Something new!

Prokhorov campaign poster A friend just send me this snapshot of a campaign poster for Mikhail Prokhorov, Russian presidential candidate (and owner of the New York Jets.)

Mikhail Prokhorov

New President–

New Russia!

There’s some argument about whether Prokhorov is truly in opposition to Putin, whether he’s a faux-candidate supported by the Kremlin to give the appearance of competition, or whether he might be trying to play both games at once. In any event, he’s running, and this is one of his ads.

This poster succinctly illustrates what I see as one of the important features of the current political landscape in Russia: opposition politics aren’t particularly concerned with providing an alternate vision of policy. Rather, they’re focused intensely on being in opposition to what currently exists. It’s such a struggle even to mount an opposition that fighting the fight becomes its own cause to some extent.

For a long time, a group called Strategy-31 has been demonstrating for the right to assemble in public, a right guaranteed by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. (They hold rallies on the 31st of each month with enough days.) I observed one of their rallies when I was last in St. Petersburg in 2010: more police than protesters. Arrests began minutes after the event, as is usual. The raison d’être of the organization is simply to show the public (Russian or international) that this supposed right doesn’t exist in practice.

For years, now, this seems to have been the state of opposition politics in Russia. So much energy is spent merely trying to exist in the public sphere that little is left even to start conversations about what opposition candidates might actually do differently, if they gained power. What should be the responsibilities of government? What problems should it try to solve? How well are current policies working, and what alternatives might be tried? Thus one of the questions I’m interested in is whether these conversations take place elsewhere, or in some other form. What kinds of relationships do Russians have to government and politics, and how do they envision citizenship?


How is contraception like abortion?

Contraceptive pillsAs the debate surrounding insurance coverage of contraception has become more public, more people have become aware that many within the pro-life movement regard contraception as essentially equivalent to abortion, especially hormonal contraceptive methods, and perhaps especially the “morning-after” pill.

“They can and do prevent implantation or can cause ejection even after implantation,” said Richard Land, the head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, referring to morning-after pills and citing medical advisers to his group. “IUDs emphatically do allow conception and do not allow implantation,” he added.

Scientists generally agree that this is not true (as summarized in the article linked above), but nonetheless many pro-lifers feel that there is a basic similarity. One possible response is to jump in with the scientific evidence, and plenty of people have done so—for example, during the contest over Mississippi’s personhood law last year. These kinds of arguments don’t appear to have much impact on those already convinced that the pill is an abortifacient.

I’m all for spreading accurate science, but I also grow frustrated with what seems to be a continual cycle of outrage-response-further outrage-more heated response. I’m reminded of Greg Bateson’s term schismogenesis: as the conflict continues, the rift between opponents simply hardens. So where might we get if we take the claim seriously for a moment? What does contraception have in common with abortion? Continue reading

Love in a time of fieldwork

Happy Valentine's Day. Let's Skype!

Super romantic.

I think about love a lot. Partly it’s a research matter: I’m looking into reproduction and family life in Russia, and certainly love is part of that. I’m interested in tracing ideas of love and family, what role romance plays in marriage (or non-marriage) and childbearing (or non-childbearing). I’ve read up on theories and histories of love, romance, and marriag. I’ve pondered how beliefs about passion and love relate to modernity in different parts of the world, and considered deep and lingering questions about the nature of love, its universality, how it is shaped by (or even originates in) culture.

But as I near the beginning of my fieldwork, I find myself considering love as an impractical matter. How does love fit into an academic life, and in particular an anthropologist’s life? Awkwardly, it seems.

I feel lucky to be in love. Of course life is unpredictable, the future unsettled, but we hold its possiblities in our imaginations, offer possible futures to one another as we talk. The immediate future, of course, is 1-2 years abroad, committed to focusing on research. E-mail and Skype make things easier; at least I’m no Malinowski. Imagine carrying on an engagement for years via letters shipped between the Trobriand Islands and England.

Dearest one,

This is an absurd and aimless life we are both living. I don’t know why you are there and I am here, and so much fuss and trouble and money goes just to keep us alive and going, when we are doing nothing else except living.

I think we waste an awful lot of our time and powers of concentration by jumping about from place to place in search of hypothetical perfection. […]

Goodbye, my far-off darling. Your Elsie loves you and again asks, what are we doing on Earth?

1921 Letter from Elsie to Bronislaw, written while they were living apart in the Canary Islands. [1]

Looking to colleagues and professors in my field is worrisome. Many are single or divorced. Few have children, and the ones who do seem a bit harried all the time. Many are in long-distance relationships, which feel like a hardship as a 20-something grad student; seeing full professors in their 50s and 60s who’ve never lived in the same city as their spouse is depressing.

And yet—there are those who make it through. The ones who suffer and survive the spatial rift of fieldwork, the ones who win the dual-hire game or who find other ways to make their careers compatible. (Even—gasp!—working outside academia.)

So a question for the holiday: How have you negotiated love in the time of fieldwork?

[1] The Story of a Marriage: The Letters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson. Helena Wayne, ed. New York: Routledge, 1995. P. 19

Respect and citizenship

In exciting news, my visa came through and I’ve gotten my plane ticket for an early phase of fieldwork–going from “visa-limbo” to “leaving in a week” is a bit of a shock! So I’ve been catching up on podcasts in hopes of getting my Russian up to speed, and to catch up on what my favorite hosts on the liberal-ish Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) have been saying about the flow of political events in Russia this winter. (If you haven’t been following, think crowds in the tens of thousands marching in central Moscow to protest election fraud. And crowds in the hundreds or thousands marching ostensibly to support Putin…but that’s a story for another day.)

