Wednesday, February 01, 2017

When cynicism and nihilism win

Peter Pomerantsev, a British TV producer of Russian-dissident heritage, sought glamour and fortune in the land his parents fled. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia serves up a vivid portrait of a broken society where only cynicism and nihilism thrive. If Pomerantsev is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt him, Putin's Russia is a dystopian reality TV show cum sadistic Synanon Game cum indissoluble marriage to a cruel, battering spouse. All this masquerades as an illiberal democracy, complete with chimerical institutions of law and justice. In fact, the autocrat and his captive kleptocrats rule through intimidation and corruption. The picture is incredibly depressing.

It took Pomerantsev a decade of experience in Moscow to suss this out.

It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium.

The book recounts his immersion and gradual repulsion; if a reader will go there, reading this account is to ingest a foul despair.

And yet -- and yet-- there's a huge amount of context missing in Pomerantsev's stories, that I can't help believe should be essential to framing any glimpse of contemporary Russia. Whatever nightmare is going on there is the end product of a couple of hundred years of disorienting horror that cannot have failed to leave its residue in a crushed populace: czarist autocracy; a cruel communism that destroyed any credibility for humane socialism; the Stalin cult amid terror; a genocidal assault from Nazi Germany on Slavs and Jews and communists; the unheralded collapse of empire; neoliberal capitalism delivered as shock therapy; Party bosses who morphed into mafia bosses; and an oil extraction economy benefiting oligarchs while leaving most in miserable poverty. No wonder Putin's flimflam is so effective in upholding his rule. Russia is a deeply broken society; Putinlandia is the product of all that history, not just of a particular secret policeman turned tinpot autocrat.

Does the presidency of Donald Trump suggest that the U.S., also, is irretrievably broken? Do we face a similar descent into fantastic delirium? Trump is, after all, an insecure, soulless, made-for-TV character with a greed for lucre and a lust for power. Can he and his enablers substitute cynicism and disgust for the hopes of the majority for a democratic path toward an equitable, sustainable future?

Answering those questions is our fate. And we have some advantages. The places in this country which are not broken, which power some 64 percent of the economy, most of the culture, and which resonate most with our multi-faceted history and diversity, had no part in electing Donald Trump. People with hope for a better future are a majority with some material and many moral assets. The system didn't work for us in 2016; can we work the remnants of the system to reassert ourselves? We'll have to do what accumulated horrors made impossible for a broken Russia: choose hope, work together in all our integrity and multiplicity, and nurture our best values everyday, all around each of us. This is our time.

Resist and protect much.

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