Monthly Archives: June 2009

Paging Dr. Freud

While visiting the gallery of Russian artist Ilya Glazunov on his 79th birthday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looks at a painting of the legendary Russian hero, Prince Oleg, and remarks:

“His sword is a bit too short.”

In response, Mr. Glazunov promised to make it longer, and the National Leader gave himself a pat on the back for having a good eye for detail.

In Novaya Gazeta (alas, Russian only), the brilliant Dmitry Bykov comments, in hilarious verse,  on the encounter between the artist and the prime minister (who also chided the Russian Orthodox Holy Martyrs Princes Boris and Gleb, depicted in another Glazunov painting, for submitting to martyrdom rather than defending the Motherland), and imagines other conversations with artists in which Putin might want to do something about the naked Bacchus.

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Filed under Russian political humor, Vladimir Putin

Russia stumbles in “post-Soviet space”?

In case you have been following the conflict between Russia and Belarus: the “milk wars” (the Russian ban on imports of Belarussian dairy products, followed by the imposition of harsh new customs tariffs on Russian roducts in Belarus) are over.  Now, it seems there’s a gas war coming.  Belarus’s wily authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko (popularly known as “bat’ka” — a folsky and rather affectionate term best translated as “Big Daddy”), canceled his presence at a summit on security issues in a fit of pique.  What it’s really about is the fact that nearly a year ago, Russia gave Belarus a $500 million loan with the tacit understanding that it was the first of installments in a bribe for recognizing Russia’s new client states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Big Daddy, who has been playing a skillful game of seduction with both Russia and Western Europe. took the money and bailed on the two republics.  Russia refused to cough up the second installment of the bribe.

There are no good guys in this clash: Belarus is an authoritarian state that, in many ways, makes Russia look like a beacon of freedom, and Bat’ka Lukashenko is a clever thug.  Nonetheless, this latest row underscores the fact that Russia’s power in the “post-Soviet space” it likes to claim as its sphere of “privileged interests” is not nearly as great as it is often made out to be — even if the Kremlin still has the ability to throw money around (in a crisis!) to give another neighboring state the incentive to kick out a U.S. air force base.   Russia’s crude manner of swinging its weight around — in response to Lukashenko’s show of defiance, a senior Medvedev Administration official told Kommersant newspaper, commenting on the situation in Belarus, that “apparently, someone has had enough of being president of that country” — has contributed to its problems.

In this excellent Russian-language article on Grani.ru, the astute Russian policy analyst Stanislav Belkovsky notes that in the past decade, “the Kremlin has done everything it could to squander the remnants of its influence in its former empire” and to quarrel with precisely those neighbors with whom it most needs good relations.

(Cross-posted to RealClearPolitics.com.)

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Hate speech

Paul Krugman thinks the recent murder of abortion doctor George Tiller and yesterday’s shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC are related to an upsurge in extremism caused by irresponsible, inflammatory, Obama-is-leading-us-into-fascism rhetoric from the right, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Let me make it clear: I despise the “fascism is coming!” scaremongering.  That said, I think it’s ludicrous to suggest that 88-year-old neo-Nazi James von Brunn — who, as Jonah Goldberg puts it in his NRO column, was “considered a dangerous nut even within the dangerous-nut community” — was inspired by the likes of Limbaugh, O’Reilly, or Glenn Beck.  Von Brunn no doubt regards the conservative establishment as controlled by the Jews (The Weekly Standard was reportedly on his hit list).

Trends in anti-Semitic hate crimes make it hard to speak of a pattern linked to overall political trends.  However, it’s fair to say that a lot of anti-Semitism in recent years has been linked to, and fueled by, left-wing rhetoric against Israel and its supporters.  I think Jonah goes too far in suggesting that swipes at “neocons” are usually code words for anti-Semitism, but the connection, in many cases, does exist.  Discussions of “the Israel lobby” on the Internet certainly do draw the Jew-haters out of the woodwork.

That aside, Krugman’s a good one to talk about political hate- and panic-mongering, after eight years of hysterical warnings from the left about Republican fascism.  Remember Naomi Wolf’s “Fascist America” screed, followed by a book called The End of America?  Wolf was given a voice in such respectable venues as the Colbert report and National Public Radio, and her paranoid rants about Sarah Palin as “the muse of the coming Rovian police state” were hosted by The Huffington Post.  And that’s just one example.  Hate and hyperbole have become an endless cycle in American political discourse, and while there are stylistic differences between the left and the right, no one is innocent.

(Cross-posted to RealClearPolitics blogs.)

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Filed under anti-Semitism, left and right

Happy birthday, 1984!

Slightly belated (the actual date was June 8).

My take on the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s great novel can be found here: “We have met Big Brother, and he is us.”

Meanwhile, here’s a gallery of the covers of the many editions of Orwell’s dystopian novel.  Here’s a quaintly hilarious one from 1955:

orwell84-big

1984 as pulp romance.  (That’s a pretty alluring uniform for the Junior Anti-Sex League!)  Pity the poor reader who picked this up expecting a steamy tale of forbidden love, fear, and betrayal.  What a cruel way to sell books.