There’s always something interesting going on in Russia, but I do feel a bit lucky to be heading out right now–so I hope I’ll be able to add some firsthand observations in coming months. Right now all I’ve got are a couple of inklings, hypotheses, or curiosities I’m determined to follow up on once I’m over there.

The first is this: above I glossed the goal of the demonstrations as “to protest election fraud.” But really, this remains an open question, perhaps especially for an anthropologist. Likely some participants were angry about ballot tampering, some about the lack of true competition in elections. Some came as a lark, some because they remembered standing up against the 1991 coup attempt. Perhaps some were trying to impress a friend, and some to infiltrate a developing political opposition. I’m curious about the specific motives of particular people.

As I was listening to a Feb 3 podcast with Sergei Parkhomenko, much of which he spent encouraging participation in the Feb 4 demonstration, I was struck by a statement he made near the end: ‘This event isn’t political, it’s civic.’ In other words, these actions aren’t precisely about forming an opposition party, or even specifically directed against Putin (though certainly those elements exist). Rather, he was suggesting that listeners view their participation as something of a civic duty, regardless of their feelings about specific parties.

Connected to comments quoted across many news stories (and twitter posts and blog comments) I’ve read about these events, many of which reference ‘respect’ and ‘dignity,’ I’ll be wondering (tentatively, in the most preliminary way) whether and how these protest actions are related to how Russians feel about citizenship. What role should the state have toward its citizens? What are their relationships to their government?

A further thought: Anyone who’s watching these protests, thinking that the most important thing is whether Putin will be re-elected, is almost certainly asking the wrong questions. Scholars of Soviet history (Alexei Yurchak in particular!) know all too well that a great deal of change can happen below the surface, while the political leadership remains the same.

The poor are different from you and me…

Ugh, Charles Murray again? This week US bloggers and news commentators are rehashing Ye Olde Culture of Poverty argument. The basic idea is this:

1] Cursory observation reveals that poor people live differently than non-poor people.

2] These differences appear to have increased during the same decades poverty has increased.

3] THEREFORE poverty results from the different ways poor people live, that is, “culture.” (You know, correlation proves causation!)

4] Conclusion: If only poor people lived more like “us”! If they stopped using drugs, got jobs, got married, had fewer kids “out of wedlock”! (Note the implied audience for these musings is almost always generically middle-class, white, traditionalist.)

In the linked op-ed, Kristof notes that he has some objections to Murray’s argument, but thinks the new Murray book is raising some good points:

But he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers.

But is he, really? Highlighting the social dimensions, in Murray’s case, isn’t a matter of pointing out the social impacts of poverty in the US today. It’s a normative argument, blaming poverty on individual choices and behavioral patterns, and has the effect of reinforcing a very traditionalist set of values. Here’s Kristof:

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

AH, there we go! We can solve the problem of crime by marrying troubled young men off to women who can then take responsibility for them as wife-cum-parent-cum-parole officer. A thoughtful critic might wonder why Kristof wants to push marriage instead of prison reform and ending the War on Drugs. He tosses a sop to the standard liberal solutions to close his essay, but only after he’s reinforced the notion that there’s something different, something pathological, about the way poor people live.

I could note in response that drug use is widespread among all economic strata–but some end up in rehab while others go to prison. That unemployment has much more to do with the health and restructuring of the economy than with marriage status. That cohabitation and non-marital childbearing have gone up among highly educated people as well. (Weirdly, I hardly ever see op-eds about how we should blame cohabitation and relaxed attitudes toward pre-marital sex for the increase in women earning doctorates, even though the correlation exists!) Does it really make any sense to attribute poverty to cultural shifts that have happened across much of US society, not just among the poor? What useful perspective do we actually gain by “highlighting the social dimensions” of poverty?

I could go further, emphasizing that nearly all of us use some chemical compounds to alter our mood, health, and consciousness–from caffeine to meth, pot to Xanax–but that some of us have access to safer or more socially-approved drugs, some have greater susceptibility to addiction, and so on. I could ask what results when we begin viewing marriage as a legitimate sphere for government management, what the effects might be if we make a higher rate of marriage an explicit goal of government policy. What would it mean for young women’s own hopes and dreams for us to hold them responsible for “civilizing” young men, and what does it say about us, that we believe young men need to be “civilized”?

My own conclusion is simply that articles and books like these are looking for the wrong kinds of solutions in the wrong kinds of places. To adapt the apocryphal Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange: The poor are different from you and me. They have less money.

P.S. When will the professional classes learn that hard drug use leads to… the Hamptons!?

Four years ago, I was like any other young professional I knew: I worked hard at my job, then went out with friends on the weekends for dinner and cocktails. At 32, I’d tried drugs only once or twice, when someone at a party passed them around and I was feeling crazy. Then I met a woman I’ll call Jane. She had a cushy job and a ton of “society” friends, and went to all the best parties. The first night we hung out, Jane brought out some coke, and since everyone was doing it, I did too. […] soon, the two of us were inseparable. We even shared a beach house that summer in the Hamptons. (

Not to make light of this woman’s experience, but rather to note the difference class can make. [Edit: I include this story as a counterpoint to the ‘drugs ruin lives’ narrative often used in media about the poor. I can’t say much about its veracity, given the source.]