Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hiatus Over: Olympics and Georgia

So I am back from the land of eternal work ... where I shaved only on the rare days when I actually went in to the office ... where I sat lotus-style in my cockpit-sized home office, the Olympics blaring beside me as I crafted tiny corrections in prose and explained as patiently as possible to yet another emailer that a deadline is a deadline ... where I woke up 5 days out of 7 at four in the morning because the anxieties had crept into my dreams ... where my house and life descended into a blizzard of dust and debris, and where my aquaria begged for attention ... and where I produced a course catalog and a web site on time and, so far as know right now, accurate.

So, no fish have died, and my site is live and on time. You can view it here if you promise not to note the actual name of the major research university (MRU) where I toil in an obscurity to which I am blind. I will on another occasion perhaps discuss more of the madness of getting this thing done, but suffice to say that it is done, and I am slowly re-inflating from the compression of 24/7 working.

In the mornings over the last 7 or 8 weeks, when I did not go into the office, I drove my roommate and colleague to the train, and then stopped off for breakfast. Most times for the last few weeks, I went to a sweet little place on 24th at Bryant called La Torta Gorda ... great job on the interior, sort of a 50s throwback effect in a place where most often I was the only native speaker of English. La Torta Gorda was the one break most days, and it was at my daily breakfast's that I read most of Maya Jasanoff's fascinating meditation on imperial collecting Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850. And then I dragged myself back home and got back to the endless, endless labors. I think the dog got used to me being around; he even deigned to spend most of the long days lounging on his dog blanket, shoe-horned into the corner of the cockpit office between me and the TV.

That would be the TV that played more or less non-stop Olympics the last two weeks. I adore the Olympics, notwithstanding the professionally execrable nonsense that passes for broadcasting them. This seemed like the Olympics of beach volleyball ... who cares ... not me. Not nearly enough of the less known sports like fencing or dressage or tae kwon do. Lots of gymnastics, but too much of the men's individual stuff was on after midnight, and I was just a bowl of paste by that point.

Ya gotta love Michael Phelps ... good lord, what a chest. I figure every breath he takes in full flood is roughly equal to ten of mine. Weird goofy smile. But the sexiest guy of the Olympics for me was the Australian diver, Matthew Mitcham, the only openly gay man in the games, who pulled out a gold medal with a truly awe-inspiring final dive in the 10 meter competition. Ted Robinson (former Giants announcer) and the nameless woman who did an excellent and informative if rough-edged job at color commentary mentioned his having left diving for "family and personal problems," but they could not bring themselves to acknowledge that he is an openly gay man and that the problems at issue were his being outed. Never forget that the enduring agenda of the straight world for gay people is silence.

Of course, silence had a lot to do with the Olympics ... silence on China's silencing of critics, silence on the abysmal state of the environment, silence on the censorship. The games came off well, and I am glad of that. Worse regimes than Peking have gained as much or more than they did. It was fascinating to see so many images of Peking life and architecture. The marathon especially provided an excellent view of the background to everyday living. But fascinating glimpses do not excuse a closed society committed to repression and diversion.

So, to paraphrase the christians, love the games, scorn the gamesmanship.

The New York Times today opined: "Even at full strength, South Ossetia’s total population could not have filled China’s National Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics took place." As I imagined returning to blogging over the last weeks of sequestered work, I knew I would write about the Olympics and Georgia. Especially Georgia which could turn out to be a key turning point in the struggle against barbarism. And a tiny population lets itself be used for purposes far greater, and far more grey, than they imagine.

Couple of pieces worth reading today in Der Spiegel in English: Georgian Tanks against Ossetian Teenagers and an interview with Eduard Shevardnadze. The first evinces a little more sympathy with the Ossetians, and the latter a leavening of the notion of how idiotic was Mikhail Saakashvili's little military ploy.

I had quite a bit of debate with my old friend Frobisher about this. He sees the events first and foremost from the point of view of the Ossetians for whom, as he avers, the Georgians are the worse option. I don't see it that way. I think they have allowed themselves to be used by the Russians ... perhaps they will be more secure for a short while, but in the long run they are now an advance camp of the Russian military who have a permanent ability to interfere in Georgia whenever they want. They will come to loathe the site of Russian soldiers, and they will not be the first.

No one should be surprised at the events in Georgia, of course, but I am not sure that the key issues are being addressed. The American media, of course, content themselves to look around to see if the appropriate American politicians can act tough. Is Obama tough enough? It is taken as given that McCain is tough enough since the "liberal" media essentially give him a free pass on everything. And he has certainly shown his ability to stamp his foot or shake his fist.

But of course, the Georgian situation is a lot more complex than a bunch of fist shaking. But it is also a lot more complex than simply revisiting Russian foreign policy aims that date from the the centuries of czarist rule albeit updated by the oil addiction that is choking humanity. I think the greatest tragedy of this has to do with the now-destroyed possibility of a paradigm shift in a part of the world where paradigm shifts are rare notwithstanding the vicious results of history's cruel sweeps.

Start with this: nobody is a choir boy in this region, not even the Ossetians who, apparently, are taking advantage of their new buddy's military might to settle any number of ancient scores. Perhaps some day we will know the extent of who slaughtered whom in this little six-day war, but not just now. We can certainly expect to see some vigorous bilateral ethnic cleansing once the dust settles and some labored agreement is signed. So the Russians are pointedly not sweetie-pies, we all know that. And the Georgians, whatever their past, marched right into this disaster out of pride and an excess of a nationalism that had not yet leavened in the direction that they pointedly were pointing. Most of us do not know much about the Ossetians other than that they rebelled against the Georgians at the first opportunity and managed to hold them off not withstanding some curious geographical disadvantages. We do suspect that they are using their rare venture into power politics to settle some scores.

But simply re-visiting the obvious does not shed any light on this. I believe that there are some possibilities for Euro-focused liberal societies in this part of the world, and this crisis undermines that. It provides, again and once again, the vehicle for Russian reaction to dominate its periphery to ill effect. So no matter that the Ossetians may feel that they are marginally better off operating as a forward base camp for the Russian military, they have handed over their nationalism to the most reactionary force operating in region. It is Czarist foreign policy, and it is designed to freeze in place an authoritarian Russia surrounded by compliant and supine client states. Russia's key objective here is to unseat Saakashvili and to force the Georgians to accept pro-Russian leadership. Just as in 1968 in Prague, there will be no Tblisi Spring. It is not allowed under neo-czarist geopolitics.

American coverage has focused on America, not so curiously, and on the issue of NATO. It has rarely been pointed out how the Georgians have been deeply foolish in focusing their national policy on the pig in a poke. Their real interest is in the EU, and EU membership would demand liberalization, transparency, and openness to minorities. How much better a foreign policy that accepted the de facto separation of the Ossetians and the Abkhazians and then proceeded to create a multi-ethnic open society that turned to Europe. At that point, Ossetian youth, evidently preoccupied now with thuggery and counterfeiting, would be demanding to get out of Russia and go to Germany via Georgia.

But saber-rattling won over the Euro. And all will pay. Every last one of them.

No photos yet even though I shot a bunch at the Chihuly exhibit at the De Young ... just too damned tired still to get back to blogging the way I like to. Check out my Flickr photos of all that marvelous glass.

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