Monday, March 29, 2010

This morning while discussing the Moscow metro bombing, my World Issues teacher asked me—since I’m Russian—if I’d be able to give an overview of the ongoing Russo-Chechen conflict that has resulted in several terrorist attacks in the past decade. My first reaction was surprise that he’d assume my knowledge of the situation based simply on my nationality. My next reaction was the realization and embarrassment that I knew next to nothing about the conflict, despite having just written an essay for that same class on Soviet influence. (In my defense, I focused mostly on Georgia for the essay.)

When people picture Russia I guess this see this sort of Second World, rugged, half-civilized, half-corrupted country with Vodka fountains, cigarette vending machines, haggard old men and beautiful women. The reality is that Russia’s major cities, like Moscow, are not that different than New York City, or Toronto, or any other major North American metropolis. My last time in Moscow we stayed at the Marriot hotel, and out of the few restaurants we ate at, one was a Texan grill, and another was a KFC. Almost everyone speaks English. It is not uncommon to see a Peugeot or any other glorified European vehicle. And while in the West famous brands like Mercedes stick to “luxury” cars, in Russia and Europe they don’t hesitate to also design vans or buses. The differences begin to arise when you leave Moscow in your rented car and travel out to the boonies. In Russia, each city or town has a number assigned to it which appears on cars’ license plates, so those infamous Russian cops, always looking for a buck from a bribe, can tell your car is from Moscow, and by the looks of it is rented, which means your probably have money, which means they have 30 seconds to think up an excuse to pull you over and get it from you.

There have been a few situations where the Family Guy style stereotypes of Russian life have played themselves out in front of my own eyes. One was when we were driving towards Moscow through country roads, and to the side of the highway, saw an abandoned rusted tank sitting in a muddy field. Another situation I didn’t actually see because I was looking away, but my family has reiterated for me enough times that I have engraved it into my memory by sheer will and desire to have seen it. Across the street from out hotel was a fancy, upper class, restaurant and lounge, and while I wasn’t looking, out of the doors came a security guard with an automatic machine gun, followed by a couple dressed in evening clothes. They got in the car, and their “escort”, who by my family’s given description, looked more like S.W.A.T. team combatant, shut their door for them and subsequently got in on the other side himself.

The metro bombing now adds to the international fear of the subway. I remember when we visited my grandparents in Connecticut and drove with them to New York City, they refused to ride the train. If only I was still in contact with them to get their opinion on “America’s Worst Mom” Lenore Skenazy, who let her nine year old son ride NYC’s subway alone. I am earnestly surprised, that with today’s extreme daily risk-taking, from smoking to flying, anyone can be deterred from taking the train as transportation. Of the 7,000 people that ride the subway in Moscow everyday, the second largest subway system next to Tokyo, 38 died this morning, in an attack that is now getting blamed on al-Qaeda as well. What’s eerie and a shock for me is hearing names of places, such as Lubyanka station or Gorky Park—places that I until now associated with summer vacations and family photos—being talked bout in terms of casualties and damage. A boycott of the subway by Russians, or of airplanes by Americans, would be a terrorist victory indeed, for then they’d have truly negated our mobile freedom. Yes, there are risks in taking the train, or in flying, or in driving a car, but, in the words of Don Draper in Mad Men’s first episode, “You still have to get where you’re going.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Faster Transition

Enlightenment era philosopher Marquis de Condorcet envisioned the history of the world divided into ten stages of continuous progress, the last stage being utopia. This belief was upheld until the early decades of the 20th century, when it was crumpled by the disaster of the Great War (Schlesinger, 1997). Condorcet’s idea correlates with Clinton’s superimposition of democracy over dictatorship agreeably, because both are based on the principle that anything good and just will be triumphant and desired, by “universal hunger for liberty” (Gerard, 2005). The switch from dictatorships to democracies in developing countries is a constant one, making democracy an achievable goal, and insuring its existence and defense for future generations. How then, are the momentary lapses in democracy, such as war, depression, and communism of the 20th century to be explained? In the words of Patrick Swayze in 1989’s Road House, “It’ll get worse before it gets better.”

History today moves increasingly fast, accelerating in its sequence of events at a rate than politicians during the 1600’s—the revival of modern democracy—could never predict (Levinson, 2006). Schlesinger’s comparison of the Industrial to the Computer Age is an apt example of such progress; however, the transition of speed can be applied to governments too. Levinson gives an ample timeline of the transition from monarchal to democratic ideals during the Enlightenment period. In France, it took nearly two centuries of philosophical dispute to overthrow a millennia old monarchy in French Revolution—only then to result in an empire. Nowadays, dictatorships, democracies, military juntas, and everything in between, alternate in some nations as fluidly as four-year US presidential elections. What signifies the triumph of democracy is that most of these countries have lately been landing on the democratic side of the coin toss.

