Sunday, March 30, 2014
If you asked me to name my favourite novel I wouldn't have to hesitate. My favourite book is the Soviet novel The Master and Margarita. Many of you might be surprised by this answer since next to the great Russian realist novels of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita is little known. And compared to well-known Russian writers like Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky the author of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov, is little known.
I well remember the day I first discovered The Master and Margarita. It was in the mid-1970s when I was briefly a student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It was a classmate of mine named Mark Rose who introduced me to the many joys of Bulgakov’s magical--in one of the novel's threads the devil in the form of Woland, and the devil's retinue, which includes a vodka swilling and gun toting black cat named Behemoth (Begemot), come to Moscow, the capital of atheism, during Stalin's reign where they raise all sorts of hilarious havoc--realist--the second thread of the novel is an intensely naturalistic retelling of the Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus) story--and romantic--this thread tells of Margarita's love for The Master, the author, as we learn, of the Pilate and Yeshua tale (this thread is generally thought to be based on Bulgakov and his third wife Yelena Shilovskaya who kept Bulgakov's legacy alive after his death--book. All three of these threads intersect and come together to produce one of the great humane and compassionate endings in the history of literature at The Master and Margarita's end. Amongst the many themes of the book is that art does not and cannot die even in the face of oppression, brutality, and the seeming triumph of "artistic" mediocrity. Manuscrpts, as Woland makes clear in the book, do not burn.
I next read The Master and Margarita while I was living in Moscow in the late 1990s. It came alive for me as I found my way to the Patriarch’s Pond where the novel opens, as I found my way, with a little help from my Russian relatives, to the apartment on the Sadovaya where Woland, the Devil of the fantastic Faust inspired thread of The Master and Margarita and his retinue set up house, and as, I found my way, again thanks to relatives, to the house with the basement that was the model of the Master’s house in the book. The second time around, thanks to a great education from Indiana University and cultural anthropology and history postgraduate degrees, I was better able to understand the Russian literary and Soviet historical and cultural backgrounds of The Master and Margarita, all of which made this wonderful book even more meaningful to me.
During his lifetime Bulgakov was better known for his plays, particularly his theatrical adaptation of his partially published novel White Guard (1929) renamed Day of the Turbins (1925), a play Stalin, for some reason, loved. Before he became known as a writer of plays, however, Bulgakov published a series of journalistic sketches between 1920 and 1922 later collected in the unpublished Notes on Shirt Cuffs, published a novella, the Wellsian dystopian satire The Fatal Eggs, about a well meaning scientific experiment gone awry thanks to scientific arrogance and government interference, a favourite theme of Bulgakov, in 1925, published several short stories based on his experiences as a doctor in medical journals between 1925 and 1927 (later collected in A Young Doctors Notebook), and published a collection of short stories under the title Diaboliad (1925) (the title story had been published in 1924 while another, "The Adventures of Chichikov", reveals Bulgakov's clear debt to Gogol very directly as the character Chichikov was the protagonist in Gogol's Dead Souls). Criticism of Bulgakov’s work by leading Bolshevik bureaucrats, however, inhibited him from publishing further stories and novellas including his wonderful 1925 satire A Dog's Heart/Heart of a Dog in which a scientist transplants the testes and glands of a man into a dog creating, in the process, the new Soviet man, leading Bulgakov to ask Stalin to let him leave the Soviet Union in 1928 since none of his work was allowed to be published making it impossible for him to make a living.
Stalin refused to allow Bulgakov to leave the USSR instead arranging a job for him at the famous Moscow Arts Theatre home to the famous Soviet theatre directors Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Constantin Stanislavsky. The Moscow Arts Theatre would provide the material for Bulgakov's unfinished and unpublished satirical A Theatrical Novel (1936). Bulgakov continued to write plays, some of which were produced, others which were not. He also continued work on what would eventually become his most famous work, The Master and Margarita. Since Bulgakov knew that The Master and Margarita would be impossible to publish he wrote it for the drawer, wrote it for posterity, between 1928 and 1940. The manuscript of The Master and Margarita, by the way, underwent several revisions throughout Bulgakov's lifetime. Unfortunately the master was unable to complete the final revision of the manuscript before his death in 10 March 1940. There is thus no final authoritative text of this great novel.
Posterity proved to be The Master and Margarita’s and Bulgakov's doing. An expurgated edition of the novel was published in the Soviet literary journal Moskva in 1966 and 1967 where it caused a sensation particularly among the young. In the West, thanks to Mirra Ginzburg’s and Michal Glenny’s translations, the book became a cult favourite and remains so to this day as generation after generation discover the book and many of its readers proclaim it their favourite, among them Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, and renaissance man Steven Fry. Radcliffe and Hamm, by the way, would go on to star in Sky TV's adaptation of Bulgakov's tales of doctoring in the sticks, A Young Doctor's Notebook in 2013.
Given the cult status of Bulgakov in the English speaking world it may surprise you to know that there have been five translations of The Master and Margarita into English. The first, that of Mirra Ginzburg, was done quickly from the censored and expurgated version published in Moskva. The Moskva expurgated version did not contain parts of chapters that were clearly satirical attacks on the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB, and so neither does Ginzburg's. The second, that of Michael Glenny, later in 1967, restores most of the missing literary fragments from the expurgated Moskva version but was done from a Russian version that was still not complete and was not based on the best textual edition. Diana Burgin's and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor's translation for Ardis/Vintage/Picador, Richard Pevear's and Larissa Volokhonsky's (the flavour of the translation month these days) translation for Penguin, Michael Karpelson’s for Lulu/Wordsworth, and Hugh Aplin’s for One World, all based on superior Russian texts, followed in 1995, 1997, 2006, and 2008 respectively. All four have excellent notes and biographical information.
In closing it would be remiss if I failed to mention a few of the adaptations of The Master and Margarita in other media. Mick Jagger, rumour has it, wrote “Sympathy for the Devil” after Marianne Faithful introduced him to the novel. In 1971 the noted Polish director Andrzej Wajda brought the Pilate and Jesus realist thread of The Master and Margarita to the big screen in his Pilate and Others. In 2005 director Victor Bortko brought his superb ten-part adaptation of the novel to Russian television. It has since appeared on Sky in the UK. In 2008 Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal adapted The Master and Margarita for the graphic novel market. In 2010 actor/director Simon McBurney and the theatre company he founded, Complicite, brought his adaptation of The Master and Margarita to the London stage. In the same year Israeli director Terentij Oslyabya made an animated film that follows the first chapter of the novel word for word.
The Master and Margarita
Bulgakov's Master and Margarita
29 November 2010, 20 January 2011, 26 July 2013, August 2013, March 2014
Saturday, March 22, 2014
As some of you may know a union movement has been afoot at Honest Weight Food Coop in Albany, New York where I work part time. I did not have anything to do with this movement though I have given my support to having a vote of the Coop employees as to whether or not we wish to have a union. That seems democratic to me.
I signed the petition (and in the spirit of honesty let me note that I am a member of a union already, the United University Professions, and was a member of a union when I worked at Overhead Door in Hartford City and when I was a graduate student) to allow for a union vote at the Coop for several reasons. First, I signed it because I am concerned about the seemingly ever increasing imbalances of power at the Coop. I realise that, at least in theory, the member owners of the Coop are the ultimate power at Honest Weight. However, when it comes to the day-to-day operations it is the Leadership Team that is making the decisions. Some of these decisions seem to have been undertaken without any feedback from the membership whatsoever and that concerns me.
Second, I signed the petition because I am concerned about the fact that the management team does not work on the sales floor on a regular basis any longer. This means that there is little interaction between the management team and the staff member workers on the sales floor. We thus have a power structure at the Coop that is similar to the power structure in most privately owned businesses in the US and the modern world. Perhaps this is the reason that I have had several staff member workers say to me while we were discussing the union movement at the Coop that they were fearful of signing the petition for a union vote because they feared they might lose their job.
Third, I signed the petition because I am concerned about the appearance of favourtism at the Coop. It appears from the outside looking in that many of those hired for management positions and many of those given contracts at the Coop are friends and family of the Coop’s management team. I realise, of course, that sometimes appearances can be deceiving, that when hiring someone or giving contracts to someone it is those one knows best that sometimes best fit the job or the giving of contract descriptions. I also realise that appearances, the hiring and giving of contracts to those one knows, may sometimes raise questions because of appearances.
Fourth, I signed the petition because I was concerned about the situation in the Produce Department. While the problem in Produce has been taken care of that doesn't mean that we don’t have other problems at the Coop. This brings me to the fifth reason why I signed the petition, the goings on in the Deli. It seems to me that temporary three-month appointments the Coop has been using since we moved to our new location are being overused in the Deli. Additionally, recently two people were let go by the Deli manager, both of whom I knew, and both of whom appeared, at least to me and to others at the Coop, to be good workers. One had been working in the Coop for some time. None of us know why these two employees were let go as many member staff workers admitted to me in conversations. Rumours, however, are floating around on the Coop floor as to why they were fired. One rumour has it that one of the employees was let go because she did not smile enough. Another that she was fired because she wasn't peppy enough. Another rumour has it that the Deli manager didn’t like one of the fired employees. I don't know whether these rumours are true but the fact that they are floating around the Coop means that there are staff member employees wondering just what is happening in the Deli? It leaves some of us wondering why we are seeing so many new faces in that department on what seems like a regular basis.
Sixth, I signed the petition because I am concerned that we are apparently composting deli food left over at the end of the day rather than giving it to employees or the needy.
Finally, I signed the petition because I am concerned about the fact that the Coop seems to becoming more corporate. I assume this is the reason that we can no longer ask staff workers to be members of the Coop and that non-member workers will get a 24% discount if they work thirty-two hours or more. I also assume that this is the reason for the increasing divide between a management ensconced in their offices in the back (I do realise, by the way, that management has a lot on their plate at the moment) and staff member workers on the sales floor. Perhaps we need to rethink our decision to incorporate and consider disincorporation in order to take the Coop back to more cooperative roots.
Recently, the debate over whether we should have a union at the Coop has been heating up. The Leadership Team, which apparently finds unions and cooperatives strange bedfellows, sent two open letters to employees concerning a union at the Coop. I reprint both of these “open letters” below.
Here is the first open letter:
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE EMPLOYEES OF HONEST WEIGHT FOOD CO-OP (5 March 2014)
Honest Weight respects workers' rights to organize and to evaluate whether they wish to enlist third-party representation, and we believe each employee should have the opportunity to make an informed decision on this important issue. To that end, the Leadership Team, with the support of the HWFC Board of Directors, affirms the following:
We will respect every employee’s right to join or not join a labor union.
We will provide Co-op employees with the facts about their existing conditions of employment.
We welcome open dialogue and the circulation of ideas consistent with our Statements of Conscience that declare: “We are committed to encouraging an environment where ideas and philosophies can be generated, shared, and expressed freely.”
We are committed to promoting more equitable and participatory ways of living, as our Mission Statement asserts, and remain guided by principles of democratic process and striving for consensus. Since its inception in 1976, Honest Weight has built its business on a foundation that includes treating every employee with respect, and affording them dignity. This includes providing regular employees of Honest Weight staff members with excellent pay, benefits, and working conditions while we continue to grow our business and remain sustainable.
The Honest Weight Employee Manual guides our practices and explains the terms of employment to which staff and management agree. We strongly encourage employees to thoroughly review this comprehensive document in order to fully understand the benefits and protections it articulates and ensures. We have reason to believe that there may be some misinformation or inadequacies in the Co-op chain of communication that may have contributed to the call for this organizing effort. Accordingly, in the next few weeks we will be circulating clear and specific information about your existing protections, as well as facts that we can provide about labor relations and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Our goal is to ensure that every employee has sufficient information to be able to make an educated decision on what is best for you.
We feel very strongly that no employee of the Honest Weight Food Co-op should have to pay fees to a third party in order to be treated fairly or give up the right to speak for themselves individually. We encourage you to approach any or all members of the LT with your questions, and look forward to engaging in ongoing dialogue with you on this very important issue.
The Leadership Team
Lily Bartels • Duke Bouchard • Alexandra Juhre
Here is the second open letter:
AN OPEN LETTER TO HONEST WEIGHT FOOD COOP EMPLOYEES 3/6/14
We understand that HWFC employees may have been asked to sign “authorization cards,” which authorize the union to act for you as a collective bargaining agent.
We believe that an outside “representative” is not needed here at our Co-operative. Of course, the choice is yours. It is, and will continue to be, our policy to respect your right under the law to join or not to join a labor union. Honest Weight will not coerce or retaliate against employees who sign a card, or join or assist a union, nor will it “reward” employees who oppose unionization. But we reserve our right to tell you some FACTS concerning unionization.
Whether or not you have already signed, you should know certain basic facts. You are not required to sign a card. If a union obtains a sufficient number of these cards, it is possible under present labor board rulings for the union to become your representative without giving you the opportunity to vote in a confidential election. Your decision to sign or not to sign a card may be your last opportunity to express your choice.
We ask you to keep an open mind and to remember the Honest Weight philosophy. Since 1976, Honest Weight has built its business on a foundation that includes a commitment to treat every employee with respect. We take great pride in offering pay and benefits equal to or better than those offered by our competitors. Consider all the benefits and protections you currently receive without paying union dues (described more fully in the Employee Manual): Vacation, Sick & Personal time, a 401K plan with an employer match, and unparalleled employer contributions on health insurance premiums. Then there are also less tangible but, we believe, distinct advantages, such as set weekly schedules and flexible time off.
Regular employees enjoy all these benefits without having to engage an external third party. These benefits are already offered and paid for by Honest Weight Food Coop. And as members of the co-op, you already have significant opportunities to inform co-op policy. Be aware that if the co-op becomes unionized, bargaining on your behalf will be conducted by a representative picked for you by the union, you will have forfeited the opportunity to represent yourself, and you will be bound by whatever terms have been negotiated.
The union will not pay for additional benefits out of its own pocket. All a union can do is to try to negotiate for benefits, and the majority of the terms now outlined in the Employee Manual will be subject to negotiation. The union cannot compel a company to reach an agreement on any wages, benefits or terms of employment. The law provides that as long as a company is negotiating with the union in good faith, the company does not have to agree to any union demands or to make any concession to the union.
The co-op pays for these benefits by staying competitive in the market and attracting customers and growing our business. Job security and benefits do not come from having a union. They come from the stability of the business and from our commitment to our employees in the face of economic challenges. In this recent period of risky expansion, we consciously prioritized protecting existing regular positions during a period of rapid growth.
We believe that our record demonstrates our commitment to our employees’ best interests and quality of life. As much as you expect us to be fair with you, we hope that you will be fair with us. Before you make a decision, before you sign an authorization card, ask the union what it can do for you, what it will cost you in dues to have a union, and what they can guarantee will change for the better.
The Leadership Team
Lily Bartels • Duke Bouchard • Alexandra Juhre
After reading the second epistle I felt that I had to respond to it because it didn’t seem to jibe with what I knew about the union movement at HWFC nor with my experiences being a member of several unions. Here is my response.
AN OPEN RESPONSE TO THE LEADERSHIP TEAM'S OPEN LETTER (6 and 11 March 2014)
1. As far as I know the only thing that is being signed at this point is a sheet which expresses employee support FOR A VOTE ON WHETHER WE SHOULD JOIN THE UNION OR NOT. If union representation cards are being signed, and I don’t know that they are, one source indicates they aren’t, that seems to me to be within employee rights.
2. Health, vision, and dental benefits are not, in my experience, the only potential benefits of joining a union.
3. As a part time teacher at SUNY Oneonta I have vision and dental benefits that cost me nothing thanks to the union. I have health insurance thanks to the union. I have retirement, real retirement, a pension, thanks to the union. I may be able to achieve retirement health care thanks to the union. I have a voluntary 401K that allows me to choose how casino capitalist I want it to be or to not be thanks to the union. Our union has a wonderful monthly periodical that is not only focused on union activity but on other relevant intellectual matters. We have union picnics and holiday gatherings.
4. Union representatives would, as I understand it, and I am a member of UUP, be elected from among the local employees. So would negotiators So the union representative would not be the only person engaging in negotiations
5. Since the Coop can no longer ask hired staff to become members despite long historical precedent I don't see what the problem is with having a non-member union negotiator at the table particularly since staff member workers will be part of the negotiating team as well.
6. Union negotiations would, as I understand it, use as a baseline what we have now and ask for a small pay rise to pay for small union fees.
7. I used to work at the non-union SUNY Research Foundation. I was laid off in one of those ever-frequent busts that characterise casino capitalism. Layoffs were done by department and not by seniority. If they were done on the basis of the latter I would not have been laid off. A union might have been able to put seniority at the heart of decisions on layoffs in a contract rather than leave it to the whims of management.
8. If employees vote to unionise--hardly a certainty from what I have heard--one would hope the management would negotiate in good faith with the employees union. While unions aren't perfect--nothing is--unions have in the past brought greater democracy to workplaces all around the world.
9. To be frank there is some concern among coopers with what appears to be unilaterial decisions by management...Some might see these unilateral decisions as not fully in the cooperative spirit.
10. Anyone who is thinking of joining the 401K programme should watch the Frontline PBS programme "The Retirement Gamble". Many 401 K's come with fees that enrich Wall Street. Moreover, many "advisors" are not obligated to the person who has a 401 K UNLESS they are state licensed fiduciaries.
11. HWFC, in my experience, is a wonderful place to work. I appreciate the benefits even though I am not eligible yet. I suppose staff member workers need to think about whether a union could make it an even better place to work.
Ronald Helfrich Jnr.
I sent this reponse to the same all on the HWFC listserv that these two open letters had been forwarded to by the leadership team. A few days later on the 10th of March I received a reply to my open response in an email. That email said that "Your message has expired without any moderator decision for the following recipients". That is why I posted all of these calls and my response on this blog.
