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.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Demonizing the Putin regime?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia: Freedom and thuggery

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

According to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to a BBC report:

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Russia: Freedom springs eternal

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

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

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

Said Piontkovsky (alas, Russian link only):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 07, 2008

More about gender differences and competition

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

So, is it true?

A couple of interesting studies casting doubt on this proposition:

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

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

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

Putvedev as Pinky and the Brain

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

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

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The paradoxes of gender gaps

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

Was Larry Summers right about women and science after all?

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

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

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

And then she ends thusly:

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

How's that again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Russia/NATO update

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

[Georgian foreign minister Eka] Tkeshelashvili expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting, in which ministers reconfirmed that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of NATO and said NATO would accelerate cooperative reform programs with both countries through existing NATO commissions.

The commissions will work on annual assessments of each country’s security and political needs, and on reforms to help them on the long path of NATO membership.
Ms. Tkeshelashvili said that Georgia welcomed “a commitment to the process by which we can achieve our goal” of membership, “with maximized efforts to assist Georgia.”

The ministers decided to move ahead with that cooperation and leave to the future, “without prejudice,” decisions about whether both countries will also need to go through a formal “membership action plan,” as Germany and France now insist.

Who's blustering? Russia? Georgia? Both?

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

Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, speaking in an interview after the conclusion of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers, said that Russia’s sense of grievance and encirclement, genuine or not, was difficult for the alliance to assuage.

“It’s not so easy to know how to approach someone, in daily life or in foreign policy, who feels themselves victimized,” he said. “I think there is no reason for Russia to feel victimized, not to be taken seriously, but if that is the perception, we have to discuss it, because I have to try to convince them that democracy and the rule of law coming closer to Russia’s borders – why should that be a problem?”

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

When atheists attack: The "War on Christmas" redux

Okay, I hate to admit it when Bill O'Reilly has a point in his latest "War on Christmas" crusade (see here, here and here on its previous installments), but this time, he does.

At issue is an atheist billboard displayed in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Wa. along with a "Holiday tree" and a nativity scene. (Apparently, there is no menorah this year.)

The placard, installed by local members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reads:

At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

More on the story here.

According to Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, it is the state's policy to allow any group to sponsor a holiday display "regardless of that individual's or group's views."

Here's the problem. The atheist display doesn't simply express the beliefs of atheists or secularists; it attacks the beliefs of the religious. Its message, except for the first line, is entirely negative, and the last line is actively insulting to believers, implying that they are hard-hearted and weak-minded.

A Christmas display on public property, paid for by the taxpayer, that explicitly attacked non-believers would be inappropriate. So is this.

Perhaps Gregoire and McKenna are right as a matter of publc policy. (Though, if all viewpoints may be represented in holiday displays in the State Capitol, where do you draw the line? Would a placard urging Jews to convert to Christianity be appropriate? How about a "God Hates Fags" placard from the abominable Fred Phelps?) However, those fine folks from the Freedom from Religion Foundation are wrong as a matter of respect, civility, and common sense. They have chosen to express their views in a manner almost calculated to cause irritation. They are also perpetuating the stereotype -- which underlies much of the hostility to atheists in America -- that an atheist is not just a non-believer but someone who actively attacks and denigrates religion.

If they truly wanted to get into the holiday spirit, how about a placard saying something like, "At this season of the Winter Solstice, those of us who do not believe in a deity celebrate the beauty of the natural world and join believers in wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men." A positive message that, among other things, would have countered the widespread notion that atheists "believe in nothing."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Russian anti-Americanism, NATO expansion, and the missile shield

Yesterday, my column, From Russia with loathing, on Russian anti-Americanism, ran on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

SHORTLY before the presidential election, at a discussion about Russian-American relations I attended in Cambridge, Mass., speakers from both countries voiced the hope that the election of Barack Obama would signal the renewal of a beautiful friendship. These hopes were chilled the day after Mr. Obama won. In an address to the Russian Parliament, President Dmitri Medvedev welcomed President-elect Obama with a threat to deploy Russian missiles on the Polish border if the United States put anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe. While some conciliatory signals followed, it seems clear that the Kremlin intends to keep the “new cold war” going.

