11 May 2017

Spring shorts

"... but the real question is, what is going to happen to this country?"
James Baldwin to Dick Cavett, 1968.
Documentary film: I Am Not Your Negro (2016), recommended.

Goodbye video, back to books

For some reason, I've lost my appetite for television programs and movies -- except those I watch when we have company over to our home. I can't believe I have four new episodes of Doctor Who that I've left unwatched!

Instead, every spare moment finds me reading. Recently, I've been in Dublin with the heroes of Tana French's detective novels. I've devoured In the Woods and The Likeness, and have a couple more to look forward to.

The trouble with French's nuanced and atmospheric novels is that they set a high bar that only a few other writers in that genre can meet. Luckily, I have new novels by Robert Bryndza and Jo Nesbø on my to-read pile.

Before Tana French's Ireland, I was in Norway, thanks to author Neal Bascomb (The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb). And now I'm in Pasadena, California, learning about the history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its women computers, thanks to author Nathalia Holt (Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars).

At the same time, I'm refreshing my acquaintance with Mark Twain, just in time to lead a dinner/discussion about him with an international group in Moscow next week. And as the bittersweet moment gets nearer, when we will finally end our decade in Russia, I hope to draw on Amy Peterson's Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World for wisdom and perspective.

One exception to the loss of appetite for video: the film I Am Not Your Negro. In my late teens, as racism and violence overwhelmed my family life and my wider world at the exact same time, I read everything I could find by James Baldwin, and now I'm grateful for this opportunity to get re-acquainted with him. It's not exactly nostalgia; his words continue to indict and burn.

A month on Twitter

Ten years ago, in my first months here in Russia, I opened a Twitter account. At the time, I had a very narrow purpose: to post status updates on Facebook from my dumbphone. Twitter was the only way to do that. Eventually I let the account fall into disuse and Twitter apparently gave my ID to someone else.

I returned about a month ago, fully aware of Twitter's reputation as an outrage generator and amplifier. So far incendiary content seems manageable and spam hasn't yet been a problem at all. There's more humor than I'd expected, especially in the Russian-language sources I follow. The difference between Twitter and Facebook is interesting -- Facebook is far more social, and Twitter far more journalistic and political. Maybe that social dimension is why I find it a lot easier to ignore Twitter for days at a time, while still trying to stay in touch with friends and family via Facebook.

Friday PS: An unexpected bonus from Twitter is discovering that some of my acquaintances among Friends are not just nice people but discerning readers and sharp political thinkers. In just a few days they've added three books to my must-read list.

The Russian crowbar, part two

Recently I cautioned my readers who are Trump opponents against falling into the habit of using vague and undifferentiated references to Russia as a way to beat their favorite political villain. First of all, Russia is a huge country full of decent and interesting and creative people, not a gang of Bullwinkle-style stereotypes. Secondly, Americans' priority should be to ensure that their own government is competent and deal directly with the failures and betrayals, rather than just to blame foreigners who take advantage of incompetence. Of course there is nothing wrong with also advocating higher ethics among all players in international relations, but don't be oversanctimonious in that cause when your own country is not always playing on the side of the angels.

Yesterday's visit of Lavrov and Kislyak and their photographer to the White House, and the resulting outrage that only Russian photos emerged from the meeting, show how stupid it is to be so pathetically eager to bash Russians. American journalists were understandably miffed that they were not allowed to photograph these White House meetings, and were therefore scooped by photographer Aleksandr Scherbak. What strikes me as plain idiocy is for White House staffers to act surprised that Scherbak's pictures were published. What did they think he had cameras for? It was the White House who chose to let him in and keep the American press out. CNN reported:
"They tricked us," an angry White House official said.
"That's the problem with the Russians -- they lie," the official added.
To me this sounds like trying to blame domestic incompetence on those lying foreigners. While I have no romantic illusions about the games played by politicians of any country, the words of the Russian photographer himself sound a lot closer to the truth than that angry White House official. Saying "they lie" just makes the U.S. side look whiny and stupid.

Of course, having a president who dismisses an FBI head practically with a wave of his hand -- an incredible display of casual, vulgar authoritarianism -- doesn't help.

Victory Day in Elektrostal

May 9, Victory Day in Russia, is the country's most important secular holiday. My feelings about this day are very complicated (as are some Russians' feelings, about which I might write at another time). Still, it's undeniably the day that really pulls ordinary Russians out of their private circles and into the streets in recognition of the national mega-tragedy represented by the 27 million Soviet dead of World War II. No family was untouched by the brutal violence that raked the nation, thanks to the Nazi invasion.

Victory Day gives us an annual opportunity to mix with our neighbors and fellow residents of our hospitable town. This video by YouTube user Andrei Alyasov shows the crowds at Elektrostal's Lenin Square rally and the procession to the Eternal Flame. Judy and I, and our guest Karen from Hungary, are somewhere in this crowd, not far behind the "26,298 days of peace" banner:

Peter Laarman: what does Elizabeth Warren have in common with classical evangelists?

Three Russian schoolteachers share their experiences of politics and propaganda. While I don't know any teachers who would agree 100% with these three, I often see this level of thoughtfulness and balance among my own acquaintances.

Friday PS: Russian Pokémon Go player gets suspended sentence.

In analyzing and comparing Russia ... the importance of being ideological.

Sean Guillory interviews John Burgess, professor of systematic theology and author of Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia.

Perpetual War Watch: Danny Sjursen on America's wars and the "more" strategy.

Three kinds of selfies you should never take.

Blues dessert from Russia:

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