Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

Miro, Aidez l’Espagne

We are fortunate to live near the Harvard Art Museums, and while visiting recently, I pulled open a drawer and saw one object inside: Joan Miro’s 1937 design for a fundraising stamp entitled “Help Spain” (Aidez L’Espagne). Miro’s handwritten text says, “In the current struggle, I see expired forces on the fascist side; on the other side, the people whose immense creative resources will give Spain a momentum that will astonish the world” (my translation).

Two years after this print was made, the Spanish fascists had won. For that reason, the image caught me short. I had to remind myself: sometimes the people do win; sometimes the creative forces prevail.

Putin’s cultural nationalism

On March 25, Vladimir Putin gave a speech to Russian writers and artists that was widely covered because he mentioned Western “cancel culture”–thereby demonstrating a familiarity with US talking points. His speech also reflected a widespread but problematic view of the relationship between nations (or peoples) and cultures. This theory is basic to various forms of nationalism that we would classify as right-wing, such as Hindutva in India, but it also permeates some left-wing discussions of indigenous cultures.

According to this theory, each artists or thinker belongs to one people, and each people can therefore claim a list of cultural figures as primarily its own. The great figures of any nation share definitive characteristics with each other and with their ordinary compatriots; these make them members of the same national culture. Foreigners can enjoy and benefit from the creations of any national culture–but only indirectly and imperfectly, for it is the birthright of the originating culture alone. On the other hand, all ordinary people gain refracted glory from the list of great figures of their own national history.

The world recognizes (or should recognize) cultural excellence, just as it recognizes success in athletics or business. One can therefore compare nations by ranking their great cultural figures. To do this, you don’t need to know much about the content of their thought.

Maya Asha McDonald, a Canadian art historian, dined with Putin in the Kremlin in 2019. “’The President would like to know about your study of Christian art,’” a woman to my left said with an icy smile. “’And what you think of Russia’s rich artistic history.’” Putin proceeded to list famous works in Russian museums. When McDonald ventured an informed remark, Putin acknowledged that she seemed to know “quite a bit for ‘someone from Canada.'” This turned out to be a compliment, because Putin “views North America as having a lesser artistic legacy.” He “fundamentally views the wonders of Russian museums as indisputable evidence of his nation’s superiority.”

In the speech last week, Putin said:

Russian culture has made an invaluable contribution to the development of world civilisation. For centuries, Russian masters of literature, music and fine arts have given humankind new aesthetic traditions and, more importantly, ideals and meanings that have become moral and spiritual guidelines for millions of people and entire generations.

Russian culture is human-centric. The best classical works are focused on the inner life, personal quests and emotional experiences of human beings. They ask relevant questions, help people to think, understand and draw conclusions.

It is not surprising that the Russian mentality is known for taking things to heart. We feel very strongly about other people’s pain and injustice. We are capable of feeling sincere joy about others’ success and helping those who truly need our help.

Russian culture always protected Russia’s national identity. While readily taking in all the best and constructive, it patently rejected anything false or momentary, anything that would disrupt the continuity of our spiritual values, moral principles, and historical memory.

This unique quality reliably protects the Russian people even today, when seemingly eternal concepts and norms are being eroded and undermined in different countries, history is being distorted, and the laws of nature itself are being violated. …

Friends, you belong to different generations and serve in different areas of Russian culture and education. Yet, you are equally loyal to them. You are striving to multiply their rich traditions and bring up new generations of thinking and spiritually rich people who are able to perceive and pass on traditional values, who know and respect the past and present of their homeland, who are the true citizens of Russia.

(I quote Putin from the official English translation on the website.)

In my view, most artists (with interesting exceptions) belong uncomfortably to any given national tradition and take inspiration from diverse sources. There is no necessary correlation between the core values of specific artists and the dominant values of the nation at their time or later, nor do artists who are associated with the same nation typically agree with each other.

An individual gains little from just belonging to the same nation as a major thinker. For instance, I have learned virtually nothing from Herman Melville, since I have (unfortunately) not read Moby Dick. It would be foolish for me to feel pride that Melville was American; if anything, I should be mildly embarrassed that I have not read such a major novel. However, we can profit from any works with which we seriously wrestle. In my case, those include some works by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich, Nabokov, Akhmatova, and some other Russians.

