Monthly Archives: January 2009

With intellectuals like these, there’s something to be said for anti-intellectualism

The annual meeting of the Modern Language Association dedicates a panel to conference sex.

Alas, with no public demonstrations of the subject at hand. Though one speaker, New York University professor Ann Pellegrini, did conduct her presentation clad in a bathrobe. (Okay, over her clothes.)

Speaker Jennifer Drouin, assistant professor of English and women’s studies at Allegheny College, discussed the fascinating subject of the varieties of conference sex, from cruising by gay male scholars at local gay bars to “‘bi-curious’ experimentation by ‘nerdy academics trying to be more hip’” to “the ‘conference sex get out of jail free’ card that attendees (figuratively) trade with academic partners, permitting each to be free at their respective meetings” to monogamous sex between long-distance spouses or partners who are separated by their careers and reunite at conferences. (In the comments on the Inside Higher Ed report, a couple of people lamented the stereotyping implicit in the suggestion that only gay men pursue casual sex; Drouin helpfully explained that in her presentation, she “lamented the lack of designated cruising spaces, such as bars, bathhouses, and parks, for people other than gay men, especially the lack of cruising spaces for lesbians.”)

More gems:

Milton Wendland of the University of Kansas linked the jargon and exchanges of academic papers to academic conference sex. The best papers, he said, “shock us, piss us off, connect two things” that haven’t previously been connected. “We mess around with ideas. We present work that is still germinating,” he said. So too, he said, a conference is “a place to fuck around physically,” and “not as a side activity, but as a form of work making within the space of the conference.”
At a conference, he said, “a collegial discussion of methodology becomes foreplay,” and the finger that may be moved in the air to illuminate a point during a panel presentation (he demonstrated while talking) can later become the finger touching another’s skin for the first time in the hotel room, “where we lose our cap and gown.”
For gay men like himself, Wendland said, conference sex is particularly important as an affirmation of elements of gay sexuality that some seem to want to disappear. As many gay leaders embrace gay marriage and “heteronormative values,” he said, it is important to preserve other options and other values.
Conference sex encounters become more than mere dalliance and physical release,” he said. It is a stand against the “divorcing physicality from being human, much less queer,” he said.

Meanwhile, in her speech, the bathrobe-clad Ann Pellegrini made a poignant complaint:

Academics are regularly “accused of speaking only about ourselves,” she said. “But when we venture out into public square,” and try to share both their knowledge and beliefs, “we are accused of being narcissistic” and of speaking only in “impenetrable jargon.”

Gee, I wonder why.

Another speaker, Daniel Contreras of Fordham University, wondered: “Did eight years of Bush drain away any energy we might have had for intellectual exploration?”

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. Who needs parody?

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The war in Georgia and Russian markets

Daniel Larrison takes me to task for suggesting that Russia paid a price for the Georgia war in the flight of foreign capital, which predated and exacerbated the financial crisis. Says Larrison:

Capital had been “fleeing” Russia in the form of a decline in its stock market throughout 2008, long before the war in Georgia and the full outbreak of our financial crisis in September, in a more dramatic expression of the slow downward trend that our own market was showing through the first half of the year. At the time of the war in Georgia, the Russian index had already declined roughly 20% for the year, and Russia did not suffer its worst precipitous drops in its stock market until the full brunt of the financial crisis struck New York in mid-September.

It’s quite true that the Russian stock market began to decline before the war in Georgia, thanks mostly to this man:

The first big drop market drop in Russia occurred in late July, when Prime Minister Putin launched a nasty verbal attack on the CEO of the Mechel steel company, Igor Zyuzin:

“We have a respected company, Mechel,” Putin said in introducing his subject.

“By the way, we invited the owner and director of the company, Igor Vladimirovich Zyuzin, to today’s meeting, but he suddenly got sick. Meanwhile, it is known that in the first quarter this year the company exported raw materials abroad at half the domestic, and world, price. And what about the margin tax for the government?”

