section of the previous post. I truly -no, really- appreciate your participation, even if I think you’re a bit, well, annoying. I’m all “defender of free speech” that way. Please continue to talk amongst yourselves if you like. Hopefully the solution to Russia’s ethnic tensions will be solved by my extraordinary commenters by the time the New Year arrives. That would be grand. Seriously. And probably nearer the realm of possibility than dissuading me of my perverse Surkov infatuation. In fact, just yesterday I was thinking, besides his own private self-identity issues, didn’t Vladik have a hand in placing the pro-Kremlin gangsters in power in Chechnya, getting flack because their corrupt bandit ways were being ignored because the Kadyrovs would dance to Moscow’s tune? Like, you could even blame Surkov for turning a blind eye to Caucasian gangs, actually! And then I thought, well, in this way, he could be in part responsible… OMG, what if fomenting national extremism and ethnic gangs is all part of his plot to send the nation reeling into chaos? Who would even do something like that? The devil? Scary. I felt kind of ill… Then I thought about all of the candy and cookies I’d eaten – I don’t even like candies and cookies, but people just keep giving them to me – and how stressed I am about seeing my relatives. Then I thought about how unfair it is they don’t come to see me. And I ate some more Christmas treats and packed…

Before I go, I should gloat that I’ve already received want I wanted for Christmas, even though I’ve tried my damnedest to get on the “Naughty” list. There is always next year… In the meantime, baby Jesus has blessed Washington D.C. with just enough sanity (Christmas week one-time special only) to ratify the new START [T]reaty. I know! As hard as the Republicans fought against appeasing the Soviets, it appears the Commies have won this round! Wait, ok, back in reality, it’s pretty fucking pathetic that getting a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia rammed through in 2010 qualifies as a huge triumph for the Democratic president. (Past US-Russia arms reduction treaties have been ratified 93-6, 87-4 and 95-0.) But since Obama has some kind of learning problem, it is important to praise his small accomplishments. Though perhaps it is even more important to praise the Republicans who voted in favor, as they are just kind of evil and really didn’t have to. And for all those Republicans wetting their pants now, do not worry. We will still be able to destroy human civilization several times over if we need to. We’re just a small step further from being provoked to do that by the Russians now. That’s a good thing. Really. Think of the unborn children!

Here are the 13 Republicans who voted for ratification of the New START:

Alexander, R-TN
Bennett, R-UT
Brown, R-MA
Cochran, R-MS
Collins, R-ME
Corker, R-TN
Gregg, R-NH
Isakson, R-GA
Johanns, R-NE
Lugar, R-IN
Murkowski, R-AK
Snowe, R-ME
Voinovich, R-OH

Bravo. The Little Lord Jesus, aka “Prince of Peace,” thanks you for understanding the meaning of the season, and Santa’s put you on his “Nice” list. But both warn you that the bar has been set rather low this year, so don’t get too smug.

Ok, wishing you all a safe and lovely holiday, Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, Novy God, Festivus, any excuse for godless drunkenness – whatever you celebrate. Peace out.

October 27, 2010

A Sick and Spiteful Country

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:53 PM

Why oh why oh why am I not writing? I am so terribly uninspired. I am blaming the U.S. elections. Everything about them is depressing me, from the inability of the Democrats to actually fight for anything, to the strange, cruel worldview of the Republicans. Everyone is so nasty and petty while serious, real, actually kind of interesting even issues are simply ignored. As I was trying to explain to someone, the country is broke – and broken, no one wants to pay more money to fix things or help those who are suffering, so more things fall apart and more people suffer, leaving people more desperate to hold on to what they have, less trustful of the government, thus even more opposed to giving the government more of their money, money for fixing things and providing services. It is a vicious cycle. Until Americans are honest with themselves, realistic, responsible, I don’t think it will matter who is in charge, things will keep getting worse. Meanwhile Republicans are preaching creationism and stomping on the skulls of their opponents (literally) and Democrats are too timid to run on their accomplishments, and after spending 2 years ignoring and even poking fun at their base, are dumbfounded that their base lacks enthusiasm. Everything is toxic and abusive, and no one is behaving very admirably. It is all very depressing. I don’t want to write about Russia.

The other day I was at the doctor’s office. I have a new doctor. She’s Polish. At one point she began talking about how Americans are so sick. Why are Americans sick? “I am European. Where I grew up, we could not buy strawberries for $2 in December. If you wanted strawberries, you waited until May. May, and June. That’s the only time we ate strawberries. There were many things we did not have. But people were healthy. Everyone wasn’t getting cancer and heart disease… But in America, everyone is sick.” This was part of a larger reflection on how maybe less is more. I almost cried. Now I am in love with her. I want to only eat strawberries in May and June, I don’t want to take a pill for everything, I don’t want to vote for those people on the ballot.

Ok, maybe voting for jerks and morons is not making us sick (though it must certainly have something to do with the healthcare system meant to prevent and treat sickness.) But just because we have more access to the political process doesn’t mean we’re better off for it.

Right now there is a commercial running on the tv. A woman strolls with a cart down the aisles of a large grocery store, complaining about taxes while filling up her cart with soda. “It’s hard enough to put food on the table and feed my family. I don’t need the government telling me how to do it. Now they want to raise taxes on everything from flavored water to soda. Give me a break! Call the government and tell them to stay out of our business.” Or some nonsense. I want to strangle her and rescue her phantom tv commercial kids. You are not supposed to be feeding children soda! If you are having trouble affording food for your family, why the hell are you buying them soda? That is not even food! When I was in Moscow, the fellow I was living with brought home a giant can of Planter’s cheese balls one night. Giddy. Like he’d discovered treasure. I feel bad about it now, because I think he was trying to make me feel at home: Look! American food! “That’s not really food, you know.” That was my response. I sat judging him. Terrible.

America, land of plenty, amber waves of grain. What do we do with it? Make soda and cheese puffs and complain about having to pay for a few cents extra for them so our kids have textbooks.

America, beacon of democracy, land of the free. What do we do with it? Ignore the democratic process and let corporate interests or the few wack jobs that bother to vote pick a candidate and complain about having no good candidates to choose from.

I am not cynical. It’s not the process, or even the mechanism that is broken. It might need some fine tuning, but it is functioning. It’s the human factor that’s broken. And our system is rather built upon the participation of the human beings it is meant to serve.

I was going to write about Russia’s vibrant democracy. Hahahaha. I’m only half-kidding, you know.

