Tag Archives: Russia

X. doesn’t like my post on “The insufferable entitledness of bikers” — or lots of other things I’ve written

12 Nov

…or, how does one react to the tiring self-righteousness of certain left-dudes.

bikes

X. (I want to respect anonymity) is a journalist who I generally like personally, whose work I respect, and whose opinions and judgements about the Middle East I value and find extremely useful; he’s my go-to guy, especially about Lebanon, a country I find particularly fascinating.  But he’s called me a few times too many on what are supposedly my biases, which generally consist — sorry to be crude — of my not being “brown enough”, in a way I find not just a little offensive.

I call it “not-brown-enough” because though his criticisms seem to indicate that he believes I’m on the right side where the oppressed are concerned, he also seems to think that I’m not on the side of those he considers the really and truly oppressed.

For one, he’s patently impatient and irritated by my concern for Middle Eastern Christians — though that’s par for the course when dealing with post-Christian Western intellectuals who, at best, have only traumatic memories of growing up Catholic or Lutheran and see any defense of Christianity as a racist and irrelevant leftover piece of creepy reaction. So for X., someone worrying about the survival of Eastern Christianity seems to be tantamount to being Pat Robertson.  For my part, I don’t think that, being Greek Orthodox, I should have to apologize for caring about the losing battle that eastern Mediterranean Christians are fighting.  (I would take a guess and assume X.’s unspoken attitude basically consists of: “Oh, so many millions are truly suffering and displaced and dying and you’re worried about 60 old Greek ladies in Istanbul”; well, yeah, somebody has to worry about those old Greek ladies in Istanbul too, ok?  No apology).  Nor do I think that I should have to apologize for believing that that battle for survival is real — or apologize for believing that it’s an ancient battle that dates back to the glorious entry of Arabs and Islam into the Greco-Roman-Christian and Sasanian worlds — or apologize for believing that that “entry” was anything but an unalloyed good — or apologize for believing that sectarianism in the region has a long and bloody history way before any blood-letting was caused or provoked by Western colonial powers.  I should probably send him a copy of one of Walter Dalrymple’s early and brilliant books: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

Holy Mountain

But in an exchange about this issue, he had the gall to refer once to what he calls “elite minority supremacism”.  Remember that phrase; it’ll come back to haunt us all.  This means that it’s racist, on some level, and politically incorrect of me, to care about the rights of minorities — Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Jews, Copts, Armenians, the Alawites of Syria, the Shiites of southern Lebanon and the Bekka — when it’s really the Sunni majority of the Levant and Iraq that are the true victims.

Sorry.  The Sunni Muslim majority of the region were the politically, socially and economically privileged majority group until the late nineteenth century and specifically 1918 — that tragic year when Turkey capitulated and the Ummah and Caliphate were humiliated by the boot of the kaffir West.  That tragic humiliation is what left us with the likes of Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, all so enraged and humiliated and boiling over with rancid testosterone.

Granted, not much sympathy from me there.  And the fact that the non-Sunni or non-Muslim minorities of the region might have found that “humiliation” to have been a liberation of sorts, after centuries of discrimination by said Sunnis, seems perfectly natural to me.  There’s a reason Maronites and Syrian Christians turned to France in the mid-nineteenth century and especially after 1860.  There’s a reason Syrian Alawites became the French Mandate’s mercenary force.  There’s a reason Serbs looked — somewhat ambiguously, with their typical wariness and sense that they don’t really need or think they should trust anybody else’s help — to Austria, and that Bulgarians and Armenians looked to an Orthodox Russia for most of the last two centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Anatolia.  They took a route that they believed, rightly or not, would give them protection from the ethnic and religious groups that had systematically marginalized and persecuted them.  So the result is that the 20th century and modernity come around and Syrian Alawites become the dominant military and therefore political force in that country.  The 20th century and modernity come around and most Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon are generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Lebanese Muslims.  And there’s a whole set of reasons that the 20th century came around and Ottoman Greeks, Armenians and Jews were also generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Ottoman Muslims except for a small elite.  Is the colonizing West entirely to blame for that too?

