17 March 2014

Speaking Texan in the Crimea

A Crimean Russian tried to explain it this way: how would Americans feel if "crazy Texans" suddenly took over the U.S. and "told everyone they should speak Texan?" Of course, that analogy  has a lot of holes in it, but I suppose it conveys how the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea feels and why they voted last weekend for independence from Ukraine and absorption into Russia. It also conveys a perhaps desperate desire for Americans to understand what's going on, at least as Russians see it. To them, I suppose, the west-oriented Ukrainians may seem like crazy Texans, if not the Nazis of the wilder Russian imagination. The problem is that many Americans see Russians as the crazy Texans of Eastern Europe, storming in with a cowboy mentality where they have no business, with little respect for the niceties of liberal civilization or people different from themselves.

President Putin's well-known macho posturings in publicity photos encourage a view of him as a kind of crazy cowboy, if not a vainglorious fascist in the Mussolini mode. Some of his supporters, or supporters of Russia in general, hope that simple logic may be more persuasive. If you accept the uprising of the Maidan in Ukraine and the "coup" that drove out Yanukovich as legitimate expressions of self-determination, they ask, how can you deny Crimea their more peaceful means to the same end? More objective observers and even critics of Russia have raised this same question. Russophobes have a simple answer: Crimeans voted with implicit if not literal guns to their heads, at Putin's dictation. For them, the Crimeans at best are the real crazy Texans of the piece: residents in a foreign land who never stopped identifying with their mother country and rebelled once it seemed that their adopted country wouldn't do things their way. But analogies are superfluous for Russophobes. The only meaningful fact is that Russians are an outlaw race, an inherent threat to everyone else on Earth because of their apparently innate servility toward tyrants at home and their brutal impulse to dominate other nations. That other countries have been domineering toward neighbors, not to mention toward countries that hardly count as neighbors, matters little or not at all to the Russophobe, since those facts don't change Russian nature and other countries' offenses don't entitle Russia to do likewise.

The Russophobe would most likely resent the suggestion that his is a prejudice and would answer the charge with facts. He would attempt to prove that because of what was done to some politician, or to some businessman, or to some journalist, or to Pussy Riot, or more likely to all of the above, Russia has no international interests that the world is bound to recognize. From this it's easy to infer that Crimea's Russian majority has no right to secede from Ukraine, since doing so only empowers or enriches Russia -- self-evidently a bad thing for humanity.  To argue for moral equivalence or against the hypocrisy of certain criticisms, or of certain critics, is to miss the only relevant point for the Russophobe: Russia is evil. In that sense, the Russophobe, be he a Ukrainian in the Maidan or an American on a cable news channel, is the real crazy Texan in the story, to the extent that a crazy Texan believed that the only good Mexican or Native American was a dead one. The American Russophobe, at least, will deny that analogy: he only wants the Russian people to be free of their tyrannical heritage. But it's hard to tell if such a person could tell a free Russian on sight. We know he can't (or won't) if that Russian freely chooses Putin and decides that the rough treatment of erstwhile oligarchs, punk performance artists, et al, does not compromise his own freedom. The Russian may be wrong to think that, but that doesn't mean he isn't free to do so. Freedom goes in odd and self-contradictory directions sometimes,but isn't it contrary to the whole idea to prevent that from happening anywhere in the world? We have some people today saying, in effect, that free people have no right to choose "authoritarian" government. It's so impossible for some minds that they can't see such a choice as a free one -- hence the charges of coercion in Crimea. How free, then, are "free" societies in reality? We might try answering that question before judging the freedom of others.

No comments: