Complex Personhood

Because I am teaching a course on dystopian literature I am re-reading 1984 and Brave New World, while also rewatching Avery Gordon’s talk on The Utopian Margins, and re-reading the parts of Ghostly Matters that deal with Complex Personhood. Here’s an excerpt:

“It has always baffled me why those most interested in understanding and changing the barbaric domination that characterizes our modernity often–not always–withhold from the very people they are most concerned with the right to complex personhood. Complex personhood is the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated. Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others. Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves. Complex personhood means that those called ‘Other’ are never never that. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward. Complex personhood means that people get tired and some are just plain lazy. Complex personhood means that groups of people will act together, that they will vehemently disagree with and sometimes harm each other, and that they will do both at the same time and expect the rest of us to figure it out for ourselves, intervening and withdrawing as the situation requires. Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning.”

Complex personhood might be the thing that Big Brother, your enemies, totalitarian regimes, institutions might be most afraid of, and which they are working tirelessly to suppress. To accept and make space for another person’s complex personhood can be challenging as an individual, and in systems, be they software, constitutions, laws, governments, etc. it can be even more challenging, since there will almost always be someone who doesn’t have a neat space in the grid, and everyone is an exception to someone or something somewhere.

How Russians think, and why they do what they do

Jyri sent me this 2018 lecture in Finnish (subtitled in English), given by Martti Kari, a former Colonel working in military intelligence, with expertise in Russian “strategic culture”, and who is now at the university. Here he is explaining why Russians think and behave so differently from us in the West, which gives us some ways of guessing what they might do in the future. This has, for me, shed much light on the motivation behind the Ukrainian invasion and so much else that Russia has done.

Finland, of course, borders Russia, and at various points in history has been part of Russia, fought with Russia, and invaded by Russia. They held off the Russians in the brutal 1939 Winter War, when they invented the Molotov Cocktail, and have, of course, deep knowledge of their bellicose neighbor.

It is an hour-long lecture, and I learned a lot from it. My timestamps are iffy at best, and I took a lot of liberty with my summations and paraphrases. But it’s worth watching in its entirety. Here are my summary notes if you need to get back to the demands of work, doomscrolling or the exigencies of CNN.

NOTES

3:09 Russia has many layers, which he will enumerate. The foundation of Russian society is Slavic culture. The Slavic people are seen as one, Russians are the most numerous and greatest of the Slavic people, and Slavic unity must be defended.

3:52 With the fall of Constantinople, Eastern Roman traditions came to Moscow, and with this came Religion, Conservatism and Authority and the belief that supremacy cannot be challenged as authority is given by God and is therefore infallible and cannot be challenged.

4:28 In 1240 The Mongols conquered Russia and held it for 150 years. It was a time of cruelty, as evidenced by the Russian words for torture, taxation and corruption, words which have Mongol roots. Total domination is granted to the sole leader, the Khan, and cruelty and corruption are part of his privilege. Under Mongol rule survival meant lying, crime and violence.

5:34 At the end of their reign, the Mongols did not depart, but merged into the ruling culture of Russia. A period of chaos followed the Mongol rule, and the Poles who conquered them did not have a strong leader. The chaos and confusion finally ended when the Romanovs were installed and the Russians saw that A strong leader eliminates chaos, and has, of course, the mandate of God.

It is important to note core Russian beliefs that Democracy is equal to Chaos, and Autocracy is superior to Chaos and Mayhem. Russia has consistently been under authoritarian rule since the Mongols.

6:48 The era of European Russia began, and Russian expansion from 1815-1914. Russia was reified through its culture, its writers, etc. (This was happening in Finland too, with the codification of their national mythology in the Kalevala)

8:44 Then came the Soviet Era and WWII taught them that it was better to fight outside their country. This is because of their fundamental geographical weakness. They have 11 time zones, and are difficult to defend. The Urals are easily attacked and have been throughout history (Napoleon, Hitler). They have no mountains or rivers or place to shelter, and are easy to conquer.

9:07 Russians believe strongly in Russianness, which is made up of ORTHODOXY + AUTOCRACY + NARODNOST. The Russian Orthodox church gives them the infallibility and righteousness of God, and Autocracy is what they have lived under since 1240. Narodnost is “the people” but really “the role the people play”.

Narodnost means submission, sacrifice and passivity: the Tsar cannot make mistakes. He is Just. Around him are Princes who will rise to become Tsar one day. But when mistakes are made they are made by a class of people under the Princes in the hierarchy, the Boyars. The Boyars are the ones who make mistakes and are blamed. These are those supperrich oligarchs and governors in league with Putin who frequently go missing, have boating accidents, or hang themselves in their garages.

The Boyars were once landowners and governors of their land. They owned territories and property. But in recent years they no longer own their lands, but have tenure, and with their tenure comes the understanding that they can control the territories and their slaves so long as they behave.

Once a Boyar reaches a certain level, he is entitled to a certain amount of corruption. High ranking Boyars get to steal, but there are rules. You can’t steal from certain people, and you can’t steal too much. Business oligarchs are Boyars too.

And Narodnost. The Infallible Tsar knows better than the people what they need. And Russians can endure an incredible amount of suffering. In Russia suffering is a virtue. It is honorable to suffer. And the role of the people is to sacrifice themselves for the Tsar.

18:13 Russians live in two realities: the reality of the outside world, and the kitchen table reality. That is, they have conversations around the kitchen table about how things are, but when they leave, they enter a separate reality. This is normal.

21:02 Nikolai I said Russia’s sacred mission is to be “messenger of a higher civilization.” and, a relevant quote “A little warfare in the border regions is needed to maintain a patriotic spirit.”

80% of Russians get their new on Putin-controlled television, comprised of “different facts”. The relevant story on those channels is that NATO is constantly attacking Russia, which is perpetually under siege. Russia sees itself as being at constant war with NATO.

The task of the state leadership is to stay in power. They are not interested in the lives of ordinary Russians. As George F Kennan, American diplomat and US Ambassador to Russia, and architect of the containment policies of the Cold War, said in 1946 “The Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is based on their traditional and instinctive insecurity.”

He also says:

“Russia is deaf to the logic of reason, but very sensitive to the logic of power.”

American imperialism is based on some want or need. Say, oil. Russian imperialism is based on fear.

28:20 Information Geopolitics works by misdirection promulgated by spokesmen. Lenin originated the idea of Useful Idiots, like Trump, who believe they are being given power, but are actually pawns in a game they don’t know they’re playing. (this is my own embroidery; Martti Kari didn’t say this exactly)

30:28 Russians have savior complex: They saved Europe from Napoleon and from Hitler and believe they are saving Europe, even if they have not been asked

33:11 The Bronze Horseman by Pushkin is one of the first poems every Russian child reads. (Which, Wikipedia notes “…symbolizes “Tsar Peter, the city of St Petersburg, and the uncanny reach of autocracy over the lives of ordinary people.”)

36:29 In spite of what may be otherwise believed, Russians are not innovators or technologists. They copied the microchip and nuclear weapons. The current priority under Putin is AI.

38:00 Russian has two words for truth and three words for a lie. Significantly “pravda” means the truth, but not the absolute truth. It’s a “truth” told to get out of an awkward or bad situation, a tactical truth. “Istina” is a truth that is the opposite of a lie. “Vranjo” is a noble lie or a strategic lie. A lie that can be told to people outside your community. Russians are skillful practitioners of Doublethink.

40:27. Everyone understands when someone says something different at the kitchen table than out in public. “We had nothing to do with the shooting down of the Malaysian plane”, for example. Or Putin saying “We did not meddle in the 2016 US Elections. Read my lips.” Russians know, we did, but we didn’t get caught. They will revise the truth when they have been caught. He goes on to give numerous examples, each more egregious than the last. And of course someone’s Grandmother is disappeared for showing her grandson receiving a medal from Putin for a crime he ostensibly did not commit.

44:57 So what would destabilize Russia? He eliminates several possibilities such as “the global recession is not really a problem since they are always in a recession” He homes in on:

The Russians fear turmoil, chaos, as in the time before the Romanovs. the Post Soviet 1990s were a time of turmoil. They equate chaos with having a weak leader.

46:27 Then he shows Putin’s friends from his 70s era Judo club, back in the day, including Zolotov, a lathe operator by trade, but who, though laughably under-credentialed for the job, has been elevated to Boyar by Putin, a three star general in charge of the National Guard–since Putin cannot entirely trust the armed forces

47:38 The National Guard is in charge of suppressing internal unrest, with a mandate to use violence. Except against pregnant women.