He added: “Of course, sickness is sickness, but I think Igor Vladimirovich should get better as quick as possible, otherwise we’ll have to send him a doctor.”

As the International Herald Tribune report puts it:

On the heels of the imprisonment of one tycoon and some bare-knuckled corporate raids and renegotiations of large energy contracts under Putin, the market did not take this talk lightly.

Over all, the Russian stock market slid more than 5 percent Friday, on fears that Putin’s comments might presage another attack on a company similar to the destruction of the Yukos oil company in 2004.

The remarks also coincided with the departure of the American chief executive of the British energy company BP’s joint venture in Russia, which is under pressure from its Russian partners and the government, in another glum sign for investors here.

More on the BP dispute here. State thuggery is bad for business; who knew?

(Incidentally, the role of Putin’s “we’ll have to send him a doctor” quip in crashing the Russian stock market is so widely understood that, remarkably, even the pro-government Izvestia criticized it in a year-end roundup of the Putinisms of 2008. Izvestia also quotes a more complete version of the remark: “We’ll have to send him a doctor and clean up these problems.” The word Putin used, zachistit’, was most commonly used with regard to “cleanup operations” against Chechen separatist fighters.)

That said: did the war in Georgia have an effect on capital flight? Well, here’s what an August 19 report in the New York Times had to say:

More than $7 billion left Russia during Moscow’s military campaign in Georgia, a rate more than 10 times higher than earlier in the year and the product at least in part of fears that “certain political risks” are making the Russian Federation a less attractive place for investment, according to Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin.

Kudrin must be another one of those Russia-hating neocons.

This August 22 Russian-language article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta examines the various causes of capital flight and concludes:

Before the events in South Ossetia, the capitalization of the Russian stock market was close to $1.1 trillion; now, it is below $1 trillion. Even adjusting for the exchange rate fluctuations and the general downward trend, the war-related component in the stock market drop is estimated at tens of billions of dollars.

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The "greatest Russians"

Back in July, I wrote for The Boston Globe about the “greatest Russian” internet/TV voting contest in Russia, and the bizarre (and alarming) emergence of Stalin and Nicholas II, Russia’s last Czar, in the initial rounds of the voting.

Well, the project is now over, and Stalin is in third place. Many say the vote was rigged, to avoid making Russia look bad. (Though Stalin placing third still looks pretty bad.)

The top two winners are Alexander Nevsky, the legendary prince mainly known for defeating the Teutonic Knights in the “Battle of the Ice” in 1242 and being the hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s Stalin-era patriotic movie, and Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist prime minister assassinated in 1911.

Those are rather telling selections.

Alexander Nevsky is not only a mythic figure about whom little is definitely known (it is now believed, for instance, that the grandeur of the Battle of the Ice was greatly exaggerated). He is, quite possibly, a bit worse than that: a collaborator with the Mongol-Tatar Horde that occupied Russia for over 200 years. Alexander received his principality from one of the Tatar Khans, his patron; in return, he used his army to violently suppress rebellions by Russians (in particular, in Novgorod) who refused to pay tribute to the Mongols. The “politically correct” Russian version is that he had to cut deals with the Mongols, since the Mongol force at the time was far superior to whatever the Russians could put up, and his compromises saved Russia from utter devastation. Other historians paint a darker picture, arguing that Alexander used the Tatars to gain political leverage against other Russian princes including his own brother Vladimir.

Furthermore, one reason Alexander is revered is that he reportedly refused to accept an alliance with the Catholic Church against the Mongols. In other words, Alexander Nevsky represents Russian isolationism from the West — even at the cost of submission to dominance by an Asian power that most Russian liberals and pro-Western conservatives/centrists have always viewed as disastrous to the tradition of liberty in Russia.

That is the popularly chosen “Name of Russia.”

