Friday, January 23, 2009

The Y Files has moved!

To mark the beginning of a new era (just kidding!), I am moving operations to WordPress. The new address for the Y Files blog is, with all of the archives transferred there, so please update your bookmarks! I will also be cross-blogging at the RealClearPolitics blog. See you there!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Bush is not Putin

Over the past several years, whenever I have written about the slow (and sometimes not so slow) destruction of freedom in Russia, my responses have invariably included comments that boiled down to, "Well, how is that different from what Bush/Cheney are doing to this country?" Here's a 2007 blogpost along the same lines. The "Bush is as bad as Putin" trope also pops up quite frequently in various forums and comments sections of websites; sometimes, the trop is, "Putin isn't nearly as bad as Bush" (see, for instance, the last comment here).

So, now that we are nearing the moment when we won't have Bush to kick around anymore, I offer you a list of a few things that would have had to happen for Bush to be remotely like Putin.

  • Shortly after September 11, Bush pushes through a constitutional amendment abolishing direct elections of governors and Senators, for nebulous "national security" reasons. They are now appointed by the administration.
  • All the news networks except for one or two small stations are taken over by Bush cronies and turned into Fox News clones.
  • Several politicians and journalists critical of Bush are murdered. Their killers are never found. Commenting on the murder of one journalist and speculation that she may have been killed on government orders, Bush dismissively comments, "We had no reason to kill her -- her death has done much more harm to the country than her writings."
  • After George Soros announces his plans to finance a movement to defeat Bush in the next election, he is jailed on trumped-up charges of tax fraud and repeatedly denied parole on technicalities. Most of his wealth is confiscated.
  • Due to the manipulation of election laws, after 2004 both houses of Congress are more than 70 percent Republican. Most of the remaining seats are held by the Conservative Party, the Right to Life Party, and Democrats loyal to Bush.
  • In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both disqualified from running for office due to alleged irregularities in the documents they filed to be certified as candidates. Bush's handpicked successor, Dick Cheney, runs against Al Sharpton and and Ralph Nader and handily defeats them.

And that, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, to say that Bush is better than Putin is faint praise, and besides, even an American Putin would have found his ability to wreak havoc on democracy constained by our political system. But the point isn't that Bush is so great; it's that the comparisons to Putin are so specious.

My take on the Bush legacy and the Obama transition

The paradox of George W. Bush.

Some pre-inaugural thoughts

No, I'm not suggesting that everyone has to join the Obama worship. Criticism, in a democracy, is a healthy thing (pardon the cliché). But some of the conservative sniping is silly or downright ridiculous (dear Lord, not the "Bill Ayers ghosted Obama's memoir!" story again), and some seems rather premature (this piece assumes that Obama will be a big-government guy, but Larry Kudlow points out that 40% of his proposed stimulus package now consists of tax cuts). Conservative guru Richard Viguerie is quoted as saying that the inauguration is no big deal: "we can be happy that we’ve taken another step in the racial progress, but I just am not about race, quite frankly." And he puts up this quote on the "news from the front" on his website. Way to win friends and influence people. Can you say "tone-deaf"?

But there's some pretty silly Obamania out there, too. See, for instance, this letter posted by Andrew Sullivan on his blog:

I remember with Bill Clinton, he had way of making people feel they were "the only person in the room:" and that they "mattered to him" as many articles during his tenure claimed. But what Obama seems to have is the ability not to appear as if he is acting, faking it. ... [H]e is not a faker, not a schmoozer, not a dolt, not a skirt-chaser, not a charlatan, etc. etc. Obama has the realness that comes from the hard psychological work that it takes to really get to know yourself and come out on the other side unafraid of whatever might come your way.

And how does the letter-writer know that? Intuition? So far, Obama has done a pretty oustanding job of being all things to most people. I would say he's a pretty impressive schmoozer all right. I'm sure he has genuine convictions, but I think he'll have to be tested much more before we can truly judge his sincerity. Sometimes, "the ability not to appear as if you're acting" is the best acting of all.

With that, of course, I wish Obama well. And frankly, whether he has that "realness" or not and whether he has completed that fearless journey of self-knowledge is not my first concern. He's been elected president, not spiritual leader; and while moral leadership is often a part of the president's role, especially in troubled times, his actual policy-shaping decisions count for more.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Russia's undead heroes

My take on the "Name of Russia" contest, in The Weekly Standard.

Speak of ...

... I was going to say "the devil," but then, I wouldn't want the person in question to claim I had called him the devil.

The person in question is Eric Alterman, with whom I had an infamous spat nearly four years ago after I zinged him in my Boston Globe column for suggesting that it's outrageous to expect Muslims and Arabs to pay tribute to the memory of Holocaust victims when so much of their suffering is caused by Jews. The occasion was the British Muslim Council's decision to boycott the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz because equal time was not given to Palestinian victims of Israeli "genocide." Alterman and I had a caustic exchange on the Reason blog, Hit & Run, and Alterman also encouraged readers of his blog not only to pepper me with angry emails (about half of the ones I got were supportive), but also to call my then-editor at the Globe, Nick King. At some point, he also made the bizarre suggestion that I attacked him out of a personal vendetta because he had once defended my ex-boyfriend against unfair attacks (huh?); see more about it from John Tabin, who once greeted me at a party as "Eric Alterman's Zionist white whale." As I recall, Alterman continued to take gratuitous swipes at me and/or Nick King on his MSNBC blog for at least six months after this incident; here's a particularly bizarre one.

Well, just the other day, I was recounting this saga to some people at dinner at the NAS conference and joked about how I felt neglected after the Alterman mentions finally stopped. And, lo and behold... here is Eric Alterman in the newest issue of The Nation, describing his suffering at the hands of the "Middle East Thought Police." Sayeth Alterman:

For my own trouble, for instance, Andrew Sullivan has compared me to the authors of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young has accused me of blaming Hitler's victims for Palestinian misery.

Well, actually, no. I accused Alterman of suggesting that Muslims have a moral right to blame Hitler's victims for Palestinian misery. Read the exchange, and tell me if I'm wrong.