Someone sent me a link to a list of parties in the Russian elections a few years ago, what they represent, who should vote for them. Nothing dramatic. You might steal my argument ans say that just because Russia has A WHOLE LOT MORE political parties than we do, it does not follow that they have a healthier democracy. This is true. Well, as far as I can tell, not many countries do. France and England are totally freaking out. Still, what caught me about the list was how … helpful it was. Like a reference guide for the average Joe, from the average Joe. Or Ivan. And to me, that’s really the spirit of democracy, more than any inevitable outcomes.

Then the Kremlin Stooge posted several informative, if opinionated, pieces on the make up of the Russian political system, here, and here.

And then A Good Treaty published a really astonishingly thought-provoking piece, “Aleksei Naval’nyi, Virtual Mayor of Moscow.” It is about a “virtual” on-line election in which a blogger won, and seemingly not entirely as a result of his own publicity campaign. He goes on to discuss the “political” v. the “apolitical” opposition. As I would explain, the apolitical opposition is not lacking in politics, just lacking any need or desire to pick a pre-ordained official camp to identify with, or oppose. Interestingly, they also seem to be the more successful camp. Again, it’s no proof of democracy, but an illustration of that nebulous thing that makes me get all weepy about democracy. Civic participation and empowerment, the citizen lobby being heard. It is at once more subversive, eluding the clearly defined boundaries of parties, and more effective, probably since they don’t pose a threat the basic order they’re ignoring. (It occurs to me those most in a huff about democracy in Russia are focused almost exclusively on access to power, and that is probably why I hate them. There is a man who cannot afford to feed his child and pay for his wife’s surgery. He’s not interested in running for office. What about him?)

But it is difficult to get all worked up about democracy now. When I turn on the tv or radio or computer … even walk down the street, I am bombarded with democracy. With civic empowerment? No. With people spending enough money to feed Africa for a decade to destroy their opponent’s character. With people who have more wealth and power than I will ever know asking me to write them a check. With wild passionate arguments about who was seen with whom and canned, tested responses about how to fix the economy, certain to offend no one and therefore certainly lacking the necessary courage. I really wish we could take the “pandering to the lowest in people” out of the equation. You would think so much civic responsibility would pressure us all to be better. The way the free market is supposed to ensure that only the best products succeed. Soda and cheese puffs. Our stores are filled with junk food, and out ballots aren’t much more impressive.

So much freedom. And everyone is sick.

October 8, 2010

Rahm-A-Llama Ding Dong: Revenge of the Liberasts!

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:51 PM
Tags: , , ,

Sometimes I get the whole MSM frustration with Russia thinking it is as important as the rest of us. For example, no one cares very much who the next mayor of Moscow will be. But every wonk in the human species is drooling over the race for mayor (King, really, if we’re honest) of Chicago, or more specifically, Rahm Emanuel’s new toy. Which goes to show that Chicago is a more important city than Moscow. Otherwise that gorgeous egomaniac Slava Surkov would have quit Dima to be its new mayor. So much for Luzhkov being an autocrat; he got fired, and no one in the top job wants to replace him. Pah-thetic. Lame. Autocracy my ass.

Overcompensating? Eh?

I have to put some positive spin on this, find a silver lining. For some perspective on my opinion of Rahm as Da Mayor, let us revisit a post from April of this year:

Apparently Rahm Emanuel has nothing better to do than sit up at night scheming up new ways to piss me off. And to his credit, it seems to be the one thing he’s quite successful at. There was that time he ran someone against my friend in a primary, won the primary and lost the general. Actually, that’s the most tolerable part of that story… And then there was the time he showed up at Glen’s Diner, sat next to me, was waited on hand and foot while I waited an hour for my salad only to be informed they’d run out of salad dressing. Then there was the week I woke up to helicopters each morning because my neighbor had decided to take the position of Chief of Staff. And then there was the time he could barely even get his own party to support a watered down piece of crap masquerading as a healthcare reform bill.

But I’m less vocal about his D.C. failures. Because I want him to stay there. Democrats all over Chicago cheered when he took the White House gig. Because they love him and were happy for him? Oh hell no. Because it meant he was leaving! The poor citizens of my fair district were finally given the opportunity to have a decent Congressman when he left. Our whole neighborhood could not get an audience with Emanuel during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. My new Rep. came to my holiday party and brought a whole cheesecake. Just sayin’.

So I am thinking it’s ok if he’s wrecking national policy so long as he’s not here and I can eat a fucking salald in peace. And I get cheesecake.

It’s unfortunate I’ve already used the phrase, “Oh hell no.” It would have been a perfect response to this:

Obama aide Emanuel: I’d like to be mayor of Chicago.

Damn it! You are the chief advisor to the leader of the free world, but that’s not enough? Why won’t you just LEAVE ME ALONE! PLEASE… Insatiable freak.

Below are the reasons Emanuel would be a crap mayor of Chicago:

~ Chicago likes two kinds of mayors: dictators who rule with an iron fist, and progressive reformers. Emanuel is neither of these, as the recent healthcare debate illustrated. He could not even get his whole party on board, let alone one member of the opposition. Apparently they are not afraid of him. This would have been excusable were he presenting some radical socialist legislation that was ahead of the curve. But he never even entertained the possibility of a public option, let alone single payer healthcare. Fail. Fail. If you can’t even get a few Democrats to support a rather reasonable request, how are you going to get 3 million people to cream “How high?” when you shout, “Jump!” Not gonna happen.

~ Emanuel likes to wear finely tailored suits. That’s cool, if you are running for mayor of New York. I just can’t see our little rascal in a beige trench and fedora, the Mayor of Chicago uniform.

~ Chicago is not Ravenswood. Chicago is not all the cool little trendy neighborhoods and posh suites in mile high skyscrapers. It’s the inner city. There are poor people there. This man believed it beneath his station to communicate with and represent a rather well-off area while he was Congressman. What is he going to do if he has to communicate with and represent rather uneducated and smelly people? Who have no money to give him!!! But who need the snow removed like ASAP.

~ Uhm, we don’t want him to be Mayor. I’m not one of those trite progressives who won’t be happy until Ralph Nader is running the city. I like Mayor Daley. I admire him. Sure he’s corrupt, but you can tell he loves the city. Sure he’s divisive, but the man gets things done. Emanuel tells people to fuck off by calling them names and giving them the finger. Daley tells people to fuck off by bulldozing the airport he wants to turn into a park in the middle of the night. It’s the difference between a schoolyard bully and a leader.