Several days passed before the next volley in the increasingly hot cold war over whether we should have a union at the Coop was fired, this one by HWFC's Board of Directors. The Board's response to the possible unionisation of Honest Weight Co-op appeared in my email inbox on the 17th of March. I copy and paste it from the Inside Scoop: News and Views From the Honest Weight Board of Directors. Taken together these three missives seem rather like a concerted attack on the union movement at the Coop.
Although no petition for an election has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board, we have been receiving questions from co-op members concerning issues relating to unionization of our employees. At Honest Weight, we respect each employee's right to organize, and to join or not join a labor union. We also respect our own right to communicate with members and employees about our position on unionization and to answer questions that are brought to us about the process.
The Board has been considering the impact of unionization on our co-op structure. Unions have successfully been part of other co-ops; but no other co-ops that we have identified have quite the structure that we do - where the membership is the ultimate authority. In most other co-ops, the board of directors is the ultimate authority. Our members have asked:
Can our member labor program co-exist with a unionized staff?
Will a unionized staff create a de-facto different class of members, which we have understood is not compatible with the cooperative structure?
Will it be possible for unionized staff to continue to participate in membership decisions, such as board and GRC elections, budget, and other things that would affect the store?
Could the membership still retain authority of things like the budget if a bargaining unit is part of it?
If unionized staff are not allowed to vote and or not allowed to serve on the board or committees, why would they continue as members?
If staff had to give up their membership, how would that impact the governance structure, the morale, the member labor program, the whole?
How might our governance structure need to change - which bylaws would this affect?
There may be additional questions you may have. And while it may be premature to ask these questions given the absence of a union petition, in the spirit of our commitment to communicate with you, we invite you to an open member forum to learn more about these issues.
Come for a facilitated discussion on March 27 in Channing Hall at the Unitarian Church at 5:30 pm at 405 Washington Avenue, in Albany.
Honestly this invitation to a meeting to discuss a number of questions offended me as much as the second letter from the LT to member staff workers. It urked me so much because, like the second LT epistle, it seemed to me to be inconsistent with what I saw and learned at the Coop. To wit: Membership has the final authority? As in the decision to put chicken broth out on the sales floor? As in the decision to put a satellite store at the Empire State plaza? As in the decision to play middle of the road sure to offend no one music in the store if only for a brief time? Really? I am not so sure this is entirely true. My sense, based on talking to others and by simply observing, is that the Co-op now is a corporation with a management group and a board of directors who basically governs the "Co-op". Management and the Board has made several unilateral decisions recently and there seems to have been little if any membership input checking and balancing these unilateral decisions, at least as far as I can tell. It urked me because at the same time that the LT was wondering about the impact of a third-party representative at HWFC on management-worker negotiations they were readying plans to abide by legal regulations inhibiting the Coop from asking staff workers to become members making them third parties (i.e. non-members) at the Coop.
So what about those other critical questions which are missing from the Board of Directors series of queries: can a co-op co-exist with a corporate like structure, with a corporate like management team which no longer works on the sales floor, with a corporate like Board of Directors, with staff that are no longer required to be members, and with a petition process which requires that members get a certain number of member signatures on a petition before issues can come before the membership?
And then there is the big question paid member workers must ask and answer: Since the Coop now looks a lot by a corporation run by a management class that has limited interaction with floor staff is it time for employees to consider whether a union, whatever that union may be, is now, as a result, necessary to protect and promote worker rights at the Coop?
To be continued???
For comparative purposes I am reposting Bloomingfoods powers that be response to unionisation at this Bloomington, Indiana co-op, the first co-op I was a member of:
BLOOMINGFOODS POSITION STATEMENT ON UNIONIZATION
We have been notified that some of our staff are seeking to be represented by a union, specifically the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 700. Bloomingfoods fully respects and supports our staff’s legal right to organize. Over the last 30 days we have been educating ourselves about the implications of the organizing process and how operating with a union in place would impact our co-op should that be the end result of the organizing process. Throughout this process, we have been respectful and cooperative—meeting with union representation on a regular basis and refraining from any public comment until we were able to assimilate what we learned from others. We have gathered information from a large number of varied sources to create a well-informed picture, and we agree with our entire staff that on this important issue, it is they who should determine whether or not they are represented by a union. We believe it is time for every employee to educate themselves and make an informed decision about what they believe is best for themselves and their co-op. We trust that all will soon be ready to make that decision and move forward toward strengthening our organization.
Our management and board of directors also trust that our staff will continue to have a civil, positive, and respectful dialog on the matter, free of undue influence from others. Our supervisory team has participated in training sessions regarding applicable labor laws and are committed to follow those rules to maintain the best possible working environment and to ensure a fair process. We ask that all parties involved remember that we are an ongoing, operating grocery store that exists to serve our customers and member-owners in a pleasant and efficient manner. Management is resolved to respect the decision our staff make, and, as one person put it, “the co-op will be fine, it will remain strong and continue to be an asset to our community whichever way the employees decide.” The board and management wholeheartedly agree.
Bloomingfoods remains committed to open and enhanced communication with our staff. Recent events have caused us to reflect upon what we could have done better and how we can improve moving forward. We are not a perfect employer, but we are a good employer – one that pays fair and competitive wages, one that provides a strong and progressive benefit package, and, above all, one that believes in our staff. As with all things in life, there is room for improvement, and we welcome input from all our staff on how we can become an even better employer. We value all that our staff do for our co-op and our community. They are the primary reason for the success and accomplishments we enjoy in Bloomington and the surrounding area. We look forward to a timely and positive outcome to our staff’s dialog about unionization.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
1. What happened in the Ukraine was quite clearly a coup. If one wants to move to the normative or theological level one can debate whether it was "legitimate" or "illegitimate" to remove an elected leader in a coup. One would, however, think that many nations would hesitate before they claimed the Ukrainian coup was a "legitimate" coup since that would "delegitimise" many if not most governments in the West since they have violated the rights of their own citizens and on occasion taken the lives of their own citizens. Most governments, of course, are interested in nothing more than maintaining power so that would seem to mitigate against most governments seeing this as a "legitimate" coup. On a broader social theoretic level these apologetics and polemics over the Ukrainian coup show once again how important Max Weber's notion that we give "legitimacy" to some phenomena and not to others, is. As this debate over the "legitimacy" or "illegitimacy" of the new Ukrainian government shows, notions of "legitimacy" and "illegitimacy" are purely ideological.
