Tag: history

Cultural Relativism: The Case of Pitcairn Island

By Jason Newman

In the middle of the vast emptiness that is the Pacific Ocean, there lies a small group of islands. Known as the Pitcairn Islands, these are the last of Britain’s colonial possessions in the Pacific; the second-largest, the only inhabited one, is called simply Pitcairn Island. This island, which measures just over two miles from East to West, is famous for two things.

Firstly, it served as the final destination for many of the mutineers who so famously wrenched their ship, the HMS Bounty, from the control of the supposedly tyrannical Captain Blythe. After having cast the captain into the Pacific, his right-hand man Fletcher Christian, along with nine crewmen, six Tahitian men, and eleven Tahitian women, set sail and landed at Pitcairn. Eventually violence broke out among the party members, and by the time they next communicated with the outside world only one man was alive. His name was John Adams, and he shared the island with nine remaining women and nineteen children. Much was made of the story, and it was sensationalised in the British press at the time. Even two centuries later, it served as the inspiration for three different films.

The second story that led to the island’s fame is just as salacious as the first. In 2004, six men, nearly one third of the island’s male population, were charged with various counts of sexual assault against girls as young as eight years old. The crimes came to light after an investigation was triggered when a teenage girl alerted a British police officer, who was visiting the island, that she had been raped.

The defence put forward by the men, and indeed many others on the island, was that this was simply part of island culture. When a girl reached the age of eleven or twelve, she was fit for “breaking in”. They argued that it had always been this way, and the practice had been carried out from as far back as the early descendants of the mutineers. These claims were ultimately rejected by the courts and the men were convicted, although they were given laughably lenient sentences.

One of the central questions that arises from the Pitcairn case concerns the legitimacy of pleading cultural relativism as a defence for such actions.

Cultural relativism, the favourite tool of the regressive left, states emphatically that actions can only be judged within the bounds of a particular culture. It is used to justify the wearing of the hijab as an act of liberation, and at its most insidious level it has been used to argue against the prevention of practices such as FGM (female genital mutilation) under the guise that it is a “cultural practice.”

In their quest to denigrate the freedoms achieved by Western society, the post-modernists and the regressive leftists claim that the reason we see such things as “barbaric” or “medieval” is our ethnocentrism. In other cultures these things are perfectly acceptable, and as a result this is enough to justify their legitimacy. To call into question the morality of these practices would be to impose our Western sensibilities upon different cultures, and would be an “act of oppression.”

According to this reasoning, the Westerner who mutilates his daughter is guilty of grievous bodily harm. However, the African or Muslim who does so is merely carrying out a cultural tradition, and thus should not be punished. Similarly, in the Pitcairn case, should a Western man have sex with a twelve-year-old girl he is guilty of rape, but if a native of the island should do so he is merely acting on a social tradition of his society. This system of thought proudly proclaims that there cannot be any objective truth or objective morality.

This system also states that no one culture can be prized above another: the cultures of certain tribes found in New Guinea who practice cannibalism are to be put on equal footing with cultures that prize free speech and individual freedom. Thus, the Western culture that the leftists are so opposed to—for its supposed “oppression”—can through this same thought process be dismissed as merely a cultural peculiarity, no better or worse than the rest.

Acceptance of the practices of different cultures, no matter how unpalatable their beliefs, has clearly become the virtue signal of the day. Should any dissent be expressed, the dissenting party is promptly accused of propagating cultural imperialism. Of course, this is ridiculous: society would become unsustainable should only one group of people be prosecuted for something like FGM, while others be allowed to proceed with the practice simply because they are part of a different cultural group.

The idea of tolerance as a virtue in and of itself, regardless of which policies one is accepting, is rather absurd; it is in fact a logical fallacy. If practices can only be judged within their cultural bounds, who is to say that tolerance is a virtue? It is only our ethnocentric culture that proclaims this, and as a result tolerance can be said to be only as good or as bad as intolerance, should another cultural group practice intolerance.

A society that would practice this insane level of “tolerance” (cultural relativism) would as a result rob itself of the ability to punish those who would harm other members of that society.

How does cultural relativism care for the Pitcairn girl who alerted the authorities? Despite her upbringing in the island’s culture, she still knew that what was happening to her was wrong. Indeed, the other thirty-two women who initially came forward and stated that they had been raped on the island, in cases dating back decades, obviously also knew that what was happening to them was wrong.

So then what should we say to these women? The relativist position, taken to its logical conclusion, would have us say, “You may not like this, but it is part of your culture. Therefore we are powerless to stop it, since we don’t want to impose our Western ideology on you. Sorry.” Some of the women who ended up protesting the case the loudest, saying the rapes were part of island culture, were the very women who initially were willing to testify against the men. This seems to imply that they had been intimidated by family members or neighbours. Even they originally did not feel the events that happened on the island were normal.

This suggests, much to the displeasure of relativists and racists alike, that humans are fundamentally similar at our basic level – that we all posses a certain universality when it comes to moral issues. If this is true then there are certain moral values that transcend culture, in which case there is indeed an objective standard of morality. If it is untrue then we are all, as members of our own cultural groups, fundamentally different from others who were raised in separate cultural groups. In this case, the danger is that that one cultural group can claim inherent superiority over the others and potentially obscure them.

The trouble lies in discovering which values will hold as an objective moral standard. Reason dictates it should be the system of values which has led to the most peaceable, prosperous and open society in the world. Much to the ire of those on the regressive left, that society is modern Western society.

Our society, at its most basic level, is built on the standard of the individual’s right to be left unmolested by other individuals or groups, and has at its core the conviction that all men are created equal and therefore are all beholden to the same set of laws without consideration for creed, religion or race. It is the same society and culture that would (and did, as they were tried under British law) prosecute the men of Pitcairn for crimes that they themselves surely knew were morally abhorrent.

Cultural relativism sounds wonderful on paper; after all, who wouldn’t want to understand the world from a new perspective? But when tolerance for other cultures descends into tolerating the worst and most barbaric aspects of these cultures, the position quickly becomes untenable.


For more from Jason Newman check out his blog or follow him on Twitter @jasonnewman96.

Tales of the Balkans: Macedonia and A Fantasy of Cultural Appropriation

By Florcita Swartzman

“So, what do you think about Macedonia?” my host in Skopje asks me. Mitre is a retired man who, as we talk over mint tea by the pool in the back garden, shows me the collection of books he’s written over the years: books about hotel management, based on Western capitalist marketing models. In the time of Tito’s Yugoslavia, writing this type of work was a jailable offense. My answer to his question is naive, as I have not yet been completely confused by the frail -and sometimes contradictory- sense of cultural belonging with which Macedonians seem to struggle so much. I tell him that Macedonia feels like a laid back country where people look like they have no worries, living in this recently independent nation beneath the notice of many other well-established countries. My already fragmented point of view may have been slightly biased by all the parties and open air festivals taking place in Ohrid during the summer I was there; yet, underneath all that colorful excitement, a true and complete existential crisis was shaking the very foundation of Macedonian identity.

The conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name is one of the oldest cultural disputes in the modern world. However, it is nothing new to the rest of their neighbors in the Balkan Peninsula, who roll their eyes in exasperation every time the argument comes up. Same old song and dance. In fact, Macedonia is only the colloquial and technically incorrect alias by which we refer to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the name that the European Community agreed to provisionally adopt in order to pour oil on Greece’s troubled waters. And with the millions of euros that the current Macedonian government has spent over the last few years fabricating an awkward “Greek Muse” costume for Skopje, it is only natural to ask whether the Macedonian people are beginning to buy this fairy tale that is being constructed around their roots.

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The first thing that came to my mind while surveying the center of Skopje was that the architects of this “Extreme Makeover: Cultural Appropriation Edition” went a little overboard with the whole statue theme. There are far too many statues for one city, especially one so small. Every last bit of the town center is garishly decorated in the same manner: in the space of one block, there are three different bridges over the Vardar river. The main bridge, as well as the narrow street that leads to the entrance of the Archeological Museum of Macedonia, has been decorated with the statues of every conceivable artist and saint “born in Macedonia”. Or in what Macedonians think Macedonia is, which is not the same as what Greeks think Macedonia is. But we’ll get to that later. Regarding this shrine of Macedonian personalities, the riverside guides its visitors through the Walk of Heroes that the whole of Skopje’s downtown seems to be, to Macedonia Square. Here, towering majestically over the city, is the colossal statue, the crown of the city, the King of kitsch: the figure of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus upon a 24-metre high pedestal, surrounded by soldiers in a defensive position and by golden lions spitting water, encircled by dancing waters timed with rhythmic lights. There is no room whatsoever for ambiguity here: this is everything Macedonia could hope for in the self-image she wants to convey to the world. But the red, paint-bombed lion testicles and the graffitied walls of the public buildings tell another story: apparently, not everyone in Skopje is thrilled with the city’s new look.

In April of 2016, fed-up Macedonians stood up against the government: the monumental plastic surgery that the capital had undergone in 2014 -consisting of more than 40 monuments, façades and new buildings- had cost the people over €560 million that could have been better spent investing in public services, which are in desperate need of improvement. The uprising, called the Colorful Revolution, left a good portion of Skopje’s fake-old architecture and the Disneyland-like statues brightly paint bombed and vibrant. Among the “Macedonian personalities” all about the city center, new heroes are now immortalized -not in stone, but in plastic and metal- the figures of the Bulgarian saints Kyrill and Methodii, the Tsar Samuil (also Bulgarian), the ethnically Albanian Mother Theresa, the Serbian Tsar Dusan, the Albanian military commander Skanderbeg, and various Bulgarian writers.

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But what about Greece, and why is this called the Macedonian-Greek conflict? The only Macedonia that Greece recognizes as legitimate is the territory comprised by East, Central and West Macedonia, three historical provinces located in the Greek north. Thousands of years before becoming who they are today, the Macedonians comprised one of the many Indo-European tribes that migrated from Asia Minor to the Balkan Peninsula, where they eventually consolidated as an empire. Their origin was not Hellenistic, but they spoke Greek, worshipped Greek gods and acquired the same general culture as the Greeks. Under Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, they conquered Greece and kept it under Macedonian rule, until the Romans annexed it as a part of their territory by the name of “The Roman Republic of Macedonia.” Between this time and the independence of modern Greece, which occurred less than 200 years ago, various waves of invasions took place: not only from the Turk Ottoman Empire, but also from the medieval Slavic tribes that were seeking to expand their area of influence beyond the Kievan Rus. At this point, Macedonians ceased to be “that historical Greek-related tribe of ancient Mediterranean warriors,” to become a nation assimilated into and culturally absorbed by the Eastern Slavic world. The Slavic ancestry of Macedonia is unmistakable, and today the customs, language and folklore of this country are strongly tied to the Eastern European sphere. This is why the modern Macedonian demand to be recognized as the descendants of the historical Macedonia makes no more sense than modern Uzbeks claiming to be the children of Alexander the Great.

