02 February 2017

Benefit of the doubt, part one (partly a repost)

A two-cat winter night in Elektrostal.

The USA's new president has not put to rest any of the concerns I mentioned two weeks ago. I'm not the only one who is alarmed by policies that don't conform to American ideals, a management style that I labeled "chaotic improvisation," a constant focus on his own image as a winner, a continuing refusal to be transparent about his personal financial interests, and his promotion of Steve Bannon into the very center of U.S. political power.

But aren't all of these complaints simply a matter of interpretation? Don't they in fact reveal my biases and my unhappiness with the election's outcome? Isn't the president simply doing what he promised? Isn't he simply being a businessman instead of a politician? Why haven't I included a single positive development in this sour list? What about the new Supreme Court nominee, for example? In short, why can't I give this brand-new president the benefit of the doubt?

It's this formula, "the benefit of the doubt," that I'd like to take a look at this week and the next week. How do we implement the same sort of fairness to Donald Trump that we would like to claim for ourselves if we (and our awesome policies) found ourselves at the top? How do we balance this benefit with that other national security rule of thumb beloved of the post-9/11 neocons, the "one percent doctrine"?

(The essence of the one percent doctrine, as summarized by Tom Engelhardt, "... was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty." More about the wider applicability of the doctrine in this post. Question: does today's alleged danger of creeping authoritarianism in the USA qualify as an equivalent occasion of alarm and response?)

I see the principle of responding to doubt with grace as an important antidote to one very real danger, the abiding occupational hazard of political scientists and the spiritual poison of our time: cynicism. I've written before about my struggles with cynicism, both here in Russia and in the American context. For example, here's an entry I wrote back in 2010, slightly adapted:
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.
A week ago [now six years ago] 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) negativity 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 the book cited above, "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 -- the people who have no trust for government ("They lie to us; why shouldn't we lie to them?" says a friend of ours) and who 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.... 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.

(Original post.)

Next week (part two), I'm going to try to see how far "benefit of the doubt" might be applied to our attempts to deal fairly with our new president.

Meanwhile, here in Russia, there are lots of stories about the latest sensational spy case. Here are two recent summaries: The Moscow Times; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

What does the Trump-Putin partnership really mean? Jim Kovpak's interpretation (and as usual, he doesn't mince words). And ... for what it's worth ... this just in: U.S. Treasury reportedly eases sanctions on the FSB.

How churches can benefit from a lesson in urban geography.

Nancy Thomas on the importance and irrelevance of safety.

After three weeks in the USA, Judy comes back tomorrow. :-)

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