I will say that, while the Alterman blogpost on the subject was quite deserving of opprobrium, my column did contain something that I, in retrospect, regret: implying that Alterman might be properly called a self-hating Jew. I don't think it's appropriate to psychoanalyze people I don't know on the basis of their political writings. However, I do think that Alterman is effectively an enabler of anti-Semitism -- not because he is critical of Israeli policies, of course, but because he has repeatedly suggested that one can't really blame Arabs and Muslims for harboring hostility toward Jews in general because of Israeli policies -- Jews anywhere, whether or not they have any connection to Israel.

I do, by the way, think that the charge of anti-Semitism is sometimes bandied around too freely by some supporters of Israel. (See this post from 2007, and links inside.) But that's a topic for another day. I do think that what Alterman condones is anti-Semitism.

Finally: I feel somewhat guilty about making a facetious post on a topic related to the tragic events in Gaza right now. Regardless of one's opinions of the Mideast conflict in general, and Israeli action in this particular instance, any sentient person must grieve for the human suffering we are witnessing. I assure my readers that my levity is directed entirely at Alterman and his grandstanding, and is in no way meant to make light of the situation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Feminist male-hatred and The Vagina Monologues

Over on Alas, a Blog, in a thread where the comments are limited to "feminists and feminist allies," Barry Deutsch (Ampersand) deconstructs a speech by Christina Hoff Sommers, a leading critic of feminist orthodoxies (and a good friend of mine, though there are certainly times when we disagree). In particular, he takes her to task for saying that many feminists are anti-male.

Does Christina paint with too broad a brush? Quite possibly. But a couple of things about Barry's post:

(1) Barry says he hasn't seen any male-hating attitudes from feminists except for a few people on the Ms. boards way, way back. I'm guessing the late Andrea Dworkin, famous for such aperçus as, "Under patriarchy, every woman's son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman," or "Male sexuality, drunk on its intrinsic contempt for all life, but especially for women's lives...", does not qualify?

(2) Barry writes:
Unfortunately, Sommers’ treatment of the subject isn’t serious. She cites one, and only one, source to show that “the gender feminist philosophy” considers “most men… brutes”: Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues.

But The Vagina Monologues isn’t a non-fiction essay. It’s a play about women’s experiences surviving rape and abuse. That’s not the sole subject of the play, but — just after the importance of women loving their bodies — it’s the primary theme. Complaining that a play about the abuse and rape of women has too many abusive men in it is unreasonable and unfair.

There is a positive male character in The Vagina Monologues, a man who so loves vaginas that he teaches his girlfriend to love her own vagina. Sommers dismisses this character entirely, for the transparently ridiculous reason that the character is describes as being bland on first meeting (although he later proves to be an unusually great lover, because he loves women’s sex parts so much). It’s hard to respond to Sommers’ argument, because it’s not even an argument; it’s just an irrelevant statement. He is a positive character; he doesn’t mysteriously cease being a positive character because he seems bland at first, or because he loves vaginas.

In this speech, that’s Sommers’ only evidence that contemporary feminism considers most men brutes — in one popular play about rape and abuse, many but not all of the male characters are negative. I find that evidence underwhelming.

First of all, I think The Vagina Monologues is pretty important. It's frequently produced on college campuses, and is probably an important source of exposure to feminism for many young women.

Secondly, the play is supposed to be about how women feel about their bodies (and specifically, their vaginas). If its most important secondary theme is women's abuse by men, that says a lot about the play's vision of males.

Thirdly, here is the monologue about Bob. Judge for yourself if it can be considered male-positive. Bob, at best one of two "good" men in the play, has absolutely no positive characteristics, indeed no character at all, except for his love of all things vagina. The first time Bob and the narrator have sex, Bob insists on looking at her vagina first because it's "who you are," and he can evidently read her soul in it. In fact, he stares at our heroine's private parts "for almost an hour." Any non-fictional man who talked and acted this way would be a major creep who would scare the bejesus out of any non-fictional woman.

3. Barry writes:

Note what Sommers doesn’t include: A single recent quote from a feminist leader saying “most men are brutes.” If this is indeed the common viewpoint of contemporary feminism, I’d think that Sommers would be able to find a dozen such quotes easily; yet Sommers doesn’t provide even one.

That's setting the bar pretty high. Would anyone require proof of actual, overtly misogynistic statements before convicting a particular class of men of misogyny? Or would strong circumstancial evidence, such as a pattern of always presuming male guilt in any conflict between a man and a woman, be enough?

New Russian treason law opposed by Medvedev?

Last month, I wrote about a proposed law in Russia that would make the definition of "treason" disturbing broad and vague, and reminiscent of Soviet-era statutes that outlawed dissent. As I explained, Russian law currently defines treason as "hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation from foreign threats." The bill, proposed by the government (i.e. the cabinet headed by Vladimir Putin), amended that definition to include "rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood." The definition of espionage was also broadened to include broad categories of passing potentially sensitive information to foreigners even with no intent to commit espionage, giving rise to concern that the new law would drastically inhibit scientific contacts between Russia and the West.

Well, according to a report in yesterday's Nezavisimaya Gazeta (link to Russian-language article), the draft law has run into opposition from members of parliament who are close to President Dmitry Medvedev.

NG reporter Ivan Rodin writes that on Tuesday, the State Duma Committee on Legislation shelved discussion of the draft law toughening the treason and espionage statutes:

According to NG's sources, the revision pushed by the Federal Security Service [FSB] has incurred the displeasure of the President's team. Consequently, the Duma will try to soften the new definition of "treason."
As late as Monday, this law was still on the agenda of the Duma Committee on Legislation. The deputies were supposed to discuss the law and recommend that the Duma vote to pass it. However, yesterday, the draft law was removed from the agenda of the committee meeting. The chairman of the Committee on Legislation, Pavel Krasheninnikov, commented on the situation very reluctantly. When the NG correspondent asked how the committee members felt about the draft law, Krasheninnikov replied, "Well, you can see it's been taken off the agenda for discussion. What does that tell you?" The NG correspondent speculated that this could only mean one thing: additional consultations were being conducted. The head of the committee nodded to confirm this supposition. However, he was unwilling to explain just what was wrong with the document. The only thing he permitted himself to say was that the draft law created too much room for interpretation of the "spy" statutes of the Criminal Code.