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Filed under books, freedom, philosophical musings

Barack and the women, Part II

My column on the “women’s issues” part of Obama’s Cairo speech is here.

See also this excellent piece by Christopher Hitchens on Slate.com on the same topic.

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Filed under Barack Obama, feminism, gender issues, Islam, Muslims, women

“So, five million Jews and 100 million Arabs walk into a bar…”

Received by email, the latest wit and wisdom from Russian jokesters.

A Russian general is giving a lecture at a military academy.  During the question and answer period, a cadet asks, “Sir, do you think we’re ever going to have a war with China?”

“Unfortunately,” the general replies, “that is quite possible.”

“But that means we’re done for!” exclaims the cadet. “How could we possibly win?  There’s nearly a billion and a half of them, and less than 150 million of us!”

“Now now, young man,” replies the general, “don’t be so defeatist.  Numbers aren’t everything.  Look at Israel — they’ve only got five million people, and they’ve been holding their own against 100 million Arabs for sixty years!”

“Yes Sir, you’re absolutely right!” says the cadet. “Thank you!  But I do have one more question.  Do we have enough Jews?”


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Filed under Israel, Middle East, Russia, Russian political humor

My Bucharest adventure

My article on my recent participation in the Europe-Russia forum (held by the Economic Forum of Poland) in Bucharest May 25-27 now appears in The Weekly Standard.  A few key excerpts, illustrations, and additional thoughts:

The conference venue added a touch of eerie symbolism. Bucharest is still haunted by the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu, whose barbaric rule made Romania a hellhole even by the low standards of the Soviet bloc. The Europe-Russia Forum met in the building that is the most conspicuous legacy of his rule: the Palace of the Parliament, formerly the House of the People. Ceausescu had it built in his final years as both personal residence and seat of government, razing much of the city’s historic district to make room for the gargantuan edifice. After his overthrow and execution, some wanted to dynamite it. Yet it still stands, a monument to megalomania and to the dark age from which this part of the world only recently emerged.

The Palace of the Parliament at dusk

The Palace of the Parliament at dusk

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Barack and the women

As I said in my previous post, I had a largely positive reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech.  However, I agree with David Frum’s criticsm of Obama’s comments about women’s rights — which should have been a key part of an “outreach to Muslims” speech.  In contrast to Obama’s strong affirmation of the principles of democracy, his discussion of women’s issues and Islam was too general, too weak, and afflicted with excessive even-handedness.  (Contrary to what many readers on Reason.com’s Hit & Run blog believe, I am not really a champion of indiscriminate moral equivalence.)

Here is the passage in its entirety: Continue reading

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Filed under Barack Obama, feminism, gender issues, Islam, Muslims, women

Parsing Obama

So, here comes Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, to decidedly mixed reaction.  I am not going to dwell at the moment on the specifics of his Israel policy (for a very pessimistic assessment see this post by Ron Radosh, though there are many Israel supporters who do not share Ron’s endorsement of the settlements).  I also agree that the part of the speech dealing with Iran was rather weak, full of lofty sentiment signifying nothing.  But some of the scathing criticism directed at Obama strikes me as rather misguided.  For instance, Charles Krauthammer found it to be infected by “self-absorption”; but was Obama’s talk of the aspects of his personal story that were relevant to the issues at hand all that different from what, say, Ronald Reagan did?

Does it really matter that Obama never used the words “terror” or “terrorism,” referring instead to “violent extremism”?  The power of the T-word has been somewhat diluted by overuse; besides, to many (non-terror-sympathizing) Muslims it is undoubtedly a red-flag word, due to their common belief that the West looks at a Muslim and sees a terrorist.  I think it was a positive thing to say, and drive home the point, that terrorism by any other name would smell as foul.

The President’s powerful affirmation of the memory of the Holocaust, and firm condemnation of Holocaust denial, was a key part of the speech.  Some believe that, by transitioning immediately to the plight of displaced Palestinians, Obama drew a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian displacement.  Re-reading the speech, I see no such equivalence (though someone who wants to believe the two tragedies are equal could read it that way).  I think Obama was simply saying that the Palestinians have their own history of suffering which cannot be denied.  Should he have said more to acknowledge the Palestinian (and Arab) leaders’ own responsibility for perpetuating this suffering?  Probably.  Did he go too far in suggesting that each side’s view of the conflict was equally valid?  Probably.  But here’s an important point: the speech was intended as outreach to the Muslim world.   To say “Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians bear 100% of the blame,” even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) would not be very productive.  Confronting a Muslim and Arab audience with the fact that Israel’s stiff-necked stance has something to do with “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” is a pretty good start.

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Filed under anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, Barack Obama, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Muslims, religion, religious freedom, September 11, terrorism, US foreign policy, West