Emotion and Politics

Hands Off Russia’s Sacred Cow

WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

Soviet WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

This week the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding the expression of disrespect for “days of Russian war glory and memorial dates tied to the defense of the Fatherland,” as well as “publicly dishonoring symbols of Russian war glory.” Anyone who spreads “well-known false information about the USSR’s actions during World War II” could be fined up to $6,000 and spend up to 3 years in prison. Using the mass media to spread the “lies” would result in harsher punishment. The bill also outlaws any “rehabilitation” of Nazism or denial of Nazi crimes.

If the law goes into effect, it will be risky for Russians to contradict the Kremlin’s official version of what happened during World War II or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Or the wars in Chechnya. Or events from the 13th through the 19th centuries, according to some sources. Russia has a lot of history to protect.

World War II in particular has long been a very sensitive subject. It’s Russia’s sacred cow. The Soviet army (which included more than just ethnic Russians) defeated the Nazis on the war’s eastern front at an immense cost. That’s reason to feel proud, but silencing any criticism of that history is just one more sad sign of where things are headed in Russia. With some exceptions, the country is still unwilling to publicly discuss and come to terms with the ugly parts of its past, a lot of which happened before, during, and after WWII while Stalin was in charge.

In 2009 a push for this kind of law failed, but this time the law’s sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, has the support. Why now? The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said her colleagues were convinced by “recent events that show that attempts to rehabilitate Nazis or reconsider the outcome of WWII impact the global interests of international security and pose a threat to international peace.”

That means this is about Ukraine, and it’s no coincidence that Moscow’s been using words like “fascist” and “Nazi” lately to criticize Ukrainians it doesn’t like. It’s not a shock that Moscow recently revealed so-called “formerly unknown classified documents” showing that Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era Ukrainian hero whose name has been circulating again, collaborated with the Nazis. That’s propaganda, not news. Bandera’s partisans fought at one point with the Nazi army against the Soviet army, hoping to regain independence from Moscow, so he’s been a controversial figure for a long time already.

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9. Photo by author

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9 in Moscow. Photo by author

I’ll bet remembering WWII makes Russians feel stronger, as well as proud. Taking back Crimea and menacing eastern Ukraine must also make some of them feel like they once again live in a powerful country. (Read my post on the subject of Russia’s “great power” status if you haven’t already.) One journalist made a good point when she noted that the “law on glory” had its first reading on “April 4, on a wave of patriotism stemming from the annexation of Crimea and the propaganda war with Ukraine and the West.”

Wouldn’t you know that VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), found in a March poll that 42% of respondents said they considered “having powerful armed forces” a condition for being a great power, up from 35% in March 2013. Last year, 33% thought “providing citizens a high level of material well-being” was a necessary ingredient. This year only 25% thought so. Hhhhmm.

If Russians were free and able to rely on the rule of law, if the leaders actually prioritized the country’s interests over their own, then it could do so much more than grasp at the glory of its military past. But until Russia can create a more benevolent reason to be proud about now and optimistic about the future, it will hold on to the past like a former jock whose life has gone nowhere since he peaked during high school.




You’re Not The Boss Of Me

Putin subtle bird

Russia’s prickly president, Vladimir Putin

The expression “You’re not the boss of me!” has always bothered me from a grammatical point of view, but it’s been on my mind (on the mind of me?) since the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea story started making the news. It captures my impression of Moscow’s attitude toward Washington and perhaps the West in general.

Ever since the Cold War ended, Russian officials have emphasized their desire for Equal Partnership when interacting with us, and not being dictated to. “We have our own interests, thank you very much, and do not feel the need to do things your way.” They’ve complained about the unipolar world order that resulted when the USSR collapsed, and they have constantly pushed for establishing a multipolar system that would give them more of a voice in international affairs.

They’ve also asserted since then that Russia remains a great power, if no longer a superpower. In other words, “We must be reckoned with, we will not be relegated to the kids’ table, and need we remind you that we still have nuclear weapons?”