Navalny called out Zolotov on his ill-gotten gains, because Zolotov is high ranking and entitled to a high level of corruption. He challenged him to appear in a conversation with him on TV. Zolotov responded by threatening to make “minced meat” of Navalny in a physical fight. Judo, maybe. Business as usual in Russia.

50:14 During the time of turmoil, Power was decentralized, more power went to the various regions, corruption continued. Russia embraced, incredibly, free speech, the West was no longer a threat, and also incredibly, Russia considered joining NATO. But the era of democracy turned the word Democracy into a curse word.

50:48 But fortunately, in the eyes of the Russians, a strong leader emerged in 2000. Putin. And all the familiar things returned:

  • Authoritarian system of leadership
  • Corruption and cronyism
  • Persecution of the opposition
  • The West portrayed as a threat
  • A mock democracy
  • The Messianic Mission
  • Imperial expansion
  • Make Russia Great Again

53:13 Unlike with the Nazis vs. the Jews, who belonged to different tribes, there were executions and victims in every family and every home in Russia. Both the killer and the victim could be from the same family.

Russians celebrate Stalin and wish to go back to their (fictitious) heroic past. They see their actions as correcting historical injustices. Other nations leave their histories in the past, but to Russia all wounds are fresh wounds.

55:15 So what will happen in Russia? Some possibilities. (remember this was from 2018)

1 Stagnation and status quo until Putin is out in 2024
2 Stalin 2.0: oppression stepped up, more purges
3 Collapse of state due to external shock 👀
4 Democratic uprising (unlikely)
5 East vs. West again. Escalation between pro-West “Zapadniki” and anti-West “Slavophiles”

Who are the Princes, the Tsars-in-Training? They will need to guarantee a peaceful end of reign for the retiring Tsar, as Putin did for Yeltsin. Medvedev is too soft. And the prince needs to be a hero. He presents two:

Aleksey Dyumin
-previously Putin’s chief security guard
-As Spetsnaz chief, oversaw the annexation of Crimea (and extracted Yanukovich from Kyiv from the “fascists” in power ) in 2014
-Hero of the Russian Federation
-Plays goalie on Putin’s hockey team, and is a pretty good goalkeeper, unless Putin is shooting on goal.
-“on standby” as Governor of Tula Oblast until Putin retires in 2024, where hopefully nothing goes wrong before 2024 so he can stay clean

Yevgeny Zinichev
-KGB/FSB/FSO background
-Minister of Emergency Situations
…Except he was killed in 2021 (he fell off a cliff) he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation posthumously

58:40 Putin’s reputation and popularity is in decline (Fall 2018) People are saying Putin is responsible for Russia’s problems. That the people’s well being is important, not the military. 20 million people live in poverty.

Olga Koltsova, a protester: “Either those in power are aware of the mood and listening to the people, or some kind of social explosion will happen. When the lid of the boiler is too tight it will fly into the air.” (Nov 2018)

As in 1917, and the November Revolution.

59:49 Last he shows a protester, a child, being arrested. The kid probably doesn’t get his information from Putin’s TV, but from the internet.

Nothing Talk

Bubble, empty bubble, empty speech, empty speech bubble, no comment, speech,  speech bubble icon - Download on

Mark Zuckerberg’s speeches are masterclasses in how to talk but say nothing. His speeches are notable for being affectless, dissociative, circular and noncommittal. I think he does this because it is no longer possible for him to say anything for fear or reprisal or cancellation. The stock price is sensitive to his speech. He know what he is doing is wrong, but won’t say so. Because he is being forced to speak when he wants to stay silent. And because politicians and business people–like all of us, now– instantly know the nature of the response. We get likes or retweets. We get sentiment analyses, feedback, commentary. It is almost too costly to speak to a general public any more. Silence is more golden than ever before.

What should you do when confronted with Nothing Talk? Ignore the speaker and stop listening to them. Look only at their actions, divorced from their speech. Pay attention to other people who are actually speaking. Learn to disagree better. Stop cancelling people. Do like Rumi does: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

The Dutch House

by Ann Patchett.

