11 August 2016

Russian avos' and American politics

Last week I recommended not including judgments about a candidate's faith when criticizing that candidate. My reasoning: (1) Unless we've dialogued directly with the candidate, we're relying on third parties for our information about the candidate, and many of the channels for our information are committed to influencing us with a biased message. (2) We risk hypocrisy.

There's an important role for our own faith, of course, as we speak out about the candidate's behavior and policy positions. For example, I find it disheartening to consider the likelihood that Hillary Clinton as president would continue to follow Washington DC's conventional wisdom on defining and fighting terrorists. If anyone has heard of new proposals to engage our so-called enemies in an honest confrontation over their grievances (and ours), I'd love to know. Otherwise, I expect the long list of military and CIA failures in much of the world to keep growing.

Donald Trump, the other candidate in our de facto binary process, is another story altogether. He doesn't present us with a predictable set of likely policies, nor does he fit the behavioral profile for the role of our country's national representative to the world. He is the very definition of a loose cannon -- and that is his appeal to many of his supporters, because the tight cannons in charge up to now have not delivered for them.

In her article, "Trumputin: What Russia can teach us about the US election," Natalia Antonova writes,
Perhaps one of the most telling lines about Trump supporters was recently published by conservative writer David Frum, who quoted this line from his discussions with fellow Republicans who are set to vote for Trump: "You believe in institutions because they work for you… But our people don’t believe in institutions any more."

People who have lost faith in institutions have lost faith in institutional change. This makes them especially vulnerable to promises made by firebrand demagogues. And it places them further beyond the reach of facts or logic.

. . .

Arkady Ostrovsky argued that the west should not have gloated when it won the Cold War. I similarly want to caution Clinton supporters from gloating should their candidate beat Trump at the polls.

This is not about winning an election anymore. The Trump phenomenon has exposed deep fissures in our society and political system. It has exposed the fact that an unwieldy, inflexible two-party system no longer adequately addresses the interests of millions of Americans. It has exposed the fact that many voters have lost faith in traditional legislators. It has exposed the fact that our citizens are fearful and mistrustful of each other.
These fearful and mistrustful citizens may well be aware of the doubts that many of us have about their loose-cannon champion. They may even have taken our worries into account, and have decided that the fruit-basket upset they want to see in the establishment is worth the risk. It reminds me of the Russian concept of avos', which linguist Natalia Gogolitsyna describes as follows in her book Untranslatable Russian Words:
This colloquial word and expression combines the meaning of "perhaps," "I wish," "on the off-chance" and "hopefully," which creates problems when translating. In Russian folklore, it has both positive and negative connotations.
Two of her examples of usage are particularly interesting to me in the context of Trump's supporters:
... the concept of "Russian avos". What is it? In fact it is the habit of living in conditions of limited information. Living and surviving. Valery Milyayev
... a Russian can't work like an Englishman; even now we do everything on the off chance. Andrei Konchalovsky
I wonder if "limited information" in the Russian context might be understood a bit loosely as "a sense of limited personal efficacy." Might that also be behind Trump's followers' mood? Could that result in the sort of cynicism that often seems to be poisoning the politics in both countries? As a result of this sense of being marginalized without recourse, are people in both countries more willing to do things on the off-chance?

I was already thinking over this impression that some of Trump's supporters were in an avos' mood, when I walked into our institute here in Elektrostal a few days ago -- my first time there since returning from the USA. One of my colleagues asked, "If it's not a secret, what do you think of your presidential candidates?" I mentioned my doubts about Trump, and she replied, "If Clinton wins, we already know how she feels about Russia -- she's not exactly our friend. In any case, we more or less know what she will do. Don't you think it would be a lot more interesting, even fun [veselo] if Trump became president? After all, he'll have advisors, a cabinet; people will make sure that he can't do too much harm. And life will not be boring!"

I'm not as ready as my Russian colleague to throw the USA on the mercy of a Trump-shaped avos', but I suspect that her Russia-centric outlook on our presidential choices is not that far from some of his home-grown supporters, including those in my extended family. How do we reach them to compare notes about the risks facing us on election day? Concerning communication with Trump's supporters, Antonova recommends:
As George Lakoff has argued, when cold, hard facts don't work, values, empathy and positively-framed truth do much better. Simply relating to each other better as human beings works.

This is why I don’t have any hatred for Trump supporters, even when they yell at me to “go back to Russia” on Twitter. I know they want me to hate them. But I don’t want to give them what they want, nor do I want to play their game. It’s not a game a rational person can win. Putin supporters, who’ll call you a "Russophobe" when you so much as question their leader, taught me that a long time ago. [Links in original.]
Finally, I can simply remind myself that, whatever pretensions a president might put on ...
I will walk about in freedom,
     for I have sought out your precepts.
I will speak of your statutes before kings
     and will not be put to shame...
(Psalm 119:45-46, NIV; context)

Part two (March 2019).

More on Russians and our American political season: Why Russians don't care about Trump, Clinton, and the DNC hack; on the other hand, here's why Russian Facebook users love Donald Trump.

Micah Bales on what it means to follow Jesus in the age of Trump.

Building our house in the storm: Brian Drayton writes to Friends of New England Yearly Meeting as they gather for their 356th annual sessions.

...Examinations of the interaction of race and the law have tended to focus on when minorities are subject to legal process, not their treatment when administering it.

Blues from Brazil: After enjoying their recorded music for several years, I finally heard the Igor Prado Band live at the 2016 Waterfront Blues Festival. Here they are, performing "Memphis Train" and (at 8:30) "Give Me Back My Wig!"


Daniel Wilcox said...

Very insightful article!

May I post this to my Facebook page with credits?

Johan Maurer said...

Daniel: Yes ... and thanks for the kind comment.