~ Salad.

~ Cheesecake.

At the time I wrote that, I was innocently under the impression that Daley would be my mayor for life. The way your parents have to be your parents for life. You are stuck with them, they show you no respect, but they are not allowed to quit. At the time I wrote that, Rahm seeking to replace Daley just seemed like one more conceited outburst from that little twit, confirming my opinion that he was a conceited little twit. Ha! Well he surely did smack that smug little smile of my pretty face…

Why I Hate Rahm.

Let’s be clear. I do not hate Rahm. I only really know him as constituent who was ignored by him, a party ally who was sabotaged by him, a liberal activist who was referred to as a “fucking retard” by him and a neighbor who gets worse service than him at local restaurants. He could be a very decent human for all I know, when his path is not crossing mine. Pretty much anyone he’s ever crossed paths with thinks he’s a jerk? Ok. But he might have a really beautiful soul which reveals itself only when he is home alone. I like the idea of this.

And speaking of home, Rahm is so well loved that the people who are letting his house (since he was in DC, he might as well make a buck off his house in Chicago) won’t let him back in! They’ve signed a lease which runs until June of next year and are stealthily flexing their right to remain put. What’s so telling about this is that the landlords in this town can usually get away with murder. Having innocent people evicted is child’s play. Frankly, if you can’t accomplish that, you are probably not fit to be a landlord. But he wants to be the landlord of the WHOLE ENTIRE town? Wha? This is my fundamental problem with Rahm Emanuel: he probably has the balls to tell a saint to fuck off, but sticks and stones…, when it comes to action, he flees. He turned straight around and looked for a condo to rent. Lame. Should join Yuri’s pah-thetic club.

But…

Is this why I don’t want him to be Mayor? Seriously? Because he didn’t kill his tenants? Reality check time. Why do I not want him to be mayor? I am asking myself this, searching for a respectable answer. Why am I so fanatical with disgust for this man that I’ve even wondered if he was responsible for the “mysterious illness” that has put Riccardo Muti on a plane back to Italy. And frankly, until I see a video of Muti in Italy, I will be harboring darker suspicions. I’ve turned into a rabid paranoiac – and just to amuse myself. What the fuck is wrong with me?

Is it his tactics? I devote this blog to praising the intimidating strong-arm tactics and bizarre antics of people like Putin. Err… Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds! Yes it is! However, the idea that I deserve a more just system of representation than others is the hobgoblin of my big mind.

Is it his position on the issues? He’s a Democrat. A not very nice Democrat, but at this point I’m through with pansy dems mucking everything up. We’re probably on the same page on basic issues. Except for war and free-trade and Israel and other things mayors don’t actually have very much to do with. He’s not a gay-bashing witch preaching creationism and fighting for the rights of puppy-mill owners, which puts him a head of a significant number of American politicians. He’s a corporatist. Which I hate. But Daley was ready to privatize the entire city for a fast buck, and my only criticism was that he wasn’t very nice to anti-war protesters… I doubt many Communist party candidates will be on the ballot.

He’s well educated, cute, Jewish, a former ballerina even, and we obviously share an uncanny preference for the same schools to attend, places to eat out and streets to live on! I like that he curses. It’s as if he were my own successful Doppelganger!

A Liberast Confesses!

So many years ago it occurred to me that for all they crazy talk about how evil and corrupt and mediaslutty Putin is, those Latynina types surely do spend a whole lotta time writing about him. Let us call it an “idée fixe.” Or a fetish. They may be writing about one thing, but it is their own sick mind to which they expose their innocent readers. And more recently, after les affaires Luzhkov, Browder, Khodorkovsky yadda yadda yadda, it occurred to me (and every other sentient human) that these people only begin their obsession with moral obligation after they suffer some cruel rejection from the villain in question. Normally, wearing a nicely-tailored suit is about the very last thing I will criticise a man for. Normally, the possibility of an attractive, well-dressed ballet dancer in high political office is so, so\ … so hot, I can forgive cruelty and corruption. Maybe even murder.

Call a doctor! I’m sick! I’ve contracted a nasty case of Liberastitis Obnoxiosus. “Who does he think he is, that he can get away with these things?” “The people who support him are just mindless sheep, blinded by the siren song of his sparkly celebrity. Or fear him.” “He doesn’t even think he needs to play well with other. Hrrmph.” “And look at the trail of destruction that follows him wherever he goes. All of his accomplishments are actually failures, if you look close enough.” “It’s not the person, it’s the process!” (<–when you hear the last one, just run.)

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. But somehow admitting that personal grudges and hypocrisy – the hallmarks of Liberastic critique – are polluting my beautiful mind is not inspiring me to clean up my act, even if I risk losing critical thinking skills, or worse, popular credibility. It's not simply the adrenaline of working on yet another a losing campaign, the high of entertaining for a moment the possibility of toppling a powerful public figure, or the creepy self-confidence that accompanies moral superiority on display. I genuinely, sincerely, honestly, authentically believe that only when and if Rahm Emanuel is served a slice of humble pie in the form of a reality check that the world does not serve at his pleasure, could he be a capable leader. Why?

Suddenly I am reminded of the 2008 U.S. presidential primaries. I harbored an angry, passionate dislike of Hillary Clinton for years, so strong it sometimes got me out of bed in the morning. But when Obama began stealing the hearts and minds of unsuspecting Americans, she was forced to work for that which she'd already claimed for herself. And she did. And hard. And I was impressed. Behind that grotesquely fake smile, there lurked an intelligent, qualified woman. And I was also worried that Obama had experience no real public humiliation or hard-fought defeats, and that might make him less than ideal. Like, when things got tough and people stopped loving him for his charm alone, he might flounder, and then really bad people might take advantage of the fact. Crazy, right? What was I thinking! So after years of devoted animosity toward her, I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. I know. She thinks VVP has no soul. It’s not terribly relevant to day-to-day Oval Office decisions.

I also used to not like Mayor Daley. I did in the beginning. There was even a photo of him on the mantle. But then I didn’t. Because I saw some cops threatening and pushing a young pregnant woman during an anti-war protest. Horrible. They were unnecessarily abusive and confrontational, when these yuppies and hippies and toddlers just wanted to show up and say “No blood for oil! Show me what democracy looks like!” Harmless. The cops? Not so much. Years passed. We forgot about the war. The protests ended. The train service improved. A lovely park sprung up in the middle of the city. Life was, if not perfect, certainly better. And anyway, Daley’s opposition were clowns who thought the most pressing problem in Chicago was the existence of foie gras on menus. Either they were wrong, and nuts, or right, and Daley had solved all our other problems. Best to shut up and enjoy the park.

