Monthly Archives: December 2008

Demonizing the Putin regime?

Sean’s Russia Blog has a post (based on an article by Mark Ames) lambasting Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt of disregarding facts in a rush to conclude that the mercury poisoning in France of Karina Moskalenko, lawyer for the family of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was probably an assassination attempt linked to Russia. It now appears clear that Moskalenko’s poisoning was an accident, due to the fact that the previous owner of the used car she had bought in August had broken a thermometer in it. Sean accuses WaPo of being “vociferous in painting Russian (sic) and Putin as a neo-Evil Empire” and, with Ames, laments this “incessant demonization.”

Was there a rush to the judgment by the WaPo editorial page? Sounds like it. Is there a tendency, after a string of unsolved murders of Russian politicians and journalists who were on the wrong side of Putin’s favor, to see the long hand of Putin behind every suspicious death or illness? I’m sure there is. To be honest, I would prefer to believe that Putin was not involved in any of those murders, if only because the thought that the de facto leader of a nuclear power with a population of nearly 150 million is capable of common, naked criminal acts of the worst kind — not just bending the law for what he sees as the common good, but plain and simple crimes — is a little too scary.

However, it seems to me that the Putin (now, Putin/Medvedev) regime needs no demonizing. Exhibit A: The horrific treatment of Vasily Alexanian, the terminally ill ex-Yukos lawyer who is currently in prison on charges of embezzlement (widely viewed as a tactic to pressure him into testifying against his former boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky). Alexanian has AIDS and cancer, and is reported to be virtually blind. Russian law requires him to be released due to the state of his health (and also because the statute of limitation on his alleged crimes has now expired). Yet he is still in a prison hospital, for no apparent reason than the Putin clique’s maniacal vendetta against Khodorkovsky and Yukos. The latest news in his case is that the government is now willing to release him — on 50 million rubles (about $1.6 million) bail. You can’t really demonize people who do that. They’ve done a fine job of demonizing themselves.

Sean Guillory, who writes Sean’s Russia blog, sincerely loves and cares about Russia, and that is, of course, a good thing. Unfortunately, I think this often leads him to see justify criticisms of Russia’s government and society as Western maligning of Russia. In discussing the Litvinenko poisoning case two years ago, Sean lamented the Western media’s readiness to paint Russia as “some sort of abnormal society.” Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it’s not so abnormal as to have a government that poisons its critics. But is today’s suppression of the opposition rallies in Moscow the mark of a “normal society”? How about the fact that none of these rallies were mentioned on the television news? How about the fact that there has been no news coverage of the massive protests in Vladivostok (not directly political, since they have to do with new tariffs on the import of used foreign cars, but still directed against the authorities)? Is that “normal”?

And something else I found jarring, reading Sean’s October 23 post on the Moskalenko case:

Westerners should be more cautious in making Russia’s “fierce critics’” every word sacrosanct. We might recognize that some of these people are victims of their own paranoia and self-deluded sense of importance. They are not martyrs, saints, or saviors. No matter how much they want us to think they are.

Are all fierce critics of Putin’s Russia saints or wise men and women? Of course not. (Eduard Limonov, for instance, is a nut and a narcissist.) But the dismissive tone toward people who are taking substantial personal risks in taking on a repressive machine grates. (Does Sean have any reason to believe Moskalenko has delusions of grandeur? I would say that in her case, paranoia is not an irrational reaction. Even the paranoid have enemies — but, by the same token, even those who have real enemies are sometimes paranoid.)

I find it deeply offensive when the likes of LaRussophobe shower the mass of the Russian people with dehumanizing contempt for their submission to Putin and their indifference to human rights violations in Russia. It’s easy for someone who has never lived under a dictatorship, and never endured the chaos, uncertainty, and privations that came with freedom after that dictatorship’s collapse, to pass high-handed judgment on people who are grateful to have a semblance of a normal life. Easy, and frankly revolting. (Besides, how many Americans — living in a democracy — protested slavery or segregation?) However, it’s also … shall we say, not very attractive to heap scorn on people who are willing to do the heroic work of challenging an authoritarian state, from the comfortable perch of someone who is very unlikely to ever be in their shoes.

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Russia: Freedom and thuggery

A day of “Marches of Dissent” in Moscow and St. Petersburg has been marked by massive police action, including about 90 arrests in Moscow and 10 in St. Petersburg and the cordoning off of two squares by Moscow police.

