poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

February 19, 2010

“Next I’d like to ask you, What is your overall opinion of Russia?”

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:57 PM
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“Is it very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or are you a bitter former media magnate?”

Released: Gallup’s 2010 Country Favoribility Ratings.

(Favorability among Americans that is…)

Not surprisingly, the poll finds Democrats and young people have a higher opinion of most foreign countries than do the elderly and the GOP. With the notable exception of Israel, which senile neo-cons have a weakness for, apparently. Anyway, why am I posting this poll? Because I am constantly trying to divine, between what I read in the papers (Russia baaaad!), what people on the street say (nothing against the average Ivan – hey the Russians know how to party! However, Putin is a spy, so…) and my own perverse inclinations (If loving Russia is wrong, I don’t want to be right…), how Americans really feel about Russia. What does the new Gallup poll conclude? That while Russia has a less than 50% thumbs up from Americans, that’s actually an improvement:

Partial Rebound in Views of Russia

After dipping to 40% in 2009 — most likely in response to Russia’s 2008 military crackdown on Georgian separatists — favorability toward Russia has recovered somewhat to 47%; however, this remains lower than where it stood for much of the past decade.

The historical high point for positive U.S. feelings toward Russia was 66%, first reached in 1991 and repeated in 2002. However, favorability toward Russia plummeted to 41% in March 2003, after that country sharply opposed the United States’ launching of the Iraq war. (U.S. public opinion of France and Germany, two other countries opposed to the war, also turned more negative in 2003.) By February 2004, Russia’s favorability score was back to 59%, and it remained above 50% until 2008.

Well, for all the “However, Putin is a spy, so…” fearmongering, let it be known that it was not Medvedev at the helm in 2004, year of the shiny happy 59% approval rating. Just sayin’.

Another interesting observation: Russia is nestled just between Mexico and China. Pure coincidence perhaps. I honestly don’t know if Americans are afraid of Russia. Most deny it, opting for a more polite, “No, just confused by it…” If you’ve ever been invited into your boss’s office to be told, “I am confused by your actions…,” you know it’s code for, “There is a law that requires me to give you the chance to explain yourself, otherwise I’d strangle you with my bare fists!” But anecdotal evidence, a.k.a., kitchen conversations with friends and family, not infrequently invoke Mexico and China as countries to be very, very worried about (for admittedly very, very different reasons). Probably most Americans have nothing against these countries or their beautiful cultures, per se, but you could also get a cable news show devoted to demonizing and scapegoating them. These are countries which provoke our anxiety and expose our weaknesses. As opposed to those Arabs who only make us stronger when they attack us and our way of life.

47%. Not high, not scandalously low. But it does make me want to call out those who assert that while Russia is foaming about the maw with anti-Americanism, Russia isn’t even on our radar. We don’t really have an opinion one way or the other about them. Meh. Too inconsequential to bother with hating. Do you know who is inconsequential? Whom no one has an opinion about, one way or the other? Who is not on our radar? And do you see who has the highest favorablity ratings in the new study? This poll was taken before the start of the Olympics. Do the math, kids. Americans are an accepting but proud lot. So long as you don’t get in our way, you are good people. So long as you are inconsequential and boring, we think you’re just peachy keen.

But find yourself ranked between Mexico and China on our list of favourites, and you can bet you are on our freaking radar.

Here’s a snapshot of a typical person who gives Russia a “not favorable” approval rating:

From the National Review:Conrad Black: Our Faltering Rivals. The U.S. is in decline, sure — but it’s still leading.

Ok, not American, technically. But please, take a moment to savour the Canadian pot, and its encounter with the Russian kettle:

“Russia is a fraud.”

Oh, that’s a knee slapper! Ok, so maybe it takes one to know one…

“Its population is in steep decline and chronically afflicted by alcoholism. The governmental system is authoritarian and corrupt, allied with protégés who have been given monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks. Except for a few areas that have survived from the USSR’s expertise in some defense industries, Russia’s manufacturing is continuing to wither, and its economy depends almost entirely on the exportation of natural resources, especially oil. It is not an efficient producer of anything, and commodity prices are always vulnerable.”

Now that Conrad has explained to us what Russia hasn’t done for him lately… Mark Adomanis at True Slant moves in for the smackdown:

Re: “Fraud”

What makes such arrogance not simply annoying or distasteful but truly, riotously, funny is that, in between visits from the warden and time spent stamping licence plates, Mr. Black has, like all movement conservative hacks, constantly bemoaned the “elitism” and “arrogance” of liberals. But labeling an entire country a “fraud” and consigning it to nothing but the very bleakest of futures…well that’s humbleness, or something.

It’s also the kind of rhetoric that forces Russia to write manifestoes about sovereign democracy. So long as we are all still playing the nation-state game, you can’t write off a centuries old country as a “fraud.” Russia might be unseemly and even evil – but it is legit, recognized nation-wise.

Re: “Its population is in steep decline and chronically afflicted by alcoholism.”

