This podcast is a talk I gave titled “Russophobia in America: A Genealogy” at Kennan Institute on April 11, 2017. It’s been re-purposed here with the kind permission of the Kennan.
I refer to many images in the talk. You can view the accompanying presentation below:
Made for TV, “So Afraid of the Russians,” 1983.
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By Sean — 12 years ago
Though the following has little do with Russia, (though one might think of it in terms of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy forced down historians’ throats in the Soviet period), it concerns my profession and thus my livelihood. The state of Florida has passed and Jeb Bush has signed a bill banning “revisionist” history from Florida public schools. New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman takes the bill to task in a column in the LA Times. Essentially, the bill prevents the teaching of “revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” American history is not to be taught as “constructed,” but based on historical “facts.” Forget that these nimrods in the Florida Legislature haven’t a clue about what they are talking about. I don’t think passing intellectual judgments on philosophy and complicated historical methodologies should be left to legislators. But references to such charged terms like “postmodernism” and French post-structuralism are enough to incite fear in those who are trying to protect the sanctity of American history. By sanctity, I mean a history that not only tells the story of the powerful in historical terms (usually a history where white, wealthy males are the primary historical agents), but more importantly reproduces their hegemony in the present. The rich and powerful’s right to rule is thus naturalized in history. The only role for history is, as Althusser suggested, to “reproduce the means of ideological reproduction.”
History in Florida public schools is not taught so students can challenge how there are many pasts, and a multiplicity of understandings of them. They are taught that there is a singular historical narrative for America. This of course is the worst aspect of “revisionism” in that it’s state sponsored. In addition, as Zimmerman cogently points out the bill is based on a misconception about the history of the historical profession:
“Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.
The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.
There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.
Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power ’60s, the concept of historical interpretation has been at the heart of our profession from the 1920s onward. Before that time, to be sure, some historians believed that they could render a purely factual and objective account of the past. But most of them had given up on what historian Charles Beard called the “noble dream” by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize that the very selection of facts was an act of interpretation.
That’s why Cornell’s Carl Becker chose the title “Everyman His Own Historian” for his 1931 address to the American Historical Assn., probably the most famous short piece of writing in our profession. In it, Becker explained why “Everyman” — that is, the average layperson — inevitably interpreted the facts of his or her own life, remembering certain elements and forgetting (or distorting) others.”
As one UCLA historian said to me when I told him about the law, “Isn’t revising history our job!?” Indeed. I wonder if American historians will have to one day perform the American equivalent to Soviet historians’ “Lenin sandwich” to get around the censors. For those who don’t know what the “Lenin sandwich” was, it was when Soviet historians in the 1960s and 1970s would begin and end their works with a quote from Lenin to evade censors and basically write decent histories in-between.
Such is the present strength of anti-intellectualism in American political culture. To think I thought all these tired debates about “revisionism”, “postmodernism,” “relativism,” and historical “facts” were sorted out in the 1990s. God I hope that this isn’t a sign of their return, especially since the above terms have been so watered down and popularized that they hardly retain any of their former intellectual rigor.Post Views: 505
By Sean — 13 years ago
Events have called for a pause in speaking about Russia. It is impossible for me to take in the force of the news. Reports from CNN and other news outlets give a gruesome picture. Democracy Now! has done some excellent reporting. I encourage readers to tune into to their episodes over the past few days. All of the tensions that under “normal” circumstances lie below the surface of New Orleans has exploded to the surface, fueled by desperation, frustration, and anger. All I feel here in Moscow is sorrow, bewilderment, frustration, anger, and embarrassment of the inadequate response by the Unites States Government. So many people are suffering, and it seems all people can do is moralize about looting. Are we so naive to think this wouldn’t happen!? There isn’t much more for me to say that hasn’t or is being said by many media outlets around the country.
Take for example, an editorial by the New Hampshire Union, one of the most conservative newspapers in the country, wrote a blistering editorial against the Bush Administration’s response, or lack thereof. The editorial reads in part:
“As the extent of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation became clearer on Tuesday — millions without power, tens of thousands homeless, a death toll unknowable because rescue crews can’t reach some regions — President Bush carried on with his plans to speak in San Diego, as if nothing important had happened the day before.
Katrina already is measured as one of the worst storms in American history. And yet, President Bush decided that his plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VJ Day with a speech were more pressing than responding to the carnage.”
A desperate and empassionate editorial from the Biloxi, Mississippi’s Sun Herald asks:
“Yet where is the National Guard, why hasn’t every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service? On Wednesday reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics! When asked why these young men were not being used to help in the recovery effort, our reporters were told that it would be pointless to send military personnel down to the beach to pick up debris.”
Many are noting how the response by the National Guard has been hampered by the Iraq War. 40% of Mississippi’s National Guard and 35% of Louisiana’s are in Iraq. I can’t imagine the frustration of these soldiers having to watch and not help their families and neighbors.
And finally, as the fears and warnings that it was not if a hurricane like Katrina would strike New Orleans and Gulf Coast, but when, come to fruition, NOW there is recognition that all the reporting New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune about Crescent City’s inadequate infrastructure. As usual too little to late.
I know the traffic on this site isn’t heavy, but being on the other side of the planet I feel obligated to at least list organizations where people can donate money, goods, etc.
Post Views: 429
By Sean — 4 years ago
The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.
Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:
Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.
Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.
Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:
Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.
The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.
They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:
“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”
While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.Post Views: 2,416