In that sense, Putin is right that Russians have “given ideals and meanings” to people like me, who are far away. But I did not gain from these authors and composers a glimpse into some ineffable and indestructible Russian soul. I gained a whole range of divergent thoughts from diverse and unruly thinkers. As Putin says, these authors “ask relevant questions, help people to think, understand and draw conclusions.”

But there is no sign that Vladimir Putin has learned to think from the canon of Russian literature. He might align with Solzhenitsyn and with some aspects of Dostoyevsky, but many of the great Russians would hold him in the deepest contempt. Among those would be Shostakovich (a lifelong victim of the KGB), whom Putin mentions as a target of Western cancellations.

(Please pause to consider the irony that former KGB officer Putin is angry that Shostakovich might be “canceled,” when the Soviet state imprisoned and/or shot Shostakovich’s “patron Marshal Tukhachevsky; his brother-in-law, the distinguished physicist Vsevolod Frederiks; his great friend the musicologist Nikolai Zhilyayev; his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar; his uncle Maxim Kostrykin; and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky” and came within a hair’s breadth of purging the composer himself.)

Putin’s theory of culture is vary far from the worst thing about him. I would not claim that it explains or motivates his decision to invade Ukraine, which can be better explained in terms of raw power. But it is a bad theory that is widely shared. I would guess that many Americans–when told that Putin ranks Russian culture above theirs–would counter with the names of distinguished American thinkers whom they have never actually read, some of whom are deeply critical of the USA.

That is the wrong path. Culture is not the Olympic Games, with a medal count. Cultured people don’t brag about the number of their countrymen who have won global repute. Cultured people challenge themselves with uncomfortable ideas from diverse sources and treat all other human beings as their fellow citizens of the earth.

See also: for Irina; Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell; what is cultural appropriation?; the generational politics of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; a richer sense of cultural interchange; the ethical meanings of indigeneity; etc.

ethics of sanctions, boycotts, and de-platforming

I am a steadfast supporter of Ukrainian resistance, and I encourage Ukrainian friends to skip this post if it feels like a distraction from their crisis. Still, those of us in noncombatant countries face subtle ethical questions that arise with all such conflicts. How we resolve these issues probably won’t have an appreciable impact on the war in Ukraine–and if we can affect the outcome, I would be biased in favor of choices that benefit the resistance. Instead, these are mainly questions about our own internal processes and principles.

Consider these cases:

  • The Metropolitan Opera is one of many cultural institutions that has announced that it will not work with pro-Putin Russian artists. The Met’s ban could affect soprano Anna Netrebko, who had demonstrated active support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine but who has also posted on Instagram that she opposes the war, while adding that “forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right.” (From Javier C. Hernandez in the New York Times.)
  • There are calls to ban former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder (a former leader of an EU and NATO country) from entering the UK. Of note: Schroeder is not only close to Putin and unwilling to criticize the invasion of Ukraine, but he was a director of the state-controlled Russian energy company, Rosneft.
  • “The Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week distraught at the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half his family is Ukrainian, he said in a telephone interview, and as a child he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents. … Yet despite his antiwar stance, Mr. Sokolov on Monday learned that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had dropped his latest movie, ‘No Looking Back.’ A spokeswoman for the festival said in an email that Mr. Sokolov’s film … had received Russian state funding. The decision to exclude the movie was not a reflection on the filmmaker himself, she said.” (From Alex Marshall in the Times.)
  • The Alliance of Science Organizations in Germany is one of the biggest science funders that has announced a complete ban on grants, events, and collaborations with Russia. Meanwhile, 5,000 people, mostly Russian scientists, including 85 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have publicly signed a strong anti-war statement. They will be affected by the German boycott.
  • Yelena Balanovskaya and her family hold a mortgage on their Moscow apartment that is dominated in US dollars, meaning that they cannot afford their payments and may lose their home. Nothing is said in the article about Ms. Balanovskaya’s political views.
  • Afghanistan is suffering a nightmare winter, and the sanctions targeting Russia may be making matters worse.

