12 September 2019

On being normal

A few years ago there was a near-riot in downtown Moscow. It was caused by tensions between ethnic Russian footballers and youths from other ethnic groups from the Caucasus region, shortly after a Russian Spartak fan was killed by a group of North Caucasian young people. In the brief melee, a young man of North Caucasus background was injured. In a news clip, we saw a policeman leading him to a safer location, all the while reassuring him, "Everything will be ok."

Actually, the word he used for "ok" was, in its most direct translation, the word "normal." The policeman was literally saying "Everything's normal," despite dramatic evidence that things were far from normal in any sense I'd recognize.

During our years in Russia, among the Russian words in constant use all around us, this word "normal" was one of the most intriguing, and one of the hardest to pin down. In one context it could be reassuring: "Are you sure you can cope?" ... "Don't worry, everything's normal."

It could be, on the other hand, just as vague as the American English reply, "fine." If you ask "How are you? and the answer is "normal," the reality could range from "can't complain" to "the usual misery."

As an adjective referring to people, individually or collectively, "normal" often means something like this: "measuring up to the more or less standard expectations of competence and social acceptability." (Failing to meet those standards can earn you another rich Russian description: "inadequate.") In the 1996 Russian presidential election, one of the candidates (Grigory Yavlinsky, I think) advertised himself as a "normal" public servant, and one of his brochures listed exactly what he meant by that: academically qualified in economics, speaking several languages, not suffering from destructive addictions. Without coming right out and saying his opponent's name, he was contrasting his normalcy with the incumbent, Boris Yeltsin.

The word "normal" has a new poignancy in the current season of discontent in Russia. Journalists covering demonstrations for honest elections and against police brutality often ask participants why they are there. Older demonstrators often say something like this: "I know the government isn't listening to us, but I'm here simply so I can look at myself in the mirror and say 'I'm a human being.'" However, when young people are asked this question, their answer is frequently much simpler: "I want to live in a normal country."

I hope that sociologists are working on the question, "What do they mean by 'normal' and (given the lack of perfect countries on this planet) how will they know when they see it?" I'd be fascinated to know what influences formed their assessment that their dear native land doesn't qualify.

When we've learned the sources of their direct and (often) fearless demand for something better, I hope that we in the USA can also participate in this conversation. I suspect that "normal" has something to do with a sense of personal efficacy, defended by fairness and due process, and not bankrupted by blatant corruption. These are values for which Americans have been beating the drum globally for generations, and by comparison with many other places, they still operate -- for some more than for others. In Russia, hope and fairness face direct, dramatic threats from authoritarianism, corruption, and passivity. Our threats might sometimes be less dramatic but may end up equally dangerous: corrosive income inequality, severe breakdowns in national unity (amplifying the ancient demon of racism), cowardice in the face of the climate crisis, and our own version of passivity -- complacency.

At our best, maybe we've helped young Russians form a sense of what a "normal country" would mean. In turn, could their courageous discontent inspire us to confront the erosion of our own ideals?

Also see:

Kind cats
Russian avos' and American politics, parts one and two

Church and mission in Europe: optimism and pessimism. One sobering voice:
Harvey Kwiyani of Liverpool Hope University is more cautious because “most Europeans still do not understand that Europe is a mission field and those who do are still unable to figure out how to engage this new mission field of Europe”.
Note to journalists covering the religion beat: sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers.

Recovering original manuscripts from reused papyrus: the remarkable library of St. Catherine's Monastery.

Jules Evans interviews Mark Vernon, the author of The Secret History of Christianity. Has the faith lost touch with its mystic roots? (Side note: I'm intrigued by Evans's job title: policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions.)

More from the Austrian Bluesharp Festival: René Wermke, John the Revelator

PS: Hello from the Pilgrim's Guest House at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba, Jordan. While I'm on this brief self-awarded sabbatical (three months with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron), I may be posting more sporadically and with fewer links and clips. Along with my usual unruly mix of themes, I'm hoping to focus specifically on "praying without ceasing" (from 1 Thessalonians 5:17).

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