The Republic of Macedonia is a fine parallel to the dos and don’ts of a fancy cocktail party: do not overdo it on makeup. Do not arrive wearing the same clothes as the host through a fear of going unnoticed. Do not embark in a philosophical quarrel with the oldest, wisest person at the party (who could turn out to be the host as well). But most importantly, Do resist the urge to decorate at home with flashy symbols like the Vergina Sun, or the tantalizing name snitched from a warrior on his horse partying on the roof. I repeat: do not attempt to take these items home. Surely there is a good reason why History did not place them there in the first place.

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Cuentos de los Balcanes: Macedonia y una fantasía de apropiación cultural

Por Florcita Swartzman

“Y entonces, ¿qué piensas acerca de Macedonia?” me pregunta Mitre, mi anfitrión en Skopje; un señor retirado que, mientras charlamos tomando té de menta en la piscina del jardín trasero, me muestra una colección de los libros que escribió sobre hotel management bajo los modelos de márketing occidentales. Si alguien te descubría escribiendo sobre estos temas, podías ir preso durante los tiempos de Tito. Mi respuesta a su pregunta es ingenua porque todavía no me siento completamente confundida por lo frágil y a veces hasta contradictorio de la identidad cultural de los macedonios. Le digo que Macedonia me parece un país tranquilo y donde se ve que la gente no tiene grandes preocupaciones, siendo una nación recientemente independizada cuyo nombre suena a enigma para el resto del mundo fuera de Europa del Este, demasiado remoto como para siquiera molestarse. Puede haber sido que mi punto de vista estuviese levemente influenciado por todos los festivales y fiestas al aire libre que estaban sucediendo durante el verano que pasé en Ohrid y que en la realidad, debajo de toda esa diversión colorida, una verdadera crisis existencial estuviera sacudiendo las bases de la identidad macedonia hasta los huesos.

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El conflicto entre Grecia y la República de Macedonia sobre el nombre de esta última es una de las disputas culturales más antiguas del mundo moderno. En verdad, nada nuevo para el resto de sus vecinos en la Península Balcánica, que revolean los ojos exasperados cada vez que la discusión sale a relucir. Lo mismo de siempre. De hecho, Macedonia es sólo el nombre coloquial e incorrecto bajo el que conocemos a la constitucionalmente llamada Antigua República Yugoslava de Macedonia (ARYM), el nombre que la comunidad europea ha adoptado provisionalmente con el fin de calmar los ánimos inflamados de Grecia. Y con el gobierno habiendo gastado millones de euros en el disfraz de musa griega que Skopje está obligada a usar desde hace algunos años, no sería descabellado preguntarnos si los macedonios no estarán verdaderamente comenzando a creerse el cuento de hadas que se construyó en torno a sus raíces.

Lo primero que me vino a la mente cuando caminé por primera vez por el centro de Skopje fue que los arquitectos de este Extreme Makeover: Especial Apropiación Cultural fueron demasiado lejos con el tema de las estatuas. De verdad: son demasiadas estatuas para una sola ciudad, y para el caso una ciudad muy pequeña. Cada parte del centro es igualmente exagerada. Hay tres puentes distintos para cruzar el río Vardar en el espacio de una cuadra: el principal, junto con el angosto bulevar que lleva a la entrada del Museo Arqueológico de Macedonia, está decorado con las estatuas de todo posible artista y santo “nacido en Macedonia”. O en lo que los macedonios creen que es Macedonia, que no es lo mismo que lo que los griegos creen que es Macedonia. Pero ya vamos a llegar a eso. Volviendo al altar de las personalidades macedonias, y para coronar el Paseo de los Héroes que parece ser el centro de Skopje, la costanera desemboca en la Plaza Macedonia donde la gigantesca estatua se erige majestuosamente sobre la ciudad, la reina de las estatuas, el paroxismo de lo kitsch: la figura de Alejandro Magno montando su caballo sobre un pedestal de 24 metros de altura, rodeado por soldados en posición de defensa y leones dorados que escupen agua, todo cercado por un juego de aguas danzantes moviéndose al son de luces rítmicas en el piso. No queda ningún lugar a dudas: esto es todo lo que Macedonia sueña para su propia autopercepción. Pero los testículos pintados de rojo de los leones y los muros grafiteados de los edificios públicos cuentan otra historia: aparentemente, no todo el mundo en Skopje está conforme con el nuevo look de la ciudad.

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En abril de 2016, los macedonios se hartaron y se levantaron en contra del gobierno: la monumental cirugía plástica que atravesó Skopje en el año 2014 le costó a la gente más de 560 millones de euros que podrían haber sido mucho mejor empleados en los servicios públicos cuya calidad Macedonia está terriblemente necesitada de mejorar. El levantamiento, llamado la Revolución Colorida, dejó a una gran parte de Skopje pintada de colores brillantes y vibrantes; especialmente a los falsos antiguos edificios y a las estatuas que más parecen estar aptas para decorar un parque de diversiones. Entre las “personalidades macedonias” que se pueden encontrar en toda la ciudad están inmortalizadas -no en piedra, sino más bien en plástico y metal- las figuras de los santos búlgaros Cirilo y Metodio, el Zar Samuil (también búlgaro), la étnicamente albanesa Madre Teresa, el Zar Dusan (serbio), el comandante militar y héroe albanés Skanderbeg y varios escritores búlgaros.