In Argentina, the government made the switch from military to civilian rule with the first democratic election of Raul Alfonsin in 1983. South Korea, too, abandoned its war-torn dictatorial past with its first civilian president in 1992. Algeria and Benin have both instated themselves as emerging democracies in the 90’s and early 00’s with the allowance of opposition parties and multi-party democratic elections. Even South Africa, a nation deemed as a lost cause due to its ruthless hierarchal rule, elected Nelson Mandela as its first democratic president in 1994.

Schlesinger’s argument is that these countries are young developing democracies, easily swayed and with not enough years of democracy to be considered substantial democratic converts; unlike the century old democratic origins of the US. But when the rapid approach of history today is compared to the slow continuance of the 1700’s when the US gained independence, today’s emerging democracies are gaining liberty faster than their dominant predecessors. They’re accomplishing in a few years what took some nations lifetimes; what took the US decades to institute, or for France, centuries.

Many nations will achieve democracy in the coming century—some on their own, and some with foreign aid. Many will lose it and be setback. This relapse is an important step in the recovery process—as the first democratic seeds have already been planted to later be grown. Tony Blair’s proposal that “democracy is hard to bring into countries that have never had it before” is true, but that once first bout of democratic rule, no matter how quickly halted, is a first step. Amassed, these nations show a collective support for continuation of democratic governance.

Gerard, Alexander. "Making Democracy Stick." Hoover Institute. 2005.

Levinson, Mark. "Democracy Here Is Not Necessarily Democracy There." International Society of General Semantics. 2006.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. "Has Democracy a Future?" Council of Foreign Relations. 1997.

“Faster, Higher, Stronger”: Reassessing the Olympic Motto


What does it mean, for a nation, to host the Olympic Games? Is it competitive edge, or national pride that drives countries to host? Is it the chance to give back to the world, or the freedom to earn from it that compels politicians to place their bids? While torch-bearers line up, coaches get interviewed, and athletes train to ski, skate, and luge their way through the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, provincial leaders and finance critics stay busy predicting the revenue the event will bring during the season. Thus it seems the expectation of monetary proceeds is regarded higher than the expectation for medals. Is Olympic success then, determined by honor, or measured by profit?

As far as profit goes, Vancouver need not look further than Salt Lake City—the host of the 2002 Winter Games—to catch a glimpse of their coming economic boost. Utah’s Life in the Valley magazine claims $4.8 billion in sales, $1.5 billion in earning for workers, and 220 thousand visitors in Salt Lake City as a result of the Olympics. In several recent articles by Utah’s KSL news station, residents mentioned the state is still in an economic haven eight years after hosting the Games. Not only does it earn revenue for its own Olympic exploits, but gets a share in the Vancouver Games too, as companies use Salt Lake’s photogenic venues and snowy landscapes to shoot their own Olympic commercials to air in February. Already predictions are in on Vancouver, which expects to outperform Utah with twice as many visitors. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Vancouver is projected to be number one in economic growth in 2010, with a forecasted 4.5% increase. The “Your B.C. Government” site, in accordance, boasts a $4 billion sum of economic activity brought on by the Games. It seems so far that these aforementioned statistics—along with the Olympics’ costs, and the inconveniencing of Vancouver residents due to constant construction road-blocks and traffic detours—have been making more headlines than the sports themselves. I’m no athlete, but when the focus is so tragically shifted from its main point, one has to wonder what role sports really play in the Olympics.

Lesser known sports the likes of lugeing, bobsledding, and the biathlon attract little attention in the Olympic off-season, making them existent almost solely for the delectation of the athletes. A tripartite diffidence has formed between the athletes, the public, and the government. The athlete, mechanical and precise, achieves victory in his sport regardless of viewers or profits. The public watches in a patriotic daze, caring little for the sport, but cheering earnestly for medals. The government, in the meanwhile, cashes in on the efforts and fervor of both.

The Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”—in reference the expected athleticism of the event—has instead turned into an economic standard of “faster” spending, “higher” payout, and “stronger” market. One must not forget that we live in a world where the half-time show gets more coverage than the game, where commercials during the Super Bowl are reviewed more than plays, and where red-carpet fashions outshine cinematic performance. It is no wonder then, that like music on the radio, or dramas on television, sports have become filler in between commercials. Importance is placed not on the features, but the numbers they earn. We get to enjoy a competitive show, and the athletes get their medals, neither of us aware that we’re simply pawns in the biggest quadrennial pissing contest of the world; in which the purpose is to outperform the former in medals as well as in finance. The Olympic creed, after all, as coined by Pierre de Coubertin, reads: “the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.” And in taking part, apparently, reap all the earnings you can while the chance exists.