Is Liberasty is like some virus you have all your life but only rears its symptomatic head during times of great stress? Yes, I am an emotionally wounded ideologue, but I am capable of having normal political alliances. Yes, it’s contagious (just look at the cynical young Americans who go to Moscow, attend a protest, and suddenly being writing passionately about civil rights!) – but so long as I alert you, you can take precautions. I don’t even remember when I contracted it. High school Amnesty International club? Some pervert along the way managed to convince me that marching down streets and wearing buttons and organizing very small groups of people who have lots of free time can make the world a better place. Probably how I got the idea that writing a blog could do the same. Madness. Brain fever.

Pah-thetic!

or,

The kind of ideals this sick-ass country was founded on!

And Now a Song of Unrelenting Determination and Unmitigated Ego!

Perhaps this a fundamental difference between our liberasts? In America, not only is it acceptable for citizens to demand their representatives to listen to, acknowledge and fulfill the wishes of individuals, no matter how personal, irrational, hysterical and selfish, it’s what we call “civic engagement.” We pride ourselves on this circus. We are participating in democracy! That means we have one! See?! See?! And it is fun. I must be honest – it is a ton of fun. Those Tea Party people pretend to be persecuted, but they’re clearly having a grand ol’ time. (More even than the oversexed liberals. Because liberals actually feel guilt when their actions cause the suffering of others.) We’re a nation of complainers and demanders and believe, deeply, in the primordial pit of our souls, that the government exists to serve us. Not “us”, the collective sum of individuals, but the interests of individuals themselves. Exists to serve me. This isn’t one camp in our system – it is our system.

When people try to replicate this in Russia, it seems offensive. Look at the Liberasts: they only care about themselves and their pet causes. Embarrassing. Why? The same every man for himself culture that breeds narcissists like Emanuel breeds narcissists like me. We’re two side of the same coin, both acting on the conviction that our power to change the world is only constrained by our own personal shortcomings. But is this the opposite side of the coin of … Putinism? Bases and Centrists, parties in power and their opposition, while rarely accomplishing much, and all capable of poor governance, do have a symbiotic relationship, forever correcting for the other (and the other always in need of correction.) I might be totally off the mark, but I don’t witness this same phenomenon in Russian politics. I’m not saying there is, or is not democracy, and with no agreed upon definition of “democracy,” I don’t care. Just that there’s more of a disconnect, something not so… organic, about the Liberal opposition. Less flexible, less able to laugh at themselves?

Or is this just another wrong-headed picture of Russia painted by American pundits?

Because I still haven’t quite figured out why I am so awesome for standing up to Mr. Emanuel, but Kasparov is just a tool.

October 1, 2010

Do We Really Need More Democracy? or, There’s no place like home.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:14 PM
Tags:

I know there are many differences in the mechanics of our respective political systems (Chicago, Russia), but in the Sept. 30 issuse of the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner concisely sums up the questions I have been asking about both -rhetorically, no one actually listens to me- for a very long time.

The Reader is a free weekly, and I am making no money, goodness knows, writing this blog. So I hope Miner doesn’t come after me for posting this in its entirety. (Actually, this is just the first part; the rest is about friending politicians on facebook…) Read this, click the link, click on a few ads, do whatever you need to to be a responsible consumer of decent journalism. But first, just read this.

Do We Really Need More Democracy? Or do we just need to use the democracy we have?
By Michael Miner

Any day you’re asked a good question is a pretty good day. The other day I was asked two.

The first one was from my daughter Laura in New York. Everyone is talking about bringing more democracy to Chicago, she said. What does that mean, more democracy? More of what exactly?

I had no idea. Mayor Daley said he’d decided not to run for reelection, and suddenly democracy was on all lips. “Perhaps you’ve heard of it, invented by my noble ancestors, the Greeks,” John Kass wrote in the Tribune, “it is a system of government by which free people debate ideas, sometimes vigorously, sometimes rudely. They elect leaders who are expected to give reasons for their actions. The leaders must form a consensus before they can spend the people’s money. Yes, it is indeed a weird system of governance, relatively unknown in these parts. It’s called democracy.”

Daley’s “unfinished business,” Greg Hinz wrote in Crain’s Chicago Business, is “making Chicago fit for democracy and making democracy fit in Chicago.” And back at the Trib, Dennis Byrne wrote, “Questions about whether Chicago can function as a democracy presume that the City Council will stir itself out of its slumber and break out of its special interest chains. Can aldermen govern, left on their own without a boss instructing them?”

I’d already quoted these quotes in something I’d posted online. Now I reviewed them. Kass was asking for a Little Golden Books version of democracy. Hinz wanted a Chicago where democracy works. Pretty to wish for, thought Byrne, but he seriously doubted Chicago could function as a democracy and the real question, he concluded, was whether Chicago could continue to be functional at all. A dark thought, that. Everyone agreed the democracy dipstick reads low. But there was less consensus on how, or even whether, to fill the tank; the real yearning, I could see, wasn’t for more democracy as much as it was for a nicer, more consumer-friendly democracy that elects leaders as honest as they are brilliant.

For if someone says we don’t have enough democracy in Chicago, the proper reply is, what exactly are we short of? Do we vote? Yes. Is any adult without a criminal record free to run? Yes. Do our elected representatives meet and discuss and write laws, and if we don’t like those laws can we throw them out? Yes. And what about the mayor, who’s ruled for almost 22 years and whose father ruled for 21? Is there something about the way our laws are written that encourages quasi-monarchical dynasties? Not that I can put my finger on.

So what democratic apps are lying around uinstalled? I guess there are the direct referendums that helped bankrupt California. And the recent experiment in Rogers Park—the one the Reader’s Deanna Isaacs just wrote about under the headline “Can Democracy Work in Chicago?”—about 49th Ward residents voting on how their alderman should spend his “menu money”—could be tried everywhere murals are painted on railroad viaducts.

But there’s not a lot of room for expansion.

If Chicago’s cursed with a corrupt, inefficient autocracy, it’s because the people of Chicago, in their wisdom and by their votes and actions, have repeatedly chosen it. Let’s blame the victim: we have the democracy we deserve. Just as Barack Obama’s greatest accomplishment as president could turn out to be getting elected president, the biggest contribution to democratic reform made possible by Richie Daley’s decision not to run for reelection may be the decision itself. Mayors don’t have to die in office or cling to it until their parties throw them out—as Daley just taught by example to Chicagoans who had never seen anything else.