What fantasy world do intellectuals and journalists like X. live in, where everyone in the Near East loved each other and lived in harmony until the evil West and its divide-and-conquer policies showed up?  I would love to believe that but it’s just not supported by the historical record.  It’s a common academic trope of intellectuals from the region because it jibes with leftist anti-colonial discourse and it absolves regional players of any responsibility.  (See Ussama Makdisi‘s Aeon article Cosmopolitan Ottomans: European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab worldor Ottoman Cosmopolitanism and the Myth of the Sectarian Middle East, or any of his other work for classic examples of this fictional genre; it’s his forte; he’s made a career of the argument.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 7.35.58 AM“European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab world”

And wait a minute; let’s backtrack: you discriminate against a minority group; you bar it from conventional access to power and wealth; you confine it to the interstices and margins of your society, and in those interstitial niches they develop the skills and the talent that enable them to survive, and not only to survive, but to come out on top once they’re emancipated — and then that only makes you hate them even more — I’m sorry, but is that not the fucking textbook definition of anti-semitism??!!  Call it “elite minority supremacism” if you like.  It’s the same thing.  And just as nasty, racist and toxic.

Then there was a persnickety exchange about minorities — again — in Turkey this time.  X. disagreed with an eccentric but actually quite informed and smart Byzantinist Brit on Twitter, because he tweeted that “the state of minorities in Turkey is not a good advertisement for dhimmitude”.  “Dhimmi” in Arabic, or “Zimmi” in Turkish and Farsi pronunciation, is a term that specifically — and very specifically — means the non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state.  X. thought that it was “epistemologically sloppy” of him to refer to the now practically vanished Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey and ignore the intra-Muslim (for lack of a better word) minorities, like Kurds, Alevis, Zaza-speakers, or the Arabs of the south-east and Antakya (X. calls it Hatay, but I refuse to use the place-names of Turkish science-fiction nationalism).  Again, the Byzantinist Brit was supposedly being biased because he lamented the fate of Turkey’s non-Muslims and ignored its persecuted and more deserving of pity Muslim “minorities”.  But that’s his right to do and feel — and mine.  And, in fact, there was absolutely nothing “epistemologically sloppy” about his analysis.  By simple virtue of the fact that he used the word “dhimmi”, he made it unequivocally clear that he’s talking about Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities; he’s not using a “dog-whistle to mean Christians,” as X accused him of in one tweet.  He’s stating it very loud and clear that that’s what he’s concerned with.  But for X. that makes him biased and probably an Islamophobe, while all that he — and I — were doing was simply pointing out the fact that there was/is a qualitative and taxonomical difference between the status of non-Muslims in Turkey and sub-groups within the Muslim majority in Turkey.  And proof of that qualitative difference is born out precisely by the fact that the Christian and Jewish groups have practically vanished; “elite minority supremacism” apparently didn’t save them.  Tell me what X.’s objection was, because I can’t make heads or tails of it — talking about “epistemologically sloppy”.

Then we go to New York.  I post this piece: The insufferable entitledness of bikers :

