Monday, August 18, 2008

Unstacking the Matryoshkas

Great fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite 'em.
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
And so, ad infinitum.
-- Augustus De Morgan
In this Week's Sift:
  • Matryoshkas. The media has been trying to tell the Georgia/Russia War as a story of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Actually, there are more than two guys, and they look a lot the same, except that one is very big, the next one a little smaller, and so on.
  • Will the Media Even Try to Keep McCain Honest? At the Saddleback Forum Saturday, McCain told a very moving story about his POW days. Why does it sound so much like a Solzhenitsyn story? And will the media connect this question to all the times McCain has fudged in the past?
  • Short Notes. Obama is still losing the racist vote. Clinton stars in a McCain commercial. Our military is taking this "Onward Christian Soldiers" thing way too seriously. Young voters actually did come out in 2004. And I punt Musharraf's resignation to next week.
Matryoshkas
A lot of nonsense has been written about Russia, Georgia, and the rebellious Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Last week I was just trying not to add to it, but this week I'd like to beat the nonsense back a little.

There's one temptation we should all try to resist: the idea that this story is really some other story. That it's Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, or David against Goliath, or Hitler trying to dismember Czechoslovakia. All of those stories (and a lot more) can throw light on some aspect of the Georgia situation, but they all cover up as much as they make clear.

Historical background. Centuries ago, this whole region (the Caucasus) was a bunch of tiny kingdoms you've never heard of. (The regions on the Rusisian side of the border are on this map. Georgia and its breakaway provinces/republics are here.) One-by-one they got conquered by the Czars, and later were absorbed wholesale into the Soviet Union, sometimes after after a second conquest during the Revolution. The Communists tried for decades to produce "the Soviet man" whose identity transcended all the divisions of language and culture and history, but it never really took.

Russia and Georgia were two Soviet republics that became independent when the USSR fell apart in 1991, but it's a mistake to think of them as nations in the cultural-identity sense. There certainly are a lot of people who think of themselves as Russians or Georgians, but on both sides of the border you can also find a lot of people who think of themselves as something else -- Ossetians, Chechens, and so on. Russians and Georgians play a role similar to white English-speakers in America; they're the largest group and they define the national stereotype, but they're not the whole country. Some of the minority nationalities tried to claim their own independence in the chaos following 1991, but the old Soviet borders have more-or-less held. The bloodiest of these conflicts was the Chechans' attempt to get free of Russia, which resulted in two wars and a continuing insurgency.

Ossetia wound up being split into North Ossetia (part of Russia) and South Ossetia (part of Georgia). The South Ossetians have been fighting for independence since 1991, with a ceasefire (but not a resolution) in 1992. Abkhazia fought a 1992-93 war for independence from Georgia, with a second flare-up in 1998. Abkhazia is more-or-less independent, and has done an ethnic cleansing that resulted in 250,000 ethnic Georgian refugees. But Georgia recognizes a government-in-exile and the situation was considered unresolved at the beginning of the recent Ossetian war.

Who's David? In short, it's a mess. If you're a Georgian refugee from the Abkhazian ethnic cleansing, you're David and Abkhazia is Goliath. If you're an Abkhazian or Ossetian separatist, you're David and Georgia is Goliath. To Georgia, Russia is Goliath -- unless you can convince the US or NATO to come in and be Goliath on your side. It's like those stacking Russian dolls, the matryoshkas. Little fleas have lesser fleas, ad infinitum.

And that's the answer to a question I've wondered about ever since I first heard about India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir: Why do all these countries want to hang on to regions that don't want to belong to them? It's hard for Americans to remember that we did the same thing in our Civil War, and in much of the world there's an even better reason: None of these borders make sense, and if nations start letting this region or that one break away, there's a chance the whole thing could unravel, to the point that individual villages and families could end up proclaiming their sovereignty and fighting a massive battle of all-against-all. (I have tried in vain to hunt down a cartoon I remember from the time of the breakup of Yugoslavia: barbed wire divides two yards. In one the banner of the Republic of Bob is flying, while the other sports the flag of the Grand Duchy of Frank.)