According to CNN.com:

A spokesman for Moscow City Hall told Interfax [the rally organizers] had been offered places to hold a rally, “but they again deliberately staged provocations and called on their supporters to attend unauthorized events.”

This is, of course, a load of B.S. The organizers of the rally, the Other Russia coalition, had legally applied for permission to hold the rally at central locations in downtown Moscow (Triumph Square and Pushkin Square). Instead, they were offered “alternate locations” in godforsaken places. For those familiar with New York geography, it would be a bit like an organization wanting to march down 5th Avenue and being offered an alternate location in Washington Heights. It should be noted that The Other Russia tried repeatedly to negotiate a compromise with City Hall, to no avail.

[More: A correction is in order. The alternate location offered to The Other Russia was Bolotnaya Square — literally meaning “Swamp Square” — which is, in fact, fairly close to the Kremlin. The organizers’ objection to this location was that it’s relatively unpopulated, away from the main flow of the crowds in downtown Moscow, and would impede their goal of “interaction with the people.” Bolotnaya is more a park than a square, and serves mainly as a hangout for young people and a spot for fire shows.]

Those arrested included fifty retired generals (who had joined the protest in the vain hope that the police would not have the nerve to arrest armed force veterans) as well as Roman Dobrokhotov, the brave young man who interrupted Dmitry Medvedev’s Constitution Day speech in the Kremlin the other day.

A few dozens dissenters (50 according to the Associated Press, 80 or 90 according to reports in the independent Russian media) were able to hold a brief march in an alternate Moscow location that was not disclosed in advance, blocking off Sadovaya Street for a while.

In St. Petersburg, where the city authorities allowed a rally but not a march, things went more peacefully, though harassment of opposition activists (including, in one case, a beating that left the victim hospitalized) is still reported.

It is often said that the liberal opposition in Russia has no base, and to a large extent that’s probably true. Still, the government’s actions show that it’s afraid of the opposition broadening its influence. Those actions, moreover, are not only thuggish but dumb. Suppressing the rallies draws more attention than letting them happen unmolested.

Speaking of thuggery, a remarkable (and truly disgusting) act thereof took place on December 12 in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where 100 to 200 opposition activists (including chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov) gathered for the founding congress of a movement called Solidarity.

According to a BBC report:

A pro-Kremlin youth movement, Young Russia, set off smoke bombs outside the conference hall. Some wore monkey masks and taunted delegates by tossing bananas at them.

But the BBC omits any mention of antoher stunt by members on one of the pro-government youth movements that specialize in harassing opposition activists: releasing live sheep, clad in shirts and caps with a Solidarity logo, outside the conference center (apparently to make the point that the conference attendees were “sheep”). Three of the sheep died for unknown reasons (perhaps due to being roughly tossed from the bus that brought them in). Eyewitnesses say several others had broken legs. A video made by opposition activist Oleg Kozlovsky captures a part of the outrageous event. (Warning: video contains brief images of dead animals.)

Will the thugs be prosecuted for animal abuse? Don’t hold your breath.

More: On its website, The Young Guard claims that it was not behind the stunt with the sheep, and that it approves of the “political content” of the action but deplores animal abuse. Its site also features a video that purports to rebut allegations that the sheep were abused. Of course, this video — apparently shot by people associated with the stunt — shows only that some of the sheep were unharmed and in no way disproves Kozlovsky’s video.

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Russia: Freedom springs eternal

Via Robert Amsterdam, an article from The Economist about acts of civic courage by ordinary Russians: a juror in the Anna Politkovskaya murder case going public to dispute the judge’s claim that the jury has asked for the trial to be held behind closed door (causing the trial to be opened to the public and the media again), drivers in Moscow taking over a special lane reserved for high-level government officials. And there’s more.

On December 5, the Basmanny district court in Moscow — a court whose past actions have made it a synonym, among Russian dissenters, for a kangaroo court doing the government’s bidding — acquitted writer and political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky of charges of “extremism.” The charges against Piontkovsky, a pro-Western, outspoken critic of the Putin regime, were based on the prosecutors’ conclusion that his book Unloved Country contains incitement of ethnic hatred and “statements demeaning to Russians, Jews, and Americans.” (No specific examples were given.)

Three experts from the Russian Federal Center for Expert Witnesses concluded that nothing in Piontkovsky’s book could be interpreted as incitement to hatred or violence.