“The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that helmets be required for all bicyclists in the U.S., but some advocacy groups say putting the recommendation into law can have unintended consequences.”
[Me]: How ’bout we let them crack their heads open, and then maybe they’ll think about how biking — in a city like New York at least, not Copenhagen — is a deeply ANTI-URBAN, elitist, yuppy phenomenon that makes our cities’ centers more and more inaccessible to borough dwellers who can’t afford to live there, to street vendors, to truckers, to commercial traffic, to theater-goers and to everything that makes New York New York and not Bruges, all dressed up in the pedantic Uber-Green self-righteousness of a bunch of rich vegan kids from Michigan?
Walt Whitman would be turning in his grave.
Blows me away that more people don’t see that.
I immediately get a response from X., because he’s one of those people who always has a pre-printed ravasaki in his breastpocket with an analysis and a supporting, supposedly proof/text for almost any political issue.  You’re concerned with Christians in Syria?  X. is right there on the barricades to call you an elite minority supremacist.  You suggest there seems to have been a shortage in the Arab world of leaders able to successfully create a solid civil society and functioning democracy, X. immediately has a long list of names for you, even if that list includes more than a few murderous dictators.  You wonder what suddenly caused Syrian Sunnis to stand up to the despicable Assad regime, X. tells you part of the issue is agriculture and water supply.  You accept the fact that environmental conditions might have been what literally and figuratively sparked the civil war, and then X. tells you water and drought have nothing to do with it.  You articulate an opinion on the mating habits of homosexual penguins in Antarctica and…well, you get the point.
Hey, maybe that’s what makes a good journalist, but it also leads to dizzying instant analyses and superficial opinions, without a single “well…” or “maybe…” or “Shit…I never thought of that” or any even remotely multi-facetted take on things.  Sorry to be channeling Sarah Palin — never thought it would come to this — but so many exchanges with X. immediately degenerate into “gotcha” discourse.
So, he responds, with lightning speed:
Actually most bicyclists are low-income immigrants. Which is why upscale white people love to shit on them.
Not everyone can afford first-world privileges like taking taxis. Even riding public transportation is too expensive for a lot of folks.
With an informative link attached:
Except, I don’t know any upscale white people who shit on bikers.  As far as New York is concerned, I don’t have statistics, but my visual gut observation is not that there are multitudes of immigrants riding bikes around, but almost exclusively young white guys — the “upscale white people” who supposedly shit on bikers.  ?
And here I think it’s important to point out that it’s a bit disingenuous of X. — if not just a total misrepresentation of facts — or maybe even a teeny-weeny bit of what we used to call lying — to send this particular article because it refers almost exclusively to Houston and totally exclusively to Sun-belt cities and southern California: all cities that are of radically lower density than New York, which is the city the discussion was about, and that, incidentally, have kinder weather.  Bikes there may not cause a problem or may be mostly for lower-income city-dwellers.  But in New York they’re a nuisance.  And I see and know very few poor people using them.
I wrote back:
“Very possibly low-income immigrants, ok, but do we have and how exactly do we get statistics about that?  [As it turns out we don’t; we only have statistics from Houston]  But even if that’s true, they don’t demand that a modern, industrial city, built and designed to be a modern, industrial city, change itself and cater to a mode of transportation that such a high-density city [like New York and unlike Houston] is not designed to accommodate.
“And as for taking taxis, or even the subway, I am and have always been a borough-boy, who couldn’t and can’t afford to take a taxi to get into Manhattan, nor could I tolerate a commute to and from a two-fare zone, which is what we used to call neighborhoods where you had to ride the subway line to the end and then pay a second fare to take a bus, like Whitestone, where I spent my teens and twenties.  I used to drive into Manhattan (20 minutes instead of 2 hours on public transport) and parking was easy to find even on a Saturday night in the East Village.  And while we’re on the subject of poor immigrants, have you asked a Sikh cab-driver how he feels about the pedestrianization of Times or Herald or Madison or Union Squares?  Or — while we’re weeping for the working class — have you asked a truck driver who has to negotiate backing his truck up into Macy’s loading platform with Herald Square blocked off and 35th street narrowed by a biking lane how he feels about that?
A superfluous number of pedestrianized zones, biking lanes, Citibank bike stops, farmers’ markets, happy piazzas for office workers to eat their $15 prosciutto sandwiches from Eataly, Bloomberg’s unsuccessful plan to put tolls on East River bridges — a flagrant fucking attempt to keep the non-rich out of Manhattan — because his constituency wanted less traffic and less noise in their neighborhoods, have all contributed to making Manhattan less accessible for me, because I, like your immigrants, can’t afford to live there.
“And even if there are more Mexicans delivering Chinese food on their bikes than there are entitled pricks from Indiana using bicycles, the Mexicans don’t give me attitude about how I’m not respecting their hobby.  They’re too busy working.  Plus it’s hard for me to imagine that taking care, storing, maintaining and protecting your bike from theft or vandalism in New York is cheaper than taking the train.
“You know that long passage between the E train at 42nd Street that connects to the 7 train?  Would you, at rush hour, let a toddler free there?  Obviously not.  Because you wouldn’t let a being of radically different size and speed go free in a space where he’s more likely than not to get trampled.
“Nor could you possibly ask NYers rushing to work to watch out for that toddler.”
Again, I’m progressive but not quite progressive enough for X.  Poor, brown immigrants should be entitled to ride their bikes anywhere at any time, though that’s a sociological type that barely exists in New York.  But a white, working-class, ethnic-American kid from outer Queens like me can go fuck himself (the implication that I was ever rich enough to take a cab into the city on a regular basis is infuriating) and I can be denied access to the pleasures and resources of Manhattan, even as Manhattan becomes a sterile playground for the rich on one end and and hip enough to let hipsters and X.’s poor immigrants ride their bikes supposedly on the other end.  No room for me, who falls in the middle of that spectrum.
Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.  If you’re from there you know that; if you’re not, it might make you a little nuts and you might long for parks and greenery and bike-lanes.  And it’s almost always non-New-Yorkers who are clamoring for these pleasantries that will remind them of Madison, WI.  Density; it means cars and street traffic too — and noise — things that give access to the maximum amount of people, cities you can get to easily and that let you in.  Not obnoxious, exclusive enclaves like Georgetown or Cambridge, MA, where you need to prove you’re a resident to even park on one of its streets.  Look at what pedestrianization has done to Istanbul, where Erdoğan has transformed Taksim, Tâlimhane and the upper Cumhurriyet into a concrete wasteland with all the charm of a Soviet plaza in a city like, let’s say, Perm’. 
A city needs to breathe, even in its crowded chaos.  That’s why I posted the Whitman poem in my response to X.:

City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!

City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede,
whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!

City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of mar-
ble and iron!

Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extrava-
gant city!