The runner-up, Stolypin, was apparently Putin’s choice according to the London Times report. He was not quite, as the Times says, “a conservative politician who opposed liberal reforms and cracked down hard on the Bolsheviks”; he certainly did crack down hard on revolutionaries of all stripes, but he was himself a reformer who hoped to modernize Russia and move it in a capitalist direction (in particular, by offering peasants personal land ownership in lieu of ownership by peasant communes, the prevailing system until then). Of the top three vote-getters, he is certainly the least objectionable; if he had not been assassinated, it’s possible that the revolution of 1917 might have been averted. That said, his name is also strongly associated with political repression; the tribunals he set up do deal with perpetrators of revolutionary violence executed between 1000 and 3000 people in six months, and the hangman’s noose became known as “the Stolypin necktie.”

And then, of course, there’s Stalin, for whom 1000 executions was all in a day’s work. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

The Stalin legacy in today’s Russia is a complicated phenomenon. On the one hand, Stalinism and its crimes stand officially condemned; in fact, a few months ago Medvedev laid a wreath at a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s terror — the first time a Russian head of state did so. On the other hand, there is a tendency to semi-exonerate Stalinism or at least present its legacy as mixed: terror on one side, industrialization and the victory in World War II on the other. A controversial new history textbook presents Stalin as an “effective manager” and seeks to minimize his crimes, suggesting that only those who were actually sentenced to death and executed be counted as terror victims (which would leave out the millions who died in the camps).

As for Stalin’s grass-roots popularity, some argue that it is a response to the chaos of the ’90s and the rampant injustices of today’s Russia as well as the decline of Russian power. There is, probably, an element of that. But is is also to a great extent a creation of Putin-era state propaganda which emphasizes the importance of national greatness and Russia’s imperial power (and downplays the idea, embraced by Yeltsin, that Russia’s totalitarian past should be rejected and viewed as evil and shameful). The semi-exoneration of Stalin is also evident in some products of the official media — for instance, a TV program aired last summer which attempted to challenge the belief that Stalin disastrously mishandled the war against Germany, by decimating the top command of the Soviet army, failing to prepare for the war, and ignoring reports of an approaching German invasion. The program essentially presented Stalin as a wise leader whose decisions were undercut by feckless and incompetent commanders.

The semi-exoneration of Stalin is not an exoneration of communism but of “national greatness”; it goes hand in hand with reverence toward Nicholas II and the glamorization of White Army leaders such as Alexander Kolchak, the hero of a recent blockbuster film and a 10-hour TV miniseries. One of the weirdest aspects of attitudes toward Stalin in Russia today is a belief (not very widespread but present nonetheless) that Stalin was a closet Russian Orthodox believer who destroyed the godless Communists in the purges and restored the Russian Orthodox Church (which Stalin actually did, but only under pressure when he felt that the Church would be a useful ally in mobilizing the people to fight the German invasion). In a bizarre recent incident, a priest in a Moscow church displayed an icon that depicted Stalin talking to Matryona Nikonova, a Soviet-era underground Russian Orthodox preacher who was recently canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. (A totally unconfirmed legend has it that Stalin visited Matryona in 1941 and she told him that Moscow would not fall to the Nazis if he stayed in the city.) The icon was removed after complaints from parishioners and the Church has condemned it as “diabolical,” but the priest still stands by it. The eccentric Russian ultra-nationalist Alexander Prokhanov recently predicted that eventually, Stalin would be canonized by the Church.

On December 5-7, Russia hosted its first-ever scholarly conference on Stalinism and Stalin’s legacy. While the fact that the conference was supported by some official institutions may be put down on the “positive” side of the ledger, there are some disturbing signals as well. As Nikita Sokolov reports in Grani.ru, two high-ranking Russian academics who spoke at the conference acted more or less as Stalin apologists. One noted that many Roman emperors were also villains but they built a great empire nonetheless. Another noted the fact that Stalin’s nationalities policy resulted in the survival of virtually ever small ethnic group, while in the United States it’s hard to find a Native American. The minister of education defended the Stalin-whitewashing textbook on the grounds that such an approach is in demand from both instructors and students.