Said Piontkovsky (alas, Russian link only):

The FSB and the prosecutors, armed with the new law on extremism, tried to conduct a show trial and create a precedent for criminal prosecution for criticism of the government.

The highly professional conclusion of Andrei Smirnov, Olga Kukushkina and Yulia Safonova, buttressed by scholarly arguments, has knocked — for a long time, I hope — this “punishing sword” out of the hands of the repressive machine.

The official conclusion of these three remarkable and courageous professionals should be disseminated by the media as much as possible. It is our small Magna Carta, a charter of freedoms — a first step toward the restoration of freedom of speech traitorously stolen from society by the KGB lieutenant colonel who fancies himself “the father of the nation.”

And there’s more. On December 6, the half-hour comedy show ProjectParisHilton on Russia’s Channel One, in which four comedians discuss current events, included a segment on Putin’s December 4 televised “question and answer session” with the people that was virtually an overt parody of the Vladimir Show, with the comedians offering to field audience questions that “Putin didn’t get a chance to answer” and giving Putin-style vacuous answers. (Video to come, once I have a chance to add subtitles.)

In the meantime, another video. As Russia officially celebrated the 15th anniversary of its post-Soviet Constitution — ironically, just as this constitution is about to be hastily amended to extend the presidential term from four years to six — Medvedev’s speech at the anniversary conference at the Kremlin was interrupted by a heckler. No less remarkably, a report on the incident was broadcast on television, though only on a local St. Petersburg channel.

Before we get all optimistic, the next day Dobrokhotov — an activist with the opposition group “We”– lost his job as the host of a weekly one-hour debate program on the “Moscow Speaks” radio station. The station chief claims that this was a planned layoff affecting all free-lance workers at the station. Interestingly, Dobrokhotov seems to give this explanation some credence, saying that the chief has always been candid with him in the past and that his participation in public protests has not previously affected his job. Still, the timing in suspicious at best.

On Sunday, “marches of dissent” are planned in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Stay tuned.

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More about gender differences and competition

One of the truisms of the neo-paleo-conventional wisdom on gender is that women are less competitive than men. They choose non-competitive activities when given a choice, and don’t enjoy competition the way men do when they have to compete. They particularly don’t like to compete against men.

So, is it true?

A couple of interesting studies casting doubt on this proposition:

Gender differences in preferences for competition may have a large cultural component. Among the Khasi, a matrileneal and quasi-matriarchal culture in India, women are more likely than men to select competitive tasks and environments.

Women’s competition aversion may also be peculiar to activities in which men are commonly perceived to excel more than women. In other words, it may be related to “stereotype threat.”

Is this the final word? Does this prove that there are no inherent differences between men and women in level of (and enjoyment of) competitiveness? No, of course not. It’s just an interesting challenge to conventional wisdom.

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Putvedev as Pinky and the Brain

Everything you always wanted to know about the Putin/Medvedev “tandem,” but were afraid to ask.

This video clip uses the Russian lyrics for the “Pinky and the Brain” theme song (yes, Pinky and the Brain has aired on Russian television). I decided to add subtitles with a back-translation of the Russian lyrics, since they differ substantially from the original and present the duo in a rather more malevolent light than the far more benign English version.

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The paradoxes of gender gaps

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has an interesting column on the controversy that continues to dog former Harvard president Larry Summers.

Was Larry Summers right about women and science after all?

As the mother of two daughters, I hope not. In fact, Summers himself said in his infamous comments about intrinsic differences between the genders, “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.”

But Summers may have been on to something, recent research suggests.

Marcus then goes on to summarize the research showing that more males are clustered at the upper end of the distribution of mathematical and science ability, as well as evidence that (as Summers suggested as one of the possible explanations for the gender disperities in science and technology fields) women choose different levels of commitment to family life.

And then she ends thusly:

In short, Summers was boneheaded to say what he did. But he probably had a legitimate point — and the continuing uproar says more about the triumph of political correctness than about Summers’ supposed sexism.

How’s that again?

Summers had a legitimate point, and the uproar (which, Marcus says, may have cost him the job of Secretary of the Treasury) was an expression of dogmatic ideological intolerance … but Summers was boneheaded to say what he did?

Here’s my own take on Larry Summers, from 2005.