Although I strongly support the sanctions on Russia, I think the ethical issues are complex. We must navigate principles that are in some tension.

First, working with an individual can be a discretionary choice, and it may be appropriate to consider that person’s values. In general, you shouldn’t have to work with a racist–or a Putin-apologist–if you don’t want to. I serve regularly on search committees and would be hard-pressed to give my support to a pro-Putin job candidate, even if the position had nothing to do with politics, just because I wouldn’t want to work with that person. I think a refusal to engage with specific individuals is an exercise of freedom, just like their choice to express their opinions.

On the other hand, when an institution–even a small, private one–decides to include or exclude individuals based on their opinions, several hard problems arise. Suddenly, we are in the business of assessing people’s thoughts, and that can be invasive as well as unreliable. Tyler Cowan asks, “What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia? Do they have to speak out? Another question: Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine?” I would add: What about leftist critics of US imperialism who have justified Putin’s policies to various degrees over time? Would we ban editors of The Nation? And if we apply this screen to Russia/Ukraine, why not to other conflicts and injustices?

Slippery-slope arguments are sometimes classified as fallacies. Just because bad behavior falls on a continuum, it doesn’t follow that we should do nothing about any of it. But when the question is whether to work with individuals, it is morally imperative to employ clear and consistent standards. Such standards are difficult to define and maintain when everyone holds a unique constellation of opinions, and particularly when people may be afraid to say everything they believe.

Another problem with “de-platforming” or “canceling” individuals is the risk of reinforcing polarization. We can easily end up with homogeneously liberal cultural institutions (and even ordinary businesses), which then lose their ability to influence the illiberal people whom they have excluded. This is true of US universities, which risk alienating enough American conservatives that they undermine their influence over the culture. Likewise, do we want to undermine our own soft power in Russia by excluding Russians?

In a confusing time, it may be best to send the simple message that we are an open, pluralist society that does not fear abhorrent views or despise anyone because of their ethnicity–in fact, we oppose ethno-national prejudice of all kinds. To send that message may require continuing to work with some people whose views are actually abhorrent. Plus, there is always something to learn from the bad guys–even if it is only what they are thinking so that you know how to counter it better.

Although I have itemized several arguments against de-platforming people like Anna Netrebko (the soprano with the mixed political record), I am not sure where I ultimately stand on these matters. There is a case for refusing to work with individuals who hold odious views.

At first glance, it seems morally simpler to punish institutions for their odious policies than to punish individuals, such as sopranos, scientists, or Moscow apartment-owners. I have tried to apply this distinction when working with individual scholars from many countries, but not with or for their governments. However, the line between institutions and people is porous. Even a big bank is partly composed of small depositors. Even an individual scholar typically works for a state university. Even a free-thinking artist, like filmmaker Kirill Sokolov, may have taken government grants.

Turning to economic sanctions: they might work in this case, and they have the moral advantage of not directly killing people–as well as a lower risk of escalating to all-out or even nuclear war. However, for sanctions to succeed, they must inflict substantial hardship on a lot of people, including innocent civilians and even active opponents of the regime. It is much easier to rationalize causing economic hardship than using overt violence, even when the economic damage is devastating.

And sanctions may not work. If they don’t, then people like me who support them must take responsibility for the hardship. We mustn’t forget Yelena Balanovskaya and millions like her, including people in noncombatant countries like Afghanistan.

By the way, true dissidents and strong opponents of their own governments’ policies should welcome sanctions that affect themselves, so long as those efforts are likely to work. That may be true for the 85 Russian academicians who have signed the anti-war statement.

One possible solution is to focus as much as possible on the “oligarchs,” the Russian billionaires. They might have more leverage than other people (although the extent of their influence is debated); they are unlikely to suffer even if they lose a lot of money; and on the whole, their wealth has been ill-gotten in the first place. They are part of the problem, regardless of their opinions. Targeting oligarchs is central to the “Progressive Foreign Policy Response to the War in Ukraine,” which I find generally persuasive. As Henry Farrell says, perhaps sanctions that target the oligarchs can “be used to reshape the underlying systems of banking and finance that the current version of globalization relies on.”