Just three days before Mr. Medvedev’s speech, the state-subsidized youth movement Nashi staged a Halloween-themed rally in front of the American Embassy in Moscow. Nearly 20,000 young people held pumpkins marked with the names of “America’s victims,” among them the casualties in South Ossetia. In an amateur film shown at the rally, an actor portraying a drunken George W. Bush bragged that the United States had engineered both world wars and the rise of Hitler to expand its power.

Leonid Radzikhovsky, a Russian journalist, has said that “the existential void of our politics has been filled entirely by anti-Americanism,” and that to renounce this rhetoric “would be tantamount to destroying the foundations of the state ideology.” There is a notion, popular in Russia and among some Western analysts, that this anti-Americanism is a response to perceived threats to Russia’s security — above all, NATO expansion and missile defense in Eastern Europe. Yet top military experts like Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, a former high-level official in the Russian Defense Ministry, are convinced that neither the missile shield nor NATO expansion pose any military threat to Russia.

Russia’s post-cold war humiliation is real. But as the human rights activist Elena Bonner, widow of the great scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, told me recently: “Nobody humiliated Russia. Russia humiliated itself.”

In the post-Soviet era, many Russians are angry because their country has neither the stature nor the living standards that they believe it deserves. Polls shows that most Russians actually favor a Western way of life. Nearly two-thirds would rather live in a well-off country than in one that is poorer but more powerful and feared by others. Unfortunately, most also believe their country will not reach Western levels of well-being any time soon, if ever. As frustrations mount, it is often easier to blame an external force than the country’s own failings. It doesn’t help that the 1990s, when pro-Western attitudes were at their peak, are remembered as a time of poverty and insecurity.

The result is an inferiority complex toward the West and, in particular, the United States, as the pre-eminent Western power and cold war rival. This widespread sentiment combines admiration, envy, grievance, resentment, and craving for respect and acceptance as an equal. Most Russians viewed the recent conflict in Georgia as a victory over the Americans — a matter less of strategic self-interest than of psychological self-assertion.

In his Nov. 5 speech, President Medvedev asserted that “we have no inherent anti-Americanism.” True enough, but in recent years, anti-Americanism has been carefully cultivated by official and semi-official propaganda, especially on government-controlled television, which manipulates popular insecurities and easily slides into outright paranoia.

In 2005, Sergey Lisovsky, then the deputy chairman of the Committee on Agricultural and Food Policy of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said that the avian flu was a myth created by the Americans to destroy Russia’s poultry farming industry. This year, Russian television commemorated the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, with a prime-time program promoting the conspiracy theory that the attacks were engineered by American imperialists in order to unleash war. A staggering 43 percent of Russians agreed in a poll last year that “one of the goals of the foreign policy of the United States is the total destruction of Russia.”

Today, the government may be especially anxious to ratchet up anti-Americanism in response to the election of Mr. Obama, who is likely to make it more difficult for Russia to exploit animosity toward the United States in Europe and even the Third World.

Mr. Obama and his administration need to respond with both firmness and flexibility. He should indicate that we will help the democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to resist Russian bullying while also making it clear that we do not seek confrontation with Russia for confrontation’s sake.

One of Mr. Obama’s top Russia advisers, Michael McFaul, has suggested offering Russia a path toward membership in NATO. The current Russian leadership would, of course, reject any such offer, because it would entail democratic reforms that Russia is not willing to undertake. But the offer would give Russian reformers a tangible goal, and make it harder to convince ordinary Russians that America will always treat Russia as the enemy.

Mr. Obama should make the offer in person, during a trip to Russia. Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1988 went a long way toward dispelling anti-American stereotypes in the minds of many Russians during the twilight of the cold war. Mr. Obama, the object of a great deal of curiosity and fascination, is one American politician who could repeat that feat.

To this, American Conservative's Daniel Larison responds:

The main claim that Lieven and I and others make that, in his words, “Russian policy at the moment is overwhelmingly a reaction to what the West is doing” is strongly disputed or simply ignored by a disturbingly large number of people in American government and media. To take one example, today Cathy Young bores us with yet another of her myopic columns disputing precisely this claim, the recognition of which is vital to correcting the errors of the last two decades. Inside government, it is more or less taken as a given that the Russians really have nothing to complain about. The administration maintains, however implausibly, that missile defense in Europe has nothing to do with Russia, NATO expansion has nothing to do with Russia, and on and on. These people are somehow unable or unwilling to comprehend that power projection and expansion of a military alliance to Russia’s doorstep will trigger and have triggered hostile reactions.