Hardcover The Dutch House Book

The story is told from the viewpoint of the children, who were thrown out of their home by their stepmother, whose story is not told. A beloved older sister and a dutiful younger brother are left to fend for themselves. People loved this book. I only liked it. It was not Housekeeping, a book said to be the favorite of the sister and her mother, and a masterpiece. I often wonder about this: what is the difference between a good book and a great book? The Dutch House could have been a great book, but it wasn’t, and why not? I will return to this question when I have drawn some conclusions.

What to call Prostituted Women & Children

I’ve been working a long time to help protect women and children who have been forced into prostitution through their addictions, poverty, history of sexual abuse and vulnerability, and find that the language used to describe these typically abused and disempowered women is really problematic. I agree with this from Ruchira Gupta, the activist and documentary filmmaker widely recognized for her work as an advocate for prostituted women and children:

Gupta also realises how, over the years, sensitive subjects get glossed over with problematic vocabulary. “We do not use the term ‘sex worker’ anymore because we believe it’s so inherently exploitative that we do not want to define it as work under any circumstances. So, we use the term ‘prostituted child’, because there is no such thing as a child prostitute—someone did it to the child. And we use the term ‘prostituted woman’. We realise the patriarchy of the system that is exploiting the vulnerabilities of these girls and women.”

Vogue India

(As an aside, I was just talking with a friend about how we used to read Vogue “for the articles”; you don’t expect topics like this from Vogue, and yet I read so many like it. This is from Vogue India, and India is of course known as one of the worst places to be a woman–and is often ranked the worst–in multiple studies. It was often first, with Afghanistan coming in second, but they may now have switched spots.)

Hooray, Hooray the first of May!

Vappu, the Finnish holiday celebrated on May 1, turns out to be the shortening of the name of Valpurga, and is a celebration of Saint Walpurga, a German saint, known for her enthusiasm for witch-burning. Christian holiday-making from that era specialized in the transformation of nature-based and animistic pagan celebrations into Christian holidays of extreme misogyny. The first of May is also Beltane, the Celtic and Gaelic pagan celebration of the beginning of summer, marked by driving cattle to their summer pastures (or here in urban Helsinki, by changing your car from winter to summer tires.)

It’s also when Finnish students wear their graduation hats and you will find balloons, confetti and picnics. It wouldn’t be a holiday without a special pastry either, in this case Tippaleipä — bread that looks like brains. There’s something sweet for every event, large or small, like the pastry that celebrates ice skating season.

As with so many pagan holidays, there is fire, as Wikipediat notes: “Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire.”

It’s also International Workers Day. Maypole dancing also occurs apparently, though I’ve never witnessed this. The first Mayday celebrations were Roman, and were associated with Flora, the flower goddess. Flowers are meant to appear, but it was snowing here this morning…

Fraudulent reviews on Indeed.com, with an assist from Indeed itself

I hadn’t visited Indeed.com for years, but I had a job I wanted to post somewhere, so was seeking job posting sites, and at the same time learned that someone I knew was about to take a job in Portugal at a company called Teleperformance. She sent me a link to a YouTube video about the company, posted by the company itself.

Something about the video seemed suspicious in that “too good to be true” way, so I searched for reviews, and found a page on Indeed.com about Teleperformance. The reviews were indeed horrifying! They are in many languages, and I can only read French and English, but those were enough. It sounded like a nightmare of a job, attracting young people under false pretenses, paying them almost nothing, putting them up in terrible, moldy apartments, making women feel unsafe, making them stay for 9 months in order to get their flight refund…it went on and on.

But there were two other things I noticed. Indeed.com had pinned a positive review to the top of the page. Maybe they are paid to surface positive reviews? Unclear. And it explained a bit too much about the business, as if it were coming from the company itself. However, the other thing I noticed was that all of the positive reviews were completely without specifics.

You can hire bands of freelance reviewers on places like Fiverr to post positive reviews to Yelp, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc. Often these can be easily identified by their lack of specificity. If you removed all the non-specific positive reviews, Teleperformance would be left with just bad-to-terrible reviews.

Defrauding customers on review sites is also illegal. So I have reported the fraud here, but I am guessing that this particular company is not the only one stacking the deck. And they’re doing it with an assist from Indeed.com itself.

Here is where you can report fraud to the FTC. There is an ocean of this stuff, and obviously this report will get drowne in a sea of similar such reports. How can we get integrity back into the internet? Why can’t review sites maintain their integrity? Should we wipe the internet and start again? Sometimes I think we should.