“Mettlesome, mad, extravagant…” 

More later — maybe.  This gets exhausting.

4a08193u.jpgMulberry street, c. 1900 — “Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Macron: «᾽Ιδού ὁ νυμφίος ἔρχεται…» Not happy with his Balkan policy, but he’s the only man on the world political landscape today with anything even remotely resembling a redeeming vision.

10 Nov

The future of the EU — Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead

America is turning its back on the European project. Time to wake up, the French president tells The Economist

Macron20191109_eup502

During the hour-long interview, conducted in his gilt-decorated office at the Elysée Palace in Paris on October 21st, the president argues that it is high time for Europe to “wake up”. He was asked whether he believed in the effectiveness of Article Five, the idea that if one NATO member is attacked all would come to its aid, which many analysts think underpins the alliance’s deterrent effect. “I don’t know,” he replies, “but what will Article Five mean tomorrow?”

NATO, Mr Macron says, “only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” And America, in his view, shows signs of “turning its back on us,” as it demonstrated starkly with its unexpected troop withdrawal from north-eastern Syria last month, forsaking its Kurdish allies.

In President Donald Trump, Europe is now dealing for the first time with an American president who “doesn’t share our idea of the European project”, Mr Macron says. This is happening when Europe is confronted by the rise of China and the authoritarian turn of regimes in Russia and Turkey. Moreover, Europe is being weakened from within by Brexit and political instability.

This toxic mix was “unthinkable five years ago,” Mr Macron argues. “If we don’t wake up […] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply.”

Mr Macron’s energetic recent diplomatic activity has drawn a great deal of interest abroad, and almost as much criticism. He has been accused of acting unilaterally (by blocking EU enlargement in the Western Balkans), and over-reaching (by trying to engineer direct talks between America and Iran). During the interview, however, the president is in a defiant but relaxed mood, sitting in shirt sleeves on the black leather sofa he has installed in the ornate salon doré, where Charles de Gaulle used to work.

The French president pushes back against his critics, for instance arguing that it is “absurd” to open up the EU to new members before reforming accession procedures, although he adds that he is ready to reconsider if such conditions are met.

Mr Macron’s underlying message is that Europe needs to start thinking and acting not only as an economic grouping, whose chief project is market expansion, but as a strategic power. That should start with regaining “military sovereignty”, and re-opening a dialogue with Russia despite suspicion from Poland and other countries that were once under Soviet domination. Failing to do so, Mr Macron says, would be a “huge mistake”.

Dig Deeper

Cover leader (November 7th): “A continent in peril”
Briefing (November 7th): A president on a mission
Transcript: Emmanuel Macron in his own words

The Intelligence podcast: “He talked about Europe in almost apocalyptic terms”— Macron’s interview

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“I demand either city-states or a universal imperium of humanity” — great line from Murtaza Mohammad Hussein

4 Nov

So great I put it on my homepage.

Murtaza Mohammad Hussain (@MazMHussain) does some great work at The Intercept (@TheIntercept), on a broad variety of issues.  Check him out.  Here he comments on an article from Foreign Policy on the Kurds and the nation-state that’s worth looking at.  Lifted the motto from there.  Whole text of FP piece by Malka Older pasted below.
Nation-state tweet .png
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The Kurds Are the Nation-State’s Latest Victims

The global order has been stuck with states since 1648. It’s time to move on.

By Malka Older
 

October 31, 2019, 3:47 PM

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters patrol the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey on Oct. 31.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters patrol the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey on Oct. 31.  Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held areas of Syria is horrific and the decisions that led to it shameful. But it is also representative of a larger problem. The global system is built around sovereign states, and it shows. This is an enormous problem for groups that define themselves, or are defined by others, as distinct from the country within whose borders they happen to reside, and it’s also terrible as a framework for navigating the global politics of a rapidly changing world.

Sovereignty is usually traced back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which was pivotal in shifting conceptions of government toward a secular state with entire authority inside inviolable territorial borders. Designed as a diplomatic solution to catastrophic religious wars among feudal, monarchical territories, its tenets have persisted into the modern world largely due to the entrenched power of those states, jealously guarding their unfettered rule over their slice of geography. An arrangement of convenience between princes to end a religious war has become the be-all and end-all of the way the world is governed. Even as sovereigns in Europe fell, the idea of the nation came to the fore—with all its possibilities for excluding those who were not truly German or Italian or Polish. And even as European empires crumbled elsewhere in the world, they left behind a very particular view of nationhood.

Over the next several centuries, as the power of monarchy eroded and European countries needed something else to inspire loyalty among their citizens, the ideal of the nation-state—that the people within those arbitrary borders would feel some sort of collective identity—became popular. This led to more wars as European states expelled or converted anyone who didn’t fit their concept of nation: not French enough, not German enough, not Italian enough. They also spread this idea to their colonies, exporting successive waves of destructive conflicts.

Today, norms have shifted to a greater focus on individual rights, and power has eked out to nonstate players, but governments still harass, expel, and attempt to exterminate minority groups in the name of the nation-state ideal, and sovereignty still gives them carte blanche to do so.

The insistence on the nation-state as the only legitimate and legal actor on the world stage leaves substate groups vulnerable to exploitation, attack, and shady dealing.

The Kurds have been promised and denied so many times over the past century that it would be a wonder that they trusted anyone anymore if they had a choice. But the issue isn’t limited to the Kurds. In the news this week are Rohingya refugees stuck between two countries that don’t want them, Uighurs forced into detention camps, and Catalan protests for independence. History offers even more parallels, from the United States repeatedly breaking treaties with Native Americans to World War II, in which the United States was willing to go to war to protect the territorial integrity of France along with the people in it but was not willing to accept refugees fleeing the Holocaust. The nation-state system is designed to protect itself and its members, rather than people.

True, strong states screw over weaker states sometimes, too. But nonstate groups are at a particular disadvantage. Though they may hold de facto territory, they don’t hold it legally; they have no international rights to a military or to self-defense. They have no seat in international or supranational organizations, leaving them outside global decision-making and with no recourse in attempting to hold states accountable for their actions. Their leaders are not accorded head of state status, and they have no official diplomats. Since even the most generous autonomy statutes don’t confer the protections of statehood, separatist groups are often willing to risk high losses to win independence, fueling conflicts.

The global order provides more mechanisms for states to deal diplomatically with each other than with the people inside them. While interstate conflicts have fallen over the past 50 years, intrastate fighting has soared. These wars disrupt trade and world politics, weaken countries, and raise uncertainty in neighboring states. On the other hand, states have proved themselves adept at using substate actors to further their own interests within foreign countries while evading responsibility for it, from the United States arming the Contras in Nicaragua to Sudan and Chad supporting each other’s rebel movements.

The state-focused global order has shown itself poorly equipped to deal with these conflicts. States remain reluctant to break the collective agreement on the legitimacy of sovereignty. They are similarly reticent about adding more states to their exclusive club, in part because it might suggest to dissidents within their own area that renegotiation of borders is possible. Although a large number of states emerged from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and there have been a few more recent exceptions such as Timor-Leste and South Sudan, it remains difficult to garner international recognition for a new state. That leaves mediators attempting to convince vulnerable groups to settle for something less, in the face of all evidence that a recognized state is their best chance for security and self-determination.

There have been some efforts to mitigate the effects of sovereignty. The responsibility to protect movement posits that states must protect their citizens and that if they fail to do so, others can step in to assist. It is intended as a way to justify and streamline the use of U.N.-sanctioned force in saving populations from genocide or other attacks perpetrated by the government they are subject to, but so far at least it has not proved successful as a way of overcoming the reluctance to breach sovereignty.

Substate groups are not the only example that the system is failing. Nonstate actors from terrorist groups to multinational corporations have increasing impacts on global politics, and traditional geopolitical theory does not do a great job of dealing with them. Even for bilateral issues, the nation-state is not always the most useful unit of analysis.

Take the numerous headlines and articles proclaiming that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. To imagine this as a coherent national policy designed to attack the United States is not an accurate depiction of reality. Russia is not a democracy, and such interference is not aimed at, for example, winning territory from the United States. A more precise description would be that Russian elites attempted to tip the scales of U.S. leadership in order to win more modern spoils: unfettered soft power in their region, access to trade, and, notably, the ability to infringe on other countries’ sovereignty without consequences.

[my emphases throughout above]

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“…one of the most moving traditions in post-Soviet Russia” — remembering Stalin’s victims

30 Oct
I thought this had been cancelled by Moscow authorities last year, but it apparently continued this year.
Very moving…and very infuriating that Western leftist intellectuals still give Bolsheviks and Stalin — the whole nightmare of 20thc. communism — a pass.  And this memorial is just for the victims of the late 1930s, not the Bolshevik’s massacres during the Russian Civil War, the tens of millions who died of starvation during the collectivization programs of the late 1910s and mid-to-late 1920s…the list goes on and on.
Возвращение имен 2017
Возвращение имен» 2016
Возвращение имен» 2016 (приглашение)
Общество «Мемориал»: «Возвращение имен». Промо
Общество «Мемориал»: Акция «Возвращение имен»
Общество «Мемориал»: «Возвращение имен». 2014-

Litvaks and Galizianers II

8 Oct

In an old post I try to give gentiles — or non-New-Yorkers, or New-Yorkers under 50 — a sense of the cultural divide among Yiddish-speaking Jews between “Litvaks” (from Lithuania) and “Galizianers” (from western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland).  I lumped Warsaw Jews into Litvaks and an astute reader told me that that was a mistake: that Vilna (Lithuanian) Yiddish was the high standard form of the language and that “Poylish” was considered a bit more common.

