Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why Americans Distrust Russia

I really bothers me when Americans are dismissed as "stupid" and "ignorant" in regards to their ideas about foreign relations. It's very unfair and short-sighted because it reveals its own kind of ignorance about why Americans think the way they do. Maybe it doesn't occur to foreigners that most of us Americans over a certain age were educated in the Soviet era in which we were not allowed to know anything about the Soviet Bloc, and any attempts to learn were met with lies, propaganda, and denials by the Soviets et al.

The Soviets wanted us to think that all of the USSR and its "bloc" were completely homogenous culturally and socially, etc, because that implied that Communism/Socialism erased all differences, boundaries, and conflicts among what in reality turns out to be a bunch of different types of people.* Imagine growing up having to accept what was fed to you and not being allowed to learn any different or having to make assumptions about places and people because you weren't given any information. This explains the "ignorance" of many Americans about the constituents of the former Soviet Bloc. They did it to us because they wanted us to be ignorant, much like the wanted their own people to be ignorant of how Americans really are.

Also many American adults grew up during the Cold War in which there was a fairly constant fear that the USSR would try to attack us or any of our allies or that they would support some other country that wanted to attack us (like Cuba). While some might view that fear as irrational paranoia they should recall that it was actually part of the "defeat" of Communist aggressors. I think that many of us retain a sense of paranoia and distrust of Russia because of its history as the "center" of the USSR, and it looks like their current leadership isn't really all that different from the Soviet leadership. Personally, I'm still paranoid and distrustful of Russia and its motivations. If that makes me "stupid" or "ignorant" then show me why I should trust Russia...

Okay, so it's true that policy makers and good journalists should educate themselves about the things that were hidden from us before, but it's pretty unrealistic to expect this to happen instantaneously. And who do you trust now? Do we believe the new versions coming from Russia or do we trust the previously suppressed people who are seeking their own new freedom and independence? Americans have been bred on Freedom and self-motivation and self-determination. It's kind of hard for us to understand why anyone shouldn't be allowed to separate from their previous political, social ties. Precedent is important, but must it be the primary factor in determining how things should be? Sometimes precedent has been very wrong (like slavery, limitations on sufferage, etc).

This American world view might be problematic, but Freedom is never easy. The more degrees of freedom the more possible deviations can occur. Maybe Freedom isn't for everyone. But let the ones who want it have it. I don't perceive Russia as a great promoter of Freedom. And if I were living in a previously Soviet bloc country I would be pretty paranoid about Russia deciding that it wanted that territory back and invading in order to get it. Maybe that's just too far-fetched, but maybe it's not. Maybe having a lot of Freedom does cause people to have an underlying paranoia of the motivations of others because of knowing that Freedom is always vulnerable to attacks by those who want to control more than just themselves.

No, I don't have any solutions or practical wisdom to the conflicts in the world. But I do hope that people will try to see things from other than their own point of view.

*Watching the Olympics it is apparent that China also wants the world to believe that all of China is homogenous and harmonious because of its Communism. Well, little good their 300,000 security cameras all over the place did to prevent an American from being murdered there on the first day. Maybe it was a government hit meant to test the American response. Also why was the American anthem cut off during Michael Phelps's gold medal ceremony? Maybe it was just another subtle(?) disrespect towards America. And the statements of a Chinese gymnast were very revealing about the nature of life under the Chinese Communist control. He said that Chinese athletes carry a "heavy burden" and are not self-movitated. He implied that the consequences of disappointing performances were excessive, and the scene of Chinese soldiers overseeing every aspect of his training was concerning and a little frightening.


Ann said...

I agree with you, Rae Ann. I also know a number of Russians who were educated in Moscow, but left Russia and live here now, and they, too, would agree with your viewpoint. These friends are all Jewish and are all successful now, they are not interested at all in playing 'the victim' but each one will mention how much anti-semitism exists in Russia today.

America has its problems, but I don't know of any other society that so openly reveals the problems and the messy processes involved in addressing them. I laugh to remember my many European grad student colleagues who would cluck their tongues about American racism. Europe is far more socially stratified and ethnically partitioned than this country. For example, I doubt anything has been done in Paris after the riots in the Moslem slums from the recent past.

Rae Ann said...

Hi Ann! Thanks, and thanks for bringing your experience. I'm sure that former Soviets and other Europeans haven't really gotten an accurate education about America and Americans because of the political leaders wanting their people to believe that Americans are this or that and so on. I realize that Lubos, for example, has a different perspective on the ethnic tensions and territorial disputes in the former Soviet Bloc and has more knowledge of the history of the areas, etc. But I think that he probably doesn't realize that we Americans were forced into this "ignorance" because of the closed nature of the Soviet regime, much like China which is beginning a very cautious and controlled opening up. A lot of changes have happened since I finished school and it's not always so easy to get accurate new information to people who aren't already in an academic environment. And even so, you can't really rely on academia to be accurate anymore either. ;-)