Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The New York Times Uses the Tragedy in Moscow to Reinforce Stereotypes

In case you haven't noticed, I don't like The New York Times. It engages in irresponsible, biased journalism way too often for my liking. There are moments, though, when one would expect even the silliest journalists in the world to control their desire to advance some sort of an agenda. Unfortunately, even then journalists who work for The New York Times can't keep their desire to put a convenient spin on everything in check.

On January 24, 2011, Moscow was shaken by a horrible act of terror that claimed the lives of many people at the Domodedovo Airport and left many others seriously wounded. This is a tragic moment that should not be used to advance any kind of unfair and ridiculous stereotypes of the Russian people. An entire country is in mourning. Why can't its tragedy be respected, at least for a little while?

It is shocking to me that Andrew Kramer at The New York Times chooses this particular moment to advance a particularly unpleasant image of the Russian people in his article titled "After the Bombing, It's Business as Usual." The title itself is quite offensive. If the author of the article is trying to advance the idea that the Russians are so jaded that such a tragedy causes them no grief, he is a prejudiced, uninformed fool. How would he have felt if journalists from other countries had written this kind of articles hours after the tragedy of 9/11?

In his unintelligent article, Kramer tries to demonstrate that the Russian people are somehow more "fatalistic" than people of other countries:
Meanwhile, people continued to arrive to pick up loved ones and to embark on flights out of the city. It was as if officials, passengers and Muscovites in general were displaying a particular brand of Russian stoicism, if not fatalism. “Of course we feel sorry for the people who suffered,” said Olga Y. Vishnyakova, a departing passenger, as she squeezed through a crowd in the check-in area. “Some people refused to come to the airport because they were worried about their personal security,” she said, noting that just nine months ago a suicide bombing in the subway had been followed immediately by an attack at a nearby station. “But I thought, “Well, you cannot escape God’s fate.’ And then I thought, ‘It’s been a few hours and nothing’s happened. Why not? It’s probably OK.’ ”
I have no doubt that this conversation with a passenger did, in fact, take place. Still, the Russian Federation is a huge country that has 83 federal subjects. It has a population of 142 million people of different races, ethnicities, religious persuasions, and linguistic identities. It spans 9 time zones and is the largest country in the world. Drawing conclusions about "all Russians" on the basis of a couple of rushed conversations with a few traumatized passengers makes very little sense. I'm glad that major newspapers don't publish articles of the "All Jews are greedy" variety any more. Is it too much too ask that the same courtesy be extended to the Russian people?

P.S. Those who have been following this blog for a while know that as a former colonial subject of Russia I am not a huge fan of that country. Still, it is jarring to me when a whole huge nation is stereotyped in such an unfair and unfounded manner. I probably have had a chance to spend more time with the Russian people than anybody else who reads this blog and I can assure you that they are neither more nor less fatalistic than any other people. I can tell you more: they are all different. Just like the Americans. Or the Argentineans. Or the Nigerians.


Rimi said...

Does Mr. Kramer perhaps suggest that Russian take this opportunity to identiy a long-nursed target as the perpetrator, launch an enormous media offensive swearing to protect "the Russian people", and declare all-out war on them?

I've encountered this "jaded" rhetoric several times, and let's make one thing clear. In my country, we're used to several bombings and border-killings and smaller but equally lethal terrorist skirmishes all the time. Not a single day passes without some kind of 'insurgent' or 'terrorist' activity, or plain old political violence, at some corner of the country or another. At an individual level, it's not 'jaded' to accept this reality. Just like there's nothing noble or sensitive in becoming catatonic with fear, or apocalyptic with rage over it and demanding instant, violent reparations. Subconsciously, and this is just a vague hypothesis, perhaps we feel that since tomorrow that corpse could be mine, I might as well live my life while I have it.

This is not to say said life does not include civil action against such acts of terror or political violence. I personally support two separate such platforms, but to let our activism become central to our lives, to the exclusion of all else, is the surest way to let whatever normalcy we have left grind to a halt.

This is unlikely to be a popular opinion, especially with people who've lived all their lives in much stabler/safer/developed societies. But it's how we instinctively live, at least in my neck of the woods.

Clarissa said...

My main question is what's the point of generating this image of "foreigners" as weird, creepy and barely human? What purpose does this serve? The answers I come up with are hardly reassuring.

Patrick said...

I don't get the same perception of the Russian people that you inferred from the article. They are not 'weird, creep or barely human'.