Scar Tissue

Rhetoric aside, it’s fair to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Russia. We know Putin has said he considers it one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. Whatever you may believe about who won or lost the Cold War, the aftermath meant political, economic, social, and psychological upheaval for Russians and many others. Not only were people having trouble surviving, but Russia was no longer viewed as a formidable opponent, as the USSR had been. Russia was actually feared for its weakness and the possibility that it wouldn’t be able to keep nuclear material out of the hands of radicals or smugglers.

Crimea has shown that this scar tissue is obviously still relevant. In recent weeks, the Russian press has run plenty of stories about what the annexation of Crimea means for Russia and the world, good and bad. An editorial in Vedomosti said it is “presented by the authorities and accepted by the [Russian] population as an answer to defeat in the Cold War.” The paper says it might seem odd that 90% of Russians support the annexation, according to VTsIOM, but “such a reaction reflects the urge to overcome the post-traumatic syndrome and win back the respect of the outside world, even if it’s through fear.”

An earlier editorial from the same paper wrote, “Vladimir Putin can feel triumphant. Russia refused to follow rules” established in the Belovezha Accords that formally ended the USSR, which Putin “considered unfair. He demonstrated his leadership in the former Soviet space, showing his wavering neighbors his readiness to energetically oppose the West.”

“Leader among the Losers”

Not everyone in Russia is euphoric, however. For example, writer and psychologist Leonid Radzikhovsky was apparently very angry about what this move will cost Russia. After the UN General Assembly approved a resolution rejecting the Crimean referendum on independence, Radzikhovsky railed in a blog post that Russia had voluntarily taken its place at the head of the global “F students.” The 10 countries that voted with Russia against the resolution included “democratic beggars” like North Korea, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, as well as two former Soviet republics that depend completely on Moscow — Belarus and Armenia.

It’s sad, he said: “The USSR held a similar position, but it still occupied Eastern Europe. And like the Russian Federation, it knew how to build relations only on the basis of brute force and subordination.”

He criticized the pridefulness that says it’s “better to follow your own path at the head of the losers (which Russian society deeply despises…) than to be one among the masses of polite Western countries.”


Russian information campaign against Crimean Tatars?

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

This morning I was listening to Kommersant FM radio talk about today’s referendum in Crimea and heard something disconcerting—likely part of an information campaign against the Crimean Tatars. Over the last week or two the Russian station has been playing 1- or 2-minute spots about the peninsula’s history, and this one focused on the Crimean Khanate. It mentioned how the Tatars burned Moscow in the 16th century, killing many, and how they made a habit of enslaving and selling Russians, Poles, and others.

Is this kind of message an attempt to reduce listeners’ sympathy for the Tatars, who have a lot to lose when Russia takes over (again)? Or is it a way to prepare Russians to tolerate oppression of the group? (Remember what they did to us…..)

Some People Make It Too Easy

The Guardians

The Guardians (Photo credit: oefe)

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency has been requiring Verizon to turn over certain information about its customers’ phone calls. The paper said the Obama administration got the ok from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court in April to demand that the telecom provide on an “ongoing, daily basis” all “‘session identifying information’, such as ‘originating and terminating number’, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and ‘comprehensive communication routing information.’”

The Guardian wrote that the collection of such “metadata” does not require a warrant under US law, and that the order does not allow the government to listen to the actual conversations (because, you know, that would be going too far).

As far as I know this hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s probably true.

What irritated me even more this morning was the reaction I heard from an NPR listener, who took the “if you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t bother you” position.

Oh, well, when you put it that way….

No. That doesn’t make it ok. We have to stop thinking like that.

It’s un-American. In our Bill of Rights, Amendment 4 says

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

What would the reaction be from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or someone else who risked everything to create this country: Disgust? Despair? Gape-mouthed shock that Americans would be ok with any government–Democratic or Republican–that holds itself above the Constitution? (after we explained “telephone” and “cell phone” to them, of course)

Could this kind of thinking lead anywhere good?