If Moscow cultivates or uses anti-American sentiment for its own purposes, which is actually beside the point, that sentiment exists and has been increased extraordinarily by what the U.S. government has done and what it proposes to do in post-Soviet space. One of the most dominant myths that prevails in America today is that anti-Americanism is merely an expression of envy and dissatisfaction in the failures of one’s own society (Young recites all of this as you would expect) and has nothing or next to nothing to do with the substance of policy and the aggressive interference that the policy often represents. One of the biggest obstacles to radical change in our Russia policy is this inability or unwillingness to understand this, just as our government seems unable or unwilling to understand why anti-Americanism in Turkey of all places is at record highs. It is much more reassuring to hear that this is just something that results from the actions of a foreign government, which allows us to overlook our role in generating these resentments and reactions.

Allow me to bore you -- "you" being the "us" Mr. Larison refers to -- with a few more thoughts. First of all, I have never claimed that all anti-Americanism is "an expression of envy and dissatisfaction in the failures of one's own society." I do, as a matter of fact, think that the unilateralism espoused by the Bush administration in GWB's first term was an egregiously bad idea. (In the early days of the war in Iraq, I attended a talk by Charles Krauthammer at the Manhattan Institute arguing that in our new unipolar world, the U.S. should make foreign policy decisions on its own and merely pretend to consult our allies to make them feel better. Uh-oh, I thought.) It not only caused a justified backlash, it also empowered authoritarians like Vladimir Putin to think that "might makes right" was the new American philosophy, so why not get in on the game.

Anti-Americanism in Turkey is a whole other story. It stems mostly from a controversial 2003 incident that included possible questionable activity by Turkey aimed against Iraqi Kurds, and possible mishandling of a sensitive situation by U.S. forces. The resulting bad feeling in Turkey has been further fed by the anti-American, anti-Semitic blockbuster film Valley of the Wolves Iraq, which accuses the U.S. of killing Iraqis for their organs and alleges that the human organ trade was a principal motive for the invasion of Iraq. (And you thought blood for oil was bad.) Whatever responsibility the U.S. may bear for the deterioration of the relationship, is it totally preposterous to suggest that Turkey's internal tensions between secularism and fundamentalist religion might contribute to anti-Americanism (synonymous with rejection of modernity)?

I am not an expert on Turkey. I do, however, have some modest pretensions to being an expert on Russia. And if Mr. Larison thinks I'm bound by American myopia, here's an excellent short essay on the subject straight from the horse's mouth -- or from the belly of the beast, if you will -- by Moscow writer and essayist Lev Rubinshtein.

On to the issue of alleged American threats to Russia. We have heard a lot about how Russia has every reason to feel threatened by NATO "encirclement." Not long ago, there was an interesting exchange on Ekho Moskvy radio between former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and station chief Alexei Venediktov. It started when Gorbachev mentioned Bill Clinton's push for NATO expansion as proof that a Democrat in the White House isn't necessarily better for Russia.

Venediktov: But you weren't particularly scared of NATO.
Gorbachev: What's there to be scared of?
Venediktov: I don't know, but everyone seems to be scared.
Gorbachev: Actually, the point is not that people are scared of NATO but that this raises the question: what's the agenda behind it? I think they see in the United States that the situation is such that they are losing their global dominance, it's going away. Already today, the European Union has a population of half a billion, that's more than the USA. Today the combined GDP of the EU is more than that of the USA. They're lagging behind in the newest technologies. So what's the United States' answer to this? They plunge into an arms race in the belief that only strength can save them. I think they're mistaken.

I am looking in vain for the logic here; what on earth does NATO expansion have to do with the arms race, or with the US shoring up its dominance, considering that most of the EU is part of NATO? But that aside, what I find revealing is Gorbachev's off-the-cuff response, "What's there to be scared of"?

Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin (a former top-level Soviet arms negotiator) has an interesting article on the subject (in Russian). He points out that, given Russia's nuclear potential, a military attack by NATO forces on Russia is unthinkable no matter how many of Russia's neighbors join NATO. The real danger for Russia, in Dvorkin's view, is that it may face "civilizational isolation" if it continues to refuse to democratize and modernize its society, and finds itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the democratic capitalist West.

In this context, it is useful to recall that Russia's sharp anti-Western and anti-American turn came after the "color revolutions" of Ukraine and Georgia -- peaceful revolutions from below that brought down authoritarian regimes by challenging rigged elections. The Putinistas got a bad scare (today Kiev and Tbilisi, tomorrow Moscow...), and their response was to blame the insidious U.S. conspiracy, with George Soros and George W. Bush implicated in the same plot.

As for the missile defense shield: whether or not it's an effective defense for a missile launched by a rogue state is an issue for another day. The point is, there is simply no way that it could protect the United States from a nuclear counterstrike by Russia (and thus give the U.S. the ability to make a first strike). Russian foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov acknowledges this, but then goes to say:

The missile-defense elements planned for Poland and the Czech Republic are the third phase of what is most likely a broader U.S. strategy to build a universal missile-defense shield that covers the entire globe. After the third phase we could see the United States building a fourth, fifth and sixth phase. The only reason why Washington would push so hard for the third phase in Central Europe -- which on its own is of questionable use -- would be if that project were a stepping stone toward something much larger and strategically significant: that is, if we are talking about the construction of a global missile-defense system that could protect the United States from any threat from any corner of the world. There are serious doubts that this is technologically possible, but this could change in the future. And if it does, the strategic balance in the world would shift dramatically because it would remove the basic principle that has ensured stability in the past -- the threat of mutually assured destruction.

So the threat to Russia is something that might happen in a distant, not-yet-technologically possible future? Frankly, this sounds both paranoid and unconvincing, particularly given that the U.S. has repeatedly offered to allow Russian inspectors on the sites in Eastern Europe and proposed extensive collaboration on missile defense.

We should, absolutely, cooperate with Russia on guarantees of mutual security. But this cooperation should focus on real threats, not threats to Russia's oversized ego and to its increasingly ridiculous delusions of being a great power.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The last word on Palin. I hope.

Having said some nice things about Sarah Palin when she first burst on the national political scene in a blaze of short-lived glory, I have been asked, more than once, if I've updated my view.

I have, more than once, on this blog. On top of that, here it is, my absolutely, positively (I hope) last word on Saran Palin, originally published in Newsday and then in slightly longer form on Ms. Wasilla goes to Washington.

By the way, my offhand remark in this article that "The notion that 'patriarchal power' exists in the United States in 2008 is only slightly less delusional than the belief, erroneously attributed to Palin, that God created the dinosaurs 5000 years ago" infuriated a blogger named Chris, who fumes:

Uh.. What? Was there a big announcement that we finally fixed sexism? Maybe it was right after we also fixed racism, which, as Cathy Young will tell you, is entirely black people’s fault these days too. Ugh. Incidentally, if Cathy Young believes patriarchal power no longer exists, what, exactly, is feminism, and what would constitute a “step forward” for it? Why is she even writing about it? It’s like she has this knee-jerk inability to admit that any institutional forces exist, and that to admit they do would be admitting some sort of personal weakness or something. It’s okay, Cathy! Institutions exist! It’s not your fault!

First of all, I find it quite amusing that Mr. Male Feminist finds it appropriate to adopt such a blatantly patronizing, smug, patting-the-little-woman-on-the-head tone toward a woman who happens to dissent from his brand of ideology. Secondly, "sexism" is not the same as "patriarchal power." Are American women (and in other areas, men) today held back by sexist cultural stereotypes, and in some cases institutional discrimination as well? Yes, they are (though I frankly doubt that institutional discrimination plays much of a role in holding women back in politics). Are American women as a group today subject to "patriarchal power," i.e. male domination and control over their lives? My answer to that is a very emphatic no.

