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March 15, 2015

You must understand that it is the Borgonzian’s proud tribal culture that requires him to strenuously object when you punch him in the nose and steal his stuff
Posted by Patrick at 12:12 PM * 43 comments

From a piece in the Washington Post, yesterday, “This is why it’s impossible for the Kremlin to lie about Putin’s weird disappearance”:

As for the rest of Russia, if the buzz about Putin’s mysterious absence doesn’t make it on the television screen, it didn’t happen: for 90 percent of the Russian population, TV is the main source of news. And, even if they knew, for a majority of Russians this event would be like most other political events—that is, above their pay grade. When it comes to the intricacies of politics, the prevailing attitude outside Moscow’s liberal circles is a semi-religious one, and it comes from Byzantine culture. Just as the Eucharist is prepared behind the wall of icons that separates the altar from the eyes of the laity, so it is with political maneuvers: We are but mere mortals, unable to understand such mysteries. Let the professionals handle it.
The author, Julia Ioffe, is billed as “a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine” who was, before that, “the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and The New Yorker.” And yet despite this evidence of real expertise, one has to wonder. Let’s assume that it’s correct to say that the typical Russian response to evidence of secret high-level political manuevering is to shrug it off as something one can’t affect. Is this, in fact, so specifically a Russian response that it needs to be explained as a result of “Byzantine culture,” with specific reference to the Orthodox form of the Mass? Or is it, in fact, an attitude taken by people all over the world toward high-level political events over which they feel they have no control?

I’m betting that it’s the second, and that this digression in what looks like an otherwise unexceptionable piece is a good example of a brain virus that chronically affects American writing about the rest of the world: the portrayal of perfectly normal behavior by foreigners as evidence of their irreducible exoticism. (Probably not coincidentally, an irreducible exoticism that requires complex explanations by credentialed experts.)

(For that matter, as Teresa remarked when I showed her the passage in question, if the Orthodox Mass really had such power to make people politically passive, recent events in Greece would have gone rather differently.)

This kind of thing has been well-parodied over the last couple of years in Slate’s “If It Happened There” series, in which current US events are described with the tone and tropes frequently used by US media to describe scary foreigners. (“EAST RUTHERFORD, United States—This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event—and, some would say, the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.”) But as usual, it was the Onion that truly nailed it, all the way back in 2007, with “Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die.

Comments on You must understand that it is the Borgonzian's proud tribal culture that requires him to strenuously object when you punch him in the nose and steal his stuff:
#1 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 01:01 PM:

This is not a recent development in US writing on, ahem, exotic places. I've been writing the first draft of what will eventually become a chapter of my next book. As I've done so, I've come across what can only be described as passages of true horror.

One such was the writer in 1920 who described Kingston in 1919 as a place of utter danger to white women and men, where blacks (not that he used that word) were insolent and where a white man was in grave danger of being arrested by a black constable and tried by a coloured magistrate if he broke the law. Leaving aside the fact that this last was true, the fact that there were no incidents of the rape or sexual assault of a white woman by a black man in the Jamaica of the time is well-known.

#2 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 01:33 PM:

Reminded obliquely of Benchley talking about "a remarkably lifelike drawing of a goose" from some Egyptian dynasty. Why, he wondered, was it so remarkable that Egyptians should be able to correctly depict an animal that was probably standing right there? I forget if "20th century chauvinism" was his term, or mine on reading it, but it's all a symptom of the belief that Others just don't do things right.

Al Capp, in a lingering remnant of his liberalism, introduced a family of square-eyed folks into Dogpatch, who were promptly discriminated against, despite the fack that when they were onhappy, they cried reg'lar tears, and so on. (Let's be fair to the cartoonist: He never walked away from his liberal views on race and gender, and was known to admire Rev. King, even in his most reactionary days.)

I guess what brings it to mind is the fact that he felt he had to have Li'l Abner observe their humanity and spell it out to himself at some length, and the headline sort of reminded me of that. It's kind of touching — he knew who his audience was, and he tried to give them a clue.

#3 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 01:53 PM:

As some here may have noticed, I'm an English country boy, bought up in a village and living there until about ten years ago.

Any TV series set in an English village, such as The Vicar of Dibley, is full of humour based on the poerceieved wierdness of people like me. We're old-fashioned, a few bricks short of an outhouse, and probably were the people Cold Comfort Farm was based on.

I didn't realise at the time, it was just something we did on the farm, but my father, who had started out ploughing with horses, was using the latest technology available when I started Secondary School. There were books documenting more advanced biochemistry, in its practical application, than anything any of my schoolteachers knew about.

I could tell they didn't know, but they daren't say that, and came up with rather crazy answers instead, and it wasn't worth the hassle of trying to call them on it.

It was the Green Revolution, and I was living it.

But here I am, four decades later, and all the old cliches persist. If country folk were an ethnic minority, the BBC would be prosecuted for racism.

It's not hard for me to imagine some of the same patterns in US media.

I try not to think of The Dukes of Hazzard. That was made in what I hope was a different age.

#4 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 02:21 PM:

Kip W @2

I wonder whether this might be what Benchley had in mind, in which case perhaps what is striking is the contrast between the realism of the goose and the irrealism of the scenario depicted.

(Also, looking this up has just made me google 'ancient Egyptian cat pictures,' a search whose results seem to me to provide evidence for Von Daniken's claim that ancient civilizations were visited by time-travelling aliens from advanced technological cultures, since only artists who were aware of the Internet or something similar could have been so acutely aware of the photogenic nature of cats.)

Dave Bell @3: Having grown up in Shropshire, I'd always understood Cold Comfort Farm to be parodying the representations of rural life in authors like Mary Webb and (at one remove) Thomas Hardy, rather than any kind of direct comment on what rural life was like. (Not sure I'd want to make the same defense of the BBC.)

#5 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 02:23 PM:

Argh. After I'd painstakingly previewed the link, iOS stripped it out. 'This' hould have linked to this:

#6 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 03:26 PM:

Dave Bell @ #3: It's not hard for me to imagine some of the same patterns in US media.

Tell me about it. I live in New Jersey.

If anyone were to ever make a sitcom out of my life, they either couldn't set it here, or couldn't make the people even vaguely recognizable. (Assuming my life provided enough scriptable moments)

Even a drama would probably have to move us across the Delaware into a nearly identical town because the Pennsylvania Philly suburbs just don't carry the heavy legacy of that New Jersey brand.

#7 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 03:59 PM:

A CBC sketch during the First Gulf War encapsulated this sort of thing rather neatly with a reporter stating: "The sun is setting. Soon, it will be the time of day that the Arabs call... Night."

#8 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 05:17 PM:

Middle of last year I got curious and went out to try to find the best coverage of what was happening in Russia that I could. The Washington Post's coverage was just as bad at that time as it is now; the New York Times's was that bad when it existed at all.

Eventually I found a list of where all the news organizations still had international bureaus from a couple years ago and honed in on the Wall Street Journal, which has the most in-depth international coverage of the major US papers, and Al-Jazeera English. (Seriously, what the hell happened to the foreign bureaus?)

I also set up a couple Google news alerts -- one to get me Russia coverage from the States and UK, and one to get me English-language Russia coverage from Russia. The former swept Reuters, the AP, and several of the newsmagazines for me, and through the latter I discovered that the Moscow Times and ITAR-TASS, the Russian news agency, both have English-language editions.

Triangulating between all those, and calibrated by listening to some friends with family there, I felt like I got a decent read on what was going on. I'm not following it so closely any more, because it's a ton of work to keep up with, but it was a useful exercise in figuring out that the information is out there and how to find it.

#9 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 06:09 PM:

Praisegod Barebones @4/5: I was assuming "the irrealism of the scenario" of a cat herding geese was based on my experience with geese; maybe a cat could occasionally intimidate one goose, but not most geese, and certainly not a street-gang of them. But that cat, besides being cartoonishly larger than the geese, looks a lot like a serval, which might very well be able to bully geese.

The main article reminds me of a discussion back when that Iraqi threw shoes at Bush - somebody said the usual "And of course you know how Arab culture feels about shoes", with a reply about "Whereas here in the West, throwing shoes at people is *totally* a sign of respect."

#10 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 06:27 PM:

Shortly after the nuclear crisis in Fukushima there was an article in a well-respected (American?) paper tying the stigma against victims of radiation from the 1945 atomic bombings to a Shinto emphasis on purity; as opposed to "we don't have a clear understanding of the scientific basis for why you're so sick and we're not sure if it might be contagious." (The film Black Rain, in which a family tries to marry off their atomic-bomb-victim daughter, has the subtext -- or text, I don't remember -- that she's undesireable as a wife not because of some notion about purity, but because she may not be able to bear healthy children.)