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a ...

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using the same argument, the police should be able to come into any home without probable cause. “Oh no, don’t mind us. Don’t let us interrupt your dinner. We’ll be out of your hair in a few hours.” And the people living there shouldn’t mind as long as they’re keeping out of trouble.

According to this mentality, those who object to warrantless searches must be people with something to hide. Not people who actually expect the government to obey the law. Yes, of course the government is run by imperfect, flawed humans, but being cynical about what we expect from those humans doesn’t get us anywhere.


Just think about this: The people doing the domestic spying aren’t necessarily the kind of “straight arrows” one might expect to be working at the NSA. I used to know someone who worked there and still downloaded pirated movies at home. As if he couldn’t afford to pay for them. Those responsible for protecting national security should have more integrity than that.

Among the people carrying out this or other surveillance could be the same kind of government employees and public servants who have been caught cavorting with prostitutes while on duty, spending taxpayer money on private parties and dance instruction videos, or providing classified information to foreign governments.

Is that the kind of citizen you want spying on you?

Fear and Loathing in the Gun Control Debate

On my “About” page, I ask these questions: “What do people expect from their leaders? Do they trust them and accept their authority? Do the people feel protected from threats?”

When I wrote that, months ago, I was thinking about threats like terrorist attacks or cyber attacks.

If you’ve read about the American gun-control debate lately, it’s hard not to notice the fear of another kind of threat.

Among those who oppose further restrictions or more thorough background checks there is a group that considers the government itself to be the threat. And they believe they must have firearms to protect themselves from the government.

This isn’t a new development. For a long time, gun rights advocates have pointed to American history as proof of how important it is for people to have—or be able to have—weapons.  They say our freedom was won from our former British rulers at the end of a gun. That’s hard to argue with, but we’ll never know if the colonists could have managed to win their freedom some other way–eventually.

Emanuel Leutze's depiction of Washington's att...

Emanuel Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Augusta, Georgia City Council Member Grady Abrams puts this very well in an Augusta Chronicle opinion piece from earlier this year. Abrams acknowledges the difficulty of the guns problem, given that “the horses are out of the barn.” He also emphasizes this fear I’m talking about.

He says these gun-control opponents who view the government as a threat are not indifferent to the suffering caused by gun violence, but they fear something else more:

I DON’T BELIEVE at all that this group is callous about the shooting tragedies that have occurred recently, especially the killing of innocent children in Connecticut. To them, though, it is a matter of priority – what scares them most. Is it a person walking into a theater with an assault weapon and killing a bunch of people; a deranged individual going into a school and killing teachers and children; or a man shooting individuals from a campus tower in Texas?”

Although all of these events do shake the beliefs of this group of people, their overriding reason for fighting control, which very few want to discuss, is the hate some of them have for their government. It is not the enemy from without that they fear most. It is the enemy from within.”

Such a strongly felt need for the right to bear arms stems from the Declaration of Independence—the part where it reads people are obligated to abolish any government that becomes abusive or despotic:

THIS IS THE reason, I believe, that some will fight tooth and nail to keep their arms – assault weapons and all. It is not about hunting. Even a fool knows this. It is not about protecting homes from burglaries. It is not so much about protecting loved ones from violence. It is all about one day having to fight their government.”

Good example of what I'm talking about. From website http://forums.officer.com/t183729/

Good example of what I’m talking about. From website http://forums.officer.com/t183729/

It’s this attitude that stays on my mind.

Under what circumstances do members of this group imagine such a fight beginning?

How do they believe it would actually end?

Do they think it would benefit the common good, the economy, the country they presumably love enough to die for?

I’m not against gun ownership, but the last thing this country needs is more bad-asses with guns.

Wouldn’t it be better—and more patriotic—to take political action and try to solve the problems that bother them so deeply? Couldn’t they try to make the government look more like the one they wish they had? Easier said than done, but better than living in fear of it, no?