The day after the “Greastest Russian” vote came in, the pro-government Izvestia ran a “pro and con” feature on Stalin’s third-place vote. The “pro” was contributed by the newspaper’s deputy editor in chief, Elena Yampolskaya. While Yampolskaya says that she voted for no one in the contest and certainly couldn’t vote for Stalin, the support for the late dictator is actually a positive sign: the people who backed him were voting against “the dictatorship of liberalism,” “the terror of political correctness,” and “the totalitarian power of money.”

They are not choosing blood, paranoia and barbarism, not the deviltry summoned from the dark abyss. They are choosing Victory, power, indifference to monetary gain, statecraft, and imperial ambition (a phrase that is, at last, no longer considered pejorative).

Telling, indeed.

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Russia: winds of change?

My op-ed in today’s Boston Globe. Reposted below, with a few extra lines The Globe cut for space.

______________________________________________________

A year ago, Russia was in an odd place between oppressive stagnation and a glimmer of possible change. The ruling party, United Russia, had just consolidated its hold on the parliament in a rigged election; the presidential transition was revealed as the farcical anointment of a handpicked successor to Vladimir Putin – the docile Dmitry Medvedev, who quickly promised to make Putin prime minister. Yet some Russian liberals, and sympathetic Westerners, harbored at least modest hopes that Medvedev might prove more liberal than Putin and that the division of power between president and prime minister might weaken Russia’s neo-autocracy.

Today, the winds of change in Russia are blowing again – harsh winds that may yet turn into a storm.

The liberalization from above turned out to be a non-starter, despite Medvedev’s declaration that “freedom is better than non-freedom.” Any hopes of a thaw, or a Putin-Medvedev fissure, were crushed when Medvedev’s first 100 days ended with the war in Georgia. (Whatever Georgia’s responsibility for triggering this war, it was preceded by years of provocation and manipulation by the Kremlin – intended to destabilize a government perceived as unfriendly and send an assertive message to the West.)

The surge of “patriotic” sentiment that followed Russia’s victory threatened to take the country even further down the authoritarian road. But history works in mysterious ways.

While Western sanctions in response to the war proved short-lived, Russia paid a heavy price for its victory in the flight of foreign capital – which both predated October’s financial crisis and exacerbated its effects in Russia.

The crisis revealed the clay feet of the Putin/Medvedev regime, not only showing the extent to which its relative prosperity was tried to high oil prices but also exposing the fakery of its feelgood propaganda machine. While state-controlled television news avoided the word “crisis” – except with regard to the West – Russian citizens rushed to convert rubles to dollars. Polls by the Public Opinion Fund found a sharp drop in confidence in the mainstream media. By late December, close to half of Russians said that media reports on the economy were biased and minimized economic problems; 30 percent (up from 23 percent in November) said that “journalists know the real state of the economy but are not allowed to tell the truth.”

Trust in Putin and Medvedev may suffer as well. Bizarrely, over 80 percent of those polled recently still approved Putin’s performance as prime minister – though only 43 percent thought Russia was headed in the right direction. Yet, of the 17 percent of Russians who watched Putin’s live televised question-and-answer session on December 4, fewer than half were satisfied with his answers.

The first rumblings of discontent came after the government announced a hike in custom duties on imported used cars to help Russia’s auto companies (run mostly by Putin cronies). Importing used cars from Japan is a major source of livelihood in the Far East, which responded with major protests that quickly became political. Some demonstrators openly denounced Putin, Medvedev, and United Russia; many angrily demanded television coverage. After a week of protests, a peaceful rally in Vladivostok was brutally broken up by the riot police on December 21; several journalists, too, were beaten and arrested. While television news ignored the incident, many mainstream newspapers did not. Remarkably, several local legislatures in the Far East have backed the protesters’ demands. So far, the government has refused to budge. But what will happen if the ranks of protesters swell from hundreds to hundreds of thousands?

