09 March 2017

The Russian crowbar

Screenshot; source.  
"If it turns out to be true that some of our guys actually hacked American politicians, I have to say that I'm a bit proud of them!"

The speaker was one of our colleagues. She has no particular animosity toward the USA, but is enjoying this moment of compensation for a US-Russian relationship in which the USA usually assumes its own superiority.

"Russia, Russia, Russia." These days, chaotic, contradictory swirls of that American superiority mixed with anxiety and opportunistic political mudslinging, and genuine anger over apparent Trump-team misbehavior bordering on treason, have not only dominated the news in the USA and its allies. They've also been covered by Russian television news and Web sites. It's hard for me to sit down for a conversation with our colleagues and students without the subject coming up. What will it take for things to settle down?

I'm sure that genuine investigations would be helpful -- although I'm not sure how likely that is to happen. My own personal plea is for caution and sensitivity about puffing up a big, bad Russian threat as a crowbar to use with secret glee for the purpose of regime change in the USA. It's ironic that some liberals, perhaps the very people that told us for decades to unmask and avoid enemy-images, may be intentionally or unintentionally constructing an enemy-image around Russia for short-term political gain in the USA.

The Russian agents my colleague was referring to, "our guys" who "hacked American politicians," as well as those who may have tried to trick, cajole, or pressure Trump team members to compromise, were doing their jobs. Like any competent intelligence agencies anywhere, they're bound to score sometimes. The USA spends countless tax dollars trying to do the same things all over the world, intercepting signals and buying influence. During the US presidential campaign and transition, it was the Americans' job to run clean and sober (and hack-proof) political operations. Don't blame Russia for taking advantage of the clueless guys now in charge in the USA; focus the investigations on the possible American collaborators.

I have no deep insights into the motivations of Russia's leadership, but I have seen a lot of evidence that the Russian state apparatus is anything but monolithic. In any case, in advocating a far more temperate tone to Russia as a country, I'm not saying that the people at the top are angels. Mr. P. is clever but has not demonstrated deep wisdom or long-term strategic ability. He's trapped by a system that he must control or it will turn on him. His short-term tactics (apparently aimed at preserving his power beyond all else) are often destructive and disruptive rather than serving as an inspiration outside Russia's borders. After he no doubt did crucial work to stabilize Russia after the turbulent 90's, we might have hoped that he would turn his attention to building management structures and encouraging new leadership. Instead, he has allowed himself to become "indispensable."

His country is arguably the richest country in the world in natural resources, but corruption consumes large amounts of those resources and ensures that true reform of economy and administration cannot happen, because the system cannot risk allowing too many independent and innovative spirits asking too many questions. The Russia we have now (the Russia I love and respect, whose people have shown us almost nothing but kindness and hospitality) seems doomed to stagnation until some kind of breakthrough happens; and I worry about what that will look like. In the meantime, the only real threat that Russia poses on the world stage is psychological.

George F. Kennan said it best: for the USA and its allies to stay on an even keel, all we need to do is live our ideals. For me, these ideals include collective security, intellectual free trade, hospitality to the world's asylum-seekers, and, above all, the second most revolutionary idea of all time (after grace), namely due process. Among other things, this means resisting paranoia and cynicism, strengthening our global relationships, encouraging the European Union to remember its founding values and vision, flooding Russia with scholars and businesspeople, while getting as many Russians to the USA as possible, to promote mutual intellectual and spiritual exchange. Isolationism is a perfect match for the Kremlin's apparent short-term tactics.

[Friday PS: Both Russians and Americans need to avoid the cheap rhetoric of "whataboutism" (defending one's sins by pointing to sins of the other, rather than acknowledging the incongruities between one's own sins and one's claimed ideals -- for example, Russia's claim to be a bastion of Christian values, and America's "city on a hill"). I just want to point out that whenever we Americans mistreat refugee families, peaceful demonstrators, people in jail and prison, people driving or running while black, whistleblowers, ... we sabotage ourselves on the world stage. Victims can be forgiven for not understanding what the functional differences are between cruelties inflicted by one system and those inflicted by the "other." And there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.]

Quakers and likeminded other Christians may have never faced a more urgent season for evangelism and prophecy. Gospel order transforms the old imperial version of collective security into a nonviolent vision of citizenship in God's commonwealth, serving the Lamb of God rather than national idolatries, and subverting all the tired old excuses for objectifying each other. I hope that's where we direct today's sense of urgency, rather than putting our weight on some dubious Russian crowbar.

So you think Russia isn't a basket case? Actually, I don't think it is, but maybe I'm one of those antihysterians, if not an outright useful idiot....

Fair or unfair? Mark Galeotti: Corruption is Russia's greatest ally.

On the other hand, Stephen F. Cohen wants more proof: Is Russia really the cause of Europe's multiple crises?

The unhappy ghost of American identity: Hauerwas, Bannon, and the emptiness of 'national promise' (from the Armchair Theologian).

California meetings reach out to NW Quakers.

Ruthie Foster!

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