Ride the Chimp in the Direction It’s Going

Chimp in Thought

Chimp in Thought (Photo credit: Jim Epler)

Human nature, aggression, and violence have become the subject of an interesting conversation between animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff and primatologist Jane Goodall and her two co-authors.

After the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., Bekoff said on HuffPost that most “humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for.” It’s the 0.01 percent who kill and destroy that make the news, and the same misconception applies to animals. The “misleading sensationalist media” often portray animals as more violent than they are, “regardless of mounting scientific evidence that nonhumans are predominantly cooperative, peaceful and fair, and on occasion display social justice.” In his opinion, studying other animals could help us “harness our own innate goodness to make the world a better place for all beings.” (more…)

Newsroom and “Star-spangled Awesomeness”

This post is bound to offend some, but that would be a bad reason not to write it. So, for the record, let me start by saying that I love America and am grateful I was born here and live here.

I was discussing politics and society with someone at work, who said “hey, you should watch the opening scene from HBO’s Newsroom.” It’s been out for a long while, apparently, but I don’t have cable. I looked it up on YouTube and then had to watch it several more times. Hopefully this show will be available on Netflix.

Jeff Daniels in Newsroom. Photo courtesy of syracuse,com

Jeff Daniels in Newsroom. Photo courtesy of syracuse.com

In case you haven’t watched the scene, here’s a brief description: A moderator sits on a stage in what appears to be a university auditorium with three other people: a liberal, a conservative, and a news anchor (sounds like the setup for a joke….). A young woman in the audience asks all three speakers to state briefly why they think America is the greatest country in the world. (more…)

Emotional Bubble Wrap and the Freedom of Speech, Part II

Extended International Dance Mix

My last post was about the US, but this issue of feelings vs. freedom of expression comes up in other countries too. It’s been making the news in Russia for months. At the end of September, the Duma began considering a bill that would alter existing law by criminalizing acts that offend “religious faith and feelings of citizens,” as well as acts against religious objects and places where religious ceremonies are conducted. The draft bill called for penalties of up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about 9700 USD). It is still under consideration but very likely to become law, considering the legislature’s recent work limiting other freedoms.

pussy riot livejournal

Photo from pussy-riot.livejournal.com

One part of the context for this was Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February. (more…)

Emotional Bubble Wrap and the Freedom of Speech, Part I

I’m all for the freedom of speech. People should have the right to say whatever [choose your adjective] thing they want. We should, but in the interest of civilization we’ve set boundaries against things like hate speech, which the American Bar Association defines as communication that “offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” So we don’t have the right to use “fighting words,” which are “without social value” and could be expected to provoke the listener, but the First Amendment does give us the freedom to say things that are offensive and hateful or that the listener may disagree with. If someone wants to explain the difference, I’d be grateful.Hear-No, See-No, Speak-No Evil Monkeys

It’s not threats or insults that concern me here. There’s no excuse for those. It’s the offending part of the definition that prompted me to write this, because in the news I’ve been coming across examples of censorship or self-censorship that come from fear of offending a group. (more…)

Biting Our Collective Nails

Our leaders are being irrational. Once again Americans are approaching a “fiscal cliff” and we’re waiting to see if Congress and the White House will reach a compromise that prevents another recession. I’m not sure if this irrationality is “unintentional” or if it’s being used as a strategy in the game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. In one version of that game, two drivers speed toward each other and certain mutual destruction, and the one who swerves to avoid collision at the last minute is considered a coward. It can be smart (even rational) for one player to signal that he is “crazy” enough not to change direction, so that the other player will. But in our case these drivers have millions of people in the cars with them, so-called fiscal hostages.

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterl...

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterlicher Turnier-Zweikampf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Political scientists have used this game to explain nuclear “brinkmanship” during the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also applies to the neglected and disparaged art of political compromise–especially when a serious deadline looms. (more…)