¿Pero qué pasa con Grecia, y por qué lo llamamos el conflicto Greco-macedonio? Bueno, porque la única Macedonia que Grecia reconoce como legítima es la que comprende el territorio de Macedonia Este, Central y Oeste, tres provincias localizadas en el norte griego. Miles de años antes de convertirse en quienes son hoy, los macedonios eran una de las tantas tribus indoeuropeas que bajaron del Asia Menor para establecerse en la zona de los Balcanes, donde consolidaron su imperio. Su origen no era helénico pero hablaban griego, adoraban a los dioses griegos y compartían la misma cultura que los griegos de su tiempo. Su imperio fue tan poderoso que llegaron a conquistar Grecia y mantenerla bajo dominio macedonio hasta que los romanos la anexaron como parte de su territorio bajo el nombre de República Romana de Macedonia. Entre este momento y la independencia moderna de Grecia hace menos de 200 años varias olas de invasiones sucedieron; no solamente por parte de los otomanos sino también de las tribus eslavas que estaban buscando expandir su área de influencia desde el Rus de Kiev. Justo en esta parte de la Historia es cuando los macedonios dejan de ser esa tribu mítica de antiguos guerreros mediterráneos en estrecha relación con el mundo helénico para convertirse en una nación asimilada y culturalmente absorbida por la esfera eslava del este europeo. La herencia eslava de Macedonia hoy es inconfundible y las costumbres, la lengua y el folclore de este país están fuertemente atados a Europa del Este. Es por esto que la demanda de la moderna República de Macedonia de ser reconocida como descendiente de la Macedonia histórica tiene tan poco sentido como un reclamo que surgiera de los uzbekos exigiendo ser considerados como hijos de Alejandro Magno.

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La República de Macedonia es el mejor ejemplo de todo lo que no se debería hacer en una fiesta elegante: no exageres con el maquillaje. No llegues a dicha fiesta usando la misma ropa que el anfitrión solo porque tienes miedo de que de lo contrario nadie te note. No te embarques en una discusión filosófica con la persona más vieja y más sabia de la fiesta (que podría resultar también ser el anfitrión). Y lo más importante de todo; debes resistir el deseo de decorar tu casa con cualquier símbolo brillante como el sol de Vergina o algún nombre llamativo de un guerrero a caballo que puedas encontrar dando vueltas en la fiesta. Repito: no intentes llevarte estos objetos a tu casa. Debe haber una buena razón por la que la Historia no los puso en tus manos en primer lugar.

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Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

Rusia hoy: ¿atacada por la nostalgia de un pasado glorioso?

Por Florcita Swartzman

El comunismo en Rusia ya es historia. Atrás quedaron las figuras de Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchov, Gorbachov y Brezhnev. O por lo menos eso creeríamos. Pero la verdad es que hay algo de su pasado que no quiere soltar a los rusos. Los rusos, esas fascinantes criaturas profundamente marcadas por los inviernos fríos y los errores políticos de sus gobernantes pasados y presentes. En el siglo XXI, en una era de globalización galopante durante la que Louis Vuitton intentó (fallando lastimosamente) hacerse un lugar junto a Lenin en la Plaza Roja, imaginaríamos que todos los ídolos del grandioso pasado Rojo estarían bien enterrados en el fondo de las mentes de los rusos para nunca jamás volver a emerger a la superficie. Pero como aprendí durante mi viaje de mes y medio desde Vladivostok hasta San Petersburgo, nada podría estar más lejos de la realidad.

Hay una estatua de Lenin en casi todas las ciudades y pueblos, especialmente en Siberia. Siempre va a haber por lo menos una que te recibirá en cualquier estación de tren a la que llegues: usualmente es la figura de Lenin con un brazo levantado en el aire en posición triunfante, señalando el camino hacia un futuro socialista lleno de bienestar que nunca va a llegar, con ese tono nostálgico que sólo el realismo soviético puede lograr. En la mayoría de las ciudades siberianas, las dos calles principales se llaman invariablemente ulitsa Karla Marxa y ulitsa Lenina. Otras calles secundarias pueden llevar los nombres de Gagarina, Komsomolskaya, Oktyabrskaya, Kommunisticheskaya y similares alias igualmente demagógicos.

Así que la verdad que no; los rusos no han olvidado su glorioso pasado militar. Al día de hoy algunas personas siguen llorando la muerte de Stalin, otros siguen llamando Biblioteka Lenina a la Biblioteca Nacional de Moscú (aunque el nombre fue oficialmente cambiado en 1992), Ekaterimburgo todavía se conoce como Sverdlovsk, y recientemente Vladimir Putin convirtió el Día de la Victoria, la fecha que conmemora la capitulación de la Alemania nazi ante la Unión Soviética en 1945, en su propio ritual y en el escenario desde donde declara al mundo la resurrección de Rusia como potencia militar. El Día de la Victoria es un evento de una carga emocional muy importante, y el Sr. Putin se asegura de no perderse ni una oportunidad de llegarle al pueblo como su amigo y salvador. El mensaje que busca enviar es, en cierta forma, que el Ejército Rojo todavía vive en los corazones de los rusos y que no existe circunstancia económica o geopolítica que los pueda disuadir de dar batalla. ¿Batalla a quién? Al enemigo sediento de poder de este lado de la Cortina de Hierro. Al mundo imperialista occidental. Al mundo.