This, by the way, is the problem with the plans to break Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish zones. What happens to the Turkmen or Assyrians in Kurdistan? Iraq is just the outer matryoshka; the next one -- Kurdistan -- is just the same, only smaller.

It's hard for Americans to wrap their minds around this situation. The majority of us -- all but the Native Americans and the descendents of slaves -- are volunteers or the descendents of volunteers. We're Americans because somebody in our line decided that they wanted to be Americans. And if we didn't like it, we could go somewhere else. But the rest of the world is not that way. They are what they are because somebody conquered somebody else a long, long time ago.

And they remember, which drives us nuts. During the Kosovo crisis, I was on a mostly American email list that had one zealous Serb. We were unable to have anything resembling a dialog. The Americans kept talking about democracy, but the Serb was oblivious to the fact that something like 80% of the Kosovars were ethnic Albanians now. Kosovo could never be anything but Serbian, and Serbia couldn't truly be Serbia without it. Kosovo was the site of the celebrated battle against the Ottomans in 1389, which the Serbians lost, but pledged never to forget. You couldn't erase that just by moving in a bunch of Albanians who breed like rabbits. Similarly, here's what the New York Times is reporting about the current situation:
The Georgians said that they were “always there,” that Abkhazia was a Georgian kingdom, and that only by expelling the ethnic Georgians at the end of the war did the Abkhaz make themselves a majority in the province. The Abkhaz said that they are the descendants of a “1,000-year-old kingdom,” that they were the victims of a massive campaign of Russian deportation in the 1860s, and then that Stalin forced them into the Georgian yoke.
Do you want to get into the middle of that? I know I don't.

Who's the Hitler-du-jour?
A lot of the current nonsense comes from American conservatives, for whom it is always 1938. Putin is Hitler, just like Ahmadinejad was Hitler last week, Bin Laden was Hitler the week before, and Saddam was Hitler a while before that. Any time you hear the word appeasement, somebody is claiming that it's 1938, that somebody is Hitler, and that our leaders have to choose whether they want to be Chamberlain (bad) or Churchill (good).

The big problem with the 1938 frame is that it sweeps a lot of details under the rug. All local issues are just noise. "Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia?" neocon Robert Kagan asked last Monday. "Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama." The bigger drama is world conquest, and the 1938 frame assumes that eventually we will either have to fight or surrender -- so isn't it obvious that we should fight now, before we lose any more allies?

Of course, there are other frames that sweep other details under the rug and lead to equally obvious (but opposite) conclusions. Maybe it's not 1938, maybe it's 1914, when (as Bismarck had predicted) "some damn fool thing in the Balkans" escalated into a big-power war that none of the big powers actually wanted. (In fact, the reason 1938 became 1938 was that Chamberlain didn't want it to be 1914 again.)

What's Putin thinking? Putin has his own frames. Maybe it's 1999, when NATO used a local ethnic struggle to break Kosovo off from Russia's ally Serbia. Breaking Abkhazia or South Ossetia away from Georgia, then, is just an example of turnabout-is-fair-play. Maybe it's 2003, when the Bush adminstration claimed again and again that it didn't need UN authorization to invade Iraq. In the 2004 campaign, Republicans ridiculed John Kerry's suggestion that the U.S. work within international structures and international law: "We will never seek a permission slip to defend the United States," Dick Cheney asserted.

So Putin doesn't think he needs a permission slip either. Might makes right, after all. We can't claim that principle for ourselves and then try to deny it to others. Nations will laugh at us. They are laughing at us. They ought to, because we are laughable. ("In the 21st century," says John McCain with a straight face, "nations don't invade other nations." And President Bush proclaims: "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.")

