14 September 2006

Good questions

I gave a talk on Russian-American relations this morning. Among the topics I included were "the myth of 'strategic partnership'" and American interpretive frameworks that help explain how we see Russia.

After I was done, several students had questions and comments. For example:

"I think that it is not possible to be friends and rivals at the same time."

As we probed this theme, I asked whether a girl could have two boyfriends at the same time. One person said, "No, it's not possible," but from another table, several women said, "Of course it's possible." The first woman said, "Well, maybe, but she will only love one."

I asked parenthetically whether the USA could love both India and Pakistan equally, but soon we were back at the level of interpersonal relations:

"You can have only one love, but you can have several friends and partners."

I asked how these friendships and partnerships could be maintained, made sustainable.

"Love and friendship require more than words," said one student. "There must be communication, actions, mutual trust, mutual support." This opened the theme of the work that friendship requires. I mentioned the stereotypical situation of the wife who asks whether her husband loves her, and the reluctantly muttered response, "Twenty years ago I said I did; isn't that enough?" (NOTE: Nobody I know is like this!) We talked about how we can put genuine effort into our friendships and loves ... and international relations.

We also talked about healthy patriotism and a healthy understanding of power. As I looked at these energetic and intelligent people, I said, "Maybe some of you want to be powerful people, and some of you know that you do not want to be, but everyone needs to think about the right uses of power and the wrong uses of power." That led into a discussion of the mobilization of social resources. ("Does it ever really happen?" asked one student. "I never see it." We discussed the government's role in social mobilization, exemplified here in Elektrostal by the mayor's push for beautification that has transformed the city) and the government's interest in holding a monopoly on coercive force. Finally, we had just enough time to mention transparency, due process, and checks and balances as aspects of a healthy understanding of power.

Maybe you can see why I love talking with students here.

It's easy to leap to a discussion of differences between Russians and Americans, but in my talk, I proposed a list of some traits that Russians and Americans have in common. Here are some starters, including several traits that are contradictory:

  • a sweeping sense of national geography
  • expansive and maximalist mentalities
  • distrust of elites (which doesn't prevent us from sometimes being fascinated by celebrities)
  • pragmatism (Americans are famous pragmatists, but if I want to know the shortest path between A and B, I will not go wrong to ask a Russian)
  • messiah complexes (exceptionalism)
  • idealism (an apparent contradiction to pragmatism, but I defy you to prove me wrong in either case!)

A more challenging line of discussion might be to list those dysfunctions and complexes, whether shared or distinct, that keep our countries at an unhelpful arm's length. For example, each country has its own version of a sort of victim mentality, which makes it easy for that country to look suspiciously at the other.

Mushrooms: I was invited on a mushroom hunt a couple of days ago. We visited a forest north of Noginsk. My companions kept finding champion mushrooms, but, despite the apparent evidence of this staged photo, I was absolutely hopeless at finding any good ones at all. I did find many mushrooms that were either too old or poisonous. However, once the mushrooms were fried up with potatoes and onions, I was an expert at consuming them.

Elektrostal seems to be rapidly adopting Western-style consumer culture, with an impressive Home Depot-like Chistie Materiali (Pure Materials) store near where I'm staying, along with handsome new grocery stores associated with the SPAR and Sedmoi Kontinent chains. It is really not for me to comment on what this means for Elektrostal and its more traditional commercial sector, but all the same I am glad that people here still love to find their own mushrooms ... and to share them with the mushroom-challenged.

Righteous links: Good News Associates has published a paper by John Braun, "Do We See the Poor through God's Lens?" (PDF format), addressing the role of business in a biblical confrontation with poverty.

"9/11 in a Movie-Made World." Strange to go to my e-mail this afternoon and open an item from Tomdispatch.com with this title, after a student asked me this afternoon, "Why are there so many films about 9/11?" (One such film was shown on a major network here just a few days ago.) Tom Engelhardt makes a good contribution towards an answer to the student.

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