What I took from the article was a Russian people (issues with gross generalizations aside) that are acutely aware of that they are in a war. One which has been raging for at least a decade. That they don't succumb to self-absorbed whining about it, and that they haven't engaged in a xenophobic shroud is something to be applauded, not scorned.

I can only imagine the incessant navel gazing that would permeate the government and media in Canada if this same tragedy would occur here. We would be suffer from analysis-paralysis, rather than moving on with life.

Rimi said...

I must say though, that although I've personally faced comments like, "My god, how can ANYONE live in places like that!" and "You people must be seriously traumatised!" myself, Kramer here seems to be employing a tone of restrained praise. Sentences like these have a definite positive spin:

"It has been a hallmark of the Russian response to terrorist attacks to try to restore normalcy as quickly as possible."

"Elena V. Zatserkovnaya, who works at the Lufthansa counter, said she heard the bomb and ran into the area to help. But soon enough, she had to return to her desk a few hundred yards away, to check in people for their flights."

"But then they went to work, trolling the area outside the terminal for customers. And plenty of passengers were still exiting into the frigid Moscow night, looking for a ride home."

Pen said...

I agree that this article does make it seem that Russians are insensitive. And from Kramer's point of view, they probably are. It would be strange to anyone from a relatively stable country, seeing what people will do after an attack.

I observed something similar when North Korea's air strike occurred. Everyone in the US was freaking out--and then there were people in South Korea, who had lived through similar attacks and skirmishes for their entire lives. Upon interviews, it was stated (by more than one person), that they were used to it, that it was just another threat. Unlike in the United States, many people of which had been frozen after the only landmark terrorist attack they've ever experienced, these people had lived with war their entire lives.

Children who grow up in places like this learn that the best thing to do is to accept it. The next attack could take their own life--and yes, it would be a tragedy, but people learn to compartmentalize; they cling to the normal in a world that is drastically out of control.

I wouldn't call that "jaded," because they aren't necessarily worn from war. But, like Rimi said, they do accept the fact that today might be the last day of their lives. The result is a large number of people who may be deemed "fatalistic." They will continue going about their daily lives, because if they don't, then they'll die having not lived at all.

I suppose, if I lived with war and warlike activities on a regular basis, I would simply treat it as a fact of life, as well. That doesn't mean that everyone accepts it in the same manner, but it does mean that the apathy experienced by a person who has lived with war or similar activities is any less human.

Canukistani said...

“My main question is what's the point of generating this image of "foreigners" as weird, creepy and barely human? What purpose does this serve?”

The purpose is that most of what passes for journalism in the states is tarting up the consensus position with human interest stories. Russians are stolid and fatalistic; Mexicans are poor and drug dealers. I bought the Time magazine special report issue on the Tragedy in Tucson today. The lead paragraph by Richard Stengal, managing editor included the phrase, “as journalists, trying to find meaning is what defines us. It’s what we do. And we need to get it right.” Yeh. Right.

The first article was about how “normal Americans” know that it was a lone deranged act of a mad man. Anyone who suggested that there was a political, social or cultural context was not part of a group or a faction but a member of a “cabal”. On the subject of Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map: “This was a clarifying moment, for rarely have we seen the workings and values of this influential cabal so nakedly exposed. Right or left, their genius is for dramatizing trivial things.”

The second article was about Loughner and mental illness. In one part of the piece, it says “At some point, Loughner did something few people with psychotic disorders do: he began buying guns and planning violence.” Later on in the article it states, “Combine schizophrenia or a mood disorder with substance abuse and the prevalence (of violence) soars to 65%.” So let me get this straight. We don’t have to worry about crazy people shooting up the place because it’s rare unless of course they take drugs in which case 2/3 of them are going to pack heat. It ends with “It will never be possible to stop every unhinged person from committing awful crimes.” True but limiting access to guns will help. The next article entitled “Fire Away’ can be summarized as nothing will change with respect to gun laws so live with it. This includes concealed weapons and assault weapons. And get this comment: “Unfortunately, the gun-rights vision of well-armed citizens shooting down an outlaw like Loughner midrampage did not come true.”

The last article was titled “Are we becoming an uncivil society?” The response from the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty was “This appears to be the act of a mentally deranged individual who undertook an irrational and senseless set of behaviours. To jump from that to some sweeping judgement or conclusion based on those facts would be premature, incomplete and unfair.” Don’t expect anything to come out of this event especially analysis.