These are actually two very separate issues, but what the hell, why not, we’ll combine them. As I’ve argued before Russia’s population decline has actually abated rather dramatically. What is Russia’s demographic future? No one really knows (predictions are hard, especially about the future!), but it stands to reason that it’s not nearly as bad as Black, Eberstadt, Steyn, Feshbach, and all the other nameless neocon apparatchiks, most of whom have made crude linear projections decades into the future, think. And alcoholism in Russia is not some eternal unchanging constant: the country’s current high rates of alcoholism are the result of a trend that started in the 1960’s, not in prehistory. Alcoholism in Russia was and is largely a reaction to bleak socioeconomic conditions and the easy availability and cheapness of alcohol, not the result of some quasi-mythical Russian predilection for booze and penchant for self destruction. Will this trend be reversed? Perhaps! Perhaps not! The truth is no one really knows, but to pretend that Russians are utterly passive in the face of some all-powerful and immutable force known as “alcoholism” is as condescending as it is stupid.

Moreover, steps are actively being taken to address these problems. While the ship was headed toward the iceberg, it’s changing course.

Re: “The governmental system is authoritarian and corrupt, allied with protégés who have been given monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks.”

Because authoritarian and corrupt governments have never been influential or powerful on the world stage. Democracies always win!!! Irving Kristol said that, didn’t he? Or was it Francis Fukuyama? Oh whatever, either way democracy rules and autocracy drools – it’s science. […]

As for the second part of that sentence, I can’t even begin to disentangle it. Medvedev got “monopolistic concessions”(?) and is repaying Putin with huge kickbacks? What? I sure hope that Black isn’t suggesting that the current crop of oligarchs are “proteges” of Putin and Medvedev because, unless they’ve perfected time travel, this is simply impossible: the great majority of the oligarchs seized their assets in the early and mid 1990’s when Putin was in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office and while Medvedev was still lecturing law students. Putin’s rule regarding the oligarchs has basically been “you stay out of politics and we stay out of your business. If you do get involved in politics, watch your back.” Is this a particularly enlightened pact? No. But are the Oligarchs Putin’s “proteges?” Only someone who is entirely ignorant of the past two decades of Russian history would say so. I’d also add that the people who granted the “monopolistic concessions” Black so disdains were Western advisers who, of course, were loudly cheered by publications such as National Review for their efforts to implement neoliberalism.

This is why I think Black’s (and other wealthy psychopaths’) complaints about Russia tend to boil down to “What have you done for me lately?” We like a Russia that does our bidding, that gets us rich, that lets us call the shots. The fact is that “monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks” are nothing new. In fact, American advisors helped bring that monster to life. It’s curious that the neoliberals only decided it was a monster after Putin came to power and challenged our invasion of Iraq and began re-nationalizing industries and asking the small favor that if you are going to get rich off Russia, you not only give back enough to pay a few measly wages around here but … support the government that lets you get away with it. What is new is not the corruption, monopolies and kickbacks. It’s that it’s stopped letting people like Black call all of the shots.

Re: “Except for a few areas that have survived from the USSR’s expertise in some defense industries, Russia’s manufacturing is continuing to wither, and its economy depends almost entirely on the exportation of natural resources, especially oil. It is not an efficient producer of anything, and commodity prices are always vulnerable.”

Also the observation that Russia’s manufacturing is ”continuing to wither” is flatly inaccurate. Russian industrial production withered in the 1990’s, and then, after hitting a nadir in 1998, recovered and surpassed its Soviet level in 2007. There’s been a downturn since the economic crisis of 2008, but that doesn’t exactly make Russia unique, does it? Certain large sectors are actually substantially more productive than they were before communism collapsed, mining production, for example, has increased by 17% over its 1992 level while production of electrical equipment has grown by 74%. Certain other sectors have never recovered: production of clothing and textiles is still down more than 60% from it’s 1992 level. This is because some areas of Russian industry were capable of competing in the world market and other weren’t. Russian industry has not even had two decades of exposure to the discipline imposed by market forces, and even in that limited time frame has changed to a shocking degree. Treating it as a historical constant takes a particularly powerful and willful sort of ignorance.

I’m not sure why I would expect better from a guy who, having been convicted of fraud, is currently serving time in a Federal Prison, but apparently National Review’s ever so highbrow customers don’t mind getting their (boring and inaccurate) analysis from criminals. I could easily read the ravings of a prisoner provided they were interesting, but this piece of trash reads like a Mark Steyn column that has had all of its hatred, warmongering, and thinly-veiled racism (i.e. the fun bits) surgically removed and replaced with the boring parts of George Wills latest book.

You would not expect better from Conrad Black. But you should from the average Joe who regurgitates these very talking points when asked on what ground he does not give Russia a favorable rating.

What rating would I give Russia? I don’t know. There are a lot of things about it that piss me off. No society is open enough for me. Also, I don’t care much for capitalism. After the financial crisis from which it appears no one learned anything, I’m ready to fail the lot of them. On the other hand, I have a controversial tolerance of corruption (I think Mayor Daley has done wonderful things for this city, including those flower pots downtown) if it gets the job done, and think that if you are boring you are cheating. This is why I have an unfavorable rating for the Switzerlands and Canadias of the world. Watching the tango between unchecked insanity and tiresome process in America or Russia makes me want to root for them. What kind of a ridiculous subjective poll is this anyway? I know this much. I would not give Canadia the highest rating, not after giving the world Conrad Black.

And I wouldn’t give them the Olympics again for a good long while. Also.

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