(Oh, and my belief that "racism is black people's fault," apparently, consists of suggesting that the "culture of poverty" is partly responsible for perpetuating the problems of poor people, including those in the black community. Since I'm pretty disgusted with the right these days, I owe Chris some gratitude for reminding me why I loathe the left. Thanks, pal.)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

9/11 truthers in Russia -- and Russia's own terrorist bombing conspiracy theory

My Weekly Standard article on the broadcast of the 9/11 conspiracy "documentary" Zero, and the studio discussion that followed, is now up. It expands on my earlier blogpost on the topic, and is based on a viewing of the entire program rather than the last 20 minutes. The first half of the discussion was a little less skewed, but the result was still appalling. The article also includes an interesting quote from an interview (not mine) with the host of the program, Alexander Gordon, when he was asked whether its airing was connected to the deterioration in relations with the U.S.

Last night, after receiving a few emailed from truthers urging me to open my mind, I watched the BBC documentary "Conspiracy Files: The Third Tower." What never ceases to amaze me (apart from the belief that any group of people in the U.S. government would have the competence, coordination, and diabolical smarts to pull off this kind of vast conspiracy) is the sheer idiocy of truther arguments about the motives for various aspects of this conspiracy. The truthers argue that Tower 7 (which collapsed despite not being hit by a plane) was brought down by controlled demolition, with explosives planted inside. But why? Apparently because that's where the local office of the CIA was, and was that office that served as the secret control room for the 9/11 plot, and the evidence had to be destroyed. Really? Those plotters were so dumb that they had their super-secret control room in a CIA office right next to the WTC? And couldn't think of a better way to dispose of the evidence than creating a mystery explosion? If they were that dumb, how could they have possibly successfully carried history's biggest cover-up?

In my WS article, I refer to "the fairly credible allegations that the FSB, the KGB's post-Soviet heir, was involved in the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Russia that took nearly 300 lives and were blamed on Chechen terrorists, helping generate public support for the war in Chechnya." Why do I think these allegations, unlike the ones about 9/11, are fairly credible? Because I'm willing to believe that kind of thing about "them," but not about "us"? Well, no. As much as I loathe Russia's ruling clique, I'd rather not believe that they engineered terrorist acts against their own people. Because, if those are the kind of people who rule Russia, we are all less safe.

I think those allegations are vastly more credible than those of the 9/11 "truth" movement because of vast differences between the two situations.

One, the alleged FSB plot is fairly straightforward: explosives planted in apartment buildings. There are no bizarre claims of faked hijackings, nonexistent planes, passengers being taken to secret locations and murdered to supply the bodies, etc. etc.

Two, there was never an independent investigation of the bombings in Russia, only an FSB one; the State Duma voted against an investigation and ordered all documents pertaining to the case to be sealed for 75 years, and several MPs who tried to conduct an investigation of their own had an unfortunate tendency to get assassinated or meet with fatal accidents.

Three, no Chechen separatists ever claimed responsibility for the bombings. Four, at least one officer of the Russian secret services admitted to FSB involvement, though he made this statement in Chechen captivity and later claimed it was extracted under torture.

Five, and most damning, FSB agents were caught red-handed planting explosives with a timer in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan. FSB director Niklai Patrushev claimed it was an "emergency readiness training exercise." After that, by the way, the bombings stopped.

Read the full story here.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The "space of freedom" in Russia: some good news

Under the resurgent authoritarianism of the Putin/Medvedev regime, a "space of freedom" has still remained in Russia: in the print media, to some extent even on the radio (Ekho Moskvy), and of course on the Internet; in independent groups that are harassed if they get too political, but nonetheless exist. There are many reasons to fear that this space has shrunk after the Russia-Georgia war, when Russia's airwaves looked more like Soviet-style propaganda than at any time since the collapse of Communism. But, as one villainous representative of oppressive state power says to another in Russian writer Evgeny Schwartz's play The Shadow, "Sometimes, just when it looks like our victory is complete, life suddenly rears its head." And sometimes, in the most unexpected places.

Last month, Russian prosecutors, acting on a complaint from religious groups, went after the 2 x 2 television channel that specializes in "smart" cartoons, such as The Simpsons and South Park. One of the offenses named in the complaint was the South Park episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Special," in which characters including Satan, Hitler and an anthropomorphic turd named Mr. Hankey perform in a Christmas show. The prosecutors concluded that the episode might be "extremist" since it was demeaning to Christians and Jews.