2. On Tuesday, 4 March, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $1 billion dollar "subsidy" or "loan guarantee" package for the non-elected government of the Ukraine. Europe added $15 billion the next day. Shades of the Cold War. I am sure that there are many in the US, Spain, Portugal, and Greece that would like to see a $15 billion dollar loan guarantee or stimulus in their countries given their slow recovery from the 2008 bust caused largely by Wall Street speculation and the continuing levels of unemployment across these nations. One wonders whether those nattering nabobs of anti-stimulus politics, the Republicans and the Germans, will reject Kerry's and Obama's and the EU's foreign stimulus package for the Ukraine on those grounds. Don't hold your breath. The moral of this tale? Double standards abound in the discursive world of political power most of them seemingly unrecognised as such by its utterers. This is, of course, how ideology works. It turns inconsistencies and hypocrisies into consistencies and moral virtue. Welcome to the topsy turvy world of Orwellian doublespeak political culture.
3. Speaking of hypocrisies, we have had the British and American pots calling the Russian kettle black during this crisis. It is rich for Kerry and William Hague to condemn Russian "aggression"--and remember the Crimea was Russian until 1954--after American aggression to protect Brits and Americans in Grenada and the Malivinas/Falkland Islands and, more recently, the British and America invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing American use of drones to kill "terrorists" in foreign "sovereign" territory. Welcome to the topsy turvy world of doublespeak political discourse where charges of double standards become fictive hallucinations coming from the looney liberal left.
4. The notion that "sovereignty" is set in stone as if it was akin to the mythical commandments the Hebrew god Yahweh gave to Moses in antiquity would be surrealy humourous if some people didn't actually believe such rubbish. Ukraine, of course, is a relatively recent "nation". Part of it was once part of Poland. Much of it was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR at one time. The Crimea itself was transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. Before that it had long been part of Russia after the Russians did to the Tatars what the Americans did to the Indians and the Brits did to the Aborigines and the Maori. Before that Crimea had been invaded and occupied by Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Kievan Rus, the Byzantine Empire, Kipchaks or Kumans, Mongols, and Genoa.
5. The notion that there were "original" inhabitants of Ukrainian lands is problematic. Most "original" inhabitants migrated into "their" lands. Examples: Indo European Greeks apparently immigrated into Hellas during antiquity. Goths, Vandals, and other "barbarians" migrated into "Europe" during the latter days of the western Roman Empire. More recently in Israel, where Jews from Europe established a European settler society after WWII and created a national mythology that it was their land because god gave it to them, often forget that one of the biblical tales indicated that Yahweh gave them permission to slaughter the inhabitants who were already there. My point? It is power that historically has made your fatherland or motherland "your" fatherland or motherland not some transcendental "right". Transcendental fetishes, in other words, always turn out to be relative and ideological and grounded in the realities of power.
6. I get a kick out of Americans and Brits condemning Russia for its imperialism and noting that imperialism generally leads to bad blood. Yes imperialists like Russia rarely get a lot of love from those the imperialise. What is conveniently elided in this condemnation of Russian imperialism, an elision that once again shows how ideology works and functions, however, is that the US, the UK, the USSR, France, China, Holland, Japan, Rome, were all imperialists and in some cases colonists and that they were and are disliked despite their attempts to portray themselves as miss congenialities bringing the best of all possible economic, political, and cultural worlds to the globe's inhabitants.
7. And the doublespeak just keeps on coming. Kerry reportedly said on 4 March that the Ukrainian protestors stand for freedom. The freedom to overthrow an elected government? Attempt to strike a simulated Churchillian rhetorical pose for public relation purposes much John? Personally, I could do with the overthrow of oligarchic governments everywhere but I don't think that is what Kerry (not to mention America's oligarchs) means by his statement. One could not imagine him saying such things, for example, about protestors in the US who are calling for greater democracy and being arrested and beaten about the head for such "sacrilege". I suspect he would, like the "authorities" always do, talk about the unlawful and disorderly rabble in the streets (irony alert: wasn't he once part of the disorderly rabble in the streets?). Hmm, that sounds familiar.
8. So Barack Obama, constitutional lawyer cum president, says Russia may have broken international law. Perhaps. But then so has the United States (as has Great Britain) on a number of occasions including recently in Iraq and currently in its continuing use of drones for vigilante justice all across the globe. Imperialist pot calls imperialist kettle black. Imperialists, in other words, rail against the violations of international law by enemy imperialists and ignore the imperial mote in their own eye. Government propagandists, as this evidence shows, can turn from absolutists to relativists on a dime when it suits them. Situational ethics. By the way, the fact that Obama, Kerry, Cameron, and Hague can say with a straight face that Russia is breaking international law while they and the nations they represent have broken international law on a number of occasions over the years makes them decent if not necessarily believable actors. Perhaps they can migrate to Hollywood, take up the law, or become spin doctors after their political careers end.
9. As NYU professor Stephen F. Cohen noted on 3 March on PBS's News Hour condemning Russia for its concern about what is happening in the Ukraine (or what happened in Georgia in 2008) particularly after the new unelected government eliminated Russian language rights is akin to asking the US not to be concerned with what is happening in Canada or Mexico. Scenario: Let's imagine that protestors bring down the elected governments of Canada and Mexico and, in their anger over American imperialism in their countries, force Americans living, working, or visiting both countries to speak in French or Spanish.
The fact is, is that the US would act just like Russia and would declare such unelected governments "illegitimate" should such a scenario occur. We know the US would act the same way because it has acted similarly throughout its history. Between 1846 and 1848 the US fought a war with Mexico that had a border dispute between the two countries as its short term cause and ended with the American appropriation of large amounts of Mexican territory that its manifest destiny types had long salivated over. The US would invade the sovereign nation of Mexico several times afterwards including in 1913 and 1917 not to mention in a number of other of sovereign nations across the Caribbean and Latin America including the Dominican Republic in 1965, Panama in 1989 and Haiti in 1995. Canada, by the way, has not escaped American invasion either. The US invaded British Canada during its second war with Great Britain in 1812 and burned its capital York (which is why the British repaid the favour by burning the American capital of Washington, DC; payback is a bitch) in 1813. The Americans, as the Canadians like to remind their neighbour to the south, were repulsed during each of its invasions of the Great White North.