One illuminating (and fairly harsh) interpretation of what Putin is up to is by Vladimir Socor of the Eurasian Daily Monitor. The ultimate goal, in this interpretation, is to make NATO realize that accepting Georgia into membership would be more trouble than it's worth. The New York Times gives a good background summary, and a Russian intern at the Washington Post gives a more Putin-favorable interpretation of events.

Two sides. Fox News viewers got a surprising reminder that there are two sides to this story when a 12-year-old girl they brought on to dramatize the horrors of the war instead started thanking the Russian soldiers who rescued her. Her aunt blamed the Georgian government for everything, and a panicked Shepherd Smith broke for a commercial. One of my friends is a Russophile who watches Russian TV over the internet. He tells me the Putin-controlled media is full of similar testimonials. Georgian TV, I suspect, has different testimonials.

My take. I advise caution. We're in enough wars already, and the American public should try to remember how it was stampeded into Iraq. As for what we should hope for, here's what I'd like to see in all conflicts: An end to fighting, and the right of all refugees to either go home or be compensated for their losses and resettled permanently elsewhere. The administration is trying to commit us to a bigger idea: "Georgian territorial integrity", which is a fancy way of saying that Georgia is the right matryoshka, and that how it treats the smaller Ossetia and Abkhazia is nobody else's business. Somebody could convince me that's the right solution, but I'm not going to grant it without a good reason. And I'm certainly not willing to risk war with Russia for it unless somebody makes a much better case than I've heard so far.

McCain Makes Things Up. Will Anybody Call Him on It?
A damaging charge against John McCain's honesty has been propagating through the blogs since Sunday, and it will be interesting to see whether the mainstream media picks it up. Saturday night, during the candidate forum that mega-church-minister Rick Warren set up and moderated for his flock, McCain told a story about his POW experience. He has repeated this story many times during the campaign, and it appears in his book Faith of My Fathers. (I saw it in a Christmas mailing he blanketed New Hampshire with. He also put it into a TV ad.) The details vary (that's one of the problems with the story), but it always culminates in a compassionate North Vietnamese guard drawing a cross in the dirt, as a sign of Christian solidarity. It's a moving story, and (if you're cynical) sounds a little too perfect.

Sunday afternoon about 12:30, rickrocket on DailyKos pointed out that a similar story has been told about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (It's been attributed to The Gulag Archipelago, but nobody has reported finding it there yet.) Checkable references to the Solzhenitsyn story predate Faith of My Fathers, which seems (at least so far) to be the first place McCain mentioned it.

By 3 o'clock dday on Hullabaloo had picked up the story, and by evening it was on Raw Story and Political Insider, which was then linked from Huffington Post. The next logical place for it to turn up is TPM, which didn't have it as of about 11 a.m. today. If this were a charge against Obama, it would get picked up by Fox News sometime today. Then the rest of the media would feel obligated to cover it, and by tomorrow the Obama campaign would have to respond to the charge somehow. Will the media treat McCain the same way? Wait and see.

One reason to believe McCain did steal the story from Solzhenitsyn (who he claims to have read) is that McCain does this kind of thing. His first statement on Georgia, for example, lifted pieces from Wikipedia without attribution. Several of the "Cindy's recipes" section of the McCain web site (now scrubbed) came word-for-word from the Food Network, and the cookie recipe Cindy submitted to Parents Magazine actually came from Hershey's.

If McCain did steal the cross-in-the-dirt story, it wouldn't be the first time he'd blown smoke about his POW experiences. In Faith of My Fathers McCain said that when his interrogators asked for the names of his squadron mates, he gave them names from the starting line-up of the Green Bay Packers. But when he told the story to a Pittsburgh TV station, the names came from the Steelers, not the Packers. These kinds of shifting details make you wonder whether there is any core truth to the story. Maybe it happened in a movie McCain saw, and not in Hanoi at all.