#11 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 06:36 PM:

What Praisegod said on #4. Cold Comfort Farm is about actual rural people to the same extent that Blazing Saddles is about the actual historical Old West. It's a parody of specific storytelling cliches -- to which could be added the name of D. H. Lawrence.

#12 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 07:52 PM:

Blazing Saddles is historically inaccurate?

#13 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 07:55 PM:

As to the needless exotification of the Other in writing about foreign locations, may I point readers toward the wonderful Sellers monologue "Balham: Gateway to the South" - a description of a London suburb in the language of a 1950s travelogue? Written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden in the 1950s, it indicates this trend was alive and well in British documentary writing back then, and I have no doubt the USA came by the trend honestly (in the sense of inherited it from the British "style" when it was still culturally dominant).

#14 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 10:33 PM:

Megpie71: Oh, the pattern goes back way further than that -- while I can't dredge up specific examples, try reading Herodotus with those glasses on.

#15 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 10:41 PM:

Herodotus is historically inaccurate?

#16 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 10:46 PM:

Lizzy L #15: Why, Herodotus invented history, and the travelogue to boot! Of course, it took a while for his successors to get most of the bugs out....

#17 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 11:33 PM:

Kevin Riggle @8: <nit>and honed homed in on

Sorry; that's one of those that sets my teeth on edge.

More usefully:Triangulating between all those

This sounds like that would be a really worthwhile 'net-based news service, if one had the spoons and inclination to maintain it.

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 03:58 AM:

I do know that Cold Comfort Farm is a parody (and there are some sci-fi elements in it to suggest it is set in a future world). I suspect that some people in the media business don't.

If you had a TV series about a computer programmer living in the countryside, the convention would be that he was the outsider, and there would be the Starkadder-clones to provide the counter-melody of ignorance. Never mind that farmers have been using robots to do the milking for over 20 years. (It's a harder problem than it looks: cow's udders vary a lot, and they don't stand in exactly the same place, but it has been solved.)

I'm not so unusual. The robotic milking machine turned out to have slight advantages in letting the cows come in and be milked when they wanted. And in that it's almost a shift back to the pre-mechanical days of milking which is where the Starkadders are. Combine harvesters carried computers and sensors to measure the grain yield across the field, and the data could go into fertiliser application.

I'm not sure why Europe gets about twice the average wheat yields of the USA. I expect climate is a factor, but I recall articles in The Furrow describing how some US farmers were getting better yields by adopting European practices.

I know how much technology is in farming. And some very traditional things at the same time. And I don't take the parody as the user manual. But I can call myself a Hobden. The machines change. The land doesn't.

#19 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 08:31 AM:

An extremely relevant article on the same kind of thing: Food Is All About Power, by Thy Tran.

I'm pulling out a representative quote, to tempt you to click through ...

I used to joke that Saveur magazine had three basic narratives for their features:

1) Back in college, I visited this completely alien country and fell in love with it immediately. I wandered the alleyways and discovered amazing places with real people serving real food. I revisit as often as I can, and I now consider it a second home. Here’s a great recipe for paella.

2) When we fled the war, the only thing we took were the clothes on our backs and our grandmother’s recipe book. Now, join me as I return to my homeland and learn how to make dumplings while reconciling with past devastation and modern development. [Insert requisite description of boy using cell phone while riding a water buffalo.]

3) When I was little, our nanny/cook/farm hand would let me sit on a stool in the kitchen and she’d sing while grinding corn. Here is her recipe for tamales.

#20 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 09:09 AM:

I can't help thinking that putting in the detail about Orthodox Euchrist is a combination of wanting to shoehorn in a cool fact (for it's own sake), and impressing on the audience that the writer knows what they're talking about because the have knowledge of the minutae of the culture they're writing about. That it is, at best, tangentially related to the issue at hand may be entirely irrelevant to the purpose[1].


As it happens, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, is standing as MP for my constituency. The combination of fascinating high level analysis and the distorted mirror of the place I live that I see in articles is definitely a weird experience. I'm reminded of being in Australia during a UK General Election and reading very clever reports that miss about a third of the context.


[1] A less interesting writer might have explained a notional political apathy with reference to Stalin, but we all know about Stalin so are unimpressed when people use him to explain things about Russia.

