The New York Times Lens Blog ran a rather interesting set of images earlier today. Titled An X-Ray Of Russian Corruption it featured that fine work of (presumably) Russian photographer Misha Friedman. It purports to be a study of the various ways in which corruption has contorted the social, civic, political and industrial life of Russia. But just as I was getting ready to parse through an interesting set of images, I was struck by the text, written by one Jesse Newman, which seemed to transform the images from being a photographer’s imaginative exploration of the failures of the Russia state, into something far more insidious. Jesse Newman, the writer, claimed that:

Mishsa Friedman is training his camera on what seems like a common train in his national genetic code. Corruption

And that is how racism becomes normalised. 

It takes an incredible level of courage and an even greater level of stupidity, to write such a generalization – complete with all the bigotry that it encapsulate, anywhere, let alone in a major newspaper’s blog. Clearly the editors at Lens are being a bit lazy these days. I can’t believe that Jesse Newman meant what s/he wrote here. But then again, I have to believe that s/he meant it only because of a terrible lack of self-reflection.

There images are wonderful to look at, but unfortunately as I went through them I saw not examples of a genetic propensity to corruption, but a series of stories and situations of nepotism, cronyism, and state failure that are echoed in our very own – the United States of America. For the fact remains, that nothing that Mishsa is discovering in Russia can’t be found in a large number of states around the world, and can certainly be found in the modern USA where politics, corporatism and cronyism may be at an all time high.

But no one at The New York Times dare claim that American genetic code leads them to corruption, as much as they could say that African Americans love watermelons, or Jews are stingy or Muslims are terrorists. Ok, that last one…that they could and do say!

A further examination of the images in fact confirms this suspicion – that whereas Mishsa Friendman has produced an intelligent set of images, nothing in them warrants a sweeping, bigoted generalization like the one that is on offer here. For example:

Image 2 shows a scene of some young people marking off private property – or at least a desire to claim a piece of land as private property.

Image 2

To use this to suggest that there is a bizarre Russian obsession with private property is rather odd. Given that America is the home of the private property obsessed, going to extents where the needs of an individual a superseded by the ridiculous needs of the personal ego, it is strange to see a suggestion that this Russian behavior is deviant or abnormal. Or genetic, for that matter. Ted Turner would certainly recognize this penchant. So would George Zimmerman who calmly shot an African American for walking on the wrong side of the private gated-community’s hallowed asphalt.

We then move onto this image, which is meant to suggest an uncomfortable, corrupt dalliance between those in political power and those with private investment interests.

image 3

That the Bush administration was called possibly the most corrupt in American political history should give us some pause as we read the caption of the image above. A range of people have investigated the close relationship between corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel and various oil companies and political leaders like Dick Cheney, George Schultz, Donald Rumsfeld to name just a few. And what about the incestuous relationships that exist with private Wall Street investment banks and the US Treasury department. Given the hundreds of trillions of dollars that have been doled out to save these banks – banks, and bankers that in fact should have been charged with crimes and given long sentences in jail, and how all of them have been protected by our government, it is incredible to think that cronyism is a Russian genetic problem.

We then see this image, of apparently a young Russian bad beating up a young woman, while officials looks on.

image 5

I am still reeling from the discovery that hundreds of American women soldiers have come forward to participate in a lawsuit that claims that they had been raped by their fellow soldiers while in uniform. As one of the claimants Maricella Guzman, says…the officials just looked on, and I quote:

“It was eight years before I was able to say the word that describes what happened to me. I hadn’t even been in the Navy a month. I was so young. I tried to report it. But instead of being taken seriously, I was forced to do push-ups.”

Perhaps what we learn from the testimonies that one can find at My Duty To Speak is that violence against may not just be a Russian issue. Maybe.

Then there is this image, that suggests that the political leadership’s private property is for sale to the highest renter

image 8

But would it surprise us to learn that President Obama’s former winter home is available for rent? Or if we remind ourselves that some years ago, the Clintons were shilling the Lincoln Bedroom to their campaign donors?

Then we see this images, where a policeman is shown monitoring traffic, and a statement mad about the (unique) corruption of the state police.

image 9

Ironically, it was only a day earlier that we read about the massive levels of corruption amongst US police – from perjury to falsifying evidence, to false arrests to meet quotas and so on. And we do have plenty of regular stories of policemen being caught in gun running scams, ticketing scams and what not. I mean, there is a Wikipedia page on New York City police corruption and scandals alone!

We then move to the next image and see a lovely photograph that is used to speak about the use of prison camps in the 1930s – the gulags.

image 11

I suppose it will sound only silly if I remind Jesse Newman that we, the United States of America, today operates a large number of gulags where men are imprisoned indefinitely without charge, where they are tortured, and where many have died. Perhaps Jesse missed the Abu Ghraib fiasco, or isn’t aware of a place called Guantanamo, or even Bagram. And these are only the most visible parts of a massive, systemic system of incarceration and torture that operates across a number of different countries. I will say nothing about the massive prison system within the USA for its domestic ‘trouble makers’, imprisoning the largest population of prisoners in the world. Or does Jesse think we learned this by inter-marrying some Russians? I could go on and on about this one, but I will desist, since the point is an obvious one. I will however suggest a few of the following readings here, here, here and here. Some may argue that millions died in the Soviet gulags, and not as many in our own. Certainly true, but I simply want to argue the issue of a genetic propensity and not numbers.

And finally, (thank you for indulging me), we see this image about environmental pollution…

image 12

..and my mind quickly drifts to the Appalachians through works such as this, this and this, or our love of the Tar Sands project complete with its toxic consequences for those who live near it, and I could go on and on when it comes to a general disregard for the environment, and an obsession desire to cannibalize the earth for its resources. We do have the Gulf oil spill, the shale gas ventures, the explorations of the Alaskan fields, the so on and so forth. Of course, do check out Mitch Epstein’s amazing What Is American Power?

I could go on and go through the other images, but I think I have made my point. It probably could have been made in a paragraph…but this is more fun.

Are American’s genetically prone to corruption? You decide.

I do really like Friedman’s work. This is not about his images. I am just appalled at this seemingly innocuous statement – a genetic code of corruption and the way in which perhaps Jesse Newman arrived at it. There is nothing whatsoever in Friedman’s work that would suggest that Russian’s have a unique propensity, nay genetic tendency, towards corrupt behavior. What Jesse Newman’s statement does suggest is a continuing blindness to our own failings, a willingness to spray others with specious conclusions, and a lazy resort to bigoted cliches the likes of which we do reserve for only certain people. As I said, Jesse Newman would dare not have written anything like that had it been about Jews, or African Americans for example. And we are better for it.

There are clearly serious social, economic and political issues in Russia, there is no doubt. Friedman’s investigations are fascinating and insightful. But perhaps rather than resorting to genetics the editors and writers at The New York Times may just want to stick to economics, sociology, history, anthropology, politics or just plain, human common sense.