In the meantime, 2 x 2's broadcast license expires on October 17, and there was understandable speculation that it might not be renewed. Alarm bells went off, in particular, when Pavel Tarakanov, chairman of the Duma Comittee on Youth Issues, publicly stated that if 2 x 2 lost its license, its frequency could be given to a young adults-oriented channel that would "reflect the government's position with regard to youth policy." "We need to raise a generation of 21st Century Russians who are proud of living in a civilized nation, therefore we need our own media conduit that would reach the greatest possible number of people," he told the Interfax news agency on September 23.

But suddenly, the Russian public, notoriously apathetic in the past few years, rose up in indignation. In late September, there were pickets, flash mobs, and demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest the attempts to squash 2 x 2; the September 21 rally in Moscow drew about 700 people, who clashed with the police at one point. The protesters carried signs saying, "Hands off 2 x 2! We do not want censorship!" (which rhymes in Russian -- something like, "2 x 2 is here to stay -- censorship must go away!"), "Today they came for Kenny, tomorrow they'll come for you" and "Kenny lived, Kenny lives, Kenny will live!", a play on the once-ubiquitous Soviet slogan about Lenin. (Russians have not lost their knack for sharp political humor.) In just a few days, the protesters collected 34,000 signatures on petitions to keep 2 x 2 on the air.

Russian protester with a poster: "Today, they come
for Kenny; tomorrow, they'll come for you." From

On September 25, the Federal Competitive Bidding Commission on Television and Radio Broadcasting -- the Russian equivalent of the FCC, ironically with the Russian initials FKK -- voted unanimously to recommend that 2 x 2's license be renewed. The final decision is up to the State Committee on Communications Oversight, but it is expected to follow the FKK's recommendation. In the meantime, The Simpsons and South Park will continue to be shown on 2 x 2 except for the "offending" episodes.

The day before this decision, human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek wrote on the website:

Sophisticated opposition activists might wince: vulgar cartoons, ill-mannered youths, aggression in the streets. True, this is not about ideas, or compassion for people who are dying in an unjust war [in the Caucasus], or the struggle for democracy and the future of Russia. And yet these events give cause to hope that not everything is lost in this country, that not everyone in Russia is under the yoke of submission, fear and indifference. People who have nothing to do with politics have come out into the streets to defend their right: the right to watch the TV channel they love. It doesn't matter if this channel is worthy of universal love, or of the love of refined conoisseurs of quality television. Its viewers want it, and that's enough reason for it to stay on the air, no matter how revolting it might be to religious fanatics, television aesthetes, or the General Prosecutor's office.


Perhaps the future belongs to those who, no matter how little they care about politics, come out into the streets to defend their personal choice, their right to live without following the guidance of the authorities -- even if it's only a matter of a TV channel that shows cartoons.

By the way, Podrabinek vastly underestimates the extent to which South Park and The Simpsons are about "ideas." He's not the only one. In a verse commentary on the 2 x 2 controversy in Ogoniok magazine, the writer, poet and astute political satirist Dmitry Bykov describes the victory as a bittersweet one:

The days of liberty are now behind us,
And yet here is a fact we can't avoid:
As long as we can say, "Don't have a cow, man!",
Freedom in Russia cannot be destroyed.

Today, we won't be rescued from oppression
By Pushkin, Tolstoy, or a Joan of Arc;
Instead, it seems, the torch is in the hands of
The Simpsons and the kiddies of South Park.

Bykov describes 2 x 2's fare as "the usual jokes on all things excremental." The Simpsons and South Park may not be the Pushkin and Tolstoy of our day, but perhaps Bykov should try watching them. The idea of 2 x 2 as a bastion of freedom (hopefully, not the last) is not that depressing.

More: Some great photos of the 2 x 2 protests here and here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Palin problem

While busy working on an extended piece about Russia's disgraceful prime-time TV broadcast of a program that endorses 9/11 conspiracy theories, I have been mulling of the question of what to say about Sarah Palin.