#21 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 11:01 AM:

Elliott, #19: Here's another good quote: "The default reader remains white." (Context: the unexpressed expectations of editors about the audience who will be reading your book or article.)

#22 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 11:15 AM:

Lee @21: It was also really telling that she pointed out that (as a woman of Vietnamese heritage) she could never get an editor to hire her to write a book on the deep history of olive use in the Mediterranean just by spending 6 weeks of intense study in the area and reading a few cookbooks -- but that white American authors CAN do that, for nearly any cuisine they want. Because the white authors are expected to be a blank slate.

#23 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 12:23 PM:

Megpie71 @ #13: may I point readers toward the wonderful Sellers monologue "Balham: Gateway to the South" - a description of a London suburb in the language of a 1950s travelogue?

Monty Python also did that type of thing at least once -- "Mr. & Mrs. Brian Norris' Ford Popular" is the tale of a Kon-Tiki-style voyage by a British couple to prove "the inhabitants of Hounslow could have been descendants of the people of Surbiton who had made the great trek north."

#24 ::: between4walls ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 06:15 PM:

Julia Ioffe is Russian-born, though she left when she was a little kid.

#25 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 07:50 PM:

Dave Bell @ 18: what's the rainfall like in parts of Europe that get such better yields? IIRC, most North American wheat is grown in former grasslands that didn't get enough rain to produce trees; wetter, more easterly areas tend to grow corn, which returns more edible mass (at least for livestock) per acre. (A late midwesterner told me that high demands for corn (animal feed, sweeteners, gasohol) has pushed the line further west by making major irrigation economically feasible -- at least until the Oglala aquifer is depleted....)

Media on much of both coasts of the US have a reputation for being similarly distortive/dismissive of the middle of the country ("flyover territory" in one of the ruder namings). This charge is sometimes answered by pointing at reactionary or outright stupid actions by politicians (Cotton, Brownback, et al.) who nonetheless keep getting reelected; cf What's the Matter with Kansas?

#26 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 08:27 PM:

Backing up that corn is grown over the Oglala aquifer, and that it uses a helluva lot of water. (As my deceased farmer uncle said, corn only needs three things: water, water, and water.)
They've switched over to irrigating it with center-pivot systems, which distribute the water close to ground level, so less is lost right when it's used, but it's still a thirsty plant. (So is cotton.) They'd have done better to never introduce corn and cotton to that region, but the banks want a good fast return on their loans...

#27 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 12:15 AM:

Elliot Mason @19:

I've been reading Saveur for 7 years and you completely nailed every Saveur feature article ever.

Sadly, though, as of this year's new management, Saveur's articles have taken on a different theme: "Cuisine X is awesome. Here are some tools/ingredients you can buy from our sponsors."

#28 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 02:26 AM:

Jacques @17: This sounds like that would be a really worthwhile 'net-based news service, if one had the spoons and inclination to maintain it.

My elders tell me that, in the old world, that was the job we paid the Wall Street Journal for (and the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy and The New Yorker, and NBC News, and the Des Moines Register, and whoever else). Journalistic objectivity, we report—you decide, fair and balanced, all that.

I'm enough of a child of the 21st century to understand that any writing is a projection of the truth on to the plane of the author's experiences and beliefs and desires. But there's a difference between representing the world one sees from one's position in it and being so far down the fundamental attribution error as the examples above.

I wasn't quite sure what my anecdote meant, when I related it, so I just tied it off kind of loosely, but in thinking on it, I realize that what surprised me was the extent to which news outside the US just wasn't being covered at all, by ostensibly respectable organs of our national culture. To go to the remaining major papers besides the WSJ and discover that the depth of their international coverage was no better than the wire services' was a particular blow.

I don't know what I expected from them, but it was more. I've been sort of hoping somebody would chime in to say, "Oh, you want to read so-and-so, they're already on this." I'm just one nobody who reads blogs.

#29 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 04:37 AM:

Yeah, the irony was not lost on me. I'm imagining that Edward R. Murrow's grave is a tunnel to China, by now.

#30 ::: Nick ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 01:53 PM:

This reached it's classic absurdity during the final days of George Bush, when some people wrote newspaper articles explaining that:

"In Arab culture, it is considered an insult to have shoes thrown at one's head."

#31 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 03:14 PM:

Kevin Riggle @8 "Seriously, what the hell happened to the foreign bureaus?"