Right now, we’re in a paradoxical place when it comes to cultural attitudes toward sex differences. On the one hand, in certain still-influential feminist circles, there remains a ferocious insistence on unisex dogma, so that any discussion of possible innate sex difference — especially in a context that seems to justify existing gender imbalances — is seen as a shocking and punishable heresy. On the other hand, there is a pervasive “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” conventional wisdom that, nowadays, is quite acceptable in polite society (and is often accompanied by facile references to neurobiology).

As an example, I give you Sandra Tsing Loh’s article in the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Should Women Rule?”, which discusses several books about politics (including Why Women Should Rule the World by Dee Dee Myers) and a book on the biology of sex differences, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap by Susan Pinker). On the basis of Pinker’s book, Loh makes sweeping conclusions about women and power. Women, it seems, are “consensus-minded and team-oriented” and averse to compeition:

Consider this startling study done with fourth-grade Israeli schoolchildren: when boys and girls each ran alone on a track, there was no measurable speed difference by gender. But when each child was teamed with another child and asked to run again, the boys ran faster and the girls ran slower—slowest of all when running against other girls! What females love is bonding, helping, sharing, and oxytocin—that “opiatelike hormone” dubbed by one anthropologist “the elixir of contentment.” Forget all this tedious racing: what girls would really like to do is carry each other around the track—taking turns! Indeed, studies show that whereas competitive situations drive adrenaline increases in men, they drive adrenaline decreases in most women. Men associate more pleasurable feelings with competition than do women, and even “an eagerness to punish and seek revenge feels more fun.”

She then suggests that instead of trying to “rule the world,” women can “change it” through grass-roots organizing — things like protests against cuts in school funding or rallies for gun control. (I wonder if conservative causes such as opposition to abortion would pass muster?) Because, of course, men have never run grass-roots protests.

Crowding, in fact, may be more effective for women than ruling when it comes to changing the world. While at a biological disadvantage in competitions, women—who even make trips to restaurant bathrooms in pairs—are at a clear advantage when it comes to grouping together and the activities that accompany it: gossiping, sharing, bonding, assisting, scrapbooking, and building networks.

Given the apparent female neuro­endocrinic aversion to competitive, winner-take-all activities like elections, unless testosterone shots become a new female norm, even democracy (thanks, Founding Fathers!), with its boastful, chest-beating campaigning, is clearly stacked against female candidates.

So, Loh concludes, let’s get to work on “crowding.” (Completely forgotten is her own mention, earlier in the article, of famous “dragon ladies” who could participate in ruthless competition with meanest of men: “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, publishing shark Judith Regan, Vogue editor Anna Wintour.)

I’m not a dogmatic “old-school” feminist on the issue of sex differences. However, does anyone who has lived in the real world seriously believe this tripe about women’s niceness? Yes, there is evidence that women are more “relationally” oriented and more attuned to the moods and feelings of other people, but as often as not this translates into using relationships and feelings to establish dominance and inflict punishment/revenge. To quote the memorable words of the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (from the 1993 book Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism): “Those who have experienced dismissal by the junior high school girls’ clique could hardly, with a straight face, claim generosity and nurture as a natural attribute of women.”
Even before feminism, women competed plenty in “feminine” spheres (and of conversely, of course, there was always plenty of cooperation in the “masculine” world; even war, that most masculine of spheres, is as much about brotherhood as it is about the pursuit of dominance and about dog eating dog). Today, the world is full of women who compete gleefully in sports, business, and yes, politics.

Are there real, innate psychological and intellectual differences between men and women? Most likely yes; but in most cases they are vastly attenuated by individual differences, and that is something both unisex feminists and sex-difference proponents tend to miss. Quite often, the former tend to make a pro forma nod to biology (“of course no one says men and women are exactly the same”) and then go on to react with hostility and intolerance to any actual suggestion of sex differences, while the latter tend to make a pro forma nod to individual variation (“of course sex differences are not absolutes, they’re just a matter of tendencies and degrees”) and then go on to to make sweeping statements in which men are this and women are that.

Shameless self-promotion alert: this is where I suggest a chapter from my 1999 book Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, adapted into a Reason essay titled “Sex and Sensibility.” I don’t think it’s particularly dated. Looking over some relevant passages from Pinker’s book, I discovered an amusing coincidence: at one point, we both discuss the same study, but in a rather different vein.

Pinker:

One study showed how four- and five-year-old boys and girls were motivated by the same goal but reached it through different means. When these preschoolers needed to work together to watch a cartoon, boys used competition and physical tactics fifty times more often than girls. Meanwhile, girls used talking and turn-taking twenty times more often than boys.