My friend Kathleen Parker says it all:

Some of the passionately feminist critics of Ms. Palin who attacked her personally deserved some of the backlash they received. But circumstances have changed since Ms. Palin was introduced as just a hockey mom with lipstick – what a difference a financial crisis makes – and a more complicated picture has emerged.
As we've seen and heard more from John McCain's running mate, it is increasingly clear that she is a problem. Quick study or not, she doesn't know enough about economics and foreign policy to make Americans comfortable with a President Palin should conditions warrant her promotion.

Right on. More interesting thoughts from Parker here.

I have defended Palin because a lot of the attacks on her have been so vicious and unfair, and I don't just mean the "Trig is Bristol's baby" rumors. She is not a "Stepford wife" or an anti-woman tool of The Patriarchy; she is not a woman who sends the message that women can get ahead by being demure and pleasing the boys; she is not a female misogynist who devalues her own daughters and charges victims for rape kits; she does not advocate abstinence-only education in public schools (a canard repeated by Sam Harris in Newsweek). And yes, I still think she's a good feminist role model in combining career and parenthood with the help of a strong family network, not the state.

Unfortunately, it seems that Palin has also come to exemplify a far less attractive feature of pseudo-feminism: affirmative action in the worst sense of the word. And the Palin defenders are just as exasperating as the Palin-bashers. Here is, for instance, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in Newsweek:

Many are attracted to [Palin] because she embodies the values of the American West, which they find superior to the values of coastal elites. This was part of the appeal of Goldwater and Reagan—a log-splitting, range-riding conservatism that emphasizes freedom. (Palin adds moose hunting to the list.) It's not irrational or simplistic for voters to prefer candidates who reflect their deepest values.

... And Palin appeals to many voters as a pro-life symbol, with a family—including a son with Down syndrome—that exemplifies a culture of life. Elites may dismiss this as trivial or backward. But there's no deeper question of political philosophy than this: whom do we count as a member of the human family and protect as our own? Palin welcomed a disabled child—the kind of child often targeted for elimination through eugenic abortion. It's not irrational for Americans to support a candidate who is willing to protect the weak.

First of all: why was it vile for Andrew Sullivan, Cintra Wilson, and South Carolina Democratic Chairwoman Carol Fowler to suggest that one of Palin's main qualifications for the job seemed to be the fact that she didn't have an abortion, yet okay for Palin supporter Gerson to suggest the same, with a positive spin? And since when do conservatives espouse the principle that "the personal is political"?

Secondly: I remember Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was my president. And Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan (pace Michael Reagan). Here, I have to agree with Ron Reagan, lefty though he may be:

"Sarah Palin," he said, "has nothing in common with my father, a two-term governor of the largest state in the union, a man who had been in public life for decades, someone who had written, thought and spoke for decades about foreign policy issues, domestic policy issues, and on and on and on."

Check out, too, this post on the Half Sigma blog. Ronald Reagan was not an intellectual, but he had a long history of engagement with and interest in ideas on the preeminent issues of his day. So far, I see absolutely no evidence of such from Sarah Palin. Besides, they didn't call Reagan the Great Communicator for nothing.

Sarah Palin is not Harry Truman, either. Yes, like Truman, she comes from small-town America. However, by the time Truman was picked to be FDR's running mate, he had served in the U.S. Senate for ten years and had gained fame (including a spot on the cover of Time) as the founder and chairman of the Truman Committee which investigated fraud, waste, and mismanagement in the military.

Palin may yet surprise us all in her debate with Biden. But I doubt it.

There was a moment when it seemed that Palin's candidacy could be a big moment for conservative/libertarian feminism in America -- a feminism that, I strongly believe, deserves a place at the table. Instead, with every passing day so far, she becomes more and more of an embarrassment. Particularly when Camp McCain's efforts to shield her from contacts with the media and to ensure that she gets to do the veep debate under easier rules (against Joe "Foot in the Mouth" Biden, no less!) look so much like a cringeworthy display of sexist paternalism. From Xena, Warrior Princess to damsel in distress in two weeks: how pathetic is that?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Russia and 9/11 denialism

In the wake of its war with Georgia, Russia (as represented by Medvedev, Putin, and the Russian foreign ministry) has repeatedly made noises about wanting nothing but friendship and partnership with the West, including the United States, and having no interest in a "new Cold War."