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Pero las consecuencias de no enterrar a tiempo esos mecanismos de defensa obsoletos tarde o temprano llegan. La gente rusa ha aprendido a vivir con conceptos e ideas muy fuertes, incluso bárbaros a veces, sobre el significado del ejército y la disciplina. En plena luz del siglo XXI, los chicos de 18 años terminan sus períodos obligatorios de servicio militar hablando como autómatas sobre defender el país a cualquier costo y sobre “patria o muerte”: cosas que en la práctica les son completamente extrañas. Exactamente como si el pasado estuviera contando cuentos de batallas y honor a través de sus bocas. Y este sistema de creencias inoculado, como hemos visto con la reciente anexión rusa de Crimea, es extremadamente funcional a los intereses territoriales del gobierno.

La Unión Soviética hizo un trabajo excepcional canalizando las emociones de las masas con el fin de que los rusos estuvieran siempre listos para pelear contra el invasor cualquiera fuese la forma en que éste pudiera presentarse. Paradójicamente, ni siquiera los chicos de la era post-soviética se salvaron del adoctrinamiento. De esta forma nació una suerte de psicosis colectiva en relación a la defensa de las fronteras de la Patria que continúa, aunque con un poco menos de intensidad, hasta el día de hoy. Putin lo sabe y, por supuesto, pone a trabajar para su beneficio la añoranza que la gente siente por ese pasado imperial. Incluso ha mecionado en varias oportunidades que la caída de la Unión Soviética fue un error, palabras que calan muy hondo especialmente en las generaciones de veteranos rusos que todavía ven en Stalin la figura de un padre protector. La insistencia de Vladimir Putin en ideas como la soberanía nacional, la fraternidad y la importancia de la independencia económica también es uno de sus trucos políticos para mantener a la gente distraída de la fuerte crisis económica que viene manteniendo a millones de rusos por debajo de la línea de pobreza desde nada menos que el colapso de la URSS.

También hay otros talentos que el Sr. Presidente exhibe para mostrarse al pueblo como un héroe y figura paternal. Las fotos que circulan por internet nos lo han mostrado en su lado más audaz y masculino: montando a caballo a través de la helada tundra siberiana, esquiando, pescando, cazando, venciendo ferozmente a un medallista de judo en su propio deporte, nadando sin delfines, nadando con delfines, domando tigres salvajes, jugando jóckey sobre hielo y casi cualquier otra actividad masculina que nos podamos imaginar. Esta estrategia le funciona; la necesita para mantener su popularidad en alza. Según estadísticas publicadas por el VtsIOM, el Centro Ruso de Investigación de la Opinión Pública, el índice de aprobación de la figura de Vladimir Putin fue del 86% nada más que en el año 2016. Su imagen seduce tanto a mujeres como hombres porque hace lo posible por ser visto como el ejemplo del hombre ruso valiente, implacable, incorruptible. Esto es lo que significa la hombría es la afirmación silenciosa que irradian esas fotos donde aparece con el torso desnudo, luchando con osos polares.

¿Podrá Rusia alguna vez liberarse del yugo de la política emocional, los personalismos y los regímenes autoritarios? No hay ningún signo social que indique que este será el caso en el futuro próximo, pero ya se pueden ver pequeñas chispas de resistencia encendiéndose entre las generaciones más jóvenes en contra de Putin y los movimientos corruptos que lo ayudaron a trepar a su actual posición de poder absoluto. Rusia está cansada de la corrupción, pero hace la vista gorda por falta de opciones más sanas, de mejor calidad. Está cansada de la violencia, pero la sigue alimentando. Los rusos están cansados, por encima de todo, de los dictadores sangrientos, pero siguen adorándolos en sus pedestales inalcanzables y otorgándoles facultades casi divinas. Antes de octubre de 1917, Lenin una vez dijo: “si dejamos el asunto librado al pueblo, no tendremos la revolución ni en mil años”. La verdad es que, en Rusia, es muy difícil para la gente hacerse escuchar porque la burocracia es todopoderosa e insalvable en una forma verdaderamente kafkiana. Sin embargo, puede que no todo esté perdido: es un momento difícil para estar vivo en la ex capital soviética del mundo pero hoy, en esta época digital de híperconexión, ese pueblo al que Lenin alguna vez miró por sobre su hombro tiene la capacidad -por primera vez luego de décadas de vivir en una pesadilla- de despertar, organizarse y rebelarse. Ahora es su turno de levantarse y pelear por su propia independencia.

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Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

Russia Today: A Tale of Nostalgic Confusion

By Florcita Swartzman

Communism in Russia is over. Long forgotten are the figures of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchov, Gorbachov and Brezhnev. Or so we’d think. But there is something about their past that will not let go of the Russians. The Russians, these fascinating creatures deeply marked by their cold winters and the miscalculations of their previous and present rulers. In the 21st century, a time of raging globalization in which Louis Vuitton tried (and failed) to get a spot next to Lenin in the Krasnaya ploshchad, we would imagine that all the idols of the grandiose Red past would be buried deep in the Russian psyche, never to float back up to the surface again. But as I learned during my month-and-a-half trip from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg, nothing could be further from the truth.


There is a statue of Lenin in almost every Russian city and town, especially in Siberia. There will always be at least one such statue that’ll welcome you first thing when you set foot in any train station you’re arriving at: it’s usually the figure of Lenin with his hand triumphantly lifted up in the air, pointing the way to a glorious socialist future full of wealth that will never come, with that characteristic nostalgic tone that only Soviet realism can pull off. In most Siberian cities, the two main streets are monotonously named after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Other secondary streets might be called Gagarina, Komsomolskaya, Oktyabrskaya, Kommunisticheskaya and other similar, demagogic names.