In addition to plagiarizing and stretching the truth, McCain tells whopping lies. Like this one where he says "I have not missed any crucial votes" on alternative energy sources. ThinkProgress points out that his vote would have made the difference on a number of votes, including an effort to extend tax credits for renewable energy last December. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope wrote:
I have just listened to carefully coached staff members for Senator John McCain lie repeatedly about the Senator's failure to show up and vote on the first Senate economic-stimulus package, which included tax incentives for clean energy. I am in a state of shock not because of the Senator's vote, although that disappointed me, nor over his desire to avoid public accountability for that vote -- that's politics. But to carefully coach your Senate staff (I assume the Chief of Staff, not the Senator, was the author of this shameful performance) in how to mislead callers in such depth is appalling, and surprising, because it was almost certain to be found out.
But found out by whom? That was February -- did you hear about it until now? McCain is the straight talker; the media says so, and they seem to have no interest in finding out anything different. The Carl Popes of this world can jump up and down all they want, but who is listening?

Now, the stolen recipes and the football fibbing don't have anything to do with policy. But Al Gore was constantly hounded by such stories in 2000, with much less substance behind them. He was a "serial exaggerator" and you couldn't write anything about Gore without mentioning that he claimed to have invented the internet or that Love Story was really about him.

This time around, the media will raise obscure connections between Obama and Louis Farrakhan and question him about baseless rumors that Michelle denounced "whitey" in public. Will they raise the question of whether McCain stole the cross story? Will they tie it together with his long pattern of exaggerations and lies? Somehow I doubt it.

Short Notes
According to the Borowitz Report, a new poll by Duh Magazine shows Obama trailing among racists. "In a head-to-head match-up, likely bigots chose Sen. McCain over Sen. Obama by a margin of one thousand to one, with a majority of racists saying they 'strongly disagree' with Sen. Obama's decision not to be white." ... Duh editor Plugh says the poll indicates that Sen. Obama 'has his work cut out for him' if he is going to make up lost ground among racists.

As soon as Hillary Clinton said, "I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience that he will bring to the White House, and Senator Obama has a speech that he gave in 2002" -- we all knew it would turn up in a McCain commercial. It has. The ad also contains pro-McCain statements from other major Democrats, like Howard Dean and John Kerry (both look younger than they do now). But no one else specifically denigrates Obama in comparison to McCain. There's a reason: One of the unwritten rules of the primary campaign -- which all the other candidates lived by -- was not to give Republicans that kind of fodder. If Clinton were the nominee, the Republicans would not have a McCain-is-better-than-Clinton quote from Obama or any of the other Democratic candidates. Thanks, Hillary.

Chris Rodda on DailyKos lifts the lid on yet another example of the Christianization of our military.

Interesting graph over at Matthew Yglesias' new blog. Kerry's effort to get young voters to the polls actually worked, just not well enough.

Pakistan's President Musharaff resigned rather than face impeachment. More on this next week. For now I'll point you to this interview with Ahmed Rashid, author of a very good book, Descent into Chaos.

4 comments:

DavidW in SF said...

Regarding McCain's touching Christmas story: You might want to check Hilzoy on Obsidian Wings, who has collected research from elsewhere, noting that McCain failed to mention this incident in a book published in 1995 in which he was specifically interviewed about his Christmases in captivity:

To my mind, it's a lot harder to believe that McCain never mentioned the story about the cross to Robert Timberg, who wrote The Nightingale's Song, than to believe he didn't mention it in his 1973 piece. Timberg interviewed McCain, and says that McCain spent "a lot of time" with him. He was, moreover, writing about Christmases in captivity. If mcCain didn't mention it at the time, that would be very odd.

Someone should ask him.

David Gerard said...

McCain and Wikipedia has vast comedy potential. (Feel free to propagate the picture.)

Doug Muder said...

david gerard,

That is hilarious! Thanks for showing it to me.

David Gerard said...

:-D Tell your friends ;-)