In light of these protestations, it's interesting to note that on September 12, Russia's state-owned Channel One broadcast the "documentary" Zero by Italian journalist Giulietto Chiesa (who served as the Moscow correspondent for the Italian Communist newspaper Unita in the 1970s) and leading French 9/11 conspirologist Thierry Meyssan, which advances the idea that the World Trade Center bombing was an inside job and that no plane ever hit the Pentagon. The broadcast, in the prime-time program ironically titled "Closed Screening," went largely unnoticed in the West except by 9/11 "truther" sites.

The showing of the film was followed by a panel discussion before a live studio audience (which included both Chiesa, who speaks Russian, and Meyssan). The host, Alexander Gordon, made no secret of his sympathy for Chiesa's viewpoint, though he politely noted that the documentary could have used more objectivity. Several other pro-"truther" panelists, including the rabidly anti-American TV host Mikhail Leontiev, spoke at length in praise of the film, complimenting its makers on their courage and insight, ridiculing the official version of the attacks as absurd (in Leontiev's words, "the ravings of a gray mare" -- a Russian colloquialism that means something like "total nonsense"). TV anchor Alexei Pushkov categorically asserted that while we cannot be sure who engineered the attacks, the idea of "19 Arabs directed by Osama bin Laden in a cave" is completely discredited. He and co-panelist Geidar Jemal, the chairman of Russia's Islamic Committee, also lamented "the death of information" in the Western media and its replacement by "manipulation" -- thankfully, with heroes like Chiesa and Meyssan on hand to resist it. Toward the end of the discussion, explicit parallels were drawn between the Western media's obedient parroting of official lies about 9/11 and their collusion in the "official version" of the Russia/Georgia war.

Giulietto Chiesa

A couple of guests briefly and sheepishly offered opposing viewpoints. Irina Zvyagelskaya, analyst at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, said that she was "unconvinced" by the film and added that if its premise was true and such a cynical act not only toward one's own citizens but also toward world opinion could have been perpetrated, "you don't want to live in this world." Gordon then sarcastically suggested that, in order to be able to go on living, she was going to "shut out" inconvenient truths such as Chiesa's film (to which Zvyagelskaya replied that she would question all versions). TV journalist Vladimir Sukhoi, former Channel One Bureau chief in the US, said -- looking visibly nervous -- that a good journalist should not pursue an agenda or "string facts onto the skewer of his theory," and criticized Chiesa for doing exactly that. His comment went unanswered. When Gordon turned to the studio audience and asked those who believed in the official "19 Arabs" version of 9/11 to raise their hands, not one hand went up.

Alexander Gordon

Toward the end, Meyssan launched into an impassioned diatribe against brutal U.S. dominance all over the world and noted that Russia, no longer weak as in 2001, was the world's last, best hope. "Who can stop this huge predator which is ravaging the planet? We expect a great deal from you, from Russia. Only you can stop all this!" he exclaimed, to raucous audience applause.

Thierry Meyssan

It is estimated that the program was watched by 30 million people.

Ironically, on the same day, at a three-hour meeting with the Valdai Club mostly made up of Western political experts, Russian President (or is it Puppet-in-Chief?) Dmitry Medvedev declared Georgia's military action against South Ossetia on August 8 to be Russia's 9/11. The similarity, apparently, is that "Russian citizens" (i.e. South Ossetians to whom Russia started issuing Russian passports a few years ago while still formally recognizing South Ossetia as Georgian territory) were attacked on August 8 just as U.S. citizens were on 9/11. On the website, commentator Andrei Piontkovsky caustically noted that when Russian state TV embraces the notion that 9/11 was cooked up by U.S. imperialists as a pretext for war, "our 9/11" sounds "rather ambiguous" coming from the President of Russia.

There are other dangers for Russia in peddling 9/11 conspirology for domestic consumption. Many Russians still have questions about the explosions of two Moscow apartment buildings in 1999, blamed on Chechen terrorists but viewed as an FSB inside job by a number of critics. (Unlike the 9/11 attacks, these bombings were never properly investigated.)

That aside, Condoleezza Rice might want to bring up this disgraceful broadcast -- clearly meant to fan the flames of anti-Americanism in the Russian public -- next time she has a chat with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.