Last week in the Reader I shared the lamentation of a tiny Tea Party group, the Johnson County Patriots of the Republic, in western Missouri. There’s a long list of grievances posted on their website, but in the end their beef comes down to this: “Some of our elected representatives treat us like children. Far too many of our politicians insult us in town hall meetings. They dismiss us by refusing to respond to our questions, through the rudeness of their office personnel, and by giving us meaningless responses that answer none of our concerns. All of these actions make it clear that they no longer take us, the people, seriously.”

Folks go to the polls in western Missouri, same as they do here. What aggrieves the Johnson County Patriots isn’t that there’s too little democracy but that democracy in their view doesn’t work for them the way it works for the big shots. They sound just like Kass—the difference being that an angry voice speaking for itself is more compelling than Kass’s sarcastic voice speaking for a disrespected multitude he doesn’t belong to. The Patriots look around at the democracy their forefathers left behind and feel it snickering at them. Here in Illinois, a lot of folks do too. Voters face humiliating choices in November’s most important races: Quinn versus Brady for governor; Giannoulias versus Kirk for the U.S. Senate. But who or what gave us these candidates? Who gave us Blagojevich? Who gave us George Ryan? Do we blame democracy for failing to gild the ballot with more competence and virtue?

I’m just asking—I’m as eager to live in a Hellenic paradise as the next guy is.

It’s all very Wizard of Oz, isn’t it? We’ve courageously exposed the man behind the curtain, only to learn we’ve had the power ourselves all along.

Except I don’t think anyone in Chicago, or Moscow, would actually rather live in Kansas. I mean, there are reasons we live here, few of which can be found in some quaint rural dustbowl town full of pigs and witches. And that’s the clencher, so far as I can tell. Are we, as demanding citizens, prepared to be as humble and accountable as we want our new leaders to be? Are we prepared to go full out Temperance-style hysterical with a war on Corruption? Are we ready to excersize our democratic power, knowing well the consequence that we will be to blame when things fall apart?

Can we oust the Wizard, but keep the dancing munchkins, flying monkeys, poppy fields and yellow brick roads? That’s what I want to know.

A Tale of Two Mayors.

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 4:49 PM
Tags: ,

I’ve been loathe to weigh in on the axing of Luzhkov. I’m neither privy to insider information nor prone to political forecasting, which leaves me with little more than opinion, and frankly, I’m not even sure I have that. However, I am struck by the eerie parallels between my mayor and Moscow’s, and even more so by their radically different though strangely synchronized exits. I thought I might even be able to avoid writing about that when Julia Ioffe published an FP article entitled “Moscow’s Mayor Daley.” I was ready to thank her for the favor until I actually read it and found, er, nothing at all about Daley in it, actually. (Though it does contain this passage: “This, after all, is Putin’s style: Wait for the scandal to be forgotten, and then make your move, thereby avoiding the appearance that you caved to pressure. Luzhkov will not be fired … Luzhkov will step down…”) Good times. Anyway, back to the Wonder Twins, our exiting Mayors.

He ruled his city for two decades as if he were the king of a nation state, wielding unchecked power, conducting business through patronage and strong-arming, exhibiting a curious display of megalomania and populism. Since the average adult begins experiencing memory loss in their 20’s, no one clearly remembers when this man was not in charge. He loved this town and loved running it. His goofy smile was contagious. He had a signature oldschool look that said to the people, I might be a gangster, but I am a working class gangster. He was controversially outspoken, but his crazy talk was a reliable source of entertainment. As many an epigraph on his reign have noted, you may not have liked how he did things, but you admit that he got things done. He revitalized his decaying cityscape so that anyone complaining about traffic of the cost of living or police corruption were forced to add a coda: but look how much the city has changed in the past 10 years … oooh, so new and shiny, such an exciting place to live, so much better! Sure, holding a street protest, or being in the mere vicinity of one, might earn you a few bruises and a night in the slammer, but let’s face it, most of us don’t attend protests. And yes, his political party is notorious for corruption, scare tactics and ballot tampering. But does anyone doubt that he’d win if free and fair elections were held tomorrow?

I mean, “if free and fair elections were held a year ago?”

Richie and Yura, despite everything they’ve ever done for you, awoke this year to find themselves not as popular as they once were. Or their critics louder. Not that they are the kind of guys to let the opinions of others decide their fates. And few were willing to bet serious money they could not politically survive the recent turn of events. But why now? It’s not as if no one had noticed the corruption, inefficiencies or shady allocation of funds before. Why the sudden complaining, aloud? Complaining as if complaining about these men had ever accomplished anything? Was it the belt tightening of the global recession, the confidence brought by new young reform-minded Presidents, the growing inconvenience of car ownership? Bad weather? Something else mayors don’t actually have control over? A perfect storm? Who knows from which direction the winds were blowing, but everyone seemed to hear it…

Now we take a break from the parallels.

This summer, Mayor Daley held a press conference to announce he would not be seeking re-election.

This summer, Mayor Luzhkov vacationed abroad while his city suffocated in smoke, refused to return, eventually returned, people protested, the Kremlin suggested he think about resigning, maybe come up with the name of a replacement, he ignored them, they sent him on vacation to think about resigning, maybe come up with severance deal, he returned defiant. He was fired.

I might boast that my mayor is more humble than yours. However, being unaccountable to anyone, no one can fire mine for insubordination, so far as I am aware.

And we return to our parallels.

Shock. Yes, there had been murmurs, wishful thinking, fantasies and hysterical pundits who’d said it might happen, it could happen, it even would happen. But no one thought he’d actually do it. He being either Daley or Medvedev. Even the most vocal critics believed their mayor would take his final breath in office. It reminds me of the title of the book,Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Neither man had been grooming a protege to succeed him in office. Neither man gave any potential successor much time to prepare for the new job. Unlike other modern day autocrats, they were not interested in transitioning out of office. The chapter covering their respective reign in the history books would end with a full stop.

While it’s popular to bemoan the joke that is the democratic process associated with Russia or Chicago, I hear few people complain that they’ve been robbed of the chance to vote their leader out of office. While a new era begins, and reform and “real politics” seem at least more possible now than it did a few months ago, I don’t see many people dancing in the streets. I hear lots of talk about legacies. About looming criminal investigations. About architecture and city planning. And, as if we’d regressed into ancients who’d just witnessed a comet, I hear people, bewildered, ask what it all means, and keep their fingers crossed that everything continues to work. Like those ancients, we will find new leaders, good or bad. The earth will keep turning. And we’ll find new things to complain about, new people to blame, new things to build, new rules and regulations to pass and new people to undermine them. We’ll find new humans to turn into icons before finding new reasons to expose them as merely mortal.

I suspect it will be some time, however, before we find a new Daley or Luzhkov.

June 3, 2010

LQD: “Rethinking Russia” by Stephen Cohen.

By now most of you who will read anything I write will have read this. But I’m reposting for several reasons: 1) In the vain hope that my American friends, family, etc. who are not interested in Russia will read it, 2) Because it appears a few people in Russia -like, actual Russians and not smug expats- read this blog, and I want them to know that some Americans have sane takes in U.S.-Russia relations, and 3) I’m in love with Stephen Cohen. And his wife.

It’s not completely accurate to suggest he says anything terribly new in this interview. He’s not only re-thinking, but re-peating. But let us forgo the easy standards of blogland and learn to value wisdom over novelty. I do recommend you read the whole thing. But it is 11 pages long. Below are just the parts I really appreciated.

[Emph. mine.]

Rethinking Russia: U.S.-Russian Relations in an Age of American Triumphalism

From an Interview with Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. Journal of International Affairs. Spring/Summer 2010. Reprinted by, Russia Other Points fo View.

Journal: The world recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How has this event been received in Russia?

Cohen: [...] Under Gorbachev, modernization therefore meant both political and economic modernization. After the Soviet Union ended in 1991, Yeltsin continued Gorbachev’s democratization in some respects but his policies resulted in the beginning of Russia’s de-democratization, which in the United States is usually, and incorrectly, attributed to his successor, Putin. The way Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, like a thief in the night, was not constitutional or democratic. There was no referendum on it. If you want to create democracy, you do not abolish the only state and homeland most people had ever known with the stroke of a pen, without consulting them. Yeltsin could have done what Gorbachev had done in March 1991 hold a referendum on the Union. Yeltsin might have won it, ending the Soviet Union consensually and without the widespread bitterness that remains today, and the 15 republics would have gone their own ways. Then, in October 1993, Yeltsin used tanks to abolish a parliament popularly elected in 1990 when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. This too was a Russian tradition the destruction of a legislature in a nation with a long history of overwhelming executive power but without a tradition of strong, independent legislatures. Russia has a parliament today, the Duma, but it is neither.

Note: This is part of a larger discussion about modernization. If you are interested in that topic, read the interview. Me, I suspect “modernization” is code for something (isn’t the history of man the history of modernization? why is this issue such a 3rd rail when it comes to Russia?) but I’m not sure what yet. They continue:

Journal: What opportunities exist for re-democratization in Russia?

Cohen: The main obstacle to democratization in Russia is not contrary to American political and media opinion Vladimir Putin or the KGB, or any single leader or institution. It’s the way the nation’s most valuable state economic and financial assets were “privatized” between 1991 and 1996. The idea of state or commonly owned property was not just a communist idea; it was a Russian idea, with origins long before 1917. The Soviet state property fell into the hands of a relatively small group of insiders not just the billionaires we call oligarchs and created an extremely wealthy class very quickly.

Polls show that a majority of Russians still think that property was taken and is held illegitimately. The people who own that property and who are part of the ruling elite, will never permit free elections or a freely elected parliament, knowing that such elections and such a truly representative legislature would endanger their property, endangering them personally, as well as their families. For evidence, look no further than how they have moved their families and their assets abroad.

Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to both Putin and Medvedev, referred to the existing elite as an “offshore aristocracy.” It’s a remarkably evocative formulation. By moving their assets and families abroad, the very rich show that their first loyalty is not to Russia and its future. Surkov said Russia needs its own real national bourgeoisie, which links its own future to Russia’s future. There is much truth in what he said. After all, you can’t modernize Russia by buying English soccer teams or American NBA teams.[<--Oh, snap!]

The essence of democracy anywhere is a free representative parliament however badly it may work. You can’t have this without free elections, but the Russian elite that holds vast property and controls part of the political system will never permit free elections as long as it fears for its wealth. The United States, by supporting Yeltsin’s privatization policies, was deeply complicit in the way that property was acquired. The Clinton administration and outside advisers called it a transition to a market economy and cheered it, and Americans went to Russia to guide the process. They unknowingly created a kind of firewall against democracy. Thoughtful Russians understand this conflict between ill-gained property and the lack of democracy. Some have proposed solutions, such as a one time super tax on this property, which would go into pensions, healthcare, and education in order to create a new social contract. According to this proposal, the people would forgive the rich and acknowledge their property as legitimate, and then their resentments would diminish over time, making democratization again possible. Social justice is a profound Russian belief. Without it, there will be no Russian democracy.

Is this seriously being considered, does anyone know? This is the first I’ve heard of the one time rape and pillage your country tax…

Journal: Despite the failure of the 1990s, do proponents of western-style liberalism remain a formidable force in Russia?

Cohen: They barely exist at high levels. From 1991 to 1994, they were perhaps the strongest faction in the Russian government due to the carry-over of Gorbachev’s westernism and the belief of Yeltsin’s political team that the United States was its true political partner and would provide generous financial assistance. Then came the calamities of the 1990s associated with shock therapy, which Russians thought had “Made in America” written on it not an unreasonable belief since they saw legions of American economists and other advisers encamped in Russia. I published a book, Failed Crusade, about the consequences of this ill-conceived U.S. policy and behavior.

Thinking in Russia about its relationship with the West has become more diverse. I simplify a bit, but there are essentially three groups. One says, “We are Eurasian; our civilization, our security, and our future are not with the West.” These political forces advocate minimal relations with the West. They are not urging a new Iron Curtain, but are arguing that Russia cannot stake its national or economic security on the West. Russia, they say, tried that in the 1990s and the early 2000s and was exploited and cheated. Its territory was endangered, promises were broken, and the country was left in ruins. [This would be the scary nationalist types, I think.]

Then there are those who still argue that historically Russia has been backward mainly because its citizens have not been given western-style political and economic freedoms and that the country’s future lies in the West in western models, alliances, and economic integration. To attain this, they hope for partnership with the United States, which they think still exemplifies the West. By the way, this small and diminishing group is the only one that still welcomes U.S. “democracy promotion” in Russia its funds and crusaders. [This would be the liberal intellectuals, then?]

The most interesting group emerging in Russia today, I think, is the one that says, “We are a Eurasian country, but that means we are in Europe and in Asia, and the United States is not a European country.” Their perceived western ally is Germany. It is often forgotten that, though Russia and Germany fought two wars in the 20th century, between those wars they had close relationships, along with a cultural affinity dating back to Tsarist times. That relationship is re-emerging. Look at German Chancellor Merkel. She came to power as an anti-Russian she grew up in Communist East Berlin but has emerged as one of Putin’s strongest European partners. [This would be the people actually running the country. They're the sane and sober ones! Go figure!]

Germany does not want to be an American protégé. Germany is beholden to Moscow for reuniting it in 1990-91: It wasn’t the United States that made reunification possible, it was the Kremlin leader, Gorbachev. The economic relationship between Berlin and Moscow is strong and growing. Russia is providing some 40 percent of Germany’s energy. They are building new pipelines together, and neither liked Ukraine’s disruption of supplies through its existing pipelines. Indeed, it was Berlin that blocked Bush’s attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO. This emerging Moscow-Berlin relationship, verging on an alliance, is one of the most important new bilateral relationships in the world, and almost no one in this country is paying any attention to it. In fact, for Moscow, Berlin and Beijing its new Eurasian relationships are more important than Washington, though Washington seems not to have noticed.

Stephen takes it personally, but to be fair, this is but a drop in the bucket of matters Washington seems not to notice. Or notices and chooses to ignore because they don’t have a place in the standard narrative we use to justify our actions and inactions. Cohen goes on to discuss China. Then,

Journal: This leads us to foreign policy. What is behind the deterioration of Russian-U.S. relations in recent years, in your opinion?

Cohen: There have been, I think, four major conflicting issues since the end of the Soviet Union between the United States and Russia [...]

First, we assumed we could and should instruct Russia on how to create a market economy and democracy, which Washington and legions of American crusaders tried to do in the 1990s. The reality is that Russians themselves know how to do both. More eligible voters have voted in Russian presidential elections than vote in ours. When Gorbachev began democratization in the late 1980s, Russians responded in enormous numbers and positively to the opportunity to participate in democracy not only to vote, but to attend debates and rallies, and argue as citizens. Furthermore, Russians have been buying and selling on the black and gray markets for decades, so they understand market economies. It was arrogance on our part, and the advice we gave was bad. Yet the notion persists it’s now called democracy promotion that every American president must actively throw his support to who we think are democrats in Russia. This not only creates hostility between America and Russia’s elites and people, but it is self-defeating. No good has ever come of it.

The second conflict involves NATO expansion eastward, which was for Moscow a broken American promise. No matter what former U.S. officials now say, Gorbachev was told by Bush and Baker in 1990-91 that if he agreed to a reunified Germany in NATO, the alliance would not move, in Baker’s words, “one inch to the east.” When Clinton expanded NATO eastward, for Russia he had broken a solemn promise involving its national security. That was only the beginning. The triumphalist notion that, “we won the Cold War,” seemed to make Washington think it had the right to break any promise to Moscow.

Americans forget, for example, that after 11 September 2001 Putin did more to help the second President Bush defeat the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan than did any NATO country. Russia gave us intelligence, over-flight rights, and the Northern Alliance its fighting force in Afghanistan, which saved American lives. Putin assumed that in return, after ten years, a real partnership with Washington would result. And what did the second President Bush do? He expanded NATO a second time and withdrew unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which Moscow regarded as the bedrock of its nuclear security. The Kremlin had done all this for us on the assumption of finally attaining a partnership and equality, and therefore felt, as Putin and Medvedev have said, “deceived and betrayed.”

The third post-1991 conflict is stated like a mantra by American policymakers: Russia cannot have the sphere of influence it wants in the former Soviet territories. This issue, the fundamental, underlying conflict in U.S.-Russian relations, needs to be rethought and openly discussed. The United States had and has spheres of influence. We had the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and tacitly cling to it even today. More to the point, the expansion of NATO is, of course, an expansion of the American sphere of influence, which brings America’s military, political, and economic might to new member countries. Certainly, this has been the case since the 1990s, as NATO expanded across the former Soviet bloc, from Germany to the Baltic nations. All of these countries are now part of the U.S. sphere of influence, though Washington doesn’t openly use this expression. [...]

And that has created the fourth major conflict with Russia since 1991: Moscow’s perception that U.S. policy has been based on an unrelenting, triumphalist double standard, as it has been. Washington can break solemn promises, but Moscow cannot. The United States can have large and expanding spheres of influence, but Russia can have none. Moscow is told to make its vast energy reserves available to all countries at fair-market prices, except to those governments Washington has recruited or is currently recruiting into NATO, such as the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia, which Moscow should supply at sharply below-market prices. Moscow is asked to support Washington’s perceived national interests in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, but without considering that Moscow may have legitimately different security or economic interests in those places. And so it goes.[Actually #4 is just the result of 1-3...]

He then discusses the August 08 war and START. Which surely no one could actually have anymore to say about. Not here anyway.

Journal: How has the lack of political cooperation affected other areas of U.S.-Russian relations?

Cohen: The same is true regarding Iran and Afghanistan. If Washington wants Moscow’s cooperation toward Iran, it needs to understand Russia’s special problems. Iran has never caused Russia harm. It is not going to join NATO. It’s a large neighboring nation that is not part of America’s sphere of influence. Second, Russia has 20-25 million Islamic citizens of its own. Iran has done nothing to agitate them against Moscow’s secular authority. The Kremlin fought two wars in its Islamic republic of Chechnya. Iran did nothing to support the Chechens. So, Russia’s beholden to Iran in this regard, not to mention their important economic relationships. In other words, U.S. policymakers have to understand that Russia’s essential national interests in Iran, and elsewhere, may not be identical to Washington’s due to its different geopolitical realities.

Journal: Would Russia like to see a new regime in Iran?

Cohen: They don’t want a pro-American regime in Iran. But they’ve grown increasingly weary of the current Iranian government, which has not kept its word to Moscow on several occasions. Moscow is just as worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions as we are. Indeed, Russia no less than us doesn’t want Iran to develop a nuclear capability, if only because Iran is much closer to Russia and would not need an inter-continental missile to threaten its territory. Moscow therefore has compelling reasons for not wanting a nuclear-armed Iran but it needs the United States to understand its different geopolitical circumstances. In particular, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly stresses, Russia, unlike the United States, is located at the crossroads of civilizations that are in an increasingly antagonistic relationship. Great diplomats begin by understanding the other side’s problems. I don’t recall a recent American president or secretary of state demonstrating this kind of awareness of Russia’s circumstances. Instead, they’ve told Moscow: “We have a problem and if you don’t help us solve it, you are behaving like the Cold War is not over.” When Russia doesn’t agree, we say they are still thinking in zero-sum terms.