So far, the Kremlin’s strategy for dealing with political opposition is a carrot-and-stick approach. Among the carrots: an effort to co-opt the opposition with the creation of a Kremlin-funded “liberal” party, the Right Cause, and the appointment of a prominent liberal politician, Nikita Belykh, to a governorship. The sticks include proposed legislation that would make it easier to convict dissenters of treason or espionage, at least if they have any foreign contacts, and to take such cases out of jurors’ hands. These laws have drawn objections even from the governmental Public Chamber, a monitoring body meant to function as a collective ombudsman – though whether these objections will have any effect remains doubtful.

Unlike the Communist regime, the authoritarian Russian state still has room for some legal resistance – from the independent media to pro-democracy movements to judges who refuse to convict government critics under vague “extremism” laws. These small islands of freedom face a vastly unequal battle against the forces of repression; but the outcome in this battle is more uncertain than it has been in a long time.

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Looking forward to 2009

2008 has not been the best year of our lives. An election that seemed to have a lot of inspiring potential — a Republican candidate who once had solid bipartisan appeal, the first serious female presidential contender in U.S. history, a visionary candidate who also happens to be black, a female vice presidential candidate — turned into a singularly nasty and divisive campaign. (Or does every presidential campaign these days seem nastier and more divisive than all the previous ones?) In Russia, faint hopes of a “Medvedev thaw” were buried in the wreckage of the August war with Georgia, which also pushed Russia and the U.S. close to a “new Cold War.” Finally, there was the financial crisis that soon became an economic one. We may not be in for a new Great Depression, but no one doubts that tough times are ahead.

And yet, in the midst of all this, there is good news.

For instance:

(1) Back in October, I wrote:

Many people who are tired of the mudslinging can’t wait for the election to be over. But Nov. 4 is unlikely to bring much relief. The dogs of war are loose, and they won’t be easy to leash. If, as seems likely, Obama is elected, a large number of people on the right will see him as a stealth radical who won thanks to media bias and rampant voter fraud. If McCain pulls off a surprise upset, at least as many people on the left will blame racism, Republican dirty tricks or both—and some will regard the results as proof that the right-wing cabal behind Bush will never let go of power. Either way, a substantial minority of Americans will see themselves as living under an illegitimate and evil regime.

And that’s more frightening than the economic crisis.

I’m happy to say that I seem to have been wrong. With some exceptions (Sean Hannity, and Melanie Phillips), conservatives have been remarkably willing to give Obama a chance. Obama’s judiciously centrist picks have had a lot to do with this; but credit also goes to McCain’s and Obama’s post-election graciousness. And that’s a good reason to take pride in the American political system and its ability — sometimes — to bring people together.

(2) While Sarah Palin’s candidacy proved to be mostly a dud, it did accomplish some positive things. It remolded the conservative “base” in a more feminist direction, by giving it a heroine who was a working mother, a self-proclaimed feminist, and an unabashedly ambitious woman. It also highlighted the need for a more ideologically diverse feminism. No less a feminist than Naomi Wolf (in full throes of Palin Derangement Syndrome this past election cycle) wrote, back in 1993 in her book Fire With Fire, that feminism should discard “litmus tests” on everything from gun ownership to abortion which exclude too many women. Wolf wrote that the beliefs of conservative and Republican women who embrace “self-determination, ownership of business, and individualism” should be “respected as a right-wing version of feminism.” Hear, hear.

(3) In Russia, the crisis (accompanied by the steep drop in oil prices) may accomplish what the Medvedev succession did not: weaken the authoritarian state’s grip on power. More on that soon. Of course, if there is a new “Russian revolution,” it may not be bloodless, and it’s far from certain that it will bring the good guys to power.

Stay tuned for 2009. It could turn out to be the best of times and the worst of times. May the “best” part prevail.

Happy New Year to all.

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