Stand corrected.  By reader and by this cute Jewish guy in video:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

Times: “Top Secret Russian Unit Seeks to Destabilize Europe, Security Officials Say”

8 Oct

No kidding.  Is this a surprise to anybody? 

Someone I know in the Greek foreign service once said to me that he thinks Western policy towards Russia is not even leftover post-Cold War, but that it’s perhaps even an unconscious but very persistent and irrational remnant of Great Game mentality left over in the Anglo-Saxon world/mind that influences the rest of the West.  And if you know a bit, that’s a smart analysis.

But even if you start from there you immediately have to turn to the chicken-or-the-egg dynamic that’s happening here and that has obtained in the world’s policy towards  Russia and vice-versa for almost forever.  You can’t always treat Russia like the big, drunken thug that needs to kept out of the club by the bouncers and not expect them to react with a defensive — and offended — stance.

It seems impossible to get out of the West’s mind the sense that Russia is an inherent enemy that needs to constantly and aggressively be watched and contained instead of accepted, and expect it to not be actively aggressive in return.  What “accepting” Russia would mean exactly is tricky and needs to be thought out — but needs to be given a chance in terms of policy.  We might get our rocks off by saying that Putin is a bad, strong-man who’s unacceptable in x amount of ways, undemocratic blah blah.  But some thoughtful expressions of good will towards Russians might eventually be the precisely the “soft power” that prods Russians on to getting rid of Putin themselves — and all the other huge flood of positive changes that might, and will, come in his eventual disappearance from the scene.

I’ve said before, in “Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything” :

“First and foremost and again: let Russia in. ENGAGE RUSSIA. We all have everything to gain and nothing to lose if we stop treating Russia like a pariah nation. Russian power is not a threat and can instead prove massively useful to the world if we bring Russia into the fold instead of trying to desperately keep her out of everywhere and even foolishly try and fence her in. It may be a little more complicated than a simplistic “more flies with honey” theory but whatever it is we choose to describe as Russian aggression, Russia sees as defensive and that may not be an irrational response from a powerful nation that sees itself treated as an amoral being that is constantly excluded from all the West’s major moves.

“And I’m talking about radical engagement: not just lifting sanctions and trade blocks and visa requirements. I’m talking about making Russia a part of the European family of nations, as laughably dysfunctional as that family may be looking right now. Why are Montenegro or Georgia on the list of candidates for NATO membership — Montenegro probably as some sleazy old promise offered to it if it seceded from Serbia; and Georgia, one of the oldest polities in the Russians’ sphere of influence (for better or worse and partly of its own initiative at the start) and with a complicated love-hate relationship between them – while Russia itself is not?  Too big to absorb. Well, yes, but my point is to stop thinking of her as an entity to control and absorb and start thinking of her as a political and especially military power that’s just too enormous to not have as an ally in the current struggle we’re engaged in.

“ISIS (and Turkey to some degree) ticked off the Russians bad and they have already done more to weaken the “caliphate” in the past few weeks than all other Western actions combined. Is it escalating the conflict? There is no escalating this conflict: when your enemy is sworn to escalate it to the maximum, and there’s no reason to think they’re bluffing, you’re already there. Yes, there’s reason to fear that Russia – which uses Powell-Doctrine-type “overwhelming force” more than the United States ever has – will go too far and turn central Syria and Raqqa into a Chechnya and Grozny, but the best way to limit those kinds of excesses are to enter into some coordinated action with Russia and not just allow her to act alone. Because we’re going to need Russia when the air campaign needs to stop, when at some point it will. And that’s when I predict that Russia will also be willing to send in men on the ground and I don’t mean just a few special operations groups. While they’re certainly not eager to send their young men off to die in another Afghanistan or Chechnya, this has already – again, for better or worse – become a sort of Holy War for Russians and they will be far less squeamish about sending in troops than any other European society or even the United States at this point. And working with them on such an operation will not only increase its efficacy but limit the risks and excesses.

