As the Trump-Russia scandal continues to unravel, no one blinked when former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “It is in [the Russian people’s] genes to be opposed, diametrically opposed to US and western democracies.” Excuse me? I had no idea that my DNA depended on an outdated, racist clash of civilizations. Tell me, sir: as a Russian-American Jew, will medical tests show trace amounts of Fifth Column in my blood?
Many will argue that statements like Clapper’s should be taken seriously but not literally. Even metaphorically, however, the statement is crap. The Russian people cannot be reduced to Putin’s regime, nor do they have an inherited cultural defect which can cured by exporting American capitalism or rule of law. Above all, their pride won’t allow them to submit to a culture that openly disdains them. What meeting of minds can there be when the likes of Vanity Fair and Louise Mensch treat the name “Vladimir” as an expletive?
According to a family anecdote, my father worked as a television engineer for the Soviet team taping the 1959 “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow between then Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. The exhibition of kitchen appliances as the fruits of American capitalism was meant to foment envy in Soviet households over Americans’ superior lifestyle. The whole episode was recorded in color using American technology.
When Nixon boasted about America’s technological prowess, Khrushchev angrily responded that the Soviets would soon catch up. And so they did. In my father’s retelling, his team got the American camera crew so drunk that the chumps didn’t notice when their equipment was stolen. The Soviet team copied down blueprints of the technology before returning the equipment.
I told this story in a class discussion years ago and the professor, a humorless Cold Warrior, looked at me and retorted, “Ah, now you make sense!” It wasn’t a compliment.
We agreed that the Soviets broke the rules, didn’t respect American property rights, and didn’t innovate as quickly. With his backhanded shade, however, he turned a tricky historical situation into a moral failing, a defect passed down to me by my family.
His judgment came with all the moral weight of a sheltered American who’d never been forced to choose between bad and worse. Black and white thinking is for people who’ve never lived in grey.
Many Americans hear that story and see American capitalism rising above the Soviet saboteurs who would undermine democratic norms just for kicks. My takeaway was that the Americans were arrogant idiots for thinking they could out-drink the Russians that day. To each their own.
Americans of every political stripe enjoy shitting on the Russians to make themselves feel superior. They’re rough around the edges, hahaha! They’ve lived through horror and had to make ugly choices to survive. The women are whores and the men will bury you. As Dan Soder’s comedy bit goes, “Russians are the scariest white people.” And some people seriously believe that — and wouldn’t want them dirtying our democracy.
By American exceptionalist logic, the United States is rich because Americans are good people who make good choices. Russians suffer because they’re dirty liars who don’t want to be happy.
The political sentiment on Trump-Russia in 2017 can be summed up as: “Americans got Trump because shady Russians got him elected — not because of racist nativists and political corruption. Russians got Putin because they’re ignorant animals who don’t believe in human rights.”
Democrats and Republicans are playing up ignorant stereotypes to deflect from America’s institutional collapse. Democrats don’t want to admit to themselves that there is a vicious contingent of Americans who want white supremacist dictatorship.
That must be the Russian influence, they say. Pshh. The Republicans, meanwhile, are glorifying Russia as a haven for corporate malfeasance and white supremacist patriarchy. Someone should tell Ann Coulter that Muslims make up the second largest religious population in Russia before she tries to move there.
Russophobia, like any irrational hatred, plays directly into unscrupulous hands. Vladimir Putin exploits American condescension in order to bolster power at home. Propaganda works best when it contains a kernel of truth. Russians haven’t forgotten the American journalists in Sochi who laughed at the poverty and corruption ruining their lives. Imagine the schadenfreude Russians felt when Lavrov rubbed Comey’s firing in our faces before playing our president for a fool in the Oval Office itself.
Even in our current situation, Americans still live in a richer country with a vastly better quality of life, but instead of acting maturely, we’re sitting poolside like ladies who lunch, teasing Russia mercilessly for daring to apply to the same country club. The European Union did the same to Turkey with equally disastrous results.
Mar a Lago-style diplomacy will steer us all off a cliff.
When we don’t take the time to relate to our geopolitical adversaries, or we call their inferiority complexes stupid, we‘re rubbing salt in old wounds. No one responds well to that kind of behavior.
The other day a young conservative mentioned to me how much he loved that Russia “doesn’t care about human rights” — a dangerous sentiment we’re hearing echoes of from Trump and Theresa May. When I told him that Russians do care about rights — socioeconomic rights, for example— he was shocked that Russians aren’t a mythical people built to suffer in order to make us feel superior. He preferred to rationalize his prejudice rather than debate me, but he’d be better served letting go and sitting for an episode of The Americans. That show knows that Soviets were people too.