Krasheninnikov told NG that the bill would not be resubmitted to the committee earlier than February. Rodin also writes that another MP, Alexander Moskalets, first deputy chairman of the Duma committee on constitutional legislation, initially refused to comment on the bill because he had not read it, but upon reading it told him that "they were asking for too much":

Moskalets poitned out that even members of parliament could easily become targets of the expanded statutes. "Let's say a journalist from a Western publication wants an interview. But I have no idea to whom some of the information I give him could be passed. That means I'm supposed to just keep my mouth shut. Besides, we receive foreign delegations, and we ourselves travel abroad and maintain regular contact with our colleagues in other countries." After reading the new version of articles 275 and 276 of the Criminal Code, Moskalets was reminded not even of late Soviet legislation but of the Criminal Code of the 1920s and '30s, expanded by numerous decrees on the very same subject of treason.

Meanwhile, Duma sources pointed out to NG that it was no accident that Pavel Krasheninnikov was the one working so hard to get the definitions narrowed. He is believed to be one of the deputies closest to Dmitry Medvedev. The current President, who has declared himself a champion of the law and a defender of the rights of citizens, will have a hard time signing this legislation to make it the law of the land. But he can't refuse to sign it either, considering that it was proposed at the initiative of Vladimir Putin. For the same reason, the Duma cannot reject the bill, or make drastic changes in it. That means only one option remains to resolve this unpleasant situation: to persuade the government to resubmit the bill with some changes.

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin told Rodin that Medvedev does not want to lose his "liberal" image, but cannot veto the law because that would be "a demonstration of conflict." Thus, "changing the bill by quiet bureaucratic methods is in the interests of both sides of the power tandem."

Could this be a sign of the long-awaited fissure in the tandem? In the past two weeks, there have been several articles on reputable Russian websites claiming that there are signs of a weakening of Putin's position and of a power struggle between Kremlin factions which may result in Putin's removal. Of course, the NG article makes it clear that neither Medvedev nor the Duma can openly reject a law backed by Putin. On the other hand, if "Duma sources" -- presumably ones close to Medvedev -- are circulating the story that the measure is being rejected, albeit in a face-saving way, this could be a pretty effective strategy to embarrass Putin.

Or could it be the once-predicted "good cop, bad cop" strategy of the Putin/Medvedev team, in which Medvedev creates the appearance of liberalism by ensuring a less draconian version of a new law?

Stay tuned, as always...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Now he tells us

National Review's Rich Lowry on Bush's Top 10 mistakes, and two items that drew my attention.

Not reading enough history. Bush has admirably applied himself to an extensive reading program as president, but if he had absorbed more history before taking office — particularly about military matters — he’d have had a better grounding to make important decisions.
Underestimating the power of explanation. By temperament and ability, Bush was more a “decider” than a “persuader.” He’s not naturally drawn to public argument, giving his administration its unfortunate (and not entirely fair) “my way or the highway” reputation at home and abroad.

I remember a different tune from Rich Lowry. Here's my take on it in my own 2002 Reason column "Intellectual Warfare":

"Maybe we don't want a presidential candidate who can pronounce Kostunica or recite the constituent parts of Yugoslavia," wrote National Review Editor Richard Lowry. ... Sometimes, especially at National Review, the animus against braininess has overlapped with a crusade for traditional manliness -- the idea being that book learning is for wimps.

Appearing on the Fox News show On the Record to discuss a recently released documentary about Bush on the campaign trail, Lowry hailed him as "a more traditional, red-blooded guy" than Al Gore: "He's tough. He's manly....He's not very reflective." To Lowry, it turns out, even familiarity with "hip" pop culture products such as Sex and the City -- a familiarity that Bush, in the documentary, appears to lack -- denotes excessive intellectualism and elitism. "Bush probably knows more about NASCAR, which is more tuned into what most Americans care about, than any of these reporters writing about him," he commented.

And from another column:

In October 2000, at a Cato Institute symposium on the presidential election, National Review Editor Rich Lowry spoke of a “war on masculinity” in America and asserted that Bush appealed to the voters because he exemplified an action-oriented, nonintellectual manly resolve.

Oh yes, that Cato symposium; I remember it well, especially Lowry's enthusiastic praise for Bush's lack of bookishness.

Now it turns out book-learnin' (and a little bit of reflectiveness) can be useful after all.

As Glenn Reynolds would put it: Heh.

The Y Files on the Top 100 Gender Studies Blogs

An excellent, balanced list of gender issues blogs, with The Y Files in the "Women's Studies" category:
Freelance journalist Cathy Young posts on a number of issues, but many of her posts are related to issues of sexuality, gender and identity.

Many thanks to Christina Laun for the listing, and I intend to check out some of the other sites on the list.

NAS conference notes 3: The academy, the military, and gays

A final brief report, for now, from the past weekend's NAS conference.

I missed part of the panel on the academy and the military, but caught a fascinating talk by Alan Silver, sociology professor at Columbia University, about the issue of bringing ROTC back to college campuses that currently exclude it (and the way this ties into the issue of the existing gulf between the military and academe). A major obstacle to ROTC presence at many "progressive" schools is the military policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", which bars openly gay men and women from serving. Silver conceded that in some cases, opposition to DADT is merely a pretext for general hostility to the military dating back to Vietnam; but he also argued that changing this policy, and agreeing to a measure of academic control over the programs, would bring ROTC back to the colleges and universities from which it is now banned. (ROTC presence is strongest in Southern schools.) Silver added that the military had always been a locus for asserting equality -- for black, Japanese Americans, women, Latinos, and now gays, and while the specifics are different in each case, the principle is the same. He also added that, in order to bring ROTC back to campuses and help bridge the socially harmful gulf between the military and the academy, "the military needs to overcome its own prejudices about the academy, and be willing to have ROTC chapters in an environment where some military actions are disapproved of."

