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Irony, Ice, and Ideology

First I urge everyone to read Chalmers Johnson’s new article “How to Create a WIA — Worthless Intelligence Agency.”

There are certain political ironies that have occurred in the last 15 years that continually stick in my mind. One is the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. While Clinton was intent on preventing genocide in Kosovo, (Or was it stopping. We were led to believe at the time the genocide of Kosovars was already taking place), another more horrible genocide occurred a few years earlier in Rwanda. An event so horrible, it is said that 700,000 people were killed mostly by machetes. Nothing was done to stop it and like the extermination of European Jewry, the slaughter of Armenians in 1910, or the killing of a million Cambodians by Pol Pot in the 1970s, we are left to ask the question of how was it allowed to happen.

The second irony is similar to the first. At the same time Bush regaled us with the humane mission to “free the Iraqi people,” a more devastating and horrible genocide in Sudan was brewing. Exact numbers as to how many African Sudanese have been displaced and killed by Arab Sudanese militias are difficult to get. Estimates I’ve read place the deal toll around 300,000 with about a million displaced. It could be higher for all I know. So as American bombs and Marines destroy Iraq in order to save for democracy, the Sudanese have no world leader acting on their behalf. I must say that the U.S. is certainly not responsible for these genocides by its inaction. Its just ironic how for the most recent genocides, the U.S. choose not to get directly involved in the more severe of them, both of which occurred on the African continent. One cannot, however, say the same for the Europeans, who conveniently turned their heads away from the mutual slaughter in Serbia as well as what has occurred in their former colonies on the African continent. Their complete lack of action deserves the highest condemnation.

The third irony, and this is far less tragic on human levels, is the recent concern over the presidential elections in the Ukraine. The issue, for those who don’t know is this: The Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych seems to have beaten opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko by a slim margin of 800,000 votes in a runoff election for President. The percentage breakdown is 49.53% for the former and 46.66% for the latter. A close election for sure. Despite the fact that exit polls came out with Yushchenko ahead, Yanukovych won. Sound familiar? Except for one crucial difference. Instead of sitting at home, for the past three days, Yushchenko supporters have filled the streets of Kiev demanding at least an investigation of voter fraud and at most, Yanukovych to hand over power. Other countries have gotten verbally involved, with many Western countries, including the U.S., calling for election officials to not certify the vote, while Russia has told them to mind their own business and wait for the counting to be over. The West favors Yushchenko because he is pro-Western and desires to move Ukraine to possible entry into the European Union. Russia supports Yanukovych because of his pro-Russia stance and desires to keep Ukraine in their obit. This split between East and West is also visible in the electorate. Western Ukraine, which is Catholic and more cosmopolitan favors a move to the West, while the East favors, well, the East. All this has given the Russian media something to cover besides Putin’s “reforms” of Russian elections by making governors appointed rather than elected and the Yukos affair where billionaire Mikhail Khordokovsky is being charged with tax evasion and theft of government property. As of today, other executives of Yukos, including one American born executive, fled the country fearing that they might be next.

Now the irony is that the U.S. has passed judgment on the validity of the Ukrainian elections at the same time it refuses to pass similar judgment on its own. Even more ironic, the Ukrainian people on both sides of the issue have flooded into the streets giving support to their candidate. And in the freezing cold, mind you. In a country where “democracy” is only 13 years old people are making sure their votes are counted, while in the U.S., the supposed shining star of democracy, the so-called opposition candidate concedes before all the votes in Ohio are counted. To make matters even farcical, the same Bush Administration that is charging fraud in the Ukraine was urging Kerry to concede for the “good of the nation.”

Now I’m not one of those “Bush stole the election” people. He won and its not going to do us any good to continue with that line. Especially if it will forsake any real examination as to why he did win. But it is clear that American democracy needs fixing. It’s petrified beyond belief and there is no indication that politicians on either of the isle are willing to fix it. It’s better to have a system you can manipulate. You just have to make sure you can do so better than the other guy. There is no reason why the wealthiest country in the world votes the way it does. In most democracies, election day is a holiday or is extended over a few days, voters are issued a national voter ID card, much like a library card, and some countries even fine people for NOT voting. This is not to say that their elections are perfect either, but if our government is going to declare itself the shining example of democratic government, then elections should be at least a little better, dontcha think?

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So today it was -13 C. You will have to console your conversion charts for what this means in Fahrenheit. I have no idea. To me its just cold and to tell the truth, I don’t feel much difference between 0 C and -13 C. I think past freezing cold is just cold. The sun has been out the last few days, so that has been a relief. The lack of new snow has allowed Russian work crews to get the snow off many of the sidewalks. It is a lot easier to get around than it was 4 days ago.

I have yet to slip on the ice, but like not getting sprayed by a skunk while walking Coco in my neighborhood in LA, each day of success only makes failure a greater possibility. Today, I discovered that Russians lack skills in defensive driving. Despite the fact that there is snow, and some streets still have a little ice, Russians seem to drive as they would under normal conditions. This means fast and getting to the next intersection by any means necessary. In the past four days I’ve seen four car accidents, twice as many as I’ve seen on the surface streets of LA over the two years I’ve lived there. Now its not the fact that there are accidents that is the problem. These are bound to occur in such weather conditions. What irks me is that when there is an accident they don’t move the cars out of the fucking way. They just sit there clogging all the traffic until whatever needs resolution is resolved. See, in America we have this thing called a shoulder, where here in Russia this is just another lane. Normally, I would give a shit either way. Most of my traveling in Moscow is either underground or by foot. I do however have to take a trolleybus to the metro from my apartment. Its about a mile and half, which normally I don’t mind walking, but with the cold, snow, and ice this easily feels like 3 miles.