So the truth is: no, Russians have not forgotten their glorious military past. To this day some people continue to mourn Stalin’s death, the Moscow National Library is still called, by many, the Biblioteka Lenina (even though the name was changed in 1992), Yekaterinburg is also known as Sverdlovsk, and recently Vladimir Putin has made the Victory Day, the holiday that commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the USSR in 1945, into his very own ritual and the stage from which he showcases the revival of Russia as a military power to the world. The Victory Day is a very emotionally charged event, and Mr. Putin makes sure he doesn’t miss a chance to present himself as a friend and saviour to his folk. The message he looks to deliver is, in some way, that the spirit of the Red Army still burns in every Russian’s heart, so no economic or geopolitical circumstance should be an obstacle to fight back. To fight who? The power-thirsty enemy this side of the Iron Curtain. The imperialist Western world. The world.

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But there are consequences to not laying an outdated defense mechanism to rest. The Russian people have learned to live with very strong -sometimes barbaric- ideas and concepts about what the army and discipline mean to them. In plain daylight of the 21st century, 18-year-old kids now come out of their mandatory military service terms mindlessly speaking about defending the country at all costs, about “Motherland or death” and about things that are in practice completely alien to them, as if the past were reciting old tales of battle and honor through them. And this inoculated belief system, we’ve seen with the recent Russian annexation of Crimea, is extremely functional to the government’s territorial interests.


The Soviet Union did a great job channeling the emotions of the masses so that the Russian people would always be ready to fight the invaders in whichever form they would take. Paradoxically, not even post Soviet-era children were spared this indoctrination. In this way, a sort of a collective psychosis was born in regards to the defense of the Motherland’s borders that continues, even though less visibly, to this day. Putin knows this, of course, and acts upon the nostalgic yearning of his folk for the imperial past. He has mentioned quite a few times that the fall of the USSR was a mistake, and this resonates especially with the older generations of Russians that still see a protective father in the figure of Stalin. Vladimir Putin insisting so strongly on national sovereignty, fraternity and the importance of economic independence from the Western powers also means that one of his political goals is to distract the masses from the raging economic crisis that is keeping millions of Russians under or around the poverty line since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


There are also other talents that Mr. President displays in order to get the people to find a paternal friend and a hero in him. The internet has showed him to us in his most audacious, masculine side: riding a horse through the frozen Siberian tundra, skiing, fishing, hunting, fiercely beating a judo medallist in his own field, swimming without dolphins, swimming with dolphins, taming wild tigers, playing ice-hockey and almost any other manly activity we can think of. This strategy works for him, he needs it for his popularity to continue rising. According to the statistics published by the VtsIOM, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Vladimir Putin’s overall approval rating was of 86% in 2016. His image appeals to men and women alike because he looks to be regarded as the ideal example of the brave, relentless, incorruptible Russian man. This is what manhood means is the voiceless statement being made through the photos of him bare-chested, wrestling with polar bears.
Will Russia ever be able to free herself from the yoke of personalism, authoritarian regimes and emotional politics? There are no clear social signs that this will be the case in the near future, but there are already little sparks of resistance burning among the younger generations against Putin and the corrupt moves that helped him climb to his current position of almost absolute rule. Russia is tired of corruption, but she turns a blind eye to it for lack of a better, healthier option. She is tired of violence, but keeps on feeding it. The Russians are tired, above all, of bloody dictators, but they keep on placing them on pedestals and investing them with god-like power. Before October 1917, Lenin once said: “if we leave the fight up to the people, we won’t have a revolution in hundreds of years”. The truth is that, in Russia, it is very difficult for the people to be heard in any matter related to politics. The bureaucracy is almighty and insurmountable in a very much Kafkaesque manner. But not all may be lost, though: it is a hard time to be alive in the ex-Soviet capital of the world but today, in this all-connected internet era of ours, those people that Lenin once looked down upon have the ability -for the first time after decades of living in a nightmare- to wake up, organise and revolt. Now it is their turn to stand up and fight back for their own independence.

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For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Confessions of an Educational Conservative

By Colin Black

I was once asked at a job interview to explain a comment made by one of my referees who had described me as an educational conservative. I replied somewhat glibly that, were I to be entrusted with the headmastership of the school, my task would be to identify its strengths and then work to the best of my capacity to make them even stronger.


That was three decades ago and, in my naivety, it did not occur to me then that I was voicing a controversial approach to educational leadership. The culture of repudiation of the past is widespread in society and not least in schools and universities. It has been an ingrained article of faith for over fifty years among the educational establishment that, however things were done before, all must now be swept away. Well educated and otherwise very sensible colleagues preened themselves self-righteously as they announced that they were not teachers but “change agents”, or devalued their calling by proudly claiming to be no longer “the sage on the stage” but “the guide by the side”.  Davos-like jamborees, the annual junkets of publicly funded professional associations with high-sounding names, strummed loudly the cacophonous leitmotif of educational iconoclasm. Some of us who attended such evangelical gatherings left with a sense of fashionable guilt that we had not passed muster, but also with a deep feeling of unease that, in rubbing shoulders with these educational Jacobins, we had been participating in something that was essentially bogus.