During the Q & A, a middle-aged female questioner (whose name I know but won't mention) accused Silver of being willing to "concede too much," and hectored him for "talking about 'don't ask, don't tell' as if it was this terrible thing" when, in fact, there may be perfectly good reasons for barring open homosexuals from the ranks and it might be just as well to leave that decision to the military. She opined that the real problem was that in certain segments of society, "treason is celebrated," and added, addressing Silver, "Being from New York, you know this very well." (Silver chuckled and shot back, "Yes, we're a well-known nest of traitors in New York"; and later on, another audience member who took the microphone, himself a serviceman who said he had done recruiting in New York, took explicit umbrage at the idea that New Yorkers are unpatriotic.)

On "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Silver replied that "it's not a compromise, it's a question of political reality. It's impossible to bring ROTC back to campuses without these changes, and if it was brought back by fiat, it would be illegitimate." Next came the truly interesting part.

The two panelists who were actually in the military, and both had an affiliation with the notably conservative Virginia Military Institute -- Gen. Josiah Bunting, former VMI Commander, and Brigadier General Charles F. Brower, IV, Deputy Superintendent of Academics and Dean of Faculty at VMI -- commented on the issue, and both were unequivocally in favor of repealing DADT. Gen. Bunting pointed out that "the British Army has a policy of admitting gays" and discharging those who unwanted advances, and queried, "Why not do that?" Brig. Gen. Brower said that he basically agreed: "Heterosexual or homosexual, predators should be prosecuted. Treat them all equally." He added that "there are many homosexuals who are now serving honorably in the military, and anyone who thinks they aren't needs to get in touch with reality."

There has been some discussion of whether Obama will repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." At least judging by the NAS panel, such a move won't meet much opposition from the military.

There was another fascinating question from the audience about whether the disconnect between the military and large segments of American culture -- the fact that the career military is now strongly Southern and overwhelmingly politically conservative -- should create a concern about "standing armies" as understood by the Founders. (In other words, an army that does not represent the population.) It seems to me that, in this sense, the absence of ROTC from campus should be more of a concern to the liberals but to conservatives.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Your humble blogger joins the "experts" with a question to Hillary

Hillary Rodham Clinton, our (presumably) next Secretary of State, is facing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. The New York Times op-ed page has put together a list of questions to Ms. Clinton from ten "experts," including Foud Ajami, Walter Russell Meade, some guy named Mikhail Saakashvili, and yours truly.

My question:

Imagine we see broad demands for truly democratic presidential and parliamentary elections in Russia. Should the United States join in these calls for new elections, despite their destabilizing potential? What should the American reaction be if the opposite scenario takes place, with Vladimir Putin returning as president in a new “election” and further tightening the authoritarian screws? How would we maintain a functional relationship with Moscow without condoning the further strangulation of democracy in Russia?

The wages of populism: Joe the Journalist

If you think I'm making too big a deal out of anti-intellectualism on the right... then check out the latest from the Pajamas Media "citizen journalist," Joe "more-than-15-minutes-of-fame" The Plumber:

I'll be honest with you. I don't think journalists should be anywhere allowed war (sic). I mean, you guys report where our troops are at. You report what's happening day to day. You make a big deal out of it. I think it's asinine. You know, I liked back in World War I and World War II when you'd go to the theater and you'd see your troops on, you know, the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for them. Now everyone's got an opinion and wants to downer–and down soldiers. You know, American soldiers or Israeli soldiers.

I think media should be abolished from, uh, you know, reporting. You know, war is hell. And if you're gonna sit there and say, "Well look at this atrocity," well you don't know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it.

To quote the line I've paraphrased before from the Russian comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky: "Words fail. At least, printable ones."

A very appropriate quote, actually, considering that Mr. Wurzelbacher's musings strongly remind me of Russian Putinistas who justify censorship of unpleasant news because, heck, you don't want to "downer" the public.

I know that media reporting on wars often leaves a lot to be desired. But ... well, Bill Roggio on the Weekly Standard blog pretty much says it all:

[W]hile embedded as an independent reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan several times, I have seen journalists do some appalling things. I could probably write a book about it, but honestly I'm far more interested in the war itself. Despite what I have seen, I believe the media should have access during conflicts. Shutting the media out would entirely concede the information to al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, etc. who are increasingly developing sophisticated information strategies. Yes, there is bad and slanted reporting coming out of the combat zones, but there also are good reporters out there who can get the story right. The public needs to hear these stories to understand the nature of the war.


The real irony here is that PJTV, a 21st Century, Internet-based news organization is sending a reporter--who doesn't want reporters to report on war--to report on a war. And apparently Joe would love to return to the days when the news was influenced by the government and seen at the theater.


Could this be the beginning of the end of American conservatism's fatal-attraction love affair with populism? Or am I being too optimistic again?

Monday, January 12, 2009

NAS conference notes 2: Barack Obama and the colorblind vision

Remember when conservatives talked about the vision of a colorblind society and about moving past racial preferences?

In the past couple of years, this issue has been out of the limelight. Last November, a ballot measure to ban the consideration of race in public college admissions and other government operations succeeded in Nebraska but was narrowly defeated in Colorado, after a vicious smear campaign that linked the initative to the Ku Klux Klan and questioned the high salary paid to one of the leaders of the anti-preferences movement, African-American businessman Ward Connerly. Several similar measures were kept off the ballot in other states.

What now?

It's interesting that two speakers at the NAS conference who are strongly associated with the anti-preferences movement -- both decidedly right of center -- spoke of Obama and his election with unrestrained and unabashed enthusiasm. At the opening session, my good friend Abigail Thernstrom, co-author with her husband Stephan Thernstrom of the classic America in Black and White, called Obama's election "a historic turning point" and "a racial conversation-changer." She also noted that a black man's ability to win a contest for the White House came as no surprise "to those of us who have been following polling data and have long believed in the racial decency of ordinary Americans." The fact that the leader of the free world is now a black man, Thernstrom said, has to make it easier and more attractive for people to move beyond race and race consciousness -- and harder to justify preferences with arguments about the alleged intractability of racism. "The younger generation is coming of age in a racially altered world," Thernstrom said, and eventually campus politics will have to catch up.

Maybe Abby is an optimist, as someone suggested in the Q & A; to that, she replied she was cautiously optimistic. It is worth noting that Obama has suggested (in vague terms) that affirmative action should refocus on class, not race.

On Friday, one of the luncheon speakers and award recipients was Ward Connerly, the man hailed as a civil rights leader by some and derided as an "Uncle Tom" by others. At the NAS luncheon, Connerly got a standing ovation. (One of the few people who remained seated, and did not applaud, was the AAUP's Cary Nelson.)

Connerly is an amazing speaker; gracious, warm, energetic. He opened his speech by saying, "We are here in the nation's capital a few days before an event that will demonstrate something most of us in this room have always believed: that America is a fair country and that the colorblind vision works."

Connerly noted that he did not vote for Obama, but believed he deserved to win: "He ran the best campaign and made the strongest case. I accept this verdict by the American people, and I wish him success." (Here, there was a burst of applause from which about half the people in the room abstained; including, I might add, Victor Davis Hanson, who sat on the dais.) "He will be inaugurated only feet away from where Martin Luther King gave his historic 'I have a dream' speech. I am sure that the spirit of Dr. King will be smiling on him," Connerly continued, recalling King's "deep patriotism."

After discussing the recent fortunes of the civil rights initiatives, Connerly noted that "the issue is not just getting beyond racial preferences but getting beyond race. The election of Barak Obama confirms that."

I think Connerly and Thernstrom are right; and I think the kind of conservatism that has a future today is their kind. I'm an optimist, too.

(Ward Connerly photo courtesy of the American Civil Rights Institute.)

NAS conference notes 1: Culture and politics

I'm back from the 13th conference of the National Association of Scholars, a 21-year-old organization dedicated to combating political indoctrination on college campuses and defending the traditional curriculum. While the NAS has no formal political affiliation, it has a decidedly right-of-center bent, and I thought the conference would offer an interesting glimpse into what conservatives and right-of-center moderates are thinking right now, just before the Obama transition. (Not to mention that NAS conferences are always fascinating and offer a welcome diversity of opinions.)

So, here's Part 1 of my observations from the weekend. The highlight of the conference, no doubt, was the debate on academic freedom between NAS president Peter Wood and American Association of University Professors president Cary Nelson. Nelson has criticized "politically correct" speech codes and asserted that he opposes "the destructive power of idenity politics"; however, he is also on record as being highly critical of the NAS's "war on political correctness," and his speech boiled down to "Sure, the NAS is right about some things, but you guys really overstate the case and despite some individual cases of PC run amuk, there is no problem of a dissent-stifling liberal orthodoxy on campus." Much of the anti-PC critique, Nelson argued, is made in "ignorance or bad faith," and is aimed at discrediting, marginalizing, and demonizing left-wing, proggressive faculty. (As an example, he cited the American Council of Trustees and Alumni 2006 report How Many Ward Churchills?; Nelson argued that Churchill, who referred to the 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns" who had it coming to them, was actually quite atypical both because of his "over the top" rhetoric and because of the peculiarities of his fraud-laced career. True enough; but the real thrust of the ACTA report was that Churchill-type ideological extremism was far from unique.)

Nelson lost me when he asserted that, contrary to conservative critiques, women's studies is no longer a bastion of orthodoxy. The proposition that "women are universally oppressed by the patriarchy," he claimed, is no longer the dominant assumption in Women's Studies and hasn't been in nearly 20 years. That may be technically true; the problem is, to the extent that male oppression of women is no longer the sole dogma of the field, the dogma has changed only to accommodate other left-wing orthodoxies and "oppressions": for instance, any critique of the oppression of women in Muslim societies must now be mediated by the understanding that such critiques can be used as a tool of Western imperialist oppression of "brown" men. How many WoSt courses would be receptive to discussing the idea that innate sex differences may partly account for the unequal distribution of women and men in some fields?

Then again, Nelson probably thinks that's fine; indeed, he took a swipe at those who criticize women's studies for insisting that all gender differences are socially constructed -- as if they should give any weight to the patently ridiculous idea that women may innately have less aptitude for math or music! (I didn't get a chance to ask Neltson any questions during the Q & A, but I did manage to buttonhole him after the session. Is it right, I asked, to exclude from academic discourse the view that there are some biology-related cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women which may affect the gender composition of some professions? Nelson's initial response was to dismiss any possible validity of this view; finally, he grudingly conceded that it should not be suppressed, and even, in an aside, that Lawrence Summers probably should not have been fired for voicing such a view. He also noted that the AAUP had, under his leadership, criticized the disinvitation of Summers to speak at a dinner at UCLA.)

Nelson also took the NAS to task for ignoring orthodoxies that don't fit the "left-wing" mold -- for instance, sociology departments that elevate quantitative research to the point of excluding students interested in the qualitative method, or economics departments that fail to teach "very timely" skepticism toward the free market. "But the NAS ignores that and focuses on Women's Studies," declared Nelson. "You're like mullahs who condemn heresy but bow 500 times a day toward Wall Street, or the ruins of Wall Street."

Think that was snarky? Well, things got really interesting when Peter Wood took the podium and opened his speech with a brief discussion of an essay Nelson had published about an earlier NAS conference, in 1997 in New Orleans, deriding the group as a gathering of old men resentful of change and younger losers anxious to blame their failures on left-wing orthodoxy in academe, all of them consumed by bitterness and fear. (I attended that conference, which featured a great speech by Shelby Steele, and that's not how I remember it.) Wood cautioned that "behind this affable exterior, there is actually a good deal of malice." A hit, a very palpable hit, which Nelson took with a great deal of equanimity; it takes some chutzpah to accept an invitation to speak from a group you've satirized in this fashion.

During the Q & A, several people cited instances of academic orthodoxy they or members of their family had experienced personally; one of the statements, from a very passionate young woman studying at the University of Arizona, illustrates the complexity of evaluating such complaints. "Here are some of the things I've heard from my professors," she said. "The US could stop world hunger if we just spent less on defense. American soldiers are no different from terrorists and essentially pursue the same objectives. China is not a Communist country." (Is the last of these necessarily an example of left-wing propaganda, or a recognition of China's moves toward a market economy?) The young woman was also unhappy that in a journalism class, she was required to read The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times for class reports and credit, but was not allowed to substitute The Washington Times; it didn't help that she repeatedly referred to the latter as "The Washington Post" until corrected by someone from the audience. Now, I will say that depending on the type of journalism class it is, it might be quite appropriate to give only those reading assignments. But a comparative analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Times might be interesting as well.

Nelson's response to all the anecdotal material was that he couldn't comment on them without knowing all the facts. The larger issues, though, is that in all too many academic departments, there is an atmosphere in which left-of-center politics are assumed, and equated with virtue. Tthat's a problem, not just for conservatives or libertarians but for the exchange and flow of ideas. And sometimes, this orthodoxy does blow up in ugly ways -- for instance, during the Duke sexual assault hoax case, which went unmentioned at the Nelson/Wood panel.

But meanwhile, what about conservative politics? On the first day of the conference, Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution and National Review Online gave a speech about the importance of classical education, arguing that the study of Western culture and the Greeks in particular is indispensable to an understanding of the human condition and its limitations. Hanson lamented that "the general public has lots all idea of what the West is; they live in it and enjoy the benefits of its daily commerce and its consumer culture, but they don't have any notion of what its founding principles are." Hence, he noted, the widespread willingness to give credence to arguments for moral equivalency between Western democracies and totalitarian regimes.

So far, so good; and Hanson reserved some of his criticism for the right, for the rise of vocationalism and the decline of the idea that the liberal arts should give people a grounding in a common culture, shared history and literature, etc. But there is another elephant in that room: isn't any conservative effort to promote classical culture these days going to come into conflict with the rise of conservative populism, and its frequent appeal to hostility toward the educated "elites." When I asked Hanson about this, he flatly denied that such a problem existed; the real problem, he asserted, was the elites' prejudiced attitude toward Sarah Palin, as evidenced by the difference in the treatment she got compared to the coddling of Caroline Kennedy. (That's coddling?) Hanson also assured me that if he saw a real trend of anti-intellectualism among conservative commentators -- for instance, the claim that "instinct is superior to reason" -- he would oppose it and speak out against it.

A good portion of Hanson's luncheon speech the next day, when he was receiving an NAS award, was also devoted to a defense of Palin; he noted morosely that "those of us who are conservatives or moderates are somewhat bewildered by the last election," and specifically by the attacks on "'Palinism,' defined by some as 'know-nothingism' or 'anti-intellectualism.'" Hanson lamented that conservatives like David Frum, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and others "deplored Palin's lack of knowledge of foreign affairs," and commented, "All I can say is that it's very hard to spend your life in Wasilla, be a mother of five and get to be Governor of Alaska and take on the power structure that she did." (Isn't that rather like the rationales for affirmative action?) Hanson concluded by saying that Palin represents "conservatives values lived through experience."

I have no problem with the fact that Palin had no Ivy League degree, and I certainly don't think that being a certified intellectual should be among the qualifications for political leadership. But the contradiction between conservatives' attempt to be custodians of culture and the Know-Nothing populism often spouted by Palin's champions is striking. And unless conservatives address the fact that some people in their camp contribute to hositlity toward the educated, this is not going to change.

Yes, some of the conservative hostility and suspicion toward intellectuals stems from the susceptibility of many in the intellectual class to genuinely pernicious ideas (from communism in the old days to radical race and gender theories today). But the responsibility of educated conservatives -- the kind who gravitate to NAS conferences -- should be to do what they can to ensure that the marketplace of ideas remains diverse. And when some of their political allies seem just as happy to consign the educated to "enemy territory," it's time to beat the alarm.

Sunday, January 04, 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?

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.

Friday, January 02, 2009

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, 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.

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.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From Russia, with nuttiness

Anti-American nuttiness in Russia, a subject I have previously plumbed, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Now there's this:

For a decade, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting the U.S. will fall apart in 2010. For most of that time, he admits, few took his argument -- that an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S. -- very seriously. Now he's found an eager audience: Russian state media.

Prof. Panarin, 50 years old, is not a fringe figure. A former KGB analyst, he is dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats. He is invited to Kremlin receptions, lectures students, publishes books, and appears in the media as an expert on U.S.-Russia relations.

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces -- with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

In addition to increasing coverage in state media, which are tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Mr. Panarin's ideas are now being widely discussed among local experts. He presented his theory at a recent roundtable discussion at the Foreign Ministry. The country's top international relations school has hosted him as a keynote speaker. During an appearance on the state TV channel Rossiya, the station cut between his comments and TV footage of lines at soup kitchens and crowds of homeless people in the U.S. The professor has also been featured on the Kremlin's English-language propaganda channel, Russia Today.

That's from the December 29 Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, on the same day, the website of the pro-government Izvestia, which originally publicized Panarin's ... shall we say, fanciful claims on November 24, ran a short piece titled "Now, America also knows it's due for a collapse." While the title is somewhat sarcastic, the piece, apparently, is not. It claims that Panarin's interview sparked "a stormy discussion and many articles both in Russia and around the world," and notes that "even White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had to fend off questions about the disintegration of the USA." (According to the WSJ: "The article prompted a question about the White House's reaction to Prof. Panarin's forecast at a December news conference. 'I'll have to decline to comment,' spokeswoman Dana Perino said amid much laughter.")

Izvestia goes on to say:

A heated discussion also raged on the WSJ website, in which, however, the most common arguments were along the lines of, "Those stupid Russians!" Incidentally, a similar "convenient" stance was adopted by our own "pro-Western" electronic media, which hastened to declare that "not one serious publication has given the professor's amazing forecast any attention." The WSJ, too, prefers to view everything through the lens of Russia. And doesn't bother to explain why this interview elicited a huge response in the USA, rather than here.

Panarin's view "reflects a very pronounced degree of anti-Americanism in Russia today," the WSJ quotes TV host Vladimir Pozner as saying. "It's much stronger than it was in the Soviet Union." It would also be really good to understand where this anti-Americanism came from. Could it be due to the American position on missile defense or South Ossetia? But alas, the WSJ is not interested in digging that deep.

I'm sure it would be news to most Americans, even those who keep up with the Zeitgeist, that Panarin's ravings "elicited a huge response" in the US. (The "response" consisted of a Drudge Report headline and a flurry of blogposts, mostly in the "news of the weird" department.) And is it just me, or is Izvestia admitting, in a roundabout way, that the Russian media are trumpeting this apocalyptic nonsense as "payback" for disagreements over Georgia and missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?

In reality, the promotion of Panarin may be a kind of Freudian projection of much more plausible concerns about the disintegration of Russia (which, unlike the US, does have problems with separatism, including an ever-growing body count in the regions of the Caucasus -- Ingushetia, Dagestan, Northern Ossetia). In a recent survey by the Ekho Moskvy radio station, nearly 70% of those voting online and nearly 80% of call-in voters agreed that "Russia could suffer the same fate as the USSR." While this was not a scientific poll, it does suggest that a significant portion of the Russian public thinks the disintegration of Russia is possible.

And more from the annals of nutty Russian anti-Americanism, circa 2007: a persistent claim that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has expressed the opinion that it's unfair that Russia should have exclusive ownership of a region as rich with natural resources as Siberia. Based on a fake quote, and a 2006 interview with a retired major general of the FSB (former KGB) who claims that Russian intelligence was able to do a psychic reading of Albright's mind in 1999 (seriously) and detected a "pathological hatred of Slavs" as well as intense resentment at the fact that "Russia held the world's largest reserves of natural resources." This interview was not published in the Russian equivalent of Weekly World News but in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official publication of the Russian government.

(To quote the Russian comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky: Слов нет -- одни выражения. Which translates loosely into English as: "Words fail. Printable ones, at least.")

The "Albright" line about the injustice of Russia's sole ownership of Siberia has also been attributed to Condoleezza Rice. Take this December 14, 2005 report on the political analysis website, about public hearings on "New federal initiatives for the modernization of Siberia":

The absence of such a [modernization] strategy at present does not allow Siberian regions to develop in a stable way and leads to stagnation, and in the long term, to the possible loss of Siberia.

This was discussed by the vice president of the Novosibirsk Chamber of Commerce, Yuri Voronov. In his words, "there is powerful pressure to take Siberia away from Russia. Even Condoleezza Rice has declared that Siberia is too big to belong to a single state."

Pretty soon, Hillary Clinton will have said it, too.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Justice, mercy, and goodwill to all men in Putinland

Svetlana Bakhmina, the jailed former Yukos lawyer who has been denied early release for which she was legally eligible, and who recently gave birth to her third child (conceived during a conjugal visit), did not get the Christmas present her supporters were hoping for. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ignored pleas for a presidential pardon for Bakhmina (from dozens of prominent public figures including actors, writers, artists, TV personalities, and even ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev -- as well as, by now, over 91,000 ordinary men and women who have signed an online petition). The case was referred back to the Supreme Court of Mordovia, the region where Bakhmina is serving her sentence. On December 24, the court postponed its decision until January 21 because it has not had enough time to familiarize itself with her her case. (Seriously.) Fortunately, Bakhmina is at least awaiting the resolution of her case in a clinic in a Moscow suburb, rather than in the penal colony. The Yukos oil company is, of course, a longtime target of a political vendetta by the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Yuri Budanov, the Russian officer who strangled a teenage Chechen girl to death, will be getting out on parole after about 8 years in prison. The victim's family plans to appeal this decision to the Strasbourg-based European Court on Human Rights. (Over a quarter of the court's backlog now consists of Russian cases; of the 192 complaints heard in 2007, 140 were judged valid.)

And another interesting parallel. Another YUKOS defendant, Vasily Alexanian, has been repeatedly and illegally denied bail despite suffering from AIDS and cancer, despite objections from the European Court on Human Rights. When bail was finally set, it was at the prohibitive sum of 50 million rubles, or nearly $2 million. For now, Alexanian, who is reportedly nearly blind, remains in prison -- despite the fact that, legally, the embezzlement charges against him should have been dismissed by now because the statute of limitations has expired.

Meanwhile, Eduard Ulman, a Russian officer who commanded a unit in Chechnya which opened fire on a civilian vehicle and then slaughtered all the survivors including a pregnant woman back in 2002, was released on bail along with his three codefendants. (Of course, for such cases to even come to trial in Russia is rare.) While the four men were convicted and given fairly long prison sentences in June 2007, Ulman and two others skipped bail and remain at large.

... What's that we hear about the unfairness of demonizing Putvedev's Russia?

Islam, Europe, women, sex and modernity

A fascinating article in The Washington Post about a controversy in France over the annulment of a young Muslim couple's marriage, obtained by the husband on the grounds that the wife was not a virgin. After news got out that the French courts approved the annulment, political activists and commentators were incensed.

From the left and right came a barrage of criticism, suggesting that the decision had given French legal sanction to a Muslim's demand that his bride be a virgin. Elizabeth Badinter, a longtime women's rights campaigner, said she felt "shame" that such a court ruling could be handed down in France.

"This ends up simply pushing many young Muslim girls into hospitals to have their hymen reconstituted," she said.

Laurence Rossignel of the Socialist Party's secretariat for women's rights qualified the decision as "amazing."

"It violates the constitutional principles of equality between men and women and of nondiscrimination, because it cannot be rendered except against a woman," she added. "It makes a mockery of the rights of women over their own bodies and to live their sexuality freely, the way men do."

Under pressure, the Justice Ministry -- headed by Rachida Dati, the daughter of Algerian immigrants (and an unmarried mother-to-be) -- reversed the annulment, effectively remarrying the couple. They will now have to seek a divorce (complicated by the fact that the husband has remarried).

The groom's lawyer thinks the "politically correct" journalists and protesters have invaded the couple's private life to the detriment of both the man and the woman (the wife also wanted the annulment). There may be some truth to the charge that those who made the case public were more concerned with abstract women's rights and liberal values than with the welfare of this particular woman; on the other hand, there is a solid argument to be made that European law should not be enshrining the idea that a man can repudiate his wife for not being a virgin at marriage.

What I find interesting, though, is something else. This is not a conflict between Islamic and Christian culture so much as it is a conflict between traditional and modern culture. Not that long ago, virginity was as much of a requirement in a bride in European societies. There are, indeed, many people in the West (and perhaps especially in the United States) today who are nostalgic for those old-fashioned values, at least in moderate forms. I can think of quite a few American conservatives who would vehemently disagree with the notion that women have a right to "live their sexuality freely, the way men do."

Should everyone who lives in modern societies be required to assimilate to modern values? No, of course not. They should, however, be required to understand that the virtues they cherish cannot be imposed by law or by force. Though, in this case, the annulment may have been unobjectionable since the wife agreed to it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas meditations

A New York Times essay offering a different take on the perennial classic It's a Wonderful Life sparks a lively discussion in the comments.

The essay argues that the small-town life Capra's hero embraces at the end is, in fact, terrifyingly and asphyxiatingly oppressive, and that the movie is all about resigning oneself to the loss of dreams, to being trapped in a life of compromise, small-mindedness and conformity. He even asserts that the "Pottersville" of the alternate reality in which Jimmy Stewart's George was never born -- filled with booze and vice -- is a lot more fun than boring New Bedford, where The Bells of St. Mary's is all that passes for entertainment.

Some commenters agree, and also point to the movie's disturbing gender ideology: without George in her life, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has become -- the horror! -- a single, childless librarian. One poster mentions (approvingly) that Ayn Rand hated this movie because of its emphasis on self-sacrifice and the compromises of adult life. Others defend close-knit communities as well as the idea that adulthood is about accepting compromises and limits, and that life's true satisfaction comes not from chasing adolescent dreams but from family, friends, and community.

This is where I'm always reminded of a famous Niels Bohr quote:

"The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood; the opposite of a great truth is another truth."

There is a great truth in the Randian/libertarian celebration of the free individual, of the stubborn pursuit of one's dreams and visions, of the struggle against limits. There is also a great truth in the conservative/communitarian vision that emphasizes relationships and acceptance of reasonable compromises and limits. Both of these starkly different approaches to life have value -- are, in fact, necessary to a healthy culture, which needs both roots and wings. (I believe the origin of this metaphor is this quote by American motivational speaker Dennis Waitley.) So do the vast majority of individuals, even if some can be perfectly happy pursuing their individualist dreams with no human ties and some can be perfectly happy living completely for others.

Of course, each vision also has a seamy side. A lot of "autonomous individuals" who pride themselves on never compromising and never "settling" are not Randian Howard Roarks but obnoxious, egotistical jerks with a very exaggerated notion of their own talent. A lot of lives that revolve around family, community and self-sacrifice are poisoned by undercurrents of bitterness, resentments, and suppressed conflicts. And so on.

But in the spirit of the holiday, let's focus on the positives. Here's to roots and wings. And to the fact that American culture is big enough to accommodate Frank Capra and Ayn Rand.

Happy holidays to all

This is the 300th post on this blog. (About time, too.)

And it's a fluffy, content-free, positive (even multiculturally positive) one.

A good sign? a bad sign? Not, one hopes, a sign of things to come.

Enjoy the season, everyone.

Monday, December 15, 2008

More Russia news: the good and the bad

According to Moscow Times:

In a rare example of grassroots political power, angry protests by drivers prompted lawmakers in the far eastern Primorye region on Monday to ask the country's two leaders to delay raising import duties on foreign cars. The Primorye regional legislature, led by United Russia deputies, voted unanimously Monday to ask President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to postpone the tariffs, which take effect on Jan. 11, according to a decree signed by Putin. Thousands of drivers took to the streets in several far eastern cities and towns Sunday to protest the tariffs, blocking traffic, clashing with police, openly insulting Putin and Medvedev and even calling on Putin to resign. Putin's decree would increase the prices for imported cars by between 10 and 20 percent, a move the government has defended as a way of protecting domestic auto makers during the growing financial crisis.

According to the Russian daily Kommersant, similar though less massive protests took place in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. In Novosibirsk, an officially sanctioned picket of 100 people on the main city square was joined by 200 cars whose drivers argued with the police and tried to block traffic. In Krasnoyarsk, a column of 300 cars sporting black ribbons drove very slowly through city streets, then parked across from the regional government headquarters and honked their horns for fives minutes. Many people who drove by also honked in support.

Slogans at the rallies -- carried by protesters on foot or displayed on the rear windows of cars -- included: "Putin, trade your Mercedes for a Volga!", "Mr. Putin, help the tycoons out of your own pocket!", and "Raise the tariffs on the actions of the Russian government."

In Vladivostok, when Mayor Alexei Pushkarev begged the protesters to disperse, saying that they had already made their point, some people in the crowd shouted, "We need Channel One so that the whole country would know about our demands: no higher tariffs and cheaper gasoline!" Indeed, none of the state-controlled TV channels have given the protests any coverage at all. The average Russian will know nothing about them, neutralizing the potentially empowering and mobilizing effect of these events.

All this happens at a time when Putin's aura as the savior of the nation may be finally wearing off. According to a new poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, reported in Izvestia, not only did Putin's televised Q & A with the people have a smaller audience than in previous years (17%), but only 48% of those who watched said they were satisfied with Putin's answers.

Meanwhile, there are more signs that the Kremlin is preparing to tighten its grip on dissent, or at least to give itself a weapon to squash dissent when they want to. A new law submitted to the parliament by the government would broaden the definition of treason. Existing Russian law defines treason as "hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation against foreign threats." In the amended version, the definition of treason would include "rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood." Many human rights activists are concerned that this signifies a de facto return to Stalinist law which made "anti-Soviet activity" a crime. Perhaps this is hyperbole, but is it too much of a stretch to think that this law could be directed against an opposition newspaper or website, or a human rights group critical of the government, which has received assistance from the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, or the Soros Foundation?

Anti-American film bombs in Russia

What if they made a rabidly anti-American movie in Russia that was supposed to capitalize on anti-American sentiment stirred up by the war in Georgia ... and nobody came? My article on the movie Chuzhiye (Strangers) in The New Republic online.