But can we really target economic measures so that billionaires bear most of the cost, while also doing enough macroeconomic damage to affect the course of the war? I doubt it. Besides, we would want to influence oligarchs’ behavior, and that might (i suppose) require giving them a way out if they act better. In that case, what must an individual billionaire do to evade sanctions? Does one anti-war remark in English count, if it is hardly seen inside Russia? How about five anti-war social media posts in Russian? We are back to drawing lines across uneven terrain.

See also marginalizing views in a time of polarization; marginalizing odious views: a strategy

survey of Ukrainians’ motivation to fight

Pippa Norris and Kseniya Kizlova have crunched some numbers from the European Social Survey’s Ukraine sample (2,901 people) to investigate “what mobilises the Ukrainian resistance?

In autumn 2020, Europeans were asked: “Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?” About 70% of Ukrainians said yes.

That number isn’t especially meaningful on its own, since it is hypothetical. However, the correlates of the responses are interesting. As the table from Norris and Kizlova shows, Ukrainians were more likely to say they would fight if they felt patriotic, if they spoke Ukrainian rather than Russian at home, if they were confident in their government, and if they supported democratic values. Those are outputs of a statistical model, so they imply that each of these factors matters by itself. For instance, democratic values correlate with a willingness to fight when holding patriotism/nationalism constant. Also note that although speaking Ukrainian was a correlate of willingness to fight, 51% of those who spoke Russian at home said yes.

Since this was a question about personally taking up arms, it is not surprising that being male and younger correlated with positive responses. In general, the literature on nonviolent resistance suggests that it mobilizes people who are not young men.

Norris & Kizlova find regional differences, but not in a simple way. Indeed, the highest rate of willingness to fight was immediately adjacent to the Russian proxy “republics” in the east, followed by the Lviv area far to the west.

See also: civilian resistance in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus; when a university is committed to democracy (about the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv); and why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015)

civilian resistance in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus

Yesterday, I posted about prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia. Perhaps “civilian resistance” is a better heading. That category would include throwing a Molotov cocktail or firing grandpa’s hunting rifle as well as classic nonviolent acts like marches and occupations. My point is not that civilian resistance is better than military defense, or that refraining from violence is–or isn’t–morally superior. I hope for every possible Ukrainian success on the battlefield. But I believe that civilian resistance also has real potential, and indeed, that resistance by Russian civilians offers the best hope in this dire situation.

So I will try to track relevant developments, although with no hope of being comprehensive.

  • This is Rob Lee’s thread of videos showing Ukrainian civilians successfully blocking Russian troops–evidence of courage and of Russian soldiers’ reluctance to kill.
  • This a thread by my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel arguing that Ukrainian civilians will make the country ungovernable by Russian occupiers.
  • Alexei Navalny’s group is officially calling for civil disobedience against the war. OVD-Info is reporting that 6,494 Russians have been detained in “anti-war actions” since Feb 24.
  • Despite the incredible difficulty of organizing resistance in Belarus, there have been antiwar protests in several Belarusian cities.
  • When Ukrainian government officials express deep sadness about the deaths of Russian soldiers, they reframe the conflict as Putin versus the peoples of both countries. This framing invites Russian civilians to help end the war and creates the basis for reconciliation. It reminds me of the way Lincoln describes Confederate deaths in the Second Inaugural Address. He bears responsibility for these deaths as the leader of the North’s military effort, “upon which all else chiefly depends.” Yet he presents both sides’ losses as a shared sacrifice to end slavery and build a better society. Similarly, in honoring the Union dead at Gettysburg, Lincoln never mentions their bloody military victory (or the Confederates’ loss) but describes the soldiers’ sacrifice almost as if it had been nonviolent. In both cases–Lincoln and Ukraine–I presume the sorrow is genuine, but it is also a brilliant strategy.

I have no way of estimating the chances of success in any of these three countries, but guessing the odds is not our task. We should do everything we can to increase the probability of successful civilian (and military) resistance by contributing money, upholding the best examples, and advocating for support in our own countries and institutions.

On Ukraine, see also: prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia; why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015); working on civic education in Ukraine (2017); and Ukraine means borderland (2017)

On civilian resistance, see also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; self-limiting popular politics; Why Civil Resistance Works; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence.