Saturday, September 6, 2008

Parallel Universes

If you live in Berkeley and experience America mostly on television, you know why we sell T-shirts here advertising “Planet Berkeley.” There’s more than a little evidence we live in a parallel universe to the rest of the U.S.A.

Two days ago I attended a panel discussion at the Institute of International Studies on the Berkeley campus to hear four UC Berkeley experts on the Caucasus talk about what’s going on in Georgia: Steven M. Fish, Professor of Political Science; Yuri Slezkine, Professor of History and Director of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; Johanna Nichols of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Edward W. Walker, Associate Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science and Executive Director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies.

Nichols went first. There are only 70,000 Ossetians, she said, most of whom have had it with Georgia and want to be part of Russia. The Abkhazians have even stronger desires to unite with Russia, having all but given up their native language and assimilated.

Lest you think this is coming with a pro-Russian slant, consider that Nichols’s strongest interest in the region is in Chechen. (How many people do you know who could write a Chechen dictionary?)

Then came Fish, Walker and Slezkine, all with pretty much the same message. (My point here is to get quickly to the bottom line, so I will not attempt to distinguish who said what, except on direct quotes.) It goes like this:

1. To line up the Georgians, the Russians, the Abkhazians, the Ossetians and all the rest of the ethnicities of the region into good guys and bad guys is partisanship based on something other than facts on the ground. There are no democracies, but rather poorly, often brutally governed enclaves, including Saakashvili’s Georgia, a police state more abusive even than Russia. (This from Fish, author of Democracy Derailed in Russia, which argues that Russia's post-communist democratic experiment a failure.)

2. We in the U.S., by taking a triumphalist stance over Russia when the wall came down, made an enemy of a state which has risen to new power, thanks to its oil and gas wealth, a possibility that anybody who wanted to could have seen coming. (Where was the great Soviet expert Condoleezza Rice on this?)

3. Our three biggest problems in the world are: oil, international terror, and the economy (read: competition from China.) Russia has oil, is culturally much more closely aligned to Europeans and Americans than Iran, Iraq or Saudia Arabia, has the best terrorist fighting strength in the world after the United States, and also views China with suspicion. If the U.S. had not dumbed down so badly (my editorializing, forgive me), if it had maintained the foreign relations expertise it once had (George F. Kennan, W. Averell Harriman), and not thumbed its nose at the rest of the world, labeling bullies people who resist our own bullying, and casting opponents as evildoers in religious terms, we might have a partner where we now have an enemy who celebrates our international impotence.

4. We are impotent, internationally. We cannot go to war with Russia, so when Russia marches into Georgia, there isn’t one damn thing we can do about it.

5. The Europeans are not going to help us. Their new role is to referee the new cold war rhetoric. They need Russia too much to do anything else.

6. The arch nationalist Saakashvili took a gamble on August 7 that the U.S. would come to his aid when he marched into South Ossetia, which had been independent since 1992 . (Remember those miscommunications to Saddam Hussein before we went to war with Iraq?) He is an idiot. An English-speaking idiot, which means we think he’s smart, but a ruthless nationalist, not a freedom fighter. Even the Europeans are trying to wish him away.

7. His marching into South Ossetia was a dream come true for Russia. Their part in the war can now be cast as defensive, they point out that because the United States supported Kosovo independence, claiming that regions have the right to break free of bad regimes, the U.S. has nothing to say to Russia’s helping Abkhazia and Ossetia do the same. Either the U.S. is for self-determination, or it is not. After all, Abkhazians and Ossetians want union with Russia no less badly than Kosovars wanted independence from Serbia.

8. What’s really to blame (besides everybody on all the sides involved) is the U.S. attempt to turn all of Russia’s neighbors into U.S. client states under the umbrella of NATO. (“What does Georgia have to do with the North Atlantic?”) Americans, genuinely and sincerely believing themselves to be “the good guys,” cannot understand (but must learn) that Russia sees this exactly the way the U.S. saw missiles in Cuba, and would see Russian hegemony over Venezuela, Mexico and the Caribbean.

9. Russia cares about what happens in Georgia, but it cares even more what happens in Ukraine. Ukraine is now a failed state, and the U.S. is moving in there, too. [Or maybe not. And maybe the reversals are now getting serious. (See this take from an Abu Dhabi newspaper.)] If the U.S. moves to take Ukraine into its orbit, this war in Georgia will look like a rehearsal for the real performance. Russia is making a stand, and will not back down, knowing the U.S. has no way of preventing the Caucasus from becoming involved in endless wars. “Peacekeeping forces can’t keep peace – states keep peace.” (Fish – said in the context of assigning the two regions to one state or another).

10. Blaming this all on the Republicans isn’t justified. NATO expansion began in the early 1990s with Clinton. A regime change from Bush and company might lessen tensions, but Russians don’t make big distinctions between American Republicans and Democrats. That said, it might be worth pointing out that McCain’s chief foreign policy advisor is a lobbyist on Saakashvili’s payroll.

I leave the hot conference room (we don’t have air conditioning in Northern California) for some fresh air, walk down Telegraph Avenue and wonder at the contrast between this heady crowd of Russian, Georgian, European and American intellectuals, and all the street people begging for spare change.

Just took a break to check the news:

Then I see in my e-mail this article by E. Wayne Merry of the Nixon Center, of all places:

and this appeal from Stanford professor and founder of the Beyond War Foundation, Martin Hellman:

And I am reminded of

“Today we are all Georgians.”
- John McCain

Actually, it's less about Berkeley vs. the U.S.A., as I suggested at the outset, and as the right wing (with Berkeley's complicity) likes to suggest, than it is between two sets of folk, those who live with ideas grounded in evidence and reason on the one hand, and those who live in the streets or accept the rhetoric of political conventions (the distance between those two is not as far as you might think) because it makes us feel good, on the other.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not passing on these ideas as the gospel truth (although it's tempting to lean that way, given these guys' credentials). I'm just reflecting on the low level of discourse in America's political realm, where one wishes other viewpoints on this latest flashpoint would get some sort of hearing.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Such as...

Making fun of dumb Americans is like shooting fish in a barrel these days, thanks to YouTube. God help you if you have an off moment and say or do the wrong thing. Interesting to speculate what this is going to do for people in the public sector. It could tighten things up, force people to look before they leap. It could also extend cynicism as one by one we get so used to everybody being a jerk that we simply lower our expectations even more.

Smart and dumb is just one way to divide us up into two opposing camps these days. There’s red and blue, Nietzschean (Republican) and Christian (the real, “Least of these my brethren” kind, not the TV kind, I mean).

You could go on and on. There are Americans who can pay over $1000 out of pocket for a crown as I just did (I’ve got full health care coverage, just not dental insurance) and those who have to let their teeth fall out, those who hope gays will zip it up on gay civil rights till after the election, and those who think silence is murder, those who believe libraries should make their own selections, and those, like Sarah Palin, who want to deselect other people's reading here and there. All sorts of ways of dividing us into the black-and-white opposites.

Here’s one for you. How about those who think it’s great to get teenagers to parade their tits and asses in beauty pageants and those who think that's no way to raise a kid.

A friend sent me this YouTube link of the 2007 Miss Teen Pageant. If you’ve been around on YouTube this may be old news.

At moments like these I wish I were still teaching my ethics seminar. I’d be asking them whether it is unethical of me to participate in the ridicule of this young girl, or whether she is fair game for participating in a contest in which being tested on articulateness is part of the judgment (My guess is my students, more at home with the internet than I am by far, would vote for “fair game.”)

Obviously, there are lots of folk yucking it up out there. It didn't take long to track down a whole bunch of spin-off YouTube pieces. A number of folk got there before me.

Pretty soon I began to feel bad for this poor girl’s parents. After that, it didn’t take long before I was feeling bad for this poor girl’s countrymen, many of whom would not have done any better at explaining why so many Americans can’t spot the U.S.A. on a world map.

Don’t know how much time you want to spend on this, but I’d be interested in hearing where your reflections take you.

Here’s a partial list of YouTube references (really, only a part!):

Miss Teen South Carolina’s ability to answer a thought-provoking question

The animated version

The South Park version

The Jimmy Kimmel analysis
(you might want to skip to minute 1 and 48 seconds.)

A serious look at what we are doing to our teenagers

A Miss South Carolina in training

What went on in her head

Miss Teen USA parody

Miss SC ites iples and bininas

Such as...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Forty per day

It’s a new school year and a bunch of students have moved into the neighborhood. One set of them sent me a nice note telling me they were going to have a party and would try not to disturb me. Then came the hootin’ and hollarin’ at three in the morning as these kids screamed their way out into the street with nary a thought that somebody might be disturbed. “Sorry,” one guy explained to me when I went out to ask them to move on. “They’re drunk.”

Another girl neighbor, living alone, was brought home the other night by not one but two cop cars, too drunk to make it home on her own. God knows the story on how the cops made that decision.

These are upper middle class kids in Berkeley. In their mid twenties attending graduate school. Compared to the poor kids on harder drugs than alcohol, they’re highly disciplined, and maybe I should be grateful.

This morning’s Chronicle has a front-page article on the robbery surge in the Bay Area. For a while there I was stomping around helping rustle up some interest in the fact we have 1.5 muggings a day in Berkeley. The police chief comes to talk, tells us we are lucky we are not Oakland, and we all go back to what we were doing, comforted by the notion that while we are being mugged every day, somebody else a couple miles to the South has it worse.

Now, it turns out there’s a huge spike in violent crimes all over the Bay Area. The Bay Area is running an average of 40 muggings a day. No kidding. A day. Most unnerving are the blatant daytime robberies in downtown streets and the dozen or so robberies in recent weeks in restaurants. They come in, rob the cash register, tell all the customers to put their wallets on the table, scoop them up and clear out.

Oakland Mayor Dellums, on those rare occasions when he is in town, gives speeches in which he pronounces such goings-on “unacceptable.” And people go back to what they were doing. We’re wondering if Sarah Palin wouldn’t mind being mayor here for a while, maybe fly around and shoot these wolves from an airplane.

The connection I’m making here is that word is out that many, if not most, of these hold-ups at gun point seem to be by kids, some as young as fifteen. People are trying to make the connection with hard economic times. I’m not sure the word is in yet – how could it be when they don’t have a clue to any of these guys’ identities? I’m going with money for a crack habit.

It may be economic, of course. While on page A6 you read that former California Republican Governor Pete Wilson is in St. Paul complaining how the Democratic Party is playing the “class warfare” card and we should vote for McCain because he puts America first and doesn’t tax the rich, you turn to the editorial page (B4) and read that poverty in America went from 11.9% in the 1990s to 12.5% for the past couple of years. Uninsured went from 39.8 to 45.7 million since the beginning of the Bush Administration, and the top 1% of the population now rake in 23% of the total income.

But all this could be coincidental. Maybe it’s just global warming. Which, according to Sarah Palin, is not man-made. And polar bears are not going extinct. And even if they are, we need the oil. And when 17-year-old daughters get pregnant, it’s not because of abstinence education, it’s just bad luck. And did you note she wants to put creationism back into the schools?

Remember the good old days before the outrageous became the commonplace, if not the laudable?

Where was I? Oh, yes. Forty robberies a day in the Bay Area. Up 40% between 2004 and 2007.

Somebody help, please!