Me:

In an especially intriguing experiment, preschoolers in single-sex groups of four were given a film viewer designed so that a child could watch a cartoon through an eyepiece only if two others cooperated by turning a crank and pressing a switch. There was much more playful pushing and hitting among boys. But the girls weren’t shy about giving orders, using putdowns, or even blocking the viewer so that another child couldn’t watch. Moreover, girl groups tended to have “a single dominant individual,” while boys showed “more equal participation” in viewing. Nor did the alpha females get to the top by being nurturing: They gave commands, hit, and disrupted others’ viewing much more often than other girls.

Is it really that difficult to simultaneously hold in our heads the proposition that there are real, biologically influenced behavior differences between men and women on average, and that these average differences tell us next to nothing about any given individual? Even when male and female tactics are visibly different, the differences are often of style rather than substance — not male competition and power struggles vs. female bonding and sharing, but different ways of competing and cooperating.

By the way, I find Summers’s much-maligned speech to be far less demeaning to women than Loh’s musings. The idea that fewer women than men may rise to the pinnacle of some human endeavors while competing on the same terms does not, to be honest, bother me tremendously (any more than the fact that there are more males at the bottom of the pyramid). “Difference feminism,” on the other hand, seems to simply take women out of the human enterprise of achievement, individual initiative and, yes, competition, and consign them to some gooey collectivity. Visions of crowding, grouping, bonding females traveling to the bathroom together and organizing into egalitarian groups for a properly feminine cause is enough to make me cheer for Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher, or perhaps even Sarah “Barracuda” Palin. Let’s hear it for the alpha females.

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Russia/NATO update

Some Russia/NATO contacts, frozen in the wake of the Georgia conflict, are now resuming. Also, much to Russia’s rejoicing, Georgia and Ukraine have not received a NATO Membership Action Plan. Russia sees this as a victory. However:

[Georgian foreign minister Eka] Tkeshelashvili expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting, in which ministers reconfirmed that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of NATO and said NATO would accelerate cooperative reform programs with both countries through existing NATO commissions.
The commissions will work on annual assessments of each country’s security and political needs, and on reforms to help them on the long path of NATO membership.
Ms. Tkeshelashvili said that Georgia welcomed “a commitment to the process by which we can achieve our goal” of membership, “with maximized efforts to assist Georgia.”
The ministers decided to move ahead with that cooperation and leave to the future, “without prejudice,” decisions about whether both countries will also need to go through a formal “membership action plan,” as Germany and France now insist.

Who’s blustering? Russia? Georgia? Both?

Clearly, both Georgia and Ukraine have major domestic problems that would be an obstacle to NATO membership even without concerns about antagonizing Russia. It’s hard to say to what extent opposition within NATO to an immediate MAP for Georgia and Ukraine was driven by such concerns. Sure, NATO wants cooperation with Russia, but the respect Russia so craves seems elusive. I was amused by the comments of NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer:

Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, speaking in an interview after the conclusion of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers, said that Russia’s sense of grievance and encirclement, genuine or not, was difficult for the alliance to assuage.
“It’s not so easy to know how to approach someone, in daily life or in foreign policy, who feels themselves victimized,” he said. “I think there is no reason for Russia to feel victimized, not to be taken seriously, but if that is the perception, we have to discuss it, because I have to try to convince them that democracy and the rule of law coming closer to Russia’s borders – why should that be a problem?”

Do you get the feeling that Russia is being treated like the crazy aunt who needs to be humored because she’s got a large estate and because she just might burn the place down if gets really crazy?

The NATO foreign ministers also brushed asside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s vague proposals for a new “security architecture” in Europe (overtures which the brilliant Russian humorist Victor Shenderovich, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, has likened to the behavior of a problem student who is invited for a conference with faculty and administrators and, instead of being glad that he hasn’t been expelled from college for bad grades and bad conduct, starts sharing his ideas about how to run the college better). And another bit of important news buried inside the Times report:

In a final communiqué, which went through 22 drafts, officials said, the foreign ministers gave their unanimous support to the planned deployment in Europe of an American missile defense system, which Washington says is aimed at Iran, not Russia. The ministers called it “a substantial contribution” to Western defense and encouraged Russia to take up American proposals for greater cooperation on missile defense.

Support from the NATO foreign ministers is important; with that, the missile defense installation can hardly be portrayed as a unilateral push by arrogant America.

Stay tuned!

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