All of this points up, of course, just how idiotic, moronic, and twisted the ideologically driven rhetoric of America's mainstream polemicists and apologists is regarding Russia recently. The fact that the US and Western nations have accepted the unelected government in the Ukraine as "legitimate" reveals for all with the non-ideologically driven eyes to see that the West, despite the aid the German government provided to Viktor Yankovych’s government on domestic security matters between 2009 and 2013 (Guardian Berlin correspondent Philip Oltermann quoting German Green MP Hans-Christian Ströbele, "Ukraine Crises", 4 March 2014), prefers a government (they claim it to be "constitutional" though I think that is not only a naive but also an ideologically driven characterisation and I think if the coup had been the other way around, with a Russian friendly government impeaching a Western friendly president after forcing him to flee to Germany, the West would be yelling "coup, coup") friendly to it even if it is a non-elected government with nationalist anti-Semitic elements within it.
10. Conservative columnist and pundit David Brooks wrote an opinion piece on Russian messianism and exceptionalism in the New York Times yesterday arguing that both are essential for an understanding of what Putin is up to in Russia's near abroad these days. Brooks, of course, has a point. Russia has long had a messianic complex (protector of Slavs everywhere) and Russia has long seen itself as exceptional (as different from and better than Europe and the West). But Brooks misses a rather obvious comparative something that Western apologists and polemicists (though interestingly not Robert Gates) often don't see for whatever reason. All empires have a messianic complex and all empires think of themselves as exceptional in some way, shape, or form, whether they are the American Empire, the British Empire, the Roman Empire, or the Athenian Empire. Even non-empires sometimes exhibit a messianic complex. Don't believe me? Read or listen to the New Zealand national anthem.
11. What has really going on in Western policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War is a strategy as old World War I if not much older. It is called box your potential or actual great power rival in. The UK did it to an industrialising and militarising (the two go hand in glove) Germany in the 19th and early 20th century. The West has been trying to do it to Russia in the 20th and 21st. This boxing in strategy was easier when Russia was weak in the wake of the fall of the USSR. Now that Russia is stronger it is clearly not going to be as easy. Welcome to the latest round of great power struggles. Mass propaganda, of course, continues to play a major role in these great power cold wars just as it has since WWI.
12. Speaking of propaganda and the role it plays and has played in great power conflicts for centuries, propaganda, the discourse that comes out of the mouths of apologists and polemicists of the "official version", exaggerates the differences between "us" and "them", between competing great powers. The ideologically driven melodramatic propaganda that dominated the Cold War and which distinguished between a "good America" and an "evil USSR", for instance, had a number of functions. One was to make disappear the fact that both the US and the USSR were the products of modernity with its big hierarchical political bureaucracies, its big hierarchical economic bureaucracies with their limited "competition" (competition was limited in the US by its big corporations which invariably formed cartels and monopolies in order to increase profits while it was limited in the USSR by its emphasis on a command economy), and its big industrial militaries which have brought mass total war to the globe. Mass propaganda, which gave birth to mass advertisng, of course, allowed the rulers of modern nations, economic oligarchs in the US, political oligarchs in the USSR, to more easily manipulate and control mass populations through mass ideology, phenomena all of the modern world. Welcome to, from the oligarchs point of view, the best of all possible profit making and political controlling worlds.
13. Boy, it is sometimes hard to figure out what the talking political power that be heads of the United States mean by "democracy". I got up this morning (6 March) and turned on NPR to discover that President Obama was readying sanctions against those who were "undermining Ukrainian democracy". Naturally I first thought Obama was going to sanction those who through a coup took over the Ukraininan government from the elected leader of the country (a leader who admittedly may be enriching himself at the public trough but he certainly isn't the only one; even that self-proclaimed best of all possible worlds the US has its bribery, graft, and croneyism). But no that is apparently not what Obama meant. I was momentarily left wondering what the hell the US government meant by democracy. Then I finally got it, the US definition of the term changes like a chameleon to suit whatever American "interests" happen to be at the moment. Same imperial practise as it ever was: situational.
14. I got a kick out of this "non fiction" article in the Daily Beast. I got a kick out of it for several reasons. First off, there is no doubt that nationalism, an emotional tie (nationalism is akin to religious beliefs) to a particular place in space, impacts Russia Today, the English language news service funded by Russia's political powers that be. To be fair and balanced, however, it is also true that the same thing can be said about media everywhere including that in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Now I know that towing the ideological party line isn't the only function and work of the corporate media in the United States and the West. They also have a money interest. That is why they do stories about Lindsay and Britney, popular stories about Lindsay and Britney. Second, there are limits to what you can say on the American corporate media and even on that "most trusted of American media", PBS. How many times, for instance, has Noam Chomsky been on the News Hour talking about American foreign policy? Speaking of real critics of American policy on television, I have to say I was shocked that the New Hour had Stephen Cohen, a superb historian of Russia and critic of EU and American policy toward the Ukraine, on the other night. The appearance of a real critic on American television does not, by the way, mean that US television is "fair and balanced". It simply points up the fact that real critics of American television are rare and that they stick out like a sore thumb during their extremely rare appearances. Third, the most recent five minutes of fame that the media, well at least the Daily Beast, are celebrating, Ms. Wahl, undermined whatever objective credibility she may have had by taking the job at RT in the first place despite that she knew what she was getting into. Needless to say she further undermined any "objective journalistic credibility" she had left by going on and on about being a proud Ameri-can on air. Speaking of journalistic objectivity: The author of this "article" showed the same lack of objectivity as his subject by turning Ms. Wahl into the latest in a line of nationalist journalist saints. I guess predictions that objective journalism is dead have not been exaggerated.
