23 December 2010

Thoughts on hope and cynicism

The service in the stores is terrible, not like in America. Our government should decree that better service be provided in the stores. And they should also control the ads on TV; they all try to manipulate, deceive people. That should not be. In America, that's never the case. I never saw such lies when I was in America.

--Misha, a computer programmer (Moscow, 1994), quoted in Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika, Nancy Ries.
Last week I reported on the aftermath of a beautiful choral concert. Among the comments from students who had attended the concert and were still glowing the next day, one sentiment really struck me: "I had given up on Russia" -- until somehow the concert restored at least a little hope.

A few days later, the glow was much reduced. Several of our friends were insisting that there was no future for them in Russia. Too little creative freedom; too much corruption; in short, where's the exit? I have had countless conversations on this theme ever since my first visit to post-Soviet Russia in 1994.

Who are we to argue? If we claim to be here -- at least in part -- to listen, we must then listen, even if we're told things we don't want to hear. But the problem with such unrelieved negativity is that (1) it can always find a way to prove itself right, and (2) in the long run, it helps create the conditions for things to remain negative. As Nancy Ries says in Russian Talk, "It is the irony of all societies, not just Russia, that strategies for coping with trouble, including the discursive mythification of trouble, may also cause or allow the toleration of more trouble."

When I came to Russia in 1994, large numbers of people were not getting their salaries on a regular basis. Four year later, I witnessed first-hand a few of the devastating ripple effects of the August "default." The situation for millions of Russians today is dramatically better. I can cite many examples of improved housing, improved infrastructure, even improved service by bureaucrats.

For every improvement, someone could undoubtedly cite something that remains neglected -- or worse, that exhibits the legendary indifference of some Russian elites to those at the bottom. For every advantage gained by people in this new century, some would cite an advantage lost when the Soviet Union's ritualized idealism and centralized planning came to an end. Paradoxes abound -- people who have no trust for government ("They lie to us; why shouldn't we lie to them?" says a friend of ours) and find ways around any inconvenient rule are the same ones who urge the government to tighten regulations and apply a bigger stick -- citing their own functional anarchism as evidence!

Thus: causes of cynicism are not hard to find. What's an incorrigible optimist, who nevertheless acknowledges the need to take people's testimonies seriously, bound to do?

First, I think there's a difference between realism (particularly what we might call Christian realism) and cynicism. Biblically-rooted realism is not particularly shocked when people turn out to behave deviously, have hidden agendas, are motivated by greed or fear or lust, or are just plain ignorant. Luke's rich man, dressed in purple, is separated from Lazarus by much more than the gate in between.

But when we're faced with such evidence of cruelty or hypocrisy, it's the next step that is crucial in the fight against cynicism and its trusty ally, passivity. We can check it off as yet another example of the corruption we've already accepted (though we claim to be against corruption), whether that checking-off serves our ideology or simply our laziness. OR we can analyze the situation: what are the powers at work, who benefits, what does this reveal about structures and stresses, where is prayer needed and for whom, who else needs to know what is going on -- and is there an alternate explanation? Is there a case to be made for "the benefit of the doubt"?

Whenever we see some policy or transaction that smells fishy, it's natural for us to ask, "Who benefits?" (Or in Deep Throat's variation, "Follow the money.") But it is important to ask the question analytically, not tendentiously! Every time we surrender to the temptation to say "After all, what else did we expect?" we actually fudge that analysis. Worse, we marginalize every person in that supposedly corrupt system who is trying to do a good job. Don't laugh -- it's statistically impossible for everyone in the system to be 100% corrupt. But what incentive is there for people to work honestly if everyone assumes they're corrupt? Yes, some of them are compromised (and some of us criticizing them are far from 100% pure, too!), but let's make our skepticism work for us rather than for the Author of Confusion.

Two thousand years ago, in a time of rampant tyranny and corruption, God intervened in the form of a tiny Baby -- a Baby who quickly became a political hot potato and a refugee. Three decades later, his earthly fate was supposedly in the hands of a minor potentate, Pontius Pilate, himself caught in that imperial tyranny. There is no power or principality so entrenched that Jesus and his disciples cannot look directly at it and tell the truth -- about the system, and about the souls trapped in it. That included Rome (note past tense!); it includes Russia; it certainly includes the USA. Thank you, Jesus.

And to you, dear reader: Christmas blessings!

[UPDATE: I reframed and reposted this essay early in Donald Trump's presidency.]

Another ancient, related editorial from Quaker Life: "Trust but Verify."

Russia's legal portal and forum site zakonia.ru has for a while been running this survey on their home page:
What will help Russian society to learn to live by law?
  • Adoption of a comprehensive state program for a 10-15 year period
  • More stringent penalties for minor infractions of the law
  • Only time
  • Nothing. Nihilism is a national trait
  • I have my own suggestion.
You can see the results here (Russian language--but in the same order). At time of writing, suggestion 2 (more stringent penalties) is winning!

More on Russia and law (note: cynics anonymous, check with your sponsors before reading).

Living with doubt--as a missionary, no less....

An Advent feast.

Professor Rah's Christmas Tale.

Whether you agree or not with John Harris's politics, the class-struggle rhetoric is fascinating: "In this Dickensian season, a Victorian clique still rules."

And Ross Douthat with some thoughtful rhetoric of his own: "A Tough Season for Believers."

Did you know that 131 people were arrested in front of the White House last week? In the meantime, "The torture of Bradley Manning."

"Federal judge awards damages to Islamic charity in NSA wiretapping case."

"Ideas for contemporary worship song titles."

Northwest Yearly Meeting is looking for our next superintendent.

This former Ottawa Ontario resident says: One of these Texas blues guitar women is not like the others.... (Clue: note Sue Foley's gorgeous guitar.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Johan!! I hope it is a beautiful one!!

Always nice to see what you write, and also the vids you post. I loved these Texas women.