The authoritarian intolerance of the Left is much in evidence in the English-speaking world, especially for those who work in schools and universities. It has escalated rapidly in recent years but the first pernicious shoots were evident five decades ago. Even then discussions among colleagues about, e.g., the pedagogy of reading or whether children really benefited from being taught in mixed ability classes, were conducted at a heightened level of hectoring emotion rather than debated in a measured and rational way. During the last century the destruction of the old academically selective Grammar Schools in England was an act of wanton barbarism wrought by a politically minded and vindictive educational establishment and pursued with the zeal of one-eyed revolutionaries everywhere. Yet it was these age-old institutions, often established many generations previously by royalty, the churches and local philanthropists, and which at no cost to families were open to all who could demonstrate they had the capacity to benefit from the rigorous and traditional curriculum, that provided the ladder of upward social mobility and personal fulfilment for so many children from the lower echelons of society.

The education class gradually became infected by a tangled skein of woolly progressive ideology, neo-Marxist spite and envy, post-modern nihilism and sheer self-interest in its own advancement, and would brook no opposition to its world view. Schools were now to be places of liberation, not of liberal education. In them the young must be “liberated” – from the demands of an intellectually taxing and subject-centred traditional curriculum, from insensitive competition which threatens self-esteem, from authoritarian teachers bent upon their indoctrination and disempowerment, and most certainly from the shackles of the Western cultural heritage which was of course inherently rotten, socially unjust and quite irrelevant to their personal and political needs.        

Throughout my life I have always seen schools fundamentally as places where children go to meet teachers. In them the transmission of knowledge, values and dispositions takes place in an orderly environment designed and set aside from the rest of society for that purpose. Their most valuable resource is a “little platoon” of educated men and women who are committed to the initiation of the young into the riches of the culture into which they are privileged to have been born and of which each generation is the proud and watchful guardian. They approach this daunting task with the humility of the English school-master Hector in Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys:

“Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”

They are not swayed from their lofty calling by leaping upon the latest educational bandwagon which so often turns out to be a tumbrel. They know that teaching is both an art and a craft, and not a science. Teachers, well-read and well-educated people themselves, should be left to function according to their instinctual and inherited understanding of what works. The Austrian economist and philosopher F.A. Hayek argued that because the factors influencing human behaviour are myriad, beyond formulation and forever outside our understanding, central planning of the economy is unlikely to succeed and it is better left to the market to determine in its lumbering but responsive way the costs of goods and services. Similarly the “facts” of teaching are contained in countless transactions between generations past and present, wherever and whenever any well-intentioned person has sought to transmit information, ideas, and skills to young people for their betterment. It is beyond our capacity to codify in some theory of teaching the distillation of educational wisdom and experience inherent in all of these interactions, and so pedagogical theory and educational dogma are largely in vain, just as command economies invariably fail.

The responsibility of the leader of a school is to create the conditions under which teaching can take place, to enable teachers to be the best they can possibly be, for schools, by their very nature, are places of teaching first and learning second, and the link between the two is contingent, not conceptual. Young people learn from all sorts of agencies, their peers, their milieu, the media or the technological toys to which they are tethered much of their waking hours. But schools, in eschewing “relevance”, are their fall-out shelters from the tawdry, the distracting, the ephemeral and the parochial. It follows that places of education for the young must be deliberately artificial environments where good order and predictability prevail, and they must certainly not be slaves to the vicissitudes of popular culture. The judicious use of ritual and formality, in the dress code of staff and students, tastefully managed assemblies, respectful modes of interaction between teachers and pupils, underlines for all those involved that education is a most serious business even if some are as yet not mature enough to realise this. A complementary programme of co-curricular activities, and the involvement where possible of parents and former students, will help to create a genuine feeling of community and belonging, a first intimation perhaps of what the German philosopher Edmund Husserl called the lebenswelt, which gives meaning to our lives together and bestows on us a sense of home.

Teaching the young can be a most rewarding but desperately difficult calling. It is uphill even at the best of times. We cannot nor should we delude ourselves that we are engaged in some messianic quest to change the world. Most would be well pleased with the epitaph that George Eliot wrote for her heroine Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

For more content from Colin check out his portfolio for The Coolidge Review.

Sobre Buenos Aires y Otros Sustantivos Irregulares

Por Florcita Swartzman

Aunque usted no lo crea, Buenos Aires no es exactamente lo que se diría una ciudad amable. Si usted vive en las afueras, en el conurbano bonaerense, tendrá que treparse a uno de esos trenes rojos o azules que traspasan los barrios y las horas lúcidas hasta llegar a Buenos Aires, la injusta hermana mayor que lo recibirá con una mirada llena de desconfianza y burla. Si usted vive en otra provincia, tal vez lo invada la leve sensación de que ella es el escenario en donde el resto del país está apenas invitado a actuar. Y en cualquier caso tendría razón: la capital a veces puede comportarse de forma muy tiránica con sus provincias vecinas; no es ninguna sorpresa que Juan Bautista Alberdi haya escrito que “Argentina salió del coloniaje de España solo para caer en el coloniaje de Buenos Aires”. Colonialismo interno, que le dicen.


Dicho esto, Buenos Aires no es tan cruel (aunque a veces lo pareciera). Estrictamente hablando, es una ciudad de contrastes y colores soleados. Excepto durante los días de lluvia, cuando se convierte en una metrópolis gris con baldosas que se lamentan por los desamores y la traición, como los antiguos tangueros, y en su dolor salpican con lágrimas lodosas los pies de los transeúntes. Tristes lágrimas porteñas. Pero hay otros momentos, como las tardes cálidas de verano, en que los jacarandás florecen cubriéndolo todo con sus pétalos violetas mientras que los porteños también florecen, a su manera sureña y humana: se sientan en las mesas afueras de los cafés a tomar un cortado y charlar durante horas sobre sueños, amor y las dificultades de la vida como lo han hecho desde el principio de los tiempos. O se juntan con amigos los domingos en un parque a tomar mate, esa bebida parecida al té que los extranjeros insisten en considerar como alucinógena. No lo es, créanme.

