Monday, March 3rd. North America wakes up to find the Russian army occupying the Crimea – a mountainous peninsula just south of Ukraine, a country in the throws of a quasi-revolution.
Rhetorical Q: which one was more real?
This is not an analysis of the conflict. This is not a history of the conflict. This is not op-ed on what should be done next, or what the right vs wrong vs pragmatic route is. This is an observation.
There are those who will tell you, over the coming weeks, as this situation descends into hopeless complexity and vexed political wrangling, that someone should do something and less talk more action and what the hell is the UN for if not for this? These people will pull up every thread of the endlessly entangled world of Eastern European politics, and will probably propose to you a course of action that you would agree with, were you a voting man. These people, though, are few and far between.
What you are more likely to meet is someone who will say: “Isn’t that something, eh?” “That’s a tricky sich, let me tell you,” “let them sort it out for themselves.” These people are not apathetic or disengaged, they are just like you and me. It’s just that the conflict, with its territorial, ethnic, and imperial overtones, makes no fucking sense to us. This is, I repeat, not because we are disengaged or apathetic – the answer lies in the way this whole conflict plays on deep tensions between our current, past, and new ideas of who we are in relation to the world of power politics. This makes it very, very important.
When we woke up on Monday with our Oscar hangover, in heavy need of something to ground us in reality, remind us how feeble but banally significant we may or may not be, we were confronted instead with a strange territory war with a ribbon of ethnic issues, language rights, &c. running through it. It was, I submit, something right out of the nineteenth century, a fact not lost on Johnny Q. GloboPol, who will be quick to remind you that this little patch of land became a focal point w/r/t military conflict circa 1853ish. It was a conflict that was not only distant and confusing, but didn’t (and doesn’t) seem real. This is not to say, of course, that anyone thought this was fake, or somehow not significant, but it is to say that we found within ourselves no sympathy, no empathy, and very little desire to be swayed, one way or the other. It wasn’t as if we didn’t care, but it was almost as if we didn’t care.
Part of it, I think, was that we could all sit back just a little bit and feel comfortable with our notions that the Russians are still the bad guys. We watched Ukraine happen and suddenly we were watching a film reel of the 1970s, and the Ruskis are rolling the tanks in again. We see the armed Russian soldiers – were they holding modern weapons or ak-47s? Was that the Russian tricolor, or the hammer and sickle? Even more unreal were the marches of Russian citizens, the celebratory parades of Russo-mania. 1936. 1961. 1980. Anything but 2014.
Why? What is the appeal? Why does military action – a route so soberly come upon in the West as we grapple with the contradiction of our expanding power but diminishing morals. Don’t the Russians feel bad?
Ukraine 2014 revealed, I submit, something very complex about who we are. We expect our states to do the following things for us:
- • Care for us when we are sick
- • Care for us when we are poor
- • Protect us if we are attacked
- • Stimulate our jobs when we need it
- • Provide law and order so that when we are wronged, justice is served.
All of these things are symptoms not of the modern state, but of the post-modern state. The state, for us, is no longer the medium through which we act as citizens. Sure, we go to vote, but our voting never reflects the central core of what we are. The state, for us, is a troubleshooter. Government is the guy you call when the computer is crashing, she is the gal you call when your credit card is frozen, she is the old lady at the passport office who stamps the form, tells you to wait in line. Things will be fixed, don’t worry, order is restored.
Ukraine seems so abstractly and decidedly un-real to us because we don’t understand that the Russians want their state to be the big bad bully. As every 12 year old knows, to be the bully is to have power. Sure, we all know they have their own baggage, but that doesn’t make them any less scary when they’ve got you in their sights. This is, I suggest, what Russia is. They are the bullies; they are happy to be the bullies; they are happy that their people are happy that they are the bullies.
And so the West will sit and watch. We will sit and watch not because we don’t care, or because we don’t want to care, but precisely because we don’t know how to care. This will run its course, spiral inwardly into fighting and confusion, and we will struggle with how to deal with it. We will share facebook pages and Vice.com articles, and someone will probably write some slam poetry about how we’re disengaged and apathetic and will decry the fact that we talked more about the Oscars that week than we did about the Russian military. And, to a certain extent, they are right. We should care more. But we can’t care about this any more than we care about the Oscars, because to us, it’s all completely un-real.