This morning I get on the #49 trolleybus like usual. After going about 25 feet, the driver opens the door and tell everyone to get out. There is an accident between two delivery trucks blocking the trolleybus. The bad thing about trolleybuses is they can’t exactly go around things or each other because they are connected to a line of wires above the bus. The trolleybus basically has to wait until the road is cleared. One would think this would happen quickly to restart the flow of traffic. Not here. About six trolleybuses, that’s right S-I-X, were stopped behind this accident for at least an hour. I walked the one and a half today (which is the third time I’ve done so in the last week.). A 15 minute commute under normal conditions took me about an hour.

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My khozika (which means landlady), Natasha, constantly refers to the mayor of Moscow as that “shit” (govno) Luzhkov. For the fourth time this year, Luzhkov is raising the metro fair, from 10 to 15 rubles. This is still a deal by American standards. For about $.50 you can get anywhere in Moscow by metro. There are no transfers. Once you’re inside the system, you’re inside. For Russians, however, this can be a heavy burden when your monthly salary is $200 a month and you have to take the metro everyday. Luckily for Natasha, she rides for free. Moscow has a whole class of people who ride the metro for free: pensioners (which she is one), invalids, war veterans, and probably many more than I don’t know about. There is some talk about getting rid of this too. When this happens, the old are going to rise in revolution.

The problem is that the metro represents one of the leftovers from the Soviet system. It’s an amazing system, with more than 120 stations, with more being added on. Some of these stations are like communist palaces. The Soviet past is still on display, with iconography of workers, peasants, and Lenin. The Moscow metro deserves a tour in itself. The metro moves at least 8 million people a day, and without it, there would be no Moscow. In addition to its aesthetics, it also represents the past because during the Soviet Union it was very, very cheap along with the whole class of people who could ride for free. Each increase in fares or restriction of free riders symbolizes another security you could rely on. In the end, I think that by the 1970s, the Soviet system was that: security. Sure people weren’t rolling in luxury. There wasn’t much you could buy. Sometimes there wasn’t anything you could buy. But in the end, you could count on the system’s security and predictability. For this security and predictability people traded their democratic rights. It seemed that by the late 1970s there was a silent agreement between state and society: if you don’t mess with our business (the running of all aspects of the country), we won’t mess with yours. However, there is always a glaring contradiction in this formula, one that the Chinese are finding out about more and more. The divide between state and society is never that stark. Affairs of the state always seep into the affairs of society and individuals. I think China’s capitalism without democracy is one attempt to negotiate this contradiction.

In Russia, there is no compromise. This doesn’t look like it will change with Putin’s political reforms. The Russians have capitalism with all its unpredictability and lack of security; you can buy shit if you have the money. You can buy more shit than you ever can imagine. People like this and consumerism is now the new ideology. Ask people if things are better now than 20 years ago and they will say yes (especially if they are younger). Either way you look at it, consumption is cool. It’s why Americans don’t give a shit their political system, and I would suspect why Russian’s don’t either.

I think there is a flawed assumption in liberal democratic thinking. We assume that people care about their democratic rights. That freedom is the most prized possession of the human spirit. The flaw is in the fact that “freedom” is equated with the mechanisms of democracy like free speech, voting, elections, etc. Late capitalism has been able to brand freedom differently. The liberal subject is not just a political subject; it is a consuming subject. In fact there is no difference between the two. As long as one can consume, one is politically happy. Perhaps this is why the economy in America is measured by the Consumer Confidence Index. Freedom is in the consumption of individualism, which is communicated to us through products. A perfectly reified existence.

Late capitalism has aestheticized politics. We are no longer interested in the actual policies (or policy failures) of a candidate. We are only interested if they emit an image to fulfill our desire; whether that desire be one for security, leadership, strength, principles, morals, etc. Much like an advertisement fulfills our desires not for the product itself, but for the psychic and emotional satisfaction it brings. This, according to many cultural theorists, is called the affective properties of late capitalism. Late capitalism is not so much in the business of creating things, as it is affects—the things that tap our emotions, desire, etc. We don’t use Crest because it’s better than Colgate; Pepsi doesn’t taste better than Coke. They simply tap into a desire, perhaps even a nostalgia for some feeling from the past.

In the 1920s, the Frankfurt school of Marxism called this fascism. Its philosophers argued that when all politics became aestheticized, like how the fascist movements of Europe did, they tapped into people’s inner desires for national greatness, belonging, purity, security, what have you. Politics became less about satisfying your material needs: employment, housing, social services etc.; it became about satisfying your affective desires, desires that could never be completely fulfilled. People’s desires are what Slavoj Zizek calls the “sublime ideal.” This ideal can never be fulfilled; it is only imagined.

Perhaps this is why the “ironies” that I began with occurred the way they did. Clinton’s concern for the Kosovars and Bush’s mission to “free the Iraqis” was more publicly acceptable than helping the Africans. Perhaps this is why elections in the Ukraine can be accepted as corrupt, but American elections cannot. It is easy to accept corruption in the Ukraine because it is not us; it is not the Earth’s shining example of democracy. The actions of its people attest to this. For Americans to say the same about their own system would be treading on the outskirts of that sublime (blind) ideal. The affective nature of American politics makes the realization that its system is corrupt (though many Americans will admit that it is, but will shrug their shoulders when asked what to do about it) is possibly too much of a shock to their individual identity. America doesn’t bring them material well being, as it brings them emotional well being. The knowledge that you live in the greatest country not only in the world, but that has ever existed; that its existence is sanctioned by God himself is too powerful to assuage by lies, deceit, corruption, or incompetence. These realities don’t fit in the narrative. They don’t come close to shaking the grip of the emotional explosion the red, white, and blue brings to one’s heart.

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