15. Recently reports have surfaced that snipers shot not only anti-government protestors in Maidan Square in Kiev but also supporters of the existing regime. Two explanations--there are probably more--all already appearing attempting to explain this. Both are grounded in pre-existing melodramatic good versus evil ideological frames of reference. Both are also plausible. Which one is right can only be ascertained after we have more empirical evidence. The first scenario, by the way, that the Russians did it, is likely to get much more traction in the European and North American press. The other, that "provocateurs" within the Ukrainian opposition to the elected government did it, is not, for obvious reasons, likely not to get much traction in the reputable Western press. The telephone conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton leaked to Russia Today, for instance, has only gotten play in the Guardian prior to this report in Haaretz to my knowledge.
16. Interesting. So in Western discourse the actions of the Parliament in Kiev in overthrowing the elected president of the Ukraine are legal while actions by the Crimean Parliament, which voted for alliance with Russia, and the upcoming referendum on that topic in the Crimea are not. Does this mean that many in the West are not only hypocrites but scribes as well, at least when it suits their interests?
17. So many of the punditocracy in the West claim that the Crimea referendum is illegal? Hmm. Have their been regional referenda on independence and switching national allegiance before in Western history? Well yes. In 1905 Norway voted to become independent of Sweden. In 1935 the Saarland, which was administered by France after World War I, voted for union with Germany. In 1955 Iceland voted to become independent of Denmark. In 1955 the Saarland voted against independence from Germany. In 1962 Algerians voted for independence from France. In 1991 Georgia and the Ukraine voted for independence from the USSR. By the way, not all referenda have been successful for a variety of reasons. In 1946 the Faroese voted for independence from Denmark, a vote the Danes ignored. In 1980 and 1995 Québécois voted against independence from Canada. In 1991 Serbia ignored a referendum in Kosovo in which 87% of Kosavars voted for independence. Serbian Kosavars boycotted the vote. In 2008 Spain cancelled a referendum on Basque independence in the Basque region of Spain. In 2012 a referendum in the Serbian parts of Kosovo saw 99.74% of voters reject the writ of the Republic of Kosovo's institutions. For a brief history on recent referenda in Europe see this interesting article by James Dawson in the New Statesman.
For an interesting essay comparing Kosovo and Crimea see Mike Walker's article in the Moscow Times. Walker notes that the transfer of the Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 was symbolic and recognised as such by the Ukraine when it became independent in 1991 through its granting of the privileges of self-rule to Crimea. Walker also notes that the Ukraine government restricted the powers of the Crimean parliament and stripped it of the privileges of self-rule in 1994 after Crimea's leadership expressed its desire to leave Ukraine and establish itself as an independent state. Let's hear it for Ukrainian double standards. The Ukraine voted to secede from the Soviet Union in 1991 but it did not allow the Crimea a similar vote.
18. So many of the taking heads in the West seem to think the Ukraine is a viable nation. Is it? The Ukraine, as it is presently constituted is not a real nation, it is not a place in space with a largely shared sense of identity, community, and culture. Western Ukraine, which was once part of Poland, with its centre in Lviv/Lwov, is culturally "Ukrainian" and Catholic. Eastern Ukraine is culturally Russian and Christian Orthodox. The Ukraine, in other words, is rather like Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, and Iraq. Ukraine might become a more culturally homogeneous and a more functioning nation if it was divided into Western and Eastern parts or if Little Russia was incorporated back into Russia.
19. So many of the pundits in the West think that Putin, who they claim bemoans the decline and fall of the USSR, wants to bring the Soviet Union back. I beg to differ. I think Putin is bringing something back to contemporary Russia. It is not the USSR, however, that Putin is bringing back. It is a kind of neo-Tsarist Russian theocracy Putin is reviving in contemporary Russia as the Pussy Riot case seems to show.
By the way, there is no evidence that I see which suggests that Russia will expand into or beyond its near borders. If the Russian and Georgian war of 2008 tells us anything, it tells us that Russia, because of Georgia's attempt to recover territory which no longer wants to be part of Georgia (Georgian demagogues puffed up on nationalist ideology) and because of fears of NATO expansion and EU expansion into Georgia and the Ukraine, will protect its near borders, its near abroad, but will not likely move beyond protecting its near borders. Russia, after all, pulled back from Georgia and remained only in those areas that want to be independent of Georgia. One way, of course, for the West to deal with Russia's concerns is for the great powers that be in the West to tell Russia that we will not expand NATO into the Ukraine or Georgia (a promise that will hopefully be kept better than the verbal promise made to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a united Germany), we recognise your concern about the civil and human rights of Russians in near abroad diasporas, and we will create a situation in which the Ukraine and Georgia can be part of both a European economic union AND a Russian economic union.
20. And the discursive bizarrity continues. Apparently, or so one can infer from the language of the current interim leader of the Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk, it is OK for anti-Yanukovich protestors to take over government buildings but it is not OK for opponents of the current regime in Kiev, who Ukraine's leader dubs "terrorists", to do the same thing. If one can't see the irony, hypocrisy, and attempts at demonisation here than that someone is simply unable to think critically.
21. And the discursive bizarrity continues, part two. So NATO chief and NATO chief demagogue Anders Fogh Rasmussen says Russia should "stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution". Apparently poor Rasmussen has forgotten that Russia offered a solution to the Ukrainian problem: greater federalism. Perhaps NATO and Rasmussen should stop spouting crap and get on with responding to Russia's proposal for solving the problems associated with the failed "nation" of the Ukraine.
22. By the way, I am not a believer in exceptionalism. Humans are humans and humans who live in similar social and cultural formations tend to be similar. Most humans living in most nations, of course, BELIEVE they are unique. I think the discourse of both the West and Russia on the Ukraine are the same. They are both ideologically driven. What gets lost in all this ideology, of course, is what always gets lost in all the ideology, the empirical truth. One of these days I hope some enterprising intellectual writes a tome on how apologists and polemicists on all sides view the "equivalents". I suspect apologists and polemcists on all sides detest "equivalents" even more than they detest each other because on some level they realise how dangerous empirical analysis potentially is to ideologically driven apologetics and polemics.