They're seriously expensive. About a dozen years ago, I am told, the main Detroit newspaper looked at having a Germany correspondent because of the importance of the German auto industry. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation put the costs at well over a quarter million dollars annually. That probably wasn't even considering things like tuition if your reporter has the temerity to have a family with kids who need to go to school and all.

And that's just covering a single, compact, prosperous country. Covering a country as vast as Russia, or as dangerous as war-torn Wherever brings lots of additional challenges and costs.

#32 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 04:25 PM:

To be fair, it wouldn't have occurred to me to throw a shoe at someone's head before someone did it to W.

I guess it's like the word "Schadenfreude". Obvious after the fact.

#33 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 05:57 PM:

What happened was that the money went out of real news. Americans don't want to pay what real news coverage costs anymore, and neither do the advertisers. Without funds, we're left with what news programs can produce cheaply: opinion, fluff, and re-reporting each other's stories.

Mind you, the news industry itself is partly responsible for this meltdown. As money got tight, newspapers and eventually TV news responded by cutting content, which led to declining reader/viewership, which led to further cuts. It's a downward spiral which ends in programs which are pure puff with a handful of viewers. Also none of the news organizations took the Internet seriously until it was very late for them to build businesses around it. Most of them *still* don't.

But: if most Americans valued getting real news enough to actually pay for it, somebody would be producing it. Clearly we don't.

#34 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 05:59 PM:

As I recall it from the time, it wasn't just "wow, they use this gesture to insult people", but "in Arab culture, this particular insult is a long way higher up the insult scale than it would be in our culture". Which would, I think, be a useful thing to know.

Of course, maybe I'm mis-remembering, or maybe some channels didn't get the subtlety across when reporting.

#35 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 07:18 PM:

When I want world news, I read it in the Guardian or the Economist, and thus share the expenses with the Brits and all their other readers.

More and more, the US news media seem to assume that most news happens in the United States, much of it in Hollywood.

#36 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2015, 01:05 AM:

Tony Zbaraschuk @ 34: If I remember the coverage correctly, it varied, depending on your news source. I do remember some attempts to explain throwing shoes as a specifically provocative insult, more pointed in meaning and history than throwing any random household object or article of clothing would be, but far too many newspeople focused condescendingly on the anger of these Simple Foreign People and the complete ignorance and borderline stupidity of their readers/listeners . . . so yeah. Little bit of both available, really, and far too much of the latter (given that it really wasn't all that difficult to comprehend, in my opinion).

#37 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2015, 06:22 AM:

Mary Frances @36 Yes. If the report had been "A Borgonzian threw a shoe at President Bush; in Borgonzian culture this is considered a tepid compliment due to a shoe being an uninspirng gift," then I could understand the tone of 'look at these wacky foreigners with their strange customs'.

#38 ::: PrivateIron ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2015, 09:58 AM:

#16: The travelog already existed. Herodotus was writing one and then invented history by playing around with his manuscript. Herodotus is a boon to history because he throws in all the junk and tells us its provenance. Sometimes that bit of junk actually turns out to be useful to modern eyes. With Thucydides all we have is his perspective and his pretty voice, none of the odd shaped bits that did not quite fit in his view.

#39 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2015, 10:47 AM:

Balham, Gateway to the South, a recording narrated by Peter Sellers in a stomped-flat American accent. (For this reason I think it's parodying Hollywood travelogue shorts in particular.)

This goofy bit has its own Wikipedia entry, as do many comedy routines. I became aware of this Wikipedia tendency when researching "Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned..." Here are my own thoughts on Niagara Falls.

#40 ::: Peter ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2015, 12:51 AM:

I'm pretty sure that the passage in the Post is cribbing fairly straightforwardly p. 150 of Olen Steinhauer's The Nearest Exit. Which, actually, is part of a delightful trilogy about Milo the Tourist:

"For Orthodox Christians, a man of importance steps behind a screen, talks to God in secret, and comes out to tell you what God wants. It works the same way with politics. Politics for us is a dark, smoky room where a few important people come to an agreement."

#41 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2015, 02:11 PM:

Peter @ 40: ...which is a pretty poor picture of the Divine Liturgy as it relates to the iconostasis.

#42 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2015, 09:16 PM:

re "the default reader is white"
There was a poet who described his work as "reverse anthropology" because he was a minority studying the white people rather than vice versa.

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In an interesting language but still spam.

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