“In the end bringing Russia in from the outside will also change it from the inside; as the nation itself feels less like it has to be on the constant defensive, then so will the Russian government adopt a more open and progressive attitude to its own internal political life.   This is what we saw happening in Turkey in the early 2000s when European Union accession was still a negotiable reality; much of what Turkey and Erdoğan have turned into since are a result of those cards being taken off the table. Do it for everyone then, for us and for them. Engage Russia; it’s a win-win proposition.

And in The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia…“:

“So treating Russia like a pariah will only play into Putin’s hand.  That’s, in fact, what has happened; the whole country has fallen in line behind him and anything like the РОССИЯ БЕЗ ПУТИНА — “Russia without Putin” — protests of two years ago would be considered, in a spontaneous act of socially unanimous censoring, pure treason these days with no one even daring to publicly air such opinions in the current heady climate of nationalist excitement.”

“History, climate, geography have always conspired to isolate Russia.  And, in a sense, the pathos that drives Russian history and is the force behind her brilliant civilizational achievements (and, yes, her imperialism too), is  that of a constant, heroic struggle to break out of that isolation and find her place in the larger world.  Yacking on, like Snyder, about how Ukraine is somehow “essential” and central to the very idea of Europe (when, ironically, it’s very name means “the edge”…the edge of what? of Russia/Poland…the EDGE of Europe…what an elevation of status Snyder grants Podunk…), while treating Russia as dispensable or as a dangerous threat that needs to be hemmed around and contained — isolated again — is criminally unfair to Russians (if not to Putin and his cronies) and will end up backfiring on the West in ways it hasn’t even begun to anticipate.  Russia is not dispensable.  Nor is she to be ignored or patronized.  We think of her in those terms and the results will just get uglier and messier.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Moscow subway

2 Oct

There’s such a contrast between what’s still the grimness and deprivation of so much of Russian life, and the populace’s literacy, interest in their own and European classical culture and general educational level.  This is a beautiful and inspiring photograph that I’ve posted before.  These are my Russians, ребята.

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Still a thinking people:

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ok… Thank yous to A. — pointing out my major embarrassment bad — Williamson & Warren — well, Happy New Year at least…

30 Sep

I not only love Maryanne Williamson, I took the slightly pretentious step of having the editorial board of the Jadde (me) endorse her for President.  I wrote:

“…she [Williamson] gave a talk on the Triangle Factory Fire, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt,* the New Deal and how twentieth-century American prosperity, creativity, strength, and relative social justice were all born out of those individuals and phenomena that moved me to tears.

Well, it wasn’t Maryanne Williamson; it was Elizabeth Warren, who I’m also a great fan of.  Williamson has mentioned it on a couple of occasions, but not in a coherent passage the way Warren has several times, once in front of the arch in Washington Square Park, just two blocks from where the fire happened.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on March 25th, 1911, occupies a weirdly vivid niche in my psyche.  More than other New Yorkers?  I dunno; I can only speak for myself.  The sheer horror — girls in their teens having to choose between being burned alive and a jump to certain death — should be more than enough.  And it always felt creepy to have class in what’s now NYU’s Brown building on the same floors where the factory was.  Then, I didn’t hear anyone mention it at the time, but the parallels to 9/11 — innocent people trapped by death on both sides — made both events reciprocally more disturbing.  It even raised the question of the daring and innovation that makes New York New York.  Were both events punishment for some kind of hubris: building things too tall to escape from if you need to?  I don’t really believe that there’s some cosmic force that actually punishes for that, but your mind wanders, in more archaic spaces…

Then the event chimes in, in a more than initially obvious way, with my deep intellectual and emotional engagement with Judaism.  The victims were obviously not all Jews.  And the women garment workers that had gone on strike less than two years before the fire to demand better working conditions were also not all Jewish.  But the harshness and persecutions of life in Eastern Europe, the progressive impulses Jews had collectively developed in response to that harshness and injustice, the dislocation of immigration, and an America — but especially a New York — that was a receptive vehicle for that whole psychological complex, made them disproportionately important in the movement and the whole series of events.

The proposal for a general strike for all garment workers in 1909 at the main hall of Cooper Union was made by a frail, twenty-three-year-old seamstress, Clara Lemlich — in Yiddish**, and a response from the crowd was a little slow in coming because it first had to be translated into Italian and English.  They were koritsakia, malaka; most had just come; they hadn’t even learned English yet.  There’s a women’s organization — I dunno who — that goes around the East Village and Lower East Side on March 25th and writes the names of the victims in chalk on the sidewalks in front of the houses where they lived: on the same block, next door to each other some of them.  The neighborhood must’ve felt its heart ripped out.

But when the response to Lemlich’s proposal was delivered, it was a resounding “YES!”.  And Jews need to remember and be proud of the fact that they’ve been over-represented ever since in every progressive movement that made America — but especially New York — what it became in the 20th century.