Monday, March 3, 2014
One of my other intellectual obsessions as you all also probably know by now is the media. Intellectuals and academics have long recognised that the media reflects the ideologies in which they are embedded. The scholars and intellectuals at the Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies at the University of Birmingham, for example, recognised long ago that the both sides of the issue journalism that has come to dominate the journalistic profession in the West since the 1960s was in its very structure ideological. One of the views journalists were supposed to obtain in this both sides of the issue "journalism" was the establishment one, the "view" of the "proper" authorities, the "view" of the government, the "view" of the police. To anyone with a dispassionate bone in their bodies it is not hard to see how ideology functions and works in this type of journalism and how dominant ideologies function and work in cultures at large.
It is particularly during times of "crisis" that one can see the ideological work at play in the Western media. One can see this in the conspiracy theories floating around the Olympic women's ice skating final. One can see it in media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis that is dominating the serious world's media at the moment. It is not only what the media is saying (the media is taking its cues largely from government and mainstream think tank "intellectuals")--the return of the not so repressed Cold War portrayal of the USSR, err, Russia, as an aggressive totalitarian state, the clichéd portrayal of Putin as the most recent in a long line of twentieth and twenty-first century Hitlerian dictators who must be stood up to (Putin is not so much a latter day Hitler as a descendent of the theocratic monarchs and tsars of the imperial past), the portrayal of a Putin who is living in his own separate universe (the powers that be almost go postmodern?), the cosmic apocalyptic drama of a good and virtuous West fighting against an bad and evil Russia--but also what the media (and government and mainstream think tank "intellectuals") is, by and large, not saying, that reveals the ideological work of the media.
There is a lot that the media is not saying about the Ukrainian crisis. Here are a few examples. The media discussion of the fractured "ethnic" nature of the Ukraine (the Ukraine is rather like Belgium) is either elided or segregated to the bottom of "news" reports. So to is the fact that the Crimea was transferred from Russia to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The role NATO, the EU, and the US have and continue to play in trying to push the Ukraine out of the Russian orbit and into the European Union, something that was also done in the case of Georgia, is rarely discussed. The fact that the Russian justification for "invading" the Crimea--protection of Russians--is rarely compared with US and UK claims that they were doing the same thing when they invaded Grenada in 1983 and retook the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in 1982. The fact that the new and non-elected government of the Ukraine has eliminated Russian as an official language of the "nation" is usually elided. The fact that there are fascist anti-Semitic elements in the Ukrainian nationalist crowd is rarely referenced. The fact that the new Ukrainian government is appointing non-elected mostly Russian oligarchs governors (akin to naming Wall Street investment bank executives state governors) is rarely noted (the Ukrainian state needs them to keep the economy afloat and presumably to make the Ukraine safe for Western investment). The underlying ideological assumption for all of these acts of intellectual amnesia is the same: the West is good, the West is protecting an innocent, Russia is bad. In this cosmic melodrama, of course, the good guys can do no wrong while the bad guys can do no right.
This doesn't mean that contradictions aren't present within ideological formations. Occasionally one can find a truly fair and balanced empirical analysis complete with policy suggestions like that of Anatol Lieven on the online site Zócalo. Occasionally one can find an excellent article which tries to put the Crimean crisis into historical context like this one at Haaretz. Occasionally one can find both the dominant and the minority view at a newspaper like the Guardian, a newspaper that condemned Putin with little attention to the empirical nuances of the crisis and which tried to put the Ukrainian crisis in broader and fairer contexts at the same time. The problem is not that there aren't alternative and more accurate analyses out there. The problem is that most people do not read the countercultural empirical analyses. They get their views on any crisis, by and large, by listening to and dittoing back what "authorities" and people they share an ideological culture with already say about "crises" on the dominant ideological driven media that dominates Western cultural life when such crises manage to draw their attention away from the culture of celebrity bread and circuses, the culture of celebrity opium, that dominates so much Western life these days (check out the trending nows on Yahoo). In case anyone does read these alternative empirical analyses, analyses which as any good analyses do and must,take the others point of view seriously, another strategy is used to keep anyone from taking them seriously: demonisation. In a strategy that comes right out of religious polemics such analyses are deemed liberal, leftist (as though there were no differences between the two), evil. These strategies are, as the Birmingham School and others recognised long ago, important ways in which ideology works and functions, very efficiently and effectively I might add, in the so-called democratic West.
Here are four examples of alternative takes on the Ukraine crisis that have appeared in the Guardian recently. One by Jonathan Steele. Another by Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen Macaskill. Still another by Harriet Salem which takes a critical look at the Ukraine's new "government". Finally, another by Simon Jenkins explores the Western hypocrisy and impotence of Western reactions to Russia's Crimea adventure. Here is an example of the dominant or mainstream view as represented in a recent editorial in the Guardian.
The Guardian was not the only media outlet to offer a platform for both the official mainstream view and the unofficial countercultural perspective on post Cold War Russian actions. On PBS's News Hour on Monday evening 3 March Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, gave the official ideologically driven perspective while NYU professor Stephen F. Cohen gave the empirical countercultural rebuttal (as opposed to the melodramatic countercultural discourse which one can also find in the intellectual and media universe). One difference between the Guardian and PBS's New Hour is that the News Hour engages in both sides of the issue journalism while the Guardian is characterised by a greater array of views in its online pages. Despite this PBS's New Hour does, on rare occasions, and I emphasise rare occasions, offer a real critic of the official rhetoric a real platform for his or her views, something increasingly rare on an American television largely devoid of real debate programmes like the Firing Line of yesteryear. Not all American political insiders, by the way, are following the polemical party line. Jack Matlock, former US ambassador to the USSR, offers an interesting and I think largely correct take on the Ukraine.
On broader issues, specifically the false metaphors that are prevalent in media and intellectual historical analysis of crises including that of the Ukraine crisis, see Adam Gopnik's short piece in the New Yorker. Putin's Duma speech accurately lays out US, NATO, and EU provocations leading up to the Ukraine crisis. David Rohde's and Arshad Mohammed's article for Reuters also does a nice job of laying out Western provocations toward Russia. Stephen Cohen does a nice job of exploring how the West has brought about a new cold war with Russia.