Again, this is really more a reflection of Washington’s stubborn inability to care about anyone else’s problems than Russia’s perceived stubborn inability to be cooperative. At the risk of repeating Cohen’s “double standard” grief, one must admit it is true: It is not only understandable, but commendable, heroic even, for Washington to act in American interests. For Russia to act in her own interests, however, is not only perplexing, but downright threatening.

Journal: The February 2010 election in Ukraine saw Viktor Yanukovych elected President. In terms of the United States’ relations with Russia’s neighbors, does the election change anything?

Cohen: [...] The question is what the Obama administration and the strong pro-Ukraine lobby in Washington will do. Both Georgia, which will eventually restore relations with Moscow, and Ukraine are major defeats for long-standing U.S. policy. Will the proponents of the policy of expanding America’s sphere of influence now stand down or continue it, as they have in their words and deeds in connection with Georgia since the war? For the moment, their leading representatives, like Biden, Richard Holbrooke, and McCain are silent about Ukraine. Let’s hope they are re-thinking their follies. Ordinary Ukrainians and Georgians have only experienced more economic misery and political instability from these Washington projects in their countries. As for Kiev, I hope the Obama administration backs off and lets Yanukovych try to do what he can to help his people. My guess is that the Kremlin will see that its in its interest to help him in this respect with regard to energy prices, for example. Indeed, if Washington promises to never put military bases on Russia’s borders, and Russia in return promises to respect the political sovereignty of these former Soviet republics, the governments of Ukraine and Georgia could turn their attention and resources to the economic needs of their people instead of focusing on the military build-ups and political conflicts required to join NATO.

But what do we get out of that? Surely stability in Ukraine and Georgia cannot be profitable for arms dealers or Congressmen. Cohen speaks truth to power, I mean Obama:

Journal: Does … a shift in U.S. policy seem likely under the Obama Administration?

Cohen: I’m not optimistic. Look at President Obama’s foreign policy team. Virtually every one of them comes from the Clinton era or the Clinton administration, which began this disastrous policy. As a senator, Biden was deeply involved in NATO expansion, and in both the Georgian and Ukrainian projects. Obama’s national security adviser, General James Jones, was head of NATO when it expanded. Michael McFaul, who heads the Russian section of the National Security Council, was a leading pro-democracy crusader in the 1990s. There is not a single dissenter, not one person who was in opposition to the policy in the 1990s who has a high-level foreign policy job in the Obama administration. I don’t see anyone near Obama who will or can tell him, “Mr. President, we need a new policy toward Russia, the clock is ticking, and only you, the president, can bring it about.” But it isn’t fair to blame Obama alone. No other American leader has proposed a new policy.

Journal: Let’s focus on the idea that underlies this discussion: that there is an absence of debate about issues surrounding Russia and the United States.

Cohen: There is virtually no serious discourse about contemporary Russia underway in the United States today not in public policy circles, not in the media, very little in academic life. Certainly, there is no substantive debate. That is in sharp contrast to when I entered the public debate in the 1970s, writing about policy for newspapers and appearing on television and radio. At that time, as I said before, the debate was between advocates of détente, those who wanted to do something to diminish the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and the cold warriors. There were organized lobby groups on both sides. And the media would almost always solicit both points of view. [...]

When Reagan decided to become the greatest détente-ist of our time, a heretic in the eyes of many of his long time supporters, in 1985-88 he and Secretary of State Schultz were opposed by many members of his administration, party and much of the media. But for all Obama’s talk about having a “team of rivals,” he has surrounded himself with like-minded people. [...]

For some reason, it was easier to get public and political attention for alternative policies when Russia called itself communist. People who used to blame communism for what they didn’t like about Russia now blame Russian tradition but the accusations are the same: Russia is inherently imperialistic, aggressive, autocratic and anti-democratic. This is false, and is even a kind of ethnic slur toward Russians. Russia’s political elite has much to answer for, but so do Washington policymakers. Some will say that I am anti-American or pro-Russian, as they have in the past. I have learned to disregard these comments as remnants of the McCarthy years. People like me, who claim to be knowledgeable intellectuals not shouting heads on cable television should not be like cooks preparing recipes for popular tastes. Our mission is to try to learn, understand, and speak the truth as best we can. Others will say, more kindly, that I am naïve about what kind of U.S.-Russian relationship is possible. But who would have predicted what Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan accomplished in the 1980s, or that it would be so quickly lost?

You may say, he’s a dreamer…

And you may say I only read this for self-serving reasons of confirmation bias and romantic ideas about how it is cool to be a Russia expert. To be honest, I do find him to be a little gloom and doom. Who wants to listen to such a depressive? And the whole idea that “The greatest threats to our national security still reside in Russia.” Really? I think they reside in Washington – but that’s just me. But just when I’m about to accuse dear Stephen of hysteria mongering, I realize that it’s just that he’s so passionate about it all. Easy to get worked up like that, especially when it seems no one will listen to you. You end up coming off as the town loony. I do it all the time. At least in Russia we might have the dignity of being Holy Fools.

I also find his evolution as a Russia expert person a little surprising at first. I’m reading a collection of dissident samizdat he edited in the bad old days. He clearly felt an affinity, a passion then, for these Soviet dissidents, struggling for freedom of expression, democratization, etc. We’ve had a lot of discussion here about the modern dissidents in Russia, who also claim to be fighting these age-old wars with their leaders. But judging from the interview above, it would seem he’s left the camp. Instead of aligning himself with the victims of the current Russian government, he’s -whether he’d admit it or not- advocating on behalf of the Russian government itself. At least on behalf of their better angels.

Maybe it’s not our hero who has changed, but the bad guy? As someone recently said, there are lots of serious problems facing Russia today, and whether or not to hang a picture of Stalin is not one of them. I don’t entirely relate to the bad old days Cohen because, frankly, I can’t get so worked up about Stalin. I can, however, get pretty worked up about the United States of America though. Being American, and not Russian, and all.

Check it out: We’re the new dissidents. Apologies to Yulia.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.