It gets a little more intense.  Because March 25th, the day of the fire, is also the day when another brave young Jewish girl exercised her God-given free will and said “yes” to God and changed the course of history and human civilization.  And that also weirds me out.  I might be sounding like a little child here: but why didn’t she do anything to help them?  The Mother?  The archetype of Christian compassion?  On that day that celebrates her own courage?

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And more.  March 25, 1944 was the day the Germans rounded up the Jews of my mother’s hometown, Jiannena, including her best friend, Esther Cohen, and sent them on the road to certain death at Auschwitz.  And no, there were no righteous Gentiles to help, just Greek police collaborators.  And just the German psychopaths, who diverted men and resources from the eastern front that had collapsed already the previous year, just to make sure and clean up the lands they already knew they had lost of any Jews.  It’s incomprehensible.  Oh, and they made sure they took detailed archival photos of the operations at the same time.  Ψυχοπαθείς… ***  And if I were sure they were totally cured…

01A woman weeps during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina on March 25, 1944.

We’re entering a kinda Jungian territory of synchronicity here, but maybe I made this big gaffe on Rosh Hashanah for a reason.  Let my endorsement of Williamson extend to Warren too, oh, and, of course, Bernie Sanders, who was probably at that Cooper Union meeting.  Because this first day of 5780 is as good as any to declare the three of them vehicles of Tikkun and use that inspiration to do what we can to get Haman out of the White House and bring the republic back to righteousness.

Sorry again…  :)

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

**************************************************************************************

* These were αριστοκράτες — the Roosevelts, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, however sleazy their origins and the origins of their wealth — true aristocrats — which is a word that I think Williamson uses in a slightly warped and unuseful way.  People who understood that their station implied obligation and not just privilege.  One of our emperors — unfortunately I can’t remember who; it wasn’t Basil I but it may have been one of the other Macedonians or the Comnenoi, said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Σήμερον ουκ εβασίλευσα διότι ουκ ευεργέτησα.”  “Today I did not reign because I did nothing of benefit.”  “ευεργέτησα” is a many-layered but not tricky word.  It means “to benefact”.   “I didn’t deserve to be called basileus today because I did nothing: to benefit my people, to glorify God, to strengthen my City or my State.”  These people — the Roosevelts, Perkins — knew they had duties too.  And the not always morally spotless “benefactor” millionaires of the 19th and 20th century Greek diaspora knew they had duties too.  Not only to make more money for themselves but to help build and cement the institutions of the new state.  Not like the sleazy, ship-owning mafia of Greece today.  Which not a single Greek politician has the balls to put forth policy that would tax them.

** This is just one thing that makes Yiddish, along with Neapolitan and Caribbean Spanish, one of New York’s three sacred languages.

*** Jiannena has, however, become a very hip, progressive and (always) lovely university town.  And last year, it voted in the first Jewish mayor in Greek history; out of about 30 Jews that are left from a pre-war 5,000 — one is now mayor of Jiannena.  More on the city’s transformation, and the continuity with its past as a prosperous center of the Greek Enlightenment, in another post.

P.S.  It was Frances Perkins, who Warren speaks of and the woman who, as the first female cabinet member in American history, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, put the whole causal string together.  She said: “The New Deal began on March 25th, 1911, the day the Triangle Factory burned.”

And P.P.S.  Let’s not forget that today those factories are in Malaysia and Honduras.

And P.P.P.S.  “Volume Four of Ric Burns’ monumental New York: A Documentary Film is probably the most stirring visual treatment of all of the above.  Get your hands on it if you get a chance.  Amazon’s got in on Prime.”

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comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Moscow metro

4 Dec

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The strange literary, culturedness of Russia in the midst of its barbarity.

As I lay around, flipping through Mayakovsky — trying to get Brexit, Trump, Puigdemont the hobbit, Golden Dawn, Putin and Naval’niy, Neo-Nazis and the NRA, Hariri and bin Salman, outta my head…and praying for my boy Macron…

19 Nov

…I think about Howard Jacobson, and his reference to Plato (and Dostoevsky sort of), who warned us that the masses are “tyrant-loving”…i.e. stupid.  And of Mayakovsky, who rightly asked of himself (vis-à-vis the rest of us schmucks — though he didn’t need to specify): “By what Goliath was I born, so enormous and so useless…” asks me and all of us again:

Чего одаривать по шаблону намалеванному

сиянием трактирную ораву!

Видешь — опять

голгофнику оплеванному

предпочитают Варраву?

Why bestow such radiance on this drunken mass?

What do they have to offer?

You see — once again

they prefer Barabbas

over the Man of Calvary.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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