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Como el café, la cerveza y la pizza son todo un hit en Buenos Aires. Principalmente la pizza; uno de los más grandes legados de la inmigración italiana en Argentina (aunque la receta ha mutado tanto a lo largo del tiempo, que ahora nos quejamos de la vera pizza italiana cuando vamos a Nápoles porque no hay nada en el mundo como una buena pizza porteña). Pero la pizza no es el único tesoro cultural que Italia ha compartido con nosotros: bisabuelas capaces de cocinar spaghetti alla bolognesa para una legión romana entera, modismos del lunfardo como laburo, birra, testa, matina, fiaca, mufa or capo, los gestos exagerados que acompañan la charla estridente y nuestra actitud general frente a la vida son todos resultados directos de la llegada masiva de inmigrantes italianos pobres al puerto de Buenos Aires entre las décadas de 1850 y 1960.


Y claro que en Buenos Aires también están los buses: no puedes vivir con ellos, no puedes vivir sin ellos, pero tienes que entender de qué se tratan si quieres comenzar a ordenar las piezas de tu rompecabezas para interpretar esta ciudad. Los buses públicos -o colectivos como nosotros los llamamos- gobiernan las calles de la Capital Federal y alrededores, son la forma más barata de moverse de un lado a otro y van y vienen a cualquier parte y a todas partes del centro y el conurbano. Pero solo hay un pequeño detalle: quienes los conducen, los colectiveros, son seres especiales; un poco como entre humanos y extraterrestres. Si vamos a la práctica, cómo tomar un colectivo en Buenos Aires es otra historia, tan buena para un libro como cualquier otra. Una vez que tienes clara tu ruta, ‘nada más’ tienes que encontrar la parada de colectivo más cercana, lo que puede ser un verdadero desafío ya que no tienden a estar muy bien marcadas en la calle. Encontrarlas es una cuestión de suerte, intuición y conocimiento callejero combinados, algo así como una habilidad cósmicamente accidental con la que nacemos los porteños. Todo esto algunas veces puede dejar al visitante extranjero algo confundido y con la sensación de que todos los mecanismos de esta ciudad están accionados por el azar, de que en Buenos Aires no hay reglas particulares para absolutamente nada y de que es posible que la palabra ‘previsibilidad’ no exista en el idioma español (pero existe, amigos, existe). Lo sabemos. Pedimos disculpas. No estamos trabajando para solucionar el inconveniente y probablemente nunca lo haremos.


Si logras atravesar revueltas feministas, manifestantes en contra de la prohibición legal de la marihuana, coloridas marchas del Orgullo gay y otras manifestaciones aleatorias por cualquier razón que estemos de humor para exponer en la vía pública, Buenos Aires te recompensará la vista con la hermosa arquitectura de barrios como Palermo, Recoleta, Retiro, San Telmo o La Boca, cada uno con su personalidad y ambiente particulares. Sólo tienes que mirar hacia arriba para participar del mundo de detalles y relieves art nouveau, neoclásicos y barrocos suspendido en lo alto de los antiguos edificios reciclados. Todo suena muy poético -excepto por las manifestaciones y protestas- pero no te olvides de que estás en una de las capitales más ruidosas de Sudamérica, con bares abiertos toda la noche durante los fines de semana, gente saliendo a cenar después de las 10 de la noche y discotecas llenando el ambiente con música que llega a la calle ya ensordecida y enredada en un murmullo interminable. Los amantes de las letras, la literatura y la quietud no se sentirán fuera de lugar sin embargo: una gran parte del encanto de Buenos Aires vive en las librerías de segunda mano de las calles Córdoba y Corrientes, pequeños y polvosos galpones como portales a otros mundos. Todo tipo de libros -literatura latinoamericana mezclada con ensayos filosóficos y cursis novelas románticas- descansan sobre estantes de madera a punto de colapsar mientras los clientes, más que nada estudiantes de Filosofía y Letras, pasean por los pasillos oscuros y angostos entregándose al placer de oler viejos volúmenes de la obra de Jean Paul Sartre.   
Es una tarde de jueves y camino por la calle Reconquista hacia Retiro, la principal estación ferroviaria de Microcentro. El sol de las 6 de la tarde le da a la escena un tono rosado y onírico a una zona que por lo demás es fría, corporativa. Éstas últimas cuadras antes de que Reconquista se encuentre con la concurrida avenida Leandro N. Alem se sienten algo diferentes de todo lo demás alrededor, como si la atmósfera repentinamente cambiara en el curso de unas pocas cuadras. Aquí la calle se angosta, hay más árboles a lo largo de las aceras, más negocios y restaurantes, y a la distancia se puede ver la Torre Monumental, una torre de estilo paladiano construida en conmemoración del centenario de la Revolución de Mayo y un monumento muy vinculado a nuestra relación tumultuosa con Inglaterra. Me subo al tren y al llegar camino a mi casa pensando en cómo odio Buenos Aires a veces, cómo la amo otras, y cómo la extraño cuando estoy lejos. La odio por ser tan descaradamente caótica. La amo por mostrarse siempre tal cual es, aún con sus múltiples defectos. No le cambiaría ni una sola cosa.

Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.